Amazing Race Italy

IMG_5127“I-ah waz-ah born in Pisa,” she says with a conspiratorial wink, as if that explains it all. “These Sienese live-ah in-ah de Middle Ages!” I hope no one else at the bus stop understands English as she continues loudly, in her wonderful Italian-English, to explain the bus system, its numbering, which bus goes to the train station, the history of the train system, the economy of Italy. “Thees boos it-ah was not for city use but it-ah was born for students,” she explains the use of school buses being used for city transport while students are in school. “Bastards!” she calls the politicians who cause job uncertainty and who don’t build enough railway tracks. I am glad I asked this lady if this was the right bus and that she broke forth with a waterfall of English words. I learn more in half an hour on the bus together than I have all week. IMG_1316

The way Italians talk keeps throwing me for a loop. It can be in a restaurant or in a shop or just on a street corner. Suddenly we’ll hear this heated debate that gets louder and more violent by the second. The voices are angry, loud, everyone shouting at the same time. If this was the USA, I’d expect someone to start shooting. Or at the very least I think they’re going to draw knives soon. I want to get out of there, fast, before real trouble starts. But then I – or they – turn around or come around the corner and I realize they’re all smiling, clapping each other on the shoulder, even kissing each other on the cheeks. It was only a simple, friendly chat! I’d hate to hear a real argument in Italian…  I’m not sure if there is a law against talking on your cell phone in Italy. If there is, no one adheres to it. The biggest problem is that they all talk like Italians, with both hands. Even while driving….

IMG_5159I’m grateful to have gone through school in The Netherlands. We had no option but to learn languages. Even in elementary school we had French. In High School they added English and German. Now, when we hike or roam around Italian towns, we can have a conversation with a German family, answer a lost Frenchman and secretly listen in to a Dutch group’s comments on an Italian statue…

When we started hiking, I had to find a way to leave my luggage behind. We’re traveling for two months: one month exploring Italy and one month of working in international schools. I needed dressier clothes and shoes for schools, but hiking clothes for the rest of the time. As always, I take cabin luggage only but I still can’t lug it all with me. The lovely At Home hotel in Lucca (still my favourite) agreed to store it for me. I checked the Trenitalia website and, at a glance, it’s easy to go back from Siena to Lucca to retrieve my luggage after the week’s hiking. treno

In reality however, it turns into an amazing race Italy. I have to leave our AirBnB cottage outside Siena at 7 AM to catch a bus – the one this wonderful woman is helping me to locate – into the city to reach the train station. There I verify the train times, buy a return ticket – all in Italian – and embark on my train adventure. From Siena to Empoli I whizz by many of the towns where we just walked and see them in a whole new perspective. From the train I notice that the ancient city center on top of a hill has spilled over, like a bubble bath, into the valley below. So that’s where they keep the industrial areas, the train stations, the apartment buildings. We did not see any of that while walking the Via Francigena. Hiking here is like being in a green cocoon. IMG_5186

In Empoli I change trains to Pisa, with 30 seconds to spare. When the train pulls out, I recognize several passengers from the previous train on the platform. They’ve all missed this connection, probably adding hours to their journey. From Pisa to Lucca is not far, then I walk across the city walls into the center, retrieve my luggage and retrace my steps. This time trains take me from Lucca to Florence. From Florence to Siena and back on the bus. What was only a half inch on the map, took about 10 hours!

In a few days I have to meet Kees in Viterbi. The train schedule for that little jaunt looks as follows: Siena, Chiusi – Chianciano Terme, transfer to train to Attigliano – Bomarzo, then to Viterbi Porta Florentina and then a bus to Porta Romano. There is a bus all the way but it doesn’t go on Wednesdays. But if I leave shortly after 7 AM, I’ll get there late afternoon. If all goes well…

46d64970-7745-4218-b585-acd5c040bc2fBut now I am settled for the next week into a lovely little cottage. I found it on AirBnB: attached to an old, yellow Tuscan country home on the outskirts of Siena, it has a bedroom, a kitchen corner, a modern bathroom and wifi. “Did you build this addition?” I ask the owner. He laughs, “No, it is 300 years old…” It’s perfect for a week long writer’s retreat as I have to finish several manuscripts. I stock up on wine, cheese and coffee and am all set to work while Kees continues another 200 or 300 KM towards Rome.


