Via Francigena Fidenza to San Gimignano

Our two weeks in December on the Via Francigena (VF) are filled with highlights. Each day offers its unique contribution to the experience. Each day is a new awakening to the celebration of the life of the walk and the walk of life. Scroll through the days or use this list to jump directly to a specific day.

To Fidenza - 4 Dec - 39 days in 13 hours

The trip from Germany begins on 4 December at 6:30 AM and isn't done till 7:30 PM when we arrive finally in Fidenza, tired but ready to begin walking. The special 29-euro tickets from Munich to Bologna Petra found on the internet make the trip a bit lighter than it might have been otherwise. We could have gone all the way to Rome on that ticket. Nice discount.

The train comes down the Adage River valley through Bolzano, Trento, and Verona. Clouds cover the tops of the mountains but it is a joy to see the valley we walked through this summer. We take 13 hours to go the same distance that it took us 36 days to walk in August.

The monks of the Convent of St. Francis in Fidenza offer us a good dinner with them and warm beds for the night. We talk long of pilgrimage and I learn that a "convento" in Italian is not the same as a "convent" in English where it means a house of women. In Italian it is a house of men or women who are working in the world outside the house. A monastery on the other hand is a house where the monks all live and work inside. There are only five or six monks living in this huge house.

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To Medesano - 5 Dec - Lost as we start

After Mass in the morning the priest at St. Francis gives us a Pilgrim's blessing for our journey. We have a good breakfast, leave a donation, and set out toward Rome. But the beginning does not inspire confidence in our guidebooks. One gives some vague lefts and rights to take. Another, a set of typed pages, does much the same. Both tell us we have to turn at a village, Cabriolo. The village, if there is one, does not identify itself and we walk past. We immediately walk four or five kilometers out of the way and when we recover we are only a quarter kilometer down the road from where we missed our turn in the first place. The other guide tells us of an entirely different route but we choose what seems to be the one down less traveled roads. It is two hours into the walking before we see out first VF signs. We are less than four kilometers from where we started.

In Medesano we get the keys to a wonderful clean, new parish house bedroom and the front door. This place, built with European Community (EC) money, is a beauty complete with a huge movie theater where parishioners come in later to listen to an Italy-Germany soccer game.

We pose in front of the first signs. It took us two hours to find them. And then we don't follow the correct one. The big one is for the road. The small red one marks the walkway. It takes us a while to realize that.
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To Sivizzano - 6 Dec - A rainy St. Nicolas day

During the morning the going gets a bit vague as we cross a field according to the Guida toward first a high tension tower then a yellow pole (?) and finally through a tunnel with a stream under a railroad. It doesn't work quite that way. When we get to the railroad by two different attempts we end up climbing over the railroad and struggling through the forest down the other side to the stream. But they are rearranging the soil along the stream with a huge shovel. Mud is everywhere. Then we walk half a kilometer along a muddy path in a cement factory. First black then white mud this morning. My shoes resemble a zebra.

The guidebooks again tell of two different ways. We walk down a riverbed, a route partially suggested by both. That would not be bad in the dry season. But with the rain of this late fall, it is a challenge to keep a little dry crossing the creek again and again. After a while we give up and get out and walk the road in the rain.

The evening brings us to the Sivizzano priest house to stay. He is not there. A bartender calls him--in the hospital. He reveals who has the key. The bartender calls her and she opens the door. We have a place to stay, a huge room with an equally huge kitchen--but no place to sleep except on a cold, hard, stone floor. Instead we put some tables together and slept comfortably on them.

In the evening we eat in the same bar/restaurant. The meal is good. But the party is better. It is St. Nicolas day and a group of men have come together to party. They share their wine, camaraderie, and food. It is a night we will remember.

Our sometimes guide in Parma Province

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To Berceto - 7 Dec - The fog teaches a lesson

Today is a day of fog, rain, and a lot of up and down climbing. It seems to take forever to get to Cassio. Along the way we are advised by a sign to avoid a path that is dangerous when wet. It is very wet. We avoid it.

But the day brings a lesson in living the now to Petra. Most of the morning she looks forward trying to see where we are going wanting to know when we are getting to Cassio. But to no avail, the fog allows us to see no more than 50 meters/yards most of the time. Petra's realization is that we have to look more at where we are than where we want to be later. Live now.

