We assembled early under a dazzling Italian sun, eager to get under way. For what lay ahead was an exceptional adventure. In the next nine days, we would hike the gorgeous hills and valleys of southern Tuscany, ripe with the harvest of summer's end.
The starting point was Montepulciano, an enchanting 15th-century Renaissance town of narrow, winding streets north of Rome. It is perched atop a hill draped in the vineyards that have made the area famous for its Vino Nobile, one of Italy's best wines. Our first day's descent took us past countless rows of fat purple grapes.
Our ultimate destination, en erratic 70 miles to the north, was the famed hilltop city of Siena -- a fitting rainbow's end to footsore wanderers savoring the rich pleasures of the northern Italian countryside. After a long walk, one wants to sit, and few places anywhere could be lovelier to rest than Siena's cafe-ringed Piazza del Campo, its tranquil central square that has been delighting eyes since the 13th century.
In between, we stopped at a series of charming and historic Italian towns, each an unhurried day's hike away. One, the remote hill town of Pienza, was ordered built in the 15th century by Pope Pius II as something of a grand monument to himself to replace the humble village where he was born. His magnificient cathedral and palace still grace the exquisitely proportioned and little-changed piazza, an early and successful example, say the guidebooks, of Renassiance urban planning.
At Bagno Vignoni, we soaked in the soothing pool of a modern hot springs resort. In centuries past, St. Catherine of Siena, Italy's patron saint, and Lorenzo de" Medici of Florence took the waters at the ancient Roman baths here, remnants of which still remain. Nowadays, crowds of local people plunge their feet into a narrow channel of streaming water racing from the springs to natural pools on the rim of a gorge.
Our guide, leading his small tour group, avoided paved roads, instead taking us on farmers' paths across the open, rolling fields and on hunters' trails over thickly wooded ridges. Every so often, we strolled right through a farm yard, invariably welcomed (after a few surprised stares) with a smile and a shy "Buon giorno." We plucked wild berries growing almost everywhere along our way.
A Land Rover delivered our luggage each day to the next hotel or inn, and the bags were waiting in our rooms when we arrived in late afternoon. On the trail, we picnicked on delicious Italian sausages and cheeses purchased fresh that morning, always spread with a sweeping Tuscan view before us.
In the evening, we gathered in the hotel dining room to enjoy the hearty, homemade fare of the countryside. The pasta and mushroom sauces alone were worth the walk. Menus favored veal and chicken, but we also tried rabbit, hare and once, a spicy stew of kid. Vegetables arrived crisp from the garden, and no fruit just off the trees could be sweeter.
Bottles of vino locale, the local wine, emptied quickly at lunch and dinner, and just as quickly were replaced.
We were, for much of the walk, in an unhurred Italy undiscovered by most American tourists, away from the horns and hordes of Florence and Rome. We liked to think, as we passed remote farmhouses and farming villages, that we were seeing the country as foot travelers had in the distant past, unfolding slowly step by step, each day's goal but a hazy blur on the far horizon.
There is much to be said for seeing a place on foot. Scenes do not zoom by as they do from a car or train. When one has laboriously climbed the twisting path of a long hill, its image is burned into the memory. It may be a cliche to describe a holiday abroad as "unforgettable," but that is the truth of our Tuscany hike. We had time to begin to fell the daily rhythms of the land, which is one of the rewards of leisurely travel.
One morning I awoke at 5 to the unusual clatter of trucks outside my window in Montalcino, a walled hilltop town dating from the pre-Roman days of the Etruscans. A center of another excellent wine, the red Brunello, the town is crowned by a superb 14th-century castle, the Rocca, with its crenulated turrets thrusting into the sky for grand views in every direction.
That the customary quiet of the town had been broken was surprising, but so was the parage of vehicles negotiating Montalcino's sinuous streets. What could account for it? The answer came when -- after the customary breakfast of coffee, bread, butter and jam -- I joined the townspeople climbing the hill to the Rocca. It was Friday, and Friday is Montalcino's market day.
