I took poetry and writing for my last course at SFU. I am not a poet, but I did over the course of the course learn much about writing in new forms, new ways to communicate, ways that were more open to interpretation, more visceral, more nuanced and, more engaging for the reader. This is the final paper.
First Stage. The Camino de Santiago, 800 kilometres.
St. Jean Pied du Port, France September 16, 2013
The Camino de Santiago, the Way, is a famous Christian pilgrimage. Folklore says the headless body of Saint James was miraculously found by a shepherd, guided by a star, in the 9th century, somehow mysteriously transported there from the Holy Land centuries before. Sound familiar? Santiago Cathedral, the venerated mausoleum of Saint James’ body, became a pilgrim destination. These days, Popes walk back the dubious myth of Saint James’ miraculous discovery, the story defies logic, geography and history. Pilgrims still come; 250,000 a year.
Departure – September 17, 2013
The jumping off point is Saint Jean Pied du Port, on the French edge of the Pyrenees. A night of no sleep – nervous, manic energy, anxiety, fear of failure, pack/repack, fidget and fret.
The first day is a test of determination, training, desire and grit – a hard 25 kilometre slog over the Roncevalles Pass into Spain. Rain, fog, wind, mud; a slap in the face, no extra charge.
Near the pass, a brass plaque signifies the battle, mythologized in the Song of Roland, where the Christian knight and his crusaders were caught and slaughtered by the Moors as they retreated into France in the 8th century.
Raincoats show their flaws, boots are sodden, packs become heavy, uphill is foreboding and constant, wind and rain are cyclonic. Reaching the hostel, persevering, becomes a quest; a shower, dry clothes, a hot meal and a warm bed await at the first Albergue, We’ve survived.
Along the Way – Finding the Rhythm
Walking consumes me, takes all my oxygen; I am obsessed, there is nothing else. It’s what I do, it’s the only thing I do.
the Way is.
No trail finding skills necessary, no maps required, follow the signs.
Stay on the Way,
thirty days they say,
walk every day.
Routines emerge and harden; wake early, pack up gear, gulp a hot, bitter coffee, grab a pastry and set out; sunrise is best. When the sun is high, stop for second breakfast, another coffee and another pastry. Walk to day’s end, the chosen Albergue. Check in, unpack, shower, wash today’s clothes, put on tomorrow’s, rehydrate, nap, stretch. Commune with pilgrims; where are you from, why are you here, how are you feeling? Dinner is at 7, everyone is asleep early. Do the same for as many days as it takes to arrive at the Cathedral, to pay homage to the bones of Saint James that aren’t the bones of Saint James.
Fill the Void
Life on the Way is a void, no distractions; the outside world has ceased to exist. I walk alone.
The silence, the emptiness, the lack of distractions create a void unlike anything experienced; the void demands to be filled. It is. Wild fennel grows along our path; I rub its seeds in my hands, rewarded with the pungency of dill and anise, indelible, now forever the smell of the Way. Sunflowers offer a canvas to passing pilgrim artists to create happy faces to tickle my whimsy.
Early mornings are exhibitionists; the air is cool and fresh, the sky still filled with stars, sometimes a waning moon shines so brightly that my headlamp is superfluous. Mists swirl and curl, delineating contours of the land with their ever-shifting shrouds. The sun consumes them, they evaporate, light fills the gaps, a nuanced colour palate emerges offering impressionist paintings, the real reward for early-birds.
Yellow arrows become luminous neon signs. Each day’s first familiar arrow on a wall, a curb, a pole is my reassuring security blanket; I’m on the Way!.
Crowing roosters, cowbells, church bells off in the distance add melodies to my morning reverie. We walk from church to church, rest stops full of aged piety, sanctuaries of quiet contemplation, a vesper service in the evening, a cool oasis from the energy-drained afternoon slog.
We are pilgrims for a reason, each searching for something different; some not admitting, most not knowing, what we seek, what we need, what we want, what to hope for. Something other than the bones of Saint James calls to us.
People insinuate themselves into my solitude. A troupe from PEI skips along like a traveling minstrel show, team t-shirts, a different color every day.
