Bella Toscana!

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Day 62: Massa to Camaiore (23 km)

The sun streaming through the window and the cool sea breeze drifting in woke Eimear and me quite early.  The camp-beds were also not so comfortable as to tempt us to be lazy.  We didn’t see any of the priests when we left so simply left our donation on the table in the room and walked down the hill back to the Piazza Aranci for some breakfast.  I took advantage of a free Wi-Fi point in the Square to check my emails as another University of Kent student would be joining me in the afternoon at Camaiore. 

We had stepped out of Tuscany into Liguria when we crossed the mountains from Aulla, but we were now back in Tuscany and starting to benefit from the recent investment of 16 million euro in The Via Francigena.  8 million was used for safety measures (guard rails on busy roads etc…), 2 million for signage and 6 million for receptive structures including sheltered rest areas.  This amount also placed 40 free Wi-Fi points along the route and in Massa I was using one for the first time.  You need an Italian SIM card to be able to use the Wi-Fi, but at 10 euro for a SIM card it’s very accessible to foreign pilgrims.  Once you have received a code via SMS you can log in at any of the 40 points. 

I had a message from my new companion, Joanna Maskens, an MA student in Creative Writing in the University of Kent Paris programme.  She was already on her way to Italy!  She would arrive at Fiumicino airport near Rome just after lunch and I had arranged to meet her at Pietrasanta at 6 pm.  The day’s plans were not quite straightforward as the accommodation in the Camaiore, which I had planned as the stop, was seemingly unavailable. All attempts to contact the monastery there had resulted in failure.  There was however, excellent accommodation in the convent at Pietrasanta, so I had decided we would walk to Camaiore and then return to Pietrasanta by train and spend the night there.  It wasn’t ideal, but I needed to walk the 9km from Pietrasanta to Camaiore because otherwise the distance the following day would be 33 km and too much for Joanna’s first day on the Via Francigena. 

Eimear and I started our walk out of Massa with difficulty.  We first needed to find the route as it left the Piazza Aranci and unfortunately took several wrong turns until we realised that the route went up a steep incline to the fortress high above the town.  The signs led us straight to the fortress gates, but then there was no way to continue.  After wasting almost half an hour looking for where the route intended us to continue I finally pulled out my GPS to find a way to reach the Via Aurelia, a once Roman road.  This road is highly trafficked but fortunately there was a pavement with a protective barrier where we could walk safely.  There were  a few nervous moments when the pavement ran out and we found ourselves unprotected next to cars and trucks whizzing by, but once we turned left off the road to Prato we were on quiet streets running through the small town.  As a pilgrim on the Via Francigena I had received calls of buon cammino and waves from passing cars, but in this town I experienced, for the first time, applause!  One elderly lady clapped her hands at us smiling and called out ‘brave! brave!’ Further up the road a group of men sitting outside of a café called out ‘Forza! Forza!’ an encouragement I associated with those cheering on a football match.  It was wonderful to see this response from local people to pilgrims on the Via Francigena.  It gave Eimear and me such a boost that we didn’t even mind tackling the climb out of the town up to another hilltop castle.  The climb continued for about 20 minutes but once we reached the top we stopped for a break in the shade and enjoyed the sea view stretching out below us. 

The route continued along the road winding along the hillside until we finally started to descend into the valley 7 km later.  As we walked through the village of Vellecchia we passed a café which was clearly pilgrim-friendly, with lots of pilgrim signs and special offers available.  We didn’t stop for another break however, until we were only a few kilometres from Pietrasanta.  We couldn’t resist a lovely gelateria which offered both a shady terrace and a variety of tempting gelato flavours.  The last few kilometres to Pietrasanta went quickly and painlessly as we were now walking in the plain. The outskirts were quite industrial so we were incredibly surprised to find the town centre absolutely stunning.  A quintessential Tuscan town with narrow streets full of quaint shops and a large square with its own marble-clad cathedral, complete with brick bell tower, and expensive cafes on all sides, their tables and umbrellas spilling out into the square.  One advantage of my plan to continue to Camaiore and then return to Pietrasanta meant that Eimear and I could check in to our accommodation now, leave our rucksacks, and for the first time, walk without them.  The Convento della Rocca was just off the square and Eimear and couldn’t believe our good fortune as we walked up to the gleaming white façade.  We were greeted at the door by a young nun who showed us into the large entranceway and up two flights of stairs to an immaculate dorm room with eight bunk-beds and a spectacular view over the square.  Drawn to the large window, Eimear and I stared out for a few minutes, just taking in the site of the Tuscan countryside and beyond, the sea, with large white cruise ships just visible on the horizon.  We didn’t linger for long in the room as we still needed to walk to Camaiore and to return in time to meet Joanna at the train station at 6pm. 

There were two surprises in store for me as I walked to Camaiore.  The first was to discover that walking without my rucksack was not any easier than walking with it.  After the first few kilometres I found I was starting to feel unusually tired, and I missed not only the weight but also my poles.  My only explanation is that after walking almost 1500 km with the rucksack and poles I had developed certain muscles in my legs, but without them my body now felt imbalanced.  The second surprise, was to find that the forest had been ravaged by storms over the winter and that the path was covered in fallen trees.  It was very fortunate that we did not have rucksacks because even without them we could not find a way through.  Eimear started to get nervous and we were standing among the fallen trees wondering what to do when an Italian man came along. We told him the way was blocked but he was adamant that there was a way through and charged ahead ducking under fallen trees until he was lost to sight. I encouraged Eimear to give it a try and we did find a way through by following a recently made path that went onto someone’s private property.  We looked around guiltily for a moment, but then walked around the fallen trees, climbed over a bamboo fence and found ourselves back on the path which was now clear.  Once we joined a secondary road however, the destruction continued.  Trees had fallen onto fences and were resting on power lines.  Aware of Italian attention to public safety I was quite nervous about walking through this gauntlet of broken trees hanging over our heads. We hoped for the best however, and soon found ourselves out of harm’s way.  That is, until we reached the Via Italica. This two lane road was a constant stream of traffic with no traffic lights or safe crossings.  The route however, continued on the other side of the road where there was a river and towpath.  Eimear and I stood by the side of the road which had also no verge due to overgrown trees and brush.  No car stopped for us so we had to wait in this dangerous place for a chance to rush across the road.  The opportunity finally came and we made a dash for it.  We arrived safely on the other side with our hearts in our mouths, grateful for the quiet path alongside the river which we followed straight into Camaiore.

