A Walk In The Val d’Orcia II

In Pienza we had an extra day: time for a laundromat and a break from daily walking for the little travelers. Both Pienza (a “masterpiece of human creative genius”)and the Val d’Orcia (a “well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscape”) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You experience both while standing in Pienza’s perspective defying, trapezoidal 15th Century square and glimpsing, through openings past the cathedral, the valley landscape. We could view the sweep of the Val d’Orcia from Pienza’s “balcony,” a low-walled walkway running the length of town, and trace our route, from hilltop to hilltop.

We were often in awe of Lady Baby on this trip – neither adult nor easily carried baby, but unfailingly patient and loving with her cousin and brother, and much of the time, an engaged tourist. Through headphones, she listened intently during a tour of the Renaissance Papal palace, elaborate rooms and a courtyard with herb garden, and inquired of the guide, “Exactly where is the sarcophagus?” Standing in Pienza’s cathedral with head tilted back, camera ready, she studied the frescoed walls and decorated ceilings and pillars, asking questions and making comments. Happily for all, a recommendation from the palace guide led us to Buon Gusto – another best gelato ever.

Early the next morning – wearing our Francigena T-shirts printed by Mrs. Hughes – we posed for a photo on the balcony and set off on the final leg to Montepulciano via Monticchiello (a revised plan to shorten to six a hot 13 kilometers).

Hide-and-seek by the side of the road and lifts from parents helped us to Monticchiello. We ate our sandwiches in a shady playground below this tiny, fortified town (important in the long rivalry between Florence and Siena), then walked about. In a bar we paused for ice cream and coffees, and the proprietor called us a van for the rest of the dusty, steep road.

In Montepulciano we stayed in the beautiful 12th Century Palazzo Ricci in a high up room, overlooking the city and countryside. Montepulciano’s playground improbably included a box hedge maze, and the cousins ran until dinnertime. We ate outdoors at a windy restaurant tucked up into the walls of the city, where a canopy overhead flapped vigorously, sounding like a tent on a mountainside. Some had a last ribolitta, and finally, the carnivores shared a long-desired bistecca florentina.

The Sweet Bride, Sweet Baby, Lady Baby, and I retreated from the dinner table and sat on the cathedral steps on the austere Piazza Grande, empty at dusk, surrounded by venerable palazzos. I said, in the way of adults, “Oh isn’t this amazing! “Just a town,” replied Lady Baby. I said “Really? Like Anchorage?” She said, “Anchorage has trees and grass!” I came back, too quickly, with something flip, then begged her not to tell her parents what I said. Nothing is more ruthless than a five-year old with power over you! I’ve never seen her laugh so hard – “I’m gonna tell them!” she shrieked and giggled, as I tried to convince her she’d get me in trouble – more peals of laughter.

I like to think of her someday bringing a grandchild to that historic square – and laughing.

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!

Save

Save

Save

Save

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.

 

 

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Marching In Pink

When the Bainbridge ferry docked in Seattle the day of the worldwide women’s marches, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, declared over the loudspeaker that pink would be Washington’s official color this day. Presenting every pink hue in hats, coats, and handmade signs, a flood of foot passengers unloaded off the car deck and the passenger ramp, and headed up Seattle hills toward Judkins Park to the start of the march.

People shoulder-to-shoulder, stretching three miles long and building to building wide – a polite and cheerful tide of rosy-capped humanity waving or wearing clever signs – some sassy, some serious, all heartfelt. After weeks of the new regime’s peculiar relationship with words, “alternative facts,” I guess they call falsehoods now, I loved being surrounded by words of caring and truth – often expressed with great humor.

The only unSeattle-like thing was the weather, skies cleared and real sunshine warmed us as we headed down Jackson toward the city center – such a treat after the drizzle and gloom of Inauguration Day. Along the route above us on an apartment balcony, a couple cheered and blasted Bob Marley’s “Stand Up!”

But mostly the walkers were as quiet as thousands of humans – women, grandpas and young guys, babies in strollers and people in wheelchairs – can be. Only occasionally, a powerful wave roar of voices would come from behind, catch us up, and then move beyond. Downtown, soapbox orators spelled out possibilities for action going forward into these four years.

