Healed up and ready to rumble

Theresa Elliott teaching the other day aboard a cruise ship docked in Seattle

“Make sure you’re stretching your calf muscles,” wrote Theresa, my fiancée. As usual, she was right on. It’s funny how a sore foot becomes a sore calf which becomes a sore foot. As I massage deeply into my calf muscle I feel a twinge in the exact spot where my foot hurt.

When I say, “hurt” I mean exactly that. The pain is now mostly gone, thanks to Theresa’s stretching and also to PT Diane Gaidon’s suggestion of an Arnica gel massage. That means I’m back on the road.

The next question becomes, where to land on my original itinerary? If I pick up after Fidenza, where I left off, this is what the distances would look like, along with the guidebooks’ ratings:

  • Fidenza to Fornovo – 34 km. “Challenging”
  • Fornovo to Cassio – 19 km. “Challenging”
  • Cassio to Passo Della Cisa – 19.5 km. “Challenging.”
  • Passo Della Cisa to Pontremoli – 32 km. “Challenging”
  • Pontremoli to Aulla – 32 km. “Challenging”
  • Aulla to Avenza –  32.7 km. “Very Challenging”

The itinerary doesn’t sound brilliant for someone recovering from a foot injury. Essentially the walk takes pilgrims five and a half days through the mountains and down to the sea at the beachy area just south of the famed Cinque Terre. The route doesn’t flatten out until the little town of Sarzana, between Aulla and Avenza.

Screen shot of the SloWays app and its map of my proposed reentry to the itinerary at Sarzana.

So that’s my plan for tomorrow. Take the train to Fidenza, where I left the trail, then take the train to Sarzana, waving as I go by to several of the towns on the original walking itinerary. When I arrive in Sarzana I’ll walk three hours on the hopefully flat terrain to Avenza. The next couple of days after that should give flat and foot-friendly walks that will help me get back on track for the hundreds of miles that still remain.

I don’t want to hurt my arm, too, but I’m reaching around to pat myself on the back for coming to Parma to heal up. It’s an entertaining town and a welcome and worthy substitute for my first love: walking. Even so, it’ll be great to be back on the road to Rome starting tomorrow.

I’ll leave you with a few random photos of lovely Parma.


Via Francigena to Sandy Brown: “Cool your jets”

Look for Fiorenzuloa near the top, then Fidenza below. Find Parma where I’m at today and Fornova where I’m supposed to be.

April 29 — Rest Day: Parma

Out of humility and for a little fun I “buried the lede” in yesterday’s blog post. Burying the lede is a journalistic faux pas in which your hide the most important part of the story, making your readers dig to find it. Today there’s no way to hide the real lede: Ouch. I can barely walk. For details, see the end of yesterday’s post.

When I awoke today and could still barely walk I decided to interpret my misfortune as a message from the Via Francigena: “Cool your jets. Slow down. You’re in Italy, so spend some time looking around.”

That’s my excuse for picking up an ankle brace in Fidenza and hobbling to the train station for the quick ride to the important and interesting nearby town of Parma. I’ve checked into a hotel by the station here and will see how my ankle does overnight before returning to the trail.

In the meantime, it’s fun to be in a cosmopolitan Italian town with lots to see.

For instance, people dress stylishly here. Lots of high heels, leather jackets, gorgeous haircuts, scarves and eyeglasses. Here, yoga pants are so yesterday. I saw one woman in billowy calf-length pants. We’re near enough to trendsetter Milan that I predict we will see women wearing similar pants next year in Seattle, then the year after in New York and Paris. Or the other way around. And I’m a yoga pants admirer.

I’ve also discovered this amazing local cheese of Parma. Yes, it’s so hard it needs to be grated to be eaten, but I predict it will soon be sprinkled on pasta throughout the province. Maybe all over Emilia-Romagna!

Something else — they vacuum the streets here. I’d love to see this back home, where it would be a more pleasant way to clean up the used condoms and syringes in the ‘hood, a block or two from where I live. Attenti Mayor Murray.

Probably the best ever photo of a street vacuumer (vacuumist?) hiding behind a baggy panted woman.

What I really like is that everyone bikes here. Not like in Seattle where you have to be fairly athletic to bike the hills. Here on bikes I’ve already seen grandfathers in suits, grandmothers in skirts, grandfathers smoking cigars, women with rattan bike baskets lined with subtle prints, men in Armani overcoats, young women in short skirts and people of all ages in jeans and either leather or quilted down jackets. Plus people are riding silent and stealthy electric bikes, which seem to require no expenditure of effort whatsoever. And tourists. The hotel I’m at has free bikes available to any guest who’d like one. And whose ankle will allow it.

