September 7

More medieval delights. Long hot day. Guide book barmy. Hit 200kms to Rome milestone.

Noisy and chaotic start. People up and about from 5am. Three people had gone before I got up at 6.30ish. Annoyed that someone took most of the coffee from my espresso stove top. A capital offence around here!

The first half an hour was lovely but when I discovered that having been up and down two large hills, I was only 300mts away from the hostel, I decided to walk along the road; and I’m soon in Buonconvento. A beautiful medieval town. The billboard boasts it is one of Italy’s finest and it doesn’t disappoint. Unlike the coffee. Well it’s not the coffee but the cafe. It’s full of miserable people intent on discussing what they could win on their scratch cards. The actual coffee and croissant were fine but boy what a dreadful atmosphere.

The food shop was no better.  I thought the guy serving me might have a stroke at any time judging by the disapproving looks he gave me. That kind of thing just emboldens me, which makes their stance somewhat counter-productive. Someone should tell them. Rude Laurenzi maybe?

Am soon out of town and start, what is described as a 12kms track to Torrenieri; nearer 20 I’d hazard. The guidebook is clear on the subject but it doesn’t take me four hours to walk 12k! Was shattered by 12noon when I arrived but couldn’t settle or rest, as I still had 6kms to go and it looks like its up hill. Someone has set up a small rest area, in the shade, with seats and a fountain.  It has interesting historical references to the area and the VF. Meet the Italian couple who left around 6am.

After a short break I go for the last leg of today’s stage. Its up 2, down 2, followed by a very steep 2 up! Get to the town of San Quirico d’Orcia just before 14.00 but both hostels are shut until 3.30. I have no booking, so choose whichever one opens first; which turns to be the church run one. It has a decent kitchen and I’m soon planning a meal. At the moment it’s just Vaclav and I . Others have booked but not yet arrived.

We head out to buy some food and meet Fabbio who just done the same. Pity all round, as it means leaving food behind. There is a cyclist Marco now in our dorm. Fabbio turns up without food but with two large bottles of beer. Whilst drinking, two women turn up but we’re not allowed to let them in. They call today’s volunteer, Carlo, who arrives promptly to help them. Kind man.

We eat late and chat for ages. Fabbio heads back tomorrow, a shame as I enjoy his company. Sensibly, we exchange no contact details.

Dinner over, we all head to bed.  We bid farewell to Fabbio, and as I’m falling asleep, the two women cyclists come crashing into the dark dorm.

Earlier on today I came across a 200kms to Rome milestone.  A rather old looking one, somewhat hidden away by years of encroaching vegetation. It means that I’m now over 90% of the way to completing the walk. When I’m asked about crossing France it feels another trip altogether. It’s been such a long trip but how will I handle completion? Pipe and slippers and concentrate on re-building up my waistline!

September 6

Despite all efforts to locate the 6th, it seems to have gone into the grey zone between the digital and corporeal worlds. Below is a summary of what I remember of yesterday. But first, I was wondering what would happen if the original turns up and my summary takes a different perspective of events? Well here’s to risk!

Said goodbye to Mauro who was heading home later this morning.  I suspect he would have enjoyed carrying on walking. Our few evenings together have been fun. He had a disconcerting habit of telling anyone in earshot that I was a hero etc for doing the entire thing in one go. I imagine most of his listeners would agree with my feet, that I must be insane, and so best avoided. I received a note from my lawyer saying that both of my feet have filed for divorce from me on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. It pales into insignificance compared to my skin, which has submitted a case to the European Court of Human Rights, on the grounds of cruel and unusual treatment!

Strode out of Siena through the Porta Romana and onto the Via Certosa; up to an outlaying district of the same name. Shortly afterwards I’m on a gravel track parallel to the main road and heading into a dull looking industrial zone. Decide that the cafe on the main road might be the only one on the route, so stop for some juice. The po-faced woman behind the counter took a break from sucking vinegar from between her teeth, long enough to hand me a small bottle of apricot juice. I like the fact that in Italy, and presumably the rest of the EU,  that you can buy fresh and wholesome juice in a bar. Imagine trying to order peach juice in your local Wetherspoons?

About to leave when I spot the French couple from breakfast, who turn out not to be a couple at all. A fact she impressed upon me when he was out of earshot! Helped them with my GPS, great when it works! Leave them on the outskirts of Isola d’Arbia and stride on.

The track takes me on an elaborate three sided square, which Rude Laurenzi starts ranting about to anyone around. I caught him shouting about it to a flock of sparrows at one point!

Decide this section might be some sort of game or test, so cut across country into Cuna to look for food. Unpleasant walk along the road but find someone willing to make me a super Italian sarnie. A long roll cut down the middle, smothered in Bel Paese and with four slices of mortadella. I meant to eat it later but couldn’t resist it.  Found a bench under a shop canopy, outside the local dry cleaners, certain it wasn’t intended for the likes of me, but took it anyway! The sarnie was great.

