Sherpa Expeditions travellers Julia and Gordon Blackwell share their experience in Tuscany on our Walking South of Siena holiday.
What is your travelling/walking history?
At the ages of 65 and 71 we had some initial reservations as to whether we were up to this tour, even though our previous walking experience has included treks in Switzerland, Austria, Nepal, Iceland, and Canada. Our customary afternoon stroll usually covers about 7 km, and we also go 'fast walking' for an hour each week with friends. I would therefore describe ourselves as reasonably fit and experienced, but with some age related restrictions. In the event, the 'Walking South of Siena' tour turned out to be totally do-able – some days quite strenuous, but we were never seriously overstretched. Above all, it was totally enjoyable.
Why did you choose to walk where you did?
We had wanted to visit Siena for a long time, and also wanted to spend some time in the surrounding countryside exploring the villages and tasting the local food and wines. The self-guided tour 'Walking South of Siena' seemed to be an ideal way to combine these wishes, walking from one village to another at our own pace and without stress – accommodation and luggage transport being taken care of by Sherpa.
How did you prepare?
A few weeks before the tour we checked our fitness by walking increasingly long distances every few days, up to the maximum length of a day on the tour. In addition we studied the directions and the maps so that we knew what possible problems to expect, and what we might especially want to see on the way. We also looked at alternative maps, and as a backup entered the routes into a GPS navigator. Although the instructions provided by Sherpa were generally good, the Italian maps were sometimes difficult to read or unclear and the GPS proved its worth more than once in helping us to keep on the track – or to deliberately deviate from it when we chose to. Although most hotel staff spoke English, the few key Italian phrases we learnt proved to be useful in shops and cafés.
Your favourite destination?
Our favourite destination is difficult to decide on, as we would willingly go back to any of them. Perhaps for pure charm of both the village and the B&B we stayed in, the overall winner has to be Bagno Vignoni. Two days here would not too long for us, especially after the long walk to get there.
Best food and drink?
This is another difficult question, as almost all the food and drink we had was excellent, and by no means expensive. A bottle of top wine for under 10€ can't be bad, and we especially enjoyed the wine from Montalcino. For beer drinkers, the Birra Moretti La Rossa can be unreservedly recommended - a wonderful red-brown coloured beer which I would go a long way to have again.
Biggest surprise of the trip?
I don't know why we were surprised, but the openness and friendliness of everyone we met was remarkable. One particular experience that sticks in our memory was the bus journey from Siena to Taverne d'Arbia, when almost everyone on the bus, including the driver, joined in to wish us luck and ensure that we got off at the right stop. Also unexpected was the consideration shown by drivers of the occasional cars which passed us on the sometimes dusty “white roads” or gravel tracks. Most slowed down to walking pace as they approached and passed. This minimised the dust, and we were often greeted with a friendly wave too.
What aspect of the trip did you find most challenging?
The most challenging day was undoubtedly the walk from Montalcino to Bagno Vignoni, purely because of the distance and height ascent which had to be covered – by our GPS 27 km and 850 height meters including deviations and on-route sightseeing.
Other days brought different challenges such as a closed section of track, a closed bridge, misleading sign posts, and difficult to find (sometimes apparently non existent) tracks across fields. However these were all relatively easily overcome with careful reading of the instructions – and use of the GPS navigator.
Do you have any other advice for travellers thinking about travelling on this trip?
Some of the days on this trek were, for us 66 and 71 year old youngsters, quite tough. We walked at a fairly constant pace of 4.0 - 4.5 km/h (excluding pauses), and most walks took us a bit longer than suggested - but after all we were on holiday and who wants to rush? In this regard, the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore between Asciano and Buonconvento is well worth a visit, and in order to arrive in time for a leisurely look around (it is closed from 12:00 to 15:00) we opted to go there by taxi from Asciano rather than walk. This also gave time for lunch in the nearby village and a relaxed walk on to Buonconvento.
Although perhaps not to everyone's liking, our GPS navigator was sometimes a godsend and saved us several times from missed turnings and long diversions – just make sure you have spare charged batteries in your day pack, and a charger in your luggage! If like us you decide to ignore some of the directions on the route to Bagno Vignoni and opt to ford a stream rather than walk along a railway track to a bridge, then rubber sandals would be useful but not essential. Lastly, remember that most electrical sockets in Italy are of the Italian design (type L socket) and you will need an adaptor for either UK or European plugs.
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