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Over the Cisa Pass and into Tuscany

Pontremoli, 28 September

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!image [1]

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 Becketimage [2], 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.

Home of the Comunità di Betania, Cella [3]
Home of the Comunità di Betania, 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,

Stained glass of the Burning Bush, Comunità di Betania [4]
Stained glass of the Burning Bush, Comunità di Betania

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

Rafaella in the foreground [5]
Rafaella in the foreground

image [6] 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.

A 12th-century warning at the church in Fornovo di Taro [7]
A 12th-century warning at the church in Fornovo di Taro

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.image [8] 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

Regulation shot [9]
Regulation shot

. 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.”image [10]

image [11]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.

"Pilgrim" in Berceto [12]
“Pilgrim” in Berceto