Thursday, 25 February 2016

Death and New Life on the Way of Saint Francis

Trevi - Spoleto 19 kms
Spoleto - Ceselli 15 kms (not walked)
Ceselli - Arrone 15 kms
Arrone - Piediluco 14.5 kms
Piediluco - Poggio Bostone 22 kms
Poggio Bostone - Rieti 18 kms

These last five days have everything this route offers in abundance. There has been an increased sense of Francis, a realisation that he walked these hills and forest paths. The views have been inspiring and the villages quaint and beautiful. Many communities seem to be built right out of the mountain rock.  They sit atop hills looking out at priceless vistas. It feels as everything is old from 12th century chapels to frescos and fine art.

Yet in many places there are signs of decay. Many buildings remain half constructed, abandoned many years before. In places modern homes and apartment buildings stand unfinished with the builders tools and equipment lying rusting. In village bars the men congregate to play cards. Just like in Spain the economic crisis has hit hard and these picturesque hamlets house high levels of unemployment and are being abandoned by young people heading to the cities for work. Yet people remain cheerful and very welcoming to pilgrims.  Dinner in the lovely town of Spoleto was very funny.  When the pasta course came it was clear that the Big Man had a much larger portion than me.  I hailed the passing waitress who couldn't hide her amusement and demonstrated her English by signs which clearly said, " look at the size of him and the size of you." That particular lady it turned out was a maestra at napkin folding and each course and the presentation of the very reasonable bill was punctuated by a different demonstration.
We had established that the accommodation in Cesseli was not open this early in the season and given our restricted time we decided to go forward. It turned out to be an easy day and by late afternoon we were in the little town of Arrone.
Like many similar towns the church dominates the small main square. The door was open and before we sought out our accommodation we decided to pay a visit.  There were several people at the front of the church standing around an open coffin. We left quietly. 
Within a few minutes we met Rita who led us into our splendid accommodation.  Italian by birth she had spent many years in South Africa before returning to live and let out really good self catering apartments at reasonable prices.  We had a long chat because she spoke English perfectly.  We said that we had been in the church and we assumed there would be Mass later because of the funeral. Clearly moved Rita explained that there would be no Mass because it was their priest who had died very suddenly the afternoon before just before the parish bus outing. "He just died after lunch. The parish were on the bus.  They had to go. After all they had already paid for it." I smiled at this ultra realistic view of death which Catholics have. It seems to border on the callous.  What followed was anything but callous.
Rita explained that there were few priests in the surrounding area and the funeral could not take place for two days because the only other priest around was away "blessing the houses". Not really understanding what she meant we let it pass.  Rita went on, "between us won't leave father alone in the church.  We will be with him until he is buried." And so they did.  We sat in the square as people streamed in to pay their respects, to take their turn of watching. All through the night.  Next morning as we were setting off others were leaving and arriving often greeting each other by name.  "It is what we do." Rita had explained.
As we walked up to the place where in season there are spectacular waterfalls when there is a release of water to power hydroelectricity we pondered the sense of unity in these small communities despite their problems. 
The rest of the day could not have been more peaceful.  The sun came out and we walked along a long tree lined path beside a canal.  Water then became the theme as we could see the beautiful Lake Piediluco ahead.  We visited the 13 th century church of Saint Francis and made our way to our hotel on the edge of the town. The Hotel Miralago is an aptly named 40 room modern hotel right on the lake.  "Every room has a lake view" said the website.  So they did but as we soon discovered the hotel had no staff,  bar or restaurant at this time of the year. When we arrived the front door was open so in we went. There was a sign on reception: phone this number.  So we did. "The receptionist won't be there until later,  make yourself at home."  Eventually when the receptionist arrived everything became normal for about 5 minutes.  We checked in and paid and chatted.  We established there was one restaurant in the small town open.  Then the girl handed us the key of our room and the keys of the hotel. "Just leave them at reception when you leave in the morning and leave the front door open." 
We did as we were told the next morning and had breakfast in a local cafe before beginning the lovely walk to Poggio Bostone. Up and up we went the path snaking up the mountain only to go up further.  The sun was high and the temperature rose.  As we looked out over the vast valley we saw hang gliders floating down. I could have done with one there and then.  We were welcomed to Poggio Bostone by the effervescent Feliciano who runs the local restaurant and hostel. His mother prepared a splendid dinner for us.  On the wall I spotted a small wooden plaque recording the Lenten Blessing of the House. We spoke with more local people who explained that before Easter every year the priest visits every house,  street by street to offer prayers and a blessing. Everyone participates and there is a number to phone if you are not in when he is in your street.  A man explained in very broken English that this was tradition to get ready for the "new year,  no sorry,  new life at Easter." 
The next morning we made our way down from the town passing a large group of neighbours presiding over the butchering of a huge pig which had been suspended from the balcony of a house.  Next year's bacon, sausage and salami. They laughed when we wished them Bon Appetito.
We reflected that these were the same little communities through which Francis had passed.  Still preserving their identities and traditions.

