Before setting off we stop to visit the evocative eleventh century abbey (‘badia’) with its Romanesque crypt and have a nice long breakfast in the bar. We eventually leave, heading for Passo della Calla. The route goes through the Casentino Forest National Park and in fact we are surrounded by forests for most of the walk today.
The path goes up from the town to the Capanno Refuge and Fangacci Refuge. From here we take the footpath number 00 towards Prato della Penna and Eremo Camaldoli (a religious retreat). We walk under a wonderful natural canopy of silver fir trees. The whole area is covered with these trees. It is said that the reason why these silver fir trees dominate the area is because in the past, the Camaldoli monks preferred to cultivate them instead of beech trees because the silver firs were worth more money and because their long, lean trunks reaching up to the sky seem so mystical. The silence of the woods is only interrupted after two hours walking as we approach the retreat and hear the voices of many visiting tourists. We stop for a coffee in a bar outside the walls of the retreat and see the many natural products made by the monks which are on sale, such as the ‘Elisir dell’eremita’ (the hermit’s elixir) which is a good digestive liqueur that takes its name from this place.
In fact, it was the traveller and hermit, Saint Romualdo who first built the oratory here in 1012. It originally had just five cells and ever since has been looked after by the monks who live there. It’s only possible to visit the sanctuary at certain times so we only manage to see the beautiful San Salvatore church and the ancient cell that belonged to Saint Romualdo.
We set off again into the silence and follow an old mule track which goes from behind the retreat and up to the mountain ridge. There is a sign that says, ‘the landscape of the mountain ridge was a place of coming together, not of disunity. These paths were for trade, for meeting and greeting each other and for shaking hands’. Not much further on we meet Paolo and his horse. He comes from Mugello and has been travelling for a few days. We ask him for any suggestions for the next legs of our journey, say goodbye and shake him by the hand.
Next we pass through Prato al Soglio through Passo Porcareccio (1453m). From here on the path runs alongside the Sasso Fratino Nature Reserve, a protected area where nature is allowed to rule and the only human interference is when the flora and fauna are monitored and studied.
After reaching the grassy Poggio Scali (1520m), where there is a wonderful panoramic view, we begin our quick descent into Passo della Calla. We are lucky to be invited to eat at Refuge la Calla and enjoy a delicious fried polenta with a lot of red meat and wine - truly are the best reward after a long day’s healthy walking.