Guided by dogs to the holy mountain of La Verna

(This post is from the evening of October 17th)

I woke up to a very cold morning in Biforco and began my walk down to Rimbocchi, where I had emerged from the woods the day before.  On my way downhill, I saw several paths that I hadn’t noticed yesterday, and they would have greatly shortened my walk up the hill.  Today, they made the walk down a bit easier, and allowed me to see the frost still resting on the grass.  I reached Rimbocchi, and crossed a small creek before heading uphill again.

As I continued up, above Rimbocchi, I looked back down and saw the town waking up and starting the day.  I passed a large house on the hill—my guide book said it was the restored house of a Renaissance-age brigand—and a group of dogs ran up to the fence to bark at me.  By this time, I had become quite used to this sort of treatment by the dogs of Italy.  Even from a distance, it seems that every dog in every yard knows that I am a stranger and comes out to bark at me until I go away.  Today, the dogs were really going crazy, and as I turned back to look I saw one jumping at the fence.  Each attempt, he got higher and higher, until finally, he had jumped over the gate and began to run at me.  This scared me, and I thought that I was soon going to have to fend off an angry dog.  As I stood, readying my walking stick should it become necessary, I was surprised when the dog ran right by me, without so much as a glance in my direction.  It continued to run up the hill until a woman’s voice from the house rang out, saying “Come back here!  Come back!”  The dog stopped and turned to look at its owner before running off back down the hill.  I was grateful that I hadn’t been attacked, and kept on with my hike up the hill.

About ten minutes later, I heard a rush of wind behind me, and as I turned around to see what was making the sound, two dogs ran by on either side of me and continued to shoot along the path.  One of the dogs was the all-white one who had escaped earlier, and the second was white and black.  They continued to run in front of me until they were out of sight, but there was no one calling after them this time, and they did not turn around to go back home.  I thought they were long gone, but as I continued up the hill, I saw them ahead on the path, sitting, looking down at me as I walked.  As soon as I approached, they ran off ahead again, and would wait for me to catch up.  This same routine repeated itself several times until I realized that they thought they were going on a walk with me and I worried about what would happen if they followed me all the way to my destination.  Obviously, I couldn’t keep them, and I wanted to be sure they made it home alright.  I figured they knew where they were going, but still I tried to make them go home by issuing several commands to them in both English and Italian.  Instead of doing anything, they just looked up at me, wagging their tails, and continued ahead on the path.  Whenever I stopped to take a break, they would wander around, sniffing through the brush, but as soon as I got up to move on, they were ready and walked on as my guides.

Stuck with these new companions, I remembered that St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, and thought that maybe he had sent the dogs to keep me company on the day’s walk.  My destination for this journey was the mountain called La Verna, the spot where, two years before his death, Francis received the stigmata and desired to undergo the same sufferings as Christ.  I named the two dogs Francis and Anthony in honor of the saints who were both friends and who remain important to this region even today.

I caught up to the much quicker dogs who were waiting for me on the path when the three of us all looked up at the same time and caught the gaze of two fawns who were staring at us from up ahead.  An instant in time seemed to last forever as the deer realized they had been spotted and decided to make a run for it.  The dogs gave chase.  There was nothing I could do, and I was worried that the dogs might get lost, hurt, or worse—actually catch one of the deer.  Alone and unable to run quickly through the woods, I drudged on, not expecting to see the dogs again, but sure enough, a few minutes later they were there standing on the path waiting for me.

Finally we actually got to La Verna, but we had to walk around the edge of the mountain before being able to climb up to the sanctuary at its summit.  The path was now through a beautiful pine forest.  Large stones were stacked on top of one another, covered in verdant, green moss.  I took a break to get some photos of the rock formations, and the dogs did their usual wanderings until they both ran off down the trail and started barking.  I figured that they had found another deer, and waited for them to return, but soon a man appeared over a rise in the trail.  A large German shepherd was following behind him, being harassed by the two dogs.  As the man came near me, I spoke up, saying, “I’m sorry, they’re not my dogs.  They just followed me.”  “Oh well,” he replied.  “The path goes on up here?”  “Yes,” I said.  By now, the white dog had stopped bothering the large German shepherd, while the black and white dog continued to follow along.  “Now there are three of us,” I heard the man say as he disappeared around the corner.  The white dog looked up at me expectantly and followed me as I continued on to La Verna.

