Exploring Cornwall – with free parking

To start without controversy, Cornwall is stunning. It is also very popular, but often large parts of the really pretty bits are inaccessible, making useful land valuable. Parking is, then, a scarce resource, rationed by price – it’s possible to feel as though Cornwall is full, or that you have to pay wherever you go. In fact, it isn’t the case everywhere. Below are three spots with free parking and gorgeous scenery. You can walk much, or much less, further than I did, but I’ve included my routes for context. All these sites are best checked on an online map first for a route; and beware the little lanes that lead to them, especially Luxulyan and Penare.

Henderson National Trust car park

Henderson car park is in the middle, top.

This is a small car park, with sharply downhill access to the coastal path. Walk toward Talland, and there’s a lovely cafe (down another sharply downhill stretch), The Smuggler’s Rest, for hot food, cake, pop and beer. It was a gorgeous day when we visited, so we sat with cake first, then moved on to beer. Frankly, I just didn’t really want to climb the hill back up to the car, though we ended walking some distance towards Looe (just off the map to the East) afterwards, so I got into my stride.

Luxulyan

Luxulyan

Luxulyan is a village near The Eden Project (itself near St Austell). A drive down winding lanes seems unpromising until, all of a sudden, there is the small car park. Trails lead off into the woods, and there’s a relatively straightforward loop by the river. Very quickly, you come to the Treffry Viaduct. It used to serve two purposes, with water flowing under the top to power the water wheel, which let the tramway move up the valley. All this to link mines in mid Cornwall with the coast – now, surrounded by trees, tracks long gone, it is incongruous.

Penare/Hemmick Beach

Hemmick Beach, accessed via a few-hundred metre walk from Penare car park.

A little SouthEast of Boswinger, this is another car park accessed by little lanes, which I found a little nerve-wracking, though we passed the few cars with no trouble. Given that we came through the school run earlier on the journey, and they were well-practised at leaving space and politely letting people through, it might be more trouble with slow-moving tourist traffic than quicker locals. There’s a lovely, fairly strenuous, walk round the point to The Dodman. Near there is a large cross, erected by the religious. I couldn’t really see why it was there until I looked at the shadow and realised that it’s a big plus.

The beach is gorgeous and reached down a fairly sharp downhill walk. It’s only a few hundred metres from the car park, but not a straightforward wander.

Touring Donegal

In the UK, a weary staffer reset the “since party outrage” counter back to 0. It was originally expressing days, but switching from 1 to 0 repeatedly wasn’t very interesting, so they had moved it to hours some time ago. The staffer wasn’t weary of the job – by now, if you work for a party that is no longer Conservative, nor Unionist, and haven’t embraced lies and outrage as your currency, you are strange indeed. But boy, it was a lot of work. I was in Ireland, a still-sane country.

In the UK, legitimate and verified news stories of NHS struggles were crushed beneath a slew of unreliable claims that they were false – all expressed in exactly the same words, and calling the LGI “Leeds Hospital”, which no one does (but there is no problem with foreign intervention). A false, quick-spreading story that a staffer for the lying party was punched at that same hospital was only overturned because the reality was filmed – something we will from now have to do routinely. As all of that happened, in just a few hours on one day of an exhausting and depressing election campaign, I was touring Donegal. It is a beautiful, sometimes windswept and wild county, including the Northernmost point of Ireland.

Glenveagh National Park covers a large area, so you can walk for hours and hours. I parked at the visitors centre, which is free, and walked to the castle. If you want to visit the castle (a house, built in the 19th century, rather than an old stronghold), you’d be better advised to pay for the shuttle bus to save your legs, but it’s a nice walk.

I headed South to Narin Beach, which has a parkrun every Saturday at 9.30. It is a wide expanse of sand. I was lucky enough to be there on a sunny day – “like summer,” said a local, and round here that isn’t too far from the truth.

I also headed to Sliabh Liag (Slieve League) mountain, which has an easy approach walk (and at this time of year, you can open the gate in the car park and drive up to the top, to save a couple of kms). The views over the cliffs are spectacular.

