My guide book tells me if I follow this path I should come out at the SR2 (a main road) which I should then cross over and continue on down a gravel path. Instead, after walking through long, dry grass that reached the middle of my thighs, praying that there were no hidden snakes, I hit a confused dead-end. Directly in front of me is a new road under construction and to my right is a field full of more thigh-high dry grass with no path in sight. I am puzzled. I just walked past a Via Francigena (VF) sign 100 metres back and prior to that a local Italian man called me back to walk down this very grassy path instead of continuing on the road that veered right. I followed his direction because the guidebook had stopped making sense at least one kilometre ago.
Today I don’t feel like retracing my steps to check the signs and the guide book’s instructions. Instead, I climb over the orange plastic barrier between me and the road construction site and carefully walk over lumps of dirt and rocks, looking around to see if I can find any VF signs or any other path. There is nothing. I grunt aloud in frustration. I can’t afford the time or kilometres to be lost today. I have a total of 29 kilometres to walk. This is day 5 of my walk and I’ve already walked 3.5 hours up hill and down hill. I’ve been lost for at least 30 minutes retracing my steps numerous times trying to find Via Bianchi di Sotto and subsequently my way out of Sienna’s confusing streets and I’ve escaped the snarling jaws of an angry white dog which left a hole in my pants and thankfully not my leg. And I still have at least another 4.5 hours of walking to reach Murlo, my destination for today. My feet are constantly throbbing and I can barely put my pressure on my swollen big right toe. I have no time or physical capacity for backtracking or getting lost, again, today.
My instincts tell me that the path was in the field of overgrown grass but I don’t want to walk through it in case of snakes. About 100 metres ahead of me, I can see a metal gate, the formal entrance to the construction site and then a couple of hundred metres farther is what I think is the SR2. So I walk through the construction site, walking under the rusty yellow arm of an earth mover before squeezing my bag and then myself through a gap in the gate. I pause to drink some water and take some weight off my throbbing toe for a few moments before heading towards the main road.
The SR2 is busy with cars in both directions and there is only 50 metres of footpath before it ends and the two single lanes of the road takes over, winding its way over a hill locked in by metal barriers. Too much traffic for walking on the narrow, shoulder-less road this time so I climb over the metal barrier and walk along the sloping grassy hill next to the road. Cars and motorbikes speed by. The occupants turn their heads and unashamedly stare at me as they pass. Others honk their horns. I ignore the attention and continue on.
After walking down the hill I reach a gravel road coming from the direction of the grassy field that meets the SR2 but it doesn’t continue on the other side and there’s no VF sign. Maybe my intuition was wrong. Maybe I’ve headed in the wrong direction. I study my map in the guide book again but it’s not much help. It is not detailed enough, only showing more significant roads. I scan the other side of the road and can see a long winding white gravel road in the distance but I can’t see where it starts from and I’m not even sure that is the road I am looking for. I take a deep breath and reassure myself that I will figure it out and find my way.
I stare back down the gravel path I’m standing on. It appears to be coming from the direction of the grassy field but it winds behind a house and I can’t tell if it reaches all the way to the field or not. I try to decide if I should do what I really don’t want to do, to walk down it and see if I can pick up the original trail, to back-track. Then I see two middle-aged men building a stone wall around a house that is on the left of the path. I walk over to them.
“Mi scusa. Buon giorno. I am lost.” After four days of being lost at various times, I still haven’t figured out how to say I am lost in Italian. They stop what they are doing and look at me curiously. This lone grubby, foreign female, wearing sweaty clothes, a black cap, a very full backpack and over sized sunglasses.
“You know Via Francigena? I am walking Via Francigena but came off the path up the road. I need to get to Murlo. Is this the esse-erre-due (SRD)?” I point towards and along the main road just near us. The shorter of the two men, stocky and very tanned with short shaved black hair takes my map from me and looks at it. I point at the red line indicating the Via Francigena, the path I was walking and then at the main road marked on the map as the SR2.
“Is this the esse-erre-due?” I ask again gesturing at the road behind us.
“It’s the esse-esse-due (SS2)” he answers.
“Really, but my map says it’s the esse-erre-due (SR2)” I respond, confused. “I think maybe I should walk down this road here to find the path?” I ask him showing walking movement with my index and middle fingers on my right hand and pointing down the gravel path.
“No, no” he responds shaking his head. He points at different towns on my map and talks to his friend, a taller stockier man with dark chin length curls, in Italian I don’t understand. Then he starts walking towards the main road. “Come” he says gesturing for me to follow him. I do as told. “Look. Isola D’Arbia, here.” He points at the map. Then points diagonally to our left. “Here, Sienna.” He points at different spot at the map. “Sienna, over there” he says pointing in the opposite direction behind us. Then he rotates the map, to put the towns in their correct orientation relative to where we were standing.
“Ahhhhh, si, si, ok” I say, confirming my understanding of my position.
“Sant’Agostino” he says pointing at a small dot on the map and then points directly in front of us.
“Si, si” I nod. “So Via Francigena that way” I trace my finger along the red line on the map and then point to my right.
“Si, Via Francigena” he responded pointing in the same direction.
My intuition had not let me down. I was heading in the right direction after all but just needed some confirmation.
“Grazie, grazie, grazie” I tell the man as he hands me back my guide book. “I was going the right way after all.” I smile relieved and grateful for the reassurance. “Arrividerci” I call out as I start to walk once again. “Ciao, ciao” both men call after me with a wave and recommence digging their hole in the ground.
I continue walking along the main road still confused if it is SR2 or SS2 but more sure I am walking in the right direction. In only a few minutes this is confirmed as I reach a gravel road with a VF sign pointing to the other side of the road where the gravel path continues down a hill in between fields of orderly lined grape vines. After a break in the traffic, I cross the road and take off my heavy, sweaty back pack which I plonk on the ground before taking out some warm but juicy red cherries. I sit on the top of a low brick wall separating the gravel road from private property, taking my weight of my throbbing, aching feet. One by one, I drop a plump cherry in my mouth and savour its sweet juiciness whilst watching the cars and motorbikes speed past me. I smile, relieved, tired, content. Not lost…for now.
Early morning Sienna
Sienna many kilometres in the background
10 kilometres down, 19 to go!
A VF sign in the long grass
Me, the path and the vineyard!