- l a • s t o r t a

 “Life is either a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.”

- Edith Wharton

•• 


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Today saw a powerful 30km Romewards. Somewhere after La Storta, I technically entered Rome but I also have no concept of where I am exactly in the labyrinth of suburbs, so I will not feel “Mission Accomplished” until the testimonium is in hand.

But who knows what the future will bring, so here’s the closest thing I can offer- a rough impression of today in the wake of a delicious pasta amatriciana...

This morning- a late start around 9am after a wonderful dinner with pilgrim friends from Florence and Reims!

How it ended -

“Keep in touch! I’m interested to know how your life will change after this experience”

Me tooooo!

Then this morning. I took about 3 cappuccinos at breakfast before promptly heading out the door in the wrong direction.

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But I’m a girl with a compass. So within the hour I settled on the Via Roma in the good direction. I heard that the original ancient road is actually somewhere underneath this “Brutto” industrial road, sooo good enough for me. The cars never bothered me anyway.

Actually, I kind of like these “ugly” roads, where you can sense the direction of the energy towards civiliation. The Via Roma turned into the Via Cassia. a concerned motherly type rolled down the window to ask if “tutto” was “benne”. This doesn’t happen in the woods.

The car horns can even be cool. Today, in a surreal moment, one perfectly synchronized with the car horn audio in one of my favorite songs.

I think I’ve posted some of the lyrics before, today it was this part-

“There’s a world out there it’s calling my name, it’s calling yours too”.

What a vibe!

I also discovered no less than three trees with ripe figs.

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Somewhere on this way, I was so high on the life and the energy and momentum- the chocolate, the sweet fruits, the occasional VF trail marker on this busy road so clearly leading to Rome, I went 2km past my target for the day, La Storta; a city with no center. Literally blink and you might miss it.

I kept going. I couldn’t stop singing, even when I passed concerned pedestrians.

John Lennon-

“How can we go forward into something we’re not sure of? You know...”

And again, too stoked to notice the Via Francigena signs dropped until I was on the sketchiest road of all. I had to pause to find any way forward on a grassy knoll of garbage next to speeding, merging, traffic. I toed the line of the concrete barrier, tightrope style.

At least there was a train/bus station just beside. I hustled to a stopped bus to ask the drivers for advice. They weren’t going anywhere, actually, and a 5 minute discussion between three people yielded only this- take the train to San Pietro!

I say discussion, but the only serviceable Italian coming from my end was “Vaticano” accented by folded *prayer hands*.

I copied this useful gesture from a woman selling cigarettes along La Storta who I asked for directions the first time. She also recommended I take the train to San Pietro.

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So I did. About 4 stops from Igpageo Devli Ottavia to Gemelli. I just felt like getting off here, no reason, or maybe the name sounds like a shape of pasta.

The train station belongs a sleepy part of town connected by a bike trails and made up of almost nothing but family-operated one room grocery stores. Not a Bed and Breakfast in sight, let alone an pilgrim refuge. I wondered for a moment if this would finally be the night I sleep on the street, but after less than an hour of trial and error, things panned out in the world’s okayest hotel by the Phillipines embassy. 

And although checking into a hotel sometimes feels like it lacks the quality of divine intervention fit for the last day, really, the silence was holy, right down to  the inexplicably broken WiFi and first bathtub since I crossed into Italy at Valley D’Aoste; my feather bed.

  ••

- c a m p a g n a n o


“What God intended for you goes far beyond anything you can imagine.” - Oprah Winfrey

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today saw 15 km of walking, frescos, sheep, friendship, and at last an end in the set destination for the day - campagnano di roma.

I am now, so so close to Rome. Today I saw a road sign showing Rome was closer than Viterbo, which I understood.

The momentum feels strong. Part of the way I orient myself now is definitely the mentality that I am already “in Rome”, but I am in Campagnano di Roma. Yesterday I was in Sutri. And that is everything.

 

Sutri

I woke up from a very good sleep yesterday in the apartment that was generously offered by the owner a pilgrim refuge where there was not one available. Everyone went their own way, and I stayed the latest - until 7AM, to return the key.

