Rome wasn’t built in a day…

IMG_5439Rome wasn’t built in one day… and you can’t see it in one day either. We spent a day walking across the city to Borghese Gardens, a huge city park full of families, people strolling, ice cream vendors and crazy bikes. We rented a bike like contraption for two. It was heavy to pedal, then would suddenly speed up and was hard to brake. We almost wiped out but at least we didn’t run over too many pedestrians…. And we had a lovely picnic in the park. 

IMG_5434From there, we walked to the famous Spanish Steps. Lots of people sitting on the steps, rose vendors and a cascading fountain. In my mind’s eye I saw Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. There are certainly enough scooters around, thousands of them. And tiny Fiats. And all sorts of other little cars. Bill Bryson in Neither Here Nor There gives the best description when he says “You come around any corner in Rome and it looks like you just missed a parking competition for blind people.” That’s exactly how it looks! Cars stick out, parked on crosswalks, cars with literally not one inch between bumpers. We are happy to use public transit here although traffic in Rome is not as bad as I had expected. It’s busy but at least cars stop when you start to cross the road. So far. Many side streets are solidly lined with scooters, almost as many as you see bicycles in Amsterdam. IMG_5485

There’s an astonishing amount of garbage on the streets. Cardboard, bags, bottles all piled up around lamp posts and overflowing garbage containers. Homeless people sleep in doorways steps away from streets lined with Gucci and Prada shops. Street vendors and operators of little shops and restaurants are mostly from Bangladesh. I was shocked to even see homeless people on the streets of Vatican City. IMG_5414

If Kees hadn’t stayed with Dutch people who run a B&B in Umbria, while hiking the Via Francigena, we would have never found out about a Dutch church in Vatican City! We couldn’t believe it. But it turns out that there were some historic connections here. Willibrord, a Dutch priest from the mid 600’s, who was exiled to Ireland, tried to convert the Frisian people from the Northern Netherlands to Christianity. Eventually he was made a Saint. Frisian Christians lived at the Vatican and built their church here, close to the burial place of Saint Peter.

IMG_5451When In Rome… do as the Romans do and so we decided to attend a church service, albeit in Dutch, a unique experience. After the service, we walked outside onto St. Peter Square and listened to Pope Francis deliver his regular Sunday message to the masses. 

When we took the Metro to Vatican City earlier that morning, the platform was absolutely packed. Rows and rows of people lined up. When the train arrived, it was already jam-packed but we all got pushed in until you could not have fit a sheet of paper between people. It was crazy. At Vatican City everyone got out and streamed upstairs to the streets. A huge line-up formed for those wanting to go inside St. Peter’s Basilica for Sunday morning mass. We went to the quiet Dutch church instead and enjoyed listening to a Dutch sermon and psalms. 

IMG_5468Once the Pope started his address, St. Peter Square was packed with a sea of people. I guessed there were thousands, but when I researched the capacity of the square, I found out that the church itself holds 60,000 people and the square can hold 300,000. It wasn’t filled to capacity but it was impressive none the less.

We walked back across one of the bridge over the River Tiber, to piazza Navona with its ornate fountains and palace. We followed narrow alleys, past the Pantheon, to the Trevi Fountain, our favourite although it was packed with people. Obviously everyone in Rome – locals and visitors alike – enjoyed the warm sunshine and strolled along the streets, sipping coffee and enjoying gelato. IMG_5531

The most bizarre experience came when we were practically back at our hotel near the train station. A little car stopped, the window lowered and the driver hollered at me, waving a map. I cautiously approached. A nice, older gentleman asked if we could tell him how to get to the train station. We told him and even gave him our map. Then he reached down and produced a gift. “Here,” he said, “for you because you helped me.” Turned out he was with Ferrari F1 racing team and this was the VIP gift bag for the Grand Prix with some very nice and valuable gifts, including a Max Verstappen watch worth over a thousand euros…. As our son said, “Most people get mugged, you guys get gifts on the streets of Rome.”