We walk the last several tens of meters down to our evening stop at Berceto in the beginnings of the dark of the night. The pilgrims' place in the parish house is in the community youth house actually and not at all friendly and cozy. We choose instead a hotel, which turns out also to be neither friendly nor very cozy, but we are too tired to search farther. We endure. At least kids are not here making a lot of noise and locking us in with a bar between the door handles as they did at the community home.

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To Pontremoli - 8 Dec - The Cisa Pass

Our path above Berceto

For the first time since the first hours of the first day and only a few times on the other days, we can see beyond fifty meters/yards. We walk up and up a winding road to Cisa Pass. Below fog fills valleys between mountains like a huge sea of cotton candy. Near the top the fog returns. Rather we enter the bottom of the clouds. We stop for a warming tea and cappuccino in a bar at the pass. Then we begin our winding walk down along a seldom-used paved road. Back and forth down and down, a beautiful walk. First the autostrada is far below us, then we are even with it, and before the descent is done it is far above. When the day is over the walk is really a long nine-hour walk up and then down. The books say this is 26 kilometers (16.2 mi.). I settle on 27 though I want to say 30 or more (8 times 4, our walking rate, would make it 32). I cannot get myself to find a good map to measure its meandering path myself.

The fates are however with us. We stop for dinner in the afternoon and rain, which has been threatening, pours. It dwindles to light sprinkles as we leave.

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To Villafranca - 9 Dec - Coffee ala campagna

The countryside and a railroad outside Petremoli

The morning sun is clear and bright. We walk along the road, skipping VF's excursions into the hills along the way to Filattiera. The wind blows strongly. It is a wonderful day to walk.

Later we take to the hills. As we pass a villa in the middle of nowhere around noon, a dog barks loudly. We, as usual, say good morning to him. The owner steps out on his porch in his pajamas and signals asking if we would like coffee. We would. He lets us in. His wife makes coffee and he offers fruits. We enjoy both and their company. Again the Universe provides. We failed to get some fruit in the morning for our mid-day break and this guy stops us and offers some. The pilgrimage continues to teach what we will be provided with what we need. We say thanks and he asks that we remember him with a prayer when we get to St. Peter's.

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To Ponzano Superiore - 10 Dec - Led by bells and a foxy dinner

Morning on the Magra River outside Villafranca.

We are walking through a village in the late morning. Church bells begin to ring rapidly--ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding DONG, ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding DONG. Again and again they repeat themselves as we walk towards the church. I make a movie to record the unusual sound. Petra walks into the church to see what is calling us there. I follow with no particular interest. Inside we look around. I see a red banner with gold letters above the altar, "Signore, cosa voi che facciamo?" Tears come to my eyes. It is one of the goals of our pilgrimage. "Lord, what do you want us to do?" We are walking to try and discern what are our next steps. I relate what I see and feel to Petra. She has not seen it.

Four things happened here. First, the universe saw to it that our passage coincided with the bells and enticed Petra to enter. Then Petra entered and I followed. Next, I saw. We worked as a couple, one leading and the other seeing. Finally, it's message, "Lord, what do you want us to do," suggested we would do well to look for something we want to do together. We were both thinking more along the lines of "What do you want me to do?" Now we are also looking more closely at us.

Beyond Aulla we take to the mountains again and walk to a castle on a hilltop, Bibola. Then we walk up and up through the forest along a narrowing path. By the time we are on top, the castle is far below us. It is a splendid walk in the wild.


But the climb tires us a lot and Sarzana is out of the question for tonight. We settle on an unofficial, but listed, Bed and Breakfast for the night, a huge house on the hill with a wonderful hostess who takes us to the restaurant where we eat that night.

The restaurant is the highlight in this day full of highlights. The Trattoria Volpara, The Fox. The walls are postured with surrealistic pictures and hard-rock music alternately screams and plays softly. The owner, whose name I forget after I hear it, is a joyful, middle-aged hippy who spouts off a list of dishes for each course ("no menu," though we see one later). We eat varied antipasti, a huge plate of pasta, and the best tasting beef we have had in years. And in the end we hold our breath as the waitress brings the bill. It is a bargain, much less than we hoped it would be. If you are ever in the vicinity of Ponzano Superiore, visit the Trattoria Volpara. You will not be disappointed.