Though it’s an historic town, the ancient and esteemed university here gives the place a youthful vibe. Lots of school kids, lots of university students and many professorial types. A group of rowdy and too-drunk-for-this-early students is singing loudly outside this cafe as I write. Accompanied by real American jazz on the cafe’s loudspeakers the waiter says in excellent English that the students are graduating today.  This town is so much more than just cheese!

In fact it’s also a storehouse of medieval architecture. The frescoed Duomo is nothing short of stunning. Bas-relief sculptures on the adjoining baptistery are nearly 1000 years old. Those are just a couple of the historic treats to be seen here.

I’ve painted churches as a volunteer, but never anything like this.

So I’m going to score Parma toward the top of my list of hidden Italian treasures, and rate it as a great place to cool your jets while walking the Via Francigena to Rome.

Don’t quote me, but I believe this bronze statue was made by either a hair stylist or a fashion designer.

On the highest authority this town is rated a perfect “10.”

Italian for blister is “vescica”

Day Two: Fiorenzuola d’Arda to Fidenza — 23 km (14.3 miles)

Hospitable display in a front yard along the path

Today I learned many new Italian words:

  • vescica — blister
  • tamponi antisettici — antiseptic pad
  • nastro chirurgico — surgical tape
  • Mia gamba fa male — my leg hurts
  • Ibuprofen — Ibuprofen
  • Dove posso ottenere una bevanda? — where can I get a drink?*

Other than learning new Italian words, the day was spent in the countryside, playing hide and seek with the Italian A1 superhighway, an alternate mode of transport between Fiorenzuola and Fidenza, or for that matter between Milan and Rome. I twice crossed the freeway on sparkling new overpasses as our pilgrim route wandered among quiet country roads to find its goal.

Beyond the mesh barrier is a different way to Rome.

I woke with a surprise this morning. I’d slept until 7:30, very late for a responsible pilgrim. After gathering up my things I headed first to a local cafe for breakfast and a “to-go” sandwich, then to a fruit store to top off my lunch sack. Then it was across the rail tracks and out of town, heading for my first goal of Chiarevalle Della Colomba and its 12th century abbey.

Breakfast site. it takes courage to name your cafe “Three Died”. And courage to eat there.

Abbey Chiarevalle della Colomba.

After the Abbey was the first crossing of the A1, followed by a series of farm roads, zigzagging through the countryside.

Farm road Photo A

Farm Road Photo B

Farm Road Photo C

I stopped at a park in Castione Marchesi to eat my lunch, then continued on along more farm roads to another crossing of the A1. I saw no cows today, but I came to understand how omnipresent silage smells much the same as cow manure.

Thanks to its surprisingly-tall-for-in-a-small-town buildings, Fidenza soon became visible to the south. Somehow it look longer to get there than seemed necessary, but when I arrived I was rewarded with a visit to Fidenza’s Duomo San Donnino, built from brick nearly 800 years ago and a good example of Lonbardy Romanesque style (says the guidebook).

Since the front facade is covered in scaffolding, here’s a photo of the back of Fidenza’s Duomo.

The Fidenza Duomo’s interior and its unusually high altar.

After that it was off to my room for the night for a shower and welcome rest.

Tomorrow the plains of Emilia-Romanga become a memory as the route heads for the hills. I’m ready for a change of scenery and am looking forward to some mountains.

Yoga has discovered Italy! (A sugn on the outskirts of Piacenza).

*There’s a story inside that series of translations that goes like this: yesterday I developed a couple of non-serious blisters which I drained and bandaged right away. Today they were annoying and I couldn’t keep the bandages on so I tied one bandage — too tightly it turns out — with adhesive tape around my foot. This exacerbated a recent problem I’ve developed in which my foot decides not to allow me to stand or walk on it. Sadly, the pain became extreme about 8km (5 miles) from today’s goal. That meant three hours of hobbling rather than one and a half hours of walking. The good news is that after Ibuprofen and a good night’s sleep the pain completely goes away and I can walk again. The Italian words derive from a conversation at the very first Farmacia I could find in Fidenza. 

Fizzy red wine, horse meat, Carabinieri and crossing a raging torrent

Day One: Piacenza to Fiorenzuola d’Arda — 32 km (20 miles)

Pilgrim begins his progress at the start of the day.