“Do you have time for a cappuccino?” 

Always a question with only one answer.

I was glad for a chance to chat with Jill, who had hosted us. She had moved to Italy from the United States after traveling abroad in college, Greco-Roman studies. The way she spoke about the Etruscan history and early Christian frescos in Sutri gave me all the motivation to absolutely visit them before I left. She explained the thousands of years of pilgrims who had taken some of the exact path modern day Via Francigena pilgrims will to Rome. She explained pilgrims who would walk by proxy and return a white feather from Rome.

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And she explained all the love her family shared in the place where we had stayed- working on the renovations; the close community of Sutri, evident in way to find the apartment you would ask their family name - not a street address, and now her own pilgrimages - soon to Santiago and everyday in Sutri with her friends to keep the memory of her husband. 

Our conversation explained to my mind all the good energy I felt in Sutri and woke up to continue with the morning. 

I felt much faith all of the sudden - more than enough to carry me the rest of the way to Rome. Understanding just a little part of all the love behind Jill and Claudio’s kind act of hospitality in Sutri, the last stop to Rome, was empowering. 

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I didn’t hurry to the next city, I lingered by the ancient ruins at the edge of the city to see the frescos of pilgrims of Rome that Jill spoke of, and I was glad, it was really cool. 

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vi t e r b o - v e t r a l l a

 “You're right to say "hold on to" instead of "keep." To keep is presumptuous. To hold means you realize that today it's yours and tomorrow who knows” -

Erri de Luca

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Yesterday’s walk saw another 20 km of the last 100km to Rome- Viterbo to Vetrella. It feels surreal to be so close to the end, yet walking Southeast all summer, isn’t this the natural conclusion?


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Exiting Viterbo I stopped into a church with some enchanting music and a big youth group wearing matching Calabria shirts.

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Once in the path, the  day was hot and the trail was mostly flat and passed along a highway.


With few opportunities to stop for a rest and a sandwich along the way, I climbed a big fence to buy a solid lunch of prosciutto fromagio on ciabatta bread and an espresso at a highway gas station.

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I turned my head to the dust of some construction and found blackberries everywhere.


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Later, a huge treat came in the form of an ice cream cone 4km from the town. When I stopped to ask to refill water bottles at a house and the homeowners chatted in a lot of Italian I didn’t quite understand, except “gelato?”

 

I saw some fresh graffiti paint, including a scrawling that means, “the way gives me everything”. 

 

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Vetralla came quickly and without much of a climb. I arrived at the sleepy siesta hour in the old town and laid flat on a stone wall.

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Later, I washed my clothes at a lavanderia. It was a good alternative to the traditional and symbolic burning of clothes near the end of a pilgrimage. 

- v i t e r b o

The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.

- Leonardo da Vinci

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Yesterday saw the first step of the last 100km to Rome along an ancient road, finally some blisters! and reaching maybe the last major city before Rome, Viterbo.

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Leaving Montefiascone was one big hill with a beautiful park overlooking the city and Viterbo in the distance on one side, and Lake Bolsena on the other. It was also a very well planned park, with benches at overlooks and playground equipment. Best of all was maybe the playground equipment placed at overlooks.

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Maybe stopping for 30 minutes before the walking even started for the day is no way to compete with the rising sun. The later you start the hotter it gets. Yet somehow, now that the finish line is in sight, I take less and less care about these things. I want to enjoy the moment and take in the sights. This day that meant the light feeling of swinging in an open sky and keeping my phone in my pocket. 

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Tomorrow I don’t know, but I’m prepared to find out one step (or swing) at a time. 

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- l a k e • b o l s e n a

“There is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon , for each day to have a new and different sun.” - Jon Krakauer

    Today’s walk to Bolsena started and ended later than usual, I took one night outside of the familiar pilgrim dormitory and seemed to lose the habit of beginning to walk at 5AM.

 

Today’s walk to Bolsena started and ended later than usual, I took one night outside of the familiar pilgrim dormitory and seemed to lose the habit of beginning to walk at 5AM.

