A walk across Italy in Garibaldi’s footsteps: from Ravenna to the coast of Tuscany

Crickets leaping round our feet. A butterfly at the rim of my hat. Burrs on our socks. Smells of fern and pine. The rhythmic rasp of the cicadas. And, ranged around us, a never-ending green. Cypress and cedar. Peaks and parched pastures. The combed vineyards and the dark oak thickets. Moving through it all, feeling right inside it, sticky with it even. Like any other animal. This is what we love and why we do these summer walks.

Map of Ravenna to Cala Martina walk

We set off from the railway station in Ravenna. Heading for the coast. Not the Adriatic, just five miles away. But the Tyrrhenian, on the other side of the Italian peninsula. The remote bay of Cala Martina to be precise: it’s in Tuscany, about halfway between Genoa and Rome.

Why? It would be so much wiser to choose one of the well-known trails: the Via Francigena, the pilgrim route from northern Europe down to Rome, or the Via degli Dei (Way of the Gods) from Bologna across the Apennines to Florence. Just download the dedicated app and each day’s walking is planned out. Where to stay and where to eat. All the paths are properly marked. We won’t get lost. But Eleonora and I are masochists of the unbeaten track. We want to find our own way through.

Sunflowers were a feature of the early stages of the walk from Ravenna. Photograph: Riccardo Casadio Strozzi/Getty Images

To give our summer shape, we’re following Garibaldi, the Risorgimento hero. It must be an obsession. In 2019 we reconstructed his July 1849 retreat from Rome to Ravenna, through Umbria, Tuscany and Le Marche. This summer’s walk will follow the sad sequel: his army lost in the Apennines, his friends captured and shot on the Adriatic coast, his wife dead, the hero was smuggled away from his Austrian pursuers by local patriots, then passed from hand to hand back across Italy, eventually escaping in a fishing boat from the south Tuscan coast to the safe haven of Liguria. For him, it was all desperately dramatic no doubt; for us, there’s the fun and challenge of trying to follow, at the same speed, in the same month of the year, August. Under the solleone, the lion sun.

First, across the coastal plain from Ravenna to Forlì. These are arrow-straight paths along gurgling irrigation ditches. There’s a busy hum of insect life and, beneath it, the quiet vegetable urgency of these long hot days: sunflowers turning to the light and vine tendrils reaching for ripeness along the trellis. Very soon we realise we’ll have to carry three litres of water each day, not two.

Modigliana. Photograph: Salvatore Leanza/Alamy

Then the climbing begins. Forlì to Castrocaro. Castrocaro to Modigliana. This area suffered heavy flooding a couple of months back. Along the Montone River, huge chunks of bank have disappeared. And our path with them. We have to ford a flow of greyish mud. I curse and love it. I love the feeling of being in the world, however slimy. Eleonora is less enthusiastic. Every evening we have to wash our hiking togs. Just one spare set of clothes is the rule.

I’ve lived in Italy for 40 years and had never heard of Modigliana. It’s hunkered down where two valleys meet, watched over by castle and crag. Despite some astonishment at seeing strangers, the inevitable Caffè Garibaldi serves good iced beer. A bas-relief shows local hero Don Verità carrying Garibaldi on his back. The priest was an unlikely patriot who helped scores of fugitives escape the authorities. Otherwise, the town’s old palazzos have an air of dusty decrepitude, windows shuttered against the sun. Only a line of bright washing betrays the life within. Baggy white underwear and two pink towels.

The heat determines how far we can walk. If at first it seemed a drag to get up at 6am for the cool of the morning, by the end of the week we have our packs on our backs before dawn breaks. Dogs bark as we depart; cocks are crowing. We feel likes fugitives ourselves. And already we’re climbing steeply, pushing hard on our trekking poles. Will six hours be enough to get to Marradi? Can we risk booking a B&B already?

Palazzuolo sul Senio. Photograph: Vivida Photo PC/Alamy

It would be an easy decision if we were sure the paths were all open. We’re using a couple of hiking apps to find our way, one on Ele’s phone, one on mine, with Google as a fallback. The terrain is spectacularly rugged, awesome in its vast unpopulated emptiness. Theoretically, there are any number of paths, linking abbeys and shrines, farms and shepherd’s huts. But most of these are now long abandoned. Nobody walks any more.

