Way of the Aqueducts – walking from Lucca to Pisa

Lucca to Pisa walking route
Lucca to Pisa walking route.
Elevation map - Lucca to Pisa
Elevation map – Lucca to Pisa. The other way round would involve a cruel climb, but the downhill wouldn’t be so steep. And there are plenty of alternative paths for the climb that might even it out a little.

Given I was heading to Lucca for parkrun in the morning, I picked up my ticket for the train the night before. The machines in Italy ask “do you want to buy your return?” when you get the first, but with tickets honestly priced (a return is twice the price of a single – which shouldn’t be a surprise, but is not how things work in the UK), there doesn’t seem much need. So I kept my options open, thinking perhaps I could run part way. How far is it from Lucca to Pisa anyway?

Finding the answer to that question (about 15 miles) led me to checking out how much pavement there is on the route, pondering whether those tracks on maps.me were private or open tracks and, finally (after spotting the road route held a hideous-looking tunnel that definitely did not look pedestrian friendly), to The Way of the Aqueducts, a mostly off-road route between the two cities. Note: these are 19th century aqueducts, not Roman, and you see them at the beginning and end of the walk, not in the hills in the middle.

I followed (more or less) the instructions on the blog below, which also has some historical information about the aqueducts, cisterns and so on on the route.

https://manuoverland.wordpress.com/2017/03/09/the-way-of-the-acqueducts/

The weather forecast was off-putting, with thunderstorms due at 12 and 5, but I figured I’d wait and see how bad the first was, and see if I could make it before the worst of the second. After some time poking round Lucca, which is a pretty city, and eating a burger and chips, which is a luxurious brunch, it was midday, the weather was set fair and I followed the subway under the railway lines to the start of the walk.

Some sights from Lucca. I walked at random, so these attractions are picked at random and you may have to take it on trust that Lucca is a pretty city. There’s a great nun joke in there, though.

 

Whichever city you start in (and for reward, Pisa to Lucca is probably the one that ends with more of a high, and a long downhill to recuperate from a tough up), the first few kilometres are as straight and flat as you like, with the aqueduct running alongside the path. I passed few people, but some were out walking dogs and the occasional cyclist rolled along.

 

There’s a footbridge over the A11 – at this point the aqueduct has been removed, rather than removing the top of high vehicles. After that, you’re heading away from traffic, following a path that weaves around the gardens of houses. The path isn’t totally direct, taking a left turn after the cistern of Guiamo, which marks the start/finish of the arches. A grassy, stoney path follows filtering wells and cisterns, before turning right to head towards “The words of gold”. These are inscribed on a bridge, and actually made of brass; they are named because people mistook it for gold.

 

After that site, the route climbs steadily, passing a dry set of stone cascades running down the slope. This is path 128, and you might see that number painted on trees from time to time. At the top of the first hill is the Astronomical Observatory of Capannori. The observatory itself is a further short walk uphill, if you want to get close enough to see it properly, though the site itself is likely to be locked.

 

From here it is a downhill walk on quiet, paved roads, into the village of Vorno. If you search for the route you will find organised trips that stop here, but I was only a couple of hours in and so continued on the roads, uphill and out of the city. There are signs to Pisa to make sure you take a left turn past the community centre. I was lulled by following the road and initially missed the left turn off the road, marked by a painted number 124. I was also confused by the multiple “Privato!” signs in this area, but it’s just a case of eliminating the impossible and going with what is left – private straight on, so follow the road uphill, then turn left onto the mule trail, steep and rocky initially, before the next private property. There are also plenty of Via Francigena markings (a white and a red stripe) on this route, for reassurance (though I did not follow these markings for all of my walk).

 

I stopped at what turned out to be the top of the climb, just over halfway through, and allowed myself a late lunch. Checking directions from the other blog post, I realised I was at Campo Croce, which is marked by a sign and multiple paths leading off in different directions. To the right of the sign, the path is marked by a VF marker, but the instructions are to take another path, to the left of the sign, which I did, thoroughly enjoying going downhill on a wide path.

 

You are apparently taking path 16 here, then on to 119. It isn’t all clearly marked, but so long as you take the path to the left of the sign, you’re fine. And many of the others will get you there – have a look on maps.me (free app), if you have a smartphone.

 

Crucially, you need to watch out for a right-turn towards Mirteto. There is a signpost here, but it is partially hidden by trees.

