“Why did I land in this dump?” the tourist may well ask when his rental car breaks down, or the train stops running, or he’s misread the map. As happens in archaeology and garbage collecting, sometimes a dump can surprise you.
The largest town in the Lunigiana is called Aulla. At first glance, there is nothing special about it, save the brooding 16th century fortress called La Brunella perched on a hill overlooking the town, which now houses the Museum of Natural History of the Lunigiana. You won’t be impressed by Aulla’s architecture either, which consists mainly of boxy, unadorned buildings hastily erected out of cheap materials some time after extensive Allied bombing during WWII flattened the city.
Aulla, built at the confluence of Magra and Aulella rivers to watch over the Via Francigena pilgrimage route, was an important trade and spiritual center in antiquity. Today, the expansive view of the Magra from La Brunella has been largely ruined by new train tunnels and viaducts.
Because it is large, Aulla is where everyone in the Lunigiana goes to shop, especially on market days. The streets are wide and the sidewalks are adequate for three people walking side by side, a sharp contrast to the narrow lanes of typical medieval towns usually visited by tourists.
Fodor’s guide to Florence, Tuscany & Umbria (2005 edition) devotes a mere two paragraphs on Aulla. Both are dedicated to La Brunella, with a passing reference to “a 9th-century abbey dedicated to St. Caprasio on-site.”
The problem is, the Abbazia di San Caprasio is not on the site of Brunella fortress, but smack in the heart of town. I know this because one day I was walking by a church, part of the Abbazia di San Caprasio complex, and stopped to take a look at some feature or other in the doorway. I walked on past, and soon heard approaching footsteps.
“Do you want to see? It’s free,” a man said in Italian.
Well, free was good. And people don’t often chase tourists down to show them something that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. So I followed him.
By all indications, what we entered was a less-than-interesting, poor parish church of indeterminate age; the church had been renovated many times over the years.
Then I was lead to the apse. That’s the part of the church you’d describe as “way in the back” if your reference was the front door.
It was obvious that there had been a recent archaeological excavation. Exposed were several foundations that had modified the area of the apse over the years, but also exposed was the site of Saint Caprasio’s tomb from the 9th century. (The good Saint was a hermit from the Lerins Islands off the coast of Provence, where he died. He was brought here to give his name to the abbey and thereby attract pilgrims at the time of the abbey’s foundation, around 884.)
Just 10 feet or so away from Saint Caprasio’s final resting place was a rather large hole, oddly excavated.
“Do you know what THAT is?” my guide asked.
I shrugged. It was an Italian shrug.
“It’s where they excavated an unexploded US bomb. One of your bombs. They had to take it to a special place to explode it,” he explained.
Imagine: The saint’s power, even nearly a millennium after death, was enough to negate a vicious implement of war. It’s no wonder people came here on pilgrimage.
But there’s more. Abbeys and Churches of the times almost always had outbuildings that catered to pilgrims: bars, hostels, hospitals, and even houses of ill repute (though the repute seems to have been not so ill in those days). The abbey’s outbuildings now housed a museum, where the visitor can see the bits of the now exploded bomb, some excavated architectural features, Roman coins and other remains. You’ll find such rare artifacts as a scallop shell worn by pilgrims 800 years ago (still the symbol of pilgrimage today) as well as a recreation of the typical costumes of pilgrims and monks of the times.
But there’s still more. The abbey also holds relics—including the cranium—of one Saint Severo from the 4th century, which are kept in an ornate box. The cranium had recently have been sent off to a lab in the US for reconstruction. It was the least we could do, you know, for the bomb thing. In any case, now you can stare into the reconstructed eyes of a Saint from the fourth century.
Yes, it’s creepy. But just a little.
All this packed inside a building with few signs of what is inside. So, don’t write off a town as dull and uninteresting until you’ve poked around a little. Sure, Aulla is a town that warrants but a sentence or two in a guidebook—but there are fascinating corners of it to discover if you get turned around by the perfect stranger.
Discover More about Aulla
Did you know that Aulla, along with neighboring Podenzana, is the only place you can get panigacci? Know what it is? See the Lunigiana specialty being made: Panigacci.
If you like medieval warfare, you might find such a festival in Aulla: Medieval Warfare in Aulla
Find out about the historic territory called the Lunigiana with our map and guide.