Days of walking lay ahead. But we had our boots. What could go wrong?
Saturday 17 June 1995
Frantically, we set about scouring Terminal Two. The torch was easy, but we drew a blank with the waterproof trousers, and inquiries about short, sharp knives met with distinct disapproval. Anxiety growing, we joined the queue in Departures behind a sturdy man in shorts, who had a neck like a rhino and sported a shillelagh.
At Rome airport our team assembled. Thankfully rhino-neck was going somewhere else, but the group was still formidable. We were 10 years younger than any of them, and clearly in much worse shape. Rachel and Sarah, our guides, greeted us and we left Rome in pouring rain, able to see nothing but the legend on the van in front: "the best way to see a country is on foot". We felt like changing the last word to "telly".
Twenty-four hours later, a change was beginning. High up in the Appennines a cry arose from the murk. "Stop a minute!" demanded a figure shrouded in anorak. "I've left my glasses behind." They were, in fact, on his nose but he had not believed it because, just for a moment, they were not misted up.
I fell into step with him to discuss whether the precipice we were assailing was enveloped in cloud, or whether it was raining fog. As he shot vertically ahead I was left in silence, unbroken save for an exaggerated heartbeat, the swish of waterproofed thighs ahead and the indefatigable song of a lark.
Another day, another scene. At the back of the gang as usual, we listened to a discussion between three distinguished professors. A watery sun emerged to illuminate astounding views and, every now and again, a halt was called while Sarah led us into a tiny, frescoed church, or pulled out her reference book to identify an orchid. The snow was thigh-deep, the scree giddyingly sheer, but my sense of achievement was growing as fast as my knees were ballooning under flapping shorts.
Leaving Norcia, a perfect little walled town that gave the world St Benedict, we picked up a rangy wolfhound who came with us to visit St Rita's birthplace at Roccaporena. While we forded a swollen river, having removed boots and socks to reveal the blister kits, ankle braces and toe bandages, he picked up a jumper, widely regarded as the ripest of all our garments, and could only be persuaded to relinquish it for a crumb from our glorious picnic.
It was a fair swap. The company's picnics are renowned. Rachel had a magical habit of appearing on a stony track miles from civilisation, proffering seemingly never-ending bottles of wine and leading us to a tablecloth spread with delicacies. If dry, we lolled lazily among the gentians; if wet, she found a church porch to protect us. And every day she made sure that our luggage arrived ahead of us at our next inn and that a local feast of some splendour awaited.
A few days later, as we emerged from a disused railway tunnel, somebody asked us why we had chosen this trip, innocents as we were. They were all members of walking clubs. While we carried Dextrasol and sun cream, their kits were packed with compasses, gaiters and emergency whistles, yet even they considered this to be the Everest of the brochure, not to be undertaken lightly. Our answer was that the holiday included places we had never heard of, let alone visited. Had we realised how tough it was, we would never have attempted it.
Yet as we marched across the magnificent aqueduct into Spoleto at the end of it all - to be greeted by Rachel with heavenly champagne - we were very glad to have done it. We kissed our previously daunting companions goodbye warmly, our leg muscles, stomachs and Christmas card lists considerably enlarged, and decided that we would certainly go on another trip. I wonder if they do one in Norfolk?
Sue Gaisford paid pounds 1,195 for her all-inclusive, 11-day Unknown Umbria trek with Alternative Travel Group (01865 310399). For information about walking equipment and trekking holidays, see specialist magazines such as `The Great Outdoors'.
"The walking was strenuous and the weather often appalling, but I enjoyed discovering that such a disparate bunch of people could prove so interesting."
"The grub! We had gorgeous picnics and there were two or three meals when we ate the very best of the local Italian food."
"It was not the kind of thing you should do straight from your office desk, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
"In North Yorkshire you might find 20 orchids, but they'd be all the same kind. In Umbria, you can see 20 different varieties in a day."
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