After spending the night in the town of Sansepolcro, home town of Piero della Francesca, we put our backpacks on and left from Passo di Viamaggio on the Via Maior which is part of an ancient Roman road connecting Rimini to the capital. Once we had crossed the main road, the Grande Escursione Appenninica (G.E.A.) footpath begins just beyond an old chapel and follows a white stone road that descends towards the town of Pieve Santo Stefano. The first part of the footpath along this white stone road goes along the left side of a dome-shaped hill called Montalto. Its slopes are covered with thick beech woods. In fact, this thick vegetation conceals and protects the silence of the Eremo di Cerbaiolo which we reach after walking for one hour and which is found by leaving the main path and going up a long and pretty mule track behind a wooden gate.
The Eremo (religious retreat) sits on a rocky outcrop and is a simple place. Its simplicity is perhaps what makes it so authentic and richly spiritual - it is far from the pomp and ceremony of other sacred and often touristy religious locations (I think that the saying, ‘Whoever has seen La Verna but not seen Cerbaiolo, has seen the mother but not the son’ is very true). History dictates that the retreat, which was founded by Benedictine monks in 722, was offered to Saint Francesco by the local population in 1217. One year later it became a monastery for minor monks. Today, the only permanent inhabitant is a nun, Suor Chiara Barboni, who looks after numerous goats and who welcomes to the retreat anyone who wishes to spend a period of quiet spiritual reflection and meditation. Suor Chiara Barboni, with her great enthusiasm and disarming faith, was responsible for the re-building of the retreat which was seriously damaged during the Second World War. Our journey and search for special places couldn’t have got off to a better start and it is with sadness that we leave the retreat to push on towards Pieve Santo Stefano.
Once we have crossed the town, which was largely destroyed during Second World War bombing, we take footpath number 20 (also signposted as G.E.A.) and we head up towards Caprese Michelangelo. This part of the route is really interesting as it not only has fantastic panoramic views over the Tevere valley, but also because it passes through several tiny old villages where time seems to have stood still, such as Stratino Alto and Basso, il Casalino and Marcena. Another important stop on the route is the beautiful San Martino Abbey in Tifi. This perfectly renovated church was built by the pilgrim and hermit, San Romualdo, who also founded the Camaldolese Order.
After a brief rest, we took on the final stage of the day’s walk which went up and over an iron bridge over the river Singerna. The last part of the walk was along an asphalted road which took us to our goal, Caprese Michelangelo. This town is best known as being the birthplace of Michelangelo Buonarotti, the man who ‘saw the life within stone’. In the town there is a park-museum dedicated to the artist. We took a tour around the museum (which took all our remaining strength) before putting up our tents and having a lovely meal at the restaurant-hotel, ‘Buca degli Angeli’.