Nov 29, 2014

A Parting of Ways

Knowing that today's walk would be challenging, last night I told Michael I'd like to leave by 7:30. It's only 31 km from Fornovo di Taro to Berceto, but the last two-thirds of that are very arduous, so I wanted to get an early start.

He was ready to go by 7:10. It took me another 15 minutes to get myself together. When I emerged from my room, I put‎ my pack down in the entryway and asked Michael to sit down with me for a moment. He was already standing in the doorway, but when I took a seat on one of the couches he came over and sat facing me.

Yesterday afternoon after I'd discovered how close Cassio actually was, I was pretty upset. Remaining in Fornovo di Taro after covering only 9 kms had been presented as a fait accompli. (That may have been a misunderstanding on my part.) While Michael snoozed the afternoon away, I had composed a brief letter and used my phone to translate it into Italian. Basically I said that we are on two different pilgrimages, and I wished him well on his, but said that I had to start following the path I need to take.

We were face to face and he could see there was no rancour in me when I told him that from now on, I would stop when I want to stop, and go when I want to go. He has said that he hopes to reach Rome in time to celebrate Christmas with his family. I had already told him I need to be there a week earlier, which means averaging 30 kms per day. (See my last update.)‎ He said, okay, he wouldn't stop so much at churches, maybe only once a day to get money for food. I repeated that his system is good for him, but I had to follow my own way. We shook hands, locked the door behind us, and went for a quick coffee.

Leaving Fornovo di Taro, there are two options for pilgrims to follow, one of which is waymarked, the other not. The unmarked way mentioned in my guidebook stays on what passes for a main road around here and skirts a small peak. The marked trail shaves a few kilometres off the other path, but it's fairly steep in both directions. This morning, we followed the marked trail.

It took us a little under an hour and a half to get to Sivizzano, a journey of 9 kms if we'd been following the road.‎ This is the town where I'd hoped to stay last night in order to get a jump on the grueling trek today. The priest in Fornovo di Taro had told Michael that the hostel was closed here, which is why he was so eager to stop walking at noon yesterday where he had been offered a free meal and accommodation. 

The thing is, when Michael has these little conversations with the parish priests, he always makes a point of telling them he has no money. (He's compared himself to Francis of Assissi in travelling this way.) What he neglects to mention is that the Anglophone pilgrim who's waiting outside in the rain *does* have money - and a credit card. Almost immediately after entering Sivizzano, I was hailed by a woman leaning out the window of her B&B. (sigh)‎ I could have slept in a place that didn't require people to provide their own toilet paper if I'd just walked another 90 minutes yesterday. (And yes, I do have a roll of tp stashed safely away in my backpack.)

Roughly half an hour before this, having covered a 250 m ascent and descent before returning to the road, Michael announced that he thought he would take a bus to Parma and stay with friends there. Could I give him €5 or €10 for the bus fare? Looking back on it, it seems either laughable or shockingly audacious, but at the time all I felt was pity as I told him no. (I'd decided yesterday that I would pay for his coffee this morning as a gesture of good will, but that would be the formal end of our association.) As I'd been suspecting for a few days, his talk of walking to Rome on a pilgrimage was talk and nothing more.

So it was that when he saw an older gentleman doing some yard work as we approached Sivizzano, he stopped to ask whether there was a bus to Parma that stopped in town. Maybe it was harsh of me, but when he stopped, I didn't. Nor did I say goodbye. I. Just. Kept. Walking. I'd said everything I needed to say in the letter and to his face this morning.

As I approached the edge of town, I spotted a small shop. As I crossed the road, I saw Michael walking about 20 m behind me. ‎Neither of us said anything. 

That's the last I've seen of him. I hope he found a ride to a town that does have inter-city bus service. For that it's either back to Fornovo di Torno or on to Berceto, and the priest in FdT is unlikely to provide charity to the same person two days running. I know that if he tried walking to Berceto, he's now hopelessly off course.‎ 

I know this because, having stopped at the shop I lingered a good half hour before continuing on my way. After reaching Terenzo, the marked trail veers off the very minor road it follows to that point. The narrow rocky path had rivulets of water streaming down, and further up the slope, several large patches of mud. ‎I did not see his footprints anywhere, and if he followed the trail, leaving at least some tracks would have been impossible to avoid. 

The previous few days have shown conclusively that ignoring the Via Francigena trailmarkings and sticking to the road can lead, not only to added distance, but also to lots of fast-moving‎ oncoming traffic with no shoulder to walk on. Yesterday and this morning demonstrated that sticking to the marked VF trail can lead through some very unpleasant walking conditions in late November. What I'm afraid Michael might have done is follow the VF markings as far as the village of Terenzo, look at the steep, rocky, watery track, and then decide to keep following the road. Since he has no maps or guides or GPS, he has no way of knowing that this particular course will take him 56 kms the long way around a mountain and across to the wrong side of the valley before eventually leading him to Berceto. If you are so inclined, please pray for the servant of God Michael. He's intelligent and capable, but that doesn't do much when stranded in the cold foggy dark of the mountains on a minor road at night, hours away from the nearest hamlet.

As for me, I arrived in Cassio by mid-afternoon, having had a leisurely lunch along the way, and even needing my sunglasses! (For about ten minutes, until the fog rolled in again.) I'm above the range of deciduous trees, and it was wonderful walking on pine needles and breathing the pine-scented mountain air!

I stopped for a coffee in Cassio, and discovered that my phone was picking up a signal again. Yesterday I'd contacted one of the two hostels in Berceto by email, and received the disappointing (if not unexpected) news that they were closed for the season. I'd written back last evening, thanking them for the reply, and asking if they knew of anything within 10 kms that was open. I'd heard nothing last night, and there was still no reply when I checked again this afternoon. After preparing my short list of Italian phrases, I called the number of the other hostel listed in my guidebook. No answer. The guidebook was published in January 2014, and besides ‎these two hostels, it indicates that there are no other overnight lodgings available.

Not knowing whether I'd have a place to stay when I arrived after sunset (4:37 today), I opted to make it (another!) short day‎. The person running the café told me there's a hostel that's open in Cassio, and if I wanted, he could call the person responsible and let him know there's a Canadian pilgrim seeking shelter. (And yes,‎ the guy behind the counter was speaking fluent English - always a bonus for this linguistically challenged pilgrim!) 

Five minutes later, I was being shown around the digs. Andrea (Andrew) turned the heat on in the men's dorm room as we walked through to the bathroom. Bath sheets! Hot water galore! A sink to wash my clothes in, and actual laundry detergent! :D

There was a huge pot of homemade minestrone soup simmering on the stove, the fridge was fully stocked with eggs, milk, juice, yoghurt, wine, and various kinds of meat. The breakfast nook had three kinds of cereal, multiple types of sliced bread, plastic-wrapped brioche (meh), teas, instant coffee mixes of various descriptions, jams and preserves, a toaster, a toaster oven, a juicer - no Nutella in sight, though. The main dining room had fresh fruit and vegetables on display for the taking, as well as an impressive selection of wines, cheeses, and cured meats. (This Nativity Fast, I'm abstaining from meat and eggs, but when walking as much as I am {or ought to be} on a daily basis, I am eating fish, oil, and dairy. God knows, and so does my confessor.)‎ The bar has a dozen different liquors (including some homemade ones), and there are more bottles of Moretti beer than one person could safely drink in three days. And all of this luxury was mine for the taking for the princely sum of €16.

Best. Hostel. Ever.

No WiFi, but hey, that's why I bought the Vodafone SIM!

The hills won't be as intense tomorrow as they‎ were today. I'm currently at 813 m above sea level and the high point tomorrow is only 1041. The road does dip down a bit, but I'm hoping to cover the 37 kms to Pontremoli in about nine hours, allowing for food and rest breaks. 

