Wednesday, June 27, 2012


What a place!  Full of little alleys, narrow roads, covered walkways connecting one street to another, almost like a tunnel.  I found this quote in a tourist brochure which sums it up pretty well "The three hills it is built on ensure that in this town no two streets are alike, and they refuse to be tamed by any sort of geometry".  Wherever we go there are steps up or steps down, or else a steep gradient.  Restaurants have extensions on one side of the seats and table so that patrons can sit square!  The streets are crowded with tourists probably here to soak up the atmosphere of the Palio which is on July the 2nd. 
Steps down to our hotel.
A narrow street.
The "extensions" on the chairs and table to make them level!

The Palio in Siena is a horse race.  But in Pavia it is a boat race (where the oarsmen stand in the boat and use oars similiar in a way to the paddles puntsmen use.)  I have read that there is a Palio in a village near here that rolls cheeses!  Anyway - back to Siena's palio.  This horse race is between the Contrada of the town - I think we would liken the Cntrada to something along the lines of the council wards we have in South Australia, though I suspect, historically, it also had something to do with the most powerful families in the town. 

Each Contrada has it's own colours and symbol - an animal  of some kind, and these animals represent the virtues of the city.  As we have walked through the town we have seen flags, window displays, and even street lights showing these things.  There are flags, scarves, plates and m,any other little knick knacks for sale too.  There is a real festive feel to the city. 

A Palio window display.

The Palio is held in the Plaza del Campo, a huge space.  We have not seen it as normal however, as it has a ring of about 6" deep of sand tightly packed and well wetted running oround the outside edge of the Piazza.  Around the perimiter all the shop fronts are covered because wooden stands have been erected for people to sit, and on the corner where the track narrows considerably there are massive foam pads about 12 foot high.  In the centre of the Piazza there are a number of stalls selling the Palio souveniers.  The Piazza is unusual (for me) in that it slopes.  It is higher on one side, and it slopes into the middle as well as down to the lower side.  The building on the lower end of the Piazza, which has a large enclosed couryard, almost like cloisters, has had sand laid on the ground, and so I presume that is where the horses wait for the race. 

Contrada street lighting put up for the Palio

On the lower edge of the Piazza stands the mighty Torre or tower, which today Carol and I climbed.  We had to queue for sometime as we waited for the last lot of people to descend - it is only one way traffic!  The steps are well worn with the many thousands of feet that go up each and every day, and at one point they narrow considerably.  As I was ascending I tried hard not to think about coming down, though I was pleasantly surprised that it was easier than I thought.  The view of Siena, and the Piazza was well worth the effort. 

The top of the tower which we climbed - note the birds flying around.
The birds, 100's of them, are constantly on the wing and we can onlyassume that they are feeding on insects.   
A view of Siena from the tower

The Piazza del Campo from the tower, the shadow of which you can see. 
The little dots are the tourists! 
Note the Palio route around the outer edge, with the barriers on the insde edge, and the stands on the outside.

On the opposite side of the Piazza to the tower is the lovely Fonte Gaia.  This has continual drinkable water running into it, and out, from the hills of Chianti.  There is a network of channels which extend for over 25 kilometres underground, bringing the water to the fountain, and numerous other fountains in the city, that have been in use since 1342!

Fonte Gaia.

The next wonder of Siena is it's cathedral, or Duomo in Italian.  It is an extraordinary building, grey green and white marble, and though I have never been there, it reminded me of photos that I have seen of the buildings in Granada.  I know some reading this will be able to see some similarities.  The floor of the Duomo is quite remarkable.  It is inlaid, and etched, coloured marble making a wonderful storyboard and picture gallery on the floor.  Add to that some beautiful frescoes, and a magnificent dome and the eyes can drink their fill.  Around the inside perimter just below the windows is a row of busts, presumably knights or someone important.  I stayed quite a long time, and heard on three occasions a loud booming voice over the public speakers asking the honoured guests to please respect this place and remain silent!  I wonder if they realised the irony of it!
The Duomo
The interior of the Duomo
Two of the marble floor pictures

 It was interesting also seeing the many tourists and how they respected the customs.  We were dressed appropriately, with covered arms, and skirts below the knee, but others who had skimpy shorts and sleevless tops on were asked to cover up and if they had no scarf to do so were given a diposable one to wear.  Some did the right thing and wore it to cover up legs and arms, but others just draped it over their bag with no thought to the fact that they might be causing offence.  There seems to be no restrictions these days on having the head covered. 