After climbing the very steep, old mule path to the entrance of the complex at La Verna, I looked at the sign posted over the gateway.  Dogs were on the list of things not allowed, and I hoped that the one following me wouldn’t get me into trouble.  Strangely enough, the dog stayed outside of the entrance even as I went in, and I hoped that it would know it was time to go back home.  I set down my bag in the courtyard and took a look around the church and chapels that make up the La Verna sanctuary.  One of the side chapels in the main church is full of relics and was quite interesting.  The main attraction is the monk’s habit that Francis was wearing when he received the stigmata.  It is preserved in what looks like a very high-tech glass case, and illuminated from below in an effect that could elicit jealousy from many a museum director.  In addition, you’ve got your more normal relics in one case on the left—bones, pieces of the true cross, et cetera—and more Francis-related stuff in another case at the center.  They have his cup and silverware, as well as a piece of his habit that was stained with blood from the stigmata.  Inside, there’s also his walking stick and his personal disciplinary whip that he used on himself.

After having my look around, and enjoying the view from the courtyard, I went down a corridor, hoping to visit the museum, but a sign on the door said that is was closed for the day.  I turned around, ready to head down the hill to the town of Chiusi della Verna, where the refuge was supposed to be, and the dog I thought I’d lost was sitting there looking up at me again.  Quickly, I hurried out of the entrance to the sanctuary, hoping not to be spotted with the forbidden dog, and made my way down the hill again to head into town.  On the way down, the signs for different trails got very confusing and didn’t match at all what was written in my guide.  I got very frustrated and sat down to try and figure out what to do when I finally realized how late it had gotten; the dog that had been following me needed to be headed home.  I got his attention by tapping him on the back with my walking stick and then explained very sternly in English and Italian that he needed to go back to his own house and that he could come with me no further.  I was pretty sure that this wouldn’t work, but I felt like I needed to make this one last attempt.  As I walked on, the dog followed me, but at a greater distance than usual, and after a while, I turned to see him walking the other way, slowly, tail between his legs.  I felt bad about yelling at him, but knew it was for the best.  I hope both dogs made it safely back home.

The trail spat me out in the middle of Chiusi della Verna, a fairly sizeable town, at least in comparison to where I’d visited throughout the past week.  I was not where my guide said I would be, however, and I took a while to figure out how to get on the right path.  Following a combination of my guide’s instructions and the green arrows painted on the road, I made a big and unnecessary circle around town, until I reached its bottom and the end of all its paved roads.  Looking ahead on the path, I could see nothing that looked like a pilgrim refuge.  I must have looked really lost, because an old man came up to me and asked what I was looking for.  I told him the name of the refuge, and he said, “You need to go up.  Take the old mule path up, up, up!”  That sounded like I needed to go back to the La Verna sanctuary, but my guide had not said so, and I decided to call the number provided to find out if I actually had to climb the mountain again.

A woman picked up the phone, and seemed a bit peeved that I was only calling on the afternoon I wanted to arrive.  “Where is the refuge located exactly?” I asked, hoping she would tell me the name of some street in Chiusi.  “We are at the Sanctuary of La Verna,” she told me.  “On the mountain?” I said.  “Yes, within the Sanctuary.”  Great. I had to make the steep climb again.

After going through the rigmarole of getting a room—“Did you call?”  “Yes.”  “They didn’t ask for your name or anything?” “No.”—I was shown into a large room stuffed with beds on cots.  I was told that dinner would be served at 7:30, and I spent the intervening time enjoying the hot water of the shower.  After yesterday’s frigid disaster, a properly functioning bathroom was much appreciated, and I felt much better before heading off to dinner.

La Verna is another one of these Italian monasteries that acts as a hotel as well, offering people the chance to stay within the convent and eat the same sort of meals as the monks.  The refectory was full of tables set for four and I was placed with two other people who were also staying there by themselves, although not on pilgrimages like me.  “You’re not Italian, are you?” I was asked after sitting down.  I’ve been getting this question a lot recently, and I think it surprises those who ask it when I reply to them in their own language, “No, I’m from the United States.”  I explained what I was doing in Italy to the two people at my table, and they were impressed that I had set out to complete such a journey on my own.  They had both done the Camino de Santiago, and so they knew about pilgrimages and what they were like.

While we talked, we enjoyed the delicious food cooked by the monastery:  a warm and creamy vegetable soup, buttered zucchini, small chunks of delicious, fried meat, and turkey wrapped in bacon.  After all that, we were given some cauliflower, and invited to eat the fruit set out on the tables for dessert.  My two dinner-mates weren’t having any fruit, so I devoured two plums and took a peach and an apple for the road tomorrow.  I must have seemed ravenous to them, but I hope they put down my large appetite to the physical exertion of pilgrimage and not something else, like being American.

After the good dinner, I returned to my fairly warm room and checked out my maps for the next day.  The stage didn’t seem to be too long or difficult, so I decided that I would stay and eat breakfast at La Verna before leaving.  It was good to know that I would be having something to eat before setting off the next day.


~ by pminnig on November 9, 2011.

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