A Walk In The Val d’Orcia – Part I

Arriving in Montalcino, a small and walled hill town, famous for Brunello wine, we piled out of the van into midday heat and were led down a little street to our apartments in an old building (angled walls, wide wooden floorboards, and high ceilings). Later in the afternoon, we climbed to the ramparts of the fortezza for stunning views, walked part way around the town walls and up to the Duomo, and had a cheerful dinner on the edge of the town square. Under our windows that night, cars roared and accelerated up the narrow streets, noise amplified by stone buildings.

So the next morning a sleep-deprived group set off for our first day of walking – 11 kilometers to Castelnuovo del’Abate – up, along a ridge, and then down, often through forest on a rough track littered with stones slippery underfoot. The heat was a dehydrating bludgeon. (At some point on this journey, Mrs. Hughes allowed as how “choosing to be uncomfortable on a trip” was a Gilmore thing. Some truth to that.)

At first, kicking a soccer ball with the little travelers on the strade bianche and lots of snacks helped us along. But soon Mr. Carson loaded Baby Brother in the Ergo on his front, Lady Baby into the backpack, and then ferried his sleepy children the rest of the way! We carried so much water, but bottles nearly emptied by lunch where we stopped in the churchyard of a tiny hamlet. A passing resident led us to a spigot.

Exhausted, we arrived at the base of Castelnuovo del Abate at a guesthouse with kind owners. While the girls ran about the courtyard (using stored energy), dinner revived us, and we talked about the next day. An ominous warning in the route booklet: “please note this is probably the most demanding leg of your walk” – led Mr. Carson to offer to ride with the baggage and his children. Then we all decided to ride, except Mr. Carson who opted to run.

Always in Italy, comfort and delicious food can mitigate much self-inflicted hardship. In San Quirico d’Orcia, we found the Tuscan hotel you dream about – Palazzo del Capitano – with cool, spacious rooms and a beautiful garden fragrant with rosemary, lavender, and jasmine. Near the town square we ate the best chickpea soup ever, followed by vegan pistachio gelato! Soon enough Mr. Carson appeared, dusty but happy, confirming that the route would be brutal and relentless as a walk – all down, all up, and all hot.

The next day, nine kilometers to Pienza, followed stretches of the Via Francigena – for hundreds of years a major route from Rome to the north, and now small gravel and dirt lanes. The floor of the Val d’Orcia is a series of steep, short, ups and downs over clay hills, the roadsides ablaze with red poppies and yellow broom smelling like sweet peas and jasmine.

Every once in a while someone would exclaim, “ooh!,” – a reminder to look up at Monte Amiata in the distance, scattered cypress near farmhouses perched on hills, and wheat fields – all orderly, all beautiful. Occasional cars passed – stirring up clouds of white dust until they saw us (crazy Americans, the Italians must think). The topo map would indicate a little patch of trees near a stream, but we’d find a dry dent and scrub shrubs.

At lunchtime, we deviated off the road to an empty farmhouse and a tiny chapel “dedicated to the Madonna di Vitaleta – the suckling Madonna.” Because our group included one so honored, we excused our probable trespass, and gratefully ate in the shade of a lollypop-shaped tree.

And this leg Lady Baby walked almost the whole way, with only occasional lifts from one of her parents. She speculated about an abandoned farmhouse with an outer staircase intact but no wooden floors, an echoing empty well, and a stone outbuilding with a large oven. Toward the end of the day, water bottles reduced to hot dregs, we stopped at the 10th Century parish church of Corsignano, once the center of paths and roads on the Via Francigena, with a spooky crypt to explore and a fountain outside for thirsty pellegrinos.

Up a little road, walls looming on either side, to the square by the gate into Pienza. All the hilltop towns amaze, but Pienza is perfecto!

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An Afternoon in Siena

Six big and three little travelers generate a pile of luggage: three car seats, two strollers, two baby backpacks, two hefty large suitcases, a couple of duffels, some smallish roller bags, and assorted carryons containing toys, snacks, and approved electronics. That pile and transport by train, bus, and van created complex logistics as we headed toward our walk in Tuscany.

In the Rome airport while we waited for the Alaskans (having endured a 20-hour journey, they landed an hour behind us), we purchased train tickets and food for lunch. After a warm reunion of the little cousins, we headed north to Florence, and then trekked across the Santa Maria Novella piazza from train station to hotel, our first encounter with heat that the Italians called unseasonable. Our late arrival left just enough time for dinner on the windy piazza, a walk around the Duomo in evening quiet, and first gelatos.

At breakfast the next day, Lady Baby inherited a camera of her own and Sweet Baby a child-size pair of binoculars. With carrying cases strapped around their necks, they looked like true explorers as we crossed the piazza again to catch the bus to Siena. (The Trail Boss rode in a taxi with the mountain of baggage.)

