Day 51: Pavia to Santa Cristina (27.5 km)
It was Eimear’s first day on the Via Francigena and we were walking from Pavia to Santa Cristina, a small town in Lombardy. My Cicerone guidebook stated the distance was 25 km, which I thought would be manageable for Eimear considering it was flat terrain. We set off from the hostel at 8am and stopped for some breakfast at a café. The route continued out of Pavia on the other side of the river so we crossed the incredible covered bridge one last time and saw a Via Francigena sign directing us up the main street. Since I started walking the Via Francigena in Italy I have stopped using my guidebook almost completely. The signage has been so good that it has not been necessary to read through the lengthy directions the day before nor to take photos of my Kindle version of the guidebook to reference during the day as I had done in France. I have become so reliant on the signs that the few times that they are inadequate I suddenly find that I’m completely lost. This unfortunately was the case that morning in Pavia. We continued up the street indicated by the sign but then did not see any more signs or stickers. I was forced to pull out my laptop and to check the guidebook. Even when I had the directions it was a bit confusing how to find the route out of Pavia, but as soon as we were out of the city limits the stickers reappeared and we were on our way. We ran into the group of Germans I had seen the day before and we stopped for a little chat before Eimear and I took the lead down a grassy track. The Germans were not far behind us however, and when again the signage became confusing I could hear them disagreeing as to which direction to take. I decided to follow the directions in my guidebook and continued straight but there was apparently a rift in the German group as one half decided to go one way, and the other half followed me. After a few minutes however, they seemed convinced that I was leading them astray and turned on a grassy path to try and rejoin the rest of the group. They called to me to follow but I explained that I was using a different guide and preferred to follow it so that I wouldn’t get lost. Eimear and I could make them out in the distance walking quite off route and when we saw the stickers again we realised that they were in fact going the wrong way. I was glad I had stuck with my own instincts. We walked at a good pace even though Eimear was already starting to feel some pain in her shoulders from the weight of her bag. She soldiered on and before we knew it we had covered 17 km. We stopped for some lunch and while we were sitting in a café the Germans passed by. They were still all smiles despite the mishap earlier in the morning.
We just had 8 km to go until we reached Santa Cristina. Eimear was feeling quite tired between the combination of her rucksack and the heat, but with the end so near in sight she summoned up some energy to press on. As we exited Belgioioso we saw Francesco, the 19 year-old pilgrim from Verona, sitting in the shade having a rest. He wanted to continue to rest but as it turned out that he was also planning to stay in Santa Cristina we said ‘see you later’ and Eimear and I left him in his shady spot and continued on. Eimear was by no means walking slowly that day, and I knew that my average speed was about 5km an hour. After we had walked for over an hour and half I realised that the signs we were following for the Via Francigena were taking us on a longer route than the one in my guidebook. This was the first time that I noticed a difference but it was not going to be the last. My guidebook had been written three years before and clearly the official route as signed by the Association of the Vie Francigene in Italy had either changed in that time, or had become better signed. I had not anticipated having to walk more than 25 km that day and it was a struggle for Eimear to get through the last few kilometres into Santa Cristina. One highlight of this longer route however, was the sighting of two otters in a canal we were walking alongside. I heard their little noises first and then their quick movements in the water. Becoming aware of us they made for the long grass along the banks to hide but I was lucky to get a photo before they disappeared from view.
Francesco had caught up with us just before we entered the town so the three of us walked together to find the pilgrim accommodation at the parish hall. At the entrance by the church was a pilgrim symbol and the centre was buzzing with teenagers and children. We were shown upstairs by a teenager who was part of a group of volunteers who run the Parish café. It was simple but clean and we were impressed by how kind everyone was to us. We were offered a free drink from the café and some of the parents of the children said we should help ourselves to the cake and snacks that were spread out on tables for the celebration of the children’s first communion.
