Designing a perfect day’s walk

Imagine you were tasked with creating a perfect walk, taking no more than a day to complete. What ingredients would you collect to compose it? You might start with a medieval town, in Italy for instance, and have your walk begin with a stroll through the almost deserted streets, quiet and empty after the bustle of the previous night, especially if you were to organise your walk on a Sunday. You would arrange for a small pasticceria to be just opening its doors, but not yet open for business and a friendly owner to give you a small bag of pastries for your way; you would arrange for the walk to have some challenging sections, some ancient monument to visit on the way; you would ensure that there was at least one waterfall, several streams to cross, with enough icy rushing mountain water to cool your hands and face and to replenish your water bottle.


Sansepulcro to Lama via the monastry of Monte Casale, Sunday 22.5.16. Early morning start in the hope that the 700me climb will be in the cooler part of the day.

You would definitely incorporate dramatic views from on high across broad plains below and forests and mountains all around. You would make sure that each new vista was equipped with a perfectly placed rocky outcrop, shaded and free from ants, upon which you could sit and drink in the scenery. You would, of course, have arranged for a flawless blue sky and a strong, but not too strong sun, probably placing your journey in the second half of May or late September, prefering May, in order to profit from the abundance of wild flowers – from red poppies to blue cornflowers to purple clover and yellow furze – in bloom and the trees in full leaf, yet still fresh in their greening.



Out of Sansepulcro on the first hill

You might pay particular attention to ensure that your walker had the entire length of the route to himself, to ensure that meditative state that sets in when the body has found its rhythm and the route does not require full concentration to navigate or negotiate, could fully develop without distraction from other walkers.



The last view back over Sansepulcro

After the challenging uphill stage, which you have judiciously placed at the start of the walk, lasting no more than two hours and taking your walker past your selection of waterfalls and mountain pools, along a slender path, well-trodden, after centuries of wear, you would place a monastery, such as that of Montecasale on a ledge, the stones worn smooth over the ages and arrange for a stone table with a cover of vines providing shelter from the sun, and a bench to be strategically placed to give your walker an magnificent view over the mountain just scaled and over the plain below. Your walker would take tea and water and perhaps a fresh peach or pear, resting from the strenuous climb, before departing for a stroll over several hours through shady woods and open trails on the crest of the hills that you have selected.



The testing climb ahead to the monastery of Montecasale

Finally, knowing that legs that are beginning to tire, you would direct the trail down the far side of your mountain, leading your walker over grassy fields and gently declining broad, comfortable paths, bringing the walk back to the valley in which you had started the tour and leading your walker on to a charming village, with a café in the tree-lined square, serving home-made ice cream and an excellent tea, before guiding them towards a well-appointed hotel just off the main street, where a friendly receptionist, the proprietress herself, welcomes her new guest, asks if she can wash their clothes and boots, dusty from the previous 5 hours exercise and pointing towards the well-manicured garden and a large blue pool framed by cypress trees.


The end of the valley from which the trail turns right up to Montecasale

If that is approximately what your ideal walk might look like, then I might have a suggestion for you. You should know that I only lied about the hotel.


It starts here…



The waterfall barely visible behind the dense foliage



The waterfall from the top



Breathtaking views of the Tiber Valley from the terrace of Montecasale, which at 0830 in the morning I had all to myself.






Montecasale – refectorium






Tea, peach, garmin – my favourite minutes of the day (as I never tire of repeating)



Statue of St. Francis above Montecasale



The view back over the trail from the high point of today’s stretch



I couldn’t resist stopping for another break in the sun at this first view of the next valley



Scenes from the trail, midmorning about half way to Lama



My picnic table, made to order



The views today were stunning, especially as the drop into Lama further down the Tiber Valley began



Tiber Valley and the mountains below



Perfect walking stretches across mown grass (at least for some of the way)



Walking on the ridge before the final sharp descent to Lama



The end of the valley to the north



Horse and ginestra



The view over Lama



Lama at 1400



My second favourite part of the day!


Three days and 75km later – La Verna (again) to Sansepulcro

Given that I have missed – for one reason or another, and all good – posting for two days, I now have three stages to report on. Listening to my “Write like Hemingway” podcast, this seems like an excellent opportunity to put my newly acquired skills into practice and allow myself and you, patient follower of my amblings, an opportunity to catch up. Here goes…


La Verna to Pieve Sanstefano, 20th May 2016

There were mountains. They were steep. It rained. I pressed on, regardless. As men do.


