Being a pilgrim had never appealed to me. Slow suffering for organised religion? No, thank you. But cycling 300 kilometres from Siena to Rome on the Via Francigena taught me I was being as archaic in my thinking as the route itself.
Via Francigena (fran-CHEEDG-ena), loosely meaning the road through France, is a lesser known and longer Camino de Santiago. Since the 8th century, pilgrims have travelled its 1900 kilometres from Canterbury to the Eternal City at the risk of shipwreck and pirates, wild animal and bandit attacks, sickness and starvation. Those days it really was all about the destination.
Never one road but various routes between significant centres and safe havens, the Via Francigena eventually disappeared. In 2009 the Italian government launched a project to recover its section and also developed the CicloVia Francigena from the Swiss-Italian border to Rome. Hikers and cyclists, whose paths often merge, are encouraged to travel one way.
The CicloVia Francigena is marked with blue and white stickers every few hundred metres. I've also been provided with a booklet of instructions to go straight between a bar and a red house … left at a junction with four trees … right at the bend with the rubbish bin … straight at the wooden cross … left at the castle sign.
A cycling pilgrim on a self-guided UTracks tour moves faster and sleeps more comfortably than any medieval pilgrim could have dreamed. Yet the question of whether or not a cycling itinerary offers an easier option to walking is answered on my first day on the road.
It's mid-August and a warm morning at the tail end of a scorching summer when I leave Siena where the Palio has just run in the magnificent Piazza del Campo and spirits are still high and low. There are 55 sealed and unsealed undulating kilometres between me and my night's accommodation in San Quirico d'Orcia. That's a lot for me to cover on an ageing rental bike and with minimal (I confess) pre-trip training, but faith alone won't get me there.
It will also require millefoglie con crema, ricciarelli – a type of macaroon – and panforte from Monteroni d'Arbia at around the halfway mark. And gelato – for cheap because I stumble over my words and present the wrong money and they're closing for the afternoon. A little later, taking shade at an automated fuel station, I raid the vending machine for espresso, an energy drink, a two-bite cake and something Ferrero created by letting a smear of Nutella have babies with a fortune cookie.
After Buonconvento I stop on a hill alongside a quintessential Tuscan vineyard and finish the box of ricciarelli then power nap with the cannon bird scarer firing at minute intervals. I walk to the next crest with pilgrims – two friends from different European countries who hike together annually. One picks up any rubbish she sees.
By the final gradual ascent into San Quirico I'm grunting like an animal. I skip the church and go straight to the hotel and drink wine on its terrace overlooking the cypress trees and extinct volcanoes of the UNESCO World Heritage area of Val d'Orcia. My beautiful torturer.
The new day begins with a punishing cycle up to Bagno Vignoni where all is forgiven as I soak in its natural thermal waters. Much of that afternoon is on the Via Cassia – a former Roman road linking Siena and Rome and now a scenic byway. Before the ride, Tuscans warned me about themselves as drivers but even on this busier road I feel not only seen but respected. No one wants a maimed pilgrim on their conscience.
Then, wham, I'm blindsided. It's only the third night in Tuscany but, as I roll over the cobblestones of Radicofani's historic centre, I already know this is my favourite place of the journey. Everyone I speak to could be an old friend, I hike to the fortress at sunset, I dine among locals and stay until the bells strike 11 the next day.
Mountain biking skills come in handy for the long descent into the valley. As it flattens out I spy a tree so small it looks like nothing. But on a day this hot when I park the bike and walk up through the dry grass to sit in its shade and eat cheese and prosciutto, olives and bread, homemade anchovies with herbs and oil and a perfectly ripe peach, that tree is everything for an hour. The literature says avoid big meals when cycling. Really good advice.
My lingering is also not without consequence. Hours later on the outskirts of Acquapendente, when I stop and ask directions from a roadside fruiter, I'm feeling that feeling; the one you have when the sun's low and your reserves seem empty but there are still 23 kilometres of problem solving and pedalling ahead. I just have to have watermelon and faith I'm going to make it.
Even in my state of exhaustion, though, I know this is the gold; what I'll end up being proud of achieving. That confidence is tested when, Madonna, I slide off on a sandy corner while negotiating tracks by headlamp through the olive groves above Bolsena, but an hour later I'm checked in and walking down the hotel's hidden stairway for lakeside gelato.
This Via Francigena really is a backstage pass to Tuscany – its secret passages, derelict railways, rural backroads, outer walls of fortified towns, laneways where the multicoloured washing flapping from windows makes art of basic domesticity. Like a home tour that includes the lived-in corners you're trusted not to judge.
After leaving Bolsena I meet a couple cycling from Milan to Rome to mark their 25th wedding anniversary. "It's like a metaphor for life," one says. "Sometimes hard and sometimes beautiful. At first you're thinking 'I can't go on, I can't go on' but then you have 600 kilometres behind you." They now notice the smaller details, and by the way they glow I know they're having their best sex in years.
As I power up a hill into Montefiascone a stranger applauds. Some pilgrims ask if I'm the lone Australian they've heard about. A butcher with slicked hair and neck tatts grunts when I enter his alimentari but smiles warmly when I'm leaving after having ordered everything with a boldness incompatible with such limited Italian vocabulary.
After a disconnected path go straight on a gravel road then turn right and cross the bridge. By now my instruction booklet reads like a metaphor for my own life.
"Afterwards you know yourself better," says a cyclist from Rome I meet in Formello. She tells me more and more people from her city are making use of the Via Francigena because they work a lot and need to slow down.
By the time Vatican City comes into view I feel I've come a long way. A modern pilgrimage, I've learnt, can be a holiday with friends or a public fundraiser, a search for spiritual enlightenment or a way to improve fitness, a religious requirement or the personal journey of a greedy atheist. Though to reach Rome – whether raised in the Middle Ages or the 21st century, on Christianity or Countdown – you gotta have faith, faith, faith.
Emirates operates daily services to Rome from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai. See emirates.com
By train from Rome to Siena takes just over three hours. See raileurope.com.au
A nine-day self-guided UTracks Cycle the Via Francigena Siena to Rome is graded moderate and available April 1 to October 31 from $A1990 a person. See www.utracks.com
Pasticceria Lombardi in Monteroni d'Arbia has been in business since 1948. See pasticcerialombardi.it
La Grotta Ristorante in Radicofani is a family affair in Piazza Sant'Agata. See oraviaggiando.it
La Chimera Ristorante Pizzeria in Viterbo serves modern Italian cuisine in ancient stables. See FB/lachimeraviterbo
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of UTracks.
FIVE OTHER LESSER KNOWN PLACES IN TUSCANY TO EXPLORE
What have the Romans ever done for us? They first quarried this very hikeable mountain range that later provided marble for Michelangelo's David and Pieta.
Picnic on the region's highest peak of 1738 metres up with the beech forests, chestnut groves, green fields and hidden churches.
Take a ferry or "mini-cruise" to the southernmost island of the Tuscan Archipelago. Guided-only access due to its significant natural environment and archaeological sites.
Visit this sculpture garden of enormous fantastical creations by the late French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle.
Walk sunken roads, carved deep into the stone, near the towns of Sovana, Sorano and Pitigliano. How the Etruscans did this and for what purpose remain a mystery.