Immersion Journeys in Italy, France and Spain

On March 5th, 2021 by Jeremy Cotroneo

Forte di Fenestrelle – Italy Has a Great Wall Too!

Posted In:
Culture | Italy | Piedmont | Reflections | Travel Tips

Forte de Fenestrelle

A few years back, at an information center along the Via Francigena (the Italian version of the Camino de Santiago walking trail), I caught a glimpse of a beautiful poster on the wall (see image below).  Had the Great Wall of China found its way to a Via Francigena information point?  A closer look revealed the logo of the Piedmont region in northeastern Italy!

                                                                                                                                                                               Thanks to


Wait! This place is only hours from my house?? Why have I never been there? Actually, why have I never even heard of it?!

Further research and conversations with Italian friends helped me understand that I was not alone in this thinking.  It turns out that the Forte di Fenestrelle (the official name of this "Italian Great Wall") is off the radar for all but a few Italians, a fact which reinforced my awe of how much hidden cultural heritage is packed into this country!

I made a mental note of the location, immediately rearranging my "Italian Bucket List," inserting Forte di Fenestrelle towards the top, along with Sardinia and Sperlonga.  And, during my recent trip to Italy's northern regions, I was able to cross this one off the Bucket List!

So I now present to you all… Forte di Fenestrelle.  Italy's answer to the Great Wall of China.


Getting there

Forte di Fenestrelle is located in Italy's western region of Piedmont, which shares a border with France along the Alps.

Piedmont is also known for wines from the Langhe region (Nebbiolos like Barolo and Barbaresco), the city of Turin, good skiing, and beautiful lakes in the north.


North west Italy


Located in a remote valley that connects the low-lying Padana Plains to the Alps, this is one of those places that should be accessed by car or private transfer only.  Public transport is few and far between in these parts.  The valley climbs slowly upwards towards the mountain pass, the four-lane highway goes to two, and the road gets narrower and narrower.  When you are at an elevation of about 4.000 feet, look for signs for Forte di Fenestrelle on your right.  There is a conveniently-located parking lot right next to the fort's entrance.


Forte di Fenestrelle Fort


A little history

Unsurprisingly, Forte di Fenestrelle has been around for a while.  It was originally built in the 16-1700s as a defensive fort to protect the city of Turin from French conquerors.  If you know about Italian geography, you will remember that the flat stretch of land in the north (the Padana Plain) stretches all the way from Turin in the west to Venice in the east, making mountain defense a prime objective.  The fort was first built at valley level, but over time, new wings kept getting higher and higher, and the fort now encompasses one continuous string of structures which rise up into the Alps to a height of over 6000 feet, one and half miles of contiguous defense structure!


Forte di Finestrelle Model


A local told us that we were visiting the second longest defensive structure in the world after China's Great Wall!  A Google fact-check confirms that it is actually the 11th longest.  Not quite, but still not too shabby!


View from Forte di Finestrelle


What to do there

As you can imagine for a structure with a vertical elevation gain of 2500 feet, there are a few different tours that can be taken (7 hours, 3 hours, or 1 hour) depending on how much time you have and your fitness level.

For the full experience, you can book a 7-hour guided tour in which you start at valley level and ascend the 4000 steps all the way to the top of the fort.  This experience is obviously only for those who feel up to the challenge of a 2500 foot elevation gain.  Side note: We were told by our guide that locals have an annual race consisting of seeing who can run up all these stairs the fastest, and that the record holder is a young woman who completed all 4000 steps in just 30 minutes!!


Finestrelle stairs


Those who are not interested in making a whole day out of it can take a reduced 3-hour guided tour, ascending to the "Devil's Garrison" a few hundred steps up.


View from Devil's Garrison

View from Devil's Garrison


The third option is perfect for those with limited time and/or mobility.  This one-hour tour takes you with a guide around the lower fort area and the museum.

Regardless of the tour chosen, afterwards you can enjoy a nice coffee or some local dishes at the on-site restaurant/café (it wouldn't be Italy if there wasn't a place to eat nearby!)

Important note:  Do call in advance and check times and availability of tours because they will only be offered if there is a minimum number of participants.


Fenestrelle courtyard

Courtyard: Meeting place for all tours


My Experience

Aware that before venturing off into the mountains, it was best to make sure the fort was actually open, we gave them a call the day before visiting.  We were told that viability of the tours depends on having a certain minimum number of participants, and that, for the moment, no groups were booked for that day.   This meant that there was no guarantee that a long tour would be possible.  They told us that we should come anyways in case enough people showed up and that, worst-case scenario, we could at least visit the lower fort and museum.

The next day we got lucky as enough people had turned up, and the tour was on, led by a local volunteer (the fort must be non-profit as it is still technically a military structure, even though it hasn't been used for defensive purposes since World War 2).  Our tour guide actually had multiple other duties at the fort, including chopping wood in the courtyard.

But what a tour he gave!

We were taken to visit the whole lower and middle fort (the 3-hour tour), climbing about 300 steps to the "Devil's Garrison." Our guide's passion for the subject matter really shone through, and his animated stories left us enlightened about the fort's fascinating history and feeling like we had actually been around to witness it.