Three women, Birthe from Denmark, Jennifer from California and Sally from Victoria, bond like sisters in a day. Sally celebrates her 65th, I’m invited to join.
Jeanette, a petite grandmotherly woman in her 70’s, looks more at home in her kitchen. She lost her husband; rather than sink into mourning, she decides the Way is the way out. Her electric bike, her Rocinante, takes her to Santiago. Over a pilgrim dinner; she tells of sadness slowly being replaced by hope and joy. We meet again in Santiago; we hug, I shed a tear, lifted up by all that she is and all that she will be. Buon Camino.
Arrival – October 15, 2013
Arrival is sweet/bitter. The sweet is joyful, euphoric – deeply satisfying. Gratification, much delayed, is at hand. Attendance at the daily pilgrim mass in the Cathedral bookends the Way: closure, my exclamation point. Priests swing a monstrous cauldron of burning incense down the length of the cathedral and back; rumour has it the incense tradition was started to cover the malodor of pilgrims.
The comes the bitter. It’s over; the void opens, I look into the abyss.
Peggy Lee emerges, stage left, singing “Is That All There Is?”.
No grand epiphanies, no insights into my soul, no nostrums on to how to lead ‘the good life’. The true gifts are the kindness of strangers, quiet, finding comfort in aloneness, a reconnection to the simplicity of nature, reawakened awareness of tiny pleasures, the physicality of walking, gratitude for gifts unexpected.
Second Stage – the Camino Portugues – 600 Kilometres
Lisbon, March 1, 2015
The Camino Portugues is a 600 kilometre pilgrimage from Lisbon to Santiago; it is sparsely traveled, fewer than 1000 pilgrims a year, lacks convenient amenities like hotels, hostels, restaurants, compensated by good signage, hospitable people and bread, extraordinary bread.
Slow down, again.
Spring in Portugal is idyllic, sunny and cool, farmers are in the fields, trees are blossoming, flowers are blooming, birds are singing. The pungency of fresh pig manure offset by the earthiness of freshly plowed soil ignite memories of a small-town in Alberta, long ago and far, far away. The scent of the baker’s fresh bread at the edge of the village; I sniff it out like a hunting dog. Again attuned to the delicate sensual possibilities of my surroundings. Dawn brings the morning dew, that dew captured on a spider web in morning’s soft golden light reveals its intricate architecture. My crowing roosters, my cow bells mingling with my church bells.
There is no clock but the sun, I lunch when the locals stop; their food, at their pace, leisurely, with appreciation. A park bench for siesta as the shadows grow in the afternoon.
Alone not Lonely.
Walking offers solitude; the emptiness opens room for awareness of the delicate, the whimsical, the ethereal. Without distractions, with abundant time to meander, my mind wanders further afield, seeks out distant recesses, rediscovers oft-forgotten memories. The interior space offers its own amusements, contemplations, dreams. The Knights Templar, a Catholic order of the 12th and 13th centuries, the Church’s warrior monks had their own castle in Tomar. Envious Kings and Popes disbanded the order, took their money, hunted them as fugitives. I create stories of those Knights Templar; heroes of my dreams, I join them for an adventure.
In the Company of Strangers
Evenings are amenable to the company of strangers, evening meals break the fast of aloneness. We walkers, it seems, are more honest, more revealing, more vulnerable, more open to dialogue. We gather for the pilgrim meal; a young man arrives in a flurry, late. A cyclist with wild Rastafarian hair, a bit ragged around the edges, a vast array of tattoos; my privileged white man bias tags him as an English Football hooligan. I name him Hooligan Harry.
“Oh great,” I think, “another night at the Bates Hotel”.
Our ragtag pilgrim group morphs into a fraternity of fellow travellers. Past travels, recent adventures, the philosophy of life, religion, football, human discourse at its best. Hooligan Harry is transformed into Renaissance Harold, a modest, thoughtful carpenter on a two year drop-out bike trek. Note to self, be aware of the fallibility of quick judgements.
Ruts as old as time.
The pilgrim path follows the Via Roma XIX, created by the Romans in the first Century AD; a path so eroded by the passage of feet and time, now several feet below the surface of the forest. Bridges built centuries ago, repaired, provide pilgrim’s crossing connecting an age-old road: my trek again shared with the Centurions.
