Assisi Post 10 - 24/07/2008, Piacenza
915 kms to go
Have walked now nearly 1500 kms and broken the final 1000 kms barrier. I think this is going to be a long Post so are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin!
As I said at the end of the last post, I had had a txt from Vanda to say Fred was returning to England. She had said from the outset that she did not want to walk on her own so she joined me at the Grand St Bernard Pass for the descent into Italy.
I was quite tired from the ascent and had asked if I could stay an extra night at the Hospice. This I was allowed to do, so on 11th July I crossed the border into Italy.
This had none of the trepidations of crossing into Switzerland as I had walked in Italy before. Alas the weather had broken a bit so there were clouds to restrict the view.
I was delighted to find that in the first Italian village we reached, the Church was open. I went in and prayed for someone I knew who was making their first Communion on that day.
It did rain a bit but not too severely fortunately otherwise the descent would have been quite tricky. We reached Aosta without difficulty though at times my legs protested at the rate of descent! I noticed that many Churches were decorated on the exterior walls with religious scenes.
We intended to start out early from Aosta the next day but when the alarm went off it was raining cats and dogs! Vanda asked if we had a 'Plan B'! We stayed in bed a bit longer and then the sun magically came out and all was well. Off we went but after a short while, the clouds reappeared and the rain returned.
After about 2 hrs the rain stopped, the sun came out and walking was pleasant. Then just as we approached our destination, St Vincent, the skies opened again and it rained!
This was to be the pattern of the next few days, rain for a time in the morning, then sunny and pleasant, then a soaking just before reaching our destination! As we progressed down the Aosta valley, the mountains on either side became lower and lower.
At one point we had to cross a river. The guide had said there was a ford. It looked a bit deep. Vanda walked across to the halfway point where there was a raised bit in her shoes but I was convinced it was too deep so took off my boots and socks from the outset. She had to take hers off as well as the next bit was quite deep. Left to my own devices I would have illegally walked across the train bridge which was just a few metres away! One had to pick one's way carefully across the stony riverbed but at least it gave me an opportunity to photo my feet in an Italian river!
At Ivrea I had decided to have a rest day, not because I was very tired, though for 3 days or more after the descent from the Pass, my leg muscles ached, but because it was my birthday! Ironically the lovely man in charge of the hotel we stayed in noticed from my passport details it was my birthday the following day. When I came downstairs the following morning he gave me a big hug and said Happy Birthday. It was lovely!
Explored Ivrea. Discovered that the Cathedral (Santa Maria Assunta) houses relics of an Irish Bishop from Cork - Thaddeus Mc Carty, who was returning from a pilgrimage to Rome and died at Ivrea. In fact several people I met told me about him.
I am now beginning to think this posting is getting a bit 'bitty'! But bear with me!
Continued on our way and I got my first Italian Guinness in a most unexpected place, a little village en route to Santhia where we had decided to stop for rest/refreshment.
The following day we arrived at Vercelli and stayed in 'refugio' type accommodation beside a Church. it was very much like being on one of the St James routes, dormitory accomm and we met our first pilgrims there. There was Mass at the Church and afterwards in a side Chapel a beautiful Prayer session led by Don Alberto, the Priest in charge of the pilgrim accommodation.. I had been told about it by one of the ladies just after the Mass and was very grateful that she had taken the trouble to invite me.
Afterwards we had a great pilgrim meal so much like some of the refugios on the Spanish Camino. Picture is below!
The great pity about Vercelli though was that we did not get into the actual centre. We had arrived rather late in the afternoon and the refuge was about 30 mins walk from the centre and there had been no time to visit. The route out the following day by-passed it.
We went from one extreme to another when we took a hotel at the next stop, Robbio. This was because, to my delight, my sister and her husband were meeting me. They had been in England, then visited some friends in the South of France and were now en route by car back to Poland where they live. They had decided to take a detour to meet me in Italy. Knowing they would arrive late, I booked them into the hotel and wanted to be able to spend as much time with them as possible. In the end they did not arrive til 22:30. However they decided to stay an extra day as they were tired. So we walked on to the next town and Sheila and Jorge drove over and booked themselves into another hotel. We went into the pilgrim accommodation on the edge of town but I was able to spend lunchtime and the evening with them. It was a great treat!