Excited during dinner in the exotic Trattoria Volpara

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To Marina Massa - 11 Dec - So far out of the way to get to the Med

Ponzano Superiore as we left in the morning.

Each day of this walk is full of its happenings and as I walk today I roll that over and over in my mind, in my feelings, and in my senses. These steps are little episodes in the bigger episode of the day. The little pilgrimages in today's pilgrimage--off the mountain to Sarzana, following a cop's bad directions, walking 8 kilometers out of the way, a fortuitous finding of a bar when we were hungry, directions from an old Italian who had been in Germany 30 years ago, a walk across the field to the Mediterranean, and the search for a hotel, arrival, food, and rest--make up the day's pilgrimage. And today's in itself is a little pilgrimage in the larger pilgrimage to Rome. But something that I have known in my head before but not so much in by body and soul comes strongly into my consciousness, feeling, and senses today. The Rome pilgrimage itself is only a small pilgrimage in the pilgrimage of life. All come together to make a life.

In the morning we come off the mountain from Ponzano Superiore and find our way to Sarzana's cathedral. As in many other cities, the VF is not well marked here. In fact, we see no markings. We have two options for leaving: the Guida tells us to go out the Via Aurulia, the main highway south; the map from VF tells of a Via Crociata and some pathways. Not ready to walk the highway when a path offers an alternative, and lacking any signs, we ask cop for directions to Via Crociata. His directions carry us to the south side of the city to another busy highway towards Marinella on the sea, our goal with the footpaths. So we ask an attendant at a gas station. He sends us north. We walk and walk and are soon on the edge of town. We have missed the street. In the end we are far too far north and in the countryside heading for the Magra River. We make a big circle and finally find the path after around eight kilometers (five miles) of extra walking.

We are happy with the path but now hungry. We have no extra provisions because we did not envision the extra eight kilometers. But we are in the middle of nowhere now. I tell Petra the universe will provide, only half believing it myself. What appears? A bar at a fishing club. We have sandwiches and coffee and water provided when none seemed to be around. The universe is again there.

The path continues to prove illusive and as we plod along unsure of the next move, Petra calls to an old man working in his garden. He comes over and tells us a good way to go to avoid the main road. In the process he hears the German accent in Petra's Italian and asks her if it is so. He worked a number of years in Germany several years ago. He learns Petra and he have several places they know in common. He has tears as he remembers remote times. Petra has tears seeing his. It seems that again the universe has put us in this place just at this time to remind this man of good days in the past. Or is it to remind us of how we influence those around us? Or is it both? or more? or something altogether different that we missed?

Down the path we found ourselves on and a busy highway for a few kilometers again. But we could see the Mediterranean to our right. At one point Petra leads us across fields toward it. We have made it to the sea by foot from our front door in Kisslegg, Germany. Petra walks in. We both rest on the rocks and then we walk the beach to Marinella.

The last little pilgrimage involves finding a place to sleep. All the hotels save one three-star are closed for the season or for holiday or something else. Someone tells Petra there is an open hotel in Marina de Carrara. It is almost five and getting darker. But there is nothing promising there either. We go in circles a while not knowing what we want or what we are doing or where we are going. Finally we decide to go forward to Marina Massa to a religious house there. It's not over. We are really tired by now and not ready to walk these last three or four kilometers. So we take a bus and walk the last kilometer or so into the hotel.

Finally we can sit down and rest a bit. A long day of several small pilgrimages.

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To Pietrasanta - 12 Dec - My hat returns

After yesterday's rash of highlights, you would think we could have a less active day today. Not so. It starts out as we leave to pay. We have to walk around the outside. Passing the door to the hotel's bar, we head for the office to give our offering. We just get past the bar door and the woman running the place comes out and chides us for not saying, "Good bye." It is no use telling her we were going to do so after paying. She does not accept it because "The office is closed." We didn't know that. She does not accept an offering either. She just sends us away with a huff. My protests meet a blank stare. Petra goes back and gets her to admit she felt an affront that we didn't come to her before. It seems there is a special protocol we are not aware of and we broke it. It is too bad, but we could not know. Petra reports that her feelings told her as we came to the bar that we should have gone into the bar first, but we didn't. Another case teaching us to hear our feelings and act on them.

