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.