The first one passed me when I had barely left the Bologna motorway. The next one, as the mountains appeared. There I was, trying to keep one eye on the jaw-dropping road, the other on the green to gold paint chart that unfolded along the abyss, and then they were all around me: one , two, three, 20 bikers, all riding out to see the fall foliage.
And why not? Autumn is the best time to visit Tuscany: the summer crowds are gone, the temperatures have not really dropped yet and if the sun is there, it bathes everything in a gold straight out of a painting of the Sienese school.
And then there are the trees. Today the best-known parts of Tuscany are carefully tended – those perfect wheat fields bordered by alleys of cypress trees – but originally these famous hills were largely forested. This one, the Foreste Casentinesi National Park, straddling the border with Emilia-Romagna in the northeast of the region, is perhaps the most magnificent stretch that remains. It’s not as big as it used to be – Renaissance Florentines hacked into it to build coffered ceilings for their grandiose new palaces and struts for the dome of the world’s most famous cathedral. But today, its 142 square miles of beech, holm oak and chestnut trees showcase some of Italy’s biggest colors every fall.
I was there for one color in particular: the rich reddish brown of the brown that fall to the ground in October of each year. Although in English they translate to “chestnuts” and to our untrained eyes they may sound alike, the locals will quickly get you on track. Compared to normal castanets, the chestnuts are bigger, rounder, shinier and sweeter. And while the chestnut once meant the poverty of the mountain people (the chestnut was nicknamed “the breadfruit”, supporting those who could not grow grain because of the altitude) today, a reassessment of the chestnut trees, including protected PGIs (indicazione geografica protetta) the status of the âmarrone del Mugelloâ from this region makes it cult ingredients.
I had come for the annual chestnut celebrations in San Godenzo, a small town stuck in a mountain crevice an hour northeast of Florence. It might be tiny, but it packs a punch when it comes to chestnut – chestnut flour from here has steadily climbed the podium of Italy’s best, and for 50 years the sangodenzini, as they call themselves, celebrated the end of the harvest with an autumn blowout.
In Castagno d’Andrea – a mountain village a few miles away, and named after the fruit – the main street was lined with stalls selling raw chestnuts, the size of a roasting marble, almost from the size of a golf ball to boil. There was marrone jam, marrone cakes and marrone flour, the latter from fruit grilled for three months on steaming chestnut wood, to dry them before grinding.
The people are so friendly here that on my last visit two locals paid for my lunch in the unique restaurant in Castagno d’Andrea out of shame for not inviting me to join them. This time, Noemi Innocenti, the 26-year-old librarian of San Godenzo with a doctorate in Renaissance printed books and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Maroni, introduced me to bruciati ‘briachi (“Grilled drunks”): chestnuts sprinkled with sugar, sprinkled with rum and set on fire to create the best toasted nuts in the world. Then she took me to the forest.
The hills around Castagno d’Andrea are full of chestnut groves, but higher up the endless beeches on the mountainside mark the beginning of the territory of the national park. Dante mentions Monte Falterona, the smoldering mountain behind San Godenzo, in Purgatory but in autumn it is paradise. Swirls of mist wrap around the matchsticks. The leaves shine an acid yellow on the branches, ocher under the feet.
We took an almost steep path – wartime partisans used it for refueling at Castagno d’Andrea, Noemi said – towards moss-soaked rocks and even more spectacular trees, the color appearing brighter at as the light faded, the only sound the creaking of the leaves.
The next day I woke up in Castagneto, an elevated hamlet on the other side of San Godenzo, to see patches of mist creep through the valley, the mountain sides glistening with gold at sunrise. As the name of the hamlet suggests, the few houses in Castagneto – along with Tenuta Mazzini, the converted stone-walled farmhouse where I stayed – nestle among chestnut groves, the roads are carpeted with conker porridge, and chestnuts cling to the steep slopes, the branches flapping in the air like Tolkien’s figures.
Normally at this time of year I go to the Val d’Orcia, the most famous landscape in Tuscany, to Ribollita soup and olive oil so fresh it tastes of chili. But this year, after San Godenzo, I went in search of more autumnal colors.
