Just walk to that castle on the distant, windy mountain

Looking back to San Quirico d’Orcia this morning.

Day 14: San Quirico d’Orcia to Radicofani — 33 km (21 miles)

With my clothes and boots wet from yesterday’s rainstorm I decided to splurge on a bargain rate hotel and I’m glad I did. Last night I hung my boots from the shower curtain rail and left the bathroom’s heat lamp and fan on all night long. By morning my boots were dry, as were all my formerly wet clothes. This meant I’d have dry things for what was billed as a long and difficult walk.

Stefano left. Roberto right.

Heading out of town at the same time were Roberto and Stefano, two young Italians from Lombardy who are on the same itinerary as me. We chatted on the road to Bagno di Vignano, a local hot spring once favored by the famous St. Catherine of Siena.

A town square made of a hot spring pool.

As we left the hot springs we looked off in the distance and realized we could see our goal for the day — the castle town of Radicofani — on a distant mountain. A beautiful sight at a daunting distance.

In fact, the castle of Radicofani was visible almost all day, a painful reminder of how slowly walking gets one toward a distant goal.

Look for a castle on the farthest mountain. That’s Radicofani

Not watching the guidebook carefully, Stefano, Roberto and I ended up taking the long way, which added another 5 km to the already long distance. Before long I said goodbye to the guys and pushed ahead to the day’s goal, first heading down the nearby mountains, then across the rolling hills dotted with sheep pastures.

Very, very slowly, as I crossed creeks and highways and walked alongside fields and farms, the castle began to grow larger. It loomed ahead of me like a hypnotist’s pendulum that had enchanted me and taken away my free will.

After many hours, the castle draws nearer.

According to the guidebook, the last nine kilometers (5 miles) are straight up. I would argue with that. I would describe the last 12 km as exhausting, a test of character and physical strength. Not only steep, but a 25 knot headwind to push on a pilgrim’s chest and blow off his hat. If there’d been a taxi driving by, I’d have waved it down. If there was a bus, I’d have stopped it. If there’s been a pickup truck, I’d have jumped in the back. If there’d been an ox cart I’d have offered to work for the farmer for seven years just for a ride up the torturous hill.

But, after pushing hard, I finally arrived at the top. I settled into the hostel, did my laundry, greeted Stefano and Roberto when they arrived, and then dodged raindrops to make my way above the village to the fortezza just so I could say I’d conquered the mountain.

The fortezza (fortress) from the charming town of Radicofani

Sadly, just as I arrived at the castle cafe, the heavens let loose in a torrent. I shall not be stopped by a torrent, I said to myself. So I waited out the torrent, only for the rain to be replaced by fog.

Walking up past the village toward the fortezza.

I climbed up the steps in the fog to the penultimate floor before the top and then stopped. I caught the scent of garlic on the wind from the village below. Supper calls, and rest. Today the mountain wins.

Fortezza wrapped in fog.

Raindrops, so many raindrops

Bridge at Ponte d’Arbia.

Day 12: Ponte d’Arbia to San Quirico d’Orcia — 23 km (14.3 miles)

As I walked through the mud between the field and the railway tracks I was imagining the farmer saying to his worker, “Mow the grass on the old tractor trail.” And I imagine the farmhand hearing, “Plow the grass on the old tractor trail….”

“Mow the old road,” I’m sure the farmer said.

So after last night’s heavy rains (and someone’s choice to plow the road), what the guidebook described as a tractor road was actually a plowed and muddy field. With the mud of a clay-like quality, my boots were covered in slimy mud by the end of the first hour of walking.

A rain cloud. full of rain, thunder and hail.

Finally finishing my walk through the field, I opted for the shorter route, as described in the Italian guidebook, along the Via Cassia to the charming village of  Torrenieri.

