Henri Craemer | Stage 1 of the Via di San Francesco, D-Day
St Francis Way, Florence, Cammino di San Francesco, Pontassieve, Italy, Settignano, walking, hiking, Arno River, Arno, Poggio, trail
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View of Compiobbi on the banks of the Arno River

Stage 1, D-Day on the Via di San Francesco

It is before the Italian sunrise in Florence on the 21st of August 2017. We set off on the Via di San Francesco, Stage 1: Florence to Pontassieve.

We reach our first landmark, the Triumphal Arch on the Piazza di Libertà, still inside Florence. It feels like ages before we get out of the city.

I am walking in Italy!

Progress is slow and laborious due to my unfitness. Niels often has to wait for me to catch up. We get to the small town of Settignano, our first resting point after ascending what seemed to me to be quite a steep little hill. I realise this is not going to be easy at all. We have breakfast.

As the day progresses, temperatures soar into the mid 30ᵒC (over 90ᵒF). We’re still in the tail end of one of the worst heat waves Italy has ever seen. I pour sweat as I have never done in my entire life.

I honestly begin to question the wisdom of my decision of hiking The St Francis Way. The only hope I cling to is the fact that if I carry on, I will get fit.

After Settignano the trail makes a beautiful descent into the small town of Compiobbi on the banks of the Arno River. I decide one very important thing: No pain and suffering shall interfere with my enjoyment of the beautiful landscape. I am walking in Italy!

When we get to the Arno, we have another welcome break. The effect of the landscape is a wonderful soothing sense of beauty and peace. One can easily wish to stay in these surroundings for a very long time.

We continue along the Arno. What I don’t like is a small stretch along the shoulder of a highway. We reach the town of Sieci and have a break in the yard of St Giovanni church. Inside the church, the atmosphere is beautifully peaceful and quiet.

“Not Too Far”

Niels tells me we’re not that far from Pontassieve. That is where I make the first mistake in interpreting the phrase “not too far…” To me, that means hiking another half hour, not another three hours as it turned out. Had we taken the main road, I would have been right.

Geographically Pontassieve is the next town up the Arno River. We could simply walk straight there in no time. However, this is not what the path does. We take a left turn, and head for the hills. This seems wrong to me. I confer with Niels. He shows me in the book that this is definitely the path.

He tells me of his experience walking the Camino Santiago, and how he sometimes missed significant landmarks, and beautiful sights by taking shortcuts. I agree, that I would rather see the sights on the long way, rather than miss them by taking a shortcut.

Poggio

I was about to learn the true meaning of the Italian word “Poggio.” The direct translation into English gives the word “knoll.” This refers more to the shape of the hill than its size. In terms of hiking, it means only one thing: climb.

As the trail leads up the hill, we start walking on paths and roads that go through vineyards. It’s a climb of just over 150 meters (i.e. an elevation that high). Fortunately, the path is mostly lined by trees.

Revival

We get to Pontassieve and find a small coffee shop. All I can do is collapse at a table. Niels gets me some bread and salami. I also have delicious ice cream, and what was to become my staple liquid intake for the rest of the trip: aqua frizzante – sparkling mineral water.

We reach our inn and I am totally exhausted. As he is patching up my badly blistered feet, Niels tries to convince me to get a lift to our next overnight destination. I am adamant that I want to walk, even though I truly feel like death. He warns me that worse is to come, and paints a picture to scare me into not hiking the next day. I agree to postpone the decision to walk until the morning.

4 Comments
  • Margaret Sherwood
    Posted at 06:30h, 22 October

    Hi Henri, very well done on your journey! Tough going but you did it! The scenery is spectacular and your descriptions are beautifully written. Trip of a lifetime, I would say. What I’m not clear on is why you and Neels decided to do it? Was there some connection to St Francis? Anyway … congratulations!!

  • Henri
    Posted at 03:30h, 23 October

    Margaret, many thanks for the compliment.
    There are as many reasons why one does something like the Camino or Via di San Francesco as there are people. In my case, it started as a chance invitation from Niels. I was to see him initially in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. I wrote about it in two previous pieces: It Started with a Throwaway Line, and For What Insane Reason Hike a Camino.
    However, I found that why I started was far less important than what I ultimately gained from it. I intend making that clear as I go along. Keep on reading 😉

  • Linda Craemer
    Posted at 13:37h, 23 October

    Where do I find your two previous pieces so I can fill in the blanks in my mind, Henri? Yes, why hike a Camino? I know many people do these hikes and I know it carries a deep spiritual meaning for most if not all hikers. I have read in the writings of other people, they begin it as a challenge and come back with a different way of thinking. You have informed us this is what happened to you as well and I look forward to reading about the remainder of your journey. BTW, can you tell us why this Camino has been named after St. Francis or will that become clear later on?

  • Henri
    Posted at 04:35h, 24 October

    Linda, the general link to the website is simply http://www.henricraemer.com. All the posts should appear if you go into that link. If you go directly into a post by clicking the link on Facebook, then simply click the HOME tag for the same result. I’ll send this info to your Facebook page too.

    As to why hike the Via di San Francesco, here I will probably disappoint you. You did read and comment on my piece entitled “For What Insane Reason Hike a Camino?” I can understand why you would want to know more.Having reread it, my reasoning does seem to be a bit fuzzy. That is simply because my motivation was not all that clear. However, a few things were. I wanted to see my friend Niels, whom I had not seen for nearly twenty years. He was willing to pay my expenses. Secondly, I also love hiking. I’ve done over thirty hikes in the Drakensberg, the highest mountain range in Africa, south of The extinct volcanos of Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya. Doing something similar in Italy, i.e. crossing the Apennines, provided an opportunity to do so in Europe.

    On the spiritual side, in this life, I have been a questor since the age of nine. possibly even before that. My journey is far from complete at the age of 63 (7 x 9). So, it was not about finding God, or some other esoteric reason that I started The ST Francis Quest. God can be found everywhere, and through a multiplicity of perceptions, because HE/She/It/They is everywhere. In my case, the spiritual side was very much more fuzzy for that reason. However, sometimes it’s not why one starts, but why one carries on that reveals a person’s true motivation. There I’m going to keep you hanging because I shall deal with that question in a future piece.

    The short answer to your St Francis question is yes. That I shall also cover in a future piece.