There is a path heading up over the cliffs. With cloud hanging over the top, I wouldn’t have done it anyway, but seeing that its title is “One Man’s Pass”, made sure I just didn’t fancy it.

Rocks in the sea in the shape of table and chair, overlooked by cliffs
Giant’s table and chair.

On the walk back the views are just as spectacular. This isn’t the only place where they have arranged stones to spell out “EIRE” for air traffic.

Although it is a small place, and reviews suggest there’s not much to see without a tour (summer months only), I headed to Doe Castle, and sat in the grounds to eat lunch, overseen by a curious sheep.

Sheep poking its head through fence slats
Curious sheep. It can get to the field behind.

Doe Castle
Doe Castle. Worth a short wander round.

View of the castle from the other side of the water. Orange scrub this side, greenery behind
Doe Castle View – from the other side of the water.

Donegal is a stunning landscape, more or less wherever you go. The Atlantic crashes against its shores, there are beautiful, quiet beaches everywhere and the landscape is dramatic. Not much by way of flowers, either in the wild or in gardens, but the views are fabulous.

 

Algonquin Provincial park

Algonquin vehicle permit
Vehicle permit. Good till 10pm.

The West Gate of the park is 43km from Huntsville, 170 from Barrie, 265 from Toronto. Near enough for a visit from most of those, though set aside as much of the day as you can – there’s a lot to see (and taking a break would be a good idea, too). From West to East gate is 56km, so you can traverse the park in a day, though with 15 marked trails before you get into the overnight hiking routes, you’ll not be stopping everywhere.

Stop at one of the gates and buy a permit (CAD 21, per car), then make sure you stick that on your dash at each stop (you might remove it in between if you have open windows – although there’s great tree cover, there was quite a breeze when I was there and I nearly lost it once).

The trails and campsites are well marked from the road, but a map is handy to know how far each one is. There are some long ones that need an overnight backpack trip, but some of the day ones really need a whole day for you to make the most of them. I headed East immediately, only just ignoring temptation, so as to start out there and work back to my start. I started with walk 11, Big Pines, which has some big trees. Really big trees.

Algonquin trail map
Map of the different trails.

Lookout Trail booklet
Lookout Trail booklet.

The walks I covered, heading East to West. I started just after midday, finishing after 7pm:

  • 11 Big Pines, 2.9km.
  • 10 Lookout, 2.1km.
  • 8 Two Rivers, 2.3km.
  • 7 Bat Lake, 5.8km.
  • 5 Track & Tower, 7.5km (there are two clearly marked shortcuts, cutting out the main lookout. The shortest (going from post 4 to 11) makes it 5km).
  • 1 Whiskey Rapids, 2.1km.

Big Pines Trail is a 2.9km walk; relatively easy. The interpretive booklets for each trail are really good. Well-written, each one takes a different tack – talking you through the flora, or fauna, or human history. I learnt a lot without even really trying.

The Lookout Trail is just down the road, so very little time to rest in the drive, and is another straightforward walk. 2.1km with some ascent to get to the lookout. Great views guaranteed.

Two Rivers Trail is 2.3km, with a straightforward ascent up to another cliff, for more great views out over the wilderness.

After those shorter walks, it was time for a longer one. The walk to Bat Lake, with that lake near the end, is 5.8km. There’s a bit of a climb from 1km to 2.5 or so, then a drop before a pretty flat last 2.5 (after which I forgot I had ever climbed). The views are great, and there are likely to be fewer people on the longer routes – on this one, I barely saw another person on this cool, cloudy September Saturday.

Bat Lake, ringed by trees
Bat Lake.

Buoyed by this longer stroll, I drove back along the road a little, paused in the car for 5 minutes to give my legs a rest, and then headed out to cover the 7.5km of the Track and Tower trail. I found this fascinating, with the accompanying booklet (pick them up at the beginning of each trail) covering the human history of this part of Canada. Large parts of this trail lookout over, or walk along, the site of old railways, carrying people and logs in and out of the area. In places that is obvious, but in others, you’d have no idea, as the forest has well and truly taken back over.

Narrow trail through woods marks where there used to be a railway track
Photo of the railway that used to run at this site, in front of what is there now.

