Hiking trails in Val di Vara, the Bio Valley

The trails in Val di Vara are an excellent alternative for those who love complete contact with nature like me. Last spring, when it was finally possible to leave our houses after almost two months of lockdown, I found it very pleasant to go into the woods, walk along waterways, and climb the mountains in the heart of this fantastic Valley. I fell in love with this area so much that in a few months, I even moved there.

I have been one of many. During the Summer of 2020, in Val di Vara there has been significant growth in tourist fluxes. Many travelers have opted for the Ligurian hinterland’s quietness and green as an alternative to the crowded Cinque Terre allure on the coast. Moreover, many people have found here a way to escape from overcrowding during the pandemic.

Experiences in Val di Vara. 

Streets of Val di Vara

Val di Vara is an underrated destination but can meet most travelers’ tastes. Besides exciting trekking excursions, the active types can try their hand at adrenaline-pumping experiences. For example, the Val di Vara adventure park has the longest zip line from one tree to another in Italy, and horse riding, walks, and mountain biking are also fun in the Valley. Furthermore, motorbikers love winding roads from the inland to the coast across rivers, woods, and wide openings. Food and wine lovers will love the local cuisine and genuine products of the land. For example, they can visit the Varese cheese factory, which produces organic cheese and dairy. Or they can see one of the farmhouses offering tastings of typical products. In the last few years, also craft beer has become a regional distinction. 

For art and architecture lovers, exploring the quaint villages of Varese Ligure, Brugnato, Pignone, Carro, Carrodano, Calice al Cornoviglio, Follo, Maissana, Borghetto, Zignago, Suvero can be an absolute pleasure. Each of the villages in the area has unique features, ancient origins, and stories to discover. The museums, such as the archaeological one in Zignago, the church one in Brugnato, and the mineral one in Carro, are worth a visit. Also, the well-preserved castles, such as the Calice al Cornoviglio and the Madrignano fortresses. Finally, shopping lovers will find the 5 Terre Outlet Village in Brugnato, with shops of renowned Italian and foreign design brands.

Snow falls on the Val di Vara mountains tops.

An important and long history.

The first inhabitants of the Val di Vara lived in the area during the Palaeolithic age, and their density increased during the Metal Age. As evidence of that, archeological findings dating to this time were found inside the karst caves of Val di Vara, among the most interesting in Italy. 

Later the territory was the home of the pre-roman Ligurian tribes, mainly engaged in herding, farming, and minerals excavation. Later, the area became part of the Roman Empire. But the conquer process was not easy, as the Ligurians used to ambush the Roman militias that traveled the Valley’s roads, usually downstream along the waterways. The local peoples, hiding among the vegetation in an elevated position, were used to attack the Romans by throwing rocks and tree trunks at them, thus putting the enemies to flight.

With the end of the Roman Empire, the territory of Val di Vara was subject to the conquest of the Byzantines and Longobards. These imposed Christianity by building churches and monasteries, and the Val di Vara became part of the Luni diocese. Since the 20th century, the area has become part of the Brugnato Diocese.

During the Middle Ages, the feudal families of the area fought to control the Valley, which had become such a crucial trade route. They were the Malaspina, the Fieschi, the Da Passano. In the mid-1500s, the Val di Vara went under the rule of the Republic of Genoa until Napoleon Bonaparte conquered it. Then, the empire designed the Département Du Vara, which included the Val di Vara territory with Levanto as its capital.

After the Vienna Congress, the area became part of the Savoy’s Sardinia and Piedmont Kingdom of Sardinia, prodrome to the Kingdom of Italy.

In 1923, Val di Vara became part of the newly established province of La Spezia. During WWII, the area gave refuge to people displaced from the cities and became a major battleground between Nazis and partisans.

More recently, Val di Vara has been the scene of a tragic event, the 2011 flood that also hit the Lunigiana and Cinque Terre area. Borghetto di Vara was among the most flooded villages. That’s where I collected the tales of people who experienced the flood

Suddenly, the water of the torrents swarmed the street and the town, causing considerable damage and seven victims. Following the tragic event, all the village inhabitants worked together to rebuild their everyday life, carried away by the mud. Some cooked in the camp tents, others shoveled the dirt and debris, others rebuilt part of the destroyed buildings, and others allocated aid boxes that reached the Valley from all over Italy. The entire community worked together to face this disaster.

After the tragedy, Val di Vara experienced increased tourism thanks to its advantageous location. In addition, it earned the title of Organic Valley due to its rural landscape and millenary cultural farming traditions. As a result, it has become a much-loved destination, especially by central and northern Europe and northern Italy travelers.

A plaque recalling the terrible days of the flood.

A wide choice of routes to trek with the face mask in your pocket

Trekking in the nature in Val di Vara.

