The allure of Tuscany never wanes.
The allure of Tuscany never wanes.
But my little slice of the region is a bit different from the rest. Lush and green. It’s hilly. There are grapevines and garden vegetables planted randomly on little plots of land: it all feels less “manicured” than much of the typical landscape. Chestnut- and oak-tree forests provide refuge for area cinghiali, deer, foxes, hedgehogs and birds. Fruit and nut trees thrive. Timber is stacked neatly, ready to be transported down the valley. Local farmers tussle with the ever-growing grass. The beehives churn out acacia and chestnut honey.
But the priority in my community is producing fresh, high-quality olive oil and local IGT Sorana beans. Mine is a hardworking community, built around ten medieval castle towns known as Le dieci Castella: Pietrabuona, Medicina, Fibbialla, Aramo, San Quirico, Castelvecchio, Stiappa, Pontito, Sorana and Vellano, all strategically located spots with stop-you-in-your-tracks views down the valley.
Also referred to as the Valleriana, this area is between the Apennine Mountains and Mount Albano in the Pistoia province, along a valley running north from the busy market town of Pescia. For centuries, the whole region was caught in the crossfire of battles between Lucca, Florence and Pisa, but it has remained intact.
Each hill town has its own identity and traditions, but all can be traced back to the thirteenth century and were built using local pietra serena. You’ll find a few constants in each town: a maze of steep and narrow alleyways, tiny portals, tunnels, houses stacked one on top of another, a town square, a church and belltower. Locals have diminished in numbers over the years, but the allure of the area certainly hasn’t.
Many Brits, Swiss, Dutch, Germans, Americans and Australians have stumbled on this unusual part of Tuscany and decided to stay. You’ll find newly renovated farmhouses and others like my rustico work-in-progress, 300 years old and being brought back to life. This place is a haven for painters, sculptors, photographers and writers; olive growers, organic farmers and owners of holiday accommodation have also caught on. Perhaps most importantly, the new generation of landowners here is adventurous and eager to embrace the region’s roots.
A lazy Saturday might mean a late-afternoon community card game in a local café, followed by an aperitivo, a wood-fired pizza or pasta with handpicked mushrooms. Special occasions call for succulent Florentine steaks accompanied by the famous fagioli di Sorana. At prime passeggiata time, you’ll spot us stopping off to fill up our water bottles at the local springs, pausing for chit-chat and pleasantries.
Le dieci Castella is a nature-lover’s paradise. Hiking trails link village to village. It is a well-known training ground for cyclists, and year round you’ll see groups of them tackling the windy, steep roads or popping out all muddy after an adventure in the forest. For a more relaxed visit, meander in your car past the abandoned paper mills dotting the river, stopping for a long lunch.
While out exploring, pause for a coffee and pastry at Bar Tarbola in Pietrabuona and stock up on local honey, Sorana beans and olive oil at Amanda’s alimentari. The city also has a Paper Museum showcasing the detailed history of the important local industry (tel. 0572/408020; [email protected]). Why not also try tempting homemade goat cheese produced in Medicina? Come lunchtime, sample traditional white beans cultivated along the river in Sorana, served with some of the local olive oil at Da Carla, or opt for the homemade pasta and Florentine steak at Da Sandrino (tel. 0572/407014).
Don’t miss Castelvecchio’s 12th century parish church dedicated to Saints John the Baptist and Thomas, built entirely in stone; and marvel at the frescoes in the Oratory of the Rosario (www.gpcastelvecchio.com). Dig into a delicious three-course workman’s lunch at Pub la Pieve (tel. 0572/400270) or stop off at Marina’s in the main square for a coffee, an aperitivo and a view of the valley. Next, make your way to San Quirico to shop for handcrafted copper pots.
Finally, I must recommend one of my favourite scenic walks, which begins in Sorana: walk up the meandering road until you reach Agriturismo Montaione (tel. 0572/407031–Alessio speaks English). A walking track winds behind the main building and leads to an open field where you’ll find sheep and goats grazing. Keep following the pathway upward into the forest until you arrive in a clearing with ruins. Believe it or not, this is the would-be eleventh village of Le dieci Castella, destroyed over time but lingering in local memory. The views from up high are spectacular. Wander down and stay for lunch: there’s no menu, but be sure to bring an appetite, as you can expect seven courses. The agriturismo is also accessible by car.
As you leave the Valleriana, passing the locals tending to their olive groves, you can’t help thinking that you have glimpsed an Italy of ages past. No tourist-laden buses or souvenir shops in sight: this remote part of Tuscany reinforces that family, the land and good food are what life is all about.
These “ten castle towns” are only one hour by car from Florence, 45 minutes from Pisa, 30 minutes from Lucca and one hour to the Italian coastline. From Florence, take the Autostrada towards Pisa Nord, exit at Chiesina Uzzanese and follow signs to Pescia. Le dieci Castella is marked from there. The train from Florence on the Lucca/Viareggio line stops at the Pescia station twice per hour. Buses travel up to the hill towns from Pescia several times a day.