As soon as we arrived in Camaiore we were relieved that we were staying in Pietrasanta.  The town was quite noisy and dusty and could not compete with the beauty of Pietrasanta. Getting back to Pietrasanta however, was to be our next challenge as the nearest train station was 5km away and there was no bus service between the two towns.  Not wishing to risk being late to meet Joanna I made the decision to call a taxi.  What a luxury to be picked up and whisked off in the comfort of a car back to Pietrasanta.  We arrived in twenty minutes and even had enough time to go back to the convent and shower and change before I went to meet Joanna.

As the train pulled up at the Pietrasanta station I looked out for Joanna.  We had never formally met, but I had seen her once when she had come into my office at the University of Kent to speak to one of my colleagues.  When she bounced off the train and I saw her small rucksack I immediately approved.  We hugged and as we walked to the convent I told Joanna that she was in for a treat, as we were in the penthouse of pilgrim accommodation.  The town certainly makes a good starting point, as it’s both beautiful and well-connected to Pisa airport by train.  Pietrasanta and the accommodation impressed Joanna who I had warned when she applied to walk with me that our accommodation would be Spartan at best.  After she had freshened up from her trip the three of us went into the town in search of a wonderful Tuscan meal.  The restaurants were quite expensive, but we found a rather chic restaurant with a reasonably priced menu.  We each ordered a first course of gnocchi with pumpkin flowers and a local cheese and a bottle of red wine.  The friendly waiter brought us a complimentary starter (antipasto) of toasted bread with anchovies drizzled with olive oil.  All three of us were quite hungry and when the small serving of gnocchi arrived our first reaction was of disappointment.  The meal was so delicious however, that we savoured each bite, and by the end of the meal were perfectly satisfied.  There was of course, the obligatory dessert of gelato to stem any remaining hunger pangs.  It did not take long to locate an artisan gelateria and we indulged in some of the richer flavours such as Gianduia, a milk chocolate mixed with a hazelnut paste.  The three of us made for a very interesting mix that night – one of us had been walking for 62 days, one was on her final day of two weeks, and the third, just beginning her adventure that would finish in Rome.  There were consequently many emotions – excitement, anticipation, contentment, but also, a hint of sadness.  Eimear’s part in this adventure was now over, but we both knew that we would forever cherish the memories of our time together on this incredible journey.        

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Gelato!

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Massa

Piazza Aranci, Massa

Piazza Aranci, Massa

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View of the sea as we walked from Massa to Pietrasanta

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Another example of unique Via Francigena signage

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View from our dorm room in the convent at Pietrasanta

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Unusual sculpture in the square at Pietrasanta

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Square in Pietrasanta with view of the convent at the far end

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A pilgrim highway on a road from Pietrasanta to Camaiore

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Some of the destruction from winter storms we walked through in the forest

Day 63: Camaiore to Lucca (24 km)

It was the morning of Joanna’s first day in Italy and Eimear’s last, so we were sure to make the most of breakfast by seeking out the best café we could find for our cappuccino and cornetto.  We had experienced better, as Eimear sadly pointed out, telling Joanna of some of her favourites on the trip.  The first order of business was to get ourselves organised.  Eimear needed to get to Pisa for her flight that afternoon, and Joanna and I needed to go to Camaiore to pick up the Via Francigena from where I had finished the day before.  We went to the train station to see about Eimear’s train. This was very simple as there was a train every hour.  Eimear decided to go to Lucca for a few hours before her flight to do some sightseeing but, first, she would wait with us until we could take the bus to Camaiore.  We had to wait almost an hour for the bus and when it finally arrived there was a bit of a rush to get on, so Eimear and I did not say a proper goodbye, but we waved to each other as the bus pulled out and we both knew what the other was thinking.  It had been such an amazing two weeks; most especially due to the wonderful company. 

The bus took about 40 minutes to arrive in Camaiore as the route took us along the sea front.  It was the closest I would get to the sea in Italy.  I would not have the chance as I had hoped, to feel the sand between my toes.  Today, we would start to travel inland to Lucca and then Siena.  We did not stay long in Camaiore, but one anecdote is worth telling here: in Italy there is a very interesting situation regarding the use of money.  When you withdraw money from an ATM the bills are usually dispersed in 50 euro bills.  To spend a 50 euro bill however, is quite a challenge, as it seems all shops and cafés have a chronic shortage of change.  If you try to pay with a bill this large you can expect to be asked for smaller change, and if don’t have it, the cashier will usually sigh dramatically as they either empty their till of coins or go to another shop for change.  In Camaiore I only had 50 euro bills and Joanna had one 200 euro and one 100 euro bill.  I decided to go into a bank to change these large bills.  After waiting for about ten minutes for a cashier I explained that I would like to change 400 euro for 20 and 10 euro bills.  The lady behind the desk didn’t seem to know what to say as she stood there with a bewildered expression on her face.  After a few moments pause she replied that that wouldn’t be possible and then turned to a colleague to confirm the impossibility of fulfilling my request.  I was very confused and explained to her that I needed to change the bills as they were too large to spend in the shops.  The lady confirmed that they were too big, but that she could only change a maximum of two hundred of the bills – not 400.  Considering I was standing in a bank I couldn’t really understand the problem, but as with many things in Italy, compromise is often necessary so I gratefully accepted her offer to change 200 euro.  Joanna and I at least could now buy some fruit for our day’s journey at the outdoor market before we left Camaiore. 

