Italy Spring 2006: 'The Heart of Italy Long Trail'

Inntravel had booked us on BA2560 from London Gatwick to Bologna at 08:30 on Tuesday May 16th. Again we had independently arranged a parking/hotel package with APH and so on the afternoon of Monday May 15th drove leisurely down to West Sussex. We registered at the Copthorne Hotel close to Gatwick and then drove over to the airport to take advantage of BA's advance check-in scheme to leave our luggage and exchange our eTicket for boarding passes. The hotel was very comfortable and we had a good meal in the restaurant before having an early night. 07:00 the next morning saw us checked out of the hotel and on the road to drive a mile or two east to the APH secure Car Park. After dropping off the car we took their free shuttle bus to the airport.

Along with most of our luggage we arrived in Bologna a little late at around 14:00 local time. Three out of four of our bags were amongst the first off the carousel but Claire's main bag was nowhere to be seen. There's nothing more depressing than being the last people standing by the carousel waiting forlornly for a bag that you both suspect deep down is never going to appear! It was, of course, eventually located, the bag had been flown into Bologna without us the previous evening. So much for airport/airline security procedures...

Re-united with all our luggage we grabbed a cab to take us to the main railway station where we caught the 15:05 train to Porretta Terme. The pleasant journey lasted just over an hour and we easily located our first night's hotel just a few hundred metres from the station entrance. The 4-star Hotel Helvetia was very modern and stylish. We were staying there on a B&B basis and so, after a wash and brush-up, we went out to explore the town seeking food and ended up eating a very pleasant evening meal at the nearby family-run 'Trattoria Toscana'. A simple dish of pasta and a carafe of the 'vino di casa rossi' made for an excellent evening although the free glass of 'grappa' that Mike couldn't resist at the end of the meal was probably a mistake...

Wednesday May 17, 2006: Day 1 - Porretta Terme to Lizzano

At last we started our walk! An easy day today beginning with a stroll around the town before heading for the hills to the south west. We were both breaking in brand new 'Brasher' walking boots (our previous boots had, literally, worn out) so we were taking it very easy, praying that neither of us would suffer from blisters during our first day. It was very hot and steamy and we had several reasonably hard climbs up a path waymarked as '107' to test our (lack of) fitness after the year off since our last major walking holiday.

We met up with Roger and Pauline mid-morning, they were on the same itinerary as us and we were to meet up again with them many more times, and were to share some very pleasant conversation and evening meals, before our paths diverged later at Vidiciatico.

We passed through the hamlets of Caprera, Cà Janni, Le Croci and Capugnano. The most notable thing about Capugnano is that Guiseppe Marconi, the father of Guglielmo Marconi, was born there, half way up the front wall of house no. 40 (well, there's a plaque there stating the fact, so it must be true...). After all that excitement we swiftly moved on, following the familiar red and white waymarks of path 107 through the hamlet of Gaggiano until we reached the village of Castelluccio. We had our picnic lunch in the courtyard of the Manservisi Castle which is now a restaurant (unfortunately closed whilst we were there, Mike was so looking forward to a lunchtime beer...).

We chatted briefly to the ex-pat Australian owner of the restaurant whilst his dog, 'Billy', joined us in the shade as we had our lunch. As we left Castelluccio Billy trotted on ahead of us and continued to do so until we reached our destination several miles down the trail at Lizzano in Belvedere! This dog was quite remarkable, he actually guided us very patiently to our next hotel. He went on ahead and, if ever we strayed away from the correct track (which we did often), he came back to look for us and then trotted off along the correct path forever looking back over his shoulder to ensure that we were following. We passed through the hamlets of Serenna and Parchié, crossed a busy main road (where we feared for the life of Billy, he of course emerged completely unscathed!) and at last climbed the road up into Lizzano. We found the small 3-star village inn of 'Il Fondaccio' just off the main road. Billy stayed with us faithfully all the way and lay under our table outside the hotel whilst we had a welcome beer and before we went off to find our room. (In case you are wondering, Billy had disappeared by the next morning, hopefully he had returned home!)

