Pedaling the Tuscan Via Francigena

 

23 May – Afternoon/Evening

I ended my last post extolling the virtues of San Gimignano, ending with a proclamation of the fine quality of food we woofed down at Locanda di Sant’Agosto which included copious amounts of carbs. However, before the dear reader concludes we were mere gluttons, I’ll defend our habits and say that we were actually thinking like athletes (no laughing allowed) and “carb loading” for our upcoming bike trek from San Gimignano through Colle di Val’delsa. At least those of us riding. The rest of the crew will have to come up with their own excuse scientifically based reasoning.

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Our guides for the upcoming adventure, Manuel and Ingo, arrived at the restaurant to escort us to the waiting bikes, courtesy of a great rental outfit called Gippo that is located about 20 minutes southeast of San Gimignano. Five of our outfit choose to ride this day while the remaining opted for various walks and photo opportunities along the approximate 25 km stretch of the Via Francigena that we would be covering.

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The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets. ~Christopher Morley

Although our route in Tuscany today would only be a short segment of the 2000 km path, it is noted amongst many websites focusing on the Via Francigena as  one of the most spectacular as it winds south towards Rome.

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The Via Francigena through Tuscany – our route followed TO 10 (unable to give map credit; I found it posted on multiple websites)
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I’m ready, Manuel!!

As we set out from the gate to San Gimignano that we’d entered by earlier in the day, we fell into a comfortable rhythm of getting used to our bikes, chatting, and easily gliding along paved roads into the countryside. Buildings gave way to luscious landscape of rolling green wheat fields, an occasional farm house, a few folks tending their gardens, and very few cars to interfere in our revelry. Easy enough!

However, about 10 minutes into the ride, Ingo and Manuel had us stop and forewarned us of what would lie ahead. As it turns out, the smooth as silk paved road was about to change in a big way. We would be introduced to this via a quite steep, very rocky, heavily rutted downhill “road”. As Manuel accompanied the first two brave souls downward, Ingo gave me a quick primer in how to survive: sit back in the saddle to apply weight on the back wheel, apply equal pressure to both brakes (or take a flying leap over the handlebars), keep your knees flexed, take it slow. Deep breath. Andiamo – let’s go!

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“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.” ~Mark Twain
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“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” ― T.S. Eliot

As I crested the point in the road that dropped seriously downward, I wondered if I should attempt this or not. Afterall, let’s be honest…I don’t qualify for spring chicken any more. But I sure didn’t want to qualify for chicken, so decided to have a little Tuscan rodeo with this road.

Slowly, easily, don’t forget to breath, I can do this. Ingo called out occasional tips and encouragement, and before long I leveled off at the end of the road with a cowgirl “whoop” of success.

We had more than one of these rocky challenges, both down and up, but what better feeling than to tackle something that scares you a little and come out on top?

This stretch of the Via Francigena in Tuscany is hailed as one of the most beautiful, and after my 4 hours of time spent on it (and survived!), I can undoubtedly agree. Sparsely populated except for the small town or two transversed, the road takes one through magnificent countryside that rolls gently, sometimes abruptly, over green Tuscan hills. Vineyards dressed in spring colors, freshly trimmed olive groves, timeworn farms, and wide open sky were our companions until they gave way to quiet forests that offered shade and solitude. More than once I almost had a wreck as I diverted my attention to the wondrous beauty that surrounded me from every side. Occasionally we’d round a bend and come upon the relics of some old house or barn, forgotten by time and hosting a wrapping of vines. It was magical.

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We did find opportunities for rest here and there, and again I marveled at just how tranquil, how remote our surroundings were. The only sounds were those also heard by pilgrims over the ages as they passed this same way: bird calls, the wind’s rustling through trees, crickets, and maybe a burbling stream nearby. And today we found ourselves as pilgrims, blessed by the same such things.

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On the road selfie with Valentina

Towards the end of our ride we came upon flatter terrain that merged onto a paved road. It followed a transparent stream flanked by more homes that we’d come across up until this point as we neared the town of Colle de Val’delsa. Folks were out walking their dogs, visiting, working in the garden, and just enjoying the end of a splendid day. I smiled and waved more than once and my greeting was returned. What simple joys I had found, what profound treasures I had been gifted with on this incredible journey that was coming to completion alongside a shaded, crystalline pond. Yes, le gioie di vivere.

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“A lake is a landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” ― Henry David Thoreau

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“It is life, I think, to watch the water. A man can learn so many things.” ― Nicholas Sparks

(One more special thank you to Manuel and Ingo for their incredible encouragement, instruction, and support.  We truly couldn’t have done it without you!)

 

Worn completely out, covered in road dirt and sweat, and so very happy, we loaded up in the waiting van and headed through the countryside between Colle di Val’delsa and Siena for the tucked away jewel known as Relais La Costa – Dimora Storica.

What a splendid place this was; lovingly, painstakingly restored from utter ruins, the Relais La Costa now offers guests a retreat in luxurious surroundings situated on 50 acres of pristine Tuscan hills. And the views…oh, the views!

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We were greeted by the extremely warm and friendly owner, Dr. Franco Vaselli, and his staff and then treated like royal guests to a scrumptious, full course dinner that evening. Several notables from Siena and Monteriggioni joined us, as well, and it made for a festive night of new friends and fantastic dining.

During the dinner, we were shown a brief presentation of the before and after of Relais La Costa. This site dates back to 1000 and based upon original structural design, its existence was primarily to serve as an ospedale for pilgrims on the Via Francigena, which passes directly by here. The charming and enthusiastic manager, Eglantina, showed me the old road that literally hugs the walls of the compound and shared that they offer guests bikes for exploring the road. I could relate to the fun of that!

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Photo courtesy of www.relaislacosta.it

Today, this abode is designed to serve a somewhat similar mission as it did to the travelers of old; a reflective place of rest, peace, and restoration to those who are weary. And based upon our brief time at Relais La Costa, I’d put my money on it.

Before our departure the next morning, Eglantina gave us a quick tour of the inviting spa that’s been so aesthetically incorporated into the lower section of the main building. Full treatments are available for guests, and it pained us that we weren’t able to stay a bit longer and give these a try. La prossima volta – next time!

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Next Post: Come along as we hike the Via Francigena towards Monteriggioni. Oh, the characters you will meet! 

Post Author
Paula A. Reynolds

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