Walk softly and carry a big (walking) stick

(This post is from the evening of October 12th)

This morning, hungry and more tired than I should’ve been, I set out from the Abbazia di Sant’Andrea to find the beginning of the Way of Assisi.  In addition to being written in Italian, the guide booklets that I had been given upon my arrival were not nearly as detailed as my books for the Via Francigena, and I was a bit confused as to where I was meant to start.  Outside the abbey, there were some small yellow arrows nailed to posts and some spray painted on the ground.  These were what I had used to find the abbey so efficiently yesterday, but today, they seemed to be indicating the opposite direction from that which the booklet was telling me.  Because of the time I’ve already spent on the Via Francigena, I was not unused to finding the actual situation on the ground different from the description in my guide, and I was at first inclined to follow the yellow arrows.  They were pointing a way entirely different from the printed directions, and had ‘Camino d’Antonio’—not the name of my path—written on them, so I decided to try and find the route it described before following the signs that were already present.

I walked back through Dovadola to the edge of town I had entered while on the bus.  The directions then called for a short walk on the highway leading out of town, before finding the path into the hills.  Again, it was not a very fun time on the road.  Two old ladies who were also walking in the same direction and I had quite the scare when two busses approached the bridge we were on headed straight for each other.  Thankfully, the driver of the first bus was being attentive and stopped to let the other one through, and so that none of us would be pushed over the ledge.  As I continued on, I was reading my instructions, and looked up just in time to see the dead fox I was about to step on lying by the side of the road.

After my incident with the fox, I passed by a bit of a clearing on the opposite side of the highway where I was directed to cross and follow the path.  I couldn’t see any path from where I was standing, but there was a green arrow across the road indicating a part of the path to Assisi.  Upon crossing the road, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the trail that is was pointing out.

The path rose away from the highway through all the brush that surrounds the road nearly straight up the mountain on the north side of Dovadola.  I looked back down at the guide to confirm that this was what I actually had to do, and saw this encouraging note written there: “meglio iniziare con calma perche è tutta salita fino a Montepaolo”—“it is better to start calmly because it is all climbing until Montepaolo.” Montepaolo was five kilometers away.  It was then that I knew that this two-week trek was going to be a real challenge.

The way the Camino di Assisi is constructed makes for very difficult walking almost each day—at least from what I can tell from the guide booklet.  The way combines many smaller devotional paths that have been used by the local communities for years.  Pretty much all of these begin in the settlements on the valley floor, and wind their way up hills and mountains to the more remote regions where holy people used to live or where monasteries are located.  Today’s Camino di Assisi stage followed part of the Camino di Sant’Antonio—The Way of St. Anthony—and went by his old hermitage that rests atop Montepaolo.  In addition to these difficult paths that the Way of Assisi seeks to follow, the modern creators of the route have done their best to make it so that you are, as the guide says, “walking in nature” all day before returning to civilization at night.  This means that every day begins with a steep climb into the mountains.  In truth, I’m not really sure whether these are mountains or hills; if they are hills, they are quite big.  You walk for most of the day, and then, at the end of the day, enter a gradual descent into another valley where people actually live.  As a result, I saw very few people today—just a couple of men doing roadwork on a road I traveled for a bit, and one old woman and her dogs walking in the forest at the end of my journey.  There was nowhere to get water—at least nowhere I saw—and I was dry by the time I finished.  I’ll have to be more careful tomorrow, but if something happened to you out on the trail, it might be a long time before you’re found.

Being “in nature” gives plenty of opportunities for wonderful views across the Emilia-Romagna landscape.  Forested hills dominate the surroundings, and there are fewer pastures and vineyards than in the Aosta valley or the parts of the Via Francigena in Tuscany.  The mountains in Aosta may have been more impressive, but this part of the Way of Assisi has something that I have not found so far on my pilgrimages—silence.  In Aosta and Tuscany, you are always within earshot of a highway and can hear cars and busses passing, reminding you of nearby civilization.  Here, in the sparsely populated region of Emilia-Romagna, there were times when I could hear absolutely nothing but the rustling of leaves and the crunch of stones under my boots.  Birdcalls would echo throughout the valleys below, and I had views over terrain that looked as if there had never been humans present.  Although this sort of solitude is nice, the disconnect you get from everything is a little scary, too.  On the Via Francigena, I never feared for finding a place to sleep or somewhere I could get food if I needed it.  Today, on the Camino di Assisi, there were times when I had my doubts about how everything was going to turn out.  I’m sure I could have found the way back to a road, or pulled a Bear Grylls if I absolutely had to, but everything wasn’t laid out on the path for you like it is on the Via Francigena.

