Tuscan residents, now facing fall with new restrictions to battle the Coronavirus, must avoid crowded places and congregating in public spaces with the frustration that comes with government mandates. But Mother Nature offers a respite to those weary from worry and feeling trapped in their residences due to the pandemic. In the woods, life hasn’t changed with the epidemic. The forests, unaffected by a virus, are still healthy and showing off their autumn colors as they have from time immemorial.
Fortunately, locals can find many areas of pure nature at their back doors, leaving their stress in the city to benefit from nature’s restorative powers. Breathe in the fresh air and allow nature to awaken all the five senses. See the yellows, oranges and reds of the fall foliage. Hear the wind rustling the fallen leaves. Smell the rich earth of the deep forest. Touch the cool, clear water of a babbling brook. Taste the chestnuts found on the ground after roasting them at home.
For some challenge, try a three-hour loop in Chianti, recommended to start in the morning. The Lamole-Monte San Michele loop begins in the hamlet, 15 minutes from Greve in Chianti, taking SR222 south and then following the signs at a left turn for Lamole. Walking through quintessential Chianti countryside on high ridges, through vineyards and woods, past old stone houses and seasonal streams, the visitor enjoys vistas in every direction. The halfway point, Monte San Michele, at 892 meters (nearly 3,000 ft.), is the highest point in Chianti. Here on the grassy slope in front of the hotel of the same name, with restaurant and snack bar, one finds a perfect picnic spot. Returning to Lamole, the trail mostly descends and provides more spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. The familiar red and white markers, erected by CAI, the Italian Alpine Club, make the trail easy to follow and, depending on how long the lunch break, the hike should take a total of three hours or a bit more.
Le Balze Loop Trail
Situated between Florence and Arezzo, in the Valdarno (Valley of the Arno), this area provides the most unusual scenery with sandstone formations reaching heights of up to 100 meters. These uniquely shaped towers, reminiscent of the American Southwest, so fascinated Leonardo da Vinci that he used them in the background of his famous painting the Mona Lisa. The 6 km (3.7mi) trail begins in the town of Castelfranco di Sopra on SP8, near the post office with parking. Look for a sign with map and sites along the route. The easy trail follows paths and narrow dirt roads flanked by stone walls, traveling through fields and vineyards with the Balze rock formations all around. In about 2-2 1/2 hours, one arrives back in Castelfranco di Sopra. For an added pleasure, drive 20 minutes to visit the picturesque village of Loro Ciuffenna. Set on a mountain slope, the town is divided into two parts by the rushing River Ciuffenna down a deep ravine. By walking over the Romanesque arched bridge, one views the antique but still working water-powered mill used for grinding chestnuts into flour.
THE CASENTINO FOREST NATIONAL PARK
Easily approached from Florence and Arezzo, the park, located in the Apennines, comprises 826 square kilometers (nearly 9,000 square ft.) of forests, meadows, streams with more than 600 kilometers (373mi) of trails accessible by foot, mountain bike and horseback. This evocative natural oasis offers casual walkers as well as serious trekkers the opportunity to recreate in peace and uncrowded expanses. In the park are several visitor centers where guests can find information on history, animals and trails and purchase maps of the area. Spread out through the region, one finds rest areas with tables and message boards containing information on flora, fauna and history. The following two itineraries are found in the Casentino Park; more info at website parcoforestecasentinesi.it.
La Verna Nature Trail
This easy walk provides visitors with serene nature and history as well as spiritual sites. The two-hour loop begins at Castle Chiusi della Verna and circles to a sanctuary dating from the third century, through lush wooded areas and on to the site commemorating the story of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, or the Five Sacred Wounds, in the 13th century. Hikers and pilgrims might want to stop in the Visitor Center in Chiusi della Verna for maps and information.
The Acquacheta Trail
Just outside the town of San Benedetto in Alpe in the center of the Casentino a hiker with interests in history and waterfalls and a bit of cardiovascular exercise could embark on a 10km (6.2mi) in and out hike. The trail, marked by red and white CAI 407 signs, winds through woods interspersed with meadows and along a stream, including 10 rest and info stops. After a climb, one reaches the Acquacheta Falls which cascade down the cliff for 90 meters (300 ft.). After a rest and perhaps a toe dip, continue on to the ruins of the ancient village of Romiti on a rocky spur. The site of the hermitage of the Abbey of Saint Benedetto in Alpe, Dante, when exiled from Florence in 1302, stopped here finding refuge with the monks.
Sentieri dei Pittori (The Path of Painters)
The Mugello Valley north of Florence, a gentle landscape with beech forests, age old chestnut trees, meadows, streams and farms, is a good place to stroll and listen to the sounds of nature. The town of Vicchio, famous for artistic residents Giotto, Cimabue, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Giorgio Vasari, created the Path of the Painters in 2012. Following SP551, look for the sign for Casa di Giotto and Vespignano and turn left, parking in the lot next to Giotto’s house (now closed due to COVID-19). The Giotto route marked B takes one 9 kilometers (5.5mi) into the countryside, passing through the hamlet of Pilarciano, into the village of Vicchio. Route A, or the Cimabue route of 14 kilometers (8.6mi), also ends up in Vicchio. On this route one crosses the medieval Cimabue Bridge, historical site of the meeting of the student and teacher. Here, according to art historian Vasari, Cimabue came upon young Giotto herding the family flock and was so impressed with his drawing of a sheep on a stone slab that he offered him a place in his school of painting. Later in the route, one crosses the ancient Vicchio Bridge straddling the River Sieve.
Enjoy the fall beauty in Tuscany, restore a weary soul and reaffirm faith that nature is timeless and enduring. Please follow all COVID-19 restrictions by hiking alone or with immediate family, wearing a mask and keeping a minimum distance of 1.8 meters (6 ft.) from others. (rita kungel)