That may be overly ambitious, but I don't think it will be too difficult. In the flat stretches of the Po valley, I was maintaining speeds of 6 km/h even with my foot problems. Today I was travelling much more slowly than that - that steep gravel trail I mentioned earlier rose 500 m in 1.5 km. A grade of 30% may sound dismally low in an academic context, but walking up a slope with uneven footing and mud and water on that sort of incline is TOUGH! ‎If you can find a treadmill that allows for a 30% slope, strap on a 25 pound backpack and give it a whirl.

Anyway, my belly is full, my clothes are sorta clean and drying by the radiator, and I do not have an Italian radio talk show blaring away at me. Michael has a battery powered radio, which is turned on the instant he sets his pack down in a hostel‎. His favourite evening programme is called Zanzara - that's the Italian word for mosquito.  If you've ever been in an enclosed space with one, you'll know how irritating that can be. I really do wish him well, but it is a relief to have silence as a rule rather than an exception.

Nov 28, 2014

Two Ways

I've been planning this pilgrimage ‎for four years, and making serious preparations for the last two. I use everything in my pack, if not on a daily basis, then at least weekly. I've even been able to help some of my fellow pilgrims out with one or two things along the way. My pack is too heavy to qualify me as an "ultra-lite" hiker, but when I take short breaks, I don't feel compelled to remove it at every opportunity. 

Michael's pilgrimage is quite different from mine.  He is walking in the spirit of "Give us this day our daily bread" so in every village, he stops at the parish church and asks the priest for assistance. Since most parishes we've come across have a Caritas ministry, he's received changes of clothing, food, or sometimes €10 or more in an envelope.  More importantly, he's also received assistance in finding nightly accommodations for us. Several times, the priest has phoned ahead to our intended destination and arranged for us to stay in the local hostel.

Although my smartphone has a GPS app and a Via Francigena guide loaded on it, over the past few days, I have allowed my travelling companion to do the navigation.‎  He's Italian, and so he's able to ask directions from the locals we come across, whereas I've been relying on my guidebook. These two days have highlighted the difference between local knowledge and the knowledge of a specialist.

On Wednesday, we ignored the Via Francigena signs because someone had told him that following the Via Emilia is more direct.  (This road has a fascinating history - While it is certainly a more direct route from Montale (a suburb of Piacenza) to Fidenza, it also meant facing traffic travelling at least the posted maximum of 90 km/h, and very often faster. This, on a road with no more margin than the width of the white painted strip on the road, in the rain‎. After taking a lunch break that lasted over an hour, we began walking again at 3:00. 

Shortly afterwards, Michael announced he was going to take a bus to our destination, and would meet me there. By the time I arrived, I'd been walking alone in the cold and the dark and the rain for two hours, with imminent death scant inches away. I was not impressed, but I let it slide. (And then the Capuchin monastery he'd been talking up offered us scant and grudging hospitality.)

As we were leaving the vicinity of the monastery Thursday morning, I paused under some shelter to consult my guidebook and GPS. While I was doing this, Michael again stopped someone on the street and asked for directions to our next destination. And here is where the difference between local and specialised knowledge became apparent to me. 

The old guys who pointed out the way to him have lived in Fidenza their whole lives. They've probably made the drive to Medesano ‎hundreds of times, but the directions they gave proved to me that they have never walked there. Instead of following the Via Francigena cross country along the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle, we wound up grinding it out in the rain along another set of roads with no margin. The first eight kilometres weren't too busy, but once we turned the corner, we encountered heavy traffic, with more trucks than cars. And as anyone who remembers their geometry will know, we walked farther this way than if we'd followed the VF trail.

Today I told Michael, in no uncertain terms, that I would not be doing any more road walking unless the marked Via Francigena called for it. (The trail was laid out by people who have actually walked the route, so they only put people on the road if there's a good sidewalk or absolutely no other option.)‎ It's unsafe, the paved surface jars knees and hips and oh-so-tender feet, and there is no way to relax and enjoy the act of walking or the natural world when heavy metal death is hurtling towards us through the rain.

We only had 17 kms to do today, prior to the ascent into the Appenines. The author of my guide book wrote that the following 23 kms is one of the most arduous‎ in the Italian section of the Via Francigena, so I thought it wise to break after four hours so we'd be well-rested for the next stretch. The guidebook also indicated that this upcoming 23 kms will take much longer than experienced walkers would normally expect.

Since we only had 17 kms to cover, I agreed to a later start this morning. It was probably 9:30 by the time we finished our morning coffee and set out, following the Via Francigena. For the first few kilometres we had a broad sidewalk with a crash barrier separating us from traffic. Then we branched off on a minor road with very little traffic, and then the trail led to a pedestrian walkway under the highway. And that's where the reality of November rain started to sink in.

The underpass was flooded. The next hundred metres or so we could see of the trail was flooded. At this point, we had no choice but to plunge forward. The water was over my ankles most of the way, so my new shoes have now been properly baptised. My old shoes were a good enough fit for Michael to discard the canvas sneakers he'd been given at a church a week ago, so he also had some good footwear for trail work.

The next half hour was mostly gravel, with some mud and water thrown into the mix. We also had to ford a small creek. After I'd made the crossing safely, I tossed my walking stick back for Michael to use. After finishing this stretch, the next town came into view and Michael scurried off to the church to talk to the priest.

He came back with the news that the hostel in the town we were headed for was closed - in fact, everything was closed until Cassio. The good news was, we could stay in the parish accommodations in Fornovo di Taro ‎tonight, and have a hot dinner for free!

That all sounded good, but we'd only covered 9 kms and it was barely noon at this point. (These little parish visits of Michael's tend to lengthen our time on the road considerably.)‎ Still, my shoes were squelching and the rain showed no sign of letting up. It's one thing to venture into the elements with a specific destination in mind, it's quite another to walk blindly, not knowing where or when you'll find shelter.

We were shown to the apartment set aside for pilgrims, and I wasted no time unpacking and changing into dry clothes. After lunch, I consulted my guidebook and discovered that Cassio was only 20 kms away. If we'd simply pressed on at noon, we'd have been there before nightfall, with the first third of the tough bit behind us. 

I was sorely tempted to pack up and head out again, leaving Michael asleep in his room, but by this time my walking clothes were no longer permeated with the warmth from my body, and enough time had elapsed that I'd wind up walking into town after dark again. I've done it before, andlikely will again, but steep ascents in the rain are best done in the daylight.

This decision has been days in the making, but tomorrow I will tell Michael that although we're walking in the same direction, we're clearly on different pilgrimages. If he manages to adjust himself to my rhythm, well and good. But I need to average 30 kms per day, every day from here to Rome if I want to spend any time at all in Greece. 

In the towns along the main Camino route‎ in Spain, there are pilgrim hostels in each and every one. Even walking in January, as I did in 2010, very few places were closed, and those that were had closed in order to renovate for the huge flood of pilgrims expected later that Jubilee Year. By way of contrast, very few of the villages I've walked through in northern Italy have overnight accommodations of any sort. If you're not staying with family, you're not staying. (Or you're sleeping on the street, which Michael has done several times.)‎ 

This means it's not simply a matter of walking 30 kms and stopping at the next village. I've spent several hours looking ahead through my guidebook, identifying which towns have lodgings available, and then trying to work out reasonable daily distances for me to cover. That's why I had planned to do 17 kms today, although if I'd learned about the distance to Cassio sooner, I'd have gladly done the 29 to get a jump on the next day.

The other factor in my calculations for the next few days of walking is the weather forecast. Saturday is the best it's going to get in this area until the middle of next week. I'll take a 20% chance of 3 mm worth of rain when attempting a mountain crossing, thank you very much!

