“Un altro!” a rider on a dirt bike bellows as he whizzes by me, leaving behind a cascade of dust and fumes. Barely five seconds pass before another biker barrels through the wooded trail before disappearing around a bend. I set off walking again as engine drones echo across the Chianti hills. I wasn’t expecting to see any life up here, save my walking group and maybe a wild boar. Earlier that day, my guide Jackie pragmatically mentioned that Italians simply don’t hike. Give them two wheels though, and they’re unstoppable.
Climbing through Tuscany, I’m accompanied by a small group of gastro-trekkers on a Hedonistic Hiking walking holiday. Born from the Anglo-Australian founders’ passion for fine wine, local food and the great outdoors, the company operates excursions in Italy and Australia. The husband and wife team research and operate all tours, uniquely combining Mick’s expertise as a professional chef and Jackie’s wealth of knowledge about Italian history, art and culture.
After a hearty croissant and cheese breakfast in Radda in Chianti, we gather in a van and careen toward the Montagnola hills, west of Siena. First stop: Abbadia a Isola, a small Benedictine abbey, built between the 11th and 13th centuries, and located on an important stretch of the pilgrim route, known as Via Francigena.
“Buongiorno!” chimes a pint-sized signora with snow-white hair. “Buongiorno” we reply as she moves to unlock the abbey’s mammoth door, three times her height. We enter the basilica, filled with Sienese art and rounded Romanesque arches. There are fading frescoes of the Virgin in a radiant ultramarine blue, the most expensive pigment at the time, and various saints garnished in 24-carat gold leaf. Jackie recalls that the Sienese “perfected the art of the gold leaf”. The largest gold leaf collection from the Sienese school of painting is housed in Siena’s Pinacoteca Nazionale.
Like the pilgrims, it was time for me too, to head for the hills. These trails date back to medieval times when travellers roamed around visiting holy sites, as penance for their sins or simply to explore. Since the millennium, this particular route has become more popular. “People have been doing the full walk from Canterbury to Rome or sections of it,” says Jackie.
The route, translating as ‘the road that comes from France’ is not a single trail, however; historically, it included several roads that evolved over the centuries — all leading to Rome, of course. Back in Radda in Chianti, even my hotel, the four-star Palazzo Leopoldo, operated as an old hospital and refuge for pilgrims during the Middle Ages. Italians may not hike much now, but walking is in the country’s DNA.
Lizards basking in the sun fitfully skirt into shady underbrush as I climb a car-wide gravel track. Monteriggioni’s towers loom on a distant hill. In his Divine Comedy, Dante compares the mist lifting above the turreted town to giants encircling an infernal abyss. “He was a Florentine and you could see how it frightened him that Monteriggioni looked so powerful,” says Jackie.
As I ascend into the wooded hills, crunching scree beneath my feet, the walled town disappears and I pass a memorial heaped with laurel wreaths. Groups from local villages visit the woods on 28 March every year, paying respect to a clutch of partisans shot here by fascists in 1944.
Up here, florescent green butterflies flit into woodland brimming with hellebore. I leave behind old stonewalls swallowed by moss as I summit the Montagnola region’s highest point. At 550m, views stretch toward San Gimignano’s bristling skyline etched into the hazy landscape.
Reaching a little meadow, scents of wild mint and oregano are overwhelming, but quickly dissipate once I dive into another wooded trail flanked by holm oak and arbutus trees. Though my gaze is fixed on the ground, I still stumble over tree roots and limestone rocks that jut mercilessly out of the earth like giant’s knuckles.
Descending toward Scorgiano, dusky woods dotted with pink flowers lead me to the Bichi Borghesi vineyard and organic farming estate where Jackie’s colleague, Annabel Purling, is finishing up an al fresco lunch spread. Having walked up an appetite, the vibrant colours splashed across the table look almost like a mirage.
Hailing from the local village market, salads include asparagus and Parmesan shavings drizzled with olive oil, plus piles of golden blood oranges with fennel and pumpkin seeds. As Tuscany is known for its pecorino sheep’s cheese, the table presents both fresh variety as well as a bold semistagionato matured for three to six months.
