Via Francigena: San Gimignano to Montalcino
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
Pisa airport: our journey begins properly with a very Italian train ticket purchase and a time-passing drink in the depressed-looking Pisa station square, then a journey via Empoli to Poggibonsi, then a taxi to Monteriggione. All very smooth. After a 5am start, we get straight onto our beds for a mellow afternoon snooze. Bliss. What better proof you have escaped your usual cares?
Monteriggione oozes history. It was a northern outpost of Siena for centuries; a hilltop castle-town perched above a fertile bog-plain, surrounded by hills with their farmhouses and defended villages, it prospered at a time when populations and roads migrated to the hills. It later sank into obscurity as roads changed course and Siena was brought low. Its towered walls, mentioned in Dante, still circle its tight little perch, but it is now a charming husk: swathes of its buildings have returned to olive groves, and much of the rest is shop and restaurant and EU-funded paving. It says a great deal about Italy’s extraordinary richness that Monteriggione, for all its history and beauty, doesn’t even get a mention in the Baedeker guidebook.
(Our Romantik Monteriggione Hotel couldn’t have been better, built into a rambling old building in the town centre, comfortable and with nice staff. A delicious dinner nearby. We aren’t really used to this sort of walking, with comfort, hot showers and great food – refuges in the Alps or tents in the Himalayas are our natural environment – but the prospect of more of this makes old(er) age almost attractive! )
We are on the first third of the final, and few would argue best, section of the ancient Via Francigena pilgrimage route, which ran from Canterbury to Rome. This short week normally starts at San Gimignano, two days north, but we are time starved so have had to start at Monteriggione. We are following the route selected by the brilliant, pioneering AGT (Alternative Travel Group), masters of the beautifully selected slackpacking trail. While we will broadly follow the Via Fancigena, ATG have over the years developed variants which make for a better walk.
Monteriggione to Siena (19km)
It is still a fresh morning when we get walking, but the heat is building. We discover that the store is closed on Wednesdays, so we have no lunch. We double back to our hotel, and they kindly let us take an apple each: we should be in Siena by 2.30 so on top of a big breakfast, that will do. We wander up through the town square and out of the south gate. Leaving Monteriggione is a bit bathetic after the extreme charms of the town: while we are decisively out of it as soon as we are out of the gate, we descend through a carpark and circle unnecessarily behind a school to ease a crossing of an empty main road.
Then we are on our first strada bianca, the pale dirt roads which link the hamlets and farms of the Tuscan countryside. While they make for easy walking, they are bright and hot in the mid-day sun. It is always a relief to get off onto farm tracks.
Looking back, we get a memorable last view of Monteriggione crouched on its hilltop. Then we are into attractive and interesting but not specially memorable woodland, mainly oak, interspersed with fields and farmsteads. Some good flowers – cyclamen and white, scented, acacia – and lovely birdsong. We see hoopoes and the grubbings of wild boar.
The best section is a winding red-earthed track by the bright, varied young greens of the wood edge, with views over classic undulating Tuscan scenery and a castle peering over the horizon, which turns out to be an interesting group of buildings, including a pretty country house, round the old keep. Further on, wildflowers dangle from a laneside wall.
Half an hour of delightful winding through field and wood takes us on and down a steep slope to a wide, fertile plain, a former marsh which was drained in the C18. An hour of hot and slightly dreary tramping gets us to the hill on the far side. After an interlude of fields and hamlets, we are back into the woods, passing through depressing recently felled areas.
We emerge into open fields and join a hot minor road for a few kilometres, climbing to a ridgeline with fine views across a valley to lovely Siena, silhouetted on its own hilltop. The road gets increasingly built-up as we delve into Siena’s suburbs. We gladly drop off the road, descending through olives and woodland to the deep valley below Siena, where we cross the bypass and wind round to the modern village below the old town. A hot and very dreary climb up main roads gets us, tired and getting cranky, up to the city walls and a fine gate. Then we are up an underground escalator and into the heart of the old town, its narrow streets and tall old houses a delightful contrast to the sweaty suburbs below.
(Verdict: good and varied walking, but not memorable. Our hotel, The Athena, is well sited and comfortable, but modern and a bit soulless.)
After a bath, we head into the old town to explore.
We don’t really get far – we spend an age in the Duomo, surely one of the most idiosyncratic buildings of the Renaissance, with an extraordinarily rich and varied interior, filled with works by artists I haven’t heard of: I would love to know whether this is as a result of victors’ artistic cleansing by their rivals the Florentines, or just my ignorance. The nearby museum is stuffed with Duccios, and a climb up to the top of the perilously tall shell of the abandoned “new” cathedral for a remarkable evening view of huddled roofs and surrounding countryside. Then down to the huge, sloping and also highly idiosyncratic Campo for a drink and then dinner in the balmy evening as the sky darkens behind the C14 Palazzo del Pubblico. Distilled happiness.
