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.

Crossroads.

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.

This artistic photo from the train overpass in Santhià is just waiting to be discovered by an art dealer or historian. 

The most elaborate of the many irrigational canal bridges. 

San Germano church facade. 

Antonio and Charles ahead. 

Charles. 

Rice. 

Imported workers in the rice fields?

Sr. Cavour, after whom this piazza in Vercelli is named. 

Shocking. A few days ago, in Aosta, I asked the barber to take it all off. He did. Since then no razor has touched my head.