The first installment of the Cawley Camino 2018 took place last month along The Via Francigena in Tuscany, and I was lucky enough to join the gang. Each year Today FM DJ Phil Cawley gathers groups of like-minded individuals, from all walks of life. They set off on the trail together for fun, fitness, flora, fauna and fabulous food.
The Via Francigena in Tuscany is an amazing experience, soaked in authentic Italian country and brilliant landscapes. Charming churches and monuments pop out from the rolling hills serving as welcome rest stops during long enjoyable walking days. The walled cities on the route remain excellently preserved and often you will find yourself staring through the eyes of an ancient pilgrim, trader or soldier when exploring the quaint streets.
The Journey Begins…
Our journey truly began in Pisa airport where we met our guide Anna for the first time. As a passionate and knowledgeable local, Anna was not only an expert navigator but also a walking encyclopedia! She was delighted to answer each and every question we had about our surroundings. We ate together for the first time at our hotel in Sienna and our lips were loosened over a three course meal with some tasty local wine. We got to know each other for the first time.
I enjoy walking, it’s pretty much essential for joining the team of outdoor enthusiasts at Caminoways. But halfway through the first walking day from San Miniato to Gambassi Terme I was beginning to run out of steam. I had worked with fitness instructors to create The Camino Fitness Guide but I hadn’t followed my own training plan (lesson learned!). Other group members were gliding along the trail and I was more than a bit jealous. The scenery was repaying me for my effort though, we were surrounded by rolling hills resembling patchwork quilts of greens, beiges, and browns.
TOP TIP: Download the eBook here before you set off. It’s free and it will add to your experience.
Myths About Group Tours
Traveling in a group isn’t for everyone, some people prefer their own company on a walking trip and that’s perfect. It’s your journey, your holiday and your adventure. But there are some myths I feel that I should dispell for those in two minds over which kind of trip is for them:
- In a group, you can walk as fast or as slowly as you want. Take rest stops where you want and move at your own pace. You aren’t expected to be a pro!
- The guide won’t leave you behind if you are at the back of the group. They will always be contactable
- and wait for you to finish or move back to join you.
- Your group will dine together most nights. If the plan doesn’t suit you one of the nights that’s fine. You can rejoin in the morning!
- If you are in need of a rest day or don’t feel able to walk just tell your guide. You can make your way to the next stop and enjoy looking around.
Our group was made up of men and women of various ages from different walks of life. For some of us, the only thing we shared in common was the fact that we had embarked on the same journey. It quickly became apparent that sometimes the best conversation is found outside the constraints of common interests. Walking through the quiet lush countryside we found ourselves constantly swapping places, leaving new friends behind and picking up our chats where we had left off an hour later. The chirping birds and crickets also add to the atmosphere in Tuscany. Sometimes the crunching sound of footsteps on the gravel trails is enough to remind you that you are not alone, but that at this moment we’re all comfortable walking in silence. Everybody just seems to get it, and the group naturally gels.
The Irish are famous for storytelling and this group was no different. We shared more than a few laughs (and a couple of tears) over glasses of Chianti and Vernaccia in the evenings. Everybody has a different reason for taking on a pilgrimage be it religious, personal or spiritual. Some pilgrims just love lacing up their boots! The Cawley Camino sets off from Dublin so the majority of the group hailed from Ireland. I couldn’t help but wonder what life lessons I could learn in an international group on a guided tour.
The Journey Continues…
After what can only be described as a monumental sleep following the first day walking, I woke with a spring in my step. The next three days covered shorter distances with more opportunities to stop and explore. We slowed our pace slightly and revealed in our surroundings. Over the next 72 hours, we visited rustic ancient towns, majestically preserved churches, vast Chianti vineyards and secluded forest trails. A particular highlight was the walled, hilltop town of San Gimignano. The towers of the town can be seen for miles in the distance (it always looked closer than it was!) and reaching it was a great mark of achievement for the group.
Italians, what can I say? They know how to cook food! Our breakfast and dinners were included in the package, they are for most guided tours. After dinner on the first night, before walking began, I was a little worried about the number of calories I consumed over three courses. Crusty bread, homemade pasta, rich sauce, creamy cheese and tender meat. I cleaned the plate!
I consulted my Fitbit after arriving back from the trail the next day and it might aswell have said: “Eat what you want, you’ve earned it!”. What followed was a food fiesta, a taste bud overload. It should be noted we also had a vegetarian amongst us, and he was delighted with the options available. Don’t leave Italy without enjoying an ice cream (or five). On a baking hot day, it’s the ultimate way to cool down and indulge.
The Journey Ends…
Our last walking day took us from Monteriggioni to Sienna, a UNESCO world heritage site, and one of the most visited places in Italy. We spent a free day in the gothic city, exploring the narrow streets and fantastic piazzas. Sienna is world famous for its medieval architecture, museums, art, and cuisine. You could easily spend a couple of days here and that is definitely something you could tag on to the end of a group tour to make it extra special. The annual horse race held in the center of the city was taking place that week and the streets were buzzing with vibrant colour as locals from different regions gathered to support their tribe. After a wonderful dinner to celebrate a birthday in the group our time together was over. With heavy hearts and lifelong memories, we said our goodbyes.
To my new friends; thanks for your company, your stories, your support and your smiles. Until we meet again….keep walking!
Join Phil on his next trip to the Camino Frances on the 11th of October here.
For more information on any of our walking and cycling tours, contact the travel specialists.