There was fog in the morning. And rain. Always the rain. The country was gentler, the road less masculine. My sandwich was soggy. I ate it in silence. As men do.


Sun. Heat. Sky. There were still mountains, but sloping downwards now. Then water, as far as the eye could see. No sea this, but a reservoir feeding the ancient planting grounds of imperial Rome. Better men than I had died planting and harvesting under the relentless sun. I pressed on. As men do.


So, that’s me done. This Hemingway stuff is great – you can dash off three days worth of reporting, whilst on the loo (I didn’t, of course, but you know what I mean).


What? More detail? Not good enough? Oh, alright, no more Hemingway. Perhaps I can use it to tweet with…

The last few days have been a transition from alpine quasi-mountaineering in thunderstorms and rain on Thursday to a valley bed slog under the midday sun today . I have scrambled up the steepest of rocky paths, slip-sliding away on the wet, muddy surfaces (and, yes, Paul Simon’s refrain was going round my head continuously, as I climbed up to La Verna) and tramped for what seemed like endless kilometers (about 10, if you are stickler for detail) on the dusty gravel road leading into the town of Sansepulcro.


I have slept in a spartan room in the Refugio in one of Europe’s oldest and most storied abbeys at 1.100 msl and spent last night in relative comfort in a motel by a motorway service station, dining in the delightful Autogrill with truckies as my table neighbours rather than german pellegrinis (guess which I prefer?).


I have walked the best part of 75kms in the last three days and broken the back of the first half of this walk and am starting to pick up speed again, my average hourly speed ticking up a few points every day so that in the last half of the day I was cruising along at 5 km/h, due in part to the gentler territory and my increasing acclimatisation.


Nice though the Abbey was, I was not unhappy to leave its stern and foreboding, even unfriendly, certainly not welcoming environs. The place is gigantic, with endless chapels and sanctuaries, halls and courtyards, spread out on a square kilometer at the top of the magnificent rock.


The atmosphere was foreboding, more due to the angry sky and the constant roll of the thunder directly overhead but I was expecting a more enthusiastic reception by the staff at the Santuario and I was shocked to discover that they had absolutely no infrastructure for washing or drying clothes. Surely a pilgrim site as famous as this would have figured out by now, what a rain soaked pellegrino needs more than anything else after a bone-breaking slog up to the top? Well, I will impart some customer wisdom to them, for free: a warm welcome, a cup of tea, a hot bath AND a place to clean and dry, if not your mud-soaked trousers, then at the very least, your bloody boots! But no: grumpy reception (almost as if I and my fellow pellegrini should be humbled and honoured to even be privileged to stay in such illustrious quarters); something approaching workhouse beadle-like astonishment at my temerity in asking for a laundry or boot room (in Italian no less), a poky selection of teas grudgingly served by a couple whose only interest in manning the tea-shop was to fleece as many visitors in the shortest time possible, with the least amount of human interaction and, of course, no bath in my tennis court sized bathroom, fitting my three bed dormitory (the sight of which left me terrified that the spirit of brotherly love which, I presume, defines the Santuario, would mean my having to share with some evil-smelling northern European pellegrinis but I was at least spared this experience).


Dinner was a group affair, served at 1930 sharp with table-sharing in the Refectorium. About 45 guests all told, 44 catholic pilgrims and yours truly, feeling like a new boy at the first dinner in the big hall, hoping that I wouldn’t be asked to chant something or forget to stand up or sit down or whatever the ceremony dictated. As it was, I had the company of a delightful and charming retired German senior civil servant from the department of the environment and his pellegrini partner, a retired colleague from the equivalent ministry in Budapest at my table (or, given that they outnumbered me, they had the pleasure of my delightful company at their table).


First sighting of the reservoir at the head of the Tiber Valley

First sighting of the reservoir at the head of the Tiber Valley

What shocked me, given where we were, and what added to my sense, that the management of this establishment really didn’t give a monkey’s about the people who turned up here, was the fact that no Grace was said before dinner. How difficult would it be to have one of the many monks fluttering around the place, come in for five minutes, say a few words of welcome and then a blessing for the dinner, before releasing the carbohydrates on to the gasping refectorians?


My silhouette, reminding me of someone from a Fistfull of Dollars…

So, I was not unhappy to leave in the morning mist, before breakfast and start my way on to Pieve Sanstefano, but not before the extraordinary experience of walking past a (what is the collective noun for pilgrims? – a suffering, perhaps) group of german pilgrims, huddled together under an archway, reminiscent of a scene from The Name of the Rose, singing, of all things “Land of Hope and Glory” (not the words, of course, but the melody). I couldn’t suppress a salute as I walked past and disappeared down the slippery cobbled walkway, thankfully leaving the whole institution behind me.


