Oct 30, 2014

What a great day!

Truth be told, I'd rather have been walking, but if I had tried to choose where to be stranded I couldn't have done any better than Santhià!

‎One of the nice things about this place is it's a small(ish) town, and the hostel is in the centre of it. There's a café owned by the president of the local "Friends of the Via Francigena" chapter 50 metres away, an excellent restaurant 200 m away (La Vecchia Taverna), the library is another 200 m beyond that (free, albeit painfully slow, internet), while the hospital is 300 m from the hostel in the other direction. The main street with bakeries, produce marts, convenience stores, pharmacies, cafés, banks, etc. is 50 m away, and this section is pedestrian only.  Oh, and the pilgrim's hostel is run on the honour system, with a jar for pilgrims to deposit their €10 per night.

Since Vercelli is so close by train, I'll be able to go to Liturgy each weekend I'm here. (Although I do need to contact the parish priest to find out about service times and the exact location.) And this morning, while chatting with the bilingual baristo at the local café, I realised I could take this enforced halt from the pilgrimage to visit both Turin and Milan! Santhià is almost exactly halfway between these two cities, and it's an hour to either one by train. (The train station is about 500 m from the hostel.) I won't be doing that this week, but in another ten days or so, I'll likely be up for a day trip or two. :D  My original plan had been to follow the Via Francigena directly to Rome, which meant missing out on Florence, Milan, Venice... Perhaps this affliction of pain has been a blessing in disguise! (Perhaps? No, I'm being coy when I say that. Most definitely a blessing.)

Tomorrow I will have to post photos of what I see when I walk out my front door. Hint: it's nine centuries old, made of brick, and has bells in it.‎ The panoramic shot I've linked to below was taken from the west is what I have come to consider my front yard: the Piazza Roma. Okay, it may not be as grand as what I'll see in Rome itself, but for a town of 8,000, it's pretty impressive.

On the east side of the square, on the site which has had a church dedicated to St Agatha since the 4th century, is the main church of the town - also the church which gave the town her name. (Santhià is a linguistic corruption of Sancta Agatha.) The hostel is part of a row of residential buildings on the south edge of the square. To the west it's a row of small businesses on the ground floor, including two from which a pilgrim can request a key for the hostel. (The other two storeys are also residential.) The north side of the square is the municipio (town hall), and a hostel key may also be had from "Il Comando Vigili Urbani" in the office there. (Doesn't that sound like an awesome title?  It's so prosaic when translated into English.)

So, that's a brief introduction to where I am. But what made this a great day, as indicated in the title of this update? I mean, c'mon! My plans have been frustrated, internet access is brutally slow (oh how I miss LTE and WiFi!), I've had a minor surgical procedure to remove infected flesh from my body, received a tetanus shot in my gluteus maximus (to be polite), I'm in pain (but now that I'm horizontal again, that's subsided), I'm on antibiotics,  I'm unable to communicate fluently with most people I meet, the concept of "breakfast" as understood in North America doesn't exist here - what could be so great about all that?

Well, okay. As I just outlined it, it's not so great. But today, for only the second time since I started walking over three weeks ago, I met some other pilgrims!

Hermano and Flora are from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. When I emerged from the café after my second cappuccino of the day, I noticed a man in hiking gear with a backpack sitting in the sun on the steps of the municipio. I figured him for a pilgrim, so I walked over and introduced myself. Hermano didn't speak anything other than Italian (with a few random French and English phrases), but we managed to have a lively conversation for a few minutes. Then Flora emerged from the town hall, having acquired stamps in their pilgrims' passports. Flora is a teacher, and for the one week break at the end of October, they ‎decided to walk part of the Via Francigena. They began walking in Aosta (and had the same frustrations I did with the signed path). When they reached the L'Ospitalita del Castello in Settimo Vittone (www.lospitalitadelcastello.it/), they heard of a pilgrim who was walking to Jerusalem "per Pasqua." Yep, that's where I stayed, and I guess I made an impression on Moreno, the proprietor. Their goal for the day was to reach San Germano, the next town along the way, so after a brief chat, they headed over to visit the church. A few minutes later as I was limping across the square, Hermano appeared from the door of the café and waved me over. The church was closed, but he wanted to know if I would join them for a bit of refreshment. Not being a complete churl, I accepted their offer. After a pleasant conversation in English with Flora (with an attempt on my part to speak Italian to include Hermano), we parted, they to continue walking, and me to go to the local hospital for my follow-up visit.