I also bought what I would call Victoria plums but here they’re called Sheldon; must be named after the Big Bang Theory but whatever the link might be, I’ve no idea. Must be a risk having a fruit or plant named after you.  It could go horribly wrong at the PR level.  Children choking on it; widespread allergies to it; or it becoming associated with a serial killer etc. I wouldn’t mind an edible fungi named after me but knowing my luck it would be something horrid like the disease which manifests itself as exploding pustules of the groin gained from walking too much!

Back on the VF track and the brown rolling hills of Tuscany unfold before me. Olive grove alternating with vineyards. I’m on a beautiful ridge walk heading towards Greppo. I notice someone in the distance on what I assumed was a motorbike kicking up dust, heading towards me. It reminded of the scene when Coburn meets Steiger in A fistful of dynamite. It turns out to be a very old woman on an equally old Lambretta. No helmet but a tightly knotted head scarf. She stops by a tractor, checks something on it and rides off. It all struck me as a totally improbable scene. Something Sergio Leone might have come up with.  All it needed was a little background gunfire and an Ennio Morricone soundtrack!

After Greppo there were several kms of track following the railway line. As it had no gantries, I’m assuming it was a little used branch line with diesel trains.

The final stretch was hot and uninspiring but luckily I was indoors by 3pm. Grabbed a bed in the corner by a window as always. Which is why I have so many bites! My washing soon dried in the warm wind. Fabbio and I decide to cook. There are seven willing participants which brings the cost close to a euro each! Vaclav buys a couple of bottles of wine, which was kind. I find ingredients to make an egg mayo dip and sliced up a mozzarella plus toasted stale bread, as a starter. Fabbio knocks up a mega pan of tortiglioni with fresh tomatoes. As were about to eat, a young German couple turn up and they ask to join us. At the table we are now nine and the conversation flows easily until we discover that the German guy is in fact Ukrainian and is sitting next to Vaclav, a Russian. Detente all round until he makes a throw away comment about al dente is just undercooked pasta! Brave or stupid, you decide.

With no 4G or wifi I get dressed and cross a bridge to where I’d heard there was a better signal but no luck.  I had visions that I’d fall into the river in the pitch black never to be seen again. But then who would post these blogs?!!1

September 5

A day of medieval delights. A great toilet in the middle of nowhere. Siena is still amazing. Meet Oz couple over dinner.

Late start as no cafes open in Monteriggioni until 8am. Mauro was up all night and the Russian priest then got up at 5am! Lucky I don’t sleep lightly. On the road by 8.30 and it’s already baking.

The route down into the valley is easy and I’m soon off road on a delightful track. Meet up with a nice couple Eluisa and Fabbrizio. Walk together to a known VF rest area in the hamlet of La Villa. It’s a great spot. A tiny public space with shady seating, a fountain, and stamp. There is also a pop up cafe in a front garden, run by walker, Marcello. It’s a donation arrangement. The best part is the pilgrim bathroom. It’s brick built with shower and bidet. Brand new facility but the local authority wouldn’t let him have it in a public space so it’s down the side of his house!

Temperature hadn’t increased much which is a relief, but it’s still 26°C and its only 10.30am. The area rests on a number of small hills with the brown soil characteristic of this part of Tuscany. Just around La Villa alone, there are four medieval towers plus tons of stone farm buildings from the same era. Quite lovely.

Decide to take an unsignposted VF route. I don’t get lost today. The route is now mostly on the road without pavement. Doesn’t feel too dangerous but it is busy.  It’s a long walk from the northern end of Siena down through to the southern central area where the hostel is located. The road is peppered with Roman remnants like portals, arches, and columns. Its extraordinary to see bits of renaissance frescoes behind places like bus stops.

The hostel is in a great district of Siena but the building itself is not pretty and staff and volunteers are flat out helping homeless people. There’s a floor for pilgrim accomodation and I’m in a dorm with five other people. One of the older guys has moved my boots from the window sill saying there’s enough smell in here! I hope he wasn’t referring to me! Mind you my sandals are enough to make an adult passout and I’ve just put them on the window sill. They came, new, already infused with the odour of cow pats!

Went for a couple of beers with Mauro who has not let me pay for anything tonight. Kind man. Mind you I’ve spent a bomb on various bits from the pharmacy. My feet are itchy and now also covered in bites. My feet have become a standing joke in dorms as they are white compared to my brown ankles; looks like I’m wearing socks!

As I’m writing this post there are two guys snoring in uniquely different ways. Together it reminds me of an imagined alternative soundtrack to a Dali-Bunuel film, like the Andelusian Dog.