A last view across to the last days trail with the unmistakeable profile of La Verna on the left.

An altogether less strenuous, but nonetheless, long and tiring days walk awaited me and the weather forecast, surprisingly accurate fulfilled its promise of a rainy, windy morning, metamorphosing into a gradually sunny afternoon. And that was how it was: the walk was mostly downhill, but with plenty of stretches of uphill pulls, as I moved from one valley to the next. The walk was made particularly exciting by the tortuous path the trail took through fields of wild roses so thick that I had to hack my way through them or if that failed, to walk through them backwards to allow my pack to take the brunt of their thorny resistance.


My favourite time of day: first tea (this time cut short by ants, upon whose way to work I was evidently sitting)

That worked mostly, although the roses did have the cunning ability to get themselves hooked into every loop and strap that my pack has on offer, making progress slow, but voluble. I have taken to shouting “Focaccia” loudly in moments of stress, which may sound strange to any italians within earshot, but I know what I mean.


Must have been Brits or Irish here before me – inveterate cairn-builders anyway


The highpoint of today’s stage: Sansepulcro can be vaguely made out in the distance…

A day later and I find myself in the bustling medieval town centre of Sansepulcro the first and largest town on this first stretch of the Tiberian plain, historically one of the most fertile and agriculturally rich areas of Italy. That wealth is visible in the town with its merchants palazzi, fortifications and general atmosphere of gente grande.


Whoever placed this small drinking fountain outside their house – I bless them: urgently needed replenishment of my liquid reserves and a chance to wash my face and hands.


The Tiber again, stronger now that it has consolidated a number of streams from the hills behind.

I am spoilt for choice for restaurants tonight and have solicited a recommendation from my host of this evening for a place that does funghi porcini and excellent steaks. The day’s walk was the longest so far with almost 27km under my belt between 0730 and 1430 and plenty of eye candy from the top of the hill separating the last valley from this one. I even had one last glimpse of La Verna before leaving that section of the trail behind me once and for all and beginning the long trudge down into the valley. As men do.


The ancient gate of Sansepulcro.

Badia Prataglia to Abbey La Verna – a day of superlatives.


Last view of Badia Prataglia at 0800 this morning…


View from Frassinetta, at the end of valley my path was to take me through.


The dramatic rock formation, which is home to the monastery of La Verna, obscured by cloud, but regularly visible.


View across the Parco Nazionale di Toscana with the Rock of La Verna in the distance…


Dense vegetation and dramatic mountain formations characterise the national park for as far as the eye can see (which wasn’t very far today, due to constant low cloud cover and rain.


Sometimes the view looked as if they come straight out of Heart of Darkness in the South America jungle…


La Verna now obscured by the hill in the foreground, which was the first hurdle to be navigated after traversing the floor of the valley.


The village of Rimbocchi, approached from the NE after an ankle-breaking descent into the valley.


The elevation profile of today’s stage…over 1.250 me in all!


A particularly beautiful climbing rose in Rimbocchi, reminded me of a New Dawn that grew against our home in Pöcking.


Rimbocchi from the S this time, at the beginning of a long and strenuous pull up the first hill of the afternoon.


View of the thickly forested hills stretching away to the south from La Verna


Backbreaking uphill trail for the best part of 5km without relief.


The La Verna Rock within touching distance.


La Verna getting closer by degrees, each new vista spurring me on to reach my destination for the day.


Glorious walking in the early afternoon in a sunny break between two thunderstorms


Almost at the foot of the La Verna Rock


View back down the valley to the W.


Last leg up to the monastery – very excited to see what will be at the end of this walk.


Stunning scenery with ancient moss-covered stones and gleaming beech trees with an increasingly muddy trail leading between them.


I have coined a new photo type: the squelchy. Here, about 30 minutes from the summit, my first squelchy and a taste of the sort of terrain I had had to and still had to navigate.


Massive rocks scattered like so many green cushions around the hillside.


Scenes from the sacred forest on the approach to La Verna.


The path narrows and steepens…almost there.


Suddenly the monastery rises out of the living rock, looking as if it had been hewn out of the cliff itself.


The entrance almost 300 yds ahead around this rock formation…


Made it! The long steep path to the gates of the monastery and the last long climb of the day.


A sight that has soothed the souls of thousands of pilgrims over the centuries. The cross dominating the courtyard within the Refugio – with a blue sky before the onset of the next thunderstorm.