This two day road trip explores the best of the Casentino region, in north-eastern Tuscany. We went in Autumn. It’s the perfect time to be driving around these thickly forested hills, which at this time of year turns all sorts of reds, oranges and burned yellows. It’s a perfect time to enjoy the charm of this ancient land, which is dotted with stone hamlets and country churches, and home to one of Italy’s most famous spiritual spots, the Franciscan Sanctuary of La Verna.
A magical 2 day road trip to the Casentino, Tuscany, Italy
The drive from Florence to Poppi, the scenic hilltop town at the heart of the Casentino, is a spectacle in itself. Leaving behind the city, the Road SS70 winds through stunning wooded scenery, climbing up to 1000 meters to the Passo della Consuma, a favourite rest spot. We stop here to try one of the famous ‘schiacciate ripiene‘, the delicious Tuscan flatbread that are stuffed with cold cuts and cheeses. We opt for the one with ham and funghi because mushrooms are now in season.
In one and a half hours we make it to the first stop of our trip, the Pieve San Pietro di Romena. This country church – a few kms. from Poppi – is well-known all over Tuscany because is seat of a fraternity which organises spiritual retreats and talks. But it’s also a Romanesque treasure, set in a scenic position. Founded in 1152, it has retained its authentic architecture.
The really impressive features are the perfectly preserved capitals, decorated with a menagerie of Medieval imageries, weird animals and humans, There was classical music playing when we entered and we were the only people there. The place radiates such a sense of well-being and serenity that it was hard to leave.
Outside, the light was playing with the yellow Autumn leaves of the trees. In the distance, we can already see Poppi’s mighty castle that dominates the valley of forested rolling hills. We have a quick look at the nearby ruins of Romena Castle, once a powerful fortress and today a scenic spot with two ruined towers in the midst of a beautiful natural setting.
Day 1 – Poppi and the mighty Castle of the Guidi Counts
Another short drive and we get to Poppi, the most attractive town in the Casentino region and the historic ‘capital’ of the Casentino Valley. Branded as “one of the most beautiful small towns in Italy“, the historic centre of this hilltop town is made of a few porticoed lanes and two interesting churches that well deserve a visit.
But first of all we want to see the famous Castello dei Conti Guidi, one of Tuscany’s best preserved castles. It was once home to the Guidi Counts who were ruled over this region in the Middle Ages, before being overpowered by Florence. The castle, whose construction started in 1274, seems to have been the model for the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and you can see great similarity in the two structures.
The inner courtyard and the staircase are magnificent, adorned with stone coats of arms. You can visit the Riliana library and the main hall with 14th century frescoes. The castle faces a square lined with trees, called “il Pratello” (meaning: little meadow), where jousts and parades used to take place, and today it is a beautiful place from where you can enjoy a 360 degree view that is simply magnificent. Here you find the”Ristorante Casentino”, that local people tell us the best restaurant in the historic centre.
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It takes another half hour to visit the rest of the historic centre, where we see the eccentric Church of the Madonna del Morbo (literally, “Our Lady against the Plague”), a rare example of Tuscan Baroque, and the Abbey of San Fedele, that has a couple of interesting paintings and an eerie crypt that contains the skeleton of San Torello.
Practical tips for visitors to Poppi
If you leave the car in a car park in the ‘new’ part of the town, it’s a relatively steep twenty minute walk up to the historic centre. Unless you have trouble walking this is your best option however, as the streets in the old town are very narrow and parking is scarce. You’ll find shops selling traditional food, some bars, restaurants and accommodation facilities in the new part of town, while the historic centre is pretty empty.
Day 2 – La Verna Sanctuary and a mystical forest
We dedicated the following day to visiting La Verna, one of Italy’s most famous Franciscan monasteries. It’s an hour’s drive from Poppi, climbing up the mountain along a winding road flanked by tall trees (SP 208). The colours at the beginning of November are spectacular, and seem to have jumped out of a painting, making for very atmospheric backdrop to this sanctuary built on the slopes of the mountain Monte Penna (1128 m. altitude).
It’s good to get one of the explanatory guides (sold at the Bar/Restaurant) to organise your visit and learn about Saint Francis, who right here in 1224 received the stigmata. The stone buildings immersed in the forest seem to grow out of the rock itself, and the panorama from up there is breathtaking. A place where silence and beauty reign.
The visit includes the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, some delightfully atmospheric chapels and the stone upon which Saint Francis used to sleep. A walk through the peaceful woods around the monastery is easy from here and just the thing for a world-weary spirit. Especially if you are lucky enough to spot one of the deers as we were.
You can have a quick lunch at the restaurant that prepares cheap three courses meal for the ‘pilgrims’ and sandwiches. Don’t miss a visit to the shop where you can find plenty of books, various religious souvenirs (which aren’t too tacky) , delicious honey and soaps prepared in the monastery.
Tips for visiting La Verna: we visited on a week day at the beginning of November and we practically had the place to ourselves. If you’re planning a visit in high season and on weekends, expect lots of people as this is one of Italy’s hot spots for religious tourism. There’s a car park near the entrance and you can pay for your stay with a credit card. The entrance to the monastery is free of charge.
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