Saw lots of American actors names today. Pacino on a doorbell outside a house; Gandolfini the butchers; and Coppola the removal firm! I wonder how many American Italians get in touch with their cultural and familial heritage? It would be nice start, if Gary Sinese, would pronounce his name properly!

After a couple of beers, in a rock bar, which was playing great tracks from the late sixties; we bump into the Russian priest, who is mysteriously handed a tiny package from a young Russian speaking woman. His sole comment to me was, its complicated. Isn’t it always!

Eat a very large meal near the hostel and I’m drawn to a table close by, as I can hear English, well sort of, it’s Oz or Aus. Nice couple from Christmas Island, who’ve just quit their jobs and decided to travel. A familiar tale these days.

Get to bed late and fall asleep whilst writing this post in the dark, hence the delay!

 

September 4

Long walk. Good weather.  Got filmed for a documentary. Sharing room with the Russian priest and Mauro. Staying in a medieval hilltop fortress.

Ate breakfast on my own in the monastery refectory. Oddly a quiet and still experience but not unpleasant. Made myself a very poor sarnie and took a manky apple. On the road by 7.40ish; the route out of the beautiful San Gimignano was straightforward and easy for the first few kms until St Lucia. From there it went off piste a bit. Saw some odd beetles on the fencing of a children’s play area. At first I assumed it was mouse droppings but when they began to move I realised they were similar to tiny wood lice. I itched for the following hour. How much was psychological and how much was due to real insects, I couldn’t tell.

The off road section is steep both up and down, mostly through olive groves. I noticed that a number of households have a bayleaf or rosemary hedge. The slightest contact gives off a hunger provoking bouquet. Whilst I am partial to the smell of privet in bloom, it’s hard to compete with bay.

The guide warns me that the next off road section to Colle de Val d’Elsa is badly signposted. In fact it had one sign at the start and a handful towards the end! Luckily Outdoor Active was working and took me accurately to the town. The path actually goes through a vineyard, I mean through lines of vines, I just followed the tractor tyre tracks! Lots of old people working on the land, worryingly, one looked like  a volunteer for LWT called Clive Cohen, who gave me a look of recognition! I thought he would give a lecture on shooting birds in Italy!

A second breakfast at d’Elsa. I’m going to miss these creamfilled croissants! Decided to follow the road for the following 8kms or so. It was uneventful and uninteresting.  One small observation was the smell. The verge was a mix of wild fennel and mint. I found it irresistible not to touch it as I walked past. It is hard to describe the subtlety of that combined smell. It was more hinted at than fully present. A bit like me at the moment!

Took an off route detour to Abbazia a Isola. Not as interesting as I’d expected.  In medieval times it was known as the Abbey island as it was surrounded by swamps. A bit like Norwich surrounded by Norfolk!

Got to today’s destination of Monteriggioni around 2pm and the young guy on duty at the hostel let me in an hour early. Got done quickly and was sound asleep until around 4ish. Woken by the arrival of the Russian priest and later, Mauro.

We’re approached by a documentary maker about doing a piece to camera but we’re more keen on a beer but agree to do it later.

At the bar we meet two American couples on holiday and chat to them for ages. They even pay for a round of beer. They’re from the Chicago area. I win a bet meaning that Mauro has to pay for the other round of tasty but quite unpronounable Sardinian  beer.

The interview is quite straightforward and easy for me. It’s nice just to say what you think rather than take a party line. I’m told I’m the only walker/pilgrim starting from Canterbury, so far.

The temperature has really dropped and I need to wrap up warmly. Eating outside was probably a mistake as my head is freezing.  We are joined by the Russian priest, at my invitation, he says little but shows us a lot of photos of his travels. I would really like to ask him, how to spell his name, why he gave up science, and how he can afford to travel so extensively? Naughty Mauro snuck in and paid for my pizza and yet another beer!

Tomorrow is Siena.  Just 17kms but can’t leave early as none of the cafes will be open. Looks like 8.30 at the earliest. Looking forward to seeing the city once more. I remember the main square, which hosts the annual palio; and the nearby and beautiful duomo. Hope its not as cold tomorrow as it is tonight!

September 3

Fab day. Great weather, easy walk, beautiful San Gimignano. Grilled by nun/monk. Italian gospel concert.

I was cconcerned that the storm last night might create difficult walking conditions but not at all. Up and about by 6.30, five people had already gone by the time I went down to breakfast. Ate on my own and enjoyed what was on offer. Carefully crafted by the delightful Chiara and her sweet aunt, Antonella.

Said goodbye to the beautiful church of Pieve da Santa Maria a Chianni and was on the road by 7.15, no hurry today its only 14kms and the only time restraint is getting there before noon; otherwise it means hanging about for a 3.30 entry.

Yesterday Marco mentioned that the VF sign posts walkers into Gambassi intentionally; it takes you in a loop through the old town. To avoid this I should take the first road out on the left.  Good advice and soon I’m looking across valley with Gambassi behind me.