As we walked through the narrow streets of Camaiore we passed through Piazza Francigena and once on the main road walking out of the town we saw a fruit and vegetable shop with a large banner hanging outside on which was written: ‘Camaiore: XVIII Tappa di Sigerico’ – Camaiore: 27th stop of Sigeric.  Of course Archbishop Sigeric wrote down the stops on his return journey to Canterbury, and therefore stopped in Camaiore on the 28th night of his journey.  As we passed the shop we were stopped by a ‘buongiorno’ and a lady rushing out from the entrance to greet us.  She was all smiles and welcomes and was fascinated to hear I had started in Canterbury.  She asked if she could take our picture for the local newspaper and after retrieving her camera from the shop proudly led us to a sign that marked the distance to Lucca, the next stop on the official route, and also the distance to Rome.  Joanna had just walked her first mile of the Via Francigena and had already received a warm welcome and had her picture taken.  As we set off to wishes of ‘Buon cammino’ Joanna remarked what an amazing feeling it was to be made so welcome in a foreign country.  She had experienced her first ‘Camino moment’.

With the delay of taking the bus from Pietrasanta and our errands in Camiaore, it was past 12pm before we were on the way.  We had 24 km to go and the day was already quite hot.  After walking though some woods we started our first ascent of the day.  The track was stony and steep but we took it slowly and stopped for some shade and a rest at the top before continuing on a somewhat main road.  A seemingly new woodland footpath appeared to our left which took us off the road but required many ups and downs.  The path abruptly stopped at the road after a few kilometres and so we walked facing the traffic until we reached the village of Valpromaro.

Entering the village we saw a collection of make-shift signs by the side of the road advertising pilgrim accommodation that struck me as being very similar to what you would find on the Camino de Santiago.  In Spain it is very common to see these signs in every village and town you pass.  On the Via Francigena, pilgrim accommodation is usually provided for by the church and so signs are not necessary.  These signs promised an authentic pilgrim experience and it was an encouraging indication of how the Via Francigena will continue to develop.  It was almost 2pm and my guidebook told me that this would be our last opportunity to get something to eat before Lucca.  We first passed a rather dull looking café where three pilgrims were seated outside having coffee.  We stopped to greet them and discovered that I had already crossed paths with them at the pilgrim accommodation in Aulla.  I had not had a chance to speak to them then, but I now discovered that these three Italian men were walking a short section together and that for two of them, their journey would end in Lucca.  Wishing them buon cammino Joanna and I continued on our search for some lunch.  We just made it in time to the only village shop before they closed for lunch and were able to buy some simple ingredients for a picnic.  The lady in the shop invited us to go to the pilgrim accommodation where we could sit comfortably and have our lunch.  We thanked her and traced our steps back twenty metres to a small two-storey building with a terrace in the back with café tables and chairs.  The back door was open so I went inside to just check that it would be alright for us to sit outside.  I walked straight into a large room with long tables – just perfect for communal pilgrim meals.  Off to the left of the room was what looked to be a well-equipped kitchen and a stairway to the right indicated the dorm rooms were upstairs.  Two men and a woman were chatting away in Spanish but stopped to greet us in Italian when we walked in.  Inviting us to make ourselves at home they explained that they were hospitaleros – volunteers from Spain who were here for the week to look after the pilgrim accommodation.  This place really was inspired by the Spanish Camino. 

Joanna and I had our picnic out on the terrace under the shade of an umbrella and were even treated to a plate each of paella which the hospitaleros had just prepared for their own lunch.  We were so comfortable and felt so at home that we both wished we could have stayed, but Lucca was beckoning at just 13 km away.  We thanked our generous hosts and continued out of the village onto another stony and steep woodland path up to a ridge.  At the top of the ridge we found one for three Italian pilgrims who was looking at his GPS intensely.  A white arrow pointed to the left up a narrow road but this gentleman insisted that it was not correct.  According to his GPS we needed to go right. Not wishing to be rude Joanna and I began to follow him.  The road was a series of hairpin bends as it wound down the hillside.  Cars driving up would beep their horn to let oncoming cars know they were coming, but as pedestrians we had no way to let them know we were there.  Our unofficial guide was starting to stop and look around him in doubt and I too shared his uncertainty that we were on the correct road.  The man finally declared that we shouldn’t trust him and turned to go back up the hill.  Feeling slightly put out that we were now half-way down a hill going the wrong way I decided to take this man’s advice and not continue to follow him.  I pulled out my own map and decided that, although we were not on the official route, we could join it further on by continuing on this road.  Glad to have regained my sense of direction we charged down the hill and were soon back on the Via Francigena. 

It was Joanna’s first day and I had warned her that at the first hint of a blister we should stop and treat it.  We had already stopped once to inspect some tenderness she was feeling on the sole of her left foot and now we stopped once again to check on it.  We applied some gauze and tape to the area that was rubbing and hoped that would do the trick.  I could sense Joanna was starting to feel tired and we were now walking under an intense sun with no shade.  Our final 3km into Lucca was on a pleasant cycle track alongside the Serchio River.  Just as the medieval bell towers of Lucca came into sight our energy levels crashed and we had to sit on one of the benches to rest and have some of our fresh apricots to recover.  I had been to Lucca once before and was greatly looking forward to seeing its surrounding battlements, its narrow windy streets and beautiful piazzas and churches.  The promise of what was now clearly in sight motivated us to make a last effort and we soon arrived at the gate of San Donato.  We were staying at the pilgrim accommodation run by the Confraternity of the Misericordia di Lucca.  This turned out to be a hospital in the heart of the historic centre.  The hospital was busy but at the reception we received a warm welcome and after filling out a form and a getting the stamp for our pilgrim passports we were shown to the pilgrim flat.  The gentleman who walked us over explained that it had been newly renovated.  I was astounded by how lovely the flat was. Similar to a studio there were three beds, a kitchenette and ensuite bathroom.  Everything was brand new and spotlessly clean.  The flat was on the corner of the building so our two windows looked out onto two of Lucca’s medieval streets.  When the gentleman left Joanna and I just looked at each other in disbelief.  Our own flat in the centre of Lucca, the whole city at our doorstep to explore and the certainty of an amazing dinner.  We were exhausted but at the same time anxious to see the sights. 

