Ending this walk at last year’s beginning

According to the mayor, there are 365 windows in this grand palace that holds down the east side of tiny Oria Litta.

Day 21: Oria Litta to Piacenza — 24km (14.9 miles)

Sixteen months ago I arrived by train to begin the Piacenza to Rome portion of the Via Francigena. Today I arrived on foot having completed the Lausanne to Piacenza portion of this monumental walk. For about ten days my feet will get a rest, my boots will sit empty of my feet, and I will revel in the memories of another amazing pilgrimage walk completed.

Last night at the hostel in Oria Litta four Italian bikers joined us on their way to Rome. They were still in bed at 7:00 when Charles and I left the hostel to get our coffee and make our way to the ferry boat.

A thousand years ago, Archbishop Sigeric walked to Rome from his new bishopric at Canterbury. On his way back he instructed his secretary to take careful notes of their return itinerary. Kept at Canterbury for centuries, these notes are the historical core of the Via Francigena. One piece of this historic document was particularly important for us today. Sigeric took a ferry across the Po River between Oria Litta and Piacenza. So Charles and I quickly agreed — we’d take the ferry too. Right after coffee we hit the road for the ferry rendezvous point at nearby Corte Sant’Andrea.

At 8:30 sharp our boatman arrived, Danielo, who has ferried pilgrims on this stretch since 1998. Four kilometers and 15 minutes later we were at Daniels’s house, petting his cat, hearing his pilgrim stories, and receiving his exuberant red tinbro stamp on our credentials. As we finished with Danielo, he warned us that the upcoming bridge across the Trebbia River was “kaput” and that we would need to change our trail so we could walk north of the bridge, across the dry riverbed instead. His clear directions worked perfectly well and about 5 km after we left him we picked our way up and down the deep and shallow channels of the dry river.

Official itinerary in red. Dry riverbed itinerary in purple.

By 11:30 we were on the straight road into Piacenza. By 12:30 we were guiltily enjoying a lunch at the Piacenza McDonald’s. By 1:30 we were having a beer at Piazza Duomo in the heart of Piacenza. By 2:00 we were settling into the rambling apartment at the B&B which is our home for tonight. And by 4:30 when I get my credential stamped at the cathedral I will no longer be a pilgrim.

Although my feet thank me for ending today, this ending is different from all the others walks I’ve made. Since Piacenza is just another stop along the way, not a pilgrimage destination, there’s no special welcome, no certificate of completion that certifies and celebrates my 478 km walk. Today I said to myself, “I’m walking home,” and that’s the best reward for arriving here at last year’s beginning which is this year’s ending. That, and the pride of now having walked about two-thirds of one of the world’s longest and most historic pilgrim routes.

Tonight, Charles, Morgan and I dine in the Duomo Piazza trattoria and tomorrow morning I say goodbye to this sweet Canadian who’s been my collaborator for about the last ten days. I wish him the very best as he gets ever nearer his joyful entry into the Eternal City.

Hiking Notes: the bridge closure is not really a problem if you follow the directions. While there is an option to skip the ferry and cross the “new” bridge to Piacenza, both Charles and I found the boat crossing to be very meaningful and we’d do it this way again. There’s no pilgrim hostel inside Piacenza proper, and walking 4km beyond to find Piacenza’s suburban ostello seems a little extreme. In a town of this size and quality it’s worth it to splurge and stay in a B&B

“See what looks like fog out here, Charles?” I said. “Yes,” he said. “Those are actually swarms of mosquitoes,” I said. “No way. Only an American would believe that,” he said.

The early bird catches the boat.

Stairway down to the Po landing.

Danielo at the wheel.

Over the bow to the river and woods.

No rice on this side of the Po.

Tall steeple for a tiny town.

Charles fording the dry river.

We deserved a break today.

First Piacenza church.

 

Brown pin drops are this year’s walk. Red was last year. Blue dot is me laying on the bed of our Piacenza B&B writing this blog post.

Gently finishing a challenging and memorable walk


Day 20: Santa Cristina to Oria Litta — 17.9 km (11.1 miles)

Last night we jumped on the little, diesel two-car train in Santa Cristina, paid our €2.90 each to the conductor, and arrived safely back in Pavia for dinner. The restaurants of Santa Cristina, such as they are, are closed on Mondays and we were surprised to find the first five or six eating places in Pavia closed as well. However, an Argentinian style steakhouse was open, so Charles and Morgan (a Belgian pilgrim) feasted on steaks while I enjoyed gnocchi and scrambled eggs. The return train was late, so we weren’t back to the Santa Cristina until a sleepy 10:00.

We awoke to discover an outdoor market was quietly setting up outside our window, and before we left town we picked from among the fresh fruits and vegetables on display for the local community. Monday’s scarcity was starkly juxtaposed against Tuesday’s abundance.

