Beyond the Classical Tuscany
Would you like to discover a piece of Tuscany that you will forever carry in your heart?
One that is deep in tradition, natural beauty, and tranquility?
One which is only 35 km southeast of Florence, where you can start an adventure that will show you a side of Tuscany that goes beyond its vineyards, museums, and leaning towers?
This itinerary will take you on a visit to an area which holds a historical importance that is often forgotten when talking about the great monuments and their benefactors in Florence as well as a visit to the National Park which spans the mountain side - especially enticing for those who love to hike and enjoy the great outdoors.
As an extra, we have added several insider tips on how to best enjoy the valley, the food and local stops.
Starting your Day Trip
This do-it-yourself day trip is advertised without vineyards, but that is not entirely true. Heading outside of Florence towards the Passo della Consuma (the Consuma Pass), you will traverse the easternmost hills of Chianti, comprised of a land rich in vineyards and olive & fruit groves. There is a short expanse of road that is lined with vineyards and it is an excellent opportunity for some fabulous photos. Don't stop at the first glimpse, travel onward and you will find several good parking places that won't hold up traffic - even one (when looking behind you) which features the towers of a castle peeking through the greenery.
Once you pass the vineyards of Nippozzano and Chianti Rufina, you will start to slowly climb the Apennines mountains and at the peak at 1050 meters above sea level, in a small town called Consuma. It is here that you will cross the border from Florence to Arezzo and it is here that you will begin to explore the Casentino Valley.
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A stop at any one of the bars at the Consuma will introduce you to the hearty mountain breakfast that this area prefers, in particular, Bar Consumi with its freshly baked schiacciata (sometimes called focaccia) filled with porcini mushrooms, prosciutto, and fontina cheese or simply plain with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of crispy salt flakes.
Insider tip: Consider the idea of planning a picnic. This is the perfect place to stock on picnic provisions for later in the day.
A quick stop in Consuma, which straddles two provinces and closely resembles a mountain baita (refuge) will give you an opportunity to stretch your legs after all those curves and refurbish your stomach. As we would say in Italy, time for the Italian “seconda colazione” (second breakfast).
As you proceed further into the valley, the SS 70 will slowly begin to wind its way down the mountains, passing through a panoramic scenery of rolling hills dotted with farmland, cows, wild boar, and the occasional deer.
The first town you will encounter is Pratovecchio but, before you venture into this quaint little hamlet, detour for Castello di Romena and the Pieve di San Pietro a Romena. A brown and white sign will send you in that direction if you haven’t already seen the distinctive silhouette through the trees.
There is a ticket to get in, but it is not always open, however, you can walk around and explored the area. With just a short hike, it is possible to go down to the parish church (pieve in Italian) or you can drive the km and a half. There is ample parking. The church is not always open to the public but you can inquire at the buildings in front of it for more information for a visit. The Pieve di Romena dates back to the VIII century is considered a National Monument and the actual home for the Fraternità di Romena which hosts many spiritual events.
Though it has suffered two major restructurings after a mudslide in 1678 and an earthquake in 1729, the basic lines of the church have not been changed. Especially noteworthy are the capitals on the columns inside the church which are believed to be from Lombard artisans in the 1100’s and the apse, with the varying rows of columns.
PS. Don't forget to visit the crypt where you can see the foundation built by the Romans!
Step Back into Time with these Small Towns
Proceed down into the town of Pratovecchio which offers two spacious and special squares. The newer of the two is named after Paolo Uccello, an important Florentine artist from the 1400’s whose family came from Pratovecchio and who has left several special pieces of art in Florence. It is a circular piazza with a fountain in the center and a small park for children.
The other main square can be explored by walking down via Giuseppe Garibaldi and the “portico” or covered arcades which characterizes this small town. Enter from any one of the little roads on the left-hand side and you will find Piazza Jacopo Landino, named after another important artist from the 1300’s. Many times referred to as the Old Square (Piazza Vecchia), it is the home to the headquarters for the National Park for Casentino and a lovely church from the 1500’s called SS Nome di Gesù.
After a visit to Pratovecchio, one can proceed to Stia, only a few kilometers up the road. Often referred to as the source of the Arno River which flows through Florence, Stia was actually founded as the market town to the Castello di Porciano, located a short distance up the hill. The actual source of the Arno is located on Mount Falterona and is just one of the many walking excursions one can take from this area.
The Art of Wool in Stia
If you opted to drive, park your car in the lot located in front of the bridge over the Staggia river - which meets up with the Arno right here in Stia. This little town has a very unique and picturesque main square in the form of a triangle. Noteworthy are the arcades that line both sides of Piazza Tanucci, the church Santa Maria della Assunta and the water well with its ornate metalwork at the tip of the triangle. The columns in the church are very similar in style and quality to those in Romena, which corresponds with dates of the building.
