Walking in the Footsteps of Ancient Pilgrims

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The half-stage to Monteriggioni delivers a good lesson in authenticity –and the key to unlocking the treasures of the Via Francigena

"Walking in the Footsteps of Ancient Pilgrims in Monteriggioni"

If you have neither the time for a full trip down the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome (a journey of 2000 km that features 80 stages and crossings of both the Channel and the Alps) nor for the three-week trek through Tuscany (the trail’s last stretch from Lucca to Rome), I strongly advise you to do the short walk from Abbadia Isola to Monteriggioni.

Read also: Eating in Tuscany

If you leave early on a balmy day in May, as we did, you will arrive at your destination in time for lunch – and are able to enjoy everything there is to enjoy about this blessed part of the world in a single day: the great scenery, the sunshine, the wonderful food.

Not to forget the spectacle of it all.

"Stone cottages along the Via Francigena in Tuscany"

One of the best things about this particular Francigena half-stage is that you rarely loose sight of Monteriggioni Castle, just like the pilgrims who have come down this trail for centuries on their way from the relative safety of the abbey where they would have spent the night (the “abbadia”) to reach the relative safety of the walled hilltop village. (We are always quick to complain about the “modern police state”, conveniently forgetting that “constant surveillance” has also produced some highly welcome benefits.

Travelling for pleasure, for example, – the very idea of modern tourism – would have been unthinkable in an age when getting from one town to the other was fraught with a series of existential risks.)

There is, however, one problem with this scenario of walking in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims: these “ancient hikers” would not have used the same route to Monteriggioni that we are using today, and they would not have had a view of fertile rolling hills but of a mosquito-ridden hell. Until fairly recently, the area of the grain fields on your left and right hand side …

"Friars walking in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims"

… would have been covered by swamps, and the only way around this vast expanse of wetlands would have been a narrow path around their edges. The Abbadia Isola would have been, as the name implies, an island in the middle of a malaria-infested no-go zone.

Read also: The Celestial City of the Via Francigena

What does this teach us? That authenticity, like so many other qualities in life, often lies in the eye of the beholder.

The Tuscan Tourism Board had made a great effort to connect our walk with the history of the trail, lining it with characters such as troubadours and rogue knights who were asking passing strangers to “stand and deliver” (not ALL strangers, of course: only us)….

"knights walking in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims"

… they had even supplied a “pilgrim” as our guide for the day …

"our guide for the Via Francigena in Monteriggioni"

… who, with rather winning frankness, freely admitted that his drive for authenticity stopped at the issue of footwear. Indeed: any hike, even a relatively short one such as ours, must have been a daunting prospect in the days before the invention of the padded rubber sole.

"Walking in the footsteps of Ancient Pilgrims"

Something which is undoubtedly “authentic”, however, is the sight of the old walled town of Monteriggioni – at least since 1214 when the Sienese fortified the village against their perennial enemies from Florence. But even then, the walls of Monteriggioni – intimidating enough during their time to receive a mention in Dante’s Inferno as a metaphor for an impregnable fortress – do not look today the way they did back then. In the 16th century, the height of the towers was reduced to provide less of a target for the newly invented instrument of artillery.

The castle, destination of ancient pilgrims on the Via Francigena"

We might as well admit it: the concept of walking in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims is somewhat trickier than it may at first seem. You cannot step into the same hiking trail twice. A keen awareness for this – and for the way in which landscapes change over time – is the key for unlocking the treasures of the Via Francigena.

The best way to round off your day of “great Tuscan experiences” is to make the 20 km journey to Siena in the late afternoon: you will still have enough time for a brief evening walk in one of Europe’s most glorious cities.

"Duomo in Sienna - Walking in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims"

More of Siena and her many sights in our next post!


Our trip to Tuscany was made possible on the invitation of the Council of Europe/European Commission Joint Programme 2013-2014 on European Cultural Routes, realized in co-operation with the European Institute of Cultural Routes(EICR).

Don’t miss our next post about our #FrancigenaTrip for the cultural #CrossingRoutes by following us on Facebook and Twitter. Better still, subscribe to our free updates via email.

2 comments to Walking in the Footsteps of Ancient Pilgrims

  • Another delightful hike. Your guide’s choice of footwear and the swamps you mention highlight how fortunate we are are. The world is wide open to us. Thanks for this lovely escape.

  • A morning walk with a castle view? Plus an Italian lunch after? What’s not to like! Sounds like a great little hike…

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