You can take a shortcut on this trail, and cut it down to 5km. You’ll still get the track story, but miss out on the lookout point (a highlight of Algonquin) and the site of the old fire-lookout tower.

Fairly early in the walk, you come to views over Cache Lake, which is also overlooked by other trails; it’s a big lake of several parts.

Looking out over Cache Lake
Cache Lake.

Beyond the lake comes the shortcut turnoff, and, if you don’t take that, the climb up towards the lookout point and tower site.

The lookout point gives a fabulous view, described in the trail booklet as their favourite view out over the park. Although the fire lookout tower here was pretty much redundant – the areas it covered were viewable from elsewhere – it is well worth the climb to have a look.

The map makes it look like an out and back, but actually there’s a loop at the lookout point; just make sure you head right at info post 7 and it all becomes clear. The stairs up are also the stairs down.

After the excitement of the lookout, you head back down, along some narrow trails and then emerge onto a wide trail that is more obviously an old railway line. There are also trestles marking where a bridge once took the line across the water. If you have lots of time, or a bike, you can explore this old path much further along. If walking, just don’t miss the left turn which comes after a few hundred metres, marked by a couple of small signs.

The walk back to the car park is a long 2.5km, though you do get to look out over Grant Lake, which used to be known as Gem-of-the-Woods. It is a gem.

Grant Lake, a pleasing oval shape
Grant Lake.

The back of the booklet lists other walks which have information available.

List of other Algonquin Park Publications
Other Algonquin Park Publications.

I was pretty tired after this 2 hour-plus walk, but still had over an hour of daylight and convinced myself one more walk was worthwhile. There is a 1km loop, but it is shut during peak weekends, and this one counted, so I was left with the Whisky Rapids Trail, 2.1km. There were lots of people milling about the car park when I arrived, but 30 minutes later as I finished, after 7pm, the car park was empty but for my tiny car.

Nearly empty car park
Car park after 7pm.

I was enervated by this walk, helped by the start being a descent that I galloped down. Information points come thick and fast, with the booklet telling you all about the ecology of this area; it may look barren, but algae, slime and the like feed plenty of life, albeit life that is mostly too small to see. A squirrel ran across my path, surprised by one last human as the day quietened down, but that was it for life. Kingfishers are talked of as being an essential sight, but they were shy while I was there.

I headed off, making the most of the last of the daylight to get as much of my journey done. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I hadn’t eaten since 11am, and was pretty hungry, but not eating had allowed me to fit in a lot of walks. Having longer in or near the park would be far preferable, and allow slower progress and more contemplation on the walks. Without time for that, though, I had a fabulous day, filled with stories and sights.

Lake with trees on the far side reflected in the water
One final water view.

Travelling to Cape Breton by car

Thanks to the excellent 80 year-old I met in Halifax, the idea of driving the Cabot Trail had replaced that of heading to Prince Edward Island. Admittedly, his recommendation had only been “what can you do round here? Well, there’s the Cabot Trail, I suppose”, which isn’t glowing. But moving, looking and walking seemed a better use of a car than heading to PE and chilling out, which was the activity most recommended for the island.

I booked the cheapest car I could find for a five-day rental, and chose to pick it up from the airport, so I could drop it off straight away before flying out of there on the 6th. It didn’t seem more expensive to go from the airport, and I got cash back from rentalcars.com by going via Topcashback (my referral link). Imagine my surprise, and glee, when the keys I’d been handed unlocked this lovely thing.

I nearly went back into the office to check, but why waste their time? It took me some time to pull out. A family was unloading opposite, and I wanted the space – this is not a tiny car. And I was paging through the options, connecting devices, seeing tyre pressure shown on the screen and finding that although I had turned down a sat-nav, this car was happily connected to maps and all sorts. I would be reminded of this often, as at 7kmph over the speed limit, the Dodge intervened to remind me what that limit was. There was even wifi, had I wanted to pay the extra.

Still, the point was to tour the scenery in this thing. I wasn’t going too far on the first day, just up to Bear on the Lake HI hostel, south of Bucklaw and a little South of the Cabot Trail itself; a little under 300km, through Canadian versions of Enfield, Truro and Port Hastings.

