We popped out of the camper at 7:23 this morning into the foggiest fog ever. The lighting was eerie through the suspended drops until we saw all the streetlights blink out at 7:30 sharp. Our first twists and turns on the Via Francigena took us up and over the town, which we could vaguely hear but not see at all. That was no great loss, since Buonconvento, though it proudly declared itself in a sign at the entry to town as “One of the Most Beautiful Cities in Italy,” was entirely of postwar manufacture—nice enough but hardly beautiful (unless beautiful and new are equivalents in Italy, and maybe in a country run amok with ruins that’s the way it is). Apparently we also wound around some industry, but we didn’t see any of it—just the wreaths of clouds around the lines of cypress trees.
It continued that way all morning, as we started to climb up into the hills and past wineries advertising their wares in English and German, not Italian (apparently this is Chianti country). It was quite cold, too, though still very green for all the autumnal feel. As we were plodding our way up one nearly unused highway along switchback after switchback, our fellow pilgrim Hans, whom we met yesterday, caught up with us, so we all walked along together for some time.
Then right around noon we finally made it to the top of a long series of hills, turned a corner to go down the other side—and suddenly there was light, and it was good! All at once the fog vanished and we found ourselves in a long tan and golden Val d’Orcia under a blazing blue sky. From being too cold we became too hot in a matter of minutes. We curled our way down into the valley and then right back up again. At the top we had an amazing view of the plowed clay fields in every direction (that’s what made the hills tan in color) and the hilltop village of Montalcino in the distance. There was a little shrine there at the top, rather plain by Italian standards, just a pair of rusting iron beams welded into a cross and adorned with nothing but a convention of snails at the crosspiece. We stopped there for rest and lunch, having made an astonishing 22 km by 1 p.m.
A few kilometers more took us into yet another cute town, San Quirico d’Orcia, where Hans decided to stay the night, so we said goodbye once more. The main church (there were 2 others) was 13th century in origin, with a Romanesque portal (complete with a bas-relief of two monsters fighting), a Gothic rose window, and a Baroque (sigh) altar. But the most remarkable feature was a pair of skinny columns on either side of the main door, looped into a knot halfway down, and resting at the bottom on the backs of a pair of lionesses.
The other side of San Quirico was another long descent followed by another long ascent. We could see incredibly far in every direction onto more plowed-up fields. The pale brown color on the rolling hills uncannily resembled Andrew’s hometown of Yakima in eastern Washington state; he was curiously comforted to be in a place that looked so much like home, considering how far we are from it right now.
On the way down to the bottom of the valley we passed between a couple of resorts, one so posh that it even had its own helipad! They seemed to be on the site of old Roman thermal springs. Between two of the resorts, and maybe because of them, the Via Francigena had undergone a facelift—instead of the expected crossing on the highway bridge, we discovered that there was a brand-new pedestrian bridge avoiding the roads altogether! The remnants of the old bridge, big chunks of mortared stone, lay scattered in the river beneath, under the golden leaves of the quaking aspens.
The final slog up the hill was more pleasant than expected too, on a new stretch of the VF through woods and along farm tracks instead of on the road. Our road crew collected us from an olive grove and we settled for the night in a parking lot with yet another great view in yet another hilltop town, Castiglione d’Orcia. It’s taken me a long time to warm up to it, but I’m finally beginning to see why people like Tuscany so much. Figures we only have one more day here.
It was still a pretty long day, about 32 km with 900 m up and 600 m down. It helped tremendously to leave so early in the morning, and that the weather was beautiful but not too hot, but we (meaning I—Andrew has never had any trouble at all) are pretty well accustomed to long walking, so the physical part is the least challenging. At the moment my main irritation is how much I have to eat to keep going—a pilgrimage is definitely not a fast! I learned quickly the emotional cost of not eating enough and losing energy and crashing by early afternoon, so to keep steady we eat something every hour or hour and a half, and big dinners every night, and about half a box of muesli every morning. I never thought I’d get sick of eating, but it does get kind of gross after awhile to eat so much, and a chore to keep at it. As the end draws near I find myself looking forward to eating a more normal diet again. I never thought I’d ever get disgusted with daily doses of chocolate.