As I write, Storm Barbara is hammering into the British Isles and here, at 3.30pm, the light has already nearly gone. Cold, damp and darkness all play their part in the fog of my post-pilgrimage gloom. Those who walk the pilgrim paths will know the addictiveness of the adventure: the intensity, the freedom to be one’s true self, the camaraderie, the depth of new experiences and relationships, the excitement of each new day. And so, in midwinter, our thoughts inevitably wing backwards with yearning, and then start seeking new challenges.
The current challenge for me, of course, is to keep myself in the pilgrim mindset: to maintain the joy, the trust in the goodness of others, and – in this dreariness of the December quotidian – to be that person whose only baggage was a too-heavy rucksack. The national and international news is so unremittingly dreadful that these tasks present a far harder uphill struggle than the Great St Bernard Pass or the accursed hill of Radicofani.
All that was a rambling and rather downbeat preamble to wishing all my friends, readers, and members of the Via Francigena group on Facebook a very happy Christmas and peaceful new year, full of adventures and joy.
• To Via Francigena addicts and members of the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome I just want to add that I am honoured to have been invited to speak to the Confraternity’s AGM in London on 11 March. The subject will be “The Challenges of the Via Francigena (and how I overcame them)” – some hollow laughter there… Because I may meet people there who don’t know about this blog, I am keeping my Just Giving pages open till the end of March should anyone feel moved by granny’s 2000km to contribute to Refugee Action and/or to Shelter: www.justgiving.com/Mary-Kirk2 (Refugee Action) www.justgiving.com/Mary-Kirk3 (Shelter)
People keep asking me what I feel, and in truth I cannot give any coherent answer. Nor is it yet time to know the effects – if any – that these 2000km have had on me, other than an acutely painful knee and some black toe nails. I have yet to get my head round the fact that on Friday I was walking, still walking, to my goal, and today – Monday – I am back, safe home under wide Suffolk skies, in familiarity and security (and, I may add, cold – as I returned to a broken-down boiler and no heating). The transition from one life to another is probably one of the hardest aspects for the walking pilgrim.
So, while I collect my thoughts and emotions, here is the final week.
I left the mountain village of San Martino al Cimino, where I slept in medieval splendour and unaccustomed luxury, early last Tuesday morning. My way lay steeply up (there does seem to have been so much more up than down; but that cannot be so or Rome would be perched as high as Everest) to the top of the volcanic crater in which lies Lake Vico,
and then gently down through beech forests towards Capranica and then Sutri. The morning was gloomy with the promise of rain, and the solitude here slightly spooky.
People speak of the “other-worldly” approach to Sutri through the woods. The words “wet” and “slippery” seemed more apposite to me: the rain came, and the numerous streams had to be forded across bridges made of narrow, slimy logs. By then I had caught up with the Swiss couple, Joëlle and Pascal (who had walked from Nuremberg with their lovely Australian Sheepdog, Logan – though Logan had gone home from Tuscany to rest her paws with Pascal’s family). I was glad of the presence of others.
Sutri is well known for its Etruscan and Roman antiquities.
There are some remains of the ancient city walls on the southern side of the town, and some rock-cut sewers in the cliffs below them. In the cliffs opposite the town on the south is the rock-cut church of the Madonna del Parto, developed out of one of the numerous Etruscan tombs of the area, and – according to some scholars – a mithraeum. The most striking edifice is the rock-hewn Roman amphitheatre.
I mention all this because it might be thought that Sutri depends on the proceeds of tourism. If so they maybe need to be more visitor-friendly. The man in the tourist office was less than helpful: the Madonna del Parto? Last visit 3pm. The heritage museum? Closed. Frescoes? Don’t know.
The accommodation for pilgrims at the Carmelite convent was similarly unwelcoming – not today, pilgrims! So the three of us went to Il Seminario, a cross between a hostel and a B&B, where we had clean sheets, towels, and a clean kitchen where Pascal cooked us supper.
By now a sense of excitement was building – two more sleeps to Rome; an excitement that I sought to suppress, as – I said to myself – there’s many a slip…
…and that slip could easily have been the next morning in dense fog, with a two-kilometer walk along the Via Cassia at rush hour…no hard shoulder and blind bends. I had (fortunately) forgotten reports of an attack on a solo female pilgrim earlier in the year on isolated stretch before Campagnano di Roma, and enjoyed the walk through the nature reserve of the Parco de Veio
and past the Monte Gelato waterfall. Campagnano was, like almost every evening’s destination during the previous month, high on a hill, and the Centro Parrochiale was difficult to find. But it was worthwhile, with clean dormitories and bathrooms – and a nearby Bar dei Pellegrini offering a cheap pilgrim meal and wifi.
The final day was surprisingly rural so close to a vast capital city.
