Scenery, great food, no packing and not too much exercise... that all suits Roger Hall.

We were at an upmarket vineyard, being given a tour by the owner. There were huge French oaken barrels ("Grapes aged for 12 months," said the owner); steel vats ("Maceration for 15 days"). I get bored by this sort of stuff but eventually comes the moment everyone is waiting for - drinking it.

We were offered three samples of this high-quality, $50 a bottle Chianti. We sniffed, sipped, and slurped. Then came the best moment of the visit: an elegant Englishman with us murmured, "Not a patch on New Zealand wines."

We were in the heart of Chiantishire, and the visit to this top local vineyard was part of a seven-day stay at Pieve a Castello.

A pieve is a "rural church with a baptistery, upon which other churches without baptisteries depended". It was one of the staging posts on the Vai Francigena, the pilgrims' route from Canterbury to Rome.


It dated back to 770AD and was bought in 1986 by Alternative Travel Group's founder, Christopher Whinney, and lovingly restored over many years.

Most holidays with ATG Tours are "journeys" on which you walk several hours each day from one destination to another, but Pieve is a base, from which you set out each day, and walk for two to three hours at most.

Several friends had raved about spending a week here and so we found ourselves, with 14 others, on the first evening on a terrace with splendid views across the Tuscan hills (it's equidistant between Siena and Florence) for nibbles and drinks before dinner.

Two Australians, one American woman, one Brisbane-based Scotswoman, 10 Britons and ourselves. Two of them had stayed at the Pieve before, a good sign. From the start there was non-stop talk and laughter among the guests and that's how it remained through the week.

Pieve a Castello is set in several hectares where all the vegetables for meals are grown, where chickens for our breakfast egg scratch, and where a splendid saline water swimming pool sparkles.

During drinks each evening, our guide told us about the next day's places of interest. Then we had dinner in the elegant arcaded octagonal room (the baptistery, in fact), all 16 guests at one table.

It was always local food. "Blue cheese mousse with pears, salad and honey, risotto with white wine, asparagus and saffron, lamb chop in pistachio crust, white chocolate mousse with caramel."

Afterwards, to the library for liqueurs (Amaretto was the favourite).

Each day, after a great breakfast, (and for some of us, a swim in the pool) we would be driven to the starting point for the day's walk.

Day One. Two-hour walk in the morning, much of it through woods (thus no scenery), a five-minute stop at a tiny ruined chapel. Back to Pieve for a delicious lunch followed by a tour of the buildings. The day was something of a stocking-filler.

Day Two. "Morning: a walk across vineyards." We all get in the van. It begins raining hard. Hmm, walk in rain across claggy mud, or stay behind in luxury surroundings, have a coffee and read? I leaped out of the van, the most energetic thing I did that morning. Afternoon, the vans return and take us to Colle di Val d'Elsa, a charming hilltop town where land was so scarce they built houses above the streets, transforming them into tunnels.

Then the sharp descent (or by lift) to Colle Bassa to look at ancient systems for using water power in mills, paper making etc, followed by a well-earned gelati in the square.

And so the days went. A drive to our starting point (one, 90 minutes, far too long), two to three hours of walking across rolling hills, a posh picnic lunch, and visits to historic sites and buildings in the region.

These include a huge ruined Cistercian San Galgano abbey famous for its sword in the stone (still there), a Romanesque abbey and, best of all, the abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, with its wonderful frescoed cloister.

On the last afternoon, we were driven to Siena. A short time to see some of the sights, a leisurely coffee in the superb piazza watching the world go by and then back for a lovely concert of operatic arias from a soprano and her superb accompanist on piano. And then a splendid farewell dinner.

Pieve provides a sort of cruise on land - not too much exercise, good accommodation, great food, and no need to pack every morning.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers daily flights to Rome via Hong Kong. From there you can fly or train to Pisa.

Details: For more information on ATG Tours' Pieve a Castello holiday go to