Wool was a major player in the economic well-being of this valley and the Eco-Museum for Wool is worth a visit as it was the largest wool mill in Stia, at one time employing over 500 persons and producing approximately 700.000 meters of cloth a year.
Stia still produces "panno Casentino" a fuzzy wool cloth and you will find shops around town where you can buy winter coats made in the quite particular cloth. Insider tip: orange and green are the traditional colors so if you are looking for a special souvenir, this would be perfect.
Take a few minutes to visit Palagio Fiorentino, located over a small bridge above the wool mill. Here you will find a modern architecture covering which houses 10 faucets for the fresh spring water that is found in Stia - bring a bottle and fill it up---some of the sweetest water you will ever taste, crisp cool and naturally clean (a great addition to your picnic!)
Picnic at Camaldoli
Backtracking to Pratovecchio, you can follow the signs for the Camaldoli Hermitage, run by of a branch of monks from the San Benedictine order. Founded by Saint Romuald in the early 1000’s, the Hermitage and Monastery created a commanding point of reference for not only the Guidi family who ruled this area but also the people who worked the land, the plebs.
The road into the National Forest, which leads to the Hermitage is a mix of asphalt and dirt road - but easy to navigate and a soft ride in the car. There are many little alcoves and “sentieri” or trails to stop and visit along the way...and a perfect area to stop for a picnic.
Upon arriving at the Hermitage (which also has an ideal picnic area), you will find a small but functional community. It is possible to visit the cells of the monks, the church and a little gift shop which offers products typical of the Camaldoli production. Especially herb teas, liquors made from homegrown plants and honey ranging from a very light amber color to almost black, from the pine trees, all of which make perfect gifts.
Caring for Nature
The creed of the monks was to study, work and pray.
They studied the scriptures, they prayed and meditate for hours and their work centered around the care of the forest. Famous for their gardens which grew plants from all over the world, the monks were well noted for their medical cures, elixirs, and healthy teas. But perhaps their most lasting contribution to the valley, Italy, and even Europe was the first “Code of the Forest”, an integral part of their monastic rules.
The Code was written in a large part as an extension of their spiritual beliefs, protecting and giving back to the "Creator" within the forests. The National Forest of Casentino covers over 35.370 hectares which incorporates the work that the monks at Camaldoli started in the year 1027 ... just a little shy of 1000 years ago!
Within these boundaries, you can find some of the oldest and largest trees in Italy - some dating back as much as 400 years.
As you drive down from the Hermitage you will encounter the Monastery - a less stringent branch of the monks who have a well-known pharmacy where they sell art, chocolate, candies and other recipes which derive from their long tradition.
Back to the Valley
The drive to “fondo” valley, to the bottom of the valley, will take you directly to the town of Poppi. This picturesque hilltop hamlet is definitely worth a visit, starting with a walk around the walls and the several churches that populate the town. The main square is rather small in comparison to Stia and Pratovecchio, but that is not necessarily an indication that this was a town that was less busy.
Nominated as one of the first “Più Belle Borghi” in Italy (Prettiest Little Towns), the architecture within the walls of Poppi has been carefully restored to give you the sensation of walking through the town almost as it would have appeared in the early 1300’s. There is the Oratory of Madonna del Morbo, an excellent example of late Baroque architecture built in the 1600’s to thank the Blessed Mother from saving the town from the plague. The church Badia San Fedele is actually older than the castle with several important pieces of artwork and a crypt with the remains of San Torello, the patron saint of Poppi.
A Jewel Not to be Missed
You can walk all around the outside of the church and complex, which at one time included even a theater but now serves as the local high school, and enjoy great views of the valley. Don’t forget to climb to the top of the hill to visit the Castello di Poppi built in the late 1200's and the adjoining Park Pratello. This castle, designed by the same architect who built Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Arnolfo di Cambio, has been inhabited since its origin and houses an important historic library with manuscripts as old as (and some even older than) the castle itself.
Fill up Before Heading Home
Last stop before going home: if your picnic lunch just didn’t fill you up, the square in Ponte a Poppi has a great little place called Il Mattarello (the rolling pin used for the pasta) stop by and sit outside and indulge in a plate of homemade pasta: ravioli (pasta filled with spinach and ricotta cheese) or tortelli (potato filled pasta). Then hop over to the corner bar where you can get a gelato… all while gazing upon the magnificent Poppi skyline and castle.
From here you can proceed south to Arezzo or head back north to Florence, either way, you will be sure to discover more special secrets of Tuscany.