For 5 years, my sister Lucy and I had been talking about a mission: a juicy, multi-day hike. As with many plans, life gets in the way. But despite the months and years rolling by, our little adventure niggle wouldn’t go away. It persisted and, finally, by the end of 2015 we had set a date. Throughout our to-ing and fro-ing of suggestions, Lucy mentioned a Roman road; a route that stretches 130km (81 miles) between Bologna and Florence called the Via degli Dei, the Walk of the Gods. It was a popular route for centurions and their soldiers, tradesmen and messengers and has now become an official hiking route for all sorts of modern day walkers and pilgrims.
It helps that Lucy lives in Bologna, a city nestled in the hills of Emilia Romagna. Its nickname is “La Dotta, La Rossa, La Grassa”, which translates as “the educated, the red, the fat,” which is one reason alone to visit, thanks to its university – the oldest in the world, founded in 1088 – its distinct red brick, and what many, including Italians, see as the best food in the country. With the realisation that we could walk from Bologna, over the Apennines, into Tuscany and eventually to the home of the Renaissance, and frankly, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the decision to go for it was swift.
If you’re keen on doing this beauty of a hike too, read on.
The level of prior training you do before any event always depends on your chosen pace. Most people today do this hike in around 8 or 9 days, which is rather on the leisurely side when compared with the 16 hours it took Roman soldiers. Lucy and I had 4.5 days to do the whole hog, which meant we’d have to average around 26km a day, whilst also crossing those Apennine mountains. Yowza. My main concern was having to keep up with my big sister, who swims at competition level and has the lung capacity of a whale. So, I felt like I had some work to do. By the time Lucy and I left, I’d done a few 3-hour walks around Sussex, and around 3 times a week for 4 weeks worth of cardio and resistance training at the gym. I’d also done some spinning classes, which went fine after my first class when I felt like I was going to throw up during the third hill climb and a very upbeat Jackson 5 hit. Not a natural, clearly.
At the same time as trying to get moving, I got my gear geek on. There’s another post to come about what to take with you on a multi-day hike, but for a full kit list, see the bottom of this post. My main tips in a nutshell? Salomon XA Pros are a joy for anything but steep, hardcore Alpine terrain, buy decent socks, and say hello to your new little friends: walking poles.
You’ll find several guides about the VDD, as it’s a popular pilgrimage. The route includes on-road to off-road terrain, long ascents, and longer descents. It leads you to lush meadows, thick forest, through Tuscan countryside, past Medici castles, abandoned monasteries, and over sections of surviving Roman road. Despite the lack of level terrain, there are alternative routes for cyclists and for those who’d prefer not to hit an hours’ worth of heart-pumping uphill, which is why the VDD is popular for all ages and abilities.
We stayed in a mixture of campsites, lodges and treated ourselves to a hotel on the last night. Thanks to its 2000 year history, there are plenty of B&Bs and places to rest your hazy head along the way. Despite that, the hike gets busy during summer, so I would advise booking accommodation in advance. Roughly, this was our route:
Day 1: Sabbiuno > Monzuno
Day 2: Monzuno > La Futa
Day 3: La Futa > Bivigliano
Day 4: Bivigliano > Olmo
Day 4.5: Olmo > Firenze
As we had limited time, we decided to knock off the first 10km by hopping on a bus from the centre of Bologna to the hilltop village of Sabbiuno. As we disembarked, an older man asked us where we were going. It seemed quite surreal to tell him we were taking a walk to Florence. But he knew the way. He said he’d done the Walk of the Gods 6 times, gave us some tips on the route and wished us a ‘buona passegiatta’, a good journey. So, at precisely 9.30am, perched on the hilltops outside Bologna, we began.
Our destination on the first day was Monzuno, a beefy 29km away. As expected, much of day 1 was on road. But by lunchtime we had turned onto a track and were trying to settle into a rhythm with our pace, each other and with the click-clack of our walking poles. We came across cyclists, couples and groups of walkers. Later, we gave a limping young man a rehydration tablet and went up and over the famed Monte Adone, which certainly got us into gear. It was hot and we’d already started dreaming of fresh watermelon, pineapple, and juicy nectarines.
By the time we got to Monzuno it was 6pm and had assumed we were nearly at our lodge. It wasn’t until we’d had a wonderfully crisp beer and a good sit down that we were informed we’d need to walk another 40 minutes over a steep incline and out of town before we’d make it to our home for the night. Oof.
When it comes to getting to your next pitstop after 7 hours of walking, I learned this: don’t trust anyone when they say that “It’s just down there”. It won’t be. It’ll be much further. Double – at least – whatever length of time or distance someone tells you your accommodation is. Luce and I learned this on every single day of our hike, and every day it got worse. When someone says “It’s about 1km away” my brain tells my body to start getting ready for a sit down in around 800 metres time. To then find out you’re not even close, is SO. HARD.
Nevertheless, we marched up, up and along. The beer had worn off, and as we arrived 40 long minutes later, we plodded up to the lodge like two overweight labradors. We had dinner with a group of 3 couples who were clearly very fit, 50 plus, experienced hikers. We shared pasta, pizza and wine, sojourned and had a good stretch, ready for another day.
