Beautiful scenery, spectacular buildings and a “sense of history” – the Via Francigena rolls them all into one
Beautiful landscapes – like so many other things in life that are beautiful – come in more varieties than one.
There are, on the one hand, the grand majestic landscapes of our planet, the Grand Canyons and Monument Valleys, barren rocks and icey cliffs, Nature painting on the grandest of scales. We all admire these sceneries for “the graceful indifference with which they disdain to destroy us”, but should never forget that there is another type of landscape which is, in its own and very different way, as magnificent as the Grand Canyon.
This is the cultured landscape with its fields, roads and footpaths, and perhaps a church steeple here and there. Such landscapes do not confront but embrace, they do not shout at you like some angry god who tries to put you “back in your place”, but make you feel a part of them, of the scenery and of everything that humans have done to it in thousands of years.
Such landscapes are tableaux vivants of history on a scale which is not smaller or less “sublime” than that of the Grand Canyon, only shorter: the history of human civilization.
These landscapes are not unique to Europe, but in Europe alone can you unfold them, layer upon layer: from the layer of modernity (you never have to look long to find something that was added in the last 20 years or so: a windfarm, pylons, a motorway) to the monuments of our industrial past (railway bridges, traces of mining activity) and features that reach back hundreds of years to the Middle Ages (churches), antiquity (aquaeducts) and beyond (such as settlement patterns, terraced hill farms and cleared woodlands).
This is what is known among historians as a palimpsest: what happens when you write on a surface without erasing what had been written there before. These “palimpsest” landscapes are what defines Europe – and at the same time her greatest treasures.
Such landscapes are quite literally everywhere in Europe, but it is fair to admit that some combine these very common motifs in a more attractive way than others: this is what defines a good hiking trail.
And if such an optically attractive and pleasant hiking trail, on top of that, manages to connect you to history on a personal level: if it allows you to follow in the footsteps of an army that marched into a famous battle, for example, or of a famous artist on a journey that inspired one of his major works, or of travelling craftsmen, pilgrims and itinerant traders throughout the centuries, then you have a truly “great” hiking trail.
The Via Francigena is such a great hiking trail.
The Francigena is the ancient pilgrimage trail to Rome “from France”, hence the name, although in its most famous version, it has included the additional journey from Canterbury ever since Archbishop Sigeric came down this way in the 10th century to receive his investiture from the Pope – not because he was such an avid hiker, presumably, but because the sea route was considered unsafe (too many pirates).
About 1,000 pilgrims every year still make the journey, following in Sigeric’s footsteps all the way for about 1800 km through France, Switzerland and northern Italy – the journey takes roughly three months. Shorter stretches of the Francigena are, however, far more popular, particularly since Italy has restored and properly marked the ancient path in the early 2000s.
This part of the Francigena is also specifically popular because the rolling hills of Tuscany provide some of the trail’s most picturesque sceneries. We ourselves sampled the short stretch from Abbadia Isola to Monteriggioni Alto north of Siena, which featured everything you would expect from a walk through Tuscany, including an old abbey church …
… scenic views around us along the way …
… and a hilltop castle at the very end.
From here to Siena, it’s another 20 km: so you better follow the old saying “when in Tuscany …”, have lunch first and remember that there is always such a thing as tomorrow.
And from Siena to Rome, you only have another 270 km to go. Now that, surely, is something for another hiking holiday altogether.