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Forest bathing on Monte Amiata

Story by Tuscany


“Our hotel’s opposite the ski lift, I’ll meet you there,” wrote hotelier and tour operator Franz, in a WhatsApp exchange. Off I set, two hours south of Florence, climbing up into the woods lined with black-yellow snow poles and alpine chalets. The Florentine was forest bathing on the slopes of Monte Amiata.

Not a soul about, like most other places after lockdown, on arrival in Prato delle Macinaie we cautiously remove our face coverings and breathe in the pure mountain air of Monte Amiata: a rebirth in itself. Local nature guides Rudy and Roberto accompany us, in separate cars, to the edge of the woods. “Forest bathing is about the here and now, the bedrock of our consciousness and the basis of mindfulness,” explains Rudy. “In Japan, it’s called shinrin-yoku, which means to take in the forest through your senses.”

Phone stowed in the car, we enter the beechwood, the largest expanse of its kind in all of Europe. There’s nothing complicated about the experience; immersed in nature, we’re communing with the age-old surroundings. After walking briskly, at city speed, for the first few metres, Rudy asks us to stop, find a spot where we feel comfortable and concentrate on our breathing. I close my eyes, feel the softness of the forest floor beneath my feet and hear the sound of the wind rushing through the treetops, like waves crashing on the sand. It’s reassuring and disconcerting at the same time. We continue walking, at a much slower pace, the earth grounding our every step.

A volcano up until 200,000 years ago, Monte Amiata casts out a force field all of its own. The beech trees here respect a unique code of conduct. “Their leaves never touch,” comments Roberto, after we sit for a while and attune our sight to the nature we rarely find the time to observe. He’s right. It’s as if these trees were practising social distancing before we humans were obliged to adopt the behavioral norm. A single strand of spider’s silk catches my attention, the light gamboling along the gossamer, luring the occasional fly into its luminous lair.

On we amble, more aimlessly. I find myself drawn to the occasional patches of sun in the cool forest air and to the strangely shaped rocks. One glints in the morning light. “Locally, we call it pepito,” says Roberto, noticing my interest. “It’s trachyte, an igneous rock, and the shiny bits are quartz.” 

The conversation flows for a few minutes about the different names for different objects from place to place in Tuscany before a companionable silence is restored out of respect for the beech trees and one another.

Suddenly, the air feels damper, at a point where mossy boulders tumble down the forest into a deeper valley below. We take in deep breaths and smell our environs. Perhaps it’s the psychological effects of the pandemic, but my nose feels oddly shy. Porcini, the frisson of a cooler climate and wet earth aside, I feel blocked. How much time is needed to reap the benefits of forest bathing? “Just one day can start to boost your immune system, lower stress levels and increase creativity for a week, but three days at least, and ideally a week,” Rudy recommends. “Empirical research shows that breathing in phytoncides, aromatic plant compounds, ups the body’s natural killer cells.”

The final exercise is all about touch. I gently rub a finger pad over rough lichen, a hand over sparkling trachyte and stand with my back solidly to a tree trunk. One beech tree proves irresistible—we embrace. Of course, the tree hasn’t moved an inch, but in my endorphin-fuelled state it feels like an exchange has taken place, more generous on the tree’s side than mine, perhaps. I walk back through the woods stronger, calmer and energized, ready for the next alternative Tuscan experience. 

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