4 tips for an autumn weekend in the hills of Matilda of Tuscany
Canlanchi di Canossa al tramonto

Just a short distance from Reggio Emilia and Parma, on the first heights that separate the Po Valley from the peaks of the Northern Apennines, lies a very charming hilly area rich in history. We are on the hills of Matilda, the Great Countess of Italy, who built the heart of her realm right here.

This area, stretching from the hills of Quattro Castella at the edge of the plains to the peaks surrounding the castle of Carpineti, at the foot of the highest peaks, is the ideal location for a few days’ getaway during the autumn period. This corner of Emilia can offer many attractions and activities in a quiet and still little-known context, in the heart of truly exciting and often unexpected landscapes.

Here are some things to do for a two or three-day stay in the heart of the lands of Canossa, behind Reggio Emilia.


The castle of Bianello
The castle of Bianello

The first major attraction of the area is the various castles that belonged to the Matilda dynasty over the centuries. They are numerous and strategically positioned to form a clear military strategy. Matilda’s castles were arranged along three defensive lines, corresponding to three different altitudes between the Po Valley and the Apennines.

The Castle of Bianello

The first castle, very close to the city of Reggio Emilia, is that of Bianello, just above the town of Quattro Castella. It stands on one of the four hills that had been used as a defensive and lookout system and is the only one still remaining. A regular residence of Matilda, the castle is perched on a natural balcony overlooking the plain. On clear days the unmistakable profile of the Alps can be seen from here. The castle is open to visitors and houses a restaurant inside.

The Castles of Rossena and Canossa

Moving up the slopes to higher altitudes, we find the castles that represented the core of Matilda’s power: those of Rossena and Canossa. The former, built to defend the latter just two kilometers away, features a perfect state of preservation and two watchtowers, the most important of which is that of Rossenella, not far away. The castle of Rossena is also available for visits with advance reservations.

The Castle of Canossa, on the other hand, represents the ultimate expression of Matilda’s power and is famous for the many historical vicissitudes linked to it. The most important of these, which has made the castle known worldwide, is related to the humiliation of Henry IV who, seeking for revocation of excommunication,  in 1077 waited for three days and nights on his knees before the castle gate to be received by Pope Gregory VII.

All that is left of the castle today are the main walls built at the top of the hill. However, its location, the presence of the museum and cultural centre, and especially the territory on which it stands, rich in gullies, vineyards, and medieval villages, make it a fascinating, almost mystical place that is definitely worth visiting and exploring.

The Castle of Carpineti

Higher up stands the beautiful castle of Carpineti, which dominates the valley of the Secchia river, a watercourse that divides the province of Reggio Emilia from that of Modena. The castle was built during the same period as the other fortresses. Its position is privileged, exactly above a natural promontory that overlooks the entire valley below. Matilda elected this structure as the ideal headquarters to host pontiffs, emperors, and kings during the periods that saw the signing of agreements that determined the fate of Italy. The view from here is truly breathtaking, spanning 360° from the highest peaks of the Apennines to the clear profile of Modena and its Ghirlandina tower. The castle is open for visits even in the early autumn period, as is the small church of Sant’Andrea erected inside by Matilda’s will. There is also an excellent restaurant at its feet.


The village of Votigno
The Village of Votigno

Next to the castles, in the lands of Matilda, there are also some small medieval villages that alone are worth a visit to these lands.

The most famous and definitely most peculiar one is Votigno, also known as “the House of Tibet“. Votigno, a UNESCO heritage site for a few years now, is a small village located a short distance from the hill of the castle of Canossa. Here, in Matilda’s time, lived the soldiers of her army, ready to intervene if necessary.
Votigno has recently gained fame for becoming, in the mid-90s, the first “House of Tibet” in Europe, a Buddhist temple that also hosted the Dalai Lama’s visit in 1999.
It is a small but very characteristic village, consisting of stone houses overlooking the main square, in the centre of which a large chessboard has been placed. All around are gullies and absolute quiet, in a context that fits in perfectly with Buddhist thought and practices.

But there is more than just Votigno in this area. Three other places to mark on your ‘to-visit’ list are Bergogno, Vercallo, and Pianzo. The first two are tiny villages that still maintain their structure today, though they are different from each other.

