Bordering on the provinces of Parma and Cremona, the territory of Val d'Arda includes the torrents Stirone, Ongina and Chiavenna and offers an extremely varied landscape: the river area, the plain that goes over via Emilia and climbs in mild hills, the roads that cross the hills, the crests, the small hamlets and their farm workers and the gullies where several rests of fossil whales have been found over the centuries, finds that witness the presence of the sea dating back to prehistoric periods.
From Caorso to Morfasso, the medieval and Renaissance castles dot a landscape characterized also by the bell-towers of the churches along the ancient ”via Francigena”, on the pilgrims’ way to the Apennines and Rome. The food traditions are preserved and appreciated in the several local restaurants; the food culture gets its peaks in salami (first of all, coppa of Piacenza) and wine (e. g. the renowned ”vinsanto" of Vigoleno), not to mention the garlic of Monticelli and the cherries of Villanova.
Every year, the valley notebook offers many significant events: the nights at Castell’Arquato that recall the glories of the medieval parades; the races in the velodrome of Fiorenzuola with national and European track racing, A date to look for at the end of July is the one with the Bascherdeis of Vernasca (Festival of Street Artists ) and also the Silver Flag, an international competition for historical vehicles.
The town of Fiorenzuola offers a rich season of plays, while local places offer entertainment and music nights for your people with famous national and international artists stop at Fillmore of Cortemaggiore. Many excursions are possible in the three local parks. The provincial park of Monte Moria, stretching along Morfasso and Lugagnano municipal districts, occupies a surface of over a thousand hectares.
It is very appealing for both those who like walking and those who like biking, as there are several possible excursion paths.
The age-old chestnuts, funnily shaped, are very common, but there are also junipers, genistas, hazels, Scotch pines, woodbines.
Very fascinating is the area of the "signs cross", with its beeches. Every year on the 15th and 16th of august, the park is host for St. Rocco ’s festival, one of the most important happenings in Val d’Arda. The geologic reserve of the Piacenziano, mostly comprised within Lugagnano’s district, has been recently reorganized: its several gullies of sandy clays are very rich in fossil remains.
Finally a part of the river Park of Stirone, on the boundary between Parma and Piacenza, is particularly indicated for lovers of sports, from horse-riding to biking and trekking. Remarkable are its canyons and their very high walls, the amazing fauna ( especially the fossorial birds) and the rich vegetation, featuring white poplars, willows and maples among others. This area is also crossed by trails of the ”Ippovia delle Valli Nure and Arda” a 130km long route connecting to the "Ippovia delle Valli Taro and Ceno”.
An ideal grand tour of the Val d’Arda villages can start from the lowlands, those fertile lands of the Po River that inspired Giuseppe Verdi’s agricultural and musical soul (at Sant’Agata di Villanova it is possible to visit the museum-villa built by the famous composer who lived and worked there for many years).
In the 12th century, the French Abbot Saint Bernard and his White Monks reached these lands and they founded an admirable Abbey at Chiaravalle di Alseno; this abbey is called ”della Colomba" (of the Dove) because the legend tells that a dove marked with bits of straw the place where the monastery had to be built and it was indeed built according to the Cistercian architecture.
The church dating from the 12th 13th centuries contains a Crucifixion Chapel with frescos of Lombard school dating from the 14th century. One of the highlights of this abbey, reflecting the medieval spirituality, is the XIV century cloister; with its twenty-four four-light divisions, ninetysix ogive-shaped arches, one hundred and thirty Verona pink marble twin columns and a complex set of symbols behind.
A stop is also recommended in the famous liquor shop of the monastery.
The Monticelli castle, dating from the end of 13th century, houses _the Ethnographic Museum of the Po at present. It collects several instruments of work and other objects, linked to the river tradition. On display it is also possible to admire a collection of pieces from the roman period, in particular amphorae. The remarkable late fifteent-century Castle of San Pietro in Cerro houses an original Museum in Motion (MIM) that, just like American museums of contemporary art, contains hundreds of works displayed by turns.
The medieval structure of the castle of Caorso shows an interesting brick tower with swallow tailed battlements and an octago nal turret. The castle is associated with the history of the Longobard Mandelli family and with the history of the village itself. There the visitor finds a church, consecrated to St. Maria Assunta, containing a precious XIX century organ and some Lombard school frescoes. The neighbouring Cortemaggiore has the charm of the Magnificent lands. From the 15th century on wards, Cortemaggiore became the capital of the Pallavicino State, an extraordinary centre of power planned according to a Renaissance scheme. Great Maecenas, the Pallavicino family called to their court famous artists such as as Antonio da Pordenone who, between 1529 and 1530, frescoed the octagonal chapel ofthe Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation. The collegiate church of Santa Maria delle Grazie contains a valuable late fifteenth-century polyptych, realized by Parmigianino’s father Filippo Mazzola.
