Walking too early, and without eyes in the skies

Inside the walls at the south gate of Monteriggioni looking out toward the day’s walk.

Day 10: Monteriggioni to Sienna — 15.2 km (9.7 miles)

The only bad thing about Monteriggioni is the lack of early morning cafes. By 7:00, when I was ready to head out the door for the quick walk to Siena, the tiny town’s few bars were still an hour away from starting up their daily trade.

So, with just a tiny bit of water in my pack and no food either in my belly or my pack, I headed out for a day the guidebook called, “easy walking except for the lack of food and water along the way.”

View towards the castle at Chiocciola.

The day’s biggest challenge, though, would be the complete failure of my iPhone GPS system. Yesterday I’d fixed it with a few rough taps on my knee. Today, no dice. It refuses to work at all. But at least I can read an iBook on it, which gives me access to the invaluable Terre Mezzo Italian/English guidebook.

With guidebook in hand I dove into a thirsty 6-7 miles of walking through woods and fields followed by a thirsty and hungry 2-3 miles on the edge of the busy highway.

However, the guidebook promised, “As you arrive in Siena you’ll see a petrol station and McDonald’s on the left.” With no food or water, my mouth was soon watering for a McChicken sandwich, fries and cold drink.

In a couple of hours, faithful to the guidebook, there it was! In this country of fine food I had stooped to the level of eating something I’d probably pass on back in the US. And at 10:00 it would be an early McDonald’s lunch, but so what?

I walked up to the door and tugged on it. Locked. Open at 11:00. I was an hour too early.

The walls of Siena.

I arrived in Siena’s historic Piazza del Campo at about 11:00, in plenty of time to enjoy a better-than-McDonald’s lunch at a delightful and sunny Italian restaurant. Cost for a calzone and two iced teas? A mere €27.60. In the Italian countryside this would be about €11.00!

As I checked into my B&B — late by now — I stumbled into a fellow who happened to be walking by sporting a Seattle Seahawks jersey. “You from Seattle?” I asked. “Victoria,” he said. “My name’s Mike and I’m walking a camino called the Via Francigena. Ever heard of it?”

Early or late for everything today, but for once my timing was just right.

Met granny. Got lost. Ate granny’s cake. 


Day 9: San Gimignano to Monteriggioni — 32.5 km (20.2 miles)

Sometime in the dark of night I reached over from the bed in the monastery bunk room to the little shelf where my iPhone was charging. Before I knew it, the phone slipped from my fingers and fell onto the hard, tile floor. I turned it on to see if it was ok. No problems, it seemed. Another tumble for my indestructible and irreplaceable iPhone. Among all the normal things that are so important, my iPhone contains three guidebooks for this walk as well as two GPS systems so I won’t get lost.

So as I walked out of the gates of San Gimignano this morning at 7:30 I was dismayed to discover the GPS function wasn’t working. Not only that, but somehow the waymarkings today would prove to be some of the most sparse I’ve seen on this walk.

I was not far into the second kilometer of the day’s walk when I realized I hadn’t seen a waymark in quite some time. So I backtracked about 500m to the last one and discovered yes, I was where I was supposed to be. Result — an extra kilometer added to the day’s total.

About a kilometer later I caught up with “Nonna Emma,” a 92-year old Italian pilgrim who’s walking from her home in Northern Italy to Rome for the Holy Year. I knew Granny Emma was ahead on the trail, her walk being something of a sensation, but even so it was a delight to actually meet her. I chatted with her and her companion, Loredana, before continuing on.

After this brief time on the road the path veered off into the deep woods where it would spend most of the day. I counted three stream crossings, many vineyards tucked among the trees, and as always here in Tuscany some amazing vistas along the way.


At one point I looked up and saw ahead of me one of the biggest hills I’ve yet climbed on this walk. I huffed and puffed my way up and followed the road another kilometer or so, never seeing a familiar red/white waymark. Tracing my way backwards I realized I’d made a wrong turn at the bottom of the big hill. So I headed back down the hill I’d just climbed. I’d say the result was another 3km added to the day. Dang, this is adding up!
I finally arrived at the little town of Quartaia much later than planned and decided to splurge on a dessert at 11am. “What’s that creamy looking cake?” I asked. “Tarta della Nonna” was the reply. Granny’s cake.

