Do we need waterproof bottoms?” Linda, the retired school teacher from England, asked. My sister and I exchanged glances, rapidly translating the query into Canadian English. Rain pants? Really? Perhaps we’d bitten off more than we could chew.
It was, after all, the first day of our group walking tour in Italy and we weren’t too sure what to expect. What we did know was that we were sitting in a lovely villa in Tuscany in the company of 14 fellow travellers, a mixed bag of couples and singles, mainly British, but also a couple of South Africans and a New Zealander. Brits, we knew, are famous for striding around mountains in all sorts of weather. Would we be up to the challenge?
As it turned out, we were up to it all: not just the walking to medieval villages, past olive groves and through the bustling, charmed streets of Greve. We coped well with the three wine-tastings and getting lost in Florence’s leather market. We managed night after night of fresh, simple, delicious food – always accompanied by lively conversation sprinkled with gusts of laughter.
The tour was the week-long Chianti: Walking and Wine, offered by British tour company Exodus Holidays. Exodus specializes in independent and small group trips, often with themes such as biking, hiking, family or wildlife. Common to all trips are the eco-friendly components: use of local transport (where practical), dining at and staying in small, locally owned businesses, employment of local staff, and respect for culture.
For this itinerary, we were based in the 150-year-old, antique-filled Relais Villa Casalta located a 20-minute walk from the village of Castellina in Chianti. An inn with 18 rooms, a resident dog and pleasing views of the surrounding Tuscan countryside, it offered the atmospheric charm we were looking for.
Our first dinner was at the villa, and as we were all trying to figure each other out (Jane’s the vet; Johann’s the banker; Helen’s in technology; Peter’s the retired civil servant), our guide Ali gave us a rundown on what to expect. This was an invaluable briefing explaining how the days would roll out, how the meals would work and so on. Each evening thereafter he’d get our attention for 10 minutes to explain the next day, what to wear and pack in our day packs, how much free time there’d be, and what to keep an eye out for.
The itinerary was a just-right combination of walking days, usually featuring lunch in a delightful village, plus days when we were driven in our overgrown minibus to three of Tuscany’s must-sees: Florence, Siena and San Gimignano. There was one free day during which Ali arranged for a cooking class for some and a visit to local thermal baths for others. If you really wanted, you were welcome to veg by the villa’s pool.
It quickly became apparent to us that we were being treated like adults rather than being hand-held like children throughout the week. If you wanted to skip a day and hang out at the villa, that was okay.
Or we’d be told something like this: “Tomorrow we’re all going to Siena. I’ll give you an overview of the city and then you’ll have four hours free time.
Don’t forget to sit down in the square and enjoy the atmosphere!”
Something that we hadn’t anticipated and which proved an unforgettable highlight was the chance to stroll along, taking in the stunning countryside and becoming acquainted with other group members who were as interesting as they were diverse. (This proved identical on a subsequent Exodus walking tour to Puglia and Basilicata in southern Italy where our
companions were also well-educated and well-travelled, but not snobby.) It was fascinating to compare favourite movies with a Scottish nurse for 20 minutes, then find yourself alongside a Cape Town lawyer, chatting about recycling programs in South Africa.
Fun, fellowship, great food – and all the details taken care of (even the scenery). Not surprisingly, we’ve booked our third Exodus walking holiday in Italy. And we’ve yet to need waterproof bottoms!
Good to know:
Exodus includes the option to fly out of the U.K. on a flight with members of your group, which is handy, as the tour leader will meet the flight at the airport and at the end o f your holiday, drop you off there. Or, if you can make your way to that local airport – we travelled by train from Rome to Pisa Airport to meet the incoming group – they’ll transfer you to the hotel or inn at no extra charge.
The company is very popular with solo travellers, particularly women (a whopping 62 per cent of their entire clientele according to their Canadian manager Sharmil Goswami). Women love the security and small-group camaraderie (as one in our group put it: “It’s like a dinner party every night!”). It’s not uncommon for travellers like my sister and me to leave our husbands at home. Exodus offers a single match-up program and will room you with someone of the same sex, or you can pay a single supplement, in Europe, for example a very reasonable $10 to $20 Cdn per night.
The average age of a Canadian client is 48, though we’ve travelled with group members in their early 30s and late 70s. Each itinerary is rated for its physical difficulty, the Chianti tour being a “leisurely/moderate”.
Not all meals are included, so you do get a break from the group if you wish. For included meals where you are dining away from your host hotel, Exodus has a simple, perfect solution: the group leader hands out a fixed amount of cash to everyone. At the end of the meal if you ate more than your “allowance,” you top it up. If less, you pocket the change.
Want to meet your travelling companions before you even get on the plane? You can, once you have booked with Exodus in their Departure Lounge online forum.
Book through your favourite travel agent, or Exodus (exodustravels.com; 800-267-3347) has an office in Canada which can help you with any of their 500+ itineraries to 90 countries on seven continents.