I’m strolling along with an Armadillo. Not a real one, of course, but what I’m pulling along behind me is no less surreal than if I were taking the actual animal for a walk in the woods.
The Casentinesi Forests National Park is one of the largest woodlands in Europe, encompassing a network of winding trails that cover more than 400 miles either side of the border between Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. Here, you can trek to the beech tree-covered Monte Falterona, where the source of the mighty Arno river lies, or marvel at the crystalline waters of the Lago degli Idoli (Lake of Idols). Every twisting path can be hiked, biked or tackled on horseback; what I’m doing, however, is slightly more unusual.
The adaptable, man-hauled Armadillo cart I’m pulling was designed by my guide, Sebastian, to transport kit across a huge range of challenging terrains. It can be carried as a backpack, used in water, towed as a sled, attached to a bike, and dragged by the waist, as I’m doing today, using a cross-body harness and wheels. “The only thing it can’t do is fly,” quips Sebastian.
In reality, though, he’s no joke: an engineer-turned-explorer, Sebastian has taken his cart over land and sea. Two years ago he undertook a six-day aqua-trekking adventure along Sardinia’s deserted Golfo di Orosei: a wild, windswept stretch of coastline.
Clad in a wetsuit, flippers, mask and snorkel, he swam five miles along the bay each day, Armadillo in tow. With no hotels or hospitality offering respite, an ex-US navy desalinator and ration packs became his only friends. “At night, I used to lie there and dream of restaurants,” Sebastian jokes.
Back in Tuscany, my walk through this sylvan scene is less life-threatening expedition, more micro-adventure. Silver birches stand sentinel on either side of the track and shards of light penetrate the forest canopy, falling on the ground in tiny pools of gold.
A group of men with well-worn flat caps emerge from the trees. They carry their bounties of foraged porcini in hip-slung wicker baskets — the area is known for its wild mushrooms — and as I come into view, a look of utter bewilderment crosses their faces.
The only other creatures to call these woods home are wolves. They returned to the area only recently, as human residents made the move to cities in search of work. I almost think I can hear the pitter patter of softly padded feet, see the swish of grey tails, but, Sebastian assures me, they only prowl at night.
Our trek twists and turns through the labyrinth of trees, the path sometimes clear as day, at other points disappearing into the undergrowth. I’m glad I have Sebastian with me, and he strides ahead, cutting a confident path.
Sebastian is a big fan of English adventurer, author and motivational speaker Alastair Humphreys, who encourages people to get out and explore their immediate environment on micro-adventures. You don’t need to ski to the South Pole or go trekking in Patagonia to find excitement, the theory goes.
In Tuscany, another of his favourite hiking spots is the Maremma coast, especially during winter, when the dune-backed shorelines are virtually deserted and the wind howls in his ears. The area is famous for its beauty: azure waters lap against jet-black rocks, and views stretch out across wild, empty marshland.
This astonishing, all-terrain cart can tackle any landscape, from mountain to coastline, making it well-adapted to scientific surveys, expeditions and charity work, where aid needs to reach remote places.
“I also use it when I’m out in Florence, shopping with the kids though,” he adds. The looks he must get there.
Foraging: three to try
Tuscany’s farm-to-fork ethos can be seen all over the region. From the wheat in its famous pasta to the grapes in its biodynamic wines, expect food to be fresh, delicious and locally sourced. Visitors can be part of the scene, too — foraging their own Tuscan produce. Here are three regional specialities:
Truffle-loving visitors can participate in the ultimate epicurean adventure — foraging for the famed tubers with a certified hunter and trained dog. Often the experience culminates in a feast featuring any buried treasure you found. The hills of Mugello, just north of Florence, San Miniato to the west and San Giovanni d’Asso near Siena are good places to start.
Wild caper plants can be found all over Tuscany; just look out for a bushy plant with small, circular leaves and beautiful purple blossom. Pick the buds in summer, when they’re small and firm. Making your own salt-cured capers is fun and simple. Just put them in a jar full of salt and drain off any water that accumulates. They’ll be ready to use as a garnish in about 10 days.
Large flat-topped porcini mushrooms are easy to find in Tuscany (particularly in woods after it rains), though there are plenty of others, too, from the prized Caesar’s mushroom to the sunshine-yellow chanterelle (Gallinaccio). Head to Castiglion del Bosco near Montalcino; just make sure to read up on the rules before filling your basket.
Published in the Tuscany guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)