Simple Task: Get to Perugia via Gubbio

May 23 & 24, 2014 — Rome to Gubbio

Yesterday’s taxi fiasco could have been averted by following the simple rule I learned in my first international trip: never agree to a taxi ride in an un-metered taxi without first negotiating the price. If only I’d followed another well-known rule of travel yesterday I would have saved a couple of hours of frustration. The rule? Never step onto a train without knowing for sure where it’s going.

These are on every breakfast table in Italy and each packet is the equivalent of eating two hazelnuts.

These are on every breakfast table in Italy and each packet is the equivalent of eating two hazelnuts!

The day started well and ended well. I awoke early in La Girandola Hotel B&B near the Termini Station in Rome and cruised the Web while waiting for breakfast to be served in the eating area outside my room. This allowed me to research the top cell companies in Italy to see where and how I could get a SIM card for my iPhone. I discovered the TIM company is Italy’s largest cell provider and they have a store right in Termini Station. I also reserved my train ticket to Perugia, where I will get to the airport and pick up a rental car for a ride to the guest house where I’ll relax for a few days before language classes. I also bought my train ticket online — Rome to Foligno to Perugia. Simple.

Breakfast time finally arrived (8:00 a.m. seems late when you wake up at 4:00 a.m.). “Ahh, yes,” I said to myself as I scanned the breakfast table. “Nutella®. I’m back in Italy.” One croissant and “the equivalent of four hazelnuts” later I was off with my bags to Termini. I picked up my new TIM SIM card and 10GB of monthly Internet (so I can use my phone as a hotspot for WiFi when necessary) and grabbed my train tickets from the machine with 45 minutes left to spare before my 9:35 train to Foligno.

Waiting for the train at Termini Station in rainy Rome.

Waiting for the train at Termini Station in rainy Rome.

On the train my mind went back to this same trip last year with Sebastian, my camino friend of 2011. The route is notable for the many tunnels, which themselves are notable for the terrain, which itself is notable for what it means for pilgrims — to walk to Rome requires you walk over all those mountains that the trains go under. Indeed, Sebastian, Jacqueline, Andreas and I had walked those mountains in a quad-building pilgrimage that had taken us to Rome and was the genesis of the book I’d be writing this year.

Two hours later the train arrived in Foligno, a flat, industrial town in the shadow of the Central Apennine range famous for gorgeous hill towns like Spoleto, Spello, Trevi and Assisi. At the station I checked the “Departures” board to see where I’d catch my Perugia train and dutifully went to Line 1 to wait. While I was grazing the glass cabinet of pizza slices and croissants in the adjacent cafe I heard the announcement, “[unintelligble]…[unintelligible]….Perugia….[unintelligible][etc.].” I sprang for the door, ran down the stairs and across to Line 3, jumped on the train, settled in, and immediately realized — it was going the wrong direction.

My first mistake was I hadn’t trusted my own reading of the Departures board. My second mistake was that I hadn’t realized that Italian train announcements always begin with where the train is coming from, rather than where it is going to. Not to mention that I hadn’t even learned any Italian prepositions yet, so I don’t know the difference between da and verso.

With some newfound humility I climbed off the train back at Spoleto and saw on this station’s Departures board that I would have to cool my jets for an extra hour before I could get back to Foligno. Out of curiosity I called a cab to see what the fare would be to end my train adventure and get right to my rental car. The polite cab dispatcher offered the ride for a mere 100 Euros (about $140). An extra hour wait suddenly seemed ok.

Guesthouse near Gubbio, with views toward Lake Valfabbrica. Gorgeous Umbria.

Guesthouse near Gubbio, with views toward Lake Valfabbrica. Gorgeous Umbria.

At 1:00 I was back on the train to Foligno, then after realizing the Perugia Airport is actually closer to Assisi, I transferred instead to St. Francis’ town, where I caught a 30 Euro cab to the airport. I picked up my rental car, and drove about 45 minutes to my delightful Gubbio guest house — at the end of a 4 km strada bianca (gravel road) with an amazing view of the Val di Chiascia. Highlight of the trip? A stop at a roadside cafe for a croissant — filled with delicious Nutella®. Oh, I also saw one large and beautiful deer I’d startled as I drove down the gravel road, plus a red fox who scampered across the gravel in advance of my tiny, white Citroën C1 rental.

