The traveller's guide to walking in Italy

Harriet O'Brien pulls on her hiking boots and heads off to experience the different challenges of the Italian landscape
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The Independent Travel

AMBLE OR RAMBLE?

Italy is wonderful walking country, not only due to its great variety of terrain but also because of the local enthusiasm for hiking. Serious walking is an enormously popular activity for Italians - who have ensured that their wide network of country paths and long-distance hiking trails is both fairly well conserved and reasonably well marked.

There is something for almost everyone, too: gentle walks in vine and olive country; slightly more strenuous ventures between ancient hilltop villages; hikes in coastal areas or on remote mountain tracks; and for a real challenge the vie ferrate (iron ways), adrenalin-inducing high-level footpaths on which cables, bridges and steel ladders have been placed at particularly difficult sections. And the great plus of Italy is that, in most cases, you'll be hiking in epicurean land so, with the exception of really far-flung places, you'll have an opportunity to sample excellent local cuisine and wine.

CAN I WALK THE WHOLE OF ITALY?

Such is the ongoing ambition of the Italian Alpine Club (Club Alpino Italiano or CAI; www.cai.it). Since the early Eighties, it has been the principal force behind the creation of a route running from Trieste through the Alpine top of Italy to Liguria and then down to the country's toe at Reggio Calabria. The full extent of Italy will be completed with further routes through Sicily and Sardinia.

Other major long-distance paths include the Grande Escursione Appenninica (GEA) running along the spine of the Apennines and the Grande Traversata delle Alpi (GTA), stretching about 400 miles through the spectacular Western Alps.

AH, MOUNTAIN BEAUTY

There's a wealth of choice for mountain walking. In the north-west, the Maritime Alps offer a great number of old trading routes between Piedmont and France - as well as particularly dramatic scenery around the cliffs of Punta Marguareis.

The Western Alps contain the mighty Matterhorn and the Monte Rosa massif, as well as many footpaths crossing high passes and offering stunning panoramas. The Dolomites, arguably the most beautiful of the Alpine range, feature trails through magnificent high mountain landscapes and gentler meadows. Meanwhile, over to the north-east bordering Austria and Slovenia, the glorious Julian Alps remain little visited and present winding paths through great forests and over alpine pastures of abundant wild flowers.

Throughout Italy's Alps the mountain paths are dotted with rifugi, large mountain huts that provide summer B&B accommodation, for the most part in dormitories. They also offer hearty evening meals which are usually based on good local cuisine and there is often the opportunity to drink much grappa thereafter. Many of the rifugi are owned and run by the CAI (see above) but there are also several hundred privately owned alternatives. You'll find rifugi marked on topographical walking maps, such as those published by the CAI, Kompass, Cicerone Press and Trailblazer Publications.

Booking in advance is strongly recommended, particularly at the height of summer; contact details are available from the CAI or local tourist offices.

FOR PICTURESQUE LAKES?

The majestic scenery of Lombardy's lake district certainly pulls the crowds. But if you're prepared to make good use of the many footpaths through the alpine meadows, lemon and olive groves and woodlands of the region, you should soon lose the hordes. In any event, it is best to avoid coming to Lombardy during the peak tourist season of July and August, since walking during the high summer can become uncomfortably hot.

The largest of the lakes is Lago di Garda, whose eastern shore is dominated by the rugged ridge of Monte Baldo. From the town of Malcesine a convenient cable car takes you up to a good starting point for excellent walks along the ridge on which well used paths offer tremendous panoramas of water and mountains. Further west, little Lake Iseo is something of a hidden gem, dominated by strikingly angular mountains to the north while gentle slopes to the south are home to the Franciacorta vineyards. West again, Lake Como is famously scenic, the lovely lakeside town of Menaggio providing a good starting point for walks that vary from easy strolls to challenging hill hiking. Lake Maggiore, furthest west, offers hikes through woodland and quiet, timeless villages that make a striking contrast with the sumptuous villas of the area.

I WANT TO WALK BESIDE THE SEASIDE

Head for the Ligurian riviera with its colourful fishing villages, sandy coves and wooded hills running steeply down to the Mediterranean. The outlook from the paths along the unspoilt Portofino Peninsula is especially fine. Meanwhile, the route that takes in the five villages of the remarkable Cinque Terre coast is breathtaking. About eight miles long, this is a fairly easy stretch to walk, the path being known as the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Track ) because it presents such extraordinary sea views.

Further south, beyond Naples, the sparkling Amalfi coast provides a visual feast with its gravity-defying villages clinging to steep cliffs and its mountainous hinterland of woods, terraced farmland and olive groves. There is a choice of trails above the shores and up into the dramatic Lattari Mountains.

HOW ABOUT THE HEARTLAND?

The classic landscape of Tuscany, with its wine lands, wheat fields and hilltops capped by farmhouses and cypress trees, is idyllic for gentle rambles. The Chianti region, between Florence and Siena, presents a variety of walks (some along quiet roads) past vineyards and through medieval villages. Those in search of a longer challenge could walk a trail on old drover's roads between Florence and Italy's gourmet capital, Bologna.

Meanwhile neighbouring Umbria is suitably dubbed the "green heart of Italy". Bordered to the east by the Apennines and endowed with leafy valleys, ravines and several national parks, it is laced with hiking trails. The most cherished locally is a pilgrimage path, the 25-mile Sentiero Francescano della Pace from Assisi to Gubbio which usually requires two unhurried days to complete. It retraces the route St Francis is said to have taken in the very early 13th century, a journey he made just after he had renounced his earthly riches.

CAN I GET RIGHT AWAY FROM IT ALL?

Yes, in Sardinia. The second-largest island in the Mediterranean (after Sicily), it presents a staggering variety of landscapes, from dramatic cliffs to sand dunes, marshes and long golden shores. Yet while the island's beaches lure the summer crowds, its interior remains wonderfully unspoilt, dotted with whitewashed villages while its mountains are grazed by wild sheep, or moufflon, and wild boar inhabit its forests. This is especially good walking country, criss-crossed by old shepherds' trails. The central mid-eastern region is particularly remote and here you can hike between the remains of mysterious Bronze Age villages.

HOW ORGANISED SHOULD I BE?

If you're intending to walk for several days you should map out the route and book accommodation well in advance. The Italian Tourist Board in London is a good first port of call (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it). Alternatively, a number of specialist travel companies offer independent walking holidays, not only making all arrangements for you but also providing maps and organising transport for your luggage between guest houses or hotels. These include Inntravel (01653 617949; www.inntravel.co.uk); Headwater (08700 662650; www.headwater.com); Walks Worldwide (01524 242000; www.walksworld wide.com); ATG Oxford (01865 315678; www.atg-oxford.co.uk); and Real Holidays (020-7359 3938; www.realhols.co.uk).

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