On the 3rd of June, Melanie and I setout for a 12 day pilgrimage along the Via Francigena, an ancient religious pilgrims route that links Canterbury in England to Jerusalem, via France and Italy. We walked with the Lucca branch of the 'Via Francigena Pilgrims' who we'd met at a food festival during 2012, when their president Renzo (a retired Alitalia pilot who flew the Rome to Melbourne route many a time) had been kind enough to invite us to become members and walk with them.
Bobbio (in Emilia Romagna) to Lucca (Tuscany) - 230km in 12 days, without any rest days, was more than a little daunting for us. However, we felt better when we discovered we were staying mostly in hotels, and had a bus for our baggage, which also acted as a 'sag wagon' for some of the more strenuous legs. Perhaps the promise of nightly four course meals with wine was the clincher for us - bring it on!
An Inauspicious Beginning
The bus pickup was at 8am, and we were almost 10 minutes late.We weren't concerned as in Italy, everyone seems to run about 15 minutes late. Except pilgrims, it appears, they had all arrived, baggage stowed away, awaiting just us. So the following discourse:
Renzo (on the bus microphone): Aaaaah, the Australians have arrived, you are 10 minutes late.
Me: But we're in Italy, which means we're really 5 minutes early!
Renzo: Hah! The Australians act like Italians, and the Italians act like Anglo Saxons. First black marks of the trip go to the Australians!
Pilgrims on Bus: Cheers and applause
The bus arrives in Bobbio, which we pleasantly discover is a small charming town with a cute-as-a-button historical centre. We get to know some of our fellow pilgrims over our first dinner which is excellent. Happily, it includes not 1 but 2 pasta courses, both of which are home-made, followed by a main course of roasted pork and potatos, and dessert.
Also enjoyed was a guided tour of the town and the town's cathedral, which was founded by and is dedicated to an Irishman, Saint Columbus, who was a bit of a pilgrim himself. Renzo has arranged with the local bishop for us to hold a mass to bless our pilgrimage in the underground sacristy which features a gorgeous vaulted ceiling.
|Mass in the cathedral sacristy|
|The Roman bridge just outside Bobbio|
We've started, we're on our long awaited pilgrimage.
The scheduled 20km per day ended up being more like 15km, mainly on account of the slow walking pace. The group has been walking about 250km each year in June for 10 years, and as they're almost all middle-aged or elderly, age is catching up to more than a few. At times, it's a tad frustrating walking at what is for us 3/4 pace, but this is small fry compared to the many wonderful dimensions of the journey. We walked about 7 to 8 hours each day, including lunch and breaks.
Each year, the group walks the next leg of the Via Francigena, so 2014 will be Lucca to Rome etc and in fact the group has already completed the entire walk from Canterury to Jerusalem, and is part way through the second time. Now that's impressive!
|2012 has seen lots of rain in Italy, making for tricky river crossings. Here, the group decides to de-shoe off and wade across.|
|Slowly does it - Nando and I help Francesco cross a makeshift bridge|
|Mario, Alfredo and I|
The scenery in Emilia Romagna is surprisingly hilly, green and punctuated by occasional historical stone villages and hamlets. We thought it woudl all be flat plains.
It's also a less populated area than our previous walks through Tuscany, which adds to our walking pleasure.
Sometime during each afternoon's walk, the spiritual leader begins a Hail Mary rosary, which is recited by whoever wishes to participate. Naturally, it's all in italian, and while we don't know the words, it only takes a couple of days for us to learn them, given that a rosary contains about 60 Hail Marys.....
|Wearing our Via Francigena member T-shirts|
The Via Francigena is well known in Italy and these guide boards can be found across the entire country.
It's not very well known outside Italy and France, as it's overshadowed by the now infamous Santiago del Compostela in Spain.
It is a well marked out route, based on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric the Serious, who in the 10th century travelled along it to Rome and took copious notes about his route and lodgings.
Walking is not the only goal or activity of the pilgrimage. Renzo had arranged a number of meetings with local mayors of the towns we walked through, and here we met the mayor of xxx who inevitably, gave a speech.
Like all Italian mayors, for official occasions, an Italian tricolour sash is always worn across the body.
The blue xxx bears the official logo of the Via Francigena Pilgrims. They're a national association, and our walking group is the Lucca chapter of the association.
|Hungry pilgrims awaiting dinner|
But what about the food?
With Melanie and I, it always comes back to food.
On the walk, breakfasts were of the Italian kind ie cappucino and a brioche, hardly food to walk on, but somehow it seemed to work. For lunches, we'd meet the bus at a predetermined place, a couple of tables and benches from the bus would be setup, and an informal lunch of bread, cheese, salami and tomato would be served - along with wine of course - followed by a simple slice of cake for dessert. Simple but adequate.
Dinner was another thing entirely. Basically, it followed the same format of our first night in Bobbio - two pasta courses, always home made, and one was usually the specialty of the town we were in. Yes, even individual towns just 20km apart seem to have a specialty pasta/sauce!
|Francesco, Mario and Melanie|
To this day, I still don't know how we managed to eat two serves of pasta, and sometimes I even accepted a third helping. Pasta courses were always followed by a main course which was almost always roast pork with roasted potatoes. This was washed down with as much house wine as required. Dessert was usually simple; perhaps a tart, and finishing with coffee of course!
But it's the delicious pastas that we'll both remember. Interestingly, in Emilia Romagna, the pastas were always served in a butter-based sauce, while the day after we entered into Tuscany, the sauces changed to olive oil based. And every pilgrim (they were all Tuscan) we asked which pastas they preferred, all chose the olive oil based - now that's parochialism in action.