Visiting the Giant’s Causeway, and parking near it, is free for National Trust members, or £5 per car if you’re not a member and don’t want to go to the visitors’ centre. That parking charge gets progressively cheaper the more people you take in your car, but if it’s just you, you fancy the walk and want to do it for free, then Dunseverick, around 8km away, is a good option. The coastal walk isn’t too strenuous – it’s only when you get to the Causeway that you have a large drop, around 100m to the coast – and the views are spectacular.
The car park in Dunseverick, marked as “Dunseverick Castle car park“, is free but popular and not huge. There are a couple of lay-bys, too. One is right next to the castle car park, the other a little further down Causeway Road to the East (away from the Causeway). The castle is an atmospheric small ruin that you can see on your walk to the coastal path.
The coastal path is easy to find, and not far from the car park, and you just follow it. After just over 7km, having expected an 8km walk, you’ll be pleased to find you are already at a sign offering a way down to the Causeway. Here’s your decision – do you take the steepish (but well maintained) steps down, or continue along the path to follow a much gentler, significantly longer route round the back. In the photo above, the steps are close on the right, while the coastal path continues around the headland you can see. The causeway is visible, sticking out into the sea, and the easier path comes at it from behind.
I chose the stairs, which then took me onto the path you can see above, and then walked to the causeway. It’s a lovely way to arrive, though the other way lets you see the columns from a distance as you approach. I was lucky, in that this was during the first summer of the pandemic so it was quiet however you came at it, but at busier times going down the steps should allow a more peaceful approach. You can’t avoid finding people on the causeway, though.
The views of the Causeway itself are well worth the walk, even if the actual site itself is not enormous. It is atmospheric, though, and as it stretches away into the sea it is easy to imagine it once stretched for miles. The stones are fairly easy to scramble up if you want to walk out to the edge, or near it. There is a tougher scramble when you first get to the Causeway, if you approach from the steps side, but you can just walk round the other side.
I chose to take the steps down and then the longer route on the way back, to give the chance to take in different views as much to save my legs from the climb. There is a bench at the top of the steps that allows recuperation but I just didn’t take it on.
It’s a good walk back, with similar views, only reversed, and just as gorgeous in even half-decent weather. The whole thing was 16.15km, and took me about 3 and a quarter hours. I was glad of a sit-down at the end. I did, though, have time to stop at The Dark Hedges, which is a very quick sight to see and makes for great photos. They were used in Game of Thrones which I haven’t seen, but I still enjoyed my quick visit. As you may guess from the photos, you can’t drive along this bit of the road, but parking is not far away from either end.
There are lots of beautiful natural sights/sites in Ireland, but these are two of the finest in Northern Ireland, and you can visit them at minimal cost.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Big White Pine. Fire clears the room for these trees to break free. In maybe 100 years this site will probably be defunct as an old forest – but elsewhere, trees will come through.
If we could see it, we’d spot pines in groups of five.
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.
Look over the rocks.
Lake in the distance.
View through the trees.
French speakers looking out.
Two Rivers Trail is 2.3km, with a straightforward ascent up to another cliff, for more great views out over the wilderness.
Landscape filled with trees
Rocks at the cliff edge.
A shot of blue in the sky.
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.
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.
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.
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.
View from lookout point.
Fall colours appearing.
Info post 8, for reference to the booklet.
Stairs heading down. And up.
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.
The back of the booklet lists other walks which have information available.
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.
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.
Trees and water.
Water abounds on this walk.
Bright red leaf.
Another view of water
Whisky rapids, named after a barrel was lost when two workers, rowing, who had started it before delivery, decided to shoot them.
A view downriver.
What looks like a tree is actually electrical, covered in bark.
Top of the non tree.
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.
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.
Road to El Toro beach.
First sight of the beach, looking South.
Welcome to the beach. Sweet dreams.
Ocean and beach.
Rocks on the shore.
Beach, lapped by waves. Rip tides underneath mean no swimming.
Waves breaking on the beach.
Driftwood on the beach.
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.
Pedasi Loft. Ground floor apartments one floor, top floor two. And, even better, ours on the other end had a balcony with a view over the fields behind.
Apartments for sale. Straight down the road to the beach.
Local bar, giving life and music to all around. I never went, but I liked the changing rhythms through the week.
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.
Spencer and his favourite chicken.
The golden boy sleeps.
Spencer sleeps on his cushion.
Me carrying Spencer. He was off his food for a day or two.
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.
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.
Pedasi Post Office. Free wifi.
The biggest range is found here, next to the bus/taxi stop. Buses run to/from Las Tablas till about 6pm.
Side entrance, supermarket. They have a generator for power cuts.
Smiley’s restaurant apparently caters to the ex-pats.
Smiley’s restaurant, on the main road out of town, towards Las Tablas.
Bakery, main road.
Selina, the cheapest double room we could find, with a free drink to welcome you and good food.
Big Burger, my favourite spot.
Church, off the main park. Great sounds during an evening service.
