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Italy/Tuscany: Fiesole

The Renaissance Ring

Overview

The Highlights: Fiesole, the original site of Florence; magical views of Florence; ancient trails and roads; stunning villas and gardens; an Etruscan-Roman theater and an Etruscan tomb; appealing inns, B&Bs and restaurants. 

Other Places Nearby: The magnificent city of Florence, the Chianti wine country.

Meetings & Event Options: Florence has multiple options for small to medium-size groups; Fiesole is more suitable for retreats, weddings and social events.

While tourists jam the downtown of Florence and its awe-inspiring architectural monuments and artworks, Short Escapes travelers will discover a different world—the breathtaking countryside around the city that has captured the imagination of some of the world’s greatest artists and poets. Just outside the compact city’s borders begins a romantic landscape of mountains, forests, vineyards, meadows, monasteries and ancient roads and footpaths. 

Italy may be one of the greatest, yet least known, paradises for walkers, especially those who love history, culture and art. The country's relatively well-developed network of hiking trails in regions such as Tuscany provides a magical way to discover the exceptionally beautiful countryside rarely seen by the hordes of tourists to major Italian cities. Even visitors who set out on their own in rental cars are often unaware of the timeless beauty seen by those who discover the countryside on foot.

A walk on Short Escapes' recommended spur leading from Fiesole to the Renaissance Ring trail (Anello del Rinascimento in Italian) around Florence is not only a special experience for individual travelers but also a unique excursion for the many travelers who come to Florence for meetings or incentive travel programs. The easily accessible walk can help build camaraderie and shared experiences people will remember for a lifetime. The landscape can also ignite creativity, as it did for the numerous great artists who have populated the region.

A Little-Known Wealth

While parts of Italy have a relatively well-developed network of blazed footpaths, the country is behind its northern neighbors in the development, maintenance and signage of a comprehensive trail network, and in spreading the word about it. A search of the Internet or bookstores finds a surprising dearth of information for travelers who would like to explore Italy on foot.

Italy has a long tradition of mountaineering and long-distance hiking organized by the Italian Alpine Club. It's known as CAI (Club Alpino Italiano) and focuses on serious hikers rather than the more leisurely walkers and outdoor enthusiasts focused on by Short Escapes. Probably no single person has done more in the past few decades to open up Italy’s inspiring countryside to the more casual walker than Gianfranco Bracci. He is a one-time junior high school teacher whose excursions with his students sparked an interest in hiking that has made him one of Italy’s better known creators of trails. While his own interests have taken him on extensive treks in the Himalayas and elsewhere in Asia, his goal is to make the Italian countryside accessible to the multitude of more casual walkers and hikers who seek the pleasures of the countryside. There they can dine in an authentic local restaurant, picnic on regional delicacies and stay in a comfortable small inn or B&B as part of their overall vacation.

A Renaissance Dream

Driven by this passion, Gianfranco has helped create some of Italy’s most ambitious trails. One is the GEA (Grande Escursione Appenninica or Long Apennines Hike), a 375-kilometer (235-mile) path that follows the ridge of the Apennines from Liguria to Umbria. Another is the Via Etrusca del Ferro (the Etruscan Trail), which leads from Pisa on the Tyrrhenian Sea to Comacchio on the Adriatic Sea, connecting ancient Etruscan sites. A third trail is the Bologna–Firenze, which starts from Bologna's central square, crosses the Apennines and arrivies at Piazza della Signoria in Florence. The Bologna-Florence route Gianfranco helped conceive is followed by a small portion of the walk recommended in this Short Escape.

In the late 1990s, Gianfranco wrote the first guidebook in Italian about the Italian section of the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrim route running from northern Europe to Rome, passing through France, Switzerland and Italy. The Via Francigena was one of the main routes in the Middle Ages, as described in the accounts by Sigeric (990 AD), the archbishop of Canterbury, and Nikulas Bergsson (1157 AD), an Icelandic abbot who reached Jerusalem.

