Heaven and Hell. Contrasting landscapes on the #Viafrancigena #travel 

Gambassi Terme. A town that – had things turned out differently – was destined to live in infamy. At least in my heat stroked mind.

It began well enough today.A 5am start after an air conditioned sleep in a hostel run by health care volunteers. ;Six beds and only me there

The first few hours were beautiful. Walking high above Tuscan valleys;Isolated farms. thin cypress tree .dotting the landscape

But then…a scene from hell. acre after acre of burned fields and olive groves..fields. crops ;trees , still smouldering. The acrid smell of burnt grass heavy in the air 

The flames had even licked farmhouses , leaving their doors singed and blackened

I’ve never seen anything like it.

So I was looking forward to a pub called the Pilgrims Hostel which was basically the onky decent stop.in 30 km

When it’s  36C a watering  hole assumes mythical proportions.
I was imagining a beer garden. With parasols and fountains. Ice cold drinks served in ice cold glsses by a friendly Italian barmaid impressed by my walking heroics.

What i got was a surly moustachioed Italian guy in a vest who informed me that although this was indeed an historic pilgrims rest..it was closed until 8pm.
He wouldn’t even serve me from the fridge.

I stomped off in a bad mood towards Gambassi Terme. A mood which becane darker when I walked an unneccessary extra 4km cos i couldn’t find my hostel.

However. Salvation in the form of tourist official Michael Angelo (yes really) who foubd it for me. Got the owner to pick me up and divulge the rather important information that tonight there is a beer festival.

I love Gambassi Terme


Hunting the hare.  Songs on the #Viafrancigena #Travel 

Yesterday was, to be frank , a challenging day 

A short stretch to Altopascio but it was largely on asphalt past industrial estates jockeying for space with bloody great trucks 

The sun bouncing off white walls of houses didn’t help.

But I tried to cheer myself by belting out my Greatest Hits of the Caminos (not available in any shop at all) They included my standard Fields of  Athenry and Whisky in the Jar 

So how coincidental that in having drinks with fellow pilgrims an italian lady should start playing YouTube hits of her son’s band The Old Goats

They’re from Pisa but dress like 19th century Irish emigrants. 

And if you’ve never heard a bunch of Italian lads singing Irish standards – well you haven’t lived 

It was with with delight I led the piazza in a few verses of Rocky Road to Dublin (hard enough to sing even if English is your first language ) and my job was unbounded when Wild Rover was next.  Brought back memories of my rugby days 

I got quite emotional.

Hot. In Italy. In July. go figure.  Day 10 on the #ViaFrancigena

In aware that complaining about the heat in Tuscany in July is akin to a sailor complaining that the sea is wet ..but boy was it hot today.  And that’s my last mention of the heat.

Foul mood today.  Had a great night in the hostel with fellow pilgrims Dominico, Kevin and Rebecca.

The first two are frankly supermen sustaining a pace beyond my powers.  so they’ve moved on after Dom cooked a great meal last night while I guzzled one Euro beers Kevin got from the shop.

 Dom, being Italian , has been phoning ahead to book  accommodation.  I shall miss that expertise. Sooner or later I’m going to turn up in a place that’s fully booked.

I tried to order a cheese sandwich the other day.   What I actually ordered was bread with a church on it.   Cue guffaws of laughter in a packed shop. I’d forgotten the Italian for cheese.   

Today’s haul from Lucca to Altopascio should have been avshort stretch.  but there was no shade and it felt much longer 

I also think I have bed bug bites .   So I was not in a good place.

The hostel is packed….more walkers are joining the trail late on. I can only imagine the annoyance this must cause young people like Kevin who began in Canterbury. 

Oh….irs almost 7.  Nearly tine for bed 

Here’s a picture of a church …

Jobsworth. One week into the #ViaFrancigena. 

I like to think I respect the local  laws and customs as much as the next pilgrim  but there comes a time when…well let me explain.

I’ve reached the Mediterranean and have chosen to deviate from the Via Francigena and take the coast road. The plan  being to have a dip when the temperature rises.

The route took me  through  an  “affordable”,  beachside area of Avenzza (after an initial  2 km stroll among  the marble factories and truck stops around the port) 

Approaching Forte dei Marni the beach restaurants grew posher and clearly more expensive with every step south.   The sort of place where impossibly beautiful Italian women and their equally handsome husbands glide by on expensive vintage touring bikes 

The sort of place where beer now costs five Euros instead of 3.50

In short the sort of place guaranteed to wind me up 

Around mid day the heat was oppressive so I decided to kick back and rest alongside some fountains and under some trees.

“No  senor !!”   Came a  harsh and not pleasant voice.

I looked up from under the brim of my rapidly disintegrating Panama  hat to see a retired type motioning me to move from under the trees. Think ex army colonel bored in retirement. 

