The Italian word for “scenic view” is “paesaggio.” On our walking trip through Tuscany and Liguria, we might have uttered the word a hundred times, as often as “buongiorno,” “ciao,” or “buonasera,” for we were to gaze happily on the Italian landscape at many turns each day. David Leibowitz, one of our two guides, was fond of using a form of the word “scorgere,” a verb that carries with it a connotation of suddenness, as if the beauties of the Italian countryside might suddenly surprise us in a clearing as we walked along a wooded ridge or glimpsed a blue distance through a narrow corridor on a stroll through an Italian hill town. Such words would lift our eyes from the next step on a rocky trail or cobblestone street, for they always signaled a brief respite from our steady perambulations and yet another chance to witness on this remarkable journey the visible sublime.
I’m sitting at the window of our room in the Hotel Dei Capitani in the Tuscan hill town of Montalcino. The view is enchanting, for far below the lofty ridge on which the hotel sits the lovely Tuscan countryside rolls in languid waves out to the distant rimming hills beyond the Val d’Orcia. Through a ceiling of drifting cloud, shafts of sunlight illuminate sections of the patchwork quilt of vineyards, olive groves, and fields of harvested wheat, as if they would signal that this land is blessed not only by beauty but by heaven’s favor. The groomed vineyards, famous for the region’s production of Brunello wine, score several of the valley’s low hills and then rise in tidy rows along the precipitous slopes of the land directly below Montalcino. At sudden intervals, ranks of tall cypress trees punctuate the countryside like exclamation marks. Near them, silvery clouds of olive trees, their fruit about to come into season, seem to float along the contours of the hills. Here and there clusters of small houses, built of pale limestone, each with a rusticated tile roof, remind us that, with all its bucolic delicacy, Tuscany is a long civilized place, one that for centuries has been thoroughly managed by people whose wealth comes from the earth.
The sky has been heavy with cloud today, bringing scattered showers to the dry landscape. On this October day, the cloud cover lowers over the undulating hills as if it would mute the ochres, oranges, and red-tipped greens, softening the first evidence of autumn. The impression is one of exquisite tranquility, a peacefulness that one could dream in for a long time. But now, suddenly, a clamor of bells sound across the town, echoing from wall to wall and out across the distance. The insistent bells seem almost impatient with the hour. Clanging and clanging, they mark the end of the day. But as their last note dies out across the valley, everything in the landscape grows still again, except for an occasional car, tiny in the distance and obviously in a hurry, dashing along the myriad narrow roads that wind behind and over the low hills. Such intrusion seems almost comical, for the Tuscan landscape, so quiet and serene at this hour, makes a mockery of all human haste.
But we’ve been keeping time ourselves today. Most of our travelers on this second departure of “Italian Walks” gathered at 10:00 this morning at Florence’s Amerigo Vespuggi Airport. Most of us had arrived in Europe a day or two early, so everyone appeared bright-eyed and ready to embark on our 10-day walking trip through Tuscany and Liguria. We met our companions, fussed with our luggage one last time to locate any essentials for our first day of hiking, then left our bags to the care of our two guides, David Leibowitz and Daniela Bigotti, who helped to heft them into the luggage van. At the moment of departure, some sprinkles hastened us into our motorcoach, a sleek 50-passenger vehicle with large windows and plush seats. A soft rain followed us for most of the two-hour drive south from Florence to San Quirico d’Orcia in the Chianti region of Tuscany. Even amidst the showers, as our motorcoach lumbered along the narrow, winding roads of Chianti, we were drawn to the scenery of forested hills interspersed with freshly plowed fields. Come spring, David explained, the fields would bear a crop of winter wheat. As we studied the clay-rich furrows clogged with clods of dirt the size of rocks and small boulders, it was hard to imagine how the delicate shoots of new wheat would find their way to sunlight.
In San Quirico, we enjoyed a welcome lunch at a local trattoria, Vecchio Forno. As is the custom in Italy, our meal began with crostini and an antipasti of various meats and cheeses attractively arranged on a plate. This was followed by a rather spicy home-made pasta with a garlic and tomato sauce. To help take the edge off the weather and all formality to our new acquaintance, red and white table wine was liberally dispensed. Indeed, the heart of the occasion was the conversation, as at last we had the opportunity to get to know our fellow travelers. We numbered 27 in all, less two members—Tom and Lucy Lee—who would join us at day’s end in Montalcino. The majority of our group were new to the W&L Traveller program and in need of some time to adjust to the social uncertainties of group travel.
After a most satisfying meal, we strolled through San Quirico for another kind of introduction, for over the next ten days we would be measuring this land, its towns, and its history by foot. We visited the town’s 12th-century pilgrimage church, notable for the extraordinary artistry of its ingressos (panel illustrations of Biblical text done in marquetry). Thereafter, we strolled through the village’s 16th-century gardens, a geometric array of hedges surrounding an eclectic collection of Renaissance and modern, often comic sculpture. Tuscany seemed to be smiling and at peace.
The walk thereafter involved a gradual ascent along a gravel road to a ridge that offered a commanding view of the lovely countryside. Inspired by the beauty of our surroundings and—it must be confessed—a mounting need for an occasional breather, we paused often for photographs. About an hour after beginning the walk, we arrived at Vignoni Alto, a tiny “burgo,” or hamlet, dating from the 11th century. The place seemed utterly deserted, which further emphasized the poignancy of a plaque on a wall at the burgo’s entrance memorializing the victims of a German reprisal during World War II. The silence of the place was at first eerie and then, after some time to reflect, tranquil as we rested beside an ancient country church affording a grand view toward our next destination.
Following a steep descent on a winding country lane, we next walked from Vignoni Alto to the Italian spa town of Bagno Vignoni near the banks of the Orcia River. Along the way, we stepped carefully on the loose gravel of the road, listening also for occasional traffic, country drivers out for a spin on a Sunday afternoon who seemed as surprised and curious about our appearance as we were of theirs. Bagno Vignoni, famous since Roman times, is noted for its hot springs. An industry and its accompanying wealth have grown up around the spa for those seeking “the cure” for a variety of unrelated ailments. Here we lazed about for awhile, resting at the town’s large central pool, then strolled over to an area that allowed us to place our bare feet in a narrow channel carrying the warm spring water to the river below. At this point, suddenly, the winds came up again, threatening rain from an approaching dark cloud. We hurriedly donned our socks and shoes again and strode smartly to our awaiting bus, boarding just as the shower arrived.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at Montalcino, an ancient Tuscan hill town, famous for its Brunello wine, and our home for the next three nights. As the bus was too large to deliver us to our hotel, we disembarked on Montalcino’s main street and eased our way on foot down a precipitous stone pavement to the front door of the Hotel Dei Capitani. Along the way, we passed a few elderly local residents seemingly untroubled by the steep ascent to the street above. In time, everyone seemed pleased by the room assignments. Many of the hotel’s rooms have wonderful views of the Val d’Orcia, and some are rather quaintly designed with sleeping lofts.
