The holy trail of Via Francigena gives you an extraordinary view of the Tuscan countryside, medieval towns, churches and abbeys, and a closeup experience of the locals, food and an all-woman run vineyard
Via Francigena is to Christians what Kailash Yatra is to Hindus. In the 6th century, the 1300-km pilgrimage began from the Canterbury Cathedral in England, passing through France, Switzerland and Italy before reaching the eternal city, Rome. Almost forgotten for centuries, the ancient trail is undergoing a revival. The trail has been well marked and both online and offline maps have been developed.
In October 2018, I walked this ancient pilgrim path in Tuscany, Italy, with Sloways, the official partner of the European Association of Via Francigena. Although the whole trail of 1300-km takes around 90-days, I did a portion of it, 100-km in five days. Those five days were an excellent trailer of the Tuscan countryside blockbuster showcasing the untouched vistas, UNESCO protected medieval towns, charmingly warm locals and extraordinary food and wine. Most importantly, it was a more sustainable way to explore Tuscany.
DAY 1: SAN MINIATO TO GAMBASSI TERME (24 km)
The classic Tuscan vistas welcomed us with rolling hills, skirting vineyards, freshly harvested wheat fields and olive groves. After three hours of walking on a snaky path in 28˚C, we reached a recently restored 1100-year-old Romanesque Church — Pieve a Chianni. After lunch, we continued our journey to Gambassi Terme.
DAY 2: GAMBASSI TO SAN GIMIGNANO (17.6 km)
San Gimignano, a UNESCO world heritage town, is called the ‘Medieval Manhattan’ because of its sky-piercing skyline. The route was very diverse in appeal — freshly ploughed fields, never-ending vineyards, long avenues of cypresses, rolling hills crowned with vertigo-defying citadels and lush forests.
Around mid-afternoon, when we climbed the tallest tower — the Torre Grossa — we heard tales about the patrician families who built around 72 tower-houses as symbols of their wealth and power.
As the golden hour began, an expert sommelier took us on a sensual journey of wine-tasting at the Museo del vino Vernaccia di San Gimignano. We tried several varieties of Vernaccia, a fruity local dry white wine produced only in Tuscany since the 13th century before wrapping our day with a wonderful homemade Tuscan meal.
DAY 3: SAN GIMIGNANO TO ABBADIA ISOLA (25.4 km)
Leaving San Gimignano behind, we crossed the Elsa river valley to jump into the freshwater stream and rest for a while before reaching Abbadia Isola, a 1000-year-old abbey. This large Romanesque abbey was covered with marshlands until the 11th century when Benedictine monks took charge and built a church and a monastery.
DAY 4: ABBADIA A ISOLA TO SIENA (18.6 km)
At the crack of dawn, we made our way to the perfectly preserved medieval walled town of Monteriggioni, where Eraldo Ammanati, the Chief of Monteriggioni Tourismo, was waiting for us. He shared why this pint-sized town didn’t lose a bit of its medieval character despite power changing hands several times. Standing atop the fortified walls of the castle overlooking the valley, he said, “The castle of Monteriggioni has never been conquered. And, that’s why nothing has changed here — from cobbled streets to its city walls.”
After two quick stopovers, I reached the UNESCO protected town of Siena. During middle ages, it was one of the most important stops for pilgrims, artists and traders on the Via Francigena trail. While the whole town is click-worthy, I was most impressed by the Duomo-Siena’s black and white striped cathedral — and Piazza del Campo — world renowned for ‘Palio’ (a historic horse race).
DAY 5: FROM LUCIGNANO TO BUONCONVENTO (13.6 km)
The Tuscan countryside is like the Chianti produced there — meant to be savoured rather than gulped. A short ride from south of Sienna brought us to Lucignano, from where we walked on the soft ochre coloured Sienese clay hills topped with a line of cypresses to reach Buonconvento. Food in Italy tastes much better than anywhere else. It’s been several months since I returned from the trip yet my mouth starts watering when I think about Cacio E Pepe, and Fagioli (white beans) I had at Fattoria Pieve a Salti, a 700-hectare Agritourism organic farm near Buonconvento.
The trip had a befitting finale with wine tasting at Italy’s first all-woman run vineyard — Donatella Cinelli Colombini where I was introduced to a novel concept of wine tasting with music.
Via Francigena tests and builds not just your physical strength but your spiritual as well as emotional side too. I might not be a classic pilgrim but you don’t even have to be religious to experience the joy of walking on this old pilgrim path to Rome.
Fly from any Indian metro city to Florence, Italy, and then take a cab or a bus to reach San Miniato.
Best time: May-June and September.
Stay: You can stay at pilgrim hostels, monasteries or 3-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.
What to pack: 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 camera.
For more information on the Via Francigena visit viefrancigene.org or sloways.eu.
(The writer is a brand strategist-turned-travel writer who documents her experiences on travelseewrite.com)