The forested mountains of the Casentino, the region encompassing the upper valley of the River Arno, have been a hotbed of spirituality for centuries. The area is crammed with atmospheric mountain towns and historic sights, easily explored by car on day trips from Florence or Arezzo. For information on the region beyond what we have below, visit www.visittuscany.com/en.
An enticing target is the medieval hill town of Poppi, whose Castello dei Conti Guidi (tel. 0575-520-516) is visible for miles. This castle, started in 1274, was the seat of the Guidi counts who ruled the Casentino until 1440, when it came under the control of Florence. It's open daily from 10am to 6pm (last ticket 5:30pm). Admission is 7€ for adults, and 4€ for children 6-12 (free for 5 and under). The rest of diminutive Poppi is fun to explore. Many of the medieval buildings have retained their wooden porticos, and a slightly sleepy village atmosphere prevails.
You can branch off at Bibbiena, just 7km (4 1/3 miles) down the road from Poppi, onto the SS208 and travel a winding 25km (16 miles) to the Santuario Francescano della Verna (tel. 0575-5341; www.laverna.it/en), around 3km (1 3/4 miles) from the village of Chuisi della Verna. Francis of Assisi loved to meditate here -- a vision had informed him that the odd rents in the rocky ground were caused by the earthquakes that occurred when Christ was crucified. On his last trip here, the night of September 14, 1224, he was visited by a seraph who left him with a wholly new mark of sanctity -- the stigmata of Christ's wounds. The small mud-hut monastery he founded has grown and is still a pilgrimage site for the devout. Surrounded by giant beech trees at a height of around 1,128m (3,700 ft), it's also a wonderfully serene place with spectacular views.
In the main Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, Andrea della Robbia left some of the greatest, most spiritual examples of his glazed terra-cotta works, like an Ascension and a beautifully simple Annunciation. The adjacent Cappella di Santa Maria degli Angeli, begun while the saint was alive, has another Andrea della Robbia Assumption, a Pietà and a Nativity. The Museo della Verna (Sat-Sun 10am-noon and 2-5pm, daily Jul-Aug; donation requested) next door houses some interesting bits and pieces, including the interior of an old apothecary and an ancient monk's habit fashioned from sackcloth. From the basilica you can walk along the Corridor of the Stigmata, lined with 17th-century murals detailing key moments in the life of St. Francis, to the scene of the miracle itself, now protected by the tiny Capella delle Stimmate (daily 8am-5pm; 7pm in summer; free). Scramble up to the summit of La Penna (1283m/4209 ft; 45 min) for even more spectacular views. The sanctuary is open daily from 6pm to 7:30pm (9:30pm in summer). Admission is free.
Another 12km (7 1/2 miles) south of Verna, Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in the hamlet of Caprese on March 6, 1475. Caprese has never forgotten this portentous event and even changed its name to Caprese Michelangelo after the boy grew up to become one of the greatest artists the world has ever known. His birthplace and ruined Castello di Caprese above the town have been converted into the serene Museo Michelangiolesco (tel. 0575-793-776; www.capresemichelangelo.net). The museum comprises two core 14th-century buildings: the Palazzo del Podestà (considered the most likely birthplace, as Michelangelo's father was mayor in 1475), and the Corte Alta, home to an intriguing ensemble of 19th-century Italian sculptures and casts of Michelangelo's greatest works. Opening times vary throughout the year (visit website), but it's usually open Tuesday to Sunday from 11am to 5pm (Nov-Mar Fri-Sun only). See the website for current admission's charges (they change frequently). The location is stunning, and you can grab a rustic Tuscan meal at Buca di Michelangelo (tel. 0575-793-921; www.bucadimichelangelo.it), nearby at Via Roma 51; overnight accommodations are also available here.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.