Get Us Out of The Tuscan Sun
San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy
San Gimignano of the travel magazines is sunshine, villas the color of egg pasta, and cypresses like bottles of green olive oil. A young man clicks by on a rickety bicycle with the town’s twelve-ish sienna towers rising behind him.
Apparently, other people read those articles, too. San Gimignano is swarming with busloads of tourists photographing themselves next to taxidermied wild boars in the shop fronts. We really seem to be making a loud collective buzzing. I seek relief in the toiletta. There, a man shaped like a ham hock has parked himself on a stool and is collecting a fee.
“A euro for a dirty hole in the ground? That’s ridiculous,” a woman says to her friend, loudly enough for the man to hear.
Something about him makes me suspect that the bathroom is actually free but he’s come up with a unique method of panhandling. Not entirely certain, I give him a don’t-mess-with-me stare and march into the stall without paying. It works.
Outside, my friend Bonnie decides on the longest of four hikes featured in her Hiking in Tuscany guidebook. “Should take us about five hours,” she says. The village’s narrow lanes unwind down the hill, into the wide-open countryside. The loud buzz of conversation dims, replaced by the soft buzz of bees drifting among the wildflowers. Old men zip by on new Vespas. Fuzzy hills and vineyards roll into the horizon, punctuated by cypress trees and San Gimignano’s towers, getting smaller with every glance back. About an hour into the hike a group on bicycles bearing the name of a fancy tour company huffs up the hill.
“Look at that,” I say smugly. “I know they paid over $5000 for their two week trip and we’re on exactly the same trail.”
About three hours into the hike, we sit down to a lunch of bread, cheese, wild boar salami and a little wine. Post-lunch lazy and completely satisfied with sitting under a shady tree, we decide to rethink our hike.
“I think it’s gonna take us another four hours to do the full loop,” Bonnie muses, crunching a biscotti. “Or we could cut across here,” she says, pointing to a thin gray line on the map, “and be back in about two hours.”
“I’m getting a little tired. Maybe we should do the shorter route,” I suggest, sipping wine from a broken plastic cup. I look closer at the tourist office’s map. “Are we sure it’s actually a trail?”
“It’s in the guidebook, too: Past the large oak tree, take the unmarked trail left onto a rough path which descends into a ditch. Cross several streams, then ascend steeply through a tall forest and turn right at the broken yellow sign.”
She looks at me innocently.
“Sorry,” I say to her, ” the road we’ve been taking – is it actually a trail?”
“Not really. The lady at the tourist office said to take the main road and turn right behind the alimentari.”
I think someone has said of the Italians, ‘They make love, they make shoes, but they cannot make trails.’ Maybe there is something to these $5000 guided tours. But I rally:
“OK, what the heck. I’m sure we’ll figure it out.” So we set off to find the Thin Gray Line.
About an hour later:
“Do you think that’s it?”
“That’s a river.”
“Maybe it was that footpath back a ways.”
“The one overgrown with gorse bushes?”
“Maybe it’s farther up ahead.”
We decide that it has, in fact, never existed at all. But, we figure we know the general direction we need to go and we can make our own trails. Twenty minutes later we find ourselves in a farmer’s front yard.
Here you’ll walk through a passageway where a water tap awaits, the guidebook says. The peaceful silence will be broken only by the barking of dogs that seem to call out, ‘Buon Giorno!’
“So basically, we’re to sneak into someone’s yard, steal their water, and get ambushed by snarling Rottweilers.”
“Well, we could either go all the way around – however far that is – or we could go up this hill and cut across his vineyard.”
You know those inclines on, say, The Tallest Roller Coaster In The World, where the car goes clink-clink-clink-clink as it struggles to get up the track? This is the Tuscan hill version. I look to the left, where the trail around the vineyard disappears far into the horizon, and start up the hill. Thirty sweaty, slow-motion minutes later, we reach the top. Inhibitions gone, we short-cut across his vineyard, help ourselves to a few of his grapes, meander down a few side roads and end up in a lovely green meadow, singing folk songs a trifle off key. Things are definitely looking up.
Then Bonnie muses, “I think we’re going too far east. We have to start heading north.”
To the north a dark forest ascends a steep hill beyond a stream overgrown with rose bushes. Clearly, it must be the path.
“There’s a log here,” Bonnie calls out. “If we could throw it and position it just right we could use it to cross the stream.”
That’ll work. We’ll just calculate the exact angle at which to fling a log the length of a truck so that it forms a natural bridge over the stream. It’s a boy scout’s dream. Unfortunately it could never work in a million tosses. We do manage to cross the stream (with only minor cuts and scratches) and enter a forest we nickname Murkwood. Using vines, we heave ourselves up the hill, sliding down frequently on the slippery carpet of leaves and vigilantly watching for the wild boars that a sign at the forest’s edge warned us about. Finally we emerge – covered in leaves, burrs, and thin lines of blood – and find ourselves staring at an immense, rolling plowed field of dried mud. We’re not talking garden tool-sized plowed furrows here. We’re talking deep, thick, sink-into-‘em, stumble-over-‘em furrows. I lift up my water bottle, hoping that somehow there’ll be a few drops left, like when you find five dollars in your pocket, but it betrays me.
Trudge, slog. Trip, sink. A dusty dew of sweat covers us. An endless hour later we reach the crest of the hill, to reveal… another plowed field. I’m beginning to understand how Moses felt during his forty years in the desert. “What do you think is beyond this hill?” he’d ask his wife. “I’d say about another twenty years of desert, Mo,” she’d answer, fed up. “When we get to Canaan I’m throwing that damn Hiking in Sinai book into the burning bush!”
More plodding, sinking, sweating. This is not at all what we were led to expect. I know what you’re thinking. Whiner, you’re thinking. I should be grateful just to be in Tuscany. I could be stuck in a. an office, b. a third world country with a ruthless dictator, c. a wheelchair, or d. a really small hole. I know. Yet who among us wouldn’t rather be in a traffic jam than in any of the above, and who hasn’t complained about a traffic jam?
Trudge, slog. Trip, sink. What I wouldn’t give for water.
“Look up ahead!” Bonnie exclaims.
The crest of the hill reveals the end of the plowed fields and the familiar towers rising in the distance. We step onto a narrow dirt road lined with cypress trees. Up ahead a cheerful old man is standing in front of…a water spigot! It’s a vision.
“Acqua! Per favore!” we choke.
“Certo, certo!” he beams, filling our water bottles. We ask him in Italian if it’s very far to the village. Not far at all, he tells us, a somewhat puzzled expression on his face. No doubt he’s wondering why two girls would want to trudge through the countryside, looking as if they’d just been through an 8-hour war, when they could just sit on a hill somewhere and drink wine. We stroll down the road, chugging our water. It’s that time of day with a dusky glow, when the air is cool and sweet. Laughter drifts from flower-boxed windows; cypress shadows stretch out across the path, just like I’d like to.
Back in town Bonnie buys a bottle of red and we sit on a grassy area overlooking the countryside. “What smells so good?” she asks. We sink our hands into the wild mint beneath us, pulling up bunches and inhaling the fragrance. Then we smile at each other, half in joy and half in frustration, because life is cruel. And just when you want to feel supremely sorry for yourself, it sends you a mint field, Chianti, and the sunlight setting aglow the towers of San Gimignano.