Rambler's Walk in Tuscany 2008
By Mary Kyne
The recent Corrib Ramblers tour to Tuscany was our 4th walking tour abroad. During our eight days walking we explored the ancient medieval towns of the Etruscans and pilgrims making their way from northern Europe to Rome. This was not only a walking tour but a cultural exploration of the work of artists, sculptors and writers of the Italian Renaissance. The walks were graded into three categories, fast medium and slow pace – one felt very comfortable joining the group of your choice. We walked 40km in total.
The first walk took us through the undulating countryside of olive groves, vineyards, holm oak, walnut and chestnut woods between the Romanesque Abbey of Sant Antimo and Montaicino. From the meadows ablaze with red poppies mixed with purple vetch, pink, yellow, purple, white and orange wild flowers we had outstanding views of Val d’Orcia with its majestic cypress trees towering into the blue sky. The meadows and barley fields were bordered with white and pink dog roses interspersed with numerous yellow brooms, shrubs that were to our delight in full bloom – magical. I was delighted to see so many different species of oak and chestnut trees – species we do not see in Ireland. Chestnuts are edible unlike our chestnuts. They are dried and crushed and ground into flour for bread and cakes. The flowers of the chestnut are used by bees to make honey. At the end of numerous straight lines of vines in the vineyards roses were in full bloom. In the past the vine keeper valued the rose as the insects that attacked the vines would attack the rose first this forewarned the vine keeper to spray his vines against damaging pests. During our final walk we discovered the tracks of deer, badgers, wild boar, porcupine and many other wild animals, clearly visible in the volcanic clay.
After a long walk in the hot sunshine we welcomed the coolness of the abbey. We attended a service of Gregorian chant by the monks. The experience was so peaceful, so moving so tranquil in the magnificent setting of the abbey.
The well-preserved medieval towns we visited – Montalcino, Montepulciano, Monticchiello, Pienza, Orvieto, Siena and Florence charmed us all. Italians have a keen eye for beauty in buildings or indeed in any kind of art and have restored with loving care beautiful buildings damaged during the war. In all the medieval towns there are many beautiful churches, cathedrals, towers, town halls, bridges, and market squares many built in the style of the Italian Renaissance and now completely restored. It was sheer delight for us to walk along their narrow cobbled streets, browse in their numerous shops – selling leather goods, shoes, ceramics, glassware, local cheeses and olive oil products. We tasted their delicious pizzas, pasta dishes, famous pecorino cheese (sheep’s cheese), the local traditional dish “tampredotto” – tripe on toasted bread, sipped chianti and brunello wines, drank expresso coffees laced with grapa outside their many cafes and wine bars. Everything moves at such a leisurely pace – we enjoyed every moment and soaked in the atmosphere.
Chianciano where we stayed was a two hour drive north of Rome where we arrived from Dublin. It is a modern town and yet has retained its old medieval quarters. Several in our group enjoyed the many different spa treatments offered in the area, others found great value in leather goods and shoes. We danced and sang in a typical Italian bar. The musician even played our national anthem and we duly stood to attention and sang in full voice “Amhrán na bhFiann”, to the amusement of the many tourists present. Here too we cheered on Munster’s momentous victory over Toulouse and watched the penalty shoot out between Man.United and Chelsea in Moscow.
Visit to Florence
One of the high lights of the trip was a visit to Florence and Siena where we visited the cathedral dedicated to the martyr St. Catherine of Siena. Amongst the glories of Siena are the soaring Torre del Mangia and the shell-shaped Plazza where the bitterly fought equestrian Palio is staged every year.
Florence is a city that is synonymous with Art itself. It is breathtakingly beautiful – a gem of the Renaissance period featuring spectacular historic buildings and one of the world’s concentrations of art and sculpture. At the Academy Gallery stands Michaelangelo’s famous statue of David, the basilica of Santa Croce holds the burial place of Michaelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. At the Duomo, Florence’s cathedral we saw Giotto’s Belltower and Baptistery and Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise.” The buildings form an eye-catching array of white, pink and green marble which display the traditions of Florentine art from the Middle Ages to Renaissance.
The Duomo is similar in appearance to the cathedral at Orvieto. The side chapel in the cathedral in Orvieto, with frescos lining the walls and ceilings gave Michaengelo inspiration for his famous work on the Cistine Chapel in Rome. The Pieta in the cathedral inspired him to create his famous Pieta in the St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. In Orvieto we explored 8th century BC Etruscan caves of wine cellars, dove coops, several tunnels and water shafts dug into the volcanic rock, a masterpiece of engineering under the city of Orvieto.
When visiting Italy beware of the cost of occupying a table outside their open-air restaurants. We were presented with an outrageous bill – we were charged for the use of the table, table napkins and cloth, local taxes and service charge was added to the price of the food. After much irate banter and gesticulating with an over excited restaurateur we settled our account vowing never to return again – as if we ever would be visiting there again!
Street artists play an important role in the ambience of Italian cities. A comedian entertained us in Siena, We were in howls of laughter at the expense of unsuspecting tourists who passed him by. He touched girls’ hair and then pointed to the sky where pigeons flew overhead: girls frantically inspected each others hair for pigeon droppings, he squirted people with water guns, tied a dog lead on to others, all very simple fun.
As you can see our trip was very varied. A very special word of thanks to all the members of our group who helped to make this trip to Tuscany such a memorable experience for everyone. We look forward to our next trip abroad.