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Walking the Via Francigena 

This is a post about our Via Francigena; why and how we did it.

Of course, everyone has different reasons for embarking on such an endeavour, different timescales, budgets, abilities etc, etc (never mind, hopes and aspirations!)

We, in no way purport to be experts, just keen walkers (with limited time and a mid range budget) looking for an authentic experience connecting with local people, along the way.

The Preamble.

We got the walking bug last year after deciding to walk the Portuguese Camino (central route). We had mused on and off about walking a Camino for years, but it wasn’t something we thought we would ever really do…until we did it (with about 6 weeks to organise it). We’re not much into forward planning – our wedding also had a 6 week lead time….

We enjoyed the experience so much and were eager for more. So we returned to Portugal late last Summer to walk from Porto to Vigo on the coastal route, as we were experiencing a serious case of FOMO! As with the previous trip, we were not disappointed by all the sights, sounds and tastes on this trip, leaving us hungry for more…

Since then, thoughts about where to walk next had been rumbling around. Some time after Christmas, some cursory research lead us to  the Via Francigena, an historic pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome.

The section Lucca to Siena particularly appealed as we could combine walking through stunning scenery, visiting some seriously beautiful places whilst devoting ourselves to some top notch eating; all of our favourite pastimes rolled into one!


The Planning 

So, a couple of months ago we started our planning. This comprised of buying a Cicerone guide to this section of the route, watching a few YouTube videos and getting out our trusty whiteboard out.

We planned our stages, opting to miss out the Lucca to Altopascio stage as, (at that time) it seemed there was little positive information about it. (An alternative route has recently been devised).  We joined a Facebook page, Via Francigena which proved to be a great source of information sharing and top tips and recommendations.

Using to book our mid range B&Bs allowed some flexibility with free cancellation, etc. Aware that Easter time would probably mean a price hike, we were willing to swallow this, as our holidays are fairly prescriptive due to work commitments.