Our comfortable room was in the main building of the hotel, Pauline and Roger had a room in a small cottage in the grounds. We shared a table at dinner with them, an excellent meal of sliced Red Onions and shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano with a Balsamic Vinegar dressing, Pasta with a spicy meat sauce, then Braised Beef with mashed Cheese Potatoes and Salad followed by fresh Strawberries. All accompanied by a very nice Chianti Classico. We slept well.

Day 1: 10.0 km, 10.0 km in total

Thursday May 18, 2006: Day 2 - Lizzano circuit to Mt Belvedere

A circuit up the slopes of Monte Belvedere to the summit and back today. At 09:15 Giorgio, il Proprietario dell'hotel, drove us a few kilometres to a spot just above the hamlet of Resiglio. We climbed steadily and slowly up through the villages of Raspadore and Gabba until we reached forestry trails near an estate marked on our map as I Pianotti. After a slight half hour deviation (due to an obscured waymark!) we recovered our route and eventually climbed up to meet the Sentiero della Libertà where we turned left and followed the path that commemorates the intense fighting that took place in WWII when the American 10th Airborne Division and local partisan groups succeeded in pushing back the German line. Soon we reached the summit of Monte Belvedere which was something of a disappointment. The expected 360° panoramic views were partially blocked by tall trees and by the building equipment which was being used in the construction of a large stone memorial on the summit.

We had a 'stand-up' picnic back on the 'Freedom Path' before heading steeply down a woodland track that cut off most of the hairpin bends on the winding road down into the valley. We stopped at a bar just outside the village of Querciola for welcome refreshments.

Down in the valley it became hotter and more steamy, the slight breeze that we had had earlier had now gone. We bypassed the hamlet of Sasso and passed through Pozzo before climbing up into the outskirts of Lizzano. The town has its own 'leaning tower', the lean on the pre-Romanesque Baptistery put that of the Tower at Pisa to shame (though it is, admittedly, nothing like as grand!).

Back at our hotel we met Alan, his wife Celia and her sister Claire who had just arrived from Porretta Terme at the end of the first day of their very first Inntravel walk and who were one day behind us on the same itinerary. An excellent evening meal in the company of Roger and Pauline; Melon with Parma Ham, Lasagne Verde, Pork with Roast Potatoes and Salad followed by Crème Caramel. Another bottle of the Chianti Classico, which we all shared, rounded the meal off nicely.

Day 2: 14.6 km, 24.6 km in total

Friday May 19, 2006: Day 3 - Lizzano to Pianaccio

We set off at 09:00 and headed south out of Lizzano until, after about 30 minutes, we reached the water mill and small hydro-electric station at Porchia.

Leaving the river we headed up into the woods. After some ten or fifteen minutes we made the biggest mistake of the whole holiday by missing one small way mark on a tree to the left of the trail. The notes had told us to head for a small shrine, distinguished by having a small spring beneath it, high up in the woods. We ploughed on along increasingly difficult paths, crossed a stream and climbed up until we actually found this particular shrine. By a bizarre coincidence we had, unfortunately, approached it from the wrong side. Believing that we were on the correct track, we then blundered downhill through the trees for several kilometres blindly following the red and white way marks (our GPS signals were blocked by the trees) until we reached a river with a hydro-electric station on it. The reality of our situation slowly dawned, when we realised that we were back at Porchia. Two and a half hours had been wasted!

Undaunted, we cursed mightily, turned on our heels and retraced our steps, this time following the correct way marks! Back across the stream and up the steep climb through the woods to the shrine with the spring. It was now easy to work out the correct path to follow and we dutifully headed northwards and then northeast up to a gentle SE-heading ridge. The views were spectacular across to Monteacuto, the high Silla Valley and Il Corno. We crossed a bridge over the Rio Fantino and climbed up to the hamlet of Molino di Tognarino. On the wall of the first house on the right was an example of a mummie, an ancient carved stone figurine, possibly of Celtic design, with origins back in pre-Christian days. They represent spirits that are supposed to protect the house from evil influences.

