Dec 4, 2014

Life on the Road

The last time I posted a major update, I was in Aullo considering my options for the next day of walking. I'd arrived at the parish hostel by 6:00, but on the way there I had noticed a laundromat. After checking in and greeting my old friend Michael, I showered and changed into my "town clothes" and then walked the 500 metres back to the laundromat with my dirty laundry, stopping at a supermarket on the way to pick up supplies for dinner. (Michael had already eaten by the time I arrived.) 

I got back to the hostel by 9:00 with a sack full of clean clothes and a bag of groceries. Michael's favourite radio programme had ended by then, and he retired shortly thereafter. I prepared and ate my dinner and cleaned up afterwards and then scrubbed the mud off my shoes (I was ankle deep at one point in the morning) and stuffed them with old newspapers to help them dry out. I also looked over the sections of the next day's walk in my guidebook.

While I prefer trails to road walking, the first 18 kms looked to be fairly strenuous, including the necessity of fording two small streams. Although the forecast for the next day called for sunny skies and balmy temperatures, I knew that with all the rain we've had in the past few weeks, those trails would still be slick and muddy, and those streams would be swollen with the runoff from the winter rains flowing down from the higher peaks. Since the guide mentioned that following the road was an option when bad weather advised against the trail through the mountains, I decided to follow the road and keep Michael company for the first half of my walk. (He'd already announced his intention to stay at the parish accommodations at the next major town, halfway through my itinerary.)

I awoke Tuesday morning to find Michael up and packing. I lay in bed yawning and stretching while he finished up, and then got up, shook his hand, and wished him well. When he told me he was just 80 cents short of the price of a coffee, I gladly gave him a Euro and saw him to the door.‎ An hour later, I was on my way, too.

 I'd mentioned it was 9:00 before I got back to the hostel and set to my evening meal. It was almost 10:30 when I began writing Monday's post, and well past midnight‎ by the time I hit Send. All these little end of day tasks make it difficult to keep my resolution to have an early night, sleep long, and spring out of bed ready for another full day. 

With only six hours of sleep, I was a little sluggish in the beginning, but the walk turned out to be very pleasant. The traffic on the first 8 kms of road was fairly light. I suspect the nearby motorway has siphoned off a lot of the flow. After arriving at the next town, there were either sidewalks or nice wide shoulders for me to walk on all the way to Sarzana‎. 

At that point, I decided to break from the official Via Francigena trail. My guidebook had indicated that it was possible to walk directly to the coast from Sarzana, although there were no trailmarkings. Rather than spending the rest of the afternoon climbing and then descending the foothills, I consulted my GPS and headed for the sea. The road had a bike and pedestrian lane on the shoulder the whole way, and I arrived at the beach in time to sit and watch the sun set. (I decided against going for a swim, since by then it had cooled down quite a bit.) I know that I walked at least an extra five kilometres, possible eight or nine, but it was worth it!

Once I'd let the rhythm of the waves crashing on the shore settle in, I decided it was time to find a place to sleep. I knew that I was in the general vicinity of the town of Avenza, so I found the nearest church, where they were just finishing evening Mass. I spoke to the priest and explained I was looking for the Church of St Peter in Avenza, and he got someone to draw a sketch map for me. He also asked if I needed any food. I thanked him, and assured him I was fully stocked. (These days I usually carry enough food for three small meals - one of the reasons my pack has been getting heavier.)

It took another hour and a half to reach my destination, but it was a very pleasant walk. The first 45 minutes or so was spent on a moonlit gravel footpath that was part of a network of recreational trails which I'd seen earlier in the day while making my way to the beach. I didn't bother with my headlamp for this section, as the moon provided enough light for me to avoid the puddles and squidgy patches. Next I walked on a road through an extensive abandoned industrial neighbourhood, and here I was ready to switch on my light at the first sign of an approaching vehicle. I may not need it to see where I'm going, but the drivers certainly see me better when it's on! Finally I reached the town itself, with streetlights and sidewalks.

I found the church easily enough, and the hostel was directly across from it on a large pedestrian square. I'd tried calling the various contact numbers ‎I had for the hostel several times earlier in the day without reaching anyone, but finally I spoke with someone. I'm still not sure who it was, but she told me I would have to wait for Don Merino (the priest), since we can't do anything without his knowledge. That's completely appropriate, so I set my pack down and started to wait. While I'm walking, I generate enough heat to be in my shirtsleeves when everyone around me is wearing their puffy down jackets. When I stop walking, though, I cool down quite rapidly. After waiting about 20 minutes, I began to feel rather chilled in spite of my extra layers. 

