Takeaway

Via Francigena trail: A pilgrimage in Tuscany

Archana Singh | Updated on April 12, 2019

Walk of life: The scenic route allows you to take in the sights and sounds of Tuscany in central Italy   -  EUROPEAN ASSOCIATION OF VIA FRANCIGENA WAYS

Snapshots from a 100-km hike along an ancient route that connects holy towns in the UK and Italy

“San Miniato, where you are standing right now, lies in the heart of Tuscany, and was an apple of discord between Florence and Pisa in the Middle Ages due to its strategic location. Being roughly 20 miles from the two cities, this important town for pilgrims, traders, architects, artists and armies came to be known as the ‘20-mile town’,” said Erica Masani, my guide. I nodded in acknowledgement. To me, San Miniato was, at that moment, no more than the starting point for a trek.

It was my first day of walking the Via Francigena trail with Sloways, a tour operator. As we set out, Masani shared encyclopaedic but interesting nuggets about the trail — from the historic relevance of the walk and the power struggles of the medieval times to a local’s insights about the Tuscany region.

The ancient path might have lost its sheen but is arguably more scenic and less crowded than El Camino, Spain. In the Middle Ages, the 1,300-km route through France, Switzerland and Italy led pilgrims from Canterbury in England to Rome. In 2009, the Italian government started reviving the route based on a journal written by Sigeric the Serious, archbishop of Canterbury, in AD 990. Over the past few years, a modern route has been waymarked through Tuscany and new hiking maps published.

The 1,300-km route takes around 90 days but I do only a part of it — 100 km in five days. Those five days were an excellent antipasto to the Tuscan main course — virgin landscapes, Unesco-protected medieval towns, friendly locals and exceptional gastronomic delights. Above all, it was a more sustainable way to explore Tuscany when popular destinations are groaning under the burden of tourism.

Day 1: San Miniato to Gambassi Terme (24 km)

Our first day was long but scenic, where the classic Tuscan vistas welcomed us with quilted green hillocks, skirting vineyards, wheat fields and olive groves. After three hours of walking on a snaky path in 28˚C, we reached the cool surroundings of a recently restored 1,100-year-old Romanesque Church — Pieve a Chianni. After a hearty Italian picnic lunch of bread, salads, crackers and cheese, cured meats, olives and wines, we continued hiking to the vertiginous town of Gambassi Terme.

Day 2: To San Gimignano (18 km)

The second day was one of the best days of our journey as we headed for San Gimignano, a Unesco World Heritage town called‘Medieval Manhattan’ (for its towers and spires). Though the route was shorter, it was more diverse in appeal — overturned fields with earthy fragrance, golden-greenish vineyards, sunflower fields, long avenues of cypresses, rolling hills crowned with citadels and lush forests with a hint of fall colours.

Around mid-afternoon, we reached the city of towers. Standing atop the tallest tower — the Torre Grossa — we learnt about the patrician families who built 72 tower-houses to showcase their wealth and power.

When the Tuscan sun painted the whole valley golden, a sommelier guided us to a round of wine-tasting at the Museo del vino Vernaccia di San Gimignano. We tried several varieties of Vernaccia, a fruity, dry white wine produced only in Tuscany since the 13th century, before wrapping our day with a homemade Tuscan meal of wild boar meat, cheeses, ribollita (soup) and Chianti wine.

Day 3: To Abbadia Isola (25 km)

With a reluctant heart, I left San Gimignano to cross the Elsa River valley. We splashed around in a stream before reaching Abbadia Isola, a 1,000-year-old abbey.

Day 4: To Siena (19 km)

A golden mist embraced us as we walked to the walled town of Monteriggioni. Despite power changing hands several times, the Lego-like town didn’t lose a bit of its medieval character.

“The castle of Monteriggioni has never been conquered. That’s why nothing has changed here — from cobblestoned streets to sturdy walls,” said the Eraldo Ammanati, chief of Monteriggioni Tourismo, as we stood on its fortified wall.

Picturing ourselves as medieval warriors, we tried armour suits and medieval swords at the Armoury Museum.

After two quick halts, we reached Siena, which was an important stop for pilgrims, artists and traders in the medieval days. I was particularly chuffed to see the Duomo — the black-and-white striped cathedral — and the Piazza del Campo, where the Palio (horse race) is held twice a year.

Day 5: To Buonconvento (14 km)

A 30-minute bus ride and a 14-km walk on soft Sienese clay hills took us to our lunch stop — Fattoria Pieve a Salti in Buonconvento. At this organic farm, we tried Tuscan dishes such as cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta), pici al ragù (hand-rolled pasta in rich tomato sauce), ribollita and fagioli (white beans) along with local wines such as Brunello di Montalcino and, again, Chianti.

The trip had a befitting finale at Italy’s first vineyard run by women — Donatella Cinelli Colombini. Here I was introduced to the concept of wine-tasting with music — four varieties matched to four pieces of music, served in different halls with theatre-like settings, all chosen by Igor Vazzaz, musician and sommelier. I may not have started the journey as one, but Tuscany had turned me into a pilgrim of all things good.

Archana Singh is a freelance writer based in Delhi

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • Fly from any Indian metro city to Florence or Pisa and then take a bus or train to San Miniato (about an hour by road).
  • Stay
  • You can stay at pilgrim hostels, monasteries or three-star hotels on the trail. I stayed at La Cisterna in San Gimignano, Pilgrim Hostel Sigerico in Gambassi, Ostello Contessa Ava in Abida Isola and Hotel Italia in Siena.
  • BLink Tip
  • Well-fitted hiking shoes, comfortable clothing and a hat are vital things to carry. Keep your daypack light with a reusable water bottle, snacks, sunscreen and a camera.

Published on April 12, 2019

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