Hidden paradise

Lisa Clifford
May 23, 2013

It’s odd that very few foreigners have ever heard of Casentino. In the upper Arno valley of eastern Tuscany, it is home to 36,000 hectares of some of the most beautiful natural parklands in Italy. These ancient woods are packed with wild boar, deer, porcini mushrooms and well-marked hiking trails. Casentino is where Dante wrote parts of his Divine Comedy and it’s where Saint Francis of Assisi received his stigmata. It is only 50 minutes from Florence, 50 minutes from Arezzo, and if you head to Pontassieve from Florence, you can drive up 1,050 metres to Consuma, the historic mountain pass between Emilia Romagna and Tuscany and do what droves of Italians do to escape the Florentine summer heat: eat some of Italy’s best schiacciata and loll about in the mountain shade.


Casentino is often called La Toscana Nascosta (Hidden Tuscany), and cursory looks at Internet and print travel guides suggest that most completely ignore this gorgeous area of the region. But if you like discovering the real Italy, and I mean non-touristy trattorias with local, fresh food where only Italian is spoken, off-the-beaten-track walks and high-altitude air that’s so fresh you can bite it, an adventure in Casentino is for you.


Characterised by its mountains, Casentino covers about 700 square kilometres and is bordered by the ridges of Mount Falterona, Mount Pratomagno and the Catenaia Alps (the group of mountains that separate Casentino from the Valtiberina). The Arno River starts on Mount Falterona and flows along the base of the Casentino valley. The area’s rugged landscape, high altitude and abundance of natural spring water together with its remoteness has for millennia given  Casentino the reputation that it still carries today—one of spiritual retreat. For centuries, monasteries, sanctuaries, and hermitages have flourished in the area, and many of these ancient monastic retreats continue to thrive to this day.


Leaving Florence and driving up to Casentino, you’ll find the spectacular Vallombrosa Abbey. Founded in 1038, it is still home to about 20 monks. The British poet, John Milton, was so struck by the beauty of Vallombrosa’s landscapes he was inspired to write a passage about it in his poem, Paradise Lost.


In 1012, Saint Rumbold and a handful of his followers travelled deep into Casentino in search of isolation for prayer. These Carthusian monks established Camaldoli, one of Tuscany’s most enchanting hermitage monasteries. At 823 metres, the hikes around Camaldoli are spectacular.


The La Verna Monastery juts out from a rocky bluff and is almost two hundred metres higher than Camaldoli. The site was given to Saint Francis of Assisi by the local count in 1213, and 11 years later it was here, at La Verna, that Saint Francis received the wounds of Christ, the stigmata.


A town worth seeing in Casentino is Poppi. It is dominated by one of the valley’s major landmarks, the Castello dei Conti Guidi or more simply, the Poppi Castle. Built for the Guidi family lords in the thirteenth century, the castle’s design is closely based on Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. After visiting the castle, sit in the castle’s piazza and have lunch, then stroll the walled ancient town of Poppi behind it.


On the way to Poppi, stop in at Stia and have a coffee in its sweet, little teardrop-shaped piazza, the setting for Il Ciclone, one of Tuscan actor-director Leonardo Pieraccioni’s comedies. Take a stroll by the Arno alongside Stia. If you visit in summer, take your swimming costume and dive into the river with all the local children, who leap fearlessly from the outcrops above it. Lunch at La Rana restaurant, also in the National Parklands beside Stia, cannot be recommended highly enough. Make sure you have the local Casentino specialty, tortelli di patate, pasta stuffed with spicy mashed potato and smothered in a meaty tomato sauce. Follow it with a mixed grill of steak, ribs, sausages and pancetta. It’s barbeque heaven!


Whilst on the topic of authenticity, Ortignano Raggiolo is the place to be at the end of the year, when the chestnuts are collected and dried in the town’s seccatoio, or chestnut-drying house. Known simply as Raggiolo, this little town is the chestnut capital of Casentino. With the Festa del Castagnatura, the community still practises the Tuscan custom of dry-smoking chestnuts for 20 days. Most years an actor sits before the flames and recites verse or novellas by Dante or Boccaccio or from Collodi’s Pinocchio, telling stories in the seccatoio as the soft glow of the fire burns below the chestnuts. The custom, as well as Tuscany’s chestnut trees, has died out over the years but not in the quaint, tiny village of Raggiolo, where the Stanza del Tempo and Eco Museum are dedicated to passing on the knowledge of ancient chestnut production techniques.


Other towns to visit in Casentino are Pratovecchio, Bibbiena and the little village of Quota. Just outside the borders of Casentino are the walled villages of Anghiari, Sansepolcro and Caprese Michelangelo and its museum, the birthplace of Michelangelo. Most of these towns are surrounded by ancient woodlands—the hallmark of Casentino and its neighbours as the district’s forests supplied the wood for the shipyards of Livorno, Genoa and Pisa for centuries. It was also the base upon which the masonry of Florence was constructed.


But, as an old Italian saying goes, it’s the people who make the place, and Casentino is home to a small community of only 35,000 residents who love showing off their ‘hidden Tuscany.’ There are few places in the region left untouched by the trail of tourists and travellers. Casentino is one of them. So lace up your hiking boots, grab a slice of schiacciata and discover it.

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