We are staying in a convent part of which is now a hotel.  It is the Hotel Alma Domus and is part of the Santuario Santa Caterina.  We had to get a nun to come and stamp our pilgrim passport earlier today. 

Our hotel ......
.... and part of the view from our room.

Tomorrow Elizabeth and I move on to Ponte d'Arbia, and Carol spends another day here before heading off to Rome and then home.  It has been great having her here and we will miss her company.  Tonight we had a celebration dinner in the Piazza del Campo.  We have stayed up late (9.30!) - a novelty, as Elizabeth and I plan to catch a bus out of here, partly because of the heat and partly to give our feet another easy day.  Walking on roads is not the easiest on the feet, they get very sore and hot, especially in this heat.  I have found it much hotter here than on my previous camino's in France and Spain. 
Janet, Carol, and Elizabeth having dinner on the Palio track

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Helping keep the Italian economy afloat!

We have been sweltering over the past few days as we have walked.  The heat, combined with the fact that I didn't add the kilometres properly when planning have meant that we have taken the easier way on several of the past few days! 

On Saturday we left our accomodation very early.  This was a night when we all slept very poorly.  Our  room was hot, and we had a number of mossies for company.  As a result we were on the road soon after 6.00a.m.  We were headed for San Miniato, a hilltop village spread along a ridge line.  We thought we had a tough hour or so walking along the road with no access to a bar - for breakfast - for several hours, but discovered that the path had been re-routed away from the road, and led us to a village where we could eat just after 7.00.  The waitress was impressed that Australians were walking the Via Francigena and her dream, like many we have met, is to one day go to Australia.  Sadly, I think those dreams will remain just that as it would be prohibitive cost wise for them to come to Australia I think. 

We trundled along stopping in another hilltop village - Fucechio - for a delicious salad for lunch and then braving a very hot walk along the levee bank of the River Arno.  By the time we got to the top of the hill we were absolutely exhausted, only to discover that the convent that we had planned to stay in was full.  Fortunately the Tourist office was open and they helped us get a room for the night.  I am so glad that we stayed in San Miniato as we saw a local custom in progress.  During the early part of the evening we heard whistles blowing, and when we got into the street after dinner we discovered that this is an old custom peculiar to this region of Tuscany.  People (mainly children I suspect) blow whistles and everyone carries paper lanterns around the town and gather near the Duomo.  I presume that it is to do with a patron Saint of the village, but no one was able to tell me. 
The tower at San Miniato

Marching with a paper lantern.

While we had dinner we came up with a plan to combat the heat and support the Italian economy!  We decided to catch a taxi part way down the road where that path intersected with the it, and walk from there.  This made our life much easier as we were able to get to the next hilltop village - San Gimignano - by early afternoon.  It was still plenty hot enough, but we still had energy to look around as well.  This town is amazing.  It is a medieval village, very touristy, but also very pleasant.  There are numerous towers from which wool was hung after dyeing to dry.  The story is that they also used to pour boiling oil down on their enemies - but not sure how true that is.  I was treated to an outdoor concert from a very good concert band from Florence while there. 

No it's not Manhattan - its San Gimigiano

Again we decided to help the economy the next day and caught another taxi part way along the route.  We were headed for another hilltop village called Monteriggioni.  This village is effectively a castle.  It has walls completely surrounding it, and 14 towers within the walls, although a couple of them are only as high as the walls these days.  Arriving at lunch time we were able to eat before settling into our accomodation in a former convent - now a specific pilgrim hostel. 
Approaching Monteriggioni

Monterrigioni, perched on the hilltop.

Carol and Elizabeth at the refuge window.

