Last spring, I completed my first long-distance hike: I walked the Via degli Dei, the 135-km hiking trail departing from Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore and ending at Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, passing through the Apennines, the mountains that form the natural border between the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany.
If you’re a passionate walker and love active vacations in less explored areas, then I’d highly recommend doing the Via degli Dei. Even for me, a native of Bologna, it’s been a way to get to know more deeply, more slowly, the territory near my home; don’t we too often overlook places close to home without realizing how beautiful and special those places can be?
The Via degli Dei trek is suitable for beginner hikers, as long as you’re fit enough to walk several hours per day. It takes from four to six days to complete, although I think four days would make it too rushed. The best time to go is late spring or early fall. Modest hotels and agriturismi are found along the route; they provide bed sheets and towels so you don’t have to carry them in your backpack. Water is available along the route, but start the day with at least 1.5 liter.
The Story Behind the ‘Via degli Dei’
The walking route connecting Bologna with Florence is known as ‘Via degli Dei’ – the Path of Gods. Why the intriguing name? The man credited with devising the route grew up in the valleys and mountains south of Bologna (it would perhaps be more appropriate to say he ‘rediscovered’ the route – more on that later); the story goes that, as a child, riding in the car with his father, he kept seeing a road sign with the words “Via degli Dei”; he fantasized about this road, wondering where it led, intrigued by such a mysterious and poetic name. The young boy grew up, but never forgot about ‘la Via degli Dei’ and, towards the end of the 1980s, he convinced a group of friends to help him find the trails that, from the outskirts of Bologna, lead to the Futa Pass in Tuscany, passing by the road he traveled on as a child. The trails touch on mountains named after gods and goddesses: Monte Adone (Adonis), Monzuno (Mons Junonis), Monte Venere (Venus) and Monte Luario (Lua). Hence the name Via degli Dei given to the road, and the name chosen for the trek.
I’ve written that using the word ‘rediscover’ would be more appropriate because in reality the Via degli Dei is a very ancient path, traveled on foot since Roman, and possibly even Etruscan, times. In fact, the central stretch of the Via degli Dei coincides with the Roman road Flaminia militare, built in 187 BC to connect the important colony of Bononia (Bologna) with Arretium (Arezzo) in Tuscany. While the Flaminia Militare lost its military importance during the Middle Ages, and as a consequence was progressively abandoned and eventually hidden by growing vegetation, it continued to be used, as a trail, by the numerous pilgrims and wayfarers, traders and bandits, who needed to make the crossing through the Apennines. In recent times, parts of the Flaminia Militare were patiently dug out, during the course of 30 years, by two local archeology enthusiasts, Cesare Agostini and Franco Santi. It is quite a thrill when you suddenly find yourself deep in the woods walking on Roman ‘basolato’, the type of road paving used by the ancient Romans.
Via degli Dei: The Route
La Via degli Dei begins in Bologna’s main square, Piazza Maggiore, and ends in Florence’s world-famous Piazza della Signoria, touching on many natural and historical points of interest.
On a beautiful sunny morning last May, I departed Bologna with my group from the non-profit hiking association Trekking Italia, Bologna section. After the uphill climb along the Portico of San Luca, at 3.8 km the longest portico in the world, we reached the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, a landmark of Bologna. We then proceeded for a long stretch along the Reno river, mentioned by Dante in Canto XVIII of the Divine Comedy’s Inferno, where he defines the Bolognesi as those “living between the Savena and the Reno”.
The Via degli Dei offers several occasions for detours to discover the rich history of the territories it traverses. One such occasion is the Guglielmo Marconi Museum in Pontecchio Marconi, housed in the former home of the Nobel prize winner who pioneered long-distance radio transmission and wireless telegraphy.
From a natural standpoint, the highlight of the first stretch is the Contrafforte Pliocenico, a group of rocky sandstone cliffs dating to the Pliocene (between five and two million years ago), the result of the sedimentation of sand transported by the Apennine rivers and subsequent erosion caused by the wind and sea. Its bizarre rocky spurs are especially visible on the peak of Monte Adone, at 600 meters above sea level. It was then, as I was hiking up the steep slopes of Mount Adone, that I fully realized I was actually walking from Bologna to Florence: I looked to the right and saw, down in the valley below, the Autostrada del Sole, the highway connecting the two cities. Reaching Florence from Bologna on the autostrada takes about an hour – on foot, it would take me six days. I was on my second day, the climb was strenuous, my right knee was hurting, but I was determined!
On the second stretch of the walk, we entered deep into the heart of the Apennines, traversing a changing landscape: vast green fields dotted with an explosion of colorful flowers, woods of beech, chestnut, conifer trees, high ridges providing panoramic views. By the end of the third day we were at the Futa Pass, once one of the most important passes of the Apennines, used to connect Bologna with Florence before the Autostrada del Sole was built. The Gothic Line, the defensive line built by German troops during World War II, passes by the Futa; the nearby German military cemetery, which, with 33,000 tombs, is the largest German cemetery in Italy, stands as a sober reminder of the atrocities of any war.
The landscape changed again when we emerged from the woods in the Mugello valley, which runs parallel to the Apennines along the river Sieve; there could be no doubt that we were in Tuscany, with its elegant, soothing rolling hills, covered with olive and cypress trees, dotted here and there with tiny villages and gorgeous villas, such as the Medici Villas, magnificent rural buildings built by the Medici between the 15th and 17th centuries.
We reached the ancient town of Fiesole, founded by the Etruscans. Fiesole is worth a stop to see the ruins of the Etruscan walls, the Roman baths and theater, the Duomo, the 14th-century Town Hall. It is also worth a stop for a delicious pappa al pomodoro or any Tuscan specialty of your liking if you arrive, as we did, at lunch time.
We were ‘only’ 10 kilometers from our final destination. Florence was clearly visible, right below us. We could make out Brunelleschi’s dome.
We left Fiesole by way of a delightful wood and then, finally, we emerged on a paved road, and we entered Florence. As we walked the relatively quiet streets of Florence’s outskirts toward the heart of the city, my excitement grew.
As we approached Piazza della Signoria, by then surrounded by the myriad tourists who always swarm the city, emotions were running high in the group. We entered the piazza with our arms up, smiling, laughing, happy. We’d made it. Modern-day walkers along an ancient path.
More information about this trek can be found on La Via degli Dei website. A guidebook is essential if you’re not doing the walk with an organized group, although I’m not aware of guidebooks written in English. The Via degli Dei website however has an English version and a good map on sale, as well as an app.