Brisighella is frequently described as being one of the most beautiful hill villages in Italy. Pastel-coloured medieval buildings nestle amongst the foothills of the Emilia-Romagna Apennine mountain range; vineyards and olive groves sweep across the surrounding valley; and three ancient buildings – a church, a castle and a clock tower – perch picturesquely on hilltops towering over the village. It has every right to its claim to fame. For heart-racing drama though, the journey to reach Brisighella is hard to beat.
We left Pisa early for the three hour drive, hoping to arrive in time for lunch. In the end, we were just glad to arrive. Leaving the small town of Borgo San Lorenzo behind us, the road climbed dramatically upwards, careering around a series of spectacular hairpin bends, we passed through small hamlets on densely wooded but sparsely populated mountains. The road enters the Lamone River valley for the final 20 km to Brisighella.
Brisighella was founded in the 13th century by Maghinardo Pagani, a mercenary soldier. Pagani was famous enough to be criticised in Dante’s Divine Comedy for his inconsistent political support during the ceaseless dynastic feuds between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. Rich agricultural land, still producing some of the best olive oil in Italy, and hills rich in gypsum, the village was a prize for any mercenary. Dante refers to Pagani as the “young lion whelp of the white lair”, a reference to the colour of gypsum.
This wealth is still seen today in the churches and merchants houses of the old village centre. Here also is a singularly unique feature of the village, an elevated and covered road built into the fabric of the merchant houses lining the main street. Known as the Via degli Asini, literally translated as Street of the Asses, it’s more politely known as the Donkeys’ Road because carts laden with gypsum were pulled along it by donkeys.
We wandered down the Via degli Asini looking for lunch shortly after we arrived. The village is renowned for its food and good restaurants, people travel from Florence and Bologna to eat here, but even though it was a Saturday and quite busy with Italian visitors, some restaurants had already stopped serving. We eventually found a place tucked into an archway underneath the Via degli Asini, where we took shelter from a passing downpour.
The weather was a bit hit and miss, but thankfully it stayed largely dry and sunny during our stay. Which meant that after lunch we had no excuse not to walk up to the clocktower, and when I say up, I mean almost straight up. The clocktower may have been added in the 19th century but it stands on the site of a medieval fortification. They don’t design those for easy access. The good news is, when you reach the top the views are spectacular.
You can also see the path that leads from the clocktower to La Rocca or The Castle, and which skirts along a ridge between vineyards and oliver groves. We noticed that the olive trees had signs warning would-be olive thieves of CCTV. They take their olive oil seriously in Brisighella. The walk to La Rocca provides fantastic views over the village and valley, the castle itself is early 14th century and has a typical round tower that also has fabulous views.
Once here you have a choice, continue straight up to the Santuario del Monticino, an 18th century church with frescoes, or down to the village. We went up to see the frescoes only to discover, after the steep climb, that the church wasn’t open. At least the views were good and, on our return to the village, we got motivation from the promise of a glass (or two) of local wine and delicious regional cooking while sat on the Street of the Asses.