Frisian Church, Vatican: https://www.friezenkerk.nl

Rome Tourism: https://www.romeinformation.it/en/

Vatican City: https://biglietteriamusei.vatican.va/musei/tickets/do

We stayed here: http://www.hotelenricaroma.com/?lang=it

We really enjoyed eating here: https://www.thefork.it/ristorante/la-grotta-romana/407303

IMG_5424

Rome-ing Around

IMG_5301All roads lead to Rome… and so does the Via Francigena. We traveled the last bit by train since we did not feel like hiking through suburbs and industrial areas.

We found a quaint ‘hotel’ – the large room is a bit bare, like a hostel but  with a private bathroom. It’s in a historic building that was likely an apartment building until it was converted to hotel rooms. There’s a lush green court yard, a wrought iron gate, even breakfast of coffee and a croissant. And we’re less than a 10 minute walk from Roma Termini, the main train station. Once we arrived by train, we simply walked here and settled in.
With an old fashioned paper map, we find our way around to all the main attractions of Rome. The very first thing we want to see is the Colosseum. It’s late afternoon and the sky is grey. But we walk for a few kilometers and suddenly, there it is – the famous curved walls on which the Vancouver Public Library is based. We walked all the way around it to see it from all angles as well as to the Roman Forum. We try to take the Metro back but the machines are out of change, or the printer doesn’t work, or it just doesn’t feel like helping the hordes of tourists lined up for tickets. In the end, we walk all the way back while the skies burst open. The first rain we’ve had on this trip.

We are constantly aware of pickpockets since we keep getting warned about them. On our one rainy night, we walked huddled under one umbrella, when suddenly I felt a hand in between us. I slapped the hand and a young man jumped away behind us. Somehow he tried to get into Kees’ pocket right in between us. To no avail but it brought home the message again. We leave all valuables in the hotel and carry only a bare minimum. 

IMG_5328The next day is blue sky again and this time the Metro ticket machines work fine. In fact, there was a country wide transportation strike announced. We were told it might be hard to take the Metro. But, instead, we find an almost deserted station and mostly empty trains that rush us to our destination: Vatican City.

There we follow the tall stone wall (boy, Romans liked to build walls in the olden days) and follow it until we find an opening: the entrance to the Vatican Museums. This time we have booked an online tour, directly with the Vatican City people which was much cheaper than via tour operators. We walk through the museum exhibits, which are mostly things collected by popes and the church. 

Through court yards, past statues and fountains, we go through the papal apartments. Impressive halls ornately painted. Michelangelo lived here while he worked on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Ultimately we make it to the Chapel. It’s very different in reality, at least from the way I pictured it. The Chapel itself is a rectangular stone building. From the outside, you’d never guess it was special. We approach via  endless corridors and rooms with paintings, carvings, collections and fabulous, gigantic tapestries from the Middle Ages woven in Belgium.

IMG_5350

The Sistine chapel is a colourful sequence of painted stories. I try to imagine Michelangelo working here on his scaffolding, day after day. He felt that he was a sculpture, not a painter and tried to decline the job. But the pope insisted in hiring him to paint this ceiling. I like how our guide explained how he learned about proportions as he went, changing figures that are too small, too detailed to larger figures in the next scene. It really looks like the very first graphic novel – the stories unfold in wordless pictures. What really floors me is that he put himself in the picture as an empty skin in The Last Judgement. Did he have a sense of humour or was he a morbid thinker?

After the Chapel we walk through the Papal Corridor where the cardinals walk as they go into conclave when a new pope is selected. We hear the story of the white and black smoke – traditionally produced with leaves but now with a moveable, mechanical chimney. Even the Vatican adapts to time.