By the time we showered and rested we were not left with much time to explore the delights of Lucca.  Joanna’s feet were also feeling quite tender, so walking too far from the flat seemed unwise.  After enjoying the nearby Piazza San Michele and the spectacular façade of the cathedral we decided a long, relaxing dinner was the best cure for tiredness and sore feet so went back to a restaurant that offered a pilgrim discount near to our accommodation.  A glass of wine and a large plate of pasta was just what we needed.  We toasted to the next the sixteen days of our journey to Rome wondering what other delights awaited us.

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Banner in Camaiore

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Church of San Michele in Lucca

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Joanna Maskens on her first day on the Via Franciena – Lucca

Day 64: Lucca to Altopascio (18 km)

It was with a pang of reluctance that Joanna and I closed the door to our private little flat in the centre of Lucca the next morning.  We had slept incredibly well and knowing we only had 18 km to walk that day meant we made a bit too relaxed a start to the day.  It was after 9am when we dropped the keys back off at the hospital and went in search of breakfast.  We were spoiled for choice with the numerous cafés.  One bakery off San Michele Square distinguished itself from the others with trays of delectable pastries piled on top of marble countertops.  The shop was small and narrow but the locals were crowding in for coffees at the small bar in the back and were walking out with their beautifully wrapped packages of pastries.  Although cut repeatedly by the savvy locals as we waited in line at the till to pay for coffees and cornetti, we finally asserted ourselves sufficiently to obtain our receipt and went eagerly to each counter to order almond cornetti and cappuccinos.  I have had many cornetti over four years living in Italy, but for Joanna this was only her second.  She savoured every bite declaring it the best thing she had ever had in her life.  It wasn’t only the quality of the pastry that made this breakfast particularly special, it was the atmosphere.  It was a Saturday morning and it seemed as if the whole city was out to play in the glorious May sunshine.  We were not able to stay in Lucca for very long but the authenticity of our experience there gave us memories that would last a lifetime. 

It was difficult to hurry in Lucca that morning.  The streets were packed with families, couples and groups of friends ambling though the city with nowhere in particular to go, just enjoying the sights and sounds around them.  I had one objective before we left Lucca, and that was to locate the Piazza Anfiteatro where the ancient Roman amphitheatre had once stood.  The oval shape of the piazza preserves the shape of the amphitheatre whose foundations and remaining walls are now concealed by the medieval buildings.  After walking from Canterbury to Lucca I was perhaps overconfident in my navigation abilities, and so each left turn we took, which I believed would lead us to the Piazza, brought us, instead, to either a dead end or to a street which veered away from it.  I finally glimpsed the curve of the Piazza down a narrow street and followed the outside until we discovered an entrance which brought us into the centre of the oval Piazza.  The Piazza is now full of restaurants and seemed quite touristic, but a clothes line full of baby clothes hanging between two windows indicated that this ancient place had not been given over completely to tourists. 

We had lost a lot of time looking for the Piazza Anfiteatro and it was time to make a move.  The maze of streets made finding the correct gate out of the walled city another challenge, but finally we found ourselves on the correct street to take us out of the Porta Elisa.  Once outside the gate the red and white stickers of the Via Francigena were again visible and we confidently started on our way through the outskirts of Lucca.  It was already hot once we got outside of the city.  We stayed almost entirely on roads exposed to the full sun with additional heat radiating from the asphalt.  We passed through few towns or villages and finally decided to stop to sit on a low wall by the side of the road for our picnic lunch, lacking the energy to wait for somewhere more comfortable or with some shade.  We battled through the heat along the road until we came within six km of Altopascio.  We walked down the main street of the small town of Porcari and found just what we had been hoping for – an air-conditioned gelateria!  With generous cones in our hands we savoured the cool of the shop and the delicious flavours of our gelatos.  It is a strange phenomenon that the last 5 to 6 km are always difficult, whether you are walking 35 km or 18 km.  I recognised that it is purely psychological, but somehow that doesn’t seem to dispel the feeling that those kilometres drag on and on.  There was little warning that we had arrived in Altopascio until we found ourselves in front of the distinctive church of San Jacopo Maggiore and San Rocco.  To find our accommodation my guidebook instructed us to go to the town library next to the church where we could pick up the keys. The library turned out to be closed, but a sign gave pilgrims a number to call about the accommodation.  A gentleman answered the phone and promised he would be ‘right there’.  He was as good as his word, for within five minutes a gentleman arrived on a bicycle and greeted me as ‘pellegrina’.  Joanna and I followed the man across the square, past the town’s pilgrim office, which was pointed out to us with great pride, and up to a door with a large brass pilgrim hung to the left side.  Opening the door we were led up two flights of stairs to a beautifully renovated flat with two dorm rooms and a bathroom.  The rooms had three bunk beds in each, and as we found one of the Italian pilgrims we had met on the way the day before in one of the rooms, we took two beds in the second dorm room.  The room looked over the quiet square with the 11th century bell tower of the church standing out against the cloudless blue sky directly across from us. 

Joanna and I relaxed for the next few hours until the respectable time of 7.30 pm when we could venture to one of the restaurants with a pilgrim discount where we had been assured of ‘local cuisine’.  We were of course the first customers to arrive at the restaurant and were asked to wait 10 minutes before we could be seated.  As promised, ten minutes later we were seated in the modern interior of the restaurant and started to nibble hungrily on fresh bread dipped in olive oil while we waited for our pasta.  I had chosen one of the specials – a rigatoni in a zucchini sauce.  The sauce was made of fresh pureed and seasoned zucchini and was absolutely delicious.  Joanna was a little envious, even though she thoroughly enjoyed her classic spaghetti with marinara sauce.  Convinced by the charming owner to try the homemade tiramisu we decided to have one to share with our coffees.  Joanna declared she didn’t like tiramisu, but once she bit into the delectable dessert placed before us she instantly changed her mind.  As it turns out, she had never tried a true tiramisu before and from that point on we agreed that she would try anything while she was in Italy, even if in the past she had not liked it.  Italy can make gourmands of us all.

