3 Weeks of Hiking in Italy Along a Historic Pilgrim Trail
We were so taken with our initial impression of the Via Francigena pilgrim trail in Tuscany that we returned to hike additional sections of the trail soon after. So far, we’ve covered 15 of the 18 final stages between Lucca and Rome. I’ve detailed the best, 7-day section of the trail in my separate highlights of the Via Francigena post, so this post will focus on the remaining stages, broken into three sub-sections:
LUCCA to SIENA - 6 stages - 135km (84 miles)
SIENA to VITERBO - 7 stages - 165km (103 miles)
VITERBO to ROME - 5 stages - 118km (73 miles)
I’ll leave it to Sandy Brown and his excellent hiking guide Walking the Via Francigena Pilgrim Route - Part 3 to provide you with all the details of the trail, accommodations, etc. For tips on food, accommodations, practicalities, food, equipment, and weather, please refer to my highlights of the Via Francigena post. The basics are all the same here, with stages in this post numbered 1 from Lucca to 18 into Rome. Finally, I recommend the free, official Via Fracigena app with detailed maps as well as information on accommodations and points of interest.
Note: we covered most of this route in late October, and the final five days into Rome over New Year’s — in the dead of winter, in other words. In both cases, we found the weather very mild and even found ourselves hiking in short sleeves at times in January. Mornings and evenings were chilly, but generally, this low-altitude section of the trail seems to be a good bet for hiking any time of year as long as conditions remain dry.
So, let’s get started with the first sub-section:
LUCCA to SIENA - 6 stages - 135km (84 miles)
Lucca is a must-see historic city and easily reached from Florence by train (twice hourly, 90 minute ride, approx. €8). Highlights include the Duomo of San Martino, the Piazza Anfiteatro, which echoes the shape of the Roman arena that originally occupied this space, and 4km of unbroken city walls. All in all, the perfect place to start a Via Francigena hike.
DAY 1: LUCCA to ALTOPASCIO - 18km (11mi), easy
Many hikers use a 10 minute train ride to skip this section based on Sandy Brown’s description of it as a flat day “of roadside walking, often accompanied by the noise of trucks and speeding cars.” Whether you hike it or not, plan to spend some time in lovely, underrated Altopascio with its historic church, pilgrim hostel, and medieval town center.
DAY 2: ALTOPASCIO to SAN MINIATO - 29km (18mi), easy except for length
This is a long stage which is pleasant, but lacking in memorable scenery. Some hikers break up the long stage with a stop in historic Ponte a Cappiano, where pilgrims have used the bridge as a river crossing for centuries. I enjoyed the intense sense of history of this place and loved the idea of staying in the historic pilgrim hostel built directly over the bridge — until I read bitterly negative reviews of the place, so we gave it a miss.
There are a few small, appealing towns along the way, but the most memorable section of this stage are the last kilometers into San Miniato, where a hilltop tower guides you in like a beacon. Stop for supplies in the supermarket at the base of the hill before climbing to the old town of San Miniato with its historic Franciscan monastery, an incredible place to stay.
DAY 3: SAN MINIATO to GAMBASSI THERME - 24km (15mi), moderate
A nice day of walking that ends with a recommended stay in the historic Ostello Sigerico. See Day 1 of my highlights post for details.
DAY 4: GAMBASSI THERME to SAN GIMIGNANO - 14km (9mi), easy
This short hike through idyllic Tuscan scenery leaves plenty of time to explore this unique medieval town. See Day 2 of my highlight post for details.
DAY 5: SAN GIMIGNANO to MONTERIGGIONI - 28km (17mi), easy except for length
One highlight of this leg is the historic Abbadia d’Isola; the stage ends in amazing Monteriggioni, where we recommended staying in the historic pilgrim hostel. See Day 3 of my highlights post for details.
DAY 6: MONTERIGGIONI to SIENA - 22km (14mi), moderate
An easy-going day ending in must-see Siena, one of several city-states that dominated medieval Tuscany. See Day 4 of my highlights post for details.
SECTION 2: SIENA to VITERBO - 7 stages - 165km (103 miles)
This brings us to the next sub-section of the Via Francigena from Siena to Viterbo. It also completes the Tuscan section of the Via Francigena and ushers hikers into the Lazio region.
Siena is a great place for a rest day, with time to learn about the city’s 17 neighborhoods, each with its own mascot and civic pride. Visit highlights like the Piazza del Campo, Duomo, and Palazzo Pubblico, as well as lesser-known gems like the modest Chiesa di San Pietro alle Magione on the way into town. This 10th century Romanesque church was built by the Knights Templar and later run by the Knights of Malta, who hosted pilgrims in an adjoining building for centuries.