In the mornings, be prepared for uphill from the get-go. There’s zilch warm-up terrain. On the upside, you’ll be burning about 2500-3000 kkals a day, so you can eat to your heart’s content, as I did. Lucy was far more reserved, which baffled me. I would firmly defend my eating of cake at 10am: “BUT I LOVE FOOOD!!” I would shout proudly, despite spitting crumbs and my words being muffled by the sheer amount of chocolate sponge in my face. Lucy would either ask me to repeat what I’d said or utter something along the lines of ‘I wonder where you get that from’. My Dad also likes food. And bad jokes. But that’s what Lucy inherited. Really, we balanced each other out in our inherited habits. Thanks Dad.
The second day, after an almighty breakfast of homemade cake, freshly baked bread, fruit, coffee, cereal and yoghurt, our path took us through orchards, over ridge-lines and rolling hills. By now we’d found a rhythm and a pace. As we settled into an afternoon of forest walking, however, we came across our first inkling of what was to come. The last thing that comes to mind when hiking in Italy is colossal amounts of hillside mud. But that’s what we got. For over 6 hours: 3 hours on day 2, and another 3 the next morning. Much of VDD is under a thick jungly canopy, meaning little light hits the ground. Combine that with a succession of hikers and you have a perfect recipe for awe-inspiring sludge and exhausted legs in no time. And so, we come to walking poles: not the coolest kid in the bunch, but sweet JESUS, do they help a girl out when the terrain gets rough. From day 1 we’d seen many, relatively young hikers with severe limps, and we knew our trusty sticks had helped us from heading down the same path. As Luce puts it, it’s like having a 4×4. By taking a little weight off your feet, you’ll go further for longer and be much more efficient and balanced over tricky terrain, e.g. an uphill, clinging-onto-branches sludge climb. Plus, they illiminate the risk of those bulbous Shrek fingers after an hour of walking. No brainer.
Every evening we’d shower our legs in cold water and hot box our room with Deep Heat and arnica oil. We suffered no blisters, but my pack had caused a plum-sized knot in my right shoulder by the end of the first day. Much massage ensued. Before we turned out the light, we’d review the day and laugh at how, by around 4pm daily, we’d started walking like Julie Walters in the Two Soups sketch.
By the time we had honed in on our hotel on day 4, exhaustion had set in. I was testing out how I could nap and walk at the same time, while Lucy would seize up if we stopped for so much as some water or a photo. Nevertheless, we were pretty happy with how our bodies just kept on keepin’ on.
By this time we were firmly in Tuscan countryside and Florence wasn’t far. In fact, our hotel overlooked Florence and in the pinky haze of dusk, we could see the tiny but glorious dome of the cathedral, far in the distance.
Our energy had picked up by the next morning. We couldn’t tell if it was because our bodies had become used to the hours of walking, or because we knew we were nearly at the finish line. We still had 4 hours ahead of us, but that didn’t really matter. The pace came naturally now. As we entered Florence, walking with poles suddenly seemed a little silly. The city was bustling, as ever. Noise, horns, tourists. We walked up the street from Piazza di San Marco to the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. “Look!” Lucy snapped, and pointed. There she was, between two buildings was the Duomo. We’d made it, just in time for lunch.
Along our route, we exchanged words with people from all walks of life. As we put one foot in front of the other, we chatted with them, laughed with them, and sang with them (a naughty medieval song, to be specific). Despite my pigeon Italian, I felt like Lucy and I instantly had something in common with our fellow walkers, because we were all on the same journey, heading in the same direction. As such, this hike was rich with camaraderie: strangers helped us if we thought we’d taken a wrong turn, and vice versa. We problem solved together, reassured each other and shared our social backgrounds with each other. We met ex-pro runners, pen makers, archers, hippies and teachers. It was also an opportunity to spend time with my lovely sister, who should absolutely take all the credit for guiding and map reading, but no credit for trying to read a compass. Honestly, 180° wrong.
We’d often sit down to dinner and say “I can’t believe we just did that”, with utter glee. We marched together, in the footsteps of Romans. We tried to imagine what the road would have been like 2000 years ago and we were grateful that we had comfy shoes, rather than leather sandals and 100kgs worth of armour on our shoulders.
It’s easy to idealise this trip now that I’m home, conveniently forgetting that one time we took a wrong turn, the achey hips and heavy packs. But they were all minor issues, of course. Along with the Italian panoramas and the history that lies in that beat up Roman road, it’s the pilgrim way of life that will be my over-riding memory of this hike.
And the mud. Never forget the mud.
Clothes / outerwear
1 x walking shoes
1 x trainers / back up shoes
3 or 4 x socks
Cap / headband
2 x shorts
1 x hiking trousers
1 x casual leggings
2 x hiking T
1 x casual T
1 x long sleeve top (mid layer)
1 x hoodie
1 x shower proof shell
1 x waterproof jacket
2 x sports bras
1 x sandwich per day
2 x Trek bars / protein bars
3 x cereal bars
A bag of scroggin / trail mix
3 x gels for that last push of the day
2.5L water minimum
1 x Nuun rehydration tablets
First Aid Kit
Ibruprofen + paracetamol
Compseed plasters (2-3packs)
Cotton wads + fabric strapping
1 x knee + 1 x ankle tubular/compression bandage
Deep Heat + Arnica oil
Pen + notebook
Phone / camera chargers