Beyond the Walls - Walks From Lucca

An ancient pilgrim’s stamp which roughly reads: I make a pilgrimage to find peace.

An ancient pilgrim’s stamp which roughly reads: I make a pilgrimage to find peace.

Day 18 - Ponte a Elsa to Altopascio

Returning to Ponte a Elsa was not particularly high on our list of wonderful places to visit, but it’s where we ended up and so return we did to continue our walk. It was a day of walking highways and very high winds, neither of which was pleasant. That said, we broke all of our walking records thus far by walking 20.21 miles … that’s 47,001 steps.

We walked this leg of the VF backwards as it was easier to catch a very early bus from Altopascio than an early train to Ponte a Elsa. It was a comedy of errors on the bus, however. We actually needed to start the walk from the little town of Chimenti and bought tickets accordingly. When we got on the bus, we confirmed with the driver where we were going. He thought about it for a minute and then said ‘Si’. Great … we settled in for the 25 minute ride.

Shortly, thereafter, he said we were on the wrong bus. We needed to be on the bus that had just left. Really? No worries though, he’d just barrel-ass it after the right bus , catch it and we could transfer. The following 10 minutes was comparable to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World. We swerved around corners, beat out trailer trucks at roundabout entrances, passed by waiting passengers at bus stops and finally caught up to the right bus. He honked and honked and the other driver waited as we transferred in a rush. The new driver, questioning our motives for the transfer, said quite calmly that she didn’t go anywhere near Chimenti and in fact, she would arrive later than the bus we had been on. The bus we had been on, however, was making his getaway as we steppedoff the second bus and we managed to flag him down before he was out of sight. We stayed on the original bus till the end of his line. ‘Where’s Chimenti? Is it a transfer?’, we queried. He pointed down the road … ‘un kilometro … cinque minuti’. Well, just a kilometer ended up being 3 miles and 55 minutes more than 5 minutes, but we managed.

The old Roman roads are tough on the feet.

The old Roman roads are tough on the feet.

We did walk on some footpaths and some old Roman roads (hard on the feet), but most of the day was spent alongside highways, staying as close to the side of the road as possible. The 30-40 mph winds didn’t help. Our hats blew off in the gusts. Our jackets and David’s pack acted as sails and pushed us off balance. We were quite happy to arrive in Punta a Elsa, have our ‘arrival’ beer and catch the train back to Lucca. We met only 2 pilgrims today. A couple highlights of a not-so-perfect walk.

The little bridge at Greppi doesn’t look like much, but there’s been a bridge here for centuries as this road was the principal link between Valdarno and Lucca on the Via Francigena route.

The little bridge at Greppi doesn’t look like much, but there’s been a bridge here for centuries as this road was the principal link between Valdarno and Lucca on the Via Francigena route.

Egrets in a farm field along the path

Egrets in a farm field along the path

Day 18 - Ponte a Elsa to Altopascio

20.21 miles walked / 47,001 steps … a new record thanks to our bus driver

Leg distance: 18 miles / 1027 miles to Canterbury


Day 19 – Altopascio to Lucca

A bright and sunny day had us on the bus to Altopascio, walking north to Lucca. It was still windy, but thankfully, nothing like yesterday. Altopascio is in the ‘burbs’ of Lucca and thus we walked mostly on sidestreets and sidewalks. Though we carried our trekking poles, we certainly didn’t need them.

Altopascio was a pretty neat little town. We climbed the steep steps to the town library to get our ‘timbro’, the stamp for our pilgrim passports.

Altopascio was a pretty neat little town. We climbed the steep steps to the town library to get our ‘timbro’, the stamp for our pilgrim passports.

And quite the stamp it was. A replica of an original medieval seal, it was barely contained in two blocks of our passports. It was so unique however, we really didn’t mind at all.

And quite the stamp it was. A replica of an original medieval seal, it was barely contained in two blocks of our passports. It was so unique however, we really didn’t mind at all.

The town’s church, Chiesa di San Jacopo, was not open when we arrived, but we appreciated the detail of the church’s exterior. Its bell tower is called ‘the tower of lost bells’ because the area is subject to dense fog and being on the pilgrim route, pilgrims regularly got lost in an unknown area in the fog. The bells would toll and the pilgrims could find their way to the town.

In the little town of Porcari, we were greeted by murals along the roadside depicting Via Francigena pilgrims and scenes.

There were several very picturesque churches on our route. We didn’t stop to view the interiors, but it was nearly impossible to pass the churches without taking some photos.

In Capanori, a park labyrinth caught our attention and we just couldn’t leave without making our way through it. We had no problems (it was designed for 6-year olds), but our insurance policy had we been unable to find our way out was that we knew we could fit between the poles.

The Capanori labyrinth

The Capanori labyrinth

It was a most pleasant day, but we appreciated getting back to Lucca and our room early enough to still enjoy the rest of the day in town and claim our end-of-walk beer.