Marble, Bread and Gelato

IMG_5161Tuscany. It has been depicted in so many paintings and stories. What is it about this place that feels so good? Is it the exclamation marks of cypresses all over the landscape? Or the musky smell of freshly crushed grapes as we walk by a vineyard? Surely it is not the monotonous smoked ham and cheese bread… Oh the bread. It is just like Italian marble, solid as a rock. In the bakery, chunks of off-white bread are all thrown together in a bin. The Italian ladies point and the clerk picks and holds up a chunk. “No, not that one. Thát one!” They sort and pick. It resembles a bin full of bricks. I don’t understand it because the croissants here are divine – flaky and just perfect. But the bread, you could kill someone with it if you threw a piece.

IMG_5156But somehow these ancient hill towns invite you to settle down and live here. I would drive a tiny Fiat, like a maniac, to the patisserie each morning (for the pastries, not the bread). I love seeing the old women hang out their windows to see what’s happening on the street below, peeking through geraniums and lines full of laundry.

On the Via Francigena, the historic trail we hike, we made it to San Gimignano – nicknamed the Manhattan of Tuscany. Only 14 of the original 72 towers remain but those make for a pretty impressive skyline in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. As I huff and puff up hill toward the medieval centre, I wonder how they got all of those stones up there to build the towers in the 1200’s. No dump trucks back then.IMG_5147

Of course, no Tuscan town is complete without pizzerias and ristorantes offering wild boar and truffles. But also not without tourist traps selling fake leather purses, Pinocchio keychains and fifty flavours of gelato. After a decent meal, we walk back through the narrow medieval streets and long staircases, under a full moon. The room we booked showed “traditional Tuscan” ceilings in the photos but has a normal white ceiling in reality. But we sleep with our eyes closed anyway.

Early the next morning, we leave town and drink in the sight. The valley below shrugs off its foggy night clothes. We walk along rows of dewy grape vines. I keep wondering if I’m traipsing through  Andrea Bocelli’s vineyard yet….IMG_5167

We’ve been walking for hours and still have not spotted any place that might offer coffee to a wary pilgrim. I am tempted to knock on doors. Twice I ask but no, there’s no coffee in these hamlets. Until finally we come to a medieval huddle of homes on a hill top with a sign ‘ristorante’ pointing vaguely between the houses. The place is deserted. I’m not sure whose underwear adorns all the clothes lines hanging along the streets because no one seems to be home. Finally we find what might be a hotel and we sit down in the deserted court yard where a startled cleaning lady finds us and sends over someone who actually produces coffee. Life is good again.

Along the way we marvel at the fact that Tuscany is full of tourists but we don’t see any signs of modern, urban development. No high rises. No ugly factories. The landscape seems to be untouched for centuries. How did they do that? Some city planners must have had incredible foresight about a hundred years ago. And that is extra impressive considering how laid back and, well, unorganized things can be in Italy. I think that Salt Spring Island can learn a lot from Tuscany when it comes to preserving the landscape.

We reach Colle di Valle d’Elsa where we have a great room, a view on the medieval city wall and a good meal outside on the square, where a posse of old men congregate on a bench at night. The local CNN.

The next medieval place is Monteriggioni. Before we went, I researched these places and studied maps. I always pictured this place as a small village, surrounded by green fields. You know, some houses here and there. In my mind, the town was always in a flat field. But no. Monteriggioni was built for mountain goats. A walled castle on yet another hill top. Of course, up we go. The coarse gravel makes you slip backward but we make it. Once we get inside the ancient walls, we’re in for a surprise. Whole tour groups of British and Chinese visitors follow their leaders holding a little flag. You can buy souvenirs and expensive wines. Everyone’s taking selfies with the pub or the church in the background. It’s Disneyland surrounded by ancient walls. Deflated, we buy a gelato before heading back down. We sit down at the tables of the gelato shop but get chased away. “Only sit if you get served!” the stern owner tells us. “Well, then serve me this ice cream I just bought,” Kees says but to no avail. We leave this tourist trap. Walking the quiet Via Francigena is much better.IMG_5178

Soaking It All Up in Tuscany

IMG_5104After three days and about 50 KM, I have 1 blister. Not bad but not pleasant either. My pack is heavier than I had planned. I do enjoy hiking but decide to take a break. While Kees happily continues along the Via Francigena, I take a bus to the next town. Gambassi Terme just happens to have a spa. Not sure if they are natural hot springs, but who cares – hot water and a sauna sound good right now. They even have a pellegrino rate.