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Piazza Anfiteatro, Lucca

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Church of San Jacopo Maggiore, Altopascio

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View from our window in Altopascio

 

Day 65: Altopascio to San Miniato Basso (26 km)

The day walking from Altopascio to San Miniato Basso was a challenging one.  For Joanna it was the day that her blisters started to become unbearable. As for me, I found myself in the difficult position of being completely unable to help.  From my own experience of blisters the key was to treat the affected area before the blister started to form, and to keep a blister drained and protected if a small one had formed.  Blisters had started to appear on Joanna’s feet from the first day, and although we had been extremely proactive in treating them, each day they increased in size and were constantly full of fluid.  I was beyond my own resources and it seemed certain that her shoes were too tight as her feet swelled in the Italian heat.  We stopped at a pharmacy to buy gel inserts and extra blister supplies, hoping we could stop them from getting any worse but our attempts proved unsuccessful.

Looking back on this day on the Via Francigena I can remember little of the landscape as I struggled to keep Joanna’s mind off of the constant pain of putting one foot in front of the other.  The most notable diversion from walking that section was a rally of 1950’s and 60’s Vespas that came roaring past us.  There must have been over two hundred participants, all proudly riding their well-maintained vintage scooters.  Vespa means ‘wasp’ in Italian, and as they zipped by, their name seemed entirely fitting.  At this same point on the Way we also noticed a street named for Archbishop Sigeric.  The locals were clearly aware they were located on the historic route linking Canterbury to Rome. 

The route went through an arid section of gravely soil with hardy plants and trees and at one point brought us to a ridge where we caught a wide view of the valley below.  As we approached San Minato Basso the official route left the road we had been walking on and took pilgrims on a 3 km detour to avoid the blind curves of the road.  Joanna was in agony and we both agreed to carefully proceed on the road. The detour was certainly safer and I would recommend pilgrims to take it, but in that moment we just couldn’t face an additional 3 km.      

San Miniato Basso (Low San Miniato) lies in the valley, while historic San Miniato Alto (High San Miniato) sits atop a ridge.  We had heard from other pilgrims that San Miniato Alto was a beautiful town of medieval streets and historic buildings while Basso was sprawling and commercial.  Although it would have been more pleasant to stay in the historic town, Joanna and I were pleased that for once we didn’t have to finish a day of walking with a steep incline.  The pilgrim accommodation was also much more economical in San Miniato Basso where we could stay at a hospital rather than the Franciscan Monastery that asks for minimum donations of 25 euro per person.  The hospital Misericordia provided perfectly adequate pilgrim accommodation.  It was a holiday weekend in Italy, so we were surprised to find 12 other pilgrims staying with us.  The four beds available had filled up quickly, and Joanna and I were offered a mattress on the floor in a small gym.  Outside of the hospital entrance was a large wooden sign with the Via Francigena symbol welcoming us.  At the reception we were presented with a personalised certificate which was carefully rolled up and placed inside a plastic tube.  The thought was very sweet, but as I thanked the gentleman for this keepsake I silently wondered why they imagined that pilgrims, who have to carry everything with them on their backs, would want such a thing. 

After our difficult day on the road Joanna and I were slightly subdued.  Once we had showered and washed our clothes we sat down to inspect Joanna’s feet.  Her blisters were enormous and the Compeed plasters she had placed on some of them had started to peel off.  We took them completely off and were at a loss what to do to help the blisters heal.  One Italian gentleman, whom we had first met after Camaiore, came over to offer his advice.  He was very kind and seemed so knowledgeable that I advised Joanna to take his offer to help treat her blisters.  He went to get his professional-looking blister pack and acted with such confidence that, when I saw how he treated the first blister, I merely questioned what he was doing.  However, as he continued, I started to object outright as I felt very concerned.  He adamantly defended his method and as nothing I had tried had worked previously reluctantly Joanna and I decided to and  let him treat all of the blisters.  He assured us that she would be able to walk tomorrow and we were taken in by this promise.  I still cringe at the memory of what he did, which was essentially break the blisters, the absolutely worst thing you to do.  As soon as the other Italian pilgrims returned for the night they inspected Joanna’s feet and shook their heads.  The whole ‘procedure’ had been very painful for Joanna – particularly the application of an antiseptic.  We talked that night about the possibility of her taking a few days off and travelling on to Siena by train and waiting for me there.  Joanna was very reluctant to give up, which is how she saw it.  I told her something that I had heard many times on the Spanish Camino – that is ‘there is no right way to walk a camino’.  Each pilgrim finds their own way.  My way was to continue walking but Joanna had to make a decision that was right for her situation, and in my view, that was to take a train to Siena, to get some better shoes and to rest her feet for two days.  We agreed to wait until the morning and to make a decision then. 

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Vespa Rally after Altopascio

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A dusty dry trail to San Miniato Basso

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A welcoming sign at the pilgrim accommodation in San Miniato Basso

Day 66: San Miniato Basso to Gambassi Terme (24 km)

The hospital we stayed at in San Miniato Basso had warned us that we had be out of the gym before 6.30 am as there was a class being held there at that time.  We hadn’t completely packed our bags by 6.30 so Joanna and I pulled our things out into the hall to get organised.  Joanna is a very optimistic person and with the sun shining brightly and thinking about all that she would miss between San Miniato and Siena she assessed her blisters and declared she would try to walk.  We agreed we would walk to San Miniato Alto for breakfast and to make our final decision there.  Walking up the steep climb to reach San Miniato Alto Joanna was very quiet and I could tell she was in pain.  We walked quite slowly and stopped a few times to readjust her socks and shoes but there was little we could do to alleviate the pain.  The wonderful views of the valley below and the idyllic Tuscan architecture and rich colours of the town helped to motivate her onward until we reached a beautiful café, with a glass wall at the back, where we could sit and soak in the sun and scenery.  The cornetti filled with apricot jam were so delectable that Joanna and I devoured one each and then ordered a third to share.  I used the Wi-Fi in the café to determine how Joanna could get to Siena that day.  I first discovered that the only way to get there was from San Miniato Basso, which would ordinarily not have been a problem, except it was a holiday Monday and no buses were running between San Miniato Alto and Basso.  There were of course other solutions, but in the end Joanna was determined to walk and I was reluctant to leave her in a small Tuscan town with no Italian to find her own way to Siena.  Putting on a brave face Joanna demonstrated to me how she was fine, walking up and down the square.  She made me laugh and respecting her wish to try (acknowledging also that I would probably have done exactly the same thing in her position), we started on our way to Gambassi Terme.

