Tackling Tuscany on foot is a delightful and far quieter way to take in Italy's beautiful heartland, says Paul Morrison
The stonemason and the lawyer stood side by side and smiled. Though physically as dissimilar as their professions, they shared a sparkle of enthusiasm in the way they talked about their work, and I watched them in rapt attention: the weathered face of the Etruscan, Franco, whose chance discovery started the whole adventure, and the tall, slender figure of Cesare, whose research made sense of it all.
It was Franco who chanced upon a Roman coin, 25 years ago, in an old limestone quarry in the hills south of Bologna. He was seeking material for his work, but his find led to the discovery of a Roman road that had been hidden beneath the earth for 1500 years.
It had been constructed in the second century BC on the orders of the general Flaminio, to allow his legionnaires to travel from Bologna to Arezzo, in southeast Tuscany. It was used for at least 400 years, but whilst parts of the route continue to be travelled by local people, and some stretches have been overlaid with modern roads, most of the original track has been lost beneath centuries of leaf litter and soil.
“The old people always knew it was there,” Cesare, the lawyer, explained. In the lakeside hotel in the tiny settlement of Castel Dell’ Alpi, Franco and Cesare told us of how their amateur archeology had brought them international attention. Franco handed me the bronze coin that had started it all – on one face an imperial eagle, and on the other the symbol of Rome: a she-wolf suckling the young Romulus and Remus. They passed around photos of the early excavations, which showed them with a team of local volunteers who “worked for the love of it.”
“It is not like seeing the Colosseum,” Franco declared, concerned that we might be disappointed. “But it is just as important.”
This was the perfect prelude to the journey ahead. I had joined a group of walkers who would be following the course of the road, along the highlands of Emilia Romagna and Tuscany, as far as the ancient settlement of Fiesole, just north of Florence. Whilst the super rapido train travels the same distance in an hour along the valley, our high road would give us time to savour the scenery of a part of Italy many visitors only glimpse as they speed between the big tourist sights.
“There were a million visitors in Florence last Sunday,” the innkeeper told us. On our journey along the ancient route we met just six other travellers in four days of walking. In between the towns along the way there were only wild horses to keep us company, and the coachparks of Tuscany’s number one attraction seemed as remote as imperial Rome.
I awoke on the first morning to find the view of the lake before the hotel obscured by mist. We set off shortly afterwards, turning off the empty road along a track that headed through the beech woodlands.
Our guide, another Franco, had talked of the fine views we would enjoy from the hilltops, but the fog refused to lift, so I turned my eyes instead to the orchids and wild strawberries along the trail. We trudged in line, looking less like Roman foot soldiers and more like a party of ramblers in the Lake District, but the sense of isolation was complete. Franco did his best to describe the stunning vistas that were normally to be enjoyed as we stepped over the border into Tuscany, but we saw the funny side of it all, and the weather didn’t dampen our spirits.
After over four hours of progress through woodlands and high meadows we came to a stretch where the excavation team had revealed a complete section of the Roman road. As if on cue the sun broke through for the first time in the day, and lit up the clearing where the paving stones lay before us. It’s one thing to be following a 2000-year-old trail, and quite another to be able to see it in its original form; I could appreciate at last what the stonemason had meant when he likened the achievement to the Colosseum.
Rome lies 300km to the south, and the construction of this vital link used the labour of soldiers and slaves. To speed up communication a Pony Express-type system operated along its length, with fresh horses waiting at 15km intervals, ready to carry messages and messengers to and from the heart of the empire.
Traffic seemed to have quietened down in modern times. When we finally emerged onto a tarmac road there were no cars to disturb the short walk to our inn in the little village of Santa Lucia. The first day had been a satisfying start to the journey, with a little over five hours walking, and time to lunch outside in the faint sunlight.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen a grown man threatened by a sandwich,” quipped Bob, as Richard grappled with the slab of cheese nestling between two chunks of bread the size of paperback novels. Bob and Richard were both regulars on Franco’s guided walks in Italy. In fact, most of the party had travelled with him before – they appreciated his dry sense of humour and sensitive nature, matched by a true Italian’s appreciation for the important things in life, which for walkers means food.
We dined that night on tasty, country fare washed down with rough, local wine, and awoke once more to the mists shrouding the hills around us. Franco’s powers of description were once more put to the test as our pedestrian train made its way upwards. The rustle of the trees in the breeze sounded like waves on a shore, but the wind at least meant that the clouds were moving on, and glimpses of the valley below us suggested the long-promised views would soon arrive.
The steep walk upwards got hearts pounding and legs working hard for the first time on the walk. Though Monte Gazzaro is not particularly high at just 1125m, the sharp ascent and sense of wilderness made it feel more remote. We gathered around by a white cross at the summit and recovered a while before the equally steep descent.