Dinner tonight was at a lively trattoria, Il Grappolo Blu, accessible by a steep climb to Montalcino’s main street and then another sharp descent on a side street. We shared the restaurant with another American group, “The Wayfarers,” which produced circumstances much too noisy for a program that we had planned—evidently, the precipitous ups and downs do not leave Il Grappolo Blu’s clientele winded for long. In the din, we applied ourselves to our own conversations and a delicious four-course dinner with various wines, the best a rich, velvety Brunello.
Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel, already a loose collection of new friends made happy by a bright beginning, beautiful scenery, fine food, and excellent wines. And this was only our first day.
The showers grew noisy during the night. After midnight, lightning flashed through our closed eyelids, with thunder so loud that it seemed to hammer against the roof of our hotel, shaking us in our beds. We later discovered that lightning had in fact struck the hotel during the night, knocking out the hotel’s computer system and, by another bolt nearby, the town’s water pumping facility. The storm did not bode well for the morrow, so we slept uneasily thereafter. But with morning came fair skies, an enormous blue canopy that arched over the valley.
Following a light breakfast in the hotel’s commodious breakfast room, we gathered for personal introductions. This gave us a chance to learn about everyone’s connection to W&L as well as to glimpse each traveler’s public persona. Happily, there were a lot of laughs, as everyone seemed to be in good humor. That done, we set off together to explore the town. The town’s medieval and Renaissance architecture provoked many questions, these easily answered by David and Daniela. A walled town, Montalcino has an immense fortress on its highest promontory and a tall fortified tower standing watch over the town’s central square, the Piazza del Populo. During the Renaissance, Montalcino formed a profitable and illustrious alliance with Siena in her relentless rivalry with Florence. In the end, Montalcino was the last of the towns to fall to the Medici armies of Florence. Today its skyline is dominated by the bell tower, which bears the crest of the Medici (somewhat abused) and the parapets of the fortress, later enlarged by the Medici. The town has a wonderful antique feel to it, with narrow lanes for streets, ancient limestone edifices that today incorporate fashionable shops and a striking variety of enoteca (wine shops) vending the region’s principal agricultural product.
Thereafter, we took a 20-minute bus ride to the outskirts of the town and an intersection with an old Roman road, now used mainly by farmers. The five-mile walk along this gravel road afforded many splendid views of the Tuscan countryside as well as some close encounters with vineyards, olive groves, and the rich soil of the wheat fields. The road was fine and easy to walk, though we found it necessary from time to time to stand aside while locals passed in their dusty cars and tractors. The last stretch down from the ridge past the Villa a Tolli to the Abbey of Sant’ Antimo was occasionally rocky and slick with mud from the recent rains. We were reminded at several points to take short steps, heels first, to go at our own pace, and, as always, to drink plenty of water. Fortunately, everyone remained upright—no sprained ankles or bruised tailbones at this early, critical point of our journey.
At the Abbey, a venerable pilgrimage church built in the Romanesque style and completed in 1160, we relaxed on the benches of the nave while a musician played a plaintive oboe from a corner at the narthex. If the architecture, haunted by its vast expanse of human piety, did not inspire spiritual reflection, then the music did, sweet and exquisitely solitary in the aching emptiness of the Abbey. We enjoyed as well the Abbey’s manicured grounds, several of us strolling around the exterior of the church to admire a gigantic cypress behind the bell tower and a portion of the Abbey’s ancestral church, dating from the ninth century, which had been incorporated in the walls at the rear.
After a relaxing hour or so, we departed Sant’ Antimo by bus for lunch at a nearby hamlet, Castelanovo dell’ Abate (“the new house of the Abbot”). Once again, wine was quickly provided by country women whose understanding of English—or our crude attempts at Italian—was minimal at best. Nonetheless, we were well served with antipasti, bean soup, and a most delectable ravioli. The commotion produced by our good cheer aroused the occasional curiosity of the locals, most of them older men retired from agricultural work, who—one would think—would have grown accustomed by now to such invading barbarians with their bright clothing and odd joviality.
Following our long lunch, which ended with a flourish of biscotti, we returned for a free afternoon in Montalcino, though about a third of our group chose to return to the starting point of our morning hike for the long, lovely walk into town. Several others opted to tour the Medici fortress at €3.50 per head, a bit steep but the views from the ramparts made it worth the admission. The prices in the shops suggested that the Medici were still making tons of money, though we had been amply warned about the strength of the euro against the dollar. Various enoteca tempted us with tastings of the famed Brunello (at €25 per bottle) and slivers of local cheese, but the fresh memory of our recent lunch helped us pass by.
We gathered as a group again at 7:15 for the transfer to our evening meal at the Baccon di Vino, a charming ristorante just outside the town walls. The restaurant is closed to the general public on Mondays but on this occasion opened its doors for a catered banquet. Our host at this splendid affair was a lively, engaging fellow named Mario, whose two daughters worked in the kitchen while their father oversaw the happy occasion in the dining room. Here again, the food was terrific, a dazzling variety of offerings that seemed to come from a new textbook of Italian cuisine. Again the wine flowed freely, and our group, in solitary possession of the place, grew more animated as the night wore on. At the repeated encouragement of Tom Lee, Otis Mead, and Peter Soderberg, Mario seemed to become more and more himself, trotting out more wine and rising fully into his celebrity as Maitre d’ and Master of the Tables. At the end, the entire staff was roundly applauded, even after several of us came to grief over a curious concoction dubbed “crème brucinta alla lavanda,” which tasted like pureed bath soap.
This was our day to visit three of the prominent towns of the Val d’Orcia: Montepulciano, Montefollonico, and Pienza. We departed the hotel at 8:30 for the 20-minute drive to the base of the hill on which Montepulciano sits enthroned. Our first objective was the stunningly beautiful Renaissance church of San Biagio. This symmetrical gem, laid out in a Greek-cross plan and finished in Travertine marble, was lofty evidence of the Renaissance’s triumph over the Gothic and Romanesque styles in ecclesiastical architecture. Designed by Antonio da Sangalla the Elder, San Biagio was completed in 1530. The interior was full of light, which amply illustrated the marvelous rhythms of its classical lines and central dome.
After a very satisfying 30 minutes here, we undertook the long climb up steep streets into Montepulciano, hundreds of feet above San Biagio. The views of the surrounding countryside improved, of course, the higher we climbed. Those members of our group afflicted with inexhaustible energy were kind enough to pause at these vantage points while those of us strung out more reflectively along the way managed to catch up. Finally, we reached Montepulciano’s Corso and the Piazza Grande, site of the Duomo. The air was growing chilly as a thick blanket of gray cloud swept over the city. While we caught our breath, we gazed upward at the towering Palazzo Comunale, then ducked into the baroque church of Sant’ Agostino, both structures designed by the famous Florentine Michelozzo, Montepulciano’s chief architect during the Renaissance. Although the exterior of the church is unfinished, the rather gloomy interior held several absorbing works of art, including a tender altarpiece by Della Robbia.