IMG_5371The hallways eventually connect and we approach St. Peter’s Cathedral. Our guide explains how Peter was one of the first Christians, shortly after the life of Christ. He was killed on the spot which is now the center of the square where an obelisk marks the spot. Once Christianity caught on in Rome, an alter, and then a church was built on the site. St. Peter’s Cathedral is now the largest church in the world. And it is large! Its capacity is 60,000 people! The pillars inside are immense. The marble statues are amazing, especially The Pieta, carved in 1449 by Michelangelo of Florence. IMG_5378

After roaming through the church, we climb down and exit via the grotto where many popes have been buried over the ages. St. Peter’s Cathedral an impressive, special place to visit with an almost palpable history.IMG_5389

The Sights of Siena

IMG_5273After hiking nearly 100 KM on the Via Francigena, and when my toes turned to fall colours, I stayed in Siena while Kees continued hiking.

The historic center of Siena, or centro storico as it is called in Italian, is very walkable. I love roaming the narrow streets with its thick stone walls of houses that are hundreds of years old. Much of the ancient city wall remains in tact, with gateways into the city, like the glorious Porto Romano. Although in a few places the city fathers have, in their wisdom, decided to destroy the wall to make room for modern day traffic.

Busses run frequently and pretty much on schedule to and from the old center. For 1.50 you can travel quite far. At the Piazza Indipendenza you can simply phone a taxi and it shows up in minutes to take you to your destination. We bought sim cards from a company called Wind, to use our phones in Italy. Reasonable rates, unlimited texting and we can  even use it throughout Europe. It’s been a lifesaver to use the data with maps as we roam the city or countryside without wifi access. What did we do before cell phones and Ipads? Get lost, I guess…

IMG_5193Of course, Siena is famous for its Il Campo piazza. Its unique oval shape slopes down to the Palazza Pubblico. Its Torre del Mangia can be seen from across the countryside. I enjoyed walking around and across Il Campo, despite the many tourist contortionists trying to take selfies. Why would you want yourself obstructing the glorious medieval buildings in your photos? 

IMG_5192The most fascinating story about Il Campo is that this is the site of a bizarre, annual horse race. It’s a historic event (of course) in which all neighborhoods of the city wholeheartedly participate. All year, events lead up to this 90 second race. Watch the Rick Steeves’ video below for a good synopsis. When you walk around the empty square, it’s hard to imagine 50,000 people cramped into the center while horses race around the outside.

When I got hungry, I simply picked one of the many wrought iron tables and chairs outside shops. I had pasta quattro formaggi, 4 cheese pasta, for 4.50 euros.

My favourite discovery in Siena was the Fortezza Medicea, an ancient fortress now a jazz school and event center. Perched on top of the ancient wall was an entire elementary school. No road, just a school with a fenced play yard. The walls of the fortress were a great (free) place to stroll and offered a tremendous view of the old city, the towers and, of course, Il Duomo. IMG_5189

The Piazza Duomo is perhaps the most recognized landmark of the city. Every bit as glorious as the cathedral in Florence, this one is perhaps even more decorative. In fact, when I went inside I thought “this is not a church, it’s a piece of jewelry.” Seldom have I seen such an ornate building. Every wall, every corner, every pillar, every piece inside it, is a work of art. Donatell, Leonardo, Bernini – they all worked here and their masterpieces still show off their talents.

IMG_5245
Sculptures, wood carvings, marble statues, paintings, wall hangings…. It is overwhelming. For a mere 8 euros you can wander on your own and gaze at all the medieval fanciness around you, as long as you like. IMG_5231

When you are outside, you notice a gigantic rough brick wall. Just a wall by itself. It impressive to know that the cathedral was supposed to be that much bigger. But then the plague hit the city and the expansion never happened. 

Inside the cathedral, the floors are perhaps the most mind blowing feature. I took photos but the best ones are on the Opera Duomo website where you have a view from the top. The floors should really be hanging on the walls – they are intricate, inlaid marble mosaics depicting biblical scenes. IMG_5238

Suddenly, to the left, is a small room. It is the Piccolomini Library (I love that name because ‘picollo’ means ‘little’ in Italian so ‘piccolomini’ must be really small! It was a family name). Its walls intricately painted, this has been called the world’s most beautiful library. It was built, some 500 years ago, for a pope and to house his collection of manuscripts. Most of the works on display are music scores, painted in gild and curls.IMG_5255

Outside, blinking in the bright sunlight, you can have an espresso and wander down to the Piazza Mercado, once a lovely, covered market place but now simply a parking lot. But one wall has a brilliant cascade of purple bougainvillea, worth the walk there.

