Our Walking Holiday in Italy

Mu & I had a lovely week-long walking holiday in Italy so I thought I would write down a few things as a memory jogger (in my old age) and to share with a few people - some may even be tempted to do a similar walking holiday.

It was organised through Alternative Travel Group in Oxford who arranged the hotels, provided a booklet of the routes and general information on places to see, restaurants etc and a local representative to brief us and be available if we had problems.

We arranged our own cheap flights with Go, which gave us flexibility to build in time either side in Rome and get it much cheaper as well.

So we arrived in Rome and had about 6 hours spare before catching a train to Viterbo (the start of our walk). We decided to do one big tourist site and having seen the film Gladiators opted for the Coliseum. We brilliantly negotiated Rome's transport system and got there passing other famous sites on the way. The Coliseum simply oozed history and there were even a few Roman centurians strolling around extracting cash out of tourists for photos. We enjoyed the experience which was enhanced by a tour we joined.

So on we went by slow train for over 2 hours to Viterbo, a walled city in the mountains almost unspoilt by tourism and had a magical hotel room with a balcony over a very narrow street in the centre.


First Day:

In the morning, we met our representative from ATG who briefed us on the whole week’s walking, her recomendations for restaurants and places to see and to give us a contact number if we had problems. We then caught a bus to a lovely village Madonna della Quercia for the start of our walk, the shortest of the week (about 5 miles), from there to a "National Trust"-like place called Villa Lante, a sumptious 16c residence with gardens and fountains, "amongst the finest of the Renaissance". It had the most amazing trimmed hedges and a few rooms of the house were open so we could see the intricate frescoes. There were incredible man-made waterfalls down the terraced gardens. One downside is that it is one of Prince Charles’ favourite places and he brings a party from the School of Architecture there every year!


The Gardens at Villa Lante

We caught a bus back to Viterbo.

As we were staying in the same hotel for a second night, we could explore the town more and walked through the Medieval district called San Pellegrino. We also made an obligatory visit, so as not to disappoint our ATG rep to a famous church of Santa Rosa, where the corpse of that saint from the 11c lies in gory dehydrated state for everyone to see.

One memorable experience from the town was an evening 4-a-side football competition in the town’s main square played on a deep sand pitch, with high netting all around and players barefoot or in socks.

Second Day:

10 miles lay ahead for us for the walk to the next place Montefiascone, but again we cheated a little as our rep drove us the first 2 miles to what could not have been a nicer place. This spot is not ideal to start a day of walking – a farmer has hot springs in his fields which he opens to the public and there are these crude baths cut into the ground with the most incredibly hot water which is arranged to pass to cooler & cooler pools. There are no facilities so had to have costumes on. We never got to the hottest pool but felt it and wondered how the few in it managed to stand such heat – recommended max time was 20 minutes which we reluctantly adhered to knowing it would drain our energy and soften our feet and make them blister-prone. After this we had to start our walk in costumes before changing in a more private field further along.

The hot spring baths

One could see the end destination for almost all the walk, a walled town perched on an extinct volcano.


We had our first experience of walking on an old Roman road, Cassia Antica, in unspoilt original state. We had been warned that this would be the least interesting walk but it was pleasant enough despite the heat, a patch of small flies and an underestimate of the water we would need. The last part of the walk was lovely up a steep hill to the town. Desperate for water, I asked at the first house we saw with some-one in the garden - we were given a whole bottle of spring water as well as fruit juice – a lovely welcome to the town. The view from the town down to the lake of Bolsena below was spectacular.

So we went in through a gate of the walled town, just as unspoilt as the previous place and walked down a steep cobbled road to the centre of the town. We passed a Tourist Information centre where the young woman at the desk was incredibly friendly and helpful – so much so that we bumped into her later in the street and she insisted on taking us up to her flat for a drink. She is doing an English degree so was keen to get in some practice!

This place is famous for its white wine named Est! Est! Est! – a bishop name Fugger had a liking for wine. On his travels, he would send a servant ahead to assess the inns along the way. If the wine was good, the servant would paint a sign that said Est ("this is it"). One place was so good that he got drunk sampling the wine and lost track of his sign painting and actually did it 3-times in all.

The town was lovely but we only had the evening to explore and were very tired. Mu crashed out at about 9 and I managed to stay on to walk around a local wine festival in the park in the middle of the town which was like a morgue until 9 and then buzzing with thousands of people until after midnight. The hotel was actually too posh for our dishevelled look but the only other guests we saw were cyclists also having an early breakfast.

Third Day:

Our destination was the town of Bolsena on the lake that we could see from Montefiascone. Our ATG rep again offered to help us cheat and miss out on the first boring section. This was the best day’s walking over about 9 miles through lovely woods (reminiscent of Newlands Forest in Cape Town), across stream beds and along more Roman roads. We hardly spotted a another person all day even though there was a huge scout camp in the woods - but they were all out earning their badges somewhere else. There was an idyllic river in the middle of this wood with a waterfall and a pool at the bottom. I regret not swimming now but may just have to go back!

Approaching Lake Bolsena - Mu wearing sandals to alleviate blisters!

We reached the edge of the lake a mile or so from the town and found a secluded mini-beach behind reeds and swam – it was wonderfully refreshing after the hot walk. We then walked on to the town reaching the beach front first ( the town was higher up the hill) up an avenue of huge plane trees. We were thrilled to find that our hotel was a lovely one right there, a hundred yards from the water and we had 2 nights to look forward to there.

Not ones to relax for too long, we dumped our bags and went almost immediately to catch a boat trip to an island in the centre of the lake. In an interesting example of democracy, the boat people offered 3 trips, ranging from a simple hour-long boat ride around the island to 2 hour one which included a short tour of the monasteries, churches and bird sanctuary there. They took a vote from the few people who showed up and we missed out on the tour we wanted, but loved the boat ride in a big speedboat and got good views of the island. I suppose we were already saturated with churches so missing some was not a big deal.