Siena to Lucignano (25km)
A very different day’s walking.
After a very delightful wander through the streets, we leave through the great Porta Romana and are soon on empty suburban roads winding along hillsides which carry a mixed crop of brick and stuccoed houses of different ages and qualities and their busy gardens mixing it with hay meadows and olive groves. Then we are on a ridge with distant views between the fewer houses.
For the entire day, we have glimpses back to fair Siena on her hilltop, at first close up across what feels like a single valley and ridge, later hovering above the rolling corn fields of the crete, the open, undulating hills to the south, which in the Middle Ages were sheep-filled grasslands and a major source of Siena’s wealth, but which are now big chalky agribusiness fields with some hedges and copses in the low valleys between. They have a feel of the Somme. They could be boring, but their folds and undulations give them charm, and their littering of ancient hilltop farmhouses and hamlets, some evidently fortified, and the distant forested hills, with the extinct but still recognizable volcano of 1,738m Monte Amiata looming on the southern horizon, give them interest.
We drop into the valley and climb back up to emptier countryside for a pleasing stroll on lanes and tracks through big plateau-top fields and pretty wooded valleys. A perfect picnic including the sweetest of little tomatoes in the shade of a tall hedge looking across one of them.
After crossing a valley in the process of being wrecked by a new viaduct, we are back on high ground, and start a very enjoyable stretch which is reminiscent of the UK’s Ridgeway – grassy tracks and small roads undulating through pretty but undemonstrative hills, some of the time on a high ridge above the Arbia valley, and occasionally dipping down into it. The downside is that the valley has more than a smattering of industrial buildings and dreary modern housing. We cross and sometimes follow main roads, and meet big road construction projects. Our final kilometre or so is a hot plod through an industrial estate.
A few memories stand out: a long thin snake oozing its silent way across the road ahead of us; the track winding ahead over and around the high ridge, disappearing, then there again on the next slope; a lone tree on a ridgetop knoll ahead of us that we steadily approach then turn away from at the last moment; the remarkable, tightly-packed fortified village of Cuna on its valley-bottom outcrop, a haven for passing pilgrims and a safe grain store for the fertile area, now a near-wreck which is being beautifully if slowly restored. And finally, our destination, Lucignano, another fortified village on a hillock in the Arbia valley, a southern Sienese bastion and a safe stop for pilgrims on the route.
(Verdict: the walking was a bit disappointing. Our hotel, The Borgo Antico, is a delight, in a big old farmhouse with views out over the valley to the nearby hills. Good food in a huge vaulted chamber.)
Lucignano to Buonconvento (16km)
First things first: a wander around fascinating Lucignano, crammed between its two large gates, its glory a very plain – really rather perfect – C11 church.
This is the day our walk really takes off, a mellow yet intriguing wander along valleys and ridges in increasingly rural and beautiful countryside. Gone are the ribbon development of the Siena outskirts and the valley-floor business lots.
We are in unsullied country immediately we have passed the last of Lucignano’s old houses - no suburbs here. We are soon striding along a grassy track by a ditch, then a river, beside knee-deep corn and barley. We meander on strade biance along the now very rural Arbia valley, fields with vigorous crops around us, pretty hillsides a field away with green undulations and woodland alternating on their flanks. The old farmhouses are much restored and lovingly kept, perhaps the majority of them now holiday homes. It all feels sleepy, contented and remote.
Then we are climbing up onto a ridge, with the best views yet: huge sweeps for miles around: nearby, crops, olives and vines with a solid and very prosperous looking old farmhouse on every knoll or promontory; rockier and more forested hills further away; and Monte Amiata ever present on the southern skyline. Really gorgeous in any weather, but even better with empty blue skies above. Now for the best walking yet, and hour or so along a ridge, sometimes on grassy tracks meandering and dipping delightfully between bright young crops, then on an empty strada bianca, all the time enjoying inspiring views. A boar has been digging for bulbs in a patch of woodland; a field of a red flowering clover-like crop sinks away below us; a descending hedgerow is full-stopped by a lone cypress. It is really charming countryside.
Eventually, we drop with regret into the Ombrone valley on a fine path by woodland, passing a small reservoir full of the noisiest croaking frogs I have ever heard. What an idyllic life for them, a warm, weedy, sheltered and no doubt food-rich pond – until one of the local herons pays a call. We meander for an hour or so along the valley bottom through more fields and copses snoozing in the midday heat, with well-founded farmhouses on the hillsides above us. It is very pretty, but our stomachs tell us that lunchtime is approaching, so we are glad when we see the roofs of Buonconvento. We enter through the fine Siena Gate of this intact mediaeval town – well, other than the Rome Gate, which was destroyed by departing WW2 German soldiers. It is built on an old Roman fort, so is rectangular, with a central street winding down its length – it can’t be more than 400m long, but even so can’t hold a straight line, to attractive effect. It is lined with fine old houses, including what must be one of the world’s smallest palaces, with a double front encrusted with something like 27 heraldic devices relating to the families who have lived there. It is for sale.