This morning we were up at 5.00 and on the road a half an hour later!  The only trouble is we lost the benefit of an early start!  As usual Carol and Elizabeth were ahead of me, and I was busy taking photos as we were leaving the town.  They disapeared, I thought, along the path marked VERY CLEARLY with red and white markers.  I blytheley continued along that road, thinking mean thoughts that they hadn't stopped for me.  In the meantime, they were thinking all sorts of thoughts about where I had got to because they had followed the EIGHT signs on the left, which I had failed to see!  I went on, they went back - right into town and up the hill again.  My path took me past a large house where a big dog joined me.  At first he wanted to play, but I was on a mission, and so he just went on ahead of me, up the hill, along a track that got narrower and rockier.  I couldn't work out why the other two hadn't stopped, but thought they would be at the top of what was a very steep hill - they weren't.  Part way up the hill my furry friend barked and yelped and came racing back to me tail erect.  Then I heard snorts and snuffles (wild boar type snuffles!)  in the bush.  My friend was glued to my side, only walking a step when I did, which was pretty slow as I had no idea what to do!  He became more relaxed and I continued, getting to the top and decidng to turn around as I must have been on the wrong path.  I retraced my steps about one and half kilomtres, found the markers and continued.  I had no idea if I was ahead or behind the others, and they had no idea where I was.  Apparently they made a decision to continue and if I didn't show up at the hotel by nightfall they would call the police!  It ended happily though as we re-connected at 10kilomtres, and then only had aonther 10 to go to get to Siena.
The last I saw of Carol and Elizabeth for a few hours! 
They turned left at the far edge of the olives grove, and I veered to the right and went up the hill behind!
My furry guard dog. 
He was the camera and sat down and posed!

The path today has been lovely.  much of it through forest or across shady fields.  As usual though the last few kilomtres were uphill into the town, and not at all shady!

I won't talk about Siena in this blog that can wait till next time.  But I will say that it is buzzing - the Palio is in a week's time. 

Odd things take our fancy here in Italy!

I am particularly taken with the little 3 wheeled cars that zoom around (Fiats I think).  Emrys would say the were just like ride on lawn mowers - they are certainly as noisy!  These little vehicles are driven like a a motor bike, and there is not a lot of room inside them, but even so, we have seen Mama and Pap squeezed into the only seat, putt putting up the hill!  They come in either blue or green as a general rule, and some have an open tray top on the back, others are covered with a canopy.  With it's distinctive sound we know how much time we have to leap off the road iff needed - they are very slow and usually take a while to get to us, especially if going up hill! 

One of the little three wheeled machines. 
Carol is standing next to it and you can see how small they are. 

Carol and Elizabeth have taken a fancy to the supermarkets, as well as shopping in general.  The other day while walking they had to do a detour to visit Pam.  They have also taken a fancy to the shop window displays, which are very speccy at times.  The clothes shops are constantly changing their displays, though when we are moving through a village duirng the day we don't actually get to see this, but when I stayed for a few days in some of the towns earlier on that was one of the things I noticed.

Carol and Elizabeth detoured to visit Pam! 
A supermarket chain. 

Here in Tuscany we are constantly seeing the candle pine.  This is probably the thing that everyone associates with Tuscany, a bit like lavender is associated with Provence in France.  They are eye catching on the horizon, but utterly useless as a shade tree!  The shade is dense, but only a few metres wide, and if the sun is low in the sky the shade is even narrower!  As you might gather, when we are walking in the heat of the day we become somewhat obsesssed with shade. 

In the heat of the midday sun we become obsessed with shade!

Early in the morning - so no shade needed this time! 

Of course, the food has been interesting.  We order, and then wait to see what will appear!  For example a couple of weeks ago we all ordered the same second plate - grilled fish with tomatoes.  I had tried to order fish with boiled potatoes, but was told it was not availble.  When the dish arrived though, what we got was fish - with baked potatoes!  My favourite pasta at home is gnocchi, and I have had many variations of it here.  Once it was tiny gnocchi, not much bigger than a cannelloni bean.  Pasta figures quite highly on the list of foods that we eat regularly.  The other night I had a pasta that looked like little dumplings, stuffed with chees and pine nuts, and it served in a pear sauce - delicious.  At another place we were served cheese with chestnut honey - also delicious.  Most mornings when we set off we stop at a bar or cafe and have a pastry and a coffee for our first breakfast, and then a few hours down the track we will stop again for our second breakfast! 

