the traveller

The stars in Florence used to guide not only navigators, but also farmers so that they knew when to sow seeds. To the south-east of Florence, between Piazzale Michelangelo and Galluzzo, in what appears to be open countryside, is one of the most ancient sky observatories: Osservatorio di Arcetri, dedicated to Galileo Galilei. The perfect place to begin a journey of discovery in the Tuscan countryside. You’ll need your own means of transport (or a lot of patience). I love travelling on the two wheels of a vintage Vespa or, if it’s raining, on the four small wheels of an old Fiat 500 (the streets get very narrow around here!).

From the hill, head for Greve in Chianti, where one of the region’s specialities is produced: wine. Cross Arcetri, a small hilly area with several villas and old houses, including the one where Galilei himself was kept under house arrest. In Roman times, there was also a fortification, arci veteris, traces of which can still be found in the area’s name. I decide to start from the church of San Leonardo in Arcetri, built shortly after the year 1000. Illustrious Florentine authors, including Dante and Boccaccio, wrote about its splendid early 13th-century marble pulpit, which was carried here by San Pier Scheraggio in 1782. On foot you can follow the walls of Via San Leonardo, decorated according to the technique used on dividing walls in agricultural estates, known as “graffito” (engraving). How did the technique work? Using a fork, the still wet plaster was scratched, leaving an attractive inlay.

Impruneta area
Castle of Verrazzano
Greve in Chianti

Continuing along Via Pian de Giullari, through countryside made up of dry stone walls and rows of cypress, in a few short minutes I reach Villa Il Gioiello (The Jewel), so-called due to its position. This is where Galileo Galilei lived from the time of his sentence until his death. British poet John Milton and philosopher Thomas Hobbes were also among the guests of this spectacular Tuscan architectural complex. You’ll need to be careful not to get lost here, as the streets are narrow and finding your way isn’t easy. I always bear in mind that I’m trying to come down off the hill. Starting down Via di San Matteo in Arcetri, the wall on the left eventually gets shorter and you can just about make out that typical Tuscan rural landscape, which blends olive trees, grape vines and cypress with balance and agricultural knowledge. Keep left at the end of the road: the tiny Via Suor Maria Celeste leads to Via Gherardo Silvani, which will take you to Galluzzo in the space of a few minutes.

Don’t worry, you’re still in Florence, even if Galluzzo was a town in its own right between 1881 and 1931, later incorporated into the city. It retains its agricultural features and a unique name, which comes from the Bolognese family of nobles, the Gallutius. Piazza Acciaioli is at the heart of the village and home to the First World War monument, the Statua della Vittoria (Statue of Victory). Many visitors come to this part of the city to see the Certosa (Florence Charterhouse), built by Niccolò Acciaiuoli in 1341. Surrounded by walls and situated in a strategic location at the confluence of two rivers, the Ema and the Greve, the monastery sits on Monte Acuto mountain and is inhabited by a few monks of the Cistercian Order dedicated to prayer and distilling. You’ll find unique liquors here, made as they were in the Middle Ages, distilled over fire and wood by infusion or pressing with equally unique perfumes: verbena, lavender and lily of the valley, all fragrances from an ancient and precious bouquet.

To return to emerging yourself in the countryside, do as I did: head up Via della Luigiana, which runs along the border between Florence and the town of Impruneta. This road used to be called Via di Parigi (after Parigi di Tommaso Corbinelli, who owned many of the small farms and houses in which wealthy people and workers lived in the area, still known as “The Parigi”). It takes its current name from the 1940s, when the fascist regime took against the name, reminiscent of Paris in France, a country with which Italy was at war. After consulting the then owner of “The Parigi”, Guido Salvadori, the road was given its current name; the name Salvadori wanted to give to his daughter. All around sit greenhouses and gardens, countryside and enchanting panoramic views. Shortly after starting out along the road, pay a brief visit to the small stone chapel of Villa Rapi Corbinelli. Via Luigiana also bears witness to the fork graffiti on its walls.

Falorni butcher’s shop, Greve in Chianti
Piazza Matteotti, Greve in Chianti

But the real stars of the show are the olive trees. The fruit they bear is particularly appreciated from the end of October, when the new oil is produced. Strong fragrance, dark green colour and a spicy flavour. Festivals and restaurants in the area compete to prepare the best fettunta in the region. Don’t worry, for once this dish has nothing to do with the animal world. Fettunta is toasted bread made with the best wheat flour, flavoured with garlic and covered in oil and salt. Accompanied by the new season’s wine, of course!

This opens the doors to Florentine Chianti. Greve is a few kilometres away, but first stop off at the town of Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, home of the Abbazia di San Michele Arcangelo a Passignano monastery from the Lombard period, belonging to the Vallumbrosan congregation. This place is ancient: the first traces on parchment date it back to the end of the 8th century AD. From the outside it looks like a military castle with towers and battlements on the walls, but inside it has the typical appearance of a monastery. The church’s frescoes were painted by Mannerist artists Domenico Passignano and Alessandro Allori, who became the most commissioned Florentine painter after the death of Giorgio Vasari. In the refectory, you’ll also find a “Last Supper” by Domenico Ghirlandaio, the painter’s first work on the subject, dated 1476, which he then repeated in the cenacle in Ognissanti and in San Marco. The journey really is worth it!

Impruneta area
Arcetri Observatory

From this beautiful stop-off, it’s only twenty or so minutes to the town and commune of Greve in Chianti. I park my Fiat 500 just outside the town centre and walk to Piazza Matteotti. A unique triangular piazza with arcades, home to the weekly market and the perfect place to buy (or try) oil and wine, as well as locally made products and foods of all types. The piazza hosts an antiques fair (the dates change each year, for more information visit www.comune.greve-in-chianti.fi.it), the Chianti wine festival (second week in September), and an old butcher’s shop owned by the Falorni family.

Lunch here amidst the mighty expanses of ham and salami! The delicacies prepared in this corner of passion for ciccia (animal flesh) can be sampled directly in the shop: mixed cuts of cured meats and cheeses, fettunta prepared with new oil, soups, tartare and typical seasonal desserts, all accompanied by a selection of wines by the glass. Walk off the great feast of which you have just partaken by heading for the Castle of Verrazzano, once home to Giovanni da Verrazzano, the corsair, explorer and navigator who introduced us to North America and who, in 1524, discovered New York Bay. Who knows how many stars he was able to see from this hill? As many as Galileo and the farm workers of the Florentine hills used to look up at.

di Isabella Mancini

Certosa
Abbey of San Michele Arcangelo a Passignano

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