Here in the countryside I’m deprogramming from travel for a couple of quiet days while awaiting the start of Italian classes in Perugia and my home stay there with the Bertolini family. During this green and calm time I’m gathering my thoughts, reading and taking notes from the books I’ve carried from Seattle. My mind is moving from the busy past weeks in Seattle to the upcoming walk I’ll begin after language classes end next month.

Layout of Umbria's Via di Francesco from the www.viadifrancesco.it site

Layout of Umbria’s Via di Francesco from the http://www.viadifrancesco.it site

As I drove yesterday I saw out of the car window the familiar blue and yellow way marks of the Via di San Francesco walk. The walk I’ll write about is all around me here outside of Gubbio. It stretches many miles north into the green hills around Sansepolcro and Santuario Della Verna and south past Assisi and across to the Nera River valley. The area is beautiful, and I’m happy to call it my home for these three months of learning, walking, writing and adventure.

 

Here are some photos of the lovely agriturismo I stayed at these days:

Wind, Rain, Hail and Wild Boars

May 25, 2013 — Poggio San Lorenzo to Ponticelli

This morning at Agritourusmo San Giusto we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with our new friend and fellow pilgrim, Johann of The Netherlands, did our push-ups, then headed out at 9:00 for an unexpectedly challenging day.

The push-ups are a practice we began about ten days ago — three sets of 20 push-ups (or however many we can manage) and today Johann called us on the obvious. We’d been doing “easy” push-ups, not touching our nose to the floor. At his insistence we corrected our form and, of course, reduced our total count. Even though he reduced our sense of satisfaction at an ever-increasing push-up total, we were coming to enjoy our new fellow pilgrim.

We had met Johann a few days earlier between Ceselli and Arrone and then we discovered him last night at our agritourismo. We shared dinner and conversation and found him to be sincere and enjoyable. He’s an experienced pilgrim who’s walked many hundreds of miles, including to Santiago from his home in The Netherlands.
20130525-180002.jpgWe set out from Poggio San Lorenzo under partly cloudy skies

Our agriturismo was a couple of km outside Poggio San Lorenzo, so our first task was to get to the town itself. We walked down the hill, then up a hill some more, then up more and more to the town. Actually, this was the story of the whole day — up and down from town to town.

After Poggio San Lorenzo it was up-down, up-down to Montelione, where we met an Italian woman who’d been a pilgrim to Santiago. She asked us if we’d walked there, then joyfully told us in Italian about her Camino Frances experiences. We understood a surprising amount, through the universal language of happy camino memories.
20130525-180108.jpgPiazza at Montelione en Sabina

As we entered town Andreas ducked into a grocery store for his lunch and the rest of us headed to a bar just off the piazza for panini and potato chips. We gave thanks that our day had been relatively dry so far.
20130525-180227.jpgWalking through vineyards

We headed down and out of Montileone, past the Church of Santa Vittoria from the 12th century, crossed an ancient bridge across a small creek, then trudged up an enormous, concrete-paved hill path opposite the town.

At this point we realized this camino is actually very physically challenging. We have walked up and down countless hills. In fact, we have been in hills or mountains basically the entire time. Unlike the Camino de Santiago there really are no long, flat stretches. You’re always either going up or going down. The result is lots of exercise. In fact, when we arrived in Poggio Maiono there was a .20 Euro outdoor scale. I popped a coin in, stepped on it, and discovered I’ve lost 4-5 lbs (2-3 kilos) in weight in just 10 days. What a nice surprise!
20130525-180318.jpgViews through sporadic rain as we approached Ponticelli among olive orchards

As we enjoyed cafe lattes and caldo chocolates in Poggio Moiono the rain began, briefly turning to hail before continuing as cold rain. We waited it out, then began the final two hours of our walk — to Ponticelli. Unfortunately, after leaving Poggio Moiono the rain began in earnest and we each realized our rain gear would be on for the rest of the day.
20130525-180826.jpgView from one of the “ups” in literally an up and down day

As we neared Ponticelli we heard rustling in the bushes and noticed a brown boar ahead in the pathway. “Look out!” said Sebastian in excited German (I learned the translation later), “they can be dangerous.” The boar ran off, and then a few moments later off to the left we noticed an adult wild boar, two feet tall, brown with light brown stripes, and three of her piglets. They scurried around as they heard us, and we realized we didn’t want to be in the way of a mother boar’s wild charge. We hurriedly continued walking and soon the boars were behind us.

