Lucca, 3 October
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.