Saturday, February 14, 2015

Walking above the clouds in Tuscany

Magical misty mornings
When the opportunity to go on a walking tour of some Tuscan hill towns presented itself, I thought to myself, "Sure, why not? I've always wanted to go there. And walking? That's the best way to really get to know a place, right? How hard can it be?" Well, for me, it was some of the hardest physical exertions I have ever endured. There were times when I wanted to lie down on the dirt path between vineyards, weeping, and just give up. But in the end, the experiences, the people, the food, the view, ohh the views, more than made up for aching legs.

Rather than go it alone, I decided to sign up with an American-based company, Girosole, that organizes walking tours in Italy. I had done my research on different outfits and Girosole had rave reviews. In my emails with Luciano, he provided well-informed information and customized a trip that accommodated my interests. Best of all, there was a choice of hotels and I opted (naturally) for the cheapest range, which far exceeded my expectations.

While Girosole is based in the U.S., all its handlers in the region are locals. On the first day, Gabriele provided detailed information, maps and even a local mobile phone in case I needed help. I never saw him again but my bag was efficiently transferred from hotel to hotel on every leg of the trip. On the last day, his brother, Giacomo, obligingly waited and provided a drop off at the train station. They are two of the nicest, most cheerful and obliging young men I have ever met. Their mother should be so proud!

Each day, the itinerary mapped out a walk that was between 12km to 15 km. Some days it was around the region with a stay at the same hotel, other days it would be downhill from a town like Pienza to the next town, Montepulciano, with maybe a stop at the tiny hamlet of Montichiello. Two things I realized very quickly into the trip. While the program said the walk was for the moderately fit, I discovered I so wasn't.

Really? It felt more like 60 degrees
For a couple of months before, I had been going to the gym regularly to build up my fitness level, and even set the treadmill on a steep incline, but nothing prepared me for walking up and down inclines that were sometimes 60 degrees. I encountered all kinds of terrain from smooth tarmac roads to off-road rubble paths between vineyards and farms, and even barely discernible forest trails, skipping across streams at times. Once it was sticky, gluggy clay and if I had worn normal sneakers instead of sturdy walking boots, they would have been sucked right into the clay.

While I patted myself on the back for bringing along some muscle cream which I slathered on my legs every night, I should have outfitted myself more better. I would have been wise to bring along a pedometer to measure distances accurately so I could follow instructions to the letter instead of getting lost and having to backtrack. I also didn't bring a proper walking stick and looked enviously at other, more experienced walkers I met who carried not one, but two of those high tech looking sticks. In the end, a sturdy tree branch I picked up on my first day served me handsomely, especially on slippery trails and steep inclines.

Senior citizens chilling
I realize that I'm halfway into this posting and I haven't even begun to describe the towns. I started off from Sienna, and I have to agree that it is one the most beautiful hill towns. I could have just stayed here forever admiring its splendid Duomo and bustling Campo or town square, but each day brought me to another town, each with its own unique charm. I loved Pienza for its down to earth feel, with children running about and seniors taking their evening constitutional, all beautifully dressed and properly turned out. The town square of Montalcino was quaintly set in like another century, while San Quirico was a little more pensive and brooding. Montepulciano was full of wonderful little nooks and corners to explore.

Quirky little hotel in San Quirico
The standard of the hotels I had selected was budget but I could tell that each inn had been selected carefully by Girosole to reflect the town and its people. My room in Montalcino opened out to spectacular vistas of the surrounding hills. The hotel in San Quirico was a quirky inn where the owner took care to display local artwork. My room was the size of a suite!

A wedding party in progress
The church with its bell tower was just outside my window and I watched a wedding party come out and later, nuns bustling about. The room in Montepulciano was in what was probably once a grand apartment set in a bustling street and had actual frescos on the ceiling!

Breakfast al fresco
Unlike other hotels I've stayed in all over Europe, these inns provided a substantial breakfast, with juice, fruits, cereals, cold cuts, cheese and, best of all, any amount of fresh-brewed Italian coffee! There wasn't any time to linger over another cup of coffee, because the walk downhill from each town was best done early in the morning when the cloud cover was low and the rays of sunshine lit up the entire countryside as I descended. Each walk was breathtakingly more beautiful than the one before.

Barely discernible forest trails
There was plenty of food at breakfast for me to pack a picnic lunch, and I took this together with lots of water on the day's walk, which I often had to, because there was often no town to stop off for lunch at midday, and indeed, not even for a toilet break. Fortunately I never needed one, because although the weather was autumnally cool, I was sweating buckets.

Proud hunter shows off
There were days when I didn't encounter a single soul on the walk, although I could see farmers busy at work in the distance and the odd rabbit or deer. As it was autumn, I did come across hunters, including one who proudly showed me his spoil of pheasants. It can be lonely, I suppose, and the walks are not for those who crave the hustle and bustle as well as amenities of big cities. I'm a city person myself but  I was having too much fun admiring the landscape and revelling in the sheer pleasure of being outdoors with no one around for miles. I was so enamored of the hill towns that I hated coming back to crowded Florence with its horde of tourists. While admittedly there were loads of visitors in each town, it never felt hokey or touristy. There were few cars about, and I could just sit at a cafe in the open, enjoying the last rays of sunshine along with the locals.

Girosole provided a list of recommended restaurants for dinner at each place and all the ones I tried were great. I also did my own research and unearthed some local gems that served up hearty Tuscan fare like braised wild boar and grilled rabbit, accompanied by excellent local wines. I didn't realize that wines such as Brunello produced locally were so famous. And of course, there was local pecorino cheese, which the Italian tourists bought in big wheels to take home. An American girl I met who was doing the same walking tour, S, and I bumped into each other occasionally and exchanged information on the best places for food and gelato, a common passion.

I had to leave my walking stick behind
Back to the couple of times when I wanted to just lie down in the middle of a walk, probably after getting lost a bit and having to retrace my steps and attempt another steep climb. (Getting lost was due to my own sheer ineptness at reading directions, not the excellent instructions put out by Girosole.) After staring at the blue, blue sky and trying to get my breath back while ignoring my screaming muscles, I would tell myself, "You can do this, you idiot. You're in the middle of Tuscany for crying out loud, and you have legs you can still walk on, not a wheelchair!" So I would haul myself up with the aid of my faithful walking stick, and puff and pant to the next town where a welcome bed, hot meal and local wine awaited. Would I do it all over again, sore muscles and all? You betcha!

Magnificent hill towns like Sienna
I'll have to write about each town in greater detail sometime soon before I forget everything. In the meantime, check out the walking tours all over Italy Girosole offers, on

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