Walking in Florence and Chianti Tuscany

When I first lived in Florence in 1988, I looked for Italian hiking and walking clubs so that I could meet people with a common interest, and help my limping Italian language skills to improve. I learned that Italy has a national hiking club, the Club Alpino Italiano, known as CAI, and there are local chapters of CAI all over the country, which organize hikes along CAI-marked trails, and the walks vary in difficulty. The clubs centered in the rugged Tuscan Appenines were for the hearty, who wore stout boots and used a compass, and they looked down on the more relaxed Florence chapter, telling me that the Florentines “hiked with umbrellas”. This was when I realized that CAI chapters were simply a reflection of its members.

When I later lived in the Chianti area of Tuscany, I occasionally went on an excursion with the Siena CAI, who preferred to be known for their long lunches rather than long walks. On one early December walk with Siena CAI, a dozen of us assembled at 9.00 a.m. for a walk that would include “trailblazing,” which meant marking a new trail route with CAI’s signature red & white paint marks. Two fellows were in charge, one with a bucket of white paint, the other with red. As we walked along forest tracks and through the vineyards, they stopped to discuss, and then argue about, whether to mark the trail at a given point.  When they occasionally agreed, they slathered a red & white blaze on a tree trunk or rock.

By noon, I noticed half the walkers gathering sprigs of wild rosemary and bits of dry wood. We soon stopped at a clearing, and a few industrious fellows set to work building a fire. Once that was going, we waited until it died down a bit, and in the meantime, flasks of wine began appearing from backpacks. Mario had an impressively-sized container like those used for storing extra gasoline, and he poured me a tumbler of wine. It is his own Chianti, deep purple and sharp on the tongue. “Salute!” Mario shouts as he pours wine for everyone.

Once the fire has died down and there are hot coals remaining, sprigs of rosemary are laid on top, which causes a lot of smoke as well as renewed arguing about whether this will or will not smother the coals. Amazingly, someone produces a metal grill and after more arguing, a few rocks are dragged into place, and the grill is laid over the rosemary and coals. Then Piero pulls a long string of sausages out of his pack – there must have been 3 dozen links – and proudly proclaims that they are homemade from cinghiale – wild boar. He carefully places them on the grill, and when the wind shifts, we are engulfed in smoke, so we scurry to the other side of the fire, and back again, all the time keeping an eye on the sausages, while someone’s backpack briefly catches on fire.

By this time I am starving and fumble to extract my pathetic little sandwich from my backpack, while others are unpacking wheels of cheese and loaves of bread. Someone passes me a piece of pecorino cheese, and then a hunk of crusty bread. “Aspetta – wait” says Piero, and stabs a cinghiale sausage with his knife, and lays it on my hunk of bread. “Buon appetito” he grins, as I bite into the sausage. My teeth snap through the crusty coating to the smoky spicy interior, which is hot and salty. I lick my greasy fingers and gulp more wine. “Buono?” asks Piero. “Buonisssssimo” I slur. He gives me another one.

We finally pack up and begin unsteadily trudging up a long, steep hill, groaning with the effort of the climb. At the top, we realize that no one has marked the trail and our lunch spot was at a crossroads of 4 trails. The guys with the paint buckets look down the steep incline, think briefly about going down to paint a mark and then having to walk back up, then shrug and agree without argument to paint a blaze right where we are standing, and just continue along the way.

By the time we reach the car park, it is dark, and it has taken us nearly 9 hours to complete a walk of a mere 12 km (7 miles). But that’s including lunch.

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