These days, the old-fashioned market has become quite mechanized. The books lined up neatly beneath the castle walls offered a bounteous array of fruits, vegetables, cheeses and fresh and cured meats. But large vans and trucks also displayed shoes, sweaters and household goods. The largest truck -- surely the one that awakened me -- was stocked full of fabrics and doing a brisk business. The vendors, it seems, travel from town to town on a regular circuit, providing what the local shops cannot.
What impressed me most, though, was seeing the farmers and their families drawn to the market from miles around. When the shopping was done, they gathered in the main piazza to visit for a while and sip a cup of coffee. It reminded me of the Saturday afternoon ritual when the farmers came to town in the small Nebraska community where I grew up.
Late afternoon is also a time for gathering in these Tuscan hill towns. The shops adjoining the main square remain open, and the sidewalk cafes -- there's at least one in every piazza -- suddenly fill with chattering families and friends as if by some silent summons. That was usually the time our group of sweaty hikers in quest of a cold birra arrived in their midst, all of us foreigners and many of us dressed in shorts and sunhats and toting cameras and daypacks.
To their credit, the townsfolk accepted this apparition with friendly aplomb, making room for us under the shade of table umbrellas. Italy has been luring visitors since the heyday of Rome, so I suppose very little outsiders do surprise the inhabitants.
The greatest pleasure of Tuscany is in its natural beauty. Art treasures and historic structures dating back to the Etruscans are scattered lavishly over hills and river valleys. But their significance seems somehow dimmed by the wonderful colors of the quiet countryside.
To my eye, the most notable features in the landscape are the tall, slender cypress tress, lined like classical pillars across the high ridges. Their dark green boughs contrast brilliantly against the deep blue sky or a field of beaming yellow sunflowers.
Just outside Pienza, on a broad slope planted all in wheat, a lone cypress stands atop the crest. It seemed an especially dramatic image, three splashes of color; blue sky, green tree and golden wheat, each in sharp focus. And so it must have appeared to other passers-by, for just that scene is captured on a Tuscan picture post card sold in Siena shops.
But never mind. Post cards can't do credit to the glorious Tuscany sunsets, bathing the hill towns in a rare pink glow. We sat dazzled one evening on the vine-covered balcony of our Montepulciano hotel, watching the last rays dance over the distant hills and the city walls below.
The blend of greens, too, is something to delight: the pale, yellowish leaves of the mature grapevine; the dusty gray of the ripening olive tree; the shimmering silvergreen of poplar leaves; and, always, the dark shadows of those wonderful cypresses. Each step of our walk recast the shades like the spin of a toy kaleidoscope.
But Tuscany's artistic and historic heritage command attention. On any glance across the horizon, a fortress city, a castle tower or crumbling church is somewhere in sight. We often spotted our day's destination, away in the sky like a mystical Land of Oz, hours before we would arrive.
Tuscany's two dominant cities are Siena and Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and we saw many works of the masters and their successors along our route. Particuularly interesting was the still-operating Benedictine Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, near our night's stay at the town of Buonconvento on the ancient road to Rome.
Begun in the early 1300s, and added to over the centuries, the red-brick abbey complex sits alone on a hillside surrounded by olive and cypress trees. Off in the distance are the barren, gray folds of Tuscany's crete, a thread of badlands woven across the landscape. The abbey entrance is through a gateway adorned with a terra-cotta Madonna and Child attributed to Luca Della Robbia, one of the great Florentine sculptors of the Renaissance.
A slight, elderly monk, dressed in white robes, pointed us toward some of the abbey's other remarkable treasures, among them the beautiful choir of stalls of inlaid wood, created in 1505 by Friar Giovanni da Verona, and the 35 frescoes in the cloister depicting the life of St. Benedict, completed in the 16th century by two noted artists, Luca Signorelli and Sodoma.
It was evening before we left, and we peered into the abbey's massive living room, which was being set for supper. The heavy dark wood of the U-shaped table gave the room the look of a medieval banquet hall, or at least a college-town rathskeller. The hard rolls of the region already had been placed on the table, and goblets awaited the wine.
