Consuma to Stia – a testing second day

The purpose of this journal is to give a true and proper reflection of my progress along the St. Francis Trail, which means that I have responsibility to anyone reading this, to be as honest as I can be, good, bad or ugly. Yesterday was, for instance, not such a good day, at least not from a performance perspective.

I have to admit that I am a terrible packer and therein lies the rub. It is not that I don’t pack the items efficiently into whatever carrying device I have chosen for the journey in question – I just take too much stuff and often the wrong stuff as well. This time it has proved my undoing and I spent all of yesterday beating myself up over my stupidity in not taking enough time and care when packing my backpack and not heeding any of the lessons from previous walks. That is, when I wasn’t bent over in pain from the muscle in my left mid-back, which had been elected spokes-muscle for the rest of my constitution, tasked with delivering the message that, ITHO, we were carrying far too much weight and that we were going to go on strike unless significant steps were take to rectify the situation.

I probably managed to walk no more than 10-15 minutes at a stretch before having to sit and rest the muscle, taking almost every opportunity, be it a wall or a bank or a fallen tree (of which there many), to take the weight off my shoulders if only for a few seconds.

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The consequence of all this was threefold: firstly, I didn’t really enjoy what was an almost perfect day’s walking in the sunshine through woods and along and through streams full from the last days of rain; secondly, my progress (19 km in just under 6 hours) was laughably slow (if I keep up this pace I wont even make it to Assisi in time) and thirdly, my head was completely occupato with either my pain or with lashing myself for my stupidity that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else or on nothing at all. Pain does that to you. In fact what I did do which was at least marginally productive was to go through my entire pack, item by item, and sort it into three categories of 1. Necessary, 2. Nice to have and 3. Stupid.  I resolved to divest myself of all of 3. and most of 2. at the next stop in Stia. Which is what I am going to do in the morning when the post office opens and I have found a box suitable for sending my surplus stuff back home again.

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Note to myself: You don’t need to schlepp your Macbook Air plus cable (1,5 kg) 500kms just to write your daily post. An iPad with keyboard or (as I am discovering as I write this) an iPhone 6+ will do the job just as well at a fraction of the pack-weight. Nor do you need a power pack (500g). Nor do you need a guide book (Kindle version will do) nor a moleskine notebook (250g each) or about half of the extra clothes and some of the generally sensible, but not really necessary kit in Italy in late spring (rain trousers, gloves, woolly hat), all which add bulk and weight and in aggregate, contribute about 4-5 kgs to overall pack-weight.

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Today’s stage contains another 800 m of elevation in one almost vertical pull, so I will report at the end of the day, as to my success or otherwise in appeasing the demands of my striking muscles and restoring a modicum of my previous performance, whilst managing to enjoy the process as well.

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A quick word on Stia, the small mountain town in which I find myself.  It is charming, nestled as it is on what appears to be a conflux of the Arno river and a smaller tributary and was – as all Italian towns are wont to be – between 1230 and 1600 hours, entirely deserted. Also on Mondays all the restaurants were closed, bar one, which happened to be the bar/café where I had treated myself to an emergency ice-cream and tea on my arrival. I ate a delightful dinner of tagliatelle con ragu di cingale (two plates full, for which I was awarded ‘man of the match’ status by the proprietress) and then walked home, partially restored, to bed.

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On my way back to the Albergo, I passed a pretty piazza, with an enormous statue of what appeared to be a gigantic prawn placed in its centre. That image and its sheer incongruity, here up in the hills, about as far from prawn habitat as it is possible to get, had my mind reeling, as I attempted to understand the possible processes and civic line of questioning, to which ‘a gigantic prawn’ was the inevitable answer.

The Giant Prawn: Piazza della Republica, Stia

The Giant Prawn: Piazza della Republica, Stia

I tried to imagine the council meeting at which the subject was first broached: “Item 6. Suggestions for a statue or art work to adorn the newly restored Piazza de G. Manzi” and the stony silence with which the young councillor’s suggestion of: “I know, let’s put up a giant prawn” might have been greeted. Or the unveiling ceremony at which the mayor was forced to explain to his eagerly attendant citizenry that after many months of deliberation and consultation with all groups in the town community it had been decided that this “langusto gigantico” would in future rise resplendent in the town’s central square. It doesn’t bear thinking about, lovely though the prawn is. If I manage to unearth any further details during the course of the next 24 hours, I will report back.