On the descent from Aosta the route was very well signed and remained so for a couple of days. Generally the signing was the letters VF with a direction arrow, painted in yellow. Then the signs disappeared after St Vincent and did not reappear again until Vercelli. Now they were the familiar (to me) depiction of yellow pilgrim and white arrow - see below
Not only did the signs reappear, but we also got or own guide! Alas I cannot remember now exactly where it happened, but am fairly sure it was en route to Robbio. We were having picnic lunch when a pick-up truck stopped and out jumped a man who started asking us questions. Given that I do not speak Italian, I was misunderstanding him and thinking he wanted directions to Vercelli! In fact he was a member of the local Via F group and was responsible for the signage. He told us about a route that would keep us off the road, giving us directions and explaining that part of it was a little overgrown. Off we went and found the arrow OK and followed the route but then reached a point where the sign was confusing and there were 2 paths one could have chosen. We debated it and made our choice. As we walked off, who should appear but the same guy, on a bicycle this time, calling to us ¨No, that's the wrong way¨ (in Italian obviously!). He explained the rest of the route again and even offered to walk the rest of it with us. We declined as we did not want to cause him more inconvenience but were very grateful for his intervention. We continued without further mishap and arrived OK at Robbio.
Can't have a Posting without talking about Churches and their open/closed state! After the first Italian village where the Church was open, they tended to be closed which was a great shame, and I had not expected it. I seem to remember when I walked in 2006 I generally found Churches open. Of course that was in a different part of Italy. Anyway for several days they were closed, or looked closed (I did not stop and try each one) except in the larger towns. However they are more open than closed now, and so beautiful - see picture below of the Church of Santa Maria del Campo en route to Mortara.
Whereas many Churches in the Aosta valley had biblical scenes painted on the outside, I came across another architectural feature in this area (Pavia/Piacenza) which I have not seen before, pointed towers on the façade (no doubt there is a proper term for this, Yvonne please advise). The Church of St Francis in Pavia was a good example
As I said earlier, Vanda came up to the Pass to meet me and we started walking together. However for me the arrangement was not working even though she did her best to fit in with my fitness level, accommodation requirements (my budget did not run to staying in hotels and eating out) etc. So I told her as we walked out from Pavia that this would be our last walk together. She decided to remain in Pavia while considering what to do next as there were good transport links. I had suggested she walk on her own as she was more than capable of navigating with the maps we had, and indeed with her better eyesight often spotted way marks that I missed! So I am on my own again. Perhaps I am just too awkward to walk with - if anyone out there is thinking of joining me for a while, be warned!
After Pavia comes the memorable trip by boat across the Po from Comte St Andrea to Soparivo. The very kind Priest where I had stayed the night before had phoned the ferryman and told me he would wait from 12:00 to 12:30. I was duly there but no sign of boat. I waited til 12;30 but there was still no sign. So I went into the village to see if he was at the tavern (there was a boat moored at the pier and I had wondered if it had been his).
Walked into the cafe and promptly felt unsure of myself as it was a room with several people eating, but no bar and no-one obviously in charge. Went round the back where there was a group of young people picnicing round the tables. Looked into the restaurant again and this time could identify who was in charge. I started trying to explain what had happened but I think he thought I had only just turned up and had missed the boat. In the end I managed to explain the situation to someone who spoke a little French. He turned out to be a Priest, and the group was a Parish Group from Lodi on a bicycle outing. The ferry was phoned and I was told he would arrive at 14:00 and could wait there. Meanwhile the Priest went off on his bike to fetch my rucksack (despite my protestations that it was heavy)which I had left at the pier in case the boat turned up when I was at the cafe. I chatted to a couple of the ladies who were accompanying the group. They were great fun.
Finally Danilo arrived with his boat and I was taken across the Po in the footsteps (not quite right word!) of Segeric. It was strange because the journey thru France and Switzerland did not seem really to link with his. As I approached the Hospice at the Pass I did feel a link, but a weak one. Then in a Church in Pavia I saw a 10th c cross that he must have seen, and now crossing the Po was looking at the same riverbanks. I wondered how much if any they had changed.
I had hoped to reach Piacenza that day as I thought there was only another 8 kms to do but in fact it was more like 13. I had been considering stopping for a rest day at Piacenza. In fact I started thinking about having 2 rest days. even though I had had a day off quite recently in Ivrea. But I was beginning to feel the need for an extended rest. I remembered the advice given by a hospitalero in 2006 when he said when I had walked 1000 kms I should find somewhere peaceful and stop for a few days. I was a few days ahead of my own schedule and anyway was not now intending to stay as long in Rome as I originally thought. Piacenza was large enough to enable me to catch up on stuff (my boots were wearing very thin) so I decided to stay there if I could find suitable accommodation.
So here I am, for a blissful 3 nights, the longest I have stayed since May 22nd when I started out on this very varied pilgrimage. Hope this has not been too rambling a post - but one last thing, a picture of an Italian Rose!
Take care all