Come forth into the light of things / Let Nature be your teacher.

Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her.

The best portion of a good man's life: his little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love.


Sunday, 29 November 2015

Via Francigena: Days 18 & 19: Fidenza To Fornovo

Felegara and the river Taro. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Early next day Giacomo accompanied me almost to the edge of Fidenza before returning to the railway station. He had to catch a train to visit his grandmother in Tuscany. After some pleasant walking I stopped for lunch in Costamezzana — which lay on a hill! Although this was hardly the Apennines yet, the countryside was more rolling and varied, and I was enjoying it immensely. I cast a look behind me at the great Po plain, and felt pleased and proud I had withstood its heat and its desolation and its biting insects without going even slightly mad (though some may dispute this). Here the upland air had a welcome freshness and a lack of oppression, though it was still very warm.

Lulled into a false sense of security by the lunchtime wine and pasta, I promptly took the wrong road out of Costamezzana (in my defence it was heading approximately in the right direction). I knew I'd made a mistake because the Camino signs had disappeared, and I should really have turned back, but I didn't, and I was also too lazy to pull my guide book out of my pack. This is so typical of me. 

Eventually I came across a tree-felling gang by the roadside and asked them if I was going the right way to Medesano. Apparently I was, and all I had to do was turn left at the top of the next hill and follow the road along the ridge. I did this, and at first everything went swimmingly. However, I decided rather foolishly to take a farmer's track marked 'Private Road' into the valley, where I could see a major road which I was sure would take me directly to Medesano. I hadn't reckoned with the loose dog which rushed at me from an open gate halfway along the track. This, my third scary dog encounter of the trip, was by far the worst. He was a big, Alsatian-type brute, and put on the usual display of barking and growling and baring of teeth. I held my walking pole horizontally between myself and the beast, and backed off down the lane, facing him all the while and trying to utter soothing words in a firm and steady (probably, in reality, slightly quavering) voice: 

'Now, please go away, you'll get into trouble for this, you won't like the taste of English flesh, anyhow your master's waiting for you indoors with a big bowl of pig's blood, so just, just . . . CLEAR OFF!' 

After much of this kind of negotiation I found the distance between us was increasing, and eventually I was able to turn my back on him and continue smartly down the hill . . .
Confluence of the river Ceno and the river Taro at Fornovo. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Medesano was an unprepossessing place, and I was glad to leave the next morning. The way now shadowed the main road to Felegara, where a bakery shop owner/assistant made up two cheese sandwiches for me (bread shops would usually offer to make sandwiches on the spot with whatever fillings were available). I then branched left towards the river Taro and followed a delightful path along the river bank to Fornovo. I noticed that the river, which could be a raging torrent in the winter months, had all but dried up. Fornovo, a small town of 6000 inhabitants with an attractive old quarter, was situated in the foothills of the Apennines, so I knew that I would be gaining some serious height the next day. That night I slept in a B&B in Respiccio, just beyond Fornovo.

Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary at Fornovo. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Via Francigena: Days 16 & 17: Piacenza To Fidenza

The Church of San Fiorenzo in Fiorenzuola. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

I left Piacenza's Piazza Cavalli the next morning encouraged by a lady on a bicycle who called out: 'Buon Camino!' The departure from Piacenza was long and unpleasant. After Piazza Roma with its Romulus and Remus statue, and the tedious suburbs of San Lazzaro and Montale, I had to risk life and limb for several kilometres on the busy highway of the SS9. There was no proper footpath, and I was actually quite frightened. I cursed the Camino planners for not devising a safer route. Finally, after a bridge over the river Nure, I took a back road and could relax. In Pontenure a street market had been set up, and a fish stall was selling fried fish and chips! It was a long time since I'd eaten this English favourite. I made the most of it and tucked in.

