Monday, November 29, 2010

Castles of the Casentino

In addition to my work as an ownership representative for Castello di Casole, I am a journalist for a newspaper in Florence for English speakers called The Florentine. As their Travel & Leisure writer, each month I spotlight a special Tuscan town, beach, island, ski resort, terme, abbey, whatever strikes my fancy really, and I try to go a level deeper than a guide book. My first two articles featured Volterra and Arezzo. For my November piece I was searching for something completely off the beaten path, so Daniela suggested we visit a mountainous region between Florence and Arezzo called the Casentino and offered to be my tour guide one Sunday in October. 

Mind you I had never heard the word “casentino” before. It sounded a bit dull, and frankly, my arm needed a little twisting. Little did I know I was about experience some of the most amazing scenery in all of Italy, turreted castles right out of a fairytale book, undiscovered churches adorned with precious art by Renaissance masters, and a massive national park with endless hiking trails. That day in the Casentino hit me deep in my soul, and I am still quivering at the memory of it all.
The easiest and most beautiful way to reach the Casentino from Florence is to drive east through Pontassieve, then climb the Passo della Consuma, a mountain pass that winds through a glowing green countryside sprinkled with enchanted forests and tiny villages with curious names like Omomorto “dead man”.

I had a feeling the drive up the Passo di Consuma was going to be particularly beautiful that fall morning, so I handed the keys over to Daniela who happily took the wheel. The views as we climbed the pass were simply stunning. About halfway up we came across a small log cabin right out of Vermont that looked like the perfect place to stop for a cappuccino. I couldn’t resist sampling the schiachatta con l’uva, a sweet, dense cake baked with overripe grapes on top, which I normally don’t like because the grapes have seeds. It was divine.

About ten minutes further up the pass we made a left-hand turn towards the town of Stia, historically one of the most important wool-making centers in Italy. We parked in the town’s main lot then headed up the lane along the river to Tessilnova,  a delightful shop teeming with vibrantly colored coats, hats, scarves, purses, slippers and other apparel made of the famous, nubbed “casentino” wool. During our visit one of the helpful salespeople explained how the nubs were originally formed by rubbing the fabric along rows of dried thistles.
At the end of the lane, I ventured into the Museo della Lana, a museum dedicated to preserving the history of wool-making in Stia. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the self-guided tour through the museum, open mornings 10AM-1PM and afternoons 4PM-7PM, has descriptions in English.

Of course we were starving after all that driving so we stopped for an early lunch at Ristorante Falterona “Gliaccantiti” in Piazza Tanucci, (the only piazza in the small town). My thinly sliced fresh porcini with arugula and pecorino was delicately accentuated with pink peppercorns. Daniela savored every bit of her beef carpaccio, which after living in Italy for two years still gives me the willies. Also on the menu is a bottled water produced by Pierre Cardin from the spring in Stia. Apparently the French fashion designer used to vacation here and loved the ultra-fresh water so much he bought the spring and sells the bottles at his restaurant Maxim’s in Paris and a few other select locales.

During our lunch, Marco, the owner, revealed one of the best-kept secrets of the Casentino- the Chiesa delle Santa Maria de Grazie, a sweet little church just down the road from Stia. On the way to the church we stopped off at the Castello di Porciano, also on the outskirts of Stia. I was completely charmed by this 11th-century castle, its walls, well and tower cloaked in lush, red ivy. It is there that I took one of my favorite photographs of Daniela.

When we arrived at Chiesa delle Santa Maria de Grazie, the sprightly, elderly caretaker, Antonietta, graciously opened the door to this wondrous shrine built in the 1430s. Inside five beautifully preserved ceramic reliefs from the famous 15th-century della Robbia school exude purity and grace in their signature colors of pale blue and white. I was also amazed to find a fresco by Florentine Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio I actually studied in an art history class in college.

Our next top was the fairytale-like Castello di Romena, complete with a drawbridge and a prison tower that was allegedly the inspiration for the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno. Built back in the 10th-century by the Counts of Guidi, the castle had fourteen towers and was the most powerful in the region. The little museum inside is moderately interesting but for me the views from the dramatic Cypress-bordered grounds alone were worth the €3 entry fee.