I saw some scenery. I arrived at the hostel, closely followed by a Brit who had been persuaded to upgrade her rental because the Cabot Trail is a bit hilly for a small car. I felt lucky.

We enjoyed the last of the sunshine as the Autumn evening cool descended. And I wanted very badly to get back into the car.

Catching the train from Montreal to Halifax

I booked ahead, so as to get the best price I could, and just had a seat, rather than a sleeping spot, because this journey only has one overnight part, and it is right near the beginning. The train leaves three times a week, starting at 7pm, and is due in to Halifax at 17:51 the next day.

The seats are comfy, more so than those on the train I had ridden West, from Toronto to Edmonton, last year. The latter did have two seats on either side, so more space if not full (everyone got a two-seat to themselves), but I was happy with the newer single seat on this train.

The ride is smooth, and passes plenty of landscape, if you’re looking.

We were a little delayed, arriving in Halifax just after 7 the next day. In keeping with the generally festive mood on Canadian trains, we were told exactly why that was. In Britain, there would have been a mysterious “incident” up ahead, and even if we had been told, the language would have been torturous. Here, we were immediately told that a freight train ahead had unfortunately hit a truck, no one was hurt but engineers were checking the train over to make sure it could continue.

Trains in North America. A brilliant way to travel.

A walk around Pedasi, Panama

Several hours on two buses from Panama City is Pedasi. Hop on a bus from Albrook Mall to Las Tablas, which will take about 5 hours, and cost just under $10, then change (with a walk, usually) to a minibus for the 30-40 minutes to Pedasi itself. You can also get a bus from the airport to Albrook Mall, for 75 cents – you’ll need a bus card, which you can buy in the terminal.

Pedasi is a small town of about 3,000 inhabitants, many of whom are from Western countries. The main draw is the beach, a 2.5km walk down the road from town. Nearer if you live in one of the new developments down that road.

I stayed in Pedasi Loft, a new development of 8 flats just on the edge of town. August is the lowest of low season, with it being humid and rainy, but there was still noise from a local bar when it was open (Thursday to Sunday), especially on Saturday.

I was dog and cat-sitting. The cutest, elderly and struggling in the heat, terrier, Spencer, and the more independent, lounging and occasionally swatting at Spencer or me, Puff.

Wildlife. I didn’t see scorpions or snakes (other than a squashed one), but the others are interesting and varied enough to keep you interested. Whales are often visible from the beach, the crickets are very noisy, especially if they get into the house. I ran out towards the old airport once, and came upon a strong fishy smell, then realised this is where the turkey vultures were currently eating their fishy catch. They were a little intimidating in number, but scooted off quickly enough as I came through. No pictures, but they’re ugly on the ground, majestic soaring hunters in the air.

Sunset on a stormy night.

Blue skies and dark fields either side of an orange sunset

Pedasi Town is not large, and you’re unlikely to get lost. A half-hour walk will take you to most things. An hour will take you down back streets and down the main road, where there are a few more restaurants that aren’t pictured here, a couple of gas stations and the like. But these places pictured are the ones I either used, or walked past most times, by virtue of their being central.

I took pictures on a sunny day, which was also very hot. The temperature varied in this, the rainy season, with a heavy downpour sometimes taking it down as low as 25 (which felt cool). On a hot day, even if it was only low 30s, the humidity made it punishingly hot in the sun. Beautiful skies, though, and the greenery does very nicely thank you.

A signpost with other cities pointed to, along with their distance
This signpost is outside a house. Go find it!

A last few pictures, that haven’t fitted in above. There are a few houses for sale in the centre of town, a few more on the roads heading out of town, and plenty of spare lots in many immigrants’ preferred location, nearer the beach. Some look only part-finished, or even abandoned if no one is pruning back the vegetation, which I found fascinating to poke around in. Just watch out for snakes, centipedes and scorpions.

A walk round Hamburg

Sculpture of rowers in a park
Rowers.