I know the Americans use the term God’s own country for the US but looking across at these terracotta coloured rolling hills covered in vines and olives groves it is hard not to see this extraordinary landscape as something, if not created by, then inspired by a supreme being. Maybe it’s a version of the one we consider as exemplifying kindness, beauty, and tolerance. We’ll let the Americans have the slightly scarier version of a creator in the Old Testament!

The weather is a little cool but the sky is a perfect azzuro with small puffy cottonwool cumulus clouds. The ground has almost dried and mostly poses no problems.

I walk through a valley called Chianti and many of the vineyards have a mix of medieval and modern buildings to house and sell their wares. I see wine and olive oil in every direction.

I meet a woman on a shady path sprinkling breadcrumbs from a brown bag. I assumed she feeding something particular but she explains that she can’t bear to throw away even a handful of crumbs, so, was leaving it for the birds. There is something positively primal about bread in the Med. Every culture there has their version of it and each holds it dear. Obviously I’m biased but bread from the arc consisting of Spain to Italy via France must be where the best bread comes from and where it still holds an important role in people’s lives. The Romans gave Europe so much but one thing above the rest must be a love, appreciation, and created the centrality of bread within society.

Stopped briefly at Pancole where the old sanctuary dominates the small village. In fact, the modern road now passes under it. Popped in to see the crypt and it was awful, simply full of plastic figures in varying sizes, just tat!

 

In marked contrast, I am rewarded by my detour up to the monastery of Bose. It looks like its had a make over recently and is lovely. Sited on a small hilltop looking across a valley towards San Gimignano.

I see the four Milanese pilgrims up ahead, who were at the hostel yesterday, and am about to reach them when I’m purloined by a man who wanted me to appreciate a pilgrim tile on his gate post. We get talking, well more like he talks at me, about Chaucer, Canterbury, and Sigeric. Stupidly I refer to Boccacio as Italy’s Chaucer. He went into lecture mode and to great lengths to tell me that Chaucer was actually England’s Boccacio. I didn’t care at that point but made a note to check dates etc, after all he could be right! Catch up with the four, who walk at a gentle pace and a little later I find Vaclav sprawled between vines drinking juice. I am motoring along today!

Met an older Norwegian couple cycling towards the coast and we chatted a bit. They live near Trondheim, on the coast facing Scotland. I mention I’ve been twice to Norway and they’re surprised. Can’t think why, it’s a great country and I really liked Oslo. It houses two of my all time favourite sculptures, in the national gallery.  It also has the slightly disturbing Munch museum and collection. Not sure whether he was actually insane, but if he produced those pictures today, he’d either be very rich or sectioned or both!

Am greeted by a large nun who refers to herself as a monk. I should have asked why. She shows me to my room and stays for about 40 minutes chatting. Well more like a grilling! Why I got divorced; why I don’t practice Christianity in any recognisable way; what is my sense of God; and importantly am I a Catholic! I answered truthfully and confidentially, which I hope she appreciated.

Have a proper lunch  nearby and bearly make it back to the monastery and fall asleep for a couple of hours. I always wake confused; not even sure whether I want to carry on sleeping.  Hear a sound check taking place across the road in a chapel belonging to the monastery of San Girolamo, where I’m staying. It only has 4 female monks. Why they’re not called nuns I don’t know but they leader is called mother. Sounds like something of out of  a le Carre novel.

Head over at 4.30 for the concert. It was brilliant. Totally surprised to hear Italians sing gospel and apart from some iffy pronunciation they were great.

Head into the tourist throng that defines San Gimignano most of the year. It’s a beautiful medieval town. Architecturally unique, sadly, I now associate it with Maggie Smith’s character in Tea with Mussolini!

Pop into an art gallery where the exhibition, is entitled, broadly, where art meets nature. It puts the annual RSPB event, in the Mall Gallery, in its place! The sculptures by Andrea Roggi blew me away. One piece, who’s name I sadly forget, gave  me the sense of a primal creation of womanhood from a stem or plant; all cast in a soft coloured metal. Extraordinary!

After a meander I sit in one of the numerous bars and have a Moretti blond. Just watch the world go by.  I had forgotten how awful the Tuscan dialect is. They convert the letter C into H as in, things go better with a hoha hola!

I am not hungry and it’s 8pm. Maybe it’s because it was a short day or that I ate a decent lunch but must ensure I eat before bed. It’s long trek to Monteriggioni tomorrow and I need to bulk up. Decide to eat at the bar and it’s a disappointing plate of Pici – large spaghetti to you – with a Tuscan ragu. The sauce is fine but the pasta has stuck to itself! The wine was good but I’m now almost €20 poorer and have little to show for it.