Fiorenzuola, natural and administrative main town of Val d’Arda, is rich in historical monuments: the collegiate church of San Fiorenzo whose building began at the end of the fifteenth century and that belongs to the Romanesque and Gothic styles (following the example of the church of St. Francesco in Piacenza) which preserves valuable works of art, such as the high altar in polychrome marbles realized from a design of the painter Gian Paolo Panini; the Sacrament Chapel, built around the half of the XVII century, containing a big altar piece framed in a XVI century borden portraying St. Fiorenzo’s miracle, by the Roman painter Marco Benfial ; the convent of San Giovanni; the Renaissance Grossi Palace, with ogive-shaped single lancet windows, decorated with terracotta embellishments; and the eighteen-thcentury Bertamini Lucca Palace that contains Francesco Natali and Bartolomeo Rusca’s frescoes. It is also possible to admire the wonderful Verdi Theatre, newly restored.
Fiorenzuola was for a long time a crucial passage of the Francigena route: the pilgrims, once gotten here, could either go to Fidenza, or follow the route towards Valdarda, instead, then continue through Pelizzone passage to Bardi and Borgotaro, arriving then in Pontremoli and at Brattello passage. Leaving Fiorenzuola and heading for the high valley, a detailed visit to the village of Castell’Arquato is recommended: its ideal position allows a wide panoramic view of the valley. After a seventeenth century archway,old but well-preserved houses and narrow lanes take the visitor to the upper village, with one of most fascinating old town centres in Italy where many period films have been set.
This square is dominated by the Visconti Citadel, the Palace of Podesta built in 1293 and by the Collegiate Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, masterpiece of the Romanesque architecture. Nearby, the quadrangular Farnesian Keep dating from the end of 16th century, and the Ducal Palace with its charming fountain.
We recommend to visit the Museum dedicated to Luigi Illica, the famous librettist of Puccini and Mascagni who was born here; the Museum of the Collegiate Church that contains wrought irons, textiles, reliquaries, jewellery, a precious picture gallery including three paintings of Gaspare Traversi, and precious fabrics, among which two Byzantine embroideries. The Santo Spirito Hospital houses the Geologic Museum where the fossils of the cetaceans found in the gullies of the Arda, Chiavenna and Chero valleys are displayed.
A hamlet of Castell’Arquato offers marvellous 18-hole golf courses for golf fans. The jewels of Vigolo Marchese are instead the Fortress of Pusterla, the Romanesque Saint John’s Church and an old circular baptistery hav1 ing three protruding apses and a cupola supported by six cylindric pillars.
Lugagnano and its gullies are a few kilometers away, and then Vernasca with the XII-century Romanesque Parish Church of San Colombano, near the ancient rectory, today seat of the Provincial Centre of the Francigena Route.
Nearby Vigoleno shows its splendid ellipsoidal village, built starting from the end of the 14th century and finished in the next centuries.
In the 1930s the village was visited by several celebrities. Princess Maria Ruspoli invited personalities such as Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau and Gabriele D’Annunzio among the others. It is necessary to walk along the rounds that allows the view of the valley, the quadrangular keep with its original swallow tailed merlons, the castle containing a small eighteenth-century theatre,the paved lanes with their splendid stone houses. The Romanesque church preserves frescoes dating from the 14th15th centuries and capitals with zoomorphic figures. Interesting the fresco in the apse (by a local artist of the XV century) depicts St. Giorgio killing the dragon. St. Giorgio is also portrayed in the main door lunette, built by followers of anthelamic school around the 1200. The area around Vernasca, crossed by the Francigena route, is full if "signs of faith” in particular oratories, all connected through an "oratory route”.
The main points of this route are Mignano, and its St. Geminano’s oratory, containing a semicircular XII-century apse, frescoedwith a portrait of St. Giacomo,the XIXcentury oratory consecrated to Madonna di Piano, the church of Madonna di Mercede of S. Genesio (XIII century),Terenza’s oratory consecrated to St. Lucia, Vernasca’s church and Vigoleno’s renaissance oratory, consecrated to Madonna delle Grazie. The surroundings of Morfasso are full of small stone villages, woods and the meadow lands of the provincial Park of Mount Moria, and mounts Santa Franca, Menegosa and Pelizzone.
To get to know Valdarda from an unusual perspective, one can reconstruct its history and culture through archeology.
Human presence in the Valley dates back to Paleolithic, as proven by the findings of handmade objects in Monte Lama, and there are also findings from the Neolithic (particularly in Fiorenzuola), middle and ancient Bronze Age (the famous terramare of Rovere di Caorso,Colombare di Bersano, Montata dell ’Orto, Castelnuovo Fogliani).
Recently the "Center for the research and advanced development of the Apennines" has been opened in Morfasso, hosted by the local middle school. It contains several objects like stone and lead weights, floor bricks, marble tables and kitchen pottery.