Day four: Avenza to Pietrasanta — 24.8 km (15.4 miles)
Last night I enjoyed a tasty pizza dinner with Paolo, a pilgrim I’d met yesterday, so it was a delight to see him again on the way out of town this morning. As I stood in the piazza at Avenza, debating which way to go, I heard Paolo’s familiar voice calling out, “Pastor!” He was in the fruit store, buying provisions for the long walk to Pietrasanta and had spotted me.
Paolo is a 24-year old Italian who’s finishing up his Master’s in Business and getting ready to do an internship at a financial firm in London. He’s heading to Rome before he begins his work in early June. Armed with a scallop shell, he’s also a veteran Santiago pilgrim.
As I gazed at my smartphone, choosing among the apps that are guiding me on the walk, Paolo said in his excellent English, “Let’s just walk the Via Aurelia. It’s the main road and we know it goes up and down the whole coast.”
I agreed, and as we set out we both knew a couple of things: the “official route” of this walk is frustrating, and our day on the Via Aurelia would be brutal with traffic and no sidewalks.
It is frustrating to walk the official route. If you slavishly follow all the signs you will find yourself walking long — though scenic — walks that add many kilometers to each day’s total. With two lengthy excursions from the beach area of Avenza to the nearby mountains, the official route’s total distance for today is 31.9 km. (20 miles). If you walk the Via Aurelia from Avenza to the same destination of Pietrasanta it’s only 19km (12 miles). That’s another 3-4 hours on the trail, and after several hours on foot each day the brutal pilgrim truth is that scenic aspects blur together while the urge to just get there becomes overwhelming.
So Paolo and I set out on the Via Aurelia and, dodging cars, covered about a quarter of the day’s distance in no time.
Paolo soon discovered a truth about the current state of my walking. My foot still hurts just enough that I’m quite slow. He wanted to cover some ground, so we parted with a handshake, knowing we’d see each other at the hostel this evening.
That meant it was back to me choosing which route to go. Since we’d made good time, I decided to head up to the hills on the official route. After two days on the seaside I’d finally get to view the sea.
So I headed for the hills, comparing the accounts in the various guidebooks. One caught my eye: “shave off 800 meters by taking the steep path that cuts off the long loop before the castle door.”
Shave off distance? Take a nature path instead of an asphalt road? Come to a castle door? I couldn’t resist.
I should’ve known something was awry when I couldn’t find the steep path. The GPS pointed me to an overground trail, no wider than a human foot. As I climbed higher and higher, the trail at first got very steep. Then it disappeared altogether.
I’d placed myself in thick undergrowth, surrounded by thorn bushes, on a path too steep to go back down, with no castle door in sight, in a place far out of earshot of any human being.
And my GPS confirmed it. I was located exactly on the trail. What a comfort to know that in this desperate situation, at least I wasn’t lost.
To extricate myself I bushwhacked back downhill a few painful steps with thorns pulling at my clothes, crawled under a fallen tree, and scrambled up a steep, gravel bank. Finally at the top, I saw this sign:
After turning the page in the guidebook I read this line: “Don’t bother knocking on the castle door. It’s never open.”
So, no castle today. No damsels in distress. No dragons, no wise wizards, no young kings pulling swords from stones. No heraldic trumpets or cavalcades of shimmering knights. All I got out of that was some scratched up arms and legs to accompany me to Pietrasanta — and some time added to my day.
But I did get to view the sea. And I did have a nice pasta lunch. I saw marble being sawn and walked along a pretty river in the glorious sunshine.
At the end of the stage in the main Pietrasanta piazza I heard a familiar voice, shouting “Pastor!” There was Paolo, smiling after his efficient 19 km. And at the hostel was a new friend, Daniele, an archaeologist from Rome, relaxing after his 31.9 km on the official route.
They’re great guys, but only I walked 24.9 km, and the steep path to the castle door.