As we relaxed in the centre waiting to go to the local pizzeria at 7.30 pm a group of four cyclists arrived who had cycled 100 km of the Via Francigena that day. They shared a room with Francesco and Eimear and I had a room with two beds to ourselves. It was Eimear’s first experience in pilgrim accommodation and she couldn’t get over how generous and welcoming the people of the community were to complete strangers. When we returned from our pizza we found the parish priest speaking to another man, clearly a foot pilgrim from his weary and dusty appearance, who had just arrived. He had walked 40 km that day as he hadn’t been able to find any other accommodation. That made eight pilgrims staying in Santa Cristina that night. It was very novel to me after seven weeks always being the only one. It was clear that things were changing – not only with more pilgrims travelling the route, but also different options of the routes. I spoke to Francesco about how the distances were different to my guidebook and the signs. He had found the same thing and explained to me that his guidebook, which was an Italian one, had its own signs that were yellow stickers with white arrows. He was following those instead of the brown metal signs and the red and white stickers of the official route. I was interested to speak about this to Luca Bruschi of the Association of the Vie Francigene in two days’ time when I would meet him in Piacenza. I had met Luca in March when he had travelled to Canterbury with the President of the Association, Massimo Tedeschi, for a meeting with Velia Coffey and other members of the Association based in Canterbury. I was looking forward to meeting him again, this time in the city of the Association’s head office.
Day 52: Santa Cristina to Calendasco (25 km)
The route from Santa Cristina to Calendasco is quite special as it is necessary to cross the Po River – Italy’s longest river. The crossing lies 19 km from Santa Cristina at Corte San Andrea. The gentleman who ferries pilgrims across in his motorboat is quite famous on the route. His name is Danilo Parisi and because of his unique position on the route he meets most of the pilgrims who are travelling this section. Crossing the river at Piacenza involves walking on roads with lots of traffic and few facilities for pilgrims. Most pilgrims therefore, choose the river crossing. Francesco had called to reserve a crossing for the three of us and had been told by Danilo that we would have to arrive before 12.30pm as the group of Germans had reserved for 1.30pm for two trips. The three of us made an early start from Santa Cristina, knowing we had to cover the 19km before 12.30.
The route was completely flat for the entire 19 km and in the cool morning we covered ground quite quickly. Eimear started to have some severe problems with a blister on the sole of her foot, which not only caused her a great deal of pain, but also meant we had to stop several times to treat it. When we were only 6.5 km from Corte San Andrea I was getting quite worried that we wouldn’t make it on time. I had encouraged Francesco to follow his own pace and Eimear battled on against the pain of the blister and the strain on her shoulders from the rucksack. We miraculously managed to arrive just a few minutes late and found Danilo waiting for us on the path already speaking to Francesco. We didn’t have much time to lose so we followed him down to the river’s edge and onto the dock. One by one we passed Danilo our rucksacks and climbed in. Danilo exclaimed when he lifted my rucksack, clearly shocked by the weight. He helped us each in and we took a seat at the back of the boat, the tiredness of our rushed morning having since been replaced with excitement for our trip on the magnificent river. Once we were away from the shore Danilo turned up the speed and we raced along the water for 4km delighting in the coolness of the air and the view of the riverbanks. In less than fifteen minutes we arrived at a dock on the opposite side of the river and Danilo helped us out and then passed us our rucksacks. I thought he would have to rush straight back to pick up the German group but he said he had some time so invited us to his home where he could stamp our credentials.
Danilo has a picturesque home next to the river with an enclosed garden and beautifully crafted signs on the front of the house. The signs for ‘Sigerco’, ‘Via Romea’, and the distances to Rome, Canterbury, Jerusalem and Santiago showed Danilo’s commitment to pilgrimage. If there was any doubt of this, it would quickly have been dispelled by the sight of Danilo’s personalised stamp for pilgrim credentials, and his handmade leather-bound book in which he asks each pilgrim to write their names, where they come from and their point of origin and destination. After we had completed these pilgrim formalities Danilo asked if he could offer us any refreshment or something to eat. Francesco and I had both heard about the famous hospitality of Danilo and felt it was an essential part of the pilgrim experience to accept. We were also very hungry as we had not had time to stop during our rush to arrive at the ferry on time. Danilo apologised that he couldn’t offer us pasta as he didn’t have time to cook before collecting the Germans, but offered instead sandwiches, made with local cheese, and two large beers to share. We were more than happy with this, but couldn’t help feeling a bit wistful imagining how wonderful a pasta made by Danilo would be. Danilo served us the sandwiches and wished us a fond farewell before going back to his boat to make two more crossings on the Po.
