Letting Go in Tuscany

15 October 2018

With the final bites of a multi-course lunch and the last drips from a bottle of red wine, our guide laid out our options for the afternoon: “We can hike around the top of this mountain — about an hour — or hike down to the town where our accommodations are — about 40 minutes — or both.”

Charting a hiking path through the Camaldoli Forest. © JoAnna Haugen

My two traveling companions opted for the downhill stroll to Chiusi della Verna, but I wanted to do both. It was only 2:00 p.m., and I wanted to fully experience what Toscana Promozione Turistica had to offer rather than spending Tuscany’s daylight hours in a hotel room. After an exchange of phone numbers, the local trail map, and reassurances I would be fine on my own, I set off for my own private hike in the forest just beyond the Sanctuary of La Verna.

I began the 200-meter climb away from the monastery, dried leaves crunching underfoot. Occasionally, an acorn dropped, cascading down a series of branches until it hit the ground — a hollow, reverberating sound when there are no other people around. Hiking through Tuscany’s Camaldoli Forest the day before, I was reminded of a quote I recently encountered: “Autumn shows us how beautiful it is to let things go.” I saw the message reflected physically in falling leaves from white beech and oak trees, and I heard it echoed in stories I heard during the four days I spent hiking in Tuscany.

Tuscany's golden leaves remind us that autumn is a beautiful time to let go. © JoAnna Haugen

Our guide, Marzia, who once worked as a project manager for scientific research for the European Commission, dabbled in guiding courses out of a personal interest before jumping in to the career on a full-time, freelance basis in 2007. “I just had to take the chance,” she said. On our first outing into Casentino Forest National Park, we lumbered through underbrush and stepped over fallen logs looking for poorly marked trail 74. “I know we’ll run into trail 00 up there,” Marzia said, pointing through a thicket of trees and undergrowth. “Trust me.”

In the metaphorical sense, letting go requires trust — trust that our guide knew her way to trail 00 and that I, too, would find my way around the much better marked trail 51. As a group, we took our time wandering along several kilometers of dirt pathways up and around mossy boulders, along narrow uphill climbs, over muddy puddles, and through expansive forests of tall, seasoned trees. Occasionally, a hike ended with an overlook, the extensive valley spilling out in every direction below; the view always hazy, the colors muted and bleeding together.

The view across Tuscany may be a bit hazy, but the experience is still memorable. © JoAnna Haugen
“Even if I’ve been here before, sometimes the landscape is so different, it’s like I’m seeing it for the very first time.”

The sun cast shadows across the footpath as we walked and talked about this historical, cultural, and natural landscape known primarily for its wineries. Marzia said walking these trails is a different experience every time she ventures out. In the spring, flowers carpet the forest floor; in the fall, dried leaves. In its own circle of life, a journey through the woods never disappoints. “Even if I’ve been here before, sometimes the landscape is so different, it’s like I’m seeing it for the very first time.”

Though we met very few other people on any of our hikes, Marzia promised us the locals use the web of trails for hiking, even if the destination isn’t well-known known for trekking on an international scale. In fact, the tradition of walking has a deep-seeded and long history in Italy as worshippers embarked on pilgrimages to monasteries and other holy sites. We walked along or crossed paths with several of these pilgrimage trails ourselves, including our morning hike along the Camino de Francisco that led us to the Sanctuary of La Verna, established in the early 1200s by Saint Francis of Assisi. Today, approximately 50 monks live at the monastery; they, like those before them, undoubtedly found that letting go of what they knew — what was certain — led to a home and place of worship abutting this beautiful, peaceful forest with sporadic peeks over the cliff face to the valley dotted by tiny towns below.

Travelers slow down and enjoy a quiet moment from the Sanctuary of La Verna. © JoAnna Haugen

The church bell rang. A cacophony of chimes echoed through the trees for several moments. I walked up a set of rudimentary wooden stairs and around a pile of stacked stones, the path undulating up and over natural curves in the earth. Reaching the pinnacle of my walk on the circular path, I stepped out onto a rock outcropping to survey the scene, letting go of any expectations. The haze still heavy, an obscured kaleidoscopic palette — deep crimsons bleeding into fiery oranges and softened golden hues — painted the sweeping view. And I relished the moment.

When I visit Tuscany again, I know the experience and the view will be different—perhaps less hazy, maybe more flowers than colorful leaves, possibly even more people. But I trust it will be beautiful.