On the first morning, I lean out of my hotel window in Florence and admire the garden below. Whose can it be? There’s a wonderful curving greenhouse that leans on an ancient wall. There are palms and lemon trees, fragments of time-worn statuary, an elegant wrought-iron table with a chair. On the table is a folded newspaper and a steaming espresso coffee, but no gardener visible. It’s all a bit untidy and overgrown, enclosed by tawny walls capped with pan tiles, many apparently ready to slide off on to the artfully abandoned terracotta urns below. This is exactly what I expected and wanted from Tuscany: a place that looked carelessly civilised, and had been that way for a very long time.
When I arrived the previous night at the Hotel Loggiato dei Serviti, I’d asked the barman how old the building was. “It was built in 1492,” he told me, “the year of Columbus.”
In that same year, local artist Leonardo da Vinci turned 40, while up-and-coming teenage rival Michelangelo was nursing a broken nose after a fight in the Carmine Chapel. The Florentine Renaissance was well under way, but the start of the wider European Renaissance is usually dated to 1519, the year of Leonardo’s death and the birth of Catherine de’ Medici (in Florence). That anniversary is the reason I’ve come to walk between the city and its neighbour, Siena, the second one-time powerhouse of western civilisation. Can there be a better moment to trumpet the news that dark ages can give way to renaissance?
After breakfast, a short taxi ride takes me to my starting point at Greve in Chianti – at first I walk past vineyards and olive groves but am soon in the forest. From a high point, I get an idea of what lies ahead: a landscape divided equally by forest and cultivation, the latter mostly in the valleys or lower slopes, the former cloaking ridges and rounded peaks. The paths are gravel tracks, rising and falling gently as I head south. Occasionally, a motor bike passes. Otherwise, I see no one. I’m glad I filled my coffee flask before leaving Florence.
It is much wilder than I’d anticipated: deer tracks pepper the mud and the grassy forest glades have been roughed up by gangs of wild boar. I spot the print of a very large paw: dog or wolf? The Tuscan wolf has been making a comeback in recent years, but they are extremely shy. I pick up porcupine quills, too. Italy is the only European home to this animal, an introduction by the Romans, who liked to eat them. The porcupine, which grows to a whopping metre long, has taken revenge ever since by devouring the sangiovese grapes that make chianti wines.
In the late afternoon, I climb the ridge atop which Radda in Chianti is sited and suddenly emerge in a gorgeous Tuscan town: narrow stone streets, tiny shops, and flourishes of ancient ornamentation in stone.
At the far end, I find the Hotel Vignale, home to a great restaurant, a sort of temple dedicated to the steak. Before dinner I swim in the unheated outdoor pool. “Are you crazy? It’s under 20 degrees!” says Luigi, the dining room’s high priest. Dinner arrives sizzling on a trolley and Luigi wields the knife. It is simply the best steak I’ve ever tasted, although certainly not the cheapest. At the next table, Luigi gently persuades a pair of American visitors that ordering it “well done” will not be a good idea.
The next morning, I continue southwards. The vineyards are all fortified with hefty high barriers and electric fences. Five wolves were sighted three days ago, I’m informed, but these defences are against deer and boar. I pass beautiful churches, all locked, and some farmhouses, but then enter an oak forest. Porcupine quills are scattered among the acorns and I can hear a deep grunting noise from up the valley. Porcupine party? Wild boar? I listen. Each episode of grunts is followed by a delicate rattling, like sticks clashing. The deer are fighting.
I leave the path and creep up the hillside, weaving through dense thickets of coppiced trees. I spot a nose, a rump, a giant antler, a leg. The breeze is on my face. I go on all fours, inching my way forwards into a position behind a log where I crouch, unmoving, for a long time. The forest is so thick that I have yet to see an entire deer. Suddenly a big black male is charging through the trees towards me. I try to stand up, but my left leg has gone to sleep and I roll sideways. The big male thunders past. Has he seen me? Then I hear the rival somewhere down below. The big male pauses, breathing heavily, then sprints away downhill. The twenty-strong herd melts silently into the forest. My heart rate returns to normal and I hobble back to the footpath
This forest is the source of many Tuscan delicacies: white truffles – one of the rarest, most expensive fungi on the planet – and other specialities such as wild capers, asparagus, chicory and fennel. When I reach San Sano, the tiny village where I’m staying, the owner of the Hotel Residence, Maurizio, fills me in on the wildlife with a communicative mixture of Italian, English and expressive gestures. “The lupo [wolf] is part of the ecosistema here, and we need them. There are so many cervi [deer].” He mimes antlers. “One night, three of them jumped in my piscina.”
I wonder if the wolf had prompted this midnight swim?
“No, the lupi never come to the village.”
He pours me a glass of chianti classico and I take it to the terrace of my ground floor room that opens out on a lovely garden and pool. The village is surrounded by vineyards and is totally peaceful. That evening, Maurizio serves me and a pair of his friends a typical Tuscan dinner in his cave of a dining room: bruschetta, bean soup, meat course and dessert, followed by “a little grappa”. It feels like I’ve been absorbed into Tuscan family life. The hotel’s dachshund trots in with a stick. Maurizio gestures despairingly: “Chloe!? How many times must I tell you?” Chloe trots out, leaving the stick on the stone-flagged floor.
Later, Maurizio shows me a book about the palio, the Siena horse race that dates back to medieval times, but our discussions are hampered because, after several glasses of chianti and the grappa, I can only speak a mongrel trade language stewed up from substandard Spanish, schoolboy French and half-witted Arabic. Not only that, Maurizio is forgetting his English. Chloe trots in with a stick. “Chloe! Quante volte devo dirti?” Chloe trots out.
Next day, I reluctantly drag myself away from San Sano for the final section into Siena. Now the deep, silent forests are replaced with more vineyards, olive groves and graceful houses. I reach my hotel, the elegant Villa Scacciapensieri, but it is still a 3km walk to the centre. I decide to borrow a bike.
It is a new bike, hardly used, and I soon discover why: Siena is built on several steep-sided hills that defy pedalling. Having said that, I do think a bike is a time-saver as the free-wheeling descents are rapid, and exhilarating.
In the centre of the town, I come across huge crowds of people, everyone wearing a brightly coloured neckerchief and clutching a glass. I ask what’s happening. “It’s the palio,” a man informs me.
“But I thought it was only in July and August?” I’m here in October.
The man grins. “It’s a special one – to commemorate the end of the first world war. Most of us haven’t even sobered up from August.” Only now do I realise what Maurizio had been trying to tell me: the palio is on today.
I can hear the roar of the crowd and, over heads, spot a blur of movement. The palio, I’m sure, is worth seeing, but anyone without a ticket needs to be in position very early to get any kind of view. Later, as I explore the narrow streets, I hear the clip-clop of hooves on cobbles and a horse is led past me followed by a crowd of excited fans. In a small square, tables are laid out for a feast. Each area of the city is decked with its flags and delivers full-blooded support for its horse and rider.
Every bar and restaurant is packed. I stand in a corner with an espresso and absorb the feverish excitement. It’s worth being in Siena on palio day just to be part of this: an atmosphere that Renaissance greats like da Vinci and Michaelangelo must have known intimately.
When I’ve had enough, I push the bike to the cathedral, an exquisite masterpiece of marble and mosaic filled with sculpted light, a worthy finale to a Renaissance walk.