Given that I have missed – for one reason or another, and all good – posting for two days, I now have three stages to report on. Listening to my “Write like Hemingway” podcast, this seems like an excellent opportunity to put my newly acquired skills into practice and allow myself and you, patient follower of my amblings, an opportunity to catch up. Here goes…
La Verna to Pieve Sanstefano, 20th May 2016
There were mountains. They were steep. It rained. I pressed on, regardless. As men do.
There was fog in the morning. And rain. Always the rain. The country was gentler, the road less masculine. My sandwich was soggy. I ate it in silence. As men do.
Sun. Heat. Sky. There were still mountains, but sloping downwards now. Then water, as far as the eye could see. No sea this, but a reservoir feeding the ancient planting grounds of imperial Rome. Better men than I had died planting and harvesting under the relentless sun. I pressed on. As men do.
So, that’s me done. This Hemingway stuff is great – you can dash off three days worth of reporting, whilst on the loo (I didn’t, of course, but you know what I mean).
What? More detail? Not good enough? Oh, alright, no more Hemingway. Perhaps I can use it to tweet with…
The last few days have been a transition from alpine quasi-mountaineering in thunderstorms and rain on Thursday to a valley bed slog under the midday sun today . I have scrambled up the steepest of rocky paths, slip-sliding away on the wet, muddy surfaces (and, yes, Paul Simon’s refrain was going round my head continuously, as I climbed up to La Verna) and tramped for what seemed like endless kilometers (about 10, if you are stickler for detail) on the dusty gravel road leading into the town of Sansepulcro.
I have slept in a spartan room in the Refugio in one of Europe’s oldest and most storied abbeys at 1.100 msl and spent last night in relative comfort in a motel by a motorway service station, dining in the delightful Autogrill with truckies as my table neighbours rather than german pellegrinis (guess which I prefer?).
I have walked the best part of 75kms in the last three days and broken the back of the first half of this walk and am starting to pick up speed again, my average hourly speed ticking up a few points every day so that in the last half of the day I was cruising along at 5 km/h, due in part to the gentler territory and my increasing acclimatisation.
Nice though the Abbey was, I was not unhappy to leave its stern and foreboding, even unfriendly, certainly not welcoming environs. The place is gigantic, with endless chapels and sanctuaries, halls and courtyards, spread out on a square kilometer at the top of the magnificent rock.
The atmosphere was foreboding, more due to the angry sky and the constant roll of the thunder directly overhead but I was expecting a more enthusiastic reception by the staff at the Santuario and I was shocked to discover that they had absolutely no infrastructure for washing or drying clothes. Surely a pilgrim site as famous as this would have figured out by now, what a rain soaked pellegrino needs more than anything else after a bone-breaking slog up to the top? Well, I will impart some customer wisdom to them, for free: a warm welcome, a cup of tea, a hot bath AND a place to clean and dry, if not your mud-soaked trousers, then at the very least, your bloody boots! But no: grumpy reception (almost as if I and my fellow pellegrini should be humbled and honoured to even be privileged to stay in such illustrious quarters); something approaching workhouse beadle-like astonishment at my temerity in asking for a laundry or boot room (in Italian no less), a poky selection of teas grudgingly served by a couple whose only interest in manning the tea-shop was to fleece as many visitors in the shortest time possible, with the least amount of human interaction and, of course, no bath in my tennis court sized bathroom, fitting my three bed dormitory (the sight of which left me terrified that the spirit of brotherly love which, I presume, defines the Santuario, would mean my having to share with some evil-smelling northern European pellegrinis but I was at least spared this experience).
Dinner was a group affair, served at 1930 sharp with table-sharing in the Refectorium. About 45 guests all told, 44 catholic pilgrims and yours truly, feeling like a new boy at the first dinner in the big hall, hoping that I wouldn’t be asked to chant something or forget to stand up or sit down or whatever the ceremony dictated. As it was, I had the company of a delightful and charming retired German senior civil servant from the department of the environment and his pellegrini partner, a retired colleague from the equivalent ministry in Budapest at my table (or, given that they outnumbered me, they had the pleasure of my delightful company at their table).
First sighting of the reservoir at the head of the Tiber Valley
What shocked me, given where we were, and what added to my sense, that the management of this establishment really didn’t give a monkey’s about the people who turned up here, was the fact that no Grace was said before dinner. How difficult would it be to have one of the many monks fluttering around the place, come in for five minutes, say a few words of welcome and then a blessing for the dinner, before releasing the carbohydrates on to the gasping refectorians?
My silhouette, reminding me of someone from a Fistfull of Dollars…
So, I was not unhappy to leave in the morning mist, before breakfast and start my way on to Pieve Sanstefano, but not before the extraordinary experience of walking past a (what is the collective noun for pilgrims? – a suffering, perhaps) group of german pilgrims, huddled together under an archway, reminiscent of a scene from The Name of the Rose, singing, of all things “Land of Hope and Glory” (not the words, of course, but the melody). I couldn’t suppress a salute as I walked past and disappeared down the slippery cobbled walkway, thankfully leaving the whole institution behind me.
A last view across to the last days trail with the unmistakeable profile of La Verna on the left.
An altogether less strenuous, but nonetheless, long and tiring days walk awaited me and the weather forecast, surprisingly accurate fulfilled its promise of a rainy, windy morning, metamorphosing into a gradually sunny afternoon. And that was how it was: the walk was mostly downhill, but with plenty of stretches of uphill pulls, as I moved from one valley to the next. The walk was made particularly exciting by the tortuous path the trail took through fields of wild roses so thick that I had to hack my way through them or if that failed, to walk through them backwards to allow my pack to take the brunt of their thorny resistance.
My favourite time of day: first tea (this time cut short by ants, upon whose way to work I was evidently sitting)
That worked mostly, although the roses did have the cunning ability to get themselves hooked into every loop and strap that my pack has on offer, making progress slow, but voluble. I have taken to shouting “Focaccia” loudly in moments of stress, which may sound strange to any italians within earshot, but I know what I mean.
Must have been Brits or Irish here before me – inveterate cairn-builders anyway
The highpoint of today’s stage: Sansepulcro can be vaguely made out in the distance…
A day later and I find myself in the bustling medieval town centre of Sansepulcro the first and largest town on this first stretch of the Tiberian plain, historically one of the most fertile and agriculturally rich areas of Italy. That wealth is visible in the town with its merchants palazzi, fortifications and general atmosphere of gente grande.
Whoever placed this small drinking fountain outside their house – I bless them: urgently needed replenishment of my liquid reserves and a chance to wash my face and hands.
The Tiber again, stronger now that it has consolidated a number of streams from the hills behind.
I am spoilt for choice for restaurants tonight and have solicited a recommendation from my host of this evening for a place that does funghi porcini and excellent steaks. The day’s walk was the longest so far with almost 27km under my belt between 0730 and 1430 and plenty of eye candy from the top of the hill separating the last valley from this one. I even had one last glimpse of La Verna before leaving that section of the trail behind me once and for all and beginning the long trudge down into the valley. As men do.
The ancient gate of Sansepulcro.