The landscape after San Miniato Alto is precisely what you would imagine of Tuscany.  I had been surprised that the mountainous area of Pontremoli was Tuscany, as films and books on Tuscany always show the quintessential rolling golden fields with the lines of cypress trees.  We first walked through vineyards and past beautiful farmhouses where the road was lined by trees and offered some shade.  At about 11am the route became a path through open fields of high wheat-coloured grass that continued as far as the eye could see.  The heat became unbearable and the air was still, offering not even a hint of a breeze.  We were desperate for some shade when magically a covered picnic table appeared by the side of the road.  This was one of the benefits of the 16 million euro Tuscany had invested in the Via Francigena and we were exceptionally grateful for the foresight of planners to provide shade for pilgrims.  What was lacking however, was water.  We were both starting to run out and had been unprepared for the extreme heat.  My guidebook said there was water available in 4km so we conserved what we had and continued on.  Signs started to appear for a pilgrim café called the ‘Oasis’ where we could find ‘cold drinks’.  The café was appropriately named, as an oasis was just what we were in need of in this waterless landscape.  There were so many signs that we believed we would see the café very soon but we were in the middle of the countryside and nothing was in sight.  After climbing a hill Joanna and I were desperately thirsty.  I had a little water left and shared it with Joanna.  We ate the last of our fresh apricots for the refreshment of the juice inside.  I couldn’t understand where we were to find the water indicated in my guidebook, but then a cemetery appeared on top of a hill.  While walking in rural Northern France I had relied upon cemeteries for water as it was the only place you could be sure to find a tap.  I knew this would also be true in Italy and so walked around the cemetery when we arrived looking for a tap.  I couldn’t find it anywhere but then heard a call from Joanna who had found it tucked inside the cemetery at the back.  What a relief!  We drank a litre each and filled our water pouches – more than we probably needed for the 7 km to Gambassi Terme.  The last section was as always a push to the end, but just as the town came into sight around a bend in the road, a sign for our pilgrim accommodation appeared.  The Ostello Sigerico was a kilometre before the town of Gambassi Terme and turned out to be a beautifully renovated priest’s house which had once belonged to the Romanesque church of Santa Maria.  Still a holiday, the hostel was full up with cyclists and foot pilgrims.  Joanna and I were shown to a lovely room with five beds and an ensuite bathroom.  We were the first in the room and we both chose top bunks to enjoy the glorious views of the countryside from our two windows.  Joanna had been so brave all day but the thought of suffering so much day after day became too much for her and some tears were spilt.  From Gambassi Terme I found out that there was a bus to a train station where she could take the train to Siena.  We agreed without question that this would be the plan for the next day.

In Gambassi Terme Joanna had her first experience of a pilgrim meal and we both thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere of the lovely dining room full of happy pilgrims.  For 10 euro we were treated to a three course meal prepared by the hostel volunteers using local and fresh products.  Most of the pilgrims were Italians and they showered compliments on the cooks, one man even saying that the polpette di patate were as good as his own mother’s.  We ate, drank and laughed until nearly 10 o’clock when it was time to part ways.  The next day would be hot and an early start was essential.  I knew that I would not see these pilgrims again as I was not following the official route to Siena.  The extra kilometres that the Official Route added to that of my guidebook was particularly apparent in this section where an additional day was necessary to following the official route.  Instead of stopping at San Gimignano for the night and taking  long detour to Monteriggioni and then a third day to reach Siena, I would walk through San Gimignano and follow the unofficial route, that is signed by the white stickers and white arrows, spend the night in Colle di Val d’Elsa and then walk to Siena on the second day.  If I had been aware of the difference between the Cicerone Guide and the Official Route when I had planned the trip I would have preferred to have taken the extra time and been able to stay in the two wonderful historic towns of San Gimignano and Monteriggioni but unfortunately, I needed to stick to the original timeline. 

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A sunny morning walking up to San Miniato Alto

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La Piazza del Collegio, San Miniato Alto

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Looking into Piazza del Collegio, San Miniato Alto

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Welcome to beautiful Tuscany – endless vineyards and gorgeous views

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Gambassi Terme

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Day 67: Gambassi Terme to Colle di Val d’Elsa (27 km)

Joanna and I decided to have breakfast together before we parted ways and so walked up the hill into the town centre of Gambassi Terme.  Off the square we found the café Oasis, whose signs we had found so tempting the day before.  We were able to have a lovely breakfast and I also bought a sandwich of focaccia with fresh mozzarella and tomato to take for my lunch.  Made fresh to order and only costing 1.70 euro you would have to travel far in the world to find something so delicious for such a price.  These sandwiches were my stable lunch while travelling through Tuscany. 

The holiday in Italy seemed never to end and buses were still running on their holiday schedule even though it was now Tuesday.  Joanna wasn’t able to take a bus to the train station in the end, but the incredible generosity that you find when you are a pilgrim provided us with a solution.  We returned to the hostel to ask if one of the volunteers could call a taxi for us and the gentleman I spoke to unhesitatingly offered to take Joanna himself.  I was so grateful, as I knew he would be able to help her with purchasing a ticket at the tobacconist near the station.  Certain that Joanna was in good hands I started off to Colle di Val d’Elsa with an easy conscience.