 

After following that path for a while, you come to a t-junction that is actually a crossroads. There’s a wide path to the left. Ignore it! And a wide path to the right! Walk on that for a metre or two, then take the little path to the left, downhill (so heading back in the direction you were heading when you got to the junction). The other paths do loop round, if you don’t fancy the steeper path down.

 

It is a bit of a clamber in places, but look – despite having ignored the VF-marked path at Campo di Croce, we’re back on that route again. A lot of these paths are connected, so you can’t go too far ‘wrong’, just some are more direct than others.

That path was steep enough that when I had the option to continue on it, down a steep-looking small path, or take a shallower, more obvious, route on path 117, down to Mirteto, I took the latter. It’s not much further, and there are goats.

Goats, Mirteto
Goats, Mirteto.

Mirteto itself is an abandoned settlement, but (by the standards of a mostly deserted route), a popular one, as people trek up there from Asciano.

 

The best bit of Asciano was its Carrefour Express. A can of Pepsi, one of beer and a bottle of water for €1.45; find a bench in the small park behind the shop.

Finally, it’s a long, straight walk into Pisa, following more aqueduct arches. It’s still over 5km from here, but you can get a shuffle on if you want, now it’s flat, and there are more water sources (with locals filling up water bottles) under the arches. How long you follow the arches for depends on where you are headed to in Pisa – I became a little mesmerised by them and headed further into the centre than I needed to, but it is a pretty city. Prettier than its “everyone comes for the tower, it’s only worth a day” reputation.

 

The path is very close to the road, which makes it noisy in places, but there are wildflowers growing right under the arches, and I never got bored of looking over at them as I passed. I absolutely loved this walk – it came out at just under 26kms, from the start to my hostel in Pisa, which was just South of the railway station. On reflection, I think it might be more beautiful the other way, as you’d get the biggest climb out of the way, then head down into Vorno, and end up walking down to the Words of Gold before the flat walk into Lucca. But there isn’t that much in it. Just perhaps don’t get over-optimistic and think “right, I’ll run there to parkrun!” Save it for afterwards.

Mura di Lucca parkrun, Italy

Mura di Lucca parkrun route
Mura di Lucca parkrun route. Anticlockwise, except for the tiny loop at the beginning.

Several people recommended this parkrun to me, both travellers and Italians, so at some point I decided to save it for my last weekend in Italy. It’s certainly a fabulous one (though I don’t pick favourites; they’re all great). A loop all the way round the city walls, looking down at the city, or over surrounding hills (and at other people promenading round the raised route).

Mura di Lucca parkrun finish
Mura di Lucca parkrun finish.

As the finish line photo shows, in places the route is very wide. It is never narrow, but runners will have to weave a little to move round other path users, and watch out for bikes. A large group of walkers came through after many of us had finished, but then, why wouldn’t you use such a fabulous walkway?

Finish line shaded by trees, other cyclists and walkers passing by
Finish line shaded by trees, other cyclists and walkers passing by.

The route round the walls is under 5km, so the start takes you clockwise to the first monument, turn left to go round that clockwise, then back, anti-clockwise, past the start and all the way round to finish in the same place.

It’s flat and fast, barely an undulation to slow the pace; just any loss of concentration, which can be easy if you’re used to differing terrain, or hills, to keep you thinking. Two locals raced off into the distance, but another sat on my shoulder for much of the run, which kept me working. This was only his fourth parkrun, 2 here and 2 in Florence, and he took a minute off his best (after a gap of several months), so the competition did us both some good. And I kept him honest, too, sometimes shaping to go right round walkers, then choosing left, which must have made him check where my heels were.

Walltop walkway route
Walltop walkway route.
Covered structure on the route
Covered structure on the route – with a slight upward slope.

This wasn’t an especially warm day, though the sun came out during the run, but the course is lined by trees and would give some good shade cover on a warmer day. The event team were enthusiastic, with several English speakers who came over (more than once) to explain the route and make sure we knew what we were doing, as well as a run briefing in Italian and English.

There were also plenty of tourists; a couple of cyclists from Cambridge, who had caused a minor incident with their husbands by heading off to do a parkrun ahead of 50 miles+ cycling later in the day. A couple of South Africans, one cycling round. A friendly group from Huddersfield, who eyed up my 250 shirt even as I did the same to theirs. And an Englishman who now lives in Australia and had spent a month in Lucca, but was only able to do the parkrun at the last, thanks to a dodgy knee. Plenty of people to talk to and share travel/holiday stories.