In Siena, we shuttled our belongings to a nearby hotel, and set off along Siena’s narrow streets to find lunch. While the others visited the Palazzo Pubblico to see Lorenzetti’s “The Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government,” I stood in the archway of the Palazzo in the cool and watched people on the Campo, Siena’s tilted arc of a piazza and site of the famous Palio horse race.

It was Sunday and local youngsters demonstrated judo and gymnastics – huge pads softening the landings of their flips. The Campo resembled a beach, where families lounged on the bricks, heated from earlier sun, but shaded in the afternoon. We also sat, and I stretched my legs out (like sitting on a heating pad) and held Baby Brother in my lap. He grew sticky in the heat, and we stripped first shoes and socks and finally shirt. He’d grin and grin, catching the eye of any passerby (particularly the pretty girls), as he flirted with his Princess Diana, head-tucking smile. Jet-lagged, nap schedule in shambles, he remained cheerful and game (always).

In part, that’s because their moms anticipate and meet all the needs of these little travelers. Both masterful packers, they remember all the favorite possessions (Baby Boy, Baby, and a blanket known as “blank”), various drinking vessels, sleeping accompaniments, and clothes for every contingency from Irish mist to blistering Italian sun. Mrs. Hughes brought a miraculous stroller, weighing only nine pounds, collapsing to fit in a daypack, and holding a 50-pound little person in a pinch, and the Sweet Bride always pulls out, of a purse or pack, the exact thing to soothe a situation.

The time change caught up with the Alaskans, and they retreated to their little hotel balcony with pizza and beer, then early to bed. The rest of us found a favorite restaurant (from another visit) and ate bowls of ribollita.

In the morning, a van driver would pick us up for the ride to Montalcino and the start of a four-day walk in the Val d’Orcia.

 

 

 

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In Dublin’s Fair City

After arriving at our modern apartment in Dublin, high in a small but tall, glass-encased building in the Docklands near the Grand Canal, we set off, Sweet Baby sleeping in her stroller, to walk along the River Liffey.

Peering into the courtyard at the main entrance to Trinity College, I remembered being there the weekend I turned 21. A friend and I took the night ferry from Morecambe, England, near Lancaster where we were at university, to Belfast and then hitched a ride to Dublin. (Not a well thought-out adventure, but memorable.) In the 1980s our family visited when the boys were five and one, wore matching green jogging suits, and paid most attention to a much-desired Lone Ranger figure, purchased in an Irish village.

This time we followed the now grown up one-year old, as he led us to see city sights. Dublin’s General Post Office – headquarters for the Easter Rising in 1916, which led to the creation of an independent Ireland – is still the main post office, and it also houses an interactive exhibition documenting the rebellion. Nearby on O’Connell Street, the Dublin Spire reaches skyward 390 feet, replacing Nelson’s Column blown up in 1966. In Dublin the Rising and the Troubles remain close at hand.

And so does Ireland’s amazing literary heritage – we visited the James Joyce Center, and a fine exhibition about W.B Yeats at the National Library of Ireland. We didn’t make it to peek at Dublin Castle, headquarters of the Garda in Tana French’s detective novels, but I thought a lot about all the other Irish authors I love, and the ones I read this winter like Maggie O’Farrell and Molly Keane. Frank Delaney’s “Ireland: A Novel,” is a tale of Irish history from prehistoric times to the 1950s, and it came alive at the National Museum of Ireland full of cultural artifacts from the millennia before invasion and colonization.

When weary of our activities, Sweet Baby played at the playgrounds in leafy Merrion Square and St. Stephen’s Green, the green heart of the city. (Nobody would guess, but Sweet Baby is, by an eighth, a wee Irish lass.)

And I am now full of curiosity and regret (“why didn’t I ask more questions”) about my mother’s parents who separately left County Kerry in the west of Ireland during the huge Irish emigration in the late 19th Century. My grandmother Kate was only 14.

The rain held off till our last night, then poured while we ate dinner (so many good meals in Ireland), and spoke of this brief visit and our hopes to return. Then early to bed for a six a.m. plane to Rome, and a rendezvous with Lady Baby and her family!

A Walk In Ireland

In late May Sweet Baby and her family joined us in Seattle, and we flew on to London. Tired from wakeful hours aloft, Sweet Baby disembarked sound asleep in her mother’s arms, eye mask firmly in place. We walked, and she rode in her stroller, through the miles of Heathrow tense with heightened security. At our gate the Aer Lingus plane to Dublin waited – teal green with a lime green shamrock on the tail.