Thereafter, we made our long descent down narrow streets and past inviting shops to our awaiting bus for the drive to Montefollonico, another hill town much smaller than Montepulciano. The general absence of pedestrians on this day made the town seem almost sleepy. We made our way to the 13th-century wine cellars of the Cantina Innocenti. We were met here by the owner, Vittorio Innocenti, a former professor of philosophy, who had apparently turned away from Socrates in midlife for a deepening acquaintance with Dionysus. The explanation of the wine production process, painstakingly translated by Daniela, in the cramped and rather dark quarters of the cellar was less engrossing than the tasting that followed. Here, on the intimate terrace at the rear of the Cantina, as we took our seats to await our introduction to Innocenti’s vintages, we beheld another immense panorama of the Val d’Orcia below the town. The mood was primed for the lingering complexities of a fine red wine. The diminutive master, bald with a rim of thick gray hair and warm, deeply set eyes, brought out several bottles representing his three vintages. The third, a robust Acerone, a Tuscan red made from the best of the Sangiorese grapes, was the favorite. David did his best impression of a wine connoisseur, reminding us how to test the wine for legs, bouquet, and flavor, though one may have found more persuasion in the way Innocenti sniffed the cork and quickly savored his offering. We had lots of fun exchanging descriptions—nuances of various nuts and flowers, hints of fruit and wood—and a good time was had by all. Later, at the little retail space at the front of the Cantina staffed by Mrs. Innocenti, the Acerone sold briskly, though several chose the Vino Nobile as well.
The tasting was followed by lunch at the aptly named La Botte Piena (“the full barrel”), a nearby osteria owned and managed by a young couple. This was a delightful though rather lengthy affair, evocative of medieval banquets. We sat at a single long table set in the establishment’s raftered attic. We feasted on antipasti, a variety of crostini, local cheeses, raw vegetables, salad, two soups, more wine (red, white, or both), a variety of cookies, and espresso. It was nearly 4:30 before we were able to escape, stout as friars wobbling to the bus at the bottom of the hill.
The drive to Pienza gave the desperately weary a moment or two to nap along the way. Others may have taken this chance to think about our developing acquaintance with our companions, perhaps especially our guides Daniela and David. Even now, they come back, like photographs animated by memory . . .
Daniela Bigatti was a slender brunette whose features had all the fullness and vivacity of Italy. Her speech possessed a musical tonality, with its lilting phrases and liberal sprinkling of additional syllables Italianizing the English language. Though reliably cheerful and easily moved to quiet giggles by the group, she owned large, eloquent eyes with heavy lashes that took on a melancholic cast at times when she strolled alone or gazed off across the Tuscan hills. Back home, she said, she lived alone with her cat. She had just turned 40. She allowed that she hoped someday to meet “the right one,” though at the moment she felt easily enough amused by her responsibilities and her distinction as a guide: she was qualified to guide in Florence, in her profession the ultimate posting.
David Leibowitz, a slightly built, rather demure American expatriate in his late twenties, had moved to the Italian Piedmont a few years ago to ski during the winter and translate scientific papers during the off-season. A short, fine-featured young man with thick dark hair and wire-rimmed spectacles, he had the curious habit of shaking his head or nodding a moment before he could find the right words to speak, as if he were translating English into Italian and then back into English—perhaps a translator’s tic. But in singing he was blessed by a magically fine tenor voice. In conversation he revealed a delicate privacy in personal matters and yet a bold curiosity about the background of his travelers. He advertised a deep interest in Italian history and broke into historical narrative until he lost the gaze of his audience. Like Daniela, he was most helpful at every turn and remarkably tireless.
. . . In Pienza, the home town of Pope Pius II, who in the 15th century decided to transform his village into the ideal Renaissance city, we found several very fine examples of period architecture. Bernardo Rossellino, the chief architect at the time, developed a city plan, remodeled the central piazza, transformed the exterior of the Duomo, and constructed a papal palace and a town hall. Ultimately, the bold plan was never fully realized, as Pius died only six years after assuming office, but today Pienza provides tourists with yet further extraordinary views of the Tuscan countryside from the village walls—along with abundant shopping opportunities.
A bit weary from this full day, we did not delay our return to the bus for the transfer home to our hotel and our first free night. The general question on board was whether we could possibly abide another meal on this day. But once back in Montalcino, several members of the group, now new friends, assembled in the hotel lobby at 7:15 for dinner together on their own. Gastronomically, we were on a roll.
Having packed and put out our luggage for collection by 8:00, we took our final breakfast at Hotel dei Capitani and then departed Montalcino at 8:30. It seemed a little like leaving home again. The long descent to the rolling floor of the Val d’Orcia afforded a few sentimental views back towards Montalcino, now returning to its dreams of the past and its new commerce in Brunello. The ceiling was broken cloud again, though no rain was predicted.
Our destination today was Siena, one of Europe’s largest and best preserved medieval cities. Our motorcoach deposited us near the Gothic Basilica of San Domenico, where we were soon met by our city guide, Lucia. After a few words of pleasant introduction, we followed Lucia into the Basilica, where the main attraction for many visitors is the preserved head of Siena’s patroness, St. Catherine of Siena, boxed in a side chapel. Another reliquary contained one of her fingers at a separate altar—she was all over the place. Catherine is the patron saint of Italy, along with St. Francis. Born in 1347, she was admitted to the Dominican order at the tender age of 16 after a childhood of celestial visions and pious austerities. She is credited with prevailing upon Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy from Avignon back to Rome. After a life of ministering to the poor and afflicted, all the while engaged by the church in diplomatic missions to Italy’s warring principalities, she died at the age of 33. Catherine was canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461. Although relatively simple in its interior design and furnishings as a monastic church, the Basilica does contain some fine paintings of Catherine by Sodoma and Vanni.
The real pleasure of Siena, however, is a long and happy walk through its narrow medieval streets. A native of Siena though no longer a resident, Lucia had much to say about the unique organization of the city. We strolled through several of the city’s 17 districts, or contrades. Each district is identified by a symbol and possessed of a church, flag, school and museum. Not surprisingly, each is a rival to the other 16, though occasionally for mild relief from the constant competition, one district forms a soft alliance with another. Lucia was a member of the Goose contrade. As a Goose, her sworn enemy was the Tower district, a fact that was never lost on us. The twice-annual culmination of Siena’s assorted rivalries is the Palio, a horse race pitting 10 of the 17 districts against each other in a “hell-bent-for-leather” dash three times around the Campo to the finish line. The average length of time taken for the race is about 90 seconds, about the span of a good Italian tantrum. The race is well known for its fervor and the violence between the jockeys. As a concession to the spirit of the competition, the Sienese have declared that the horse representing the victorious contrade does not have to have a rider at the finish line.