Tree-lined wall walk, with greenery and hills away to the right
Tree-lined wall walk, with greenery and hills away to the right.
A view over the side of the wall
A view over the side of the wall. Not one I took in during the run.

I stayed in Pisa, a half-hour train ride away (7:50 gets you in at 8:23, the station is 400m from the start and has free (squat) toilets). Just be warned that the shortened “2to” platform on some displays means “2 ovest”, which platform is next to platform 1. Platform 2, which is where my train was, is a completely different one, with a different train leaving at 7:50.

Pisa also makes for easier travel to Florence for a bus on Sunday morning, which suits me. I wandered round the pretty town for a couple of hours, and marvelling that I was poking through lanes, finding piazzas and art, all in an area round which I had already run. It brought it home that 4.4km encircles quite a large area.

Staying in Pisa also brought the bonus that I could follow the “Way of the Aqueducts” and walk back, which was a perfect way to fill out the day.

Chiesa di San Michele in Foro, Lucca
Chiesa di San Michele in Foro.

Results of event 38, Mura di Lucca parkrun, 11/5/19.

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Roma Pineto parkrun, Italy

Roma Pineto parkrun route
Roma Pineto parkrun route. Two laps, clockwise.

A two-lap course, on another (like Caffarella) typical Roman park, in that it is not a manicured park of flowers and fountains, but a half-wild open space with paths. On a rainy day, the trail course was at its best (in that it was muddy) and worst (in that it was slippery).

It rained through the early part of the morning, as I wandered through Rome to the Parco Regionale Urbano del Pineto. It’s a decent walk from Roma Termini (8km or so), but I had time to walk, and time thereby to see a few sights and also get very wet, despite an umbrella. Following directions on my phone got me there just fine, but I was sure that I wouldn’t have to follow the twisty road through the middle of the park – there’ll be a way in to the park, I’ll just take that! There is no way, or not till you get near the North end of the road, and at that point I wasn’t about to risk diving into the park through long wet grass.

If you go, walk North on the path behind Balduina station, or get the train all the way to Gemelli, and avoid that road through the middle. Not only is it twisty, the pavement comes and goes, and the cars go. Never quite dangerous, but I paused once or twice to let cars go by and then move round the overgrowing plants. On a dry day, less of an issue.

Trevor and me, up the hill; muddy underfoot
Trevor and me, up the hill to turn for the second lap.

The run itself is lovely. Lots of the regulars were up in Lucca, as there’s a half marathon there tomorrow, so there were 18 of us, exactly half tourist first-timers. Normally the briefing would be in Italian, but today Salvatore did it in English, with assistance from an English migrant who works as a librarian in the city.

A fellow parkrunner waving, approaching a direction sign
A fellow parkrunner waving, approaching a direction sign.

We were warned it might be a bit slippery on the paths, and the grass might be more secure, and they were right. I ran with another tourist, and we both slipped and slid. In my case, I took the experience of the first lap, forgot it and got into the same or worse positions on the course, the second time around.

It’s lovely, though, and the rain more or less abated as we got ourselves round. The course looks complicated, but with signs and cones all round, there was no chance to get lost. As it’s up on a hill, there are also views of Rome, below, though we were too busy looking at our footing to see them till the end.

Mud on the legs at the finish
Mud on the legs at the finish.

The run to start the second lap, and to the finish, is uphill, which is tough at the end, though it isn’t that big a hill. It certainly isn’t the quickest course, even more so when wet. But the welcome is warm, organisation slick and it gives you an excuse to see a part of Rome less travelled to.

Results from event 58, Roma Pineto parkrun.

Caffarella parkrun, Rome, Italy

Caffarella parkrun route
Caffarella parkrun route. Down to the meadow, two loops round there, back up to the top and add a little loop.

On a warm, sunny morning, I walked from my cosy hostel near the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano to the Parco della Caffarella, a sprawling and confusing park in the South of Rome. Not that finding the run, or its route, is confusing, but afterwards I got confused by what I was allowed to run on and what I wasn’t – bits of the park seemed to have “private!” signs, though I was unchallenged, and others were walking there. There is some, I think, old Roman road to the South, which may even be a part of the Appian Way. Certainly the latter is round here, along with other historic roads. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that in this part of the world, all the roads really are leading to Rome, but it did spark a reaction in my tired head.