I felt a devotion to this ritual. Like doing things in this way - was 100% correct, and without this ritual I would perish in the sun, but actually the day was just fresh and as wonderful starting to walk at 8:30AM after breakfast.

I met other pilgrims from Milan at breakfast. They were also marathon runners walking the  Via Francigena. I took heart in their perspective - even if you have run marathons, walking uses very different muscles and the soreness can take you by surprise!

I caught up to them after the first stop, and we shared the rest of the road to Bolsena.

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The air had a breeze in it from the lake, and the path was flat, so even though I started much later walking in the sun this day was a pleasure. Lunch came on the road. The blackberry brambles growing everywhere have almost become a staple of my diet on the Via Francigena in Italy, but today they were especially ripe near the waters of the volcanic Lake Bolsena.

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Just before jumping in the lake, I made a friend by land. A new dream flashed through my mind- if I travel the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome encore it could be on a horse (or donkey).

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- a c q u a p e n d e n t e

 I am little concerned with beauty or perfection. I don't care for the great centuries. All I care about is life, struggle, intensity. 

Émile Zola

•• 

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Yesterday saw a 25 km stage to leave Tuscany and enter Lazio, very few photos in the sun and struggle, and a huge portion of pilgrim menu pasta for energy.

•• 

“Meno di quattro giorni” was the good word a long table of sweaty travelers raised their glasses to. I spent the next twenty minutes asking for an explanation of this meant. 

Literally- “less than four days“.

Meaning less than four days to Rome. 

How? 

How is it possible is that the other two Canterbury pilgrims leading the group plan to leave their backpacks in Viterbo and begin walking twice the recommendation - about 40km by day for 3 days - to arrive in Rome earlier and beat the holy days crowd at the Vatican. The last stage through the suburbs of Rome involves taking a bus per the overwhelming local recomendation. An ironic way to end a journey of thousands of kilometers on foot.

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And what all this means I guess- the rythmn I have carried from Aulla is changing again, the group, the province, the landscape.

When we arrived in Acquapendente, the city structure was noticeably different than it had been in Toscana. The city hall was massive and for the first time we walked up a great staircase to get our pilgrim stamp from a very beaurocratic looking office of sport.

I took very few pictures or cultural education notes when I arrived in the city. In these final stages, the first thing to see in a town is more often the grocery store or pharmacy than the duomo. 

Somehow, the beauty of the sweaty climbs and early mornings is enough to feed the soul until Rome. 

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- r a d i c o f a n i

“Nothing is worth more than this day” - Goethe

 ••

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Today saw 25 km from San Querico to Radicofini. I woke up early, in a dorm of 20 pilgrims it was easy. 

Luckily there was coffee at 5AM and we shared some traditional Tuscan cake for breakfast. 

The sunrise was beautiful in a way that could not be captured by the camera, so I tried some and then just enjoyed the glow over the Tuscan countryside. 

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The first stop of the day was not cappuccino and brioche per routine. The path winded around a pool of thermal water. Everyone paused to take pictures, but I started taking off my socks. Soon it was a party of 8 pilgrims in a new element and the best moment of the day.

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Luckily the hotel had a sense of humor about it, and a nice cafe attached for cappuccino brioche. We walked on, everyone was recharged by the break and felt they had experienced something unique before 8AM.

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I had so much energy walking for no reason at all. I saluted a braying donkey and speared out from the group with a long stride. Just as the heat of the day was beating down and the hill to Radicofini began climbing around 12pm, a couple from Bologna pulled aside and offered me a ride up the hill. They had done this stage of the Via Francigena three years ago.  

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They dropped me off at the church where I would stay for the night, and reunite with many friends. Before dinner, we received a very special benediction for pilgrims, the ceremonial washing of the feet.

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I was absolutely humbled and a bit culture shocked, they prayed for us by name, rinsed and kissed one foot of each pilgrim. 

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But I felt so much the power of the ritual, and understood a tiny bit of the Italian - “ a Roma”. 

