Friday 14 November.
We packed everything and took our bags with us when we went down for breakfast. There was only the night porter there and he said breakfast wasn't until 7 am. We looked at our watches and said it is 7 am. He looked at his watch and scratched his head then said '10 minutes'. It turned out all right, there was muesli, yoghurt, croissants and a coffee machine where we could select the type we wanted. Our selection was Americano, it comes black and just requires a spot of milk added. We took a couple of packets of biscuits, an apple and a pear for later and were on our way.
The Italian weather forecasting doesn't seem to be very good. All the ones I consulted on the Internet said sunny today. It was dull and overcast when we set out. After an hour it was spitting rain. We hoped it would clear but it got heavier and we had to don our rain jackets and trousers and cover our rucksacks. When we reached Ponte A Cappiano there was a bench under some trees that we thought would give enough shelter to have our morning tea. Once I had the water boiled we discovered the rain had gone off and there were patches of blue in the sky. From then on it improved steadily and when we stopped for lunch at Fucecchio it was so warm that we had to strip off another layer. The forecast had eventually come right.
Cicerone said that we went through the middle of the town and carried on straight for 5 km on the other side to Galleno, obviously on the road. The VF route designer had other ideas and we were glad as we had had enough of roads and towns yesterday, today was nearly all off-road. When we left Altopascio it was straight on to nice gravel tracks that went through woodlands and only touched on the edges of villages before returning to the trees.
We reached a busy road where we left the region of Lucca and entered that of Firenze. This was where we rejoined the Cicerone version of the route. We weren't on the road for long but turned into an old cobbled track, it was probable Roman, that was an actual part of the original Via Francigena.
There were information boards about a few of the things we passed; the first was Casa Greppi, a 12th century hospice for pilgrims but ran into disuse when the area was abandoned in the Middle Ages due to the plague devastating the region. It was restored later and used as a hostel until recent times; next was a boundary stone 'Termini 13' for the change in regions also it supposedly marked the spot where a Cardinal had commented on the state of disrepair of the road as it was causing coaches to overturn; finally it was over the Ponte a Greppo a wooden footbridge that took the original road over a small river, in 1191 Filippo Augusto crossed it on his way to the 3rd Crusade. All these bits of the history of the route make you realise that people have been on these pilgrimages for centuries and what we are doing isn't a new thing.
We reached the town of Galleno later than we expected, probably the way the had come was new and a bit longer to avoid the busy road. Once through the town there was a path beside the road for a short distance before we deviated again into the countryside. The path was wide, dry and solid underfoot, unfortunately this was going to a farm house instead we turned to a muddy-wet-rutted path and it started to rain. Our shoes and socks were wet again so we just tramped through the puddles and pools. Eventually we reached the road and yet again were provided with a path beside it. It was descending steeply to Ponte A Cappiano but we were taken on a detour to cut the corner.
The bridge over the River Arno, Ponte A Cappiano was commissioned by one of the Medici family and designed by Leonardo de Vinci. It was a covered bridge and in one of the houses on it there was a pilgrim hostel; it would have been a very nice place to stay. It was on the other side of this river that we found a place for our break and the rain stopped.
The next part took us on a path along the side of the River Arno then of the towpath on an adjoining canal all the way to the town of Fucecchio. We could see the town in the distance as we made our way along the side of the canal, part of it was on a hill with the huge tower of the church the central feature.
We were hoping that the VF didn't want to visit the church and would skirt round the base of the hill. No such luck, it was a steep climb up a long flight of stairs but it was worth it. We reached a view point very similar to one we had been to in Granada when we did the Camino Mozarabe. It was a broad courtyard in from of the church with a wall to protect you from the steep drop. In front was the most magnificent panorama of the countryside. It seemed perfectly flat and we could see for miles in the clear atmosphere now the rain and clouds had gone. We sat there and had lunch, there wasn't any water left for tea so we bought a beer to have with our sandwiches and hard boiled egg.
As expected after all the climbing to get here we started to go down again. At the bottom we picked up a nice tarred lane and I thought with the sun now bright and warm my shoes would have a chance to dry. But no, we were soon on a grassy embankment, then wet muddy paths and they were soaking again. At least it was all off-road and the weather was good. From some distance we could see our destination San Miniato but our route made a few deviations around farms and a village before passing under a railway bridge and a motorway to enter the outskirts of the lower town.
From San Miniato Basso to the higher version 'Alto' that we had been seeing for some time ominously high on the hill, recognisable by the tall tower, Torre della Rocca. After a kilometre of flat walking along an embankment above allotments it became a stiff climb. It went straight up with very few twists and turns to ease the ascent. The houses, churches and town were spread out over the hilltop and we just followed the VF signs hoping that the Convent of San Francisco where we staying was on the route. When the roads, the route and where the town centre was became confusing we asked a woman who actually turned back from the way she was going and guided us part of the way. When we rang the bell to the Convent it was answered immediately by a priest who summoned, we assumed, the people in charge of the accommodation. When they arrived didn't have a note of our booking and this then resulted in lengthy arguments and conversations in Italian. They left to investigate and another man who spoke some English said they would sort something out. We weren't worried, as Moira pointed out if there wasn't any room for us they would have told us right away. When they returned lo and behold we had a room but for some reason we couldn't eat. The room was at the end of a series of long and lengthy corridors, it was fine, two beds and en suite.
I made a cup of tea then we showered, the water was only lukewarm but it got rid of the sweat and freshened us up. After relaxing for an hour we went out to see if there were any shops and find a place to eat. It was a mission but we managed to find the town centre. The streets were narrow and there was a lot of traffic which soon got snarled up. A lot of activity was going on with marquees and tents being set up and the streets were strung with lights.
Either the lights were early Christmas decorations or there was some big event this week-end. We found the Tourist Information Office where we got a street map and directions to a shop for food and essentials. Then we looked for a pizzeria, there didn't seem to be any restaurants and it was back to the Tourist Office for more directions. When found a restaurant it didn't open for an hour so back to the mini-market for pasta, tomato purée and tuna. That was what we had for dinner cooked in our room on the Gaz stove. It was delicious and just as good as we would have got in the restaurant.
After I finished the washing up we lay on our beds reading and listening to music on the iPad. The next I remember was waking up with a stiff neck, I had fallen asleep in an awkward position. It was after 9 pm so we got ready for another early night, Cicerone says the walk tomorrow is 'strenuous'.