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English boots on Tuscan hills

Jeremy Atiyah packs his bags and lets someone else carry them on a walking holiday in the golden Italian countryside
WHAT BETTER way to know a landscape than to walk through it? Plenty will gaze over the Tuscan hills, but few will have the pleasure of discovering the hidden riches of the land. Driving along the autostrada between your villa and Pisa airport hardly does the trick.

I chose Inntravel, a holiday company that would carry my bags from town to town while I cavorted across the hillsides. No staring out passively from the battlements of hilltop towns for me: I would walk between vineyards, through olive groves and under cypress trees, smelling rosemary and basil and mint as I kicked through the undergrowth.

Then, at night, I would stuff myself with oily stewed aubergines followed by rich, cheesy gnocchi, fatty wild-boar stew and shamelessly filling zuccotto - on the grounds that I needed the nourishment. Not that there was anything punishing about the schedule. Ten miles one day, nine the next. Just enough to justify a very healthy appetite.

Volterra was the first drop from Pisa airport. What a sensible place from which to start a long-distance walk. This small town of red-roofed, yellow-stone buildings is perched on the highest hilltop for miles, though only at sunrise on my first morning - under a bluer sky than any Briton has seen for quite a while - did I quite appreciate how high it was.

Looking down, at the base of soaring walls, I saw bursts of bright green shrubbery, belying the fields of golden stubble that baked on the hills beyond. On the far western horizon - my taxi driver alleged - it was possible to see not only the Mediterranean, but, during the clear dry days of winter, even the mountains of Corsica.

This, however, was summer, the season for licking ice-creams, startling pigeons and creeping into churches for a burst of medieval air-conditioning. In the Romanesque Duomo of Volterra (of which the white and yellow stonework was so weather-worn as to resemble a prehistoric relic), old ladies muttered and shuffled about on the smooth marble floors.

Meanwhile, in the main square, shops were opening to sell the town's main product, alabasterware: bowls, plates, vases, nymphs holding transparent globes. Later, I would walk past an alabaster workshop, a room full of white boulders, and a man with a small pneumatic drill, struggling to tame a chunk of rock while standing up to his shins in white dust. A rough alabaster torso had been strategically placed on a bracket half way up the studio wall.

Predictably, where Tuscany is concerned, this stonemasonry is an extremely old tradition - perhaps the most ancient in western Europe. Before the rise of Rome, these very hills had been patrolled by the mysterious Etruscans, who were destined to contribute so much to world culture and civilisation - via Rome.

One Etruscan relic I had already seen in Volterra was the Porta dell'Arco gate, comprising giant blocks of weathered sandstone from which three ominous black stones jutted. Now just unidentifiable blobs, these were originally the heads of Etruscan gods.

Later, I popped into the Etruscan museum in search of

more clues to these mysteries. Apart from giving their name to Tuscany, the Etruscans also left behind vast numbers of burial urns - stout coffins reclined on by surviving family members and decorated with the griffins and scaly monsters of early European imagination. In the museum, the ancient group portraits come thick and fast, though the best piece of art I saw was gli esposi, a man-and-wife team with perfectly hewn features, who have been glaring bitterly at each other for more than 2,000 years.

But enough of art. Odd to think that the walking had not yet even begun. The next day, I set off with my Inntravel walking notes, scrambling along overgrown, deserted paths through shady forests. The ruined castles of Castelvecchio occasionally raised their heads across steaming valleys. Predictably, it was brow-drippingly hot (sane people do their Tuscan walking in the autumn or spring). As the sun beat down, the softer landscapes of San Gimignano began to appear. The miracle of Tuscany is that every view seems familiar, as if from some subconscious fount of collective knowledge: dusty tracks shaded by parasol pine trees; golden sunflowers under blue skies; villa roofs shielded by pencil cypresses; poppies in the corn fields. Where had I seen all these scenes before?

The din of cicadas in the trees became almost deafening. My first glimpse of the grey towers and red roof tiles of San Gimignano on a distant hilltop was like a mirage in the heat haze. I sat down for a celebratory mouthful (or two) of heavy saltless bread, tomatoes and garlicky olives.

It was that hour when even lizards stay out of the sun. No wind stirred. I pushed on for the last mile into San Gimignano itself, fantasising about empty squares and closed shutters. But this was high season. As I struggled through the medieval Porta San Giovanni, I was hit by a stampede of touristic kitsch.

Well, what of it. The hotel Bel Soggiorno provides the perfect antidote to miniature cheese-graters and Leaning Tower of Pisa keyrings. My room, with its rustic whitewash, opened onto a terrace which commanded views of half of northern Italy. I sat watching sunlight turn the fields red.

So the pattern was set. Loaded up with peaches and tomatoes, I would set off in the mornings through oak copses and olive groves, pursuing the Inntravel instructions, which were usually easy to follow.

Walk through the olive grove. Turn left at the small shrine. Go past the ruined palazzo. By the time I reached Siena, the last stage of the trip, my boots had genuinely communed with the soil of Tuscany.

In Siena itself, I found myself at the edge of town in the Hotel Garden, a country mansion at the end of a long, leafy avenue. And there I tended to my blistered feet, alongside Germans at the pool.

A week today, on 16 August, Siena's central square, Il Campo, will thunder to the chaos of Il Palio, Italy's most outrageous urban horse-race. On the evening I ventured into town, it echoed to other footsteps - German backpackers, Dutch art-lovers, French romantics. And English walkers.

tuscany fact file

Getting there

Jeremy Atiyah's walk was arranged courtesy of Inntravel (tel: 01653 628811). The company can arrange itineraries of any length or specification, although the Tuscan walk featured in its brochure is for one week, including three days walking, staying overnight in Volterra, San Gimignano, Colle Val d'Elsa and Siena. This autumn, the package costs from pounds 698 to pounds 786 per person including return flights from London, return transfers to Pisa airport, half-board accommodation in upmarket hotels and restaurants, as well as detailed walking notes and maps.

For independent travellers to Tuscany, flights are available to Pisa with British Airways (tel: 0345 222111), which has a World Offer of pounds 119 return (plus pounds 20 tax) until the end of September, subject to availability.

Where to stay

The Bel Soggiorno, Via San Giovanni 91, 53037 San Gimignano (tel: 00 39 0577 940375) can be booked through Inntravel from pounds 505 per person for three nights half-board accommodation plus return flights and hire car.

Also try The Hotel Garden, Via Custoza 2, 53100 Siena (tel: 00 39 0577 47056).

(Please note, the initial zero in Italian telephone numbers should always be dialled, even with preceeding codes.)