In a sheltered hollow on the other side we came across a herd of the feral avellignesi horses that roam these hills. Grazing on the wild herbs, half a dozen chestnut mares eyed us suspiciously before trotting off into the next valley. My footing was rather less certain as we made our way back down a muddy slope, clinging to the trees for support, and the path seemed unclear. But Franco was sure enough, and a medieval waymark proved him correct.
In one clearing in the woods we came across another sign, signifying the location of a former refuge for travellers. Two centuries ago we may well have stopped at the Osteria Bruciata on a walk along the trail. Certainly we’d have been made to feel welcome, though I doubt if we’d have recommended it to others.
Legend has it that the innkeeper, in true Sweeney Todd fashion, had the habit of disposing of some guests, and feeding them to his other, unwitting visitors. Apparently his dastardly deeds were uncovered by a dog which turned up its nose at the morsels it was offered, its loyalty extending to a refusal to eat human flesh.
We had a fair way to walk yet before we would reach our next hotel, but as the sun broke through and the sky cleared we emerged from the woods to the sweet smell of broom and a view across the valley to our destination for the day. This area claims to be the green heart of Tuscany, and in early June it looked just that – patches of verdant grasslands surrounded by dense woodland.
The little town of San Piero a Sieve, with its terracotta roofs, was surrounded by neat pastures that soon gave way to the wild country in the highlands above it. In this part of Italy much of the land is uncultivated, and towns and villages appear like islands in the fertile valleys. By the time we arrived in the main square of San Piero a Sieve the sun, though past its peak, was burning strongly in a naked sky, and for the first time on the walk I felt truly tired out and desperate for a cold beer.
La Felicina was an immaculate old hotel crammed with antique furniture and glass cabinets displaying model cars and aeroplanes. The albergo was run by a charming couple who fussed over us, and served the most delicious food. The establishment had been run by the same family for four generations, and the hotel had a real sense of history about it. But Mara, the slender and graceful wife, told us with sadness that she and her husband were nearing retirement, and since their children had left the town and had other careers, they were thinking, reluctantly, of selling up. I hoped that they wouldn’t, for it was the best hotel we stayed at on the walk.
I woke the next morning to the chiming of the clock outside – one of two in the old square that were five minutes apart and both wrong. Limbs were decidedly stiff after the long second day, but the sun was out and an early start was recommended. So we headed up once more, past the old fort on the hill over the town, and entered the pine woods that capped the ridge. Two hours later we walked out onto a meadow and past the gates of a grand old Medici building that Franco described as ‘The House of Fun’.
The former 16th century monastery of Abbazzia del Buon Sallazzo was once renowned for more earthly pursuits – behind the peeling paint and shuttered windows this was a centre for wild, drunken debauchery. Today it has come full circle, being owned by Trappist monks.
With the sun now unrelenting, the shade of the forests was welcome, and the walk up to the top of the Monte Senario had our group strung out along the trail. But another monastery at the top offered the prospect of refreshments, and I arrived in time to buy a cold Coke and a glass of sickly herbal liqueur from a dozy monk. The monastery itself, and the church at its heart, were pretty gloomy, but the setting was inspirational – this was apparently the hill where Michelangelo conducted his flying experiments, and just a short flight or a half-day’s walk away through the blue haze lay Fiesole – the ancient settlement that was our eventual destination.
We spent that night in the small town of Olmo, where the rooftops of Florence could be seen glittering through the haze. As the sun sank in the cloudless sky I imagined the visitors to the great cupola of Duomo looking back from its crown and gazing across to the peaceful hills where we rested our tired legs and sipped cold beer.
“Uppa the hill!” urged Franco one last time. But whether it was due to the rising heat, or the realisation that our walk was nearing the end, the party seemed to be walking a lot slower on this final few kilometres. Blue butterflies danced around the wild thyme, tiny lizards dashed from rocks into the grass around us, and cypress trees lined the fields. And at the top of the hill a pair of buzzards circled around us as we assembled for the final walk into Fiesole.
Whilst Florence was founded by the Romans in the first century BC, Fiesole was an established Etruscan township long before the Romans arrived. Today it remains an attractive little town overlooking its sprawling neighbour. The old square is flanked by medieval buildings, but parts of the original city walls – two centuries older than Florence itself – still remain.
After three days in the open country, the sound of mopeds zipping past was a stark reminder that we were back in the modern world. But Fiesole, with its old buildings, twisting streets, and panoramic views was a fine place to end our journey.
As the midday sun urged sensible folk indoors I strolled around the archeological area with its remnants of the past. The Romans who built and travelled the road we had followed may have stopped in the same spot, and sat in the theatre that gazes back to the hills we had walked through. It’s an impressive structure, in classic, semicircular form, and mostly intact. But another Roman work – mostly hidden from view these days – is no less impressive.
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