C’era una volta, once upon a time . . . in the Tuscan hills just north of Florence, Italy, lived some very poor farmers. Their homes were usually one room, built high in the mountains, where both family and animals dwelled together. Life was difficult, but they were thankful for what they had.
It was their good fortune to live in such a spiritual place, since it was on this very mountainside that a neighboring farmer saw a vision of Mary, first appearing in 1484. She appeared another time at that same stone. It was on that spot that the sacred Madonna del Sasso, Sanctuary of the Madonna at the Stone, was built within a few years after the visitation. The nearby humble homes of the country people were indeed blessed.
Around the middle of the 18th century, however, conditions improved for the poor farmers. For the first time, they were able to build stone homes with separate areas for the family, animals and tools. In addition to the homesteads they built deep in the woods, close to fresh mountain springs, tiny windowless stone structures, burraie, butter houses. The constant supply of cool water helped the woodspeople to make their own butter and safely store it—butter and cheese were important natural products used every day. Their lives were abundant and they flourished.
As the years passed, the farmers left their homes for more fertile land in the valley or for work in the growing cities. Their stone homes and structures fell into disrepair, including the beautiful little butter houses tucked into the hillsides. It is sad to see all of their buildings continue to deteriorate as the heavy hand-carved stones, one by one fall back into the earth.
A quarter of a century later, people became interested once again in the country lifestyles and their ingenious ways. In particular, people became enamored with the wonderful little buildings made for butter and cheese—with their eliptical “eye” for ventilation piercing the stone above the arched doorways, and the hand carved stone basins inside. This story has a happy ending and that’s exactly where our tale begins.
Ora nel nostro tempo, now in our time . . . we decided to follow the Sentiero delle Burraie, path of the butter houses. Originally, we had heard of one, but there are actually 10 in the Florentine hills. Join us on our trek as we set out to rediscover the ancient treasures hidden in the lush mountainside, and in the process, make a few discoveries of our own.
Note: You may also be interested in some other hiking stories called “On the Saint James Way,” and “The Renaissance Ring.”