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- s a n • q u i r i c o


“Don’t be afraid. If you are afraid, you can’t move forward” 

- Malala Yousafzai

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••

Today saw 25km if walking to San Quirico, 3 pilgrim goodbyes, some new friends, and a some kind of breakthrough with the aches and pains I have been experiencing on the trail.

We started from Ponte D’Arba in the dark on a long trail, with no coffee at the hostel and the promise of a cappuccino / brioche seeming to be faraway.

But we came to the smart town of Buonconvent at last. It was literally bittersweet because the chocolate brioches was fresh and warm, but our friends following the Assisi trail had to go a separate way. 

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After many hugs and pictures, we found the trail again. I found a lot of energy in the sun, and it seemed with my new sneakers I could walk forever.  There were few stops on the way, so we improved with big round haybales. I stretched backwards on one like i had been dreaming of.

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We passed some unique trees and I realized I was only nine days from Rome. Suddenly I just wasn’t worried about my back. I felt it was getting better every day, like my bugbites were almost healed, and I had a surge of faith I was going to make it in my own way.

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I walked quickly when the sun got hot, and was one of the first to reach the city. I put my legs up on the hard cot in a stretch and closed my eyes. I knew the drill by now, and could already imagine the pain of these long walks, hard beds, and sweaty nights, dark mornings and mosquito bites transforming into a sweet memory, but not yet. I took a breath and felt the peace of the moment. 

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- p o n t e • d’ a r b i a

 

“in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed” -

khalil gibran

today’s new boots saw 35 km of walking - 25 of the prescribed path, plus a 10km round trip detour when we lost the path to

avoid barking dogs on the loose. 

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I walked with my friend Alice. It was hard to get going at 4AM for both of us, so we never caught the rest of the group.

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But it as a wonderful walk of shared silence, incredible landscape, and music. 

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It was nice to share some “You too? I thought I was the only one” belly laughs about pilgrim stuff - stocking up on sheets of toilet paper in the bathroom of cafes with grouchy management, trying in vain to make yourself presentable when you reach a city like Siena or Lucca by walking the way.

I also learned some new Italian words, my favorite of all time maybe being “fare la scarpetta” - the technical term for eating every last drop of sauce from your pasta dish by soaking it up with a piece of bread when you finish the pasta.

”In my house,” she said, “if you don’t do it it like, is something wrong? Are you feeling sick?”  

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The animals we saw around us- the flighty birds that pop out of bushes and red-skinned roosters, are also apparently prepared into excellent dishes in Tuscany. After 25km, we started to get hungry. Just as we were listing favorite flavor of gelato, big bushes of blackberries - “more” (plural of mura, pronounced MORE- AY)  appeared all along the path.

I am a bit of a “ghiottone” for wild berries so I have no pictures, but that I live another day without starving on the trail is maybe the best takeaway from these rows and rows of bushes. Even when we lost the Via Francigena for a few extra kms, a bright side was the fattest berries of the day, not yet picked over by other pilgrims.

 It was a day of slowly discovering the Tuscany countryside, learning and sharing. In the end, I was  glad I woke up at 4AM and dressed in yesteday’s damp running shorts instead of sleeping in and taking a train from the city. As my friend pointed out at 9AM- four hours into walking today, if we took a car, we could be in Rome for lunch!

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- s i e n a


 “Every step of the way to heaven is heaven” 

- Catherine of Siena

•• 

today’s stage to Siena saw about 25km, lots of red clay, my third pair of walking shoes since Canterbury, and one terrific Tuscan Contrada party to celebrate.

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The trail guides said there was no water on the path this day, but actually, one private home was turned into a pilgrim oasis after 10km. 

 ...complete with its own stamp  

...complete with its own stamp  

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The owner does everything on a donativo basis, but I did promise to send a postcard from New York. He had a binder with plenty from Rome! After passing the Nutella many times and some espresso, we walked on. 

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An hour later, we had the snack we prepared. Tomato on crusty bread. A real crowd pleaser in the French/Italian/American group. Made better when we discovered olive oil.

