Lunigiana to Southern Tuscany: the Heat of the Val d’Orcia

I never said that I would make it all the way to Rome, and I didn’t, but I have walked nearly the entire length of Tuscany from the Passo Della Cisa to Radicofani, about 30 km short of the Tuscany/Umbria border. That’s around 360 km, 300 of which I have walked in one stretch. 200 km more to Rome. Unfortunately, a dodgy knee and heat exhaustion got the better of me, so the final stretch to Rome will have to wait for another time.

Temperatures are rising. Early starts are the order of the day. The route out of Siena is a lot easier than the way in. At six in the morning, the city is empty except for the street cleaners.

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Slowly, the countryside begins to change. The rocky soil of the Chianti region is replaced by clay, and although there are still vineyards and olive groves, there are far fewer here than further north. Instead the smoothly rounded, undulating clay hills are covered in grain crops, still the bright green colour of spring, watched over by castles perched on pointy, jagged protuberances. The typically Tuscan cypress trees continue to be a feature.

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Buonconvento

My first overnight stop after Siena is Buonconvento, a town surrounded by walls dating back to the 14th century. There are few tourists about; it is the Italians who own the streets here.  At dinner, I find myself seated about a foot away from a fellow Brit, who is spending the next few days solo walking between the local towns. It is good to be able to chat in English.

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San Quirico d’Orcia, which is Etruscan in origin, is the next overnight hilltop town and I have a problem. The available accommodation is booked up and the only place to sleep is the pilgrim dormitory. Despite emailing the parish a couple of days in advance, my message has not surfaced.  And the dormitory is full of a group of Italian walkers.  However, a kindly nun takes a French couple, three Swedish men and myself off to an overflow dormitory in the main street.  Actually, it is two dormitories. The Swedes are given the four-bed room and the French couple and I, who have pilgrim passports, are billeted in the more spacious six-bed dormitory.

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As it is a Sunday in spring, San Quirico d’Orcia is holding a flag throwing competition, accompanied by loud drumming.  Some of it takes place almost beneath our dormitory window. It goes on for hours but fortunately mostly in the square a short way down the street.

The French couple, who are about my age, are very polite. However, they speak no English or Italian and my schoolgirl French has vanished. I do manage to establish that they have walked from Arles in France. I am in awe. They have huge packs. He is a small wiry man, with a slight stoop – possibly from that heavy backpack. As brown as a walnut, he scuttles about the room getting organised. He has removed his knee braces and walking boots, revealing white stripes at knees and feet.  She is a large lady, with stout child-bearing hips. To look at her, it is hard to believe the distance she has walked. I have a lot of respect for them. And fortunately, it turns out that neither of them snore.

The coconut (sleeping bag) makes its first and only appearance, although there are blankets on offer. But I need to justify carrying the darn thing, and coupled with my silk sheet and silk pyjamas, I survive the dormitory experience and have an excellent night’s sleep.

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We are up early, and the bar across the street begins to fill with walkers shortly after 6 am. Fellow walkers had been in short supply up until now, but suddenly they are everywhere, although only the French have actually walked any distance. The Swedes are just starting a week’s walk and the Italian party are out for a long weekend. To the amusement of the Italians who take photos, the French sit down to a breakfast of two croissants and a sandwich each, accompanied by huge glasses of milky coffee. The Swedes are first off with me closely behind.

It is too early for the public thermal springs to be open at Bagno Vignoni, a few kilometres away, and it is already hot. And the heat doesn’t stop. For the first time, I worry about my water supplies. The views from the ridges are gorgeous. The distinctive hilltop town of Castiglione d’Orcia can be seen in the distance.  But some of the roads and paths are steep and featureless, and even my splendid hiking umbrella doesn’t save me from the heat. Whenever I can, I wet my cap in the streams and rivers I pass, or pour water over my head on the rare occasions that I find a tap. There are no towns on the route and few trees to provide shade for a break. The final uphill stretch to Radicofani, dominated by its Rocca, castle, is relentless.

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By the time I stagger into Radicofani, I am exhausted. The forecast is more sunshine and soaring temperatures. The next day’s walking is another 32 km under exposed conditions. I realise that I cannot continue. But it was never a contest. I always said I would stop if it was the sensible thing to do.

And Rome will still be there when the weather gets cooler.

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Pilgrim feet
Lunigiana to Southern Tuscany:  the Heat of the Val ‘Orcia appeared on Ciao Lunigiana on 4 June 2015.

 

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