The Appenines are the mountains between the Po Valley flatlands and the famous west coast of Italy – most famously, la Spezia and Cinque Terre.
They’re not the BC Rockies; nor is this the Great Saint Bernard Pass through the Alps. The Cisa Pass on the Via Francigena through the Appenines tops out at just under 1100 m. Still, it’s about a Grouse Grind of up and it’s a stark change from the flat terrain of the Po Valley.
The VF wanders up and down a lot. I don’t like up. I also hate losing hard gained elevation. Wild animals set paths long ago that followed contours, not losing elevation unless necessary. The VF planners have also not heard that the shortest distance from one point to another is a straight line. The VF planners seem to have plotted a path that increases my pain with lots of needless ups and downs and few short-cuts. I plan to speak to them in the harshest terms about that when I get home.
The walk over the Appenines is split into three stages. These stages are obviously based on the fitness of an unusually fit, youthful alpinist. I’ll keep this short. I carefully choose a BnB in the first town, Fornovo de Taro, near the trail so I could drop “the beast” and do a tough first day hike with just a day pack. That day was 20 km with about 1000m of elevation much of it of the aforementioned up and down variety. That worked well. After an early morning train ride, I reached my B&B, checked in with Manuella, dropped the Beast and got started on my hardest day by 9 AM. It was a hard slog but it worked, I managed to make it to make my destination, Cassio, at about 3PM ever grateful that, while I got caught is a brief thundershower, I made it without much difficulty. Dropping my bag was helpful.
Cassio is a village, but it does have a cafe/restaurant and wifi. After several espressos and a pastry I was fit to go again. The local bus arrived, I jumped on and made it home In time for a shower and dinner. Slick! Damn I’m good!
The next day was shorter, 10 km and 300 m of elevation but a bit more complicated. It was a Saturday, only few buses run. After some sleuthing and careful calculations, I decided to hitch-hike to Cassio, do my walk to Bercetto and catch the ONLY bus back home.
Does one hitchhike in Italy? There’s only one way to find out.
After a short while standing on the edge of the road with my thumb out, trying to appear non-threatening, a man stopped, asked where I wanted to go. I told him. He motioned for me to jump in his car and in Italian explained I was in the wrong spot to catch a ride to where I wanted to go. He took me to a perfect hitchhiking location, dropped me and took off.
Within a few minutes another driver stopped, asked my destination, hesitated, then motioned for me to jump in. He drove me to where I wanted to go, pointing out his house as he drove past it to take me to my destination. He dropped me in Cassio, deliberately going out of his way to help me get where I wanted to go. All I had to give in return was a handshake and a very sincere grazie mille.
I muscled through my walk, desperate to make it to Bercello in time to catch the bus back home; there was no Plan B. Arriving in ample time, I even managed an espresso at the cafe by the bus pick-up before boarding. Again, back home in time for dinner. Patting my self on the back, I celebrated my brilliance on executing two perfect days.
“If you want to hear the gods laugh tell them your plans for the future.” – it’s still true, I proved it. When Manuella phoned to find out bus times for Sunday, we were told no buses run on Sunday.
Option A – hitch-hike. On a Sunday morning? The gods guffaw.
Option B – Manuela. She feeds me breakfast and we’re in her car by 7:15. It’s an hour drive to get me to Bercetto to drop me off at my B&B and another hour for her to get back home. Even the gods are struck mute by her kindness. Manuella became my angel. She rescued me in another of the kindnesses, the tender mercies, I am so grateful for.
The gods managed to disrupt my master plan by throwing a bit of weather into the mix. My plan for Sunday was to climb to the top of Mount Valoria (1220 m). It’s not part of the VF but the claim is the view is worth the hike. Bad weather made that a non-starter. I heaved a sigh of relief – bad weather was actually good fortune for me; I heaved a sigh of relief, laughed with the gods and had a rest day.
The final day, my march to the summit, was short and relatively painless. The hard work has been done. After about 6 km of walking an asphalt road I arrived. Ta-da!
Then, to make time, I walked down the A-62 to Pontremoli – another 22 km. But it was downhill and I was blessed with a perfect sunny, cool, traffic free stroll.
Later, sitting in Pontremoli, thinking that wasn’t so bad, I wondered at why I made such a fuss about it.
The last few days of my walk to Lucca are different in tone, pace and focus. The landscape gives way to rolling hills and valleys, rugged forests broken occasionally by pastures and crops, strung together by small villages, all with interesting history.
Once, on an adventure to northern India, our guide said something quite profound that stuck with me: “Unfortunately, India is littered with the relics of its long history.” I thought it odd but it has become more meaningful as I travel. It’s not that we have too many monuments or too much history, it’s that one must decide what to protect and what to abandon. I suspect Italy has the same challenge.
Pontremoli was a fortress town controlling access to the two valleys it straddled and lands above and below. Passage through Pontremoli was in the hands of whichever powerful family that controlled the castle and the bridges. The castle is intact, much of it has been repurposed to house a museum of stele discovered in the area, some dating back to the 3rd and 4th century BC. Slow travelling now allows me to take in the museum. The stele display reminds me that humans have been seeking something and making art to express their quest for meaning for centuries.
Down the road in Filleto, I stay in a Saracen village, a fortress of its own, now apartments, B&B’s and a fancy restaurant. Saracen is another word for Moorish invaders, they controlled parts of Italy and gained a reputation as bandits and raiders, although they settled into many parts of the Mediterranean for centuries. They were never acknowledged as anything more than temporary interlopers, relegated to a footnote in history as vagabonds by people who still won’t acknowledge that Islam dominated much of the Mediterranean for centuries.
Between Filleto and Aulla, I walked a road that dates back to the Roman Empire. Think about that for a moment. In this time where everything seems measured in seconds and sound bites, I find it thrilling to believe I’m walking the same footpath as Roman armies took to cross the Alps more than 2000 years ago. It’s still in great shape, one of the better parts of the forest paths I walked today. These old paths have been used so often and for so long that the earth has grown up around them. The road is sunk several feet below the forest floor.
The next day our path circles an ancient Roman town from the first century BC, Luna. There’s not much there for the history buff, but it offers proof that Carrara marble has been used as far back and Roman times. The best mosaic floor in one building hardly exists. I’ve seen better in England, Switzerland and Morocco. Preserve it, let it decay – the question of too much antiquity to handle?
I stayed one night in Carrara, the home for centuries of the quarries that supply the most extraordinary marble the world has ever seen, famous since the golden age of Rome. Think Michelangelo’s David – a piece of marble from Carrara, the standard has never been higher, the purity of the white marble unsurpassed.
My last day is from Camaiore to Lucca. It turns out to be a most pleasant finale. Weather forecasts were ominous. Thunderstorm warnings accompanied by bursts of rain: however, the weather had cleared and all I faced was a few slight sprinkles. My thrill of the day was meeting volunteers for the Francigena marathon – more tender mercies, this time for deserving runners.
Sitting in Lucca, sipping my Machiato in the square by Saint Michele Paolino, a beautiful cathedral fittingly clad in white marble, with my pilgrim stamp to prove it, I’ve done segment three, 500 KM, I claim 350 of it. Finishing the last leg is for next spring, I hope.