Siena to Florence - narrative

As usual, it was Jeremy's suggestion - that we walk from Siena to Florence, across Chiantishire. These are iconic, highly attractive towns; of course walking from the medieval, historic, World Heritage Site of Siena, to the capital of Tuscany, the birthplace of the Renaissance would appeal. We looked at ideas from the walking companies, bought a map, and planned our own itinerary. It would be an opportunity for me to revive my very rusty Italian. We chose September as the time of the la vendemmia, the wine harvest, and hoped that it would not be too hot.

DAY 1. Siena to Carpineto.
Our initial, pre-walk day in Siena was a good orientation to being in Italy: it's a beautiful town, with extraordinary history, and well-managed tourism; it reaps the benefits of its fine historic buildings, terra cotta rooves and famous striped Duomo atop the hill, dominating the neighbourhood. We left town through the Porta Ovile and within an hour, were out in the small lanes, with little traffic. Soon we were surrounded by characteristic Tuscan views, with a mixture of vineyards and olive groves. The numerous roadside plants included herbs such as rosemary, mauve thyme and sometimes fenell, the hot sun creating stimulating smells. Other flowers included blue flax, purple scabious, and the trees were mostly oaks, with some pines. We saw a young deer in the woods, wound our way northwards towards Le Tolfe, got lost, and then went eastwards to Ponte a Bozzone, where we enjoyed some excellent Italian gelati.

We chose the simplest way northwards on the D22, another quiet track up to Santa Margherita La Suvera. We picniced under an olive tree, by the edge of some vines, dripping with fat bunches of grapes, opposite La Madonna, enjoying the peace. The afternoon was pleasant, though I might've enjoyed more variety. Walking through the woods made a change, but limited our view. After La Casa Fornacio the track wiggled beside productive fields again, and we went East towards Carpineto, with the road frequently lined by tall, elegant, pointy cypresses. Our B&B was an organic wine farm, run by a friendly couple, who plied us with their delicious rosso; we sat in their pretty old courtyard, getting happily tipsy. The evening continued in this hospitable way: a communal dinner at the family table, shared with the other B&B visitors. The meal was a classic Italian one: anti-pasta salsicce, home-made ravioli in fresh, sweet tomato sauce, pork slices cooked in tasty herbs, salad, succulent figs fresh from their fig tree, all accompanied by their organic wine, and concluding with grappa and limoncello.

DAY 2. Carpineto to Radda in Chianti.
The conviviality continued over breakfast (excellent coffee and croissants), this time shared with a German and a Polish couple. Carpineto was on the path we wanted, and we set off into the now-becoming-familiar, gently undulating Tuscan hills. Yesterday afternoon had been a long ascent, so we began with the corresponding descent; for a while it was through trees, mostly oaks, some firs and acacias, many trunks covered with ivy. The handful of not-green colours were mauve scabious, red rose hips, orange pyracantha berries, and occasional puse-pink campion. There were a few peach trees, even fewer pomegranites, and very few wild fruits: ripening blackberries. The morning tracks were peaceful, and 'road' gravel and sand was not thrown up today, as there were very few cars. Later in the day we saw some cyclists, not surprising, as we were on paths marked as cycle tracks. Blue sky was offset by green firs. Uncertain we were on the right path, we were pleased to recognise the vineyards of S. Polo in Rosso There were more olive terraces and tidy lines of vines at Galenda, where we found a pleasant spot with more grape fields for our picnic.

Nearer Radda we were back with the cars, which reminded us how much we preferred the undisturbed paths. Like many Tuscan towns, Radda crowned the hill, good both aesthetically and defensively - for surveying the countryside. Many of the roads are like avenues, edged with lines of cypresses and other firs. Arriving in town, we tried the first cafe for an ice-cream: we were clearly not welcome. In further searching, we found not a single gelateria, and had begun to sense the nature of the place: there was an air of pretentiousness; clearly identifiable as walkers, we were too down-market, and not what these people wanted. After a drink, to relax, we tried the Pensione we'd previously booked: nobody there, instructions to ring the owner, and a phone that wasn't connected; hmm. The shop opposite didn't help, the one next door did. A man came, and in a flowery way, told us he was fully booked, and went off to his 'office' to check our booking; he never came back. 20 minutes later we went to the Tourist Office, who found us another room: just out of town, with a terrace overlooking a grant panorama of Tuscan Hills; better.

DAY 3. Radda to Greve.
We breakfasted overlooking the view, which looked like a Renaiissance painting, pointy cypress trees lining the brows of the hills; the geometric shapes of the vineyard fields, with sweeping lines of vines, contrasted with the adjoining forest. We had a brief view of a deer crossing a field below. In town, streams of cyclists were riding through - it seemed like a few hundred, all in lycra, with sunglasses, often in team shirts. We had the familiar difficulty of finding the right road: first eastward to La Villa, and then northwards up to Monti del Chianti. We walked by the extensive Albola estates, past numerous vineyards and onto a track by a stream, in beech woods. We met a large group of Italian Ramblers coming down the mountain. Grey skies meant a different day. On, North to Badaccia, where the cafe girl spoke some English. The sun came out while we picniced; however this soon changed to rain and rumbling thunder. We climbed, through the Park, up to Mont San Michele (892m), seeing signs for the same place via opposite directions; Italian or what? Now we were in the Monti del Chianti; this forest was pine, and thickly planted. With old stones underfoot, some of the track felt like an ancient trade route. The drizzle turned to serious rain, as we came down the hill to Casole; we were drenched, and so, pleased when we got back on the tarmac, and even more so when on the 'main' road to Greve. Then we were among chestnut trees, the chestnuts being the next harvest after the grapes.