Get back to my dorm and I’m the only one in my room. Just great. Don’t have to worry about waking people in the night if I need to pee. Check route for tomorrow and there’s only one food stop at Elsa. Must remember that. I’ll be staying in another medieval splendour tomorrow at Monteriggioi but before that its almost 25kms of walking but if its anything like today, it will be heavenly. Let you know tomorrow!

September 2

Good weather but quite windy. Got horribly lost. Met some nice people. Reconnected with some previous folk. Staying in a modified 13th C outhouse attached to a 12th C church.

Nice start to my day. Had breakfast with Fab and Gianca. Chatted a bit but there’s always pressure to get going. Head out by 7.30 and by 7.45 I’m not where I should be. Can’t get a GPS signal, so can’t correct the error until I’m in signal range. This happened after I descended into the wrong valley. It’s now been three hours of solid walking and it seems I’ve been heading south rather than southeast. The necessary correction is still unclear as the Outdoor Active app is not showing any paths across to the VF. Start to walk the long route back eastwards along the road; I stop to ask for local knowledge from two old guys who clearly had been out shooting. They kindly drive me, in a old banger which would never pass any kind of inspection test, the 5 kms back to the VF.  It’s relief to be back on the right trail.

I don’t have an in principle objection, to hunting, especially if people need it in order to survive. There are plenty of invasive species to be got rid off e.g. the American mink in UK or feral pigs in NZ. I do however take huge objection to the pointless blasting of small birds here in Italy as well as in neighbouring Malta. I’ll now come down from the pulpit!

The walk is magnificent. It is true Chianti country. A pity that the region has had so little rain this year. The grapevines look stressed and the hayfields are positively crisp dry. Lots of evidence of sporadic fires darkening the terracotta coloured soil.

There is a strong wind from right to left which is making me walk at an angle thus putting pressure on my left hip. It’s now clicking more often than a rattle at a football match! I shouldn’t complain about my body, as it’s held out remarkably well, considering what it’s been through during the past two months.

Am sharing an odd shaped space with the Russian priest and the German couple, Max and Zia, in the outskirts of Gambassi. Who at this moment are playing semi-clad cards. It’s a young person thing, and yes, I can remember that far back.

Met up for a quick beer with the three Tuscan guys (Marco, Diego, and Marco) I met up north back in August. All three live in Gambassi and have been friends since childhood. The town is compact and very pleasant. The area just reeks of the medieval.   It was a bit odd meeting up on the VF when it also formed the basis of our connection to begin with.

Very pleasant dinner in a side room to the church. There was a table of six Italians and table of four English speakers ie Vaclav, the Russian priest, plus the German couple and of course, me. The two staff Chiara and her aunt Antonella, are friendly and kind. The 12th C church is simply fabulous. It has a basic block design with almost no ornamentation. There’s a decent fresco tucked behind the main door plus a reasonable side chapel, again kept simple.

Just crossed the court yard as a massive storm broke. Thunder and lightning followed by hail and then heavy rain. It is hammering down; tomorrow’s forecast is sunny and 23°C. Perfect walking conditions.

I can bearly stay awake, and need to leave sharpish in the morning, so will head to bed in a mo.  I need to arrive before 12noon tomorrow, in San Gimignano. Think “Tea with Mussolini”. Great film but only gets to the town at the very end. It’s famous for its towers, medieval not Manhattan!

September 1

Definitely a curate’s egg.  Bank robbery. Crazy Russian. Get lost, again. Weird weather.

Woken at 5am by slamming doors on first floor. Could only be the old whitehaired guy who doesn’t speak. This is followed by a one-handed sinus clearing competition and later the slamming of the front door.

The two Italians both get up, wash and then return to bed. Why? It’s been bucketing down since around 4am. I force myself to stay put until 6.30. Then put into play my now well rehearsed packing routine. I’m out onto the wet streets, poncho clad, in search of breakfast. Find an unfriendly cafe but the cream croissant is amazing. Pop back to a food store I saw last night but it wasn’t open.  A shame, as the old woman running it was sweet and the food looked great.

The first few kms were miserable. It ran along the Provinciale and there was no path. Surprisingly there was no spray from the trucks. A couple of kms from Galleno a VF path springs up and cuts through a wood. It is such a contrast to the miserable walk along the main road.

Along this delightful track I meet the crazy old whitehaired guy coming towards me. I introduce myself and ask why he’s going back. He insists it’s the right way, I try to tell him otherwise but he’s adamant, so I leave him.

Arrive in Galleno shortly afterwards and stop at the first cafe I find. Opposite there’s much excitement which I couldn’t understand. I assumed they were changing the front window of the bank but in fact it had been robbed in the night. A gang had rammed the cash point and dragged it off. The sound would have been deafening but of course no one heard anything! Apparently, the same gang has been pulling off similar cunning stunts across the region. The numerous problems I’ve had with ATMs over the years, I can see the temptation to get your own back.