It provided both the familiar drenching downpour and another long, long hill up to la Storta which lies on the busy Via Cassia. The last night, the last dormitory, the last convent – the Suore delle Poverelle. There Joëlle, Pascal and I agreed to walk the final dangerous and deeply unpleasant 17km into Rome together.
I was glad we did, for it was reassuring (I would without doubt have taken wrong turnings alone) to be with friends, to be with someone to share that moment from Monte Mario
when one first glimpses the dome of St Peter’s, to be with people with whom one can without embarrassment shed a tears of emotion and relief as one arrives in St Peter’s Square. And it was a privilege to be with this lovely young couple who had trekked 1700km to get there. People might have thought they had brought their granny along, as we walked in on the stroke of 12 noon on Friday.
After the tears, the photos; after the photos the acquiring of the Testimonium, the Latin certificate awarded to those who have walked the final 100km or more to the tomb of Peter. The proof is in one’s credenziale, the pilgrim passport which must be stamped every day in churches, ostelli, town halls, and even bars or hotels as proof of passage.
I said a goodbye which was both sad and joyful to my pilgrim friends, and went to get my pass to walk through the Porta Santa into the Basilica. I did this as a Catholic in this Year of Mercy, mindful of my need of mercy, but knowing in my heart that pilgrimage is in the journey, and that the trappings of arrival are but symbols of what has gone on inside oneself.
It is too soon to know what I feel, what if anything has changed, what perspectives shifted. I have experienced the incredible kindness and generosity of strangers. I have seen faith and love in action. I know how dependent I am on others, and I know I know how much we are all interdependent. It has, I hope, taught me trust, for so many angels attended me in my travels, and came to my aid when I was lost, miserable, in pain or need. More than anything, perhaps, it has provided proof yet again that bonds become swiftly strong when we are stripped of what in “normal” life defines us – our jobs, cars, houses, possessions, clothes, accents. With none of the factors that cause us, even unconsciously, to judge, we relate to the other within the moment, and intensely. Is this perhaps “the kingdom of God”?
I will leave it to Marco, the Italian blues singer on his first pilgrimage, to explain what these journeys of faith and trust bring us: “People who stay in their security, in their comfortable lives, with their homes, their families, their friends,their jobs, their cars will never know. You have to step out into the unknown, take the risk. That is real living.”
Some facts and figures
Distance: approximately 2000km (1200 miles)
Walking days: 75
Rest days (some enforced by knee injury): 9 (plus a 12 week return home to get the knee better)
Countries travelled through: 5 (England, France, Switzerland, Italy, the Vatican)
Firstly, an apology to those who subscribed to get the email version of my posts. I hope you have looked on this site and can see I am still alive. There is a technical problem, which I can’t resolve from here, which means posts are not being emailed.
I left Siena on a very cold morning with the smell of rain in the air. Saying goodbye to the night porter of my hotel, I discovered he was an ex-BT engineer from Peterborough. What life story had caused our paths to cross?
Far off to the south I caught my first glimpse- two and a half days’ walk away – of Radicofani, the hilltop town, the climb to which is often said to be the hardest day of the Italian Via Francigena. Now, as I walked, the hills were barer, more exposed, sober monotones under a somber sky. The expected rain came, cold and drenching, an hour before I got to the ostello at Ponte d’Arbia.
That night I slept fully clothed under two blankets, but the cold still woke me at 4am. For the first hour or so of the next morning’s walk my fingers were numb, and would nor work. Gradually I walked up above the fog, and a timid sun restored feeling. That day was lovely: through Tuscan wine country, up and down,
till finally I came to the beautiful but touristy town of San Quirico d’Orcia. The woman in charge of the ostello had told me it didn’t open till 4pm, but if I got there earlier to ring. I rang. “Oh no, we don’t open till four.”
Having looked round the church (lovely Romanesque exterior), I went to a bar to wait. Two American pilgrims (of the sort who have all accommodation booked and their bags carried) invited me to join them in a glass of Prosecco to celebrate a birthday. No doubt the ensuing political discussion was the more heartfelt for it.
That evening at supper my ostello companions and I discussed the next day – a 32km stretch of exposed country, mostly steeply uphill, to Radicofani. The forecast was bad. Emboldened by local wine, we sang loudly, “Radicofani! Radicofani! Radicofani!” The rhythm stayed with me the next day. I was to need it.
After a steep downhill descent to Bagni Vignoli (hot sulphurous springs),
I managed to miss a vital turn (local walking groups had hijacked some VF signs). I found myself on a road. Quick check with data and Google- if I continued up that road for five or six km, then turned right on a small road I could get back on track. I continued; I turned right. It said Road Closed. Oh, pedestrians can always get through, can’t they? I came to where a bridge should be over a wide river. The bridge was demolished. A fisherman came and told me I’d have to go back the eight km I’d come. “But I can’t ! I’ve got to get to Radicofani!” “You can’t get across the river.”
