Between Pistoia, Prato and Florence there is a mountain range called Montalbano which embraces villages from all three mentioned provinces. The landscape is marked by forests, vineyards, olive groves and sowable land, as well as historical Etruscan ruins, medieval churches and 16th-17th-century villas. It’s a magnificent unpolluted natural setting ideal for walks, trekking, touring by bicycle and birdwatching.
The starting point of this trail is Serravalle Pistoiese laying on the slopes of Montalbano, in an area centuries ago contested for a long time by Pistoia, Lucca and Florence. However, the town has changed its ancient military aspect to a more peaceful natural appearance in which vineyards and olive groves rule over the scenery. Today, however, visitors can still admire the Lombard Tower of Barbarossa, 42 metres tall, and the Rocca di Castruccio, a medieval castle in which every year on August 17th and 18th is held the Quarter Palio. This palio is an archery competition between 4 quarters with roots going back to 1306 when the town was held under siege for 80 days by Lucca.
Above all, this is the area where the great Leonardo was born and grew. Born at Vinci, the surrounding countryside must certainly have influenced our juvenile genius in forming his sensibility, as one can notice in his very first drawings. A landscape of hills, with terraced vineyards and olive groves supported by dry stone walls that are much the same as in Leonardo’s time. Seen from above the ancient part of the hamlet of Vinci is almond-shaped, which is quite unusual for this part of Tuscany. With the tower of the Conti Guidi Castle and the bell tower of the church of Santa Croce it resembles a two-masted sailing boat and for this reason the historic centre is known as the ‘Castel della Nave’, the Ship’s Castle. Every year half a million visitors come to visit the Museum of Leonardo, which I personally recommend to visit, and the farmhouse in which he was born.
Neighbouring Cerreto Guidi, half way between Florence and Lucca, was founded by the Counts Guidi, who here built a castle next to the Via Francigena. A drawing by Leonardo depicts the town with its 14th-century walls and 8 towers. In 1555 Cosimo I de’ Medici built a villa, actually a magnificent hunting lodge, over the remains of the castle. Nearby the ‘farm-villa’ of Stabbia was built a couple decades later, again by will of the Medicis and was certainly worthy of them notwithstanding the rural intents. Cerreto Guidi’s town centre still conserves the splendours of its past in many architectural vestiges.
The cultivation of olive trees in the area of Montalbano dates back to the Etruscan age. Originally imported from Magna Graecia, Southern Italy, the climate of the Apennines was to prove not ideal for these Mediterranean trees. However borderline, the plants adapted growing smaller and with trunks always damaged by the cold, but owing to the hostile climatic conditions the olive oil produced in Northern Tuscany has unique and unrivalled characteristics. It is, in fact, less sour, more savoury and stable than southern olive oils.
Another important product of this area is its wine, this also produced since the Etruscan age, as testified by the wine vases discovered in the Etruscan tombs. The excellent quality of the Chianti Montalbano D.O.C.G. wine, and its companions, is due not only to the favourable features of the land, but also to the fact that here they have maintained the traditional production procedures. An unusual product of the area, instead, is chocolate. The region has a tradition of chocolatiers creating elaborate and delicious confectionery from chocolate, so much so as to be identified as the Chocolate Valley.
Today Montalbano is an ecological tourism niche offering a countryside, both rugged and gentle, charming little villages, historical architecture and a mouth-watering range of olive oil, wine, cheese, honey and confectionery chocolate to satisfy all kinds of whims.