A day of up and down followed through forest path and the Santuario where Saint Francis lived for some time when he was ill. I got a great sense that it is in these quiet places on these journeys we pilgrims make that we become open to the voice of the Spirit. More of this another time.  The ups and downs have caught up with me.  Tomorrow only 5 days to Roma!

Monday, 22 February 2016

One day on the Way of Saint Francis - the Archbishop, the wee ginger dog and the lamb

Some days are just perfect on pilgrimage. You don't know when they will happen nor often why they happen. Things just come together and it is as if that day encapsulates everything. This is what happened the day we walked to Trevi.  It could have been any day or any stage on this beautiful route. The sun shone high in a cloudless sky, we donned our shorts and I slapped on the factor 50  and off we went for an idyllic day walking.  The landscapes were lovely.  Sometimes we spoke and often we walked in silence. Bees sucked pollen from flowering wild rosemary and we startled two slumbering horses in a grove of olive trees.  We were greeted with many "salves" from local people and we had a huge laugh with an older chap pruning his olive trees when we tried to persuade him to walk to Rome with us.
Soon we were rising steadily to the old town of Trevi which seemed to hang on the hillside.  It was hot and we hurried to find our hotel.  This was a simple but beautiful pension run by a young couple,  their children occupying the foyer playing games. It was clear this was their home.  On the lower floor was a dining room and they confirmed there would be dinner later.
I've walked several thousand kilometres with Stephen. We've been friends a very long time and we've got used to travelling together.  There is a set routine. On arrival we check in and get to the room. I take off my boots, sort out what has to be washed, have a shower and immediately assume a prone position.  His Holiness however drops his rucksack and heads off to explore the town,  visit the churches, get a sello and find out if there is an evening mass.  Trevi was no different.  My siesta was disturbed by the chirping of photographs arriving of the cathedral, the old town and the sello he'd got.  His most enthusiastic message was to announce that there was mass with the Archbishop to celebrate the restoration of a local church.  I groaned.
At the appointed hour we made our way the short distance to the little 15th century church of Saint John the Baptist.  I went back next morning to take the photograph above.  The evening before however we had to squeeze in at the back.  It seemed as if the whole town was there. In front the mayor wore a sash of national colours over his anorak. The church had seats for 80 people and there were over 100 squeezed in.  The mayor set the dress code.  These were ordinary working people from the pueblo. There were the senior citizens gossiping in twos and threes, nudging each other to stare when someone else arrived. " Would you look at what she's wearing and her husband barely cold," "look at him, they say he owes the butcher a fortune." There were three young men,  two wearing beanies which never came off all staring at mobile phones,  a smartly dressed young couple who seemed to be glued together and a group of men who came in and out wafting cigarette smoke with them.  Mobile phones rang and were answered none too discretely and a burly man clutched his ringing phone as he went from front row to outside the door only to shout so loudly into it everyone could hear what he was saying. People waved to each other, kisses were exchanged and there were lots of hugs.  A woman arrived helping a very old woman through the throng.  People crowded round her in welcome.  A bustling woman went in search of a seat for her and with a crooked finger called someone from their place to create a space.  A tall, well built man beside us leaned on his walking stick and harrumphed.