Our stroll through Siena required several steep climbs and descents along narrow streets. We often shared the way with passing cars and motor scooters hastening toward the 21st century. Siena’s glorious Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, is located atop a large hill overlooking the rest of the city. The extraordinary baroque exterior, currently undergoing some restoration, is notable for its horizontal alternation of white and dark green stone. The interior is quite remarkable for its art and spectacular adornments, including beautiful frescoes and 56 elegantly crafted mosaic marble floors depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Poking around, one also finds a meticulously carved octagonal pulpit representing scenes of the life of Christ, a bronze masterpiece of St. John the Baptist by Donatello, and, perhaps most memorable of all, the Libreria Piccolomini with its great fresco cycle by Pinturicchio commissioned by Pope Pius III in the early 16th century to celebrate the achievements of his uncle Pope Pius II, formerly of Pienza. After this astonishing ecclesiastical spectacle, Lucia led us over to the Duomo Nuovo, the gigantic shell of the planned addition to the original church, abandoned after the economic crisis following the plague of 1348. Had the addition been completed, Siena would own the largest church in Christendom.
Lucia strolled down with us to the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s enormous town square, which slopes dramatically toward the Palazzo Pubblico, the ancient seat of government with its extraordinarily tall Torre del Mangia. Here Lucia bid us farewell, perhaps sensing that it was time for lunch. David and Daniela allowed us a whopping three hours for independent lunch and shopping. After a moment of bewilderment at this release, we each set forth for separate adventures, reconvening again at 3:00 PM at the Campo’s fountain, the Fonte Gaia.
After the busy morning and afternoon in Siena, it felt good to walk toward our bus with thoughts of returning to the Tuscan countryside and our evening in Radda. Along the way, however, it was decided that Cindy and John Howard needed walking sticks. Daniela knew of a nearby sporting goods store, so nearly half of the group accompanied them on the brief shopping detour—for moral support. Once at the bus stop, we discovered that our large motorcoach had been replaced by a much smaller one. It was reported that our driver Simone had encountered a small “problem.” Events thus identified are never examined closely in Italy. We filed into the new bus without complaint, trusting that we would soon recover our original conveyance. The itinerary for this day had been adjusted so that we could spend more time in Siena. Thus, we dropped our planned visit to Castellina in Chianti, stopping instead at an ancient Etruscan tomb mound just outside of Castellina. Here, after a brief explanation by Daniela of the Etruscan period in Tuscany, several of us entered one of the tombs to gather an impression of what the dead know. While we were packed within, the timed lights suddenly expired. Instantly, the impression became quite vivid.
After rolling on through the forested hills of Chianti, we arrived finally at the new, ultramodern Hotel Radda in Chianti, a structure so at odds with the countryside that it resembled less a hotel in Tuscany than a Japanese chalet furnished in Italian contemporary. Yet, despite its alien character, we found comfort in the hotel’s many modern amenities, including a heated pool, a smaller indoor pool with Jacuzzi, and a sauna with computerized shower, etc. True, some members of our group needed an instruction manual for the shower fixtures, but once again no one complained.
Before dinner in the hotel, we were served a champagne aperitif while David offered a brief anticipation of the next day’s walk. Dinner was again lively and noisy, perhaps to the dismay of the hotel’s handful of other guests. Our meal was very different from previous repasts: risotto, pasta, roast pork (resembling beef) and chicken, roasted vegetables, and a delicious apple torte. We were also able to sample the region’s Chianti. “Walking and Tasting in Tuscany and Liguria” carried with it its undeniable obligations.
The forecast was for “changeable” weather again this morning as we prepared to depart our hotel. With frequently overcast skies, the weather on this trip has been less than ideal, but it seems to have had no ill effect on our group. Fortunately, the rains have come only during the evening hours when we’ve been indoors.
Knowing that we had a rigorous walk ahead of us to Volpaia and back, we fortified ourselves well this morning with an ample breakfast of fruits, breads, cheese, yoghurt, and cereal—not that we hadn’t entirely burnt off the fortification of the previous night’s repast. In some ways, this trip represents a contest of pleasures: it’s difficult to say which is greater, the wonderful gastronomy of Italy or the splendid exercise of a walking trip that enables us to enjoy the gastronomy even more. We’ll leave the final determination to the scales back home.
Our walk began with a visit to the small, exquisitely lovely church of Santa Maria Novella. Here, overlooking an ancient wall among olive trees hung with young fruit, we enjoyed some beautiful views of nearby vineyards laden with grapes ready for harvesting. The fecundity of Tuscany is everywhere apparent on this trip. A few minutes later we discovered that the church had been opened for a wedding, so we ventured inside. The interior was so simple and pretty that we could only stand and admire. It brought to mind, as country churches can do, a vaguely remembered spiritual peace, a feeling somewhere back in our longing—perhaps way back—where religious devotion looked and felt exactly like this. While we stood about, quietly gazing at the murals on the walls and ceiling, David suddenly broke into a song from a mass, sung in a gentle, clear tenor that resounded softly off the walls and ceiling. We were frozen in a rapture of surprise and delight. It was one of the trip’s many moments of pure magic.
Invigorated by the visit, we began our walk to Volpaia with a downhill stretch through woodland, then up a steep gravel road past many vineyards heavy with grapes and a few handsome stone houses below the town. The climb was steady and long, so the group was pretty much strung out by the time we reached the entrance to Volpaia. Those with walking sticks made good use of them, for arms and legs can work together in uphill propulsion. At the top of the climb, the air was fragrant with roses.
Volpaia is a wonderfully picturesque burgo, a collection of handsome, venerably old buildings constructed of pale limestone and located on a brief promontory part way up one of the high hills of Sienese Chianti. The vineyards and olive orchards are the village’s principal source of revenue, though there’s increasing evidence of tourism through apartment rentals. Our progress up the hill had apparently exceeded the expectations of our local guide, for we had to wait a good while for her arrival. During this wait, we took advantage of the toilets, of course, the tiny coffee shop, and a couple of dogs tolerant of our affections.
The local guide, Guisi, (pronounced “juicy,” a name that belied a rather odd diffidence), led us on a tour of the town’s olive presses and the Castello di Volpaia, the village’s winery. The olive presses, with their huge stone wheels and vast stainless steel collection devices, were idle, as the harvest occurs in November. But we were most fortunate at the winery, as we were on hand when a load of grapes arrived. These were soon dumped into the hopper of a machine that removed the stems and crushed the grapes. The entire operation was overseen by dour-faced young men—like the dogs, tolerant of our interest—and by a phlegmatic swarm of bees, heavy with the sweet nectar of grapes. We buzzed about the process ourselves, studying how the clusters of grapes gradually sank into the machinery, then dashing to a spot below the building to watch the flow of the deep red grape juice and assorted foliage drop into the de-stemming device. Fascinating stuff.
Inspired by this new introduction to the winemaking process, we enjoyed even more the wine tasting ritual thereafter. For this, we crowded into a small room and found seats around a large table set with several varieties of the Castello di Volpaia Chianti wine. Here also we were served a few delectable appetizers for the cleansing of the palate. If the Castello’s objective was commerce, the occasion was successful. We had a great time and made several purchases.