However, we were pleasantly surprised that we managed to find double en suite rooms starting from a modest 56 euros a night. (Our most expensive room was in Siena on Easter weekend – around 95 euros).
We booked Easyjet flights from Luton (our nearest airport), to Pisa. Research showed this would involve a short transfer to Pisa Centrale station where we would take a short train ride to Lucca, where we would be staying for 2 nights.
Our return flights were from Bologna to Luton via Ryan Air, as our plan was to spend some days in this city, before departure.
The only other issue was that of our bag transfer. We opted to take a cabin size bag as we were spending extra nights in Lucca, Siena and Bologna, so wanted to have our “civvies” with us!
I approached several different recommended  companies for info on this, but neither got back to me (possibly as I only had one bag to transfer it wasn’t financially worthwhile to them?).  I posted an enquiry on the VF Facebook page and a guy caĺled Alessandro from a B&B (Il Giardino) in Monteriggioni got back to me offering to transport the bag (30 euros for the first day, which is a 2 stage trip, then 20 euros for each day thereafter).
I took a bit of a leap of faith and accepted his offer. Despite my initial nervousness, this all worked really well (several of the B&Bs didn’t have a reception,  so I supplied Alessandro with their contact no.s and he arranged collection/delivery directly with them.
We decided to get our “credentials” from Canterbury Cathedral so we could collect stamps along the way and keep a record of our journey. This was very straightforward and involved a phone call to the office at the Cathedral, who then kindly posted credentials (Credenziali) to our home address.
We started to learn Italian. I chose Duolingo. Brian read somewhere about the benefits of listening to Italian QVC, so that’s what he did…(each to their own )
We got some training walks in during the intervening few weeks. On average, we would walk 10 miles in a day (at weekends). Then do 2 days back to back. (In retrospect, Bedford, surely the flattest county in the UK, might not have been the best training ground).
I had some new North Ridge walking shoes to break in (having left my last pair in a launderette in Santiago de Compostela), whilst Brian continued in his trusty Keens trail runners.
As with our Camino, we prepared our feet with E45 cream morning and night and stuck to the merino wool sock regime (changing them every 2 hours or so). Any murmur of a “hotspot” and I applied plasters or moleskin.
The reality check 
One weekend we decided to go to Canterbury to walk the first stages to Dover.  Naively, we thought we could do this 20 mile stretch in one day. It is probably possible if you don’t get lost along the way… unfortunately, we somehow we arrived into Shepherdswell in the wrong place (presumably having turned off the correct path at some stage previously) and could not find the correct path out again.  We followed the wrong path, for some time, before deciding to head back to Shepherdswell to get the train back to Canterbury for the night.
We resumed our walk early the next morning, being pointed in the right direction by some friendly locals who had done the walk themselves. They told us that people regularly get lost In this village…. (In our defence, I would say that the signage is patchy, at best and the entrance to the “right” path is lost amidst overgrown hedging and hoardings. In general, the VF on this part of route wasnt great, some parts of the “path” involved walking across muddy, ploughed fields, wet from snow the previous week, which made going very hard)
Anyway, we eventually, made it to Dover. Unfortunately, it being a Sunday in March, the tourist info/museum was closed and we were unable to get our credentials stamped. (I later emailed them and they posted out stamps that I glued into our credenziale)
Getting started for real(ish!)
Happy to report that flights and transfers all went very smoothly. The monorail to Pisa Centrale and the short onward train journey to Lucca were straightforward (just remember to validate your rail ticket in the small green and white machine usually located near the exit to the platform). We then took a short taxi ride to our B&B, which was located just outside the city walls.
After our somewhat inauspicious start in the UK, I admit to a case of first night nerves – would we be able to do this? Would the signage be easy to follow? Was 28kms too long for the first day?
So, as we had 2 nights booked in Lucca, we took anxiety reducing action, firstly by downloading the VF app (to avoid getting lost) and then opting to do the first part of the route (7kms), the next day. This would give us a “feel” for what the next few days might bring.
We decided to take the train to Altopascio and walk as far as the first village Galleno, where according to the guidebook there would be 3 bus routes available, to take us back to Lucca.
Altopascio, a short walk from the station, was a small and pleasant town where we just about remembered to get our credentials stamped (at the library/biblioteca). Once exiting the square in the right direction, the walk was straightforward and pleasant, through some small fields and wooded areas.
The route is well signposted. However, at times what was a little confusing is that there are Via Francigena signs for walkers, different routes (same colour signage) for cyclists and also ones for cars!!! So there is a need to be vigilant.
Arriving without incident at Galleno, we went to the nearest bar to enquire about buses and have a beer (of course!). The friendly guy behind the bar and his mate cheerfully informed us the next bus to Lucca would be in 2 3/4 hours’ time. Even though this was a friendly place, we didnt much fancy this, particularly as we hadn’t done much sightseeing in Lucca on our very wet arrival the previous evening. We resigned ourselves to getting a taxi, at which point a woman came into the bar and offered us a lift back to Lucca. A most fortunate turn of events.
More lessons learned;
1. That Duolingo/QVC Italian has already come in handy
2. The guidebook might be a bit sketchy on detail.
Really walking the Via Francigena 
DAY 1 ALTOPASCIO TO SAN MINIATO 28kms (21kms as we had a head start from Galleno)
After a good night in our excellent B&B Stella and a take away breakfast from their adjoining pasticceria (opens 5am!), we headed to the station and hopped on a train to Altopascio. Weather reports were concerning, so we were feeling relieved about our choice to get a headstart.
The plan was to get a taxi from the station to Galleno, where we had finished yesterday.  We had numbers of local drivers to call. In reality, it turned out the only taxi available was going to come from Lucca and would cost us €55….
We decided to set off walking. I soon became aware of a chap in a BMW watching us & I reckoned that sooner or later he would offer us a lift. After 10 mins, the guy stopped and we negotiated a price of €20 to get to Galleno. No, he wasn’t a licensed taxi, and we probably shouldn’t have, but we accepted the lift and guess what, everything was fine! (We learnt some stuff about Puccini, Da Vinci and floodplains, I think!).
The rest of this day’s walking was fairly uneventful other than we bumped into my VF Facebook buddy, Todd from Michigan. We spent a companionable day walking and getting to know each other, in the real world.
The weather held out nicely,  despite looking very ominous in parts.  The walk was really pleasant through a little town called Ponte a Cappiano, with a bridge in the middle where an old chap tried to tell me something about Mussolini and the bridge…
We walked along dykes and marvelled at the buildings reflected perfectly in the water. I saw my first iconic cypress trees, so I was happy with that. We happened across a vintage car show in friendly Fucecchio where we stopped for a much needed panino and beer in the main square.
The route seemed to zigzag a bit and it felt like we were getting closer, then further away at times, which was a little discombobulating.
The final, steep ascent to San Miniato was challenging at the end of the day, but we were rewarded with a very beautiful and charming town with a flea market in progress on the main square.
(I noticed the next day that there was a lift/elevator from the base of the town to the top if you got to that stage and really couldn’t proceed.)
