On arriving at the municipal pilgrim's hostel in Santhià Monday afternoon, my first priority was a hot shower and change of clothes. At this point I also took stock of my poor long-suffering right heel, and decided that if there was not a radical change for the better overnight, I would remain here until I could continue without fear of inflicting further damage.
When I awoke Tuesday morning, the situation had not improved a whit, so I hobbled across the square to the café which offers a free "breakfast" for pilgrims staying at the hostel and had my cappuccino and croissant. Then I hobbled back to the hostel (all of 50 metres), crawled back into bed, and began reading Hilaire Belloc's The Path to Rome. (Twelve hours later, with some diversions, I'm 3/4 of the way through this wonderful, witty, inspiring book.)
Periodically I emerged from the hostel to absorb some heat from the glorious sunshine in the square. These thick-walled stone houses look grand, but they are chilly in October when one is laying about. By late afternoon, I finally found the thermostat, so tonight I will not need my reflective groundsheet over the mattress and an extra wool blanket over my down sleeping bag.
After arriving late Monday afternoon, my next priority after bathing and changing was to find WiFi. Herein lies possibly my only complaint about Santhià as a 21st century pilgrim. The hostel still has WiFi, but at some point they decided to password protect it, and the password was not forthcoming when I inquired about it. (My Italian wasn't sufficient to follow the explanation about why they had cut it off for pilgrims.) The contact person in the shop nearby explained that I could go to the local public library and use their free WiFi, but when I arrived five minutes past closing time, I discovered that it too was locked down. (A neighbour was not quite as security conscious, so I took the opportunity to upload a few photos.)
On scanning for other networks, I discovered that, like Ivrea, Santhià has a municipal WiFi network available. Unlike in Ivrea, there was no possibility to register for it online. When I inquired at the tech division at town hall this afternoon, I was told that it was not possible for me to register, but that the hostel has WiFi. My Italian was insufficient to argue the point, so my photos from this beautiful town will have to wait until I reach Vercelli, the next city along the way.
I did make it back to the library today during opening hours, but rather than give me access to the WiFi, they showed me to a computer terminal. The Pentium 4 running WinXP must be laden with all kinds of third party and background apps, because it was painfully slow. Once my USB flashdrive was finally recognised, I loaded up my PortableApps suite and did what I needed to do.
On leaving, I paused to chat with the three librarians on duty. I really can't carry on much conversation, but I'm understanding a lot more than I had expected. One of the questions they asked me about Canada was whether there was much political tension between francophones and anglophones. I explained that there had been in the past, but after three referendums, Quebec seems to have accepted that the rest of Canada loves it and wants it to stay part of the country. (If I had a better internet connection, I'd have linked to the 22 Minutes video on YouTube comparing the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada to that of a glamorous French woman married to an anglophone hoser - continually threatening to leave, but in the end remaining. Ah well.)
Interesting side note: in the province of Vallé d'Aoste (Aosta Valley), most of the towns and villages I walked through had a street named after Emile Chanoux. Never having heard of him, I did a bit of research. There's nothing about him on Wikipedia in English (Sharif, feel like doing some translation work in all your "spare" time?), but I learned he was born in 1906 and as a journalist was a fervent advocate for minority rights within Italy, even arguing that these minorities are not best served by a central government and required local autonomy to truly thrive. Historically, this northern alpine region of Italy had been part of the possessions of the royal House of Savoy, a powerful French duchy, and the official signs in this region are still in both French and Italian. Chanoux was a journalist, and also worked in the anti-fascist underground during the Second World War. Eventually his published views drew the attention of the state. He was captured and tortured, and died in captivity in 1944, without giving up the names of any other members of the resistance. The occasional wayside memorials to those killed that I've encountered in northern Italy and also walking around Paris always warrant a brief pause and prayer. I've posted photos of a few of them to Flickr.
I haven't seen any of these sobering reminders in Santhià. (Then again, I haven't seen much of the town.) What I do know is that the name of the town is derived from Saint Agatha, and the current 17th century church is built on the site of the 4th century church dedicated to her. The current bell tower and crypt date to the 12th century. Photos to follow once I have a decent WiFi connection.
Santhià was also the 44th stop made by Sigeric the Serious on his return to Canterbury after being confirmed its archbishop by the Pope in Rome in the year 990. The diary kept by one of the members of his party still exists, and this is the basis for the modern Via Francigena. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Via_Francigena
Looking at the table in the Wikipedia article, I can see how woefully slowly I've been travelling. I began walking at Lausanne and with all my blister breaks, I've taken 21 days (and counting) to cover what this 10th century cleric and his party did in ten.
We dwellers of the modern age have much to be commended for, but I don't think we will ever match the sheer grit and toughness of the generations which preceded us, even as recently as a century ago. Hilaire Belloc is one such witness, Patrick Leigh Fermor is another. And of course, the millions upon millions of boys and young men in graves both marked and unmarked, who lived and loved and fought and died in the catastrophic wars that devastated Europe (and Asia) in the first half of the 20th century.
Hmm, that took a grim turn.
Back to Santhià! From what I've gathered, the local hostel is run by the Amici della Via Francigena Città di Santhià (Friends of the Via Francigena, City of Santhià) with assistance from the municipal government and local business owners. One such supporting business is La Vecchia Taverna at Via Svizzera 47, just a few steps away from the hostel. They offer pilgrims a fixed price menu for €12 which far exceeded anything I had on the Camino in Spain, both for the sheer excellence of the food, and the incredible value offered. If, as I rather suspect, I am still in Santhià tomorrow evening, I will be dining at Hotel Ristorante Vittoria, which offers a similar deal. (Depending on how far it is from the hostel. I'm really trying to avoid walking right now!)
And so let me conclude on that note: warm, well-fed, safely ensconced with an entire hostel to myself. Still tender of foot, but these things take time. Tomorrow when I finish with Belloc, I think I shall resume reading The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life by Jim Forest.