Glowing in its jar, chestnut honey is commonplace at this time of year when the woods burst with spring chestnuts. Fava beans are eaten raw and meats include the fiery finocchiona (fennel pork salami), little wild boar sausages and Tuscan prosciutto. Bottles of the vineyard’s reds and whites line the table’s edge to wash it all down. Beneath the hospitable sunshine, I enthusiastically tuck in while Jackie reads passages about partisans from A Day in Tuscany by Dario Castagno.
Then, having walked off the lunch tipple through the property’s sprawling Italian garden, it’s time to top up our reserves. Inside, owners Valentina and Niccolò have a table set for our private wine and olive oil tasting. They explain that the vineyard’s entire winemaking process is done by hand, producing around 30,000 bottles annually. The Colli Senesi Riserva is an intense red consisting of almost 100% Sangiovese, which Valentina explains, “is our most important grape in Tuscany.” It certainly is. The Tuscan Chianti Classico’s prestigious DOCG label indicates it contains at least 80% Sangiovese grapes.
After indulging ourselves, it was time to put in some hard work again, but this time at a private cooking demonstration. In 16th-century Villa San Chimento’s large kitchen, we crowd around an old table. Chances are it will get messy, but chef Orietta Siviero isn’t worried.
With flour, egg and salt, we knead and pummel pasta before plumping an asparagus and ricotta filling into the ravioli pockets. Orietta improves the lopsided creations with a bit of courgette flower, olive oil and pecorino before serving. It’s fantastic — though I’m convinced it’s not our doing, but the quality of the ingredients that give the dish its vitality.
Steep and sweaty
See-sawing back and forth over an incline cluttered with cavernous potholes, we finally reach our departure point. Piling out of the van, we set off for a 10km hike high above the village of Greve-in-Chianti.
The trail is immediately arduous. From every direction skylarks and cuckoos trill into the morning air, while motorbike engines howl in reply. Little streams cut into the landscape trickle downward beneath my feet, rendering the trail manageable, but progressively muddy.
On the way up, a grunt followed by a rustle of leaves gives way to silence. I can’t see the wild boar, but it probably senses me, so I carry on through chestnut woods that shepherd me up to the ridge of Monti dei Chianti. From here, Arno valley views are subdued by hills running into the Apennine mountain range, which stretches along the length of Italy like a jagged spine.
Smoke slithers into the mid-morning air in pockets across the landscape as Italians burn their pruned olive branches. It arches to meet clouds bellied low and heavy in the sky, erasing the horizon. Heading toward Monte San Michele, the highest point in the region, early purple orchids adorn a trail that quickly transforms into a clearing with picnic tables.
Pausing in pinewoods, we suck orange and lemon spicchi sweets while Jackie reads a story from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Rain begins pattering on my waterproof and I quicken my pace. Fog swiftly rolls in, swallowing vineyards whole as an eerie bell tolls despondently in the distance. The elements finally drive us into Ristoro di Lamole’s refuge, high in the Chianti hills.
Once inside, we’re immediately brought a warming Lamole di Lamole Chianti Classico to pair with our platefuls of plump tomato bruschetta, creamy burrata cheese with grilled vegetables and truffle honey-topped pecorino. Creamy homemade ravioli with fresh pecorino and pear is gobbled up quickly before a nutty black venus risotto with asparagus is served. For centuries, this exotic grain was exclusively cultivated for the Chinese Emperor and nobility.
As we tuck into the royal dish, muddy bikers from the hills gather at a nearby table. It seems we’ve all ended our day’s pilgrimage together with a well-earned feast.
Many airlines across the UK fly direct to Tuscany’s two main hubs, Florence and Pisa. British Airways flies from Gatwick and Heathrow, EasyJet from Gatwick and Luton, Ryanair from Stanstead, Leeds and Edinburgh, and Jet2 from Manchester.
Average flight time: 2h 20m.
By car — rental firms are available at airports. Without a vehicle, the region is largely accessible by train connections between Florence and Siena or SITA busses, though service can be limited.
When to go
Spring and autumn when the weather is sunny but mild (22C) prices are lower and there are fewer crowds.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€) £1 = €1.26.
International dialling code: 00 39.
Time difference: GMT+1.
How to do it
Hedonistic Hiking offers ‘A Tuscan Harvest’ tour including seven nights’ accommodation, all meals with wine, a support vehicle on hikes, experienced guides, return transport from Florence, pre-trip information, luggage transport and museum visits. Prices from £2,060 per person. Return flights from the UK to Pisa start at £60.
Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)