Finding Dante (and middle eastern pop music) on the way from San Gimignano

(This post is from the evening of September 14th)

I woke up early to take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures during my walk to Gracciano d’Elsa.  As I left the convent, I didn’t see or hear a soul (no American voices, this time).  I walked up the street that had been so busy with tourists the day before, and this morning it was only filled with Italians.  They were putting out tables, opening their shop doors, and generally preparing for the onslaught carried within the fleet of tour buses that would soon arrive.  Walking out of San Gimignano meant going downhill, and I walked along the same road that the bus had taken to get me to the town the day before.

It was very pleasant—walking in the morning dew.  Looking back over my shoulder, I could see the town perched atop the hill, its striking towers lit gloriously by the rising sun.  I continued my walk along the road through a small village when I came to a point where the signs indicated that I should turn onto a pathway through one of the surrounding fields.

Here, I had to make a decision.  My guidebook pointed out an alternate path that continued straight on the road where I had been walking. This way approached Gracciano d’Elsa—my ultimate destination—from the north, going through the larger town of Colle di Val d’Elsa. Inside my room at the convent the night before, there were several print-outs advising pilgrims on the next stages of their journey.  One direction sheet strongly advised that this alternative route be taken.  “Turning here takes 7km in extra,” the paper warned.  From what I could tell, however, this alternate route made extensive use of a rather large road on the approach to Colle d’Elsa.  Having walked on the highway a little bit heading into Chatillon, I had no interest in doing it again, and the “off-road, farm tracks” of the “official” route seemed much more appealing.

During my time on the pilgrimage, I’ve often had cause to wonder about how the route has been constructed.  What historical evidence did its makers use to create the modern version of the trail?  Are these truly the same paths that pilgrims walked centuries ago?  My guess is that the answer to that question is often “no.”  Many of the paths have been over rather difficult terrain, and I would have thought that the pilgrimage route would have been made as easy as possible, running on roads—perhaps built as long ago as Roman times—between towns along the way.  I think that today’s interpretation makes use of many hiking paths which already existed before the revival of the Via Francigena in order to give walkers a more pleasant experience, far away from the traffic and noise of easier paths.

Anyway, I decided that I would not take the alternative route.  It was still early and I felt good about the walk, so I determined to go the longer way, which ultimately would end up being more pleasant.  The path went down the hill from the main road in between fields to the valley below.  As I approached the bottom of the hill, I looked at the next few instructions in my guidebook to see what was coming.  One of them was “Turn left and ford stream.”  This scared me a little bit.  Fording a stream conjured up images of soldiers, or pioneers heading out west, carrying their gear or possessions on their heads as they waded across deep, rushing water.  I certainly was hoping I wouldn’t have to do anything like that.  When I came to the stream, however, I saw that it was nothing more than a babbling brook; there were even stones piled together to make a path across.  This was hardly fording anything.

Coming to the other side of the water, all paths seemed to disappear.  I looked down at my book to see what guidance it could give, but I couldn’t find anything it described.  I was standing there is a small clearing in the woods with no idea of where to go.  Bewildered, my mind took me to the first lines of Dante’s Inferno.  Although I certainly hope I was not “In the middle of the journey of my life,” I did find myself “lost in a dark wood / for the straight path had been lost.”  It was dark in the deeply shaded woods, and— like Dante— I climbed out of the valley in order to get a better look at where I might go next.  Sure enough, there were some Via Francigena signs a little way up the hill and I soon rediscovered the path.

This small episode and the thoughts it brought to me about the beginning of the Inferno led me to think about the rest of Dante’s Commedia and how the pilgrimage experience is expressed throughout the work.  I always knew that the Commedia was meant to mirror the progress of a pilgrim—Dante just does a bit more extensive travelling than most people do—but it was not until I had a few pilgrim experiences of my own that I truly understood the importance of the idea of the travelling pilgrim in Dante’s writing.  Dante’s journey is not easy.  Even though he has guides along the way, the path is difficult.  When he reaches the mountain of Purgatory, all the souls he encounters are completing their own pilgrimages as well, gaining forgiveness for their particular sins along the way.  After his exile from Florence in 1302, Dante had to travel throughout Italy and he did not stay at any one place for too long.  It was through this experience that he not only gained a great vocabulary to describe his visions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, by comparing them to the locales he visited, but also the experience of a wandering pilgrim, upon which he elaborated in the Commedia.  Now that I can understand even a little of the challenges, frustrations, and even the eventual joys of a pilgrim, I am eager to go back through Dante’s writings to see how he draws on these ideas.