As I enjoyed my cake I asked myself, “What if I just banged my phone on the table a couple of times? Could I get the GPS function to work?

Guess what. I banged it three times and…. Kah-bang. It worked! No more getting lost.

As I neared Monteriggioni at day’s end I spied a gorgeous city on a hill, completely behind medieval walls. Could that be Monteriggioni? Sure enough, this is a fascinating little village, surrounded by stone walls, situated stop a hill. Our hostel for the night is inside the walls, next to the ancient parish church. After dinner with Tor and Eiler — I bought them each a piece of Monteriggioni’s version of tarta della nonna— it was off to bed. Tomorrow: Siena.

A short, maddening and delightful walk to a medieval Manhattan

San Gimignano — designated a World Heritage site for its unusually well-preserved medieval center.

Day 8: Gambassi Terme to San Gimignano — 15km (9.3 miles)

I think Bishop Sigeric had a taste for Italian pleasures when he walked this way in the year 990 A.D. How else to explain Italian delight after delight for those who follow his itinerary 1000 years later?

As you probably already know, the Via Francigena retraces the footsteps of Bishop Sigeric on his trip back from Rome to his “new” position as Archbishop of Canterbury. His itinerary followed a western Italian thoroughfare called “Via Francigena” which essentially means the road the Frankish people walk. To the east there is also the “Via Romea” which led people from Eastern European origins toward Rome. But Sigeric obviously was a wise one. He chose a very lovely route — stopping at places like Piacenza, Lucca, Siena, and my destination today: San Gimignano.

The Gambassi Terme hostel where we stayed yesterday is situated next to a beautifully preserved 12th-13th century Romanesque church. One of the hospitaleros at the hostel gave us a detailed tour, and happened to mention that pilgrim groups occasionally include someone who can play the 15th century organ. I raised my hand at that point and, after he found an extension cord for the blower motor, I played a couple of moments on the beautiful and historic instrument.

Then this morning after breakfast it was out the door under grey skies to follow Sigeric’s course for the short walk to San Gimignano.

The day began on gravel roads amidst now-typical Tuscan beauty, which means each scenic valley is followed by another valley just as scenic. Yep, I’m getting a little spoiled.

Before long I could look back toward Gambassi Terme on the ridge and ahead to the Manhattan-esque towers of beautiful San Gimignano. In the days before banks, rich medieval families kept their valuables in fortified towers. I think the way it worked was if someone tried to get in from the ground floor they would drop a big rock on him from above and clean up the mess the next morning. A little brutal perhaps, but no hidden bank fees. Once those were discovered most of the towers were dismantled, though San Gimignano has over 20 still standing, some as tall as 240 feet. This gives the town a vertical feel, in a way like a modern city.


In between vistas of spectacular scenery I passed the Monastero di Bose just as its church bells rang out for the 11:00 service. With a little pastoral guilt I passed on the opportunity to join the local community for worship and instead continued along the way.

Karma intervened, and very soon the gravel road spilled out onto the main highway, which was sadly unencumbered of sidewalks on either side. This meant we pilgrims were forced onto the white line, like gymnasts on a balance beam, while campers, Fiats, Lancias, BMWs and Ducatis sped by.

Maddening. Or, “It’s enough to make a preacher cuss,” like my dad used to say. Prophetically.

As the cars whizzed by, I carefully grouped and analyzed the driving strategies on display. They fall into these categories:

  • Motorcyclists: “That was an awesome road! What? There were pedestrians?”
  • Cautious drivers: “Oh my! I’d better slow down and give these poor pedestrians a wide berth!”
  • All other drivers: “Betcha I can pass that slow car while another car is coming toward us and still have room for the pedestrian if he steps off the road which he should never be on in the first place.”

Never one to be ignored, I’ve developed my own strategy for handling the third group. I walk in the lane, with the white line to my left. After all, give them a centimeter and they will take a kilometer. So far it’s working, as evidenced by today’s post-game of chicken post. (Note to my mom: I’m still being very careful and safe). 