Eventually I was approached by a gentleman who also lives on the square. He had seen me waiting, and with my walking stick and backpack, it was clear to him that I was a pilgrim hoping for a place to stay. Paolo told me that Don Merino's phone number was posted on the door of the office, and when he brought me over to see, he used my phone to make the call. Don Merino appeared less than five minutes later and showed me around the hostel. 

When I met Don Merino for coffee Wednesday morning, I forgot to ask him to tell me about Antonio Mazzi, after whom the hostel is named.‎ He was able to tell me that the parish hostel in Pietrasanta was open, but he wasn't sure about the one in Camaiore. 

‎I looked over my tentative itinerary, and decided that since I'd planned a shorter day to Lucca for Thursday, I would just stop a few kilometres earlier on Wednesday and make the difference up the next day. Same distance, same number of days, just a switch of the long and the short days so I could arrive in each city without wondering whether I'd find something available for me. My guidebook said that the municipal hostel in Lucca should be contacted several days in advance, so I'd sent an email on Monday asking about lodging for Thursday. It has gone unanswered, as has the phone at the number provided to me at the parish hostel in Pietrasanta Wednesday evening. 

Still, Lucca is a city of some 80,000 inhabitants. If I couldn't find a hostel, I could always just book into a cheap hotel. I'm trying to avoid that as much as possible because that gets very expensive over a period of six months, but having that option available does give me more flexibility in deciding how far to walk each day.

With that settled, I went out to find something for dinner in Pietrasanta. The gentleman in the office had told me there were no markets in the area, since this is the historic centre of town, but I managed to find one within 300 metres. I headed back, ate dinner, had a dismal lukewarm shower and washed my quick-drying clothes in the bathroom sink. (This was another parish hostel with no heat or toilet paper, but I guess sometimes you get what you pay for.)

I'd resolved to get an early start Thursday morning, but with all my little evening tasks, it was 11:00 by the time I got to bed. (I haven't written in my Moleskine journal for several days now, and I haven't spent any time aboard the Pequod with Ishmael and Queequeg and Ahab since leaving Orio Litta over a week ago!) When my alarm went in the morning, I promptly hit snooze. And again. And again. Finally dragging myself out of bed, I said my morning prayers, had breakfast, and went back to sleep for another hour and a half. 

Needless to say, this was the end of my grand plan of an early start to the day, but the walk to Lucca was still only 33 kms. Sure, I'd arrive after sundown, but as long as there's no rain or oncoming traffic, I actually really enjoy walking into the evening darkness.‎ I still hadn't received a reply to my email, and my phone calls were still going unanswered, but I knew there would be lodgings available - and a laundromat, too! Washing my clothes in the sink is fine, but it works much better when there's HOT water.

Thursday's route from Pietrasanta to Lucca was unavoidably one of multiple ascents and descents. According to my GPS app, walking across the foothills this way is actually 3 kms shorter than following the road route, and that road is extremely busy! No question of deviating from the official route for me today. As I reached landmark after landmark, I calculated the distance left versus hours of daylight, and by noon I realised I'd be hunting for a place to stay in a strange town after dark. If I wanted to do laundry (and oh yes, I wanted to!), that would take even more time.

So it was that, on approaching the entrance to the village of Valpromaro by midafternoon, I was strongly tempted by a large handwritten sign in both English and Italian posted beneath the town sign. The Ostello di Valpromaro has full kitchen facilities, a washing machine, free WiFi, and is run on a donativo basis (i.e. donate whatever you wish). After pausing for a coffee and asking the barista whether the hostel was actually open (so many are closed at this time of year!), I decided to at least have a look.

The heat works, the larder is stocked, the hot water is plentiful, the WiFi works as advertised (and a good thing, since this town is too remote for my phone to have any reception) and by staying here I know I'll have an early night with all my routine domestic chores taken care of. After settling in, showering, and washing my clothes, I sat down with my guidebook and started reconfiguring my itinerary. Then I headed back to the café near the entrance to town, bought a coffee, and asked if I could use their phone to call the hostel in Altopascio. They were amenable to the idea, and in Altopascio they actually answered the phone! They're expecting me tomorrow evening. 

However, it is a 40 km walk through the foothills to get there, so once I finish this paragraph I'll send off this update, do the dishes, say my prayers, and (finally!) get an early night.‎ By morning, my clothes should be dry enough to pack away, and I bought a few things for breakfast from the only shop in town. I hope to be on the road again eleven hours from now, by 7:30 in the  morning.

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