It was after Torrenieri, in sight of the day’s goal of San Quirico d’Orcia, when the clouds that had been following me all day finally caught up and let loose a torrent. I was soon drenched. Boots wet. Socks wet. Feet wet. Wet t-shirt. Wet shorts and undershorts. Wet hat. Dry phone. Whew.

Everything will dry out, no problem. The big news is how beautiful everything is. And the rain helps with that, of course. Today I’ll explore this little, ancient, touristy town of San Quirico d’Orcia and perhaps the nearby hot springs.

Beautiful, changeable weather. A lovely day on the Via Francigena.

Homage to happy feet. At the church of San Rocca in Torrenieri.

Vista, back towards Ponte d’Arbia.

Main street, San Quirico.

San Q Collegiate church exterior. Interior below.

Nearing the goal. Rome — nine days away.

Working through my mid-camino Arya Stark revenge list

Leaving Siena through Porta Romana

Day 11: Siena to Ponte d’Arbia — 25 km (15 miles)

Pilgrim lore from the Camino de Santiago describes the mid-camino walk through the Spanish plains as a “cleansing of the soul.” The long, dry and monotonous stretches test the pilgrim, bringing out the inner demons so they can be put to rest before the camino’s final stages.

Midway through this walk I wonder if the same might be happening to me, today. I may be wrestling with my mid-Camino inner demons, because as I walked Today I realized I was mindlessly playing out conflicts in my mind, thinking about the people I’m nursing a grudge against.

Arya Stark in the Game of Thrones is may be best at it. Each night before falling asleep she would recite the names of those who’d done her family wrong — and that she was vowing to kill. Calmly and coolly she would say the names, one after another.

Siena’s Torre di Mangia stands out on the horizon.

Now, I don’t plan to put the breakfast hostess at the B&B to death, but she did get me going. Yesterday as the B&B owner showed me to my room he asked, “When do you want to leave tomorrow?” “I’d like to leave at 7:00 if possible,” I said. “The breakfast hostess gets here at 7:30,” he said, “so that’s the earliest you could get breakfast.” He then showed me how to make coffee in the ultramodern Lavazza machine.

I was in the breakfast room at 7:30. No hostess. I try to make coffee. No water in the machine. Hostess arrives at 7:55 and says, pointing to the Do Not Touch sign on the coffee maker, “Can you read English?” “Yes, I read English very well.” “Then don’t touch the coffee machine.” “Well, yesterday your boss said I could use it and taught me how.” “Oh, fine. Do you want a cup of coffee?” “I’ve been trying to make one for the last half hour,” I said, not shouting.

Little did she realize she had earned a place on my mid-camino Arya Stark revenge list.

She’s not alone. There’s also the woman who started a Facebook group named after my book on the Way of St Francis. She’s never walked that pilgrimage, but she uses the group to dispense advice — and resents it when I correct her.

There are a few others on the list. Certain people  from last year’s campaign. All gun rights absolutists. Donald Trump. My cell phone provider. Some unnamed others. And as I walk and walk and walk, I find myself inadvertently rehearsing gotcha conversations with them. I look for just the right words to slay them.

There are plenty of good psychological reasons for this kind of inner talk. It’s my Jungian “shadow side” for one thing. It’s an emotional expression of the pain in my feet and legs, for another. It’s unresolved anger.

But I don’t like thinking this way. Partway through the day I said, “Enough!” and decided to find helpful and positive things to think about. Things for which I could be thankful. 

And there’s so much. I had lunch at a little pilgrim rest area, maintained by a neighbor on the path. Nothing official, but it was perfect. Unmerited by me, just there from the kindness of someone’s heart. Thank you, pilgrim friends!

It’s hard to overestimate the simple pleasure of sitting down partway through a 25km walk.

Another example: I’ve been meaning to mention here the fellow named Mauritzio who live just outside Lucca. He saw me coming, could tell I was exhausted, and offered me water and a banana. Thank you, Mauritzio!

