Dec 14, 2014

110 kms in Three Days; Or, Why I Can't Leave This Country Fast Enough

Today ended the way it began: with a strong headwind‎ and a smattering of light rain, walking south along the Via Cassia.

I left Siena on Thursday under clear blue skies and a nip to the air which remained until midday. The first 10 kms or so I was following a gravel road along a ridge, which afforded some magnificent views. I took the photo in my previous post shortly after parting ways with Marco the chemist. Thursday also saw the return of the spiders wafting through the air. There weren't as many as I saw up in Piemonte, in Santhià and the area around Vercelli, but there were enough that I was brushing spider silk from my face‎ throughout the day - and that in spite of my vigilance and my broad-brimmed Tilley hat!

The last two-thirds of my walk to Buonconvento from Siena had me walking over hill and through dale. The hills were fairly uniform in size, gently rolling, and none more than 300 m above sea level. Right around Buonconvento, it flattened out again due to the small river valley.

There was a note in my guidebook that this area can get quite foggy‎ at times, and Friday morning demonstrated this to be true. It was also quite chilly, but I soon left the valley behind and started climbing hills again, and my body warmed itself up nicely. The difference this time is that each new hill was higher than the last, leading up out of the valley and towards a low mountain range. I finally got clear of the fog an hour before noon, and it was not that long afterwards that I spotted ice in a ditch that had remained in the shade all morning.

I'd bookmarked Gallina as a good place to end my walking that day. It would've been 31 kms, and my guidebook indicated that the first restaurant/bar also had rooms available. (No phone number was provided.) Unfortunately, although it was published in January 2014, my guidebook is out of date. There was a large banner outside the restaurant announcing new ownership, and although they offered a Menu Pellegrino, there was nothing at all that indicated there were rooms available. ‎ 

Slightly apprehensive, I walked in and ordered dinner, and then mentioned I was looking for a place to stay for the night. (This was at 8:00 pm.) There was a pause, and then the host said, "This is a big problem. Everything here is closed." I see. "Where will you sleep tonight?" I don't know. How far is it to Campiglia d'Orcia? "Eight kilometres." Well, I guess I'll try there.

At this, there was a sudden flurry of conversation in Italian, none of which I could follow. Knowing that this particular establishment had, up until very recently, had rooms to rent, I was hoping that an offer of hospitality (for a fee, of course) would ensue, much as it had when I faced a similar situation on the Camino almost five years ago.

Hah!

‎While doing my research for this trip, I exchanged email with the Winter Pilgrim (http://winterpilgrim.blogspot.com/) who assured me of the ready hospitality I could expect as a pilgrim walking through Italy. I received similar assurances from Anne, the long distance trekker I'd met in Liddes, Switzerland. What I now suspect is that their experiences were due more to the lingering notions of chivalry in a patriarchal society than any cultural traditions of hospitality to strangers such as I experienced in Lebanon and Syria.

There have been several noteworthy exceptions. The hostello that Paulo and Ambra maintain in Palestro is magnificent in its setting and ambience, and the fact that they share their homecooked evening meal ‎with pilgrims shows that they grasp the heart of hospitality: being open to the Other. Yet for every experience like this one, I've had several like the priest who simply ignored me as I tried to make eye contact, or the monk who bluntly told me their hostel is closed now - go find a hotel.

After finishing my meal in Gallina, I set out again. The previous few hours of walking had been an utter delight. It was another clear crisp night, and the stars were stunning. The trail walking had led to an almost deserted road which had been slowly but steadily climbing for the past six kilometres. I had found a groove, my legs and feet were feeling terrific, and so I decided that I'd simply continue walking and see what I would find.

Shortly after Gallina, the official Via Francigena trail forks, presenting two options. While the Via Cassia (the aforementioned deserted road) began a long slow descent towards Acquapendente some 40 kms away, the more commonly travelled VF route to the east of the valley continued to climb along trails before eventually hitting over 800 m at Radicofani. The other option headed up the western hills and ridges, reaching a similar height at Abbadia San Salvatore.

I may be crazy, but I ain't stupid. I took the road, thinking that if nothing else, walking 71 kms in 24 hours would surely qualify me as an honest-to-goodness badass. 

With the road to myself and a gentle slope leading ever downwards, I was rolling along at 6 km/h and enjoying my solitude in the  still clear mountain air.‎ After about an hour, I spotted a small cluster of lights farther down the road and much lower in the valley. I decided to take a break and have some chocolate once I reached them. A little while later I passed a sign advertising a gas station up ahead. As I drew closer, the sign out front became more distinct, and I started to wonder if this also had a hotel. And then my headlamp shut itself off.