The reader who knows me will immediately grasp the effect of these words. “Oh yes I can.” So…I set about wading across. I kept my shoes on for fear of cutting my feet, but the riverbed was deep mud, and unpleasant. “When you walk through deep waters I am with you.” Finally I was across, but after scrambling up the bank I found I couldn’t get back to the road as my way was blocked by a high wire fence. Finally I found a gap where I could just squeeze underneath. Phew.
But then the rain started- drenching pulses in a cold gusting wind. On and on. In sight of the final pull up to Radicofani, wet and cold, there burst upon me a violent thunderstorm, and a deluge so fierce that I was immediately soaked to the skin. Lightning is my greatest fear when walking, and I arrived at the ostello by the church, gibbering with cold, and blubbing with relief. And mirabile dictu the ostello was heated – dry clothes and shoes next morning!
“And all (night) long the noise of battle rolled.” The cold air came up against warm weather from the south, and the storms and rain were phenomenal. I was so grateful it was over during the night, and the walk down to Acquapendente, though very humid, hot and sweaty, was free from thunder. Not so that evening – more crashing and banging, and the constant flicker and flash of lightning. At times the piazza was under water. Sightseeing impossible, I went to the laundrette. Such is the existence of a pilgrim.
Next morning the world had been washed clean, as had my clothes, but the tracks and paths were deep in mud. A couple of hours after leaving Acquapendente there is the first glimpse of Lake Bolsena.
The path leads the pilgrim away from the busy Via Cassia and up into the hills above the lake. It is beautiful, but strenuous, and also surprisingly hot. My face was sunburned. Crazy weather of extremes. The forecast thunder did not come.
The old quarter of Bolsena
gives a glimpse of how towns were in the Middle Ages. The tiny narrow streets and old stone buildings admitted no light. The ostello was in one of these. Magnificently restored for the modern pilgrim it had five bathrooms, one for each dormitory. The four of us spread out. But oh! Many had passed this way before, and the mattresses smelled of rancid human grease.
There was some compensation in a meal at the local osteria, served by two rather camp men in jaunty hats. I nearly got a free meal because I was the first pilgrim they had seen who had started at Canterbury, but alas one of my companions let slip I had had a three-month pause in the summer.
That night as I slept, my rucksack fell over, dislodging the cap of my water bladder. 1.5 litres of water poured out over the stone floor and seeped under the door into the corridor. Everything I had left on the floor was soaked. Fortunately no-one else was awake when I discovered this, so I fetched a mop and bucket and set to. And to cap it, none of my washing had dried. I put it in the oven for half an hour. It didn’t dry, but was at least warm to put on.
Next day to Montefiascone. I watched a shepherd calling to his distant flock. His guard dogs were there to ward off trouble, but their job was not to round up the sheep. These came solely to the shepherd’s voice. I am the Good Shepherd, and my sheep know me. It was a moment to muse on the Gospel, but also I found myself thinking of the great Old Testament diatribe in Ezekiel 34 against the “shepherds of Israel”, the religious leaders of the day, the clericalists, who do not tend their sheep, dress their wounds, or seek out the lost. They are alive today.
Another night, another convent. I was lodged (with fellow pilgrim Marco, an Italian blues singer from Switzerland) with the sisters of the Divino Amore. Peruvian Suor Clara told us of a miracle that occurred in the convent, two rooms away from where I slept.
Marco and I climbed the Torre dei Pellegrini, with a 360 degree view: to the west the sea shone in the evening sun; to the east the Apennines; faintly in the north the accursed hill of Radicofani, and to south…invisible and only 100 or so km away – Rome.
At supper Marco told me about himself: the only son of an ardent Communist, he was only now coming to faith, and this – his first long-distance walk/pilgrimage- was a journey of self-discovery. I came very much to respect him that evening.
I discovered next morning that €130 had fallen out of my pocket the evening before. I know where it must have happened. I am very fortunate that I could go to a bancomat and get more.
And tonight I am in most un-pilgrim luxury. I have taken a variant from the official VF, which should ensure I get to Rome by Friday- though if I’d known how hilly it was I might have thought better of it. There is no pilgrim accommodation here, so I am in a holiday gîte, a wonderful medieval tower, luxuriously restored. The owner, Luca , has given me fresh eggs, grapes, pomegranates, raspberries from his garden. I have cooked supper, had a glass of wine, my washing is clean. This to the pilgrim is luxury indeed. There is wifi – hence this post.
Friday, God willing, Rome? Dare I really hope I shall get there?
I left Lucca with reluctance as I would happily have spent a week there. The day’s walk to Altopascio was not long, but it was all on road save for a brief stretch of path where there was a memorial to a Belgian pilgrim who had died there last year.
