Italy in the fiery footsteps of a medieval countess

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      The gossip about Matilde beats anything I've ever seen on the cover of a celebrity magazine. They say this red-haired countess was the Pope's lover, and a warrior who led her own army into battle; that she had her first husband murdered by an assassin who thrust a sword up the poor fellow's backside as he squatted to relieve himself; and that when she remarried at 43 for political reasons, she refused to sleep with her 16-year-old husband, a timid youth known as "the penguin". Never mind that she's been dead for nearly 900 years. If you want to explore the Apennines in northern Italy's province of Reggio Emilia, you won't find a more intriguing guide than Matilde of Canossa (1046&1115).

      I first met Matilde while travelling in Italy in 2004. My partner and I had rented a car so that we could get away from big cities and crowded tourist sites, but an ambitious itinerary had translated into too much time on the road and not enough exercise. When we discovered the Sentiero Matilde path while passing through the Apennino Reggiano, we decided to stay a few days and stretch our legs.

      The 80-kilometre-long Sentiero runs from Ciano d'Enza to San Pellegrino in Alpe, and connects a series of castles that were key to Matilde's control of the feudal lands she inherited from her father and refused to yield to either of her spouses. Although her domain stretched from the Po Valley to southern Tuscany, Matilde's reputation as one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages was gained in these mountain strongholds. "Matilde's Path" was also a trans-Apennine alternative to the Via Francigena, the pilgrim route that connected Rome to the Holy Roman Empire.

      Based in the village of Toana near the southern end of the Sentiero, we spent two days walking nearby segments of the trail, which mostly follows old cart roads, footpaths, and mule tracks. We hiked deep into a forested ravine, where we traversed the Dolo River on the same gracefully arched bridge that once served Matilde and her entourage, and up an ancient cobblestone road to the Pieve di Santa Maria, where Matilde a devout Catholic despite her alleged indiscretions with Pope Gregory VII stopped to pray on her journeys.

      Unfortunately, we didn't get around to visiting any castles. Next time, we told ourselves, not expecting we'd be back only three years later.

      On our return visit, we let Matilde lead us through the countryside by way of three of her most important castles: Sarzano, Carpineti, and Canossa. Although in various states of decline, these fortifications retain a commanding presence, with imposing stone towers and high, windowless perimeter walls rising from steep cliffs. The best preserved of the three is Carpineti, but the museum housed within Canossa offers the greatest insights into the countess's life and times.

      At the centre of the museum, a large three-dimensional model of the castle in its heyday puts the crumbling ruins outside into perspective. Seeing my interest, the museum guardian came over to point out the main edifice where Matilde and her court resided, and the adjacent monastery and church of San Apollonio. Then he pressed a button on the display case and a section of the model descended, revealing the interior of the church, softly illuminated as if by candlelight. The rich tones of a Gregorian chant flowed from hidden speakers, transporting me through time, until he pressed another button and the divine voices fell silent as the stone walls slid back into place.

      Contemporary and posthumous portraits of Matilde displayed in the museum offer a sense of the real woman behind the rumours. Enveloped in ermine-trimmed robes, with a wimple framing her pale face, she gazes serenely from the parchment pages of the Vita Mathildis, the story of her life as told by her to Canossa monk Donizone. In a 16th-century painting, she sits tall and confidently astride a high-stepping white stallion. All of the artists are consistent in portraying her regal bearing and look of quiet determination. Her two husbands are notably absent from the portraits.

      Beyond the crumbling castle walls, past and present merge seamlessly. The countryside is tamer than in Matilde's day, yet still decidedly rural a patchwork of tilled fields, vineyards, and woodlands, punctuated by scattered farms and villages, where free-ranging chickens scratch in the dirt and shiny new Fiats are parked beside centuries-old stone houses.

      One of the oldest agricultural practices in the Apennines is the tending of chestnut groves, the source of one of the region's traditional staple foods. In many places, the trail was littered with the glistening nuts and their spiny cases. Here and there, the ground beneath the trees had been raked clean, and piles of empty shells indicated that a serious harvesting effort had taken place.

      Just outside the medieval hamlet of Bergogno, we met a middle-aged woman in a navy blue knee-length dress carrying a wooden ladder and a rakelike tool that looked like an oversized spaghetti server. Yes, she replied to my clumsily phrased inquiry, she was on her way to gather castagne. Regrettably, my rudimentary Italian wasn't up to asking for additional details, so we exchanged a few pleasantries about the weather and carried on.

      Our final day in the region coincided with the annual October chestnut festival in Marola, a village famous for the abbey Matilde founded there. Having expended numerous calories sweating our way up and down the unremitting ascents and descents of the historical trail, we now felt perfectly entitled to indulge in gastronomic pleasures like tortellini fritta (little folded pastries stuffed with chopped chestnuts and jam), castagnaccio (dense fudgelike cookies made from chestnut flour and studded with pine nuts and raisins), and freshly roasted chestnuts washed down with hot, sweet vin brulé (mulled wine).

      All day long, fire burned beneath the immense steel drum where bushel after bushel of chestnuts was roasted. Three men armed with long-handled paddles for stirring the nuts circled the drum endlessly in a smoky, slow-motion dance. In mid afternoon, they were upstaged when a 40-member brass band and a dozen young women in knee-high white boots and short blue skirts arrived and filled the square with lively tunes and exuberant performances.

      In contrast to the solitude we'd experienced during our days of hiking, there were hundreds of people at the festival eating, drinking, buying fresh porcini mushrooms and wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano, enjoying the music and the mellow fall weather. I raised my cup of vin brulé to Matilde, and thanked her for bringing me there.

      Links: Spring and autumn are the best seasons for hiking the Sentiero Matilde; avoid the hot midsummer period and rainy or snowy winter months. The route is generally well indicated by red-and-white markings painted on posts, trees, and walls at regular intervals, and by directional signposts at intersections. An indispensable map with route descriptions is available from the Lands of Matilde visitor centre (located a few kilometres north of Ciano d'Enza on the SP54) or the Reggio Emilia tourist office ( ); request the English/German version if you don't read Italian. Accommodation listings can be found at . Learn more about Matilde at and about Marola's Festa della Castagna at . Except for the latter, these Web sites all have links to English versions. Michí¨le K. Spike's Tuscan Countess: the Life and Extra ­ordinary Times of Maltilda of Canossa (Vendome Press, 2004) gives a colourful overview of Matilde's life, although academic historians object to some of her conclusions.