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 http://www.turismotorino.org.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.