The pilgrim hostel in Altopascio looked out over a little piazza,
where there was a music school, and my afternoon rest was accompanied by a hesitant piano and occasional singing. The sun was warm; my washing dried. The beatitude was broken by the news of the death of a dear neighbour, and minutes later that a friend’s cancer was more advanced than previously thought.
There then stepped into my life someone who I must rank high among the hosts of angels encountered since I left Canterbury – Manuela:
Italian, open, outgoing, smiling, sunny. She suggested we eat together that evening, and we discovered a common love of wine and food. In the days to come she appeared genuinely happy to have an elderly Englishwoman trailing along. She was endlessly patient with my pidgin Italian, and my constant questions of “How do you say this?” “What does that mean?” “What’s the difference between…?” “Why….?”
Next day we walked to the first of those hilltop towns you can see from miles away, and which necessitate a great groaning climb at the end of a day’s walk, San Miniato Alto.
Part of our way was over ancient pathway, flanked with banks of cyclamen, and I always wonder at the thousands and thousands of feet that have passed this way. Then along a canal where huge herons flew up at our approach with a harsh squawk and slow wing beat.
In San Miniato I stayed in the convent of San Francesco,
where the pilgrim may have a private room with bath, dinner and breakfast for €35. Wonderful, though the pillow felt as though it were filled with wood chips. At supper I met Anne from Belgium, walking from Vézelay to Assisi, alone. In Liguria she had seen wolves in the forest.
Next morning- rain! Though it didn’t last long. I hit a wall that day, with extreme fatigue and leaden limbs, and the constant up and down of the rolling Tuscan hills seemed endless. I think it was because I was forgetting to eat during the days’ walks. The hill up to Gambassi Terme where the ostello was went on for ever. It was worth it, for the accommodation is at the lovely Romanesque church of Santa Maria in Chianni. It is simple and barely decorated, and on one of the capitals the reed symbol suggested Cistercian influence.
I knew Tuscany would be beautiful, but I am just overwhelmed by so much beauty, and so much antiquity. I had expected an autumn palette of siena, umber, ochre and terracotta, but it is fresh and green with grass brought back to life by rain.
And more rain greeted us next morning, though by the time the towers of San Gimignano stood out on the skyline it had stopped. Walking into San Gimignano is like coming upon a film set with too many extras, though – as in Venice – you only have to turn a couple of corners and the crowds melt away.
Manuela and I sat on a now sunny wall and ate our free artisan pilgrim bread from a bakery in Gambassi.
Leaving San Gimignano I had an opportunity (not taken) to demonstrate my grasp of the vernacular with a “Che minchia fai?” (thanks, Montalbano): a car drew up and the passenger door opened nearly whacking me in the face. I contented myself with an irritated “E-e-eh!”
The rain had turned the lovely terra battuta paths to rivers of slippery clinging mud, slowing progress. In the afternoon sun little snakes came out to bask, causing Manu (in the lead) to shriek “una biscia!” – though she assured me they weren’t venomous.
Colle Val d’Elsa
: another night another vast religious establishment, this time a former seminary, which Manu and I had to ourselves, with bathroom, for ten euros. We went into town and pushed the boat out, abandoning penitential pilgrim fare (it isn’t, mainly) for a Tuscan tasting menu of assorted antipasti and pasta (pici) with different sauces, and the house Chianti in a little osteria which had one long wooden table. We shared the best grappa I have had.
And so onward to the next hilltop town – Monteriggione, surrounded by its ancient walls.
We walked fast to escape an approaching storm,
and we just made it before the deluge. On the way we met men unloading funghi. We stopped to chat. The dialogue often goes like this: Where are you from? England. But where did you start walking? England. England? Yes. England? Yes. Are you going to walk back? No, I’m not mad. Anyone who walks from England must be mad.
From Monteriggione to Siena through the mud. In Siena last night I said goodbye to Manu, who was going back home to work in Como. Before we parted she cut the St James shell, which she had picked up on the beach at Fisterra, from her pack, wrote on it, and gave it to me. My tears came. I walked back to my hotel, suddenly disconsolate.
From my sadness and sense of loss I was distracted by a huge procession of waving banners, beating drums, and strong singing from those following. It was the contrada of La Lupa, which had won both palli (palios) in July and August, on their way to their victory dinner.
Siena – entering the Duomo is to be overwhelmed both by la divina bellezza and by the vast volume of tourists. I dutifully bought my pass for the duomo, the museum, the library, the crypt and the baptistery. I have admired it all, insofar as one can when surrounded by so many people. For me the highlight was the Duccio frescoes in the crypt.
Again I find myself wondering whether any of the wonders of architecture and art would give an unbeliever any pause for thought. I found one crucifix that might.
Tomorrow back on the road, and I could be in Rome in 11 or 12 days, if all goes well. The weather forecast is for very cold, rain, more rain and thunderstorms. Drying clothes becomes more difficult with the shortening days and the lack of sun, and I shall start to stink as pilgrims sometimes must.
