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Across the Pô – to Fidenza

Fidenza, 23 September

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

San Michele, Pavia [1]
San Michele, 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.

Castillo Procaccini, neo-medieval, at Chignolo Pô [2]
Castillo Procaccini, neo-medieval, at Chignolo Pô

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.

Pierluigi Cappelletti, mayor of Orio Litta [3]
Pierluigi Cappelletti, mayor of Orio Litta

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.

image [4]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 Parisi [5]
Danilo Parisi

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.

Crossing the Pô [6]
Crossing the Pô

image [7]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.

more Church treasure, in the cathedral museum in Piacenza [8]
more Church treasure, in the cathedral museum in Piacenza

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.