Monday, October 10, 2011

Exploring Florence's Foothills

What was intended as a quick Sunday morning bike ride up north to get the blood churning, turned out to be an irresistable all-day adventure in the hills above Florence.  Tuscany's temptations always get the best of me and today they beckoned me to stay.  I stumbled on luscious backroads, castles and food festivals on a brisk, clear, perfect autumn day and just made it back before sunset.

I had intended to spend Sunday here in the city because Florence's weekend agenda was rife with significant events, wine festivals, art exhibits, an artisanal fair, and special insider activities for Florentine residents for which I was already reserved.  But all that got cancelled in a flash as I became hypnotized by the perfect combination of weather, adrenaline, passion and appreciation for the beauty and history of Florence.  Loving and learning Florence and its periphery is truly a chronic disease of the heart.

There's something special about Sundays in the quiet hills in the area of Fiesole, Settignano and Vaglia especially during autumn, where hamlets and tiny villages, or "frazioni", are connected to, yet isolated from the secondary roads. Other than the echo of church bells and birds, Sunday is silent and sleepy, truly a day off.  The forni and pasticcerie close down  before noon. The people gather at their church or local community center and afternoons are spent on country roads in passeggiata, picking chestnuts from the ground, hunting for funghi and gathering wild autumn flowers....young and old alike.

Unlike the Chianti Classico area of Tuscany, this area is not popular with tourists even during the harvest.  Though so close to Florence, one feels remotely detached from the zing of the city.  Many of the backroads are long, but dead-ended, keeping them secretly silent and untraveled.  Villages, castles and villas are discretely hidden among cypress, olive, acorn, chestnut and pine trees that protect the area from the extreme Tuscan sun.  Even the smallest frazioni play host to "sagre", or food feasts that feature a local seasonal food specialty, music, festivities and artisanal exhibits. This is the time of year for schiacchiata con uva, chestnuts, funghi and cinghiale.

Florence's beauty and history can be learned not only from the city, but can be appreciated  and expanded when traveling through these nearby hills where one can see three thousand years of history, from Etruscan and Roman ruins to medieval castles and great Rennnaisance villas, each with a rich history of its own.  Experiencing it on a bike is extraordinary, taking you out of the city past the grand Medici Villa, along the roads where Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, by the monastery where Fra Angelico lived,  past thousand-year old fortresses that protected Fiesole and Florence from its rivals, and through protected nature reserves, brimming with animal life and fauna unique to the area.  At the end of an endlessly hilly ride, you enjoy a long, breathtaking downhill back into Florence.  It is awesome.

Now I understand what it must have been like for Lorenzo di Medici to gallop and trot up there on his horse.  Probably even better than a bike..... having an elegant live animal friend breathing below you, dancing together in perfect harmony in this extraordinary paradise.  No wonder.

While it's not in a cyclist's gut to ride to the end of dead-end roads, these are the roads that offer some of the most precious surprises in barely marked and peculiar locations, concealed by the natural environment, which adds to the sense of adventure and discovery.

It was along one of these roads that I was suddenly struck by the imposing, crenellated medieval fortress of Castello di Vincigliata dating back to 1031 and restored by a noble English lord in 1865. Its massive front doors were wide open, inviting me to enter the stunning, silent courtyard with my bike. Nobody was there, so I loitered in its striking gardens and wandered into the castle, exploring the elegant manor,  until a butler approached me and informed me that I had entered a private residence.  Embarassed, I apologized.  Before dismissing me from the property, he told me the history of the castle, which is believed to be haunted by Donna Bianca, a woman who was wronged through a love affair with a member of the family who owned the castle.  There have been sightings of her ghost on foggy winter nights along the crenellated walls of the fortress and in the forests that surround the castle.

While heading deeper down the road, I sighted another castle, Castello di Poggio, also of medieval origins, but destroyed by the Signoria in defense of Florence in 1348, and was rebuilt and expanded in the 1400's

Both of these castles can be seen from Florence as one looks up at Fiesole, in all their grandeur, reminding us of medieval Florence.

The day was ended by riding up to Bvigliano, where a Schiacchiata Festival was taking place, and all the town was there, sampling this Tuscan style focacccia bread. Schiacciata means "squashed" and the bread is flat, only about an inch thick. It provided great power food for my awesome descent back to Florence!