There’s a wonderful trail for about 5kms through woods and scrubland. The smell of the damp soil reminds me of home. The drying puddles smell oddly of vegetable soup. Maybe that’s where Maggi get their ingredients?!

Whilst enjoying the walk someone almost knocks me over trying to get by. Can you guess who? Yes he’s back once more, the old white haired guy. I later learn he’s an orthodox priest from Moscow but used to be a physicist. He started two days ago in Lucca. I would bump into him many times today.

We sort of walk together towards Cappiano. Occasionally exchanging information and ideas. I follow him into town and we lose the VF thread. We go our separate ways in looking for it. I confuse an administrative boundary line for the VF on Outdoor Active app which takes me to the outskirts of Santa Croce, whereas I should now have been in Fucecchino. Plot a correcting route but I’m tired and don’t enjoy the next 4kms. Find a cafe and eat a cream cake, and whilst resting along comes the Russian priest. We walk together into San Miniato. I assume I’m staying in the newer, lower part ie Basso but as I don’t have the hostel address can’t be certain. Eventually get a call back from the owner, whom I don’t get to meet but do meet his wife and younger son. I’m staying in the old town, high on the hill, indeed, it’s half way down the other side. Not seen the Bear for a bit as I start my final ascent of the day, and there his is, on wall looking a little worse for wear. Wish him well and don’t see him again today. The 2kms up are tough, it’s hot and very steep. Once there it’s about 1/2 km across town and another half down.

My humour had left me at this point. At the entrance to the property I decide to leave behind my irritability and play nicely with whomever greets me. I am met a young Japanese woman, Tomako and an Italian guy, Fabrizio. Both nice and very welcoming. Later joined by the owner’s son, Francesco. Looks like I’m the only one staying. Not sure where the four people from last night’s hostel are sleeping, as they were all booked for San Miniato? Later on a friend of the owner, Gian Carlo turns up, you can imagine the confusion over our names! Next arrive a youngish, and very handsome, couple on their first day on the VF. In truth they only walked from the station.

Later the wife of the owner, Rossella shows up.  She has very good English and is fun. We enjoy a wonderful meal cooked by Fab and Gianca. The highlight for me was Fab’s story, which is published as a book. When I find the details I’ll post it. 11 years ago Fab had been given 2 years max to live. He underwent the conventional course of treatment such chemo but wasn’t improving.  He told his wife and family that as he was due to die soon, he’d like it to be on a long walk, and off he went. 11 years later he’s still walking and he really looks like his name suits him. He’s used this approach to work with young people languishing in prison. He takes them, one to one, for a 3 month hike. He has about a one third success rate. Much higher than most prison regimes. I can’t see it catching on in the UK. I found his story moving and there was a general blowing of noses.

After clearing away stuff and prepping for breakfast, I head up to rest and post this update. It’s been a very long day!

 

August 31

Say goodbye to A&F. Meet new roomies. Awful walk. Lose a sock. Buy a Beretta in a gunshop.

Poor night’s sleep, as we had to keep the windows open due to the heat; and the noisy tourists seem to walk by all night. The studio flat is located on a corner and bathed in light from two street lights. Not restful but the place was nice.

The three of us had breakfast together and enjoyed some fresh pastries. Pity the coffee machine in the flat made such awful espresso. Said our goodbyes and I head east out via Porta Elisa into the burbs of Lucca. Feel myself missing the gals.

The walk out of town, later followed by town of Caponnari and then Porcari, was dull as it was hard. Solid asphalt all the way except for a short stretch by Pozzeveri. I manage to miss the only thing worth seeing on this tappa.  It’s the Abbadia, a former leper colony situated in the middle of what we’re once medieval malarial swamps. I saw it from about 1/4km but was too tired to go back. A pity as it looked interesting. Today’s landscape was a mix of industrial estate and post-industrial waste land. Hence no photos.

The walk into Altopascio was hot, dry and dull. The Library also doubles up as the tourism office as well as running the pilgrim hostel. Staff helpful and kind. No need for the weapon here, Dave!

Library is part of the tiny town hall complex and is located in the main square.  As I fight my way through market traders, clearing away their wares, head to the hostel. It’s a reminder that life goes on regardless of the pilgrim route running through their neighbourhood.

The hostel is fine. Located in a pleasant square. A band are doing their sound check, much to the excitement of a group of young people. The female lead had a good voice, Tamla-ish. It reminds me of a short stint I did as a roadie in the late 70s. Seriously late nights, living off fish and chips, and sleeping in a smelly camper along with the drum kit. Not at all the sex and drugs and rock n’ roll life style I was expecting!