Continuing on, I came upon a little house set in the floor of the valley surrounded on one side by a field of grape vines and on the other by a large garden.  There was a man working in the garden, listening to music while he worked.  It wasn’t the sort of thing I expected to hear in Italy at all, let alone on the Via Francigena itself.  He was listening to some of those middle-eastern pop songs that so often play in kebab shops at home.  It was a very strange scene, especially considering my recent thoughts on Dante.  I didn’t get a look at the man, but even the abundance of Döner Kebap in Milan hadn’t prepared me for this.  Just another odd vignette on the road, I guess.

After reaching the top of the next hill, I stopped for a bit of a break to take in the view and drink some water.  As I was taking a few photos, I noticed a pair of people walking along the ridge towards where I was standing.  They were consulting their instructions and talking to each other about what to do, and I noticed that they were speaking English—American English at that!  I was very surprised to see Americans on the road.  As I had noticed at the Abbazia di Sant’Albino, it seems that very few people from the US travel the Via Francigena.  They walked up to my spot and stopped in front of where I was standing.  “Hi,” said the man.  “Hi there,” I replied eagerly, thinking that they would be equally surprised to be meeting a countryman.  “Where are you headed?” the man asked me.  “Rome… eventually,” I said.  “How about you?”  “Not that far,” he answered.  “Siena…eventually.”  At this point, I expected to be starting a longer conversation about the Via Francigena and where we were coming from and all that sort of thing, but I got nothing of the sort.  “Well, good luck,” said the man.  A little taken aback, I replied in kind.  They walked on down the hill and out of sight.  “They must want to walk alone,” I thought to myself.  I supposed they had only started at San Gimignano, and imagined that this must be a romantic trip for the couple.  I didn’t want to run into them awkwardly again, so I waited a bit longer and set off on my own.

Only once did I find myself unsure of where to go after the incident in the wooded valley.  I had reached the top of yet another hill where an old abbey lay.  I took off my bag and sat down on the steps of the building.  I looked around and discovered the remains of a recent wedding strewn across the ground.  There were pieces of colored paper amidst the grass and the ants were busy carrying away leftover pieces of rice.  I could tell that it must have been an emotional affair, as there were balled up pieces of tissue paper left on a few windowsills.  I walked around the abbey and startled some kittens that were playing in front of their mother.  Two of the three babies ran away into the open door of a building, while their braver sibling watched me warily along with his mother.  I continued my way around the building in search of the “unpaved road” my guide advised me to take, but there was nothing of the sort around.  As I completed my circuit of the building, two cars pulled up and parked themselves on the abbey’s driveway.  A man got out of one car and walked towards me. As he approached, he shouted, “Are you looking for the Via Francigena?”  To my reply, he added, “Ok, you have to go back down the hill and follow the road.  Normally, it would go this way, but the shepherd has decided to close the way, so you have to take the road.”