It was only two more kilometres to Calendasco from Danilo’s house and now that we had had some lunch our energy was sufficiently revived to cover the short distance. The accommodation in Calendasco, a town that is only 15 km from Piacenza, is quite a confusing situation. There is only one option, a privately run hostel. When I had called the hostel the day before to make a reservation I had been told by the woman who ran it that I could stay there but she wanted to know if it was a problem that she hosted African refugees. I immediately said that this was not a problem at all. We agreed that I would arrive early afternoon. It was about 3pm when we walked up the driveway of the hostel. We saw one of the refugees sitting outside and asked him if he knew where we could find the owner. He walked us to another building behind the hostel and called out to a man sitting in the restaurant. This man was quite surprised to see us and said that the hostel was full. We explained that we had called the day before and he looked quite confused and said he needed to check with his son. As he went upstairs we looked at each other wondering what the problem was. The man returned and seemed reluctant to say that they had one room available. We were shown to this room that had five beds and a bathroom. The room was stuffy and stale as if it had not been aired for several months. Eimear and I both started to experience allergies within minutes of being in the room. Needless to say this was not a particularly positive experience. We spent most of the afternoon in a local café drinking wine and chatting, reluctant to return to the hostel. We returned in time to have dinner in the hostel restaurant as it was the only place serving food on a Monday evening. The meal was fine and we slept through the night, but it was with some relief that we left Calendasco the next morning and made our way to Piacenza.
Day 53: Calendasco to Piacenza (15 km)
After Francesco, Eimear and I had breakfast in a café in Calendasco it was about 9am. We only had 15 km to walk to Piacenza and so expected to arrive at about 12pm. The morning’s walk was completely flat but unfortunately was entirely on roads. The final approach to the city was quite unpleasant as it was on a wide road through the outskirts with constant noisy traffic. The 15 km flew by however, and we found ourselves in the centre by 11.30 am. Following signs to the Duomo we came into the Piazza dei Cavalli, named for two imposing bronze statues of horse and rider caught in the motion of a canter. Despite the unpleasant approach, Piacenza turned out to be stunning. The large Piazza dei Cavalli was bustling with crowds of locals and tourists alike, sitting under umbrellas sipping coffees and taking in the sight of the lovely architecture. We were approached by one man who was interested to know if we were walking the Via Francigena as we sat on the steps of the church of San Francesco off of the Piazza and when he discovered we were in fact pilgrims he welcomed us to the city and called out ‘Buon Camino’ as he walked off smiling.
We couldn’t check into the pilgrim accommodation until after 3pm so still encumbered with our rucksacks we walked to the Duomo to receive our pilgrim stamps. The Duomo was closing just as we arrived and we were told to come back later. We made our case that we were pilgrims and were graciously led to the rear of the magnificent building into an office where our credentials were stamped. With a gift of a sweetie each from a priest we walked back through the now empty cathedral to the thick wooden front doors where large bolts were pulled back to allow us to exit back into the glorious sunshine of midday. In that moment I received a text message from Luca Bruschi of the European Association of the Vie Francigene who works in their Piacenza office. Luca wrote that he was at the Fidenza office but invited me to stop by the Piacenza office to meet his colleague Micol. I invited Eimear and Francesco to join me on the short walk to Palazzo Farnese, a 16th century building that incorporated the foundations of a fortress previously built on the site and still evident today. I was greeted by Micol in the Association’s office and offered a gift of the two official guidebooks for the Italian section of the Via Francigena. They are divided into The Great Saint Bernard Pass to the Cisa Pass, and then the Cisa Pass to Rome. I hadn’t realised that these books existed and was interested to learn that all of the signs I had followed since arriving in Italy were the official route that was described in these books. My own guidebook by Alison Raju did not necessarily follow the same route and therefore, the distances I was walking each day following the signs were not necessarily the same as those described in my book. This explained why Eimear and I had walked further than 25km from Pavia to Santa Cristina. I decided I would ask Luca all about the difference during dinner that evening. Thanking Micol for the guidebooks and information the three of us walked back into the city centre to find some lunch.
After lunch in the square and a coffee it was time to put the heavy rucksacks back on to walk a further 5 km to the pilgrim hostel outside of the city. Walking once again in the outskirts now that it was even hotter and dustier was a shock after the tranquillity and beauty of the centre. There was nothing for it however, so we plodded on along the Via Emilia, a once ancient Roman road that connected Piacenza to Rimini. The modern four-lane road follows the same route as the ancient one and is no place for pedestrians. For the first part of the walk we were fortunate to have a pavement to walk on but when we reached a massive roundabout the pavement stopped and there was a nerve-wracking moment as we contemplated stepping out into the busy traffic to get to the exit for our accommodation. We looked for any alternative, but finding none we had little choice other than to stick together and stay closely to the side of the road. Having walked on so many roads in the previous two months I had become somewhat desensitised to being near cars and traffic, but I was still very relieved when we spotted a pilgrim symbol on the side of a building, and opened the door into the security and quiet of the recently renovated pilgrim hostel.
