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.
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…