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. (To continue with me beyond Piacenza, click here)

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.