We pulled out yesterday morning at 7:40 a.m., our earliest departure yet, under blue skies but headed toward a massive pile of clouds squatting over the mountains peaks. Our ascent was quick and steep up to the first pass, the Passo della Cissa.
For our whole pilgrimage, starting in late August in Germany, it has felt like the first week of autumn, even amidst the wild fluctuations in temperature. (The snowstorm in Bivio is the one exception.) Just enough leaves had fallen on the ground to give it that distinctive fall scent, and every so often there was just a blush of red on the leaves still on trees, and the light has been fading and slanting more every day. I suppose we have been moving south quickly enough to keep steady with the seasons.
Now in the Apennines it feels like the second week of fall. From high up on the mountains we could look over the vast forests on the hillsides, mostly green but glinting as if a fine sifting gold rain had fallen on them. The sun sets by 7 behind the peaks and is golden all day except right around noon. We’re crunching on more chestnuts and brown leaves as we pick our way on the old stone roads, so bumpy that they were clearly made for mules—not humans or cars.
We had nearly reached the pass when I spied some large beasts blocking our progress. They turned out to be wild horses, some white, some brown, some grayish-black. They seemed unfazed by our presence, but horses are pretty enormous animals and on the touchy side. We decided to take the literal high road through the field above them instead of trying to pass through their midst. A little farther along at the highest point there were bare field and more wild horses, shadowy in the mist. We peered over the edge and saw—nothing. Just white cloud, except for a few moments when a tunnel cleared through it and we saw, as if looking down from an airplane aloft, the tiny cars and trucks hurtling by on the superstrada.
We actually had to descend a fair distance to get to the pass itself (i.e., the place where the cars go). Just as Andrew predicted, there was a café, a bar, and a souvenir shop at the pass, though only the last of these was actually open.
From there we meandered around the hills through a lovely forest full of the biggest variety of fungi either of us have ever seen. There were little round pink ones like parasols; tall white ones with caps almost as long as the stems, tawny brown ones seven inches tall and a cap wide and flat enough to seat the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, oddly shaped ones dripping black ooze from their rims, and—most delightful of all—the favorite mushroom of European folk culture, a white-stemmed toadstool sporting a bright red cap with white polka dots (I’ve even seen Christmas tree lights in this shape).
We probably had too much fun locating the mushrooms and dawdled too long in the forest, because by the time we came out the other side we had still a long, long way to go. Almost the whole route was up and down, up and down, on challenging paths, lots of rocks and mud to negotiate. Going downhill was even harder than going up. Once we had to roll up our pants and take off our socks to ford a fast-flowing river, happily not glacier-cold. The rest of the river crossings involved bridges, though some of them looking about from the Roman era and not likely to hold out much longer.
The scenery was gorgeous; we walked the border between Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany on the mountain ridge and then descended into Tuscany. Still the Apennines it is quite sparsely populated—every so often you seen a little town built of stone nestled into the hillside. We walked through a couple of these towns, wonderfully 3-D in how they are built around the slopes, with terraced gardens and retaining walls. As we walked along our poles brushed against the great clumps of mint and oregano growing everywhere, shooting their scent into the air around us. It was here that we saw our first olive groves, too, with their pale green fruit.
It was nearly 7, which means nearly dark, by the time we got to Pontremoli. I had long since lost my energy as well as my reserves. Despite the beauty it was a painful slog to the end. The last little bit was on a paved but unused road and we just flat out ran down it—so nice not to watch every step, so nice to move a little faster. Once in town we were confronted with the specter of a huge, ugly, crumbling building, and I said to Andrew that I hoped we weren’t staying there; and in fact I hoped even more than I knew, because it turned out to be the civil hospital!
Then we started searching for our night’s hostel, hoping for a good parking spot nearby for the camper… and found out that they weren’t kidding when they called it the “castello ostello,” the castle hostel, because the only way to it was up a narrow staircase off the narrow street from the middle of the old city! The stairs were not exactly an inviting prospect after the 12 hours of walking, but the lack of parking was a deal-breaker, so we managed to make new arrangements with the Cappucin monks on the other side of town, conveniently possessed of a parking lot in front of the church.
One of the monks received us and informed us that we were crazy for having come all the way from Berceto on the Via Francigena, which judgment I was inclined to agree with. When we told him the purpose of our pilgrimage, he told us that he’d spent 30 years in Turkey, where Christians are such a tiny minority that all of them—Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox—live in a very friendly ecumenical friendship. He hoped the same would happen in Italy and elsewhere, maybe as a result of the growing secularization and corresponding minority status of Christian believers.
We feasted on pizza fetched by the Wilsons—now including Andrew’s older brother Jed, here to join us for a week—and then slept the sleep of the righteous, or as much as Lutherans are able to.