The meeting point is at a Pasticceria and on a Sunday morning, a flourish of humid chaos breathes out of the building as we open the front door and walk into the cacophony of trilled calls for caffè and brioche, espressos clattering on white marble counters. The register rings constantly and the air is heavy with voices over the roar of the coffee grinder – neighbors meeting up for their morning cappuccinos – children run through the tables or climb into grandparents’ laps. A group of young girls in the corner bursts into fits of laughter. Two older women sit by the window – seemingly friends for ages, chatting every so often between watching the dance of this place as they sit dressed better than I’ll ever be – with pearl necklaces and perfect pin curls.
I hold out my receipt and try and catch the barista’s eye – my little white flag raised in surrender: yes, I absolutely need coffee for today. The woman behind the pastry counter is all smiles this morning as she salutes a few regular customers when they pass by the front window. Her expression of despair when we ask for “empty” croissants is so genuine I almost change my mind. “All of these options,” she begins, gesturing dramatically to the display in front of her – pastries filled with creams or jellies, little cakes with fresh fruit, piles of sugar-dusted pistachio cookies – “and you pick the most boring – even on a Sunday!” she chides, shaking her head, but we have a ways to go today and a heavy cream-filled pastry with a cappuccino doesn’t sound ideal for hiking.
Outside we sip the foam from our cups and look towards the hills behind us – a few streets later and we’ve hit the beginning of the dirt road and the woods that I miss so much. The trees swallow us up into the trails – old roads from long forgotten quarries – in the shadow of the mountain where Leonardo Da Vinci first tested his flying machine.
Just last month an article was published in the paper that said the number of tour buses visiting Florence is sometimes reaching up to 200 a day – and this is just day tours – some staying for just three hours. I wonder how many of those people would rather stroll through olive groves instead of stand in the line at the Uffizi and how many don’t even know that they’d rather hike up to see Florence from above than winding the busy streets. Not many locals even make it up to the hiking trails around the city, but I’m lucky to have found a few outdoorsy people here that understand the need to get away from all the craziness of the center. I’m luckier still that they know the best trails around here – and most of Italy – and have given me insight to another group of Italians that aren’t afraid to get their feet muddy or break a sweat.
We climb up old roads with crumbling pavement revealing smooth stones underneath. The trails are marked with hiking signs every so often along with red and white paint markers on the trees. Some are ancient mining roads, others from throughout the centuries of life traveling in and out of Florence. Giovanni points out boar tracks along the way. Rami and I let Luna off her leash and watch her try and gallop through the tall grass. We pass through olive groves with views overlooking the hills – the humid cold turns Florence into a watercolor of shadows and silhouettes. Castles jut into the skyline on each hilltop through the murky, filtered sunlight. Around the next corner, a Kaki tree glows autumn Tuscan-style – its leaves a blanket at its roots while the orange globes of the fruit still clinging to the Nightmare-Before-Christmas branches glow like lanterns in the shadows. It may not be New England foliage, but Florence has its own way of showing that the seasons are changing and I’m falling in love with it just as much as corn fields and apple orchards.
We stop for lunch In a meadow of green grass and cypress trees that looks out over the Arno valley. The sun feels warm even with a cold wind from the other side of the mountain, and as Luna curls up on Rami’s lap, I know this is the most perfect Sunday that I’ve had in a while with my little family and a great group of friends. One more reason I know I’m not really made for real city life.
I think about all of those people visiting the Da Vinci museum down below us – crowded into the caverns of an old palace, staring up at recreations of his inventions – and I wonder how many of them would rather come up here, climb the trails Da Vinci climbed, and actually see the view of the city that inspired him to fly. So many millions come to Florence, but the focus is so small it suffocates the experience. There are places still so rich in history, still so quiet, so untouched, so incredibly beautiful, and, thankfully for us, just a walk away from home.