We had an excellent dinner at the very low key Bar Cantini which had incredible views of the sunset. The lady in the restaurant kindly stamped our credenziale as we had missed the tourist info and it wouldn’t open till 10am the next day. (I ate a fabulous spaghetti with porcini mushrooms, which whilst super simple was my favourite dish of the trip).
Our B&B, Casa Dalma was just lovely and so cosy with sweeping views across the valley from the balcony. Our charming host, Elena made us feel so welcome.
More lessons learnt;
1. taxis are expensive and not always readily available
2. A little language goes a long way, but sometimes not far enough (in the case of my “chat” about Mussolini).
3. The simplest food is always the best (not everything needs cheese!)
This was a challenging, but beautiful day’s walking. The sun was shining as we bid farewell to Elena, our bags full with the sandwiches she had insisted we make at the lovely communal breakfast.
We walked through picturesque rolling hills, saw rows of cypress trees and handsome farmhouses and estates. We marvelled at the strong wind rushing through the green fields and came across a deserted farmhouse that we momentarily considered as a doer upper. We also met some friendly folk from Rome; a doctor and a pharmacist, which we thought could come in very handy.
There were 2 sections of road walking on this day, but we didn’t find them too arduous. What does make this section challenging is that there are no services on the way (other than water fountains, which were usefully signposted on this section). In general, we found that stopping places were useful for motivation/reward – this probably says a lot about us….However, if you are well equipped, it shouldn’t be too much of a struggle.
On the ascent to Gambassi, you pass a portakabin type affair on your left. This is the tourist info office where you can get a stamp.
In the small spa town of Gambassi Terme, we stayed at the charming olde worlde La Rocca. We really liked the chintz, the chandelier in the bathroom and the bidet with a cheeky view. The family also run the Bar Centrale in the square where you can get an excellent aperitivo and/or breakfast. Special mention for the chilled guy around the corner from the square at Pontormo Caffe, knocking out some really good pasta and pizza in a really relaxed manner!
Todays lesson; keep something in the tank to make that final ascent each day!
We stocked up on water from the fountain near our hotel. Grabbed a sandwich and several espressos each at Bar Centrale and headed off down the hill.
This would be a short day’s walking across many hills, past olive groves, vineyards and wineries. San Gimignano soon comes into view, but slips in an out of view, quite tantalisingly!
There is a grotto at Pancole where the Virgin Mary was said to have cured a deaf girl. We didn’t stop to visit it.
Although this section was short, we were somewhat frustrated by the lack of services on this section. This was made worse by the faint promise of coffee cup symbols on the signage of several wineries; one turned put to be closed, the other shooed us away. A hotel even shut it’s electric gates on us!
However, this was soon forgotten as we walked through the gates of the stunning UNESCO jewel that is San Gimignano. This was a busy but beautiful spot, even more so after dark when everyone had left….
We stayed at the excellent, spacious El Feudo rooms with a great coffee machine and the bonus of being right on the path (just beyond Porta San Giovani) We arrived early so ate a great lunch at their restaurant in the town centre (15% off for hotel guests). Brian had his best dish of the trip; pasta with wild boar.
Today’s lesson;
1. All that glitters is not gold.
2. Just because a place advertises that it serves coffee, it doesn’t mean that it will. Maybe the good folk of SG were having an off day – even the tourist info lady told us to be quiet!!!
DAY 4 SAN GIMIGNANO TO MONTERIGGIONI (should have been 27.4, turned out to be 32kms)
A very cold and frosty start.We stocked up on focaccia for breakfast from the bakers across the small square by Porta San Giovani (opens 7am) and the next door grocery  shop supplied us with water and nonna’s freshly made cheese panini (opens 7.30am). (The guidebook states that the last place for refreshment on the route would be just on the outskirts of town – this bar turned out to be closed).
Today’s route crossed fields, wooded areas, olive groves and vineyards. Early on, there was frost underfoot and at times it felt more like Switzerland! We crossed several icy streams, one of which required bare feet, which kept us revitalised and focused!
There are officially 2 routes to Monteriggioni and there comes a point when you have to choose whether to go the official route via Quarteira or via Coll d’Elsa (a supposedly shorter route).
The point of decision making is in a wooded area and is well signposted. We took what we believed to be the shorter route with more services via Val d’Elsa.
We were glad we took this route as we got to see the lovely old town of Val d’Elsa and stop at the groovy Bar Italia on the newer square for coffee. This seemed like a really peaceful and sophisticated town.
However, it must be noted that this is where the signage (& app) deviated from the guidebook.
We followed a curious route behind the swimming pool down to the river. We were soon rewarded with the awesome beauty of an unexpected riverside section.  The crystalline pools and falls were opalescent in colour, almost otherworldly, like nothing we had seen before. Even though this added extra kms, we agreed we would not have missed this for anything (strangely no mention of this route in the guide, at present)
Monteriggioni eventually comes into view, after what feels like you have walked around on yourself. It appears tantalisingly close, then it disappears from view.
I have to admit, the final ascent to the fortress of Monteriggioni was all a bit of a blur due to tiredness and the much needed beer we had consumed beforehand; at the final crossroads before the ascent you come to the oasis that was Bar dell’Orso.
However, fatigue is soon forgotten when you walk into the pristine medieval fortress that is this magical place; a just reward for a tough day. Even better still is the quiet that descends once the day trippers have departed….
Having got our credentials stamped at the tourist info in the main square,  we booked into the super atmospheric Camere dentro Il Castello (rooms in the castle!) and dined by the open fire at their own restaurant a short hop (fortunately) across the street.
Today’s lessons;
1. More layers required.
2. I am starting to lose faith in my guidebook ( this is hard for me to accept as I am resolutely old school)
3 Have faith in the signs. It might seem dodgy around the old swimming pool but you will be rewarded in spades.
Another freezing start (minus 2,  we were later told). We awoke early in need of coffee so took the (possibly crazy) decision to walk back down the mountain to the fabulous Bar dell’Orso to drink several coffees each and get the best country style cheese rolls for breakfast, plus some for our journey (the guidebook warned there would again be no services on this route).
Before heading back up the mountain and starting our route proper…. There was some road walking on this route, but most of the day is through undulating countryside and is not too challenging.
We came across a great pilgrims style resting spot after about 7km  (La Villa) where you can get coffee, food etc – a real gem! (curiously this wasn’t mentioned in our guide, though has clearly been here for many a year)
I say not too challenging, but you reach a route marker saying 2kms to Siena, which felt like the longest 2kms of our life. (Several people have since confirmed it was more like 6kms).  That final part on the roads, some of it pretty steep isnt the best, but a quick glimpse at Piazza del Campo as we whizzed past on the way to our albergo erased all of the soreness/stiffness/bitterness.
We checked in to the super central Albergo Bernini with its antique tiled floors, large airy rooms and most importantly, roof terrace with jaw dropping views of the Duomo. This charmingly simple place would be our home for the next couple of days whilst we explored this most beautiful city…