A lunch of spicy fish soup and vitello tonnato in a very local trattoria, then we are off to our destination, an old hilltop farmhouse 3 km to the east. The hill out of town is a post-prandial slog, but we make it. The walk is very pretty, if unmemorable by this time of day; then we are in our big, cool room in our atmospheric hilltop farmhouse-hotel, the Fattoria Pieve a Salti, and soon asleep. I then sit on a terrace and draw the view south toward Monte Amiata, then lie on a bench muse on the changing high cloudscape. Delightful.
Another good meal, then writing this account and bed, deeply contented.
Monte Oliveto Maggiore to Montalcino (23km)
Our last day. And our best day on the trail, albeit by the end a very long walk.
We start with a taxi ride to the famous monastery of Mont Oliveto Maggiore up in higher and wilder country to the east. Its huge gatehouse is evidence of the uncertain times in which it began life. The curving brick drive, surrounded by pines, has an austerely Japanese feel. We are arrested by the fresoes in the cloister, mostly by Il Sodoma, which are full of details which speak of real life as led by real people around 1500AD.
Our walk is immediately gripping, winding round and up to the nearby hilltop village of Chuisure, with pauses to take in the full drama of the monastery on its cliff-surrounded promontory. Chuisure is a charming place of tiny squares of old brick houses.
Then we are following strade biance then farm tracks on long, often open ridges affording wonderful views of eroded limestone cliffs and little gorges, and rolling hills patched with assertively green fields and patches of dry plough and woods, each hilltop bearing a farmhouse or hamlet. Montalcino and Monte Amiata are always commanding the horizon to the south-west. Very engaging and utterly charming. Some of the time we pass through delightful woodland, mostly oak, which is always enlivened by the knowledge that a gap will at any moment offer up an amuse bouche of a view.
We enjoy lots of floral moments – stands of robina (false acaia) trees in full heaven-scented flower, wild roses in full bloom, wild garlic and other flowers by the roadside, bursts of broom and fields of a yellow flowering crop (mustard?), modestly mixed with greenery rather than a aggressive blaze like unlovely British rape.
We see a heron, a small snake desperately escaping our approach, and something the size of a big dog loping into a wood. And are sung along our way by choirs of invisible but voluble birds. We pass another little reservoir full of croaking frogs. I can’t resist the little-boy’s game of lobbing in pebbles to see when they leap off their leaves. They all show commendable quantities of whatever the froggy equivalent is of sangue froid, and it takes a small stone to cause 30 or 40 frogs to make one great collective PLOP. Childish, yes, but fun.
A simple picnic (for which the Fattoria managed to charge is €24) in the shade of another bosky hedge, looking north across the ridges and hilltops.
We have long views of and eventually pass close by a lone tree atop a knoll, clearly an iconic local feature, to the extent that there were two pictures of it in yesterday’s hotel’s reception and, no doubt, on the walls of their photographer guests all around the world – with luck not all identical.
We’re tiring, and rest in long grass under a spreading tree. We start the long, steady descent through more lovely landscape to the deep Serlate valley. It is “spot the perfect holiday house” territory, as we pass old hilltop farmhouses with views to dream over.
Next is a long climb on farm tracks through more open country, a mix of meadows and cereal fields with woods in the sharp little ravines below, to another highland complete with wide views and a blink-first competition with Montalcino on its wooded hill, a patchwork of fields and farmhouses on its lower slopes.
The vinyards get thicker as we approach Montalcino - the famous local Brunello at home. At the bottom of the last little valley, we fill our waterbottles in the carpark of a huge, spanking new wine palace complete with wine-tasting shop. All very prosperous looking.
Over a main road, after some false starts we tackle Montalcino’s steep, thousand-foot (well, that’s how it seemed) hillside in the late afternoon heat. It is an arduous slog, and we’ve known plenty of those, so can judge. Eventually we reach the old Porta Burelli and soon after fall into our hotel, the superbly sited Dei Capitani. It is 7-ish. We are so tired it dulls our pleasure at the huge view, which you could admire for an hour without bordem, from our outward-facing bedroom.
After a reviving shower, we explore all-too-briefly the charms of this southern outpost of Siena, on its steep hilltop. Supper in an Enoteka with another huge view out over southern Tuscany, where they bring us the wrong food and give every impression of processing inevitable punters they don’t have to try too hard for.… but we contrive a good time nonetheless.
What a day. Back to an exhausted, dreamless sleep.