You could say we have arrived in Tuscany, even though we crossed the border back in the mountains. Whereas it has been built up, busy and working, the scenery is now gentle hills, random collections of pencil like cypress trees punctuating olive groves and ancient buildings. This is romantic Tuscany. We are staying in a great hill top monastery in a village called San Miniato, Florence without the tourists. We have a day extra to kill waiting for the Dunnes to arrive, so we can start the four day hike to Sienna. They have been lured by the leaning tower so we will fill our extra day touring the local vineyards. Another big touristy city lacks appeal, compared with our present circumstances.
You may notice from the map that we skipped a bit. When we left ancient Pontremoli we spent another day on roads. Very little care is taken protecting soft flesh from solid metal, both by road designers and drivers. It is noisy and a little scary, especially the lorries which pass close enough to blow your hat off. The route occasionally takes you away from the road but only at the expense of a gratuitously large detour along paths that are very difficult after the recent rains. We arrived after a long day to a very warm welcome in a small hotel in Villafranca. It was kept in a state of perfect military cleanliness, fresh flowers in the rooms and on the tables, all supervised by an energetic eighty year old perfectionist. At lunch the restaurant was full of working men with working boots, sat at tables with frilly table cloths and posh cutlery all tucking into great food, served by a platoon of middle aged women wearing frou frou hair nets. It was about the only perfect thing about Villafranca, which appears to have suffered from large factory closures.
It was obvious that the next three days would be urban and along roads. It would also be Easter and everything threatened to close. The roads really swung it. We took a train to Florence and booked a cheap hotel which as it turned out was great, central, quiet and warm. I had never been to Firenze (Florence) and I wasn't disappointed. Pretty amazing place, but we were unprepared for the shear weight of tourist numbers. It made just walking about difficult. The whole of the USA seemed to have decamped over to Italy. We pondered on the Via Francigena (VF) and what it means. Whereas the route to Santiago was definitely a Camino or way, you couldn't really say that about the VF. The Camino was well marked and very sorted out in terms of keeping you away from roads but still maintaining a sensible non discursive route. The VF is more of a journey. Paul Haines said that he often took roads to avoid the worst of the diversions. Whereas he is brave and unperturbed we really didn't feel like martyring ourselves on the busy roads. There really are no quiet roads. That being said, I suspect that yesterday marked a change though. Suddenly footpaths at the side of busy roads appeared protected by barriers. We passed through blissfully quiet woodlands and wetlands. The next stages to Siena pass through beautiful scenery and are not following main roads.
Spring is finally springing here. Most of the trees are still tucked in for the Winter, the early flowers are now carpeting our way and the hotter sun even brought out a rather large snake yesterday. I was reading a map and was vaguely aware of a screechy hissing sound, but when Ellen squeaked, I hopped and the snake slithered away, thank god. There are poisonous snakes in Italy.
Ellen has just finished a long, academic but well written tome on her kindle, discussing in great detail the last 200 years of Italian history, including Garibaldi, Cavour, Mussolini and Berlusconi. After many discussions, from what I can gather, Italy has a peacable, educated, industrious, creative and entrepreneurial population. Unfortunately their governance has never had any of those characteristics and has often been disastrous for Italy. After the War they were in receipt of loads of reparation money from the Americans, who were keen to avoid an Italian revolution. So the mid 50's until late 60's were the economic and cultural hey days for Italy, as some of the money filtered down. Fairly quickly the politicians and their attendant corruption moved in and things have slowly gone sour, with no obvious let up to date.
I am writing this after breakfast, in a hill top square. The clock of the ancient church is chiming. Two German touring cyclists have just arrived and are sorting out their immaculate gear. I am sheltered from the sun under a tree. Ellen is off scouting for the best vineyards to visit, she is as keen as mustard and was not to be put off by the usual level of helpfulness from the tourist information lady. We are really enjoying being outside and relaxed, the cold has finally left us. It has been very chilly. The walking rhythm seems to suit us both we eat well, sleep well and feel good. We only lack some English speaking company so watch out John & Lucy.