Escape to the Hills
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by Sally Hammond

Florence can swamp you. After a few days trailing through palaces and galleries, all of a sudden it gets a bit much. You want out. You want to see some beauty that doesn't have a frame around it. You want some art that is real, not flaking off a wall somewhere.

If that is your need, then head for the hills. But don't take the standard, tourist track westwards to Pisa. Instead get yourself onto the quieter route east, leaving the city by the Lungarno Christoforo Columbo, the road that hugs the green banks of the Arno where joggers and picnickers scramble for space.

Follow the road to the slopes of the Pratomagno mountains just over thirty kilometres south-east of the city, and find Vallombrosa for a shot of clean air free of the grit and industrial smoke that threatens to spoil much of rural Italy. Here, as you take the steep winding road that tunnels through silent pine forests, occasional breaks in the trees give you snapshot views of Florence, snoozing way below in the sunlight.

Vallombrosa, originally the hermitage of Santa Maria Acquabella, later became a Benedictine monastery founded in 1036 by San. Giovanni Gualberto. This monastery had centuries of plunder and destruction - one of the Napoleons had a go at it too - yet the buildings and, miraculously, its frescoes still remain. Today it is used by the University of Florence for summer schools, but still also functions as a church and monastery, and the mandatory gift/souvenir shop to one side peddles scented oils and nick-nacks from the abbey workshops. Nearby, on an cool arched porch, is the huge root of an olive tree, twisted like an old monk's hand, with animals, hooded clerics and a monastery carved into it.

The day we visited, the door to the church was open and in the stained-glass gloom we could just see fresh flowers spilling from massive altar vases. Somewhere there, an enthusiastic Italian tenor worked hard practicing 'Ave Maria'. Another hour and he probably would have had it right but the poster in the doorway announced the special mass would commence in half that time. Oh well!

Being off the beaten track (literally, you must turn right off the Poppi road - main road no. 70 - just after Pontessieve) is an advantage. Although the abbey is no secret, after taking what looks like merely a forestry trail for fifteen kilometres, many would be forgiven for turning back, believing there was nothing to see in these deep, sweet woods. But suddenly, the trees clear and the monastery, its many-centuries-old stone and stucco glowing golden in the sunlight, is before you and mercifully, free of tourist coaches.

The easiest way to visit Vallombrosa is to hire a car, and if you have come this far, it is really worth continuing on only another eight kilometres or so to Consuma. Again, the road may cause a gasp or two but there are views that make up for the odd palpitation. At Consuma Pass, a Swiss chalet pops up unexpectedly as if to underline what the road-sign has just told you - altitude 1060 metres.

Continue south on this road towards Poppi, and you'll soon drop down into valleys jam-packed with grapevines and olive groves, chickens and industry, but you can just as easily return to Florence along the main road to Pontessieve, a delightful town straddling the conjunction of the Sieve and Arno rivers. Although the Arno sources only about 25 kilometres to the north-east of this town, it has already described a long lazy horseshoe loop and now surprises the town from the south.

After Pontessieve the road stays with the wandering river for some time; through villages that span it with pebbled causeways where shapeless old men nonchalantly cast their lines beside 'Divieti di Pescia' (No Fishing) signs. The yellow stucco terracotta tile houses are pure Tuscany and if occasionally you have to take evasive action because a faded blue three-wheeler car is hurtling across the centre-line - well that, after all, is pure Italy!


Pontessieve has Toscanello d'Oro exhibition and sale of Chianti wine in May each year, and Vallombroso an exhibition of rustic furniture in July and August. Just a kilometre or so from Vallombrosa is Saltino, a summer and ski resort and the nearby mountains rise to 1600m.

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