Culture, biodiversity, landscape, craftsmanship and creativity nourish body and soul in Tuscany; here the living is good and the nature is beautiful, and human settlements and communication routes have developed in harmony with the distinctive shape of the land.
A historic European route that passes through Tuscany on its journey to Rome, the Via Francigena, or St Francis Way, is an opportunity to retrace the ancient path spanning 400 km that was followed by pilgrims, merchants and travellers to the capital, passing through woods, hills and medieval villages and, en route, discovering this land, with all its history, art and local food and wine culture. The journey unfolds in 15 stages and can be travelled by bicycle, on foot or on horseback. It can also be experienced as a journey of gastronomy, wine, history, culture and art. The stunning scenery along the way is punctuated by the ancient rural churches and villages which have grown up to serve it.
From north to south Tuscany, the Via Francigena reveals its delights in a thousand ways: from the wooded hills of Lunigiana, with treasures such as Pontremoli, villages, churches and castles, to Pietrasanta, then down the valley to Lucca, back up to San Miniato and through hill country to glimpse the towers of San Gimignano. From here it skirts Monteriggioni, arrives at Siena and then continues, through the Amiata area and Val D’Orcia, to Radicofani and finally to Rome.
The first Tuscan stage of the Via Francigena crosses the crest of the Apennines not far from today's Cisa Pass and descends the valley of the river Magra towards the sea, through a pleasing landscape of green woods that is surrounded by castles, Romanesque churches and captivating, well-preserved walled villages. The destination is Pontremoli, with its medieval palaces and churches, including the church of San Pietro, which is still home to the famous "labyrinth", symbol of pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
From Pontremoli on unpaved roads and footpaths, often with long stretches in woods; after the elegant church at Sorano, the St Francis Way traverses the ancient villages of Francigena and Filetto before reaching Villafranca in Lunigiana. Crossing the Bagnone stream and ascending past Virgoletta, the route comes to Terrarossa, dominated by its Malaspina castle, and thence to the Abbey of San Caprasio in Aulla, founded in the year 884.
From Aulla, the route passes castles and fortresses on the Lunigiana hills, and medieval villages from time immemorial; the first section of this stage is on tracks which offer views of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Along the way are atmospheric ancient villages and fascinating visits to the ruins of Brina Castle and the little town of Sarzana. The second section is on the flat, and passes the Luni archaeological site - an ancient Roman port from which marble was shipped to Rome - before heading back into Tuscany and reaching Avenza, not far from Carrara.
Leaving Avenza on a road flanked by the vineyards that cover the hillsides, with a series of spectacular views of the Apuan Alps and the sea, the Via Francigena passes through the old centre of Massa before climbing towards Montignoso, with its hilltop Aghinolfi Castle, then descends again to reach Pietrasanta, home of marble and scuplture in these mountains.
From Pietrasanta, the route takes in the ancient rural church of S. Giovanni in Valdicastello, then proceeds among the rise and fall of the hills around Lucca. Passing through Camaiore, with its ancient abbey, it climbs Monte Magno before crossing the Freddana valley, Valpromaro and Piazzano, and finally reaching Lucca.
After Lucca the route follows the river Arno until it reaches Capannori and the church of San Quirico with its thirteenth-century façade; it then skirts Porcari, where a 500-metre detour leads to the Abbey of Pozzeveri, and continues to Altopascio, home to the great monastery and hostel of the Cavalieri del Tau, a place of safety for pilgrims in these lands once covered by forests teeming with bandits.
From Altopascio, the Via Francigena continues to Galleno, along a stretch which still retains the paving of the ancient road; it then crosses the hill country of the Cerbaie, wild and deserted, before turning towards Ponte a Cappiano, with its Medici bridge. From here the route follows the bank of the Usciana canal through ancient swampland, now drained, and heads for the centre of Fucecchio. After crossing the Arno, it is a short walk to San Miniato, a wealthy and powerful medieval town, perfectly preserved.
From San Miniato, an exceptionally beautiful route along the ridge of hills flanking the Val d'Elsa - scattered with castles, fortresses, pilgrims' hostels and abbeys - to reach the church of Coiano, with its steep stone staircase, and the church of Santa Maria in Chianni, which was rebuilt in the 12th century. Gambassi, with its thermal waters, is soon reached.
From Gambassi Terme it is a short walk to the sanctuary of Pancole, made interesting by the wonderful scenery along the Elsa Valley, with its castles, ancient churches and abbeys. From here the route climbs to the village of Collemuccioli along a stretch of medieval paving stones, and from here to the church of Cellole; before ascending towards the hill where the famous towers of San Gimignano stand.
Leaving San Gimignano on unpaved roads, the route reaches the Romanesque church of Santa Maria in Coneo. It then crosses the bridge over the Elsa and heads for another Romanesque church, San Martino in Strove. It finally reaches the Isola Abbey, before glimpsing Monteriggioni, with its unmistakable walls and towers dominating the hilltop.
From Monteriggioni, the white roads of the Montagnola Senese hills lead towards the ancient medieval town of Cerbaia, pass the castles of Chiocciola and Villa, and follow the rise and fall of the land to Siena via the Porta Camollia gate, the traditional access point for pilgrims to the city. In Siena the route descends the main street, Banchi di Sopra, to the Piazza del Campo, with the Duomo and the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, today one of Siena's most important museums.
From Siena, a challenging route on the white roads of the Val d'Arbia to reach the Grancia di Cuna, an ancient fortified farm belonging to the abbey of Santa Maria della Scala. Continuing among the foothills of the Crete Senesi, the route skirts Monteroni and passes the fortified village of Lucignano d'Arbia, to eventually arrive at Ponte d'Arbia.
From Ponte d'Arbia the route proceeds to the perfectly preserved town of Buonconvento. It then returns to the Ombrone Valley and follows a stretch of the Roman Via Cassia to Montalcino. On white roads it arrives at Torrenieri, and finally reaches San Quirico d'Orcia, surrounded by stunning views of the Val d'Orcia.
From San Quirico d'Orcia the route traverses brown hills to reach the little fortified village of Vignoni with its views over the Val d'Orcia, then descends to Bagno Vignoni, famous for its immense thermal bath.
The old centre of Castiglione d'Orcia, with the Rocca di Tentennano tower, is well worth a detour.
A long undulating section in the Orcia and Paglia valleys leads to the ancient pilgrims' hostel of Le Briccole, before finally reaching Radicofani.
From Radicofani the Via Francigena follows the crest downhill, with endless views over the hills of Val d’Orcia and Monte Amiata, and skirts Ponte a Rigo before crossing into Lazio; it then takes an unpaved road with magnificent views of the Paglia valley, to reach Proceno and finally Acquapendente.