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Crossing is more important than arriving

Tuesday 07 april 2020

Walking along the Francigena from San Miniato to Siena.

Crossing is more important than arriving

I tasted my first ribollita in Gambassi Terme after a 24 kilometer stage under the sun of the Val d'Elsa that wanted me to believe I was still in August, between the dust of the white roads and the water that was never enough. A nice guy with a strong Tuscan accent served it to me. For me everything was new, he, on the contrary, gave me a distracted look, like someone who sees wayfarers every day.

The idea of putting me in gear came to me by chance, as when you think of putting order in the garage: you think you know what awaits you, you find yourself in a cyclopean enterprise of which you can't see the end. I arrived unprepared, with a few too many mistakes due to inexperience, but with a great desire to try. More than anything else, I was fascinated by the idea of walking a path through time and space, in the heart of medieval Italy, far from the paved roads, and doing it on foot.

Ah the feet: they know the road, they feel it, they bite it, they know which direction to take. Seductive thoughts, of those that scramble your heart and leave you without strength, just like at the end of the first day, when your strength failed just in the last kilometer but I discovered I still had a small unexpected reserve, an energy that made me reach my goal.

Too focused on grinding kilometers, checking the GPS, checking each crossroads and keeping pace at the pace suggested by the guides, I missed the spectacle around me. The first day he was gone, dead along with the sun disappearing behind the vine-covered hills. I have to start all over again, with new vigour and a new strategy.

The dawn is one that foretells a new torrid day. It's September, that moment when the countryside explodes in bright colors, emanating intense scents of earth, grapes, dew, the sun gets lower, warms and envelops, accompanies the path casting my shadow on the road, stretching it towards evening, tireless travel companion.

San Gimignano rises to the top of the hill, with its centuries-old towers, the bricks of the houses and the tangle of the medieval village. I watch it from afar become sharper and sharper between the rows of vines, then the path deviates into the countryside, I lose sight of it, it resurfaces and moves away. These are the tricks that the road plays on the wayfarer: the path does not follow the straight line but twists and turns among the hills, stairs and descents, crosses cultivated fields, parish churches, farmhouses and hillocks, gets lost among the olive trees and oaks. It's a jubilation of steps, a slow pace through the nature shaped by man. You have so much time to think along the way, you begin to feel your heart as your legs fly lightly. You always carry with you a little bit of land that you have trampled on and you wonder, in the evening, cleaning your shoes, to discover how many colours it has.

San Gimignano

I don't look at the map anymore, I don't care how many kilometres I've covered and how many more to go. I was blinded by what was around me, by the sounds that were getting closer and closer in my slow return to civilization, by the scents of truffles and wild boar, by the idea of being in a special place.

It's quick to get used to loneliness. Abandoning the paved road and taking the white roads becomes a necessity. Some rarefied encounters with other wayfarers, some dogs wandering only in the vineyards, a frightened roe deer, cattle, horses. Civilization seems light years away and those that at the beginning were included in my personal classification under "inconvenience", begin to become small, private privileges. Like sleeping in a 13th century convent in Colle Val D'Elsa, which stands on an isolated hill opposite the village. At night the moonlight illuminates the houses of the thirteenth century, everything is still in absolute silence.

First course

Back on the road now aware of having done more than half the way, of having seen those rows of cypresses identical to what I had imagined, of having eaten, again, the ribollita, of having had breakfast with the ciaccia and the schiacciata, of having trampled on the same road that Sigerico traced in 990 AD. Satisfied by these small but important conquests of mine, I enter the province of Siena. The hills become higher and rounder, the olive trees give way to vineyards, you can smell the intense smell of horses and hay. I am impatient to reach Monteriggioni. I eat the road, I measure my steps, my heart gets heavy because I know I am close to the end of my journey.

Then, having passed Abbadia a Isola, inhabited since Etruscan times, I start the climb towards the fortified village. It seems like a mirage, a chimera, the slope breaks my legs and my backpack becomes a boulder. I stop several times along the climb in front of the crown of crenellated towers, then the gateway to the square with the ancient well. I am inside history. I get lost in the alleys at sunset, I go back towards the door that looks west. Far away you can see San Gimignano. That was yesterday.

I leave the historic center of Monteriggioni behind me, I walk along the white roads of the Sienese mountains towards Cerbaia, an ancient medieval village now in a state of abandonment. Every now and then I turn back because I can not abandon the image of the village flooded by the amber light of dawn.


I still enter the bush as far as the castles of Chiocciola and Villa, before descending into the reclaimed riverbed of Pian del Lago. Here I meet the hunters and we realize that it's Saturday: I had lost track of time. The road kidnapped me. I am roomy, I feel that something is beginning to be missing, that sense of travel, of displacement. I'm no longer interested in arriving but crossing.

The Renai wood is the last oasis of nature before Porta Camollia, the traditional access to Siena. The city that I loved even before I met it is there, its walls, the houses leaning against the magnificent square, the Torre del Mangia that casts its shadow on the shell, the Duomo that preserves the incomparable mosaic floor. The city of the Palio, of the bloody Tuscan tradition.

I take my shoes off after 117 kilometers but I don't feel lighter. The desire to start again, to travel a new road is all in my feet.

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