Who knows where the next post will come from. You may have to wait for Rome.
Mindful of the need to spare my knee more kilometres than strictly necessary, I took the cyclists’ route from Pontremoli to Aulla. I innocently imagined a smooth cycle track untrammelled by traffic. I got that wrong…the first 12.5km, at morning rush hour, and in the dense mist which clung to the Magra valley, were a dangerous hell on a major road. I was so glad to have my hi-viz gilet.
I turned off eventually on a quiet shady road, through the untouched village of Lusuolo,
before dropping back down for the last stretch to Aulla, this time on a real cycle track.
What a shock at the pilgrim ostello at San Caprasio – it was rapidly filling as I arrived. There was a large French contingent doing the Assisi Way, and a stream of pilgrims going to Rome. Where had they all come from? Why had I not encountered them before? That evening I ate a pilgrim menu in the company of a Catholic parish priest from Melbourne, a Camaldolese Benedictine (South African from the US), two German-Swiss, a couple from the US and a couple from Australia, several others, and a very troubled vegan from New York who started at Vercelli. He complained bitterly all evening about the lack of infrastructure on the VF, the unfriendliness, the unwelcoming rudeness. Could he really have been walking the same route as me? But then he told me his VF experiences exactly mirrored his life of the past year or so. How easy to see life through the lens of what we have lived through, and how challenging to be positive when there have been wounds and loss.
That night was the first full dormitory night of the entire pilgrimage, with its attendant snores, farts, nocturnal gettings-up and matutinal rustlings. Those who have walked the Spanish Caminos will be accustomed to it…earplugs don’t quite cut it.
The way over the ridge from Aulla to Sarzana
has been described as the worst climb of the whole VF. Harry Bucknall in his “Like a tramp, like a pilgrim” specifically mentions its unremitting gradient. I didn’t find it that bad – for me the worst was to come a couple of days later.
And so to Avenza-Carrara, where the Carrara marble is quarried in the hills. Church accommodation was over the piazza opposite the church: two rooms with four beds each. The US/Oz quartet turned up, but I was given the second room to myself. The bliss of a quiet night! Alas, I am useless with keys, and locked myself out. I shamefacedly rang the bell at the presbytery. “Wait there a few minutes”, said the priest’s voice over the intercom. I waited. An elderly church retainer, Francesco, drove up, showed me the knack of opening the door, then whisked me off to Da Sergio, where I had one of the best (and cheapest) meals so far.
I went to Mass that evening. The parish priest sat enthroned above his flock – a saturnine brooding Roman emperor, darkly overflowing his chair – and scrutinised us all, chins on hand. Next morning as I breakfasted in the local café (paid for by the parish) he joined me, and turned out to be rather jolly.
That day I took the easy option: 25km along the sea (rather than more hills and more distance) to Pietrasanta. For here the VF briefly touches the Mediterranean, and reader, it rained. But not much. At times I was able to walk along the beach,
the sea lapping peacefully by my right foot; but most of the way it was along the front – down-at-heel and depressed and very end of season at Massa, smarter and busier towards Pietrasanta. Desperate for a pee, I looked in vain for an open café. Nothing. Then I saw an old man sitting by a restaurant door, prepping fresh funghi. Their perfume was of autumn woodland. “Are you open?” “For you, yes “. We chatted as I drank my coffee, and he told me of the enormous increase in numbers of pilgrims he saw passing this year.
The pilgrim room at the casa diocesana in Pietrasanta
turned out to be smaller and stuffier than I had expected, and already nearly full. Why do I never see these fellow travellers en route? I asked the Indonesian sister if it were the only room. Oh, would I like a single room? Would I! For a few euros more I had a large and spotless room and private bathroom. The luxury…but I was punished for my indulgence by being eaten alive by the onomatopaeic zanzare (mosquitos) all night. What with that and the torrential rain that fell for some nine hours, I didn’t sleep much.
The next day was supposed to be 32.2km to Lucca. I can do that, I thought. But pilgrims beware! The VF waymarking diverges seriously from that described in both the LightFoot guide and the percorso ufficiale of the Movimento Lento booklet. Unaware, I followed the waymarks. These must have added at least five km to the stage, and seriously steeply up and down, the rocks wet and slippery from overnight rain, all the time. At one point I had to connect to data to consult Google maps – I was way away from where the route in the guides, and yet the VF signage leads you there. There was little opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the hills and the autumn woodland.
I arrived in Lucca, limping and sweating from the effort and humidity, after more than nine hours, of which only 30 minutes were rest time. The knee has not liked it, but a day of not walking will help. It is so much easier to follow waymarks than have your nose in a book, map or phone all the time, but a lesson has been learned.