I found it in Radicondoli, 50 minutes west of Siena in the Val di Merse, where golden woods were interrupted by green fields and silvery olive groves. Wild deer roamed the fields in front of me as I ate breakfast at Albergo Giogliano, a farm just below town on top of a hill.
From Radicondoli’s Piazza San Girolamo, views of rolling hills extend to Volterra and San Gimignano, but it’s a world away from the touristy Tuscan honeypots. On the one hand, this place is the main car park in the city. On the other hand, the only shop for tourists in the two main streets is a so-called “Radicondoli lovers’ exhibition”: scarves, jewelry and mini models of agricultural machinery. Sure, visitors love it in the summer, and there’s a gourmet pizzeria where a Margherita costs â¬ 17 – but in November it’s just you and the cranky old men in the only bar that’s still open.
And yet, it is just as beautiful as San Gimignano and its ilk. I passed houses dating from the thirteenth century, subsequent reconstructions and plugging making a mishmash of the walls: stones, bricks and rocks all piled up haphazardly, coarser and warmer than the more austere buildings of the province of Florence. Alleys dug under the first floors, winding from one street to another; one last remaining medieval city gate was drooping drunk towards the fields beyond. The most modern thing in the city dates from the 1920s: the theater the size of a doll’s house, its unique column and two ferocious arched windows give pride of place to art deco amidst an environment Renaissance.
Beyond, on whatever side you looked, were the hills, the color of which was only interrupted by plumes of what looked like smoke but turned out to be steam rising from the magma. , seven kilometers underground, now drilled and channeled to produce clean energy; a line of surprisingly beautiful power stations blew across the hills. Dante was inspired by this land of fumaroles for his Hell; Galgano Guidotti would not agree. Born in 1148 into a well-to-do family in Chiusdino, 20 minutes south of Radicondoli, he became a hermit on the hill of Montesiepi in the valley below. After its canonization, a Cistercian abbey was built at the foot of the hill, before being abandoned, its roof collapsing in 1786.
Today tourists come from all over Italy to see the gothic Abbazia di San Galgano (in both directions). Its rose window has been blown out and its cloister has largely collapsed, and it houses birds instead of monks, but its walls and columns are still proud. I was staying at the Terre di San Galgano agriturismo, just a field away, so I walked around before breakfast – just me and the birds, the mist drifting through the mountains in the distance. The vines of the Montesiepi hillside were turning yellow, but there were grapes in the abbey: clusters engraved at the top of the columns, with other leaves and flowering plants. In the midst of the ruins, it is an eternal spring.
Atop a hill overlooking the valley, Chiusdino is as pretty as Radicondoli – maybe more, as she seems to ignore it. Grass shoots between medieval cobblestones; the streets wind around the top of the hill. The alleys lead nowhere; the stairs end at the houses, or collapse into the smallest of squares. The small church houses the saint’s skull, looking out from a modern rock-shaped reliquary in which Galgano is said to have sunk his sword, renouncing his old life (the circular church of Montesiepi is built around a mysterious sword hilt diving into the rock).
As one of Tuscany’s best-known saints, Galgano’s original reliquary was utterly awe-inspiring: a thirteenth-century octagonal creation, gold-plated, sitting one meter high on lion paws and engraved with 16 miniature scenes from his life. It is so precious that Siena caught it until 2015, when Chiusdino opened his own museum. And it’s not even the best print here: a bas-relief of a downy-haired Galgano ramming his sword into the rock by Urbano da Cortona, a pupil of Donatello, is even better. He stands erect, the folds of his cloak tightened around the button as he grips the sword, his perfect hair shielded from the elements by a pergola of exuberant bushy trees.
These Tuscan trees, once again: which grow chestnuts, attract bikers and, it seems, protect the saints.
Julia Buckley was a guest of the San Godenzo City Council at Tenuta Mazzini (tenutamazzini.it), which offers one-bed apartments from â¬ 80.
The Albergo Giogliano in Radicondoli offers double rooms from â¬ 70, B&B (no website; book through booking.com or send an email to [email protected]);
Agriturismo Terre di San Galgano has double rooms from 86 â¬, B&B (sangalgano.it)
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