To know we had just 18-19 km ahead of us allowed the day to feel like a gentle stroll. We stopped at Miradolo Terme for second breakfast, then headed on to lovely Oria Litta, arriving around 1:00. We were toured by the mayor of the town through the enormous hostel, then spent the afternoon showering, washing clothes, and resting. Morgan is with us now, and we’re told four Italian bikers will arrive early this evening.

Tomorrow is my last day of walking the Via Francigena and when I arrive in Piacenza I’ll have largely completed* the Italian portion of this monumental, 1,700 km pilgrimage.

The walk has been challenging, not because of terrain or distances, but due to the exhausting afternoon heat of up to 40c (104f) degrees. The bugs and monotonous scenery of the rice fields were a challenge to the spirit, and many times I caught myself longing for a swimming pool, a fan, a cold drink, and a lounge chair in the shade. These conditions limited the daily distances since walking after 2:00 is unpleasant and, frankly, dangerous.

Usually a long pilgrimage walk brings some kind of camaraderie, and Charles of Canada provided it this time around. He is a kind and jolly friend, with a hearty sense of humor, a tender heart, and a great love of his homeland. We’ve formed a comfortable partnership, and I’ll miss him.

Hiking Notes: Tomorrow I finish in Piacenza, and as is custom on the VF, am taking a ferry across the Po River to reach the city. Reservations are made with the boatman and I’m looking forward to the break of being on the water.

*My walk from Piacenza to Rome last year was interrupted by injury and I skipped the stages between Fidenza and Sarzana while I recovered. I’m saving those for a future year.

Interior of the surprisingly beautiful Santa Cristina church. 

Street scene in Miradolo Terme

This combine munched up the corn….

…and spit it out here. 

Zees eees Morgan. ‘E ees Frrrenche. Oops. Belgian. 

Train bridge. 

Oria Litta church peeking out from beyond the cornfields. 

The fields of rice are transformed — into fields of beans

Reflections upon leaving Pavia.

Day 19: Pavia to Santa Cristina – 30.6 km (19 miles)

Clearly the Po River valley is the breadbasket of Italy. When you look at a topographical map of this country you realize almost the only truly flat of this mountainous nation is here in the north, the Po Valley. North of the Po the endless waters of the Alps allow a generous water supply for flooding the rice fields. South of the Po, not so much, which is why as we prepare to cross the Po the rice fields are giving way to vast fields of beans.

Charles and I set out this morning before 7:00, crossing the Ponte Coperta from our B&B in Borgo Ticino back to Pavia proper. Fresh in my mind was the memory of being asked to leave last night’s restaurant as we finished our meals. They wanted the table, the server said, and since we were buying only the €11 pilgrim special we were in the way of better paying customers. I was in my grouchy mood and did my best to share my displeasure in Italian. By morning I was reflecting on a side of me that peeks out on pilgrimage — the stand your ground side.

I’m sure my family of origin dynamics are source of my assertive self advocacy. As fourth of five children I learned early to state my case or be forgotten. As the only boy of five children, that ultimately was tinged with a little sense of entitlement. On pilgrimage, this mixture apparently now shows itself while getting kicked out of restaurants, as well as the more traditional time for me — while walking on the road.

I learned last year on the Via Francigena that if I am forced to compete with cars by walking on the road it’s important to own my space. What I mean is that on a two lane road if I step off the highway to let an oncoming car pass it will stay in its lane, missing me by inches. If I stay on the car’s side of the white line, it will give me a wide berth. Strange, but the more polite I am, the more rude they are. The more I stand up for my road space, the more they give.

At first Charles chuckled as he watched this in play. Then he became a little alarmed. Then we had a conversation about polite Canadians compared to stand your ground Americans. For instance, when we are passed by a speeding car I will say something like, “Dang that car is driving too fast!” Gentle Canadian Charles will say with a smile, “He could drive faster!” I know I’ll continue to look over the years for the right balance of gentleness, humility and stubbornness.

Anyway, today we walked. The story’s title could be, “It’s Monday and everything is closed” since in two of three towns we entered all of the cafes were closed. Open Sunday, closed Monday. We scored an open cafe in Belgioioso, but struck out in San Giacomo, Santa Margarita, Torre de’ Negra and Costa de Nobili. Most disappointingly, though there’s an open cafe here in Santa Cristina, there’s no open restaurant or store. So we’re taking the train back to Pavia later to find a meal. Nope. Im putting my foot down and we’re not going to that restaurant.

Hiking Notes: a day of 80-90% asphalt, so the feet take a beating. Best to be in a hurry at Borgo Ticino’s Royal Restaurant if you order the pilgrim menu. Watch out for Mondays. Only open store for miles is at Belgioioso.

