The Italian Camino: Four crazy days to the kick-off
“Lady, I said we are CLOSED.”
The official in the tourism office indicates the sign on the front door, and when I try to ask a simple question, he storms over to said door, his fist clenched threateningly, and pulled back to strike, his eyes red with the fury of a man who’s had his morning routine disturbed.
For a moment, I’m stunned. Does he really mean to assault a tourist standing in front of the tourism centre in Siena? I’ve never come across so much aggression in 20 years of travelling, never mind from someone who earns a living through tourism.
I’m in Siena, Italy, and I’m having difficulties with the last piece of my transportation puzzle. I have to get to Radicofani in Tuscany today to start hiking the Via Francigena, and I’ve come to the realisation that there is no train station around Radicofani.
My next option is to get on one of the public busses, but the schedule for this is as scarce as a fart in a perfume factory, and someone online suggested I make a stop at the tourism centre for help.
I got here around 08:30 (the time they officially open according to their webpage), but the two officials inside, a woman that looks like a b-grade version of Judy Dench, and a man who looks like he could have inspired the grandpa from the Simpsons, who’d already yelled “CLOSED” at me when I tried to make contact.
I swear they just sucked these opening times out of their thumbs. I guess I should be grateful, nothing stirs in Italy before 10am.
All I want to know is whether this office has bus schedules or not! I’d happily go enjoy an espresso and wait until they decide to open, but if they don’t have the information anyway, I want to find another ride! There’s no point in hanging around.
As the man with the clenched fist charges out the door towards me, my “barefoot over the Drakensburg” Voortrekker heritage kicks in and gets the better part of me, and I start telling him where to shove his bus schedule, in proper Afrikaans of course.
Swearing just seems to have more of an impact when done in Afrikaans.
So here we are yelling at each other in front of an iconic, impressive Siena cathedral, complete with gesticulating hands and clenched fists. I’m pretty sure that he’s going to be in bigger trouble than me if this uncalled-for street fight comes to blows.
Finally, a third official – possibly the boss of Dame Judy and Grandpa Simpson– sticks his head out the door and asks what’s wrong. I explain that I just want to know if this office has the information I need so I don’t sit around and wait for nothing.
He asks for a minute and disappears back into the “CLOSED” office.
“It’s bad news ...”
Two minutes later he returns. He took the liberty of doing the research for me, he says, but unfortunately, he’s got bad news. There’s a public bus to San Quirico (27 km from Radicofani), but it left at 5am this morning.
And, he says, but here his English lets him down for a second, and he gesticulates with his left and right hands as if he’s building a giant Jenga puzzle. But I know exactly what he means. It’s one of those bus systems where you have to keep climbing onto other busses at various stops.
On a previous holiday to Italy, my sister and I ended up on one of these public busses. It’s a nightmare. You just sit down when you have to get off at another station, and wonder again which bus you need to catch, 90 minutes later.
It takes hours to travel just 20km. I thank him and realise it’s time for Plan B. Siena is just 70 km from Radicofani, but through the remote Tuscan landscape, 70km can take (an expensive) eternity.
I’d decided to take a roundabout way to Radicofani. Because I’m just hiking 9 stages of the Via Francigena, I wanted to experience other parts of the centuries’ old pilgrims route by making a stop-over at two other towns that play a big role on the Via Francigena: San Gimignano and Siena.
Thus, four days previously, I’d had a bumpy landing in Rome.
Heartbreak at San Gimignano
San Gimignano is a tourist hotspot in Tuscany. It’s one of those walled cities from the Middle Ages where busloads of tourists are dropped on a daily basis.
All day long you see groups of 50 to 100 people dreamily floating behind a guide waving those little flagpoles. I’m just here for one night and am lucky enough to get a flat on the largest square in the city (the Piazza della Cisterna).
The square is named for the fountain at its centre, where I see a child has offered up his plastic Ninja Turtle. I wonder what he wished for when he threw it in.
My flat has a beautiful view over the valley, that I admire with growing unease, knowing that pilgrims have to climb the hill to get here. The next dreary morning, as I’m waiting for my taxi in front of the cathedral, I notice a flow of people cloaked in black streaming out of it onto the square.
At first, I assume that they’ve attended the morning mass, but then I notice the funeral car on the square. It looks like a dad in his seventies, and two daughters in their thirties that are saying a final farewell to their mother.
