“We are all pilgrims who seek Italy” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
From the moment I conceived the idea for this solo backpacking journey, I knew that it must end in Italy. In 1984, as a penniless 18-year-old first-time backpacker, I licked gelato in the shadow of Pisa’s Leaning Tower, climbed a lamp post in St Peter’s square to wave to the pope as he addressed the faithful on Palm Sunday, and stumbled through the catacomb’s eery tunnels. And the country bewitched me. Mention Italy and I am lost in visions of cobblestoned piazzas, ornate fountains, and operatic arias floating on warm oregano-scented air.
But it is also a country feeling the stresses of over-tourism, with millions of cruise ship customers disgorged annually into Venice’s narrow streets and citizens fleeing their overrun, picturesque towns. So I searched for a lesser known Italy to appreciate – and found Bergamo. Founded by Celtic tribes circa 550 B.C., Bergamo became a Roman municipality in 49 B.C. and prospered until the 5th century when Attila, the destructive Hun, marched in. Today its 120,000 inhabitants enjoy a city where ancient and modern coexist, nestled at the base of the Bergamo Alps and just 30 km from the Swiss border.
Bergamo is divided into two distinct sections. The Città Alta (Upper City), surrounded by 16th century Venetian walls, is a warren of narrow, mostly car-free streets that invite you to wander until all sense of direction is lost. These streets open onto piazzas trimmed with gelaterias, tourist shops, and tiny family-run markets. The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore stuns both outside and in with its ornate gold trimmed ceiling and chiselled stone facade. Several tranquil parks circle the walls and the Citadel offers stunning views into the Lower City (Città Bassa) and across to the surrounding hills.
The main streets of the Città Alta, were relatively tourist sparse and I was the lone foreigner admiring the stunning Pepi Merisio photography exhibit in the Museo Storico. Even Bergamo’s most famous museum, the Accademia Carrara, offered crowd-free viewing. And the little pizzaria where a grinning elderly woman, resplendent in knitted wool toque, took my order after linguistic calisthenics and much laughter, served up the hands-down best pizza of my trip. My point is that Italy can be enjoyed everywhere so dare to flee the crowds and chart your own course.
From Bergamo I bused south to Florence where, except for standing in an inordinately long line to visit Michelangelo’s David (and it is unbelievably worth viewing), I sought out lesser sights that soothed my mind and fed my soul. Strolling beside the sluggish Arno River I silently cheered rowers sculling across sunset flecked water. Narrow streets led to scattered ancient churches hung with Italian masters.
For dinner a Peruvian restaurant materialized across the street from my hostel. And after an afternoon spent savouring fresh pasta and mingling at an outdoor market, an intimate evening of masterful opera at St Mark’s Church left me breathless with laughter (Daily shows – tickets through MusicTick – all proceeds go to charity).
A day trip to Siena (Florence to Siena – 1.5 hrs by train) yielded panoramic views of the Tuscan hills and empathy for the horses that catapult around the historic piazza’s tight corners during the annual Palio horse race.
I arrived in Bologna (Florence to Bologna – 1hr by train) with a violent cough that threatened to crack ribs, defied every cough drop, and that necessitated apologies to all my roommates for depriving them of sleep (no private rooms available). After a day in bed I emerged (looking more like a dung beetle than a butterfly, I assure you) to straggle down some of the 38 km of porticoed streets that comprise Bologna’s core, and to climb the 4 km Portico di San Luca (rumoured to have 666 arches because the building contractor felt cheated and therefore punished the church of San Luca with this evil and unlucky number into perpetuity).
Bologna is also laced with 60 km of canals – not as visible as those in Venice, but picturesque and peaceful. Once a city of towers, Bologna now has fewer than 20 remaining – including the landmark Due Torre (Two Towers) – the Asinelli and the vertically challenged Garisenda, which leans at an even greater angle than its more famous cousin in Pisa.
From Bologna I hauled my aching lungs into two trains and a bus to reach San Gimignano, a hill town located one hour southwest of Florence.
Something about San Gimignano felt like home – something ancient, earthy and confident.
Established in 3rd century BC, it was named San Gimignano in 450 AD (after St Geminianus who reportedly saved the city from destruction by – guess who? – Attila the Hun). The town still provides shelter for pilgrims hiking the Via Francigena – an historic trail stretching from Canterbury, England to Rome, and then on to the seaports of Puglia and ultimately to Jerusalem.
I spent a blissful Sunday hiking part of the Via Francigena – savouring the roll of Tuscan hillsides, the radiant blush of poppies, and the thrill of treading through history. In my 10 hours on the trail I met two other walkers, one guided hiking tour and a handful of cyclists. Moss covered stones mark the trail and maps are posted at major intersections along the way. A handful of cute coffee shops offered respite to weary pilgrims.
My day on the San Francigena was made sweeter by the knowledge that I would return to Maggie’s Million Dollar View – an Airbnb listed homestay with, as advertised, a truly million dollar view of San Gimignano and the surrounding olive grove covered hills. Inhabited by the same family for over 500 years, the stone house welcomed me in and gave me rest. Scrumptious Vegetarian meals, available on request, nurtured me and, for dessert, a quick jog to the Piazza della Cisterna for, literally, the World’s Best Gelato (choose from two world champion shops located here).
San Gimignano too was once a town filled with towers. The few that remain offer a stiff climb rewarded by sweeping views. I chose to skip the museums of torture (isn’t there enough sadness in life?) but did visit the Collegiate Church and the Chapel of Santa Fina with its lovely frescoes of a woman venerated throughout her short life for devotion to God in spite of suffering.
On my final day in San Gimignano, my usual peaceful morning stroll up the Via San Giovanni was thwarted by hordes of flag-following tour groups. Feeling disgruntled I ducked into a linen shop where I asked the soft-spoken shop owner how he felt about masses of tourists. “We love you (tourists) and we hate you,” he replied without any trace of malice. “We like the business but we are chased from our own homes.” With a wry smile he continued while wrapping my purchase, “My daughter is gone and will never move back. The only jobs here are tourist jobs.”
With that dose of local honesty to ponder and the towers of San Gimignano for a backdrop, I shouldered my one dusty backpack, hugged Maggie goodbye, and hiked down to the main road to catch the bus to Poggibonsi and then on to Rome and home. (Once on the bus I discovered the homestay room key languishing in my pocket. Maggie’s brother graciously met me in the next town to retrieve it. Tourists. Sigh…).
In Rome, as I boarded my flight back to Canada, I thought – Here I am. This adventure is done. I’ve travelled thousands of miles on two continents, 16 weeks in 8 countries, in blazing heat and blowing cold. I’ve seen wonder after wonder, and yet, from the beginning it was Italy that my heart wanted. From the very start I had to end up here. And so, with a grateful heart, I leave you.