Thereafter, we had a most enjoyable lunch in a private upstairs room at “Mama Gina’s,” a small restaurant located in the town square. Once again, the meal, consisting of three salads and assorted sauces for bread and cheese, was delicious and plentiful, and Mama Gina herself seemed to revel in the occasion almost as much as we did. Mama Gina appeared to speak little or no English, but, with her laughter and abundant hugs and kisses, it can be safely surmised that she communicated effectively. She is featured in a book about Tuscan tourism and the area, Too Much Tuscan Sun: Confessions of a Chianti Tour Guide, by Dario Castagno.
After this ample, happy midday meal, we reluctantly set off for the bus at our pre-arranged meeting place far downhill on a paved roadway. Following the long descent, 20 of us elected to attempt the steep ascent to the hill town of Radda, our next destination, by means of a heart-pounding path through woods and fields and then along a ridge roadway into town. That accomplished, we strolled with David on a brief tour of Radda, admiring especially the loggia where so many plaques and coats of arms from different heads of government over the centuries are affixed to the walls. While David was explaining these, suddenly the bell tower of the local church just above us erupted in a deafening tintinnabulation of bells. It was 5:00 PM, quitting time for the locals, and sufficient signal for us as well.
Our dinner this evening was at the Osteria Le Panzanelle in Lucarelli. Once again, the meal was bountiful and delicious: crostini with cheese, eggplant stuffed with ricotta, spinach dumplings, pasta with wild boar, salad, beefsteak, roasted potatoes, and a choice of four desserts. The occasion was also our seated dinner, with everyone assigned by place cards at tables for six. The major event of the evening was the inaugural Alumni College Mock Convention, with each table, under the careful instruction of Peter Soderberg and Bill Norman, taking a secret ballot for the presidential election. Much hilarity ensued as each table first chose a name for its delegation: the Empty Carafes, the Brunellos, the Pecorino Party, the Amazing Grapes, and, inevitably, the Minks. A spokesperson for each table reported the delegation’s popular vote tally. Bush won 17 to 11 over Kerry, with no votes cast for Nader. Two of the tables had tie votes, so the final “electoral college” tally was 3-0. The election management team compounded the complication by having insisted on a lottery for the final popular vote. Lucy Lee, an ardent supporter of the underdog, was led more by her head than her heart and guessed the final vote correctly.
It was moving day again today. Our first option, however, was an early morning visit to the Etruscan ruins at Poggio La Croce on a hill high above the hotel. About half of our group met at 8:30 and set forth on the steep gravel path up through a Baskervillian fog. The weather was cool and damp—perfect, in other words, for searching out the distant past. Our guide was a local archaeologist named Elaria, a young woman able to generate more syllables per minute than anyone I had ever encountered. She spoke very little English, so it was up to Daniela to translate the abundant information that Elaria had prepared herself to deliver on the site. Alas, Daniela could hardly get a word in. We did discover that the settlement dates from 700-400 BC and that, with the digging now complete, it is used most often introducing schoolchildren to Etruscan history.
After the visit, we took a quick break at the hotel, paid our tabs, and then boarded our “small bus” for the transfer to our next walking adventure. We had a new driver today—one wondered if Simone, who had joined us for dinner last night, had become utterly confounded by the American political process. This morning’s walk turned out to be one of our loveliest so far. We followed a narrow country lane along gently rolling hills cloaked with olive orchards and vineyards. By now the sky was broken cloud, tall, rumpled cumulus that matched the magnificence of the Tuscan hills. The occasional overcast kept us from becoming overheated on the steady uphill climb. Along the way we met a group of about a dozen middle-aged Italian and Swiss backpackers on a six-day tramp from Florence to Siena. They were cordial and curious about our journey—and in the end happy to let the hastening American’s play through. An hour or so later, however, they caught up with us again during our long pause at the 18th-century Villa Vignona. The beautiful, though rather somber villa occupied the wooded crest of a long slope, poised like an Italian contessa dreaming of former days. We paused here for a good while to share the view with her and to allow Daniela’s rear guard to catch up.
It was said that the principal reward for reaching the village of Viligondoli first was prompt access to i bagnos. Those of us arriving at a more leisurely pace were amused, one hopes, by the long line for the single seater. We took our lunch on the terrace of Trattoria Da Pardo. Again, the feast was largely unique—Mario and Anita have done a marvelous job in assuring that we never eat the same meal twice. Here we enjoyed a delicious burro mozzarella, crostini with a choice of chopped fresh tomatoes, artichokes or and easily avoidable liver pate, Italian beef on arugula, tempura-like zucchini and zucchini flowers, Italian fries, and a finish of fresh fruit. We were also amply supplied with vino and many bottles of acgua naturale and acgua frizzante.
At 2:00 PM we set out again by bus, departing Tuscany for Lerici in Liguria, a distance of three hours. Most of our route was along the autostrada, one of Italy’s super highways, where cars zip by on the fast lane at speeds often in excess of 100 mph. After a brief reading from Too Much Tuscan Sun over the bus’s balky p.a. system, most of us settled in for a nap. Later in the drive, near the northern boundary of Tuscany, we passed through the Carrara marble region. Through the distant haze, we could see large patches of white showing like snow against the rocky and forested flanks of the Apennines. At the quarry’s shipping lot close to the highway, huge monoliths of marble lay in rows like caskets. Indeed, David explained that quarrying is quite hazardous work, with an average of one fatality per month among the miners.
Leaving the highway soon thereafter, we ventured onto much narrower roads down to the Baia di Lerici and the Doria Park Hotel, our home for the next three nights. The hotel is perched on a steep slope overlooking the Gulf of Spezia, also known as “The Bay of Poets,” and Lerici’s picturesque little harbor. The views of the town and the sea from the hotel are spectacular. Many rooms have balconies—Mario and Anita assured sea-view rooms for all of us. Dinner this evening at the hotel emphasized the region’s abundance of fresh seafood: a delightful antipasti of sardines and smoked tuna, pasta with a delicious pesto, and a secundo of sea bass. Everyone seemed quite happy with the hotel and the evening’s delicious introduction to “Tasting in Liguria.”
The view from the Hotel Doria in Leirici offers such an utterly spectacular panorama that one seems suddenly aloft and in flight. The eye has a thousand places to go: out into the harbor where a hundred boats, small and orderly at this distance, rest at anchor, stirring slightly in the sunrise breezes; or the myriad small stucco houses, painted in a palette of orange, ochre, sienna, and pink, each with an orange tile roof and green shutters, all of them packed so closely together that one hardly finds room for pedestrians let alone motor traffic; or the ancient fortress (12th-century Pisan) that dominates the entrance to the harbor, a bastion so immense that it towers over all other structures in the town and seems by its mute profile to stand for history itself, something lofty and proud and impregnable; or the lush and immensely varied foliage that spills down the precipitous slopes of the region, tumbling in oaks, silvery olive trees, Aleppo pines, and acacias, a glacial flow of green threaded with purple bougainvillea and spiked with cypress until it reaches the waving splayed explosions of green in the palms rimming the shoreline; or the far slopes of the bay dotted with houses emerging from the green above harbor towns mirroring Lerici, and in the far distance the last peaks of the Apennines fronting the sea.