Early in the morning I find the bus I was told to take but it is crammed with 500 highschool students, none of whom speak any English. The bus driver speaks even less. But I explain my destination. He nods, a student interprets, I climb aboard and wedge onto the by-rider seat because the entire bus is full.

Then the roller coaster ride starts. Like a true Italian, he rushes down the mountainside, screeches around curves, scattering dogs and cats and old men on scooters. IMG_5103We cross a valley if vinyards in less time than it takes to say ‘Via Francigena’. When we reach the next city, all students stream out of the bus but the driver gestures me to sit and stay. Then he drives the otherwise empty bus across the city to find the stop for my next bus. I don’t think I was on a city bus, I suspect it was a school bus. He hails down the next driver, hands me over like a baton in a relay race and looks relieved when I climb onto the next bus. I get off where my notes tell me, with all my luggage, but then discover, all alone along an empty country road, that I have to climb uphill for at least 2 more kilometers until I reach the house where we’ll be staying. It’s an old fashioned Tuscan house – dark, with a fence and a big dog, chickens in the yard and shutters on the windows.  IMG_1295

While Kees walks, meets a snake and copes with gravel paths, I drop off my luggage and lug another 1.5 kilometers uphill to my spa. I am the only customer. I figure out where to change, slide into the lovely hot water and soak all day. Ah… being a pilgrim isn’t bad.


Reaching New Heights on the Via Francigena

IMG_5093As we hike through the green hills of Tuscany, this time from Ponte di Capiano to San Miniato, I hear hordes of dogs barking in the woods. Since the Facebook page of Via Francigena mentioned dog attacks, we actually bought a can of pepper spray. But I know this tiny canister in Kees’ pocket is way too small for the multitude of canines I can hear in the distance so I hope our route will differ from theirs.

It does. And eventually I wonder if I heard a hunting party sniffing out Tuscany’s famous truffles. I’ve read that they use dogs here to find these fungus delicacies.

Blue skies, steep hills with a patchwork of muted green olive orchards and bright green grape vines are stitched together with gravelly paths, farm roads, a dirt path through a forest. We conquer them step by step. All uphill it seems. Coffee places are far between but mostly non existing. 

IMG_5100The towns are all medieval. If we reach a village before noon, a shop might be open but mostly they are closed. Shutters are shut tight and whole towns seem deserted. So we sit under an olive tree and eat what we brought: an apple, mandarin orange, some almond biscotti and water. After each rest, I need to realign my toes and tell my knees to keep bending. 

Italians built their towns right on the very top of the hills. I always thought towns were safely protected nestled in valleys, by the natural walls of hills surrounding them. But here they picked the highest points to build villages. And a village here is a peanut cluster of homes, all huddled and melted together as if they started with one house, then built an addition, glued a second home to it, build one on top of those two. Not spread out with their own gardens but all melted together. 

IMG_5111As I trudge to the top of the hill on which the town of San Miniato is perched, I think that these Italians were smart. No invading army is going to run up a hill like this wearing a suit of armour and surprise the villagers. They’d hear the huffing and puffing and panting a mile away. Just like they will all hear me coming now… 

IMG_5095Outside the old center, cars are speeding up the hill and down. Supermarkets all seem to be outside the center and housed in old buildings. Nothing new, it would stand out like a sore thumb. 

IMG_5115In the old center, you go to the vegetable shop if you want some apples. Then you try to find the pasticceria for homemade biscotti or warm croissants. The butcher shop will have salami and the cheese shop will offer many different kinds of cheese, and perhaps a bottle of wine. I love how they have preserved these small, individually owned, local specialty stores. The Tabacchi is a small corner shop that sells cigarets, magazines, lottery tickets and snacks but also stamps and bus tickets.

In San Miniato, when we finally reach the summit, we sleep in a deserted hostel, all by ourselves. The walls are thick stones, the windows have wooden shutters and when the church bells chime, our bed shakes. We walk past frescoed walls, hundreds of years old, to a pizzeria where we have a view over entire Tuscany it seems. At the table next to us are 8 boisterous Canadians celebrating that they made it this far, too.IMG_5107

The Via Francigena: Traipsing Through Tuscany


The view from our room in Lucca, one of my favourite places so far.

When Kees first decided that he wanted to hike the Via Francigena, I think he toyed with the idea of doing the entire thing, just like he did with the Camino de Santiago. Twice. 