The Mediterranean and the coastal plain from above Montigrosso.

It's a cold morning. The bright sun is just coming over the mountains. We walk north along a street in Massa. I am quite confused. No, I am very confused. Petra "knows" we are going the right way. I don't. I have to stop in a bar to study the map. While doing so we have a couple cappuccinos and sweet rolls. When I get myself straightened out we quickly put on our coats and backpacks, and hit the street again. We want to cover a good distance today.

A kilometer down the street as we are threading our way along the unmarked VF picking logical streets from the city map, I realize that I left my hat in the bar. I am in no mood to go back. And Petra says, "I never liked it much anyway. You can get another." We continue forward.

Six kilometers (4 miles) down the road Petra stops in a pharmacy for a pack of Kleenex (you buy them in pharmacies or tobacco shops in Italy). I stay outside and retie my shoes. They don't feel right. I get up and go in the store to wait for Petra. As Petra leaves, the clerk asks her, "Is that your hat on the post out there?" "We left a hat in a bar back in Massa. How could it be here?"

She looks out and it looks like mine. She comes back to me and tells me about it. We go out and look. It sure looks like mine. We walk over to the post and look around at each side of the hat. It sure looks like mine. I pick it up and find the tag. It is mine. How did it get here? We saw no one put it there. Neither of us remembers seeing it here when we came. Yet here it is.

We talked to no one in the bar about walking the VF. How did they know we were on the VF? And yet someone had to take the time to recognize the hat was there and to dispatch someone with it. And whoever brought it had to either guess we were walking the VF or otherwise seek us out and then put the hat somewhere where we would see and recognize it. Again some Italians went far out of their way to help a pilgrim. The Universe once again made so many things work together to make our pilgrimage more enlightening. What other wonders are possible?

When a woman in a pharmacy realizes Petra wants only one small pack of Kleenex and not the whole package of packages, she buys the big package for herself and searches out Petra and gives her the one small pack she wanted. The people continue the help us.

Giovanna, a woman on the street stops us as pilgrims as we begin to walk out of Montigrosso, the same town. She invites us into a bar for coffee. We accept. She shows us off to her friends who happen by. She is proud of what we are doing. She asks us to pray for her when we get to Rome. She gives us her address and asks us to visit her if we are ever back in the area.

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To Valpromaro - 13 Dec - Don Mario

Is it Rome or Santiago? You have your choice here.

The path continues to be illusive. South of Pietrasanta we walk up and up missing wherever the path was to go over a ridge and end up far out of the way and much higher than we had bargained for. At least we have some good views of the sea and costal plain.

The green strikes us vividly today. Italy is so much greener than Germany this late in the fall, so many flowers and palm and banana trees. It seems to still be early fall.

An innovative use for old bedsprings along the road up to Montemazzoli.

Evening brought us to Valpromaro and Don Mario's priest house. He normally accepts pilgrims during the year and they sleep on mats in the parish meeting hall part of his house. But it is cold and the floors are cold. So he invites us into his living quarters and is willing to give us the room of a Brazilian rooming there. We decline and choose instead the TV room, which has a pullout bed. We accept that we might have to wait for the end of all TV viewing. He leaves to do his duties. We make a fire in the stove and pull up easy chairs to it and settle in to rest and enjoy the heat. When he returns we talk of his time in Brazil and along the Camino de Santiago and look at his pictures.

We talk of the church and how it tries to communicate with people on a community level when they are mostly individualistic and how that often leads to gross lack of communication. It is a very good evening. Thanks, Don Mario.

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To Lucca - 14 Dec - Frost

My camera falls off the chair this morning breaking its viewfinder screen. I take pictures the rest of our time on the road with only half an image in the viewfinder. To my surprise I adapt to it quickly. The camera keeps taking fine pictures though I cannot review them. It is a bit like the old days with film when you had to wait to see the results of your efforts. I have to get home to view them on the computer. The remaining pictures here taken after this testifies to its continuing performance. ... And think of it; it is about like the pilgrimage itself: many things that happen along the way don't develop till long after you return.