As it is, tomorrow I'll do the eight kilometres left over from today, and then start the long hard climb up to Berceto. Still, it's only a 650 m rise in elevation over a 23 km distance. Compared to what I faced over a month ago in Switzerland, it should be relatively easy, especially since I've lost weight and my cardio fitness has improved.

One positive aspect to my unexpected halt is that it was in a town large enough to have a laundromat. My clothes are now clean and stink-free -- well, except for what I was wearing. Shoulda brought a blanket to change into, I guess!

Nov 26, 2014

Monastic Hospitality

Tuesday evening over dinner, Michael and I had  negotiated a nine o'clock start time. It was half past when we closed the door of the pilgrim's hostel in Piacenza behind us and got underway. Well actually, we walked about 50 m back the way we'd come the evening before so that Michael could have a look at the sports‎ section of the morning paper while we both drank our morning coffee. Call it 9:45 then, when we set out for Fidenza, some 32 kms away.

The rain that had been forecast turned out to be drizzle for the first few hours, with a steady breeze coming in from the left. ‎I kept my poncho on, since even a drizzle can soak a person to the skin if the exposure is long enough, and I knew that in our case it would be. The thing that amazed me is that Michael had no hat, hood, or scarf. He was walking through the blowing damp with his head fully exposed. Small wonder he doesn't want to walk in the rain!  (We stopped by a parish church later in the morning, and he was given a change of clothing, including two hats.)

There were numerous stops today, so in spite of our fairly constant pace of 6 km/h, we had only covered 15 kms by the time our lunch break ended at 3:00. With half the distance left to cover and his inflamed shoulder causing great distress, Michael opted to catch a bus to Fidenza and meet me at the Cappuchin monastery there. 

(We had tried calling them several times earlier in the day to give them a heads-up and confirm that we'd be able to find shelter with them for the night, but one of the numbers simply rang out, while the other resulted in a "Call Failed" notification.)

I arrived just as the evening Mass was ending‎. One of the departing worshippers took notice of me, dripping water on the floor, draped in a bright yellow poncho, with the bulge of my backpack beneath said poncho giving me a striking resemblance to Quasimodo. When I explained I was looking for a place to stay the night, she led me back to the sacristy where the celebrant was removing his vestments.

As I'm sure some of you have already guessed, their hospitality to pilgrims is not on offer year-round, coming to an end in October. The priest suggested that I find a hotel for the night.‎ I could certainly have done so, but I hadn't seen Michael anywhere, and he should surely have arrived long before I did.

I'd spotted a café in one of the buildings of the monastic complex, so when the parishioner asked what I was going to do I told her I'd get a coffee and warm up a bit.‎ As we were leaving the church, she pulled out her wallet and attempted to give me some money. As graciously as I could manage, I thanked her and explained that I have money. She was insistent on doing something, so I agreed to let her buy my coffee. 

As we were walking towards the café, Michael spotted me from the sheltered corner where he had spread out his bedroll. He joined us in the warmth and light of the café, which sadly was set to close in less than half an hour. Our kindly host seemed quite shocked at the notion that he was resigned to sleeping outside on the doorstep of the monastery. (Remember the weather forecast I mentioned yesterday? Yup, rainy overnight, temperatures hovering around 7 Celsius.) 

After paying for our coffee, she pressed the €15 she got in change on me, and this time I felt I had to accept it.‎ As we left the café, I asked Luciana (Lucy in French - we'd been speaking together in a language foreign to both of us) to pray for us as we continue our pilgrimage. She promised to do so, and likewise asked for our prayers.

Not ten minutes after returning to the corner of the  roofed walkway, the priest with whom I'd spoken earlier walked up and told Michael and I that we could sleep on the floor ‎in a room in a wing currently housing several Chinese refugees. Apparently shame is a more powerful motivator than mercy for some folks. 

Once he'd shown us to our room, so to speak, I pulled out the letter of introduction my parish priest had provided me so many weeks ago. The Cappuchin monk read it through and then asked it he could take it and photocopy it. (?) I wasn't about to say no, and when he returned, he handed my letter back saying (in the English he'd claimed earlier he couldn't speak), "This is most important." Strange.

Unlike the past few (open) parish accommodations we've stayed in, the heat is on in this building. There's a toilet and sink next door, but both my clothes and I will have to do without a proper washing until later. (Tomorrow? That would be nice!‎) My accordion-style foam sleeping pad has seen regular use as a seat cushion while walking, but tonight will only be the third time I've actually slept on it. My clothing bag (half full) will serve as a rather rank-smelling pillow.

For tomorrow, my guidebook lists two towns as having any parish accommodations for pilgrims: Medesano is 21 kms distant, while Fornovo di Taro is 30. Both have phone numbers listed, we'll be trying them both tomorrow, well before arriving. I suspect that we will be shown the door as soon as daybreaks tomorrow morning (i.e. 7:30 or thereabouts), so if we stop off in Medesano I could even sink-wash some clothes and still have time for them to dry overnight. We'll see what tomorrow brings!

Nov 25, 2014

Perplexing Pilgrims

To date, all but two of the pilgrims I've spoken with have been foreigners: Germans, Swiss, and English. (Well, there were six Italian women I met on the street, but our conversation lasted all of a minute.) The thing which I find most peculiar is that these two Italian pilgrims will not walk when it's raining unless circumstances compel them.

On the one hand, I suppose that's not surprising. After years of doing deliveries through all sorts of weather, I can say quite clearly that my least favourite weather condition is rainy with the temperature in the single digits Celsius. (Wind adds to the misery, but is not an essential component.) It's not weather fit for anything other than watching through a window, sipping hot chocolate while seated in a comfy chair next to a good fire. (Other types of weather are also good for this!)  Since neither of these two inclementally dis-inclined pilgrims face any sort of time pressure, ‎there's no good reason for them to expose themselves to the cold raw nastiness if they have the option to stay put and wait it out.

On the other hand, it's late November in northern Italy! What were they‎ expecting?!? The one pilgrim has a K-Way rain jacket and pant set, the other has a mini-umbrella and a lined three seasons jacket over a light leather jacket and no rain cover for his backpack. "There's no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing." And yes, I know that I cut my first day back on the road short last week due to the rain, but that was because I had forgotten how to properly layer my gear for this particular type of misery.

This morning, my travelling companion had a quick look at the newspaper in a café. Later on, he mentioned it was supposed to rain tomorrow, so he would ask at the hostel tonight if we could stay one extra day. I don't *think* I looked at him as though he were daft, but that was certainly my internal reaction. I also knew that the weather app on my phone was forecasting a greater than 50%‎ chance of rain each day for the next six days.

When the subject came up again a little later, he mentioned that maybe we could start a little later than usual and hope to avoid the worst of it. That sounded better to me, but I'm hoping to make it to Fidenza tomorrow and take refuge with the Capuchins, which is at least 30 kms. There is another option some 5 km closer if we find ourselves benighted in the cold dark rain, but I rather fancy enjoying monastic hospitality again. (Plus, I still have that timer ticking away - averaging 30 kms per day gets me to Rome four days earlier than if we log 25 kms per day.)

Today, we took nine hours to cover 25 kms. Well, 29 kms, except that four of those were sitting in a power boat cruising down the River Po.‎ We'd set out at 8:45, having booked a 10:00 river taxi ride with the most memorable Danilo Parisi. Pilgrims on the Via Francigena who have met him have nothing but good things to say about this kind and generous man, and Michael and I are the latest.

