7.4 Cycling on the Francigena
From Porta Camollia in the footsteps of the ancient pilgrims
Porta Camollia was a reddish hue, and the first of the street lamps lit in the city could be seen from afar. The trees of the avenue along the railway embankment moved noiselessly, their foliage outlined against the limpid violet mountains. L’Osservanza was sweet.
(Federigo Tozzi, Con gli Occhi Chiusi)
Adriano Seroni, the journalist and literary critic who died in 1990, was absolutely correct when he wrote that ‘Porta Camollia is the last bastion defending the secret of Siena’. Beyond the gate, in fact, lie tree-lined avenues, new buildings, and new neighbourhoods with bourgeois villas that evoke the Liberty style of the first half of the 20th century, almost as if to mark the existence of ‘another Siena’ which looks north towards Florence. This itinerary begins at Porta Camollia and travels along fairly busy roads (Viale Cavour, Via Fiorentina, and Via Cassia Nord) as far as Il Braccio.
Leave the SS2 to follow the road that leads to Uopini and then Badesse, a village located at the bottom of a long downhill slope on the border of the Chianti region, which has been growing steadily in recent decades.
The toponym Uopini comes from ‘Duo Pini’, referring to the presence of two particularly imposing pine trees in front of the church of Saints Erasmus and Marcellinus, documented in the 11th century. Uoponi, along with the whole of the Republic of Siena, became part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany after the siege of 1555 and remained one of the communities in the area around Siena (which made up the so-called ‘Masse’) until 1869, when it was incorporated into the municipality of Monteriggioni.
You should go in the direction of Monteriggioni: you will cycle along a pleasant road with an undulating profile, often immersed in the green woods of the Val di Merse. Once back on the Cassia, turn right at the fork that leads to Monteriggioni, which is perched high on a hill.
From here, continue along the Cassia down a steeply sloping dirt road (be extremely careful) that leads out of Porta Fiorentina and ride for about a hundred metres, until you arrive near Bar dell’Orso. Follow the red and white signs to the left of the bar, which indicate an unpaved road that is now the official route of the Francigena, a road that also passed through this area in the past. By following the signs recently put up to help walkers and cyclists use the route, you will arrive at Abbadia Isola, an important abbey founded in 1001; Burgenove was the 16th mansio (stopover) on the Francigena route described by Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his diary. Founded by Countess Ava, daughter of Count Zanobi and widow of Ildebrando, Lord of Staggia and Val di Strove, Abbadia a Isola owes its name to its location: rising from the edge of marshy land, the church seems to rest as if on an island. The beauty of the Abbey of Saints Salvatore and Cirino, the adjoining cloister, and the fortification that encloses the entire complex render it a place of great charm, an absolute must for a stop-off that restores not only the tired body but also the soul.
The next stop after Abbadia a Isola is Castellina Scalo, which can be reached by first taking the Provinciale Colligiana in the direction of Florence, and then, at the first roundabout you come to, a path that will bring you to the village in about two kilometres. Here, a cycle path has recently been built according to ‘European standards’ and runs alongside the Torrente Staggia (stream) and takes you back to the Cassia, where you must follow the signs for Siena. Proceed along the state road for about two kilometres, then, at the signpost ‘Bracciano – Francigena sud’, start to head uphill along a lovely unpaved road that cuts through the Montagnola Senese, which extends to the northern edge of Monte Maggio. After passing the Petraglia farm, bear right at the first fork and, still going uphill, you will arrive in the vicinity of Casella, where you can admire, on your right, an original stretch of medieval paving (CAI route 101) that leads to Pontarosso, a small stone and brick bridge. Anyone wishing to reach this structure, where a route that could be called ‘Francigena’ used to pass, will have to cover about one kilometre of particularly uneven road and then turn back.
After Casella, keeping to the left, you come to Uccellatoio, another place-name that refers to the medieval road; then, after just one kilometre, you are back on the Cassia. Between here and Siena there are less than 10 kilometres, all along the state road, which is quite busy and tends to slope upwards to the City of the Palio.
The Porta Camollia mentioned in a document dating back to 1082 undoubtedly belonged to the village of the same name; from the 13th century onwards, the gate was part of a complex defensive system, the ‘castellaccia di Camollia’, which also included the Antiporto and a second gate located about midway between these two, the so-called ‘Torrazzo di Mezzo’, which was built to secure the side of the city afforded less natural protection.