Smaller supermarket, smaller selection, but good for beer and other essentials. Just off the main park.
Tiesto pizza place, looking onto the main park.
The main park. Free wifi here and at other parks.
It doesn’t look like much, but on the Saturday this got going, it was a busy, noisy bar. Just off the main park, but I could hear the music from the flat.
Pedasi Love, shop and coffee, plus an ex-pat market in the week. A good place to meet people for advice, if you need it.
Beto’s Lunch trailer, for food; particularly in the evenings.
Pharmacy; inside you can pay bills. Outside there’s a drinks stall.
Sports pitch, in the middle of town. It is widely used; the cover allows people to use it in the day, but it is used at night, too.
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 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.
House for sale near the loft.
More houses for sale on this road.
A residential street.
Cafe near El Pueblo Supermarket.
The fence is low, but this is a gated development, with empty lots.
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.
Sitting and looking over the river at the Federal Government buildings was a cool highlight on a warm day.
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.
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.
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.
Monument in a cobbled square, in the rain.
An arch under the castle, with a high walkway above
Weir with a view.
Courtyard in the Castle.
Church and buildings on the riverfront.
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.
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.
Some trail markings.
This sign looks welcoming. It actually means cars and people are “prohibited”.
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.
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.
Some pictures from my day walking.
View through pines.
Bird hide in the woods.
Don’t forget the views. So many views.
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.
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.
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.
How much water did she get? Nun.
Towers at an archway.
People walking through cloisters.
City wall park.
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.
Wait, I am back on the pilgrim route? Ah; an alternative one (main now goes Pisa-San Miniato).
Temple-cistern of San Concordio.
Water source under the aqueduct.
Ivy growing in an arch.
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.
Cistern of Guamo, 3km from the start (or finish) in Lucca.
A filtering well.
Just beyond the words of gold.
Path past the words of gold.
A climb behinds, past these stone ‘steps’ in the (empty) waterway.
Plenty of signs at this point.
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).
Mule track out of Vorno – note the VF marker.
Track climbing through denuded forest.
Path 124 marker painted on a tree.
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.
Campo di Croce sign.
Many paths cross at Mirteto – 119 is the route, but I stayed on 117 (which had already been steep) to ease the load, and was rewarded by goats.
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.
Spectacular views over the valley, off to the left of the path
Views over the valley – enough to make you miss your turn.
Crucially, you need to watch out for a right-turn towards Mirteto. There is a signpost here, but it is partially hidden by trees.
Signpost – Mirteto off to the left, red arrow.
View heading downhill – sign off to the right, as is your path.
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.
Wide path to the right, yours on the left.
Heading downhill, spotting a VF marker. Very reassuring, given the roughness, and in places steepness, of this path.
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.
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.
Path 119 into Asciano.
Cisternone (big cistern) above Asciano.
View over Asciano; easy route, and easy navigation from here.
Looking back at the hills from Asciano, for a sense of achievement.
Signs to Lucca and Pisa. And Asciano has a Carrefour express!
Pisa 1.5hrs. Lucca 6.3. Only if you stop (the whole took me 6:15 in total).
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.
Medici aqueduct, en route to Pisa.
Aqueduct arches, not always totally intact.
One end of the Medici aqueduct.
Flowers grow under the arches.
A broken arch, despite the metal support.
Brick gateway, Pisa.
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.
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?
This is 5km in, just after the water point which is a natural spot to stop at as you turn off the road section from San Miniato.
Tree-lined dirt road.
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.
Sign in case you move too fast and miss the view off to the right. It seems unlikely.
The panoramic view.
The lowest sign has instructions that you will have to go up and down a hill to get to the refreshments. “This is to prevent complaining”.
This panorama opens up over halfway through and was stunning enough to make me blink.
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.
I think the old, abandoned buildings are fascinating.
Old yellow and russet coloured building, abandoned.
How many shades of green
Olive trees staked out.
Tuscan agriculture under a blue sky.
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.
View through trees over distant hills, from Ostello Sigerico.
Narrow alley, Gambassi Terme
Brick buildings and bell tower, Gambassi Terme.
Gambassi sign on the edge of town.
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.
Typical view downhill.
Farmhouse near the beginning of this stage.
One of their friends is having a bad day, so two girls carry her rucksack, suspended on a branch.
The Via Francigena is a pilgrimage route to Rome from the North. It can run as far as Canterbury, though it is simple enough to pick it up at other points in France or Italy. Several of the people staying in my accommodation tonight started in Lucca, for instance. The English section is pretty short. In fact, the whole thing doesn’t seem massive. Perhaps it is because I’ve been in Italy over 4 weeks, so feel I have come a long long way in that time (but haven’t, really, with more lateral travel than other), but I was surprised to see a sign saying ‘only’ 1311km to Canterbury. England, France, Italy – that feels close.