I had not walked on my own since Eimear had joined me 17 days before.  I missed Joanna’s company as it took me a while to get used to the silence again.  It was pleasant however to walk at my own pace and to find my rhythm once more.  It was a beautiful walk to San Gimignano, mostly on a quiet road with lots of shade and spectacular views of vineyards stretching out to the horizon.  The towers of San Gimignano appeared 6 or so km before I began to climb up to the town.  It was swelteringly hot and as I started walking through the crowds of immaculately dressed tourists, who were enjoying a day out in the historic town, shopping and indulging in local gourmet treats, I became at little embarrassed at my appearance.  San Gimignano is so beautiful I couldn’t bear to walk through without stopping, so putting my pride aside I walked up to the Piazza della Cisterna.  I assessed the six or seven gelaterias I found there all claiming to have the ‘world’s best gelato’.  I was sceptical of their claims, particularly as the signs were in English.  I was desperate for something cold and sweet so I chose the only one that was in the shade where I could sit outside without risking my gelato melting before I had a chance to eat it.  There were just so many tourists I couldn’t really enjoy the atmosphere of the medieval town and therefore made a start as soon as I’d finished my gelato promising myself I would return one day – off season. 

Walking away from San Gimignano I could make out the towers of the town almost until I reached Colle di Val d’Elsa 12 km later.  Taking the unofficial route did not cause me any problems with finding my way, but there was a rather humorous point when the official and unofficial routes divided.  The official signage was clear and pointed to the right, but the unofficial marks of a white pilgrim and the white arrows had in one instance been painted over and then obviously in a show of defiance painted again.  I had heard that there was some animosity between the various groups who were marking the route to Rome. I was grateful that the unofficial route was still sufficiently marked for me to follow to Colle di Val d’Elsa.  The path went through a vineyard until it came out onto a quiet road.  Just outside of the town I walked along a cycle path that brought me right into the centre.  Finding my way to the accommodation at the Monastery of San Francesco was a bit more challenging. I didn’t realise by looking at a map that the monastery was located in the old town which was perched atop a plateau.  The buildings of the lower town obscured the higher town and it was only when I came to an elevator that I realised that the way for pedestrians to reach the higher town was to take this elevator up 40 metres. The alternative was to walk up a very windy road.  I was delighted to take the elevator which I accessed by walking through a tunnel where water dripped from the ceiling to the large shaft where daylight glittered through 40 metres above. 

Once in the upper town I was amazed at how it differed from the lower town.  There were, at first, only pedestrian streets lined with lovely stone buildings.  The town was so quiet, and I felt a strong desire to explore each the maze of streets which branched off into tunnels and downs steps.  At the end of the street that ran the full length of hill I passed through a gate out of the most historic area back onto trafficked streets.  Here I first saw that the monastery was on another hilltop with a town park in the valley between.  It took a further 20 minutes to walk to the monastery and I arrived just before 6pm.  I was met by a priest who showed me and two other pilgrims, who had arrived at the same time by bicycle, to the pilgrim accommodation.  We walked through a large entrance hall into a spacious sitting room and to a long corridor with, perhaps, 10 rooms leading off.  I was shown to the first on the left which had two bunk beds and an ensuite bathroom.  The priest handed me my own set of keys and stamped my passport.  I was to have my own room! 

It was now, in the evening, that I missed Joanna’s company the most.  On the Camino in Spain there are so many pilgrims it’s impossible to feel lonely, but the cyclists who had arrived with me at the monastery were nowhere to be found when I went out for some dinner.  Walking back from a pizzeria the lower town there was a bright moon and clear sky which showed the high town to its best advantage.  The streets were deserted and I walked slowly, soaking in the moonlight and the warmth of the evening.   

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Vineyard and Via Francigena pilgrim rest area

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First view of San Gimignano

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Piazza della Cisterna, San Gimignano

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San Gimignano

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Looking back at San Gimignano on the way to Colle di Val D’Elsa

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One of the curious little streets in Colle di Val d’Elsa

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Colle di Val d’Elsa bathed in moonlight

Day 68: Colle di Val d’Elsa to Siena (30 km)

In the quiet of my own room at the Franciscan Monastery in Colle di Val d’Elsa  I was a bit too comfortable and so made a quite reluctant start to the day.  I was still off the official route and had no way of knowing how easy or difficult my 30 kilometre journey to Siena would be.  From my guidebook I understood that I would be walking mostly through the countryside and so needed to set off with provisions for the day.  As usual, a good breakfast gave me that boost of energy I needed to start on my journey and after a quick stop at a supermarket I started walking out of Colle di Val d’Elsa on a busy four-lane road.  Where the road then divided outside of the town the signage was placed at a strange angle which led me 15 minutes in the wrong direction before I realised my mistake. 

Once back on the right road the signs were sufficient for me to find my way quite easily.  The way was mostly flat with some areas of shade.  Due to my late start it was already hot when I left Colle di Val d’Elsa and two hours later as I reached Abbadia a Isola 3.5 kilometres before Monteriggioni I already needed to refill my water pouch which I was able to do at a convenient water fountain in the small village.  I could now see the fortified hill-town of Monteriggioni ahead, its impressive circular walls still perfectly intact.  There were only fields surrounding the hill and so the way was a farm track leading me right to the base of the hill.  As I walked the straight track I noticed something scurry out of the bushes ahead, cross the road and dive into the bushes on the opposite side.  It was too far away to be sure, but my instinct told me it was a wild boar.  From past experience I became a little wary and as I approached the spot of the track I looked around cautiously.  There were thick bushes on both sides and I could easily miss something hiding there.  Walking slowly and attentively it is easy to imagine the start I gave when I heard a series of very loud squeals.  I stopped dead in my tracks, my heart in my mouth.  The squeals continued.  A little further up the track there was a gate into the field to my left.  I walked cautiously towards it and peered over.  The field was full of domestic pigs!  Maybe the boar had come for a visit with his domestic cousins.  Much relieved I continued on my way.  Once I reached a small wood, the path divided.  I could have gone left and avoided the climb into Monteriggioni, but I had no intention of missing out on seeing this medieval town.  The climb was brutal and again I found myself walking into tourist central, red in the face and huffing and puffing and consequently got some curious looks.  It was now about 33 degrees and no doubt it seemed quite crazy to be hiking at midday in such heat. 