 

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And at finaly we entered Siena, where we rested in the center of town.

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At night, a friend of a friend of mine from New York invited us to a Contrada party. The part of Siena celebrating tonight was named for their shell symbol, also a symbol of pilgrimage.

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I met many young Americans from Connecticut and California who were studying abroad at the University of Siena. I realized we shared the same accent, and we shared something else that reminded me of college - slices of pizza! 

- m o n t e r i g g i o n i

 “I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you...”

Clarrissa Pinkola Estés

 ••

today’s walk was an August-in-Italy-hot 30k to the ancient walls of Monteriggioni.

with a bit of effort we found the trail and [mostly] stayed together. 

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I have an unofficial rule when walking the Via Francigena that all wrong turns can be photo opportunities, as they usually reorganize your time and show you something you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Today, loking for the right turn was a discussion that created a pause in very beautiful light.

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we found two good ways that led to coffee in the end.

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We visited an ancient walled city on the way and took more photos among tour buses and school field trips. 

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The final road to Monteriggioni passed through blue skies, stone walls and olive trees. It had a dreamy quality, like a storybook bible. 

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When we finally reached Monteriggioni it was a huge effort to make the final hill into the city. I raced my nearest teammate up it in a moment of feigned competition with an element of seriousness. I lost, and probably created a reason to be 10x more sore than usual today. 

But I laughed so hard when I finally got there.

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- a l t o p a s c i o

“there are always flowers for those who want to see them” - Henry Matisse

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Today saw a “molto brutto” stage of the Road to Rome, leaving bellissima Lucca to hike on mostly flat road to Altopascio. 

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And yet, the path is changing in another way as I get closer and closer to Rome.

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There are more and more other pilgrims on the road now. The Via Francigena is very well ordered into about 18 days or “stages” from here to Rome. The discipline of setting a target each day, waking up very early to start, and crucially, stopping when it is reached, has been a pleasure. 

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Villafranca to Aulla was the last day I walked by myself, and I am really grateful. Walking with other people throughout the path has been a huge relief.

You can work together to find the path. There is peace of mind knowing you could help each other if you suddenly had a need. When then the path is industrial and lacking in aesthetic, you can turn your attention towards learning about the people around you from all different places in the world and life. 

Yesterday, we arrived at 12PM so I had much more time to visit the Lucca and the others I walked with amicably made a small tour of the cathedrals, plaza, walls of the city and local food.

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When I arrived back at the hostel, I was dead tired, but I finally figured out who I was sharing a room with - Alice (ah-li-ché), a girl the same age as me who came from Firenze to walk the Via Francigena from Lucca to Rome.

I didn’t know this at first, I just said yes to tagging along to view the eclipse with her and some filmmakers from Lille in northern France, because I knew I would have to wait 100 years for another chance. 

It was fun. Curiously, the highlight of watching the lunar eclipse was listening on the sound equipment one of the filmmakers brought to record the night in lieu of taking pictures.

With a microphone on a small stand and headphones on, you could hear all the sounds of Lucca on an alive night- cars closing in the distance, someone a few meters away explaining how an eclipse works in Italian, children running and laughing outside the city walls, a little more opera singing, motorcycles.

I could never have imagined that experience. Staying up a little late for the eclipse led to a great day. Alice and I coordinated waking up early to walk together and yesterday’s army grew by one more.

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c a m a i o r e - l u c c a

“things don’t have to change the world to be important” - steve jobs

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I am writing from the loveliest cafe in Lucca. It’s 3PM and I am drinking an American coffee.

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Because Cappuccino after 10AM - never! 

Okay, on different day this cafe playing Dua Lipa and selling Herschel backpacks might look suspiciously like an Italian version of Urban Outfitters but- the coffee is wonderful, everything is marble and I am floating on a cloud.

Today’s walk was about 25km. I began before 5AM. I actually thought I was waking up in the middle of the night to get water from the kitchen, but the other pilgrims in the hostel were taking coffee to start the day.

In a moment, I decided to grab my tiny backpack in the dark and join them. 