I’m thankful for my Norwegian pilgrim friends. So smart and loving and warm. I’m ahead of them now by a day and am already missing them.

There’s the nun who welcomed me to dinner last night at the San Girolama monastery without cost. Thank you.

And there is so much more. Too much beauty and live and grace around to note it all, really. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to repress the negative talk, the shadowy part of me. That won’t be healthy, I know. But I’m looking forward to more days of walking this mid-camino stretch so I can do this work of moving anger to thanksgiving.

The Ponte d’Arbia hostel is the yellow building across the bridge.

Walking too early, and without eyes in the skies

Inside the walls at the south gate of Monteriggioni looking out toward the day’s walk.

Day 10: Monteriggioni to Sienna — 15.2 km (9.7 miles)

The only bad thing about Monteriggioni is the lack of early morning cafes. By 7:00, when I was ready to head out the door for the quick walk to Siena, the tiny town’s few bars were still an hour away from starting up their daily trade.

So, with just a tiny bit of water in my pack and no food either in my belly or my pack, I headed out for a day the guidebook called, “easy walking except for the lack of food and water along the way.”

View towards the castle at Chiocciola.

The day’s biggest challenge, though, would be the complete failure of my iPhone GPS system. Yesterday I’d fixed it with a few rough taps on my knee. Today, no dice. It refuses to work at all. But at least I can read an iBook on it, which gives me access to the invaluable Terre Mezzo Italian/English guidebook.

With guidebook in hand I dove into a thirsty 6-7 miles of walking through woods and fields followed by a thirsty and hungry 2-3 miles on the edge of the busy highway.

However, the guidebook promised, “As you arrive in Siena you’ll see a petrol station and McDonald’s on the left.” With no food or water, my mouth was soon watering for a McChicken sandwich, fries and cold drink.

In a couple of hours, faithful to the guidebook, there it was! In this country of fine food I had stooped to the level of eating something I’d probably pass on back in the US. And at 10:00 it would be an early McDonald’s lunch, but so what?

I walked up to the door and tugged on it. Locked. Open at 11:00. I was an hour too early.

The walls of Siena.

I arrived in Siena’s historic Piazza del Campo at about 11:00, in plenty of time to enjoy a better-than-McDonald’s lunch at a delightful and sunny Italian restaurant. Cost for a calzone and two iced teas? A mere €27.60. In the Italian countryside this would be about €11.00!

As I checked into my B&B — late by now — I stumbled into a fellow who happened to be walking by sporting a Seattle Seahawks jersey. “You from Seattle?” I asked. “Victoria,” he said. “My name’s Mike and I’m walking a camino called the Via Francigena. Ever heard of it?”

Early or late for everything today, but for once my timing was just right.

Met granny. Got lost. Ate granny’s cake. 

Day 9: San Gimignano to Monteriggioni — 32.5 km (20.2 miles)

Sometime in the dark of night I reached over from the bed in the monastery bunk room to the little shelf where my iPhone was charging. Before I knew it, the phone slipped from my fingers and fell onto the hard, tile floor. I turned it on to see if it was ok. No problems, it seemed. Another tumble for my indestructible and irreplaceable iPhone. Among all the normal things that are so important, my iPhone contains three guidebooks for this walk as well as two GPS systems so I won’t get lost.

So as I walked out of the gates of San Gimignano this morning at 7:30 I was dismayed to discover the GPS function wasn’t working. Not only that, but somehow the waymarkings today would prove to be some of the most sparse I’ve seen on this walk.

I was not far into the second kilometer of the day’s walk when I realized I hadn’t seen a waymark in quite some time. So I backtracked about 500m to the last one and discovered yes, I was where I was supposed to be. Result — an extra kilometer added to the day’s total.

About a kilometer later I caught up with “Nonna Emma,” a 92-year old Italian pilgrim who’s walking from her home in Northern Italy to Rome for the Holy Year. I knew Granny Emma was ahead on the trail, her walk being something of a sensation, but even so it was a delight to actually meet her. I chatted with her and her companion, Loredana, before continuing on.

