Travel Italy: Eccentric splendour in the Florentine Hills

Edward Blincoe takes a 10-day walk in Tuscany
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The Independent Travel
Walking through Tuscany was a splendidly relaxing way to spend a holiday - until we met the goose. A stiff, two-kilometre climb on a very hot day, then we reached our final hotel on the walk; a rather unkempt, slightly faded 15th-century Medici villa, only to be charged by a hostile gander, wings and neck extended and hissing viciously. After our terrified daughter had fallen backwards into a flower bed, help arrived in the form of a savage kick to the bird, delivered by the son of the house. He was a swarthy, brick-built man, who instantly reminded me of Bob Hoskins playing Bosola, the murderous steward to the Duchess of Malfi; except Bosola liked to chat, and the son was a man of few words.

The hotel, despite a welcome which would have won the Basil Fawlty cup at the B&B Oscars, proved irresistible, and after our allotted two days, we were reluctant to leave. They did almost everything wrong: employed the son as head waiter; kept old-fashioned beds; and allowed Geronimo, the gander, free range to harrass the guests. And yet, the splendour of the villa, the delicious food (home-produced vegetables, wine, grappa and olive oil), and the eccentric nightly gavotte as the Signor and Signora tried at length to shoo Geronimo back into his cage so we could proceed with our dinner on the lawn, won everyone over.

Headwater's 10-day tour, starting and finishing in Florence, with two nights in four hotels en route, has been planned with care. Even the title, Walking in the Florentine Hills, has a nice ring to it. However, guide book writers, if they mention the area at all, give it short shrift and no shrift at all in August. The kindest comment I found was that the area was benign and rural with nothing to take your breath away. (This affliction - shortness of breath in travellers - is known as Stendhal's disease after the great novelist who staggered round Florence out of breath and with wobbly legs, totally overcome by the beauty around him.)

The holiday starts when you are dropped off in the main square of Settignano, a village famous for the scene in which George Emerson stole a kiss from Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View. After a brisk run-down by the courier on the dangers of stepping on vipers, running out of water, or attempting the walk in flip-flops, you are on your own.

As we were poring over the map, desperately trying to locate our position, an American woman asked to be directed to the garden of the famous Villa Gamberaia. Unable to help her, she asked a local the way and then returned and persuaded us that the garden was well worth seeing; it was. But it was also hot and we had made inroads in the water reserved for our journey. The steady climb, splendid views of Florence, anchovy pizza and broiling sun all combined to give us symptoms of Stendhal's disease and a raging thirst. Before we had got half way, we had drunk up. Fortunately, we came upon one of the few houses on the route and, miming expansively, we were rewarded with bottles of water from the fridge and 20 minutes of incomprehensible directions. On subsequent days, we took water on board like camels and filled our rucksacks with bottles so that our walks were done to the noise of sloshing and gurgling.

In August, it is very hot for walking, but even the highest of the hills were shaded by chestnut woods and most climbs, though long, were gradual. Besides, three of the four hotels had swimming pools and if it had not been hot, there would have been loud complaints from my wife and daughter. We tended not to walk on our days off; the guide books were probably right: the villages of the Mugello are functional rather than picturesque; the small towns dull and in August closed for the holidays; the churches, in the unlikely event of containing great works of art, firmly bolted, so we felt quite relaxed about lazing around, content we were missing nothing, surrounded as we were by lovely hills, peaceful wooded valleys, distant mountains, olive groves and vineyards. Not that all of Headwater's clients felt the same. The log books at each hotel, available for customers to write in advice about their stay, were full of detailed accounts of hot climbs to distant summits, only to find the expected views obscured by trees, or long descents to disappointing towns, and plaintive postscripts, "I must try to relax more on my rest days".

The hotels are highly individual, and range in style from a simple farmhouse hotel, which the effervescent Vera (looking, dare I say it, rather like Les Dawson) ran virtually single-handedly, producing her own vegetables and wine, to the immaculate Villa Campestri, which served a seven-course Tuscan buffet-style banquet in the courtyard. An outdoor woodburning oven was fired up in the late afternoon for the cooking of traditional dishes and pizzas. An amazing variety of antipasti were laid out, followed by four different soups, fish dishes, grilled and roast meats all the while accompanied by a trio and a tenor singing Italian love songs. It was a wonderful evening, especially for greedy romantics.

Surprisingly, one of the simplest dishes, eaten at lunch under the beady- eyed gaze of Geronimo, stays in the memory. A warm potato salad, with tomatoes, garlic and red onion, dressed with the estate olive oil was delicious and, so far, quite unreproducible, despite several attempts with British ingredients.

Unlike Stendhal, I was sorry to arrive back in Florence, and could quite happily have set out at once on a second lap of the course.