And today the joy of a rest day, discovering the beauty of Lucca, la città delle cento chiese, though I have seen only five so far. But not just sightseeing, necessary pilgrim tasks as well such as taking my sweat-soaked and travel-stained clothes to the laundrette. There a kindly elderly man called Paolo helped me through the tasks, and asked me to pray for him and his family in Rome.
Siena is on the horizon in another week, and (DV) I will next post from there.
First I must salute those who walk through Italy in the heat of high summer. The temperatures here have been in the high 20s, nudging 30. This will bring a snort of derision from those who preceded me, who endured the high 30s. It is quite hot enough!
I left Fidenza with my feet feeling featherlight in my new shoes. I dumped my worn-out stinking clompers, decently wrapped in a plastic bag, in my hotel room. Pity the poor cleaner.
After more than a week of dead flat, the terrain changes immediately, and for just about the first time since Canterbury I felt delight in being on the road. This was how I had imagined Italy; this is how I had imagined the Via Francigena.
I passed a church dedicated to St Thomas à Becket, and stopped because of the Canterbury connection. Then my way led up through the village of Costamezzano. There I sat and chatted to wedding guests, there for the marriage of university friends. The atmosphere was joyous. I felt happy.
Despite unaccustomed hills, I arrived early where I was to stay – at the Franciscan Comunità di Betania in Cella.
It certainly bucks the trend of elderly moribund religious communities, as many of both the priests and consecrated were young. I was looked after by a novice called Rafaella, all smiles. My room was immaculately clean, with white linen sheets. I was dragged in to share lunch. In the evening I went to Mass in their modern church,
and then at supper surrounded by eager questions about my life, my family, my home, my pilgrimage. “Stay another day,” they said. I wish…
Next morning was Sunday, and the community did not breakfast till 8.30, so by the time goodbyes
had been said and photos taken, it was well after my accustomed time for setting out, and the sun was already blazing hot. I left with regret, for again I had found faith manifest in action rather than in pious words; I had again felt cared for.
After Cella a hill like the side of a house presented itself, a foretaste of things to come. It was beautiful off-road walking, and my spirits were high despite the heat. In the dry grass and dead leaves there were many reptilian rustlings, and little lizards scuttered across my path. There was also the occasional somewhat more substantial slithering, causing a panicky sidestep on my part. Walking on high ridges above valleys there is the occasional rare glimpse of a buzzard from above. However, to walk through rural Italy on a Sunday morning is to tread a path through a battlefield- hunter vs just about anything that moves. In the plain it was mostly birds; here wild boar.
But oh! the ups and downs of pilgrimage…not merely the literal, but those of accommodation as well. For those who may follow – avoid the parish ostello in Fornovo di Taro. I was finally let in by a sulky girl with purple hair and piercings. The place was filthy, ill-equipped , and dilapidated. Closing the bathroom door the wall crumbled under my hand. And there was no loo paper. However, the pilgrim must accept.
Next day was the first day of the ascent to the Passo della Cisa, the gateway to Tuscany. And I encountered quite a novelty on this pilgrimage – fellow pilgrims! First a Swiss couple with a dog called Logan, then three Germans with whom I have walked, eaten, drunk, and laughed for three days, an Australian couple and a US couple (one of the latter a reader of this blog – such celebrity!). But we travel at different paces, stopping at different destinations, connect and part. This is life.
Up, via Cassio and Berceto through glorious hills. At that altitude autumn comes early, and the trees were changing to russet and gold. I think it has been some of the loveliest walking I have known – and I’ve had a fair few wonderful walks in mountains. Last night we slept in the ostello della Cisa, a couple of km before the Pass. The food was exceptional, and I see I have lost no weight…
Out this morning into a crisp, chill, dazzling day to the Pass – and into Tuscany
. Walking down one suddenly comes upon a memorial (touchingly with its poppy wreath) to two SAS servicemen shot there in 1943 by firing squad. My German friend surprised me by saying, “It was only right; they were behind enemy lines.”
And down to Pontremoli, an important town for pilgrims long ago, with ancient hospices run in the Middle Ages by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, and the Knights of the Tau of Altopascio. It has a splendid duomo, too rococo for my taste…and here my tour runs out for I have had gnocchi ai funghi and house Chianti, and I think it’s time for bed…
Tuscany, and still some serious hills to climb. Lucca is in my sights, and with any luck my next post may be from there.
Eight days walking, and according to the guide 205km, which is nearly a quarter of my remaining distance to Rome. But the pace will slow now as to the south I see the hills, hazily delineated, on which I shall be toiling from tomorrow. These are the foothills of the Apennines, and from now till Rome it is up and down all the way.
It was a long trudge out of Pavia
, and the sun became burning. Finally I was able to leave the road, but there followed what seemed like mile after shadeless mile. I was heading for Santa Cristina, and I could see its campanile from some distance. But Italian campanili share some of the same malicious tendencies as their northern French sisters, playing a cruel game of hide and seek. I zigzagged around the fields – always three sides of a rectangle – following the irrigation channels. The church remained haughtily distant. It was so hot I found myself staggering and lurching from fatigue.