A 'mummie'

We climbed up from the hamlet and shared our picnic in some shade just before we reached a quiet tarmac road. Following the road up for several kilometres through the hamlet of La Pennola we then took a wide track off to the right signposted to Santuario BV del Faggio. Opting for the direct track rather than the route via the village of Tresana we soon reached the Madonna del Faggio ('Our Lady of the Beech Tree') Sanctuary. After a brief stop we took way-marked path 109 down through the woods past the Molino della Squaglia until eventually we climbed up into the hilltop village of Monteacuto della Alpi. It was very hot as we explored the village but was pleasantly cool inside the Church of San Nicolò which housed a magnificent Baroque wooden crucifix.

We had two choices for our final leg; we could take the road/bridge route, which was recommended in poor weather conditions, or we could take the more direct route which would involve a stepping-stone crossing of the Silla stream. We chose the direct route and set off down into the valley. The route down through a dense and gloomy pine forest was long, very steep, pretty treacherous and really hard work. Eventually we reached the Silla River at the bottom to find it flowing far deeper and far faster than we had expected! There was no chance of crossing the stream 'on the rocks' as the walking notes suggested and to retrace our steps back up to the road was totally out of the question, so we removed our boots and socks, gritted our teeth and waded across. It was a tricky crossing and the water was unbelievably cold. Claire was very brave, we all know how much she hates being cold!

At last we climbed up the other side of the valley and reached the village of Pianaccio. It didn't take long to locate the Antica Locanda Alpina (Ristorante Gentilini) which was to be our home for the next two nights. Pauline and Roger were, of course, already there. Our room was very cosy with a balcony overlooking the village. It had a tiny and virtually unusable en suite 'wet room', luckily there was an excellent modern bathroom with all mod cons just down the corridor.

We had an splendid meal in the evening cooked by the owner Gianni Gentilini resplendent in his tall chef's hat, the meal was served to us by his daughter Matilde. A party of four young Germans plus an ex-pat Brit from the Isle of Man were also in the Restaurant that evening. Although they were walking with a totally different company from us we had met up with them at Lizzano and were to meet them again before the end of the holiday. We shared a table with Pauline and Roger for dinner and we all enjoyed a Pasta and Bean Soup followed by a Mushroom Risotto, then a main course of Pork with Meat Balls in a Cream and Mushroom Sauce with Zucchini and Polenta (both battered and deep-fried). After a Strawberries and Ice Cream dessert and a bottle of a good Chianti Classico we were more than ready for our bed!

The weather changed overnight and it became extremely windy, Claire was happy because the washing that she had hung out on the balcony was guaranteed to be dry by the morning.

Day 3 14.1 km, 38.7 km in total

Saturday May 20, 2006: Day 4 - Pianaccio circuit

It was still very windy and cool after breakfast when Gianni picked us up at the front of the hotel in his Range Rover, drove us some five miles south and dropped us off at the Segavecchia Refuge. Our plan today was to walk a circuit, southwards initially up to the Porta Franca Pass and then west along the Tuscany border to the Cancellino Pass before turning north and heading back down to Pianaccio. However we were warned as we set out that the weather was not expected to be very good on the high passes with a lot of lying snow and low cloud. Gianni's advice was to that we should go no further than the Porta Franca Refuge and to then retrace our steps back to the hotel.

We climbed up through the pine woods from Segavecchia along wide forestry tracks. The views were limited due to the trees and we had a strong headwind most of the way. Our progress was slow (neither of us are very good on long sustained 'ups') and we were somewhat disheartened to meet Pauline coming back down the trail after having become, as she put it, bored with the walk! Roger had pressed on and we met up with him also coming towards us some 30 minutes later. He had carried on up as far as the Porta Franca Pass before turning around and heading back. We were determined to carry on and so pressed on through the woods until we too reached the Pass. We had come across some fairly substantial lying snow drifts in sheltered spots along the way but nothing bad enough to impede our progress. The light drizzle that had started as we had our picnic lunch had stopped as we turned right at the Pass. We followed a very narrow path along the line of the Tuscany border which had a very steep drop down to our left. At last we started to get some spectacular views across the Tuscan plain and we eventually broke out of the trees a kilometre or two further on high up on the ridge.

