Stia to Camoldoldi – losing weight and gaining height (day three)


My surplus belongings on their way to Ireland. Package weighed in at 5,25kg of which the box was no more than 100g. Good riddance…

After yesterday’s travails, it had become imperative to divest myself of some of the surplus weight and unnecessary kit, that had made the previous first two days such heavy and painful going. So, as I wrote yesterday, my first task of the day was to lay out all my equipment, clothing and electronics and sort them into appropriate piles. Then having made the selection – the ‘no’ pile being embarassingly large – the hunt began for a suitable scatola or box, which I could make up into a pacchia di poste and then dispatch back off to Ireland, before resuming my trail.

My landlady was mildly helpful, although I suspect it was her workhorse daughter-in-law who actually went out and rummaged for a box that seemed fit for purpose and soon my package was packed and only required taping up and sending on its way. For anyone reading this, who is keen to experience a sense of timelessness, of a universal space in which time has no meaning, I can highly recommend a visit to an italian country post office with a task a little more complex that sending a letter.

The process of weighing, addressing, preparing, choosing the best form of dispatch, of registering and of paying was the work of at least an hour and evidently such an exciting task that it required the full attention of both (charming) women in the post office over a period that, given their meagre opening hours, consumed the best part of their working day and was evidently so challenging, that they had to send out for a supply of cappuccino to the local bar about half way through. Our greatest challenge came about 30 minutes into play, after the coffee had arrived and we were ready to enter the details of my registered express parcel into the computer system.

The concept of a non-italian wanting to send a parcel abroad seems not to have occurred to the architects of this system. Or at least, that a person not in possession of an italian ‘codice fiscale’, which I quickly learned is an italian tax ID number, would ever want to send a registered parcel abroad, was deemed to be out of the question. My suggestion that we just make one up, was greeted with interest and a certain admiration, but elicited the wry comment from one of the ladies on Team Pacchia Irlanda, that the system would know and that we would have to find another way. Several telephone calls – presumably to superiors in Rome – later and 20 minutes in which both ladies were inexplicably hacking my personal details into an app on their iphone, they cracked the enigma and generated a codice fiscale for me, or at least for my parcel, at which point they awarded themselves a round of applause and were joined by the two elderly customers in the queue behind me, for whom, self-evidently, this was the most exciting event of the yet young week.

The best part of the process was when Teresa (my primary carer) asked me to choose between two options, in case the parcel should prove to be undeliverable. Option one was ‘return the parcel to you at your own expense’ and Option 2 was ‘Destroy the parcel’. I chose Option one, of course, knowing that the only way of ‘returning’ the parcel to me was by delivering it the address that had previously proven undeliverable. The irony of this Catch 22 was entirely lost on Teresa, who, with the aid of a few judiciously placed arrows drawn in biro on the form, connected option one with my irish address, to make absolutely sure that even the most stupido postal employee, knew what was expected of him. I wonder whether I will ever see my parcel again?
5,25kg was the weight of the package when it finally left my hands, of which no more than 150gs was accounted for by the box itself. So that was 5,1kgs of stuff I could and ahould have left at home (idiot) and – more importantly – 5,1 kgs that I would not have to be schlepping over hill and dale for the next three weeks.


And so at 1000, on a perfect morning, having treated myself to a celebratory pannino and a tea, I shouldered my now featherweight pack and set off for the hills. My day’s walk was a long uphill pull over the top of the mountain directly behind Stia to the Eremo Camoldoldi, the first of the fransiscan Abbeys on the trail, and then on to the village of Camoldoldi below.


The stage profile showed an unrelenting climb from around 400 em to 1200 em befor dropping back somewhat on the descent to the village from the Eremo. Relieved of my extra weight, I almost flew up the hill, my back pains miraculously vanished, and enjoyed a fabulous, near-perfect day’s trail walking through poppy-filled filled fields, oak woods, grassy footpaths lined with needle furze, awash in yellow flower, past ruined miniature castles and huts, over rushing streams, full from the previous weeks rain. My tea break – with crostata from the village bakery, fresh that morning and still warm when I opened it – was taken sitting on a rock in a shady spot above a rushing waterfall, with the sound of a cuckoo calling in the woods below.

My garmin told me that this was the last point before the long steep climb up the hill began in earnest. Consequently my next break for lunch – fresh pecorino, parma, a tomato that bore no relation to the perfect rounded engineered dutch variety usually available at home, and a focaccia – was taken at the 1.000 em mark, at the last open space before the trail disappeared back in to the woods, affording me sensational and awe-inspiring views of the valley, into which I had emerged only yesterday with the town of Stia nestled below at the western most end directly below me.

Today's stage viewed from Stia. The distant peaks are what I was aiming for...

Today’s stage viewed from Stia. The distant peaks are what I was aiming for…

And then on and up to the Sacro Eremo, finally warming my face in the sun, whilst sitting on a log bench in front of the Abbey and drinking a fresh tea from the little espresso bar, which no italian institution, be it never so small, is allowed operate without.


Looking back on Stia from around 600m

A charming hotel, I Tre Baroni, with an excellent little bar, providing me with the best ice-cream on the trail so far, provided my stopping point for the day and given the speed with which I had executed the walk today, afforded me an easy late afternoon in which to dry and clean my kit, catch up with some reading and not have to worry too much about the rest of the world as the only thing Camoldoldi does not have is mobile reception or a Wifi connection that works reliably.

The view back down the valley at 1.000m

The view back down the valley at 1.000m

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.