Brown paths and green field on the main loop
Quick look at the top of the main loop. Right turn when you first come into the meadow. Further along you can see the back of signs pointing the way left for the second loop (and straight on, to the finish).

I was not feeling especially sprightly, but was able to coax myself into a jog to have a look at the course. I am glad I did. As you turn left to go down towards what we called “the meadow” (where you do two long loops) there is some rocky footing, and you go from sun to shade – not wearing sunglasses is probably the best option. There’s a marshal there to make sure you go the right way. Easy on the way down, as there are signs, but not on the way back (if you, like me, have no memory for where you came from).

Sheep in the park
These sheep were nowhere near the run today, but previous reviews suggest they have been on occasion.

It’s a short jaunt down to the meadow, then a couple of long loops. The back straight, in particular, is long, accentuated by the fact that you run past the turn, so have to come back on yourself a little. Back up (and it is slightly up) the rocky section, a loop round the playground, past the start and then you finish. The run director can then, and did, explain that the park, as well as being beautiful, is archaeologically significant, and is bisected by the Appian way.

I stood around in the sunshine, chatting to fellow tourists and a couple of locals, before heading off to do a longer run around the park. I didn’t manage to find my way to the other park that is to the South of this one, but did find the sheep, someone’s drive, a busy road, plenty of greenery and some views over the city. There isn’t a huge climb, so it’s worth the jog to look back over the rooftops. You’re not going to be short of cobbled roads in Rome, but there’s a nice stretch to find in the middle of the park, if you want to feel you are following in the footsteps of archaeologists.

Results from event 33, Caffarella parkrun.

Siena

Siena is known for its art. I am sure I’ve even heard people say it’s more beautiful than Florence, though I suspect the truth is that it’s easier to get at the art, and there’s less distance to travel between attractions. It is certainly a lovely city; plenty of tourists, yet not as crazy as Florence, and its two-hour queue for the Duomo.

Piazza del Campo, Siena
This is where the Palio (horse race) takes place. Plenty of people just sitting on the (sloping) ground in the centre.

As with so many of the cities in Italy, it is on a hill, so there’s plenty of climbing if you walk much of it, but there are views from all over the place.

View over unlovely Siena flats, to green fields and forested hills beyond
View over the edge of Siena.
A view between two houses, the ground drops away to houses on a hillside
A view between two houses.

I wandered into town, a couple of kms from the Siena hostel, then a couple more to actually get to the centre, passing brick buildings, statues and views periodically. As walks go, it was ever so relaxing, because of all the sights.

Quite by chance, I found my way to the Palazzo Salimbeni, which is a popular spot. It is also a great one to stumble upon if you’re not in the mood to stop for long, because although it is picturesque, and may be mobbed with people, you can’t actually go in the Palazzo. Stop, look, picture, um, yeah.

14th Palazzo Salimbeni
14th Palazzo Salimbeni, popular for photos, especially right as this moment.

I was wondering if I considered looking at the beautiful architecture enough, or should check to see where might be good to see some art. Then, at the end of a nondescript street, I popped into a church.

I’m sure the place is in many a guidebook, but it seems typical of Siena (particularly as I clicked through photos of other churches, trying to find out which one this was) that this place is stunning, yet had only four other people in it at the time. There’s a small museum out the back, as well, with livery and clothes.

Impressed by the art, I went back to strolling about through the streets; buildings are impressive, churches sometimes small and part of the street, sometimes grand, and there is detail, gargoyles, statues, everywhere.

A view over the tops of trees, houses to either side and away in the distance
A view from a high point.

After a little longer, I found myself at the Cathedral, which is grand, even from the slightly more austere back side. The front rises grandly, with a few steps in front for people to stand on and gawp. The queue for entry looked a little long, though apparently you can buy tickets online to avoid some of the effort. And go earlier than I did.

I spent time over a couple of days just walking through the streets, up and down hills and sometimes flights of steps, just taking in the views, then losing myself in narrower alleyways (many of which are roads, so watch for cars careering round corners) before emerging to more architectural beauty. It’s a lovely city.

Certaldo Alto, Tuscany

Via Boccaccio sign
Via Boccaccio.

Certaldo is proud of its claim to be the birthplace of Giovanni Boccaccio (though the wikipedia page, linked to, says the location is uncertain), with a whacking great statue of him in the main town square, and museum up in the old town. The main road in Certaldo Alto is named after him, too.

Statue of Giovanni Boccaccio
Statue of Giovanni Boccaccio.

