Lauded Walking-Tour Company Steps Softly in Tuscany

Updated April 30, 2004

On June 8, 2004, at National Geographic's Washington, D.C., headquarters, Queen Noor of Jordan is scheduled to again present the World Legacy Awards (WLA) for sustainable tourism—a joint program of National Geographic Traveler magazine and Conservation International (www.wlaward.org).

Queen Noor presided over the first WLA ceremony last year, announcing winners in three categories: Nature Travel, Heritage Tourism, and Destination Stewardship. Each winner works to protect the natural and cultural quality of the places we visit, supports local communities, and gives us lasting travel memories.

In anticipation of the 2004 ceremony, we present the winners of 2003 as described in Traveler (September 2003). This week, the Heritage Tourism category:

ATG Oxford in Italy

The path winds through forests of beech and chestnut. Monks, shepherds, mercenaries, and saffron traders have passed this way for millennia. The path turns and suddenly, like great theater, the trees part to reveal a medieval abbey of honey-colored limestone, astonishing as a mirage in these isolated woods. The group gives a collective sigh of delight, wonder, and a pinch of relief. It's been a challenging walk. "Welcome to Sant'Eutizio, pilgrims," says Daniel Adamson, the group leader.

This is just one of many eureka moments we've enjoyed over the last week. We have opened the doors of a deserted church to find Renaissance frescoes glowing within, and chatted with the art historian as she restores one. We've savored lavish picnic banquets that appear like conjuring tricks beneath ancient porticoes or in shady olive groves. We have knelt in mountain meadows and learned to tell female orchids from male orchids.

And so we have come to know a stretch of remote central Italy with vividness and intimacy few visitors experience.

All this thanks to ATG Oxford, a U.K. company that organizes walking tours in little-known parts of Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. Founded in Oxford, England, in 1979, ATG (Alternative Travel Group) leads handfuls of guests along age-old pilgrim paths, farm tracks, and hunting trails, seeking authentic experiences that package tourists can only dream of.

ATG helps to preserve the landscapes through which its customers travel. It limits group size to minimize environmental impact. It maintains footpaths and recycles everything. Its ATG Charitable Trust funds cultural and environmental projects along the company's many routes.

Several highlights of our journey, including the fifth-century path to Sant'Eutizio and the Renaissance frescoes in the abandoned church of Gavelli, were rescued by the ATG Trust. Such initiatives to safeguard lesser known treasures for visitors and local people alike earned ATG Oxford its World Legacy Award.

In the end, the company's initiatives are about people. By specializing in destinations that tour buses and trains don't reach, ATG spends 65 percent of its revenue in small communities otherwise deprived of tourist dollars and sometimes threatened with extinction.

As a result, the villagers in each hilltop town we visit give us warm welcomes and greet Adamson like a long-lost son. We eat in their trattorias, sampling fresh produce from their fields and superb wines from their vineyards. (ATG knows how to combine cultural and environmental sensitivity with the glories of the good life.) We sleep in secluded hotels that feel like homesteads. Gradually we come to know the people as well as their land.

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