At this early hour few things are stirring: a solitary gull cries out; a sailboat’s lines, quivering in the wind, tinkle and clang against a mast; the surf rolling in from the Ligurian sea against distant seawalls sets an undercurrent of sound like slow, deep breathing; and now Lerici’s steeple bells sound the hour, reminding me that it is time to pull away once more from this idle gazing.
We gathered at 9:30 this morning in front of the hotel’s entrance for our local walk. “Numeri!” David called out, and we reliably ticked off our numbers, most of us now using the Italian. Here we also met our local naturalist guide Patricia, who would accompany us on this morning’s hike. The hotel’s location required of us a steep climb to the road. The reward at the top, of course, was an even broader panorama of the blue Gulf of Spezia and the rooftops of the city.
We began our 8-mile hike to Tellaro with a long ascent on roads and stepped walkways. The asphalt roads soon became narrow lanes, then these became gravel paths, then dirt trails through woods. David assured us that the road had been in use for 900 years, a pallid consolation at this point. On the steady uphill, we paused at several spots to observe the flora, which Patricia was eager to help us recognize throughout the trek. Indeed, our attention was frequently breathless. Nonetheless, the long uphill climb was by gradual stages exhilarating. On an ascent of this magnitude you feel at first a tightness in your chest as your lungs struggle to address your body’s need for more oxygen. This may cause some momentary dizziness as you struggle for sufficient air. But, as your heart rate increases and you become aware of a happy thumping in your chest, your legs gradually feel up to the task. Your arteries and capillaries radiate with oxygenated blood, a sense of well-being overtakes you, and you discover the marvelous tonic of a good workout. Once at this point of elevation, you’d rather just keep going, despite the informative discussions of various vegetation and, of course, the marvelous views. Still, the marvelous views were there to be had, and no one passed them by. Each time the trees opened to the sea, a naturally framed photograph presented itself. Our cameras were quite busy this morning.
The trail was well posted with red and white markers for those who gradually lagged behind. The weather remained partly cloudy and cool, with a gradually increasing wind that lashed the tops of the trees. With an estimated length of eight miles, this was definitely one of our longer “walks,” but we were becoming used to them. And we were always reliably motivated by the prospect of lunch.
Eventually, our route leveled out. Here, we joined a gravel road, which became asphalt again on its descent into Zanego. Lunch was waiting for us at Chiara Papi’s agriturismo (a farmhouse B&B). The meal was as delightful as ever, but on this occasion we had pleasant opportunities afterwards to pet Papi’s cats, to discuss the day with two German Shepherds—one fond of carrying a large rock in his teeth, and to examine a caged wild boar—difficult to befriend, perhaps, despite its unstinting appeal.
At this point, we had the option of taking our bus on to Tellaro, but most of us chose the walk. We had the advantage of a well-established path, though it was again steep and rocky in parts. From the trail’s lofty heights, the views of the sea exploding against the cliffs on this windy day were worth the effort of this extension.
Arriving finally in Tellaro with its extremely narrow streets, it felt as though we had entered a ghost town. Does no one live in these beautiful places, we asked? David explained that, while much of Tellaro is occupied, locals in Italian towns frequented by tourists prefer to deal with visitors mainly in a commercial capacity. Also, many of the residences in the most picturesque towns are seasonal rentals, thus unoccupied for much of the year. It was soon clear that very few folks were out and about on this day. A huge, wind-driven surf was pounding against Tellaro’s rocky coast and rolling fiercely up into the narrow little inlet to the town’s small beach. All the fishing dories were hung up in the rafters of the loggia in the building housing several local fishermen. The green shutters of the town were closed tight against the rising mist from the sea-spray. On this Saturday, it seemed that Tellaro had chosen to sleep in.
After taking several photographs, we hiked back to the bus for the short drive to Lerici where we had the rest of the afternoon and evening free. On this evening, most of us eventually went our separate ways. Several played “pick-one” with the Normans during the early evening before setting off for a variety of recommended restaurants or simply retiring early. Helen and I ventured out to the Piccola Oasi, arriving just after 7:30 to find the little six-table trattoria empty, save for the owners, La Signora Anna Maria de Tomasi and her husband the chef finishing their own evening meal along with their son Matteo the waiter. Arriving thus quite early, we were, nonetheless, warmly received with an enthusiasm that belied the Ligurians’ reputed reserve. In fact, Mama Anna Maria liberally dispensed hugs and kisses to us both throughout the evening. Our set menu offered us several dishes, largely vegetarian, in happily small portions. Matteo, who explained each dish in good English, is planning a personal tour of the Eastern U.S. upon his graduation from college in Bologna next month. Inevitably, he wondered if he might stop by Lexington along the way. Of course. At the close of the meal, we were shown the tiny kitchen, where Mama Anna Marie was busy making gnocci—though not too busy to throw her arms around us once more, baci me muccio!
This was our brightest morning to date, the sky a robin’s egg blue with hardly a cloud in it. The change in the weather was great news, for we had retired on the previous night uncertain of whether the ferry to Portovenere and Pamaria would be running. The winds on Saturday had whipped the sea into such a frenzy that we were not at all certain it would calm sufficiently by morning. David, Daniela, and I had devised an alternate plan in the event that the service was again shut down and then left it all up to the weather gods. But this morning arrived the fairest of all. After another repast at the Hotel Doria’s “award-winning” breakfast buffet, we gathered in good spirits for the 9:30 ferry departure.
The ride over to Palmaria Island was a gentle roller coaster, with a few good heaves and splashes as the ferry plunged on through some swells left over from Saturday’s gale-force winds. The crossing was brief, and we arrived in fine fettle for the 3-mile tramp around the island. A former Italian military installation, Palmaria today is a forest preserve with a few concessions and a couple of well-established houses at the lower elevations. A well-managed road and walking trail leads ever upward to the lofty elevation of the island’s summit, much to the chagrin of several of our travelers, who felt they had been promised a gentler stroll. But once at the top we enjoyed a splendid panorama of the Gulf of Spezia, Lerici hazy in the distance, and some Sunday sailboats out for the day. The extraordinary views of Portovenere, perhaps the most picturesque coastal town in all of Liguria, offered some consolation to the climb as well as to the knee-aching descent. Charlie Stone was heard to muse on the inevitable question, “How many photos of Portovenere does one really need?” It was indeed difficult not to lift one’s camera each time it came into view.
Portovenere, dating from Roman times, occupies a peninsula reaching down from a coastal range of high hills. Most of the town stands proudly behind fortification walls and towers built during its medieval period. At the furthest end of the peninsula, the tiny black and white striped Church of San Pietro, erected in the 13th century during Portovenere’s Pisan occupation, fronts the sea. The Church of San Lorenzo stands above the town’s colorful array of waterfront houses. Portovenere’s highest point is its castle fortification and wall, erected well up the peninsula’s slope. From our vantage point on Palmaria, we could see the sea beyond the point galloping and crashing against the rocks of the coastline, a spectacular commotion that made the area’s association with the poet Lord Byron even more romantic. Byron was said to have swum from Portovenere to Lerici—perhaps having missed the ferry.
