Mid-October Snowstorm

(This post is from the evening of October 15th)

I woke up to a cold morning at the Casa di Pellegrino in Corniolo.  After packing, I left the house hoping that a bakery I had seen the day before would be open, but it wasn’t, so I made my way along the winding road out of town.  Looking up, I could see a giant cross standing at the summit of one of the surrounding hills.  While I don’t know the story of this particular structure, I don’t imagine they have many lawsuits in Italy about religious symbols being placed on public land, because things like this are everywhere.  I passed a small place with a few buildings before turning off the main road onto a path.  Just then, a caravan of cars turned at the same place and sped off into the distance.

I walked along this path for a long time, passing a church and a few houses in the middle of nowhere, with no one around.  Eventually, the way became more wooded and steeper as I made the approach to Campigna, a small town high in the mountains.  As I walked in the woods, I heard a rustling up ahead and was afraid that there might be more boars to contend with.  When I looked up, however, I saw that there was a family of deer watching me, and as I caught their gaze, they bolted into the distance.  I was surprised that I was able to get so close to them without their noticing me, but then I realized that I was downwind and they probably were not able to smell me.

As I got nearer to Campigna, I glanced ahead on the path and saw a strange looking figure walking toward me.  It took me a second to realize that it was a person who was wearing a black hood, and whose face was covered by a scarf.  In the complete silence of the woods, it was a little bit eerie, and when I got on top of the next ridge, I could see three more similarly-dressed figures walking in the forest just below the path.  I’m not really sure what they were doing, but they might have been searching for truffles or mushrooms.  That doesn’t explain why they were doing their walking in complete silence, however, and I was a bit weirded-out by seeing a group like this.  I realized that it was mid-October, and wondered if all things—strange people in the woods, or wild boars—are naturally scarier at this time of the year, or if I’m just conditioned to be more fearful because of Halloween.

Soon, a more normal group walked towards me on the path and asked if I was looking for chestnuts, too.  “No,” I replied, “I’m doing a pilgrimage.”  “Oh, well, you have to go a bit higher up, then.”  I’m not sure why anyone would have to go hunting for chestnuts; from what I could tell, they were lying all over the place nearly everywhere I went.  Maybe there’s a special kind that are good to eat that I don’t know about, but the couple’s quest to find the nuts seemed a bit odd.

Soon after this encounter, I reached the source of all these people—the town of Campigna.  It is a tiny locality, but seems to host a fair amount of tourists during this season.  There are two hotels and three restaurants in town—more resources than I had come across previously, particularly for a place this size.  After a long climb, I was tired and decided to take a break at a picnic table and eat my lunch—a bag of potato chips I had brought from Corniolo.  Pulling out the bag, I could see that it had puffed up quite a bit, indicating how high I had already climbed today.  I knew that I still had further to go, so I didn’t tarry long and continued my hike up the mountain.

After reaching the top of the road located at the pass between the mountains, the path turned onto the ridge of the mountain itself, just over the border into Tuscany from Emilia-Romagna.  A group of bikers was close behind me, and they soon passed me on the trail.  I was amazed at the ease with which they could climb the difficult terrain on their bikes.  With all the rocks and roots, I didn’t think that this path would be possible to handle on a bike, but the riders seemed to be doing fine.  The path pretty much leveled out along the mountain’s ridge, but it started to become very windy and cold, making walking difficult.  Looking off to the right, I could see dark clouds as the source of the wind.  Occasionally, the path would switch to the leeward side of the mountain, and it was a completely different world of warmth and calm compared to the tempest raging just a few feet away.  The path did not stay serene for long, though, and soon it crossed back into the storm.  It was just then that I saw something falling from the sky, and was certain that it had begun to rain.  I quickened my pace, because I didn’t want to get stuck out there in bad weather, but a few yards later I looked at the ground and saw what was really coming down from the sky—snow.  It seemed as if I had reached the top of the mountain at just the right time to catch a snowstorm, and as I continued on, things only got worse, with more wind and snow blowing onto my face.  Looking up, I could see the trees bereft of leaves because of the wind, and they were covered in a layer of ice.  I couldn’t believe what was happening.  Just a few days ago, I was struggling because of the heat, and now I had to face this awful weather.  At 1,500 meters, though, I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised.

I reached the top of the mountain, but didn’t stay long to look around.  There wasn’t much you could see, anyway.  On clear days, my guide told me, you could see Rimini and the sea from the mountaintop, but today only the grey cloud that enveloped it was visible.  Finally, the path began to go down, and I got out of the snow.  The wind was still quite strong, making everything cold and causing the tree leaves to sound like the waves of an ocean during a storm.  I had had about enough and was trying my best to descend as quickly as possible through the woods.

Finally, I passed out of the wind and came upon the long, tall wall of a hermitage set in the middle of the woods.  I walked along the wall until I got to the front of the complex where there was a parking lot full of cars.  Looking around, I saw that the hermitage—at least some parts of it—was open to visitors.  Inside, I found lots of old Italian people wandering around taking a look at the open areas.  Available to visit was the chapel and the cell of the founding abbot, which had been preserved.  The chapel was fairly ornate, with lots of decorative paintings covering the ceiling.  The abbot’s cell was bigger than I had expected, and really didn’t seem all that uncomfortable.  Outside, there was a poster proudly displaying photographs from a visit of Pope John-Paul II in 1994.

I was eager to get to the rifugio and it was getting late, so I decided to not stay too long at the hermitage.  I walked down steep paths through the pine forest above the next town—Caladoli—and after not too long, I arrived on normal roads leading through the settlement.  This also seemed to be a popular tourist attraction with several hotels surrounding the monastery at the center of town.  Just beyond this was a parking lot filled with cars and tour busses.  It’s funny to visit these places that are touristy, but only visited by Italians.  It’s a different sort of tourism than that found in larger places more popular with foreigners.  The Italians take fewer photos, and seem to like getting away from it all in these smaller locales.

I followed the Cammino di Assisi signs leading to the refuge beyond the town.  When I arrived at a large building set in the trees of the surrounding forest, I saw a car parked in front and a key in the front door.  I opened the door and knocked before two people—one man and one woman—came out to greet me.  I was glad that they knew I was coming, as I was a bit worried about showing up so late to find nobody around.  They showed me a room with three beds and told me where I could take a shower.  The warm water felt so good as it thawed me from the day’s cold.  By the time I finished, dinner was almost ready, and I was invited into the kitchen to wait.  The room was warm, with the stove and a wood fire burning in the corner.  It turns out the two hosts were organizers of the pilgrimage.  The man stayed at this house to welcome guests during the pilgrimage season, and the woman had come down from Milan to help clean up and put everything away for the winter.  I told them about my experience in the snow storm at the top of the mountain, and they informed me that I was the last pilgrim for the year.  I was glad to know that no one else would have to experience what I had gone through today and felt a strange sort of honor knowing that I would be the final person to walk these paths before next spring.

Dinner was quickly ready and I was served a bowl of gnocchi in melted gorgonzola cheese.  The warm dish was exactly what I needed and I devoured it quickly.  Then, I was served some kind of stew with delicious meat and potatoes all cooked in a thick tomato sauce.  It absolutely hit the spot and filled me up.  Because the refuge was closing for the season, we had plenty of food for dessert, and we tried different kinds of tart pastries with hot tea and coffee while chatting about the pilgrimage, and comparing American and Italian culture.

After being alone of the road, it was very nice to have such pleasant company for the evening—particularly after my harrowing experience in the snow this afternoon.  I went back to my room full and happy, ready for the next day of my pilgrimage.

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~ by pminnig on November 5, 2011.

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