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.


  1. That post has an air of contented pilgrim. Wishing you good days ahead

    1. Yes indeed, and thank you very much!