At speed on Lake Bolsena

Fourth day:

Our rep recommended this as a rest day and didn’t brief us on the route which was suggested as an option. The result was a gruelling day during which we got horribly lost at one point and probably added a few extra miles to the 12 mile route.

In the morning, we caught a bus, driven at frightening speed, to Aquapendente famed in Catholic circles as it has a stone supposedly stained with Christ’s blood. Getting off the bus, we stopped to get sorted with our hiking sticks (recommended strongly!) and the day-rucksack, before looking at the town. About a half-hour later I realised I had left my stick, actually Jules’ and almost like an extra leg on the walks, at the bus-stop. Plus it had started raining, the first we had since arriving – a terrible start and the low of the week. But the gods treated us well and we found an elderly couple holding the stick waiting for the owner to reclaim it …. and the rain stopped.

On the walk there were some lovely parts like fields of sunflowers, the most succulent and plentiful blackberries everywhere and another beautiful walk in a wood. So despite the extreme effort, sore limbs and a few blisters and scratches, it was worth doing and great seeing Bolsena down on the lake from the mountainside and seeing the end in sight.

We cooled off with a swim in the lake and had probably our best meal, of many good meals, that evening in the garden of a restaurant. We had a good walk through the medieval walled town on the hill which was again unspoilt.

Fifth Day:

The last major walking day to the final town Orvieto, just within Umbria, was left, a distance of 10 miles. It covered walks along sections of roman roads with the original stones and an incredibly scenic walk through a wood with steep falls just to the side of the path, and again A+ blackberries.

In the woods squeezing past a huge tree that fell in storms a few years ago

We stopped for lunch at some Etruscan tombs, all excavated and accessible (well behind pathetic fences) and unfortunately only had a miserable torch so only could take turns at having a look in very dim light. There wasn’t a soul around, which was incredible for such an important archaeological site.

Oh yes the lunch – as on all of the days, you simply don’t pass shops, cafés or the like so need to take everything with you. We will always remember our standard fare – each a whole Mozzarella cheese (egg-shaped), with sliced tomatoes, fresh bread and fruit …. no wine but otherwise a picnic feast!

In the afternoon we got lost again, getting scratched by brambles in the process, but eventually found the right path on a Roman road. We reached the point where supposedly a miracle occurred in 1263, when a procession carrying yet another relic of Christ was stopped by a rock fall, and the path miraculously re-appeared. From this point we could see Orveito, a city on a volcanic outcrop but with a huge valley between us and the city and about 3 long miles to go.

View of Orvieto - it’s a long way to go from there!

This route was a classic Roman road – absolutely straight down the hill and up the other side – no zig-zagging to ease the strain on the legs.

And so we reached the town after a strenuous climb and went in through the city walls and too our hotel on a prominent ancient square. We had been warned that this htel was not quite up to the standards of the previous ones but had incredible decayed grand antiquity. It certainly lived up to that billing – our room had a high vaulted ceiling ornately painted (al la Sistine chapel) but with the most gaudy large glass chandelier, a bed which would have given my chiropractor nightmares and a tacky modern bathroom build into the corner …. but these are the ones you remember, not the Holiday Inns! The owners were very friendly and the breakfasts superb.

Sixth Day:

Relatively speaking, this was our rest day. We did our own walking tour around the City from ATG’s book and 2 memorable tourist activities – the first was a tour of the excavated caves under the city which were used over the centuries for homing pigeons and as wine cellars, olive oil factories and quarries. The tour was very interesting and the lovely cool constant temperature, perfect for wine, was also a great relief from the heat above. The second was St Patrick’s well, an engineering feat to be marvelled at – 62 metres deep with the central hole for the well and a wide spiral staircase on the outside with windows looking in going all the way to the bottom, a bridge across the actual water level and a second intertwined spiral staircase going up the same way . It is hard to describe but one basically went down and came up a different route in the same plane like a double corkscrew – it is billed as one of the "second seven wonders of the world" and certainly had us gob-smacked.

The cathedral in Orvieto is spectacular, built to hold the relic mentioned from the walk. The front is ornate almost beyond belief, but the rest of the huge building is in very plain, but lovely alternative stripes of white and black stone.

The cathedral in Orvieto


The area is known for ceramics but generally not to our taste, like copies of Etruscan patterns. But we have been searching for ages now for bowls for cereals and dessert without much luck - and we found one incredible modern ceramic shop with really creative work and decided to order 15 bowls with a particular hand painted pattern we loved. The shop is run by the daughter of the potter and she was really thrilled at our enthusiasm for the work. We have to wait for over a month for the parcel but it will be worthwhile.


The last day:

We caught a bus and vernicular train down to the station at the bottom and a train to Rome, again leaving our bags at the station left-luggage. We had about 8 hours this time and decided to go to the Vatican mainly to see the Sistine chapel. We first saw St Peter’s square and joined a huge queue to get into the Basilica where all the Popes are enshrined from the first Pope St Peter.

We weren’t prepared for the scale of the Vatican museum, which includes the Sistine chapel – before you get to the actual chapel, you pass through over 50 rooms with incredible paintings on the walls – it is a walking day on its own and certainly memorable.

By then we were experts on the Rome transport system and caught a metro to the Spanish Steps, walked to the Trevi fountain, bus to the main station, metro and another bus to the airport and got home after midnight. Through an unavoidable business commitment, I had 4 hours sleep, and then a taxi to the airport and went back to Italy (Milan) for 3 days!



August 2000