Day 14: Santhià to Vercelli — 27.1 km (16.8 miles)
As we entered the endless rice fields today I caught a whiff of a surprising smell. The rice fields smell like, well, rice. When you lift the lid of a pan of boiling rice — that smell? That's what today smelled like.
I'd spent the night at the Santhià hostel with Charles and a new Italian pilgrim friend, Antonio. This morning at about 7:15 we rolled out of our beds, headed to the nearby cafe, crossed the overpass above the train tracks, and headed into the endless and aromatic rice fields. The map shows a highway that goes straight as an arrow between our starting and ending points, but our trajectory instead was a zigzag of rice canal pathways, multiplying by at least 50% the walk's minimum length.
Mid-morning included the day's one village — San Germano — and the server at the local bar there made us panini for our packs. A few kilometers afterward we were able to spy the spires of Vercelli on the horizon, though it would take another three hours through the rice fields to get us there.
While we walked, another drama was playing out on Facebook. A few weeks ago I heard a report of an American pilgrim who was accosted by a man who committed non-violent but lewd acts in her presence while she walked on the Via di Francesco near Rieti (a few hundred miles from here). Along with other pilgrim leaders I strategized how to get the local police to take the case seriously. Another pilgrim friend had met the man, shouted at him and had taken his photo, including the license plate of his car. Over the last couple of days the photo was shared widely on Facebook, and stories of other women's encounters with the same man — stretching back an unbelievable two years — quickly appeared as comments on my post. Finally today the story was picked up on local news, local TV and this afternoon on a Italian national news website. We are hoping this press exposure will finally get the attention of the police and convince them to get this man the help he needs –and get him off the pathways of that sacred and beautiful walk.
Finally the rice fields ended and the town of Vercelli appeared before us. We found the night's hostel, said goodbye to Antonio who's heading back to Milan, showered up, snapped a shocking photo of me sporting more hair on my chin than on my head, and went out to explore the town. Tomorrow: add more rice, rinse and repeat.
Hiking Notes: in this heat an umbrella would be nice. The pharmacy thermometer read 39c when we came into town. Antonio insisted that was impossible. It seems difficult to get quite enough water down each day.