Signs reflected the litany of protesters’ concerns including the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, NATO, climate change, the rule of law. And although marchers showed up for all kinds of reasons, I kept thinking that the unifying energy demanded push back against this newly sworn in president – his bleak view, his lies, his disrespect for earth and people. Threats surround us, press freedom, immigration, the dismaying cabinet choices.

Many young women’s signs advised Trump to keep his tiny hands off their bodies, and one suggested “Grab Trump By His Putin.” My young friend made me a sign with Hillary’s words, “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,” a phrase repeated over and over.

The bobbing, moving flush of pink caps thrilled me – a brilliant idea manifested in a multitude of creative ways – knitted and crocheted, made of fleece or wool, pink wigs and pink hair, families or friends united by their matching headgear. A man had fashioned a pink party bag into the pointy ears of a pussyhat. A red ball cap startled me, I could only see the first words “make America…” but my friend could see the rest: “…gay again!”

I don’t know what I expected, maybe that the event would be somber and negative. But no, it was joyous and affirming to be with good friends and part of that historic crowd – more than 120,000 by all estimates – the largest civic demonstration ever in Seattle.

All those shades of hats and skin (one poster showed the only unacceptable skin color to be orange) coalesced into a moving statement of hope, lessening the despair of the previous day and acknowledging the work ahead.

Stronger together.

pink-pussyhat

Summer Alaska

In July we overlapped with Sweet Baby and her parents during a visit to Anchorage. She is three years younger than her cousin Lady Baby, whom she clearly adores and admires, always watching and imitating when she can.

At Lady Baby’s soccer game (nothing is cuter than three and four-year olds in tiny but still oversized soccer shirts on a mini soccer field, chasing a small ball, sometimes in the right direction). Sweet Baby sat rapt, holding a soccer ball and staring at the jolly chaos on the field.

At home the two cousins pushed doll strollers full of babies and “stuffies” around the house. And they went to the playground together – Lady Baby runs on the jiggly bridge, climbs to the top of the netting, swings high, and whizzes down the steep slide. Sweet Baby watches, and following encouraging instructions, “do this slide,” “come up here,” does her best to keep up.

One weekday, those not at work headed north to Rendezvous Peak at Arctic Valley, (the original Anchorage ski resort). The hike is perfect for little legs, just a mile and a half above the timberline from the parking lot, up to a saddle overlooking a dramatic view.

Both girls started out walking – Sweet Baby holding one of Lady Baby’s fingers (refusing to hold a whole hand, Sweet Baby willingly clasps just one finger). When Sweet Baby paused with her attendants to drink mom’s milk and load into the pack, Lady Baby said: “Let’s go!” and began to run up the trail.

At a small bridge over the creek that runs through the valley, Lady Baby told me she wished she had a little house right on the bridge, and that I could have another one right next door, and that the doors would always be open between them. Below she’d have a beehive with friendly bees, and maybe she’d be the queen. We allowed as how it would be nice to dip feet in that creek on the way down.

Apple slices helped our upward momentum, as she chatted and climbed, eager for us to stay in front. The trail is narrow and sunken in tundra, full of bearberry, tiny ferns and many wildflowers to either side. We spoke of blueberries, and found two ready to eat.

The others caught up, and we scouted a flat spot for lunch of egg salad sandwiches, chips, and chocolate warm and soft from the pack. Lady Baby found a wide dip in the tundra with a stand of yellow arnica covered with dozens of orange butterflies.

Lady Baby maybe thought we’d head down after lunch (I could have warned her that the Trail Boss always finishes the up). By then I’d worn out the naming of plants, attempts to encourage staying in front, my songs and stories (even the one about hiking the trail with her father when he was small, and in a patch of heather stretched his arms wide and twirled in a perfect Julie Andrews “the hills are alive” moment). The trail got steeper and led to a sit down declaration, “too tired to go on.”

Poppa Jim and Sweet Baby’s parents began the miraculous hike-saving game of hide-and-seek: “We’ll close our eyes and count to 20.” Lady Baby darted on – running full-tilt uphill! She can hide in stands of dwarf fireweed and be gleeful when discovered.

Trying to hide, I laid down on the fragrant tundra cushion, looked at the blue sky, and remembered other days on this mountain – meeting my husband here as beginner skiers and bringing our sons to ski and hike. The past combined with the present to fill me with gratitude.