For the rest of the afternoon I followed a piecemeal route largely of my own making, for the way was poorly marked and the guide book unclear. The main problem was how to cross the three rivers between Pontenure and Fiorenzuola: the Riglio, the Chero, and the Chiavenna. The countryside was dead flat, and the roads dead straight, and sometimes I felt I was getting nowhere. However, with a combination of intuition, good luck and sheer persistence, I eventually ended up in Fiorenzuola's delightful main square, the Piazza Molinari, feeling a little frazzled — but very happy to have arrived.
Piazza Garibaldi in Fidenza. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

In the refuge near the church of San Fiorenzo I met Giacomo, a curly-haired Italian student from Modena, and later we sat in the piazza and had a couple of beers. We walked together all the next day. He was polite and charming, and we talked a great deal — his English was very good. We could now see the Appenine mountains in the distance, and this spurred us on as we continued crossing the usual agricultural flatlands. That night we slept in a tiny refuge opposite the cathedral of San Donnino in Fidenza and ate in a Catholic-run canteen providing meals for refugees, the poor and the unemployed. Afterwards, drinking beers in a posh bar, we reflected on how lucky we were.

The Town Hall and Garibaldi Obelisk in Fidenza. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The highlight of the day had been the Cistercian abbey of Chiaravalle. Founded in 1135, it's one of the first examples of Gothic architecture in Italy. It was simply stunning, and we spent some time looking round and absorbing its peaceful atmosphere. There was plenty of the ubiquitous red brick and terracotta, and the cloister was particularly fine, with its pink marble columns fashioned like twisted rope and its exquisitely carved capitals. There were some wonderful paintings too, including Bernardino Luini's Madonna della Buonanotte. The monks of Chiaravalle developed a hard, granular cheese called grana — consequently it is they we have to thank for Gran Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano.

The abbey church of Chiaravalle. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The church bell tower. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Bernardino Luini's Madonna delle Buonanotte. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Via Francigena: Day 15: Orio Litta To Piacenza

Sculpture representing the River Po in Turin. In crossing the Po I passed from Lombardy into the region of Emilia-Romagna. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

On the last day of August 2015 I walked 25 km from Orio Litta to the city of Piacenza — except that, in reality, I walked only 21 km, as 4 km was covered by boat. The previous evening in Orio Litta I'd rung Danilo, the Po river boatman, and booked a seat on his small motor launch. At 8.30 the next morning I waited for him at the Po crossing point (Transitum Padi) in Corte Sant'Andrea, the place from which pilgrims have crossed the river for centuries. It wasn't until 8.50 that I heard the sound of an engine. Danilo seemed convinced there should have been another passenger besides myself, and he began an animated conversation on his mobile phone — but I tried to reassure him that Davide was stopping in Orio Litta an extra day to rest his legs. We sped quickly down the wide river — such a pleasant change for me — and after a few kilometres reached Soprarivo di Calendasco on the opposite bank. There was little there except for a rickety landing stage. Feeling distinctly soggy-bottomed (I'd been sitting in a pool of water on the boat), I made my way along the river bank, soon turning off across flat farmland towards Calendesco and skirting fields where the tomato harvest was in full swing.

Piazza Cavalli, Piacenza — the Palazzo Gotico is on the left. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The urban fringes of Piacenza were not great — there was a dangerous road bridge to cross and a busy route leading to the centre through the usual edge-of-town shops and factories — so it was with relief that I finally arrived in the main square, the Piazza Cavalli (named 'Cavalli' — "horses" — because of the two 17th-century bronze statues of Alessandro Farnese and his son Ranuccio, dukes of Parma and Piacenza, astride their stallions.)

The bronze statue of Duke Ranuccio Farnese in the Piazza Cavalli. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The finest thing about Piacenza was the architecture of its cathedral and many of its churches, which was in a distinctively lombardian Romanesque or Romanesque-Gothic style. These were the loveliest churches I'd seen so far along the VF — by a long way. So many I'd viewed earlier were neglected, rather ugly buildings, with unappealing, high-Baroque interiors. These churches (the cathedral, the basilica of Sant'Antonino and the church of San Francesco, for example) were calming in their lack of adornment and restricted palette of colours. The simplicity of their stone arches, brick pillars and pink marble spoke to me and moved me.

