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 -
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Via_Aemilia). 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!