The way is under development in places, and is re-routed from time to time. I was diverted from what looks to be a nice path in San Miniato – perhaps it has been muddy over the winter – and around a field to the South. Neither were dramatic. Entertainingly, the wikipedia page suggests people occasionally re-route towards their restaurant or other business. And I ran up a path, round the back of San Miniato, which had some old paint to mark the route, but is now not a part of it. You’d not go far wrong taking an old path, from my limited experience.
Below, a few pictures of different route markings. The stickers seem the newest, but the old ones still apply. Sometimes.
White and red stripes mark the route in places.
More white and red stripes on a pole.
Via Francigena sticker on a pole.
VF stone route marker.
Pilgrim on a sign with sticker below. Here, a short path to the right avoids a sharp corner on a road.
There are also a few apps with directions etc. I tried Sloways and Via Francigena, and both seemed useful. The route was simple enough to follow – a couple of times the way wasn’t clear at a t-junction, but there was a sign soon after. So if you don’t see one, try the other direction. The apps may be of most use in looking ahead to get an idea of where you’ll be headed the next day.
There are occasional points of medical aid. This one had a book of dedications, held in a saucepan which was held up by pile of rocks and a saucepan as a lid.
Sometimes the views dropping away to the side are beautiful, and are the obvious thing to look at, but there are details to spot along the way, too.
Olive tree with plastic bottle attached. Most, but not all, had a bottle like this. Something to attract pollinators?
Flowers are in bloom en route.
Small shrine, North of San Miniato.
I ran the first 11km of (Italian) stage 30, paused, ran back about 6km and then walked the rest of the way (much of which was uphill), stopping at a small cafe cum shop about 2km out of San Miniato. It was fabulous. As the route description has it;
“A marvellous route, quite hard lacking road-houses [which means there are few places to eat, Ed]. From San Miniato, after an hour walk along the asphalt road, enter an extraordinary track among hill crests in Val d’Elsa.”
That hour’s walk translates to just over 5km mostly on the roads (occasional paths along the side avoid the more dangerous stretches) before you turn onto a solid, pebbly underneath, winding trail.
It’s a lovely walk. I might be converted and do some more of these stages. Without religion, but I felt no sense that I didn’t belong.
Some cities make their attractions obvious. Montecatini Terme is clearly a pretty town to walk around, and those spa buildings are gorgeous, even if, in April, you mostly can’t get in the grounds to look around them. But what else do people look at around here?
Montecatini Alto, the medieval village on the hill that overlooks the city, is the main thing. The funicular railway that runs up is €4 one way and €7 both. We figured we’d start the walk, see what it was like and turn back to catch a ride up if necessary. Reviews warn that the track can be slippery, but there was no danger of that on a dry day. And of course, once we’d walked for half an hour or so, we could see progress, and continuing to walk up was fine. There are a couple of steeper sections, but they’re not so tough (or so early) as to make you turn round in disgust.
Path up the hill to Montecatini Alto.
The joy of stopping to take a photo while the funicular rolls by.
Once climbed, and the shortest route doesn’t take all that long, you come immediately to a viewpoint.
View over Montecatini from Montecatini Alto.
Panorama of the valley
It’s a small village, with a few churches and the old stronghold to see.
Main square, restaurants and bars surrounded by buildings.
Pizza restaurant with a caged bird, main square.
Stronghold with Da Vinci machines for an exhibition (open soon, but not on this day).
“You think Christ wants to see another cross, if he comes back?” Bill Hicks.
Apart from the views and the satisfaction at walking up, spending the funicular money on a pizza which was serenaded by the bird in the picture above, my highlight was the monument/installation dedicated to Saint Barbara.
Check it out. The gun pulled me in, and soon I was reading the description. I reproduce it in full for you below. One highlight; “The patron saint of attendants in charge of explosives preparation and storage and, more generally…” Yes, you are not kidding, those other things are slightly more general.
“This unique monument is dedicated to Saint Barbara, the patron saint of Montecatini Terme, whose relic is kept in the museum of the Saint Peter’s Parish Church nearby. The Catholic Church celebrates Saint Barbara on December 4th.
Saint Barbara is the patron saint of the attendants in charge of explosives preparation and storage and, more generally, she is invoked against lighting, fire, sudden and violent and danger. She is the protector of the Italian Military Navy, the Fire Brigade, the Army (Artillery and Civil Engineers) as well as of the miners and oil workers, geologists, mountain men, architects, bell ringers, towers and fortresses.
The monument is dominated by the Saint’s statue located on the top right-hand side, on a simple stone altar which rests on a Karst-gravelled ground (place of bloody battles during World War I). The monument shows the particular symbols represented by the historical finds regarding the various institutions that are under Saint Barbara’s projection.”
There is so much going on there. I mean, if you’re considering careers and fancy something with a bit of edge, bear in mind you might have missed one. Hmm, military in some way? Mountaineering? Perhaps bell ringing? Wait, what was that last one?
We walked back down, gazing down the funicular track, taking in the small shrines along the way and watching the green city centre get ever closer.