Hills of content
Despite the slopes and unexpected detours, walking with friends in Tuscany is a magical bonding experience, discovers Helen Dalley
MY hand reaches out and plucks a fig from the branch: ripe, richly tasty, juice spilling down my chin and over my fingers. Eating exotic fruit fresh from the tree is strangely exhilarating. It’s naughty, I think, biting in and sharing it with my travelling companions, a guilty pleasure.
Pinching a delicious fig, unripe olive or even a tiny grape from an orchard in Italy is a criminal offence and punishable if you get caught. But who’s looking, out here among the Tuscan fields, under a still-blazing September sun? No farmers. Certainly no carabinieri . Only we intrepid walkers.
My friends and I are on the less travelled, white-pebbled side roads, the strade bianche . We see few people. No traffic, not even the odd tractor; it’s obviously way too hot for knowledgeable locals to be out in the midmorning heat. There’s just the odd glance from passing motorcyclists as they double-take at the sight of a half-dozen women in our sexy sunhats but not so sexy shorts and trainers as we traipse the byroads, dirt paths and field tracks of Tuscany.
We want an adventure. Not the extreme, hard yakka, character building, snap-yourachilles kind, but more the indulgent out-ofour-comfort-zone sort of adventure. Through word of mouth we discover ATG, a travel company based in Oxford, England. Its brochure is mouth-watering (then again, for we hardworking mothers any brochure with the words Italy and breakfast served in the same sentence would have won us over), offering a smorgasbord of guided and selfguided bicycle tours and walking trips through France, Spain, Greece and Italy.
What about the Amalfi Coast: Ravello to Positano? Divine, we thought, but maybe just a bit too strenuous up and down those rugged coastal cliffs. What about strolling the plains of Umbria in a pilgrimage to Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis? Not quite right.
So a five-day self-guided walk through the hill towns of Tuscany captures our collective imagination. Footloose and fancy-free, we decide to proceed from the romantic medieval town of San Gimignano, over fields and valleys to other hilltop settlements and, finally, magnificent Siena. Perfetto .
No guide, no catered lunches, no comfy bus to fall into if the going gets too tough. Just us, with sturdy walking shoes, a map and directions, hat, sunscreen, water bottle and picnic panini stuffed into our day packs.
Walking in an exotic destination is the fashionable new black. Such independent journeys as the one we choose are a far cry from the backpacking of our youth, but more invigorating than simply lazing by a pool.
Travel companies report that walking trips are becoming increasingly popular. Maybe it’s the certain joy of momentarily stepping out of our daily lives and leaving behind all that resembles normality. Most of my friends and I, all mates since schooldays, are travelling without partners and children for the first time in more than 20 years.
Walking brings travel down to the small scale of discovery. It’s as if the journey goes under a microscope and allows the minutiae of places and people to be observed. You don’t need to walk a great distance but you taste the lifeblood of a destination: sniff its scents, touch trees and streams, walk clods and ancient stones and feel its culture seeping in. I TAKE the Eurostar train from Rome to Florence (only one hour and 40 minutes), then change to a slower regional train to Empoli. A caffe latte later and I’m on an even slower twocarriage train with no glass in its windows, to Poggibonsi in the heart of Tuscany. From there a bus to San Gimignano. Within an hour I’ll be sharing vino, laughs and tales of the story so far with my friends.
Inside the ancient stone gates of San Gimignano, siesta is over and the place is jumping. The passeggiata (evening walk) has begun and the tiny walled village with its numerous stone towers — the Manhattan of medieval times — hums with tourists buying, locals strolling, kids playing. Gelati are being slurped, aperativi tossed back, loud conversations hurled about. The streets are as small, hot and narrow as I remember, but there’s an energy here that’s exhilarating.
On the first morning of our walk, the route manager turns up to brief us. Iranian-born Negar is London-educated but lives in Tuscany for the summer. These route managers book accommodation ahead each night (very good hotels, two to four stars), transport luggage each day to the next destination and explain maps. Other than in an emergency, we’re on our own.
Charming and informative, Negar is all positive spin. She’s so convincing about how beautiful our trip will be, and how easy the directions are to follow, that we blithely dismiss our concerns about the steep hills and ridges we’ve seen in the area.
‘‘ You won’t get lost,’’ she says. (We haven’t even considered the possibility.) ‘‘ The creek won’t be raging, so you can cross it safely.’’ (The brochure says nothing about creeks.) ‘‘ There will be one water tap en route, except for day three: no shops, no taps, no nothing.’’ (Might we actually run out of water?) ‘‘ There are no snakes in Tuscany.’’ (On day two we will step on a dead viper.)
