A few days have passed since I last blogged. I’ve been molto busy, some of it just trying to get places, be it by foot or by train.
When I last posted, I was in Aosta, I believe. Aosta was a cute-ish town, nestled in a valley at the base of the Italian Alps. It’s an Old Roman city with Roman arches intact surrounding parts of the town. Staying power, those Romans had. By the time I got to a hotel and got to dinner that night, many people were out and about for their passegiata — an evening stroll for window shopping and chatting. So I saw lots of people milling about. It’s a lovely Italian tradition, and great people-watching.
The next morning I was off to the stazione for a day-long journey to get to Fidenza, where I planned to pick up the Via Francigena again. I learned yesterday I’ve been grossly mispronouncing this word. Of course depending on what country you’re in it’s said differently anyhow. But now it’s pronounced Frahn-SHAY-jayna. I still struggle to get that right!
Anyhow, I spent the day swapping trains (four in all), and got to see the terrain I was intentionally bypassing, and was glad I chose to — very flat, very boring, mile upon mile of mostly rice paddies, interspersed with corn fields. I finally arrived in Fidenza, located not far from Parma, in early evening. I can’t say I was bowled over with the place. Just sort of overall “meh” impression. Buildings seemed a combination of rundown old and just ugly 1960s architecture. There is probably a good reason that every Italian gave me a resigned shrug when I said I wanted to get to Fidenza. Without fail, they’d all say “Firenze?” (meaning Florence), to which of course I really want to go, but not that day, and then they’d look at me like I was nuts to opt for Fidenza instead. Clearly they were onto something.
The accommodations for the night were at Albergo Ugolini, above a pizza restaurant. Think upscale prison. Actually, mercifully Italians are super super clean, so even a dismal hotel room is impeccably spotless, which does my heart good. Though to see some of the riffraff who showed up later in search of a room, it gave me pause to think what I was resting my head on that some of these dudes also might have shared. My standards have diminished substantially — amazing when you’re tired enough what looks downright cozy. Ish. The pillow did have a bit of a sour smell, though honestly I think it was a vinegar-based cleaner as the towels smelled the same the next day. Though all were starched and as white as snow. My hosts were lovely and friendly, so that helped me feel right at home in the relatively grim environs. My room was what you’d expect a “hotel ” room to look like if you raided your basement or scoured yard sales in the barrio to decorate an attic space above your pizza restaurant. Sparse & weathered. And the locale, well, naturally with the incumbent noise you’d expect on Friday night after a bunch of hairy guido-types watched football in the bar below. Shouting outside til wee hours.
I asked around for the piazza where the church was where I needed to get my “credenziale” stamped (each town you walk to/from you get a stamp in a sort of passport to show you’ve done the walk, this enables you to get official dispensation at St. Peter’s in Rome). Oddly NO ONE in this town knew where the piazza was (though it wasn’t far from the central piazza. Go figure.
It was friday night so I went into the centrale, the main part of town, the piazza, and a band was set up to play, so I was going to sit down at an outdoor bar and have a drink and enjoy the evening, but once the band started to play (they seemed to be in a perpetual state of warming up, I’d noticed, as I wandered around), they were painfully loud, playing headbanger music. Perfect for a Friday sunset…
I’d asked a group of folks earlier at a wine bar near my hotel for a restaurant recommendation, and they gave me a place actually quite near the church I needed to find (but I didn’t realize it till the next day!), and I scouted it out and it was totally empty. So I decided not to go there at first, returning to the piazza with the too-loud music and tons of cigarette smokers. It was enough to drive me back to the empty restaurant, thank goodness. I knew it was still early enough that only outsiders like me would feign to show up for dinner (was about 8 pm), but the chef was so enthusiastic when I got there, I knew it would be good, and he didn’t fail. I felt peer-pressured into his warm capon salad for an appetizer. My mom used to make capons when I was young but I hadn’t seen one in 35 years. It was fabulous, braised on top of mixed greens with balsamic vinegar (the good kind) and sultanas. Yummm. Followed by amazing homemade gnocchi (sorry Kendall!) and another delicious semifreddo, this time with some nougat thing going on. Italians sure do know how to cook (as long as you avoid the touristy places).
After dinner I wandered amidst the weak passegiatta (much less interesting than in Aosta), interested that many people were on bicycle. Definitely a biking town at least. I then headed back to the Ritz, where there were shouting matches going on outside beneath my window, perhaps from the pool hall across the street, till probably 2 a.m. Reminded me of long ago when Scott and I attended a wedding in San Francisco and the affianced couple had found for all of the guests a newly renovated yet affordable hotel, outside of which was a hangout for hookers all night long. While our room was clean enough, albeit spartan, we listened to prostitutes and pimps hollering at each other all night long. Ahhhh, memories.
So Saturday I loaded up my stuff (which takes SO long, considering I have that one backpack). It’s a daily struggle to put the pieces of the puzzle back together with that thing — my own little Humpty Dumpty.