The girl at the tourist office spoke to me too — in excellent English — and had soon fixed me up with a B&B for the night. The B&B owner — a retired schoolteacher — owned a splendid apartment, and was most friendly and welcoming. She spoke a tiny bit of English, and I spoke a tiny bit of Italian, so we were able to communicate — in a fashion. She showed me to my room but, when she realised how tall I was, ushered me at once into another room with a bigger bed!

Basilica Sant'Antonino, Piacenza. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Via Francigena: Days 13 & 14: Pavia To Orio Litta

Towers in Pavia. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The main road out of Pavia was busy and dangerous, and after three or four kilometres I turned onto a quieter road with great relief. This was a hard day's walking (Day 13) and the heat was brutal. I made my way along an unstable sandy track round the edge of a quarry, but when I reached the river bridge I'd been heading for beyond the quarry found that it was closed for repair (later I learnt that some pilgrims had actually climbed or circumnavigated the locked gates and managed to get across).

I felt I had no choice but to return the way I'd come. The heat was sweltering, my water supply was running low, and I was exhausted. Arriving at a minor road, I stuck out my thumb — but to no avail. What little traffic there was shot by at great speed. I gathered what little energy I still had and followed the road to its junction with the SS234, where I branched right in the direction of Corteolana and Santa Cristina. I was hungry and thirsty, and trucks roared past, leaving me with mouthfuls of dust. This was certainly a challenging part of the route. However, just when I though I could go no further, a roadside restaurant appeared out of nowhere, and I stumbled inside for a late lunch. I eased off my boots under the table and gulped down a beer. What a relief! I stayed there till closing time — 3 pm I think it was — then reemerged into the sunlight, feeling much better. It seemed only a short distance to Santa Cristina, where I was warmly greeted by a young girl serving at a bar in the church community hall. I spent the night there in a dormitory on the first floor.

What a difference a day makes — Day 14 was far easier and much more enjoyable. There were fewer kilometres to cover and I took my time. The countryside was lush and more varied, with more trees and even a few small hills. I passed the castle of Chignolo Po . . .
The castle of Chignolo Po. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

. . . and rested a while in Lambrinia, where once again a couple of locals bought me a glass of wine. Crosing the river Lambro (a tributary of the Po), I then walked along its raised bank towards Orio Litta, which I could see in the distance over the rice fields.

Soon the multilingual mayor of Orio Litta was welcoming me and showing me to my quarters in the medieval grange which formed one side of the piazza Benedettina, the square of the Benedictines. This impressive 10th-century building had been modernised and fitted out to accommodate present-day pilgrims on the Via Francigena. The lift (!) was out of order, so a visit to the power showers entailed an underground journey through a basement stinking of fish — for it was festival time, and the basement had become the market traders' temporary storeroom. After a shower I ran the gamut of fish once more and was happy to eat on my bunk the slice of delicious home-made cake the mayor's wife had presented me with earlier. 

Who should turn up later but Davide, my pilgrim friend from Rome, whom I'd last seen in Pont-Saint-Martin a week ago. At 7 pm we had a meal together at a small, cheap, pilgrim-friendly trattoria in the main street. As part of the festival celebrations a singing duo performed on the makeshift stage in the square just outside our window until 3 am — so, what with the music (which became more excruciating by the hour), the biting insects and the giggling of a group of schoolgirls who had all but taken over the dormitory, we found it difficult to sleep that night . . .

Villa Litta in Orio Litta. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Via Francigena: Days 9, 10, 11 & 12: Vercelli To Pavia

The Romanesque Church of St Peter, Robbio. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

For the next four days I would walk a further 80 km over the now familiar terrain of rice fields and irrigation ditches — with only herons and egrets for company. Not forgetting the frogs, of course — which appeared (and disappeared) as slippery streaks in the corner of the eye. You could rarely get a proper view of them as they were so well camouflaged, and jumped so quickly into the water.