My one hesitation was that I wanted to say goodbye again to my friends Francesca and LeLe.

It felt like a good omen that as I was heading down the stairs to leave Francesca had also woken up in the night (or maybe it was my rustling next door) to say bye once more.

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I fastened my still wet socks to top of my backpack.

We started walking five deep in the dark. 

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The pace was brisk. Among the ranks of the pilgrims was Massimo, an Italian retiree who had amassed 77 marathons over a running career of more than 30 years.

“When I run a 42km marathon”, he said, “and I have 41 km in my legs and one remaining, I start thinking about the next marathon” 

It’s always nice to meet people who speak your language! 

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We walked about 6 hours, covering 4-5 kilometers some hours.

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Some uphill was challenging for me. I took energy from my new yellow Via Francigena scarf from LeLe and Francesca, already  glued to my forehead with salty sweat. 

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But what I will remember most about today is maybe the precious hour we spent having coffee with Sergio and Rossetta, an octogenarian couple living in town of 180 people. They invited us in their home just after chatting with us on the road.

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They showed us what they loved the most, their garden and their one “bella regazza” - beautiful daughter. 

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It was a wonderful repose.  

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The trail continued, a small army that occasionally lost one to a phone call or stop inside a church. We passed several churches, without bothering to stop, though, the Italians pointed out, several predated the discovery of America in 1492.

 The last part of the trail was flat and followed a river, another nice repose, and before noon we were in Lucca, a chic Tuscan city with the best gelato, the prettiest violin and opera music floating into the streets from practice studios, and the cleanest shower in the world. 

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- v i l l a f r a n c a

 “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.” -  Phillipians 4:8

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Good morning from Tuscany! Have you ever seen such a beautiful sky? Yesterday saw a day of walking about 20 km along the ancient Via Francigena path from Pontremoli to Villafranca (halfway to Aulla). 

There are two Via Francigena paths that run from Pontremoli to Aulla; I think I took the long one.

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A clap of thunder sounded as I set off on the path. I put my raincoat on over myself and my small canvas backpack for about 10 minutes until the rain passed.

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The first part of the trail hiked up into the woods behind some beautiful Tuscan homes, then emptied to a more commercial road.

On the road was an open bakery with pink boxes. I stopped.

 

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Outside, I was happy to spy an olive tree growing in front of a pretty orange house. I recently learned to identify olive trees by their delicate pale green leaves, and promised one of my Aunts to photo some here! The next part of the trail was mostly a cobblestone path through the forest. The stones were slightly wet from the rain. In places, they built a bridge across shallow running water.


I stepped carefully and with my camera pointed.

 

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I walked through a small medieval town, Filaterria, during another brief rain. The chapel was marked everywhere as a stop for the Via Francigena, and I enjoyed a shelter from the rain there.

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The path led out of the town from the chapel directly into the woods. Boisterous voices in the distance signaled life in the city center on a Sunday.


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Bamboo trees on the trail (like the ones that invaded my grandmother’s garden for years), then a horse farm where I took coffee from a tack room vending machine reminded me of home.


“Connet- i - gut”


When I finally arrived at Villafranca, the albergo owner, a man with white hair and dark rimmed glasses named Giancarlo,  took my passport as a matter of form and flipped to the front page for a short biography.


“You were born in Connet-i-gut”.


It’s true. And I was pretty sure even without seeing it written, that his name was Giancarlo.


At least, I remembered


“Gian-carl-ooooooo!”

 

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Was the magic word the massive Italian smoking a cigar outside the hotel had yelled towards an open window to commence business hours when I arrived. For a terse minute before this, it was all locked doors, a blank look and my backpack.

 

I guess that’s how things are working here in Italy, and I was so glad. They offered me a nice room at a small price. The church in town had recommended them as the Via Francigena accommodation in this town,  smaller than than the others on the way.

The restaurant where dinner was served had a lot of life though, of it supplied by Giancarlo himself, who told jokes at every table and translated the German menu into English in no particular order. 

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I had an Italian coffee to finish one of the most delicious meals yet and slept beautifully.

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