In silence, uncluttered by noise and sensory overload, I become aware of nuances, subtleties and pleasures of human interaction, the kindness of strangers. I call them Tender Mercies. Drowned out in normal life, Tender Mercies are the oft-passed over, gossamer soft, fleeting, under-observed kindnesses of strangers brought to life. I catch them in the net of my empty mind. I play with them, shine them up, build stories around them, place them on my mind’s mantel, save them for special moments of remembrance. Later, as I roll them over in my brain, they bring smiles, driving away the lows, the sadness and the darkness.
In Golega, the O Te restaurant/hotel, I’m refreshed by a second floor room, a suckling pig dinner, a morning espresso and insightful philosophical musings from an elderly French Moroccan who somehow ended up as a hotelier in rural Portugal.
Miguel and Jennifer introduce me to Porto, their beloved city, an excursion ending with a match at FC Porto – futball, the other religion of Portugal.
At Meson Pulpo, near San Amaro, I stop for my late morning coffee. Filled with warmth, I decided to rest, absorb the serenity, eat. I order a bacon bocadillo – such lovely words, bacon bocadillo – I taste the words, even before it arrives. I savor my bacon bocadillo, the aroma of the soft chewy bun, the crunchy, hot, greasy, salty, bacon.
This restaurant is their home. I was their guest, radiant in their kindness, warmth, generosity, calm. Reluctant to go, reluctant to see me leave. That moment, my only human contact of the day; these are Tender Mercies.
There are sweet spots, fireflies of bliss, frozen in a minute. Ponte de Vila; a town of sublime beauty, shows deep respect for its history mixed with surprising modernity. Portuguese bread. Fresh fish, every piece cooked to perfection. Portuguese tiles turn buildings into art. The Portuguese tortilla, elevating potatoes to their rightful place as national cuisine. Bacon Bocadillo! Sweet spots, brief magical moments over which pixie dust is sprinkled. They don’t arrive easily; they last forever, their fleeting evanescence filling my mind’s void.
Third Stage – 88 Temples – 1400 Kilometres
Takushima, Shikoku, Japan April 1, 2016
The 88 Temples pilgrimage honors Kobo Daishi, a 10th century Japanese monk, instrumental in bringing Buddhism to Japan. 150,000 pilgrims annually replicate his travels. Daunting. A walk through time. A meditative search for Buddha. A stroll through rural Japan. Daunting, indeed.
Becoming a Japanese Pilgrim.
A Henro, a pilgrim, dresses to celebrate the ritual of pilgrimage. Requirements:
– a light white cotton vest/jacket representing purity and innocence.
– a sugegasa, a sedge hat, a portable, hands-free umbrella, protection from rain and sun, surprisingly comfortable.
- the kangozue, a long wooden walking stick topped with woven silk and a bell. Kobo Daishi’s spirit walks with us in our staff. It must be cared for, cleaned after every walk,
- – a Zudabukuro, a shoulder bag to carry candles, name slips, coins, incense sticks, and my precious stamp book, to honour temple rituals.
– an ample supply of curiosity, humility and gratitude.
I have no north star, no compass, no past experience, as close to explorer as today’s connected world allows.
Each temple is unique, yet certain rituals are universal. Usually, after climbing stairway after stairway, the Henro reaches the gate. Henro pauses and bows, enters the temple grounds. To purify, Henro washes hands at a ceremonial basin, sips/spits a bit of well water to cleanse the mouth to enter the temple free of the dust of the journey. At the bell tower, Henro rings a massive brass gong – just once, more is bad luck. In the main hall, a name slip on which is written a short prayer for loved ones, is placed in a box. Three sticks of incense and a candle are lit and a donation placed in the offering box.
Henro becomes me. I say my prayers. I pause. There is a colour, a purple, that is so regal I automatically bow to it, subjecting myself to its majesty. If I am fortunate, other pilgrims are chanting sutras, magical, lilting songlike. I listen, eyes-closed, transfixed, transformed and transported to another time, another place, another world. Still in the sutra’s aura, I sit quietly, solemnity seeping into my bones, a singular peacefulness, a warm blanket of serenity.