Bergogno is known not only for its historical and architectural value, but also for the ability of the community to keep it alive and populated thanks to the many initiatives and events that are held during the year. What stands out on entering the village are the ancient arch and the tower-houses along the main street.

Vercallo, on the other hand, is a village almost entirely uninhabited that has been recently redeveloped. It is slightly away from the main road that connects Casina with Canossa, but just enough to be immersed in absolute peace, which is immediately noticeable upon arrival. Its stone houses and well-maintained streets make it an authentic open-air nativity scene. Its view spans from the Val d’Enza to the peaks of the Apennines. A dive into timelessness and tranquillity, a must if you pass by here.

A special mention deserves Pianzo and its beautiful church of Santa Maria Assunta. Nestled in the heart of the Valle del Tassobbio, this well-kept small church evokes views often associated with other regions: a cobbled uphill path leading to the church, a green and well-kept lawn in front of the churchyard, the small, cozy bell tower, all surrounded by the silence of nature that makes this another peaceful corner in the heart of Matilda’s lands.


Monte Fosola
Monte Fosola

An autumn weekend in this area also means outdoor activities. The hills of Matilda are filled with many different itineraries, whether on foot or by bicycle. Whether you choose a loop around the castles, a route that takes you from one village to another, or an itinerary that leads you to the top of the hills, you will not be disappointed by the beauty of the views and the authenticity of typical country views of these areas, a jump into the history and culture of the place.

From Canossa to Votigno

A must-try itinerary is the one that, starting from the hill of Matilda’s castle, leads up to Votigno. From there, following a loop, you can continue further reaching Ceredolo dei Coppi and, just beyond, the summit of Monte Tesa. There you can enjoy a spectacular sunset, overlooking on one side the castle of Canossa, the Val d’Enza, and the plain in the background and, on the other, the Pietra di Bismantova (Bismantova Stone) and the peaks of the Northern Apennines, from Cusna to Cimone and beyond.

Montale-Leguigno and the Big Bench

Another route not to be missed is the one that crosses the villages of Montale, Pianzo, and Barazzone up to the ancient Mill of Leguigno. Through these small villages, you can truly savor the sounds and scents of country life.
On the way back, passing by the new Big Bench of Trinità, you will enjoy a breathtaking view that, on clear days, spans from the Alps to the Apennines. In the middle, once again, the plains, the castles, and all the villages that, like a nativity scene, populate the slopes of these valleys.

But walking or cycling among these hills also means getting lost among the many small villages scattered among the plowed fields, barns, and stables: Selvapiana, Casalino, Braglie, Albareto, Vedriano, Trinità. A land of farmers and tractors, horses, donkeys, and, for some time now, even alpacas.


The hills behind Reggio Emilia, once the beating heart of Matilda’s kingdom, are also the ideal place to discover excellent trattorias serving traditional dishes like tortelli – with spinach or pumpkin – cappelletti, erbazzone, gnocco fritto, cold cuts, roasts and boiled meats but also desserts such as zuppa inglese, dolce mattone, torta in cantina. Flavours of a rich cuisine (sometimes a bit too rich), to be enjoyed seated at a table set with the Sunday tablecloth, to make you feel truly at home.

But on a typical autumn weekend in these parts, one cannot be satisfied with just a lunch or dinner in a trattoria. Indeed, this is the right opportunity to visit one of the many dairies of the Parmigiano Reggiano consortium. Not only you can buy this delicious cheese at the shop, you will also have the opportunity to be taken inside the dairy through a guided tour.

The same goes for a vinegar factory: balsamic vinegar in these parts is a very precious commodity and there are several vinegar makers in the area worth visiting. You might have not thought of visiting a vinegar factory yet, however we are sure the same cannot be said for a visit to one of the increasingly numerous and renowned wineries in the area.

Autumn is also the time of fairs and festivals dedicated to seasonal products: above all, chestnuts and mushrooms. They take place in different occasions and locations, and it would be a pity to miss them.

Autumn, a few days of escape from reality and the Reggio Emilia hills are a perfect mix to experience genuine moments of peace and relaxation.