The 'strada bianca' stretched out before us as we walked along our first Tuscan section of the Francigena Way. As we walked I imagined the peloton of riders in the annual Tirreno-Adriatico tour racing in a tight bunch on this somewhat uneven gravel surface. I also realised that I might be riding on this very road next year when I do my next bike tour. Hmm!
We had left Florence in a hired van at 8:30 and travelled for more than an hour in the direction of Siena until we arrived at the hilltop village of Gambassi. Here we started our three hour walk towards San Gimignano. From a high point in the town we could see the famous towers of San Gimignano silhouetted in the distance. The track was a typical Tuscan one with long downhills followed by equally long up hills. We passed olive groves and vineyards. The olives were still ripening and had yet to be picked but the vines were bare of grapes. Our Canadian friends were amazed to see hedges of rosemary and lavender. Where they come from in Calgary there is no way that such plants can grow outside of a hothouse.
After about two hours of trekking we reached an 11th century monastery which is still operating. Pilgrims can ask to stay overnight and to share a meal with the monks. The only proviso is that they are required to participate in the prayer sessions with the monks. A little while further on we met up with our van driver who then drove us back towards Florence to another village centred around the monastery of Badia a Passignano. The monastery had been closed for many years and had been purchased by some private people who didn't keep it in good condition. In 1937 or so a winery bought the monastery and offered to let the church use the main buildings so long as the winery could keep their barrels in the huge vaulted cellars. These stay at a constant 15 degrees and 85% humidity regardless of outside conditions. We were given a tour of the cellars which was quite educational. A pgroup of seven monks now live in the monastery and are slowly restoring its inner rooms.
We were treated to a lovely lunch starting with antipasto of three different hard cheeses, some mushrooms ant artichoke hearts and a warmed soft cheese with sliced pears. This was followed by two pasta dishes - tagliatelle in a boar ragu and cheese filled ravioli in a tomato sauce. For dessert we had a most wonderful tiramisu with .
After lunch we were taken to the Osteria Di Passignano which is the winery that owns the monastery. The family which makes the wines has been doing so for over 600 years and the business is still owned by descendants of the guy who started it all in the 1300s.
The current owner has three daughters who are heavily involved in the business. It is reported that they have created a family trust in which it is specified that no one can sell the winery for 100 years. We were treated to a comprehensive tasting of 4 of their top wines. Simone, the young fellow working there, gave us detailed notes about each wine, its origin, grape variety and reason for being. We then had a chance to taste these while he answered a bevy of questions from Kai and Helen. It was only afterwards that Maree noticed that the cost of tasting just 3 or the wines is normally 60 euro per person. Imagine if an Australian winery charged 80 bucks to taste three wines!
Finally, at nearly 6pm we arrived at our hotel right in the heart of San Gimignano. It is a delightful old style hotel with odd passages leading to small clusters of rooms. All mod cons are available despite the old decor. Due to our late lunch we decided to just have a cuppa and some pastry rather than eating a full dinner. I'm sure that my stomach will thank me. Tomorrow we have another long walk but the weather report is a bit ominous so we shall see.