The two traffic officials, with plastic bags on their caps against the rain, doff them out of respect and kiss the family before taking their places before and behind the procession of mourners. Sadness looks the same in all countries.
It’s in the tourism office on that square in San Gimignano (noticeably friendlier than the one in Siena) where I encounter my first and only souvenir of the Via Francigena.
A t-shirt with a simple pilgrim’s emblem on it. Nowhere else on the whole trip, not even in Rome, will I come across a single fridge magnet, keyring, coffee mug or pen to remind me of my travels on the Via Francigena.
It’s so different from Spain, where you see whole streets full of souvenirs in Santiago de Compostela alone. It should already be an indication that this “Camino” is very different to the Spanish one.
But it’s also here where I see my first pilgrims route marker, which gets my heart beating with the thrill of the trek!
Cathedrals and headaches in Siena
I spend two nights in a humble, but decent, hotel in Siena, a stone’s throw away from the impressive Campo, where there is a horse race every second year, and an astounding Gothic cathedral.
I have a little lunch using my Atlasware coffee flask, spend hours walking through the museum with its pilgrim art, and climb the cathedral’s steps for an amazing view across the city.
I do a practice walk around the Campo using my Suunto watch.
The museum across from the Duomo (next to the aggressive tourism office) used to be a hospital and pilgrim hostel many centuries ago, and here you can see the murals that depict its history.
Below in the cellar, encased in glass outside what seemed to be a prayer room and sort of vestry, there’s a macabre artwork of a skull with an inscription in Latin.
I decide to ask the security guard sitting nearby, a young lady with dark-rimmed glasses, to translate it for me.
She stumbles a bit over her words, and then comes out with the translation: “Where you are, I was. Where I am, you will be.”
Mmm. That’s enough to cut short a drawn-out church council meeting.
‘Disney World’ in Tuscany
That was four days before the blow-out in Siena.
Now I’m all packed up and determined to follow through with Plan B, in the grocery store across from Siena’s train station. You’d think I’d had my quota of conflict for one day, but in the grocery store, out of the blue, an adolescent boy starts trying to grab my trolley away from me.
We’re properly wrestling for control of the contraption, and it feels like all of Siena is out to get me today.
Only later I remember that Id’ paid a deposit of one euro to use the trolley, and this kid was hoping to score a bit of unearned pocket money.
I disembark at the Montepulciano train station, less than an hour outside of Siena. According to Google maps, it’s 30km from Radicofani. In the Pub Centrale across from the station, a good Samaritan helps me order a taxi, and refuses to take the euro coin I offer him.
He waits with me outside the door. A big oke in a Fiat Fullback bakkie comes to a screeching halt in front of the pub. He parks two cars in and whirls through the door, bellowing “un caffe”.
He lights a cigarette while the waitress pushes an espresso across the counter. She starts telling him off for smoking inside, but before he can take a second drag, he’s downed the espresso and he’s whirling back out the door to his bakkie.
I image that he’s a regular around here when it comes to getting his coffee fix. It’s a world-weary version of Richard Branson that pulls up in a rickety old Fiat to fetch me.
The taxi doesn’t have a meter. Radicofani is far, he warns me. I nod knowingly, there’s no other choice.Montepulciano and Radicofani are maybe 30km apart, but the train station is about 20km outside Montepulciano.
Richard whips that little Fiat like it’s a lazy mule. Speed signs whizz past, telling us to slow from 50 km, to 40 km (on a bad gravel road) and finally to 30 km (a bad gravel road with hairpin bends), but Richard’s accelerator only knows one position, and that’s flat against the floor.
We shoot past law-abiding vehicles on death-defying corners, and shave past lorries in the oncoming lane. I see my life flash before my eyes: Those school music lessons that I never wanted to practice for, our arguments as kids over who’s turn it was to wash dishes, my first by-line as a journalist on an article about a record profit at a bazaar in Oudtshoorn...
I’m convinced that skull in Siena was right, and Tuscany is where I’m finally going to meet my Maker.
The Flying Fiat shoots past signs with the words “attenzione – procedere con cautela”, but according to Sir Richard’s actions, it apparently means “drive like the devil is chasing you”.