We planned two days of walking on the Wicklow Way (in the Wicklow Mountains National Park south of Dublin) – from Enniskerry village to the ancient Monastic City of Glendalough. Inhabited since Neolithic times, these mountains served as hiding places for the Irish during Norman and English invasions. Lower in elevation than Alaska or Washington mountains, they are still rugged – with colorful place names like Knockree Hill and Glencree Valley and dramatic views over faraway lakes.

Peter Galvin, owner of Wonderful Ireland, the company providing our luggage transport, accommodations, and route booklet was, as they say in Ireland, grand – attentive, helpful, communicative. His van driver picked us up at the airport, told us of a deluge the previous day, and questioned conditions for walking. We arrived at our guesthouse in a mizzly rain.

After a tea and biscuits greeting, we wandered Enniskerry, a sweet village with a triangular central square surrounded by shops and restaurants. In the late afternoon, we walked through a mossy graveyard toward the renowned but already closed for the day Powerscourt Gardens. On this route even tiny villages had lovely restaurants with local produce and craft beers. And in a cheerful pub, we ate delicious vegetable soup and “chips,” and then collapsed into comfy beds for a long sleep. Outside rain poured down, and we woke to a tremulous sky.

A pleasure of this sort of travel is to don hiking gear and greet your family at breakfast, sometimes bare bones, but here laid out formally with linens, pots of jam, and toast racks, and it’s always fun to talk to other guests about their travels. On first days, we’re a little nervous, or I am, not yet settled into the routine and heading into unknown terrain.

At the start, weather gray but dry, we climbed steadily up through low bracken and heather for nearly two hours, ascending Crone Mountain and skirting Djouce Mountain. It was Sunday and we encountered many Irish people – fit hillwalkers and hillrunners. Most received a friendly “Hi!” from Sweet Baby as she rode in her backpack listening to music through big pink headphones, or walked using the shortened version of my poles.

That day we encountered our first boardwalks. Designed to protect the fragile bogs (and it surprised us to find bogs on tops of hills, more accustomed to lowland wetlands). Over mucky bog puddles, each boardwalk section, less than two-feet wide with big staples for traction, stepped up or down and tested our balance. Stupendous views spread out at this point, the Wicklow Mountains folded one over another retreating into the distance. In windless sections we swatted midges – prone to dive bombing in swarms. Our stops were short.

Talking to Irish people became a huge pleasure – their lovely accents and senses of humor, always making a joke, eager to tell stories. We spent that night in a guesthouse near Roundwood, where the proprietor teased us about our election, and his son explained his choice to study Irish Gaelic in college (we got accustomed to signs in both Irish and English).

The second day we hiked a great long day to Glendalough – a name that means a valley between two lakes – much up and down through forests and wildflowers to St. Kevin’s valley, made shadowy by hovering mountains. To find our guesthouse we crossed a wide but shallow stream on large stones – more balancing.

In the morning we crossed the stream again to explore the ancient monastery founded by St. Kevin, who discovered the valley in the sixth century, when seeking solitude for his hermitic life. Said to have lived 120 years, St. Kevin selected a most beautiful spot – now popular with visitors for the tranquility of two lakes set in dramatic scenery and ancient remains, including a round tower built a thousand years ago as a bell tower and place of safety from invaders.

In the Glendalough Visitor’s Center we were tickled to see an article from the Irish Times describing Michelle Obama’s visit to Glendalough with her girls, the headline read: “Midges Make the Most of the Obamas at Glendalough.”

We walked back to cross the river and wait for the van to take us to Rathdrum to catch the train into Dublin.

 

 

 

Armchair Series – Outdoor

Today I will be sitting in a fine armchair like this to watch the Bainbridge Island Fourth of July parade. The current administration and its congressional minions seem intent on providing a new list of “freedoms” to celebrate: to be sick without the burden of insurance, to enjoy dirty air and water unencumbered by environmental regulation, to deny logic and science, to practice intolerance. The list goes on. But it isn’t who we are or what we celebrate!

Armchair Series – Ireland

On this June morning, the window to my workroom stands open – sun shining, birds singing, weeds growing – the outdoors beckons. When the days of rain return, I will write about our big family adventure in May and early June. Meanwhile – two worn-velvet armchairs – purply-pink from a bedroom and blue from the sitting room of the Ferndale Guesthouse in Enniskerry, Ireland. We spent the night there before setting out to walk along the The Wicklow Way.

Armchair Series – Flowers

When I asked my old friend on Bainbridge to send a photo of her armchair I’ve always admired, I was startled to see it had no arms! It does have a large, matching ottoman, and is covered in flowered chintz that seems classic in her old Swedish farmhouse. And then I found the same floral genre of armchair (the kind that places you in a field of flowers) in the book “In An Irish House.” It tickled me to find Sybil Connolly’s chair upholstered with fabric of her own design, inspired by the paper flowers of Mrs. Delany.

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