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.

Corn.

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.

Town.

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.