One step at a time: the Via Francigena
It feels like a million years (ok, ok, maybe a couple of months), since we undertook our six-day trek on the Via Francigena. So much has happened in the past few months that sometimes I struggle to wrap my head around it, and when that head is spinning, I have to remember why: between moving continents for the third time in 18 months, getting married, having friends and family here, Nicola launching his business, grasping again how to live in another country, another culture, with another language, trying to still make a living and retain and build my independence here (and deciding to cut up my credit card), teaching my first yoga retreat, wrangling with health issues and visas and…yeah you get the idea.
So when I sat down to write this post (apart from procrastinating by doing the dishes, filing my nails, and posting an Instagram story first) I couldn’t work out where to start.
I went to my notebook only to find I’d only kept scribbles of bits and pieces for the first three days. Fail. The highlights?
- ‘Met tin-hat man’ (Alberto, a northern Italian who wrapped his head in aluminium foil – possibly to reflect the heat but I never got around to asking him).
- ‘Pancole: reminded me of south-west WA: rolling hills, red gravel roads, vineyards and a dry heat (ha!)’
When I imagined my honeymoon Tuscany was always on the agenda, but to be fair it was probably not in a ‘carry your own backpack’ around kind of way but more of a ‘stay in a villa and get your espresso served on a verandah’ deal.
Life has a pretty funny way of giving you exactly what you need though. And in July, I found myself hand-in-hand with my husband, on my own two feet, carrying that backpack through our Tuscan backyard, so I guess it’s not only what I needed, but more than I ever dreamed of.
The Via Francigena, or ‘road from France’ actually extends all the way from Canterbury to Rome.
It’s more than 2000km long and if you do it all, takes more or less three months to complete. It crosses the French Alps and Champagne region, Great War battlefields, as well as stacks of other culturally and historically significant sites. But (unbiased opinion, obviously) I do think Tuscany has some of the most beautiful sections (hello, hectares and hectares of Sangiovese?)
Firstly properly documented by a bloke called Sigeric the Serious in 990 (yes, really…he was Archbishop of Canterbury), it was formed partly because the Lombards, who were competing with the Byzantines for territory in the 7th century, needed a safe route to connect Pavia with their territories in the south, and as a trade route, before coming a religious pilgrimmage. You can read more about the history of the route here.
I’ve just started watching Vikings (I know, I’m approximately a decade behind the times with Netflix), and oddly last night saw the Season 4 episode where little Prince Alfred makes his pilgrimage to Rome. The real Alfred of Wessex was born in 849BC and there is some speculation over the route he took to get to Rome. By that I mean while I was reading up for this post, I found a couple of sites that said he would have taken the Via Francigena, but I’m not about to pretend to be enough of a history buff to say for sure. Anyway, I digress.
With only six days to explore, we started our trip in San Miniato (note to truffle lovers: go here in November). You can get the train there (from Pisa) but a) from what I can see on the map, the train station actually lands you at the bottom of the town, not the once-fortified centre, which sits on top of the hill and from where you tap into the trail; b) Nicola’s Aunty and Uncle offered us a lift, so we said yes.
We planned on one section per day, which is, I think, the only way to sensibly do it on foot, given the sections are up to 30km long. It seems like a lot, but with a good baseline level of fitness, six days of this is totally achievable. Any longer than say ten days and you’d need to be more prepared. Given the length of the sections, the number of people you’ll see along your way will depend on how many depart alongside you. Unless you stop for two nights in one place or double up on sections, you’ll see the same faces along the route each morning and evening.
I think we played the time we had well. From San Miniato our first stop was at Gambassi Terme. Night two was in San Gimignano, then on to Monteriggioni, Siena, Ponte d’Arbia and the final stop at San Quirico d’Orcia. We managed to cover some of the most picturesque and spectacular landscapes in Tuscany, and, I’d wager, over the whole 2000km. We were a little disappointed not to reach Radicofani, but there’s always next time. I always struggle to describe exactly how Tuscany looks: we live in the wild part, the north. But this is the postcard Tuscany: rolling hills, vines, bales of hay and tractors. The famous bit. And much like 2017 when I arrived in Camaiore, I spent a large part of this trip with my jaw unhinged managing to spit out only: ‘It’s sooooo beautiful!’ All up, we covered 150km in the six days.
I would highly recommend downloading the app: it’s incredibly helpful in working out where to stay. We didn’t plan or book ahead. Instead we called one of the spots listed on the app around lunchtime each day. There was one almost-hairy day when we were coming in to Ponte d’Arbia and we couldn’t get in touch with anyone, but the BNB we ended up at had a river view and homemade cake for breakfast, so my inner control freak (who yes, did make her way furiously to the surface a couple of times during this trip, tears included) had to admit through gritted teeth that perhaps ‘going with the flow’, as my husband is so fond of saying and applying as general life principle, worked out. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes I found it challenging though.
The other recommendation is to get a Pilgrim’s Passport, which you can have stamped at each location, and gives you access to ‘pilgrim’ accommodation in churches and church-owned buildings. To get back, we caught a bus to Siena and the train from there back to Viareggio, near home.
Unlike in Australia, where you have to carry everything you need with you, here you can arrive at night and source both excellent food and wine. You will, after all, be in the Chianti region at least part of the time. I’m pretty sure I managed to actually put on weight despite clocking up to 40,000 steps a day. We carried a bit of fruit and some nuts etc, but apart from the hostels at Siena and Monteriggioni, breakfast was provided. And I can’t complain about grabbing a fresh mozzarella and tomato filled foccacia to eat in Piazza del Campo before setting off for the day. The only time we couldn’t find water, we asked a very obliging lady hanging out her washing whether we could fill up our bottles in her laundry.
Budget-wise, most of our accommodation was around 20 euros each per night. We stayed in a mix of BNBs and hostels: in Siena it was a church-owned building right next to the Cathedral, with views over the town. Again I’d be lying if I didn’t say I cringed when I heard the words ’16-bed-dorm’, but we had it all to ourselves. In the height of summer, yep. We could have spent less on food, given that most nights we started with a Spritz, progressed to dinner at an osteria or local restaurant, drank wine and ate gelato, but I have no regrets.
My favourite dinner though was probably the picnic we threw together at our campsite in San Gimignano, eaten on the little balcony of the mobile home we slept in, in my Peter Alexander nightie which again, no regrets on packing.
There is something incredibly special about walking; being off that beaten track. It’s freedom; it feels honest: the feeling that you’ve earned every step. You notice more along the way, you can feel the landscapes and the energy sinking into your skin. My only wish was that we’d had a little more time to discover: six days on the road like and you feel like you’re just scratching the surface. Grateful, with tired bones and a happy heart, but itching for more.