On the Via Francigena, every day I arrive in a new town or city with little or sometimes no idea of what I will find. This element of the experience is exciting – the discovery of something new and unexpected, but it is also somewhat risky. I had embraced the philosophy that as a pilgrim I would take what I was offered and be grateful. I had no right to have expectations and preferred to be surprised rather than disappointed. When I had described pilgrim accommodation to Eimear and the other students who were planning to join me on the Via Francigena I had made it clear that the accommodation could be basic and rough. Opening the door to the lovely pilgrim house provided for by the local parish was like opening a present. When a parish puts the resources into renovating a building to provide several comfortable bedrooms, two modern bathrooms, a fully-equipped kitchen and even a washing machine for weary pilgrims while only asking for a donation in return, as a pilgrim you do feel you are receiving a gift. The three of us excitedly explored the house finding it was attached to the beautiful church of San Pietro. Upstairs Francesco chose a room for himself and Eimear and I took another. It was after 4pm and Eimear and I were meeting Luca Bruschi of the Via Francigena Association back in Piacenza at 7pm so we quickly got ready and did some washing, leaving the hostel just after 5pm. We weren’t looking forward to the walk back purely for the traffic rather than physical tiredness. At this point in the journey, when I walk 20 km in a day I almost feel if I’ve had a day off. We stopped first for a snack as our appetites had caught up with us and at 7pm we were back at the Piazza dei Cavalli to meet Luca.
Eimear and I were very fortunate that evening in Piacenza as we were literally taken out on the town by Luca, first for an aperitivo in the Piazza and then on to dinner in a local restaurant where we were promised some of the best local cuisine. We were joined at the restaurant by Massimo Tedeschi, President of the European Association of the Vie Francienge who was also curious to hear of my travels on the Via Francigena. It was lovely to see Luca and Massimo again after having had the pleasure of meeting them in Canterbury in March. We spoke a great deal about the work that is currently being done to improve the route and to publicise it. I took the opportunity to ask what the situation was with the signage and how they compared to the numerous guidebooks currently on the market. Luca explained that the two small guidebooks I had picked up in the office earlier that day corresponded to the brown metal signs and the red and white markers found on the route. The route had been designed to be safe and is therefore at times, much longer than the routes described by other guidebooks. Shorter routes are often found to be marked with white arrows or brown pilgrims. These routes may be shorter but they are usually more dangerous. Luca gave the example that after Piacenza the official route is about 14.5 km more than the route in my guidebook of Alison Raju. He stressed that it was the safest option and advised me to take it. As we chatted about the route we enjoyed a starter of a local dish known as pisarei e fasò, a dish made with pasta and beans in a tomato and onion sauce. It was delicious and just the kind of food you crave when you need energy for a long day of walking. We also had wine which we drank out of ceramic bowls as local tradition dictates. For dessert I had a slice of light sponge cake with a sweet dessert wine which the cake is dipped into before eating.
After dinner Luca and Massimo kindly drove Eimear and me back to the hostel as it was well past 10pm. They had given both of us another wonderful memory of the Via Francigena and I believe I will always feel some attachment to this small beautiful city in Emilia-Romagna where I was shown such generosity. We felt like naughty school children however as we rang the doorbell to be let into the hostel. Francesco, who had taken responsibility for the one set of keys, had had to wait up for us to return though he was clearly tired out. We couldn’t help but laugh that the 19 year-old amongst us was telling us off for staying out so late, but with his usual good humour Francesco said in a heavy Italian accent ‘it’s okay’ and laughed with us, though clearly very pleased he could now collapse into bed.
Day 54: Piacenza to Fiorenzuola (33 km)
Walking out of Piacenza alongside the Via Emilia was as unpleasant as walking in. We looked out for the signs to indicate when to turn left and get off the road but all we could see were the white and yellow stickers and not the red and white stickers of the official route. I had the new guidebook of the official route, so using GPS I found a road we could take to meet up with the route and with a sigh of relief we veered away from constant traffic and started to walk along a quiet country road. The terrain was still flat but the Apennine Mountains were visible in the distance, breaking up the monotony of the landscape. The path also took us alongside the banks of a wide torrent. The large riverbed proved that fast-moving waters flow there in the winter and spring but in late May there was only a slow trickle. There was a small wood in this section and we were lucky enough to come across a large female deer, her reddish coat flashing past us as she ran startled by these three unusual creatures traipsing through her tranquil territory.