Having got our credentials stamped at the Duomo office (very straightforward), we headed out for our final VF evening to the magnificent Piazza del Campo where we had some drinks with our buddies Todd and Stefano, followed by an excellent homestyle meal at Trattoria del Papei in Piazza del Mercato (a great recommendation from Stefano’s foodie friend).

Todays lessons;

1. A little local info about where to eat is invaluable as the choice is overwhelming

2. Prosecco tastes much nicer in the sunshine on Piazza del Campo (than back home in drizzly blighty)

General observations 


The VF paths/routes are clean and well maintained.

Official VF signs (the brown ones) are plentiful, but make sure you’re following the right ones for your mode of transport (as mentioned above)

Signage for water can be patchy (tho very good on some sections)

The VF app is very useful for staying on track (literally), but doesn’t provide context.

The guidebook was useful in planning the stages and gives good historical information about each place. It is important to have the newest edition to ensure information about routes/services is up to date.

The route was pretty quiet, but very friendly. There is quite a low key vibe (tho we cant speak for the albergues).

We met people from Ireland, US, Croatia, Spain, Norway, Denmark and of course many Italians on the route, so there is a great international feel.

Bag carriage was super reliable, though we will try to do without in future (later in our trip we discover the benefits of left luggage service which we may consider on future trips).

Layers are essential. A merino wool base layer would have been useful on several mornings, as would have some light gloves.

We didnt use poles, but these might have been useful in wet conditions.

Merino wool socks, hats, sunglasses and snoods (is that the right word?) are also essential.

Footcare pre and post walking and worn in shoes (we believe) saved us from a single blister between us.

The B&Bs we used were all what we consider to be of a very good standard and reasonably priced. We particularly liked that in over 50% there was coffee available 24/7 (free of charge). Espresso is one of our key motivators…
The food and wine everywhere was excellent and again, price/quality ratio was bang on. We usually opted for house wine, being in chianti country this was universally good.

Try and learn some Italian, it is so well appreciated and gives you a little “in” to people’s everyday lives.

We hope we have broken our trip down to make it accessible. We would recommend this walk to anyone of a reasonable fitness level, particularly culture vultures with an interest in history, religious art, architecture, food and wine.

However, we would seriously recommend splitting the stage to Monteriggioni at Vall d’Elsa – an interesting and charming town where we could have spent more time.


As always happy to answer any questions/hear your thoughts!


If you would like to learn more about where we stayed, what we ate, as well as more photos from our route, please check out our Facebook & Instagram pages. (A Taste of a Place blogs; Tuscany and Bologna to come….)

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