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Sant’Ellero to Cosnuma -back on the trail

The first day on the trail is always particularly tiring, as the body adjusts to effort of walking for hours at a stretch and to carrying a pack of 12 kgs (plus or minus, more likely plus given the amount of stuff I accumulated from the chemists in Munich). This is now the third time in as many years, that I have taken up my walking stick and set myself the challenge of walking the full length of one of the traditional european trails and I have to admit that todays opening stage was the most difficult and challenging of them all, to date. it was certainly the most dramatic, both from the perspective of the profile of the walk as well as that of the weather. One consolation is that I am not feeling as knackered as I was on my previous first days, although whether that is due to the fact that this section was not quite as long as the previous two (both roughly 34 kms compared to today’s 21 km) or to the fact that I have been taking a magnesium preparation over the last days, that prevents cramps and muscle fatigue, I am at a loss to know.

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Fact is this stage, which took me from the train station in Sant’ Ellero, a hamlet some 28kms east of Florence on the road to Arrezzo, runs in a more or less straight line, from the bottom of the valley to the top of the mountain range which dominates the skyline to the south, encompassing 1300m of elevation, without let up over the first four hours of the day. The train station was always going to be my starting point, as I had intended to take the 0718 train from Florence to Sant’Ellero, a journey of no more than 25 minutes for the price of €3,50. My aim was to get on the road by 0800, being unsure what sort of terrain I was going to be confronted with, but wanting to avoid the long slog uphill in the midday sun. I was comfortably settled in my practically empty compartment, fresh tea and a croissant cioccolata on my lap, when the conductress (female conductor?) passed through asking the few passengers individually where they were proposing to travel to on this train. When my turn came to be quizzed, I responded Sant’Ellero, expecting at worst to be informed that I was in the wrong half of the train, but not that, scusati, we would not after all be stopping in Sant’Ellero, but there was another treno in two hours at 0915, maybe.

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Faced with a two hour wait resultimg in a 1000 start and the prospect of being baked within a further two hours, I dashed out, engaged a taxi, gave him his instructions and waited to be sped off to make my 0800 start. My driver had other plans and needed to assure himself of the whereabouts of Sant’Ellero (which having been there, I can forgive him for not ever having heard of) by consulting with the three other colleagues waiting at the rank. This was obviously the more congenial method of research, than just punching in ‘S. Ellero’ in his fully functionally TomTom navigation aid next to his steering wheel. He didn’t return brimming with confidence, so I engaged the services of the lady with the rather irritating voice who Google have programmed into my app to ensure that we were indeed heading in the direction of the Sant’Ellero, that I wanted us to arrive at. She and he then engaged in a running commentary of the route and possible alternatives (there aren’t any), he using me as his involuntary mediator, so that I was well pleased to be shot of both of them, by the time I was deposited on the forecourt of the (tiny) railway station and picked up the first (always hugely encouraging) signage that pointed me in the right direction.

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Today’s walk could not have been more beautiful, more strenuous, or more diverse in the range of weather experienced in the course of what was, eventually, a 6,5 hour expedition. The forecast had been for sun followed by rain and possibly a thunderstorm in the afternoon and that is exactly how it transpired: a warm, almost sultry day, with clear blue skies and massive views over the hills below me to the north, becoming closer and more humid during the lunch hours, as I pulled up a seemingly interminable narrow, steep, rocky footpath before emerging, drained and sopping wet, with my pack feeling like a 100cwt, into the cool of the forests above. The rest of the trail was through dense coniferous forests on muddy tracks, clearly indicating that there had been a great deal of rain in recent days and, aside from the fact that my back, or rather a specific muscle in my mid back, was making itself very noticeable, this was a delightful walk, with occassional glimpses of the unending hills and valleys, densely forested, as far as the eye could see, as the path skirted the edges of the forest.

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I made an involontary detour, thanks to some idiotic signage, which cost me a good hour altogether and meant that I was not, as I had planned, safely esconced in my Albergo by the time the storm hit, as it had been threatening to do since lunchtime. Instead I had about 30 seconds warning, fully exposed on an open stretch of track in a large clearing in the forest, before the full force of a torrential rainstorm made it’s presence felt. Living in Ireland has at least given me plenty of practice in getting waterproofs on man and pack in about 30 seconds and I was fully kitted out and marching on as the rain came down.

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And did it ever come down: the italians have obviously been taking lessons from the irish in how to do rain, as the next hours performance would have been immediately recognisable in Killarney or Skibereen. It was piaggioing it down to such an extent, that it took about 10 minutes to turn the footpath into a mudbath that extended all the way into Consuma and home for the night.

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Delightfully welcomed, furnished with tea and a world-beating crostata, my host made every effort to ensure that I was quickly settled in front of the open fire and given ample time to dry out, steam off and regain a semblance of mobility in my tired limbs. I am loving being back on the road again and, knowing that the longest uphill stretch is now behind me am looking forward to some gentler walking over the coming days and enough energy to appreciate my surroundings rather than struggling just to pass through them.