My original plan had been to walk directly to Fidenza on the 54th day, but now the route to Fiorenzuola was 14.5 km longer following the official route we had no choice but to stay there for the night. That day I learned a lot about how to use the new guidebook. The first symbol that I was unaware of was a little box with waves in it. I thought at first that it simply indicated a river but when the path veered from the side of the river directly to the bank of a small tributary I understood that the route went through the river. The water was very shallow and in the heat of mid-morning it looked incredibly inviting. I didn’t hesitate in taking off my shoes and wading into the deliciously cool water. I had read that it was ill-advisable to wade barefoot through streams as you could easily cut a foot, but walking across in flip-flops is just as dangerous as you could slip on the rocks. I therefore placed each foot carefully, looking out for broken glass but the water was crystal clear with no signs of foreign objects. Once on the other side there was quite a balancing act to dry our feet and get them back into our walking shoes. Now I understood what the water symbol meant I looked ahead and saw two more crossings on the route for that day. Just another little challenge on the Via Francigena.
Country roads brought us into a small town where we had a coffee and pastry, always a lovely treat after walking for a few hours. The route now continued on a road which looked quite busy. I expected there would be pavements or at least a path alongside but instead we found ourselves walking on an incredibly busy road. Trucks and cars whizzed by a terrifying speeds. Trees and bushes at times had not been sufficiently trimmed and grew out into the road, leaving no space for us to walk and also obscuring the view of oncoming traffic. I was struggling to understand how the official route could have brought us here. We were after all walking considerably further out of safety interests and yet still found ourselves in a dangerous situation. It was a nerve-wracking 45 minutes until we reached the next town and the path once more started to follow dirt roads through the open countryside.
The heat increased and the paths stretched ahead, seemingly endless. At one point I caught sight of a water tower in the distance and guessed that it was where we would find our destination of Fiorenzuola. As we neared the second river which required us to wade through a kind lady rushed out of her house with bottles of water in her hands and passed them to us over the gate with a friendly smile and a ‘buon camino’. Again it was delightful to walk through the cool water, but so time consuming to dry off and get back on the road. At the third stream I determined the water was shallow enough to try to walk directly through it with my shoes on. Eimear and Francesco followed my example and we kept on at a good pace from this point on, our destination now clearly in sight. A man passing in his car called out encouragingly that it was only 2 more km. We happily believed him and continued on, but as I have experienced each day on the Via Francigena, the last part of the day always goes so slowly. We perhaps reached the outskirts of the town in 2 km, but then we walked at least another 2 km, asking directions along the way until we arrived at the Parrocchia di San Fiorenzo. We stood in the town square looking up at the imposing wooden door of the Parrocchia waiting for some sign of movement inside. After a few minutes we heard a scuffle against the door and then it was opened wide to reveal an elderly priest who smiled brightly and welcomed us in. We were then met by a very efficient lady who photocopied our credentials and our IDs, stamped our credentials and collected the 10 euro for our stay. These formalities complete we were led across a playground, where most of the community’s children seemed to be at play, to a building with a bedroom and bathroom for pilgrims on the first floor. The room was quite small and felt a bit cramped with two bunk beds, a wardrobe and crib crammed in there, but it was perfectly sufficient for our needs.
After my first day using the official guide of the European Association of the Vie Francigene I needed to re-examine my plan for walking the last 23 days to Rome. The extra km from Piacenza to Fiorenzuola meant that I was now behind schedule. I needed to find out how I could get back on track and also, what route I would be following from now on. It was a time-consuming process comparing the official guide and my Cicerone guide, looking for the differences and re-planning each day. I calculated that if I followed the official guide until I reached Rome I would walk a total of 150 km more than if I followed the Cicerone guidebook. I didn’t have time to walk 150 km more. I stayed up well past midnight trying to work it all out and went to bed only when I had found a solution. The first part of the solution was to make up the time I had lost by walking 39 km from Fiorenzuola to Medesano the next day. I couldn’t expect Eimear to be able to walk so far, not when she was still struggling with blisters and shoulder pain from her rucksack. I decided that Eimear would take the train to Fidenza in the morning and I would meet her there at about 11am. To arrive in Rome on time I would follow the official guide wherever I could, but on days that were significantly longer I would follow my original guidebook. Finally, I combined two short days into one last long day of 36 km in the last week of the trip. Feeling better for having formed a plan for the rest of my journey I climbed up to the top bunk to get a few hours of sleep before my 6am start. It was a restless night, my mind unable to stop, but I woke at 5.30am with determination – ready to face yet one more challenging day on the way to Rome.