However, nearly 2,000 KM was a bit daunting, even for him. But Italy in October did seem like a good idea. I agreed to one week and he will continue walking almost to Rome (not all the way because then the final legs are just through suburbs and industrial areas).

IMG_5075So we studied the most scenic portions of the Via through Tuscany and Umbria.

Traipsing through Tuscany in October sounded quite attractive. We soon realized that we would need to book accommodations along the way well ahead of time. Even when I checked a few places in March, they already were full or almost full for October. But it did seem that tourism would get less in the Fall and that the weather could be good. That has turned out to be true. There are definitely others hiking the trail right now, but not in droves. And (so far, knock on wood!) the weather has been perfect: blue skies, sunny and not too hot.

Bookings rooms meant that we had to figure out how far we would walk each day. We spent many hours planning the logistics. We also decided on quick dry clothing, hiking shoes and packs.


A barn in Tuscany

After getting acclimatized in Florence and Cinque Terre, we spent the night in Lucca and, after our visit to the Museo delle Via Francigena, we set out on our hike. If you ever plan on doing the same, I’d advise you to take train or bus to Altopascio, the next town. Because the first leg of the trail here is through the suburbs of Lucca, past industrial buildings and not very scenic. We were so focused on reaching Altopascio that we didn’t check the address of our first accomodation and overshot it. By the time we discovered this, we would have had to back track 3 KM. So I hugged the housekeeper who kindly came to pick us up.


Our B&B in Altopascio

We stayed in one of those big, stucco Tuscan homes. Our bedroom was large with a balcony. The bathroom boasted a huge jaccuzi. Things were looking up. The owner even phoned in a pizza order for us so that we didn’t have to walk to town again. The problem was that I did not enjoy carrying my pack. Before we left I decided to only take my daypack for this one week. But that got bulky and heavy. So last minute I switched to my large pack with not much in it. But it was too heavy for me to easily walk 15 KM a day with… I struggled up the steep hills and got blisters. This was no fun.  Kees had a brilliant suggestion. We contacted an organization of smart local entrepreneurs who will transport your bags for you to your next accommodations. At first I balked at spending money on this but after a few more steep hills I thought it was a bargain.

The next day my bag vanished and magically reappeared in the next hotel. I floated up hill and downhill. OK… I still stumbled along, but enjoyed it so much better! My struggle changed into enjoying the scenery. So now I place my daily call to Bags Free, which does not mean that they transport bags for free. It refers to the fact that you walk ‘bag free’.

IMG_5086After Altopascio we walked to a tiny town called Ponte di Capiano where we had booked 2 beds in the hostel. It turned out to be a building over a medieval bridge that housed pilgrims. We shared a room with an Italian couple. We walked 2 minutes, over the bridge, to the tiny square in town where we found one cafeteria/bar. But the Italian couple told us, “No, you can book a meal for pellegrinos in the delicatessen store next door”.


The hostel of Ponte di Cappiano

So we did. It turned out to be a lovely lady who made everything fresh that was for sale in her store. Ancient stone walls were lined with boxes of fresh fruit, mozzarella, prosciutto, bottles of local wine. In the display cases were trays of lasagne, salads and all sorts of other delicacies. For 9 euros we had our pick of main courses, including wine and dessert. They eat 3 courses here: primo, secondi platti, after you first have an appetizer and it is all followed by dessert or at least coffee and vinsanto – a dessert wine. It is beyond me how Italians can stay skinny!

We returned the next morning. The gigantic arched doors to the deli were already open. Stores here are mostly open from 6 AM til about noon, then close until 3 or 4 PM and remain open til 10 or 11 at night. We ate warm croissants and coffee on a marble slab counter in the store before setting off on our next day’s hike.


Our hotel in Lucca:

Via Francigena website:

Ostello Ponte Di Capiano:

Via Francigena: Serious Hiking

UnknownIn Lucca, we walked around the ancient city walls that used to protect the city. Now, of course, it only surrounds the old city centre while the newer parts of Lucca have sprung up outside it. Many locals strolled on top off the wide, green walls on a Sunday morning.

IMG_5057We stopped into the Museo Via Francigena. We had spotted a sign serendipitous. And because we came to Italy to walk the Via Francigena, we were keen to see this museum. IMG_5072

It turned out not to be so much of a museum as it was a fantastic multimedia presentation. There are no artifacts on display between the 16th century walls but the video presentation brought the history of the trail to life.

