The Matilda Way

Reliving Matilda of Canossa’s story by travelling through the ancient sites of her grand fiefdom is an extraordinarily evocative enterprise if we take the Matilda Way, a network of itineraries that follow ancient medieval trails.

These take us to the Grand Countess’s castles passing through ancient villages nestling in an enchanting natural landscape.

We suggest five legs, from the Canossa rock to the San Pellegrino Pilgrims’ Hospice on the Apennine ridge, along a route marked by signposts and information panels.

The slowness of the walk will allow us to enjoy to the full the artistic and historic heritage left behind by the most important woman of the Middle Ages. This audio guide is a simplified version of the more detailed road book downloadable from the “Reggio Emilia Turismo” site. 

The first leg, which should take about 4h30, begins from Ciano d'Enza, chief town of the Municipality of Canossa, and takes an enjoyable winding route through farmland and downy oak woods along the Vico stream valley. With a short deviation, we reach the Castle of Rossena, or we can continue towards the Castle of Canossa surrounded by the striking gullies that lend the landscape an almost lunar look.

We then continue towards Borgo di Cavandola, stopping off at the small village of Votigno, home to the “House of Tibet” and its museum.

Leaving from Cavandola we follow the slopes of Mount Tesa, with stunning views of the Middle Apennine, as far as Cerèdolo dei Coppi. Of note, apart from the numerous towers with their dovecots, are the masks and ashlars to ward off evil spirits on the walls of the ancient village houses.  From Cerédolo dei Coppi we continue a short distance along the asphalted road to Casina, to turn sharp left down into the valley towards Chessi, an isolated rural house. We continue downwards to cross the Càmpola torrent and then the Bérgogno stream and in a short while we find ourselves below Bérgogno itself, a fine example of a typical Apennine village. 

The second leg takes us to Casina, a walk of around 3 hours. After leaving Bèrgogno we soon turn right along a cart track that gently descends into the Faieto gully. After crossing the small watercourse an old mule track takes us up through the chestnut wood to Crocicchio. We recommend making a detour to the nearby Paullo parish church which has a beautiful Romanesque façade, and which was mentioned as far back as 980 in a diploma of Emperor Otto II. 

From Crocicchio we carry on to the little hamlet of Monchio dei Ferri. Dominating the valley is the Corte dei Rossi, a fine example of a late-medieval rural dwelling with two XVI century tower houses, then after we pass Il Ponte and Carrobbio the route takes us up to the Castle of Sarzano. This was one of the most important hubs of Matilda’s power, already mentioned in 958 in a deed of sale when Adalberto Atto di Canossa, Matilda’s ancestor, bought the woods “in fundo et loco Serzana”. Today all that remains is the keep, a tower now used as a bell tower, some stretches of the walls and parts of the entrance gateway.
We now descend along a panoramic path to Casina, referred to in a list of the possessions of the Abbey of Sant'Apollonio of Canossa dated 1116.  

The third leg, from Casina to Carpineti which takes about 4 hours, we might consider the “tower house” part. It is a moving experience getting to know these “minor” monuments of the Emilian mountains, buildings halfway between residence and castles that remind us of the small feudatories, the taxes and tax collectors, and the daily struggle to survive. Small villages and natural landscapes chase one another through farmland and woods of oak and chestnut. Lago dei Pini, Giandeto, Mulino del Tasso, Paulli, the evocative eighteenth-century Corte di Valcava and Croveglia are just some of the places we meet along the route, which also branches off to take in  Mandra, San Vitale and the Castle of Carpineti, to then change its name to “The Spallanzani Way”.

Back on the Matilda Way we proceed along the Carpineti valley to pass through Croce di Petrella, Giavello and Rio Minello to reach the Church of San Donnino di Tresinara mentioned in ancient documents as far back as 1191, and seemingly built at Matilda’s request. From Riana we continue along a path that ends up in the suburbs of Carpineti. Here in 957 Liudolf, the son of Otto I, died at the hands of Atto Adalberto, Matilda’s ancestor.

Fourth leg from Carpineti to Toano in 5 hours

The castle of the Carpinete rises from one of the most striking ridges in the Reggio Emilia Apennines, one that links Mount Valestra with Mount Fòsola and the Pietra di Bismantova. It can be reached in half an hour from the centre of Carpineti by climbing back up the ancient Matilda Way. This was one of the pivotal points of Canossa’s defence system and Matilda’s favourite residence. A brief 45 minute detour along the top of the crest northwards takes us to the castle with the isolated San Vitale parish church.

The Matilda Way continues southwards across the slopes of Mount Banzola, passes Cà Serra, descends left to the Church of San Pietro, passes through Savognatica, Cà Bazzani, Cogliolla and after crossing the road at the foot of the valley, starts climbing up the right-hand side, along the ancient “communal road” which cuts through the open fields as far as Cavola, famous for its truffles. Worth a visit is the parish church whose portal and sides boast remarkable stonework decorations and the oratory of the Madonna della Neve, with its seventeenth-century altar of inlaid wood, the work of Francesco Ceccati. In half an hour we reach Stiano, a rural nucleus on the slopes of Mount Croce with the ancient building known as the Casa dei Ceccati from the XV and XVI centuries and the seventeenth-century Casino dei Manfredi. Our route continues along an ancient mule track until it reaches the road to Corneto, and then across fields and through woods to end up at the charming little village of Manno. A cart track through woods and across the fields indicates the direction towards the panoramic ridge which, following a stretch of ancient mule track, leads directly to the millenary Church of Santa Maria di Toano, one of the most important monuments of Romanesque architecture in the Emilian Apennine. It was granted on perpetual lease to Matilda’s father, Boniface, in 1070. The façade is simple with a pitched roof, while some extraordinary sandstone capitals featuring anthropomorphic, geometric and floral figures are found inside. Beside the church, in the direction of the modern centre of Toano, is the castle village, the original nucleus of the settlement with a tower now used as a bell tower.

Fifth leg from Toano to Gazzano in 6 hours surrounded by nature.

From the Church of Santa Maria di Toano we continue southwards along a cart track to reach the isolated oratory of Prevedelli, a fine example of a rural church, in a panoramic position. The Matilda Way continues steeply downwards towards Frale and then towards the Quara thermal springs to the left of the Dolo.
Then one of the most spectacular paths in the Reggio Apennine runs high along the Dolo ravines as far as Cadignano, in the Municipality of Villa Minozzo. The nearby village of Gova, like the centres of Costabona and Morsiano, is famous for its “maggi”, dramatic performances based on chivalrous epics typical of the high Secchia basin and the Dolo as well as the Garfagnana.
From Cadignano the Matilda Way divides, carrying on to Modena or along various branches across the Reggio Apennine.