After surviving the walk here I found San Gimignano to be just as pretty as advertised. Inside the walls it reminds me something of Assisi — pristine, charming, human in scale. There are many Italians here, on weekend holiday, and I’ve also heard tourists speaking British English, American English, French, German and I think Polish.

I’m secretly pleased that the nun at tonight’s hostel understood my Italian very well. We had something of a conversation even, in which I explained I am an American pastor and writer. She corrected me to say no, you’re not American, you’re from the United States. America is big, we agreed, and the US is just a part of it. Who am I to argue? Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian.

Notwithstanding the on-road adventures, at this walk’s halfway point, nothing really can detract from the wonders of this great trail chosen a thousand years ago by Bishop Sigeric, that wise old guy.

Looking a little grizzled, I see. Tonight I will shave.

Every country road looks just as gorgeous as the next.

San G. in the distance.

A walk of tranquil beauty enjoyed slowly over many miles


Day 8: Sam Miniato to Gimbassi Terme — 24 km (14.9 miles)

After a continental breakfast in English, French and Italian with fellow pilgrims plus Friars and volunteers at Convento San Miniato, I stepped out the door under perfect weather to begin a stage the guidebook called “very beautiful and quiet.”

“Quiet” is a fully accurate description. With few cars and mostly on dirt or gravel roads and paths, the stage was deeply tranquil. To call it merely “very beautiful,” though, is to sell it short. Somehow bellissima sounds better. It was gorgeous. 

Today’s track follows a long and winding ridge line gradually south from the heights of San Miniato Alto. Though there were a few downhill stretches, the path never seemed to reach the bottom of any valley. Instead, the ridge continually offered dramatic panoramas first on the right and then on the left — over and over all day long.

No photography could really do justice to the beauty, but here are a couple of attempts using the iPhone “Panorama” function.


And also these in “Normal” mode:


Today was a walk through the places farmers take their lunch midday or carry their dinner to at night to marvel in the beauty of their workplace. To walk through it does it more justice than to breeze through it in the comfort of a car or I think even on the seat of a bike. It’s not just the sights that make the day, but also the sounds and smells. I watched tiny lizards scamper away from me as I placed one foot in front of the other on the path. I heard the bees doing their zigzaggy work in the lazy afternoon sun. I felt the wind pick up after noon and I watched the clouds roll slowly in. I waited for them and then felt them — the raindrops falling from the darkened clouds onto the warm and salty skin of my face. Slowly and in the calm the beauty sang in its own voice — a song of wonder and love.

As for me — I’m feeling well. My ankle pain is behind me. I’m nursing a dry and cracked blister on my right heel, but nothing painful. I’m getting stronger — feeling my legs under me now. It’s hard to eat enough to keep up with the calorie expenditure, so my clothes are loosening slightly. My Italian is becoming more confident, but not better. I’m enjoying brief and long conversations with other pilgrims. And I’m having fun.

Halfway through, lunch looked like this.

Wolf, fox, dog, or Norwegian?

Altopascio tower last night.

Day Seven: Altopascio to San Miniato — 27.5 km (17.1 miles)

On pilgrimage in Italy, I’ve seen a fair amount of four-legged wildlife. Near Badia Prataglia I saw a family of boars, as I did also near Ponticelli. I’ve seen deer, too.

I’ve come to think of pilgrim pairs as four-legged animals. Perhaps it’s because I’m single and everyone else has a spouse or friend. Like Eiler and Halvard, two fun Norwegians I met last night and shared lunch with today. They walk closely together — like a four-legged beast — though their front and back legs are interchangeable depending on who leads.

Eiler, who slept in the bunk below me last night, gave me a tiny sticker with his name and email address. I had no great place to stick it, so I put it on my little tube of ChapStick. Now I tell Eiler that his name is always on my lips.

In addition to the Norwegian pair there is a French couple and also a couple of young Italian lads. I’m the sole loner, amongst people walking this stage today.

Anyway, enough about four-legged pilgrim couples and boars because the four legged wildlife I’m really excited about is….

A wolf. I’m pretty sure that today I saw a wolf.

In truth, it could have been a large fox or a feral dog, but it looked like a wolf to me, and I’m sticking to my story.

