As we were walking to our hotel on Friday night, we passed the municipal garage and saw a number of jovial city workers turning on and warming up the snow plow for the first time this fall. “It’s still tired,” one of them told Andrew, “and needs to wake up.” This did not bode well for Saturday’s weather. The prediction was only for cold with a mix of rain and snow, but you can probably trust Swiss mountain men to know when snow is coming.
And they were right! We woke up Saturday morning in Bivio to five inches of snow on the ground and more coming down. We couldn’t even see the mountains looming overhead through the blizzard. The streets were clear, of course!
Well, if that’s what it was like in Bivio, it was certainly not going to be hospitable farther up, so we resigned ourselves to a third day in a row skipping distance traveled by foot. Andrew was particularly disappointed to lose the chance to traverse an alpine pass the old-fashioned way. Septimer has been a pivotal trading point since the Roman era, and Bivio got its start as a town first as a horse and mule exchange stop. It also has an interesting ecumenical history: during the Reformation and up till the early 17th century, Catholics and Protestants co-existed peacefully, even sharing the same historic St. Gall church. Then some Cappuchin monks came and preached against the Reformation; eventually the Protestants got so mad about it that they tied up one of the leading priests to a mule and left him at the pass. Some time later a Protestant pastor came with ferverous teaching of his own, and the Catholic residents drove him out of town with shovels and pitchforks. Today Bivio appears to have reverted to peaceful coexistence.
Anyway, it was back on the bus for us. Quite a sight to behold: all that snow coming down, climbing way up and way down hairpin turns. It took some serious effort of mind not to be overcome with vertigo looking out the window. I’d certainly never experienced anything like it before. The villages were tucked deep down in valleys—they must get only brief bursts of sun in the winter—and had more hand-hewn log cabins than we’d seen yet. The roofs were all covered with 1½” thick slabs of rocks serving as shingles; they must weigh a ton but to all appearances are immovable even in winter storms.
The bus also took us across our final border crossing (well, barring Vatican City) into Italy—a quick zip through both patrols, not so much as a pause, much less passport control. We were delivered to our destination at Chiavenna, a small town of about 3000 right at the base of mountains, also way deep down in a valley carved up the side with the most amazing switchbacks: you could see the toy-sized cars winding their way back and forth up the slope. Everyone going through Septimer would have stopped here, and there’s even an Augustinian priory (a city brochure said the current building was erected in the Napoleonic era, but we have a hard time believing there wasn’t a priory there before—even the street it’s on is named Via delle Agostiniane). The oldest part of the city, except the churches, was rebuilt after a fire in 1486. So—in our ongoing quest to see those things that Luther might have seen—he probably saw the city something like it appears today.
The inclement weather’s change of our plans meant that we arrived in Chiavenna a day ahead of schedule. The B&B we’d hoped to stay in was full, but the owner said his friend who also owns a B&B had a room free for the night, so he took us there. It turns out that this friend, Stefano, is the one man in all of Chiavenna who not only knows who Martin Luther is but actually loves his stuff! And Emanuela told us about a visiting Italian Jesuit who gave a three-hour program at their church about Luther—a positive account, from the sounds of it. Providence has a marvelous sense of humor.
We hit it off so well with Stefano and his family that they invited us for a late dinner with them. Emanuela his wife made an enormous bowl full of gnocchetti di Chiavenna, the local specialty (little potato dumplings smothered in cheese and butter). Three of their kids and a neighbor were there too, and it was just the sort of thing you’d hope for—a big, cheerful, noisy Italian family. It was also quite a linguistic mishmosh. Probably the greatest impression Chiavenna made on us when we first arrived was our sudden loss of linguistic competence. We both can make our way all right in German (it’s certainly improved in the last month!) and all four countries so far have been germanophone, a great benefit in those impromptu coffee invitations. At Stefano and Emanuela’s table, we were Americans and Italians speaking a blend of German, French, and Spanish—each person knew a different amount of each tongue—and at some point it got hard to tell which was which at any given moment. Plus the fact that Italian is so similar to French and Spanish that we could pick up a decent amount of what they were saying to each other. But it does make your brain feel scrambled by the end.
Today we look forward to resuming our pilgrimage—on foot!