New friends in Monteriggioni

(This post is from the evening of September 15th)

Although shorter, today’s walk to Monteriggioni was much less pleasant than the one to San Gimignano.  I started the journey by walking back over the roads the buses had taken me on the previous afternoon.  Although I left early, there was plenty of traffic along the South-North road to Colle di Val d’Elsa, and I had trouble finding the right turn-off in the smaller town of Gracciano d’Elsa.  Once I did, however, the route quickly left civilization behind and passed between large sunflower fields and ones that, for the moment, lay barren.  The sunflowers were all dried and drooping, a testament to the sheer heat of the dry summer—or the fact that they were past their season, I don’t know which.

As I continued through the fields, I saw two cars parked on the side of the path.  There were men sitting in each, with the doors open, and I feared that I would soon be witness to—or worse, victim of—something akin to the last scene of the Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci movie, Casino.  Thankfully, the men stayed in their cars as I passed and nothing too interesting happened.

The path continued along mostly open, uncovered, white country roads.  The dust was tremendous and it seemed as if it hadn’t rained in this region for months.  Whenever a car drove past, I was left in a cloud of particulate matter, which made for slow going.

After some time walking in one of the few forested areas, I passed through the town of Abbia d’Isola—so named because the Abbey in the town was surrounded by water when the accompanying landscape was swampland.  There, I caught my first glimpse of Monteriggioni, sitting atop the next hill.  The walled town was quite a sight, and another line of Dante’s came to mind—the one in which he describes the ring of giants standing in a moat surrounding the deepest abyss of Hell by comparing it to the sight of Monteriggioni.  Each tower along the fortifications stood above the rest of the edifice, just as a giant’s upper half would stick out of a moat.

Even though my final destination was in sight, I struggled with the last few kilometers alongside the busy highway.  Cars, bikes, and trucks all zoomed a bit too close for comfort.  Although I was tired, I didn’t dare take a break for fear of being hit during my extra time on the road.  Finally, I had passed this gauntlet, but come to yet another challenge—the final gravelly hill to the city’s gate.  The steep track twisted its way up the hill, and, although only a few minutes from my destination, I took a break in the shade of some overhead trees.

After some time, I decided to make my final approach on the summit and set off for the last few hundred uphill meters.  At this point, it had gotten hot and I was making slow progress up the hill when I turned back to look at what I had passed and saw a lone man walking up the hill after me at a very quick pace.  “This is embarrassing,” I thought.  I determined I would not be passed—at least until I got into the town.  I turned back and started walking again, but I was not fast enough.  The man caught up to me just as I stopped in front of the gate in the wall.

Pellegrino?” he asked as he approached me.  “,” I replied, panting a little bit.  “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” he inquired, hopefully, looking at my BMW cap and pale composition.  “No, English… or Italian,” I answered.

I learned that the man’s name was Florian.  He was German and traveling along the Via Francigena from Lausanne. We walked into town together, each searching for the same religious hostel to stay the night.  We didn’t have to look far because Monteriggioni is a tiny town.  You could fit the whole thing in the space of about three football fields and still have room to toss the ball around a little bit.  About 20 seconds from the entrance, we reached the central piazza, surrounded on one side by the town church, and on the other by three restaurants and their outdoor tables.  The church was the one we wanted, and we both walked around the side of the building to look for someone who could let us in.

