The Casentino is a wonderful tour. It really is hidden Tuscany: only an hour north-east from Florence, yet surprisingly un-touristed. Our route take us along the ridges of the Apennine Mountains into the verdant forests of the Casentino National Park, to hidden monasteries and small villages, and to where the Arno River springs forth and starts its flow down to Florence and on to Pisa. Dante dallied in this area after his exile from Florence in the 1200’s. All of Mario’s family is from Stia, one of the small towns we stay in. History, castles, saints, hearty food and beautiful forests are in abundance here.
Post-Covid travel has been challenging for people. Rules keep changing, and we found that families feel quite secure traveling together, because they are a trusted unit. This summer we had a great time with 3 generations on a week’s adventuring in Casentino. The grandparents had traveled with us several times before, and wanted to bring their family together in Tuscany.
They were pleasantly surprised and felt in no way hindered or unsafe, because Covid rules are carefully followed here. Masks are required inside all buildings: banks, schools, museums, theaters, shops and on trains and buses. Vaccination cards are checked at all museums and on long distance trains. Waiters, and hotel staff and store clerks are masked and disinfectant is available at every door, outdoor seating was available at every restaurant and caffe’. Here we are enjoying a delicious summer dinner outside in the medieval piazza of Stia.
The Franciscan monastery of LaVerna has grown and grown since the early 1200’s when St. Francis received the stigmata while meditating in a small, damp cave here. During the 1400’s the sanctuary was embellished with many elegant Renaissance stone buildings and a series of chapels decorated with large, colorful della Robbia ceramic altarpieces. The simple blue, white, green and ochre glazes used are beautiful, the sculpting of the low- relief figures masterly, as they eloquently tell stories from the New Testament.
La Verna is perched at 4,000 feet, a wooded retreat high on the slopes Mt. Penna. Every year, thousands of pilgrims walk up through the ancient beech and fir forests to reach the sanctuary, which seems almost forbidding when seen from below, but then opens into Renaissance splendor. There are still 30 Franciscan monks living here today, who also offer hospitality to visitors in comfortable dormitories.
The simplicity of a Romanesque church somehow feels more spiritual than many fancier ones. This architectural jewel and one of our favorite churches dates back to 1100! There are simple, primitive carvings on the column tops in its vast, quiet space. The small windows reflect a time when glass was not in common use. The nearby Romena castle is in ruins, but its parish church of San Pietro has been exquisitely preserved throughout the centuries, and still today is very active in the community.
Needless to say, picnics were always a highlight of the day. Fresh basil, ripe tomatoes, sweet melons, and locally made, renowned prosciuttos and salami and pecorino cheese made for delicious repasts on our hikes. It is one of our favorite challenges to offer different menus daily, and introduce people to the specialities of the areas we hike in. The Appenini are known for hearty fare (ravioli are stuffed with potatoes and herbs, soups contain toasted bread and poached eggs, porcini mushrooms and game are often used) but as in all Italian cuisine, the simple touches of traditional cooking are always delightful.
Another of our visits was to yet another religious site tucked in the woods. One of the laws of the Benedictine monastery of Camaldoli was to plant 4,000 new trees every year, and we walked beneath huge leafy canopies of beech and fir planted centuries ago. Although founded in the year 1000, the church of the Eremo (Hermitage) was redone in Baroque style in the late 1600’s. Downhill is the monastery, enlarged and frescoed in Renaissance times. Pilgrims can find hospitality here too. In the tradition of “healing the body as well as the soul”, there is an ancient chemist’s shop dating back to 1543.
July can be hot, and mountain paths steep….the clear, cool water of the Arno river that is born nearby on the slopes of Monte Falterona and meanders through Stia was delightfully refreshing for numerous afternoon swims. It was great fun to walk up the river and rest at our own “private” swimming hole. The cows grazing in the fields above gave us a concert of bells, and luscious ripe blackberries nourished us along the way.
We look forward to sharing with you the many magical paths that we hike along in the green, leafy forests of Casentino….