I’m joined on my floor by a young, and seemingly nice, German couple. Plus two large Italians, friends from Brescia way.  It’s certainly getting busy up here. On the lower floor there’s only an old guy, who just grunts at you, which is why there are five of us on this floor! Clever strategy, might try it myself.

As someone from the town hall was showing the Italian pilgrims into the hostel, I thought I’d move my washing from the windows but notice I’m missing a sock which presumably blew away in this afternoon’ s rapidly changing weather. I couldn’t see it anywhere in the square below and begin to resign myself to life without it, when the old, but spry, guy from the town hall waves it at me. Phew…. no lecture or implied criticism, just a kindly smile. Nice.

There’s an outdoor screening tonight but can’t find details of which film is on. I return later but find no one about who knows. Might have to give it a miss.

Pop in the church and its unmemorable plus a service is about to start and I need food. I’d heard about a local aperitivo bar that has free grub as long as you pay over the odds for a drink. Sadly, it doesn’t open until 6.30, so go for a wander, buy bite cream as I’ve got through an entire tube of Afterbite. Its Italian replacement costs over €9! Go in search of a hat but no luck. Meandering down a back street, I pass a gunshop, I notice they sell bright orange gear, which I don’t really want. Once inside I notice a hat very similar to the one I lost a couple of days ago, this one is a pukka Beretta. I baulk at the price of €22, the guy, unsmiling, proffers €10. Bargain….I didn’t even get to barter. I enjoy a good barter. Something I learnt from my mother. I guess it was cultural for her and it seemed to work. She did come acropper when she and I visited LB’s first supermarket.  She tried to get them to round down the total, without any hope of success, much to the annoyance of fellow customers in the queue behind!

The Dogana bar was ok. A soul-less place where people go to be seen. The food was fine as was my beer but the music was unbearably loud. I hadn’t realised that Italian rap could be worse than it’s French equivalent, but, oh yes!

Head back with a small box of fritto misto, which is definitely fritto but none too misto! It was fine and the two large nectarines were really good.

Plan tomorrow’s route and write this post. Sound check for another band happening. Italian rap is awful but what passes for pop over here is in a league it’s own. Had Dante been writing his Inferno today, he would have put in a new category which might include pop producers, estate agents, and hedge fund managers! I might hold onto that thought as I drift off!

August 30

Roasting day. Lucca is lovely. Long walk. Get told off again. Act as interpreter at an emergency centre.

Enjoyable self service style breakfast at 6.30 with A&F plus an irritating young guy, who thought it was too much to walk back into town to catch a bus to the station. I kept quiet as the alternative was I give a lecture in Italian which I didn’t have in me.

The three of us head back into Camaiore and pick a route out of town. A&F stop for more coffee whereas I head off in search of food, as it’s said there are no shops whilst crossing these last hills before the descent into Lucca. A&F catch me up at St Rocco’s chapel. It’s a mildly disappointing building especially  as his the patron saint of the VF.

 

We travel together for a bit and after a km I stride onto Montemagno.  Stop for an espresso and an awful rice cake. I had assumed it was like a Portuguese Nata but it was more like a rice pudding cup cake! A&F catch me up and we walk along the Provinciale for bit before their route ducks into the woods. I march into Valpamaro, pick up some more grub, and rest outside the local hostel. Some bright spark has placed a brass fish head under the tap, which whilst aesthetically pleasing, makes it impossible to fill a water bottle!

It’s a steady climb up to Piazzano and mercifully it’s mostly in the shade. Sadly, the remaining 14kms are not! Around 11.30 find an old wall in the half shade and rest, enjoying the Valdestano pie I’d bought earlier.  It’s great. It’s like a flat pie with ham and cheese covered in rosemary and fennel seeds.

The long, slow descent continues through the painful mid day sun taking me via San Macaria, and San Pietro. Take refuge in a strip of shade by a cemetery.  It’s too hot to eat anything else.  Pick up the pace and want to cross the river Serchio and find shade, before it gets any hotter. Just outside San Pietro I walk past a long abandoned farmhouse which now has new tenants, a handful of goats and chickens. Around the side of the building someone has cut up some hose pipe to form the words, l’orto d’Anna. It was not much of a vegetable patch but the lettering was impressive.

Cross the bridge and choose not to continue on the VF route as it seems to go around the houses.  Opt for the main road.  Big mistake, it was almost 2kms before pavements appeared. Took shelter in a bus stop and chatted to a woman, whilst kind, was also keen I ate at her pizzeria tonight, which was miles away from the hostel.

Find the accommodation reception which doubles up as the voluntary ambulance service. Whilst trying to get in early, one of the ambulance drivers rushes in and asks for an English speaker. I offer, thinking some one from the UK is giving birth or an American has had a stroke but no. It’s a German tourist refusing to budge their car thus preventing the ambulance from moving.  The problem was not of a medical nature but sat nav. It was telling her to drive through a building. I had to translate how to get to her hotel without demolishing her car, the building, or the ambulance service. My reward was to be allowed to wait until 3pm in the drivers’ rest area.