My wolf sighting came after the point where the track veers off pavement and heads into a stretch of back country. There’s a sort of plateau between Galleno and Ponte a Cappiano that is heavily wooded and rather remote, where the path is full of puddles in some places and in others is deeply rutted. In addition to the wolf sighting, I stumbled across two friends trying to extricate a Fiat from a deep mud hole.

Judge for yourself. Here’s a photo of the wolf:


In the pic above it’s dead ahead on the trail. It was limping as it walked toward me, dark brown and black in color. When it saw me it stopped. I took a photo and by the second picture it had gone. (nb: I spoke to a forestry expert this evening who happened to sit next to me at dinner. He said there ARE wolves in Tuscany. Grey ones. I saw a mixed breed wolf/dog. Still a cool deal!)

Compared to that, not much else happened today. Now that my ankle is close to normal, the distance went quickly. I arrived at the Convent of San Miniato about 2:30 I think and had a nice visit with the volunteer hosts before heading to my cell. That’s what it is, really. Small, simple, and right in the cloister at what Italians would call a convent and what we would call a friary.

Chapel is at 7pm. Dinner is at 8:00. Friday it’s fish in the convent refectory. Breakfast at a refreshing 6:30. What four-legged beasts await tomorrow?

Approaching San Miniato.

Convent dining room.

Hallway inside the cloisters.

Vespers with the friars and commmunity.

Photo set of a stage of the Via Francigena each half mile 

Church at the heart of Altopascio that has served pilgrims for over 1000 years. The tall bell tower beckoned lost pilgrims after hours.

 

Day 6: Lucca to Altopascio — 16 km (10 miles)

Today began like every other day. I awakened in the night with a brilliant idea and by morning I’d forgotten it. So in lieu of having a brilliant idea I decided to share a series of photos that depict today’s stage of the Via Francigena at 1/2 mile intervals, starting at Lucca and ending 16 km (10 miles) later in Altopascio.



That’s what 16 km looked like today.

Before, during and after taking the photos, some other fun things happened.

Before: The other day I realized I had skipped out of Pietrasanta without paying my breakfast tab. I mentioned it to Mora, desk person at Camere con Visto where I stayed in Lucca last night, and she offered to take care of it for me. In Europe it’s very common to transfer money person-to-person (or person to cafe), and since I remembered the name of the cafe, it was easy. I gave Mora 10€; she called and got the IBAN number of the bar and she will transfer the funds for me. Pretty sweet. I can’t really handle the idea that I cheated someone inadvertently, and with Mora’s help I’m making good on my debt via Europe easy bank transfer system. This would be much tougher to accomplish in the US.

During: Along the way I was passed by three Italian pilgrims, who paused just long enough to say ciao before pushing quickly onward. In hare/tortoise fashion I caught up with them during their lunch at a rest stop about an hour later. True to Italian custom, they begged me to sit down with them and share a glass of wine. I obliged and really appreciated their sweet gesture.

After: As I strolled into Altopascio at stage’s end, who should I stumble on but Mary Belden Brown and friends? She and her husband, Lynn, are leading a group of pilgrims on what they call a “luxury tour” of the Via Francigena. I’ve shadowed Mary and several in her group on Facebook for days, and it was fun to meet them and have a few moments to speak in true American English to some folks from back home. I’ve been gone only eight days, but I can’t overestimate how nice it is to speak to someone in my native tongue.

Americans? Americans!

Other things happened, too. For instance, I conquered the Italian shower challenge. For the uninformed, this means I successfully showered in a doccia with no shower stall or shower curtain without flooding the entire bathroom. The secret is to stand in the corner and point the shower wand at yourself, turning the water on and off as needed. The Altopascia hostel, full with about 20 pilgrims, is equipped with one of those amazing and impractical showers, here shared by all the pilgrims of both sexes.

Site of today’s Italian Shower Challenge.

The growing number of pilgrims on the trail are mostly Italian, followed by French. I’ve heard there are Germans about, but I haven’t met them yet. And other than the luxury pilgrims, who are sampling portions of the route and won’t join the long haul to Rome, I’m the only American around.

