Italy on Foot
Story and photos by Dickie Anderson
Central Italy is a treasured destination for travelers who love beautiful landscapes, gourmet food, and amazing wine. Planning our annual walking trip in the spring of 2019, my sister and I decided to explore Tuscany on our own, then join a group to walk the famed Via Francigena pilgrim trail, which begins in Siena and ends in Rome at St. Peter’s Square.We flew into Pisa to begin our adventures. Our plan was to meander south by car, ending up in Pienza, and then heading north again to Siena to meet our group. In Pisa, we checked out the still-leaning tower and picked up our rental car, a Jeep Compass, which we soon learned was one of the largest cars on the road in Italy. Driving in Italy was the challenge we anticipated; we quickly learned that there is one pace that Italians prefer as they move through their hilly country – fast. Over several days, we visited the towns of Lucca, Volterra, Asciano, Pienza, and Montepulciano, among others.
Each town was situated strategically and fortified by walls. We parked our car outside of the towns and walked the narrow, winding streets reserved for pedestrians. The churches, shops, and restaurants made for great exploring, as well as some memorable meals with glasses (or sometimes bottles) of local wine.
Driving from town to town, we took in amazing vistas. The rolling hills were carpeted with wild yellow mustard and bright red poppies. With its silvery olive groves, vineyards, stone farms, and ancient medieval castles, Tuscany is a place where time seems to stand still. There are no fences. Properties are separated by lines of cypress trees and subtle paths and roads. One memorable drive was so delightful we did it twice!
We ended this first part of our trip in Siena, where we joined our walking group of nine, accompanied by three wonderful guides. Siena was one of our favorite stops in our travels. It seems more intimate than some of the bigger towns in the region. It is rich in monuments, palaces, and churches. We were lucky enough to be there on a national holiday and witnessed one of Siena’s famed parades, with bright banners carried by marchers in costume representing the city’s various neighborhoods. The most famous parade is the Corteo Storico, which takes place before Siena’s famous annual horse race, the Palio.
After our Camino de Santiago walk in Northern Spain in September 2018, my sister and I were intrigued by the possibility of doing another pilgrim walk. The Camino led us to the Cathedral of Saint James in the town of Santiago in northern Spain. In Italy, the pilgrim walk is called the Via Francigena. Starting in the cathedral city of Canterbury in England, it travels through France, Switzerland, and Italy, ending ultimately in Rome.
One of the most popular pilgrimage routes in the Middle Ages, records show that the Via Francigena dates back to at least the seventh century. Like the Camino, the traditional walk includes a passport, which is stamped along the way to prove that you have stopped at different places along the historic path.
Averaging ten miles a day, we made our way along the Via Francigena from Siena to Rome. Our guides led us along some of the most beautiful sections of this historic route, through spectacular settings that included the villages of Buonconvento, San Quirico d’Orcia, and the handsome walled town of Viterbo, once the seat of popes. We followed trails along Lago di Bolsena, tasted wines from renowned vineyards, visited an Etruscan museum in Sutri, and finished with a flourish as we walked into Rome and St. Peter’s Square.
On the last day’s walk, we enjoyed a wonderful meal at a restaurant perched atop one the seven hills of Rome. We walked down the hill into the bustling city of Rome and made our way into St. Peter’s Square, flanked by the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. Our leaders led us to the official office, which would certify that we had completed the Via Francigena. We celebrated over dinner, toasting each other and our amazing guides, Ellen, Gianluca, and Gianpiero.
Travel always surprises, and we had no lack of challenges and wonderful rewards on our latest walking adventure in Italy. Future plans will take us to Puglia and Calabria to explore Southern Italy, the heel and toe of the “boot.”