Wolves, marble quarries, barbed wire and ancient Etruscan ways star in Gillian Price’s latest adventures as she returns to Tuscany on a special quest: to research new walks and verify existing routes for the fourth edition (2018) of her classic guide Walking in Tuscany, which first arrived on the shelves in far-off 1998. But not all goes to plan.
A brand new edition of a walking guidebook is always cause for in-depth reflection and in this case it was the perfect excuse for lots of trips back to Tuscany, one of Italy’s most famous regions and rightfully so. Walking in Tuscany was one of my early guides for Cicerone and I liked to think that the walks were ‘a breath of fresh air for visitors between crowded art cities’ – and I still do. What’s more despite multiple revisions and reprints, a complete overhaul for this fourth edition seemed like a great idea – and the perfect way to celebrate the guidebook’s 20th birthday.
As well as updating existing routes I decided that this 4th edition needed expanding so as to encompass the far-flung corners of Tuscany relatively unknown to walkers. So I put together a patchwork of photocopies that became my ‘Tuscan master map’ and began to highlight place names, circle areas in red and add hosts of post-its as promising new routes came to light through contacts with park authorities, local branches of CAI the Italian Alpine Club, and a network of friends.
One new area for me was the Alpi Apuane in the region’s west just in from the coast. Our friend Laura has been living in the Garfagnana valley close to Lucca for donkeys years and had been pestering me to let her guide us around her beloved mountains. To clinch the deal she offered us her guest rooms – which happen to double as breathtaking belvederes looking straight out to the Apuane. Wow! That’s when I realised why they were called the ‘Alps of Tuscany’.
Wow! That’s when I realised why they were called the ‘Alps of Tuscany’.
At the time my father was visiting from Australia so we dragged him along. But first Laura had a special surprise in store for us – a visit to a marble quarry. The Apuane have been providing high quality white marble since ancient Roman times, and Renaissance artists and sculptors the ilk of Michelangelo would come to choose their own pieces. The small-scale quarries are worked by expert stonemasons not to mention skilled truck drivers who perform daredevil acrobatics on the incredibly narrow twisting roads. All up quite spectacular!
Our first walk began at the beautiful pasture basin of Campocatino at 1000 metres altitude. The ancient glacial cirque is dotted with old huts constructed for the herders who once brought as many as 12,000 sheep up here in the summer months to enjoy the sweet fresh grass.
We set out with great optimism across the flowered meadows in the direction of magnificent Monte Roccandagia, which opened up like a grand stone fan ahead of us, closing off the horizon. It was a gentle climb so we had ample opportunity to breath in the heady scent of the masses of white Poets' narcissus that carpeted the slopes. The flower is dubbed gir la testa or 'head turner' in vernacular for its intense perfume. This was supposed to be a straightforward Sentiero Natura nature trail, but once we got to the beech wood at the foot of the mountain unfortunately the markings faded and the path petered out. We ploughed on in the direction we thought it should be, but this became an obstacle course of dodging low branches with pointy twigs and risking twisted ankles on stumps and slippery fallen leaves. (Without forgetting the occasional unpublishable expression from Dad.) In the end the GPS saved the day, guiding us out and back down to Campocatino. A lovely spot but alas, this walk definitely wasn’t going to make it into the guidebook.
Next day’s destination was much more successful: Monte Forato, a natural arch 36 metres wide and 16 metres high, an awesome window through which a light plane has reportedly flown! Getting there entailed a steep grassy path up to an immensely panoramic ridge along what felt to me like goat tracks. That day was when we realised that Laura had neglected to mention that she was training for a high altitude Himalayan trek and was keen on clocking up kilometres and elevation. Puff puff! (Wisely, Dad had opted for a rest day).
