One of the loveliest walks in Tuscany and other parts of Italy is the Via Francigena, the ancient road and pilgrim route running from France to Rome, though it is usually considered to have its starting point much further away, in the English cathedral city of Canterbury. The last stretch of the Via Francigena from San Gimignano to Gracciano via Campiglia, along the Botro Degli Strulli the 'stream of the idiots', before the path heads you off towards Monteriggioni, is one of the most delightful swimming spots.
Every time I've walked that part of the route, we've got to Le Vene at Onci, with the promise of an icecream in Gracciano and a well earned dip. It's cool, crystal clear, turquoise water and easy banks to access it, its series of little moats and dams and dam gates, make it a glorious and at the same time fascinating swimming, resting or picnicking place. Even in the hottest summer months it is literally one of the coolest places for a swim, especially lovely after after a long hot hike.
This little canal like stream, snakes it's way down through the woods and fields of hay and wheat to our quiet swimming spot. Even right up here at its origins the stream previously served the paper mill at Onci and the grain mill which was working up until the late nineteen sixties. It then joins the river Elsa on the way to Colle Val D'Elsa, where the waters also get channeled off before the main part of the town into various small canals, many flowing underground, which would have also served various industries; the marble cutting factory, the ceramic factories and the other important paper mills in town.
The actual swimming spot is right on the Francigena way, a well signed track through woods and fields abounding with wild flowers, animals and birds. It is just down in the valley below the lovely little deserted borgo of Fabbrica with it's exquisite tiny mosaiced chapel and strange collection of funereal lamps and a coffin carrier. Once you've cooled down, it's worth visiting the stunning pink grain mill with a couple of its millstones intact and if Giuliano is there and feels like showing you, you can watch the mill in function, the water rushing through under the building and the mill stones in action grinding real grain into real flour.
Where the water is channelled off and awaits use in the mill, Pippo the swan swims effortlessly about keeping watch over the pools, an absolutely perfect setting for such a lovely sophisticated creature.
The shady walk along the "stream of the idiots"
The Chapel at Fabbrica
Something out of the fairy stories
Inside the mill
The abandoned funeral lamps at Fabbrica