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Weekend Wanderlust: In search of silence in the Casentino forest

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Weekend Wanderlust: In search of silence in the Casentino forest
The "sacred forest" of Camaldoli. Photo: Sheila Bandini
14:21 CET+01:00
The ancient, spiritual heart of the Casentino forest in eastern Tuscany is full of sights straight out of a fairytale, and it's the perfect place to escape everyday life.

Apartment blocks in Italian cities can be incredibly noisy, and I'm convinced my neighbours have to be the noisiest of all.

As I lie awake in the dark, listening to them apparently moving all the furniture and tap-dancing at five in the morning, I often imagine having my own Tuscan villa in the middle of nowhere. It would be completely surrounded by silent forest, with not a noisy neighbour for miles.

It might take me a while to save up for this fantasy villa. Especially since in my mind it has a pool, and an olive grove. But in the meantime I can always go to visit the many silent places in the Tuscan forest on the weekend, escape from the neighbours, and reclaim a little bit of my sanity.

It seems odd to me that very few foreigners have ever heard of Casentino. The region is apparently called La Toscana Nascosta (Hidden Tuscany) because so few tourists bother to go. But it’s one of my favourite places to visit, especially at this time of year.

This region in the upper Arno valley of eastern Tuscany is particularly wild and beautiful, as well as peaceful.

Screenshot, Google Maps

The Parco nazionale delle foreste Casentinesi is home to 36,000 hectares of lush, deep forest. These ancient woods are packed with wild boar, porcini mushrooms, and well-marked hiking trails, and right now they’re a blaze of red and gold.

To get here you will need to drive, but if this isn’t a good reason to hire a car and have a go at driving in Italy then I really don’t know what is.

It’s less than an hour’s drive from Florence, or from my noisy apartment block in Arezzo, despite feeling like a million miles away.

Casentino is a magical place, and not just in my sleep-deprived imagination. It’s said to be where Dante wrote parts of his Divine Comedy, and where Saint Francis of Assisi received his stigmata.

The area’s high altitude also gives it crisp, fresh air, an abundance of natural spring water and a wild remoteness and tranquillity. For centuries, if not longer, it’s been known as a place for spiritual retreat.

Monasteries, sanctuaries and hermitages have flourished in the area, and many of these ancient monastic retreats continue to thrive today.

One of the best known is the Monastery of Camaldoli, or eremo di Camaldoli, where monks live in spartan living conditions, keeping a code of absolute silence for months on end.

The monastery can be visited. Free guided tours are held several times a day, letting you explore the tiny houses and lavish church, and get a glimpse of life at a monastic retreat deep in the Tuscan mountains.

The only sign of life on my visit was the wood smoke drifting over the retreat’s stone cottages, in a scene that could’ve been several centuries old.

The Camaldoli monastic retreat. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

Geographically, Camaldoli is the "heart" of the Casentino forests. It’s a spiritual place surrounded by ancient woods of spruce and beech trees, taken care of by the monks themselves since the 11th century.

The church inside the monastery. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

The monastery’s antica farmacia sells natural handmade soaps, sweets and strong, herbal liqueurs made by the monks of Camaldoli themselves, and the building is almost as pretty as the surrounding forest.

The Camaldoli monastery's 'antica farmacia'. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

About twenty minutes’ walk from the monastery is the enchanting Castagno Miraglia. This ancient, hollowed-out chestnut tree, which has a circumference of about 12 meters and is at least 300 years old, is straight out of a fairy tale.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

It gets its name from the Countess Elena Mazzarini Miraglia, who at the end of the nineteenth century put a small table and chair inside the cavity of the tree and spent long hours sitting there, embroidering. 

Her table was only recently removed, when the protective railing around the tree was built.

I’m not saying you should climb under the railing and sit inside the cavity, imagining what it was like to be the Countess. I will say it's the kind of place where even the most hardened, tech-addicted city dweller can't fail to feel calm and close to nature. 

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

From there it was a short drive to visit the Castello di Romena. The drive up to this small hilltop fortress is what Tuscan dreams are made of, with narrow, winding roads between rows of tall cypresses.

Romena Castle seen from a distance. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

At this time of year there are very few visitors, but I was only allowed in for ten minutes – I’d forgotten about the castle’s shorter winter opening hours and arrived as they were about to lock up.

So with time to spare before night fell, down the hill I wandered into the Pieve San Pietro di Romena, lit with candles, decorated with sunflowers, and empty of people.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

I sat and stayed for a while, breathing in the waxy smell and revelling in the stillness. Outside, I crunched my way across a small garden, trees full of apples.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

I crossed the road to explore the tiny village, empty of people and seemingly frozen still under a leaden sky.

A little red sign outside a cottage caught my eye. On it was written a poem:

Everyone is in search of: a bit of bread, a bit of affection, and a feeling of being home, somewhere.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

When I looked closer, another sign on the front door beckoned me to enter.

Feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland, but with a tabby cat tailing me instead of a rabbit, I obeyed. “Permesso,” I called, tapping on the door frame.

I found myself in a low-ceilinged stone cottage that seemed to have been reborn as a rustic-style meditation space, complete with flickering lanterns, and relaxing music coming from one of the nooks and crannies. I kept expecting the owner to appear and ask what I was doing there, but no one came.

I sat down on a low wooden bench covered with cushions, watching the raindrops starting to hit the window pane, and closed my eyes.

When I woke up it was really starting to go dark outside. I got up and said a quick goodbye to the mysterious sanctuary as I closed the heavy front door behind me.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

I sat down on a rough wooden bench and watched the last bit of light fade over the forest of Casentino, wondering if anyone would come to ask what I was doing there, as usually happens whenever I wander around a small Italian village.

But here no one did. Either the residents didn’t notice me, or it was obvious that I, like so many others before, had just come here seeking silence.

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