I rouse myself, meander over to the Buddhist monk on duty, receive my temple stamp certified by a magnificent elaborate calligraphic flourish. We smile, acknowledge each other, a gift as valuable as the stamp. Exiting the temple, I bow to say goodbye.
The privilege of Pilgrims.
On a cloudy morning with rain a definite likelihood, I walk through a small village, approaching a tiny elderly woman pushing her rolling portable chair. Stooped over, her back carries a lifetime of toil, of hand-planting a million rice shoots one-by-one. She looks at me, I pause and bow. She glances at the sky, I look up too. She looks back at me. I look back, respectfully. She holds up her umbrella and gestures for me to take it. Smiling, I shake my head no. We engage in a non-verbal test of wills. Will I take her umbrella? How can I take her umbrella? How can I say no graciously? She insists! I can’t take her umbrella. Finally, to break the impasse, I walk over to her, bow many, many times and give her a Canada pin. I refuse the umbrella, politely but firmly. We reconcile, we bow. I wander off, marveling at her aggressive generosity.
It doesn’t rain.
A bus driver adopts me, foreign Henro, abandons his passengers, jumps out of his bus and shows me where I need to go, patiently waiting till he’s assured I’m on the right path. His passengers don’t seem to mind.
A man sees me walking past his home, rushes out, chases me down the street, catches me, bows, presents a small glazed clay pilgrim statue to carry on my pilgrimage.
The Japanese might have invented Tender Mercies.
For the love of blossoms
Blossoms burst into view, deep lipstick pinks, soft pastel white-pinks, every hue in between; across the field, a single cherry tree blazes pink amidst a forest painted the special greens of newly unfolding leaves, too many shades of pink and green to calibrate, each an affirmation of vitality and promise. Irises everywhere, splashes, slashes of brilliant purple accentuate the greens and pinks. At temples, umbrellas protect flowers from the rain so they may blossom fully. In the forests, bamboo, gently wave in the wind, next to pine trees that barely waver.
Japanese Koi nobori – elongated, hollow, multi-coloured kites on high poles wave in the breeze – part streamers, part kite, part flag, funny carp-looking streamers swimming in the blue wind – spring’s hopes in a kite.
Japanese farmers, artisans of the earth, meticulously manicure their plots: they work the soil, rice planted here, winter wheat ripening there, bags of onions harvested alongside Japanese radishes, a few frogs, two snakes.
Small plots where mechanical planters immerse tender shoots in water without maiming them; infinitely superior to one-at-a-time hand planting. Derelict houses witness the exodus of young people to the city, neglect amidst the farmers’ verdant crops.
Mountain paths, misty and mystically enhanced by aged Buddhist and Shinto monuments, stand silent, commemorating centuries of walkers. Paths are littered with monuments and statues, many adorned with brightly coloured knit caps, bibs and capes; offered up to the gods to keep them warm and save them from chills. Graveyards with ancient headstones – Shinto shrines – placed long before and long after Kobo Daishi and his Buddhism encroached, speak for another, more animist, religion, silently resisting the Buddhist invader.
Home not home.
Traditional Japanese hotels, ryokans, offer a simple room covered with Tatami mats, futons on the floor for sleeping and a toilet/sink. It is easy to go to bed, just flop down and pull the covers over you. Getting up is tougher. Done in stages, stiff muscles roll over onto all-fours, kneeling, lifting, finally upright, noisy and ungainly. Thankfully there are no witnesses.
Toilets designed by a techno-madman; a terrifying array of buttons offering options to do things to my bottom that are unimaginable. I touch none, barely trusting the normal flush lever.
Several pairs of slippers are provided, guests remove street shoes at the door and put on floor slippers, then remove floor slippers to put on room slippers; there’s usually a special pair of bathroom only slippers. No exceptions. Do not mix them up.
Onsen, Japanese communal baths, require special tourist courage. Segregated but public, very public. I wash, thoroughly, publicly, noisily, nakedly with the rest of the male bathers, then I bathe with them – again naked. Like the water, it is all too hot. I retreat to my room, red-faced but cleansed. This home doesn’t feel homey.
