Diesel and cigarette smoke. Not exactly scents you’ll find in Yankee Candle. But after a year and a half of living in the land of diesel-fueled Fiats and chain smokers, I have come to find these stenches to be curiously nostalgic. Despite my unusual affinity for these odors, my tolerance wasn’t quite as high when I was actually living in Italy, and every once in awhile I needed to get out of the city center into the fresh Tuscan air. So how in this cobblestone jungle will we possibly do that? How about a hike to a castle!
Now before I begin I feel as though I need to give some credit to my peers. The hike we will take you on today was born from 7 truly exhausted graduate students. Weekly we trudged out to the library at the beautiful Villa I Tatti that sits on a hill just outside of Florence. As we wound up the small country road that led to the Villa, we couldn’t help but gaze into the distance at the fairy tale castle which adorned the crest of the hill above. It’s classic crenelations and mysterious tower taunted us each day as we made the responsible decision to hit the books instead of the trail. However, one May morning we decided it was time to satisfy our curiosity and headed out to the 12th-century Castello di Vincigliata. The hike led us not only to our castle, but through rolling olive groves, to small country churches, past yet another castle and brought us safely to the quaint town of Fiesole. This “self-made” excursion became our favorite and cheapest escape to the countryside and we are excited to share our little discovery with you today. So against all fashion advice from your Euro guide books, slip into those running shorts, lace up your tennis shoes and head out! The simple hike will take only about 2 hours (give or take considering your pace) and is entirely along a small paved road. The ease of the hike will not drain you for sight-seeing later in the day. We recommend that you go in the morning to avoid getting too fried by the sometimes sweltering Tuscan sun. We also recommend venturing out on this hike during the Spring or Summer as those overprotective wild boar moms won’t be quite as hostile towards us foreigners during these seasons.
To get to the trail head you will first need to take the bus from Piazza San Marco (the main piazza directly north of Piazza del Duomo). The bus stops in front of the church. You will take bus #10 that goes towards Settignano (the sign at the stop provides a timetable, or if you’re a planner check out the bus schedule online). Hop on the bus and enjoy a leisurely 20 minute ride through the more residential parts of Florence. You will know your stop is soon when the bus squeezes through a skinny one-lane road with stone walls on either side. When you come out onto a wider road you will see a row of shops to your right and the countryside to your left. When the bus stops hop out (the name of the stop is PONTE MENSOLA 01, the stop before is COVERCIANO and the stop after is D ANNUNZIO 15). Distance: 8 km (just under 5 miles) Time: Approximately 2 hours Cost: $0 (other than your bus ticket) When you get off the bus cross the street and head to your right. You will pass a Tabacchi and a small trattoria on your left. Just after these shops you will be crossing over a small creek. Turn left just after you cross the creek (your second left). To your left take a moment to notice the cyprus-lined path which leads to the picturesque San Martino a Mensola church. In about 50 meters the road forks. Veer left on Via di Vincigliata and look up to the top of the hill to see the medieval destination that awaits! As you wind up the hill for the first stretch of the hike you can experience the walk Meg and I took out to our library (beautiful if you’re not on your way to study right?). In about 10 minutes you will curve by the Villa I Tatti, but lucky for you, you’re not stopping here!
Wind up the picturesque path taking in all that is Tuscany. Other than the occasional farmer driving by offering a friendly wave, you’ve got this place to yourself. Olive groves, villas dotting the hillsides, cyprus trees, heck even the wild boars – Tuscany is yours for the taking! (Note: remaining awestruck will also help you forget about your burning quads from the fairly steep incline in the road). Although it is difficult to see the castle the closer you get to it on the trail, stay determined and know that it is just ahead! Within about 20-30 minutes of passing the Villa I Tatti you will reach the summit of the hill and the Castello di Vincigliata. So what exactly is this mysterious castle in the countryside anyway? The exact construction date of Vincigliata is debated. However, with historians claiming the castle to be built anytime between the 11th and 13th centuries, there is no argument that this castle is positively medieval (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase)! The castle was originally a stronghold of the noble Visdomini family. It was passed around the Floreninte nobilty until the 14th century when it fell into the hands of a branch of the noble Albizi family who would rename themselves the Alessandri. When the Florentine Republic fell in the 16th century however, the political turmoil proved too much for the family to handle. While they could maintain their palazzo in the city they allowed the castle to fall into ruin. Oddly, it was the Romantic era in England that we have to thank for the preservation of the castle today. In the 1840’s, Sir John Temple, a young British nobleman moved to Florence for the same reasons you are here right now – romance, adventure, inspiration. Sir John discovered the run down castle while exploring the hills outside of Florence just as you are today. He instantly fell for the romantic ruin and poured money into its restoration. His efforts became well-known throughout England and the castle became a destination for romantic British souls looking to be ignited. It is said that even Queen Victoria would stay at the castle while in Florence and paint watercolors of the beautiful Tuscan scenery from her window. Today the castle hosts decadent parties and events. If you would like to writhe around in jealousy for a few minutes check out the castle’s website and click on the “weddings” tab. I’m not even one of those wedding-obsessed girls…but seriously…can you even imagine! Unfortunately the castle is not meant for free range poking around by intrigued tourists. BUT my general motto in Europe (when it comes to courtyards, palazzos, museums, etc) is, “go until someone yells at you.” So if you’re feeling courageous step past the gate and take a peek around. But please note that we take no responsibility for any angry Italians you may encounter. Once you’ve gotten your fix of the castle, head on because more exploration awaits! Continue along the Via Vincigliata to pass through a small row of old houses and by the charmingly ramshackle country church. Once you pass the church, look ahead to see crenelations from the daunting Castello di Poggio poking out amongst the trees on the hillside above. Momentarily you will see a fork in the road. At this point if you fork right and continue on Via Vincigliata you can go explore the Castel di Poggio for a 20 – 30 minute detour. If you are in a time crunch however, fork left. For the next 45 minutes or so you can coast along the road without having to worry about turns or directions. Simply enjoy the endless fun that this Tuscan playground has to offer… …imitate AT&T commercials….
…carefully choose which of the many villas dotting the hills you will be purchasing when you “win it big”… …get peeks of our favorite city through rows of olive groves…. …..or simply take a load off…. The straightaway (well it’s actually quite curvy, but you get the idea) will come to an end at Strada Provinciale 53 (Via Francesco Ferrucci ). Turn left and follow the road and the signs all the way into the hilltop town of Fiesole. The road will take you all the way to the main square of the beautiful little town. However, you’re dogs are surely barking by now, so let’s save this little gem to be free discovery for another day. In the main square go to the bus stop and hop on. Don’t worry about the number or direction of the bus. This little town is the last stop on the Florentine bus line so you can safely board knowing that it will take you all the way down to Piazza San Marco in Florence, where you started (do remember to buy a ticket in either the Tabacchi in the main square or from the bus driver). As you head down the winding hill back into the busy city, take in the last of the bucolic scenery, reflect on your exciting morning, and be happy that you now understand why 40-year old divorcees write books about rediscovering themselves in this Tuscan paradise! To avoid getting lost in the hills of Tuscany bring these printer friendly directions with you! the castle hike