Written by Sandy Brown
I’m standing at the counter of the wood-panelled pasticceria in the hamlet of Camaldoli, a village tucked under a blanket of green leaves, high above Arezzo in the mountains of the Parco Foreste Casentinese, and here I see the object of my desire. It’s a heaping tray of sweetbread cookies, topped by a hand-lettered sign that reads, “Pan del Pellegrino.” Since each is stuffed with raisins and nuts and honey and calories I’ve decided they’re just the right food for our small group of St Francis Way pilgrims walking up to Badia Prataglia, Frassinetta, Rimbocchi and the Franciscan mountaintop Santuario della Verna.
The Camaldoli pasticceria is one door of several in the town’s main commercial building, a long, stucco-covered structure shared by two restaurants and two small hotels, all nestled under the same roof that itself huddles under the arms of the ancient forest. Across the road the Camaldoli Monastery sits in an oasis of sunlight. There the monks sell their herbal soaps and medicines, host their retreat center for religious pilgrims from throughout Italy, and in the middle have their chapel where they have said and thought and sung their prayers for a thousand years.
A pilgrim does not live by Pan del Pellegrino alone, and we know a deeper sustenance awaits us. I buy a bag of these morsels for my friends and we cross to the trailhead, soon finding ourselves climbing on a wide and winding path under tall trees to a summit among sun-dappled fern meadows. As we begin the downhill walk to Badia Prataglia we find ourselves on a portion of the Sentiero Italia, the legendary 6166km itinerary that connects the Alps with Trapani on the western tip of Sicily. Before long we are on a portion of the Grande Escursione Appenninica (GEA) that connects Apennine peaks in Tuscany.
We come to a viewpoint over the red roofs of Badia Prataglia and a few minutes later are enjoying snacks at a local pizzeria. Badia’s name hints that it was once home to an abbey, and our explorations lead us to the cool and damp crypt of the town’s church, where 20th century renovations uncovered a beautiful 12th century crypt with intriguing medieval and Roman carvings. Even the most unbelieving of our group recognizes a quiet power to this dark and holy space.
The next morning we rise before the sunlight peeks over the surrounding mountaintops and nervously gather at breakfast before what we know will be the hardest day of our walk. From Badia Prataglia we climb briskly up the slopes of 1113m Poggio della Cesta and are rewarded with stunning views of surrounding mountaintops before climbing down to tiny Frassinetta. We pause for a snack on the lawn of an old, stone church. Between us and Rimbocchi is 876m Poggio Delma Forca, and after walking up its slopes we see ahead of us the dauntingly high and flat peak of 1283m Monte Penna, home to Santuario della Verna. Rimbocchi has a bakery and a pizzeria, and we use the town’s fountain to fill our water bottles. After lunch we head out with determination, crossing the SP62, finding the trailhead for trail 053, and then marching up the steep, vertical path through the forested slopes of 1023m Poggio Montopoli.
After the upward climb we again cross the SP62, and something changes. Now on the grounds of the Santuario and under the trees of the Sacred Forest we sense a calm that sets this place apart from the rest of the woods. The trees are taller, but somehow also seem deeper and maybe even wiser. The white boulders are covered in cascades of green moss. The deep carpet of leaves absorbs the sound of our footsteps. As we walk through this fairytale forest we recognize a change is coming over us, too. We hush our voices so we can listen, so we can revel in the rays of light dancing through the leaves onto our faces and hear the sound of the deep quiet. We begin to feel with our hearts why the great and humble son of Assisi would fall in love with these woods, and it wouldn’t seem strange at all if we should hear his voice in the wind, singing a song of praise. As we come to the foot of the cliff crowned by the Chapel of the Stigmata, we are stronger for these steps through the mighty forest. We know our hike is now a pilgrimage, we are meeting a deep presence, and our souls are being fed.
31 August, 2021
Sanford “Sandy” Brown is a pilgrimage guidebook author who lives in Lucca, Italy. His first guidebook, The Way of St Francis: From Florence to Assisi and Rome, has been followed by guidebooks on the Camino de Santiago and the Via Francigena. For more information, see www.sandybrownbooks.com.