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.

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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. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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: https://www.viefrancigene.org/en/

Museum in Lucca: http://www.viafrancigenaentrypoint.eu/en