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Three days later…

It is 10:00 local time in Florence. It has been a long day and I am sitting in my exquisite second floor room in the Palazzo Tolomei, a light evening breeze wafting through the open window, through which I can see the illuminated monstrous and breathtaking cupola of the Duomo, about 200 yards away. The last few days have been full and intense, starting with a magical long walk in the warm spring sunshine around the Howth peninsular (Bog of Frogs walk) with Britta on our 16th wedding anniversary on Thursday and packing and making last minute preparations for my trip in the evening. Then on to Munich on Friday morning, arriving in the rain, which lasted all day and all night, before taking the morning train to Florence this morning (Saturday) for the proper start of my adventure

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A note to myself: remember to check whether any public holidays co-incide with any future expeditions and plan accordingly. I didn’t even give a thought to ask that question this time and discovered yesterday, as I tried to book my ticket and make a seat reservation at the Deutsche Bahn office at Munich Hauptbahnhof, that not only was the train full to the last seat, but that any idea of actually reserving a seat for the seven and a half hour journey was quite out of the question. The act of booking the ticket – normally a matter of five minutes – was extended to a 45 minute consultation as my surprisingly helpful DB sales lady, her mothering instincts obviously moved by the look of horror on my face, as I contemplated spending 7,5 hours wedged into an overfilled corridor of a train heaving with german tourists and holiday makers decamping to Italy at the start of the midterm school break, made a sterling effort to make my trip as comfortable as possible. She managed somehow to reserve me two different seats for two stretches of the journey, both, of course at entirely different ends of the holiday length train (just walking from one end of the train to the other probably qualifies as a stage of my trail by itself), but given the luxury of having a seat at all, I am not complaining for one moment.

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It is a long trip from Munich to Florence, but it does pass through some of the most spectacular landscape of any of the great european train journeys and is infinitely more pleasurable than the Air Dolomiti flight. From the pre-alpine undulations of the upper bavarian countryside, past the Chiemsee and into the Chiemgau Alps, over the border at Kufstein with the mountains rising ever more steeply as you pass into the Inn valley and through Tirolia and up to the Brenner Pass and into Italy and South Tirol, mountains, crags and crevasses as far as the eye can see, soaring up on both sides of the train, this trip is as good a tour through the German, Austrian and S. Tirolian landscapes as it is possible to conceive. And then on the italian side, the dramatic change in vegetation, vines in full leaf already, as warmth of the south side of the alps, manifests itself in a spring that is far further advanced than on the northern flank of the massif. The clouds lifted as soon as we arrived in Sterzing and for the rest of the day the sun shone down on us, as we wound our inexorable way to our destination on the Arno.

Alighting onto the large square in front of the central station in Florence, pack on back and already feeling far too warmly dressed for the temperature, the first thing I noticed was the presence – unconcealed and in a full show of strength – of a large contingent of heavily armed police with military back up. The police were mainly stationed inside the main hall, whilst the soldiers and a few armoured personel vehicles, maintained a visible presence at both the north and south entrances and in the forecourts. I tell myself that this significant militia presence was due to the large influx of refugees and the contigent challenges thrown up by this great challenge of our time (I didn’t actually see any), but it might just as easily have been for show to impress the large section of the population of the Peoples’ Republic of China, many of whom I was privileged to travel with on my train, who seem to be gathering in Florence to establish a colony. I am sure that the demonstration of the might and discipline of Italy’s finest will have disabused them of any notion of settling here permanently, but it did seem rather over the top.

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I walked the 800 m from the station to the hotel crossing the recently (very successfully) renovated and bustling Mercato Centrale, soaking in the unique atmosphere of Florences narrow streets and magical piazzas, then spent the rest of the afternoon acclimatising, luxuriating in my splendid rooms in the old Palazzo Tolomei, in the Via Dei Ginori and chatting to the proprietress, a charming grande dame di Firenze, who gave me my tip for a good local restaurant for the evening. She advised me to pay a visit to the Cipolla Rossa Trattoria, in the Via de’ Conti, just behind the Basilica di san Lorenzo, assuring me that they cooked the best ribollita in town (a dish for which I have a particular weakness) as well as a gnocchi verde can tartufo, which she insisted was as close to heaven as it was possible to get in this world without committing a cardinal sin. She was spot on: they weren’t serving ribollita today (not even with my best begging look), but the gnocchi verde were on the menu and I ended up, well, getting as close to heaven as it is possible to get, without resorting to a cardinal sin. Great way to start the trip…may be I should wait until Monday before starting. Or Tuesday.