The Way of the Gods
By Philippa Barr
To celebrate a milestone birthday recently we sought out a walking break – something we’d not been able to do since our three children arrived over the last ten years. A colleague in the UK put us on to Inntravel, a British company specialising in independent walking. When you have limited time, having someone else sorting out your accommodation – and, best of all, arranging to transfer your luggage between the overnight stays – is a wonderful luxury.
The Inntravel website is a tantalising destination in itself. You can choose from independent walking and cycling holidays all over Europe and beyond, ranging from only a few days to as long as a month. Each walk is graded, so you can choose one that suits your fitness and experience level; from Grade 1 – shorter day walks, often based around a single accommodation point, through to Grade 3 – very challenging walks, some of which require additional climbing and navigational equipment and skills. The in-between grades are 1-2, 2 and 2-3. The walk we chose was Grade 2-3. The shortest day of walking was only ten kilometres, the longest 24 kilometres. There were points along the route that required the use of a compass, and where the trip notes stated that the route was ‘somewhat overgrown’ or ‘a little difficult to distinguish’, they meant it! One day included a section that we were advised not to do in wet weather as it was steep and slippery. We were fortunate to arrive there in the dry, but could see that it was sound advice.
On the website there is a clear description of each walk, and of the accommodation for each overnight stop. Once you have chosen your holiday, they provide a comprehensive package of notes for you to follow, from getting to your first hotel from the airport or station, then step-by-step from one place to the next. The package also contains maps of the area you are covering – not ‘package holiday’ maps, but genuine, small-scale topographical versions printed in the local language. Before the trip, the maps seemed a bit obscure; it was difficult to get a clear idea of where we would be going. But, once on the ground they were perfect, and helped us plan out our days in detail – including any necessary forays for coffee – and keep track of exactly where we were.
Finally, the package contains luggage labels, which help your hosts transport your luggage from one place to the next. This must have been the most heavenly aspect of the trip. Each morning we closed up our bags in the hotel room, making sure the luggage labels were attached. Then we donned our bum-bags, stocked them with water-bottles, trip notes, maps and our lunch, and headed out the door. Each afternoon we arrived at our next stop, mentioned the word ‘Inntravel’ and were despatched to our allocated room, in which we invariably found our bags again! No lugging cases across town; no sweating under heavy backpacks; it couldn’t be simpler.
So, to the trip itself. We chose to walk across the Apennines between Bologna and Florence, two of Italy’s finest cities, following the Via Degli Dei (Way of the Gods), a traditional path with a long history. Priests from the north of Italy have used it for centuries to make their way to Rome to be blessed by the Pope.
Recognising the beauty of the two cities at either end, the standard ten-day walk includes a full day in each one (two nights’ accommodation at the same hotel), and seven walking days in between. Although the length of the walk each day varied, the distance did not necessarily reflect the difficulty involved, and we were grateful that each day’s trip notes also included an indication of the expected walking time and the altitudes we would be moving between. We found the times quite accurate for our pace of walking, and so could easily build in lunch breaks or diversions and still aim to arrive at our destination around 4pm.
The other accommodation was in two- and three-star hotels or in guesthouses, in small villages either along or near the Via Degli Dei route. Some were certainly better than others (if you’re looking for a five-star experience, this is not for you), but all were welcoming and provided more than adequately for an overnight stay. The proprietors clearly relished their relationship with Inntravel, and were well versed with what was required of them. Most provided a complimentary welcome drink, and all presented an evening meal of several courses, a hearty breakfast and a packed lunch. Some of the establishments included restaurants, in which case we chose from a menu; in others, we pretty much bunked in with the family and ate whatever they were eating. Being off the beaten track, not everyone spoke much English, but we quickly adopted the essential words: cappuccino, caldo (hot), calazione (breakfast), acqua frissante and acqua normale. Between these and typical Italian gesticulations, we were always able to communicate – and the locals were thrilled with any effort we made. Probably the only gastronomic disappointment was the packed lunches, which tended to be a dry ham-roll, a piece of fruit and some water; the delicious-looking alternatives in the deli windows in the towns we passed through were certainly more enticing.
A highlight of the walk was being able to walk literally out of Bologna and into Florence. From the centre of Bologna there is a 666-arch colonnaded walkway to the magnificent church of San Luca, which overlooks the city. Beyond San Luca, you’re into the countryside. Entering Florence from historic Fiesole did involve some suburban walking; though not scenic, this was an interesting way to see the less-public face of the city, especially as it was preceded by a delightful stroll through the olive groves.
In addition to the simple pleasure of walking, other highlights included the challenge of having to navigate parts of the route; fresh blackberries from some wayside bushes; a two-hour picnic lunch in a grassy meadow without another soul in sight; watching the traffic racing past on the distant motorway – and not having to join it; signing the first English names for the year in the walkers’ book at the top of Monte Gazzarro; a divine cappuccino at the modest Bar Sporto in San Piero a Seve, for only one euro; looking back over the first two days’ route at San Luca standing proud on the top of the hill; and our first glimpse of Il Duomo in Florence, still two days’ walk away.
There was ample time to talk and think on the way – a rare thing for a couple with a young family. And our conclusion? That we would challenge ourselves to celebrate each birthday and anniversary with a walk of some sort, somewhere. My husband did try to get me to agree to revert to our old pre-children hiking days, complete with backpack, tent and camping stove; but no – give me challenging walking with a hot shower, a good meal and a comfy bed at the end of the day and I’ll tackle anywhere on foot. Especially if someone else carries the bags.
Reproduced courtesy of ExpatLiving Singapore (January 2006 edition)