I walk in the valley of light, and marvel

Olives, vines, mushroom-scented woods - the Val d'Orcia in southern Tuscany has entranced generations of visitors. Juliet Clough joined a party of walkers to discover its secrets
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The Independent Online
When Grand Duke Ferdinand de Medici built a hostelry in Radicofani for early Grand Tourists, he can hardly have had Stephanie, Steve and the rest of us in mind. The lodge, long fallen from former grace, is an arched affair, built for the carriage trade with all its attendant flunkies and flambeaux. We have passed humbly by on foot which, in post-modern style, is the really grand way to be a tourist in Tuscany today.

After a week's walking through the Val d'Orcia, I feel disinclined for any more holidays of the four-wheeled, frenzied sightseeing kind. There is something about arriving in a town as wholly delightful as Pienza, when tired after a day's ambling through mushroom-scented woods, that gives the pleasant illusion that you have actually earned your evening truffles and a bed in a medieval cloister.

That is the general idea behind The Wayfarers, who sell upmarket walking holidays, until now largely to Americans, in inverted-comma places like Provence and the Cotswolds. British-based, the company is now in pursuit of an additional, home-grown clientele and the Val d'Orcia, new to the portfolio, is just the stuff to give people who have already come, seen and been conquered by Tuscany and are now looking for quiet corners in which to do the Nineties thing and absorb it all even better through the soles of their boots. As a fellow Wayfarer poetically put it: "Your boots kinda connect you with the earth".

Only connect. Walkers do it in different ways. Some of my 15 companions are pedometer and compass guys. "Goal oriented", says Dave, who is 79 next week and regularly outstrips us all. He vetoes our guide Hilary Jenkins's ambition to veer off into a field and talk to an old farmer friend who would like to hear about life in the States: "Tell him we'll send him a book." Some are wildlife enthusiasts: "Wild boar? Don't get excited honey; it's not kosher."

Others, like me, want to be inheritors rather than merely observers of the scene. These white roads may seem well off the beaten Tuscan track but the Val d'Orcia, which lies between Montepulciano and Monte Amiata, is territory already well trodden. Roman galley builders plundered the mountain's distant chestnut woods. Just outside Pienza, a door lintel of the 12th-century Pieve di Castignano is carved with crusader kings, trotting on their way to the Holy Land. Charlemagne is said to have founded the exquisite Abbey of Sant' Antimo near Montalcino and French monks are back in residence today. To walk through vineyards busy with the first day's harvest, into chaste Romanesque spaces filled with plainsong, is to become a willing extra from an illustrated missal.

Other pilgrims once camped on Monte Labbro, a silhouette in the distance, south from Montalcino. A heap of stones on the summit is all that remains of the tower, built in the 1870s by this area's self-styled New Messiah, David Lazzaretti. A carter turned prophet and visionary, Lazzaretti's radical doctrines fell on eager peasant ears at a time of great upheaval. He gathered a community thousands strong who followed him down from the mountain to his death at the hands of the carabinieri in 1878. There are still said to be Lazzarettisti about. When I last visited the New Messiah's spooky cave there were fresh flowers on his altar.

But that is a footnote to our route, part of which lies under the beetling, chesspiece towers of Radicofani and the Ripa d'Orcia, along the Via Francigena, the old pilgrim road that connected Rome with the rest of Christian Europe. Later, along the Via Cassia, came the grand tourists in search of the classical, the romantic, the pre-Raphaelite Italy. Forget being mere figures in a landscape. Walkers here figure.

In late September, the lower slopes of the Val d'Orcia gleam with wellbeing. There is a rhythm about the turned earth, silver after the grain harvest, its nudity softened with patches of scrub oak and ruled with neat rows of olives and laden vines. This is an ordered landscape, punctuated by cypress and church towers, scribbled over by little rivers, the whole scene neatly enclosed within the authoritative margins of Monte Amiata and Monte Cetona.

Nothing in this scene is static; underlying the Val d'Orcia's pastoral lucidity runs a subtext that has changed as dramatically as the weather. On Wednesday, after days of dazzling weather, it rained so hard that not all the saints, including the Blessed Gore-Tex, prevented our boots and knapsacks from turning into sponges. These, however, are apt conditions in which to pass La Foce, for this is the estate where the most recent greening of the valley began.

The Anglo-American writer, Iris Origo, with her Italian Marchese husband Antonio, bought La Foce in 1923. With it came a chunk of the Val d'Orcia, then an inhospitable desert of neglect, a lunar landscape broken by ridges of clay, the crete senesi, which still shoulders its way, in places, through the farmland. The Origos, planting woods, draining marshes, improving farmhouses, turning ridges into wheat fields, have passed into local mythology.