I admit it. I’m missing home and part of me is ready for the leap back to the U.S. and home, family and friends. But there are miles to go before I leap. Miles to go before I leap.

“Would you like to have some wine with us?” they said. They seemed trustworthy. Their wine? Fizzy!

A guilt-laden rest day in a town that must’nt be missed

A spot of tea, as the Britis would say, enjoyed in this cup in Lucca.


There’s a certain masochism in pilgrimage walking. We separate ourselves from the comforts of home and family and friends. We walk blistered, taped and braced. Sometimes in discomfort, too cold or too hot. We sleep in simple rooms, accompanied by the snoring of strangers. We delight in a stamp on our pilgrim passport at day’s end, then our name on a certificate when the journey is over. After we are home and healed up and our photos are merged into the forgotten recesses of our hard drives, we long to deprive ourselves again, to push our physical limits, find another pilgrimage, and let it pull us out the door. More kilometers. More strange languages and creaky bunks. More blisters. More pain. More deprivation and discomfort.

So I admit to some pilgrim guilt when I booked a room for a second night here in Lucca. It didn’t help any that Daniele was out the door to Altopascio at 05:00 or that Paolo texted a few minutes ago to report that he’s reached San Miniato today with a total distance walked of 45 km (27 miles).

Me? I walked a couple of km — at most –inside the walls of this lovely Tuscan town, then took off my shoes to let my feet luxuriate in the sunshine. I gazed at a cathedral. Studied a basilica. Sat in a caffe drinking tea, and in general worked diligently to squeeze as much rest as possible out of this day.

Lucca is a smaller, quainter and more accessible version of Florence. Its big buildings lack the ambition of Renaissance Florence, but it is likable. The town feels like that bargain jacket you found at the store. You paid less and it’s not the famous brand, but it fits perfectly and feels better on you than the fancy one.

Here the restaurants and hotels are cheaper and the tourist rush is not a stampede. Florence is so First Class in its art (Michelangelo) and architecture (Bruneleschi), while Lucca combines its Second Class together in a thoroughly livable and lovable way. People live here and work here. And is happens also to be beautiful. Plus this is Puccini’s hometown, and Napolean’s sister lived in a palace here. So they’ve got cool stuff, too.

I read an article recently lamenting that Florentines cannot even buy a loaf of fresh bread in their city. Here there is bread aplenty, and local cheeses and wines and handicrafts. You wander, joyfully aimless in Lucca, almost like in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter.

So I can barely remember how guilty I’m feeling for taking a day off to enjoy Lucca. Does it really make sense to breeze through one of Italy’s great towns just to obsessively follow a masochistic pilgrim timeline?

“I think not,” I say to myself, as I slowly stir my tea at a cafe in the sunny piazza.

Tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow, I will get myself back on the trail.

Inside report from the Italian Men’s Shouting Club

One of many steep paths on today’s itinerary.

Day Five: Pietrasanta to Lucca — 33.2 km (20.5 miles)

“Do you have any panini without meat?” I asked the bartender in Camaiore in Italian.

“How about this one with prosciutto?” she replied, pointing to a panino with meat in the display case.

“No thank you,” I replied, a little louder. “Do you have any panini without meat?”

We finally settled on a panino on focaccia with tuna. “May I have it hot, please?” I said loudly.

“It is made of tuna,” she said as she placed in on the serving plate.

By this time I not only was doubting my Italian, but I was doubting my sanity.

May I have it hot?” I asked, very loudly. With her eyebrows raised she pointed at the toaster oven on the counter behind her.

Yes. Please!” I said.

Why, I asked myself as I ate my hot tuna panino, had that been so hard? Then I realized what it was. Seated on the other side of the room were ten, elderly, Italian men shouting at the top of their lungs.

I had walked right in to a meeting of the Italian Men’s Shouting Club.
I’d awakened several times through the night at the hostel in Pietrasanta. Four men in bunk beds in a small room made for stuffy air, and I wasn’t the only one who made a couple of trips to the bathroom. One pilgrim was out the door by 05:30. Daniele left at 06:00, and Paolo and I packed and headed to the Caffe at about 07:00. After a couple of croissants and cappuccinos I suggested to Paolo that he go on ahead, since I was certain to be slow.