The area has a dense hiking network, probably because of the presence of ancient roads and mule tracks that connected the villages, now replaced by driveways. The trails in Val di Vara, which were abandoned before, are experiencing a period of rediscovery. Many municipalities, such as the one of Carro, have cleaned up most of the routes by renewing their signage in collaboration with the associations that take care of the maintenance of local hiking networks: CAI and Mangia Trekking.

Since the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic, the trails in Val di Vara have become a valid alternative for walks for adults and children in total safety and with a very low risk of contagion, given the huge area available.

A wide choice of routes to trek with the face mask in your pocket

Thanks to the ancient roads and mule tracks connecting the villages, the area has a dense hiking network, now flanked by driveways. Some trails in Val di Vara had been dismissed and have been lately rediscovered. Many municipalities, such as Carro, have cleaned up most of the routes by renewing their signage in collaboration with the associations that take care of the maintenance of local hiking networks: CAI and Mangia Trekking.

Since the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic, the trails in Val di Vara have become a valid alternative for walks for adults and children in total safety and with a shallow risk of contagion, given the vast area.

Vegetation and animals of Val di Vara

I remember that on the first day of reopening after the lockdown, I took a hike near Borghetto Vara, and my first thought was, “how did I survive almost two months away from all this ?!”. The green trees, the wood scents, the rustle of some animals, the sunlight through the top of the trees, and the birds chirping, it felt as if I had come across an enchanted landscape.

Val di Vara’s vegetation is diverse due to the differences in altitude in the area. It goes from the rugged mountains and pastures of the higher part, on the border with Emilia Romagna, to the dense woods crossed by streams in the middle, to take on some Mediterranean stretches in the lower leg, getting closer to Cinque Terre. The most common trees are walnut, beech, pine, acacias, and conifers. But it is the chestnut that has taken an essential role in the history of the territory. Thanks to its widespread presence, it has always been exploited to obtain firewood and chestnut flour, the main ingredient in most traditional dishes. In most of the towns in this area, all chestnut-themed sagre (food fairs) take place in autumn. Autumn is also the perfect season for mushroom picking.

A chestnut tree in Val di vara

The Val di Vara hosts a prosperous fauna system. Often, during my excursions, I have come across animals. Wild horses grazing in the mountains above Varese, falcons flying over the Vara river bedthe yellow-bellied toad, fawns and ibex, the spectacled salamander, the ancient river lamprey, squirrels, porcupines, foxes, hedgehogs, wild boars. The uncontaminated nature of the area offers an ideal habitat for an innumerable variety of species.

A salamander on my way.

Fabulous walks in a rural area full of history

Another feature of the trails in Val di Vara is their age; most date back to Roman times. Often, along the paths of this area, I came across ruins of ancient mills, menhirs, old farmhouses, and deconsecrated churches.

In earlier days, in addition to connecting the Valley’s villages, they reconnected them to the coast, mainly on foot and by mules. The inhabitants of the Val di Vara used to exchange meat for slaughter, farming products, chestnuts, and its derivatives with the Cinque Terre people in exchange for fish, salt, and seafood.

One of the many ancient stone bridges in Val di Vara

Hiking trails were also designed to cross villages, such as Borghetto or Mattarana, that were Roman mansio, sort of stops for the legion officers on the move. Over the years, the mansio hosted inns for the military, traders, and travelers.

An excellent meal after a hiking trail

One thing I love about Val di Vara is its cuisine. The area has several restaurants, farmhouses, trattorias, festivals, and feasts rich in tradition, seasonal products, and taste.

My favorite time to enjoy local food is autumn, with the delicious mushrooms cooked in different ways, fried, sautéed, baked, with homemade tagliatelle, and with polenta. In addition, you can enjoy delightful ravioli, pansotti, homemade pasta, and various types of meat all year. Furthermore, the Val di Vara is famous for its typical traditional dishes and is the land of authentic native products such as the Pignone potato, the black pea of ​​L’ago, the shrimp of Calice al Cornoviglio, the herb pies, etc. Interesting are the methods of making, growing, and producing these products that have made their excellence in organic quality possible.


Those who love peace and tranquility, those who prefer adventure and adrenaline, or those who want to enjoy nature away from the masses will find the Val di Vara an excellent destination to meet everyone’s needs.

Another point in its favor is the proximity to Cinque Terre, La Spezia, the Gulf of Poets, and the Gulf of Tigullio, closer to Genova. The La Spezia hinterland is a valid alternative to the crowds of coastal areas, especially in this period of concern and attention. Those like me who love outdoor sports, hiking, and relaxing in total tranquility, away from the crowds, will find in the Val di Vara the opportunity to spend a day, a weekend, or a regenerating holiday without the thought and fear of the pandemic. A destination suitable for young people, adults, children, seniors, groups of friends and families, a perfect combination of nature, good food, open air, sport, culture, relax.