DAY 7: SIENA to BUONCONVENTO - 30km (19mi), easy except for length
This is a slightly less scenic stage ending in lovely Buonconvento. See Day 5 of my highlights post for details.
DAY 8: BUONCONVENTO to SAN QUIRICO D’ORCIA - 22km (14mi), moderate
This stage is bookended by two lovely towns with great scenery in between. See Day 6 of my highlights post for details.
DAY 9: SAN QUIRICO D’ORCIA to RADICOFANI - 33km (20mi), strenuous
This is a long, strenuous day of stunning scenery, with most of the highlights coming in the first few kilometers. See Day 7 of my highlights post for details.
DAY 10: RADICOFANI to ACQUAPENDENTE - 23km (14mi), moderate
From Radicofani, it’s mostly downhill to Acquapendente, and you’ll leave Tuscany for Lazio (another of Italy’s administrative regions). Happily, the downhill isn’t too steep, making for a scenic, pleasant hike. Centeno at approx. 15km is a tiny hamlet just off the main road where Galileo stayed in 1633. That’s interesting in the big-picture context, as he was on his way to Rome to face the Inquisition who were none too pleased about his revolutionary Heliocentric model of the universe. The plaque on the building isn’t interesting in itself, but if you picture Galileo resting here, wondering/worrying about what lay ahead… Well, it certainly made an episode of history more meaningful to me.
From Centeno, the “trail” is the busy highway, which we had no desire to risk. We decided to skip that section and waited for a bus instead (and ended up being offered a ride by a local). I definitely had mixed feelings about this: “guilt” for “cheating” versus sheer relief not to have to dodge cars and trucks for 7km!
Acquapendente is a little on the gritty side, worlds apart from some of the pretty, quiet villages we were treated to along the hike. However, we enjoyed the real-life feel of historic buildings and modern life blending there. And we loved enjoying it all from the gorgeous rooftop terrace of our accommodation, Alloggio 76.
DAY 11: ACQUAPENDENTE to BOLSENA - 23km (14mi), moderate
This is a mellow, easy day, first through flat fields and later, along pleasant woodsy trails. As you depart San Lorenzo Nuovo (the perfect place for a snack stop), you crest a rise where the sparkling waters of Lago di Bolsena come into view. The lake is Europe’s largest volcanic lake, with water collecting in the collapsed crater. The trail eventually leads to the castle in Bolsena’s historic district, then meanders down to the pretty, newer town below. This lakeside town is a great place to spend a rest day.
DAY 12: BOLSENA to MONTEFIASCONE - 16km (10mi), moderate
A mostly uphill stage to an interesting, historic city with views of the lake most of the way. This is one of three stages I have not completed, so I will leave it to Sandy Brown to describe in his excellent guide book.
DAY 13: MONTEFIASCONE to VITERBO - 18km (11mi), easy
You’ll lose a lot of altitude over this stage, gradually descending to Viterbo. Working off Sandy Brown’s description of the route as “nerve-wracking among speedy cars and trucks into the grimy side of workaday Viterbo,” we decided to skip this section of the VF as our time was limited. However, Viterbo itself is a fascinating town with a history that goes back to Etruscan times. It’s known for the annual Macchina di Santa Rosa procession on September 3rd. The macchina is a 30 meter tall tower maneuvered by one hundred men through Viterbo’s narrow streets and squares. Quite a sight! Of interest throughout the year is the Palazzo dei Papi, Papal seat for 24 years in the 13th century.
VITERBO to ROME - 5 stages - 118km (73 miles)
This brings us to the final, memorable section of the Via Francigena from Viterbo to Rome. Nothing beats the feeling of entering the Eternal City after days of walking, and the hilltop views truly make the entrance a grand occasion. The landscape over these five days may not be as stunning as in Tuscany, but it did have its own appeal, and we enjoyed passing through many small towns — and hidden pockets of nature — along the way.
DAY 14: VITERBO to VETRALLA - 18km (11 mi), easy
Leaving Viterbo through the imposing city gates will leave you with strong memories, as will walking through several “sunken roads” known as via cave along the way. These date back to Etruscan times, and their purpose/creation remains a mystery to this day.
Then comes a long stretch of easy-going hiking with a nice rest stop/picnic area along the way. Eventually, you’ll reach Vetralla, one of those wonderful Via Francigena towns with a lovely, genuine feel without specific highlights that draw tourists. We loved wandering the crooked streets of the old town and catching glimpses of “real life” in Lazio.