Greve loomed up, and soon we were in the central plaza, thronged with people, for the last day of their annual wine festival. Everybody was going round tasting the different wines (some 60 producers were sharing their Chianti); many people had a special bag around their necks, to carry their tasting glass. There was a merry atmosphere of people enjoying themselves. We indulged some delicious ice-cream, before going to the B&B, meeting the jovial host, and later returning for tasty pasta and more ice-cream, in the cafe, now full of sociable Italian groups.

DAY 4. Greve to Strada.
After visiting the (now empty) unusual, triangular-shaped Piazza, we found our way out of town. We mixed main roads with little roads, setting off northwards through Castigliani. At the beginning the vineyards were pretty; then it was a long climb, uphill, through the woods, bothered by flies and barking dogs from a house, round which there was a long diversion. The long ascent, close weather, sweaty conditions and horse-fly bites made it hard, tiring work. Surrounded by thickly planted trees, there were no views; and we were exhausted when we got to Rugliana at the top (617m). As in its name, the Bosco di Querceto was indeed a lot of oaks; there were also conkers, and (as before) lots of fruiting sloe trees. Perhaps we were tired from yesterday; anyway, we couldn't summon much enthusiasm. It was a long walk through the trees. A pheasant waddled past; yesterday we'd seen a hare, but there wasn't much wild life showing itself here. Occasionally I got detained by blackberries. Dark clouds loomed and thunder rumbled in the distance. After yesterday's deluge, we put on our waterproofs: hot and clammy, and it didn't actually rain much.

Eventually we got down to Mugnana - no cafe. We schlepped along the road into Strada: literally a Street, and in some ways pleasantly 'normal', with no pretensions. We found a cafe here and had coffee and gelati; then into the B&B, run by a Russian woman, who'd lived there for 20 years. Ah! a bath - indulged, with much pleasure. We returned to the cafe in the piazza to eat, and had a huge platter (on a cork bark dish) of salamis and local cheeses; there was great pride in the local produce. The family running the place were genial and welcoming, and gave a personal touch to the end of the day.

DAY 5. Strada to Florence.
The main road going North made for an easy exit from Strada. The day was slightly overcast, but not as grey as yesterday. Always pleased to peel off onto smaller roads, we went westwards towards Peligiola, past ever more vineyards. Here they were doing la vendemmia, with fruit pickers and the tractor fitting between carefully spaced lines of vines. Next, it was northwards, to Capannuccia, and coffee and gelati. More small roads took us to Villa Mondeggi. This was a kind of 'home counties' relative to Florence, with more barking dogs defending their territory. A little road through the vineyards got us to Grassini, and we found a cafe in the piazza for lunch: a welcome salad, after all the meat we'd eaten.

Italy's A1 road is just North of that; it wasn't difficult finding a way under it, and on to the last sequence of lanes into the city. It was horrible on the bigger roads: cars, cars, cars (civilization = transport); but the last bit was better, with not-so-offensive traffic. And then a choice of sights, facilities, etc. We climbed the steps to the Piazzeta Michelangelo, with the grand view of Firenze, peopled with tourists taking selfies of themselves; we were in one of the great artistic cities of Italy and humankind showed its egotistical nature. The panorama was very fine! Another piazza, another red Tuscan wine, and exhaustion took over, after our 50 mile walk. As usual, I found had difficulty with the gear change from nature and open countryside to masses of people and the big city.

As predicted, the historic towns were very fine, with their attractive, ancient stone buildings, in warm colours; (however, the huge mass of tourists in Florence affected our enjoyment there). My word for the walk was pleasant; Jeremy sometimes said delightful, with the variety of Day 3 bringing special pleasures. I loved the myriad greens (particularly the lines of elegant cypresses), and tremendous fertility of the land; with their great interest in culture, no wonder the Medicis got rich. All nations are a fabric of varying ideas: fashion and stylishness contrasted with the evident machismo; Lambrettas drove beside Fiats, Mercs and VWs; people we met spoke of the difficulties of bureaucracy and the Mafia. Restoration of old buildings was always nicely done, sustaining the traditional styles, and it looked like a comfortable life. My Italian turned out adequate for the few moments when nobody spoke English, and we were amused by the slightly dramatic manner of the language and people. Grand entrances had imposing gates and sweeping driveways; they love show - of course: opera! As well as the plentiful productivity of the land, my abiding memory will be the warm taste of the local Chianti. The gelati were pretty good, too.

© Diana Ambache 2015