A church in the dawn’s early light.

“Learn to share,” my mother might say.

Church streamers.

Stand up church at Cosa di Nobili.

We met a Lithuanian pilgrim. With no English, Italian, Spanish or French we hope he is great at hand signals.

Some gravel amidst the asphalt.

Can you see the Santa Cristina church on the horizon?

Main Street. Closed. It’s Monday after all.

Welcome to luscious Pavia

A lovely covered bridge crosses the Tacino River into the center city. 

Day 18: Gropello Cairoli to Pavia — 18.5 km (11.5 miles)

Life back home intervened and I spent a sleepless night wondering about the status of an offer Theresa and I just made on a new home. So this morning at 05:30 I was out of bed and out in the street looking for a reliable cell signal I could use to call home. By 7:00 my call to Theresa was done — no final news yet on the sale, but lots of details to work out.

Charles was sipping coffee as he waited for me in the cafe below the hostel, and after a cappuccino of my own we were on the road. The main road of little Gropello spilled out into the rice fields, but today a refreshing wind blew from the east offering a more pleasant experience than the oppressive heat of the previous days. In the far distance we could once again see the Alps and now also the Apennines on the horizon ahead.

A brief stopover in Villanuova d’Ardenghi allowed a bathroom break. Afterward, a bike path became our track and we found ourselves walking along the Tacino River. In no time we saw the tall dome of the Pavia Duomo ahead and knew we’d be at our goal by noon.

Pavia includes some beautiful and historic churches along with a bonanza of restaurants and cafes. After showers and laundry we spent the afternoon and evening relaxing in the picturesque streets of the largest Italian city we’ve yet encountered.

Hiking Notes: although the bike road may seem a worthy shortcut, we enjoyed our walk along the Tacino River footpath into town.

Gropello’s San Giorgio church in the light of dawn. 

Bikers on the bike path. 

River pathway. 

First glimpse of the Pavia Duomo dome. 

Train bridge into Pavia. 

Close up of Duomo exterior. 

Sunday afternoon during August holiday and the streets are deserted. 

Sporting a “goaty” as Charles calls it. 

Green and amber waves of grain

Hand-painted mural leading to a courtyard just off the Main Street of Garlasco. 

Day 17: Mortara to Gropello Cairoli — 27.2 km (16.9 miles)

The efficient signora at the hostel last night made it very clear. Breakfast at 06:30, then “svfft” (accompanied by the hand motion of shooing a fly) out by 07:00. Sure enough, by 06:59 Charles, two German pilgrims and I were back out into the rice fields, heading ever closer to Pavia, Piacenza, and the blessed end of these seemingly endless fields of amber and green.

Before we knew it, Charles and I had reached our first village, Tromello, where a pilgrim helper, Carlo, brought us to the “pilgrim bar” near the church. There a stamp, water and cold tea awaited us. We lamented together about flies and mosquitoes, then praised Carlo for being so robust and athletic at 79 years old. He explained he had played soccer for 40 years, which had kept him in good shape.

By noon we were sharing a pizza on the outskirts of Garlasco, a cheery town with one, busy Main Street. We obediently followed the way mark signs out of Garlasco, ignoring the GPS, and soon found ourselves on a busy highway with no sidewalk and cars zooming past in both directions. A couple of km later the diversion ended and we were back amongst the rice fields and canals, quietly looking to the horizon for Gropello, our goal for the night.

As we made our way into town we stopped to admire the impressive façade of the San Georgio church, with its dragonslayer namesake depicted in a prominent statue. As it turned out, our hostel is right across the little piazza from the towering likeness. I showered while Charles tinkered with the ancient fan so we could move the air around in our stuffy attic quarters.

Tomorrow, the ancient city of Pavia is our reward for a week in the rice fields. My mind is filled with dreams of swimming pools, tall glasses of iced beverages, salty peanuts, crisp salads, and frescoed sanctuaries.

Hiking Notes: resist the temptation to take the “Suggested Route” straight out of Garlasco. It works fine for about 800m, then it becomes a dangerous competition for position on a road of speeding vehicles.

Better than yesterday photo of the Sant’Albino hostel at Mortara. 

The signora was prompt for dinner, breakfast, and exit. Just after breakfast she picked up the Germans’ guidebook containing a photo of the priest who inspired the hostel alongside her late husband. Three years later, she maintains the dream on her own as the live-in hostel host. 

Morning vista of corn to the right, rice to the left. 

Ancient former shade tree still standing near ancient house and barns. 

Green and amber fields. 

Canal. Path. 

Canal. Derelict palazzo. 

San Giorgio was no fan of dragonkind. 

Eating risotto — in the rice capital of Europe

Vista at dawn from the hostel door. 