After eight hours of tough terrain the town of Ponticelli appeared before us. Our next challenge was where will we sleep? Johann came to the rescue. “Why not my hotel?” he said. Soon a driver from his hotel appeared and before long we were ensconced in warm room at the Salaria Hotel, a 10-minute drive from hotel-free downtown Ponticelli. Warm showers, pizza and laundry filled the evening of a cold and challenging day of rain, hail and wild boars.

Nice town you got here, St. Francis

May 13, 2013 — Assisi, Umbria, Italy

IMG_2135The first thing I noticed about Italy when I awoke just before noon today was how much different it smells from Spain. There is a spicy, kind of sagey smell to Italy and as we looked down into the valley below Assisi I imagined the smell emanated from the countless, verdant orchards and farms below.

Yep, I woke at noon. The jet lag was responsible, and maybe the cold I’ve nursed for the last ten days. My kind friends, Sebastian and Jacqueline, sneaked out quietly this morning so I could get some extra shut-eye in preparation for the many miles ahead.

After an early afternoon shower I headed out to coffee and soon saw Sebi and Jacqueline walking up the hill toward the cafe near our pension. We paused for a breakfast slash lunch and then headed out for tours of Assisi’s amazing churches.

First stop was nearby San Rufino, then off to Santa Chiara with its relics of Francis and Clare. Then to San Damiano where Francis heard his mission to “rebuild the church.” From there we crossed town to the spectacular Basilica of San Francesco. When I was here in 1999 the upper church was closed for earthquake repairs. This time it was open and the historic 13th c. frescoes lived up to their billing. They depict in stark medieval style the important scenes from the life and death of St. Francis and the overall sense is of ancient, otherworldly mystery and power. The feeling deepened as we made our way to the lower church with its tombs of Francis and his friends.

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Three pilgrims in front of our first waymark for the Via di San Francesco

After walking the town we stopped in true pilgrim style for beers and conversation. Seated next to us in the cafe were a delightful couple, Margo and Carol, from Illinois. They’re touring Italy with a jolly bus group from the States which we happened to meet later at dinner.

Following our meal it was back to Camere Carli for showers and sleep in advance of our first day of walking. Tomorrow’s goal: 25 km to Foligno, or if necessary, just 17 km to Spello.

Cheers to friends who are following us via FB and this blog! We love you and are thankful for the many joyful wishes and prayers for a safe and fun camino 2013.

 

Does a Real Pilgrim Take the Train?

Day 6: Santander to Mogro — Two nights ago at Guemes the hospitalero clearly warned us, “Don’t walk across the railroad bridge between Boo de Pielagos and Mogros.” He knew this was a huge temptation for pilgrims because there are only two alternatives: walk an extra 11 km to and from the nearest foot bridge across the Pas River or for 1.3€ take the train to cross the hundred yard wide channel.

A walking pilgrimage to Santiago is just that, a walking pilgrimage. For me this has meant that in 2000 km of pilgrimages I have never ridden in a bus or train or taxi to cover the marked pilgrim route. Every km has been walked — sometimes with pain but always with pride that I was never “cheating” by not taking some modern mode of travel. But somehow today felt different. Perhaps it was because of the recommendation of the hospitalero, or perhaps it was because my French guidebook also recommended it, or perhaps it was the quick and cheap Feve train service, or perhaps it was simply because I wanted a second night in the comfy Hotel Bahia in Santander. Whatever the reason, I decided to leave my over-developed pilgrim scruples behind and for the first time take the train for a brief portion of my pilgrimage. Forgive me, Santiago!

I awoke a little before Sebastian this morning and quietly read and wrote emails until he was awakened by his watch alarm at 7:30. After he showered we slowly headed to the bus station, stopping along the way to complete a very short wedding greeting video he’d promised a friend and then at a cafe for a last croissant together before he left. At the station we both felt very sad as he boarded the bus for Bilbao, the first leg of his trip back to Cologne. The knowledge that he’ll be in Seattle in late August was a partial comfort. Sebastian is a wonderful person and a good friend.

Back at the hotel after a shower and shave I double-checked train schedules and confirmed my plan for the day. I would return by train from Boo, then tomorrow i would take the train to Mogro on the other side of the river.

Knowing my walk would only be 14.4 km I left my backpack in the room and headed out the door with only a rain jacket and my French guidebook. I hoped to find a small bottle of water to carry but on Sundays in Spain almost everything is closed. As I headed along the pedestrian mall I managed to find an open newspaper kiosk and was able to buy a small water to carry with me.