A few kilometers below Castello lies one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in all of Tuscany-the Pieve della Romena. As we descended the hill and rounded a bend in the narrow road, seemingly out of nowhere this gently rounded, neatly columned church emerged in shades of soft grey. The locals speak with great affection for the priest, Don Luigi, whose Sunday sermons draw more than a hundred people from the Casentino and beyond. When we entered the church’s bare, graceful interior it became immediately apparent to me why people from all over the world venture to this scared place for either a brief visit or to attend one of Don Luigi’s weekend spiritual retreats.

Next we decided, perhaps against out better judgment, to take a rather perilous, winding road through the Parco Nationale delle Forreste Casentinesito to the hermitage at the Benedictine monastery at Camaldoli. As we drove deeper into the eerie forest, the fog around us thickened and the temperature plummeted and when we finally arrived at the hermitage we felt as though we were smack in the middle of a dark, snow-filled cloud.  At the hermitage, 125 or vegetarian monks who grow their own food live in silence in a cluster of small cottages. 

When we opened the doors to the plain white church, we both gasped. Inside, every square inch of the walls and ceilings, decorated by Vasari, are brilliantly frescoed and whatever isn’t frescoed is gilded. The entire space is a joyous symphony of color and light. As we walked around in stunned silence, we discovered a tiny chapel with an exquisite ceramic relief by Andrea della Robbia. The church at the 11th-century monastery a few kilometers down the hill has three oil paintings by Vasari and a little farmacia where you can buy honey, soaps and other products made by the monks.

During a subsequent visit to the Casentino, this time with our dear friend Karen, we visited the picturesque town of Poppi, the most important historical center in the Casentino and my new favorite town in the region. As we climbed the road leading into its city center, a grand gazebo beckoned us to take in the views of the countryside under its elegant dome. In the main piazza, an inviting little six-sided chapel is lavishly frescoed. The abbey of San Fidele at the end of the porticoed lane in front of the chapel features a crucifix by Taddeo Gaddi, a prize student of Giotto.

Atop the hill, the commanding and remarkably well-preserved Castello di Conti Guidi looked vaguely familiar to me. Later I learned that its right half was designed by Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio, architect of the Palazzo Vecchio, my favorite building in Florence. Inside the 13th-century castle opposite five ceramic coats of arms from the della Robbia school, an exquisite stone staircase curves up to a striking dark wooden balcony. At its top a stands a statue of one of the Guidi counts who is said to haunt castle’s halls. I caught my breath as I entered the castle’s small chapel and found myself surrounded by a series of faded frescoes on its vaulted ceiling and walls recounting the “Story of the Gospel” and painted by Taddeo Gaddi.

That day we lingered over a long, delightful lunch at L’Antica Cantina Ristorante on via Lapucci in Poppi. Cozy and refined with 14th-century barrel-vaulted ceilings, L’Antica Cantina is the perfect spot to spend a crisp fall afternoon indulging in great food and wine with friends. I ordered the “Autumn Fantasy Salad” but I was particularly tempted by the chestnut flour tagliatelle with bacon, walnuts, pine nuts and raisins, and the savory veal filet with figs and gorgonzola. Daniela loaded up on porcini mushrooms while Karen opted for the melted tomino cheese wrapped in thinly sliced speck. All of this paired quite nicely with a bottle of Crognolo from the Tenuto di Setteponti winery down the road in Arezzo.

I fell in love with the Casentino after my first visit. The raw, intense beauty of its landscape and the kindness and generosity of its people have been calling to me ever since. I can’t wait to return in the spring, after the snow has melted and the roads are accessible, to visit to the La Verna, a thriving monastic community where St. Francis is said to have received the stigmata in a nearby cave.

Getting There: From Florence, head east along the Arno to via Arentino, which eventually becomes the SP70. After Pontassieve, where the road merges with a larger highway, veer right following the sign to Pontassieve (even though you already passed through it) not straight towards Ruffina. A few kilometers later turn left onto Passo della Consuma.

1 comment:

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