There was a stirring at the door as a figure appeared picking his way through the crowd.  Tall and regal he was wearing an elegant black cape right down to the ground.It was fastened at the neck with a silver chain and his shiny patent leather shoes poked out below. Had someone asked, "what have you come as," I wouldn't have been surprised.  This evening the Archbishop had come as the Archbishop. 
As His Grace made his way to the front the volume of chatter did not recede. A priest emerged from the sacristy and rescued the prelate.  Soon the little organ struck up the opening hymn and it was remarkably well played.  The mayor made a short speech explaining that the church had been damaged some years before in an earthquake and had now been restored.  He spoke with obvious affection and the people clapped rapturously.  His Grace then took over and the Mass proceeded.  There seems to be something about Catholic priests when they get in front of a microphone: they either ask for money or speak far too long and frequently they do both. The long introduction over there were the usual readings from Scripture and then the Archbishop stood to give the sermon.  I was concerned that unlike Señor Mayor he had no notes. What followed was a convoluted repetition of holy sounding platitudes delivered in a steady drone.  I looked around. There were quite a lot of people whose eyes had glazed over,  even more chatted in whispers to their neighbours, the three young men were still on their smartphones and the young lovers had left.  Whilst His Grace was in full drone the man with the walking stick walked slowly down the aisle staring at people daring them to give him a seat. He ended up standing right in front of the Arch who continued oblivious. Then with a squeeze he managed to get in beside the Mayor who was left with one buttock on the pew.  My attention was caught by a disturbance near us at the back.  Out from under the folds of a señora's coat appeared a small ginger dog dressed in a doggie overcoat of the Royal Stewart tartan.  "Awwww"  smiled the people round about at the sight.  "AWWWW" smiled more people when the little charmer gave a paw to the neighbouring worshippers.  "Look Gabriella has the wee dog with her"  rippled round the congregation. The boys looked up from their mobile phones and at last the Archbishop finished.  Order was restored the next moment he intoned the Credo,  the great statement of faith. The people rose and with one voice responded "I believe in one God..." The wee dog was lying quietly under a chair and only reappeared at the Sign of Peace when  everyone shakes hands. Everyone around clapped the dog - I was sure Francis would approve!  I think he would also approve of this little community who smiled and welcomed the two pilgrims. I'm sure they meant no disrespect to the Archbishop but he was so clearly not one of them nor did he try to be. Francis could have shown him the way.
Starving we made our way back to the dining room in the little hotel.  The young dad of the family was wearing chef's whites and his wife showed us to a table.  The children were still playing happily in the foyer. Chef brought the menus and we chose a starter of one of his specialities - an antipastone to share.  There was everything.  Cured meats and several cheeses, toast with five different toppings, pickled vegetables and homemade bread. Then placed in front of us was scrambled eggs with truffle.  I'm salivating at the memory. 
We hadn't had lamb on this journey so far.  Lamb is so good in Scotland we tend to think it is unbeatable. However we followed the chef's recommendation and what he served was memorable.  This meat was rich and succulent and cooked to perfection.  When I asked he confirmed the animals are raised within a few kilometres on the Umbrian hills. His very own apple cake followed drizzled with yummy freshly made custard.
That's the story so far.  Days of splendid walking,  worshipping with down to earth local people in little tight-knit communities and eating like kings. I'm definitely not giving up pilgrimage for Lent.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Big climbs, big sleeps, big bells - further adventures on the Way of Saint Francis