Lady Baby soon led us to the top – proud of the climb – but more so of her hiding prowess. The downhill walk is easy with Anchorage in view far below – and the promised wading creek.

Oh Alaska water is cold! But we did it, held hands, stepped gingerly on gravel to a flat sun-warmed rock, and cheered.

Cousins

 

Save

Sweet Baby Travels – Italy

To reach the Tuscan hill town of Pitiglano, you turn off the highway from Rome onto a narrow twisting road. Around a final bend and across a deep ravine appear the tumbled together medieval stone buildings of Pitiglano.

When Sweet Baby arrived there this June (as part of a multi-country adventure), she brought her parents and paternal grandparents for a walk from Pitigliano in Tuscany to Orvieto in Umbria. (Route booklet and baggage transport provided by an Australian company called “Hidden Italy.”)

Deposited at our hotel just outside Pitigliano’s main gates, near the arches of an ancient aqueduct, we ate dinner in the café out front as the sky faded and swifts soared along the city’s steep walls. Sweet Baby tucked into her pasta.

After breakfast the next morning, she sat in her backpack carried by her dad, and we walked through Pitigliano, gathering foccacia, cheese, fruit, and chips from tiny shops.

This La Tuscia route reveals much about the predecessors of the Romans, the Etruscans, a civilization once dismissed and now (because of archeological discoveries) greatly admired for art and culture. For more than 2500 years, people have used the trail linking Pitigliano and our first destination, Sovana.

Tackling daily hikes from seven to 12 miles, we climbed up and down a series of tufaceous hills, wooded and wild. Via cava, distinctive narrow sunken roads (cut into the soft tufa rock by the Etruscans) lead down from or up into hill towns, providing paths for travelers then – and now.

Often slippery underfoot, two raised tracks allow purchase for cart wheels. Mules used to walk in the middle drainage channel – as did we. Within these tunnel-like canyons, time has softened the sides that towered over us – foliage and moss dripped and draped, enclosing us in a green and stony world.

Etruscan funeral chambers line the walls of the via cava. We passed a series of caves from prehistoric times, built upon and adapted by succeeding peoples – complicated communities of two-story caves with openings for smoke to escape, “windows” for light, niches and benches, and echoes of people long gone. Once in a clearing outside the square opening to a large cave, we stopped for lunch. As Sweet Baby picked up stones and little leaves, it was easy to picture earlier toddlers doing the same thing in the same spot.

We’d been warned about rain and the dangers of wet via cava. Most days we woke to blue-sky beginnings, but one afternoon during a badly timed cloudburst, we navigated a short but wild link on a narrow road with speeding drivers. Leaving the road, we cautiously descended (gripping our hiking poles) the spectacular Via Cava San Rocco – so beautiful and far less scary.

At the top of the via cavas we often encountered strade bianche and a mile or so of classic Tuscan countryside with gentle forests and meadows for stops in the sunshine. We saw farms with sheep, hedgerows and fields colored by red poppies, blue or yellow asters, and delicate Queen Anne’s lace. You understand the long appeal of this part of Italy – easy fortifications and nearby rivers and fields rich with food.

All the little towns share a hill town nature – but each has a distinct personality. Sovana, continually inhabited since Etruscan and Roman times, feels wide open with many restaurants and cheerful with flowers in window boxes and tiny gardens.

The next day, climbing hills so high we could see Pitiglano and Sovana far behind us, we reached Sorano – an Etruscan town built on a Bronze Age settlement, with a Medieval past and a Tuscan hill town present. Our hotel sat at the very top – a military fortress in the 11th century. After hot showers we sat with cold drinks in a courtyard bright with evening sun.

The next town, San Quirico, differs from the others. A German headquarters during WW II and destroyed by allied bombs in 1944, it’s a modern Italian small farm town. We arrived in the rain at the town’s only hotel, drank beer on the veranda, watched the downpour, and then ate dinner in a large and deserted dining room. The resident daughters alternately invited and teased Sweet Baby while they ate their dinner and drove a little bike between tables. She stared in fascination.