Along the way, I saw a number of medium sized branches in the brush on the side of the path and decided to see if one would be suitable for a walking stick.  I found one of appropriate size, and pulled off the extra branches, leaving just the main trunk of the wood.  It’s a little bent, and isn’t quite perfect, but it actually was quite helpful today during some of the uphill sections.  I think I’ll keep it for the rest of the way, but I am already predicting that I’ll get attached and will be sad when I have to leave it behind.

After my longest walk in Italy thus far, I arrived at a place labeled as a ‘refugio’ on my map and on some signs.  It didn’t look like a typical religious hostel because there was no church.  It just seemed like a normal house in the middle of nowhere whose approach was blocked by a large metal gate.  I wasn’t really sure if this was going to work, but I rang the bell on the gate post and quickly heard a little boy’s voice call out: “Mamma, someone’s here!”  “The telephone?” replied the boy’s mother.  “No, a pilgrim has arrived,” answered the boy.  Soon a woman came around the back of the house and approached the gate, followed by a large, white Labrador.  “Welcome,” she said.  Seeing me eye the dog, she asked if I was afraid of the animal, all in Italian.  “No, not at all,” I said, reaching down to pet the beast.  As my hand stretched toward the dog’s head, it recoiled and started to growl at me.  “Maybe it’s afraid of me,” I said.  “Perhaps it’s the walking stick,” answered the woman.

We went inside, and I saw the boy who had called running in the back yard through one of the windows.  To my surprise, there were chickens and roosters wandering around the backyard, too.  I guess this house is a sort of farm.  I graciously accepted the water the woman offered me, and gulped it down thirstily.  She then took me upstairs to the pilgrim room.  In the room, there were three beds—a set of bunk beds, and one single.  On the walls are all the sorts of things you find in a child’s bedroom—maps, movie posters, and dinosaur stickers.  On a shelf were a bunch of toys—Lego models and knickknacks—and photos of children— one boy, one girl—hung on the wall.  Looking into the open room next door, I could see a set of bunk beds and more kid’s things, so I gathered that the brother and sister had moved in together to make room for the pilgrims.  This ‘refugio’ was rather well advertised on the route, with signs pointing it out for the last several kilometers, so I guessed that the family had decided to take advantage of the pilgrim traffic by offering out one of their rooms.

After not too long the boy came upstairs to tell me that dinner was ready.  I walked down to the kitchen and was greeted by the wonderful aromas of different types of food.  The husband, who had returned from work since I arrived, invited me to the table and to enjoy the antipasti they had set out.  There were artichoke hearts, and thin slices of bread that had been toasted with cheese on top.  I was so hungry; I took one of each and began eating.  Then, the main course arrived.  Bowtie pasta in homemade pesto, made from herbs in their garden.  It was just delicious, and one of the best meals I’ve had so far—and not just because I hadn’t properly eaten in the last 24 hours.  Dinner wasn’t over yet, however.  There was ricotta cheese, as well as some hard goat and cow cheeses.  Accompanying these were bread, and several jars of sauces I have not encountered before.  The first, bright red one was made with peppers—both bell, and spicy—and tasted sweet at first, with a little kick of spice afterwards.  The next one was dark purple, and made of onions.  It sort of looked like a French onion soup, without the broth, but tasted nothing at all like the warm dish.  It was surprisingly sweet, but sort of reminded you that it was made of onions without giving off an offensive taste.

After all this, I was finally full again and ready for the next day’s journey, but the last item had yet to arrive—roasted chestnuts.  This is the season to be in Italy for chestnuts, and I have seen several posters in different towns advertising festivals for the delicious treats.  We were brought a small towel filled with the still scalding things and each of us braved scorched fingers to get at the tasty meat inside.  The chestnuts were sweet, but not too sweet, and the warm and moist insides are the best thing with which to end an autumn’s day.

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~ by pminnig on October 30, 2011.

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