About SandyBrown

Progressive activist, pilgrim, sailor, writer.

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.


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.


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.

Shocking photo revealed of American pilgrim walking in Italy

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.

Corn fields as far as the eye can see

Day 13: Ivrea to Santhià — 34.8 km (21.6 miles)

I have to give it to Morgan and Roberto. They didn’t snore at all. Our whole night long in the hostel next to the river I heard nothing but the sound of the water. When I awoke at 6:30, I was delighted to have slept the night through. Probably my best night’s sleep on this pilgrim walk.

By 7:00 I was up and out the door, reveling in the early start. Since today is 15 August, the national holiday that kicks off summer break, the streets were eerily quiet and every cafe was closed. This was a bad sign since I’d be relying on open cafes for food all day long.

Again I opted for the bicycle route and had a good payoff. At Piverone I stopped to enjoy a shaded bench and Charles appeared from the same direction I’d just come. He had left 15 minutes earlier, but I’d arrived in Piverone 15 minutes before him, thanks to the bike track.

Charles and I then walked the rest of the day together, first along the gentle hillsides overlooking Lago Viverone, then down in the cornfields before Santhià. I enjoyed watching Charles sweet talk two donkeys, who heehawed loudly for him as he called out, then came to the fence to share their hellos.

By 2:00, Charles and I were both feeling the effects of the heat. He was guessing the temperatures were in the 35c range (95f), and the sun seemed to draw out all the energy from each of us. The long itinerary for today kept us in the cornfields until about 4:00, when we finally arrived at the hostel in this little farm town.

Hiking Notes: I kept to the alternate itinerary today, not the bike path but the variant that sticks to the lower elevations. It worked out well. The hostel in Santhià is a nice refuge. This was a good day.

Our Ivrea hostel was the building on the river at the far left. 

Piverone. I think. 

Charles charms the donkey. 


Church at the heart of Santhià. 

The last mountain

Day 12: Pont-Saint-Martin to Ivrea — 23.9 km (14.9 miles)

All of my pilgrim friends agree, at least those gathered here at the Ostello Canoa Club in Ivrea, that today was an oddly tough day of walking. At only 23.9 km compared to yesterday’s 35 plus there’s no real reason to complain. Except for the heat, of course. And the crazy serpentine path that undulated unnecessarily beside the flat valley floor. Or maybe we were all simply grieving the appearance of the Last Mountain.

This morning I awoke at 4:00 and checked my phone to see if there were any important messages. I was stunned to see that once again my cell data had been turned off by TIM. Worrying that Theresa or Luke (who’s been sick in Prague) were trying to reach me, I headed out to last night’s restaurant where I’d written my blog post using its reliable wifi. I’m sure drivers must’ve thought it odd that someone was sitting on a curb at 4:00 a.m. outside a restaurant reading his email. No messages from either Luke or Theresa, thank heavens. So I headed back to the hotel for some more sleep, knowing the cell situation would again require a store visit and again guarantee me a late start.

By 9:15 I’d had a couple more hours of sleep, had breakfast at the hotel and had walked the 1.5 km back into the center of town to find a tobacco store where I could add another €20 to my phone account. Finally I was ready to head to Ivrea, the day’s goal.

Then I saw it. The Last Mountain.

Understand, for the last eight days the trail has been in the mountains. Every day has included countless vistas of sheer cliffs and jagged peaks. The terrain was rugged, of course, but the elevation brought with it the cool breezes of the tall hills. After the mountains the terrain opens out into the enormous Po River Valley, which offers only flat land, hot days, and famously monotonous miles of rice paddies built to grow the main ingredient for the Italians’ beloved risotto. The last mountain signals the end of the Alps and the beginning of the drudgery. And heat.

So the Last Mountain was not a welcome sight. And somehow it took all day to get past it.

Looking at the map, it was clear that a single highway shot directly from Hotel Point A to Ivrea Hostel Point B. To shorten the day, I set out on the narrow highway, which I soon learned was sadly bereft of sidewalks. So I pointed myself to the official Via Francigena trail, which cut needlessly up and pointlessly down the hillsides of the ever-widening valley. Every step seemed hard fought.

However, I did stop and marvel at a rock climbing center. I did see a small flock of rare, black mountain goats (please don’t tell me they’re normal goats). And I did get the good news from Luke that his fever broke and he’s feeling better in Prague. But I also did walk the crazy serpentine path over the hill across from the Last Mountain as though the route planners wanted to give one last bit of vertical punishment to pilgrims who will not see another mountain for ten days.

When I landed in Ivrea I noted the turreted castle — kinda cool in a fairytale sort of way. I did notice the charming center city, quiet for a few hours during the riposo. And I did notice the fascinating kayak course just outside the window of the riverside hostel.