We have walked through the area where the Ligurian bees are very special (though they haven't seen our Ligurian bees on Kangaroo Island!).  The speciality honey is chestnut honey, and a few months later acacia honey.  Along the way we have walked past quite number of hives, brightly coloured, and sitting close together. 
Beehives set in a quiet knook in the forest.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A day's rest works wonders!

We have just had two nights in the lovely city of Lucca.  The old town is surrounded by the old Roman Walls, and is virtually motor traffic free.  Notice I said motor traffic - it is definately not bicycle free!  There are dozens of bikes zooming in between all the pedestrians at any one time, and how they don't come to grief with one I am not sure! 

Lucca is also a tourist town - I heard more American and English spoken in the day we were there than I have heard on the whole trip!  The streets are narrow and windy, filled with interesting shops, numerous churches, bars, and restaurants.

Puccini - Lucca is his birthplace.

In Lucca we stayed in a little B&B that had 65 steps to our room - Elizabeth counted them!  As part of the €85 we also got a delightful breakfast of bread and jame (sounds boring, but it was very tasty!) bruschetta, hardboiled eggs, fruit, and of course yoghurt and cereal.   The dining room had a frescoed ceiling, and the table seated 12 without any problem, and above one of the cupboards we could see table inserts to double the size of it - though then it wouldn't have fitted into the room!

As part of our rest day, we took a bus ride down to Pisa, where we inadvertantly went past, a long way past, the sites we were there to see.  As a consequence we saw a lot more of Pisa than we otherwise would have!  I thought it was really rather a nice city with arcaded streets, a large river flowing through the centre, and quite clean and tidy.  I say that because the further south we have been going the more we seem to see of overflowing rubbish bins and graffiti! 

We went to Pisa, as you might imagine, to see the marble Tower (as in leaning!), Duomo, and Baptistry.  We went, along with many hundreds of others!  They were there in what seemed like their thousands, but that is probably a slight exaggeration.  There was every race, and every dress style you could imagine, and we heard many different languages.  We also saw many different people trying to hold up the tower as thay posed for photos in front of it - I didn't!

I was surprised at the gentle colours of the marble - soft grey and white, and the carvings on the buidling - especially the Baptistry and the Duomo were very intricate. 

The leaning tower.

The Duomo, with the tower in the background.

Our walking has been varied indeed since the last post.  When we left Pietrasanta at 5.40a.m. my intention was to walk the whole way, but after leaving the village of Camiore I decided that I might find it difficult to finish the day, and so I retraced my steps back into the village and left the other two to walk into Lucca.  They keep trying, unsuccessfully, to pass off a phone to me (they have one each), but instead I waited for them in the square, having found our accomodation and settled in! 

I had a scenic bus tour down to the coast, where I could see glimpses of beach shelters on the shores of the Mediterranean for many kilometres before the bus turned inland again.  Carol and Elizabeth had a very hot afternoon, with very little shade and a steep hill before reaching Lucca.  They had walked double what I had, and were pretty tired!  Leaving Pietransta was quite pleasant, until we had a little spot of bush bashing to do up and over a steep hill.  I was pleasantly surprised that we all came out with very few scratches, as we had to deal with a lot of blackberries!

Our spot of bush bashing!

Today's walk has been very easy.  I feel almost normal, my knee is about 90% and my foot about 70% and I am hoping that the next day or so will see them at a 100%!  The walk today has been mostly through villages, allowing us to stop for a coffee at one point and a cool drink at another.  It has also been almost flat, though the one disacvantage has been the fact that it has been mostly on pavement which really tires the feet and the legs.  At one point we did leave the road and walk on a gravel path, past a church, now disused, at which there was an archeolgical dig going on.  I had a bit of a look around an could see that they had uncovered skeletons from people being buried basically at the foundations of the building.  There was a cemetery next door, but these bones must have been very old, long before the cemetery existed. 

At present I am sitting in the Biblioteque at Altopascio.  I bought a wonderful new map at Lucca which has all the refuges listed on it, and tonight we are in a sports complex, having rated it the same number of stars as our first night out of Pavia.  As I sit here typing I can look out the window and the trees blowing in a good (cool) breeze - something that has been a rarity thus far, and I look across to the hill oppostite at a village perched on the top, complete with its tower.  Carol and Elizabeth have been occupying themselves with their favourite pass time - shopping, while I have been taking this opportunity to post this blog, and also add photos to the last 2 blogs, if you want to go back and look. 