It took me I swear an hour to find that darned church that should have been obvious to anyone who’d lived in Fidenza for more than a day, and then follow the route out of town. On the edge of town was a Saturday market, so I stopped for fresh fruit, which turned out to be the high point of the day…I figure I waste an hour a day packing up my backpack and an hour a day getting lost. Weird how boiling things down to simplicity make things more complicated sometimes. At least in my car I’d have that nice woman on my GPS telling me where to go. And at least at home I can just leave things in one place and not lug them again and again. I’d not make a good vagrant, of this I can be sure. I keep thinking my load will lighten, but it seems 1/8 ounce of shampoo and conditioner I use a day doesn’t cut into that much. I’ve been coveting my slight stockpile of power bars and chocolate, knowing there will be legs of the walk in which there is no food/drink for 28 km, but damn, yesterday, the chocolate all melted in my pack! It was that hot! I wonder if there’s some metaphor for life in lugging so much stuff: you weigh yourself down with so much unnecessary crap (not just physical but mental: worries, fears, anger, etc). Much easier to keep it light and easy…
I am a huge Asker of Directions. Makes most people nuts, but reassures me. Of course that means you get too many answers, one of which almost sent me on the wrong path. God forbid I trust my overlapping and confusing and sometimes failing maps (or my gut, for that matter). When you make the wrong turn while walking, you pay for it with backtracking, which honestly sucks when you’re hot and running out of water and there’s nowhere to get more. And then you realize you have to walk two more miles.
The path was well-enough marked, but I stupidly didn’t realize I’d misplaced a page of my directions, so they made no sense after the first two miles, and I was baffled as to where the hell I was going for a while until I figured that out. That was totally my bad. I was climbing through the foothills of the Italian Appenines, and had expected gorgeous panoramas, but while parts of it were certainly pretty, it wasn’t anything that took my breath away by any stretch of the imagination. Much of the route was on pavement, and while technically country roads, still each car that passed did so at terrifying rates of speed and without obvious consideration for 50-year old women lugging too much shit in a backpack. There was no shoulder whatsoever, so no room for error. It was about 95 degrees on the pavement, which didn’t help matters. My one bright moment was walking down a hill and encountering a woman with a cute puppy she’d taken out to her back patio to pee. The sign on her fence showed a menacing German Shepherd and warned to beware of the ferocious dog, however her dog was all of 8 pounds of puppy and was happy to nibble at my fingers through the fence. I think the woman thought I was truly pazzo for loving on her dog like I did. Oh, my other high point yesterday was I walked by a massive field filled with San Marzano-type tomatoes and I lifted one from the vine. It was delicious: meaty and flavorful. Way better than when they end up in a can at the grocery store.
Sometimes as I’m walking I realize I am as slow as an old granny (make that great granny) with a walker. But I’m so paranoid about not losing my footing, I try to be ultra careful. But it makes for slower going, which means there are places I have to pick and choose where to curtail on this walk. But all good, as I knew there would be a lot of unknowns along the way.
Fortunately I knew that Tuscany was far prettier, so when I arrived in Costamezzana, I made a quickie executive decision. The town was dead, the hostel at which I was to stay wasn’t to open till 6 pm, which meant that I had to kill about four hours with no where in which to kill it. Instead I tucked into a bar, asked if there was a way to get a taxi to a train station, and a lovely waitress offered to drive me back (!) to Fidenza, which seemed counterintuitive, but was so smart for me to do. I was able to hop on yet more trains (this after walking for 8 hours all day) and with a number of potential glitches with train changes, managed to land in Lucca late last night. Thank goodness!
The trains I rode went through the areas I would have been walking for some 7-8 days, and honestly after having walked through the Alps, it paled by comparison. Sort of reminded me of the mountains in Pennsylvania, which never once motivated me to trek them for a week while growing up, with good reason. Even as we coursed through the mountains, the bodies of water were still, no rushing torrents cascading to the bottom. Only lazy streams. More tall hills than stark mountains. In Pontremoli, a sleepy town in which I didn’t want to sleep, I raced to change trains only to find out there was no train to change to (despite the directions of the ticket man in Fidenza). At least I wasn’t the only one running stupidly — several others did as well, and they were locals. Almost got stuck there, which would have bummed me out. I had to laugh because at that stop, it seems that everyone on the sparsely-populated train deboarded for a smoke, including the conductors. My next confusing stop was at a station in a suburb of Pisa. Completely empty, dark settling in, and no train to Lucca on the schedule. With a minute to spare I ran across two sets of tracks (I know, bad idea) and boarded the small local train which, thank goodness, also went to Lucca. I was hollering to the conductor “aiuto!” (Help!”) and he kindly reassured me I could still get to Lucca.
Upon my arrival,ca delightful Italian woman who lives in Pisa but spends her weekends with her boyfriend in Lucca helped me to find my impossible to find hotel, for which I was immensely grateful. Lucca is an exquisite historical walled city, just large enough to be interesting but small enough to navigate readily. Had a so-so late meal at a tourist trap near my hotel.After spending the morning figuring out my new agenda, with the help of Paolo, the awesome owner of the hotel, I wandered into the Piazza MIchele, found my way to bike rentals (they’re plentiful) and rode a bike around the city all day. You can ride up on the wall (I’m assuming yet another Roman one though haven’t read about that yet) and really get a chance to see it from on high. I even met a fellow pelligrina — someone making the pilgrimage — a young Irishwoman named Mary who was beginning her walk tomorrow from Lucca.