Fort walls


I was already excited to visit the fort, but having a guide like that (someone who is so passionate about a place that he volunteers his time to do whatever tasks need to be done, be it lumberjacking, cleaning, or giving guided tours) really enhanced the experience, and I highly recommended Forte di Fenestrelle as a way to get off-the-beaten-path!


View from the fort window


Thoroughly satisfied but not satiated, I still have the Forte di Fenestrelle on my bucket list; I'm hoping to do that 4000 stair climb next time.  Maybe I'll even go for the record… it is a bucket list after all!!


Been to Forte di Finestrelle? We'd love to hear your thoughts or experiences in the comments below.

On December 3rd, 2020 by Jeremy Cotroneo

Homeless Jesus – by Artie Martines

Posted In:
Art | Culture | Florence | Spain | Travelers Tales

This post is guest-written by our traveler Artie Martines.

During one of our on-line presentations, our guide Lior Aviv talked about a modern artist’s statue called "Homeless Jesus," which can be found in Florence.

Travel Community member Artie took a deeper look into this and wrote a nice piece on our Facebook page which we would like to share with all of you:

When Lior showed the slide of the statue of Jesus under the blanket which is commonly called “Homeless Jesus,"  I commented that we had seen the same depiction in Barcelona last year while traveling with Tuscany Tours. I did a little research and found that the sculptor is a Canadian, Timothy Schmalz, and the original installation of the sculpture was in 2013 in Toronto at the Jesuit School of Religion at the University of Toronto. It had originally been offered to a church in Toronto and St Patrick’s in NYC. Both churches turned him down.


From Wikipedia:

The statue has been described as a "visual translation" of the Gospel of Matthew passage in which Jesus tells his disciples, "as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me." Schmalz intended for the bronze sculpture to be provocative, admitting, "That's essentially what the sculpture is there to do. It's meant to challenge people."


There are now installations of this piece in numerous locations throughout the world. You can find it in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The sites where you can find it include the Vatican.

The one we saw in Barcelona is located near Santa Anna church which houses a soup kitchen run by the homeless.  The statue was installed in February 2019 just a few weeks before we saw it.

It is a very powerful piece, and it certainly evokes a reaction as the artist intended.

I was certainly moved by it, and it made me even more grateful for all that Eileen and I have been blessed with over the years. It also affirmed the support we give – and the work we do (mostly Eileen) for – the Elizabeth Coalition To House The Homeless here in NJ (you can read more about the Elizabeth Coalition here).

Attached is the picture I took in April 2019.

On June 20th, 2020 by Karen Embrey

Read Italy: Our Travelers' Favorite Books about Italy

Posted In:
Books | Culture | Italy | Reflections | Travelers Tales

READ ITALY book recommendations

Our travelers are avid readers, and they love to share their personal book recommendations in our Tuscany Tours Travel Community Facebook group.  In these "safer-at-home" times, a good book is just what the doctor ordered to help us escape to another place.  And, what better place than Tuscany, Sicily, Florence, Venice..... or anywhere in Italy?!  Books about Italy

To vicariously travel to Italy, look no further than our community’s recommendations below. History, fiction, art, science… there’s something for everyone.  So, grab your wine, kick back, and relax as we guide you on some armchair travels through Italy!

Help us to grow our Italy book list!  Please leave your recommendations in the comments below.


Tuscany Tours Team recommendations:

Pam recommends:
All Sam Hilt books!
All Detective Montalbano books -- set all over Sicily
Love in a Tuscan Kitchen: Savoring Life Through the Romance, Recipes, and Traditions of Italy by Sheryl Ness

Karen recommends:
The Botticelli Secret: A novel of Renaissance Italy  by Marina Fiorato
The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer

Jeremy recommends:
The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

Shauna recommends:
The Birth of Venus – Sarah Dunant
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert


Travelers' Community recommendations:

Mark B. recommends:
A Vineyard in Tuscany: A Wine Lover’s Dream by Ferenc Máté
A Thousand Days in Tuscany: A Bittersweet Adventure by Marlena de Blasi
Hidden Tuscany: Discovering Art, Culture, and Memories in a Well-Known Region's Unknown Places by John Keahey
The Wisdom of Tuscany: Simplicity, Security & the Good Life - Making the Tuscan Lifestyle Your Own by Ferenc Máté

Lauren Y. recommends:
The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen

Judie W. recommends:
One Summer Day in Rome by Mark Lamprell
The Lady in the Palazzo: At Home in Umbria by Marlena de Blasi
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
Women in Sunlight by Frances Mayes
I Found Myself in Tuscany by Lisa Condie

Virginia S. recommends:
Dances with Luigi: A Grandson’s Determined Quest to Comprehend Italy and the Italians by Paul Paolicelli

Jeff C. recommends:
Hidden Tuscany: discovering Art, Culture, and Memories in a Well-Known Region’s Unknown Places by John Keahey
The Mountains of Saint Francis: Discovering the Geologic Events that Shaped our Earth

Tarie H. recommends:
The Glassblower of Murano by Mariana Fiorato
A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi


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