On the way, I stopped by the local Co-op supermarket that had become so familiar to me in Switzerland. I had a simple lunch of bread, some local cheese, and an apple. I also bought a 30,000 word Italian dictionary fo‎r only €3.90. It's got a very cheap binding, but it only needs to last the next six (or seven, or eight, depending on the doctor's prognosis) weeks.

I'd mentioned in my last update that my visit to the hospital in Vercelli was completely free. A doctor and two attendants (nurses, perhaps?) anaesthetised, cleaned, and dressed my wound and arranged for this visit in Santhià. When I arrived at 1:30, a nurse showed me into a treatment room and then fetched the doctor, my dressing was removed, the wound examined, I was laughingly scolded for being such a sinner that I would receive such blisters (I agreed, without irony), an antibiotic cream was gently applied, the foot was wrapped up again, I was given a prescription for Amoxicillin (and the doctor ensured that I was not allergic and that I knew where to find both of the two pharmacies in town)‎, my next two appointments were arranged, and I was sent on my way. As on the previous day, there was no demand for payment, proof of medical insurance, or even a request for my home address! Italy may be suffering economically, but the system is still flexible enough to care for the stranger in their midst. Go back and read what I wrote about that way of being in the world before I started on the Camino de Santiago almost five years ago. http://phool4xc.blogspot.it/2009/12/in-beginning.html is also the first post on this blog.

I returned to the hostel, laid down, and read for a little over an hour. I love the fact that businesses shut down for up to three hours during the hottest part of the day! Then I headed out to pick up my prescription. When I pulled out my wallet, I was told that no, this was free. Gratis. (What a country! Before I reached the library {my next stop}, I phoned my travel health insurance provider in BC and asked them to close the file for this claim.)

At the small public library, I asked for the children's section, selected a book at the appropriate level, pulled out my dictionary, and started to read. Peter Rabbit was a childhood favourite, so encountering him here made me very happy! In every sentence, there was at least one word I had to look up, and the definitions usually required a secondary, and sometimes tertiary, investigation. Occasionally I ran into definitions which were completely recursive, so at that point I'd refer to the English-Italian translation app on my phone. It took me almost half an hour to read Peter Rabbit, but I learned a lot of new words in the process! Whether I'll remember ‎them tomorrow is another question. Tomorrow I should make a point of recording my newfound vocabulary in writing.

(Speaking of tomorrow, it is the first of three major feast days in a row here in Santhià. Of course November 1 is All Saints' Day, but I'm still not clear about the other two days. All I know is that, according to the nurse this afternoon, it will all unfold in my front yard, with crowds and TV cameras. {There are times when I deeply regret sending my beautiful little Panasonic LX-7 home from Liddes. Tonight is one of those times. C'est la vie.})

Half an hour reading a book for toddlers doesn't sound very demanding, but with all the dictionary work and cross-referencing that came with it, I was mentally exhausted. By then the internet terminals had opened up, so I hopped on over and uploaded a few photos I'd taken in Paris and Switzerland. My photo of the reliquary containing one of the thorns from Christ's Crown of Thorns turned out even better than I'd hoped. This was preserved in the Abbey of Saint-Maurice when the rest of the Crown of Thorns kept in Sainte-Chapelle in Paris was destroyed by a mob during the French Revolution. (Yay democracy?‎) Read more about this on Wikipedia here: 
I'd visited Sainte-Chapelle in 2010 when I was in Paris prior to the start of my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella.‎ I really love that city, and having a very good friend to play host is an extra bonus. Thanks again, ya Sharif!!!

The library closes at 6:00 pm and by then my foot had begun to really hurt. This morning I woke up to a warm, tingly, tight feeling - very different from the hot, swollen, throbbing ‎mess of just over 12 hours before. Except for that brief break at lunch, though, I spent most of today upright, whether standing or sitting. I hurried on home, pausing only for an indifferent kebab plate, and got horizontal once again. Tomorrow I intend to return to La Vecchia Taverna. When chatting to two of the local guys here in English, I mentioned my preference for this restaurant. One of them laughed and said that I was almost Santhiànese, to which I replied, "Just give me two weeks!"

And so here I am, laying in bed in the hostel at Santhià, tapping away at the keyboard on my beloved BlackBerry Q10. The pain has long since subsided, and I'm about ready to send this off, say my prayers, and retire for the night. It's been a great day!


  1. Change of plans: give up the pilgrimage, settle in Santhia, find a good Italian girl = heaven !

    1. Better yet, one of the multitudes of Romanians you told me about! (Just as long as she's not from Moldavia. ;-) )

    2. your loss, Moldavians are the most beautiful ...

    3. Hey, you're the one who told me about their "interesting" religious and liturgical practices!