Food for the Epicurious
Meals are for the epicurious. Rice, salad, soup, fish bits, pickled vegetables – breakfast at the traditional Japanese hotels. Foraging for lunch is more familiar. Convenience stores, astonishingly, offer fresh full nutritious meals for the pilgrim walker. Lawson is my favourite, offering food, an ATM and wifi – sustenance, cash and contact with home, convenience redefined. Restaurants offer pictures and odd little plastic replicas of the dinner menu items. Sushi is my mainstay; the sushi-chef in his special jacket, shirt and tie is king. I give him respectful license to feed me, he’s never wrong.
Visual presentation and display are carefully considered. I am advised to pause a few minutes to observe and take pleasure in the beauty of my food – art enhances the dining experience.
The Buddhist monk stamps my book, my 88th stamp, signs it with his elaborate calligraphy. I’m done. I give my staff to the caretaker, they are ceremoniously burned as a sacrifice. A new pilgrim in my hotel takes my sedge hat, the rest of my uniform and my stamp book are mine. I board the bus to Koya-san, a temple rich village in the mountains above Kyoto to pay respect to Kobo Daishi. He is here, in eternal meditation. Eternal meditation sounds so much more dignified than death.
Down and done
It’s not all fun and games. I’m drained. I spend my last few days in Kyoto, drinking coffee at Starbucks, reading the International New York Times, eating egg salad sandwiches, listening to a Japanese curated playlist of best American hits of the 50’s and 60’s, trying to cover myself in a warm blanket of the familiar till Air Canada takes me home.
Fourth Stage – The Via Francigena – 2000 Kilometres
1 – Canterbury, England – Reims France July 16, 2017
2 – Reims, France – Ivrea, Italy July 16, 2018
3- Ivrea, Italy – Lucca, Italy, September 2, 2021
4- Lucca, Italy – Rome, Italy, April 16, 2022
In 990 AD, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric, walked to Rome to be confirmed by the Pope as a Cardinal, his return trip chronicled, 79 stops preserved on a single sheet now preserved in the British Museum. His journey inspired the Via Francigena. With only 2500 pilgrims annually, it’s a lonely walk. Yet, through the years, through invasions, wars, the plague, predation from two and four-legged animals, scorching summer sun, freezing Alpine passes, pilgrims have endured, walking to Rome to seek enlightenment, forgiveness of past sins, healing.
Motivations as varied as the human condition.
The comfort of the familiar
After Japan, walking the VF is like putting on a pair of old slippers. My pack is light, I have my guidebook, my passport and my credit card. My old routine still works, a study in positive addiction. I rise, eat, drink and walk – stay on path, observe the scenery and its minute miracles. Hours of mindful vacancy are my familiar rewards. It feels good. Another day done, I dump my pack, wash my clothes, eat simple French rural food at its best. I sleep well.
I am where I want to be, walking my path, reacquainting myself with tiny miracles of a flower, a sunrise, mist, cool water, a simple buttered baguette, a wave to the locals as I pass through near abandoned villages,
Walking through History.
Kristen is with me for a while. In northern France, remnants of the great war share their horrors. A small cemetery, populated with random crosses – French, Belgian, English, German, an occasional Canadian define the losses at a field hospital. Hospitals at the front took anyone brought to them; death took its share, they were buried together without discrimination. Here no one was friend or enemy, no one won – war’s cruel egalitarianism.
Bapaume has a Sunday circus. Serendipitous surprise, we arrive in time for the parade! We drop our packs, find French profiteroles, carny pastry at its best and pull up a piece of curb to watch – unexpected, enthralling entertainment. We saw camels!
Villages, hollowed out by farm consolidation, efficiency and the inevitable migration to cities, leave only the elderly and the stubborn; a rich tapestry of rural French life gone – old people, old ways, churches decimated of congregations, priests and abandoned beliefs. The ultimate indignity, a bread dispensing machine – even the fresh baguette has been forsaken.
Much is left to appreciate; rolling hills, the wheat fields golden, heavy and ready for harvest, a donkey shocking us with his ungodly bray, the sheer joy of walking, the blessing of companionship, the connection with weather, land and the ground beneath our feet. The simple joy of a ham and cheese baguette, a drenching summer rain showering our sense of humour, the celebratory glass of champagne for my daughter/companion, the pride of accomplishment in achieving something that can only be gained by one measure – footsteps.