Gianfranco is also a contributor to Camminare, Italy’s leading magazine for walkers, and provides personal guide services for groups. (See the Meetings & Events section.) Raising money from local tourism and economic development offices, he has helped create the routes and organize the trail blazing and other improvements to create a system of trails. They enable day-hikers to put together easy excursions and more hearty hikers to go from town to town. Groups of travelers can book Gianfranco and his colleagues, who speak multiple languages, to lead the excursions.

One of Gianfranco’s creations is the Renaissance Ring, a 175-kilometer (110-mile) trail that encircles Florence through the mountains that surround it on almost all sides, leading from village to village through forests, meadows, past ruins, villas and monasteries. It follows roads and paths probably once used by the Etruscans and certainly by the Romans and subsequent illustrious visitors to the great city of Florence.

The Renaissance Ring is designed for hearty hikers who want to accomplish the entire trail in one excursion—it takes about a week—and others who simply want to enjoy a beautiful day in the peace of the countryside after sharing Florence’s riches with the multitudes. A recent e-book, The Renaissance Ring, available in English, Italian, and German on Kindle at amazon.com, provides good maps and directions. It's helpful for anyone hiking the entire circuit, those who want to walk to a stunning vista or other scenic spot, and others who take mass transit to one spot, walk and return from another spot by mass transit. In the section called A Recommended Walk, Short Escapes provides one option.

“People often think of Florence as the source of Tuscany’s great art, and certainly much of it was patronized or created there,” said Bracci.  “But some of the inspiration for this art actually came from the landscapes outside of the city. You can see that inspiration in the paintings in the landscapes behind the figures they feature, and in the techniques that evolved here to bring this beauty to life.”

Readers might imagine that creation of the Renaissance Ring trail was a massive undertaking. It took about five years from conception to completion, but Gianfranco says his biggest challenge lies ahead. The more challenging job, he says, is making people aware of this crown jewel for walkers and hikers and making sure local government and tourism officials understand its value. 

The Florence tourism board has created a beautiful map of the Renaissance Ring. It and other walking maps are available in the downtown tourism office on Via Cavour just north of the Duomo Cathedral, but there's a limited supply.

(See the Outdoors section for a complete list of available maps; the Renaissance Ring e-book can be bought at amazon.com.)

The Origins of Florence

To help first-time visitors to Florence get an easy taste of the Renaissance Ring, we recommend an excursion departing from nearby Fiesole. Take the No. 7 bus from the central Piazza San Marco in Florence, or drive seven kilometers (less than five miles) from the city center. (Make sure you have temporary authorization to drive in the historical center. See the Getting Here section.}

This excursion, which actually is a spur trail leading to the Renaissance Ring to the north, can be completed as a there-and-back trip in less than half a day. Or, for those seeking a more intimate experience, this short escape can easily be extended into a multi-day getaway staying in one of the lovely small inns and B&Bs accessible by foot from central Fiesole. This short route makes for a particularly good excursion, because the attractive hilltop village not only provides beautiful views of Florence but also some surprising attractions. They include a beautifully intact Roman theater built upon the foundations of an Etruscan fort and an accompanying museum displaying artifacts taken from the site. Both are a short walk from the town square, Piazza Mino.

On the recommended walk, visitors will follow a narrow street that was one of the original entrances to Fiesole, which, in ancient times, was the area's leading city. You’ll experience dream-like views of Florence in the quiet of a country road. Visitors will see mountains on all sides dominating a landscape with legendary diaphanous light that most likely inspired the Renaissance painters to create the concept of atmospheric perspective. Artists learned to create a sense of distance in their art by adding ever lighter touches of color to mountains or forests in the landscapes behind their figures. This technique has been used by artists ever since. Fra Angelico, an innovator in early Renaissance art, was born and raised in Fiesole. His world-renowned frescos can still be enjoyed in the San Marco monastery in Florence where he spent much of his life as a monk.