One day we made a Land Rover pilgrimage to Chiusi (away from our walking path), a hilltop town near Montepulciano that in the centuries before the birth of Christ had been a capital of the Etruscans, a once-flourishing civilization. The Etruscans (from which Tuscany gets is name) occupied the area from about the eighth century B.C. until supplanted by Rome in the fourth century B.C.
Though Chiusi's Etruscan National Museum is closed on Mondays, the guard unlocked the doors and permitted us to explore briefly the exhibits of fine pottery; urns and sculptured sarcophagi excavated from the neighborhood. Afterward, on the outskirts of town, we peaked into some of the many Etruscan tombs that have been unearthed beneath the hills.
Centuries before the 19th-century unification of Italy, Florence and Siena competed for control of Tuscany, sometimes warring for possession of the same small towns we were visiting. The frequency and bitterness of these wars account for the hilltop location -- picked for defense -- of many of Tuscany's cities.
Ultimately, Florence triumphed, and in 1569 Cosimo I of Florence was created grand duke of Tuscany by Pope Pius V, linking the two cities and their territories. But the recurring wars and plague devastated the region, and only in the 20th century has it recovered the prosperity that fostered the Renaissance.
For all the bloody deeds of its ancient and complex past, Tuscany today appears mostly serene and pastoral. Sheep and goats graze in verdant pastures, and the land is intensively cultivated. However, we passed a number of attractive tileroofed farmhouses, facing magnificient views, that stood uninhabited. Theyy are evidence that large, highly mechanized agricultural operations are replacing the small farmers. We mentally refurbished the vacant homes as our own Tuscan villas.
Still, many small farms remain, where the chickens scattered at our approach; youngesters bounded from open doorways to watch and wave and the family dogs set up a howl. Happily, as frequent hikers will appreciate, every farm dog we heard or saw along our way was well-tethered or fenced. We were in gentle country.
Our ramble across the "Southern Tuscan Trail" was organized by Hiking International Ltd. of Oxford, England, a small, five-year-old travel firm that schedules a wide range of walking trips in Europe and Asia each year but specializes in Italy, the second home of manager Chris Whinney.
Easier organized walks, such as ours, and serious mountain treks have become quite popular with travelers, and anumber of U.S. and foreign outfitters offer them. We picked Whinney's firm because the amusing brochure -- Whinney is a part-time free-lance writer -- made the walk sound like the romantic adventure it turned out to be.
Until we met them at the airport in Pisa, the Tuscan city of Leaning Tower fame, we didn't know who our fellow hikers would be. This can be a little frightening when you are to spend the next 10 nights and 11 days together. Everyone else, it turned out, came from Great Britain. There were the 13 of them and we two Americans, my wife and I.
They were an interesting, well-traveled bunch ranging in age from late twenties to mid-sixties. And we couldn't have picked a more agreeable group if we had chosen them ourselves including a professor of Victorian poetry, a retired headmistress of a girl's school, a businessman and his wife, a professional flutist.
For the next week and a half, we Americans would be touring a foreign country with another nationality also foreign to us. It was a stimulating opportunity to learn on two levels. We saw Tuscany through our eyes and the eyes of the British, whose familiarity with medieval and Renaissance Europe was helpful...
"Shall we be off?" asks Whinney, an erudite student of Etruscan history who is in his mid-forties. This was the daily signal for us to gather up our daypacks and follow behind. Over the years he has studied maps and explored the region to find suitable paths away from busy roads.
Laura, his affiable Sienese assistant, recently had returned from a year of college in Santa Cruz, Calif. She prepared our lunches, knowing exactly which local salami tasted best wrapped around a fresh fig. Steve, an entertaining Oxford student studying Italian, drove the Land Rover and toted the luggage to our rooms.
We covered about 10 miles a day, and on our last long day into Siena, the route stretched a wearying 16 miles. At the outset, one or two hikers, awed by the frequency and steepness of the hills, seriously wondered whether they would be able to continue. But the group never left them behind, and in a couple of days they had firmed up hiking muscles.
