New boots, old Tuscany

The tourist hordes are making the Blairs' holiday destination less exclusive by the year. But the region's remote, timeless splendour is still there, says Michael Williams. You just need your walking kit

It's nine o'clock on a June morning, and the Tuscan sun is already toasting the stones in the main square of Volterra, one of the loveliest medieval groups of buildings in all Italy. But look - already a phalanx of day-trippers is marching grimly up through the ancient Etruscan gate from the car park below. Parties of Germans are already sussing out the alabaster shops, where the range of "local" souvenirs extends even to a bikini-clad statuette of Marilyn Monroe. By the cathedral, a Roy Strong lookalike, with Tilley hat and floppy moustache, is braying from his Blue Guide: "What exactly is the difference between a basilica and a baptistery?"

It's nine o'clock on a June morning, and the Tuscan sun is already toasting the stones in the main square of Volterra, one of the loveliest medieval groups of buildings in all Italy. But look - already a phalanx of day-trippers is marching grimly up through the ancient Etruscan gate from the car park below. Parties of Germans are already sussing out the alabaster shops, where the range of "local" souvenirs extends even to a bikini-clad statuette of Marilyn Monroe. By the cathedral, a Roy Strong lookalike, with Tilley hat and floppy moustache, is braying from his Blue Guide: "What exactly is the difference between a basilica and a baptistery?"

Tuscany and tourism have had a special relationship for centuries - and now it is under strain like never before. "A paradise for exiles", Shelley called it - and generations of the British aesthetic classes, from Byron to D H Lawrence to E M Forster, came to soak up the history and bask in that brilliant light that shines through countless Renaissance paintings.

Today, though, poor old Tuscany is groaning under the weight of mass tourism, with nigh on a million visitors a year for its 45,000 inhabitants. Even the "Chianti-shire" and "Surrey-in-the-sun" images are out of date - eclipsed by fleets of hired Puntos and air-conditioned coaches breezing down the lanes, puffing diesel into the hedgerows.

For Tony and Cherie Blair, guests next week of the Guiccardini-Strozzi family at their 50-room villa near San Gimignano (and Sting and Madonna, who both have pads here), every summer becomes that bit less exclusive.

Yet there is still a way to enjoy the timeless terrain of old Tuscany, with its vineyards, rolling hills, woodlands and hilltop hamlets - and that is simply to pull on your boots and walk. There are still miles of empty back roads, forest paths and mule tracks which will connect you with the great historic centres, but at the same time setting you in tune with this most harmonious of landscapes.

But, hold on. Don't the slightly spartan exigencies of hiking sit at odds with the essentially sybaritic nature of Tuscan life, with its laid-back lunches, robust red wines and long hot afternoons? Not necessarily. With the help of a small firm in York, my companion and I plotted a 30-mile walking itinerary over a week, traversing varied landscapes, staying in the loveliest small hotels, eating the richest variety of local food, and finally striding, like pilgrims centuries before us, into the great medieval city of Siena.

Though we were doing our own navigating, we had no luggage to carry, because it was taken on for us from hotel to hotel.

The only concession to old-style hiking was having to wear traditional boots - a gesture to the spectacular number of loose rocks on the roads - and to carry a rucksack for the camel-like quantities of water needed to cope with the hot weather. It was the perfect combination - a modest amount of effort, rewarded with clean sheets and a fine restaurant at the end of the day.

Instead of taking the conventional route into Tuscany, through the cramped confines of Pisa airport, we slipped in through the back door, flying into Genoa (infinitely more relaxed) and taking the train down the underrated Riviera coast.

Mussolini may be long gone, but Italy's secondary railways still run on time and to the most out-of-the-way places. Thus we halted at Camogli, a 1950s-timewarp seaside village on the Ligurian coast, a bit like a Rossini stage set - all pastel-painted houses jostling for space around a proper working harbour. And on every menu, plenty of sea bream, sole and crayfish. We stayed in the Cennobio dei Dogi, a former palace of the bishops of Genoa, whose dining room was so close to the sea, you could almost wiggle your toes in the water - the perfect start to our walk.

From there, in three hours by train and taxi, we were in Volterra, the Sienese hill town which formed our starting point. Set high among grey volcanic hills, it has a strangely harsh appearance. D H Lawrence called it "a kind of inland island, curiously isolated and grim", and it certainly wouldn't be hard to imagine it transplanted into the English Pennines. It was perhaps appropriate that our hotel, San Lino - the only four-star in town - was a former nunnery. (Though it was quite luxurious, with its own swimming pool, overlooked by a stained glass window of the Last Supper!)