He wore a badge.  A Civic volunteer 

“What’s up ?”

“Move !”

“Why ?”

“Move,  move,  move !’

I looked to my left where eight thickset construction workers were doing exactly the same as me 20 yards away”

I began counting them loudly in an effort to make a point but the effect was spoilt when I  had to give up at six cos I’d forgotten how to say seven and eight in Italian

“Is it cos I is solo…?” I tried to say 

“Move !”

“No..it’s too fucking hot,” (it was in fact 36 C by this tine) 

“I’ll move when they do..”

He radioed for back up. But backup came there none. 

He went  to remonstrate  with the construction workers.  

They laughed at him 

I was just dozing off when a piercing whistle rent the air.

Of course. Inevitably,  the council had given him a whistle.
When he wasn’t harassing hapless pilgrims his day job appeared to be making people get off their bikes before entering the promenade area 

He tried to stop one redoubtable Italian lady. She glared at him.  Shouted “Mama Mia”,..and carried on cycling.

He had one job to do……

Blind courage.  day 4 on the #Viafrancigena

I’ve been out of Wi-Fi contact – or indeed any kind of contact – since the long climb from Sivizzanno all the way to the Passo Della Cisa.

I did more climbing on that single day than I did on the entire St Olaf trail across Sweden.

Today was the 4th on the Via and I’ve crossed from Emilia Romagna into Tuscany

 I’ve pitched up in the beautiful town of Pontremoli…one of Siggi the Serious ‘  stopovers .

It was also owned at one point by one John of Bohemia who had the misfortune of going blind on his 40s.

For reasons I can’t quite grasp John (who was Czech) ended his days fighting for the French against us at the Battle of Crecy in 1346.

legend tells us John was determined to swing a few blows..and directed his men to tie their horses bridles together so they’d be at his side.

I can’t help thinking reality may have been somewhat different in the face of what turned out to be lethal English (and Welsh ) longbow men 
“OK lads  I can’t see a bloody thing but just point me in the direction of these English bastards. I know they can pierce our armour from 1,000 yards  but let’s show em how we Czechs can fight 

“are we scared lads , of course not…”Lads ?

Lads ???


Smoking Snakes..Brazilian Heroism in the Appenines

The Brazilians have an expression :”A cobra via fumar” It means a snake will smoke (a pipe.) 

It’s the equivalent to Pigs will Fly and is used to express extreme scepticism.

Surprisingly some of my Brazil friends – even if they are aware of the expression – don’t know it’s origin.

Yesterday -.the  second day of my Via Francigena Odyssey-  I passed through a quiet Italian village where the origin of that expression was bloodily played out.

But 1945 the right wing govt of Brazil could no longer ignore attacks on its shipping by German forces and to general disbelief ordered the Brazil Expeditionary Force to embark for Europe.

So cynical was the Brazil populace about the likelihood of actual involvement,  that the saying was coined :It was more likely that a snake would smoke a pipe before the BEF would get involved in fighting 

When the Brazilians turned up in Italy as part of a hotch potch multinational force they cheekily wore arm patches depicting a smoking  cobra.

I walked through Fornovo di Taro a sleepy village which became the focus of fierce fighting.

The Brazilians,  including some of their elite mountain troops , defeated the Germans at Fornovo , capturing some 13,000 German and Italian fighters 

But they paid a heavy price. More than 400 were killed and buried nearby. In 1960 their remains were returned to Brazil.

So if anyone suggests that all South Americans safely sat out WW2…..

Well , you can tell ’em stick that in their  pipe and smoke it.

Sun , rain , mud and trespassing.  Day 1 on the #viafrancigena

Left Fidenza at 7am …first paying a visit to the Cathedral where the swifts were dive bombing the statues in the warm morning light.

The reason ? there’s a statue of St Peter with a scroll pointing the way to Rome. 

not pointing well enough as it turned out cos I headed down several dead ends before I found the right road 
The heat is manageable then but by 10 it’s starting to build uncomfortably .

But…a third of the way into my planned 30km I “chanced ” upon a bar serving a cold Moretti at 10 am.run by Oliver who is a Templario..giving help and protection to pilgrims on the road to Rome..

After that it kind of went downhil…l though sadly not literally.

I congratulated myself on missing the first electrical storm and torrential downpour by sitting it out in a church porch 

But there were so many I couldn’t avoid them. 

At one point things were so bad with lightning strikes all around me I vaulted a garden fence and took shelter under the verandah I what I assume is an expensive (empty ) holiday home 
Every  time I crept  out from under shelter it started again…

Apparently there are two seasons when people walk the VF. spring when you might get rain…or summer when it gets very hot.
What I appear to have done in my own inimacble way is to have stumbled on an unhappy medium…I’m getting heat,  rain and mud. Lots of mud.  In Italy.  In the summer.