When road walking at night‎, I keep my headlamp blinking even when the night is bright enough for me to see my way clearly. It may have been an hour since I last encountered a vehicle, but I don't know where there may be a hidden driveway or intersection, and I want to be sure that I'll be seen. "Lights On For Safety" doesn't only apply to motorised transport.

When I noticed that the reflectors ahead of me had stopped ‎their rhythmic blinking, I reached up and turned my headlamp back on, wondering whether I'd shaken my head and inadvertently discovered a loose connection. And then it went out again. And again. And a fourth time.

I don't look to the world around me for signs of God's will, but I'm also not going to ignore something that potentially jeopardises my health, safety, or well-being.‎ Any notions I might still have been entertaining about pressing on to Acquapendente flickered out with my headlamp. And look! There is a hotel.

In fact, the place I spent the night on Friday reminded me of a mediaeval travellers' inn. There was a restaurant and a bar, six rooms available upstairs, and a stable and fodder for the hors-- I mean, a self-serve gas station and car wash and plenty of parking.‎ I arrived as they were mopping up and turning out the lights, but the inn-keeper let me in, gave me a 10% discount off the price of the room (unasked for, but not unwelcome), and told me what time breakfast would be available. 

And ohhh, the shower! For the first time since spending a night with a family in Lausanne, I'd found a shower with more than adequate (by North American standards)‎ water pressure. Afterwards, I was warm and relaxed, and not at all sore from the 40 km hike I'd just completed.

Saturday morning, after a typical Italian breakfast which I supplemented with my own supplies, I headed out on the road again.‎ I stuck with the Via Cassia all the way from kilometre 162.4 to where the modern road diverged from the ancient one to go around a rather steep approach to a plateau near kilometre 125. I continued straight up a paved road which soon became gravel, and cut off a significant amount of road with its accompanying switchbacks.

Except for the last eight kilometres, the entire walk had been a slow and steady descent. It was only as the route approached Lago di Bolsena‎ that it climbed again. In spite of walking into a strong wind with occasional spatterings of raindrops, I was quite content. Unlike the night before, I knew I had a bed and a meal waiting for me. My guidebook had provided a number for the Ostello Francigena in San Lorenzo Nuovo, and I had made contact with them shortly before noon. When I said that I expected to arrive late, six or maybe seven, the woman at the other end of the line asked me whether I would like to have a meal when I arrived. Visions of my stay in Cassio with Andrea as the Master of Hospitality!

So I walked into town. I was close enough to hear the church bells toll for 7:00, and I arrived in town about ten minutes later. I popped inside a trattoria to ask for directions, and was told it was straight ahead past the town square, maybe 500 m.

I found the hostel and walked in the front door. Nobody was around, so I called out "Buona Serra" several times. Loudly. Eventually I heard some scurrying and conversation behind one of the doors,‎ so I knocked on it. Apparently the restaurant opposite the hostel is also the reception for the hostel, so I crossed the parking lot and went in there.

There was no room.

When I explained that I had called that morning and was assured it was no problem, I was told that a large group had arrived (in the vehicles I'd noticed in the parking lot!!!) and had taken all the available space. But I've walked 38 kilometres today! Where am I supposed to sleep?

A phone call was made, during which I picked out the words "pellegrino"‎ and "sconti." So now here I am, at yet another B&B that only accepts payment in cash. At least this establishment doesn't have signs claiming they accept AmEx, Visa, and MasterCard. Several times in Italy, the business owner has told me they don't take credit cards while these signs were mounted prominently on the wall behind them. I couldn't follow the explanation of this strange contradiction, but I figure it's a way to get income they don't have to declare to the government. Fine for them, but not so convenient for me. (Or for the bankrupt gov't that relies on taxes to fund services like health care and education.)

So, while the country is beautiful and I've met some wonderful people here, I'm pretty much done with this place. If I simply follow the Via Cassia all the way to Rome, it'll be 124 kms. Unfortunately, it does become significantly busier, so I'll be sticking with the trails of the Via Francigena.  Even with the detours around busy thoroughfares, it's only another 140 kms until I arrive in Rome, hopefully by Wednesday. There's rain in the forecast for Monday and Tuesday, but today looks good. I intend to cover as much ground as I can! And if I find, at the end of the day, that the establishment only accepts cash, I will simply pick up my bag and walk out.

Oh, and my clothes are still damp from yesterday's sweat and rain. At some point after I went to bed, they turned off the heat.

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