My love affair with Tuscany is a tormented one. No one can deny the charm of this region, the cradle of Italian language, arts and culture. My parents were not immune to this charm, and Tuscany has been a favourite holiday destination of our family for many years.
Over the decades, It has saddened me to see many towns change. Mass tourism turned artisan workshops into souvenir stores, pavement cafés replaced tiny trattorie. Generally speaking, the region has become overrun with tourists.
Now, I’m not going to go into a lengthy tirade on the goods and bads of mass tourism. I just want to tell you about another Tuscany – the Pistoia Apennines. It is still similar to the Tuscany I remember, the Tuscany of when I was a child. Where you find villages on the sides of hills, like pretty Cutigliano, with people getting on with their daily lives, fat cats dozing in the sun, artisan workshops and local trattorie – and nary a souvenir shop for miles.
In the Pistoia Apennines, villages are only part of the charm. The real attraction are the mountains – and that’s you’ll have another surprise. The Apennines are often seen as the Alps’ ugly cousins, short and squat, with rounded brown summits instead of towering snowcapped peaks. We visited a ski resort that had nothing to envy to the Alps and went snowshoeing in an idyllic setting – all with no Alpine crowds, and no hefty price tag.
Skiing in the Tuscan Mountains: Abetone
Living near the Alps, the idea of heading south to ski never even crossed my mind. I imagined there would be nothing more than a couple of skanky pistes, with slushy, half-melted snow.
Oh, how wrong was I! The Abetone ski fields are among the best in Italy, and given the short distance from Florence, Lucca and Pisa (just over an hour), Abetone a great option if you want to combine a classic Grand Tour of the region with a day or two on the slopes.
We spent half a day on the slopes, guided by Filippo, a former ski champion and now owner of several ski rental shops in the region. And now it’s time for a confession. I’m not much of a skier. To be honest, I’ve only been downhill skiing three times in the new millennium – once in Iran, once in Switzerland – and Abetone was the third.
I did have the option of having a skiing lesson in the baby pistes, but being a proficient cross-country skier, I thought I would get bored. So I followed Filippo and the others up the ‘serious’ slopes, thinking that one way or another, I would make it.
We caught the first cable car up, to the summit of Monte Gomito, and went down the first slope towards Val di Luce, the most scenic section of the area. As soon as we hit the first ‘wall’, the steeper section of the slope, I panicked. This is too much for me, I thought.
Luckily, Filippo was there to help me down – even though he was just there as a guide, he gave me a full skiing lesson. I let him guide me on the steeper sections, trusting his experience and skills. I tried to overcome my fear of tumbling down the slope and followed his directions. By the end of the day I was able to ski down the ‘wall’ by myself.
The scenery was out of this world, especially on the Val di Luce side of the ski fields. It was a bright day, the air was clear with no clouds or mist in sight. From the top of a chairlift we walked a short distance to a viewpoint from where it was possible to see the coast, with the faint silhouette of Isola d’Elba visible on the horizon. On the other side, we could spy the Alps, far away to the north, their snowy peaks standing out against the deep blue sky.
The snow conditions were excellent, despite being Spring and a fairly hot day. Filippo told us that it’s often possible to ski until late April at Abetone, sometimes even early May.
In the ‘rifugi’, the mountain huts where you can have a rest and a drink before hitting the slopes again, you’ll find a lot more besides the usual polenta-based dishes of the Alps. We had a lovely starter of tigelle and gnocco fritto (respectively grilled round breads and fried dough) with cured meats and cheese, specialties of the Emilia-Romagna region just across the mountains – but then, yes, we had polenta with our mains!
Relax at Val di Luce SPA Resort
If you’ve had enough of the pistes and want to spend an afternoon in total relax, you can head a few kilometers down to Val di Luce SPA Resort, a luxury hotel with a great spa. You can find all the treatments and amenities you need, from massages and sauna to a hammam.
