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!