These are stories about those places that are noteworthy either as public attractions, or perhaps even quiet personal places that make a difference in people’s lives. They are the places that give us energy, sustenance and reflective moments that help us to live richer lives.
The Pratomagno mountains near Florence are full of wonderful moderate hiking trails. Many of them are anelli (rings) that are relatively easy half-day treks, perfect for a cool early-morning start that finishes before the summer day heats-up. The trails wander through the dense wooded hills, crossing small villages with charming farm houses, ruins, villas, country churches and castles. Everything is picturesque so there are photo-ops at every turn.
One especially interesting circular hike is called the Borselli-Ferranoanello, where you will find the beautiful Castello di Ferrano and Chiesa di Santa Maria (1574), along with interesting country farmhouses and knock-your-socks-off panoramas that are sure to slow you down for a prolonged gander. Following are some photos we took that will give you a feel for the historic buildings, terrain and scenery.
We have written two other related stories about similar hikes, in the same area that you might want to check out: the ruins of Lavacchio and the Nippozzano castle. Both hikes, guarantee a delightful morning in nature, with significant Tuscan scenery in which to contemplate. We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore!
The ancient proverb “Seeing is believing” has been around since 1639, and means that only tangible evidence is truly convincing. However, living in Italy has shown us that just the opposite can also be true—”believing is seeing.” Thus begins a short tale about a window.
We live in an old Italian farmhouse in the hills north of Florence. The Italians take tradition and culture very seriously, so the look of the buildings and the landscape are guarded like gold. Construction formulas have been around seemingly forever, so details can rarely change—if ever. In a farmhouse, for example, there’s a formula for natural light-to-interior space. But there is also a formula limiting openings in exterior walls. It was not unusual to have a large blank wall, punctuated with only a single small window and a door. So if you want a second window, for more light or to balance the facade—well, that’s just too bad. There’s no way the formula can be altered. But in our case, the aesthetic sensibilities outweigh the formula. We are bothered by a large bleak, blank wall. Okay, we know that the formula was derived long ago when too many windows meant heat loss. But central heating is all the rage now, right? So what to do?
We decided that we could hang an old metal grille on the outside wall. Of course, we’d paint a soft gray border around it to suggest a typical Tuscan window, traditionally framed with pietra serena (stone). So that’s what we did. No wall was pierced in the placement of the “art” as we call it, and everything we’ve done is “temporary,” which means “removable” to the authorities. We could simply paint over our faux window one day, as if nothing ever changed. Our first try was to use wood shutters, but they didn’t weather well. So we moved on to an iron solution which would last a lifetime. Our eventual imaginary window solution was pretty doggone convincing, but we weren’t quite finished yet. No. We realized that we needed a corresponding window on the inside as well. So, we went to the nearby town of Sieci, to a Mercato di Usato (the market for old, used things), where we found a sweet little wood window with beveled glass. After cleaning and refinishing, up it went, behind the mosquito net over the bed in the guest room. Voilà!
As you can see, our collective imaginations took a slight detour when the real window was vietato (forbidden). Now, we have the window that we thought the blank wall yearned for, some 18 years later, with one little missing caveat—you can’t actually see through it. But that doesn’t really matter. We turned a “No!” into a definite “Yes!” and nobody got hurt or did anything too drastic in the process. Seeing the window is almost believing it. But for us, the notion of believing it first provided the possibility, which ultimately made artistic expression possible. We may not have an actual opening onto the nearby moody valley, but sometimes a vision is better than a view!
One might call an abandoned house a haunted ruins, but we like to think of it as a container, filled with stories just waiting to be told and retold—built and rebuilt—lived and relived.
While walking the woods and back-roads of Tuscany, it is inevitabile that you’ll come across at least one unexpected hidden gem. The other day, while hiking the Borselli-Castelnuovo anello (circle or loop) in the early hours of the morning, we found one of those ancient places called the “Houses of Lavacchio.” Not every ruins is noteworthy, but this one made us pause longer than usual as we got wrapped-up in its story—his-story (or rather, her-story, since we all know that houses are female).
Who lived there? When was it built? What were the people like and were there children playing? Why did they leave? Was it their dream to be perched up on that hillside at the top of the mountain called Pratomagno with an incredible panoramic view of the Tuscan hills beyond? Why hasn’t anyone bought it to breathe new life into those old stone walls? And so the questions and conversation continued as we walked the long and gentle road leading to the houses, imagining the past and the future of this forgotten place. It was easy to drift into fantasy amid the cool summer breezes and the tender sounds of the country—the birds, the buzzing of the bees and even a baby cinghiale (wild boar), scurrying from the underbrush along the side of the road, confused and running for cover.
The roofs of the ghostly houses were mostly long gone, now becoming great piles of splintered wood beams and clay tiles, randomly collapsed into the rooms below. Plants were growing everywhere in and around the decaying rubble, vying for their own claim on the future. Even the brick and stone walls were falling into the fray—water creeping into every vulnerable cracked mortar joint to expand with each consecutive freeze and thaw—slowly . . . oh so slowly—pushing and prying away at every weighty piece that was carefully and intentionally laid in place by strong hands. The first people of Lavacchio surely meant for their labors to last longer than their lifetimes, in fact they anticipated the houses would be there for generations to come. Actually, as true Tuscans they would have set their sights on nothing short of “forever.”
