A beautiful hilltop retreat, and the gardens of a Medici Villa, beckons from the valley of Florence. This easy day trip north from Florence takes you directly to both the Abbey of Monte Senario and the Villa Demidoff Parco di Pratolino. These are two little-known corners of Tuscany, rarely visited by tourists.
A brief history:
Monte Senario, as it is now called, was one a wild, untamed, place where winds whistled through limestone caverns and wolves prowled the land. In the midst of religious upheaval in Florence, seven friars began a long and arduous journey in search of retreat, a place where they would avoid the temptations of the city.
Hilltops in the Mugello, directly north of Florence, attracted the friars. It would be in the beautiful hills of that area, they believed, they would find the best, remote, location for their hermitage. Their struggles were rewarded when, in 1241, they reached the top of Monte (as it was called at the time) Sonario – named for sounds made by winds in local limestone formations. The small group immediately went to work on a house that would serve as their retreat.
Over the centuries, the Servite order (named for their dedication to serve the Holy Mother) friars have built a large Basilica and many other buildings on their property.
Why go? The hills north of Florence are famous for their beauty. Winding roads cut through forests, pass along vineyards and provide visitors incredible views. Between Florence and Monte Senario, you pass the gates of another famous Tuscan Villa, Pratolino.
Built by Francesco I, First Grand Duke of Tuscany, the villa was completed in 1581. Designed by Buontalenti, Francesco’s favored architect and landscape designer, the villa has recently been restored. Why did Francesco choose such a remote site for this villa? His mistress, Bianca Capello, desired a county home. The gardens were completed before Francesco’s marriage to Bianca in 1579.
Gardens with monumental statuary, including one of “The Colossus of the Apennines” over twelve feet tall, provide a shady and cooling retreat for visitors. The gardens evoke a sense of Romanticism, an intentional decadence and decay that still attract those fascinated by Italian, specifically Tuscan, gardens. The original Pratolino gardens were categorized “Mannerist”, a style that includes water features and statuary with water hydraulic systems that animate man-made structures such as doors, gates and playful water games.
After Francesco’s and Bianca’s deaths, the villa fell into disrepair. It was, after over 100 years of abandonment, that the villa was demolished. Leopold II, former Grand Duke of Tuscany, sold the property to a Yugoslavian prince, Pavel Pavlovich Demidov.
He wished to have a residence on the grounds and set about restoring the original building where the Pages that served Francesco and Bianca lived. Hence, the current name of Villa Demidoff.
He also had the gardens redesigned in the English style. While retaining some of the large sculptures that were built at the time of the Medici, he focused on simplifying the layout of the gardens so that they were easier to both maintain and explore. The property, which the prince expanded from approximately fifty acres to nearly two-hundred, is now the property of the province of Tuscany.
The grounds, park and villa are truly worth a stop during your travels further north to the Monte Senario complex.
So it is on an easy day trip from Florence. From the remains of a powerful Medici Grand Duke and the moneyed influence of a Yugoslavian prince you arrive at a place of retreat and sacrifice where friars gave everything away in dedication to their religious beliefs.
Vaglia, Via Fiorentina 282
Tel: 39.055.408.0734 or 39.055.408.0777 (office)
Tel: 39.055.409.427 (Reception)
May, September and October, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays: 10.00 a.m.-6.00 p.m.; June, July and August, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays: 10.00 a.m.-7.00 p.m. The variability of the opening and closing depends on weather. If you are planning to visit on a day of inclmenet weather, call ahead!
Visits are free of charge
Open every day: 07:00 – 12:30 / 15:00 – 19:30
From Florence, driver to the Piazza della Libertá
As you enter the Piazza, watch for overhead sings in the direction of Mugello, Pratolino and Bologna (Old State road to Bologna, North)
Stay on SR 65 and you will arrive at Pratolino. The car park is on your left, directly across from the main gate of the Villa/Park property
Take SR Route 65 NORTH toward Pratolino.
To continue on to Monte Senario, head north out of Pratolino. As you enter the small village of Pratolino, you will come to the intersection of SR 65 and SP Route 103.
Take the RIGHT fork at that intersection and take Highway SP Route 103 North
You will pass the Demidoff Country Resort on your right
Shortly beyond the Demidoff Country Resort, you will be turning RIGHT onto “Strada di Montesenario” (Look for brown and yellow signs pointing to the Abbey of Monte Senario)
Stay on that road and you will eventually arrive at the parking area for Monte Senario
To return to Florence, return on the same route, headed south