By Pat Teti –
My wife and I love Italy—the people, food, history, architecture, and long walks. Our idea of a perfect holiday is to wake up in a small town, have coffee, pack a lunch, spend most of the day walking trails and country roads, eat a big dinner, sleep well, and repeat. In fairness, there must be thousands of places around the world where similar experiences could be had but I’m limiting this article to an area I know.
There are many commercial multi-day guided walking tours in Tuscany that might satisfy the objectives of our ideal holiday but they are expensive. Self-guided walking tours provide detailed maps and notes but no human guide. They cost around $2,000 per person per week with double occupancy accommodation and meals. Similar tours with a human guide can be twice that price when restaurant meals are added. Cheaper commercial trips can be found but I prefer to make all the arrangements myself and skip the commercial operator entirely.
Besides being frugal, my wife and I are too independent for one of those commercial trips. We like to pick our routes, walk at our pace, and change plans on the fly. We’ve made several DIY self-guided trips to Italy over the years and have always had great times although not without some confusion. On one trip we used a guidebook whose title, Walking and Eating in Tuscany and Umbria, sounded perfect but whose trail descriptions and sketch maps sometimes disagreed with what was on the ground. We’ve also had problems with the accuracy of some older paper maps due to outdated cartography. Fortunately, you don’t need to rely on paper maps or guidebooks any more.
With free or nearly free downloadable maps, GPS receivers, tablets, and smartphones, it’s now possible to plan your own walking routes and follow them using a handheld device. You can also book all of your Italian accommodations and train travel online. That was our strategy last fall for creating our personalized three-week walking tour of country roads south of Florence. It was our best Italian holiday ever and cost less than $700 per week per person, less air travel. That includes all accommodation, groceries, train and bus tickets, wine, beer, and a few restaurant meals averaged over our entire stay in Tuscany. We had two nights in a hotel in Florence on arrival, 18 nights in apartments in two small towns, and two nights in Florence before our departure.
Apartments are harder to find than hotels but they are ideal for us because we enjoy long stays, grocery shopping, and cooking. Longer stays reduce the number of days spent travelling and allow us to get to know an area better. We’ve found that apartments cost about the same as what we would spend on a hotel or B&B but are much more spacious. There’s nothing like coming home after a long walk and sitting down to a meal at your own dining room table at the time of your choosing. I’d much rather cook and wash dishes than have to find, wait for, and then pay for a restaurant meal.
For us, the secrets to the perfect walking and eating adventure in Tuscany were:
- Before the trip, pick a small town with rail or good bus service (no car needed) and a network of country roads extending in at least two different directions from town. Use online maps to find suitable country roads. Read the itineraries of companies that provide walking and biking tours online to get an idea where the nice routes are.
- Book a furnished apartment for a week or more after confirming that it’s within walking distance of the train or bus station. It can be more complicated booking an apartment than a hotel because the owner or manager might not speak English but a lot can be accomplished by email with Google Translate.
- On arrival, get basic information about the area from the apartment manager and the local IT office (tourist information). Shop for groceries like a local. Ask when and where the local fresh market is held and find the nearest Co-op supermarket. This and other supermarkets have a wide selection of fresh pasta, sauces, cheese, cured meat, mushrooms, bread, fruit, and vegetables. Preparing healthy gourmet meals with minimal cooking is easy with wonderful ingredients.
- Plan walks in the evening using online maps and aerial photos. Transfer the planned route to a GPS receiver for navigation while walking.
Even though our trip was much cheaper than a guided walking tour, my wife and I realize that we are fortunate to be able to afford any kind of long distance travel. Given the unavoidable carbon footprint of getting there, we like to minimize our additional impacts by using public transit at our destination. We’re also thankful for still being able to walk all day at our combined age of more than a dozen decades.
Regarding the technology, I used Google Earth on my laptop to create tracks and waypoints and a Garmin GPS receiver while walking but the same thing could be achieved with other methods. If you’d like to learn more, sign up for my Elder College class this October.
Pat Teti was a research scientist with the BC government for 18 years and has always enjoyed making things.