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Sarzana is a town near La Spezia in the valley of the Magra River on the popular Ligurian coast of north-west Italy. It is close to the villages of the Cinque Terre.
Its position on one of the most important Roman trade roads to France, the famous “Via Francigena”, made Sarzana a town that has been coveted across the centuries by the Florentines, Genoese, and Pisans.
Your visit will focus around the fortresses, and in and around the Piazza Matteotti. The Piazza Matteotti is the centre of life in the town and is a large square surrounded by a good number of interesting buildings, some with arcades and some now cafes and restauarants, as well as a start point for your tour of medieval Sarzana.
Sarzana is best known for its medieval fortifications which include two castles: the Sarzanello Fortress (the ancient Bishop's Palace) and Firmafede Fortress, built by the Pisans when Sarzana was a border town between the Republic of Genoa and the Medici estates.
Firmafede Fortress is surrounded by a deep moat and has a round tower surrounded by a courtyard, which is accessed through a second courtyard. Around these courtyards is the main quadrangle of the defensive walls with the highest towers at each corner. On the east side there is a third rectangular courtyard bordered by a curtain wall that is separate from the main body of the castle, and in the corners of which are three lower towers.
Sarzanello Fortress is the upper fortress (also called Castruccio, after the leader Castruccio Castracani Antelminelli, who lived here from 1314 to 1328). It has a diamond shape formed by two juxtaposed equilateral triangles. The first of these faces towards the city and is protected by three corner towers; the second protects access to the fortress. The two parts are linked by a bridge.
Religious monuments in Sarzana
Sarzana Cathedral: Also worthy of special note as you visit Sarzana are the religious buildings, including the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, built between 1204 and 1474 in Romanesque-Gothic style. The cathedral façade, in white marble, has a portal with a Gothic rosette, and on the right side, a crenellated bell tower.
The cathedral interior is divided into three naves and with a coffered wood ceiling. The church contains important art works by Francesco Solimena (1657-1747, one of the most important personalities of the Late Italian Baroque style) and Domenico Fiasella (1589-1669, a painter with a passion for games of shadow and light typical of Caravaggio), whose Annunciation we can admire in the Church, along with various Renaissance sculptures.
See also the cross painted on wood and dated 1138 by Maestro Guglielmo. The majestic figure of Christ stands perfectly on the bottom of the cross. The symbolism is very strong: the face of Christ is serene, and the eyes are wide open, a symbol of Christ in triumph and alive.
This cross in Sarzana Cathedral is claimed to be oldest painted wooden cross in the world.
The Parish Church of St. Andrew is the oldest religious building in Sarzana, dating from the 10th-11th centuries. The façade is decorated with a 16th century portal and surmounted by an eight-pointed star known as 'Sidus', the symbol of the Elders of the town of Sarzana.
The Church of San Francesco is located on a square just outside the town walls. with a semicircular window on the facade that illuminates the interior. Above the portal there is a 17th century lunette representing the 'Virgin and Child'. The church has a Latin cross plan. In the left transept there is the tomb of the son of Castruccio Castracani, Guarnerio Antelminelli (died 1324).
The Oratory of Mercy has a central plan, with a single nave, and four large chapels at the main axes.
Other Sarzana highlights
The old town of Sarzana is rich in historic palaces built by noble families, such as the Neri Palace with its frescoed interior halls. The garden with the well of the old Convent of Poor Clares is another original architectural element in the palace - here because the palace was built on the site of the convent.
Magni Griffi Palace is a significant example of 18th-century classicism (the style preludes the advent of Neoclassicism - the façade has no decorative element, leaving only the geometry of the structure itself.)
The Podestà Lucciardi Palace is an example of neo-classical architecture, designed by Carlo Barbino in the 19th century. On the roof, the terrace forms a classical temple.
The Picedi–Benettini Palace was built in a late Renaissance Tuscan style - the base is decorated with rusticated iron grates. Also to see near the town walls in Sarzana are the Ollandini Villa and Carena Villa.
The traditional cuisine of Sarzana includes dishes such as “Paniza”, “Sgabei”, “testaroli”, and “focaccia” with olive oil and salt, sweet cakes, and chestnuts. Cabbages, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, and cakes with vegetables have all been popular for many centuries, while mushrooms are also very important.
Worthy of mention among the local main courses are the rabbit stew or fried tripe. Among the fish, try perhaps the cod, salt cod, anchovies and muscles. Local wine has also always held a place of honor in Sarzana, both white and red - among the lighter wines, Vinetta is the most famous.
See also history of Sarzana
You can find more local travel ideas in the Liguria guide.