No room in Pavia, so go to Piacenza

(This post is from the evening of September 6th)

After my warm welcome at the Abbazia di Sant’Albino in Mortara, I was surprised by the less than hospitable treatment I received over the phone from religious hostels in Pavia.  The first two I called were perfectly nice and apologized, saying that they were extremely full and had no room to spare for the night.  The next three I called were not so nice.  Twice, right after I asked if there was any space for me, I was told ‘no,’ and heard the phone slam back on the receiver.  The final place I called, the person on the other line spent a few seconds checking before telling me that there was no room.  She then told me that “this is a college, we don’t take pilgrims here,” before hanging up on me.

I was thoroughly shocked that I had had such bad luck.  From my experience, and from what I’d read, there were not many pilgrims walking the Via Francigena at any one time, and I thought that in a town of five religious hostels—more than anywhere else I had been so far—there would be no trouble in finding a place to stay.  I resigned myself to walking through town, keeping an eye open for a hotel or albergo that looked promising.  There were several 4-star places by the train station, but I was starting to feel conscious of my budget and knew that these places would cost me dearly.  It’s funny, but in my experience, European hotels either offer luxury, or nothing much in the way of comfort.  There’s no middle ground like there is in America.  Again, I was longing for the land of the Super 8’s.

Before I found a place though, I decided to get something to eat, so I went into the large supermarket just a short walk from the station.  I was amazed at how busy it was at 10:30 on a Monday morning.  It was more full than our stores are before holidays like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, or a natural disaster like a hurricane or snowstorm.  I didn’t understand why.  Don’t these people have jobs?  Doesn’t the work week start on Monday?  I made my way through the crowd and had an early lunch in the park outside the store.

I wandered around, heading toward the center of town.  The streets appropriately began to narrow, and eventually there was no motor traffic going by in either direction.  I arrived in the town’s central piazza surrounding the town’s Duomo—the third largest in Italy.  The church was under construction and closed to visitors, so I was unable to go inside.  I walked around the piazza and went down another street, coming upon a smaller square with a market, just beginning to close.  I remembered that the large outdoor market in Siena was held on Mondays, too, and thought that the choice of day might have something to do with everyone doing their grocery shopping on a Monday morning.

I continued my wanderings and made for the church San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro—Saint Peter in the Heaven of Gold—(not a precursor to the Beatles’ song, I think).  To get there, I found the broad Strada Nuova which bisects the city from South-West to North-East.  Unlike Siena and other Italian towns I’ve been to, it seems that Pavia’s life revolves around this street, instead of around a piazza.  The street is wide and there are busses going up and down it, but its sidewalks are fairly spacious for Italian design and they are lined with all sorts of shops and restaurants.  At midday, there were many people going up and down the road, stopping in cafés and having something to drink or chatting with friends.  Pavia seemed a bit more business oriented than the other towns I have visited and most of the men were dressed in suits; there was much less of people walking by and stopping to talk with a friend they just happened to run into than I’d witnessed in smaller locales.  A banner hanging over the avenue announced that the city was celebrating the 650th anniversary of its university—one of the oldest in Europe.

The Strada Nuova opened onto a large park that I decided to go see.  Behind a few trees I saw the walls of what looked like a gigantic fort.  What I had found was the Castello Visconteo, built in the second half of the 14th Century.  The Castello, in fact, did not have a military function and served as a residence for the Visconti family.  Petrarch spent time at the castle while serving as caretaker to its massive library, and today it has become a museum.  The exhibition advertisement was for Tintoreto and a few other Italian painters, but it had closed a few days earlier, so I decided to continue on my way.

Finally, I made it to San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro.  This lies a bit off of one of the main perimeter roads of the city in a quiet corner made up of the church, its attached monastery, and the Carabinieri office.  The church is mentioned in Dante’s Comedia and there is the requisite plaque on the outside wall with the appropriate verses.  The church was closed for the afternoon and I was disappointed because I had hoped to see the tomb of St. Augustine which is held inside.  The doors to the church were glass and I was able to look in and get a dim view of the interior.  I was a little surprised that the final resting place of someone so influential to the development of Christianity did not seem a little more popular.  I sat outside in the shade by the church for a little while and only one group of people came to look.  Augustine was no Peter or Paul, but I thought his contributions to Christianity would have merited a larger following.