After completing the 4 km passage, Danilo invited us to his home for coffee. We signed his impressively large pilgrim's logbook, and got our pilgrim's credentials stamped.‎ After chatting for a bit, he left us for a moment and came back with an immense loaf of fresh bread, some homemade cheese, and a good sized chunk of salami for Michael. He also gave us pretty good directions for the rest of the day's walk, and a few pointers for tomorrow. It was 11:30 by the time we took our leave, having covered 7 kms in three hours. Most of that time was spent sitting and drinking coffee. :-)

Michael and I powered through the next few towns pretty quickly, pausing for a brief lunch break about 5 kms outside the Piacenza city limits. Things slowed down considerably after that. Each subsequent time ‎Michael suggested a coffee break, I was all too willing to oblige, even though it takes me longer to get back up to speed the later it gets.

Eventually the sporting goods store that Danilo had told us about came into view, and we knew the parish office was only a few hundred metres beyond that. I looked at a few different shoes, and eventually settled on a pair that seemed like a good fit. I knew that I'd be replacing my footwear at least once this trip, but I thought it would be due to wearing out my shoes rather than the shoes wearing out my feet. Now all I can do is hope that the new shoes ‎work out better for me than the last pair did. I certainly won't be taking them back to the store for a refund!

After easing my feet into their new armor, we proceeded to the church office of San Lazzaro to sign in, get our credenziales stamped, and get directions to our night's lodging. The parish of San Lazzaro is responsible for ‎the pilgrim's hostel attached to the Church of St Peter the Apostle just a few kilometres distant. In the Middle Ages, San Lazzaro hosted a leprosarium on the church property. While that aspect of their service has been handed over to the state, they still maintain an active Caritas programme, providing food and clothing to the needy, as well as the regular activities of a large and thriving urban parish.

I'm not sure why the Church of St Peter the Apostle no longer has an active parish, but the adjoining hostel was housing pilgrims since at least the 11th century, when it was run by the Templars.‎ The Knights of Malta eventually assumed that responsibility in addition to their more martial duty of keeping the Roman bridge over the River Nure. According to my guidebook, part of that bridge can still be seen near the modern one. 

I don't know whether this building has been in continuous use as a hostel for the past millenium. I rather doubt it, but it's wonderful to see it returned to its original use. It was completely renovated in 2000 as part of the Year of Jubilee, and Pope John Paul II was present for its (re?)dedication.

And so tomorrow evening I hope to be in Fidenza‎, although it may be a late arrival. As I write this, Michael is looking rather the worse for wear, and asked if I could wait for him in the morning, "Maybe ten, maybe noon." Although he's a little on the chatty side for an extreme introvert such as myself, he's not bad company. Perhaps in the morning I'll suggest that he meet me at the Capuchin monastery, and let him decide for himself when he'll arrive. (sigh)

Nov 24, 2014

medieval hostel, Orio Litta

I'm sure this tower and adjoining hall weren't originally constructed for such a peaceful purpose as housing Rome-bound pilgrims, but it serves its new function well.

Nov 23, 2014

The keys to the city...

‎Today Michael and I decided to save about 5 kms of walking by following a rural road directly from Santa Cristina to our next destination, Orio Litta. Because we started early on a Sunday morning, we met very little traffic on the way. We had wondered what we would do about dinner, not knowing whether there would be anything open in a small town in northern Italy ‎on a Sunday.

We needn't have worried. About 4 kms from our destination, we spotted a supermarket on the side of the road, located between two villages. As we approached, we were delighted to see vehicles turning into the parking lot. This may have been the only store in a 20 km radius that was open today - certainly it was the only one we saw. If we'd followed the marked trail for the Via Francigena, we'd have missed it entirely. 

After roaming the aisles for a few minutes, we'd each selected what we thought would do for our next few meals. It's amazing how well one can eat on €5 a day!‎ And that will do for our meals tomorrow, as well.

We were in no great rush, since last evening, the priest in Santa Cristina had called ahead to Orio Litta on our behalf. The pilgrims' hostel in this town is run by the municipality rather than the church, but we were assured that our lodging would cost no more than Saturday's, i.e. nothing at all.

It turns out that our contact person in Orio Litta was none other than the mayor of the village. Pier Luigi Cappelletti unlocked the hostel for us and showed us around the retro-fitted medieval tower and hall, and then literally presented us with the keys to the city hostel.

On our arrival, Michael had mentioned I was having some issues with my foot, so the town doctor made a house call later in the afternoon. I knew that my blistered right foot had not been improving over the last few days of walking, but after having a look at it and then dressing my poor abused flesh, Luciana told me in no uncertain terms that I was not to walk for at least a day.

Pier Luigi stopped by to check in on us while Luciana was finishing ‎up, and he assured us there was no problem at all for us to stay as long as necessary. The pilgrim facilities in Orio Litta are wonderful, so staying here an extra day is no great hardship for us! He also mentioned that perhaps a journalist would stop by for an interview tomorrow. They've seen pilgrims a-plenty in this town located near the traditional crossing point of the Po River, but I gathered he'd never met one bound for Jerusalem before.

I hadn't reall‎y considered my trek of folly newsworthy. I'm not averse to sitting down (!) and speaking with someone. Having lost some weight over the past seven weeks, I'm certainly more photogenic than I was when I left home and took up the life of an itinerant. We'll see what tomorrow brings.

What it will bring is a follow-up house call to check on my foot, and hopefully give me a clean bill of health to continue walking. Once I arrive in Piacenza, my first order of business will be replacing my footwear and buying new socks!

This evening I finished reading The Canterbury Tales, and began reading Moby Dick. (Both in the public domain and available as a free download through Amazon‎.)  I don't expect to finish reading it any time soon (barring any further medical exigencies), but it's good to have something on the go. And now, to curl up under the covers with Herman!

Nov 22, 2014

Leaving Pavia

Experiencing Italy

‎The past few walking days have seen me cover a lot of distance. Tomorrow instead of pressing on directly to Piacenza from Santa Cristina (about 40 kms), Michael and I will be stopping halfway at the parish accommodations in Orio Litto.‎ While we have both done 35+ km days, that would mean arriving in Piacenza footsore and exhausted. Instead, we should arrive by early afternoon Monday, with several hours of daylight left to see the town, and in my case, do some shopping.

With my on-going foot problems, I've decided it's time to change my shoes. I'd been planning to do this in Pavia, but was in no shape to do so once we arrived shortly before sunset on Friday. I'll also be looking for some new socks. The hydrocolloidal bandages I've been using to patch my feet are great for the fragile skin ‎covering a blister, but they tend to merge with the fibres of my socks, making removing said socks a delicate process and leaving a real mess embedded in them. (Washing them at a laundromat didn't help a bit, never mind by hand in a sink.)

I'm also hoping to visit some of the churches in Piacenza. One of the drawbacks to this type of trip is that I simply cannot see everything worth seeing. I need to keep moving on down the line. I'd really hoped to visit the Church of San Pietro Ciel d'Oro in Pavia, which houses the tomb of St Augustine of Hippo. One of the items in the museum in the archbishop's palace ‎in Vercelli is the oldest extant book in Anglo-Saxon. That would've been cool to see, but so it goes.

My halting progress through northern Italy has provided me with some new experiences. On Tuesday as I was walking through the countryside, I passed a farm which had several emus stalking about a large enclosure. Those are some impressive birds! 

Today ‎while we were approaching a hamlet, Michael stopped excitedly at a tree alongside the trail, which was bearing pumpkin-shaped fruit slightly larger than an apple. I used my walking stick to knock several of them out of the tree for him to catch. I'd seen groves of these in the Aosta Valley and Piemonte, but they were always on private property.‎ The cachi fruit were sweet, soft, and utterly delicious. On arriving at the hostel this evening, I went online and learned that they are persimmons. I'll be having one for breakfast tomorrow. 

This evening, Don Antonio ‎(the parish priest and our host in Santa Cristina) called the hostel in Orio Litto on our behalf, so we're expected there tomorrow. I'm not sure where we'll stay in Piacenza, but having an Italian as a travelling companion has made my nightly accommodation much, much cheaper (read, often free). 