But of course I got there, to splendid parish accommodation, with friendly Don Antonio, the parish priest, and the kindly elderly lady who runs the parish social centre and bar.
The next day I felt a rising excitement. My destination was Orio Litta, a couple of miles from the famous river crossing of the Pô with Danilo Parisi. I hesitate to use the word “iconic” because it is wrongly and over-used, but it is what springs to mind: a high point of the Via Francigena. The ostello at Orio Litta, a magnificent modern conversion which can house whole troupes of pilgrims, is the work of the mayor, Pierluigi Cappelletti, himself a VF legend.
I was surprised that afternoon to get an email from Julia Peters (whose inspiring blog of her pilgrimage last year has been a great help in preparing for this journey). She suggested to Brian Mooney (“A long way for a pizza”) that I speak to next year’s AGM of the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome on the difficulties of doing the Via Francigena and how I “overcame ” them. How long have they got? But it will be an honour.
Next morning I was down by the landing stage at Corte Sant Andrea feeling ridiculously excited. There I met Federico, a slim and fit septuagenarian from Turin, who was finishing his section of pilgrimage that day. He had served in the Italian military in the Alpini, and as a helicopter pilot. One of his duties as the latter had been to pilot Pope John Paul II to Aosta. He showed me pictures, ever kept on his person. I should of course now say Saint John Paul, which I find difficult, since Jesus always had the religious conservatives of the day in his sights, and they don’t come much more conservative than JP.
Danilo arrived on time, and we were off, the rush of air as we sped over the river nearly tearing my camera from my hands. I had read the crossing takes 10-15 minutes. It took six. Afterwards we signed Danilo’s register, and he stamped our credenziali. I was the 998th pilgrim to cross this year. Danilo is an engaging man, and I’d have liked to chat more with him, but he was off back to pick up 12 English Catholic priests who were saying Mass at Corte San Andrea.
And so to Piacenza, where the Farnese palace and museum were shut on a Wednesday afternoon. I went in a minor church crawl, and went to the Cathedral to look at its treasures and get a timbro in my credenziale.
Where to eat? I looked in vain for somewhere cheap but ok. Nothing – a choice between a kebab, McDonalds, or a trattoria offering Piacentino specialities. These turned out to be mainly horse – and donkey. In my youth I had to eat horse in French university restaurants. It’s one of the few things I don’t like. Besides, some of my best friends have been horses…
Next day was a most unpleasant walk, all 33km. It started on the dangerous Via Emilia. There was a narrow hard shoulder, with huge trucks driving on it – at me. It was the worst walking of the whole VF so far. Eventually the route turned off the main road, but the entire way was hard surface, and the sun was very hot. Somewhere about seven km short of Fiorenzuola d’Arda I must gave lost the waymarking, for I found myself on another fast and furious road.
I sat down on a wall in the shade to look at the map. Behind me I heard a man walking along singing “Alleluia “. I looked round, expecting to see a priest. It wasn’t. “Ah, una pellegrina “. Did I want coffee, food, shelter? I made a quick judgement- he was ok. “Some water would be good”. “Come with me”. And suddenly I was in the bosom of a family: mother Alessandra, daughter Emma (18, very good English), son Giacomo, 8, a real clown.
I was given water, coffee, fruit; made to rest and cool down. Would I stay the night with them? I couldn’t – accommodation already booked. So…they took me the 6km into Fiorenzuola, and Mario (the husband) came to collect me later, and took me to Mass (the eve of the 30th anniversary of my husband’s death), and then back again to theirs for a family supper. Rarely have I met a man more joyous, and confident, in his faith than Mario. The family greets some of the more pious outbursts with rolling eyes and giggles.
But what kindness, what real love of neighbour, what practical demonstration of faith. Again my eyes filled with tears at the enfolding of love and generosity.
To Fidenza the next morning (today). Roasting hot again, and mostly on road. An Italian cyclist, Paolo, who has done the Camino de Santiago, stopped for a long chat. He confirmed what I had felt for some time: that my boots are too heavy for someone with a knee problem. Besides, they are now completely worn down at heel, and stink to high heaven. Accordingly I abandoned the historic and architectural delights of Fidenza (having first looked at the lovely Romanesque cathedral, whose façade is alas obscured by scaffolding, and obtained two stamps for my credenziale), and took the shuttle bus this afternoon to “Fidenza Village “, a huge commercial centre. There in Decathlon I bought some lighter shoes, but for women, mountains, and excursione. I hope this is the right thing.
So…so far, so flat. Now to test myself, the shoes, and my knee in mountains. Again, the overriding memory of these last few days is of extraordinary kindness, and of being looked after. From where shall I write next? Who knows. The way goes on – and up.
