I love Tuscany. The rolling hills, each topped with an ancient church tower
or a picturesque farmhouse. The stately cypress trees, the lush grapevines and
olive groves. The deliciously simple food, the robust wines, and the
gregarious, wonderful people. But at the height of summer, I hate the Tuscan
Poor Little Me
Oh, I don't mean to be ungrateful. I don't mean to be a boor. I know how it
sounds: "Poor little me, another trip to Italy, and it's too HOT,
dahling...." The fact is, I'd take a trip to Italy, sweltering heat or
not, over a trip to just about anywhere, anytime. But when temperatures soar to
40 degrees Celsius (that's a whopping 104 degrees Fahrenheit), well, that's
getting a tad uncomfortable. And, especially if you want to take a serious
hike, which was "What I Did On My Summer Vacation," on probably one of the
hottest, driest days on record.
Noel Coward gets the credit, but I suspect it was an Italian who originally
said that only "mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."
Make that "mad dogs and Americans."
Italians know how to live. They originated La Dolce Vita, after all: The
Sweet Life. A civilized person gets up relatively early, works hard in the cool
of morning, returns home or to a well-loved restaurant for a leisurely noon
meal, then takes a nice long nap during the heat of midday, returning to labor
and outdoor pursuits only in the afternoon. Sure, their workdays are longer,
but their lives and work are typically intertwined, and that midday break
leaves them refreshed and ready to be effective later in the day.
So when I donned my sunglasses, slathered my body with SPF 45, and headed
out into the crackling-dry summer landscape of rural Tuscany on a day in late
July, I'm sure I was the laughingstock of any native Italian who cared to look
out the window of his or her comfortable home.
Formal And Informal Trekking Trails
Europe in general, and Italy in particular, is criss-crossed with fabulous
walking/hiking paths known as "trekking routes." These routes are
often quite lengthy compared to American dayhike trails -- 20-plus miles is not
unusual. They often include rural roads, not just footpaths.
If your idea of hiking is a narrow singletrack trail flanked with
evergreens, you might not care for this type of hiking, but I like it very
much. It's a great, slow-paced way to see the countryside.
Tourist information offices throughout Italy are very good at providing
local maps that include trekking routes. These maps, since they are designed
for pedestrian travel, are drawn to a sufficiently small scale that one can
pick out informal walking routes as well. On my 40-degree Celsius day, that's
what I did.
It's sort of interesting to be the only living human in sight on a 10-mile
walk. Granted, I was in a rural area (believe me, the streets of Florence and
Siena are thronged in summer regardless of the time of day or temperature), but
I passed a dozen farmhouses and trekked through several vineyards and olive
groves. Not a soul was in sight. Nor was there a breath of a breeze. Just
absolute stillness and the heat of the unrelenting sun reflecting off the
characteristic tan, chunky Tuscan soil. I sought shade at every opportunity. I
hoarded my dwindling water supply, until I remembered stories of people dying
of dehydration in the desert with water still in their canteens. Then I drank
my bottles dry.
Along the way, I passed two churches, one crumbling from time and disuse,
with cypress trees pushing their way skyward through the ruined foundations,
the other apparently still in use, but quiet as a tomb. A bocce court alongside
a rambling farmhouse was dusty, dry, and deserted. It was eerie, but also sort
of exciting, to be the only human afoot.
Relief At Last
Just when the too-rare shade no longer provided relief and the water was a
distant memory, I came home to the villa where I was staying. Never were those
wrought-iron gates and that swimming pool more welcome sights! It probably was
not one of my more brilliant hiking decisions to take a nice long walk on such
a hot, dry day, but after five minutes in the pool, I decided it hadn't been so
bad after all!
Sally O'Neal Coates is a Pacific Northwest travel and outdoor writer and
unabashed, untreated Walking Addict. She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.