On the other side of Garfagnana, in a land beloved by the poets Ariosto, Pascoli, Byron and Shelley lies Abetone, the most renowned and best equipped winter sports resort of the Apennines.
Historically, the surrounding Apennine heights were used by those who wished to find ways through the mountains. Records of ancient ways through these mountains exist, even from Roman times. The famous warrior Hannibal the Great is reputed by local legend to have passed this way with his elephants into Etruria and his name is attributed to the Passo d'Annibale which at some 1798 metres is to the north-west of the resort of Abetone in Val di Luce.
The area was bounded by the borders of the Duchy of Modena, the Republic of Lucca and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Its forests were used by fugitives of every kind, who found in the woods comfortable resting places and numerous escape routes.
In 1732 the Grand Duke of Tuscany Pietro Leopoldo and the Duke of Modena Francesco III, started a series of works to build a new road that would join Pistoia and the region of Emilia-Romagna for the first time.
At this point Abetone was named after the enormous larch that was felled to make way for the road. According to records made at the time, this fir tree was so large that six people with their arms extended could not completely embrace it!
Although the valleys in the Apennines have always been inhabited, a residential settlement populated by peasants was formed by opening of the new road, the so-called "Via Regia Modenese". Then the first factories and inns arrived and gave a great impulse to the local economy.
Two ancient pyramids with marble decorations mark the border between the provinces of Pistoia and Modena, though the inhabitants of Abetone feel more Tuscan than Emilian. Even today it is still possible to read the names of the Dukes who promoted the great project.
With the arrival of the new road, hostels and workshops began to appear. Tracts of land were granted to groups of peasants who were expected to maintain the road, allowing the various centres of habitation to survive and prosper.
During the domination of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the church of Saint Leopold was built in Abetone to honour his great achievements that now played such a big role in the development of the economy of the area. Abetone itself continued to grow in importance for over a hundred years until the Unification of Italy occurred in 1861.
This was a watershed for Abetone when the removal of inter-regional borders led even to the abolition of the customs posts. No longer was Abetone a vital border town. Then three years later in 1864, Abetone suffered a second blow. The spreading tentacles of the emerging Italian railway system finally opened a new commercial route between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna.
With the road no longer the primary trade route to Modena, the resulting decrease in road traffic and the loss of status as a border town combined to make the turn of the century a time of crisis for Abetone. The local economy was reduced to forestry and charcoal burning.
But then in 1904 the first skiers came to the place. Word spread and tourists began to discover the possibilities of winter sports, among whom was the famous composer Giacomo Puccini, who built himself a villa here. For a long time Abetone was the only alternative to the Alps in Central Italy.
The first attempt to develop the area further came in the 1930s, when the Val di Luce was bought by the engineer Lapo Farinati of the Uberti, a descendant of one of the characters in Dante's Divine Comedy, who planned to construct an illumination tower to bathe the valley in light - hence the name.
This was the Mussolini era, and Farinati's grandiose ambitions for the site extended to a lake for ice-skating and a car-racing circuit. Abetone became a commune in 1936 but then three years later in 1939, Farinati was thwarted by the Second World War, and all that remains of his grand scheme is a rather imposing stone guest house and bar halfway up the mountain.
Post-war, tired of the years of trouble, Italians with their great love of life and sport returned to the Appenine mountains with renewed vigour and in 1946, Zeno Colò became the winner of the first ever Alpine Ski World Championships.
Abetone is home to several great Italian winter sports champions of the past - not only Zeno Colò, but also Celina Seghi and Vittorio Chierroni. This great trio have won competitions on every continent under the Italian banner. All have runs at Abetone named in their honour.
On 22nd January 2003, worldwide attention turned to Abetone when so-called "eco-terrorists" struck and burned down the brand-new Monte Gomito gondola overnight.
However, far from destroying the resort as these misguided individuals intended, such a deep feeling was generated that not only was this lift rebuilt in time for the following season, but in addition substantial donations were made by people from all over the world which served to show that humanity will always rise up to defeat those that seek to impose their views by force. The EU also made a substantial commitment to assist in the funding of further lifts at Abetone.
In all, eleven new lifts have been installed in recent years. These together with extensive snow-making equipment provide a better guarantee of enjoyment to visitors than ever before.
A total of 21 lifts and 29 named pistes offer over 70km of fun and excitement for all to enjoy. Usually Abetone is snowcapped from the beginning of December until the end of April and today it has become the best equipped and most comfortable ski resort in the area.
In memory of the ancient tree that gave its name to the place, Abetone has today made a green larch on a red background the logo of its ski club.
Skiers and snowboarders still mostly come from Tuscany including Indro Montanelli a regular skier in the thirties and still and an occasional skier today, who once said to friends “with my long legs, I should have done cross-country”. Indeed, extensive cross-country skiing can be enjoyed on well beaten trails.
Increasingly though, other nationalities are discovering Abetone too, and it is only a matter of time before the UK tour operators arrive!
So, if you thought that Tuscany was just about the culture, food and spectacular landscapes, take a fresh winter look at what Tuscany has to offer high up at Abetone and visit this sporting paradise whilst it remains unspoiled!