A Walk Under the Tuscan Sun
Cloven hoof prints were about the last thing I expected to see in Tuscany. But there they were, dozens of them, neatly stamped in the soft mud surrounding a puddle on a dirt road here in deepest Chianti.
“Devils?” I wondered.
“Worse,” replied Tracee, a guide for Backroads, the adventure travel company. “Wild boars. If you surprise them, they might charge you.”
In my extensive time in Tuscany, now rapidly approaching 24 hours, I had already been sucker-punched by its vineyards, cypress-lined roads, tufts of bright-yellow broom and restored stone villas that had me daydreaming of early retirement. As far as I could ascertain, the only thing remotely dangerous about the place was choosing a mediocre vintage of Chianti Classico.
And about the only thing I knew about wild boars, or cinghiale, is that they can be transformed into delicious sausages. But it turns out that in their pre-sausage state, boars can be as aggressive as a hungover truck driver on the Autostrada. With their tusks, these 200-pound beasts look like a Tasmanian devil crossed with an exceptionally unattractive pig. Get caught between a female and her brood, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who becomes sausage first. Who knew that terror lurked in the rolling hills of Chianti? I was here for a good walk with Backroads, and I had a week to spare. So, apparently, do other Americans, because Backroads runs many six-day trips through Tuscany each year. In a land that’s a byword for languorous days, it is Tuscany for the time-pressed.
Our motley group was picked up on a June afternoon at Santa Maria Novella, Florence’s exquisitely seedy train station. Here, tired Fascist architecture greets Americans attired in spandex dutifully avoiding pickpockets. There were 15 of us, ranging in age from 38 to 75. Among us were academics recently sprung from the classroom, a pair of bankers, a guy who owned a handful of KFCs and a number of people in their 50s who no longer did much of anything but enjoy themselves regularly on trips like these, their profitable livelihoods a distant memory to be glossed over during cocktails. We were a well-heeled, well-tanned and well-traveled bunch who had vigorously shopped for Gore-Tex and would drop close to three grand for six densely packed days in Chianti.
Our guides, the aforementioned Tracee and the equally bright-eyed Erin, were lively and alert twenty-somethings with the vigor, curiosity and unfailing politeness you need for this kind of job. None of us would have been up to their work.
Our taste of Chianti, a compact piece of real estate between Florence and Siena, would involve rural walks and explorations of towns like Castellina in Chianti, Radda in Chianti and Gaiole in Chianti. Our final walk would bring us to the promised splendor of San Gimignano.
After driving for 90 minutes southeast from Florence, we were deposited in Castellina in Chianti for a warm-up hike of less than four miles. This was calculated not for sweat but for stretching muscles and breaking the ice with a bunch of strangers in new boots. We were plunged into the brand-name Tuscan countryside of vineyards, rolling hills and stone farmhouses. The walk took us past fields of wildflowers like the purple Mediterranean pea, the pink convolvulus and fodder vetch that made it appear as if confetti had been strewn in the tall grass. The weather this early June week was ideal, warm 70s by day, balmy 50s by night.
The party line is that the Chianti countryside looks like the backdrop of a Renaissance painting. That was true enough, often enough. But obviously, there are modern aspects to this countryside that we weren’t destined to see, like noisy bottling plants that send those fermented grapes all over the world and humdrum towns that are not living postcards awaiting tourist visits. Our seamless walk had been as carefully planned as a military campaign by the brains at Backroads.
As we walked up a stony path, we could spy the spires of Pietrafitta peeking over the trees. It looked and felt remarkably rural, with the sound of Pietrafitta’s church bells wafting on the wind, waist-high grass on either side of the ridge. It was perfect pastoral bliss all the way to the hotel Vescine, our home for the next two nights.
This hotel near Radda in Chianti is a stage set of stone buildings linked by brick walkways overlooking the round, wooded hills. During our stay, the staff seemed to materialize out of those hills. Polite and helpful, I never once heard or saw them coming or going. The buildings, of ivy-covered stone with tiled roofs, were surrounded by roses and olive trees in what amounted to our own little Tuscan village. Dinner at the hotel’s restaurant was less than stellar, but we more than made up for it with most everything else we ate.
The second day set the pace. The guides handed out printed directions, of the turn-left-at-the-fountain-after-one-mile variety. In six days of walking, no one ended up in Sicily.
The guides gave a “route rap,” describing the difficulty of the day’s walk, the sights we’d see and places they encouraged us to linger. They laid out snacks that we could stash in our day packs, from bananas to PowerBars. And there was a foot clinic for the newly wounded, where moleskin and bandages were artfully applied to feet unaccustomed to anything more strenuous than a brake pedal.
Today would be a day of “ups and downs,” said Tracee. Rolling hills, in other words. And not too different from any other day in that regard. Today’s walk was close to ten miles, though there was a shorter option less than two thirds that length. With the exception of one 14-mile day, succeeding days’ walks were six or seven miles.
Then we walked. Now a walking trip is a lot like a floating cocktail party. You begin a conversation and then someone else joins you and then someone else has a stone in their shoe, so you don’t hear the end of the anecdote about their philandering ex-husband until after lunch.