Valfabbrica - Assisi 13.4 kms
Assisi - Foligno 20 kms
Foligno -Trevi 13.6 kms

"Assisi is on top of a hill" messaged the Big Man's sister. "There's quite a climb up to Assisi," Wassupped Fr Dominic from London. "I was in Assisi as a student," chimed the BM, "I'm sure we went up a big hill."
"With friends like these..." I thought as we kissed goodbye to Anna Rita and the Hostel San Francisco. Even after another good night's sleep I felt sluggish but the anticipation of reaching Assisi spurred me on.  It was a lovely day walking.  The sun came out and for the first time the factor 50 had to be applied to the bald pate! We made very good time despite a couple of nippy elevations and eventually we could see the Basilica of San Francisco on the hilltop.  Was there an escalator?  Elevator?  Cable car?  None of the above.  Just an almighty hill. Deep breath and 40 minutes later we were up. We went through the archway and immediately I was struck by how beautiful the buildings were.  Tall, built of blond stone, some with green shutters on the windows, some with brown.  A lane to the left wad bedecked with hanging baskets of plants. And suddenly the Basilica of San Francisco was before us.  The plain facade seemed understated, almost disappointing, I thought as we waited in line for the machine gun carrying soldiers to search our rucksacks.  Then I realised that this was the Tomb of the Saint and fount of the Franciscan Order dedicated to poverty and simplicity.  How could it not he so. We entered into the cavernous nave, painted from floor to ceiling with frescos depicting scenes from the Saint's life.  Below in the massive crypt lies the Tomb and another nave. We went to the Pilgrims Office where a priest with splendid disinterest stamped our credenciales and gave us our certificates for having walked at least 70 kms to Assisi.  Such was his diffidence as soon as we were outside the Big Man said, "one pilgrim welcome service in Santiago is enough don't even think about it". We went to the 5.30 mass and we were welcomed by name as two Scottish pilgrims who had walked from Florence. A walk around the town revealed how lovely it is sitting on the hillside above a vast valley which stretches as far as the eye can see.  But we were exhausted.  The days from Florence had been exhilarating but at times very tough.  I went to bed happy.  Tomorrow we'd set out for Rome! 
Having gone to bed early I awoke after 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep.  After a good breakfast and a final visit to the Basilica we were off.  The sun shone and the skies were clear. What followed was a brilliant day's walking following the clearly marked path first to Spello then on to Foligno. Down in the valley we could see the massive church of Our Lady of the Angels - to be visited next time. From the route we could see the whole of the surrounding countryside with communities and church spires dotted everywhere.  As noon approached the Angelus was heralded by the deep sonorous bells of Santa Maria degli Angeli soon to be joined by another, then another and more.  It seemed as if the entire valley was ringing out this call to prayer. I thought of the way the world has changed since Francis's time. At home in London the bells of Saint Mary's ring alongside the call to prayer broadcast from loudspeakers from the minaret of the local mosque as all the while the Sikh community gather less than half a mile away in the local gurdwara. I wondered what Francis would make of it?  I'm certain he would have been more than comfortable.  It seems to me that just as pilgrimage is a spiritual journey we make as much inside ourselves as outside so too must tolerance begin with me wanting peace deep inside. These thoughts were punctuated by the putt-putt of farmers driving to their olive groves in little three wheel pick ups. There were many smiles and waves and soon we were sitting having coffee in John F Kennedy Square in the little town of Spello.  It only has 8500 residents but boasts 27 medieval churches. The bells, the bells! Just a couple of hours later we were in a very comfortable hotel in Foligno. Tired again we had an early dinner of an amazing platter of antipasto with warm creamed butter beans followed by chicken and pork ribs roasted on an open fire in the middle of the restaurant!
Today has been a short day and we covered the 13.5  kms in 3.5 hours. The sun shone all day as we walked up to the village of Trevi which sits at the foot of snow capped mountains. Yes, it is as beautiful as it sounds!

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

More adventures on the Way of Saint Francis - a tale of two dinners

Pieve Santo Stefano - Valfabbrica via

Sansepulcro - 25 kms
Citta di Castello - 32.8kms
Pietralunga - 29.8 kms
Gubbio - 26.5 kms
Biscina - 22.7 kms - not walked
Valfabbrica - 15.9 kms

This pilgrimage wasn't planned far in advance. There was time between lots of commitments,  the long range weather looked not bad and there were flights available.  Now having walked for 11 days from Florence we are aware of how lucky we have been to have set out so early in the year.  Firstly had the weather been even a little more difficult some stretches of the route would have just been impossible. Secondly a lot of the accommodation is seasonal and in two strategic places so far there has been no accommodation available.  However people were very helpful and although in the smaller places taxis are non existent we have been able to arrange to be picked up and dropped off where and when we needed.  We have had to cut the route into 24 days because of commitments in Santiago which has meant dropping about 50 kms in total and one stage. We were able to arrange this easily and all of our accommodation has been reserved on

The days from Pieve Santo Stefano to Valfabbrica have been full of very good walking, two days of torrential rain, overnight temperatures of minus 2 and some of the best hospitality, accommodation and food I have experienced on any Camino.

But there is a fundamental aspect of this pilgrimage which is setting it apart from all of those which have gone before.  I'm sure I won't be able to describe it adequately.  There is a feeling about this route which seems to me to be more holy,  more peaceful and more special than other routes I have walked.  The name Saint Francis of Assisi has been known to me since I was a child. The image of Francis as the role model of selflessness and caring is strong.  And here we are actually walking where he walked and where the great Franciscan Order began.  The fact that Francis chose never to become a priest puts him higher up in my estimation! We pass the sites where he travelled,  preached, and prayed.  It is said he tamed a ferocious wolf which was killing local people.  My most favourite story is when he tried to cure a sick woman.  He tried to perform the miracle but she was still sick.  Embarrassed he skulked off.  Sometime later she sought him out to explain she had got better.  Francis realised miracles were down to God and not him.