The old town is reached by one of two cobbled paths, a windy road, or the funicular railway. It isn’t far, but the paths up are pretty steep and, given how it felt after a short shower, possibly a bit slippery when wet.

The path takes you up quickly, so after a little effort you are rewarded by views over Certaldo and the surrounding area. Tuscany is good at views, for sure.

Panoramic view from Certaldo Alto; town below, green hills beyond
Panoramic view from Certaldo Alto.

The town itself is very small – you can walk pretty much every street in half an hour or so. Poking round the museums will take a little longer, and you’ll be there a couple of hours if you stop at every gelato shop. There are more down the hill, so you can gelato your way all around the locale if you are so minded. This is a common feature round here.

The lanes are narrow and pretty, other than the wide Via Boccaccio. To my eye, it looked a little more liveable, less cluttered and squashed in, than some of the other old towns I’ve passed through.

I walked round the town happily for a while, decided the restaurants were a little too busy on this Easter Monday, as were the gelato shops, and so headed down the hill for a pizza (Cavour, in Certaldo new town, is very good). Those views, though.

Certaldo to San Gimignano

San Gimignano (wikipedia page) is a beautiful medieval town, marked by its many towers. Rich men of the city used to build them to show their wealth. At one point there were over 70, but advertising so much wealth turned out not to be such a great idea, so they thinned out the number, leaving fourteen. Which still makes for a distinctive skyline.

San Gimignano from the valley below, several towers appear small above an olive grove
Several towers from the valley below.

My hostel offered a there-and-back lift for 15 euros, or bike hire for 10. But it is only 11km. Assuming you go by the shortest route, for which you ought to download Maps.me, which marks dirt roads and footpaths that other maps have not yet heard of, and works offline. I missed a right turn onto a dirt road, distracted by tackling the hill ahead of me, so did over 12k to get there. And an unnecessary hill. But it was still a great jaunt, and the hard work is toward the end.

It’s perfectly walkable, too, if you fancy it. There’s a cruel valley towards the end, just as San Gimignano comes into view you are taken down on a winding road, past a factory or two, losing height only to have to regain it immediately.

San Gimignano's towers in the distance, nascent olive grove in the foreground
A very distant view of San Gimignano. Having run 9km or so by now, this was more exciting than it looks.

The town is full of tourists. It isn’t tiny, so there’s room to move, even on an Easter Sunday, but you definitely know you are in a major attraction. I arrived just after 11, so finding a quiet restaurant was easy. I ordered in simple Italian, and was under no illusion that the server thought I was Italian. I was, however, surprised when she complimented the other two patrons, two ladies from Michigan, on their “lovely, upright, British accents”. Hello? British person right here! I had a quick chat with the ladies on my way out, and we departed in a flurry of mutual accent appreciation.

Wandering the lanes is a pleasure. And a workout in itself, as not all of them are flat, by any means. If you want to take a shortcut, then you’ll probably climb or descend a side-alley fairly precipitously.

There is a combined ticket for the museums, for 9 euros, or a wider one, at 13 euros, allowing access to several different places in the city. I took neither, happy to let lunch settle and then use the energy to return.

Apart from the towns, the rolling hills and the distinctive brick and tile houses, I have been fascinated by the ruined buildings. Some are obviously farmhouses, untended and unloved. Others are larger, pointing to abandoned factory work.

However you get there, San Gimignano is beautiful and worth a look. But don’t forget to poke about in the landscape around it if at all possible.

Firenze parkrun, Tuscany, Italy

Firenze parkrun course
Firenze parkrun course. 3 laps – ignore the shortened lap.

Firenze parkrun is in the large Parco delle Cascine, an easy 2-3km walk from the middle of Florence, or SMN station if you arrive by train, as I did (having stayed in Certaldo, a 50-60minute ride away).

The park is big, but because it is cut by roads and tram tracks, the course only uses a part of it. It is (just under) three simple laps, anti-clockwise, starting near the bottom right of the long straight at the top, finishing at the bottom right.

Firenze parkrun group photo
Firenze parkrun group photo.

Or at least, it should be. On the day, the turn around marshal dutifully pointed us left into the woods, some twit Englishman was in front so couldn’t correct her, and we were back at the start about 4.5 minutes after “go!”. Which is pretty quick for a 1.7km loop. Panicked instructions were sent up the line at some point, and by the time I got back to that early turn, the arrow had gone, to be replaced at the end of the straight, where it belonged.