We don’t know when it was built, but the years for Lavacchio could easily be counted in the hundreds since the crumbling of the roof and walls to this point in time surely would have taken the better part of a century. We imagined that some new, vibrant, young energetic pioneers will arrive some day and be overcome with vision and the spirit of adventure. They will claim this lost artifact as their own, and return that sacred space perched on the side of the mountain to its former glory. Falling in love with the remote life, they will likely create a vegetable garden, and will perhaps tend chickens, cows, pigs, rabbits and sheep—many of which will live in the restored stalls beneath the houses. Of course a few cats and dogs will complete the picture along with a horse or two for evening rides through the wooded hillside. Life will certainly be sweet.
Until then, we will continue to enjoy our hikes and allow ourselves to fall madly in love with the thousands of romantic Tuscan possibilities, as our vivid imaginings of exciting reclamations abound. Oh, those dreams and futures that lay waiting to be discovered and recovered from beneath the rubble! This tarnished gem just happened to be along trail number 25, on the “road to Lavacchio.”
We typically drive to a trail head, hike the route and return to our starting point. Each anello is unique. The one to Nipozzano Castle was exceptional! If you like castles, wine, beautiful Tuscan scenery, we suggest you visit the site called Sentieri di Toscana (Tuscan Trails). The Nipozzano is nothing short of magic. It is a hilltop hike which took us about 4 hours, including miscues, intentional wandering and many photo stops along the way. Have a look at the photo gallery we’ve included and the details to get you into a hiking frame of mind.
On a slightly overcast mid-November day, we set out in search of the castle. Summer would surely have found the small town buzzing with activity, but we prefer feeling like we’re the only ones to ever discover a place, so an off-season, unplanned visit is perfect for us. However, with a little planning during the high-season, you will likely find a few tours available, and possibly discover a wine tasting reward at the end of your trek. Nipozzano is home to the famous Frescobaldi brand, one of the ancient Italian names synonymous with fine wine. The vineyards completely surround the castle.
Here’s some background about the castle-town Nipozzano. The castle dates back to the year 1000, and is nestled in the heart of Tuscany just a bit north-east of Florence. Situated on a picturesque hilltop in the Appenine mountain range, it was originally built as a fortress for the protection of Florence, which is tucked into the Arno River valley below. Local lore has it that in centuries past, the word nipozzano, meant “without well.” Since the entire region can be somewhat arid and rocky, you can imagine how the location is considered perfect for vineyards. Early records indicate that during the Renaissance, famous artists/sculptors such as Donatello would visit the castle to buy wine. This was also the “neighborhood” where author/poet Dante Alighieri wandered the romantic hillsides in the 1300s. He surely would have been familiar with the famous castle, vineyards and olive groves.
The hike begins and ends in the small town of Albereta just outside the larger river-town of Pontassieve, which is situated east of Florence. A description of the trail and a Google-earth map are the only links you need to find your way up the quasi-gradual slopes toward the castle above. The marked trail meanders along the surrounding hillsides making the climb fairly moderate. So as not to fatigue trekkers, you’ll find yourselves zigzagging, always upward. As you circle higher toward the castle, you will enjoy the ever-changing, absolutely beautiful distant views. Soon, among the manicured olive groves and earthy stone walls, you will arrive at the destination. Wow! What vistas of the expansive vineyards, villas and farms below! After enjoying the magical panoramas from atop the castle, the return route descends more steeply down the hillside toward the Arno and Albereta.
We hope you enjoy the following photo gallery, and plan to visit Tuscany for a hike or two on the thousands of gorgeous trails—each one a picture-postcard photo at every turn.
We set out on a Friday morning in search of some simple, older halogen light fixtures. The task seemed straightforward enough. But we soon discovered that our little errand morphed into a scavenger hunt. One store led to another and then another and so on. The fixtures we needed weren’t readily available anymore. From big box stores to small shops, our prospects waned. Finally, at an old electrical supply store, the owner pondered our dilemma and suggested we go to TAP Lighting in Hillcrest. He said they probably wouldn’t have the lights in stock, but they might be able to order them for us. FAT CHANCE, we thought. But since it was on our way home, we could at least swing by. He jotted down the address and then added, “It’s a unique store with a jungle of lights!” His description got us interested, since it sounded like our kind of place.
During casual conversation, a trusted friend mentioned a great place at Liberty Station in San Diego called “Moniker General.” They said that it’s the best coffee in the city! In addition, they also sell surfboards, and stuff like that—which explains the “general,” as in general store? As you might have predicted, the next morning, bright and early, we headed to Liberty Station on Point Loma, curious to sample a uniquely delicious cup of coffee. No doubt, we were also intrigued about the surfboard thing.
We’re currently living at the bottom of a steep cliff in Lyon, France. Behind us is a sheer wall of rock about 170 feet, or 52 meters high. It comes crashing almost directly down from the area above with a gentle horizontal slope at the bottom directly into the Saône River. (more…)
High in the Appenine mountains of Tuscany, in the middle of a dense forest of fir and beech trees, rests the majestic Benedictine Monastery of Vallombrosa, founded in 1038. It is a magical tribute to the power of spirit to move mankind. After many changes over the centuries, it remains to this day as a model of fifteenth century grandeur—for all to enjoy. The peaceful setting has been an inspiration to countless visitors over the years. (more…)
Sure, there’s the Indy 500. Then there’s NASCAR Racing. Even Formula Racing. But none of them compares with the racing event held around June 1st in Tuscany. That’s the day for the annual world-class er . . . locally celebrated Cappello Cup. (more…)
Cheryl & Emerson
Quality time is great—but quantity time is what relationships are built on! Take time to partner.