It took a lot less time to walk back down the forestry tracks than it had to walk up! In what seemed no time at all we were back at the Segaveccia Refuge and set off along the tarmac road to get back to our hotel in Pianaccio in time for a beer before dinner. We had an splendid time in the restaurant that evening. Alan, Celia and Claire had arrived from Lizzano (they had also bravely waded across the the Silla River on their way here). Being a Saturday the Dining Room was bustling and we had an excellent meal, again sharing a table with Roger and Pauline. We started with Strozzapreti Pasta (which is a speciality of the Emilia-Romagna region in which we were), then Gnocci with Pesto followed by Pork with Parma Ham and Wild Boar Stew with Stuffed Tomatoes and Polenta. Claire had Ice Cream to finish whilst Mike settled for an excellent espresso. It was Alan and Celia's 28th Wedding Anniversary and they insisted that we all shared a bottle or two of Champagne with them, we simply couldn't refuse!

Day 4: 17.8 km, 56.5 km in total

Sunday May 21, 2006: Day 5 - Pianaccio to Vidiciatico

This morning we left Antica Locanda Alpina for the last time and walked back up the road to the now familiar Refuge hut at Segavecchia. Today, however, we turned right off the road before reaching the hut onto the way marked Path 123 sign posted to Sboccata dei Bagnoradori. The path turned into a stony track as we climbed uphill following a stream. Eventually the path leveled out in a beech wood to give us excellent views across the Bagnadori Valley. After passing the Bagnadori Refuge we opted for the shorter route on offer and so followed Path 129 to Croce del Colle and La Cà ignoring Path 125 off to the right which would have taken us to the summit of Monte Grande. Claire had picked up a blistered toe which was playing her up quite badly so we made the decision to continue on the shortest, most direct route to spare her further discomfort.

"The sun shines on the righteous!"

The path took us up to and then across the Saltiolo Pass where the path headed slightly up to the left to reach the Croce dei Colli with magnificent views and and the sight of a huge bank of cumulus building up ahead of us. Luckily these came to nothing and it stayed fine.

Cà Gabrielli is a small well restored hamlet with a bustling Agritourismo Centre. We stopped briefly for a breather and then moved on down the track. After about 10 minutes Claire suddenly realised that she had left her glasses on a wall just past the centre. Blind panic ensued as as she ran back to find them, luckily they were still there...! It was very hot by now and we headed down the track in the heat to eventually meet the main road at the village of La Cà. Off the track just to the left was the welcome sight of a small bar where a beer helped refresh us before we headed back east along the road towards Vidiciatico. After about 800m we turned left off the busy road and headed down a track which seemed to be leading us into the local municipal rubbish tip! Suddenly the track opened out to a country road where we had a magnificent vista across the valley towards Vidiciatico. Following the road downhill until after 10 minutes we reached a fork in the road past a maestà on the right. After a heavily overgrown area with some  almost hidden open air sculptures we turned right at a fountain and walked on for about a kilometre into the main square of Vidiciatico. Roger and Pauline were already having a coffee at a bar in the square where some sort of noisy presentation was being given by a local Fiat Dealer publicising the launch of a new Fiat car. We stayed only briefly before heading off to find our hotel, the Hotel Montegrande, on the Via Marconi just off the square. We were greeted on the doorstep by the wonderfully dapper proprietor Bruno Bartolomei.

Our room at the back of the hotel was comfortable with a very acceptable bathroom and a balcony with good views. A splendid meal in the restaurant in the evening was served with great panache and ceremony. We dined on Raw Beef with Shaved Parmesan followed by two separate pasta dishes, firstly Spaghetti Carbonara and then Ravioli with a Bolognese Sauce. Our main course was of Rabbit with Bacon, Fried Potatoes, Sweet Peppers and Mixed Veg. All was washed down with a splendid Chianti Classico which Bruno professionally decanted at our table before serving. We enjoyed several brandies after the meal in the company of Owen & Caroline from the adjacent table who were ending their holiday that evening.