Following in his footsteps took us to a fabulous candlelit bed and breakfast in Sansepulcro with walls covered in modern art. As we looked for Mass in the church of Saint John we passed a little chapel with a 15 th century painting on display.  No alarm. I just sat and gazed. 

Then the mighty stage to the walled town of Citta di Castello where we had some issues with changes to the waymarks and flurries of rain but we staggered into the modern hotel La Mura which was warm and had a very good menu.  Although exhausted we dragged ourselves out to Mass " Sunday evening mass would be a quiet and quick affair " I thought.  The Cathedral was stunning and the clue as to what was to come was the 30 voice choir with organist assembling.  Then in strolled the Bishop. Organ voluntary, entrance procession and a full,  glorious sung mass followed.  It was wonderful as was the dish of Taglia which followed.  Thin slices of local beef, served pink on a bed of rocket.  Sleep comes very easily these nights.

Up early next morning we decided to shave 10 kms from the length of the stage to Pietralunga which proved to be a good decision because that meant we only had 5 hours walking in continuous, unrelenting torrential rain.  The day concluded with a steep walk up to the hotel Tinca accompanied by sheet lightening and thunderclaps.  Fabio in the hotel knows pilgrims.  He turned the heating up full in the room, provided newspapers to dry our boots and had hot coffee and sandwiches ready in a jiffy.  The rain continued to pour down and this was an evening to have a quick but very good dinner in the local restaurant then snuggle under the duvet to watch the steam rising from the radiators. 9 hours later I awoke to dry clothes and a little light drizzle.  Fabio gave us a huge breakfast and insisted on coming with us to show us the route. 

It rained on and off all day. We were lucky that it was dry and clear as the path rose above the valleys and the kilometres passed quickly.  I had read about Gubbio with very authentic Francis roots and I was eager to get there.  One day closer to Assisi!

The Big Man who very efficiently does the logistics for this pilgrimage had booked us into a modest 4 star hotel on the main square perched above the town. This was splendid.  I don't know how he did it but the room rate was only 10 euros more than the place some days before which had no heating or hot water!  I got to my room.  Lovely.  Looked out of the window.  Not much of a view. Tried the TV - English news channel.  Then I opened the bathroom door. I closed it again. Was I dreaming?  I opened it again and the jacuzzi bath was still there. With a a radiator from floor to ceiling. This meant an hour in the bath and everything could be washed.

With joy in my heart I called the Big Man and we set out to dinner.  There was only one restaurant.  Very fancy.  In we went. A woman in a gold cocktail dress approached and without a blink at our walking clothes showed us to a table. This was a beautiful dining room with a vaulted ceiling, table linen and silverware, a wall of bottles of wine and a display of very fine brandies and whiskies. The menu was extensive and the prices were eye watering. A very refined Maitre D approached.  He was a man easily in his 70's dressed in a fine suit with an air of being totally in command.  Just as he got to our table I was saying in English how starving I was and "despite the prices we'll just have to get on with it."  I nearly slid under the table with embarrassment when the Big Man said, " do you have a menu of the day?  We're pilgrims walking to Rome and we want something simple and hot."  The man bowed, "certainly sir, just one moment."

He returned to place a plate of five types of bread before us. Then a few minutes later a small bowl of bean broth with herbs and spiced sausage.  It was delicious but I was starving, this would never be enough.  The restaurant was filling up. At the next table the prosecco popped,  at another a deep red wine was being decanted.  Our little soup bowls were cleared away to soon be replaced by a larger bowl of "freshly made pasta with a sauce with cured ham".  This was the business! It was delicious and my spirits were rising by the minute. They removed the plates.  We were wondering what might be for dessert when the Maitre D appeared again placing two plates in front of us.  "Roast leg of pork with a red wine jus. Would sir like some potatoes roasted with fresh Rosemary?"  I was passed caring about the cost.  The food was superb. The lassie in the gold cocktail dress approached to ask if everything was in order. Then she appeared with two plates with a mountain of delicious creamy pastry running with honey.  "The deconstructed mille feuille". Well,  of course.
We declined coffee and asked for the bill.  As we waited the unspoken anxiety between us was exactly how large the bill would be.  Miss Goldfincher swished back with an elegant little leather folder. The Big Man looked and looked and appeared to be checking the addition.  "Is it OK" I asked timidly. He handed me the bill - "two special menus 19 euros each,  water, bread and service included."
The Maitre D came over as I was admiring a rather fine selection of rare bottles of Johnnie Walker. I have some of the same in my own collection at home.  It turned out that his aloofness was really shyness. He spoke perfect English having learned the trade in the Savoy many years before and he was genuinely interested in the pilgrimage.  A perfect end to a lovely evening.