Monteriggioni is now uninhabited and what businesses are there exist purely to cater for the tourists who come to see this historic town that appears to come directly out of a chivalric tale.  I found a lovely little park with some shade provided by olive trees and sat to cool off and to have my lunch.  It was 2pm by the time I got up to continue on my way to Siena, which lay another 16 or so km.  On my way through the town I passed the pilgrim accommodation and stopped to get my passport stamped.  While waiting I bumped into two Italian ladies that Joanna and I had met in Altopascio.  They were quite concerned to hear I still had so far to go and touched my forehead and cheeks to see if I was overheating.  They were very sweet, but I couldn’t help but smile at their concern when I thought back to the previous two months on the Via Francigena.  I was tired and hot, but I knew my own limits, and had no doubt I would reach Siena safely.  I assured them of this and bid them goodbye.

After Monteriggioni I started to see tall towers of castles up on hillsides along the route.  The path wound through grassy fields and the ground became a very rich red soil.  It suddenly occurred to me that it was the colour, burnt sienna.  Of course, this is where the colour comes from.  Through a little research I have discovered that the clay used to make raw Sienna comes from this area as the soil is rich in the iron oxide.  Iron oxide, when heated, becomes a darker brown colour, which produces burnt sienna.  The rich soil against the blue sky made for a spectacular effect.  The path led me past two castles and then a place I had been looking out for on the route for some time.  It is called La Villa, and is a rest area for pilgrims where everything has been carved out of wood by a local man.  I had been shown pictures of it by Luca Bruschi in Piacenza but I didn’t remember exactly where it was  on the route.  Now I had found it!  It was getting late, but I had to stop at least to look around and to write in the book and stamp my passport.  I had only been there a few minutes when the owner came out of his house to greet me.  He was so welcoming and kind, and clearly very proud of his creation.  I complimented him on his artistry and told him I had walked from Canterbury.  He was very excited by this and asked if I would like a coffee.  I was starting to get a little worried at how late it was, but I couldn’t refuse his generosity.  He led me over to a sheltered area with a long table with a counter where he had his espresso maker.  He handed me a postcard with a picture of his pilgrim rest area on it and told me to write it to whoever I liked and that he would send it for me.  I, of course, wrote it to my family.  Once I had finished the postcard and my coffee I passed the postcard to the gentleman, promising to send him a one in return when I got back to Canterbury.  Before I left I asked for directions on how to get to Siena.  There were two options from this point, one of them much shorter than the other.  I decided to take the shorter route due to the time and so started down the track waving goodbye as I went.

By the time I reached the outskirts of Siena it was 5 pm.  I understood immediately why the longer route had been created as the shorter route meant walking along a busy road with no pavement, hemmed in on both sides by high walls.  I reminded myself that many pilgrims had walked this route before me and all I could do was be as careful as possible.  It would soon be over.  A pavement began as I walked passed the Siena hostel, which is a good option for pilgrims if they are too tired to continue the further 40 minutes into the centre of Siena.   Of course I had Joanna waiting for me at the Convent of Santa Luisa, so I pressed on wondering when I would finally enter the gates of the medieval city.  As promised by my guidebook I saw my first sign for Rome!  Could I really be so close?  I felt a flash of panic at the thought that my incredible journey was coming to an end, but how could I dwell on the inevitable end when the excitement of what I would see and experience over the next 10 days was still before me.  It was 6.45 pm when I passed up the gates of Siena and I was exhausted.

The beautiful streets of the historic centre led me directly to its heart at La Piazza del Campo.  This breath-taking square is in fact shaped like a shell and is both curved and sloped, accommodating the three hills that converge at this point of the city.  The fishbone tile paving of the square creates a fanned design using lines of travertine marble all meeting at the lowest point and dividing the area into nine areas.  The number is thought to represent the nine rulers (Noveschi) who planned the square in the late 13th to early 14th century.  I walked open-mouthed down the slope of the square to the opposite side, taking in all of the wonderful architecture of the surrounding palazzi and the great tower of the Palazzo Pubblico.  The convent was just down one the streets beyond and I knew Joanna was expecting me.  After a little confusion and some texting back and forth I found Joanna and the convent. It was 7pm. 

Joanna and I were very pleased to be reunited.  She led me inside and took me up to our room to change.  I was so hungry that I was down the stairs again within 20 minutes where I met Sister Ginetta.  I’m not sure Sister Ginetta quite approved of my H & M black dress as she looked me up and down and said ‘insomma’ in a scolding tone, the English equivalent of which in this instance would be a ‘humph!’  I could tell she said it in fun however, as her eyes twinkled with humour.  Before we left she proclaimed gravely, that we had to return by 10.15 pm or we would be shut out for the night.  ‘Remember, 10.15!’ we heard behind us as we closed the convent door.

It had been a long day, but I had been reunited with my camino companion and we were in Siena! A place I had been dreaming of seeing for years.  We decided not to risk sitting down at a restaurant in case it took too long.  Instead we went to a fresh pasta take-away, which clearly catered to the students, and got a dish of pasta and a drink each to eat in La Piazza del Campo.  It was certainly not fine dining, but we were incredibly happy watching the coming and goings of locals and tourists and taking in the view of the square.  The time passed far too quickly.  We left the square with just enough time for a gelato, which we had to finish outside of the convent under the gaze of Sister Ginetta.  Bidding us a warm goodnight, Sister Ginetta disappeared down a corridor and Joanna and I went up to our room where I promptly fell into bed.  As I drifted off into a deep, peaceful sleep I could never have imagined what would wake me up half an hour later.

It was a warm evening and we had left our windows open.  An outdoor concert, which must have been taking place just behind the convent, came blaring through the open window creating the sensation that I had been transported in my sleep to an Italian rock concert.  It was not quite what one would expect, sleeping in a convent in a medieval city, but there it was – one song after another, each followed by uproarious bouts of applause.  By 2 am I was going mad I was so tired.  We had closed the windows in an attempt to block some of the noise, but the room then became stuffy and airless.  It was impossible to sleep.  The moment the music ended at about 2.30 am I instantly fell asleep.  My alarm was set for 6.30 as breakfast at the convent was at 7am.  How was I ever going  to make it 32 km to Buonconvento that day?   

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Monteriggioni

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Gate to leave Monteriggioni

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the red soil of the Sienese countryside

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La Villa

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Selfie at La Villa

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Entering the walls of Siena

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Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

 

 

 

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