According to the guides, the staged walk from Altopascio to San Miniato would have been a ‘challenging’ 29kms with a final steep climb, to be followed by another 24kms of ‘challenging’ walking tomorrow. So we decided to pace ourselves more realistically by stopping short yesterday on the outskirts of Fucecchio. With only about 10kms to go today, we were able to make a leisurely start this morning.

Albergo La Campagnola with restaurant conveniently situated next door

We woke to bright sunshine, blue skies, and another warm day so set out in shirt sleeves wishing we hadn’t left our shorts at home. About 2kms along an avenue of plane trees bounded by a mixture of light industrial and residential buildings brought us into the centre of modern Fucecchio. The old medieval centre is perched atop a smallish hill dominating an historically important crossing of the river Arno.

Walking along the road into Fucecchio centre
Yes, motor vehicles certainly do need to give pedestrians more space for safety…trouble is the sign was on the pavement and not facing the drivers of those vehicles!

After extensive modern suburbs, the old centre of Fucecchio was delightful, with numerous signboards explaining various important buildings and historical events. The 12th century convent church, Abbazia di San Salvatore, was being used by a large group of nuns so we couldn’t look around inside, but there was a good view from the parking area outside, with snow-capped mountains just visible in the haze on the horizon.

18th century Collegiate church and fresco of St Christopher in the main square

Sadly the town’s museum was closed, but tucked away through an adjacent courtyard and through a covered alleyway we came to the bottom of the medieval towers which dominate old Fucecchio. With commanding views over the surrounding plains, the towers were built in 1322 by the Florentines to fend off the Lucchesi during one of the many wars between the city states of Lucca, Pisa, and Florence.

Descending into another piazza, we then walked on southwards out of town. In a carpark on the outskirts an elderly couple had set up a fruit and veg stall, and were doing a brisk trade. We selected a couple of oranges for tomorrow’s lunch (it will be Sunday and nothing will be open) but they refused all attempts to pay. Such acts of kindness and generosity catch us unawares every time. It reminds us how simple gestures can make someone’s day.

Crossing the Arno river, our day’s destination San Miniato standing out on the horizon

Having crossed two flood barriers we came to the bridge across the Arno river, fast flowing but relatively low for the time of year. Looking at where the flood defences are positioned one can barely imagine how terrifying this river would be in full spate. Over the bridge, we turned immediately left to follow the river upstream, passing allotment gardens strung along the riverbank. Broad beans are well advanced here compared with home, although Nando, who we met tending his beans, was bemoaning the lack of rain this winter and concerned about climate change.

One of many allotment gardens alongside the Arno river beyond the reeds

Much of the morning’s walk followed the top or alongside flood defence banks, before rejoining a minor road briefly, and then striking out along a farm track through cultivated fields. Here we saw our first crop of oil-seed rape just coming into flower.

Around the corner, under a railway bridge, and between more allotments we came into San Miniato Basso, lying on the plain below San Miniato.

Approaching the railway bridge before San Miniato Basso, snowcapped mountains in the far distance

As we couldn’t get into our hotel room until after 2pm, we decided to pause at a cafe/bar in San Miniato Basso for lunch, saving our focaccia sandwiches for tomorrow when shops will be closed. It was then a slog to climb about 100 metres straight up the hill to San Miniato via a footpath rather than by the gentler but longer busy road. Our reward was huge panoramic views over the Arno river plain stretching to the mountains on the horizon.

Once installed in our very comfortable room, with views across the rooftops towards Lucca, we ventured out to explore San Miniato. The website told us that the cathedral was closed until tomorrow morning, but in fact the doors were open, so in we went.

The exterior is essentially 12th century, when the building became a cathedral, but inside the 19th century restorations made heavy use of gilding. The rather gaudy effect is not to our taste, but at least the organ is being used for recitals and maybe also for services. Just behind the cathedral is another church with an even more elaborately decorated interior, and recently renovated exterior, complete with smooth plaster, new paint, and smart copper drainpipes. After seeing so many churches in a poor state of repair it was good to see these two buildings well cared for, though with declining congregations we wondered about the relative benefit of such expenditure.

The whole building was elaborately decorated and somewhat oppressive for it

As we had found in Fucecchio, so in San Miniato there is a medieval tower standing guard on the very highest part of the hill, again built to protect the town from the 15th century warring Lucchese and/or Pisans. It is evidently now a place frequented by groups of young people and courting couples, as well as tourists like us, and a couple of policemen checking we were all behaving. There are magnificent views in all directions, especially in the low afternoon sunshine.

Looking out over the cathedral south-westwards across the Tuscan hills, glorious in the late afternoon sun
Looking south-east over the eastward extension of San Miniato and the start of our route tomorrow

Back in our room, we were just in time to see the sunset, giving us the clearest view of the mountains we had seen all day.

Sunset from our window – the distant mountains now clear of the daytime haze

Today’s highlights were the glorious spring sunshine, and the historic centres of Fucecchio and San Miniato. Both would merit more time spent exploring, but for now we must press on towards Rome.

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