Tomorrow will be a longer day, but still flat.  I am hoping that it will be cloudy like today, and as cool.  When we left Lucca this morning it looked to me as if there was a black cloud on the horizon, and it wasn't till I had been walking for a while that I realised that it was actually the hills with so much haze on them that it looked like cloud. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

In the Land of Marble ........

....... everything!  In some of the villages we have been in even the curbing is marble!  We have seen, over the last few days marble statues, marble floors, marble tiles, marble buildings and even marble footpaths! 
It's not snow - just one of the many marble quarries in the Apuan Mountains. 
 Michelangelo resided in the part of the world while he chose the marble he wanted to work!

A marble pillar AND a marble floor!

Our first marble art work, on entering Pietrasanta,

and another marble statue,

Yesterday, after an early start we walked from Sarzana to Avenza.  This was the first place we saw the marble curbing, and it was here that we had a marble bathroom! 

When we arrived in this town we were thinking we would have to get a hotel room, but instead we found a lovely pilgrim refuge, with 4 beds, and as I said, our marble bathroom.  The people were obviously very proud of their refuge as we had numerous people stop us and give us directions to it - unlike today, when everyone I asked told me that there was no pilgrim "Ostello". 

 Persistance paid off though and we are staying in an annexe to the convent, and were attended to by the most lovely little Nun, who was quite proud of the fact that she was hosting 3 Australian pilgrims.  There was much "grazie" - ing on both our part, and her part, and as she was leaving she wanted to know what grazie meant in Austrlaian, and with that she switched to "thank you"!

Our little abode for the night in Pietrasanta.

Because a couple of our days have been long, we have stopped early and caught a bus or train to the end, it is a shame, but we have to keep moving forward (or I do, at any rate, in order to get home for work!). We actually caught the bus part way up the Cisa Pass to a delightful village called Berceto.  Here we stayed in a pilgrim refuge and our host was the village priest Don Guisseppe who has been the village priest for the last 45 odd years (or at least that is what I calculated).  He was a delightful man, and also proud of his refuge and what he was doing for pilgrims - and we of course were very grateful. 

Our refuge at Berceto
Leaving Berceto, complete with the washing drying on the back!

We left Berceto early the next morning to climb to the pass, via the mountain, and here Carol and Elizabeth climbed the highest point of their path - it was around 1,220 metres.  While we had a rest at the top three Swiss pilgrims came along and so we had a bit of a chat before going our seperate ways.  Descending to the pass was slow work for me as I didn't want to damage my knee, but when we got there we were rewarded with coffee and cake!  The morning was lovely, but the afternoon changed into a hard slog - down a road, complete with zig zags, and a little traffic though not much.  We stopped for a delicious lunch of regional foods part way down the mountain, and then pushed on in the heat.  We had no alternative accomodation options for this night and so we had to slog on to Pontremoli, and pretty and ancient town, where we stayed in the Cappucin Convent for the night.  As we were walking down the mountain a car stopped next to me with a dirver and a little friar as a passenger.  During our "chat" I made a "booking" there and then on the side of the mountain, which meant that we didn't have to worry about whether there was abed - only about where to find the convent!
About to descend to the Cisa Pass.

We were going to stay the next night in Villafranca, but when we arrived in the town there was a bike race about to begin, which in turn meant that there were lots of extras in town and there was no bed for us at the only hotel!  We made a snap decision and caught the train to Aulla where we ended up staying in a 3 star hotel because we were too exhausted to look for anything else.  We even resorted to eating dinner at the resaurant, again because we were far too tired to go out, and the town didn't seem to have any resaurants nearby. 

To catch up we than caught the train the next day to Sarzana a very historical town, and a town where the people were very proud of there pot plants.  There was potted jasmine everywhere, and for me that will be a smell forever associated with that town.  That night we had fun trying a dinner of more regional dishes, but ate far too much!

Jasmine - the signature flower and perfume (for me) of Sarzana.

