Welcome, Primavera! Early spring hiking in the hills around Florence

Updated: Mar 23

This weekend marked the start of spring but it's been springing for a while here in Tuscany. Sunday was also "International Day of Forests," so today I'm celebrating Mother Nature!

The current Covid lockdown prevents us from traveling outside of our "Comune" (municipality) but luckily for me the city limits of Florence are pretty big! It's 102 km² (~40 mi²), much of it wooded hills. And we're allowed outside of our borders if we're exercising and don't stop while we're gone, so this opens up even more possibilities. Here's a map of the Florence area, which is bordered to the west and south by the airport and highway, to the east by a line that goes from Bagno a Ripoli up to Settignano, and to the north as far as San Domenico (half-way up the climb to Fiesole, which is another Comune). This map isn't super-accurate but it gives you an idea. ;-)


It's well known that working within a limitation can make us more creative (I'm thinking of the French literary movement "Oulipo," that sought to stimulate creativity by imposing limits, like writing a poem without the letter E, etc.), and it has certainly been true for me. I haven't left the municipality for SIX MONTHS (unheard of for a globe-trotter like me) except for the occasional bike ride across the borders, so I've been on walks in every wooded corner, from Castello, north of the airport, clockwise all the way around to Scandicci. Here's a little sample of what you can find in the green spaces around this great city!


You can walk or bike for miles in either direction along the Arno river

Or head to one of the many parks in the area, like the new Parco del Mensola, which was built 2 years ago to protect a floodplain near the village of Ponte a Mensola (the Mensola is the name of the small river that can sometimes overflow).


Parco del Mensola, to the northeast of the city

The park allows access to this glorious row of trees, planted centuries ago by the noble Strozzi family who owned the villa.

The Villa Strozzi, Ponte a Mensola

From the park you can walk up to the church of San Martino a Mensola, which dates back to the earliest days of Florence (first mention is made in the 9th c., while this version is in High Renaissance style). This is at the very edge of the city limits between Florence and Fiesole.

San Martino a Mensola church

Head downhill from there to the Villa "I Tatti," otherwise known as The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. This former 17th century farmhouse was bought by American Renaissance scholar Bernard Berenson and his wife Mary Whithall Smith in 1907 and now houses their collection of Italian primitives, Chinese and Islamic art, and a research library of 140,000 volumes and 250,000 photographs. The institute opened its doors in 1961 and has since welcomed over 700 visiting scholars.

Villa "I Tatti," now the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies

Many famous people have lived or spent time in this area, which attracted artists during the Renaissance because of the marble quarries nearby. On the left you'll see Boccaccio, who wrote "The Decameron" a few years after the "Black Death" of 1348. It's a series of (often bawdy!) stories told by a group of ten noblemen and women who are holed up in their "pandemic bubble" in the Tuscan Hills. You also see Mark Twain, who rented a house nearby in 1892. On the right you see Renaissance sculptors and artists, as well as late 19th c. poet and playwright Gabriele D'Annunzio and actress Eleonora Duse.

As you walk up to Settignano (still within the Florence city limits) you pass the homes of several famous figures, like Boccaccio and Michelangelo.

From Settignano you can turn right and go to this colorful little hamlet.

Keep going up and you'll have this view over Settignano and Florence in the distance.

Farther up still, you get to this marvelous waterfall along the Sambre river. It's in the woods behind the village of Ontignano and has been nicknamed (by whom? when??) in Google Maps as "The Fountain of Youth." I'm going to have to check it out in the summer to see if there's any water in it during the dry season!

One day I took my off-road bike out to explore the hills to the east of the waterfall, in the hills above Compiobbi (seen below). It's beautiful but I ended up on roads with 25% grades, so now I know why I don't usually go biking over there! :-O

I ended up on the Via di Francesco (the Way of Saint Francis), which is a (fairly new?) series of trails through Tuscany and Umbria following the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

Okay, time to cut back over to the west. I'm high on the ridge above the city now.

I pass by my favorite garden by a smattering of houses, with olives, grapes, figs, walnuts, aloe vera, rosemary, pomegranates, prickly pear, and fruit trees. I love seeing the changing foliage and fruit as the seasons change.

Budding foliage on one of the many fruit trees in the area
The tiny bud of a fig tree
Rosemary hedge in bloom

Then I duck into the woods and escape the modern world for a while...

Here are a few of the things you'll see:

Prehistoric cave art?? The deer has been there for a while but the red hand-print is new!
A few small porcupine quills. I've found some that are over a foot long!
Archery targets. Sometimes they take me by surprise and give me a scare!
Marvellous tree canopy

The flowering trees are always the first to bloom, usually in late February. Stupendous!


A tiny private chapel watched over by cypress tree sentinels
I come up here so often I'm becoming part of the landscape :-)

The other day I went on a social hike with a small group over in the western suburb of Firenze Castello. It's home to three amazing villas, including this one that once belonged to the Medici family. It has a fabulous garden (closed due to the lockdown) and is also home to the "Accademia della Crusca," a linguistic society founded in Florence in 1583 dedicated to preserving the Italian language.

Cross the Arno and head south of the city and you're immediately immersed in green.


Keep going towards Poggio Imperiale and you can see the historical Arcetri Observatory, built near the house where Galileo spent his final years.

If the weather is nice I grab my road bike and head out even farther. In about a half hour I'm in the hills of Chianti! The symbol of the Chianti Classico wine consortium is the Black Rooster, seen here at the winery of Luiano. (Full disclosure, this picture is from last summer, which is why it's so green!)

I can also bike north up to the city of Fiesole, which sits on a ridge above us at almost 300 m (1,000 ft.). It was once home to the Etruscans before the Romans took over in the 1st c. BC, but you can still visit the fascinating ruins and small museum. Below, the church of San Domenico with Fiesole behind it; a statue of the Italian king Vittorio Emanuele II meeting with the revolutionary Garibaldi during the fight for Italian Unification in the 1850s-60s; and long shadows on colonnaded city hall.


Nature has been so important to me this year (and every year), and I was touched when I saw this little flower: trying to find footing in a difficult situation, but standing tall and heading towards the light. May we all find strength and beauty this coming year. <3





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