As I studied the guidebooks prior to today’s walk I noted a discrepancy in the distance for today. Alison Raju said to expect 23 km while the SloWays site said 32 and the Lightfoot Guide warned of 34. Somehow in my head I prepared for the shorter distance, anticipating an arrival time of 1:00 or 2:00 at the latest. Instead, I rolled into Fiorenzuola d’Arda at 4:30 with two blisters after nine long hours of walking.

Nothing happened today, except for being stopped by the Caribinieri, fording a raging torrent, finding Black Stallion on the menu, and beginning what I hope will be a long and happy relationship with fizzy red wine.

The Caribinieri — these are Italy’s national police force. As I walked along another endless flat stretch, two Caribinieri in a white squad car stopped me to ask what I was up to. They’d heard of the Via Francigena and guessed I was Austrian. Must’ve been the lederhosen-like hiking shorts. I marveled at their gorgeous uniforms, deep blue with red piping. Which reminds me of one of the many Caribinieri jokes. “Why do Caribinieri have a red stripe on their pants from heel to hip?” “To help them find their pockets.” Other than a wrong guess, though, these Caribinieri seemed plenty nice, smart and competent.

First of many way marks on this well marked trail.

Fizzy red wine — Yes, it’s a thing here. A nice thing. As friends would attest, I’m a little bit of a red wine snob. Little did I realize how much I’d like red wine — with bubbles!

Horse meat on the menu — Never have I been so proud to be a non-red meat eater.   I’m hoping I have the translation of cavallo wrong because it’s on menus everywhere here. “Cavallo Crudo”? After all that horses have done for us?

Street scene in early morning Piacenza

Crossing a raging torrent — The rivers and streams around here are all optimistically called torrente. I had read in the guidebooks about the need to ford various streams and how important it would be to wade across only in the dead of summer, when the streams are quiet. Finally a torrente appeared ahead of me and I carefully noted that the calendar identifies today as early spring. So, although the stream appears calm, I assure you that, according to the guidebooks and the calendars, it actually is a raging torrente. 

The torrente in its quiet rage

My much abused feet, preparing to cross. Perfect time for a horse to appear and carry me across. Oops, they’ve been eaten.

After an uneventful 32 km (20 miles) I stumbled into the church offices at San Fiorenzo parish and claimed my place in its empty, four-bed hostel. Then it was off to dinner for fizzy red wine and anything but horse.

Crossing under a highway near Piacenza

Poppies by the rail tracks in the sun.

I prefer my busy streets with sidewalks.

Typical view. All day.

Church by the Castle of Paderna

Lunch at Chero’s restaurant. No horse served here today.

At the end of this Fiorenzuola lane is a tower in a piazza with a church that has an office that runs a hostel with a bed for me.

Guest register at the hostel. There are pilgrims not far ahead.

Back on the trail — 700 kilometers to Rome

Stazione Piacenza. A welcome sight.

As the train pulled up to the station in Piacenza yesterday I finally felt that wonderful combinations of feelings — expectation, release, hope, joy, excitement, wonder — that mark the beginning of a camino. Ten minutes before the actual stop I was already up from my seat, pack on my back, standing at the door ready to jump off the train and …. walk. For the next month. Walk on to Rome.

When I say “finally” arrived, that stands not just for the 24 hours of flights and layovers from Orlando here, and not just the three agreeable days spent in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, at the board meeting of our Salud y Paz mission org. It also means I’m finally here after years of knowing about and dreaming about the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route from England through France, Switzerland and Italy on to Rome. With two months before my new job back home, I opted to spend one of them on as much as I could do of one of my dream walks. The whole walk is 1700 km (1050 miles), which would take more time than I can spare, but by my calculations I can do the last 700 km (405 miles) this month. And I’m excited.

Piacenza’s cathedral after dinner last night.

Today I square away a few things in town. I’ll mail a package, but some food and water for inside my pack, enjoy the sights of this charming and historic town, then Wednesday morning I’ll slip out soon after dawn to feel the trail under my feet again, to watch the dew rise from the fields, to listen for church bells in the distance and hear the quiet lowing of cows and sheep as they begin their days.

I’m truly blessed to be a pilgrim again and with God’s help in 29 days I will rub the foot of Peter’s statue in the mighty basilica that bears his name.

My itinerary — in red.

Photos from my day in Piacenza: