In step with village vibes

Ah, lovely, lovely Italy. Blessed is the country that gives hope to those of us plagued by the advent of ageing. A land where short, fat, old people are pursued by amateur paparazzi in the narrow streets. To illustrate: on loitering without intent at Porta Senese, the atmospheric medieval gates of bucolic Buonconvento in Tuscany, the stout backsides and black dresses of two widows are snapped relentlessly by we tourists as they chat about the things old Italian ladies chat about - flowers in the church, grandchild one-upmanship, Sex and the City.

The famed region of Tuscany reeks of bread, wine and cheese, three foods guaranteed to bestow on you a similar backside within minutes of consumption. So a walk between its hillside towns should be the perfect foil to overindulgence.

But let's not go overboard here; no extreme mountaineering or privation. Uh-uh. I've signed up for a self-guided walking tour through Tuscany, comprised of three days' walking and two days either side so my stomach can do its own touring.

The best-laid plans are always shaky in the Jackson household. In Siena, I fudge my train connection to the hike's starting town of Buonconvento, turning up to the first hotel, Albergo Roma, on dark and missing my inhumanly patient trip adviser, Marco. In his stead, I get phone support from Di, a savvy hiking nut, and a support package of maps, a blow-by-blow description of my walk and a swag of emergency phone numbers. So far, so good.

The Albergo Roma is a modest one-star in the medieval town of Buonconvento run by Ricardo and his family since 1926. His formidable mother churns out fluffy gnocchi while his courtly old dad hums happily around the dining room.

At the next table sits Roland, another hiker - the enormous map masquerading as a tablecloth is a dead giveaway. The only odd note is that everything is squeaky clean and he's already a week into a 21-day hike from Lucca to Rome. Swiss-German, you see. Tiny, neat pack, lots of maps and fluoro markers. Over the coming days, I would constantly marvel at the iron marks in Roland's button-down shirts and how, after a day in lashing hail and mud, he could come out still smelling of washing powder.

Day one of hiking and breakfast is a cappuccino and a slice of plum tart, carved without ceremony from a massive disc on the sideboard. After a morning of snapping ancients toddling into Buonconvento's picturesque fruit shops, I strike out for the village of Chiusure, walking notes in hand. Down the strada biancas (the unpaved trails that criss-cross Italy), turning at the old farmhouse and, e voila, Chiusure should be in front of you. Except that it's bucketing rain and I can't tell left from right, so after a brief encounter with some guard dogs, I find the village. Then realise I have just a couple of hours to turn around to make the last bus from Buonconvento to my new home for the night, the hilltop village of Montalcino.

As I'm dithering in a rare break in the rain, one of those picturesque old men stops for a chat, promptly exhausting my Italian.

"Solo?" he asks, looking behind me for the rest of the party.

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"Si."

"Madonna!" he exclaims. "Una persona?" he asks again, to double-check.

"Si."

"Madonna! Una solo?" for a third time.

"Siiiii."

"Ma-donnnnnnnnnn-ah, signora!" he wails and shakes his aged head.

Damn, last time I was in Italy, I was firmly a signorina. When did this transition to signora occur?

On the way back, a farmer's wife spots me jogging while clad in a pair of knee-high blocks of mud, piles me and my mud into her little car and we slide down the hill into Buonconvento's bus stop. Of course the bus is late but it eventually drops me in front of Montalcino's Albergo Giardino, where the owner, Mario, leaps out, arms open wide.

"Signora Belinda!" he cries, taking in my wet hair and wetter clothing. There's that signora again. He hustles me upstairs to my little room whose shutters open, gloriously, out on to the road I have just travelled.

Dinner that night is in a chic little bistro, Alle Logge. Unfortunately, dinner also comes with the resident barfly, Massimo, who tries to ply me with cheap prosecco when all I want to do is swim in a vat of the famed Brunello di Montalcino. I swat him away, finish my wine and fall into bed.

