After ages, I had the chance to come back to Casentino, and discover a bit more about this unknown part of Tuscany. Actually, I spent an intense weekend offline at Casa Santicchio for #welikecasentino, a great tour of the Valle Santa and the National Park of Casentino Forest.
Discover Vallesanta: hiking, food, and spirituality
Casentino is a large area full of green forests stretching between the provinces of Florence and Arezzo. Over the centuries the area fascinated several important figures, including great saints that chose it as the place for their spirituality. Within the Casentino area, there is Vallesanta that stretches between Camaldoli and La Verna. It’s also nicknamed the “Closed Valley” because it has been pretty inaccessible over the past centuries: only a few white roads crossed it and the first asphalted road was built in 1961! At the moment there are 250 people living here and 90% of the area is covered with forests.
The name Vallesanta, literally the saint valley, is generally associated with Saint Francis, who lived an intense part of his great life here. But according to sources, the name dates back 56 A.D. when Saint Barnabas founded his hermitage in this valley on the way to Rome. I think that the adjective saint well expresses the feelings I got during the weekend. I was overwhelmed by the beauty, the silence and the spirituality of the Vallesanta forests. When you enter into these mystic woods, it’s like you’re entering into an open-air cathedral: the sacred Cathedral of Mother Nature. You’re touched by the vivid magnetism and the deep sense of supernatural. Even though you’re not a religious person, you’ll be surprised by the power “religious” feelings.
I think these were the feelings that got Saint Francis here in Casentino.
La Verna, the hermitage of Saint Francis and wildlife
Last time I visited La Verna hermitage I was a child. I was really impressed and overwhelmed by the atmosphere. After twenty years I’ve had the same feelings: the air is intense, full of spirituality. The place is extremely quiet and beautiful, overlooking the entire Casentino valley. When Saint Francis of Assisi arrived here in 1213 for the first time I think the awesomeness should have been incredible. He considered Mount Penna, this is actually the name of the location, as the perfect retreat for contemplation.
La Verna hermitage was then founded in 1218 and then enlarged over the centuries. It’s not just a place for contemplation, but also a place to discover incredible artworks such as the large “Assumption of the Virgin” in lead-glazed terracotta by Andrea della Robbia. The long Stigmata’ corridor is frescoed with the story of Saint Francis’ life and everyday hosts the daily procession of the friars since 1431. As a matter of fact, here the Saint received his stigmata and got tempted by the Devil. Actually, when you walk by the Precipizio, the strict pathway where Saint Francis got tempted, it’s not hard to understand why he was tempted. There are few words to describe such an incredible view!
The Hermitage is located on top of a large rock surrounded by a thick forest of white fir wood. White firs where the economic resource of the friars, as well as the forests all around. Just think that Florence Duomo was built using the wood of La Verna and even Napoleon ordered them for its vessels! Very beautiful is the path at the feet of the hermitage that crosses the Forest of Saint Francis. The forest is full of tall beeches, making it a fairy wood. The path is about 6 kilometers and easily accessible for everyone. It’s called the “Trail of the ice-houses” because of the natural ice-houses the friars used to store food.
The forest is also the home of wolves, that love unaccessible, hidden nests as the natural caves formed by the large rocks. It’s not hard to find wolves’ footprints, as well as traces of their life here. You can also see traces of wild boars, that come here to have a funny and refreshing bath of mud in the so-called “mud’s pools“! I have to say that the list of wildlife here is very long and I suggest you take a guided excursion to discover the marvelous environment is around you. You can actually see rare Rosalia longicorn, a pretty large insect colored in light blue and dark spots. Or you can see the holes of the woodpecker, as well as notice the heath spotted orchid. I think I can define this place as definitively toomuchplace! There is too much to see, to feel and to experience!
Michelangelo in La Verna
I didn’t know that Michelangelo spent some time here, my bad. Actually, it was quite a surprise to learn that his father Ludovico Leonardo Buonarroti was actually the Podestà of La Verna Castle. Michelangelo spent part of youth between La Verna and Caprese, where he was born in 1475 and took inspiration for two of his greatest masterpieces, such as the Tondo Doni and the Creation of Adam.
Doni Tondo – also known as the Holy Family of the Tribune it’s displayed inside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. On the top right-hand side, you can clearly spot a peculiar mountain profile. Scholars say this is the profile of mountain of La Verna and I’m sure you’ll recognize it too.
Creation of Adam – probably one of the most renowned artworks by Michelangelo that is part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling inside the Vatican Museums in Rome. Well, you’ll get astonished when you’ll find the rock of Adam right in front of you! Yes, there you can see the real stone that inspired the artist.
You can see the stone and learn more about Michelangelo at the Podesteria of La Verna, located in the city center of the town (not the sanctuary). There is also the information office. The Podesteria was actually the old town hall and has been carefully restored thanks to the local association “Associazione podesteria di Michelangelo”. It’s a very active association of residents willing to help people discover their traditions and history. As a matter of fact, they also organize once a year the “Truffles Festival” and here you can taste the delicious black truffle of la Verna!
- Turn off the phone and hike! – Really, turn off your phone and hike, Hiking is the best way to discover the soul of this place. Walking slowly you can enjoy the silence, the spirituality, and nature. I’m sure you’ll recharge your batteries. I recommend the local In Quiete Cooperativa, run by three friends Andrea, Mattia, and Sara. They are professional hikers and expert guides that are from Casentino, love it too much and actively collaborate to preserve this unique environment.
- Adrenalin rush – if you want to get some adrenalin then you have to bike inside the woods with the guys of MTB Casentino. Well, I didn’t try going downhill with a mountain bike, because I’m too scared, but looking at their funny faces it should have been fun. Every year in June they organize an important challenge open to everyone.
- Michelangelo and La Verna old town – don’t miss the Podesteria to learn more about Michelangelo and take a walk around the old city center of La Verna. It’s partially abandoned, but you can take lovely pics!