Volterra is also the HQ of one of the less savoury aspects of Tuscan life - the obsession with hunting anything that moves. What's that sickly sweet smell that starts to pervade the town at lunchtime? It's wild boar being roasted (or hare, or pigeon, or whatever else happened to be shot that day). You could tell because of the groups of German tourists slavering over restaurant menus or hanging around in the many shops selling souvenir sheath knives and crossbows.

But there is a real side to the town, too. Everyone was helpful when we found we had forgotten our compass and didn't know the Italian. (The little stationer had one; for your information it's a bussola.) And with what care did the little alimentari parcel up our tomato and pecorino sandwiches for our first day's lunch on the road.

There are few formal walking guides in Italy, and though the Club Alpino Italiano (their version of the Ramblers' Association) has done some rather crude waymarking by splashing paint on trees, we were very dependent on our map and walking notes as we headed east for San Gimignano.

Soon we were descending from the gritty Etruscan terrain into a softer more classical landscape of rolling hills, vineyards and fig orchards dotted with cypresses. After the comforting certainties of the British OS, the Italian 1-25,000 maps designed for soldiers are quite scary.

But you could usually find the route by identifying the poderi - scattered farmsteads which were once central to the traditional way of life around the Sienese hill towns. Until the 1960s, these little farms were peopled by several generations of the same family who worked the land as share-croppers, growing wheat, grapes and olives. Today, the giveaway is an Alfa in the drive and a swimming pool around the back - smart second homes for wealthy Romans or Milanese.

This was an easy day's walk, and we marched through the medieval gates of San Gimignano in time for a late lunch - sweating but pleased to have dodged the hottest part of the day. It was only when we waited seemingly endless hours for a drink in a tourist-packed café in Via Gramsci that we realised what a travesty of itself the place had become.

San Gimignano is pure picture-postcard - perhaps the best known village in Italy - with a sensational skyline of towers built in aristocratic rivalry by the feuding nobles of the 12th and 13th centuries. But today it is a honey-pot for day-trippers from Florence, with scarcely a shop in the medieval streets not given over to leather tat or postcards, or the ubiquitous wild boar sausages.

Luckily our hotel, Bel Soggiorno, turned out to have one of the best dining rooms in Tuscany, and we watched the sun set over a meal of warm octopus salad, grilled pigeon and vegetable pie with smoked cheese and shallot purée. With a nice vintage of Chianti, of course.

There was a spring in our step as we strode out past the queueing cars the next morning, headed for Colle Val d'Elsa on the road to Siena. Soon San Gimignano's "medieval Manhattan" skyscape receded, and you could see what Henry James meant when he described the local countryside as "half smothered in oil and wine and corn and all the fruits of the earth".

Even though at times you could hear the whine of the Florence-Siena motorway in the distance, we continued in our parallel universe through olive groves and vineyards, negotiating yappety farm dogs, fording a couple of streams, yet not seeing a soul on our eight-mile trail.

We were supposed to have an early night before the toughest last stage into Siena, but got diverted by one of those quintessentially Italian events: the local amateur choir doing an open-air performance of Verdi, Puccini and Mascagni in front of a packed audience of locals in the cobbled square by the cathedral - with scarcely a tourist there.

"You don't have to do the whole 16 miles," advised the hotel owner helpfully the next morning. "It'll be hot, without shade - and you can get the bus halfway." But we didn't. This turned out to be a magical day, as we snaked down into Siena through a maze of ancient mule paths.

We got lost only once, but were saved by our compass and compensated by munching through our parcel of sandwiches, elaborately wrapped like birthday cakes by the Pasticceria Garibaldi in Colle Val d'Elsa before we left. In just five hours the umber glow of Siena's rooftops began to appear on the skyline. Another hour and we'd be there.

In the centre of town, they were putting out the barriers for the Palio, the spectacular bareback horse race that has taken place in the Campo by the cathedral every year since the 13th century. These days it's reckoned by some to be outdated and politically incorrect. But with 30 miles behind us and the ancient dust of Tuscany on our feet, we thought: "Who cares."

Getting there

Michael Williams travelled to Italy with Inntravel (tel: 01653 629000). He flew to Genoa with British Airways and back from Pisa with Ryanair. Tickets on Italian State Railways are cheap by British standards and can easily be booked locally. He stayed in the following hotels: in Camogli, the Cennobio dei Dogi (tel: 0185 7241); in Volterra, the San Lino (tel: 0588 86284); in San Gimignano, the Bel Soggiorno (tel: 0577 940375); in Colle Val d'Elsa, the Vecchia Cartiera (tel: 0577 921107) and in Siena at the Hotel Garden (tel: 0577 470576).

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