We march into a forest, delighted to be under its linden shade. At once a strand of cobweb across our lips tells us no one has passed this way today. But there are red and blue cartridges on the ground. Hunters. We should be OK. A couple of miles on, the brambles are clutching at my shirt, a tree has fallen across the path. I begin to wish my trekking pole was a machete. Finally, an impenetrable tangle of prickliness forces us to turn back.

Still, the tougher the walk, the sweeter the arrival! Palazzuolo sul Senio is a gem of well-swept quaintness beneath clocktower and coats of arms. It’s market day. In the piazza everyone is touching the fruit to check if it’s ripe. Figs, peaches, plums. And the woman serving in Bar Gentilini could not be kinder. “Why not leave your packs here while you look around?” Eventually, we find the plaque recording Garibaldi’s passage above a poster advertising Miss Italia.

Tim Parks followed part of the Via degli Dei near Florence. Photograph: Getty Images

Sometimes we have to make three or four phone calls before we can persuade a B&B to let you stay. “It’s remote out here,” a voice warns. “I only cook at the weekends.” “But we don’t need to be fed,” we insist. This is Agriturismo Brenzone, above the village of Coniale. The padrona shows us a path that dives into the gorge behind her house. At the bottom, the River Santerno splashes over smooth slabs of white limestone. It’s little more than a stream, but we can bathe in the deep pools. And eat supermarket lentils in the shade.

The patriots wanted to take Garibaldi north-west, directly to Liguria, but at a place called Filigare they were told the borders were too closely watched. So now our route turns south and for a while we can follow the well-marked Via degli Dei, then the old Roman Via Flaminia, where for short stretches we’re actually walking on stones laid down 2,000 years ago. In Santa Lucia allo Stale we’re delighted to discover we’ve checked into the very place where Garibaldi stayed: Albergo Gualtieri. It was the only inn here in 1849 and it’s the only inn here now. Alas, the village is not altogether welcoming. On one gate a sign warns, “Attenzione! The dog bites, mauls, kills and dances on your corpse.” Beside these grim words hangs a terracotta roundel of the Madonna and child.

A street in the old town of Volterra. Photograph: Marek Slusarczyk/Alamy

On the heights above Vaiano we run into a herd of wild horses, statuesque in meadows of feathery grass, and a lone runner, sitting with his back to the stone cross that marks the peak. This is Monte Maggiore, looking south over low hills, with Florence about 20km to our left. After 10 days in the wilderness we’re now going to be treated to a string of pretty towns: Prato, Empoli, Certaldo, Poggibonsi, Colle di Val d’Elsa, Volterra, Massa Marittima.

So if we get our walking done in the morning, the afternoons offer iced drinks under cool porticoes and museums full of fine art. Many are as empty as the paths we’ve been walking. “Everyone’s in the Uffizi,” sighs the guard in Empoli’s Museo della Collegiata. We are literally the only visitors.

The landscape between the towns has changed, too. It is Tuscan picturesque: a beguiling play of bright profile and sharp shadow, trees and towers inked against the sky, the grid of the vineyards setting off the soft curves of the hills. But this tameness can be deceptive. Walking from Volterra to Pomarance we’re suddenly plunged into a deep hidden gully: miles of twisted shrubbery, gnarled trunks and gloomy lichens. At the bottom, right across our path, is a dank, slimy, stinking pond, fizzing with insects. Eleonora will not cross it. We can find no workarounds. Two hours later, soaked in sweat, we’re back in Volterra studying bus timetables.

Cala Martina – journey’s end. Photograph: R Carnovalini/De Agostini/Getty Images

“Daunted but not defeated,” says one of the plaques remembering Garibaldi’s escape. On 2 September, about 10.30am, he waded into the sea at Cala Martina and pulled himself on board a fishing boat. We get a first glimpse of the cove from high up, a blue haze beyond thick woodland. Even now the place is inaccessible by road. The path zigzags precipitously through boulders and gorse down to a beach ankle-deep in seaweed. It’s blisteringly hot. We race to strip off our clothes. Minutes later, treading the tepid water and looking back at the thin line of surf and the sandy cliffs, this little bay seems emblematic of our entire summer: gorgeous, arduous, astonishingly empty.

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