The Foreste Casentinesi in the east of Tuscany were another new entry for my guidebook. I’d trekked through a couple of times on the GEA Grande Escursione Appennica route but I was more than happy to go back to concoct shorter walks to fit into one day. High above the Renaissance town of Arezzo on the ridge that is Italy’s backbone, extensive beech and pine forests are safeguarded under the auspices of a National Park, though over the past centuries the monks and hermits of the Camaldolesi and Franciscan orders were the custodians. We were booked into Rifugio Città di Forlì, a rambling place set at 1437 metres in a vast open meadow. Custodians Cristina and Marco make walkers very welcome – you’re hardly in the door when a glass of prosecco finds its way into your hand.
Unfortunately widespread low cloud and rain meant challenging conditions for our walks on nearby Monte Falco and Falterona which are renowned for being highly panoramic. However this could not dampen my excitement at reaching the source of the Arno, the mighty river that is born here before heading down from the mountainous ridge and gaining force as it flows through Florence no less, before a final run west to the Tyrrhenian Sea at Pisa.
‘tempo da lupi’ or ‘wolf weather’: such awful weather that only a wolf would go out in it
Another source of excitement for me was the wildlife. I knew the area was home to wolves as over recent years they have been gradually spreading northwards from their ancestral home in Abruzzo; the population in Tuscany alone is estimated to be around 500. I’ve always wanted to see an exemplar of Canis lupus italicus. I read every single book that comes out in Italy about these beautiful elusive creatures and I am pretty sure I glimpsed one in the Maritime Alps once. This day there was thick low swirling cloud, the meteo conditions the Italians refer to as ‘tempo da lupi’ or ‘wolf weather’, that is such awful weather that only a wolf would go out in it! I was hopeful. So as not to make ourselves heard we trod especially lightly, scanning the bushes as we went along for signs of movement. And then I saw it – on the path straight ahead of me… no, not the creature himself but proof he’d just been there – fresh droppings! Not quite what I had in mind, but indisputable evidence nonetheless of the recent passage of a wolf. As Marco explained later at the rifugio, the long dark hairs that are clearly visible mean that he dined on his favourite prey wild boar, which are numerous here. I was chuffed for having recognised them.
Oz friends Marg and Libby came along on our adventures in southern Tuscany also known as Etruria, once home to the ancient Etruscans. Tourism here is very low key. I had rented us a delightful house on a cliff edge in photogenic medieval Pitigliano - which by the way has featured on every cover of the Walking in Tuscany guidebook in differing versions over the years. An utterly charming place with old stone houses that seem to grow out of a tufa plateau. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve been there but I wanted to show my friends the fascinating ancient vie cave sunken ways that date back to Etruscan times. I’d planned on the marvellous traverse from Pitigliano through the hilly countryside to the pretty village of Sovana. Luckily I checked in at the Tourist Office before setting out as it turned out that key vie cave were closed due to rock collapses so it was back to the drawing board. However there was also good news in the shape of Via Cava San Giuseppe, a superb alternative. We left Pitigliano by the ‘back door’, descending from the town platform to the underlying road. A few metres on came the best part as the ancient way excavated out of the soft tufa rocky terrain ascends ever so gradually, almost tunnel-like. High above tree branches hang out, providing shade. The smooth flanks are occasionally punctuated with manmade cavities; originally intended as tomb sites they now serve local farmers as underground sheds for their implements. Winding uphill with an imperceptible gradient, the via cava emerges on a modest plateau and we looked back to marvellous Pitigliano and soon over to our destination Sovana.
Another attractive destination was Radicofani, a tiny hilltop village with views over what feels most of Tuscany! And the best place to enjoy the views? The fortress tower that looms over the houses. But first I had a new walk to check out. Initially a pleasant stroll on lanes across open pasture slopes, it quickly did a disappearing act – at a stile wrapped in barbed wire… Another walk is binned.
Notwithstanding we rewarded ourselves that evening with a dinner of pici, fresh pasta like spaghetti smothered with a rich sauce of tomato and cured ham. The logical accompaniment was local red wine Morellino di Scansano.