Day 16: Robbio to Mortara — 14.6 km (9.1 miles)

The biggest treat today was a homemade lunch. The biggest drama was watching a train zoom past us. The biggest marvel was the beautiful dawn. The biggest obstacle was the path itself.

Let me start with lunch. Yesterday our host at the hostel was Corrado Morelli, a local civic leader and volunteer. I tried to talk Corrado into finding us a swimming pool to help us take the heat off, but instead we all decided to have dinner together. It was a lovely evening spent over calamari and, later, gelato. In our wide-ranging conversation I mentioned to Corrado that I was unable to find rice on restaurant menus in “the rice capital of Europe” at which point he invited me to his family’s home for lunch the next day.

Soon after we walked the short (and buggy) distance to Mortara, Corrado appeared and took us back by car to Robbio. His mother had prepared a delicious luncheon of caprese salad, Russian salad, chicken, and real risotto. It was fabulous. Charles turned on his Canadian charm, which worked well on the three family dogs, and I did my best to hold up my end of the conversation in Italian with the humans.

Afterward Corrado’s brother, Cristiano, drove us back to Mortara, where Charles and I are the lone pilgrims in the spacious refectory of a restored Abbey. Charles will head out soon with some Italian friends while I will enjoy the hospitality of the pilgrim hosts here, who have promised dinner at 7:00. Pasta and chicken. No rice.

Hiking Notes: two words to remember — bug repellent. Cloud cover today kept the temps cooler, so the mosquitoes and flies were more energetic and pesky. Counting the days left of rice-a-roamy here in the flatlands.

Panorama. 

We waited for this train to pass. 

Little town along the way. 

Abbazia Sant’Albino, home for the night. 

Lunch with the Morelli clan. 

Best risotto ever. 

We lost 33 pounds between us, Charles and me. 

One step at a time


Day 15: Vercelli to Robbio — 19.4 km (12.1 miles)

Every so often you meet a person who truly understands and represents the spirit of Camino walking. One of those people is last night’s volunteer hostel host, Davide Toad. From Monza, Italy, Davide has walked many pilgrim trails, but this year, because he only has a short break from work, Davide volunteered at the hostel in Vercelli as his vacation. When we arrived yesterday, Davide oriented us to the sparkling hostel, washed and hung out our dirty clothes, told us where to find the best dinner deal, then cooked breakfast for us in the morning. His spirit of hospitality and service is a joy to receive, and we felt blessed staying in Vercelli with this wonderful young man as our host.

After Charles and I said goodbye to Davide we headed out of town for the short 19 km trek to Robbio. Charles is walking from Canterbury to Rome and, as you will recall, we met a week or so ago just a few miles into Italy on the downhill walk into Aosta. He’s from New Brunswick, Canada, and brightens up whenever he hears the sound of French, his native language. Today there were five French speaking women in the breakfast room of the hostel and Charles was in French heaven. Our walking pace matches each other’s well, and over the last few days we’ve become good friends and walking partners.

Not far out of Vercelli we saw a young woman, Carla Morelli, gardening in front of her rice farm and we learned she is a pilgrim too, with many miles on her walking resumé. We talked for 15 minutes together in Italian before she insisted on sharing some tomatoes from her garden. After we said goodbye and continued on our way my thoughts turned to Theresa and how warm and cozy it is to wrap her in my arms. Charles and I talked about how pilgrimage is turning your back to your loved ones for awhile. Meeting a kind woman like Carla reminds me of the biggest cost of this adventure.

From there it was one step at a time to Vercelli. Literally. The dyke and canal trails on which we walked had just the wrong combination of gravel and river rock to force a walker to carefully consider every step. Step on a large, round rock? You may twist an ankle.

Walking a step at a time reminds me of the pilgrim discipline of not looking too far ahead on the schedule. As I look at the next six days, all to be spent in this hot, flat land, I can’t help but wish I was whisking along on an air-conditioned train to someplace more picturesque, more interesting. But, the walk happens one step at a time until its end. Each day has its blessings, and they seem to appear only when the pace is slow and the heart is open. Blessings like Davide, Carla, and many others along this way.

Hiking Notes: The challenge is this section is deciding how to divide up four relatively short days leading toward Pavia. My original itinerary had planned 35km with an overnight tonight in Morlata. That’s not realistic in this heat (39c, 100f), but several stages at 18-20 km seem just a wee bit too slow.

Davide, center. Charles, right.

The day looked just like this.

Carla shares tomatoes with Charles.

Crossroads.

Rice to the left. Rice to the right

On this map the blue arrow is me. The red tracks are where I’m walking today. Note how far right we had to go to get left. That’s just the way it goes.

City Hall Robbio, home of city offices and a seven bed hostel.