Michael went to Mass this evening before settling down to watch the Juventus match with the priest and a whole passle of youth, and there's no Orthodox Church within walking distance, so we'll set out again by 8:00 tomorrow morning. That being said, I'd best post this update and settle in for a well-deserved rest.

Nov 21, 2014

The Old Men

As I mentioned previously, I now have a travelling companion. I'd met Michael on Sunday in Vercelli when I met up with Salvatore for coffee after Liturgy, and caught up with him again Wednesday evening at the hostel in Tromello.  Michael is walking from Assissi to Rome, and after a pleasant evening of conversation with him, I decided to wait a day and leave with him on Friday.

We were walking through the cold damp mist by 8:00 AM, and three hours later, we had covered almost half the distance to Pavia. I've been covering lots of ground recently, but I've also been taking long breaks to enjoy the weather. The weather was certainly not enjoyable today, which may be one reason we covered the 14 km so quickly (including a 20 minute coffee break at the halfway mark). I suspect having someone to keep me accountable was just as important as the unpleasant weather. 

We took another short break at the next village three or four‎ kilometres on. My guidebook said Pavia was only 11.5 km away, which at our walking speed to that point should only have been another 2.5 hours. Imagine my confusion (and dismay) when a woman at the church office told us that Pavia was another 20 kms! I consoled myself with the thought that this distance is likely correct when following the road, but walking trails are not so constrained.

‎From that village, we followed a narrow country road for 7 kms, at which point the trail branched off  and led into Pavia from the west after another 4.5 kms. As we were walking along, Michael pointed out all the water in the fields to the left of the road, and wondered if it was an artificial lake. That didn't make sense of the trees which demarked the field boundaries, and looking across two fields I saw flowing water.

At some point after my guidebook went to the publishers, the Ticino River has flooded. When we came to the point where the trail branched off from the road, it led directly underwater.‎ It must have happened some time ago, because in addition to the Via Francigena signs we'd been following all morning, there was a new blaze which pointed away from the flood and along down the road.

We finally staggered into Pavia from the southeast, having made a wide loop around the town. Walking an extra 9 kms may not sound that difficult, but psychologically, we'd both been prepared for a short day under sunny skies, arriving at the parish accommodations by 2:30 or 3:00 in the afternoon.‎ Instead, our walk had been extended by 33%. My plans to do some shopping and sightseeing were cancelled. By the time we arrived, my priorities were a hot shower, dinner, and bed. Having WiFi was a bonus, but once I post this I'll be saying my prayers and getting to sleep pretty quickly.

It was shortly after hearing we'd have another 20 km to go that my right knee and both hips began to ache. Michael's left shoulder is inflamed ‎and begins hurting after about three hours of carrying his pack. We're both in our 40s, but to hear us creak and groan you'd think we were a quarter century older. 

Thankfully, we are also able to indulge in some self-mockery. "I vecchi uomini" is Italian for "the old men." It took me a few tries to get the number and gender of the adjective to match the subject, but Michael's a good teacher.

This morning, we'd thought of heading on to Piacenza tomorrow‎, but after logging a tough 37 kms today, we'll make it a short day tomorrow and check in to the parish accommodations at Santa Cristina e Bissone some 25 kms from here. (God willing, and the crick don't rise!)

Nov 19, 2014

A Familiar Face

It was with great reluctance that I left my lodgings in Palestro this morning. Not only are Paolo and Ambra the perfect hosts, the hostel they run is absolutely wonderful. Every possible detail has been looked after - there's even a hair dryer in the room! (Not that I have all that much hair to dry.) When I checked out Ambra's website, I was not surprised to learn she's a wedding planner and interior designer. The hostel bears witness to her skill.

Nevertheless, I need to reach Rome with enough time left on my 90 day stay in the Schengen area to walk the 400 km across northern Greece. The world is full of beauty, and while I may one day settle down, that is not going to happen while I have my face set to Jerusalem. 

After a few hours of walking, I noticed a bit of pain on the ball of my right foot where I'd had a blister a month ago. I decided to stop for lunch (i.e. lighten ‎the load in my backpack), and while sitting on a bench in the sun in front of a cemetery, I pulled off my socks and gave my feet a quick once-over. Everything looked good, although there was a bit of tenderness, and that should have alerted me. It was only two hours after that before I finally applied one of those magic hydrocolloidal bandages. By then, of course, the blister had already formed, and I had another 14 km to go.

I made good time in spite of the minor change to my stride, and when I was 7 km from my destination, I stopped for a coffee and asked the barista if she would look up the number for the parish accommodations in the next town over. She was happy to oblige, and even refused to let me pay for my coffee. Once outside again, I called the first of the three numbers she'd provided for me. It rang, and then switched over to a fax machine. I spoke to someone at the second number who said she couldn't help me, but that she would get the number of the person who could. She called back a few minutes later, I thanked her, and then called the new number. (All of this in a sort of Italian.)

Finally I was speaking to the right person (well actually, to his wife), and when I told her what time I expected to arrive, she told me to go to a café near the hostel and someone would meet me there. My ETA was off by 15 minutes -- I hadn't accounted for the combination of walking with a blister on farm tracks lit only by my headlamp. Still, I was pleased with the margin of error.‎ I walked into the right café on my first try, and was greeted with a rousing cry of "Pellegrino!" (Pilgrim!)

On the way over to the hostel, John Carlo told me there was one other pilgrim staying there. Imagine my surprise when I recognised him as the man I'd met on Sunday in Vercelli with Salvatore. Michael and Salvatore parted company this morning, Salvatore bound for Milan some 45 km distant, while Michael came to rest after walking 15 km this morning. It seems I'm not the only one to be afflicted with blisters.

After a hot shower and change of clothes, I came into Michael's room and asked if I could cook on the stove there. He told me that it wasn't working, at which I smiled and displayed the alcohol burning penny stove ‎I've been using to heat up my evening meals. It turns out that he'd had dinner earlier (cold) and still had some lentil soup left over. I offered to heat it up for him when my food was warm. We sat down and and together, and then went for coffee and started talking.

Turns out, Michael is fluent in Russian and Arabic, proficient in English and Romanian, and of course speaks Italian as his first language. (Tomorrow I'll have to share some of my music with him. I've got Orthodox liturgical music in ‎all those languages except Italian, but then have some Greek chant too.) 

After speaking for several hours, I decided to take a day for my blister to heal and continue on with Michael to Pavia on Friday. He has a list of church-run hostels which is more up-to-date than my guidebook, neither of us are compulsive talkers, and of course to my benefit, he's Italian. ‎This decision does mean adding yet another non-walking day to the tally, but I think it's best to take tomorrow as a rest day rather than push on the 28 km to Pavia as I was intending. The last thing I want is for another blister to get infected! I've covered 66 km in the past two days without being utterly exhausted by the end of the day. It's odd that it's my right foot which has been blistering repeatedly - my left foot is just fine.

So, tomorrow I'll find a laundromat and sterilise my clothing, buy some more food, and find somewhere to sit in the sun. Still no word from my friends in Santhià about the arrival of the package that was mailed to me on November 1. If it happens to arrive in the morning, I'll see about hopping a train up north to collect it. Otherwise, I may have to go window shopping to see what I can find around here, although I'll probably have better and less expensive options once I reach Pavia.

The past two mornings I've woken up before my alarm went off. Tomorrow morning ‎I'll be able to sleep in, so I've disabled my alarm. It's almost 1:00 AM as I nod off while typing this, so that will have to do for today.

Nov 18, 2014


The weather was ideal. My feet are happy after walking 32 km. Every time I glanced behind me, the Alps seemed to grow even larger and more majestic. (I'm really missing my camera!)