After he left, I loaded up my things and headed out. Already it was obvious it would be a beautiful day, but I did not in any way look forward to the 33.2 km (20.6 mile) distance to the stage end at Lucca.

The day felt like a trudge. I was tired. My foot hurt. And today there was no choice but to follow the official route through the mountains and across the river to Lucca.

The first obstacle was a steep path through overgrown vegetation — shades of yesterday. The next challenge was walking on the busy highway. And what turned out to be the day’s biggest challenge: where would I find food and water?

Which brings us back to the Italian Men’s Shouting Club.

There I was, in Camaiore with a hard fought hot panino, at one of the only cafes I could find, and ten elderly men were screaming at each other.

A nicely dressed 35 year old woman was sitting next to me, rolling her eyes at the ongoing tirade. We were both trapped, along with a deaf bartender, in an Italian shouting match.


This had happened to me once before. While Theresa and I were pausing at a bar in Montelibretti in our 2014 walk to Rone, about five men had walked in, shouting at each other like they were in a blood duel. After ten minutes of screaming they suddenly sat down and started playing cards, as though nothing had happened.

In this walk I’ve had men shouting at me. Like Frederico in Massa, a veteran pilgrim, who saw me across the parking lot a couple days ago, knew I was a pilgrim, shouted me over, and insisted on a selfie. We’re Facebook friends already. Then there’s the fellow today. As I left Valpromaro he saw me and shouted me down. Running across the highway, which I’d begun to enter, he told me I’d taken a wrong turn and then showed me the right path.

I’m thankful for both of these fellows and glad they used their vocal gifts for the good.

But the Men’s Shouting Club at the bar was still a curious mystery.

I guess I knew implicitly why they were shouting. They’re all elderly and perhaps almost deaf. But I think also they were shouting because of their joy in community and the stability and confidence of their relationships. They are poor, rural, and have known each other forever.

The Shouting Club reminded me that we Americans love our decorum in public, but it’s too often a sign that we’re isolated from each other. Cafes and restaurants become an extension of our cocoons of isolation. We don’t really have decades of friends with whom we’ve grown up, whom we’ve watched graduate and get married and have joy and experience hardship and grief. Maybe in comparison we walk on eggshells with our friends, unsure how long we’ll be together or what level is our mutual commitment. You have to like someone pretty hard to shout at them everyday in the Shouting Club, after all. Every day for the rest of your lives.

I don’t think the Shouting Club members thought I could speak Italian, because I could clearly hear them guessing, at the top of their lungs, who I was and why I was there.

So I threw on my pack, paid my bill, and walked over to the nearest Shouting Club members.

“I’m an American pilgrim walking from Piacenza to Rome on the Via Francigena,” I said loudly, for an American, while other members shouted in the background.

“I’m a shepherd,” said the dark haired one. “I’ve walked parts of the Via Francigena myself,” said the other. We exchanged a few pleasantries and I headed out the door.

From 10 meters away, with the door closed, I could hear a man shouting at the top of his lungs in Italian:

“HE’S AN AMERICAN PILGRIM ON THE VIA FRANCIGENA WALKING FROM PIACENZA TO ROME!” 

And for just a moment I was a topic of conversation at the Italian Men’s Shouting Club.

Buddies Daniele and Paolo at dinner last night.

A sculpture in Pietrasanta. I almost asked her permission before snapping a photo.

An oasis by the trail.

Hilly terrain today.

The Shouting Club meets just around the corner.

Green, green everywhere, and no water to drink.

The Ponte San Pietro leads into Lucca.

The cathedral at beautiful and ancient Lucca.

P.S.  A very long day, accompanied by hunger and thirst. Note to Via Francigena stewards: The green scenery is nice, but don’t forget to steer pilgrims toward food and water. There. I said it without shouting.

Up the steep path to the castle door

Last night’s view pre-pizza.

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.

Fast Paolo, as seen by slow Sandy

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.”

The red line is the GPS track. The big white loop toward the bottom right is what I avoided. The arrow is me — on the steep trail.


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:

You don’t even need to be able to read Italian to know this says, “Beware: Danger of Death”.

And this relic:

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.

Call the wah-mbulance.