This was risotto country. To make the perfect, classic risotto, for which the Po Basin is famous, you must add Arborio (or Carnaroli or Vialone Nano) rice to onions which have been softened in butter or olive oil, then gradually stir in small quantities of white wine and stock. When the rice is cooked, top with a little butter and grated Parmesan, and then cover for two minutes.

Day 9 started cloudy, but by midday it had turned blazingly hot. In fact the heat became quite overpowering and exhausting over the coming days. Fortunately the paths and tracks were in better condition and more interesting than those of yesterday. By 2 pm I had reached Robbio, where I relaxed outside a bar and watched a street market being packed up and driven away. Many small towns and large villages have these mobile markets. A group of friendly locals bought me a beer. And later I slept in a refuge overlooking a courtyard behind the town hall.

Town hall, Mortara. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Early on Day 10 I somehow managed to take the wrong road out of Robbio, and ended up walking back towards Vercelli for half an hour before realising my mistake!

Later that day, Mortara, too, proved a friendly place. Two men on bicycles stopped to greet me and have a chat, and in the centre of town someone bought me another drink and pointed the way to the former monastery of Sant'Albino, where I spent the night. 

This foundation has a long tradition of putting up pilgrims, which stretches back to medieval times. The woman on duty, whose job was to welcome and tend to the pilgrims, served me food and wine. Payment was by donation, as was often the case. Before she left — I was to sleep on a camp bed in the huge, barn-like dining hall — I saw her eyes fix on the wall opposite and narrow into slits. Her brow furrowed. She spluttered and cursed, rushed over to the cockroach she had spotted, flicked it to the floor, then stamped on it with a mixture of glee and embarrassment. Although the cockroach had been vanquished, there were, however, plenty of mosquitoes to plague me through the night.

A bend in the river Ticino near Pavia. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

I can't remember much about Day 11, except for the heat and the flat landscape and the pain in my feet. I do just about recall stopping in Tromello and Garlasco for beer and free bar snacks. My bed for the night was in Gropello, but the parish refuge was dismal and dirty, and I was glad to leave for Pavia in the morning.

Day 12 was the best of the four, and there was some very pleasant hiking through woods along the western bank of the river Ticino. I arrived in Pavia by early afternoon, crossing into this ancient university town by the covered bridge shown below.

The Ponte Caperto, or Covered Bridge, which spans the Ticino in Pavia. The dome of the cathedral is on the right. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

I liked Pavia a lot, and stayed at a relatively new, very smart and clean hostel located in the parish house of the church of Santa Maria in Betlem.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Via Francigena: Day 8: Santhià To Vercelli

I now tried to prepare myself mentally for a ten day trek across the flat, often monotonous plain of the Po Valley. This first day was not auspicious. The paths were wet and sticky and difficult to negotiate after the previous night's rain — and it was still raining. The distances were long, and I tired quickly. (Wikimedia image.) 

Fat brown slugs crawled underfoot and mosquitoes attacked my shoulders and the back of my neck. Just in front of of me a continual succession of frogs jumped from the canal banks and plopped into the water. And all around me groups of herons and egrets silently haunted a watery landscape of endless rice fields and irrigation channels (later I was to see a flock of sacred ibis). I passed dreary, deserted farmsteads, and met not a soul all day. (Wikimedia image.)

 I made some small navigational errors, as some of the footpath signs were confusing and some of my guide book's instructions unclear. When I finally reached Vercelli, all I wanted to do was lie down and rest my sore feet. Despite its romano-gothic cathedral and basilica, I was not impressed with the city, which seemed to me rather depressing and unfriendly — though perhaps this had something to do with my general mood at the time. I was dying to leave the next morning. The photo shows Vercelli's Piazza Cavour and Torre dell'Angelo. (Wikimedia image.)

Tuesday, 27 October 2015


A dull, grey but magnificently autumnal day in Derbyshire's Peak District. This is the river Derwent . . .