I suppose it’s a beautiful drive, but I’m too busy planning my own funeral to enjoy it. Forget about Disney world…Paolo Cencini’s taxi service is the only thrill you need to experience in Europe!
The rain is pouring when the Fiat finally comes to a stop in front of the city gates of Radicofani. Sir Richard gallantly offers to help me find my accommodation, but it’s a firm no from me.
I’m nauseous, and almost grateful to shove 90 euro in his hands for the taxi ride. Ninety euros for a taxi ride! There goes the budget!
But the 30km I’d imagined was at least 60 difficult kilometres. And I’ve got no fight left in me, after the day I’ve had. Ironically, I’d be prepared to hand over my entire pension fund if he’d just stop that flipping Fiat.
The Drenched Dutchman
I find my accommodation easily enough, but a note on the door tells me I need to call someone to come open up.
Not so easy if you don’t have a cellphone in Italy. But while I’m standing there, wandering what to do, along comes a soaking wet pilgrim walking up the hill.
Gerhard is from the Netherlands and is walking the Via Francigena to celebrate his retirement. I can tell he’s spent the best part of his day walking in the rain. There’s not a dry bone in his body. Gerhard has a cellphone with him and organises for someone to come open up for us. He suggests that we eat dinner together later, an invitation I gratefully accept.
La Grotto is Radicofani’s only restaurant, and at first, I’m sceptical, but I glug down my reservations along with some good wine and delicious pasta. And despite the rain coming in torrents over the mountains, there are other people here.
It’s a wonderful evening! The food is the kind of Italian food that South Africans dream about.
I enjoy a thick vegetable soup and homemade tagliatelle with fresh asparagus and bacon.Gerhard is good company.
He’d been a publisher and has some handy tips for the Via Francigena. He quickly corrects my pronunciation: “Frans-see-gee-na”.
He began his pilgrimage in Lucca and will be hiking more than 300km to get to Rome. He’s seen just two other pilgrims since leaving Lucca, and I’m the only one who can speak his language.
We say goodbye at the end of the night, Gerhard has a far way to go tomorrow, but I intentionally arrived at my starting point a day early so that I could start my pilgrimage feeling relaxed, without the pressure of rushing.
The first stamp in my pilgrim’s passport
The next morning I see Radicofani is surprisingly beautiful – much more beautiful than the photos that I’d found on the internet.
According to the 2012 census, the town, which is classified as a commune, has 1148 residents. But I seriously doubt this figure, I never saw more than 20 people, and not one of them could speak English.
I use my last day here to go online at the coffee shop across from St Peters Church, and climb the hill to the fort which dates back to 978.
It’s this fort which marked Radicofani as a safe overnight stop for pilgrims on the Via Francigena since the first century. I take photos using the Canon M100’s remote control (you can use the Canon app on your smartphone as a shutter) and buy my last supplies (drinking water and bananas) in a little corner café down a side street.
The lady is very impressed to see me. I’m the first South African she’s ever met, she says, and asks me to sign her guest book.
One whole wall of her storeroom is full of journals where pilgrims have left little notes and messages. I write in Afrikaans: “Thanks for the hospitality”. And so I’ve gotten my first stamp in my pilgrim’s passport.
A friendly oke is waiting to welcome me at the Albergo del Torre, the first accommodation that caminoways.com booked for me.
I try to eat again at La Grotto that night, but a note on the door tells me that they only open at 8pm on Friday nights, and I want to get to bed early. I decide just to have dinner in the hotel’s restaurant.
By the time Radicofani’s nightlife (ya right!) starts stirring, I’m all packed up for tomorrow, with my clothes laid out for my first day on the Via Francigena.
I’m so excited (and a little bit nervous) just like it’s my first day of school.
Italy has a fantastic train system. Book your tickets ahead of time on Trenitalia. My pre-booked seat from Rome’s Termini station to Poggibonsi-San Gimignano (via Florence) cost 22 euros.
Between San Gimignano and Siena it was 3 euros and from Siena to Montepulciano it was 7 euros.
Taxis are expensive, but in most instances, you can order an Uber, using the same app you’d use in South Africa.
Caminoways.com organises walking and biking tours on a variety of Camino de Santiago routes. A six-day trip on the famous Camino Frances from Sarria to Santiago starts from 420 euro (about R7 000) per person sharing. (For details and a free quotation, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit caminoways.com.)