This leg of the trek across the Apennines partly follows an old Franciscan trail that goes from Caprese Michelangelo to Eremo di Casella (a religious retreat) and the Sanctuary of Verna.
We set off from the birthplace of Michelangelo and go down towards the small village of Lama. Here we begin our gradual ascent up the slopes of the Catenaia Alps. This mountain range lies on the right bank of the river Tevere and separates the two regions of Valtiberina and Casentino. It’s a beautiful sunny day. We have a few problems locating the start of footpath number 20A because the start is covered with brambles. This path starts at the small church and then after a couple of hundred metres, it meets the asphalted road that goes to Fragaiolo. We know we’re in the small village when we start to see a lot of houses along the road. We take the white stone road, again from near a church, and head off into a thick woods of oak and chestnut trees.
This white stone road eventually leads to the Eremo di Casella. The road is about 6kms long and has a difference in altitude of 500m. As the road goes up, so the surrounding plants and trees change. The chestnut trees (or ‘bread trees’ as they are known around here) become fewer and there are more beech and fir trees. The slope rises gradually up the the Catenaia Alps making it a slow and long stroll through this stunning natural landscape all the way to the retreat. Legend has it that while he was on his way back to Assisi, Saint Francis wanted to say goodbye to this much-loved Verna mountain and used these words: ‘Farewell mountain of God, Sacred mountain, farewell Alvernia mountain.’ After about an hour and a half, we reach the summit. The small and simple retreat is built of light grey stone and includes a chapel dedicated to Saint Francis and a shelter where it’s always possible for pilgrims to light a fire and make something to eat. Water has to be got from the spring which is a few hundred metres before the retreat on the road from Fragaiolo.
From this altitude (1262m) the view is stupendous. We stop for a while and rest on the lovely green grass next to the retreat’s large wooden cross before heading off to the town of Chiusi. The walk is different now as we are following the footpath that coasts the ridge of the mountains. We are constantly reminded of how sacred this place is by the many crosses that we find along the way. Once we are beyond the last of the crosses, we begin a steep descent across Poggio Assunzione, from which we get a great view over Chiusi.
The footpath crosses the asphalted road and then goes across some fields towards the centre of the town where there is a strange fountain made by Campari (during the 1950s, Campari had a rather original advertising campaign which involved building fountains all over Italy). The town itself is medieval and originally grew up to provide shelter for pilgrims who came to the retreat. Much of the town was destroyed in WWII and many of the houses have been built since then. Because of the large number of tourists who come to visit Verna convent, the town has many hotels and even a campsite. We were pretty lucky because not only did we arrive right in the middle of the local Truffle Festival which takes place between the 12th and the 14th August, but we were also asked to stay with a local family, Aldrimiro and Pasquina.