The next morning, I breakfast with Roland in a cafe below Albergo Giardino.

We nudge aside a bevy of old men knocking back shots of red wine at 9am, smile as the pretty girl behind the bar flumps velvety milk into our cappuccinos and rack up a couple of brioches.

"In Switzerland, I do not haf brioche," Roland tells me. "I haf muesli und yoghurt. No sukkar."

"Yes, in Australia I do too," I say, cramming brioche in my mouth. Later, too late in fact, I'll discover diet brioche, with reduced sugar. But in the meantime, I raid a deli for a picnic de Toscano - the pecorino cheese, prosciutto and yet more panini, all in the Tuscan style - and cruise the chichi town.

Hello? Yet another picturesque old fellow tending his geraniums. "I am a journalist ..." I start in my slummy Italian before he interrupts. "You want photograph me?" He's done this before, I think, as I watch him puff up like a pigeon - then I paparazzi him.

When you photograph Tuscany, with its crumbling stone, washing strung outside the windows and old-fashioned signs, it looks so poor. But those leather boots and hand-crafted cheeses will evict the euros from your pocket faster than you can say "artisanal fromagerie".

It's 19.85 kilometres to my next stop in Bagno Vignoni, say my uber-precise walking notes. The morning is fresh, it's not raining, I'm carb-loaded and feeling good.

The very air reeks of wine and at 10am I'm dealing with it as I stroll through vines flush with spring growth. Solo walking has many pleasures. It's the time to solve old problems, to untangle corrupted logic and to dismiss petty trivialities. The only other walkers I meet are an Austrian couple ("Oh yes, we are always asked about kangaroos!") and I sing.

Jimmy Barnes and I roar Cheap Wine as I snap the 13th-century Castle de'Ripa, I'm with Boyzone in the vineyards and, bizarrely, David Essex and I do a duet from the classic War of the Worlds soundtrack as I admire rows of Roman pines just like Russell Crowe's house in Gladiator.

That night is spent in the newly renovated Albergo le Terme in the ancient spa village of Bagno Vignoni. The public pools of spa water are vivid turquoise, coloured by calcium deposits on the rock, but the hotel's new bathhouse snares the hot, mineral-rich waters for a more private dip. The last day of hiking, I join Roland on the road from Bagno Vignoni to Pienza via the UNESCO-listed town of San Quirico. We talk of the things one discusses with Swiss walkers - bank accounts, the new knife invented by their army and whether Swiss people actually eat Toblerone. ("Of course," says Roland blankly. "It is very good for our economy.")

The rain holds until halfway, then the sky starts to boil and we boot some sheep out of a thicket of trees to escape the spears of hail being hurled from the heavens, before making a dash to the last stop on the Tuscan express, too-gorgeous Pienza.

The term "self-guided" should have rung some bells before I even set out. Yes, I got rained on, hailed on and hit on. But I also found a family business that makes handmade boots "in the Tuscan style", picnicked on Tuscan sausage, took the spa waters and drank world-class wine. And for that, I would not just walk, I would gladly crawl.

Belinda Jackson was a guest of Intrepid Travel.

TRIP NOTES
GETTING THERE Qantas flies daily to Rome via Hong Kong or London; Emirates flies to Rome via Dubai. Buonconvento, the town at the trail head, can be reached by train from Rome via Florence and Siena.
WHILE THERE Intrepid Travel's Short Break Southern Tuscany five-day, self-guided walk costs $1320, twin share, or $2190 for singles, which includes all accommodation and bag drop between hotels, maps and an initial briefing. See intrepidtravel.com.
Check out CL Factory in Montalcino for Tuscan boots, Osteria del Leone in Bagno Vignoni for pici and a glass of Nobile Bagno Vignoni, and Castello di Ripa D'Orcia, five kilometres outside Bagno Vignoni.
FURTHER INFORMATION See turismo.intoscana.it and italiantourism.com.

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