Reims, the city of kings when kings mattered, is now more famous as the home of Champagne; more venerated than generations of kings buried at the Cathedral.
Walking alone or together.
I travel alone, pilgrim journeys are solitary by choice. Alone does not mean lonely, one does not have to be an introvert to realize that some activities are best experienced on one’s own. It’s called being comfortable in one’s own skin.
A proper companion adds to solo walks. My daughter Kristen and I walk well together; long silences, mutual chatter, a few deeper conversations, some code-talk decipherable only to us, years and years of old dead-cat bounce jokes.
On the next leg my friend John walks with me from Reims to Besancon. The perfect walking companion, quiet till he has something to say, amiable to a fault, pleasant dinner companion and roomie, adding bright and shiny observations, new dimensions, to the journey.
A summer heat wave defines this walk. Hollowed out rural France limits our options, access to water becomes an overarching necessity, finding sanctuary in shade – straw hats, a tree, the cool church – weather rules at 30+ degrees. We hitch rides, hire taxis, start earlier, anything to reduce our walking time under the relentless sun and heat. The pavement softens.
Up and Over
The Great Saint Bernard Pass is the halfway point of the VF. A Roman gateway to Europe before the birth of Christ; Napoleon marched back to attack the Italian city states in 1800. At 2473 metres, it is formidable; travel by foot is only possible in July and August.
Blair joins me in Lausanne, five days up to the top of the pass. It’s not easy. I struggle, grateful for his presence, his support and his encouragement. It’s always a test of will over wish.
Late afternoon, within sight of the summit, Blair surprises me. We find a flat rock, drop our packs, sit; he pulls two Astronaut-ready freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches from his pack, feeding my legendary love of ice cream. We sit on our rock, basking in the sun, and savour our treat. Priceless.
Icing on the ice cream, a young woman appears, out for a walk with three Great Saint Bernard dogs, sent by the gods to guide us through the Great Saint Bernard Pass.
If you want to hear the gods laugh, tell them your plans for the future. Life’s distractions necessitate a year’s delay; then covid closes all doors. We hunker down; a trip to buy groceries becomes unthinkable, Italy, impossible. Doubt creeps in, fear its companion. Anxiety and the desire for safety inflates risks, problems, what-ifs. Lethargy kills dreams. Months of whiling away hours, the only goal being to while away the hours. Has the joy of adventures lost its joy?
A window opens in autumn of 2021. Italy’s vaccination rates are high, infections are down, hospitalizations down, deaths down. Travel restrictions are loosened, BC immunization cards are recognized by Italian authorities. Walking in rural areas with minimal contact with others; no more hostels, my own hotel room, tough Italian no-nonsense rules. Needless risk is not smart, minimizing risk is. It’s worth the risk.
I have unfinished business, it’s time to go.
Italy – fountain of renewed faith
Ivrea to Lucca; down out of the Alps, across the Po valley, over the Apennines, into Tuscany – 450 kilometres in all. The Po Valley is famous for growing risotto, a signature dish for Italian cuisine. Rice growing requires flooding; water being what it is, flood irrigation requires flat land – relentlessly flat land. A complex grid system of canals, ditches and sliding gates has been created to ensure the channeling of river water across vast distances to irrigate the valley, a massive engineering project worthy of the plumbers who brought us aqueducts 2000 years ago. Flat is good for walkers.
Familiar ways of seeing
The Po Valley offers rural ambling at its best, especially early mornings. The misty coolness, the scent in the air, surprised little beasties – rabbits, feral cats, cranes and herons, a dead snake. The dew on slender stalks of grass, the amazing light as it plays across the sky and the land; dark turns to dawn, 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. The now familiar rhythm of pilgrim walking is satisfying. Elemental, simple, rustic, like meeting an old friend.
Covid anxiety drains away like excess water into the channel.
In Tromello, I stop for my morning coffee. While I’m resting in the small central square of this village, a spare, elderly 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.