It seemed an odd reversal to leave the warmth of a hazy sunrise in the September heatwave of England to arrive in a dark and chilly Turin, shrouded in cloud and driving rain. After my experiences earlier this year on the Via Francigena I have come to expect it.
I ended my own journal in Vercelli on 20 June with the words “I hope I have the courage to come back in the autumn and finish what I started.” Courage, no, but I ensured I would by telling everyone I would, and by booking a ticket a few days after I left.
I had more time to look at Vercelli, and enjoyed the Museum and its treasures, though not without considering the discrepancy between the poverty enjoined in the Gospels and the riches of the Church.
But that is to see things with 21st-century eyes. I looked with interest at the famous Vercelli Book, which Sigeric himself may have seen, since it dates from the late 10th century. It is the first known book in existence to be written in Anglo-Saxon.
I was lodged at the new pilgrim hostel Sancti Eusebi. Maria the hospitalera (there is no equivalent word in Italian) and I had supper together, and for some reason laughed a great deal. She told me that my desire for perfection held me back from speaking Italian. The shame of being sussed by a stranger! Nevertheless I stumbled along making mistakes, le vin aidant.
Out early into the still morning with Vercelli waking up as I walked away.
I had miscalculated the day’s distance, convinced it was only 16km to Robbio, 14 to Mortara, plus a further two to the Abbazia di Sat’Albino. Robbio did not appear when it should – was I so much slower these days? When I got there I found it had been nearly 20km. The day became hot and humid; flies and mosquitos buzzed my sweaty face; I put my anti-midge net over my head, emerging monster-like from the rice paddies.
I lost my way after ambivalent signage, adding more distance. I ran out of water at Madonna del Campo, but there – unusually- was a fountain with drinking water. Two little girls teaching a puppy to drink from a tap assured me it was safe.
Nearly at Mortara, I met a young Italian walking from Rome to Santiago. It must be about 4000km.
Finally I arrived at the Abbazia, feeling half dead. 37km. The pilgrim accommodation is one huge room with pull-out beds all round the wall, and tables in the middle. The signora brought me a huge supper of pasta bolognese, chicken escalopes, salads, fruit, and wine. I was asleep by 8.30pm.
.Next morning was misty and cool, and my aching body was glad of the soft going and dead flat terrain. There is something other-worldly about these waterlands, the terre d’acqua
. The only sound came from the soft plop of a frog in the water, or a rising fish. There were herons and ibis, and occasionally on the sandy track the serpentine traces of a snake.
But heat soon took over the day. I sat down to rest and have a drink in Tromello. An old gentleman on a bike appeared and asked if I wanted a stamp for my credenziale. He whizzed off, returning a few minutes later with the stamped passport, a certificate in Latin, and a badge.
Later, about to cross a road, I was caught up by two Belgian cyclists. We chatted for a while, causing a certain annoyance to a prostitute sitting on a plastic chair by the road, whom we were obscuring from potential passing trade. She was black and very young (Nigra sum sed formosa).
I arrived at my destination, which was the Cascina Toledina, a farm and centre for young drug addicts, run by the Exodus Foundation. The “ragazzi”, that is to say the residents, were all away at a meeting in southern Italy, so the staff (mainly volunteers) were in party mood. I chopped tomatoes for the bruschette, and we had gazpacho made by a girl from Andalucia, arancini from Sicily, farinare (I need to check that), salads, and a mighty assortment of barbecued pork. Prosecco first, then a red Pavese wine which is naturally frizzante. The expected storm came; lightning flickered and flashed; the rain was thunderous, but the 20 or so of us at table were too busy. It was a wonderful evening, and my Italian improved- I think. They said no English person ever usually tries.
They sang and played the guitar till 2am. I heard nothing.
The overwhelming memory of the Cascina Toledina is of immense kindness and concern. “Stay with us another day,” they said. I should have liked to, not least because I woke aching all over and with a sore throat.
I walk through villages and old ladies step out of doorways to ask where I’m going. “Rome.” “Alone?” “Yes”. “Brava! Che coraggio!” It doesn’t feel courageous; it feels impossible.
Sunday morning: in Gropello Cairolo festivities and exhibitions, one of photos of returning Italian prisoners of war. How ignorant I am of all that happened. And we voted to leave the EU.
Usually the walk into a big city is drear through grubby suburbs, but going into Pavia was a delight, insofar as anything is a delight when every inch is screaming “Stop walking NOW!”. Miles along the wooded banks of the Ticino, right into the city.
I went to the Cathedral to get a timbro for my credenziale. Mass was just starting so I stayedj. Then for a spritz and later a pizza, and I’m afraid the historic riches of Pavia will have to go unmentioned, for I must sleep…
(WordPress has caused problems tonight and pictures are not well placed – too tired to try again).