DAY 15: VETRALLA to SUTRI - 25km (16 mi), moderate
Like most of the remaining stages into Rome, this leg surprised us with long stretches of quiet, nature zones, including a lovely forest and hazelnut groves. You’ll pass the ruins of the misnamed “Orlando” towers (they’re not related to legendary 8th century hero Roland), then pass through lovely Capranica, the perfect place for a lunch break.
Departing Capranica via a long, winding stairway, you’ll enter a valley and eventually follow a pretty stream/gorge into Sutri. There’s a huge area of well-preserved Etruscan ruins at the base of the hilltop town, as well as a Roman amphitheater cut right into the natural stone. Sutri itself is a lovely maze of streets and old buildings, the perfect place for a relaxed overnight stay.
DAY 16: SUTRI to CAMPAGNANO DI ROMA - 29km (18 mi), moderate
This stage isn’t blessed with superlative scenery, but we found the walking pleasant enough on the longer option described in Sandy Brown’s book (thus making the day 29km instead of 27). Highlights include the artisan bakery in Monterosi and the pretty waterfall and ruins of a mill at Monte Gelato. The last few kilometers through a quiet valley offer imposing views of hilltop Campagnano di Roma at the end of the stage. You’ll pass through the medieval part of town first, then transition to the 18th/19th century section with its ornamental gates. Campagnano, like Vetralla and others, isn’t packed with superlatives, but it’s still a pleasant place to spend an evening.
DAY 17: CAMPAGNANO DI ROMA to LA STORTA - 24km (15mi), easy
Being a day away from Rome will put a spring in your step as you tackle this easy, penultimate stage of the Via Francigena. Signs lead you out of town and into pretty Veio Park, part of Rome’s green belt. You’ll hike through woods and glimpse historic Santuario del Sorbo along the way.
At the 9km mark of the day comes Formello, a pretty town with a truly special hidden gem. That’s the spiral staircase the winds up a tower beside the archaeological museum in the castle in the very center of town. Ask the museum personnel to point you to the not-too-obvious doorway to that staircase (part of the pilgrim hostel which is now closed). Every step is made of glass and etched with the name of a stop along the Via Francigena, starting with Canterbury and ending with Rome at the top. For us, it was a wonderful, sentimental opportunity to look back on all the stages we covered and anticipate what lay ahead. I can only imagine what feelings a pilgrim who comes all the way from Canterbury experiences on these stairs! There’s also a nice view over the rooftops of Fornello from the top of this tower.
Departing Fornello, you’ll walk over rolling hills with wide open views that hardly hint at a huge city lying not far away. We enjoyed Sandy Brown’s “shortcut” route to Isola Farnese, although the Etruscan ruins along the way leave a lot to the imagination. We reserved a room in a hotel in the historic part of Isola Farnese, with its castle and 15th century church, but with no dinner options there, continuing on to accommodations in La Storta would have been a better choice. (Luckily, pizza delivery saved us in the end!) La Storta is an unappealing commercial town but it’s a practical place for an overnight stay.
DAY 18: LA STORTA to ROME - 20km (12mi), easy
The first, long section of this day leads you along a busy road where VF signs are few and far between, creating some confusion, so keep on eye on your map or the app. Thus, it was with great relief that we finally entered peaceful Insugherata Nature Reserve which leads to the outskirts of Rome. After a few kilometers on the pavement in the outer parts of the city, you’ll catch a last breath of calm in the Monte Mario Nature reserve. That’s a wooded, hilly area, and the viewpoint it opens up to provides a truly breathtaking way to enter Rome.
You’re high above the city there, with views over the nearby Vatican with St. Peter’s dome, not to mention the rest of Rome with its seven hills and countless church towers. We spent a long time savoring the view here and thinking of our journey before descending into Rome proper. Once down in the city, it’s a bit of a plod over the last few kilometers to the Vatican, but what a sense of accomplishment you’ll feel once standing there!
RESOURCES & EQUIPMENT
I’ve detailed equipment, accommodations, food, and weather in my highlights of the Via Francigena post, so navigate there for tips on what to bring as well as resources for learning more about the Via Francigena and medieval pilgrimage in general.
I hope this has been helpful and interesting, either as a planning tool or armchair adventure. For other exciting trips and ideas, click on “HOME” at the top of the page. Thank you for visiting TheTravelBug.blog and happy travels!