The pedestrian mall opened onto a main arterial, which passed a barracks of the Guardia Civil then emptied into the streets and suburban industrial buildings of Penacastillo. At an intersection below its yellow stucco and stone church the camino turned right and played cat-and-mouse with the train tracks through small farms and trendy subdivisions until arriving first at Santa Cruz de Bezana and finally, Boo de Pielagos.

When I at first missed the path to the train station I wondered whether habit or Santiago or maybe Freud were telling me to walk the extra 11 km. But now it was already 3:00, my blisters were starting to complain, and the train back to the comforts of Santander was only a few minutes away.

Tomorrow I will complete the deed when I return by train, not to Boo, but across the river to Mogro. Santiago, I’m on my way — a little less of a purist this time — but I’m on my way.

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Other Than Getting Lost, a Great Day

Day 1: Bilbao to Portugalete — After a long trip yesterday it was no surprise that I’d be sleepy, but even so I didn’t expect to sleep until 9:00. That’s 3-4 hours after good pilgrims are already on the road. Sebastian was patiently and quietly waiting in the next bed for me to awake, and once I did it was off to the showers and out the door for our first day of walking.

The weather was cloudless and warm as we made our way to breakfast, then to the Cathedral of Santiago (Bilbao’s small but elegant medieval cathedral) for our first pilgrim stamps. We found an elderly priest in the sacristy, and the neat, South American nun with him stamped and dated our credentials. Then we headed out the massive cathedral doors for the day’s walking adventure.

Our plan for the day was simple: walk along the River Nervion to Portugalete, stopping for photos at the famous Guggenheim Museum. This would be a simple 14 km walk, with little need for directions. We would just walk the east bank of the river, then arrive in Portugalete by crossing the unusual and famous transport bridge.

If we’d looked carefully at a map we would have seen our folly and changed our plan. After walking about 8 km through first pleasant then progressively industrial walkways a man stopped us and asked us in Spanish if we were pilgrims heading to Santiago. We told him “yes” at which point he explained that we had walked nearly to the end of a long peninsula in the river, missing the right bank which was now across a wide canal. There was no bridge ahead to take us to our road. We would need to retrace our steps about 3 km to pick up the correct path. We consulted my phone map and realized he was exactly correct. That meant an extra 6 km added to our day. We tested several roads until, with the help of locals, we found the right way back to the right bank of the river.

Now it was a straight shot along narrow sidewalks and ultimately no sidewalks to Las Arenas, the town just across the transporter bridge from Portugalete. As we walked, a man in a bike shouted, “Buenos Dias, peregrinos! Buen camino!” Even with no signs all day of pilgrims or yellow arrows or scallop shell markers, at this point we knew we were pilgrims again.

Sebastian and I agreed that the man who shouted his greetings to us, like the people who gave us directions today, was an angel. All these angels had helped us hapless pilgrims to find our way when there were no markers and no other pilgrims to ask or follow.

After crossing the transport bridge into Portugalete we stopped for a beer at a sidewalk bar/cafe. The owner was anxious to close for siesta, so he left us outside with our beers and, rather than rushing us to finish, he told us they were free — just leave the glasses. Another of God’s angels.

Sebastian’s guidebook suggested Pension La Guia, so we settled in there for the night at a price of 20€ each including free laundry by another angel. At 6:00 with no laundry to do it was nap time, with dinner later and time to plan tomorrow’s walk to Castro Urdiales.

 

Arrival in Bilbao — First Day of Camino #4

Well, the travel yesterday seemed endless. Flight to Iceland 7 hrs, wait in Iceland 1hr, flight to London 3 hrs, wait for the bus 1/2 hour, ride on the bus 2 hrs, wait in the airport 3 hrs, fly to Bilbao 2 hrs. Little sleep, babies crying, , etc., etc. Wait at passport check in Bilbao while the solitary passport agent inspected all EU passports first — perhaps 200 — then decided to check non-EU people when all EU folk were through.

All was well, though, when I saw a beaming Sebastian at the arrivals hall! For newcomers, Sebastian is a fireman from Cologne, Germany with whom I walked last year. We hit it off big, then, and I was delighted in his decision to join me for a week’s walk this year. After a big, manly hug (his words) we taxied into central Bilbao, looked for camino markings, had a slice of pizza, then back to the room to talk until 12:30am.

It’s 5:30 am here now. Our plan was to sleep in (yeah right), get breakfast, head to the cathedral for a stamp, pick up the trail, walk to Portogalete at least (13k) and hopefully then onto Pobena (another 13k). Definitely heading to the Guggenheim for a photo, too, to prove we are here.

And so, the fun begins!