Day 5: 12.7 km, 69.2 km in total

Monday May 22, 2006: Day 6 - Vidiciatico

A rest day today taken to give Claire's blister a chance to heal. We indulged in a late breakfast just before 10:00 and said goodbye to Owen & Caroline. The morning was spent reading on our balcony and watching the antics of the local birds. It was quite cool as we ate our picnic lunch. In the afternoon it really warmed up and we strolled around the town and then relaxed in a bar in the main square. Claire was given the World's biggest bucket of crisps to go with her drink and she became totally enamoured by a small black puppy brought into the bar on a lead by a very strange local lady!

Roger and Pauline arrived late in the afternoon after their last day of walking and shared a drink with us. We were surprised to meet up again in the evening with the party of young Germans (plus token Brit). They had not been at all happy with the hotel that they had stayed in the previous night. We assured them that they would find the Hotel Montegrande more than satisfactory! Alan, Celia and Claire with Roger and Pauline and the young Germans all turned out for dinner in the Hotel Restaurant that evening. The meal was again excellent, Brochette with Paté, Tomato and Basil followed, once again, by two separate pasta courses: Tagliatelli with Mushrooms and a Ham and Cheese Bake and then Penne Abbiatta. The main course was Veal Escallope with Shallots, Cheese Potatoes and Green Salad. We finished off with Lemon Sorbet and Mike had an espresso coffee. Our meal was very efficiently served by Bruno and his daughter Carmel. We all chatted 'til very late before saying a final goodbye to all our new friends...

Alan, Celia and Claire The young Germans plus token Brit!

Day 6: 0 km, 69.2 km in total

Tuesday May 23, 2006: Day 7 - Vidiciatico to Gavinana via Monteacuto delle Alpi

We couldn't fault any aspect of our stay in Vidiciatico. At 08:15, after a very early breakfast, Bruno took us in his splendid Chrysler 'Grand Voyager' (with the most comfortable front passenger seat that Mike had ever sat in!) up to the village of Monteacuto delle Alpi. We had visited the village some four days previously so didn't waste any time in getting on our way. From the parking area at the village entrance we headed towards the Cemetery following the familiar red and white waymarks.  Ahead we could clearly see Monte Grande and also Monte Pizzo off to the right. Following Path 113 we reached a small chapel (marked on the map as C. dei Prati) and then, whilst deep in the chestnut woods, passed the ancient, now overgrown, settlement of Raigada.  We crossed numerous small streams and then started to climb. As we reached the Causso River at a small dam we turned away from the river and headed steeply up into the chestnut woods.

Bruno plus 'Voyager'

We had a hard climb through the woods rising some 400m in a very short distance. During the climb Mike managed to knock his glasses off whilst swatting a fly. One lens was badly chipped, much to his annoyance, but luckily the specs were still useable. Waymarking was good and after some three hours we reached the Donna Morta Refuge just after the Donnamorta Pass. Eventually we turned left to join and follow Path 111 south towards Porta Franca. We were now again on familiar ground having passed along this very same track just three days before.

Most of the snow that we had seen three days previously had now gone and we climbed once again up to the Porta Franca Pass. It was cold with slight drizzle and the wind was getting up. We again followed the narrow path west along the Tuscany border hugging the mountainside until we reached the point at which we had turned around on our last visit. This time we carried on and left the ridge taking the path leading south and signposted 'Uccelliera 00' down to the Rifugio Portafranca.

The Refuge was very substantially built and was, of course, all locked up apart from the very damp and dank graffiti covered cellar. We didn't stay long and left the Refuge heading uphill back up to the ridge.

The views were spectacular as we turned left onto the ridge and headed south into Tuscany. Our route, thank goodness, was now mostly downhill. The wind on the ridge became stronger and stronger, it was quite difficult to stay upright at times. There were still many pockets of deep snow which we were forced to route around but the path was not too difficult overall.

Although it was extremely windy up on the ridge, the valleys below on either side were thick with cloud. We felt as though we were on top of the World. The ridge walk towards Maceglia was exhilarating but we found ourselves gradually losing altitude and soon reached a pine forest high on the Tuscan side of ridge. We stopped briefly at a memorial to two local partisans who had died on that spot at the hands of the Germans in July 1944 during WWII. Then, after a brief climb up to Monte Oppia, we started a very steep downhill trek towards our night's stop.