That story is told in Iris Origo's autobiography, Images and Shadows, but there was another chapter to be written. We read grim footnotes to war in Val d'Orcia on memorials to local partisans and escapee British prisoners of war throughout the woodlands and mountain villages which sheltered them during the summer of 1944. Twenty-year-old Giuseppe Marino, hanged by the Nazi-Fascista in Montepulciano; the patriots shot in Castiglioncello del Trinoro square; the British prisoners of war held in Castelluccio and the five men of the second Battalion Coldstream Guards who died in the Chianciano woods for an Italy "just, free and civilised" are all remembered. Pietraporciana, the remote La Foce farmhouse where the resistance fighters sheltered, is being renovated as a museum.

Cranes and builders have taken over many Val d'Orcia farmhouses and empty hilltop villages. In Vignoni Alto, Narciso Bellugi, who for the past 25 years has lived there alone with his wife and son, farming the steep slopes of a village that once supported 13 or 14 families, is warming himself in the sun. "Tomorrow I start the grape harvest," he says, "but how many more will there be..." Empty houses are being done up by "professors" or by business people like the Coppis, who invite us into their half- renovated house near Radicofani for coffee and a view to die for over Monte Cetona.

With the young leaving for the towns in droves and the post-feudal farms either regrouping into huge combines or reverting to "natural parkland", this is the Val d'Orcia's era of counter-migration. Elizabeth, a retired teacher of Latin who joins us for lunch at the Rosa del Trinoro, tells us that 108 expat Brits like herself live within 20 miles of Castiglioncello del Trinoro, getting together occasionally for chamber concerts and play readings. Freer spirits among them, says Hilary, scorn Conservative lunch parties for an alternative group founded by "a cousin of Douglas Hurd".

Hilary, an affable historian with a deep love of the area, has for the past 25 years lived with his wife Rosemary in a village on the chestnut- wooded slopes of Monte Amiata. This walk, which was pieced together with stretches of minibussing, is their baby. It comes filled with passing encounters, with hunters and truffle hounds, with the big white sheepdogs who seem to be in sole charge of their belled flocks, with farmers and forest rangers, with the children of dead patriots and with a couple of old ladies carding wool for mattresses.

Wayfarers tend to be faithful customers; several are on their sixth or seventh walk. Most of this group belong to the 50-plus age group and have worked hard for the good things this holiday provides: the carefully researched picturesqueness of the route and the local flavour of each meal; the painless appearance of the luggage in each new hotel room at each day's end.

Hotels vary, with top marks going to Il Chiostro in Pienza, which has medieval cloisters and a dazzling view, and to La Palazzina, a successful agriturismo venture east of Radicofani, all wood fires and truffled pasta. Pienza is pure theatre, a little stage-set of a city, left waiting in the wings after only three years of 15th-century illustriousness as the revamped home of Pius the Second. Cathedral and papal palace crumble eloquently, their walls hung with treasures, their floors tilting perilously towards the plain. Being a cinema set, a bright shadow of its former self, is yet another way in which this valley has re-cast itself for the outside world. Zeffirelli used Pienza as the backdrop for Romeo and Juliet. The English Patient was also filmed here.

We eat royally. In Montefollonico it's zuppa di faro, the wheat soup that fuelled the Roman empire; at Radicofani it's gnocchi with porcine the meaty fungus which perfumes the September woods. At La Cucina di Fiorella in Pienza, Fiorella plies us with about nine courses and reappears for constant reassurance that we are enjoying them all. A beautiful picnic, fat olives, fresh figs, three different kinds of pecorino and the tiny, strawberry-scented grapes known as uva fragola, appears under the holm oaks and broken statues at Palazzo Massaini. It is an event that is perfectly stage-managed by The Wayfarers' indefatigable local manager, Patrizia.

Above all, it is the light that overwhelms. I shall leave the last word with the diarist John Evelyn who, in 1644, walked the same wild, upland country between the Val d'Orcia and Monte Amiata, in much the same gothic weather as we did. On leaving the Great Duke's Inn at Radicofani the travellers met "a Sea of thick Clowds rowling under our feet like huge waves, ever now and then suffering the top of some other mountaine to peepe through... and between some breaches of the Clowds, Landskips and Villages of the subjacent country.

"This was I must acknowledge one of the most pleasant, new and altogether surprizing objects that in my life I had ever beheld."

CONTACTS

Dates

The Val d'Orcia walk is scheduled for 20 April, 18 May, 21 Sep, 5, 19 & 26 Oct. pounds 1,050 per person, Sun to Sat, excl travel to and from Siena. Contact The Wayfarers, Brayton, Aspatria, Cumbria CA5 3PT. Tel 016973 22383; fax 016973 22394

Other operators

The Alternative Travel Group (01865 513333) and Inntravel (01653 628811) also run Tuscan walks.

Getting there

The nearest airports to Siena are Florence and Pisa. Alitalia (0171 602 7111) flies to Pisa direct from pounds 139 in April and May, rising to pounds 250- pounds 300 in high summer. Meridiana flies direct to Florence in summer from pounds 359 plus tax. Call Trailfinders (0171-937 5400). Rail to Siena via Eurostar takes 23 hours and costs pounds 152 each way.

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