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Published August 01, 2010, 05:24 PM

TRAVEL: Three paths, three different journeys

Being familiar with studio crawls, pub crawls, wine walks, progressive dinners and church potlucks didn’t really condition us for a “wine climb” on a sunny afternoon in Italy’s Tuscan region.

By: Merrie Sue Holtan and Johanna Holtan, INFORUM

Being familiar with studio crawls, pub crawls, wine walks, progressive dinners and church potlucks didn’t really condition us for a “wine climb” on a sunny afternoon in Italy’s Tuscan region.

But the event, which is basically a long walk with food and wine tastings along the hilly path, has become an annual tradition; one that ends with dessert. It was one of three walking adventures we strolled through during a trip to Italy and Scotland visiting relatives.

Along with the wine climb was a jaunt through five towns along the Mediterranean Sea in Northern Italy and a walk on a Scottish island filled with history. Here’s what we experienced.

Walking the ‘long eat’

Six years ago, the Italian commune of Pontedera, a city of 28,000 people near Pisa, created the “Mangia … Longa” (the long eat) to rediscover the territory and typical local products. The name plays on the title of the legendary 70-kilometer cross country ski race, the “marcialonga,” which takes place every January in Northern Italy.

On this May day, more than 500 people – 100 every 20 minutes – set out for the journey. We gathered at the city’s equestrian center with our daughter Elise, who lives in the area working for the U.S. Army, and her “30-something” Italian friends to climb for local Tuscan tastes. The crowd included grandpas pushing strollers, young couples, senior citizens with walking sticks, large families, and a couple of Americans – us. No English spoken here.

“The total course length was a 5K,” Elise said. “It was about two kilometers straight up the trail to the hilltop Treggiaia and then about three to reach Montecastello. Our group wanted to take the hardest climbs, so in the end we were grateful for the bus ride back.”

Before leaving, we picked up passes, hats, and wine glasses and sampled the Antipasto prepared by local bakers. It featured Tuscan toast with fresh tomato basil and mozzarella omelette with potatoes, fresh onions and ham. White wines from the cities of Pontedera, Cenaia and Fauglia accompanied the appetizers.

We ascended a fairly rugged trail; working hard on the first climb, resting as needed, remembering it wasn’t a race but a time for conversing, a little heavy breathing and photo taking of the Tuscan valley unfolding beneath us. The experience was about “as good as it gets.”

Finally, the high medieval city of Treggiaia, where young red local wines and Zuppa di Cavolo – cauliflower soup with bread and onions, awaited us. We took our time as the group debated taking the difficult or easy trail to Montecastello.

“Difficile,” said Jonathan, who grew up near by. “It’s not so bad.”

Later, this choice earned him a dousing with water bottles.

Montecastello volunteers greeted hungry climbers with Maiale in Porchetta, roast pork with beans, Formaggi Busti (cheese), and aged red local wines.

“Cheese from the family Busti in Fauglia is very famous,” Elise said. “Once I nearly ate half a wheel in one day.”

At this point, buses returned all climbers to the starting point of the equestrian center for dessert. The bus had been available throughout the entire course, which took about five hours, if needed.

At the center, where they breed Italian pedigreed horses and train riders, bakers prepared a party atmosphere with Trancia di Torta Golosa, a slice of sweet cake with dessert wines, champagne and coffee. Musicians played Italian blues and folk music, while the mayor of Pontedera schmoozed with his constituents. Slow food on a slow day – straight up. A nice day in the neighborhood.

Take Five – along the Italian Riviera

Time for another climb. This time, five kilometers between five seaside villages along one of the most uncontaminated areas of the Mediterranean.

The Cinque Terre “The Five Lands” in Northern Italy invites backpackers and hikers to trek the ancient villages carved higgledy-piggledy into a steep-terraced vineyard and olive grove coastline, suspended between land and sea.

We took an hour-long train ride from Pisa to Cinque Terre and its five villages: Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Mararola, Vernazza and Monterosso. In 1997, the area became a national park and a UNESCO (United Nation Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) protected territory as a World Heritage Site.

Since we only had one hiking day, we obtained our park pass near the train station (5 euros) and rode about 20 minutes to the farthest north city, Monterosso, to hike from north to south. We joined families, senior citizens, hiking clubs, school groups, college kids, advanced hikers, and the occasional person in flipflops or high heels.

Monterosso is the “hippest” town accommodating tourists in modern hotels and apartments with sandy beaches, colorful umbrellas and beach-side cafes. Because the first stretch of trails had been closed, perhaps for falling rock, we waited for the ferry to transport us (3.5 euros) to Vernazza, the next village south, to begin.

Hiking out of Vernazza, with two ancient towers in prominent view, is its own challenge. The dirt path, called the Blue Trail, gets sweaty and steep in some places with unlevel stone steps and switchbacks. Vernazza apparently has a rowdy nightlife and great places to eat farinata – which is like focaccia but made with chickpea flour – ravioli with fish sauce and drink limoncino, a popular liqueur.

