After a somewhat challenging start, I arrive in Italy. My landing in Milan from Montreal via Frankfurt is almost anti-climatic. Having entered the EU and been cleared, there was no one at the Milan airport who had the least bit of interest in me – standing there with my crumpled wad of papers showing my covid free legitimacy.
I catch the train(s) to Ivrea, where we ended our walk in 2019 and where I will start my next stage. My goal is Lucca, about 500 kms and about 4 weeks of walking away. I have deliberately decided to slow down, savour this experience and put off trying to make my final destination – Rome, another 450 kms from Lucca – till next year. It’s also a recognition that I can now comfortably manage about 20 km a day, more than that comes with risk and at a price.
From Ivrea, I walk the Via Francigena across the Po Valley for about ten days. The region is famous for rice, we know the dish as risotto, a signature dish for Italian cuisine. I have been to the source, I have tasted the best.
The Po valley is mostly flat. Rice growing requires flooding; water being what it is, flood irrigation requires flat land to work – really, uniformly, microscopically flat land.
Some of my fellow walkers find this part of the VF boring. I do not.
I am amazed at the complex grid system of canals and ditches and sliding gates which ensure the channeling of river water across vast distances in a pattern of distribution to irrigate such vast vistas. It is a massive engineering project.
It is also obvious that this is complicated big-money agriculture. The farms look like small villages, the machinery is huge and the capital and sophisticated knowledge required to run a rice growing operation are absolute.
I grew up in a flat part of Alberta. This valley is flat and it is big. Days of walking big. I find it quite enjoyable. Especially early mornings. The misty coolness, the scent in the air, surprised little beasties, the dew, the amazing light as it plays across the sky and the land as dark turns to dawn turns to morning. It is the magical part of the walking day. It’s also practical; the earlier the start, the sooner the finish – and out of 30+ heat.
I also like the rhythm. Get up. Walk. Eat. Find home. Wash. Sleep. Eat. Repeat. It is satisfying. The other aspect of this life that I like is that I carry all that I need on my back. I can’t buy anything because I would have to carry it. It’s pretty simple. Rustic, one might say.
There is complexity to it all. Staying present and mindful, staying on the trail, finding my hotel, managing to find water, foraging for food, ensuring I haven’t left anything behind at a rest stop, listening to my body; all require a vigilance, especially for those of us who walk alone.
At this stage of my life, walking these pilgrimages is like meeting up with an old friend.
The high point (pun intended) is a crossing of the Po River by ferry boat, listed as Ad Padum on Sigeric’s list.
Danillo has been running the ferry for 23 years, amongst the pilgrim crowd he is a legend. He doesn’t just ferry us across the river. We get a short history lesson at his home nearby, a certificate of passage and an entry in his Big Book. Since 1998, Danilo tells me 134 Canadians have crossed on his boat. Cool!
Crossing the Po with Danillo is excitement in the pilgrim journey – we do learn to recalibrate excitement, this little boat ride makes me positively giddy as I continue my day to Piacenza.
We’re not done with the Po Valley yet but subtle change are showing themselves. I am a few days walk to the edge, where the Appennine mountains begin.
It takes a more imaginative writer than I to wax more poetic about rice farming and flat stretches of land so I’ll switch to another topic – the kindness of strangers, or as I call them, tender mercies.
Tender mercies are abundant. I am inundated with them. Italian B&B’s have been through hell, yet the owners are consistently gracious. In Ivrea, my B&B host knows I’m Canadian so she cooks eggs for me to supplement the normal Italian breakfast of coffee and sweet rolls. I am often the only guest in a hotel so they automatically give me a big room, I’m not used to windows, balconies and space given my well-documented hotel frugality.
Still suffering from jet lag/dehydration, I knew I would struggle on my second day of walking; the solution is simple, find a taxi, make day 2 shorter. I stopped a man coming out of a shop early that morning, asked him to help me find a taxi. It proved challenging, no taxis, no buses, so he drove me to the next town, dropped me at the town square with a cordial ‘buon Camino’ and went on his way. Such kindness of strangers warms me for days.
In Tromello, a small village halfway through my day’s walk, I stopped for my morning coffee/cornetto. While I was extracting myself from the grips of the Beast, an elderly (it’s all relative) man rolled up on an equally aged bicycle.
“Pelegrino?” He asked.
I nodded again.
He motioned that I should give it to him.
He rode off.
Before we go any further, I did not give him my real Canada passport. Pelegrinos carry a pilgrim passport. We get stamps in our passports from hotels and churches along our way to verify where we’ve been. It’s like getting stars in your workbook in elementary school. I recommend it, it’s oddly satisfying.
In a few minutes he returned. His church stamp proudly displayed in my passport, forever.
We finished the formalities and off he rode.
It’s hard work to feel grumpy after a kindness like that.
The night before Danillo’s epic boat ride I had made arrangements with Giovanni to stay at the hostel in Corte S. Andrea right beside the Po River. I am staying away from hostels for obvious covid reasons – the less contact with others, particularly indoors, the better. This was the only spot to stay so I took it.
Giovanni assured me I would not need to bring food. There was an Osteria close by and he stocked food at the hostel. The question was should I trust him. I did. It worked. As I walked into the village, the first building I saw was the Osteria. Long Sunday family lunches are a thing here. They took me in, bedraggled as I was, set up a table and fed me like the prince I want to be when I grow up. It was a sweet spot moment.
I picked up the key, went to the hostel, sorted things out and, later, met Giovanni and his wife. My guess is they are voluntary caretakers and they do the daily slog that keeps their Via hostel functioning. Both in their 80’s, they do this every time a pilgrim rolls through. Legendary kindness isn’t always large and dramatic, sometimes it’s daily and small. He let me take his picture, she declined.
And, of course, Danillo. Well into his elder years, he boards his boat every morning when needed, pilots it across the Po, fills it with Pilgrims, ferries them to the other side, then offers a history lesson and celebrates us by asking us to fill in his ledger of pilgrim travellers. He doesn’t do it for the money and he is invaluable.
Such tender mercies…
Sometimes in the process of searching for one thing, I end up stumbling onto something else, usually something that has been waiting for me, lingering just off the corner of my vision.
After only a week into my Via Francigena adventure, I’m aware already that there is more going on underneath the surface than I was expecting.