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.

That castle on the right? That’s the one!

For you, Rox.

Pietrasanta,That’s actually Paolo there, waving a welcome as I arrive in Pietrasanta.

Paolo, this is way better than the Via Aurelia.

Discarded marble sculpture spied among rejects in a marble yard? Or victim of the steep trail to the castle door?



Italian word for the day: “Invece”

Detour. That way instead of the short and easy way.

Day Three: Sarzana to Avenza — 17km (10.6 miles)

Every day in Italy I’m reminded of how my Italian language skills need improvement. Like last night at dinner when I was struggling to describe to the waiter exactly what I wanted.

“Just tell me in English,” he said. In English.

“I need to practice my Italian,” I said. In Italian.

“You can practice tomorrow,” he said. In Italian.

I think he regretted the joke a little, because by the end of the night he’d brought me two lovely glasses of chilled limoncello and had marked them on the check as offerta (complimentary).

But I really am trying to learn this language, and I’ve decided I’ll set an achievable goal while here of learning — indelibly learning — one new word for the day.

So today’s word is invece (een-VAY-chay), which means “instead.” Invece di is “instead of.”

As I made my way from Parma via train to my new starting point, I learned invece from the station loudspeaker which announced, in Italian, that: “The train headed from Bergamo to Pisa will depart in three minutes from Line 1 invece di Line 5.” That set off a mad dash by about 20 panicked, prospective passengers down the steps from Line 5, through the tunnel and up the stairs to Line 1.

This invece word seems downright powerful, I thought, as I ran right along with them. That was my train!

In fact, the word seems to symbolize my entire day.

For starters, I was at the train station invece di walking because I hurt my foot two days ago. So now I’ve skipped ahead on the train, taking pictures of Via Francigena sites through the train window invece di outside in the fresh air.

Invece is not all bad. I did this part of the Via Francigena inside the warm and cozy train invece di outside in the cold and rain.

Invece works with simple things: I used my external battery to give power to my iPhone on the train invece di the electrical socket, since those things never work on Italian trains.

And sad and sentimental things: I’m missing my fiancée, Theresa Elliott, because I’m in Italy invece di back home.

It works for things geographical: by the end of today’s walk I’ll be in the region of Tuscany invece di Emilia-Romanga or Liguria.

And things fun and laughable: I was almost late to the train in Parma today because I was watching video of the President’s comedy routine at the White House Press Corps dinner invece di packing up my stuff.

It works for things relational: I met other pilgrims in Sarzana –Dutch and Italian! — so I’m making friends invece di being alone.

Pilgrim pals Paolo, Aura and Merike.

Invitational: Theresa and I are culling our wedding list to only some of our friends
aand family invece di everyone we’d like to invite to our big day.

And obligational: I’m under a little pressure to wrap up this walk in May invece di extending into June because we’ve promised friends we’ll enjoy Memorial Day Weekend with them.

For things adversarial: I snapped at two of my sisters in emails this morning invece di being patient and long-suffering.

And things itinerarial: by the end of the day I’d walked 17km (10.6 miles) from Sarzana to Avenza on both feet invece di giving up this walk due to a bad foot

These are all invece pics:

Invece di walking to Fornovo.

Invece di walking to Borgo Valle di Taro.

Invece di walking to Pontremoli.

Invece di walking to Villafranca-Bognone.

Invece di walking to Aulla.

Invece di walking to San Stefano Magra.

Invece di walking to Sarzana.

And with that, I’m fresh out of invece tricks.

It’s an important word really, all about choices and changes. It’s a pivot word, implying a before and after, something left behind with something new to be welcomed.

So I’m welcoming this new phase of my Via Francigena in which I’ve merrily skipped ahead instead of grinding out each successive kilometer on foot. Arriving, on foot once again, at the Ligurian Sea, I welcome the beach and the salty smell of the air and the flat terrain and the palms among olive trees and everything that’s so new and different about these few days along the coast. And I’m glad my foot held up invece di having to head home early. 

Avanza is between the town of Carrara and the Port of Carrara. Here mountains are sliced into crisp white chunks and sent all around the world.

P.S. As the day wore on my foot got stronger and less painful. Amazing.