Spring is the perfect time to be hiking trails, especially in such beautiful spots as Tuscany. The sweet rolling hills inspired me to join an Environmental guide and discover some of the stories when man was more in tune with Nature.
We start at a little known village of Gerfalco – ‘the bearer of the hawk’ a reminder of a common noble pastime, in the province of Grossetto, disputed for centuries by great noble families for its natural resources.
And while those are not medieval pants flapping in the breeze, some of the local buildings boast very important facades.
Others instead unconventional tile decorations.
Secular chestnut groves welcome us as we hike along the trail. ‘Well looked after’ as our Environmental guide – Beppe had us note. The ground has been cleared beneath them, and they are not showing any signs of the dreaded bug which has infected so many of the chestnut trees in other areas. Roasted chestnuts, chestnut cake ‘il castagnaccio’, chestnut jam, chestnut pancakes ‘i necci’, being very much a part of the mountain inhabitants diet and equally sought after at Autumn festivals nowadays by city folk. Rich in minerals and vitamins and lower in fat than other nuts, many claim they help reduce disease, create stronger bones and are a definite energy boost. Survival food during harsh winters for our ancestors, and locals are wise in caring so well for the 300-400 year old trees we hike by.
‘Ginestra’ – This particular variety of Broom was also important in the past as its square shape frond was critical to the charcoal maker ‘il carbonaio’ as it could be easily thatched together to cover the stacked wood that would burn down to produce charcoal. Again a common practice in the mountain areas of Tuscany.
But on and upwards, as we had a mountain to climb! And before we idly place our hiking boots on some delicate violets, Beppe has pounced to tell us they are rare Etruscan violets, a protected species and difficult to find!
As we madly take photos, and are surprised again by Beppe’s “watch out, you almost stepped on the Carlino plant!” A spiky cactus like plant known for its medicinal qualities from the Renaissance period when Charles VIII of France, riding through the area used the plant to ease his stomach pains. Since it worked they named the plant after him!
And it’s not the only mixture of legend and fact that Beppe relates. As we pass by a walnut tree he points out that nothing ever grows under walnut trees and for this reason they were often considered to be the home of witches and therefore planted near the farmhouses to keep the witches outside!
We say goodbye to Beppe, our fabulous guide and storyteller and head for home. All this hiking has worked up an appetite and on the way back we can hardly resist the homemade roadsign for “fresh cheese”. We turn down the drive to a lovely Tuscan farmhouse, now made into an “Agriturismo” (Farm holiday resort) yet still continuing its farming traditions.
Two cats come to greet us, rubbing up against our legs, while the guard dog rolls in the gravel for a tummy rub!
It’s the end of a great day hiking and I’m off home to cook up a ‘spaghettata’ with ricotta and zucchini, while the others can enjoy their sausage and salami.