I took several over-long breaks today‎, which meant the last hour of my walk was done by the light of my headlamp. Note to self: make haste while the sun shines! With only 9.5 hours of daylight, I can't really afford to dilly-dally.

Tonight I'm staying in Palestro. The private hostel is only open from April to October, but the young‎ couple who run it do not turn people away. I had a home cooked meal in their dining room, the breakfast options look great, there's a wood-burning stove in my room, and payment is on a donation basis. Oh, and my bedroom directly abuts a mediaeval tower. How cool is that?

The Ospitaliere La Torre Merlata in Palestro is not listed in my guide book, so I'll be emailing the publisher with the information to be included in future editions.

And now I need to retire, so I can be ready to start walking again once it's light enough to see. I'm aiming for a 7:30 start, but who knows?

Nov 17, 2014

On the road again!

This morning I was up before my alarm went off - up before dawn actually. (Today that was at 7:28, so it was no great feat.) While Santhià is a lovely town (they won the final competition on the weekend show on national TV - congratulations!)‎, I didn't come to Europe to enjoy life in small town Italy. My goal is still to arrive in Jerusalem for Holy Week. Three weeks ago, I dragged myself into town. Today I strode out, heading towards Rome once again.

As I mentioned near the end of my last update, this morning was cold and grey, and it soon became very wet as well.‎ This is actually my least favourite weather for walking, although today could have been worse. The temperature may have gone as high as 10 Celsius, but with the light headwind it certainly didn't feel like it.

I've mentioned we've had some rainy days during my three week sojourn in Santhià, but today was the first time I've walked in the rain with all my gear since I ascended the Great St Bernard Pass on October 16.  I did a much better job layering my clothes a month ago than I did today. (Thinking about it just now, I don't think there was any wind that last day in Switzerland.) After an hour, my sleeves were sopping wet where my forearms extended beyond the cover of my poncho. My torso was still warm and dry, but I could feel my arms and then my hands gradually cooling down.

Losing body heat is rarely a good thing‎, particularly when walking off-road with the nearest shelter an hour or more away. My plan for today was to make the 29 km walk to Vercelli, passing through two small towns on the way, and then meeting up with Salvatore and another pilgrim who were waiting out the rain for a day there. I'd sent him a text as I was leaving Santhià, and got a reply as I was approaching the first town 9 km away.

Once I got under cover, I pulled out my phone. His message was to the point - no hostel in Vercelli, go to the next town along. I consulted my Via Francigena guidebook. The next town along is 11 km away, or a little over two extra hours of walking. I'd delayed my departure from my warm and cosy home in Santhià until 10:00 this morning, hoping against hope that my errant parcel would be delivered‎. (It wasn't. Was I surprised?) After packing up, I strolled up the street to say farewell to Severina, the woman who runs the small shop where I've been buying fresh fruit, local cheese, and bread over the past few weeks.

Due to my late start, continuing on to Vercelli would have meant arriving at twilight (sunset was at 4:55 pm today) after walking at least six hours in the rain and then trying to find accommodations for the night. Since I'd found a dry spot out of the wind, I pulled off my rain poncho and set down my backpack. Breakfast had been four hours earlier, so I pulled out the lunch I'd prepared and ate while I considered my options. Then I headed to a café to warm up over a cappuccino. The barista gave me directions to the only place in town that has rooms.

By 1:30, I was unpacking my gear while the proprietor made up the bed. It's dry, there's a Chinese restaurant and a café downstairs, I have a sink with warm and cold running water‎ in my room. And a bidet, oddly enough, although the toilet and shower is a few doors down. No heat, though. I'm the only person on this floor of the building, so the radiator is merely decorative. The good news is, it's cheap!

Later on I went down to ask if they‎ had any old newspapers that I could have, not only to stuff inside my footwear to aid in drying, but also to scrub the mud and grit and grass off the outside before it dried and caked on. The proprietor had stepped out, leaving his wife to mind the counter. It turns out that we each speak about the same amount of Italian, just not the same words. After a few attempts at communication, I was told to wait five minutes. (A note for people travelling cross-culturally: in my experience, "five minutes" rarely means a literal five minutes.) It didn't take me long to wonder whether my phone's nifty translation app could handle Chinese. Sure enough, it does -- both Traditional and Simplified character sets. Thirty seconds later, I was heading back to my room with several sections of yesterday's paper.

As shown by the photo, the coming days are going to be pretty much ideal for walking. I plan to get an early start and head to the town Salvatore told me about earlier today. It should be about 32 km, so even with a short break for lunch‎ I should arrive well before dark. The trail markings in Piemonte continue to be excellent, so I don't anticipate losing any time to wrong turns or sheer confusion. And now, to bed!

The Italian Chef

Having visited Turin twice last weekend and sat out a week of rain in Santhià, on Friday I decided to take advantage of a break in the weather ‎and head to Milan. At one time, this northern Italian city was the capital of the western Roman Empire, and according to WikiSherpa, is home to the oldest surviving churches in Italy. It has always been a major centre for commerce and politics, which prominence explains why it was so badly damaged by Allied bombing raids in WW II. (It was also central to the Italian Resistance.) As with so much else on this trip, I could not possibly spend the time or the money to explore the city thoroughly, but I decided to catch a train Friday morning and see what I could see. (If you'd like to learn more about the city, here's the Wikipedia article:

I arrived at the main train station at around 10:30. I surveyed the neighbourhood from the impressive portico of the station, but this is primarily a business district. I learned later that the station had originally been situated several hundred metres to the south and was relocated in the Fascist era. The facade of the current building ‎is dated 1931. The former site is now a large green space, with commercial buildings and office towers built up around it.

Heading back inside, I bought a coffee and a ticket for the Metro (subway) and headed to the Duomo. This is probably Milan's most distinctive landmark, unless you're a fashionista. The massive Gothic cathedral is only four stops away from the train station, so I arrived by 11-ish. When I emerged from underground, I discovered the vast square in front of the Duomo was filled with people wearing red t-shirts and waving red flags. There was a stage set up and a loud PA system was broadcasting some very "enthusiastic" speeches. My Italian has improved in the three weeks I've been in Santhià, but not enough to follow rapid-fire political rhetoric. Many of the flags bore a black hammer and sickle, and as I moved through the crowd towards the cathedral, I noticed many people wearing union patches on their jackets and caps.

Once I reached the cathedral steps, I saw that sturdy police‎ barricades had been set up along the perimeter of the church porch. A few people were leaving through the front doors, so I waded through the crowd towards the south side, where I saw a gap in the barricade and police officers standing by. I was told by one person that it was closed for maybe 15 minutes, and to just wait. He also pointed me around to the side, so I walked past a ticket office and found another doorway. This was also under guard, but without the barricades. The officer there told me it was closed because of the labour demonstration, and it might be a few hours. What are you gonna do?

In my case, I crossed the square on the south-west corner of the cathedral and walked into the grounds of what was once the palace. It now hosts several museums and art exhibits. I paid for admission to the special Van Gogh ‎exhibition and made my way up a grand staircase to the second floor (or as they call it in Europe, the first floor).

Most of the pieces were on loan from a gallery in the Netherlands, and were arranged chronologically. The free audio guide provided a good overview of his life, as well as commentary on particular pieces and the stages of his artistic development. Van Gogh was unusual, in that he only set out to become an artist when he was 27, after having tried his hand at several other careers. It was fascinating to see his earliest sketches, produced by following teach yourself manuals.‎ The rough work was in stark contrast to the apparently effortless Leonardo sketches I had seen in Turin five days earlier -- although to be fair, those were the products of a mature and accomplished artist. There were a number of his works featuring peasant life, including a lithograph of his most famous early work, The Potato Eaters. I wouldn't have needed the audio guide to notice the radical changes that occurred once he moved to Paris and came into contact with the Impressionists. Suddenly, his work was full of vibrant colour, and the swirls and thick layers of paint I'd always associated with him appeared. 