We walked out into a winter wonderland of cold air and heavy frost this morning.

The old part of Lucca proves to be an interesting city with surrounding walls and narrow medieval streets. We walk a lot after we get there a little earlier than usual. I find a fine scarf in the flea market. It seems a good place to spend a healthy chunk of time when I have some to spend.

Lucca storefronts.

Duomo San Martino facade
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To Altopascio - 15 Dec - A well marked path

The route is very well marked today--by three or four different groups of sign makers. Thank you, gentlemen. Where were you all a few days ago?

An outstanding new refugio waits for us in Altopascio. The library holds the key and gives it to us to use while we are there. We have to give it to a bar in the morning since we are leaving before the library opens at eight. I spend over an hour on the Internet in the library--more than I have spent on it since we began in Fidenza.

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After all, it is Christmas time.

To San Miniato Alto - 16 Dec - Via Asmara

The day starts out in the bar where we turn in the key, Angolo Rosa. Everyone is in high spirits. They are enjoying their morning coffee and sweet and the camaraderie with each other. We receive well wishes from several as we leave after our cappuccini and sweets. We like Altopascio.

South of town we walk dykes and fields and then very rural roads, a welcome departure from the last few days busy roads. One road reminds me of my days in Eritrea 35 years earlier, Via Asmara.

Via Asmara, a town thousands of kilometers south and tens of years earlier.

The Convento S. Francisco charges us a reasonable 25 Euro each for half pension and provides us with a good basic dinner and breakfast. But the house seems a bit chaotic. Dinner is very quick and they say the night prayers at the dinner table before everyone is finished eating. And in the morning everyone trickles in and eats on his own. The community must be a very busy one.

Amazing mural segments in Convento S. Francisco in a hall dark enough that I could not see the brilliant colors until I viewed my images.
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To Gambassi Terme - 17 Dec - A beautiful ridge walk

The hazy Tuscan countryside today.
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We walk the ridgeline south of San Miniato all the way to Gambassi Terme. The Tuscan hills flow out to our right and left all day long, green fields and rows and rows of tall Cyprus trees. What a delight and pleasure and privilege it is to be here today on this sunny day with light haze.

Around one we arrive at what I thought was going to be a place with a restaurant. Coiano seems to be a village on the maps. But it is only a church and a few houses. We are hungry. A sign points perpendicular to our route in the direction of Castelfiorentino toward a restaurant. A passerby assures us it is only 300 meters/yards down the road. We commit to it but the 300 meters turns out to be a kilometer (.6 mile). We are not so happy about that. But the waiter greets us at the door. And in the end we are quite happy with L'Appalto. Its food is marvelous and its atmosphere matches. Sun and stars cover the entrance room ceiling and a labyrinth covers the dining room ceiling. It is worth the side trip. The next time I am within 25 kilometers I will visit it again.

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To San Gimignano - 18 Dec - Lost in the mud

Morning south of Gambassi Terme.
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A San Gimignano tower.

We continue along the beautiful ridge of hills though fog gets thicker as the day goes on and begins to resemble the fog of the first days.

At one remote intersection no sign tells the way. Based on the guidebook we choose right. The next turn is to be a left. But there are two lefts to choose from. We choose the incorrect one. To compound our problems there is to be another left. We take one that seems to be the correct one following the same horseshoe tracks we had been following long before the original turn. Soon the trail turns muddier and muddier. When we realize that the "true" path is somewhere behind and to the left of us, we have gone too far to turn around and go back and search for it. At that point we know we have to go forward and left to rejoin the route. In the process we walk through a lot of very wet clay that sticks fast to our shoes. In the end we find the path again. But This is the life of a pilgrim. You have to walk through the unknown muddy path once in a while along your journey. It is a joy to rejoin the road.

We stay in San Gimignano in an Augustinian convent. First we speak entirely in Italian. It is only at dinner late in the evening that we find out that our hosts speak English also. We enjoy dinner with another American visitor and the two Augustinians care taking this huge place. One priest is American and the other is English. We speak English from then on talking of many things and of pilgrimage in general and ours that is about to go on hold for a few months.

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To Home - 19 Dec - We'll be back

After a short ride in a bus and 13 hours in trains, we are back home. We'll be back in April to complete the pilgrimage.

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