Logging activities had all but obliterated many of our waymarks in the pine forest but we pressed on and slowly descended down through the trees. The going was tough and very telling on our knees and feet which were by now aching well. Lots of noises in the undergrowth and on one occasion we disturbed a small herd of wild boar and were treated to the sight of a very large adult with a single youngster careering away only a few metres away from us.

After a hard decent we eventually arrived above Gavinana and before long located the Albergo Ristorante Il Parco on the northern edge of the village arriving at about 18:45. What a hard day! Our room was basic but clean, the bathroom was even more basic with a open shower which was 'interesting' to say the least. We didn't care in the least. The warm welcome that we got from the delightful proprietor, Alessandro, and his wonderful elderly mother (we rather unkindly christened her 'Mrs Overall') more than made up for any deficiencies in the room! We were the only guests and Mamma served us a splendid meal in the deserted restaurant later in the evening. We both had a thick Tuscan Vegetable Soup with croutons, followed by a delicious Pesto Lasagne, followed by Roast Pork with Carrots, Courgettes and Potatoes. Our bed was very comfortable and we went out like lights and, despite the torrential overnight rain, we slept very soundly.

15.1 km on Day 7, 84.3 km in total

Wednesday May 24, 2006: Day 8 - Gavinana

We awoke to more rain although not as heavy as during the night. Despite the good night's sleep we were both still very tired and full of aches and pains from yesterday's exertions. We decided that we would take a rest day and so spent the damp morning relaxing and reading. After a picnic lunch in the bar the weather took a turn for the better and we were able to enjoy the superb gardens surrounding the Hotel Il Parco in the afternoon. The sun came out and it became really hot.

[We were amused by the tiny glass-fronted lift attached to the side of the building. Mamma was very proud of it ...]

Another splendid meal in the evening. We started with two pasta dishes, Spirelli with Pesto followed by Large Ravioli parcels stuffed with Spinach & Ricotta Cheese with a very tasty Ragù Sauce. Our main course was Roast Veal with Roast Potatoes, Spinach and Peas. All complemented by a bottle of the local vino rossi. For dessert we had generous portions of Mamma's home made Apple Cake. A very good espresso rounded off the evening. Excellent!

Day 8: 0 km, 84.3 m in total

Thursday May 25, 2006: Day 9 - Gavinana to Prataccio

We said farewell to Alessandro & his Mamma, they had been very kind to us and we were so pleased when they both came out to wave us off. Today we had a pleasant but fairly long walk. We started following the route of the narrow gauge railway which was constructed in 1926 to link Pracchia and Mammiano. The line was originally some 17km long and was dismantled in 1965. The walking was easy, we passed lots of old railway memorabilia including a station master's house now overgrown, and followed the track until we reached the mediaeval town of San Marcello. It was market day and the town was bustling. Passing the centre of the town and through the market we followed the walking notes, climbing up a tarmac road on the outskirts of the town from which we turned off onto a gravel track that shortly became a woodland path. Descending towards Popiglio on long winding tracks through woodland we crossed many small streams. Diverting to the right down into the valley we came to the Ponte di Castruccio. A bridge that dates from AD1317. We stayed only briefly as the temperature was starting to soar and soon retraced our steps steeply back up to the road. During the walk we saw a red squirrel and a very large snake!

It was very hot by this time as we followed the tarmac road to Migliorini. Further along we took the turn-off for Piteglio and some 800m later passed through the village centre. We left Piteglio in the direction of Prataccio and Prunetta and rejoined the previous road which we then followed for a further kilometre as far as an area known as Croce. Taking a dirt track off to the left we headed across country carefully following our walking notes. Eventually we wound our way down to the village of Prataccio and found the Pensione Dina on the main road right in the middle of the village. We sat outside and enjoyed a very welcome cold beer much to the amusement of the locals.

Our evening meal taken in the dining room was basic but wholesome; Ricotta & Spinach Ravioli with a Spicy Tomato Sauce followed by slices of Roast Pork with Green Beans & Mixed Peppers. We slept reasonably well despite the very noisy main road right below our bedroom window.

