Hills of Tuscany: Vines and views
Mary Novakovich is given a warm welcome as she takes a ramble through the Tuscan hills
Saturday 17 May 2008
At first I thought we had walked into a family gathering. About 20 people were seated at a long table under a shady, vine-covered pergola, gossiping loudly in Italian over grappa and coffee. Cheerful, noisy, arms flying everywhere – a typical Italian family at Sunday lunch. Only it was Tuesday and it wasn't a family; they were the guests at Franco and Umberta Lazzari's Agriturismo Orgiaglia in the Tuscan hills – and they were doing what comes naturally when you've had three courses of Franco's delicious cooking, plus large quantities of Chianti and grappa.
The Lazzaris' daughter Silvia spotted the two dusty and rather exhausted new arrivals. "We've been expecting you. Sit down over there, away from the noise. My mother will bring you a cold drink." Within minutes Umberta was plying us with sparkling water and speaking excitedly, the odd German or French word punctuating her Italian. She seemed genuinely thrilled to see us, and we soon discovered that we had collapsed into the most convivial and yet relaxing agriturismo in Italy.
At last we could peel off our walking gear and jump in the huge pool. We needed it after our walk from Volterra. It was only about 15km long, but the Tuscan hills – exquisite though they are – require some effort to navigate in 30C heat. That's the trade-off on a walking holiday in Tuscany: much of the time you walk on the easy terrain of the strade bianchi – the once-white and now grey farm tracks that link these ancient villages and towns – but more often than not you're exposed to the strong sun.
The landscape in this part of the Chianti region had been beautifully stark that day, the rolling hills brown and sparsely covered. When a row of cypress trees did appear, it had a dramatic effect against the vivid blue sky. Eventually we'd reached the coolness of the heavily forested Berignone nature reserve, where we'd eaten the little packed lunch provided by the Park Hotel Le Fonti in Volterra where we stayed the night before. It wasn't quite enough to sustain us for the last kilometre, which was uphill through rough forest tracks to the sanctuary of Agriturismo Orgiaglia.
Much later, after a refreshing swim, we noticed the other guests settling in for a lazy late afternoon: some ensconced in the swing seats with a book, others on sun loungers. We were content to sit at one of the many tables dotted about, drinking the beer offered by Franco. "Would you like some pecorino I made?" he asked. "And I've just picked these plums from my garden. Have some." Soon the sun was dropping behind the green hills covering the furthest reaches of this vast property, while I bagged one of the swing seats to lull myself into a state of bliss.
Promptly at 8.30pm, Umberta rang the huge bell outside the door and we all trooped into the dining room. We were seated according to language groups, which allowed conversation to flow unimpeded over the next few hours. The mouth-watering food – all locally produced – just kept coming. Bruschetta, prosciutto, fennel-flavoured salami, a wild mushroom risotto, grilled pork and wild boar. An English couple were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, which gave Umberta a great excuse to bring out a cake and Prosecco. Sitting outside in the moonlight afterwards, drinking wine, no one seemed in a hurry to go to bed.
We had great intentions the following day to do a long walk through the grounds. Unfortunately, our lack of a decent map caused us to walk around in circles for about an hour until we gave in and wandered over to the stables where Silvia was teaching two children to ride. "Come and feed the horses," she said. (Being Italian horses, they were fed bruschetta.)
Our next gargantuan feeding time was also approaching. Duck pasta this time, and more wild boar. Coffee on the terrace before the night got too cool. At this point I was wondering if the Lazzaris could adopt me.
It was with much regret that we trudged up the lane the next morning. We made our way uphill through the nature reserve until eventually we reached the pretty hilltop village of Casole d'Elsa, where Maria in the alimentari was happy to make us some sandwiches for our lunch on the way to Colle di Val d'Elsa, a larger hilltop town which was that day's destination. That night we stayed at the beautiful Relais della Rovere, its buildings dating from the 14th century.
Next, we had another 15km to wander through en route to the hamlet of San Donato and that evening's hotel: Le Terre Rosse. Here the landscape felt almost intimate, with farms, more olive groves, and more houses with large kitchen gardens and orchards. The vineyards were bright purple, the vines heavily laden with juicy grapes that were just days away from being harvested. There were more woods here too, with lovely cooling shade. Now and then I would catch a glimpse of the medieval towers of San Gimignano in the dusty ochre haze of the upturned earth.
For such a small and touristy place, San Gimignano is remarkably spacious. It is also breathtakingly beautiful. Fourteen of the town's original 76 medieval towers remain, and the superb views from the tallest of these, imaginatively called Torre Grossa, were worth the rather tortuous climb. Down below was the delightful 13th-century Piazza della Cisterna, named after its medieval well where tourists now stoop along with the pigeons.
Far too quickly, it was time for our final walk, back to Volterra. A downpour the day before made it tough going on the rocky terrain through the forest of Castelvecchio. Occasionally we would come across an attractive but derelict farmhouse, ripe for property development. Then, once out of the forest, the landscape again became open and dramatic.
We spent our final night in Volterra, which was celebrating its annual festival, held on the third Monday in September, which marks the return of children to school. People thronged the main piazza, their children munching on treats bought from the many sweet stalls. It didn't seem quite enough consolation for having to go back to school. I could sympathise with school children's sense of interrupted pleasure. I certainly didn't want to leave this place.
The writer travelled with Headwater (01606 720033; www.headwater.com). A nine-day Chianti: Volterra to San Gimignano Walk from 1 May to 14 October, costs from £999 to £1,089 per person, based on two sharing. It includes hotel, breakfast and evening meals, flights, transfers and luggage transport. Cheaper self-drive options are also available.
Park Hotel Le Fonti, Via Fontecorrenti 5, Volterra (00 39 058 88 52 19; www.parkhotellefonti.com).
Agriturismo Orgiaglia, Localita Ponsano, Volterra (00 39 058 83 50 29; www.orgiaglia.it).
Relais della Rovere, Via Piemonte 10, Colle di Val d'Elsa (00 39 057 79 24 696).
Hotel Casolare Le Terre Rosse, Localita San Donato, San Gimignano (00 39 0577 9021; www.hotelterrerosse.com).
Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk); Tuscany tourist board (www.turismo.toscana.it).
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