Casentino: a hidden gem

Legend has it that in building Florence’s Palazzo della Signoria, now the iconic Palazzo Vecchio, the architect Arnolfo da Cambio was aiming for something as beautiful as the Castle of the Conti Guidi in Casentino.


This castle, which also goes by the name of the neighboring town of Poppi, dominates the wide Casentino valley; it was hailed by Vasari, moreover, as the “prototype” of Florentine palazzos. In 1289, the Battle of Campaldino was fought around its walls, the Florentine Guelphs and the Ghibellines of Arezzo at each others’ throats. Among the former there was a young soldier by the name of Dante Alighieri, who even today provides the historical and cultural thread of this sentimental journey through the Casentino.


The Casentino. Many readers won’t be familiar with this harsh mountain valley, scored into the earth between Florence, Arezzo and Romagna. It’s a sublime landscape, one that deserves more mentions among the endless, facile odes to beautiful Tuscany.


I’ll openly admit from the get-go that this is my part of the world. I grew up beside the cemetery of Borgo alla Collina, where I lived with my grandparents, and I know virtually all the epigraphs, all the souls who once graced my summers. But I’m also a world traveler, and I can say that I’ve rarely found a territory as rich as this in culture, spirituality, flavors, arts and crafts, and nature – in short, a calm, almost mystical beauty.


Nature above all. The Casentinesi Forests National Park offers a biodiversity of flora and fauna superior to any other mountain range in Italy. Take a walk here. There are paths for people of all ages and experience, and all are absolutely gorgeous. In this Garden of Eden, you will find fairytale-like abbeys, tiny country churches and sacred places of peace: from the grand old complex of Vallombrosa (where my parents got married!) to the parish church of Romena, via the hermitage of Camaldoli and the sanctuary of La Verna, the “crudo sasso intra Tevero e Arno” (Dante’s Paradiso Canto XI) – the rough rock between the Arno and Tiber, where St. Francis received the stigmata. The area’s pilgrimage routes, which should indeed be approached with the soul of a pilgrim and the dreaming eyes of a wayfarer, will show you the crafts and traditions that have weathered local hands with lines and wrinkles, and made the Casentino as unique as its people. Take my grandfather Giulio, for instance, and his brother Elio. I remember the newspapers when great uncle Elio won the “Prezzolini” for his work on the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. He was a stonecutter, an “artist in stone”. He would pass the days in a quarry that pulsated with dust and magic, and what was pietra serena one morning would be a jamb, a face, a statue, a god, a fireplace the next. Oh, how many fireplaces he made!


Every so often I would go down into the quarry with him. He would give me a hammer and chisel, and I would clumsily try to copy him, drunk on stone dust and childlike joy on account of the gnarly grooves that I would cut into those living slabs. At Ponte a Poppi my aunt – not really an aunt, but everyone was aunt or uncle – worked at the old weaver’s. She was a phenomenal weaver, her talent even greater than the enormous loom that dwarfed her. Aunt Elisa made fabrics for Jackie Kennedy, Rita Levi Montalcini, even Pope John Paul II, who thanked her with a personal letter. I was always bored whenever my parents would take me to visit her in her studio, but she piqued my interest by making me a bed cover, in green, blue and black squares: it was under this cover that my daughter and I watched Sanremo the other night. What else need I say of Casentino cloth, with its sumptuous jackets and cloaks. In her wonderful “Non ti muovere”, Margaret Mazzantini wrote “Your mother wore a Casentino coat, orange and violent as the summer sun.”


Whenever I go back to Casentino, as I do all too infrequently, I still open some of the cupboards that belonged to my grandmother (a few pieces of her furniture are in my house now) and that old, dusty smell catapults me back in time, to her alchemical ability as a cook. Casentino’s tortelli di patate don’t sound unique, but we ate them again and again and again, and grandma Bruna’s were, for me, the best food in the world. I still think so, whenever I draw up a list of my favorite dishes.


And what did the rest of us do, while grandma was cooking at home? In the morning, I would go with my uncle Gigi to get white potatoes from Cetica, a place with some hot springs worth visiting, around which the Romans built their trademark bathhouses. Sometimes Gigi and I would fish for trout in the river Solano, especially if the day before had brought rain to stir the waters and get the fish excited. And ah, the cold cuts…there’s a breed of pig native to these parts, Grigio del Casentino, which a great many butchers put into their famous Casentino Prosciutto. This salami used to be little regarded, but now it’s protected by the Slow Food movement. And then, finally, there was Aunt Carla’s cake. There was no visit in which Aunt Carla and Uncle Nello’s hospitality didn’t make itself felt through the warm, sweet, welcoming aromas of a ciambellone topped with pine nuts, through meringues and blackberry tarts, of which August brought plenty.

It was always a marathon of eating and visiting little villages, each more beautiful than the last. I’ve already mentioned lovely old Poppi, which features in the “Italy’s most beautiful hill towns” list, but what about Stia? Stia, which appeared in Pieraccioni’s film “Il Ciclone”, with its museums of the mountain, wool and even skiing. The town centre is a steep climb, but like all wonderful things, it’s worth the effort. The river Arno runs through Stia too, having risen not far away on Monte Falterona, which the Etruscans considered sacred. Here the water is clean enough to bathe in, and there’s an adventure park hidden among the centuries-old Douglas firs. One of them, a few miles further on, reaches a height of 62.45 metres, making it the tallest tree in Italy today. And then I could talk about Montemignaio with its flour mills, Badia Prataglia with its erstwhile ski resort, Bibbiena, Pratovecchio, Talla, and my own Borgo alla Collina…

Come on, don’t tell me you don’t feel like visiting…