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.


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: