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Tuscan Trails

Around the tourist mecca: eating, drinking, and...hiking?

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The first "Tuscany moment" of our trip came when we were walking along an ancient road through a thick forest, being serenaded by a shepherd whose mother was back at home rolling out hand-made pasta for our lunch. There would be wine, of course, and cheese from that morning's sheep milk. And jam made from blackberries picked in this very forest.

"Serious" hikers may not often think of Tuscany, or even Italy, as a destination. Sure, there are the Italian Alps, but most people associate the "roof of Europe" with Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland. But Tuscany is as rich in outdoor entertainment as it is food.

We were in the less visited Apennines, the chain that runs along the spine of Italy. And sure, we weren't scaling rock faces or traversing glaciers or clinging to ladders and cables. But, I say again, Mama was rolling out the pasta, the ricotta was being made fresh, and by the way, we'd be visiting an 11th-century monastery before heading back for lunch. I've been on worse hikes.

Even the Apennines offer a variety that may surprise you. In the north, they are lonesome and glacier-carved, their meadows dotted with lakes surrounded by dramatic cliffs. Mountain huts make possible a trek of some 250 miles across the range. A little farther south, the peaks are even higher, up to Como Grande at 9,152 feet, the highest point on the Italian peninsula. Another highlight is the Piano Grande, a grassy plain ringed by rocky peaks.

Our walk with the shepherd was in a low part of the range, an area where people gather chestnuts in the woods, moss covers the trunks of old trees, and tiny creeks form the headwaters of the Arno River, bound for Florence.

Another time, in another corner of Tuscany, we simply followed a strada bianca, or "white road," of which seemingly thousands crisscross the countryside around the cities of Florence and Siena. Our guide, a lifelong Tuscan who makes a hobby of driving or biking such dirt roads to see where they lead, knew that this one followed a nearly flat path through grasslands dotted with sheep, cut by rock formations, and scattered with wildflowers. After several miles of this, we were picked up by a bus and hauled to a winery in a medieval hilltop village, where the owner and his daughter served us lunch under an arbor with a view of his vineyard and the forested hills. I've been on worse hikes than that one, too.

For a first visit, it makes sense to hook up with a hiking club or some other group tour. REI, for example, has a Tuscan Hills walking trip, but it's around $3,000 for a week. Cheaper options, including private guides, can be found on the Internet. You can go it alone, of course, but guidebooks may be out of date, "trails" on maps may actually be roads (or nonexistent), and transportation can be an issue.

On one walk, we started at the villa we were renting as a group in Chianti, and we just walked along the road to the next villa, then turned onto a smaller road past houses where women hanging laundry stopped to chat with us, kids came out to gawk, and dogs barked angrily at first but then walked along with us for a while. We strolled past clifftops and down through a forest, across a creek and a highway-sized road, and eventually up into the village of Certaldo, a 13th-century town whose old quarters don't allow cars and where we dined in a courtyard with a sunset view of the surrounding valley.

And then there's the coast. Yes, Tuscany has a coastline, and it isn't just the overcrowded, overhyped scene at Cinque Terre. Even there, a hiker can find out-of-the way spots, and a visit in winter or spring means cooler temperatures and far fewer people. But to experience the scenery without the crowds, go south, where you can start in idyllic seaside towns and hike to the summit of granite peaks.

Our beach experience was in the Etruscan town of Populonia, which dates to 900 B.C. We walked down through a forest where wild boars roam to a rocky outcrop above the crystalline sea, where our guide laid out a picnic of prosciutto sandwiches, sweet pastries, and hearty Chianti wine, of course.

We ate, soaked in the rays, and watched the waves, then decided to bond with them. After a brief scramble down to the shore, we all eased into the water — a bit chilly at first, then utterly soothing, especially after a hike — and bobbed around in the sun. Lying there in the Mediterranean Sea, looking up at the Tuscan coast and remembering the hills, the valleys, and the meals, I wondered if there's a better place to go for a walk.

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