After our walk on Palmaria, we caught the ferry to Portovenere, where we enjoyed lunch on our own in the welcome sunshine. Afterwards, we had only an hour or less, depending on restaurant choice, to tour the town. The rather gloomy Gothic interior of the Church of San Pietro seemed haunted by many unhappy memories. Even the small painting of the Virgin and Child above the altar seemed to return a sorrowful gaze to the observer. Near the church is a grotto where Byron enjoyed bathing (he eventually drowned swimming the Hellespont). On Portovenere’s main street, it was clear that gelatos remain the refreshment of choice for our group. After some idle poking about, we gathered again at 2:45 for the ferry back to Lerici.
On returning to Lerici, most of us followed David for a brief tour of the town’s Jewish ghetto and then climbed the narrow stairways through Lerici’s upper neighborhoods to the base of the fortress. Here again we seemed to fall deeply under the spell of the picturesque, taking many photos of the sweet geometric conglomeration of houses spilling into tiny alleys that opened to a view of the bay. Another temptation was David’s unreliable definition of a “short cut.” The return to the hotel proved arduous.
People relaxed for the rest of the afternoon, some returning to the table in the hotel lobby for “pick-one,” others checking e-mail on the hotel’s computer. At 7:45, we gathered again in the hotel lobby for a somewhat bewildering explanation of tomorrow’s “Cinque Terre” walk. It seems that the problem with understanding directions in Italy is that the towns all have Italian names. David became somewhat flustered in his explanation of the options available to us and then simply folded his tattered map, smiling through his exasperation that the options would clarify in time. Things have a way of working out if one doesn’t worry over them too much.
Shortly thereafter, we all took a lovely walk through Lerici’s piazza for dinner at the Ristorante Da Jeri at the end of the quay. We all sat at one long table and had the place pretty much to ourselves. The conversation was intense and jovial, as always. Our dinner tonight featured an expansive variety of seafood: oysters, clams, shrimp, calamari, octopus, tuna, swordfish and sea bass. The antipasti courses were served in huge quantities (“You mean there’s more to come!”) with a spirited white wine. Everything was served family style, and the dishes kept coming. Some two hours into the event, a couple of folks at one end of the table rose slowly, having decided it was time to leave, due to the lateness of the hour. Unfortunately, that served as a cue to everyone else. Thus we missed dessert.
As we gathered this morning in the dappled sunlight in front of our hotel, some folks were still pondering whether they should risk the full hike to Vernazza or choose the shorter one to Manarola. In David’s labored description of the alternatives on the previous night, he had characterized the longer of the two options as “not very challenging, but quite challenging”—a fine distinction there. In the end, only seven of our group resolved not to do the longer trip.
Since rough sea conditions had forced closure of the ferry from Lerici to Riomaggiore, the first of the five fishing villages that constitute the Cinque Terre, we took our bus to the train station in Spezia. Here we boarded a train for the brief run to Riomaggiore, our loins girding up for the glorious walk ahead of us. The Italians on board were wearing different faces this morning, as it was the first day of the work week. That the Cinque Terre were now linked by train is something of an engineering marvel. Prior to the 1920s, these fishing villages were accessible only by sea, due to the high elevations of the coast. Now, long tunnels run through the mountains, breaking only at the brief cuts where the villages nestle near the sea.
Riomaggiore offers a palette of bright colors, each house distinguishable from the others so that fishermen can recognize their houses from far out to sea. The homes are built at the edge of rocky cliffs that drop directly to the sea. From the waiting platform at the Riomaggiore station we ventured down and down to the water’s edge, where the rolling surf churned into the town’s small landing. Here, we divided into our walking groups, the 20 who had chosen the “quite difficult” walk to Vernazza and the seven who had wisely reserved their energies for the Via dell’ Amore (“Road of Love”). Patricia, who had joined us again today for the longer walk, took the lead, with David bringing up the rear. Daniela walked the Via dell’ Amore with the seven strollers and Anna, another guide hired for the day.
We began our hike through Cinque Terre by venturing through a tunnel leading to the Via dell’ Amore, a wide, paved, and flat walkway that extends to Manarola. On this day we would find many distractions, of course, to any relentless pursuit of Vernazza. But here in the tunnel, almost immediately, we were held up by an absolutely marvelous violinist playing classical selections accompanied quietly by an accordionist. Manarola, a relatively short walk from Riomaggiore, is a medieval fishing village perched on an outcrop over the sea. Here, the seven would transfer directly to Vernazza for a tour and lunch. The rest of us headed out for the 8-mile walk to Vernazza via Corniglia, where we would pause an hour for lunch on our own.
The Cinque Terre walk afforded many spectacular views of the sea and the land that fell precipitously to the crashing waves below. While much of our path wound along the steep slopes, we often found ourselves in orchards or small woodlands. Olive groves were strung with the orange netting below their branches to catch the ripening olives. A few little hollows along the way sheltered some chestnut trees, their fruit beginning to fall in spiny pods. We walked also through ancient vineyards, some of them now abandoned because of the difficulty of keeping them up on steep terraces.
We had many long climbs up uneven, seemingly interminable steps followed by steep descents on narrow, rocky paths. The highest point of the walk—between Corniglia and Vernazza—is some 700 feet above sea level. We had climbed higher on earlier days, but this height offered little between us and the whispering sea below. On the ascent into Corniglia, we counted 385 steps, virtually everyone choosing the climb over the alternative of the local bus. We were pumped.
In Corniglia, we paused for a restorative hour. Lunch was mostly foccacia or panini, cappacino, and gelato. Gil and Wendy Smith decided that they would set out immediately with hope of doing all five towns, including the arduous walk to Monterosso at the end. They requested and received permission, assuring us that they would meet us at the train station in Monterosso as we came through on our way to Santa Margherita. Such a departure promised the beginning of an absorbing mystery, though in the end they kept their pledge, smiling over no big thing.
The walk between Corniglia and Vernazza continued up and down, though mainly up. Surprisingly, no one had any real difficulty keeping up. Perhaps after eight days of walking we were by now well in shape. Tom Lee, however, announced in no uncertain terms that he did not intend to set a Cinque Terre speed record and so took his time. His more relaxed pace never became a concern. Shortly after reaching the high point of the trail, we began the long, knee-burning descent on countless stone steps and strategically placed rocks down through sloping groves of olive trees to Vernazza. As it came into view finally, our spirits lifted, for we were about to complete the journey without injury or exhaustion.