The gate was nearly destroyed during the siege of 1554–55, to the extent that to enter the city one had to pass through a temporary arch to its right, traces of which are still visible. The antique gate was eventually demolished and replaced by the present one, which was designed by Alessandro Casolani while the marble decorations were realised by Domenico Cafaggi, known as Capo. The gate was inaugurated in 1604 with the famous motto above the external arch ‘Cor magis tibi Sena pandit’ (‘Siena opens its heart to you as big as the gate you are passing through’). Between 1929 and 1931, various works were carried out, including the demolition of the tollhouse, which was located inside the wall to the right of the gate, and the construction of two pedestrian openings, of equal size and symmetrical to the main entrance, which are still in use today.
The castle, an important Sienese military garrison in the Middle Ages which was often fought over by the Republic of Siena and the Republic of Florence, dominates the surrounding area. The beauty and charm of the site are known throughout the world and have been described by famous poets and writers; cycling to the castle is a retracing of a history rich in myths, conflicts, heroic deeds, and the lives of ordinary mortals. The chronicles recount Monteriggioni as a place that was difficult to conquer, defended by a mighty wall on which fourteen quadrangular towers were constructed. ‘Monteriggioni di torri si corona’ (Monteriggioni is crowned with towers), as Dante Alighieri wrote, and withstood many sieges before being conquered by Charles V’s imperial troops in 1554.
It is no coincidence that Dante compared it to the menacing giant demons he encountered on his dreamlike otherworldly journey. Even today, the castle of Monteriggioni evokes fascination and disquiet in those who see it for the first time, perched as it is on the top of the northern-facing knoll. A state border, a scorching frontier; for centuries, the most difficult and dangerous one was that which separates Siena and Florence.
The grim castle, a little less than impregnable (in the end, the Imperial and Medicean forces were able to conquer it, but only because Giovannino Zeti betrayed the garrison in the most despicable of ways, opening the gates to the enemy) was and is the face of the armaments with which Siena presented itself to its adversaries. But a face that concealed a hidden countenance of serene peace.
Centuries ago, if you had wandered around Monteriggioni, you would have found the lands of the Abbey at Isola and a large expanse of woods, first belonging to the noble consorteria of the monastery and then to Siena, which made them its state reserve. There, you would have found a large lake, which also belonged to the monks first and then to the Sienese. Silva Lacus was the name given to the area that bordered the Montagnola, which was home to monastic hermitages and farming communities. During the Grand Duchy period, the territory began to be reclaimed with interventions that would later begin to ‘erase’ the woodland and the lake until their existence remained only in the memory of the people and in the toponym.
The reservoir became a plain, Pian del Lago, and was used as a military airport in the 20th century; officially, the area is still a military zone but, with the passage of time, it has transformed into an immense park for the Sienese who, on their days off, go there for walks, cycling, horse riding, and playing with their children.
Once a European road in medieval Italy, and today a signposted route that is the sculptural representation of the idea of travel, of the way of being a ‘pilgrim’ in the third millennium. The present-day Francigena is profoundly different from what it was in the Middle Ages, when this route —or rather, ‘these routes’—marked the rhythm of life, of cultural and economic exchanges, and of the religious tensions that ran through the society. Without doubt, the Francigena was the road of the spirit; although people went to Rome as pilgrims, the strata francigena, or francisca, was much more than a pilgrimage road, as is illustrated by the history of Siena, which originated from the road.
From San Gimignano to Radicofani, the Francigena cut across the whole of the Sienese territory from north to south and, after centuries of being almost lost to memory, today it has come back to dominate the imaginations and impulses of the many ‘new pilgrims’ who, on foot or by bicycle, retrace this ancient route in search of a certain something that leads to the ‘eternal city’.
The Montagnola is a hilly area between the Val d’Elsa, the Val di Merse, and the plains of fluvial-lacustrine origin to the west of Siena. The area is of considerable importance, first and foremost for its flora, which includes chestnut groves on the cooler, damper slopes and oak and ilex groves to the west; the undergrowth is rich in shrubs, juniper, rockrose, honeysuckle, strawberry trees, and other plants. The climate, dry in summer, and the absence of surface water condition the variety of fauna, which is limited to the typical animals of our area, although the presence of wolves has been noted for some time. The Montagnola is of great speleological interest due to the presence of karst phenomena, such as the dolines in the Fungaia area, the ‘crater’ near the Castellare del Monte Maggio, caves (about sixty have been explored), and sinkholes. In some areas, there are also marble quarries (now practically abandoned), such as those for the yellow marble of Siena, used to decorate the city’s cathedral. The territory of the Montagnola Senese has been mapped by the Siena branch of the CAI (Italian Alpine Club), which has created a dense network of paths to be followed on foot or by mountain bike. The area is listed among the Natura 2000 sites as a Special Area of Conservation of Community Importance.