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An Introduction to the Via Francigena and a walk around Lucca

October 16, 2016 · 16 comments


Date: 22nd September 2016

Location: Lucca, Tuscany, Italy


The back storey

The consortium of Italian Wonder Ways (see my tab on the home page) had invited me and 70 journalists and bloggers from all over the world to participate in an introductory week to one of the 5 main pilgrim routes in central Italy which finish in Rome. Although made without intimidation, it was an offer I could not refuse.  Rome was where I started this trip. We had to assemble outside terminal 3 of Fiumicino airport – not a small task in itself; there were people coming from New Zealand, China, Agentina, the USA  and throughout Europe. I had been allocated to the group travelling on the Via Francigena – pronounced “Fran-chig-en-ah”). The route was followed  by Archbishop of Canterbury Sigeric in AD 990 when he recorded 80 places he stayed in on his way back from Rome to Canterbury. Rather disappointingly he doesn’t say anything about what he thought about his journey. I will, though.


Having refused the offer of a 6am flight from Bristol with a change at Frankfurt they had kindly agreed a direct flight from Bristol and put me up the night before at the nearby Great Western Hotel (argument over whether I was half-board, which I won, well appointed room, characterless dining room, nice pasta with chopped veg and squid, terrible bread, convenient for airport if you have ear plugs ).  I was picked up at  09.45 – only 15 minutes late.

IWW meeting at Fiumicino Airport, Rone, photographed by Charles Hawes

Antonella on far left – looking for China

By 12.30  (yes, standing around waiting for things to happen was going to feature quite heavily this week) my group leader, Antonella (Italian, quite good English, lively, great laugh, pretty – I liked her) had a headache. This was to be her first of many. “Where’s China?”, she asked no one in particular. China, in the form of a woman called Yamin, had thought it better for her to go to the bus rather than do what she was told. It took half an hour to find her.

The bus journey to Lucca was about 4 hours, more or less following the coast. En route we were given  a rucksack, a tee-shirt, a baseball cap, notebook and pen – all carrying the IWW logo and a bottle of water. Its nice to feel pampered. It was a big coach for the 12 of us, so I sat alone – as far as I could tell I was the only English-as-first-language speaker. It would have been nice to have been given a list of names and faces – Antonella had one, so I photographed hers.

I had been to Lucca before on one of my garden-photographing trips to Italy and loved the place. It was a beautiful warm day and the weather looked set to be good all week, so I was in good spirits.  Antonella told us that The Tuscany Tourist Office wanted us to experience accommodation that modern-day pilgrims might use i.e. hostels. This was very sound but a little disappointing as I don’t even sleep with my wife let alone strangers and I am always willing to pay for a double room. I wasn’t sure how well I could do the pilgrim persona.

The Ostello San Frediano is situated just inside the walled city, next to the church of the same name.  The walls are one of the most extraordinary things about Lucca in that they are intact, very broad and have a wide green “skirt” around them. They are broken by several gates. Inside the old city, large transport is banned but it was only a few hundred yards to trundle our bags to the hostel.

Inside it was cool and huge.

Reception of the Ostello San Frediano, Lucca, photographed by Charles Hawes

A good imitation of a posh hotel reception

I was allocated to room with the IWW-appointed video-photographer who would be with us all week. He was a slim, moustached attractive, Italian young guy with a shaven head called Luca Cococcetta. I had already had a chat with him on the bus (he understood English better than he speaks it) about his gear and liked him, so was happy with the arrangement. Better still, our room on the first floor had an unusual arrangement with two twins beds downstairs and a further two upstairs next to the bathroom. I opted for the upstairs.

Room in Ostello San Frediano, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes

Comfy bed, nice sheets, plenty of sockets

We had just half an hour to re-assemble in the foyer where we were met and greeted Rafaella Manelli from the regional (or maybe Lucca) tourist office. A handsome man of about my age he curried favour with me by presenting us with a goodie bag containing a guide to the Via Francigena (sadly in Italian – an English translation should come out in the new year), a pair of red shoelaces (cool) some other literature and more on a USB stick and most importantly, our Pilgrim Passport complete with a stamp for Lucca. These passports are used as evidence of a pilgrims credentials and journey and would allow the bearer access to accommodation and hospitality on the pilgrimage. Neat. It seems most pilgrim routes have them.