While I was making my leisurely way through the exhibit, I heard helicopters overhead and wondered how the demonstration was progressing. Before entering the palace, I had noticed a few dozen Carabinieri in riot gear standing by, although none of them were wearing their helmets at that point. I figured that if I found a full-scale riot underway once I was done, there were probably few places as secure as a former royal palace in which to take refuge.

I needn't have worried. When I entered the square again, the protesters were gone and the stage had been disassembled. I saw some broken glass, but nothing on the scale of a typical Friday night in the club district of any city worldwide. (Not that I've gone clubbing in decades!) 

The ‎cathedral was still closed, but across the square I spotted a red double-decker city tour bus. I decided that would be money well spent, so I made my way over and climbed on board. Milan actually has three tour bus routes, and purchasing a single ticket entitles the rider to go on all three over a 48 hour period. That wasn't much use to me, but at least I got a good seat for a drive through part of historic Milan. We also drove past the train station I'd arrived at a few hours earlier, which is when I learned more about it. Having acquired a tourist map of the city centre and a sense of the city's layout, I hopped off at the Duomo. It had finally been re-opened.

Admission to the cathedral itself is free, but to gain access to the archaeological display beneath the square and ‎the rooftop, a ticket was required. I gladly purchased one, opting to save a few Euros by climbing the stairs to the roof instead of taking the elevator.

The view of Milan‎ from the top of the Duomo is fantastic. By the time I'd climbed the 249 steps, the light had started to fade. The cloud cover was complete, so there wasn't much of a sunset, but it was very peaceful watching the city light up through a faint haze.

The Duomo‎ is one of the largest church buildings in the world in terms of surface area. It is a very wide church, having five large aisles with widely spaced pillars. Perhaps because of this width and the almost unobstructed view of the interior, it didn't seem as large as some of the grand Gothic structures in Paris. The columns in the Parisian churches are much closer together, accentuating the height of the nave while hinting at unseen vastness to either side. 

I didn't venture past the transept because the real draw for me was the archaeological exhibit below the square. There has been a Christian place of worship in this part of Milan since at least the third century, and possibly earlier. Before construction on the Duomo began, there were three large churches and a sizeable baptistry located in the centre of the city. Significant portions of the main apse of St Thekla's were discovered during excavations for the subway. The ‎church of St Maria Maggiore had been used as a source of building materials for the Duomo, and nothing remains of it. 

The other ancient Christian building preserved beneath the pavement is the Baptistery of San Giovanni alle fontia. Its mosaic floor remains, as does the baptismal pool itself. This is octagonal and (if I recall correctly) measures ‎some 5.5 m in diameter with a depth of 80 cm. It is believed that this is where St Ambrose of Milan baptised St Augustine of Hippo as part of the Easter Vigil in the year 387. That's some history.

On the way back to the train station, I stopped at a supermarket to pick up ingredients for my next two dinners: a tin of some very delicious fava bean soup, some bread, some cheese, some tuna. When I stir the tuna into half a tin of soup and heat it up, it's tasty and satisfying, especially with a generous dollop of hot sauce.

When I arrived back at the hostel in Santhià, I discovered I had company. ‎My first clue was the bags lined up in the entry way. Not backpacks, as one would expect to find in a pilgrim's hostel, but shopping bags, garbage bags, a nice leather portfolio -- a rather puzzling collection of luggage.

The mystery was soon resolved. Salvatore emerged on my greeting of "Buonasera!" While I was expecting two pilgrims to account for the sheer volume of possessions, it all belonged to him.

Salvatore has embarked on a long distance walk from his home near Sanremo‎ to South Korea. While doing online research for my own 4000 km trek to Jerusalem, I'd come across a few extreme walkers who travelled with pushcarts rather than backpacks. (And by "extreme walkers" I mean people who routinely walk the breadth of a continent.) Salvatore has a homemade three-wheeled steerable cart, seen in the photo. It's got a flat bed about 1.5 m long and 1 m wide, and with that he's able to carry a month's worth of food, at least four changes of clothing (including a winter jacket), a two-person tent, three tarps, several litres of drinking water, spare inner tubes, a substantial first aid kit, a butane stove with extra cartridges, candles, blankets, a pillow, and I don't know what all else. He is travelling in style!

This is the exact opposite of the approach I took in selecting and packing my gear. "Everything weighs something" and "Everything takes up space" are the two key precepts for lightweight backpacking. I don't have a tent or a rainsuit, I have a poncho which can be rigged as an A-frame lean-to. My ground sheet doubles as an extra heat-reflective poncho while walking. My foam sleeping pad, with the ground sheet appropriately folded, serves as a dry, insulated seat when everything around me is cold and damp. My walking stick is also the main ‎structural support for my tarp shelter (and potential defense against hostile, unchained dogs).

Pushing the cart is MUCH easier than carrying even a tenth of the weight in a backpack, so he can pack just about anything he may need.‎ (I was surprised he didn't have an insulated picnic cooler for his dairy products.) The drawback is that this requires a relatively smooth path, free of rocks, snow, mud, and steep inclines. Salvatore routinely walks 40 to 60 km per day, but he is limited to following roads or relatively level footpaths. He did acknowledge that when he did the Camino de Santiago, it would have been impossible with his current set up.

The great advantage of travelling like that is that the weight and volume of one's supplies become irrelevant. My rough estimate is that he has 40 or even 50 kg loaded on his cart. (I took it for a short spin, and it is delightful!) I'm carrying 12 kg, and have been waylaid three weeks with an indescribably painful set of blisters.  

The corresponding advantage of travelling like this is that one can buy supplies in bulk. Because Salvatore needn't worry about weight or volume constraints, he is able to buy cheap supplies and prepare all his own meals and camp out in comfort (if necessary) for a tenth of the daily cost that I've been averaging.

A significant part of the culinary resources my friend has is food that his family has grown and prepared on their farm. It won't last the six years he'll be walking, but right now he has olive oil from the trees on the family farm; the marmalade was prepared by his mother from the peaches they grew; the pickled  eggplant and pepper‎ appetiser was likewise grown, prepared, and preserved by his family.

Friday evening on my return from Milan, I was famished. While Salvatore was in the shower, I dug out the leftover portion of bean soup and tuna (plus bread and hot sauce) rations that I'd  ‎prepared the night before. It was tasty and satisfying, but I wouldn't necessarily offer it to anyone else. Once he was at the dinner stage, he offered to cook enough for me, but I declined.

Saturday it rained steadily all day, so rather than continue on to Vercelli through the damp misery, Salvatore stayed on an extra day. Saturday night I took him up on his offer of dinner, and it was such a simple, delicious, and inexpensive meal that I was in awe.‎ Breaking down the costs, it took about €2 to feed both of us well. (Salvatore estimates that his costs average about €3 per day. Something for me to consider if I ever undertake another long distance trek.)

On Saturday, we also spent a lot of time in conversation - mostly in English, but Salvatore was also happy to help me with both vocabulary and grammar when I asked. It was my pleasure to be with him when he received the phone call telling him that his baby sister had given birth to a healthy baby girl and that he is now an uncle. It's been a long time since I've witnessed that much joy radiating from someone.

We also got to talking about our respective journeys, and the reasons for undertaking them. I didn't ask his permission to share these peronal details, so I will just request your prayers for Salvatore's  younger brother Paolo, who perished in a motorcycle collision four years ago.

