Day 17 of our Via Francigena pilgrimage took us from Garlasco to Pavia. Distance traveled: 17+ miles. Weather: partly cloudy, humid, high 80s.
A Cranky Pilgrim
For a few days now, I’ve been a bit on edge. I tried to figure out why I’ve been feeling slightly cranky. I am with family I love, on a one-of-a-kind journey, meeting kind and interesting people, and surrounded by beauty.
There’s joy in interacting with other pilgrims, both on the route, and after we’re stinky and bone tired. As it turns out, I like almost everything about this pilgrimage EXCEPT…pilgrim nights.
While the vast majority we’ve spent the night with are very hygienic, I’m put off by the fact that there are one or two we’ve met over the last two weeks who don’t flush the communal toilet. If I have to flush the toilet, or scrub it down so the next person doesn’t think I left that mess, AND I can tell that the sink doesn’t have a drop of water in it after the toilet’s been used, you best believe I don’t want to see that person again!
Even more than that, much to my embarrassment, I cannot sleep. I’ve brought three sets of ear plugs with me, and none have really been doing the trick. When the lights come on I feel like throttling whoever’s been snoring. God bless them, the snorers are always the nicest people. But dang!
I spoke with Dad, Mom, and Dan, and asked if it was okay for us to take a quick break from church lodging. I booked us an AirBnB apartment in Pavia for two nights. Mom and Dad can have the room, and Dan and I can sleep in the living room. Two nights of good sleep, and I’ll return to my normal angelic self. Ha!
A Phantom Train, Dogs, and Bikes
Departing Garlasco, we noticed that the barriers to the train tracks we needed to cross were down. The red warning light was also on. Being (generally) law-abiding citizens, we waited. One minute. Three minutes. There was no trace of an approaching train.
In the meantime, our arms were literally covered with mosquitos. They liked the taste of Mom so much that they drilled through her long-sleeved shirt, now speckled with blood.
We decided that since we had a clear view on both sides, and it’d take a few seconds, to breech the barriers and cross the tracks. Once across, we walked for a solid 10 minutes before we finally heard a train pass. I wonder why the barriers were in place for so long.
I’m fascinated by how Italian dogs react to the presence of pilgrim walkers. Many houses out here in the countryside carry “Attenti al Cane” (Beware of the Dog) signs. No matter their size or breed, the dogs bark with enormous satisfaction as you pass their territory. On one long street it seemed every house had a dog. The noise we generated walking through was so extreme we walked in the middle of the street.
Dogs aside, one thing I’ve noticed about these small municipalities is that no one wears a bike helmet. Perhaps it’s because many of the towns are empty and the streets are mostly clear of traffic.
Unwelcome News, and a Hot, Sticky Walk to Pavia
It was while we were stopped in a small town with one open bar for a quick refreshment that I received an unwelcome message on my phone. The AirBnB host in Pavia said the lock to the apartment was broken, and he needed to cancel the reservation.
I was so mad. It takes a lot of energy to walk 16-17 miles and not know where you’re going to sleep. Since vehicular traffic was light, we decided to shave a mile off the route by walking directly on the road.
Today’s walk was definitely the most varied of the past few days. The rice fields have yielded to something approaching low-rolling hills. It is a treat to see tall trees again, and the Ticino river is beautiful.
Still, doing double-digit mileage in the heat was tough. We’ve decided that 16 miles is the upper limit of what we’re comfortable doing.
The last two miles into Pavia were especially pretty, with views of ancient bridges and Italy’s third-largest Duomo. Moreover, the increased cloud coverage provided welcome shade and a strong breeze.
Pavia is a famous university town. The University of Pavia’s history dates back to 1361, making it one of the world’s oldest universities. Given the city’s pedigree, I was certain we’d have no trouble getting a room.
One of the first things that struck me as we approached the city is just how much younger the demographic is. Almost everyone we encountered appeared to be in their early 20s. There have been many reports of “brain drain”, as many Italians choose lucrative careers outside of Italy. I wonder what lies in store for all these young, well-educated Italians.
As we prepared to cross an ancient bridge into the city, I was caught off guard by the sight of a young couple making love under the bridge in broad daylight.
How very Italian!
Three Hotels in Pavia
Pavia’s tourism office gave a very gracious welcome. The first thing they did after seeing our glazed-over expressions was bring out four glasses of cold water. Rules prevented them from booking hotels; however, they gave us detailed maps and highlighted the locations of the three hotels in Pavia. All three hotels were by the train station.
Yes. In an ancient university town, with a population of 70,000, there are THREE hotels. One wonders what happens during graduations. Mom and Dad decided to head directly to the convent; Dan and I headed the opposite direction with the hope one hotel would have a room available.
No such luck. All were fully booked. A massive shout-out goes to Hotel Excelsior. After a day of using my phone to navigate, I was down to 8% battery. The nice receptionist graciously allowed me to recharge the battery in the hotel lobby. I contacted Mom, got the address to the convent, and Dan and I limped the 1.5 miles there on fumes.
Thank You, Santa Maria in Betlem!
I’ve got to appreciate the delicious irony…we are staying at Santa Maria in Betlem (Bethlehem)…because there is no room at the inns!
The nuns from India run a tight ship. The rooms are separated by gender, with the female room containing several bunk beds. As I looked around, I saw that Mom had already reserved the top bunk by her for me.
In addition to the rooms, there were two communal bathrooms, and a shared living space/kitchen that was light and airy. Perhaps it’s because it’s a college town, but – not only is there Wi-Fi – it is super fast.
Mom wanted to rest, so Dad, Dan and I went out for dinner a block from the convent. I bought my brother a pulled pork sandwich and the Coke I’d promised. He’s walked 19 miles today. I could not be more proud of him. Dad got fries and a specialty beer in Pavia made from bread.
After dinner, we walked across the street for a gelato, and bought cannoli to thank the nuns. Five minutes later, the skies opened up, and it started to pour.
We had finished walking just in time.
Taking a Detour
Dad and I met back up in the common room to discuss the plan for tomorrow.
While there, Dad turned his phone around to show me a message in Italian. It seems the Via Francigena website has been hacked, and web administrators are working to get it restored. I have no idea why someone would want to hack a pilgrimage site. Do they want to change the GPS coordinates and giggle as they route pilgrims in a circular loop around the Alps?
In any case, although it’s worked great for us up till now, we’re not certain how reliable information will be going forward.
We had hoped to go to Piacenza, however, the walking distance exceeded our comfort level. Furthermore, there was no lodging IN or EN ROUTE to Piacenza.
I looked at the map and blinked in surprise at where AirBnB was telling me all the hotels were at.
A culinary paradise that gave the world Parma ham and Parmesan cheese.
In a flash, Dad and I decided that is where we will head next for a two-day break.
Parma, here we come!
Pilgrim encounters: French, Irish, Canadian, Italian, Slovenian, German, Uzbekistan, Undetermined
Breakfast: €2 ($2.14) cappuccino
Dinner: €16 ($17.08)
Lodging: €20 ($21.35)