As it happens, the hostel came fully equipped with pilgrim friends Charles, Morgan and Roberto. Plus, the shared, unisex bathroom reminded me of real pilgrim life. There are ten pilgrims here from all over Europe and North America. Let the snoring begin.

Hiking Notes: I should’ve opted for the bike trail today. I’m sure it would have made more sense. Tonight’s hostel is lovely, and I’m enjoying pilgrim culture in many languages with accompaniment of the roar of the river out the window.

L’il Hotel Carla, my room being the top left. 

Extremely rare black mountain goats. You saw them here first. 


Anticipating the Last Hill, across from the Last Mountain. 

Ivrea castle. 

View of Ivrea from the hostel, across the Dora Balthea River. 

Kayakers doing their thang. 

Ancient fortresses, bridges, roads … and bathrooms

Day Eleven: Chatillon to Pont-Saint-Martin (Carema) 37.5 km (23.3 miles)

When I left Chatillon this morning I wasn’t quite sure where I’d spend the night. I’d been rebuffed at Verres, the official end of stage. Everything was full. As I made my way a few kilometers after breakfast to Saint-Vincent I met two pilgrims — Morgan of Belgium and Roberto of Milan — who suggested I join them at the parochial hostel in Donnas, about 28 km down the road. That sounded like a good idea, so while we were talking I phoned in a reservation.

Morgan and Roberto soon turned left, uphill on the official walkers’ route. I’d researched the lower, easier bicycle route and headed downhill to the valley floor on my own.

The cycle route ended up being delightful. It mostly hugged the river, giving me a vantage point uphill to the mountains on both sides. I reached Verres about noon, met a Dutch pilgrim there named Derek, and explored the town a little before heading back to the bike trail, assuming that Morgan and Roberto were far ahead.

I then spent the day in occasional shade, on gravel roads with riverfront trees shielding me from the hot sun. I walked by the Saint Germaine Castle, and later the amazing 17th century Ponte di Echallod bridge. After that I enjoyed views of the Bard Fortress, a medieval castle destroyed by Napoleon in the early 19th century then rebuilt. The little touristy-medieval town of Bard was a delight as well, and just afterward was a brief stretch of original Roman road.

By 4:30 I’d arrived at the parochial hostel in Donnas with no sign of Morgan and Robert. Since no one at all was there I had a little time to explore. Eight beds in four twin bunks. A hot plate for cooking, and the most antiquated bathroom I’ve seen in all of Italy. The toilet was a hole in the floor and on the left wall of its cubicle was the shower head. The toilet/shower was separated from the janitor’s/guests’ sink by a bright, plastic curtain, and the light bulb for seeing it all had inhaled its last breath.

I’d already walked 31km, so this whole arrangement seemed unfortunate, but serviceable in a pinch. Except — there was no soap to be found anywhere. Not a bar, not a bottle, not a dispenser of the liquid variety. I had none in my pack. Nothing. And considering the poor performance of my deodorant I was in a bind. I could not imagine climbing into my sleeping bag liner as dirty as I was. Since I was alone in the hostel (had Morgan and Roberto opted for something less basic?) there were no other pilgrims from whom I could borrow some.

My solution was to walk into Pont-Saint-Martin to find a bar of soap. The only problem? On Sunday everything is closed. The farther I walked the more I thought the hostel was a bad idea. I checked the Internet, found a cheap hotel available in Pont-Saint-Martin, made the reservation, and after I returned to the hostel and was packing up, who should arrive at the hostel but Morgan and Roberto? They looked pretty good after a long day on the upper route, but I noted that even though I’d lazed around in Verres, the bike route put me in Donnas about an hour earlier.

Though I’d have loved to spend the evening with them, especially if they were equipped with soap, I said goodbye and headed the three additional miles to my hotel. As I unpacked, wrapped a clean towel around my and walked a few steps to the shared bathroom occupied by someone else in the four rooms on this floor, I was startled to see Charles, who’s staying two doors down at the hotel. I’d ended up catching up to him by walking a long 37 km today. Though I loved seeing him (we’re having breakfast together tomorrow) it was the soapy shower that made my day. So many suds from that little white lozenge. And the bathroom? Why, there was even a separate shower and toilet.

Hiking Notes: I’m wishing I’d called lodging a day ahead as it seems some of the pilgrim hostels are filled by non- pilgrims. To me, the bike path was just fine and looking at the elevation profiles from the guidebooks I’d say it was a lot easier that’s the official walkers’ route. Plus the two do intersect frequently.

Mirning vista near San Vincent

Roberto (l) and Morgan 

The valley. 

The bike path. Not too shabby. 

View back to 17th c. bridge. 

Castle alert!

Fortress Bard

The 2,000 year old “pont” of Pont-Saint-Martin.