We have friends who told us that walking in Tuscany in Italy is a wonderfully scenic and de-stressing experience so we thought we would try it, even though we?re both over 60 and both ancer survivors.
We found tour organisors, the Alternative Travel Group, on the internet, and booked a five day walk from San Gimignano to Sienna. We particularly liked the ATG system where they take your luggage each day from the hotel you leave to the next one on your route. They sent us good literature of the walking experience, including an excellent route book.
We flew SAA from Cape Town to Zurich and then took the train through the beautiful Swiss lakes to Pogbonnsi in Northern Italy, where we took a bus to San Gimignano. The bus ride was exciting as the driver tried to be another Italian racing driver along the narrow roads. With some relief we arrived at the hill top town from where our walk was to start. Dragging our luggage (thank heavens they invented those little wheels on the bottom of cases) up the main street through crowds of mainly German visitors, we reached the glorious 14th century town square, surrounded by 7 ancient towers (out of an original 72), and a really delightful hotel, with its modern amenities in a historic building. After booking in, we had dinner of gnocci and wild boar in a local restaurant to build up our strength! We woke next morning to a traditional country market in the square. After a wander around, we started off on our walk.
We really didn?t know what to expect. We were told that the athletic standard required was not high. We walk on the beach each morning in False Bay with our dogs, so we think we are moderately fit. In the event, apart from some steep bits where we struggled and puffed, we coped with no problem.
We learnt quickly that shoes need to not be too loose (you slop around and get blisters) or too tight (you get sweating, sores and cramp). Proper walking shoes are essential, preferably with hiking socks. We used Nordic walking sticks, which were light and allow the upper body to be used and help with balance and up the steep bits.#160; The weather, thankfully, was beautiful in early October, warm but not hot, blue skies and soft cooling winds. Walking in the rain would have been a different matter.
We started on a bit of road for a couple of kilometres, then turned into the countryside, following the comprehensive and accurate guide. It would say ?after 75 metres take the right fork?. Apart from a couple of points where we got ourselves confused (but women?s intuition got us through) it led us through the lanes and woodlands without fault.
The first day was generally undulating, through vineyards, on white farm roads (strada bianca) and across fields and past occasional stone and cream painted farm houses .#160; Italian laws are unlike ours in that everyone has the right to walk across the land, while farmers only have the right to farm it. The vineyards were interesting in that white and red Chianti grapes are frequently grown in adjoining rows. It was picking time and it struck us how few pickers there were, and we saw that in some cases they mix the white and red grapes in their baskets. We peeped into one wine farm to see the wine being pressed in a traditional basket press in the cellar surrounded by concrete tanks.
We saw very few people as we walked and those we passed gave a brief buon giorno and seemed un-phased to see two lone walkers with just a small back pack.#160; We were greeted by many dogs who barked briefly from behind their fences in an embarrassed way and then went back to sleep in the sun.
After 14 kilometres we reached our next old town of Colle Val D?Elsa. br /This was quieter town than the previous one. There were few tourists and the inhabitants appeared less visitor-friendly. The hotel was comfortable and our luggage had arrived. We had included an emergency bottle of red wine and the first activity was to shower and have a medicinal glass.#160; We found that we preferred the Chianti Classico to the standard Chianti, as it had more body and was closer to our South African taste.
Elsa was also a delightful old Etruscan town perched on a hill top but it had the unusual lift which took you down to the more industrial new town below. Although a bit stiff, we were able to make it to the town square filled with families enjoying an evening in the sun, and then to another good restaurant for traditional tuscany dinner. After the more touristy spots we had visited, the cost of a lovely meal was much closer to our budget and the prices at home in Cape Town.
In the morning we packed our bags, left them in the hotel, and set out for our second leg of 19 km to Monteriggioni.#160; The weather was still glorious, if not a bit hot, but the route was more undulating through fields and a through cool and tranquil woods. We appeared to be in hunting and shooting country, and passed kennels of rather mangy hunting dogs and heard the occasional gun.
Our route took us past a number of pretty villages and beautiful houses and we saw a lot of rebuilding going on. We were later told that this area is known as ?Chianti-shire? due to the number of expatriates British retirees who buy up the old properties and rebuild them.
We had got into a routine of hourly water stops , and had bought lunch of lovely Italian sandwiches for a picnic under the trees. This days route was more of arable land with lots of woods, with signs of ?hunting forbidden?, presumably of the local wild boars, which are a delicacy on the menus in the restaurants. We came to a beautiful medieval castle, now a hotel and winery ?Castel Petria? where we bought some expensive wine, but when we drank it later, it was well worth the price. We came to Abbadia Isola, a church and monastery on the pilgrims route to Rome. There were good information boards but unfortunately we were not able to see its beautiful interior as it was locked.
In the fields beyond we saw a lot of the huge black and white Sienna pigs, used for delicious hams. They had such happy faces as they trotted up to the fences, almost like horses do, hoping for some food, unaware of their impending fate.
The problem with medieval towns is that they are placed on top of hills. After 18km the last one kilometre is a daunting prospect as it feels almost vertical to get to the town gate, but we struggled up aware that a hot shower and a glass of wine awaited us. You really step back in time as you enter the charming small walled town with its 14 towers. Our accommodation was in a spacious apartment with antique furniture but a modern bathroom en-suite. We had supper of the local hand made spaghetti and gnocci in the open air caf? in the small town square. We slept well.
Our final day of walking was 18 km to Sienna. It was a Saturday and there were many more people around. We walked through the countryside where we saw hunters with their dogs combing the fields and hedgerows. We were passed by riders on grand horses, looking just a bit snooty at these two mere walkers. We walked through a set of paddocks with beautiful young horses, who were also a bit snooty as we tried to befriend them. We saw a magnificent display of aerobatics by model planes at a small model aerodrome. In one of the woods we saw the burrows of the crested porcupines, but sadly not one of the animals. In those same woods we came across a number of people grubbing around at the base of trees, whether they were looking for truffles or mushrooms we never did find out as our italian didn?t stretch to such words.
It was a lovely day only marred by the steep approach to Sienna itself which was , to us, like scaling Everest. We struggled up the hill watched with amusement by the locals finishing their weekly shopping. But the entrance into the grand square around which an annual spectacular horse race is run, was worth it. It was crowded by locals and tourists enjoying the afternoon sun, amongst children playing, dogs (always on leads) and wedding parties.
Our hotel was once again historic but well appointed and our tour organiser met us there presumably to see we had arrived safely and in one piece (so no law cases!). She introduced us to the young lady restauranter whose restaurant is four levels below the street in the old monastic warehouses, cut from the rock. In that enchanting place with its brick domed ceilings we had a final exquisite meal to celebrate the proud achievement that we?d done it. We had walked 55 km through Tuscany, seen lovely sights, enjoyed great accommodation together, and not strain not a blister!
As we took the bus back to Florence on our way home by train through Switzerland and flight from Zurich, we knew it was a holiday to be long remembered.