Since the 7th century, a passable route across Europe was important to allow for trade, invasions and more. The Italian route crossed the Apennines, followed the Magra Valley and then turned away from the coast towards Lucca. From there the path continued through the Elsa Valley to Sienna, and then through valleys the way followed the ancient Via Cassia to Rome. 

The original Roman paving stones were gradually replaced by a network of paths and tracks. Lodgings sprang up to accommodate  travellers along the way. The name of the path was Via Francigena, or “road from France”, since it crossed modern France, the Rhine Valley and the Netherlands. It became the main connecting route between northern and southern Europe, carrying merchants, armies and pilgrims. Pilgrimages to Rome, to Santiago de Compostela and to  Jerusalem became more and more important. Along with it, the path became a communication channel fundamental to the cultural unity of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Mappa_Via_FrancigenaThe main source of information we have today about this ancient trail, is  a two page travel diary of a pilgrim named Sigeric the Serious. In the year 990, he traveled to Rome to be ordained Archbishop of Canterbury. His handwritten notes describe the places where he rested. The Via Francigena flourished as a trade route: silk and spices went to northern Europe and were traded for cloth from Flanders and Brabant.

Today, the Camino de Santiago is so very popular that almost 400,000 people walk at least part of that trail in a year. Serious hikers, perhaps like that original Sigeric the Serious, are looking for an alternative where they can still walk in peace and find accommodations without having to arm wrestle for a bed. Italy is turning its Via Francigena (and the entire trail known as the Canterbury Trail) into just that. The Canterbury Trail to Rome is 2,000 KM. The Italian portion is about 1,000 KM!

IMG_5074We decided to walk the Italian portion from Lucca south. Not all the way to Rome since that would mean many kilometers in suburbs and industrial areas. We selected the most scenic parts through Tuscany (together) and Umbria (for Kees alone). Stay tuned for our experiences in the next blogs.

The trail’s official site:

Museum in Lucca:

The Leaning Tower

IMG_5025Many iconic sites in the world can be a let-down when you first see them in person. But the leaning tower of Pisa, to me, was amazing to see in reality. Photos just cannot convey the awe that I felt when I saw the tower. It’s not just leaning… It’s ornate, delicately carved from marble. It’s gleaming white. It’s gorgeous. And it is definitely leaning! So much so that I am amazed it hasn’t toppled over yet.
I learned many things while visiting the site:
– they starting building the tower in the year 1173 and it took 99 years to complete!
I could just picture the architects, the artists, the workers hauling marble… How would they have felt when their masterpiece started leaning?
– the tower is 186 feet tall. You are allowed to climb to the top (8 floors up on 294 steps). But I’d be afraid it might topple over…
– the tower actually leans out almost 15 feet! That would be like standing on the railing of a pitching ship on sea…
– I didn’t know that this is where Galileo conducted his famous gravity test! He did that while standing on the tower of Pisa! Galileo was a math teacher in Pisa.

When Galileo was young, one of his contemporaries used these words to describe Aristotle’s idea of how objects fall:

There is a natural place for everything to seek, as:
Heavy things go downward, Fire upward,
And rivers to the sea.

There was no tradition of describing experimental research in Galileo’s day. Controlled experiments were almost unknown. So Galileo’s report was pretty skimpy. He seems to have dropped different balls from a tower. But what weights? What tower? We can be pretty sure it was the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But we end up doubting whether or not he really did the experiment. Maybe he just reported what he thought should have happened.

One result of the experiment surprised Galileo, and one surprises us. Galileo found that the heavy ball hit the ground first, but only by a little bit. Except for a small difference caused by air resistance, both balls reached nearly the same speed. And that surprised him. It forced him to abandon Aristotelian ideas about motion. If he really did the experiment, it was surely a turning point in the history of science.  ( John H. H. Lienhard)IMG_5045

– the tower of Pisa is, sometimes, listed as one of the 7 wonders of the world.
And yes, it is PISA, not pizza! But if I had an Italian restaurant somewhere, I’d call it the Tower of Pizza!
We simply took the train to Pisa, left our luggage at the train luggage depot and walked to the tower, about 2 KM.
Oh and by the way, I do not have a photo of one of us pretending to hold up or push the tower… because about a million people were all standing there, looking like idiots, pushing up the air while their friends where being contortionists snapping silly photos…