Jump into a Tuscan Fairy Tale
Here's the plan: Enjoy the views, take lots photos, eat authentic food, absorb the culture, browse the local shops with genuine Italian souvenirs...and then for the kids add a dose of medieval castles and scary legends, trails in the deep forests and lots of space to run around get a bit wild.
Along the way some Wine & Schiacciata
Nestled in a valley boasting a varied and deep history (just think martyred Saints, Etruscans, Roman soldiers, epic battles and devious damsels in distress). And then look for the town of Poppi. The ride is about 65 km south east of Florence, with green fields flanking the Arno river as it starts to wind its way up through the soft vineyard covered hills of Nippozzano and Frescobaldi. The first stop is definitely a crowd pleaser, the number one (in absolute) place to find some of the best ever foccacia at Consumo Bar. There is some debate if the one topped with potatoes is actually better than the one with porcini mushrooms...I’ll let you decide.
Why visit here?
We loved: it is truly an authentic piece of Tuscany, the Castle is one of the most visited sites in the Province of Arezzo & the adventure appeals to all ages
Remember: a bit isolated, so the travel time needs to be taken into consideration
The Consuma is the mountain pass that connects the province of Florence with the Casentino Valley, reaching heights of over 1000 meters, and it will offer beautiful views after every curve.
The road winds down into the valley, passing wide fields of grain and the historic site of the battle of Campaldino which was fought on the 11th of June 1289 between the Guelphs & Ghibellines...you will see a solumn white column with a rectanular shaped crown, or what the locals affectionately like to call “Dante’s Suitcase." Details on this military coup and the extremely gory battle are available at the Poppi castle.
In the Shade of Pratello
The town of Poppi is set on a dominant hill, easily seen from a distance as you crest the Apennines into the Casentino Valley. The Castle stands out like a beacon, majestic and undisturbed for over 700 years. You will find parking outside the city walls as you approach the town on a road that wraps itself around the hillside (and yes there is parking inside the city wall for those who have a bit of trouble walking...but be prepared for tight corners and one way roads.)
If you make your way up to the very top you will find the locals “relax” spot. Pratello, traditionally known as one of the inner circles of the castles walls, is where the ancient practise grounds were for the knights. A panoramic bar and cafe area, open only in the spring, summer and early fall months is conveniently positioned. You can sit underneath the shadow of the Castle and enjoy the awesome views.
The Tower & The Legend
The original Castle is actually known as the Torre del Diavolo (the Devil's Tower) and it is hidden from view due some age old trees and to its slowly crumbling status. However, it is just about visible from the streets below and you can get a peek at it while strolling towards the post office. And like all good castles, the story behind the name will catch your flight of fantasy.
It is said that perhaps one of the first “Black Widows” lived right here in Poppi. Matilda, the sister of the ruling family, was well known as a local beauty with a rather activate appetite for handsome young men...who after meeting up with her were destined to a very short life span. The locals appeared to tolerate her activities until one day she choose one of their own. The annuals document that the population of Poppi revolted demanding retribution.
Now the legend kicks in and it is said she was walled in the tower and left to die. The very same Tower where she often sent her lovers to their deaths.
The Castle, just one of the many that dot the Casentino landscape, is in excellent condition - most probably because it has been inhabited since day one in 1279. Though its original destination has changed over the years from prestigious demore to theater; war headquarters to historic site and library; destination wedding site to convention hall. It is quite the impressive structure. There is a ticket to enter, but it is a trifling for what it has to offer.
Set on several floors one can visit the stalls & servants quarters, the dungeon (and a real skeleton found in its depths!), the ballroom, the chapel with its original afrescos, the upstairs living quarters and get a peek into the Rilliana library. The ticket comes with an informative brochure in several languages and with this I won’t go into much detail on the structure. However, I will treat you to a bit of history on ….
The Ominous Guidi Family
The Guidi family, a rather formidable family, was unique in several ways. Planted in a land far from their original home, they had castles spread not only all throughout Casentino (many of which are visitable) but all the way to north Italy. Legend has it that they could get a message from Poppi to the borders of France in less than 8 hours through a unique system using lights (flames) and mirrors...I laugh because many times it appears this system is better than today's postal system...or internet service! Have a look from the drawbridge and you will see the Castello of Romena one of the nearby strongholds.
The family spent much of its time offering up soldiers to fight Florence’s battles and had a reputation for being quite bloodthirsty - thus the nicknames like Guido Bevesangue (Guide the Blood Drinker) and Guido Guerra (Guido the War Maker). Though quite a powerful family, the fact that they did not follow the tradition of passing everything automatically to the eldest, but rather splitting it between brothers, assisted in the dispersion of their power rather quickly...especially when they could boast of families with more than 13 live children...an incredible feat in the medieval times. (Especially when Mr. Guido was apparently always at war . . .)
Taking Care of Your Appetite
I have always found that all this scenery boosts my appetite which in Poppi, is easily satisfied with truly authentic fare. Most of my favorites are within the city walls...which is practically all of them - but each with its own particular flavor. If you are more into the scenery than you are homemade food, and a glass of beer with chips will satisfy your need to relax, then you can’t go wrong with the Bar at Pratello or underneath the portico in the streets below. Each offer the perfect people watching place along side the cobbled streets.
If you prefer a bit of romance and a restored setting with some innovative dishes inspired by the classics then The Vecchia Cantina with its elegant Tuscan decor and its extensive wine list is for you. For a more down to earth setting with hardy meals - a restaurant that is literally surrounded by the origins of Poppi with a pleasant outside courtyard then your choice is Casentino Restaurant or if you ask the locals just say Benito’s, situated in front of the castle. And if that isn’t enough, sometimes you are just looking for something light and fun, appetizing with dishes using local products, cheeses, vegetables and fruits - and that would be the Emo Bruschetteria with inside and outside seating located near the post office.
Next Stop in Casentino
After a leisurely meal a trip to the national park for a hike or a tour of one of the two monasteries will be in the cards to working off those extra calories and...with the under 14 crowd..all that extra energy. The National Park in Casentino, established in 1993 has over 368 square kilometres of forest definitely worth it to escape those escape some of those stifling summer temps with towering trees and crisp fresh air. This enormous park area covers the Apennines mountains between Tuscany and Romagna. It includes the largest and best preserved woodlands and forests in Italy and a wide variety of animal and plant life such as wolves and golden eagles.
The alternatives are one of the two monasteries in the area, Camoldoli founded in 1012 with its visitable hermitage and antique pharmacy offering natural soaps, liquors, candies and teas. Or you could try La Verna which is a bit further away - but just as enchanting. La Verna, the refuge of Saint Francis of Assisi was built in 1218 and sits atop one of the Apennine peaks where you can roam the trails that will lead you to La Penna at over 1200 meters above sea level - boasting a breathtaking view of the entire valley --- and on a good day is said to offer a view from coast to coast.