We have no choice but to change our plans, this is tough but not just for us but for anyone attempting this path. The next 120 kms are mosquito ridden rice fields. It’s the rice bowl of Europe and we’ve been advised to catch the train to Pavia. You must know that in rice fields is found undesirable life eg snakes, mice amongst others. I’m not in favour of any of that.
At the recommendation of Giovanni, the campground owners father back at Viverone, we headed to Alice (ch) Castello “only 4kms” he said, and held up 4 fingers to ensure we understood. And so, we took Giovanni’s word with his fingers raised and headed in the direction he pointed.
We walked through cornfield after cornfield, we had no idea that Italy is such a big producer of kiwi fruit as well. It was not the first time we had seen them but the kiwi farms are plentiful along this route. We are unsure even if we were following the VF route but we figured for 4 kms it didn’t really matter, we had the word of a local.
One must when travelling in foreign parts, ask why there are no signposts indicating distances from and to cities or towns. I guess it’s irrelevant when it’s so close for the locals and as they zip around in their little fiats and Hyundis. But seriously folks, hold up your two hands, come on stretch out your fingers, now tuck one away. How many kms did we walk to Alice Castello? Yes, 9, not 4 or 5. Nine!
On our approach to the heart of this village with a of population 2600, 6 or 7 men were sitting on a bench at the junction of the road having a lively discussion. Such friendly folk though and just as eager to talk with us as each other. The questions are always the same….”where are you from?” “Oh, Australia is so far away, brava gente”. We never fail to impress when we come from so far away. I’m sure some would like to present us with some sort of medal or trophy for travelling such great distance.
“Where are you going?” “Oofph! A piedi?” (On foot!) and they move two fingers back and forth to signify walking. I want to say “of course, can you see a car?”. And, “where did you start from”?
From all of my reading and research our understanding has been that around 1500-2000 people a year will walk the Via Francigena but the more we talk to people we meet, particularly in the hostels, monasteries and camp grounds there are more and more joining the die hards and walking this solitary path. In 2014 we have heard, quite a number of Germans walked the VF and this year it’s the year of the Australians. Though we are yet to meet any.
But back to our friends at Alice Castello; I’m so pleased that I’m now embracing the mother tongue of my ancestors and launching myself into conversation. “I’m Australian” I tell people right up front, there’s room for error as I see it, but I follow it up with “well actually my parents were Italian, but we spoke English in the home”. Ah! all errors and omissions are forgiven and I grow in confidence with every conversation.
We’ve not had breakfast yet and it’s after 11 am we shake hands with our gentlemen friends and head across the road for the standard caffé latte and brioche. We avail ourselves of the bathroom facilities and again at the recommendation of one of our admirers we head off to our redefined destination of Santhiá. A mere 9 kms! yes we can do that, considering I was off the planet with exhaustion when I woke I’m feeling quite refreshed. There’s a spring in our step and we are both sporting a blister each which we are promising to tend to when we arrive at our stopping point for the day.
By days end in all we have walked 23 kms. It’s blisteringly hot and humid. We consume around 8 litres of fluid each day and when we catch the breeze (not often enough) and the sweat on my skin dries and I’m left with a fine layer of salt on my arms and face.
Thankfully whilst the distance to Santhiá was not understated it was only to the city limits and we’ve walked at least another 3 kms to the railway station. We asked another gent directions to the Stazione Ferroviale (train station) generously he says he has an appointment otherwise he would drive us there. So where do all these people come from? We must, MUST extend ourselves and give more generously of ourselves. We have become people who are lacking in trust of our fellow man (& woman) that we shield ourselves, but this is not our calling, it is to reach out and touch others in some small way that means so much more to them than us.
We are running behind in our scheduled itinerary once again and debate whether we train it to Pavia or Fidenza. Can you believe that the ticket office is closed for the holidays? The self serve ticket machine is not taking notes but it’s not taking cards either and we don’t have 32€ in coins! There is a newspaper/magazine stand that is selling tickets but cannot offer any information on timetabling but can tell us there is no information available at all about a train to Pavia, so Fidenza it is.