Out of San Gimignano the countryside is downright pretty. We don’t go anywhere near main roads, cars or traffic. Leaving behind cypress-lined pebble roads, we walk through fields of sunflowers just past their summer prime, by olive groves and family-owned vineyards heavy with bunches of purple grapes. Wild blackberries are ripe and plentiful, while the apples are not yet ready. We pick native lavender and its fragrance gently wafts around us.
We’re told you can walk over any farmlands in Italy as land belongs to the people. Farmers don’t own the fields, they are merely given the right to farm them, so there is no trespassing, which is the converse of Australian law. But pinch a grape and you could be prosecuted for stealing.
There are almost no signs along our way and the charming directions simply say things such as: ‘‘ Turn left at the corner of the olive grove and pass through a high hedge, walk 150m through sunflower field and turn right at the old rusted bathtub.’’ So the navigators among us must concentrate more and talk less, an almost impossible task for six women.
The geographical survey maps and global positioning system way points we have been provided may be useful for well-organised hikers but do they really think a bunch of professional women from urban Sydney, who unfortunately skipped Girl Guides, can make sense of such numerical and visual gobbledygook? We simply fall back on our usual tactic of following our noses and reading the directions, and have a marvellous time.
The sometimes flat, sometimes steep, curving track turns through heavily wooded hills. We walk past small farms where there are massive rolled haystacks, goats, chooks, little pigs and rabbits. We see the famous black pigs of Siena and spot geese playing on a pond. We come across Jerusalem donkeys. (My friend tells us they’re so named because of the cross-shaped black stripe on their backs.) They fit right into the whole religious story in Italy and we try to imagine the Virgin Mary riding on such a small, furry back while nine months pregnant.
It’s impossible to miss religion in Italy, even out here in the countryside. We pass Abbadia a Isola, a beautiful, simple Romanesque abbey. In even the tiniest village there’s a church. The Tuscan hill-town genre is perfectly named. And they are steep hills that require much sweat to reach the top and pass through gated stone walls. Driving across Italy in the past, it somehow escaped my attention that Tuscany is hilly.
On our first walking day, we cover 15km and the temperature climbs to 29C. During the next two days we walk and climb about 20km a day, with the temperature more than 30C. We feel it in the calves, then thighs; even our toes ache. Blister packs are our most precious commodity.
When the fierce heat manages to silence the near constant talking and laughing, we lay our sarongs under a row of tall cypresses. We guzzle water, kip for 10 minutes, then yogastretch for five. Blissful rejuvenation. The little towns we walk to each day are treasures: wellpreserved examples of medieval architecture, yet with few tourists. Monteriggioni, where we stay in the only paid rooms in town, is a picture-postcard walled village with 14 stone towers. The entire village — 100m in diameter, with 65 residents within its walls — is almost perfectly round, sitting like a jewelled crown atop the hill.
In the 13th century, when the towers were higher, it offered the Sienese some defence against the approaching Florentines, as Siena tried to maintain its dominance. It seems barely changed since the days the Black Death devastated the population: another frozen moment in Italy. Sturdy and stunning in its simplicity, the vibrant village manages to support several quality restaurants, no doubt frequented by tourists and locals coming in from surrounding districts.
The food en route is a treat. For our selfcatered picnics on the walk, we buy well each morning: panini of fine prosciutto, pecorino, rucola, bananas, sweet oranges, pistachio biscotti and, always, mineral water stuffed into our day packs.
At night, dining alfresco in garden restau- rants in each town, the meals are a revelation. Cinghiale (wild boar) is the local specialty; there’s pasta with more porcini than we can poke a walking stick at, insalata caprese, and chianti of the region at ($19.80) a bottle.
After a few more occasions getting lost, we walk up our final few kilometres of steep hill and enter the Tuscan jewel of Siena. As we anticipate another few days of glorious discovery here, we reflect on where we’ve been. Such a walk. Such a feat. We ignore the heat throbbing in our heads and faces and our swollen fingers, and are quietly jubilant at our small achievement.
We have loved our passeggiata and our friendships are not only intact but flourishing. Over a glass of cold sparkling prosecco, we drink a toast to our grande avventura .
ATG Oxford’s Footloose trips are independent, self-guided walking journeys along continuous routes. More: www.atg-oxford.com. The Italian Government Tourist Office will launch its website for Australian travellers on Sept 20. More: www.italiantourism.com.au.
Downright pretty: San Gimignano village, above; clockwise from centre, typical Tuscan countryside; a stone farmhouse nestled amid cypresses; the region is full of hill towns