Our favourite was the ‘crystal pool’, a warm water pool surrounded by a glass pyramid, with a million dollar mountain view. We spent the best part of the afternoon there, relaxing and looking at the sun slowly set behind the peaks – then the relax got a bit too much, and I fell asleep, missing the sunset. Alas, there will be another occasion.
Snowshoeing in the Tuscan Mountains
If skiing is not your thing, fear not, the area has many options to explore the wilderness on snowshoes, with trails of all levels. We opted for an easy snowshoe trek – a charity walk in support of the local section of AISLA, a charity providing physiotherapy to motor neurone disease sufferers.
The snowshoe walk was in the Biodynamic Reserve of Pian degli Ontani, a beautiful beech forest that was protected to create a reservoir of beech seeds to be used for reforestation efforts elsewhere.
The trail was led by two environmental guides, who talked us through the history and traditions of the area. We learnt about the ancient craft of carbon making, as we visited a disused carbon furnace, and about the uses for beech wood in the area. The area is rich in wildlife, especially bats, but being a large group, we didn’t see any.
The scenery was stunning. The mountains were all around us, framed by secular beech trees, barren in winter, their trunks shining green and silver in the midday sun.
There were about 50 people taking part in the snowshoe walk. It was great being part of such a great cause; however I couldn’t help but wonder how it would be to wander the woods in total solitude, with nothing but the whispers of the trees around me, and the flutter of bats’ wings when the sun disappears.
Villages where time stops
This part of the Tuscan mountains feels remote. An area that’s way off the tourist radar – I mean, people do visit Abetone, the Val di Luce resort and go walking in the mountains, but it’s mostly day trippers. If you stay for a few days, you’ll be able to see that life goes on as it always has, around here.
I remember reading a travel book years ago, written by an Italian journalist who crossed the area in a 1950s ‘Topolino’. I was amazed by his descriptions of sleepy villages, where the cycle race Giro d’Italia is the event of the year and men outnumber women 10 to 1 at the tables of local bars.
My mum used to call them ‘i bar degli uomini’, the men’s bars. Once again, this is not meant to be judgemental – just a testament of how different is life in those mountains, compared to life in Milan, the life I’m used to. In the Tuscan mountains, I had the feeling of having travelled back in time, back to my childhood – or perhaps back to a time I have never lived.
Our base in the area was Hotel Sichi in Pian degli Ontani, run by charismatic Carluccio, a friendly and gregarious gent who organises the best parties ‘this side of Versilia’ (so we were told). The hotel is wonderfully rétro – with wood panelling all around and quirky decor (including taxidermy animals), it looks straight out of the 1960, when the region indeed was on the tourist radar.
The first night we were there, there was a ‘briscola’ tournament (a card game similar to ‘trumps’). My eyes welled up as I thought back to the little time I spent with my grandfather, playing briscola in the afternoon sun.
Pian degli Ontani is nothing more than a handful of houses, yet it’s home to one of the greatest and most welcoming communities I’ve ever had the chance to meet. After the charity snowshoe walk, Carluccio threw a party for all participants, and invited one of his friends to play the keyboards and sing. One song was a trip down memory lane after another. Azzurro, the first song I learnt to sing by heart. Ma che ne sai se non hai fatto il piano bar, a song that reminds me of open-air ballroom discos on the beach, of night walks on a seafront promenade, of sleeping under the stars.
It’s incredible how sounds, smells, flavours, have the feeling of making you travel away from where you are, to go elsewhere, in place and time. I had never been to those mountains, yet I felt as if I belonged there – because those mountains reminded me of something I didn’t know, but I longed for. The feeling of a community, that all too often is lost in our city lives.
We all sat under the sun, drinking wine and listening to the music. I’m not sure if the others felt what I did – but I’m pretty sure everyone was happy. We left drowsy after a big meal (and a few drinks) but somehow we were energised, for having spent time that weekend with the two things that we, as humans, need the most – nature and friends.
We were guests of the Consorzio Turistico Abetone APM during this blog tour. As always, all opinions are our own.
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