Sunday morning we got a break from the rain, so we both set out for Vercelli  - me by train to attend Liturgy at St Stephen's, and Salvatore on foot, pushing his wheeled cornucopia. We agreed that when he arrived‎ in the city, he'd give me a call and we'd meet for coffee. After Liturgy I found a dry park bench in the sun in a public square and settled in to wait for his call. (That's when I began typing this update.)

I'm glad that I waited, because not only did I get to see my friend again, but I also learned that the only hostel in town had moved. We ascertained its whereabouts, had coffee, and then I returned to Santhià for my last night in the hostel which has been my home for most of a month.

Yes, after three weeks I am finally moving on! The fine folks who run the café across the square have agreed to forward my long-delayed package from home to the address in Rome I provided them.‎ A friend of a friend has agreed to hold the package for me, so now there is nothing else holding me back. I said one round of goodbyes last evening at the café (they're closed Mondays), and before I leave town I'll visit the two shops which I've been frequenting to bid the proprietors farewell. 

As I write this conclusion Monday morning, it's a raw, grey day. The ground is wet and the cloud cover is both dense and low, but it's not actually raining at the moment. Time to pack up and roll out!

Nov 15, 2014

The Duomo at night

Apparently there are only two cathedrals in Europe bigger than Milan's Duomo - St Peter's in Rome and St Paul's in London.

Nov 14, 2014

The Laver of Regeneration

During the Easter vigil in the cathedral of Milan in the year 387, the bishop (known to posterity as St Ambrose of Milan‎) baptised several people. Among them were a 33 year old man and his illegitimate teenage son. The man eventually moved back to his homeland. That man was St Augustine of Hippo. And the above photo is the baptistry in which he and his son Theodatus received the laver of regeneration.

Nov 13, 2014

a tentative itinerary

This afternoon I spent some time reading ahead in my guidebook, plotting out my journey to Rome. What follows may prove to be hopelessly ambitious, but I don't think it's unreasonable. Now that I've got a working mobile, arranging for parish accommodations a day or two in advance should ‎be possible, which in turn should help with my budget.

Abbazia di San Alcuino
Gropello Cairoli
Fiorenzuola d'Arda
Ponte A Cappiano
Pieve Santa Maria a Chianni
Colle di Val d'Elsa
Ponte d'Arbia
Abbadia San Salvatore
Campagnano di Roma
La Starta

That's 28 stages, although there may be days when I wind up not walking - Siena in particular may be worth spending some time to explore. (And of course, I may find myself waylaid by blisters or ill health along the way.)

From Rome, I'll take a train to Bari. Since I've lost so much time early on, I need to make sure I'll be able to clear the Schengen zone within my 90 days of visa-free travel. If I start walking again this weekend, I should arrive in Rome by mid-December.

Rome itself warrants a long stay, but the clock will still be ticking. I'll give myself three to five days, depending on the weather and my health.

The day after I'm done playing tourist there, I'll be ‎out of the Schengen zone and into Albania. Once I re-enter the Schengen zone, I should still have enough time to walk the 400 km through northern Greece without fear of being nabbed at the border for overstaying. If I run into more delays, then I'll just hop a bus to the Turkish border from Thessaloniki. That would be disappointing, but it's preferable to facing the risk of a hefty fine, deportation, and possibly even a ban on travelling to any Schengen zone country in the future.

I'm ready and raring to go. Once the package of extra clothes arrives from Canada, I'll be on my way again!

Nov 12, 2014

A Cup of Mercy

Several years ago, my brother and I ventured out to explore some of the dynamic and intriguing exhibits of Nuit Blanche in Toronto.  (Some photos of that evening are to be found here.)

One of these interactive installations was a fire barrel set up in a parking lot. Visitors were given a grilled gourmet sausage and a tin mug of hot chocolate. On finishing my drink, I was delighted to see the word "MERCY" stamped into the bottom of the cup. While I doubt there were any homeless people there to receive this gift of warmth and nourishment, the notion of a cup of mercy is one which struck a chord. One of my favourite verses in Scripture is found in the Epistle of St James. The KJV translation of James 2:13 says, "Mercy rejoiceth against judgement."

It's been my practice for many years to keep a pocket full of change at the ready for any who ask. I know that this is a naive reading of Matthew 5:42, but I cannot in good conscience refuse "one of the least of these"‎ when I have money jingling in my pocket. I've had the debates about "enabling" and so on, but this has been and willl continue to be my practice.

And now I am asking for a similar dispensation.

It was four years ago, a few months after doing the Camino de Santiago,  that I first ‎got the notion of undertaking a walking pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This blog's title, "The Way of a Pilgrim," is an homage to a classic of Russian spirituality, and in my own small way, I am trying to follow in the footsteps of the thousands (millions?) who have gone before me.

I did my research. I gradually acquired the gear I thought I'd need. I learned about the various walking routes that could lead a person to the Holy Land. I read blogs, exchanged email, met other pilgrims. I consulted with people I respect. I postponed my departure two years for financial reasons, and then finally made my plans known to the general public.‎ And then I was laid off from my job.

That forced me to carefully re-evaluate my plans. Should I postpone again? Should I look for another job, knowing full well I'd be leaving in less than a year? Because I'd been laid off, I qualified for Employment Insurance benefits from the government. With the information I'd already gathered, I decided I'd still be able to stick to my original schedule, albeit without a financial safety net.

Part of my calculations was the assumption that cheap (or even free) parish accommodation would be readily available in Italy. I knew that Switzerland would be expensive, but I was banking on common Christian charity ‎once I arrived in a Catholic country, travelling a recognized pilgrimage route.

To date, that has not been my experience. Accommodations in "expensive Switzerland" proved to be much less dear‎ than in Italy, with the exception of the one night I camped in the Italian Alps and the two hostels run by local Via Francigena support groups. The catch at these hostels, and many other places in Italy so far, is that they only accept payment in cash.

When I reached Santhià, I realised that I needed to seek medical attention. A small blister had grown to an alarming size, and had gotten infected. The medical treatment I've received has been top-notch and the payments of €3.90 per visit a mere token. Where my expenses have been piling up is paying €10 per night (a pittance!) in cash every night‎ for the past 16 nights and counting. I've had a few excellent meals in local restaurants, but most days I'm spending €6 per day in the supermarket to keep myself fed and happy.

Here's where you, dear reader, can help. While I was still planning this epic pilgrimage, several people had suggested that I set up some way to receive online financial donations. ‎I chose not to, since it seemed frivolous to ask others to subsidise my folly. I'd counted the cost, and decided I had sufficient to finish it.

I was wrong. The loss of income from being laid off and the unexpected expenses so far in Italy‎ mean that I will not have the means to complete my pilgrimage without turning to my community of friends and acquaintances, and their friends and acquaintances. I will be able to continue on for some time on my own, but I can't complete my journey without help.  Even before I left home, many people had provided help unasked for. I have already thanked them personally.

Now I'm asking for help from you.

I've set up an account at GoFundMe to receive financial contributions in Canadian dollars.
$2 will buy me a morning cappuccino. 
$15 will buy me a satisfying meal in a restaurant.
$30‎ will cover a night's accommodation in a modest dormitory.

Any amount you can give will be received most gratefully.‎ Here's the link where you can help me: [Edit: My heartfelt thanks to all who supported me! This link is no longer live.]

I still intend to give pocket change to ‎anyone who asks of me, but apart from that I will be frugal and responsible with whatever you choose to entrust to me.

If you are unable to contribute financially, I'd ask you to pass this along to your contacts. In fact, please do so even if you *do* buy me a coffee.‎

I have set up an account on, although I'm not yet clear on how that ‎works. 
If you know of anyone who lives in Italy along the path of the Via Francigena (or in Albania, Macedonia, Greece, or Turkey) who might be willing to host a gentle madman on their couch for a night, please contact them on my behalf.

Thank you, and please pray for me.