It’s stinking hot on the train and the air conditioning is not working, some windows have been unlocked but not enough for comfort. The Dutch ladies sitting across from us are complaining incessantly, I’m sympathetic but I’m tiring of the constant complaints. “For goodness sake we are all suffering!” Peter and I split up and move seats to get out of the sun streaming through the windows and it’s created a wonderful opportunity for Peter to make a new friend, Luciano. I have eventually ended up sitting with 3 young men from Austria and across the aisle from Peter, I’m now engaged in a conversation with MY 3 new friends and keeping an ear on Peter’s so that I can translate when required.
Luciano lives in Aulla which is one of our destinations and it’s the next stop on from Pontremoli which is a hot stopping point for us. It was an instant decision to stay on the train and go on to Pontremoli which is the home town of one of our latest favourite entertainers, Zucchero Forniciari. I think Peter is hoping to call in on him but when not working Zucchero is secluded in his private vineyard.
Luciano has generously called the Convent dei Cappucini (not a convent for coffee) to make a reservation for us, he was so excited when he was able to secure beds for us. At least we know where we were headed for the night. On the other side of the aisle I’ve engaged in conversation were rapid questions are being fired at me about our journey and am pleasantly surprised when, I presume is the youngest fellow, asks what is the motivation for doing this pilgrimage. I just hope that something of our conversation and faith stays with him, he appeared to think deeply after we spoke.
When you’re on a train for four hours and conversation is easy you learn a lot about people. I measured the success of our rapport when the fellows asked if we are on Facebook and asked my name to make contact. I just love that! Similarly on the other side of the aisle Luciano farewelled Peter greeting him with kisses (3) alternating cheeks and enthusiastic all four waving to us on the platform as the train lurched forward and away from the station.
Our greeting at the convent unfortunately was not the same, in fact even with incessant ringing of the doorbell there was no answer. It’s well after 8pm and nightfall was upon us. I’m not very good in those situations with no prospect of accommodation. I’d love to find another word for exhaustion because that’s how we are feeling and somewhat disappointed after Luciano was so excited having secured our places. We had no option but to head to the town piazza. Our guidebook provided two options though both appeared on reading to cost more than we were happy to pay. As it happens we encountered an elderly woman who pointed us in the right direction for the Castello di Piagnano and on our way up the narrow lane we met a couple headed back towards the piazza who rendered further assistance informing us the Castello had closed, they wished they could offer us their apartment however they rang the doorbell of a door next to us, a B&B.
Signore Francesca popped her head out of the 3rd storey window, a large-ish jovial woman who conversed with our helpers, informing that she had rooms available and was making her way down to open the door. Signora Francesca proceeded to accommodate us and provided a meal of left overs (OMG) it was a feast. The best rice salad, the sweetest tomatoes and watermelon, a little this and that. A large bottle of beer that didn’t even touch the sides and a bottle of wine (divine! well off the vine) and to finish off a fresh home made fruit flan, home made hazelnut liqueur that was akin to rocket fuel. And these were just the family’s left overs. Apparently when signora Francesca has a day off she puts together a small banquet for her guests, we missed it by a day, but I think leftovers are often better. Tonight at 9pm she is providing watermelon and drinks on the terrace.
We’ve been out to explore today, well Peter has been exploring whilst I’m writing this blog sitting in the piazza and watching the exchanges between family members and friends meeting for coffee. We’ve discovered it’s 45 degrees here today unseasonably hot for this region so we’ve had a light lunch and taking a siesta until later when we will don our borrowed swim suits and go for a swim in the lake close by.
In my next blog I’m going to back up a little and fill in some gaps. We thank you all for your comments and emails we have appreciated you’re thoughts and blessings and just for taking an interest.
Until we meet in cyber space again.