Hills of con­tent

De­spite the slopes and un­ex­pected de­tours, walk­ing with friends in Tus­cany is a mag­i­cal bond­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, dis­cov­ers He­len Dal­ley

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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 .

Check­list

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

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