Having not found a place to stay, I called the Franciscan abbey in Piacenza to see if they might have room for me.  I was nearly certain they would not let me stay two nights, but if I could figure out this night’s predicament now I would be happy.  They said that they did indeed have a room and it would be no problem to stay another day.  I got to Piacenza and found the abbey.  It was much bigger than I expected, had its own garden and a large church across the street.  I called the same number I had before and a different person answered the phone.  He told me to go into the church and look for Frate Enrico who would let me into my room.  I went inside the church and talked to the Fransiscan (robed and all!) sitting by the door, selling rosaries and crucifixes for Enrico.  His reply surprised me—“I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Go over there [to the abbey] and ring the bell.”  I did as he said, but no one came to the door or answered on the intercom.  A man in plain clothes was leaning against the wall watching me and when I looked up after my third attempt for another door, he said, “No, that’s the right one.  No one’s answering?”  I told him ‘no,’ and he told me to follow him.  He asked about my pilgrimage while unlocking a small gate that led to the side of the building where I had just been ringing.  I explained what the person said to me on the phone and what the friar had said inside the church.  He took me inside the building, and had me sit on a couch while he made a few calls.  No one answered and he wandered further into the cloister and asked a monk about what I should do.  “I’m not expecting anyone,” I heard one of them answer and the man came back to wait with me.  He explained that he lived here and did work for the monks “temporarily.”  Finally, he said he had to go but I should wait there and someone would come get me eventually.

I was in front of two fully stocked vending machines—something I never expected to see in an abbey.  I looked at the bulletin board next to them and saw the same form I had in hotels across Italy, indicating the maximum price per room, per night (300 euro!).  Some other plain-clothed people walked in and out of the door, including a couple—man with a very nice looking handbag (as Italian men do) and woman with very high and fancy heels.  They were clearly not on a pilgrimage and didn’t look to be devoted members of the abbey, so I determined that the monks rented out rooms in the cloister like a hotel.  They were able to charge exorbitant amounts of money to fund their activities and people got the pleasure of staying in a real, working abbey.

Finally a large Fransiscan showed up and said he was Enrico.  He took me upstairs and showed me a spacious but sparsely furnished room.  He said again that I could stay two days and gave me the keys to the room and the gate below.

The next afternoon, after getting to sleep in for once, I got to explore Piacenza without the burden of carrying my pack.  I pulled out one of the shirts that was washed at the Abazzia di Sant’Albino, so as not to offend the city’s citizens with one of my dirty ones, but after reaching the street realized that the shirt probably wasn’t as clean as I suspected.  It was still wet and when I leaned down, I noticed it giving off an awful smell.  I determined that it could not have actually been washed—or if it was, there was no soap involved.  It seemed that the Woolrich fabric had absorbed its share of liquid and was now supersaturated with water or sweat, I didn’t know what.  It was too late to go back, so I decided to brave the town in my dirty shirt.

Again, the city’s streets narrowed as I approached its center.  The first piazza I came across was Piazza Cavalli, named after two bronze sculptures which made their homes there.  I guessed that the large building along one edge of the square was the old seat of the city government, like the Palazzo Publico in Siena.  I continued down a busy street toward the next opening.  This was the place to be in this afternoon.  There were lots of groups of young Italians walking along, window shopping and munching on gelato.  It was a very pleasant scene and reminded me a lot of Siena—minus the tourists.  What I witnessed confirmed much of what I’ve read about the social scene of Italian youth.  Unlike in the States, Italian kids hang out in mixed-gender groups of between five and eight people and spend much of their time together.  There were no young couples on dates that I saw; it is much more common for Italians to go on group dates with their friends before things get serious enough for one-on-one interaction.  The street I was on connected to the piazza in front of the Duomo of Piacenza, now closed for the evening.  I walked back in the shade of buildings on cobble-stoned streets and got some food at the supermarket to take with me to my room in the abbey.

Tomorrow, I am going to Milan for the Italian Grand Prix.  I am really looking forward to staying in a place for more than a few days and not feeling rushed to see everything at once.  I can also hardly wait to see the race itself.  One of the things that captivated me in Formula 1 at a young age was the Italian round at Monza.  Nowhere else are the fans more passionate for the sport and their team than here and I have a feeling that seeing it for myself will be something difficult to describe.  I think what I’ll do is share my experiences in Milan on this blog and put down my thoughts about the race on my other blog(LINK) on racing.  I’ll be sure to mention here when I think an entry there might be of interest, even to those not particularly into racing.  Going to races is as much a cultural experience as it is about the competition, and I’m sure Monza will be–to say the least–a strong one, in every sense

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~ by pminnig on September 12, 2011.

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