Vernazza is incredibly picturesque, and as such is a favorite get-away for sophisticated travelers—or those who, emboldened by the internet, presume to be. As we emerged from the olive trees and reached the furthest upward extent of the village, still well over 100 feet above the town square, we encountered a flush-faced, rather wilted American traveler bearing his luggage and peering rather nervously at the address of Vernazza’s highest house. “Ah, this is it!” he cried back to his wife, who was wheezing and stumbling up the trail well behind him bearing a pretty pack on her shoulders. “Hooray,” she gasped, as did another well-dressed American couple lurching up the path some distance further back. One wondered, of course, what their reaction might have been had they discovered that the address was incorrect or, even worse, closed for the season.
We arrived at the piazza of Vernazza at 3:45 PM and so had an hour to rest before catching the 4:50 train to Santa Margherita. In this interval, several of us pondered the choice of a cold beer or a warming cup of hot chocolate at a sidewalk café before strolling on through the charming town. Almost immediately, we found abundant shopping opportunities, primed for tourists. Yet even with its commercial side, Vernazza itself is so lovely, the way it stands proudly on its little plot of earth between the sea and sky. In a search for matters of civic pride, we found the inevitable seaside church, possessed of an eloquent if rather somber silence, recalling the names of the dead.
The train to Santa Margherita took about an hour, so everyone was able to relax and rest. Joining us in Monterosso, Gil and Wendy regaled us about the last stretch of the walk beyond Vernazza—only they had done the true “Cinque” Terre. On our arrival, David and Daniela led the group from the station to the waterfront and our hotel, the Hotel Laurin, noting some possibilities for dinner on our own tonight. Rated at four stars, the Hotel Laurin is comfortable and quiet, despite its location on the waterfront drive, with reliable modern facilities, though the hotel lacked the special charm of our previous residences.
After unpacking one last time and bathing away the long walk, several of us went out together into the evening for dinner. The air had a hint of mist. We were fortunate to be the only Americans at Osteria N. 7 on this evening, a circumstance that gave us more opportunity to observe Italian customs between our bits of conversation. About halfway through our simple meal, a trio of musicians entered the establishment, a saxophonist—with large, crowd-appraising eyes, a bass player, and accordionist. At the first flourish of accordion music, two dogs in the room began to bark uncontrollably and scurry about the room. When they finally were rounded up and quieted, one of them was brought toward the player by her master as if she would help the dog discover the harmlessness of the accordion. But this was to no avail. Dogs have an uncanny sense of smell and, in a few cases, a well-developed taste in music.
We were greeted on this final day in Italy by persistent rain. It was as if the clouds that had followed us through Tuscany and Liguria could no longer contain themselves. Despite the weather, we gathered at 9:30 AM in the hotel lobby for David’s halting but game description of the final hike in “Italian Walks.” Noting the heavy showers outside, a few peeled off at this point, choosing instead to explore the city with the intention of joining us later in Portofino. The rest of us—20 strong—began the gradual climb through the upper neighborhoods of Santa Margherita for the 3-hour walk to Portofino. As we wended our way upward, the rain began to taper off, and soon it stopped altogether. From the heights above Santa Margherita, we enjoyed several views of the forested slopes above the Ligurian Sea, still smoking from the recent rains.
Again today our route led us through several olive groves hung with orange nets. The olive harvest was only a couple of weeks off, but several weeks of seasoning would be required before the olives were ready for consumption. Meanwhile, no one dared taste their acrid flesh. We made a steady climb on well-maintained stone paths and roadways. David, light as a feather, though once again bearing the group’s supply of extra drinking water, had to be reminded on this his favorite walk to pause from time to time to allow the halt and lame to catch up. He seemed always to have an elfin smile on his face to go along with his weightlessness. The route leveled off after about an hour for a panoramic traverse to Olmi. Here, after a flushed group photo, a few members of the group opted for the descent with Daniela to the seaside town of Paraggi, followed by the coastal walk to Portofino. The rest followed David further uphill into the lush chestnut tree region above Portofino. The path was littered with the pale green and golden pods of fallen chestnuts. Inside the pods, peeking from their close quarters, the mahogany nuts glistened with ripeness. Unable to resist, I dislodged one of the nuts from its defensive armament, then peeled back the outer husk and risked a nibble. The clean meat had a delicate flavor and a most satisfying nutty crunch.
Along the way, we passed two ancient mills, one currently being remodeled into a private residence, the other apparently awaiting inspiration. Our long descent from high above Portofino took us steadily down past several extraordinary villas, most of these with lovely gardens as well as fine views of the sea. For several minutes, we strolled along in a silence that we had become accustomed to on our woodland walks, but soon we began to hear the faint sound of traffic in the distance. As we rounded the last corner and descended the last set of stairs, we arrived in Portofino, home to Italy’s rich and famous. Our Italian walks were now complete.
We did take an hour or so to peer into Portofino’s exclusive shops, galleries, and pricey restaurants surrounding its central piazza, but for our own lunch a delicious foccacia was more readily available nearby. As many of us had begun to think about our return to the U.S. tomorrow, an air of melancholia had settled over the group. Despite the seductive loveliness of Portofino, scattered showers helped to deepen the mood,. No one was late for the ferry taking us back to Santa Margherita.
Once back at our hotel, we began to pack one last time, not a laborious process at this point, for no one would be preserving a press. At 7:45 PM, we boarded taxis and vans for our farewell dinner at U Giancu in the hills above Rappalo. We knew on our arrival that the occasion would be light-hearted, for the establishment was decorated inside and out with cartoon figures. This could well prove to be the right way to counteract any creeping nostalgia. The delicious dinner that followed was enhanced by entertainment provided by the owner, who wore a different hat with each course served. At the pouring of the first wine, I toasted the group and then announced that, in accordance with a W&L Traveller tradition, everyone would be asked to describe his or her most memorable moment from the trip—or, if none of these came readily to mind, a resolution for the future. We began sharing these during the second course. Everyone spoke warmly and well—too many testimonials to list here. Suffice it to say that, with different minds focused on the same splendid journey, “Italian Walks” arrived at a final array of vivid memories, shared inspiration, and persuasive good will.
Finally, we thanked David and Daniela for their friendship, guidance, attention to detail, patience, and flexibility, then presented them with a gratuity contributed by everyone in our group. As many would be taking the 4:30 AM transfer to Genoa the next morning, we brought the occasion to an early conclusion, though by now it was difficult for everyone to break away from such a warm fellowship. The ride back to the hotel seemed much shorter than the way out and, inevitably, somewhat lonelier.
* * *
In each town along the way on “Italian Walks,” and in some villages between, we heard the ringing of bells from clock towers and steeples tolling the hour. It is not a sound that we hear often at home in the United States, so such a bright, insistent clamor seems always something remarkable. The bells can be quite loud, and if there is more than one bell tower in a town the cacophony can be rather stupefying. But there is always a moment in that commotion that, for me at least, touches the heart. It is that sweet slide of sound after the last peel, at the point when the bells have done their job and are settling down again. The last note goes out across the rooftops and into the fields in a new, gentler kind of calling, as if the peeling of bells carried with it its own fading reflection, a soft appeal that summons us as it yields finally to the sound of life.
-- Rob Fure