An Illustrious History

Fiesole first entered the historic record in the mid-millennium before Christ, when it was an important Etruscan city warranting an extensive defensive wall. Consider the immensity of the stonework of the original fortress in comparison with the much smaller Roman-era stones placed above them to build the Roman theater. Also remaining is an Etruscan tomb located near this excursion and a museum of artifacts from the town’s ancient period. The plentiful narrow, dark green Cypress trees beautifying the hillsides of this region most likely originated with the Etruscans, who imported them from the Greeks for their beauty.

After the Roman conquest of the Etruscans, Fiesole became a city wealthy enough to warrant an impressive theater. The city’s early inhabitants must have been drawn by its more defensible hilltop location—it overlooked an important ancient ford of the Arno River—and its pleasant climate above the humid river valley, which was probably stultifying in the summer. The town also was the location of an important school of divination, drawing students from as far as Rome to learn to predict the future. The area along the marshy Arno, now known as Florence, was given by Julius Caesar in parcels to the legions who survived his battles and later drained the area to better sow their crops.

As Rome fell, and Christianity took hold, Fiesole remained the area’s dominant city and was the site of one of the region’s first churches. It has since been replaced with a newer version near the main town square. As Florence increasingly flourished in the later 1000s, there were frequent clashes between Fiesole and Florence.  Finally, around 1200, Florence triumphed. Fiesole’s bishop was forced to descend to Florence, and so ended the reign of Fiesole. Since then, it has remained a close-by retreat into the mountains for wealthy Florentines seeking a short summer escape to the cooler countryside. Many beautiful villas remain, a few of which you’ll see along the recommended walk.

The area attracted many British and American writers and artists, including the early 20th-Century art impresario, Bernard Berenson, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who found a sponsor to fund his education at Harvard College. Armed with his exceptional wit, grace and charm, and the help of this wife, he became an expert in the authentication of Renaissance art and established a model home. He entertained many off the world’s great artists and turn-of-the century industrialists there—including John D. Rockefeller—while creating an important new market for little known Renaissance painters. Some paintings are still displayed in his cozy, modest home and beautiful gardens on the estate known as I Tatti. It's now a Harvard College center of study for 15 accomplished and very lucky art fellows each year. To preserve the tranquility of the premises for the fellows, it is unfortunately closed to the public and barely visible from the nearby road. 

On the recommended walk, you will follow what is most likely a medieval path, old roads and villas, meadows and forests dotted with the region’s emblematic cypress and parasol pine trees. You might even hear the sound of the nightingale, which inhabit the region during the warmer months. The recommended itinerary takes visitors to the top of Mt. Il Pratone for a stunning view of the countryside around Florence.  On clear days, you can see the Apennines, the mountains north of Pisa where Michelangelo found his Carrara marble, and even the Apuan Alps far to the northwest.

A Plethora of Unknown Riches

Why is this rich world of blazed footpaths so little known to the public? Explanations differ. A local tourism developer in Chianti says most Italians prefer to vacation abroad or at Italian beaches. “For many Italians,” he says, “the countryside has harsh memories of parents or grandparents who struggled daily to make a meager living. For many in that generation, a visit to the countryside is not a happy escape.”

Gianfranco Bracci, who probably has as much experience as anyone building trails in Italy, is not convinced that’s the reason. He suspects that tourism officials traditionally come from a generation that did not hike or enjoy country walking, and their view of the tourist market is understandably skewed by the hordes of travelers swarming Italy's historic cities. 

Bracci believes that the problem is not a lack of people interested in the outdoors. He sees a booming market in Italy, neighboring European countries and the United States, and believes a stronger organization is needed to spread the word about the beauties of walking through the Italian countryside. 

 “Now, with the clear emergence of eco-tourism, and the obvious interest from so many well-educated and affluent travelers in engaging more intimately with the countries they visit, I believe there will be a change," he says.  "This growing form of travel helps spread economic benefits to the countryside and creates an even greater respect for our historic, cultural. and gastronomic patrimony. It also encourages travelers and organizations to extend their stay in Florence or Italy by a day or more to experience the complete picture of the place and its origins."

 

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