After the tarmac and pavements from Sarzana to Altopascio, I am now spoilt by the rolling hills of Chiantishire. The senses are almost overwhelmed by the beauty of the place – that’s if one isn’t huffing and puffing up those never ending rolling hills.
Sunday in the Italian countryside. The locals are out doing what they normally do on a Sunday. I passed a bunch of butch men, dressed in camouflage, firing what looked like machine guns right alongside the path I was negotiating. Then there were the sulkies, the two-wheeled horse carts, racing along a track in the middle of nowhere, and the town where everyone was dressed in medieval costumes.
Having trudged through grass higher than myself, I am somewhat astonished to be confronted by men in mustard tights and purple booties in the medieval town of Fucecchio, where I have just missed the local Palio. The old centre is cleared of cars, and it doesn’t appear to matter who won, everyone is celebrating.
My stop over that night is another hilltop town, San Miniato. I have overcome my concerns at staying in pilgrim accommodation and have booked myself into the Convento, which I presume is run by nuns, having spent some years being educated in a convent. It is not. It is run by priests. No matter. I have a private room and bathroom, a little cold and austere but fitting for a religious establishment. I gracefully accept the invitation to dine with the priests as my research tells me the place will be filled with other pilgrims, all with a story to tell. It is not to be. I am the only pilgrim.
Four priests and me. I am mortified.The priests don’t speak English so my bad Italian has to suffice. Three of them appear to be perfectly normal blokes dressed in civvies and make kindly enquiries about my walk. The fourth is a sort of aging Friar Tuck caricature. Except not very jolly. He slurps his way through three bowls of soup and a couple of glasses of wine, never acknowledging my presence. Breakfast is the same except Friar Tuck doesn’t put in an appearance.
The countryside is filled with the wild flowers of spring. And, If I’m not dazzled by the rows of vineyards almost as far as the eye can see, I am admiring the skill that goes into pruning the ancient olive trees, which are showing the first signs of blossom. Stylish farmhouses, some the size of small castles, decorate the landscape, the terra cotta bricks and roof tiles enhancing the countryside.
I spend a night in Gambassi Terme, another hilltop town, famous for its spa. I have a conversation with someone called Dixie. I have never met a Dixie before and find it hard not to start singing that popular American song.
San Gimignano, that magical town filled with towers, is the next destination. Sadly, it is also filled to the brim with tourists taking selfies. But, like all tourist towns, the buses depart and the night belongs to the locals and the few overnight visitors. The late evening sunlight softens the outlines of the towers, and the babble of foreign languages no longer drowns out the sound of the swallows shrieking as they swoop and dive over the roof tops.
I walk through Colle di Val d’Elsa, an unexpected treat. The old town is long and narrow and filled with noble houses ranging from the 15th to the 17th century, and a castle.
My favorite hilltop town is Monteriggioni where I spend the night in a hostel, but in a prvate room. I was expecting Montereggioni to a somewhat smaller version of San Gimignano, but it is absolutely tiny in comparison. One large square surrounded by a few buildings and a church. My accommodation is right on the square. There is not enough to see to entice the tourist buses to Montereggioni and only the more adventurous independent tourists are about. It is quite special. Because I have a pilgrim passport, I am given free access to walk around the city walls and a discount at the restaurant.
And then on to Siena, where I am taking a rest day. I have walked over 200 kms to Siena from Sarzana, not yet half way to Rome. I have just over 280 kms to go.