Day 20 of our Via Francigena pilgrimage saw us pick up the route in Pontremoli. We’re now in Tuscany. Weather: partly cloudy, light morning showers, low 80s.
For some reason, that morning there were no direct trains to Pontremoli. We took a local train, followed by a public bus. Looking out the windows left no doubt – the hills have returned!
We continue to lose a few minutes of precious sunlight every day as Fall approaches. Although these hills are exquisite, none of us have any desire to be on them once the sun has set.
Since we had arrived too early to check in, we decided to explore Pontremoli with our backpacks on. Our first order of business was a cappuccino in town. Here’s a fun fact about the word “cappuccino”: the word derives from the brown color of the robes traditionally worn by the Capuchin monks.
And it’s the Capuchin monks who for several centuries gave legendary hospitality to kings, knights, merchants, and pilgrims at the convent we’re staying at tonight.
I’ll bet you never look at you cappuccino the same way again!
When he noticed our walking sticks, the jovial proprietor at the cafe exclaimed that he has never seen a multi-generation family walk the Via Francigena before. I think there are several reasons that explain why families on pilgrimage is unusual. The daily distances are too far for children. Furthermore, children would not be welcome at the hostels and monasteries.
That means that any families walking together are adults. Mom and Dad are retired, in their 60s, and are in great shape. I’m in a very privileged position (and an anomaly) in that I’m a single 41 year old who has a military pension and a great deal of time. And 17 year old Dan is homeschooled.
The other obvious reason I think families don’t hike the Via Francigena together for long periods is that this is HARD. It’s physically tough, yes, but the hard stuff is actually the number of points you need to come to agreement on. How far to travel; what to see; when to stop; how long to stop; where to stay; what time to wake up; where to eat; what to eat.
I keep going back to: it’s a good thing we like each other! I’m grateful for the days we get to experience this journey.
But let me not paint too rosy a picture. A little separation – ESPECIALLY from those you love – is a good and healthy thing. I’m looking forward to joining up with a dear friend for a few days.
Pontremoli is the northernmost town in Tuscany. It is known for their many medieval buildings and looks and feels like something out of an art book. Your eyes are constantly roving and being delighted.
I think I have a new favorite church in Italy! The color scheme and decor at the 17th century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a church. It’s a pale mint green with white trim. But it’s the lighting fixtures that blew me away. There are dozens of chandeliers that, when lighted with a donation, make the church look something out of a fairytale.
I also loved the multiple Saturday morning outdoor markets, with their tables full of fresh flowers and cheeses.
Italy has so many gems. Pontremoli definitely is one of them.
A Surprise Sicilian Delicacy
As luck would have it, we came across a festival celebrating Sicilian cuisine. I told my brother Dan to pick out what he wanted for lunch. We circled the Sicilian stands, and he pointed at a station. The frying meat and vegetables smelled terrific. I ordered up a double portion and brought it to the outdoor table.
“What is that?” Mom asked, contentedly nibbling on a cannoli.
“I don’t think I want to know.”
“It looks like it might be-“
“Mom, I really don’t want to know!”
“Would you like some wine to go with that?”
Mom pulled out a bottle of Gatorade. Anytime there’s leftover wine, Mom’s been transferring it to a plastic Gatorade bottle. It doesn’t matter if the wine only cost €1.40 at CONAD; she’s not letting a single swallow go to waste.
Yes, we’re an odd family.
The dish was tasty and wonderfully seasoned, but I was glad for the wine.
Afterwards, I saw Mom leaning in to scrutinize a sign, and her face contorted with laughter. Although I knew better, I looked at the sign and my stomach heaved.
Dan and I had just eaten horse meat.
Ospitale San Lorenzo Martire in Pontremoli
The young man who checked us in, accepted our lodging donations, and stamped our Pilgrim Passports appeared to be from India. The convent where he led us is enormous. Our two, 2-bed rooms are on the 3rd floor of a dormitory-style building. From the room we could hear the sound of goats somewhere in the distance. There’s a common room and kitchen we are allowed to use on the 2nd floor, and Wi-Fi.
The grounds of the Ospitale also include a chapel of stone, where visitors are encouraged to be silent and listen to their heart. The air is fragrant with the aroma of oregano. Everything is clean, tidy, and well cared for.
It’s an utterly serene place.
I had a great nap. Unfortunately, I overslept and Dan and I missed the 6:00 p.m. Mass. Mom and Dad made it in time. As in Saint Maurice, it appears the man who had welcomed us so generously was a multi-tasker. Not only had he checked us in and taken us to our rooms, he had been the priest celebrating Mass.
I’m definitely noticing a trend: the youngest priests and nuns we’ve seen on the Via Francigena have all been from Asia and Africa. They are the ones brilliantly and quietly continuing the traditions set centuries before.
I’ve enjoyed our time in Pontremoli. We’re resuming our walk bright and early tomorrow. However, since the 31 kilometer (19 mile) walk to Aulla is marked as very challenging, we will be splitting the distance and stopping in Filetto.
Pilgrim encounters: German, Italian
Dinner: at Church-operated Hostel
Lodging “donation”: €20