Siena, 10 October
I left Lucca with reluctance as I would happily have spent a week there. The day’s walk to Altopascio was not long, but it was all on road save for a brief stretch of path where there was a memorial to a Belgian pilgrim who had died there last year.
The pilgrim hostel in Altopascio looked out over a little piazza,
where there was a music school, and my afternoon rest was accompanied by a hesitant piano and occasional singing. The sun was warm; my washing dried. The beatitude was broken by the news of the death of a dear neighbour, and minutes later that a friend’s cancer was more advanced than previously thought.
There then stepped into my life someone who I must rank high among the hosts of angels encountered since I left Canterbury – Manuela:
Italian, open, outgoing, smiling, sunny. She suggested we eat together that evening, and we discovered a common love of wine and food. In the days to come she appeared genuinely happy to have an elderly Englishwoman trailing along. She was endlessly patient with my pidgin Italian, and my constant questions of “How do you say this?” “What does that mean?” “What’s the difference between…?” “Why….?”
Next day we walked to the first of those hilltop towns you can see from miles away, and which necessitate a great groaning climb at the end of a day’s walk, San Miniato Alto.
Part of our way was over ancient pathway, flanked with banks of cyclamen, and I always wonder at the thousands and thousands of feet that have passed this way. Then along a canal where huge herons flew up at our approach with a harsh squawk and slow wing beat.
In San Miniato I stayed in the convent of San Francesco,
where the pilgrim may have a private room with bath, dinner and breakfast for €35. Wonderful, though the pillow felt as though it were filled with wood chips. At supper I met Anne from Belgium, walking from Vézelay to Assisi, alone. In Liguria she had seen wolves in the forest.
Next morning- rain! Though it didn’t last long. I hit a wall that day, with extreme fatigue and leaden limbs, and the constant up and down of the rolling Tuscan hills seemed endless. I think it was because I was forgetting to eat during the days’ walks. The hill up to Gambassi Terme where the ostello was went on for ever. It was worth it, for the accommodation is at the lovely Romanesque church of Santa Maria in Chianni. It is simple and barely decorated, and on one of the capitals the reed symbol suggested Cistercian influence.
I knew Tuscany would be beautiful, but I am just overwhelmed by so much beauty, and so much antiquity. I had expected an autumn palette of siena, umber, ochre and terracotta, but it is fresh and green with grass brought back to life by rain.
And more rain greeted us next morning, though by the time the towers of San Gimignano stood out on the skyline it had stopped. Walking into San Gimignano is like coming upon a film set with too many extras, though – as in Venice – you only have to turn a couple of corners and the crowds melt away.
Manuela and I sat on a now sunny wall and ate our free artisan pilgrim bread from a bakery in Gambassi.
Leaving San Gimignano I had an opportunity (not taken) to demonstrate my grasp of the vernacular with a “Che minchia fai?” (thanks, Montalbano): a car drew up and the passenger door opened nearly whacking me in the face. I contented myself with an irritated “E-e-eh!”
The rain had turned the lovely terra battuta paths to rivers of slippery clinging mud, slowing progress. In the afternoon sun little snakes came out to bask, causing Manu (in the lead) to shriek “una biscia!” – though she assured me they weren’t venomous.
Colle Val d’Elsa
: another night another vast religious establishment, this time a former seminary, which Manu and I had to ourselves, with bathroom, for ten euros. We went into town and pushed the boat out, abandoning penitential pilgrim fare (it isn’t, mainly) for a Tuscan tasting menu of assorted antipasti and pasta (pici) with different sauces, and the house Chianti in a little osteria which had one long wooden table. We shared the best grappa I have had.
And so onward to the next hilltop town – Monteriggione, surrounded by its ancient walls.
We walked fast to escape an approaching storm,
and we just made it before the deluge. On the way we met men unloading funghi. We stopped to chat. The dialogue often goes like this: Where are you from? England. But where did you start walking? England. England? Yes. England? Yes. Are you going to walk back? No, I’m not mad. Anyone who walks from England must be mad.
From Monteriggione to Siena through the mud. In Siena last night I said goodbye to Manu, who was going back home to work in Como. Before we parted she cut the St James shell, which she had picked up on the beach at Fisterra, from her pack, wrote on it, and gave it to me. My tears came. I walked back to my hotel, suddenly disconsolate.
From my sadness and sense of loss I was distracted by a huge procession of waving banners, beating drums, and strong singing from those following. It was the contrada of La Lupa, which had won both palli (palios) in July and August, on their way to their victory dinner.
Siena – entering the Duomo is to be overwhelmed both by la divina bellezza and by the vast volume of tourists. I dutifully bought my pass for the duomo, the museum, the library, the crypt and the baptistery. I have admired it all, insofar as one can when surrounded by so many people. For me the highlight was the Duccio frescoes in the crypt.
Tomorrow back on the road, and I could be in Rome in 11 or 12 days, if all goes well. The weather forecast is for very cold, rain, more rain and thunderstorms. Drying clothes becomes more difficult with the shortening days and the lack of sun, and I shall start to stink as pilgrims sometimes must.