One of the advantages of the late summer a-coming this year is that walks that would normally be prohibitively hot to do (July and August are not recommended for walking up here unless there are plenty of woods and forests you can pass through to protect you from the often fiery Italian sun) can be highly pleasant activities.
The walk I did yesterday in the company of two friends who live in a delightful borgo to the west of Lucca was undertaken in ideal climatic conditions: not too hot in the exposed parts of the walk and not too cool in the forest cover. It covered every form of terrain – from ancient mulattiere to quarry tracks and from dense chestnut forests to bare rocks – and went through some of the most ancient and charming borghi to be found in this part of the world; it would be an understatement to say that there was a pleasant surprise at every turn of the path we took!
The first part of the walk was steep but perfectly aligned along an old mule-track. I could only marvel at the grass-roots based engineering of this track, which for so long was the only way of reaching the upper settlements. At times I felt I was feeling my way through a South American rain-forest – the size of the ferns was so prodigious.
The path zigzagged at well-graded angles (I thank the regard the former inhabitants had for their hard-working mules) until it reached City Road – not the one in Pentonville, London N1, I hasten to add, but the “Via della Città” leading into the sweet borgo of Azzano whose house were plentifully adorned with flowers, cats and noble doorways.
Here we stopped for a sandwich lunch in a portico, fanned by a gentle breeze, of the local social club. We continued past the local school where our questions about the English summer camp were suddenly and pleasantly answered by a Mancunian who was on his second visit to this magical place. How adventurous and enterprising these young university undergraduates are to have found the perfect location for their summer “gap” combining education with service.
From Azzano (of which there is a twinning in Italy between all the Azzanos in its different provinces, as the elegant marble monument explained) we merged into the Via Di Michelangelo – yes, he of the David and of the other superhuman statues to be admired in Italy (and the UK too at the R.A.) – a track the great artist had built so that he could transport those incandescent blocks of marble with which he sculptured his eternal masterpieces. It was quite moving to walk the path the man himself had trod and see the mountains from which he had hewn the supreme visions of his art.
Eventually the track merged into a typical white marble-transport road which, passed a mountain hostel, entered into the highlight of our walk – an amphitheatre from which the supernumerary peak of the Monte Altissimo almost merged into the clouds. This was a supremely visually awe-inspiring spot, a seat surrounded by the most regal crags one can see (or even imagines one sees) and a place tinged with pathos too as we peeped into the chapel dedicated to those killed in the extraction of marble – unsung heroes to to be joined with Welsh-miners, South African diamond workers and the rest of that seething humanity, over-exploited and underpaid which sadly characterises our quite unfair world.
We returned to little Azzano and then took another amazing path which skirted an archaeological park of ancient quarries surrounded by cyclopic walls (at this stage, due to time and fatigue, we decided to give San Martino chapel a miss even though it has a rose window designed by Michelangelo himself – perhaps another time and on a separate trip) before entering another equally delightful borgo – that of Fabbiano with a sweet-smelling square straight out of some operetta and a gorgeously unexpected view of the Mar Tirreno.
From here another wonderfully graded mulattieria led us through luxurious castagno forests to Rimagno where a beer awaited me and where my most energetic host walked to collect the car, left up-road, to finally join us and drive us all the way back to Montuolo where my hostess prepared a sumptuous chicken-pancietta and salad couse, followed by lemon sorbet with frutti di bosco, all washed down with excellent Umbrian wine and topped by an exquisitely perfumed grappa.
Isn’t life beautiful!