Fifteen months old in June and weighing 20 pounds, Sweet Baby was a good-natured and flexible traveler, as we suspected she would be. I hadn’t thought about the joy of seeing her each morning at the door to our room – flashing her big smile and saying, “Hi!,” or how much fun it would be to watch her exploring this new world and finding repeated entertainment in water bottle lids, various zippers, and roller bags (good for a quick ride in a hotel hall).

She adapted easily to naps in the pack, morning and afternoon, sleeping with her head on a down vest or leaned against the sunshade. Sometimes she toddled along strada bianca or climbed tufa rock steps, her little legs working hard.

The afternoon we arrived in Sorano, we paused at a dramatic lookout over the valley, ate a handful of nuts and watched Sweet Baby chase a metal water bottle she rolled down a slope. She’d traded her rain soaked pants for my wool socks pulled up over her knees – worn with her hiking shoes and a diaper. You smile a lot when she’s along.

Our last day we walked out of Tuscany, entering Lazio along a path now known as the Brigand’s Way. Up and up, then down, down – beginning to catch glimpses of the large and beautiful Lake Bolsena below.

We were to rendezvous at a trattoria on the shore for a ride around the lake to a modern resort hotel. We might have delayed a day here – exploring Bolsena’s ancient center, enjoying the pool and the sunshine, and walking on. But we’d elected to forgo this last day of very long mileage and accept a ride into Orvieto, gaining time to explore its renowned cathedral and museums full of Etruscan pottery and sculpture. Now we could picture these objects decorating the cavas, part of ancient, everyday life.

A night’s sleep, the train to Rome, and onward.

hiking boot

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

A Walk in the English Countryside

Lady Baby - ready

Interrupting the saga of “Friends for Frances” (for sure to be continued), here is Lady Baby at Heathrow Airport after an overnight flight with her parents and paternal grandparents, wearing soft purple boots, pulling a suitcase disguised as an owl, and about to embark on four days of walking in the Cotswolds, a famously scenic part of England.

From Heathrow we boarded a bus to Oxford, where our younger son and his sweet bride met us at the bus stop. We overnighted in that fabled city, and spent the next morning at the nearly 400-year old University of Oxford Botanic Garden with grass for Lady Baby to run on and ducks for her to greet.

Our route, through classic Cotswold countryside, led from Cheltenham to Winchcombe, to Broadway, then Chipping Campden, and finished in Moreton-in-Marsh – three nine-mile days and one of six, up hill and down, through villages of honey-hued stone buildings, colorful with flowers and tourists. A luggage transport service wrestled our flotilla of bags (including car seat) to each night’s B&B, small inn, or pub.

Lady Baby - doorstep waiting

Wearing her little hiking pants and sun hat, and wielding my poles collapsed to her size, Lady Baby walked plenty. She also rode on her parents’ shoulders or in a backpack, and most often in the Bob (an all-terrain jogging stroller of much durability and flexibility). One or the other of her strong parents pushed the Bob uphill, through rutted, matted fields, and along narrow tracks and small lanes. Helped by Lady Baby’s aunt and uncle, they lifted the Bob, with sometimes snoozing passenger, over stiles and “kissing gates” (neither of which allows a cow or a sheep or a stroller to pass through).

Lady Baby - doing it herself

Miraculously the weather held steady all week – morning sun, then cooling haze and breeze in the afternoon. When we lunched in the shade of huge trees, Lady Baby walked amongst us and offered “crisps” to all.

In spite of early-on jet lag sleepless nights (with Mrs. Hughes bearing the brunt of those wakeful hours), Lady Baby upheld her reputation for genial, coping resilience. Her resourceful parents seemed always ready with a diversion – a topic for conversation, a song, an animal sighting – and they anticipated snack and nap needs. (We could cover a lot of ground during an unbroken hour and half of stroller sleep.)

In Moreton-in-Marsh, at our final hotel, the tilty-floored 17th Century Redesdale Arms that once hosted Charles I, we celebrated. In the morning, we woke to a steady rainfall, and soon caught a train bound for London’s Paddington Station.

I’m holding dear some Cotswolds moments – the whole family spread out in sheep-dotted fields – twosomes shifting as different pairs held long conversations throughout the day. A pastoral, bucolic, gentle landscape of lore – and the rhythm and joy of long days afoot, with people you love.

Lady Baby - approaching Broadway