Day 8: Gambassi Terme to San Gimignano — 15km (9.3 miles)
I think Bishop Sigeric had a taste for Italian pleasures when he walked this way in the year 990 A.D. How else to explain Italian delight after delight for those who follow his itinerary 1000 years later?
As you probably already know, the Via Francigena retraces the footsteps of Bishop Sigeric on his trip back from Rome to his “new” position as Archbishop of Canterbury. His itinerary followed a western Italian thoroughfare called “Via Francigena” which essentially means the road the Frankish people walk. To the east there is also the “Via Romea” which led people from Eastern European origins toward Rome. But Sigeric obviously was a wise one. He chose a very lovely route — stopping at places like Piacenza, Lucca, Siena, and my destination today: San Gimignano.
The Gambassi Terme hostel where we stayed yesterday is situated next to a beautifully preserved 12th-13th century Romanesque church. One of the hospitaleros at the hostel gave us a detailed tour, and happened to mention that pilgrim groups occasionally include someone who can play the 15th century organ. I raised my hand at that point and, after he found an extension cord for the blower motor, I played a couple of moments on the beautiful and historic instrument.
Then this morning after breakfast it was out the door under grey skies to follow Sigeric’s course for the short walk to San Gimignano.
The day began on gravel roads amidst now-typical Tuscan beauty, which means each scenic valley is followed by another valley just as scenic. Yep, I’m getting a little spoiled.
Before long I could look back toward Gambassi Terme on the ridge and ahead to the Manhattan-esque towers of beautiful San Gimignano. In the days before banks, rich medieval families kept their valuables in fortified towers. I think the way it worked was if someone tried to get in from the ground floor they would drop a big rock on him from above and clean up the mess the next morning. A little brutal perhaps, but no hidden bank fees. Once those were discovered most of the towers were dismantled, though San Gimignano has over 20 still standing, some as tall as 240 feet. This gives the town a vertical feel, in a way like a modern city.
In between vistas of spectacular scenery I passed the Monastero di Bose just as its church bells rang out for the 11:00 service. With a little pastoral guilt I passed on the opportunity to join the local community for worship and instead continued along the way.
Karma intervened, and very soon the gravel road spilled out onto the main highway, which was sadly unencumbered of sidewalks on either side. This meant we pilgrims were forced onto the white line, like gymnasts on a balance beam, while campers, Fiats, Lancias, BMWs and Ducatis sped by.
Maddening. Or, “It’s enough to make a preacher cuss,” like my dad used to say. Prophetically.
As the cars whizzed by, I carefully grouped and analyzed the driving strategies on display. They fall into these categories:
- Motorcyclists: “That was an awesome road! What? There were pedestrians?”
- Cautious drivers: “Oh my! I’d better slow down and give these poor pedestrians a wide berth!”
- All other drivers: “Betcha I can pass that slow car while another car is coming toward us and still have room for the pedestrian if he steps off the road which he should never be on in the first place.”
Never one to be ignored, I’ve developed my own strategy for handling the third group. I walk in the lane, with the white line to my left. After all, give them a centimeter and they will take a kilometer. So far it’s working, as evidenced by today’s post-game of chicken post. (Note to my mom: I’m still being very careful and safe).
After surviving the walk here I found San Gimignano to be just as pretty as advertised. Inside the walls it reminds me something of Assisi — pristine, charming, human in scale. There are many Italians here, on weekend holiday, and I’ve also heard tourists speaking British English, American English, French, German and I think Polish.
I’m secretly pleased that the nun at tonight’s hostel understood my Italian very well. We had something of a conversation even, in which I explained I am an American pastor and writer. She corrected me to say no, you’re not American, you’re from the United States. America is big, we agreed, and the US is just a part of it. Who am I to argue? Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian.
Notwithstanding the on-road adventures, at this walk’s halfway point, nothing really can detract from the wonders of this great trail chosen a thousand years ago by Bishop Sigeric, that wise old guy.