Day 19 – Altopascio to Lucca

15.3 miles walked/ 35,695 steps

Leg distance: 11.5 milies / 1016 miles to Canterbury


Day 20 – Lucca to Camaiore

We took an early bus to Camaiore and walked this leg backwards. We really thought we’d caught the wrong bus, when, after nearly two hours, we descended from the mountains via endless switchbacks and were riding along the coast of the Ligurian Sea at Lido di Camaiore. We knew we needed to be inland in the town of Camaiore not on the coast, and we were perplexed and not quite sure what to do. Get off? Stay on?

What are we doing by the seashore?

What are we doing by the seashore?

Maybe this was going to be a lost day. David was able to track our route on Maps.me before we finally headed inland from the sea. It seems we caught the full scenic tour rather than a more direct route. We finally arrived at our intended start point about 2-1/2 hours after our departure. Since it was already a late start, we had a coffee and croissant to fortify ourselves for the walk ahead.

Finally! the right town… let’s get started.

Finally! the right town… let’s get started.

Once we were on the path, up, up, up we climbed, then down, down, down … then up, up, up once again and down, down down. We are in the Appuan Alps and the scenery is gorgeous. Vistas and old churches and chapels are common, but beautiful sights.

View of our path

View of our path

Centuries old Spedale di San Michele della Contessora was a hospice for pilgrims since 1175 AD.

Centuries old Spedale di San Michele della Contessora was a hospice for pilgrims since 1175 AD.

We’ve noted all along that the cemeteries are always well-cared for. Usually located on the outskirts of each town, no matter how small, the grave markers are ornate and fresh flowers adorn the graves.

Tiny little mountain village cemetery

Tiny little mountain village cemetery

An unexpected statue in tiny little town …  Giorgio Gaber ?

An unexpected statue in tiny little town … Giorgio Gaber?

The Via Francigena route takes us off highways where possible and onto cart roads, paths and gravel roads. Many times the route is longer than need be and sometimes it seems the path takes us off the road just for the sake of taking us off the road with no particular rhyme or reason. We saw 8 pilgrims today and some of them, too, wondered on occasion why the route was sometimes quite unnecessarily circuitous.

Day 20 – Lucca to Camaiore

16.12 miles walked / 37,488 steps

Leg distance: 14.8 miles / 1001 miles to Canterbury


Day 21 – Camaiore to Massa

Knowledge is power and hence, after yesterday’s bus ride fiasco, we were able to catch a more direct bus to Camaiore today bypassing the coastal route and arriving in Camaiore in an hour. We met 8 pilgrims today, too. Some ask where we started and where we’re going. When we tell them Canterbury, they always go ‘wow’.

We don’t have time to explain our ‘just a little further’ philosophy, but it’s working for us every step of the way. Today, we are not walking from Rome to Canterbury, we are only walking from Camaiore to Massa … one step at a time. If the hills are steep and we’re out of breath, then we’re only walking to the next tree or the end of that fence or the second clump of yellow flowers before we rest and start up again. Eventually, the hill is climbed, the day’s walk is done, and another leg of the Via Francigena is complete.

There are mountains all around us now except to the west where the Ligurian Sea (the Mediterranean) lies. The views are simply stupendous. Above, a view of the Ligurian Sea from the path far above

There are mountains all around us now except to the west where the Ligurian Sea (the Mediterranean) lies. The views are simply stupendous. Above, a view of the Ligurian Sea from the path far above

pietrasanta_snow or marble.JPG

Is that snow in the mountains? Maybe, but more likely granite or marble. We passed by several marble yards where great slabs of marble are piled up. Some carved, some just multi-ton blocks waiting to be turned into stately columns or world-class statues or perhaps just countertops.

The Duomo (cathedral) in Pietrasanta was lovely, but it was the Misericordia that really caught our attention. In particular, two modern (1993) interpretations of Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso by Fernando Botero which seemed way too avant garde for a Catholic church, but I guess it wasn’t.

The woodsy area of the path is earthy, but heavily perfumed with flowering plants and shrubs and trees in full bloom. Cottonwood fluff and flower petals float by in the air. Butterflies and bees are busy at work. It’s an absolutely wonderful day to be walking in Italy and a pleasant antithesis to the cities we’ve been walking through.

On our way down a steep, steep road into Massa, we came across the ‘Via dell’arte’ … a road which displayed works of art en route. David felt the art, especially the nudes, were totally inappropriate, only because they diverted the driver’s eyes from the very narrow, serpentine road, along which we were walking.

And then the steep hills were ascended and climbed and the walk was done and we were waiting at the train station in Massa to return to Lucca. Time to move on.

And then the steep hills were ascended and climbed and the walk was done and we were waiting at the train station in Massa to return to Lucca. Time to move on.

Day 21 – Camaiore to Massa

17.92 miles walked/ 41,675 steps

Leg distance: 16 miles / 985 miles to Canterbury

Under 1000 miles to Canterbury day!