Or you can walk alone. I often did, because I like to walk alone. The better to hear the cuckoo. I had only heard the mechanical version, which is close. But the real one pays no heed to what o’clock it may be.
Chianti is best seen from a two-footed approach. It’s not just the pace but the fact that those famed Tuscan hills are laced with a network of gravel roads that meander through oak forests and wheat fields, past impeccably restored villas and tumbledown ruins awaiting the touch of Frances Mayes. And this being Italy, they weren’t put through by some Florentine developer with a renegade bulldozer a few weeks ago. Many date back to Roman times. As to why they’re not paved, well, why should they be?
You wouldn’t see any of this in a car or on a bicycle. As far as I’m concerned, forget any trip to Tuscany that employs two wheels. A bike requires you to keep one nervous eye on the photogenic landscape, the other on semi-articulated lorries, loose gravel shoulders and teens on whining Vespas who seem inclined to nudge you off the road. And the walking was aided by the use of lightweight telescopic walking sticks that Backroads provides. Useful going uphill, they saved our knees on the descent, even if we did resemble a small army of Pinocchios.
The discovery of the cloven hooves spooked us, and we started talking loudly, as you would in Wyoming bear country, to let them know you’re approaching. But the day’s picnic made us forget wild animals. We feasted on young and middle-aged pecorino; fagioli, the Tuscan white beans, served with oil-packed tuna; deeply flavorful sun-dried tomatoes; fragrant artichoke hearts; that boar sausage; a salad of impeccably fresh tomatoes, arugula and basil; and an array of Tuscan flat breads.
The setting was the arbor of a homey villa called Le Patrene, owned by Pietro Basile and his American wife, Cindy. I had expected to find hundreds of Americans and Brits in identically restored villas in Chianti, furiously composing their memoirs of restoring these same villas. Not here, fortunately. Their villa had casually displayed 15th- and 16th-century paintings and sculptures, while a soccer match buzzed on a TV with lousy reception. Now this was real life under the Tuscan sun. And the Chianti from their vineyard was nothing short of delicious.
In the late afternoon, we came to a hilltop borgo, or hamlet, called Poggio San Polo. Here was Podere Le Rose, a cooking school inside a rambling family home. For the next six hours, Paola Bevilacqua de’ Mari taught us to make pasta and turn it into tagliatelle with porcini and ravioli with sage. Under her tutelage, we roasted and stuffed peppers with arborio rice and resuscitated that culinary cliche‚ beloved by devotees of Olive Garden, the humble tiramisu. But this “school” had none of your Sub-Zero airs. This was Nonna’s kitchen, with a stove that might have come from Sears and plastic tablecloths. Fueled by liberal doses of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Chianti’s white wine, and of Chianti Classico, this cooking school was about as disciplined as kindergarten.
Tasting Chianti was one of the joys of this trip. It is fondly remembered as the wine that you emptied as fast as you could from its straw-covered bottle: You needed that bottle to hold a dripping candle for purposes of seduction in your dorm room. But it’s a wine that’s long since been rescued from mediocrity and there have been a run of stellar years of late, including 1997 and 1999. And good Chianti is still affordable.
We moved on and spent two nights near Gaiole in Chianti, at Albergo l’Ultimo Mulino, where I had a large room that overlooked the outdoor pool. That pool was ice-cold and numbingly refreshing after our 14-mile day of walking. Dinner was stunning, with ravioli of spinach and ricotta followed by roasted pork in Vin Santo. It was made even more spectacular by a 1997 Rocca di Montegrossi Geremia.
On our final full day, we were driven to the town of Colle di Val d’Elsa and commenced a seven-mile walk to San Gimignano. Early on, we came to the crest of a hill and had the killer view of the trip. A few miles away were the 14 stone towers of San Gimignano on the horizon, the foreground a crazy quilt of wheat fields and cypress and poppies. If there had been archangels on the wing, it would have been only slightly improved.
Our view changed by the time we got to San Gimignano and found the narrow streets thronged with bossy groups of German tourists doing their best to eat every last spoonful of gelato in town. But around 5 p.m. there was a great sucking sound as the Teutonic hordes went through the city gates and back to their tour buses.
By 6 p.m. we had retaken the streets and the locals seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Early the next morning, we toured this town that had once boasted 72 towers, practically a medieval Manhattan. And there is much to see here, including the allegorical frescoes in the Museo Civico that look like a pastiche of the talents of Hieronymus Bosch and Larry Flynt.
It was shortly after the daily German invasion had begun that I finally saw a wild boar. He was not on a rampage, chasing panicked Bavarians as they dropped their dripping gelato and ran for their buses. The poor, dusty thing had been stuffed years ago and was now wheeled out every morning by a butcher whose shop was festooned with cinghiale sausage. Like my six-day stroll through Chianti, he was Tuscany tamed.
Backroads no longer offers this exact itinerary but they have “Tuscany Walking & Hiking,” from $3,098. They also offer “Tuscany Cooking & Walking,” from $4,598; and “Tuscany Insider,” price to be determined. Departures usually run from April or May through October. (800) GO-ACTIVE.