Words and Pictures by Stefano Rossini

Along the whole Italian peninsula, away from the routes of the new high-speed inter-city trains, there are still the old, smaller railways and trains, attractive not for their speed and comfort but for the scenery they run through. Relics of an older Italy, these railways criss-cross the country, revealing lesser-known places.

Hand across the land

One such route is covered by the Faenza – Florence line.
It was established way back in 1839, the brainchild of Grand-duke Leopold of Tuscany, to link Italy’s east and west coasts in Romagna and Tuscany. The building of this railway symbolised Italian unity. A poster issued by the city-state of Faenza in 1893 stated, with a certain amount of hyperbole:
"The Faenza-Florence railway line was inaugurated on April 23rd 2005. Then, Faenza and hospitable Romagna embraced friendly Florence and culturally-rich Tuscany; together they joyfully celebrated their long-awaited reconciliation, thus underlining the firm belief that a resurgence of cultural inspiration and well-being will spring from the depths of the Apennines with the power of the steam engine".

Starting to climb

Starting from Faenza, in Romagna, the first town you come to is Brisighella. By this point, the broad plain stretching from Faenza to the Adriatic has been replaced by the gentle hills of Romagna. The little medieval town is perched on a tall rocky outcrop, surmounted by three towers.
One is the clock tower, the second is the fortress tower, and the last one is the sanctuary tower. On a clear day the three towers stand out against the bright sky.

The streets of the town snake upwards to the top of the hill. The most famous of these ways is Via del Borgo, also called the donkey path. It’s a raised, covered road which follows the first floor of a long building, lit by archways of varying sizes. Via del Borgo retains all the fascination of an earlier age, when caravans of donkeys passed through on their way to the nearby limestone quarries.

Near Brisighella, the Lamone valley produces one of Italy’s best olive oils. Olives have been cultivated here for a thousand years, on the beautiful hillsides protected from the cold winds, making this area, right on the northern limit of olive trees on the Adriatic-facing slopes, an extremely interesting place.
The Pieve del Tho’ is situated 1.5 kilometres from Brisighella and is the oldest pieve (parish) in the Valle del Lamone. Its origins are somewhat obscure, going back to Galla Placida, daughter of Theodosius, who is said to have had it built on the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. The exact date of construction is unknown but is estimated at being between the 8th and 10th centuries. The place is full of charm and silence.

Nuts about the food

Leaving Brisighella, the train heads towards the Apennin. Here, the landscape changes, becoming wilder and more remote. Deep gorges and desolate mountains cloaked in endless forests are the only things visible from the train. The last station before reaching the heart of the mountains is Marradi.

Here the train reaches the full height of the pass, 578.38 metres above sea level. Nowadays, the town is well-known for being the home of the poet Dino Campana and for its ancient chestnut trees. Marradi lies few kilometres from the boundary between Romagna and Tuscany, in the heart of the Lamone valley. Here, surrounded by forest, rivers, streams and mountains, the ancient, rural way of life lives on.

Marradi is the land of the Marron Buono (chestnut), recognised internationally as being of the highest quality. The local cuisine benefits from the myriad of exquisite recipes based on the chestnut, especially the Torta di Marroni di Marradi (Marradi Chestnut cake), emblem of the local gastronomic culture, the recipe for which is jealously guarded in the memories of the old folk.

It is possible to try this delicious dish during the historic Sagra delle Castagne (chestnut festival) held during the month of October, which can be reached by a steam train journey starting from Rimini or Florence.

End of the line

Leaving the Apennines, the train passes through a vast open area among fields of wheat, soya beans and sunflowers, descending towards Ronta, the first town in the Mugello valley. Borgo San Lorenzo is the doorway to the Mugello.

The town is surrounded by fields, mountains and the wonders of nature: age-old vineyards and olive groves, thousand-year-old churches, ancient farmhouses and geometrically laid out vegetable gardens. This stretch of railway was bombed and destroyed during the Second World War and did not undergo reconstruction until the 1980s. On January 14, 1999, the railway was officially inaugurated for the second time in its history.

Now, the line is complete and you can travel from Ravenna to Livorno, passing through Faenza, Brisighella, Marradi, Borgo San Lorenzo and Florence, cutting across the peninsula from north-east to south-west. Sure, the Bologna-Firenze line is faster but less intriguing. Travelling in a less conventional way, in the company of students travelling from their small towns to Faenza, or some elderly men going from town to town, you can enjoy a new aspect of Italy, with breathtaking views.

Further information

There are many trains travelling daily on the line. If going from Romagna to Tuscany, you can depart from Faenza, Rimini, or Ravenna. In the other direction, start from Florence or Borgo San Lorenzo.
For timetables, visit: www.trenitalia.com or the Mugello tourist office (Comunità Montana del Mugello): www.cm-mugello.fi.it.

This article was originally published in the print edition of Italy Magazine.