The paths have been many and varied.  Today we went up a hill on what was first a little tarmac road, changing to a cart track lined with pampas grass, then to a single footpath - overgrown with balckberries, and then, as we walked along the ridge, the path was so narrow that there were times when I looked down, through the balckberries to sheer drops into the ravine below.  A horse, or a bike would have struggled on this part of the path!  Today we have followed the contour of the hillside around, winding past vinyards so steep that I would think you would have to hang on to make sure you didn't fall down when working them, and the occasional olive grove.  We were lucky today as most of the path was in shade, and we started walking at 6.15 too, but, out in the miday sun - well - the song says it all!

Carol and Elizabeth walking in a field at Luni
About to cross an old bridge on the path
The path is the little gap in the middle of the picture between the blackberries!


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

It's hot, humid and hazy!

I thought Pavia was a town of colours and patterns, until I got to Piacenza!  They were soft colours in Paiva, but as we have headed further south the colours are getting brighter.

The patterns on a gate,

above a doorway

on the skyline,

and on the street crossings!

I have loved the patterns I have seen, the patterns in the doors, the bricks, and the chimneys on the skyline.  Here in Piacenza the patterns have changed.  To me it looks as if there has been a Moorish influence on the buildings, but my history of this area is a bit hazy and I not sure if the Moors got this far. 

One of the buildings that seemed to have a Moorish influence.

Our first day of walking was tough.  It was very hot, with no breeze, and we got lost!  The path was easy to follow at first, but when we were about 3kms from Santa Cristina, our destination for the night, we lost the signs and must have missed a turn, and instead ended up walking about an extra 3kms.  We were on the road for almost 12 hours, which was a VERY long day for the first one on this leg.  However, given that Carol and Elizabeth were on their first day, and I was still recovering from injuries I think we did remarkably well. 

Our accommodation that night was pilgrim accommodation in what was part of the church facilities.  It was basic - a bed, a toilet and a shower, and we were the only ones there.  It cost us the grand total of a €20 donation.  Tea was a pizza and brekky was a pizza! We were really glad of the assistance of the people in the town both here and in Orio Litta where we were the next night.  They did things like escort us to the pilgrim refuge when we asked for directions - really going out of their way to help us. 

We started the next day in the cool of the morning, but it soon heated up and became very humid.  Like the previous day, the path went on some rough cart tracks, on roads, and around fields.  Like the day before - we got lost!  This time we followed the signs very carefully, but they led us to a dead end.  We solved the problem by cutting out to the railway line and walking along it - much to Elizabeth's dismay.  It was a little used line, and of the diesel variety so I was pretty confident that we were OK (Elizabeth was doubtful!). 

I saw a lot of Carol and Elizabeth's backs!

and we passed lots of rice fileds.

Orio Litta was treat.  The refuge had 4 beds in it and was in a beautifully restored Medieval building - or, as the mayor told us a middle aged building!  The village people were really surprised that we were from Australia and that we were walking.  One elderly man's jaw dropped, and my one regret was that I couldn't get a photo of the look of amazement on his face.  It was here that we got our best meal of the trip thus far - 5 courses for €15 each!  Our refuge that night was a €25 donation.

The pilgrim refuge at Orio Litta
and the room that Carol and Elizabeth shared.
Yesterday we had a great boat ride on the River Po.  Danilo collects pilgrims from up stream for a fee of €10 each and then takes them downstream to his house - a distance of about 4 kms.  The Po is a mighty river, very wide and fast flowing, but sadly also with a lot of rubbish in it, plastic bottles and such like.
Waiting for the boat to arrive on the River Po

Danilo the "boatman" with Elizabeth being blown about in the background!
Just for a change yesterday we thought we would try and stay on the path, but 5 kms from Piacenza - we got lost!  We misread the sign, and I know you will find this hard to believe, but we turned  right instead of left!  It was a horribly busy road, which stressed me far more than walking on the railway line.  That was when we got on a bus and  retraced our steps back into the town the easy way. 

Today we are going to bus it to Fidenza to make up for the time we lost on the second day (we are now a day behind).  It rained overnight, which would probably have made the ford we should have crossed impassable - so to my way of thinking there is a reason for everything!

We are holding up well.  I see a lot of Carol and Elizabeth's backs, as they are walking faster than I, but we all get there in the end.  I seem to be in a go slow mode which I am finding very hard to shake.  I don't mind - I am used to my own company when I am walking, and I like to stop and take photos of odd things that I see on the way.