Next morning we were up and ready for the car to take us 20 kms forward to Biscina where in season there is accommodation but at this time it is closed. He dropped us off pointing out the countryside around where from October to December he and his dog collect white truffles. We set off along a beautiful country path with views of a castle and churches in the distance.  Sun broke through the clouds and we had a great day's walking to Valfabbrica where we had booked rooms in the pilgrim hostel San Francisco.  This was very close to a regular albergue as we would know it in Spain. There were 30 beds in total with some singles and triple rooms.  There was a common room and a dining room with long refectory tables. There was heating and hot water but alas no jacuzzi in my room.

We had arranged dinner for 7.30 with Anna Rita the hospitalera. We were joined not by other pilgrims but by three Italian geologists on a field trip.  Guitano spoke English and the other two had been to Scotland.  Conversation ranged from walking to whisky.  There were a number of courses. Cold meats,  spinach and ricotta in pastry,  crostini, tortellini in sauce,  pork chops with roasted baby onions and homemade chocolate tarts.  Simpler fare by far than the night before and served in much more modest surroundings but the conversation with other travellers in English,  Spanish and Italian more than made up for that. Such is the way of pilgrimage, all days are different and you never quite know what will happen.  Like people - they aren't always what they seem. Often they are better.

Tomorrow - Assisi!

Friday, 12 February 2016

Badia Prataglia - Santuario de la Verna - 17.5 kms. Santuario de la Verna - Pieve Santo Stefano - 15.2 kms

Inspired by anger and love

When we checked into the very modest Hotel Giardino in Badia Prataglia the temperature was dropping fast.  It was colder inside than outside the hotel. The  room was clean and the señora tried her best and gave us a heater for the room although there wasn't enough hot water to shower. I went to bed to rest and heat up.  San Esteban went to mass. 
I only got up for an hour later to go down to the massive dining room which had one lonely table set for two. I could see my own breath it was so cold. We'd seen the Señor of the house playing a cigarette fuelled game of cards with some friends and a bottle of wine and he now appeared with a giant tureen of minestrone soup. Food for body and soul. This was followed by mushroom tagliatelle and we chose steaming  bowls of hot chocolate for dessert.  I was back under the covers soon after and awoke almost 9 hours later.  I looked out of the window to see the little town covered in snow. It was bitterly cold.  "This might be a 4 layer day"  I thought.

Despite only carrying just over 6 kgs in total we always have a potential 5 layers of clothes when walking in winter. Much time is taken up looking at weather forecasts and debating the number of layers to wear.  Over breakfast we reviewed the route to the Santuario where Saint Francis visited to pray and meditate and where he received the Stigmata.  The day ahead was arduous with significant climbing and exertion.  We decided on three layers with another kept handy just in case.  This was a day of ups and downs with three climbs the last of which would be the most taxing.  Soon we were ascending the first.  The views then and throughout the rest of the day were magnificent.  The sun broke through as we went up snow covered icy paths.  A very friendly stray dog joined us for 10 kms.  The climb took me back to my early days on the Scottish mountains. Only when you are up can you see the full grandeur of hills and valleys. The layers worked well.  We were dripping with sweat as we toiled slowly up the inclines but if we stood still for a few brief moments the chill wind started to bite. It was slow.  2 kms an hour.  By the time we reached Rimbocchi we had covered only 11 kms in 5 hours. It was cold but the sun was shining and we hunkered down at a picnic table for a sandwich.  Just then we saw a woman opening the  bar and we were rewarded with hot coffee.  But we were eager to get going, the guidebook warned of a very strenuous 6 km climb over 3 hours to the Santuario.