Then it was off to a small church, passing the very pretty one called San Frediano…

San Frediano, Lucca, photographed by Charles Hawes

That’s Daniela (in green) and Frankie from our group on the left (both Italian)

… and some very cool bicycles….

Bicycles in Lucca, photographed by Charles Hawes

I would have loved a ride on one

….to be met by a priest who was to give us a blessing. He  explained that as pilgrims we need to “walk in the soul” and gave us other useful tips.

Priest with pilgrims from IWW trip in Lucca, photographed by Charles Hawes

The pep talk

He then did a change that any stage actor would be proud of and we (and Antonellas walking stick) received a blessing in front of a small congregation who were waiting, bemused,  for the real business of the day.

Blessing of pilgrims in Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes

“Receive this scrip, the habit of your pilgrimage, that after due chastisement, in the footsteps of Christ, poor and humble wanderer, you may be be found worthy to reach the prize of eternal life, which you long for;with the help of God, who lives and reigns for ever and ever”

We dutifully said our “Amens” and had some holy water cast in our direction.  I must admit to thinking myself somewhat fraudulent but nevertheless was quite moved by the experience.

After church we milled around for a bit outside…

Pilgrims from Italian Wonder Ways group on the Via Francigena in Lucca, photographed by Charles Hawes

I won’t give you everyone’s names but that’s Luca with his back to me, and behind him Toon and Laura (with big camera) from Belgium. They became my best friends on the trip. Front centre is Doris from Austria and Laura from Argentina (both good English speakers)

…. and were told we had some free time before dinner with the mayor and loads of other VIPs.

Lucca is the nicest place to wander around.

Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes

The small shops have loads of nice things at eye-watering prices, but what I really wanted was a gelato (one must not call it ice-cream in Italy). This was not hard to come by, though Rafaella of the tourist org said that I should be eating a local biscuit. I went for Pistachio.

Charles Hawes in Lucca

Don’t I look pleased with myself?

There are several towers in Lucca which you can climb up…..


Tower in Lucca, photographed by Charles Hawes

…, and more attractive doorways than you can shake a stick at.

Doorway in Lucca, photographed by Charles Hawes

I found myself with Laura and Toon (the Belgians, keep up!) at the base of the Guinigi tower.

The Guinigi tower, Lucca, photographed by Charles Hawes

Olive trees on the top

I had been up it before, but this is one of those travel experiences that merits repeating and the late afternoon light was perfect, so we went for it. I think I would just spoil for you if I added a commentary so here is the whole climb up and down again.

Views from the Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes


Views from the Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes


Views from the Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes


Views from the Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes


Views from the Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes


Views from the Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes




Views from the Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes


Views from the Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes

Laura photographing Toon


Views from the Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes

Wasn’t that fab? You won’t get a better light than this!

We were late for our rendezvous back at the hostel, so that was almost it for the days sightseeing. We were dining in the Casermetta San Salvatore. This very plain building on top of the old wall had been used until recently for housing stray dogs. It has now been done up as a simple bar and restaurant that aims to feed pilgrims (though how it discriminates, between pilgrims and the hoi polloi, if it does at all, I do not know). Pilgrims can use the bathrooms and there is also a shower.  What I do know is that we were honoured guests and on the grass at the back was a table laden with glasses, Prosecco to prove it.

Cassermetta San Salvatore. Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes

A nice way to start the evening

Suitably re-refreshed (euphemism) we piled in for the speeches.

Pilgrim dinner at the Cassermetta San Salvatore, Lucca, photographed by Charles Hawes

That’s Yamin, aka “China” dead centre. To her left is Laura from Argentina

Our first supper together was a jolly affair with a very nice local wine.

Typical Tuscan wine, photographed by Charles Hawes


Various bruschettas were followed by a small pile of vegetables and beans that was described to us (in translation) as a soup, now with the bread on top.

Mael at Casermetta San Salvatore, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes

They seem to use bread a lot; that healthy Mediterranean diet

I lost track of the number of courses. There was a pasta, of course, and a fish one (sorry, my writing hand was occupied with a glass most of the time I wasn’t eating) but we came to a bit of a hiatus over the tripe dish, most of us leaving most of not all of this delicacy.