In mid-August, the town celebrates a successful defense from a pirate attack during the Middle Ages. We arrive in Corniglia in about 90 minutes, which opens to a staggering ocean view where four cities of the Cinque Terre appear dramatically.

Corniglia, perched on top of a tall cliff, feels smaller, quieter and remote with brightly painted doors and sensory overload with the scents of lemon trees and flower perfume. It’s a great place to try some mussels, stuffed, stewed or baked from the Gulf of Spezia.

This area, called Liguria, is also famous for its Cinque Terre white wine and pesto, a sauce from basil leaves, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and pecorino cheese. The journey on to Manarola involves walking down Corniglia’s 377 steps to ocean level. Fortunately, we did not have to walk up these steps.

Manarola, filled with pastel houses climbing up the cliff, offered a swimming hole complete with cliff divers. It also includes plenty of caves for underwater divers and explorers. This trail, mostly along the ocean, was a welcome, easy hike. These narrow ribbon towns have thousands of miles of dry-laid stone wine terraces, which took about 200 years to build and whose length equals the Great Wall of China. Wine growers still use a monorail mechanism to ferry themselves up and the grapes down this unique land.

The completion of our five-hour hike ended with an easy, paved and flat trail along the coast and the Via Dell’Amore (Lover’s Walk). Hundreds of padlocks line the railings and walls – where people have locked in their love for eternity and thrown away the key.

Riomaggiore, the final town, has Cathedral bells ringing during the day and frogs chattering by night. Its two circular towers protect the citizens from an attack by sea. Now’s the time to stop for a post- hike meal on the Via Colombo, with an assortment of bars, restaurants and, of course. gelato. The menu also has vegetable pies, rice pie, frittata, anchovies and spiced octopus.

Unfortunately, our time along the Blue Trail has ended, making only a bare acquaintance with the five lands. Too bad. It’s a place for slow travel – to shipwreck a speedy itinerary.

A spiritual path

Our next hiking path came in Scotland, where our youngest daughter works for the University of Edinburgh. The journey trailed through Iona, an island off the west side of Scotland’s Isle of Mull.

In 563 A.D., the exiled Irish monk St. Columba and a dozen of his companions established a monastic community on the Isle of Iona. Thousands of years later, my parents and I also journeyed to the isolated rock located in the Inner Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. Thanks to a borrowed truck, a father who could drive on the opposite side of the road and an impressive ferry system, our pilgrimage looked a bit different.

We started our journey driving from Edinburgh to Oban, Scotland’s finest whiskey and seafood destination, and traveled over the Isle of Mull to catch a ferry to Iona. As we departed the ferry village of Fionnphort, the mist rolled in and Iona’s green hillsides and white beaches slowly emerged from the gray haze. The island’s world-renowned abbey, sun-kissed like a beacon, led us to shore.

As we approached the once coined “Cradle of Christianity,” we were transported to the days of Columba, who found solace in the island’s rugged beauty and peaceful isolation.

Said to be the burial place of Scottish kings including Macbeth, the island holds the Abbey and the Abbey church, a nunnery, numerous pre-Christian archaeological sites and ancient crosses. Modern hotels such as the Argyll and St. Columba dot the island along with restaurants, gift shops, art galleries and a golf course.

Since Columba, Iona has seen its share of change and hardship.

The Vikings pillaged the island on numerous occasions. During one attack 68 monks were slain at Martyrs Bay. After years of disuse, the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian group, was founded in 1938, and the abbey was restored piece by piece.

Today, the community promotes peace and social justice and remains a popular destination for pilgrims.

While there are many organized workshops, worship services, and walks on Iona, we took a more independent route and explored the area on our own.

Due to the high season, the only rooms left on the island were in the hostel on the north end. From the ferry, we walked a couple kilometers alongside sheepgrazed fields, working sheep dogs, “lowing cows” and realized our luck – we were just minutes from the sandy beach.

Since the weather was beautiful, a rare occurrence in Scotland, my dad and I set off to hike one of the largest peaks. At the peak and beside the cairn, a human-made pile of stones, we took in the beautiful island with its rocky hilltops, peaceful fields, bright beaches and the overwhelming Atlantic Ocean.

Even after all the years of hardship, I couldn’t help but believe that this isolated rock will be as it always was.

If the site and location didn’t convince me, the residents at the hostel illustrated the draw of Iona. In the guestbook, pilgrims wrote inscriptions. One man expressed his thanks and noted that his journey was in memory of his late wife, who had recently died.

The current guests were a hodgepodge of people ranging from an older women travelling alone through the Hebridean Isles to an American seminarian using the experience to write his theology dissertation. I think that this community is what St. Columba had intended when he first arrived in Iona.

Merrie Sue Holtan, Perham, Minn., is a freelance writer and communication studies instructor at MSUM

Johanna Holtan works with international students at the University of Edinburgh.

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