After this brief time on the road the path veered off into the deep woods where it would spend most of the day. I counted three stream crossings, many vineyards tucked among the trees, and as always here in Tuscany some amazing vistas along the way.

At one point I looked up and saw ahead of me one of the biggest hills I’ve yet climbed on this walk. I huffed and puffed my way up and followed the road another kilometer or so, never seeing a familiar red/white waymark. Tracing my way backwards I realized I’d made a wrong turn at the bottom of the big hill. So I headed back down the hill I’d just climbed. I’d say the result was another 3km added to the day. Dang, this is adding up!
I finally arrived at the little town of Quartaia much later than planned and decided to splurge on a dessert at 11am. “What’s that creamy looking cake?” I asked. “Tarta della Nonna” was the reply. Granny’s cake.

As I enjoyed my cake I asked myself, “What if I just banged my phone on the table a couple of times? Could I get the GPS function to work?

Guess what. I banged it three times and…. Kah-bang. It worked! No more getting lost.

As I neared Monteriggioni at day’s end I spied a gorgeous city on a hill, completely behind medieval walls. Could that be Monteriggioni? Sure enough, this is a fascinating little village, surrounded by stone walls, situated stop a hill. Our hostel for the night is inside the walls, next to the ancient parish church. After dinner with Tor and Eiler — I bought them each a piece of Monteriggioni’s version of tarta della nonna— it was off to bed. Tomorrow: Siena.

A short, maddening and delightful walk to a medieval Manhattan

San Gimignano — designated a World Heritage site for its unusually well-preserved medieval center.

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.

Looking a little grizzled, I see. Tonight I will shave.

Every country road looks just as gorgeous as the next.

San G. in the distance.

A walk of tranquil beauty enjoyed slowly over many miles

Day 8: Sam Miniato to Gimbassi Terme — 24 km (14.9 miles)

After a continental breakfast in English, French and Italian with fellow pilgrims plus Friars and volunteers at Convento San Miniato, I stepped out the door under perfect weather to begin a stage the guidebook called “very beautiful and quiet.”

“Quiet” is a fully accurate description. With few cars and mostly on dirt or gravel roads and paths, the stage was deeply tranquil. To call it merely “very beautiful,” though, is to sell it short. Somehow bellissima sounds better. It was gorgeous. 

Today’s track follows a long and winding ridge line gradually south from the heights of San Miniato Alto. Though there were a few downhill stretches, the path never seemed to reach the bottom of any valley. Instead, the ridge continually offered dramatic panoramas first on the right and then on the left — over and over all day long.

No photography could really do justice to the beauty, but here are a couple of attempts using the iPhone “Panorama” function.

And also these in “Normal” mode:

Today was a walk through the places farmers take their lunch midday or carry their dinner to at night to marvel in the beauty of their workplace. To walk through it does it more justice than to breeze through it in the comfort of a car or I think even on the seat of a bike. It’s not just the sights that make the day, but also the sounds and smells. I watched tiny lizards scamper away from me as I placed one foot in front of the other on the path. I heard the bees doing their zigzaggy work in the lazy afternoon sun. I felt the wind pick up after noon and I watched the clouds roll slowly in. I waited for them and then felt them — the raindrops falling from the darkened clouds onto the warm and salty skin of my face. Slowly and in the calm the beauty sang in its own voice — a song of wonder and love.

As for me — I’m feeling well. My ankle pain is behind me. I’m nursing a dry and cracked blister on my right heel, but nothing painful. I’m getting stronger — feeling my legs under me now. It’s hard to eat enough to keep up with the calorie expenditure, so my clothes are loosening slightly. My Italian is becoming more confident, but not better. I’m enjoying brief and long conversations with other pilgrims. And I’m having fun.

Halfway through, lunch looked like this.