Day 9: 21.1 km, 105.4 km in total

Friday May 26, 2006: Day 10 - Prataccio to Montecatini Alto

After a simple breakfast we were on our way by 09:00 for what we expected to be the longest day's walk of the holiday. We headed SSW away from Prataccio along woodland trails across a beautiful valley to the splendid little town of Calamecca which we reached after some two hours of enjoyable walking. This quaint peaceful little mediæval town with its steep narrow cobble streets was a delight. Cats and flowers everywhere. Many of the streets were partly covered over and we saw lots of swallows nesting in the eaves of the arches - they seemed to be everywhere!

On leaving Calamecca we had something of a forced route march for some five kilometres mostly uphill along a tarmac road. At the top we joined a main road on the outskirts of the village of Femmina Morta and stopped briefly to eat our picnic lunch whilst seated on a convenient roadside bench. We had a beer at a bar a little further down the road and Claire indulged in an ice cream. Walking on into the village of Avaglio we eventually left the road and took a steep fairly overgrown grassy track which then proceeded to intersect the road that we had just left at least three times as the road zigzagged downhill. We then contoured for some two kilometres along a pleasant gravel track passing the first of two well preserved watermills and followed a track which skirted below the town of Marliana.

We could now see our final destination in the distance and our track along woodland trails and small tarmac roads soon took us into the village of Vico at the foot of the hill on which the fortified town of Montecatini Alto was perched. The trek up to the town was strenuous and very hot (we've become used to Inntravel throwing us a really hard 'up' right at the very end of a day's walking ...) but we soon made it and found the splendidly welcoming Villa Gaia Hotel at the top of the hill, near the Funicular Station, just the other side of the bustling town centre. We arrived at 19:30 after some 10.5 hours. This was our last day of walking on this trip and after 27.9km today we calculated that we had covered a total of 133.3km since we set out from Poretta Terme all those days ago!

Our room was at the front of the hotel on the second floor and above the entrance. The views from our window were spectacular across the Tuscan plain with the city of Montecatini Terme spreading out in the valley below us. We ate indoors in the evening in the hotel restaurant, our meal was served by the delightful Alessandra. Brochettes with Tomatoes and Garlic, a splendid Spaghetti with Bolognese Sauce and, as a main course, Griddled Steak, Pork and Sausages with Roasted Zucchini and Aubergines. Frozen Ice Cream Pudding for dessert. A nice bottle of Chianti with our usual espresso and lemon tea to follow rounded off the immensely enjoyable walking part of our holiday perfectly.

Day 10: 27.9 km, 133.3 km in total

Saturday May 27, 2006: Day 11 - Firenze

Now for a bit of indulgence. We planned to spend today as tourists in Florence. On our last visit to the city some ten years ago we had queued for over four hours to visit the amazing Uffizi Gallery. We missed much during that visit and so, in anticipation, had pre-booked entrance tickets to the Gallery (via the internet before we left England) for 13:45 today. Following a splendid breakfast at our hotel we walked up into the town and, after some hassle trying to buy tickets in advance, caught the local bus down to Montecatini Terme. We were dropped off at the Railway Station and caught the first available train to Firenze. Florence was as awful as ever, smelly, noisy, impersonal, heaving with foreign tourists and such a contrast to the friendliness and tranquillity of our previous 10 days!

With a couple of hours to spare before our check-in time at the Ufizzi we wandered through the crowds joining in with the general 'photo-frenzy' in which tourists en-masse all over the world indulge. The Duomo, the doors of the Baptistery, the replica 'David', the Ponte Vecchio, all were all dutifully digitally recorded for posterity.

Crossing the Arno via the Ponte Vecchio we tried to find a little restaurant that we had eaten in on our last visit, sadly without success. We did, however, find a similar establishment and had a very pleasant light lunch of Brochetta with Tomato & Basil followed by a shared Salad of Avocado, Olives, Green Leaves, Pine Nuts, Pesto & Mozzarella.