There was no one around, and we saw a sign on the door indicating that there would be no one until two in the afternoon.  We set our bags down by the door—no fear of them being stolen, because any thief would be slowed by their weight and immediately obvious in the tiny town—and walked the short distance to one of the restaurants on the piazza to get something cold to drink.  While sipping our refreshing Cokes, Florian and I shared a few pilgrim stories about our journeys so far.  We talked about the places we had been, the people we had met, and the other things we had experienced along the way.  Although complete strangers just a few minutes before, we shared a sort of immediate connection, just by virtue of walking on the same pilgrimage route.  Florian had walked from San Gimignano that morning—a trip that took me two days (although he had taken a shorter, alternate route)—and I mentioned that I had stayed in the Augustinian convent there two nights before.  I told him that I had had a strange experience with two women there, some of the few people I had met on the pilgrimage thus far.  When I mentioned the women, and made note of their strange behavior, Florian’s eyes lit up and he said that he had met the pair as well—they must have stayed another night in San Gimignano.  We talked a little more about the women and how difficult we thought their journey must have been—neither spoke a word of Italian, and their English was extremely poor.  I don’t know how someone could manage in Italy without one of those two languages, but these two were braving the pilgrimage trail and bringing their strong personalities along with them.

We finished one of the nicest lunches I had had over the past weeks and walked back to the church to see if there was now someone there to let us in.  When we arrived, there was a man sitting at a table outside, talking to his large German Shepherd in French.  We both approached and I spoke to him in Italian.  “Hello, we are pilgrims.  I emailed yesterday about a place to stay the night.”  “Ah, yes,” the man replied.  “And your name is?”  I told him my name and he said they had received the email and had a spot for me.  “But there are two of you,” the man said.  “Yes,” I answered.  “We are not companions, we met when we arrived.”  “OK, OK,” said the man.  He showed us inside the building built behind the church and bade us enter our names and information into a large book of pilgrims who had stayed at the church before.  The room was filled with Via Francigena merchandise—books, maps, and artwork decorated every inch of the space.  He then showed us a price list for spending the night at the Church.  There was a price listed for “holidays” on the top of the sheet, and the bottom half contained prices for pilgrims.  This section was further divided into a price for people completing “long” pilgrimages (more than 20 stages—10 euro) and those conducting shorter ones (15 euro).  I had never seen a fixed price rate at a religious hostel, and I thought that this was a rather arbitrary way to divide discriminations in price, but I am certain it was much less than whatever it would cost for a room in one of the hotels in the small town, and I was grateful for that.

While we were busy filling out our information in the book, we were interrupted with a loud shriek from the doorway.  “Ahhhhhhhh!” came the voice.  The three of us all looked up simultaneously, and two of our pairs of eyes widened as we saw the same women with whom Florian and I had become acquainted in San Gimignano.  “Ohhhh, Floriant…ummm….Petehr,” said the one woman—who seemed to do most of the pair’s talking—as she entered the room.  Florian and I exchanged a knowing glance indicating that we knew whatever was about to happen would be amusing.  Once she reached us, the first woman started gesturing wildly at our feet and then lifted her own up, revealing the sole of her shoe and indicating what she wanted us to do.  We both lifted our feet and she gave a disappointed sigh.  Apparently she had seen footprints on the way to Monteriggioni, and thought that they might have been one of ours, but the patterns of the shoes and prints didn’t match.  She then turned her attention to the old man and tried to get a room for the two of them to spend the night.  She started in on him in Dutch, switched to Russian for a while, and then tried her hand at English.  He fired back with a bevy of his own languages—French, German, and Italian—none of which she understood well enough to complete the transaction.  Finally, Florian and I stepped in to make the necessary translations.  She would ask a question to Florian in Dutch, he would understand enough to tell me in English, and I would then translate that translation into Italian for the old man.  Our little chain worked, and we were soon all registered and the man showed us upstairs to our rooms.

The two women got a room to themselves, and so did Florian and I.  Ours was comprised of one large bed, one set of bunk beds, and one single, pointing to the house’s purpose for hosting as many pilgrims as possible.  We cleaned up and rested during the afternoon before heading out to explore the small town.  Florian was a young German who had decided to walk the Via Francigena from Switzerland after his law school exams were over about a year ago.  He was nearing the 4th week of his trip, and was planning on getting to Rome after five weeks of travel.  His girlfriend was to meet him when he arrived, and the two would spend a week in the city before heading back home. He had never done any sort of pilgrimage before and seemed to be greatly enjoying his time away from everything on this one.