Before I sauntered back down the 2 KM to my AirBnB cottage, I bought furlined socks. It’s nippy in Siena in October!

Siena: http://www.terresiena.it/en/info/tourist-information-offices

Wind SIM card: https://www.wind.it/privati/

Horse Race: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_clMjoa9d1s

Il Duomo: https://www.discovertuscany.com/siena/what-to-do/porta-del-cielo-tour.html

Il Duomo: https://operaduomo.siena.it/en/

Via Francigena, Hiking a Pilgrim’s Route

IMG_0156Twenty years ago after hiking the Camino de Santiago for the first time I’m still at it. This time I found the Via Francigena in Italy. It’s another 1100 year old pilgrim’s trail that takes you from Canterbury, England all the way to Rome: 2,000 km. 

IMG_0151After a lot of research I decided to hike the section between Lucca and Viterbo, a 375 km stretch of the trail taking you through much of Tuscany and a small section of Umbria. According to reports on the app of the Via Francigena (VF) it is probably the most scenic of the entire trail. France apparently offers hikers many problems, Switzerland is beautiful but being so mountainous that’s obvious very hard, northern Italy is nice but somewhat boring, so the Tuscan section is supposedly the nicest. 

And, yes, I can vouch for it to be a fantastic experience. The trail is mostly off pavement although there are some sections along highways that are dangerous, but by and large it is through the countryside. Lots of hills (up to 800 meter high) with absolutely outstanding views. 

The trail markings (small red and white signs, brown traffic signs with a pilgrim, or old stones with VF painted on them) are good. Not as good as on the Camino de Santiago, but I needed my VF app only occasionally to verify that I was heading in the right direction. The best time of year for this section of the VF is April and May or September to mid October. The summers in this part of Italy are simply too hot for much hiking.

IMG_5158There are lots of accommodation choices along the way, from a 15 euro a night hostel to 100 euro plus for a 4 star hotel. We started in Lucca, one of the nicest old cities in Italy, and in a week hiked to Siena, another beautiful, historic city. 

After a day of rest I continued for another week to Viterbo, another 250 km closer to Rome. I decided to stop there because the last few day sections into Rome lead you through the outskirts and Rome’s industrial areas. All together an unforgettable hike through some of the nicest landscapes Europe has to offer.

Radicofani is by far the nicest old village I came across. It has few if any tourists, no hotels, just a hostel and it is the cutest little village I have seen. No new construction, narrow streets, steep as can be and very few facilities. Truly a place to be seen. 

IMG_0158The trail varies greatly, most of the time it is on gravel roads or pathways. About 25% is on pavement and 5% of that is along dangerous busy highways where you really have to watch the oncoming traffic. Italian drivers are all on a phone and since they speak with their hands they don’t have any available for steering. 

Just outside Vibrato I hiked on the actual, original Roman road. A Roman road was 14′ wide to allow two chariots to pass each other!

No more chariots flying by, but do be aware of dogs. Yesterday I had to be rescued by a passing motor cyclist who positioned his big bike between me and two vicious sheep dogs. I almost had to mace the dogs, and was shaken up pretty good. Usually my hiking poles are enough to keep smaller yipping dogs at bay, but not the big ones. 

The season really seems to end by mid October, during the last 3 days of hiking on this pilgrim’s trail I saw one other hiker. Often I walk through areas totally devoid of people or buildings. It can be lonely, but that is part of the charm. 

Weekends are hunting days. You hear gun shots far and near throughout the day, no wonder I have seen only one very scared little deer throughout the 300+ km I walked so far.