After exchanging our eVoucher at the Uffizi Ticket Office we were ushered in to the Gallery within a few minutes of the booked time with a minimum of hassle. It was wonderful to have not had to queue! The paintings in the Ufizzi were as magnificent as ever, despite the hoards of Japanese and Korean tourists who swept aside anything and anyone in their path in their relentless pursuit of 'culture'!

At the end of the tour we had a very expensive drink in the Gallery's café - the most unpleasant eating establishment that I think we have ever come across anywhere in the World (and we've been to Guatemala!).

In the late afternoon we made our way back the main railway station and caught a train 'home'. The trip was pleasant and quick, unfortunately we had not realised that they were two stations in Montecatini Terme and, of course, we got off at the wrong one! So no return bus waiting for us.  As there was not a taxi in sight we decided to head for the centre of town in search of one. A friendly policewoman pointed us in the right direction and we were soon back up in Montecatini Alto and safely delivered to our hotel.

That evening we ate our meal al fresco on the terrace with its spectacular panoramic aspect overlooking the lights of Montecatini Terme far below and those of all the many hamlets scattered all over the distant hills. Our day's efforts were rewarded with a sensational sunset.

At dusk the bats became active and laid on a wonderful flying display just for us (or so it seemed!). The splendidly friendly Alessandra again served us and we had some very tasty Brochetta with Haricot Beans followed by Lasagne Verde. Claire's main course was Salmon sautéed in oil and lemon juice with Carrots, Potatoes & Courgettes whilst Mike had Scallopino Veal in a Mushroom Sauce with a Tomato Salad. The obligatory bottle of a good Chianti Classico followed by an espresso and a lemon tea and we went off to bed in high spirits.

Sunday May 28 - Tuesday May 30, 2006: Days 12 to 14 - Lucca

A taxi (driven by Fabio) picked us up early morning as we said our farewells to Alessandra's mother-in-law (who ran both Reception and the kitchen and who was on duty this morning). A drive down the hill at breakneck speed got us back to the main railway station in Montecatini Terme. We had to cross the tracks over to the opposite platform laden down with all our luggage and had very little time before the 10:02 stopping train from Firenze to Viareggio arrived. It was packed, mostly with teenagers on their way to the coast for a Sunday out on the beach. No chance of getting seats, Italian trains on a Sunday are becoming just as bad at UK trains are all the time. We stood in the space between compartments for the whole trip guarding our luggage and trying to keep other folk's elbows out of our ribs. Worse than we imagined the Tokyo Underground to be! When the train finally pulled into Lucca it was the devil's own job to reach the exit door unscathed and hang on to all our bags. We were glad to see the back of that particular railway train.

Another taxi took us from Lucca station to the four-star Hotel Ilaria just inside the walls of the mediæval city near one of the ancient city gates. We indulged in two nights and three days of excellent R &R.

Our own version of the famous 'Porte Toscane' poster can be seen here - all photos taken by us during our stay in Lucca.

We left Lucca late on Tuesday morning, a taxi to the station, the 12:40 train to Pisa Central where we had to change (another what seemed like four mile hike up and down steps and through underpasses) until we finally arrived at Pisa Airport. The 15:55 BA2603 was on time and we reached Gatwick not long after 17:00. The APH Shuttle Bus was easily located, we picked up our car from their secure compound and by 22:15 we were back home in Solihull. What a busy two weeks! Now then, where's that Inntravel catalogue... ?

As with all our walking holidays to date, we arranged the trip through Inntravel who are based on the Castle Howard estate in Yorkshire. They provided maps and suggested route notes, arranged all flights, taxis & accommodation and transported our luggage efficiently between each stop. All in all on this trip we trekked some 133 km (83 miles) in 8 days of walking and stayed in 8 different hotels/hostels. We highly recommend Inntravel, their service is second to none and we'll be using them again…!

Our Walking Holidays Spring 2003 - Spring 2006
total km
total miles
Spring 2003 'Along the Catalan Coast'
Autumn 2003 'From the Pyrénées to the Med'
Spring 2004 'An Andalusian Adventure'
Autumn 2004 'The Grand Cerdagne'
Spring 2005 'From the Picos to the Sea' & 'The Coast & Hills of Asturias'
Spring 2006 'The Heart of Italy Long Trail'