. . . here running placidly by Chatsworth House, home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Chatsworth is one of England's finest stately homes. On the right you can see the Emperor Fountain, designed by Joseph Paxton in 1844. This was a massive construction project, and involved the creation of a lake on high ground behind the garden to supply the water pressure. It was finished in only six months. It was built for the impending visit of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, but in the end he never came. In its day this was the world's highest fountain; in the photo it's only at minimal flow.

Chatsworth House between two oak trees in seasonal foliage.
Behind these splendid copper-leaved trees lies James Paine's Three Arch Bridge . . . 

. . . based on a Roman design.

Looking back at the river Derwent and the Chatsworth estate . . .

Leaving Chatsworth through Stand Wood, we approached a gate leading to a moorland access path . . .

. . . from where we admired this superb view across the Derwent valley . . . 

Friday, 9 October 2015

Via Francigena: Day 7: Ivrea To Santhià

Lake Viverone. (Wikimedia image.)

I had now crossed from the Aosta Valley into the Piedmont region. Gradually the mountains gave way to hills and the hills gave way to plains. And the weather altered too for a few days — I exchanged an uplifting mountain landscape blessed with hot sunshine and blue skies for a flat, featureless world of horizon-to-horizon greyness and intermittent rain. Such are the contrasts of the pilgrim's life — and, indeed, of all our lives . . .

From Ivrea I headed for Lake Viverone, following a line of hills through villages and endless woods. Approaching the lake, I soon took another wrong turning (I blamed my guide book at the time, but now I see it was completely my own fault) and turned left towards the lake instead of right towards Alice Costello. Finally I realised my error, and was about to retrace my steps when I became aware of two dogs racing alongside me in a farmer's field. They began barking furiously. I quickened my pace. Surely they were fenced in? But no — one of them jumped up the embankment separating field from road and ran at me aggressively with ferocious growls and snarls. I was utterly convinced his only intention was to sink his bared teeth into my arm or leg, and probably into my throat too.

Often a good tactic on such occasions is to hold a walking pole horizontally between you and the animal in a non-threatening, protective way, then back off gently, making firm but friendly soothing noises. However, my walking poles were stowed away in my pack — and, anyhow, this dog didn't seem particularly open to gestures of pacifism or compromise. So I did what my basic instincts told me to do. I shouted, I screamed and I swore. I roared, I raged and I ranted. I called that dog every foul name under the sun. I said what I would do to his parents and his siblings and his offspring if he placed one paw nearer. I promised his testicles a terrible fate if he took so much as a nip out of me. And you'll never believe what happened. He skidded to a halt with a look of utter shock and surprise — just like a pooch in an animated cartoon. Then he turned tail and fled.

Despite this victory, I wasn't keen on returning the way I'd come — which would have meant encountering the dogs again. However, by a stroke of luck or divine grace, a car appeared behind me at that very moment on this unfrequented road, and the driver offered me a lift. When I explained the situation, and said I wasn't going in his direction, he insisted on taking me back several kilometres to the place where I'd gone wrong — making him, incidentally, late for work. Yet again another trail angel had come to my rescue!

The last section of the day's walk was tiresome in the extreme as I made my way through far-from-pretty villages and wove a tedious path between busy highways. The countryside was flat and the sky overcast, and the long straight road to Santhià never seemed to end.

At last I reached this old and historic town and found Piazza Roma, where I was warmly greeted by a church official on a bicycle. He showed me my quarters opposite the Church of St Agatha. They were small but adequate, with a damp bathroom and a windowless dormitory housing a few bunk beds. Payment was by donation only, and once more I was the only pilgrim there. 

Later I ate a perfect risotto in a nearby hotel restaurant —  risotto is the Po Basin's speciality, as the area is renowned for its rice fields. I was the only diner, but the adjoining bar was packed with locals watching a football match. I slept reasonably well, though it was now raining with a vengeance, and the heavy downpours woke me several times.     
The Church of St Agatha, Santhià. (Wikimedia image.)