Dish of tripe at Casermetta San Salvatore, Lucca, Italy, photographed by Charles Hawes

If you try very hard you could imagine it was squid

At the head of our table was a woman called Samantha who works in the area for the Via Francigena. After we had finished eating she went to another table that seemed to be mostly staff and officials and from there stood and read a prepared speech about the path.

Address to journalists following the Via Francigena with Italian Wonder Ways, Lucca Italy 2016

She was obviously very nervous and she had also obviously put a great deal of thought into what she wanted to say; this was a big deal for her and I make no apology for being moved to tears.

In the cold light of You Tube, and in a totally sober condition, and deprived of the warm Tuscan air  it may lose something in the re-telling but here it is; it is about 5 minutes long. She does have a strong Italian accent and there is a lot of background noise but listen carefully and you should be able to make out what she is saying

After a few more words from the Mayor,  ably translated by Antonella….

Address to journalists attending the Italian Wonder Ways introduction to the Via Fancigena by the Mayor of Lucca, photographed by Charles Hawes

Interesting mirroring of hands

….. we departed, strolling back along the old walls to the hostel, enjoying the still warm evening and night lights of the city.

Lucca at night, photographed from the city walls by Charles Hawes


Porta Santa Maria, Lucca, at night, photographed by Charles Hawes

Porta Santa Maria, where we came in earlier in the day

Well that was a pretty fully on and pretty special day, can they keep it up?





{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

David Marsden October 16, 2016 at 7:15 am

What a smashing experience, Charles – you lucky old thing. I’ve never had tripe but would have been happy to give it a try, though I’m guessing it wasn’t very nice? Lovely photos as usual. Onwards! Dave


Charles October 16, 2016 at 2:33 pm

I am very lucky! Though I know that I will only truly have ‘made it’ when Conde Nast ask for an Interview. I’d just politely refuse if you get offered tripe and ask if they have any other bits of cow.


Neil October 16, 2016 at 8:42 am

Sounds a great experience. Looking forward to the next instalment.


Charles October 16, 2016 at 2:34 pm

It was quite an experience. And more will follow!


Julia October 16, 2016 at 9:07 am

Takes me back – lived in Italy for 10 years on stubs and drabs – my sons are Romans – and was back in Toscana just recently. Lucca is probably the best start or finish to any trip to Italy (should you go again, try to visit Barga). Iconic and a word not used lightly. Hope the rest of the trip, landscape and towns lives up to it.


Charles October 16, 2016 at 2:36 pm

Thanks Julia. I agree that Lucca is such a special place but nice to have it confirmed by a local.


John October 16, 2016 at 9:38 am

Sounds like a great time. Though I have a vision of you, on day 5, just managing to crawl along, weighed down by an abundance of backpacks, goodie bags and doggie-bags of tripe.


Charles October 16, 2016 at 2:38 pm

I ended up with a hardback book, a couple of guidebooks, lots of literature and several USB sticks. The tripe was offal.


Anne Wareham October 16, 2016 at 10:01 am

Good to see it and everyone having heard about it all. You shouldn’t tell everyone you don’t sleep with me – they’ll assume you don’t like me! (though I think I might have mentioned it in a book once…..) Xxxx


Charles October 16, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Haha, I’ll try and remember to keep the secrets you haven’t put in books.


Deb October 16, 2016 at 10:22 am

Hugely enjoyed reading that, and what beauty in those pictures. Envious of the pistachio gelato, and the notion of fraudulence really resonated. Glad the trip actually happened! Can barely wait to read more.


Charles October 16, 2016 at 2:42 pm

Hi Deb. It’s always nice to know you read this stuff. The best gelato is yet to come.


Paul Steer October 16, 2016 at 1:57 pm

A fraud you are not. What a truly beautiful place it is – and that hostel looks a lot nicer than many places I have stayed in.


Charles October 16, 2016 at 2:43 pm

Thanks. But we weren’t pilgrims. “Oh, to be a pilgrim…..,”. It was a great hostel.


Ruth Livingstone October 18, 2016 at 7:50 am

What a wonderful place. Hope the rest of the trip is as gorgeous and the hostels turn out to be OK.


Charles October 18, 2016 at 8:52 am

I’ll keep you posted!


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