Hamburg comes highly recommended. It is set on the banks of the River Elbe, which is wide and deep enough to allow Hamburg to be Germany’s third-biggest port, and also scenic. It has a hippy vibe in the St Pauli district, with the football club internationally famous for their politics and fans, rather than their football. The museum for that district is small, and cheap, but was free for me, because they were re-doing the exhibits and hadn’t yet put up English descriptions. It was still a nice, but short, stroll, and I had a cheap beer in the bar there.

Tugboat on the river

Large church with spire to one side
Large church.

Large, long, buildings dominate both sides of a canal
Buildings dominate the canal.

Sitting and looking over the river at the Federal Government buildings was a cool highlight on a warm day.

View over the river
View over the river.

Sculpture of a bicycle in front of a crate decorated with graffiti
Cycle sculpture.

Sculpture of a bicycle in front of a crate decorated with graffiti
St Pauli FC.

Reeperbahn, and its S-Bahn station
Reeperbahn.

I was only in the city for a couple of nights, travelling West to get to Dusseldorf for parkrun (though there is one in Hamburg) and then Holland for the ferry home. I didn’t, therefore, go wild down the Reeperbahn, but it is clearly a hub for culture of all types, albeit, as drinking centres are, very different at day compared to the night.

I used Flixbus to travel in and out of the city, which was easy. And, as with many other German cities, you have the choice of over (S-Bahn) and underground (U-Bahn – though actually, much of that is overground, too) transport along with buses to get around. Something for everyone.

A walk in the Woods, Český Krumlov

Before my trip to Czechia, I did a quick search for ‘beautiful towns’ in the country, thinking I might find a few. In the end, rather than a list of 10 or so, I found one of 30, and promptly decided not to even try to surf across a sample, sticking to just Český Krumlov. It is a beautiful city, with a large castle looming over medieval buildings, sited on various almost-islands on a river with tight S-bends. If you just follow a river here, you might go round in circles.

Red-tiled grooves and trees are gathered around the bend of the river, viewed from a highpoint
First sight, as you walk out of the bus station.

Red-rooved buildings gathered on an island surrounded by the river
This panoramic view shows how the river bends.

I spent a couple of days walking the streets and taking in the view. Frankly, in a couple of days walking you’ll either be heading up the hill to the new town (which has supermarkets and the like) or covering the same ground more than once. It is very pretty, mind, and worth a good look but I am sure the tour groups that come through by bus feel they get a good feel for the place in a couple of hours.

 

By day three, I fancied some different sights, so took myself off into the trails that head out of town. They are clearly marked and easy to find, mostly. I recommend maps.me, a freely downloadable app, if you have a smart phone. Not only does it allow you to download offline maps for navigation, but it is very good at pointing out trails.

Tall, thin trees line a flat-packed mud trail
Typical trail.

I followed some markings, but at one point found myself in a quieter area. I walked down a faint trail, avoided what was definitely someone’s private pond, but wasn’t sure what the jaunty sign with a person in a red circle meant, so continued till I found a bigger trail out. “Prohibited”, is what it meant, so I shouldn’t have taken that turn.

 

Back on the trails you are meant to walk on, there are information boards to show you what wildlife you might find. Spin the board round for info in Czech.

Colourful information board, illustrating local insects
Insects.

I recommend heading out and following a trail. There are websites with suggestions, though most appear to be GPS traces of people’s walks, including around town, which isn’t very helpful, while the best cover some distance and stay in the countryside but are point to point (not circular), so you’ll end up away from town. I didn’t find a site I could recommend. Lots of results, but not much that is useful.

Better, perhaps, to download maps.me and pick trails from that, though be prepared to change your plan if it turns out one of the trails marked there heads into a backyard. Be prepared for hills, with views over countryside once you’ve put in the work. My best advice – go out and back on the same route. Sure not to end up anywhere you shouldn’t be, and you see the route in both directions.

Pine trees on a sloping hill, looking down from a height.
View over trees.

Some pictures from my day walking.

Don’t forget the views. So many views.

View. Hills in the distance, entirely green in the foreground, trees and fields everywhere.
View of distant hills.

Assuming you lose sight of town on your walk, coming back in view of those buildings and that winding river is a huge pleasure, and a reward for getting back to where you started.

Cesky Krumlov; river wending between red-roofed buildings
Cesky Krumlov.

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.

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.

 

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