The Via Francigena is a lesser-known cousin of Spain’s Camino, writes Yvonne Gordon. It's arguably more beautiful, too...
“San Miniato is halfway between Pisa and Florence,” says Anna Dottori, our walking guide. “The emperor built the tower here so the other towns would recognise his power and authority. At night, you can see the lights of Pisa, Lucca and Florence.”
We’re standing at a panoramic point, in the town of San Miniato in Tuscany, hearing about ancient power struggles while enjoying views over green hills, olive and cypress groves, and a clock tower. The town is along the Via Francigena, the path that led pilgrims from Canterbury, England to Rome in the middle ages, passing through France, Switzerland and Italy, much of it through Tuscany. If you’ve heard of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, this is its lesser known — and arguably more beautiful — cousin.
The Via Francigena route dates back to the 6th century and Archbishop of Canterbury Sigeric wrote an account of travelling the route in 990. During the Middle Ages, it was a main road to Rome for both pilgrims and goods, where overnight rest stops were set up at monasteries and churches in main towns, many which still welcome Via Francigena pilgrims to this day.
Some of the 1,700km route was forgotten over the centuries, but in recent years, a programme to recover the Italian part, clear the trail and map the route has led to a whole new generation of pilgrims.
Taken with the idea of walking some of the trail over a few days, and seeing Tuscany at a slow pace, I sign up for a group walking trip — a taster of the long-distance walk. After what seem like Everest-type preparations the night and morning before our start — with everyone preparing snacks and protein bars, filling water bottles, checking gear, packing sun cream, blister pads and spare socks, checking the forecast, public transport and the taxi and cafe situation… we set off.
Our first day is long — walking from San Miniato to Gambassi Terme, around 24km. It’s hot — some 28˚C, and despite the snacks and fancy gear (I’m in brand new trail shoes), we’re not the hardy bunch we look and some of us skip the first 5km while others skip the first 10km — worried about lasting the full 24km in the heat.
We ease into it, starting where the trail leaves the main road and turns into a white gravel track leading to a typical Tuscan scene. There are low, rolling hills all around, dotted with olive groves and patches of cypress trees. In the distance, a beige path curves up around a green hill to a golden-yellow farmhouse with a red tiled roof.
As we walk through the Elsa Valley, the trail becomes greener with trees lining our path. We pass more farmhouses and along an avenue of cypress trees, watching butterflies flit between the flowers along the way. It’s quiet along the trail, save for birds and insects.
As we walk, we chat, getting to know each other and hearing each other’s stories. Some of the group have done parts of the Camino de Santiago, others walk or hike at weekends. We’re all ages and everyone has a different reason for coming; there are people travelling alone, a couple who came to walk the trail years earlier but couldn’t due to an injury, and four pals that met on the Spanish Camino and decided to do another trail. The woman who gets our immediate respect is Mary, who has walked the entire Camino.
At the small church at Coiano, benches and a water fountain mark the ideal stop for a picnic lunch. In the afternoon, the trail opens out from a tree-lined path to open countryside and we can see across the wheat fields to distant valleys, with olive groves and tiny villages dotted in the hills. Haystacks sit in perfect rows under a blue sky with white puffy clouds as we pass up and down the gentle inclines.
It’s beautiful, but as legs tire and heat kicks in, much of my last hour is spend wondering if we’re nearly there. When the guide says there’s 5km to go, I’ve no idea how long it will take and try to do walking speed calculations in my head. We finally reach the end of the trail at the top of a hill which curves up around a vineyard.
The next day is an easier walk to San Gimignano, a beautiful 13.5km trek. We stop for a rest at the monastery at Pieve di Cèllole, a quiet space with beautiful views of valleys and distant vineyards. Our next stage is 11km to Colle Val D’Elsa, a town divided into upper and lower sections, the older upper part dating back to medieval times.
The scenery on the Via Francigena is fascinating, and stories discovered along the way tell of the route’s rich history and long pilgrim tradition. In the walled city of Lucca, where we stay the first night, I hear of an Irish priest called Frediano who stopped on his way back from Rome in the 6th century and stayed on, becoming bishop for 28 years — the Basilica of St Frediano is named after him.
Relics were an important feature on the path, and Lucca’s cathedral is home to the Volto Santo (holy face), a crucifix thought at the time to have been the first image created of Christ, carved by Nicodemus. The cross became a must-stop on the pilgrimage — the church even has holes in the back door so that pilgrims could pray to the cross when it was closed.
At San Gimiano, famous for its medieval towers, there were nine ‘hospitals’ for pilgrims to stop at in Sigeric’s time. Monteriggioni is a walled castle with a tiny village inside — including a fun museum where visitors can try medieval clothing and hold weapons, and three hostels which welcome ‘pilgrims’. At nearby Abbadia a Isola, where an old abbey once sat on a small ‘island’ surrounded by marsh, various hostels also hosted pilgrims on their way to Rome. You can still stay there today.
The final stop on this section of the trail is Siena, where the pilgrims would walk along the long, narrow Via Camolli and traders would sell them silk and spices.
Pilgrims were not always poor — for some, they just wanted to reach Rome once in their life. For me though, walking even a tiny part of the Via Francigena is a rich experience I will always treasure.
Learn the route’s story at the Via Francigena museum in Lucca (viafrancigenaentrypoint.eu/en). Don’t miss the superb video installation in its basement vaults.
Spend the night at a traditional hostel like The Contessa Ava dei Lambardi hostel (+39 0577 300000) in Abbadia a Isola. It has welcomed pilgrims since the middle ages.
Swim in a thermal pool. Tuscany is full of healing thermal springs — take a dip where the Via Francigena trail passes Le Caldane near Colle di Val.
To avoid blisters, correctly fitting shoes are vital. Great Outdoors (greatoutdoors.ie) does a proper fitting service and gear list, and will explain why even the right socks make a difference. Bring a reusable water bottle to fill at fountains and plenty of sun cream and snacks.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Pisa three times a week between May and September. For more information on the Via Francigena see viefrancigene.org. For more on Tuscany, see visittuscany.com.
A self-guided tour walking around 130km of the Via Francigena from Lucca to Siena starts at €835pps including seven nights’ B&B, five dinners, luggage transfers, route notes and a pilgrim passport with Camino Ways (caminoways.com or francigenaways.com). Prices exclude flights. Guided group tours start at €680pps.