Hiking near Florence: the Monastery and Nature Reserve of Vallombrosa
Updated: May 28, 2022
The summer sun can be brutal in Florence, and it's often one of the hottest cities in Italy since it's landlocked and in a wide valley, so when things start to heat up you have two choices for relief: the beach or the mountains. One of my favorite escapes is up to the soaring forests around the Monastery of Vallombrosa. The area was designated a Nature Reserve in 1977, and since 1992 is part of a "special conservation zone." It's also part of a "Model Forest Association" dedicated to maintaining and increasing the already-high level of biodiversity in the forest.
It all began in 1036 when a Florentine nobleman named Giovanni Gualberto renounced his worldly possessions and went to a small hermitage in the mountains 33 km (21 mi.) southeast of Florence. He followed the Benedictine tradition and his order grew to the point where a bigger monastery was built in the 12th c., followed by another during the Renaissance. By the 17th c. it had taken on the form we see now, so the interior is fairly lavish Baroque.
You have to pass through several gates and doorways to get to the church (you can click on each one separately to see the full view).
Looking up is quite dizzying!
I love how the frescoed elements above the choir were painted at a tilt, so presumably they come off as straight from a key vantage point!
Back in the sacristy, I love how the vestments are in the Italian colors! Do you think the monks will be watching the soccer semi-final tonight between Italy and Spain??
In good Benedictine tradition (which is generally respectful of and close to nature), they had a lovely vegetable garden along with fruit trees. This allowed them to be self-sufficient in their own food production but also to have an herb garden for making their medicinal concoctions, elixirs and creams (available at the shop on site).
There's an "experimental arboretum" that was begun in 1869 as a laboratory for collecting and studying native and exotic plants and trees. Now they have thousands of specimens from five continents and it's one of the most important collections in Europe. It's managed now by various branches of the forestry service, including a forestry branch of the Carabinieri!
As with every important church that held wealth within its doors, it had to be fortified with a defensive tower and surrounding wall back in the 15th century (which didn't keep it from being sacked by the forces of Spanish King Charles V in 1529!)
After your visit, chill for a while on this vast verdant lawn. The air was crisp and cool (about 21C/70F vs. the 32C/90F in the city), and there are a few small restaurants selling sandwiches, focaccia, full meals, and drinks.
We found a hiking map and decided to try the #11, which would go up to a ridge and then return via the village of Saltino.
We headed out into the vast forest of trees, most of which were planted by the monks themselves in centuries past. "Silviculture" (the art of cultivating trees for various purposes) was important to the Benedictine order, and the Vallombrosans in particular loved fir trees. They grew massive stands of silver fir (Abies alba), which they harvested and sold to naval yards for ship building.
We also saw this fabulous beech tree ❤️
My friend and fellow hiking guide Emanuela ("Manu") studied Italy's flora and fauna so explained to me and my friend Melissa (also a guide!) how to tell the silver fir from other firs We also saw a lot of Norway Spruce -- or Picea abies if you're following along in Latin 😉. Actually I'm putting the Latin since it's not always easy to understand the names from one language to another: in Italian the "silver fir" is abete bianco (which would be "white fir/spruce") while the Norway Spruce is "red fir/spruce in Italian.
We also saw all sorts of beautiful wildflowers, very different from the ones that grow in the valley near my house in Florence.
And of course lots of little flying critters feasting on the fresh lavender (again, you can click on each image to see the full view).
The forest is so dense there's almost no direct sunlight, which makes the trees rise high to find the sun.
Lots of different types of bark. I'm not sure what these even are! The one on the right looks like a Cork Oak but it's definitely not.
Another gorgeous yew tree, and then a welcome grassy patch where the forest gives way to open field.
And then suddenly: a VIEW!
Perfect spot for a picnic ❤️
After a short rest we descended and passed through a surprising little village called Saltino. We had expected rustic stone cabins and maybe a bar or bakery, but we found a bustling and quite developed town with lots of elegant villas from the early 1900s! I guess given the elevation (1,000m/3,300 ft above sea level) it was designated a "Climatic Tourist Station"(whatever that is!?) for people to come up and "take the fresh air" as they used to "take the waters" in the local spas.
Astoundingly, the tourist boom began as far back at 1892 when a railway line began taking people up to the town from the valley below! It lasted for a few decades but ran into trouble with the devastation of WWI and then the arrival of buses. Service ended definitively in 1924.
Saltino had some cute little touches, including an American style "pulled pork" and BBQ restaurant!
Here's one of the elegant villas near Saltino. Not a bad place to spend a few days!
The drive up to Vallombrosa is gorgeous and is also a popular destination for cyclists (though of course, it's a challenging climb!... at least it is for ME 😄)
It's a ~45 min drive by car from Florence so easily done as a day-trip.
Here's our hike on Strava: almost 9 km/5.6 mi with about 400 m/1,300 ft of elevation gain and loss. It was quite steep at times but the terrain was easy trail (no big rocks or anything technical) so it's do-able if you just take your time.
I'm back in Florence now and the temps are rising into the mid-30sC/90sF this week so I'm sure missing that cool air! I might have to grab my bike and push up there using pedal power (I don't have a car)!
I hope you enjoyed this little field trip and have an idea of what "the other Tuscany" looks like. Toss a few coins into the collection plate if you'd like to support my efforts (you can use PayPal or credit card by clicking here), or take care of yourself if you're hurting too. I know times are tough. Leave a comment below (you just have to log in using your email, top right) or on Facebook, or via email, or via smoke signal or ESP. I'd love to hear from you 🙂.
Ciao for now, e alla prossima! (see you next time)