Ate part two of my lunch and rested.  I was careful not to put my bare feet on the sofa but an officious twit shouted at me from across the room. I tried to explain but was dismissed me with a wave. Rude Laurenzi tried to make an appearance but I guess he too was tired!

A nice young man from Ghana, Richard with shockingly poor Italian took my details and escorted me to the pilgrim’s flat around the corner.  He was relieved when I spoke in English. A&F turn up after 4pm and we settle into the compact 3 bedded studio flat.

Head out for a tour of the main churches. St Michael and St Martin were both fabulous; with more grand masters between them than you can shake a stick at. I’m not familiar with Lippi but his use of gold and blue were amazing.

Pop to amphitheatre square where there’s a large metal head identical to those I  found on a recent visit to Pompeii. Photos can be found on Instagram account in March.

Pick a restaurant but Franca not really hungry but it doesn’t impede Anna or I. Young waiter tried to insist that Nastro Azzuro isn’t brewed by Peroni. I just looked it up on my phone and showed him. Good but pricey food. Will need to save some dosh on food next week.

Had a cobbler put extra holes in my belt and he refused to take any money. Kind of him I thought. Head back and we’re all hobbling. My knees have been sore all day.

A&F head home tomorrow whereas I head out to Altopasco.  Couldn’t book a bed, as the hostel is run by the local library service and will need to ring again, in the morning.  You couldn’t make it up! It’s like the nursery school run by the sewing circle, or meals on wheels by the angling club! Fingers crossed my bones behave tomorrow…

August 29

No bank holiday here, for a change. Roasting temperatures. Long haul. Patience dropped in but humour took a break. Hostel not in Camaiore!

A&F popped out at 7am to pick up pastries for breakfast, which we ate on the fourth floor of the hostel. The sun had yet to crest the ridge, so the square below is bathed in an odd but attractive light. It reminds me of when I worked in Gothenburg one June; coming out of a club at 3am, the town was bathed in a similar light, which is not like dawn. I remember seeing people with golf clubs heading off to play as I was heading for my bed!

The walk out of town was uneventful and uninspiring. The old Roman gate was the only thing I can remember! After following the fast moving SS1 for a while, the route mercifully moves onto a small road leading into Prato. A dull sort of place, seems like a dormatory village.

The road climbs up steeply to the village of Strettoria, where we stop for a coffee. I, of course, have a cream doughnut. I am told the cakes are homemade.  Whether they were or not, mine was certainly delicious. There seemed to be no break between Strettoria and the next door village of Ripa; which itself seemed joined to Vallecchia, which in turn was joined to the very long town of Pietrasanta. The VF follows the remnant of a river, hemmed in by dozens of marble yards. Watched a block of 25 tonnes being moved – big kid! Later was mesmerized by a giant stone cutting machine in action. It took us ages to reach the town centre, where we bought rather poor food from a local Spar for an early lunch and rested in a shady corner.

 

 

Took a sidestreet towards our exit of the town and came across a lovely pedestrianised area leading to the duomo. There was a display of umbrellas creating shade down the length of the street. Pietrasanta’s main square too, was lovely despite the rest of the town having a somewhat industrial feel about it. Marble is so common here that the kerbs are made of the stuff!

The walk uphill towards Camaiore is not a killer but the temperature is. I’m having to keep my bandana wet to prevent my brain overheating.  Reach the outskirts of the town just after 2pm but it’s another 90 mins until we reach the hostel. The VF route goes around the houses for miles and then the hostel itself is not in town! The place is pleasant enough and feels new.

A quick rest and we’re off to see the town. The next door church has a beautiful simplicity about it, medieval block stone and vaulted wooden roof, but sadly they’ve plonked an 17th C side chapel in the middle of it. It looks totally incongruous and gauche. Which sounds a lot like my face at the mo. My large head bites have gone down but got a bite on the bridge of my nose made worse by my sunglasses rubbing on it. It now has a big brother on my forehead. I can’t remember how I came to headbutt the soap dish in the shower, but it’s left me with a ridge above my eyebrows. When I wear my bandana low tomorrow I will no doubt have a certain Cro Magnon quality about me.

The duomo is not as interesting as our church next door but not bad. In the square outside there are a few frescoes still in evidence. Lovely pastel colours.

After much deliberation we agree on a restaurant but the service is scarily slow. Took 90 minutes to get two dishes apiece. No tip for them! The area seems full of German tourists for no obvious reason. The closest thing to a Brit for a while was a talkative Irish guy at lunch time.

Another long haul tomorrow into Lucca. It’s said to be a beautiful, walled city. I’m hoping that’s where I’ll find humour, fully rested and raring to go!