As I said before, Monteriggioni is tiny.  About the only thing you can do there is to pay 1.50 euro and climb a set of stairs to the top of the wall and walk around on a bit of catwalk along the edifice.  Then, you can walk two minutes to the opposite end of town and do the same thing there.   The walk affords beautiful views of the surrounding Tuscan landscape and makes you realize how hard it must have been to build the place on this hill during the Middle Ages.  Walking to the other side, we saw our now-familiar companions sitting on a park bench, furiously examining a large fold-out map.  They had no guide books or anything and were relying completely on signs and whatever map they could find of a section of the route.  After examining the walls and determining that there was no bank machine in town (even though there is an Italian bank called “Bank of Monteriggioni”), we went to visit the interior of the church that was putting us up for the night.  It was a very plain building, but a few handouts near the door explained the place’s historical significance.

Monteriggioni was built by the Sienese government as a fortress to counter Florentine activity in the north-west during the 13th Century. During its heyday, Monteriggioni was home to a garrison of soldiers, as well as some civilian families of the area.  In this church, in 1235 a peace treaty was signed by Siena, Poggibonsi, and Florence ending the conflict between the three cities.  After Siena’s defeat at the hands of Florence, Monteriggioni lost all its significance and dwindled in size.  Like San Gimignano, it was this economic ruin that preserved the town in its medieval state and made it a tourist attraction in the 21st Century.

When we returned to our temporary home, we were informed that we would be served dinner and that another group of pilgrims had arrived. They also got their own room, so I didn’t see anyone new, but Florian did run into one of them on the way to the bathroom.  He said he had met this group before and that they were three young Italians on their way to Siena.  It looked like the dinner table would be full.

Finally, dinner was served, and we all emerged from our rooms to take our places at the table.  There were nine of us, including the old man and his wife, and we each had to be seated rather closely to our neighbors to fit in the limited space around the table.  Soon we learned that the man and his wife were from France and had lived in Monteriggioni for 14 years.  The man’s wife didn’t speak anything other than French, so we had another language hurdle to jump over in order for everyone to understand what was going on.  Russian turned to Dutch, turned to German, turned to English, turned to Italian, turned to French, and back again.  It was an exercise that made the UN General Assembly room look like grade school.  We all enjoyed a delicious vegetable soup—providing something to fill a large hole in every pilgrim’s diet—and then ate large helpings of pasta al ragú before having grapes for dessert.  Everyone said that they had been eating many grapes along the way due to the many vineyards the Via Francigena passes through.  These grapes were sweeter, however, and their coolness from the refrigerator made them a refreshing end to the meal.

As we all got up from the table to go to bed or out again to see the town at night, we were stopped by our pair of lady friends who desperately required help in more translation exercises.   The second and quieter of the two women wanted something that she could soak her feet in.  In addition, she really wanted to get some salt to put in the water—“It very good for feet, [sic]” she later explained.  Apparently, she had had great difficulty with her feet on the pilgrimage and had even received antibiotics to deal with the problem.  A basin was brought out and she set it down next to the living room couch so she could sit there while soaking her feet.  I don’t know why she needed to do this in public with everyone watching, but once done, she seemed much happier and certain that she had solved her problems.

After seeing hardly anyone on the Via Francigena, the meal in Monteriggioni was quite a shock.  More pilgrims in one place than I had seen on my whole trip, and it seemed like we all spoke different languages.  But as people always do, we managed to make each other understand what we were saying and were able to enjoy a pleasant evening and a good meal provided by two very gracious hosts.  We all came from different parts of the world, but were drawn together today by the Via Francigena and the pilgrimage to Rome.  I wonder if medieval pilgrims found the same sort of experiences on their own journeys, or whether this was a purely modern phenomenon.  No matter the case, I welcomed the companionship and hospitality of friendly strangers.

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~ by pminnig on September 22, 2011.

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