Firenze parkrun start
Firenze parkrun start.

At that point, I wondered what to do. I saw the finish funnel in place, at the end of the lap, and clearly we were going to be well short. As I came round for the third time, though, the funnel had been moved and so I gratefully followed instructions round the corner, past the start, and finished.

I still hadn’t run 5k, though, and the event director checked – on the move – with a regular who was just behind me, and we hurriedly decided to run on and stop at 5k.

That readjusted, then readjusted again, finish made for a brief period of chaos, as our outstretched hands showed the finish for the next few, while the volunteers brought cones and timers up. But it worked, people queued in order to have their barcodes scanned, and the rising temperature warmed us all.

Me, running on the narrow path through woods
Me, running on the narrow path that brings you back to the start/finish.

It is a lovely, and simple (I feel some responsibility for not knowing we were being directed wrongly; if the front few had gone the right way, everyone else could have followed) course. The top straight is on tarmac, then the middle section is on a narrow hard-packed mud path through the woods. The volunteers are friendly and, this being Florence, the count of tourists is high, so they make a point of checking where people are from to give different countries and cities a shout out before we get going.

Afterwards we gathered in the playground, with some cake provided, and a water fountain nearby. There are toilets in the next mini-park over, and you can leave bags etc. in the playground, with a volunteer deputed to keep an eye over them.

A lovely run, mostly shaded so as cool as it can be if the day is warm, and the park itself is a welcome relief from the crowds and queues within the ancient beauty of Florence itself.

Results from event 82, Firenze parkrun.

Via Francigena, Italian stage 30, San Miniato to Gambassi Terme

VFW Stage 30 route map
VFW Stage 30 route map. About 22km.

I wrote about the Via just the other day, so for more about the direction arrows and history, see the blog post from the  16th April. I had a day free this week, had accomodation booked in Certaldo, to the South, figured my bag wasn’t that heavy and so why not take on walking the full stage, rather than the 11km I had run previously?

I emailed Ostello Sigerico, just outside Gambassi Terme, to check they could fit me in. It isn’t bookable via my usual routes – Hostelworld or Booking.com – probably because they are busy enough with pilgrims. They also don’t speak English, but writing an email in Italian is pretty simple with the help of online translators. I asked for dinner to be included, which I recommend highly. Partly because it was good, but mostly because the camaraderie at the end of a day’s walking is almost the best thing about the whole experience.

Stunning, The route is stunning. Entirely coincidentally, there is a BBC series on at the moment, so various people were even more envious of my wandering than they might have been, having already seen some of the views. The first 5km are mostly uphill, on roads – fairly quiet, must roads nonetheless. They you turn onto what they call a “marvellous track” on the official website, where it would be easy to lose time at a water point (there aren’t many of those on this route) as the view over the landscape is so beautiful. The next few kilometres take you along tree-lined dirt roads, with occasional longer views.

And then I emerged onto a ridge, as the path climbed then dropped gently, with a view in every direction, and was almost teary-eyed from the view. It wasn’t as if the view had been industrial or otherwise unpleasant before, but this felt very special. It helped that it was a beautiful day, warm sunshine with a cool breeze. “Tuscany is beautiful!” said a German at dinner. He was right. “Gosh, that is a new thought,” said his Italian friend, gently pointing out that yes, the world knows. Still, it really is worth looking at.

At the top of a climb, 20km in, I found a trio of walkers, a couple of benches and a turn onto the road in to Gambassi Terme. With check-in at 2.30, I had some time to kill, and chose to pass 30 minutes or so here, looking back over the path I’d walked up, through a farm and its olive groves. One of the walkers asked if I was doing the Via Francigena, and I felt duty-bound to say yes, but just the one day.

After a couple of kilometres walked along the side of the road – on a safe, if narrow path, the other side of the armco, I wandered up to the Ostello. It is a kilometre short of the town, which is a blessing when you arrive. Less so if you want to get to the small supermarket in town, though there is a combined petrol station and bar just up the road. That same walker was waiting, alone, at the Ostello, which wasn’t going to be open till 3. No matter, it’s a beautiful building, and the walk there takes you round the edge and into a courtyard. You can wait there, or in the garden, which is through an arch, and has views over town.