Usually, we walked an hour and rested 10 minutes, stopping at midway for a lazy two-hour lunch and nap. On a couple of exceptionally hot afternoons on the strenuous as we climbed slowly under a searing sun to the next hilltop. But afterward, the pace, the terrain and cooler weather proved more comfortable -- though never wasy. Our group would straggle along the trail for a quarter of mile or so and then gather again during the rest breaks.
Sometimes Whinney led us across open fields, blazing his own paths through the stubble of a harvested grain field. Perhaps the most difficult wlaking was over the furrows of a plowed field, or, one day, tromping through the mud left by an overnight rainstorm. We forded streams, scrambled over fences and skittered down embankments. And we reveled in the joy of being out-of-doors in such beautiful country.
We stayed in seven cities or towns on the 10-night trip, and had time enough to explore them. My favorite outside of Siena, a special place, was Montepulciano (population about 14,000), perhaps because it was so easy to get lost in its maze of twisting streets, slender passages and arch-covered stairways leading who knows where. Our eyes feasted on the angles and colors of its textured walls, decorated with flower-filled windows and balconies.
Montepulciano's long main street, wide enough (barely) for two passing cars and a pedestrian flattened against the wall, spirals to the Piazza Grande at the city's summit, about 2,000 feet above sea level. On the last Sunday of August, two-man teams from eight contrade (districts) push barrels uphill in a race to the piazza. A parade in 14th century dress precedes the race and a banquet in the streets follows.
The way to the top is lined with stunning views of the Renassiance palaces, looking a bit domestic these days with bakeries and other food shops tucked at their base and laundry flapping high above. Partway up the street is a clock tower topped by a tall, mechanical Pulcinella, the black-and-white masked puppet figure, which strikes the hour on a resounding bell. Who cannot be captivated by a place with a sense of fun?
The Piazza Grande is dominated by the duomo, or cathedral, completed in the early 17th century, and its red-brick belltower. The interior is rather simple, but like most of the churches in these towns, it possesses an interesting assortment of very fine artworks, including an elaborate and colorful altarpiece of the Assumption by Sienese painter Taddeo de Bartolo, dated 1401.
Across the square is the 16th-century Palazzo Contucci, an attractively ornate structure of yellowish travertine and red brick, which proved even more delightful when we discovered we could sample the city's Vino Nobile in its ample stone-walled cellars. We bought a bottle of one of the best for about $6 as a before-dinner treat.
Throughout the trip, we stayed in comfortably pleasant hotels in the town centers, ranging from old (with modern bath) to sparkling new but equally charming. All small, they were friendly places, usually family owned, where our hosts seemed pleased to see us. At 8 nightly, our group dined together around a long table, and these evenings quickly became delightful endings to wonderful days.
It is hard to separte in one's mind the various satisfactions of a walking holiday. It is an unrushed way to travel abroad. And, certainly, there is the intellectuall reward of seeing and learning about a different land and culture, especially a place as lovely as Tuscany. The joys can be as simple as successfully ordering an ice-cream cone in stumbling Italian.
There is, too, the sense of accomplishment; a 70-mile walk is no small challenge. After one long day, we applauded -- I think in all sincerity -- the last hiker through the city gate, who had cheerfully refused to give up though the hike had been hard for her.
And there are surprises. Resting on a grassy ridge dropping away from a fence, I heard the persistent tinkle of a small bell. Eventually, I stood up to investigate and found myself facing a large herd of sheep, which had sneaked up on us seemingly from out of nowhere. When we moved on, they followed in mass, at least as far as the fence permitted. A friendly sort of escort, I thought.
And, because organized hiking is a group activity, there are the friendships formed (if only briefly), sharpened by the shared rigors of the endeavor. I doubt I will ever forget our final sad-happy dinner that last night in Siena, when one of our English companions stook up, raised his wine glass and, nodding toward us, toasted "our two American friends."