Pelegrinos carry a pilgrim passport. We collect stamps from hotels and churches to verify our passage. It’s like getting stars in your school workbook. It’s oddly satisfying.
In a few minutes he returned, his church stamp proudly displayed in my passport forever.
We finished the formalities, smiled to each other,
Off he rode.
Such Tender Mercies…
Crossing the Po
Danillo has been running a ferry for pilgrims to cross the Po for 23 years. He is a legend; ferry boat captain, historian of the VF, certifier of passage and keeper of the Big Book. The night before our crossing, I stay at the hostel in Corte S. Andrea right beside the Po River. There is an Osteria close by; it’s Sunday, long Sunday family lunches are a tradition. I arrive unannounced, bedraggled; a table is set up, I’m fed like a prince. They give me the hostel key, I wander over, find a bed. Giovanni and his wife, voluntary caretakers both in their 80’s, pop over to welcome us. Kindness isn’t always large and dramatic, sometimes it’s daily and small.
Next morning we meet Danillo. Well into his elder years, he captains his boat across the Po, ferries pilgrims, offers a history lesson and permits us to sign his pilgrim ledger, the Big Book.
It leaves passengers giddy.
Over the Apps.
The Appenines are the last serious elevation on my way to Rome. Wild animals set paths long ago that followed contours, not losing elevation unless necessary. Smart people followed the animals, turning their trails into paths. VF planners ignore contours, plot a bizarre path with needless ups and downs. I follow contours, plot shortcuts, muttering vile threats. I hope I’m right.
First day is 20 km with about 1000m of elevation. After an early morning train ride, I reach my B&B, check in with Manuella, drop the Beast and manage to make it to Cassio. I am grateful that, after much huffing and puffing, vehement curses on the heads of route planners and a brief storm, I arrive in time for my afternoon espressos. The local bus arrives, I make it home In time for a shower and dinner. Slick! Damn I’m good!
Day two is shorter, 10 km and 300 m of elevation. Saturday, only a few buses run. I hitched a ride to Cassio, did my walk to Bercetto and caught the ONLY bus back home – again in time for dinner.
Hah! Easy peasy!
Third day, there are no buses on Sunday! Major tactical flaw, no plan B.
Crap. What now!
Manuela, my saviour, manufactures a new plan and we move; she calmly feeds me breakfast, drives me to Bercetto, drops me off at my B&B, perfectly positioned for my final day. In doing do, she sacrifices hours of time, a busy B&B and kilometres of driving to move me forward. The final day, I quick-march to the summit, stroll 22 kilometres downhill to Pontremoli.
Victory achieved. That wasn’t so bad, I think. Why was I so worried?
It was Manuella who made it not so bad. She rescued me, the saint of Tender Mercies, proof again that one doesn’t always walk alone, that ups and downs can be navigated by following the contours.
Wading through Italian history.
A walk to Lucca is a walking history lesson. The landscape, rolling hills and valleys, rugged forests broken occasionally by pastures and crops, strung together by small villages. Pontremoli, a fortress town controlling access to two valleys and lands above and below for centuries, houses a museum of stele discovered nearby dating back to the 3rd/ 4th century BC.
Filleto, a fortress of its own, is Saracen, another word for the Moors – invaders, bandits and raiders who dominated much of the Mediterranean for centuries.
After Filleto, I walk a road that dates back to the Roman Empire. With everything measured in seconds and sound bites, to walk the footpath Roman armies used to cross the Alps more than 2000 years ago, used for so long that the road is sunk several feet below the forest floor brings perspective to the quicksilver of immediacy.
Luna offers proof that Carrara marble has been used from Roman times. Carrara quarries are famous since the golden age of Rome; Michelangelo’s David, marble from Carrara, has the unsurpassed purity of the white Carrara marble.
Saint Michele Paolino Cathedral in Lucca, fittingly clad in Carrara marble, I receive my pilgrim stamp, the end of this section. The final walk, 350 kilometres fromLucca to Rome, is – like life – to be continued.
The Polish author, Ogla Tokarczuk, a Nobel Prize winner, develops her idea of synchronicity:
“…evidence of the world making sense. Evidence that throughout this beautiful chaos threads of meaning spread in every direction.”