IMG_5176

Make sure you bring lunch or at least a solid snack because there are stretches where there is absolutely nothing to be had. When you go shopping in Italy – for clothes or just for milk and margarine – you need to remember what time it is. Stores open early but, like in Spain, close again for a long siesta. By 1 PM most shops are firmly closed, to open again around 4 PM. They’ll stay open til 9, 10 even 11 PM. So you can go stock up on veggies at 10 PM but not at 1:30. You just need to get used to it. For budget conscious pilgrims, hostels are cheap: 15 to 20 euros. Twice I was all alone in the entire building because the season was basically over. However, there is also no heat in many hostels so I did sleep with socks on a few nights. Meals are inexpensive compared to Canada and groceries are also cheaper.
It’s amazing how quickly a hiker’s day fills up. We get up around 7:30, dress, pack our packs, go for breakfast and then walk out the door. By 10 AM we’re ready for coffee, if we can find any.

By 1 PM we’ll have lunch, either in a ditch or on a patio if one is nearby. We arrive at the next hostel or whatever place we’ve booked for the night, around 2 or 3 PM. Then we fall on the bed, exhausted. After a while we’ll get up, shower, change, do our laundry in the sink hoping everything will be dry the next morning.
I might have a nap, read or write. Then we’ll go in search of a beer and a glass of wine. Most restaurants don’t open til 7 PM so we need to be patient, even if we’re hungry. After dinner we plan the next day’s hike, charge all batteries (including our own), read and fall asleep shortly after 9. 

Rome’s Most Creepy Crypt

Rome, ItalyWe have all heard of Rome’s main attractions: the Sistine Chapel, the Spanish Steps, St. Peter’s Cathedral. But have you ever heard of the Museum and Crypt of the Capuchin Friers? 

This is a fascinating, if somewhat creepy, chapel underneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Capucchini. For 8.50 euros you can take a tour.

Here, for several hundred years, the Franciscan friars, in their infinite wisdom, decided that the bones of their dead colleagues would make a great reminder of our mortality. And so, with likely nothing better to do, they started to use their bones to decorate. Yes, to decorate. Over the years, they used some 4,000 dead bodies. That’s a lot of bones: shin bones, finger bones, everything…

They even gave names to the different rooms they decorated and in which they displayed their morbid exhibits: the crypt of skulls, the crypt of legbones, and (my favorite) the crypt of pelvises. The displays in each room are… well, bare bones.

The dimly lit rooms have chandeliers made from human bones. Mummified arms hold the Coat of Arms (no pun intended). Apparently by the early 1900’s they were told to stop their lurid practise.

capuchin-bone-monk-cryptThe crypt’s website warns ‘don’t go if you’re queasy about such things as furniture made of human bones’. It also states that after the tour of the crypt, you will enter the Gift Shop. I’m afraid to ask what’s for sale there…

These Capuchin friars are the same guys for which your favourite drink is named: reminiscent of their brown habit with pointed hood, or cappa, the word ‘cappuccino’ allegedly alludes to the colour and ‘peaked finish’ of coffee. So, as you sip your next cappuccino at Starbuck, you may contemplate these cheerful guys’ motto, as displayed on a plague on the wall in this creepy crypt: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” 

(And just in case you wonder, no I have not actually visited even though it is almost Halloween.)

https://archaeology-travel.com/italy/capuchin-crypt-rome/

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. 

http://www.athomelucca.com

https://www.trenitalia.com/en.html

IMG_5129

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.

IMG_1311
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.

IMG_1296

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.

IMG_1297

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

IMG_5063

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.

IMG_5073

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.

IMG_5076

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”.

IMG_5084

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.

26153327_174032520025115_1596926981625085952_n-5cbed05f7ff34__700

Our hotel in Lucca: http://www.athomelucca.com/it/

Via Francigena website: https://www.viefrancigene.org/en

Ostello Ponte Di Capiano: https://www.viefrancigene.org/it/resource/accomodation/3967/