After a very pleasant walk on shaded paths between fields, I arrived at my destination of Gracciano d’Elsa.  My guidebook gave no listings for accommodation in this town, but I figured it looked big enough on a map to have something, so I had decided to risk it and go without a reservation.  Turns out I was wrong.  There was nothing in Gracciano, save some apartment buildings, and a few bars and restaurants.  I wandered into one place to get a drink and ask for any information on hotels.  There was a large man sitting at one of the tables reading a newspaper, and the young bartender greeted me as I walked in.  I headed straight for the refrigerator, grabbed a can of Coke, and brought it over to the cash register.  I asked if there were any hotels nearby or if I would have to go to Colle di Val d’Elsa, a few kilometers to the north.  “Psshh,” he said.  “There’s nothing much here.  But it’s only a few more kilometers to Colle. And what’s a few more to you, anyway?  There is one down the road a ways, but it may be costs too much.”  As we were talking a woman walked in and asked for a coffee.  “It’s expensive?” I asked.  “Uhh, I don’t know how much, because I sleep here.  Perhaps in Colle it’s less expensive.”  The woman was now sipping her tiny cup while standing at the bar and looking at me strangely.  “He’s asking if there’re any hotels here,” said the bartender.  “Oh, there’s nothing she said.”  The man turned back to me and asked, “How many kilometers did you walk today?”  “Around 20,” I said.  “Wow,” said my two audience members together.  “From where?” asked the woman.  “San Gimignano,” I replied.  “What?  All through the forests, up and down and up and down?”  asked the incredulous bartender.  “Yes,” said I.  “It was beautiful.”  “Beautiful, yes, but it’s so hot.  You should have done that in the middle of October or November,” said the woman.  “Anyway,” I interjected, trying to steer the conversation back to the information I needed.  “I’m a little tired now and really would not like to walk any more.  Is there a bus to Colle?”  “Yes,” replied the bartender.  “It comes maybe every thirty minutes.”

I paid for my drink and went outside to call some of the religious hostels in Colle to ask for room.  No luck.  I would have to find a hotel.  A bus finally showed up and I got on, awkwardly lifting my bag between the columns of seats.  I knew Colle wasn’t far, but I wasn’t sure exactly where the bus would stop and I wanted to minimize my walking as much as possible.  I decided I would get off the bus when it looked right, and would hunt for an inexpensive hotel not listed in the book.  Walking the whole day had severely messed with my ability to tell distance from something moving as fast as the bus, and before I knew it we were out of Colle and into the countryside beyond.  I got off at the next stop, in front of a large hospital on the highway.  I didn’t really know where I was, but I thought there might be a wireless signal around the hospital, and I could either find a way back into town or locate a hotel where I could stay.  There was no wireless, and I was left hoping for another bus into Colle.

Bus schedules in Italy are hard to understand, and they make absolutely no sense if you don’t already know the area.  The stops listed on the sign were all street names and I had no idea what town they were in.  I turned to a man waiting for a bus—he was in a neck brace—and asked if this was where the buses for Colle departed.  “Yes,” he replied, and as soon as he’d closed his mouth, one pulled up with ‘Siena’ emblazoned on its LED screen, indicating its ultimate destination.  “Does this one go to Colle?” I asked, turning back to the man.  “Yes,” he told me again.  This bus didn’t stop, so I waved at the driver.  He braked suddenly and opened the door with a foul look on his face.  “Put the bag underneath,” he commanded me after I’d already reached my seat.  I brought it out again and did as he asked, and we were off.  This time I would make sure not to drive past the town.  It was getting late and I still didn’t know where I was staying.  The driver stopped soon after passing the hospital and switched places with another man who was waiting at the stop.  I didn’t know how to request a stop—there were no buttons to press, and people just seemed to stand up when they wanted to get off.  Well before the center of town, I stood up and walked to the front of the bus to indicate my desire to leave.  I leaned over and told the driver that I had something stashed in the compartment underneath. I didn’t want him driving off before I could grab my bag.  “What?” he said, annoyed. “I don’t understand.”  “There is something of mine under the bus.”  “What are you saying?  I don’t understand at all,” the man repeated. We went back and forth in this vein.  I don’t know if he was being intentionally difficult or if he really didn’t understand what I said, but my unfamiliarity with the bus system really seemed to annoy the last two drivers.  I got out and, luckily, this was the right stop.  It was in the center of town, in front of a large, square piazza with cafés and restaurants lining its edges.  I pulled out my computer and was lucky enough to find an unsecured wireless signal and a hotel for the night.

It had been a pleasant day hiking in the rustic solitude of the Via Francigena, but once I got to civilization again, things got frustrating.  Sometimes it’s the things that are supposed to make life simpler and easier that actually cause us the greatest aggravation and stress.

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~ by pminnig on September 19, 2011.

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