He, the walker, was Italian with decent English having spent some time in Canterbury. I think he was going the whole pilgrimage from there, in pieces over time. He was happy to help me and a Dutch couple get what we needed from the welcoming staff member, and the three of us, plus the young German and Italian, ate together at dinner. The Dutch couple are pilgrimage (and marathon-walking) veterans, giving us pointers on others. At the moment, the Via Francigena seems a great choice; less busy than the Camino, and with it still being possible, at least out of season, to just wander most of the route and pick up accommodation as you go. Tourist hotspots, like San Gimignano, need a bit more planning, but in general, you can walk pretty unencumbered by thought.

Gambassi Terme – Certaldo

The next day, I walked 5km of the Via, mostly downwards, passing other pilgrims along the way. Once over a small stream, the Via turned right (and on to San Gimignano, 13km or so in total) while I went left, following a hard mud path for another 5km, then farm tracks and a couple of roads through an industrial area for the last 2km into Certaldo. I stayed at the Bassetto Guesthouse. It isn’t, any more, on the Via Francigena, but isn’t a long walk off piste if you fancy it. And it is a wonderful place to stay. It’s an old stone farmhouse, in the main, with single beds in dorms, a big kitchen, wine flowing and welcoming staff and guests. For me, a couple of drunken late nights served as reward for walking and exploring.

 

Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo Da, Tuscany

Small houses in Vinci, overlooking fields
A town on a few levels, set on hilltops.

I had been given a town a tip to visit the town of Vinci, in particular the museum devoted to its most famous son, Leonardo da Vinci, from Jackie, a parkrunner, in Rimini. Ease of access to the town was my original reason for staying in San Miniato, as that lets you get there with a train to Empoli and bus (49) to Vinci.

The museum costs €13 if you want to visit all the different sites. There are four, none of them over-large, so any other ticket may see you in and out fairly quickly. The main reason to limit yourself to just the first two sets of exhibits might be physical, given that the farmhouse and Da Vinci’s birthplace are each a good 2-3km walk away, and 1km from each other.

The first museum I came to is also the main ticket office (which means staff there speak multiple languages). The ground floor has lots of different models which recreate Da Vinci’s designs. The models are the highlight. Of necessity to me, perhaps, as most of the text is in Italian and though there are a couple of points that advertise picking up English translations here, they were empty. There is an app, and an audio guide, which probably give more.

Upstairs is a small anatomy exhibition. I didn’t think this photographed all that well, but his drawings are extraordinary, made from dissection of cadavers, and still important. This National Geographic article points out that a team in Ireland have just proven that the mesentery (connecting the intestines and abdomen) is one continuous organ. Da Vinci drew just that in 1508.

A short walk away, initially through a courtyard artistically-decorated with geometric shapes, is the main museum, covering Da Vinci’s life with exhibits and some audiovisual pieces. The one that talks through his birth is worth waiting for, with images projected onto walls around you as the audio plays. There are more models on the ground floor, those audiovisual exhibits on the first, plus some views over the valley from outside, and then a climb up the tower gives greater views from the top.

It was fairly quiet in town, except for the school trips. At one point, a guard detached himself from his post at the front door, and wandered down towards wherever the noise was coming from. Within moments, the sound ceased, and there was plenty of shushing whenever I got near to the group (not that there is room to get far away). In addition, they were sent up the tower in patches, while individuals were allowed to go round. Which all worked pretty well, saving us from getting caught in queues. At weekends, queueing might be inevitable.

The other two sites are smaller. Leonardo’s birthplace has one main exhibit, which is an ‘experience’, with an aged Da Vinci appearing to narrate parts of his life, and another voice taking over to add detail. It’s quite odd – I thought the performance pretty hammy, with several too many…

dramatic pauses, but that doesn’t prevent the subject itself being interesting. The farmhouse, further down (or on the way up, if you like, though as it’s off to the left as you walk up the hill, it’s better as a diversion on the way back), has just two rooms, with reproductions of Da Vinci’s most famous paintings. Some reviews are a bit caustic, but I thought there was just enough explanatory text to bring them to life, and it’s a chance to get up close to great works, without fending off great crowds. It’s much easier to get an idea of why the Mona Lisa remains the subject of debate when you can walk across her, seeing how the smile changes as you study it.

Bower with a view over Vinci
Bower with a view over Vinci.

There is also an interpretive garden on the way up, not far out of town, taking you on a short trail, with switchbacks, with installations to represent parts of Da Vinci’s life and his surroundings.

Most of the walk, if you don’t go up the road (which is possible) is along trails, baked by the sun on the good day I got, through olive groves, climbing up the hill and giving you views over the town behind you.

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