On my bike I stumbled upon an American woman who lives in Lucca and got a recommendation for what she said was the best restaurant in Lucca, named Osteria Leo. she told me to tell them Lulu sent me. Lulu from Lucca to Leo…It was wonderful and non-touristy, which was perfect. I can’t help but people watch as I’m all alone and I was transfixed by this slack-breasted, aged Luccese (sp?) woman with but one tooth jutting from her lower jaw like volcanic rock in the middle of a dark ocean, busy holding court at a nearby table. She was very loud and evidently very opinionated. It was funny to watch her go on and on to a number of people at different tables. I was so surprised as she was getting up to go and the man with whom she’d apparently shared a table said “piacere conosco” which meant “pleased to know you” — evidently she’d just plunked herself down at his table and started yapping. Turns out he was from Barcelona and on a motorcycle tour of Tuscany, didn’t even know the woman. Also interesting to watch the pregnant woman at a nearby table smoking away…
Tomorrow I divert to the Cinque Terre for the day, then Tuesday resume walking, bypassing the first leg from Lucca as it’s on busy roads. I learned from Lulu that it is common for pedestrians and bikers to be hit and killed in Italy and usually no one ever even gets in trouble for it. She said there is callous disregard for those along roads who aren’t in cars, so that was warning enough for me to be wary. Plus after having walked most of 8 miles on hot pavement, I’m learning what to avoid. Still looking for those meadows perhaps?
As I sit outside of the main piazza writing this, a group of about 10 people has pulled up in a van, unloaded supplies, and set up shop with some sort of political protest. they are very intent, stringing up signs and preparing their musical selection for their presentation. So curious what they are protesting, it’s MoVimento beppegrillo.it . Must look that up. Frankly someone has been playing that Frito Bandito song on a harmonica for the past hour so this protest might be a refreshing change.
After being gone a week now, I know one thing that I already knew, but is only reaffirmed: I am a people person so it’s very foreign to me to be by myself. I’m frankly bored with me! I feel like a Labrador retriever let loose in a vast human-free forest. I may soon become a little too desperate to speak with people, despite a strong level of communication barriers thanks to my tepid Italian skills.
I have found it refreshing to not even consider “shopping” anywhere. No need to acquire needless tchotchkes and certainly nowhere to put them. As it is my pack is too full. (though, um, I am going to search the Piazza Barberini if I remember correctly in Rome for a little wine shop that sold good balsamic vinegar and olive oil, as by then I’ll happily lug it home!!). Rather I guess I am figuring out a new level of self-sufficiency at this late date, and simply experiencing the experience. And learning how to navigate public transportation when need be, in another language, which can be challenging. Part of my plan, learning how to get around fearlessly. Or should I say less fearfully?
Though I have a newfound empathy for turtles, lugging everything on their back. No wonder they lay eggs instead of carrying babies on top of all that!
I will say yesterday I had a few near-meltdowns. In my head I kept thinking: Dear Diary: The Amalfi coast is sounding sorely tempting right about now.” Though honestly I don’t know what I’d do there for 3 weeks! Plus the best part of the walk should be in Tuscany, so I just needed to ditch the part I wasn’t enjoying.
So far on my walks, once I’m out of a town, I see exactly no one, save for an occasional farmer. I can be contemplative but it can also get to be boring. I’ve listened to my Italian book on my iPod (trying to erase the rudimentary french that had resurfaced from the recesses of my memory while in Switzerland), and listened to hundreds of songs as well, as well as thousands of chirping crickets. Not so many birds, unfortunately. I’ve seen very few animals, and I’d expected to see far more. Instead I’ve seen dead bugs galore, dead butterflies, and a dead bird, unfortunately. And I’ve seen more grasshoppers and crickets than I need to know exist in the world. Yesterday plenty of fallow and tilled fields and many views blocked by walls, fences and tall trees erected by people who owned the nice villas outside of town.
We pause for this brief message: Please remember I’m attempting to raise money for the IRC with my walk. I’ve been remiss in promoting this much but I just got too busy as I was preparing to leave for my trip, just bit off more than I could chew. Link is .
Oh, by the way, les you think I’m brave or admirable for this quest, you should know this: I miss my rolling suitcase. I miss my down comforter and feather bed. I miss my reliable hot showers. And I miss my family desperately. I’m bored with me! I’m a people person with no people: I’m that lost Labrador, aimless in the woods. And I’m lugging too much crap!
I hear the UVA football game was delayed by thunderstorms yesterday — that seems so crazy! Never hear of such a thing!
I’m glad I’m in Tuscany, love it here, it’s so beautiful. And again tremendously grateful that my husband has enabled me to undertake this adventure! Grazie mille ;-)
Ciao for now!
I WAS TRYING TO UPLOAD PICTURES BUT THE INTERNET IS TOO SLOW SO I’LL JUST POST THIS AND TRY TO POST PICTURES LATER!