I was looking forward to visiting this place and Assisi even more than Rome.  Although I'll be delighted to get there the last time was at the Consistory where my Archbishop was appointed Cardinal. I remember looking at the sea of red hats thinking that this was everything I love and hate about the Catholic Church. We have a tribal loyalty to it and there is much to be proud of in its work on social justice issues.  There is also much with which I am at odds and the lack of equality for women tops that list.  Loyalty to the tradition of the church has meant until now the exclusively male establishment has resisted women priests. I think that loyalty to Jesus Christ who is the embodiment of equality is more important. Tribal loyalty to the institution has led to a lack of democracy,  transparency,  financial corruption and the gravest crime of all the desecration of children by priests and even worse the manipulative covering up of these crimes by the senior management of the Church. In this respect loyalty to the institution be damned. This is the time for it to stop. Bishops are not competent to investigate or deal with these matters and it must be a legal as well as moral obligation on them to call the police when there is any suspicion a child is being harmed by a priest or anyone else.  In the many hours of discussion on these church matters on our pilgrimages the Big Man often says, "what would the simple man of Gallilee say or do?" Jesus told us exactly what he advocates for those who harm children and it does not involve phoning the diocesan lawyers and insurers first. The sad fact is that many of these abusers were themselves abused in church junior seminaries as they trained for the priesthood.  It has been systemic and has been going on for generations. Of course the perpetrators must be punished but the establishment of  a Truth Commission as they had in South Africa may be the only way to shed light on this evil,  to understand it and to root it out.

So with all of this intense stuff being discussed as the days progress towards Rome and with the exhausting mountains we have climbed we packed up and headed for the river crossing that would finally take us to the steep climb to the Sanctuario.

"Cross the stepping stones"  the guidebook advised.  I looked.  The river was in spate and had burst its banks.  Crossing impossible.  We dithered and thought and looked at the map and the time and the amount of daylight left. We flagged down the only car which approached.  The driver spoke English.  "You can cross at another place 2kms from here but at this time it may be better to just follow the road ahead". Off she went and we started walking.  The sign said "14 kms"  as we walked however the reality dawned that this was now 14 kms up the mountain by road.  It was pretty at first, then after an hour or so the sun moved down in the sky. After 7 kms I was becoming increasingly concerned.  Earlier we had phoned the hostal where we had booked but the older person we spoke to seemed not to understand anything and put down the phone.  "Phone them again," I urged the Big Man.  Just then we saw headlights rounding the bend. This was Daniel from the hostal. He knew the river was high and as time went on wondered if all was well.  "We can't keep getting lifts the last few kilometres every day", said the Big Man.  "Oh yes we can", was the only reply.

Up and up we drove. What would have taken  hours more on foot we covered in 10 minutes.  Just as well because Daniel explained we had little time to visit the Santuario before it closed. On foot we raced up another hill for another kilometre. It was late but the Franciscans welcomed us warmly.  We saw the basilica and the places Saint Francis had been,  the relic of his Franciscan habit.  We received their sello in the Sacristy and then we were shown down to the Chapel of the Stigmata. I have been in many holy places but this exuded a sense of peace and purity which was tangible. This cynic and doubter was forced on both knees.  No wonder in solemn procession the Franciscans go there twice everyday to pray. 

We were both drawn to silence as we made our way out into the freezing cold and down the slippery cobbled street to our hostal. Over dinner we talked...about the church,  Santiago and our work there and the difficulties to be overcome, how the Camino Chaplaincy might develop and the obstacles being put in its way. Mostly we spoke about Francis. It us likely that in his day compared to now he had his fare share of a corrupt church,  fat Bishops, uncaring clergy, tin pot cathedral dictators and lavish clerical living while the poor starved.  What did he do?  He gave up all material things and went to help lepers.  In doing so he drew close to the example Christ himself gave and became our example. And yet it took all of these centuries for a Pope to take his name.  Thank God we have one now.

We awoke this morning to freezing mist and frost. The route presented few challenges or difficulties compared to the last few days. The snow was crisp and the path heavy underfoot in places but after a couple of hours the sun shone and we had a very pleasant walk to Pieve Santo Stefano.

As if in answer to my doubts and dilemas the first waymark we saw was the yellow arrow and the yellow tau cross.  They have been with us all day and the direction of travel is clear.

And now I'll be quiet.  I probably won't blog again for a while. There is a time to talk and a time to pray.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Stia - Camaldoli - Badia Prataglia 25 kms How lovely on the mountains

I stretched the stiff muscles and we went out to dinner in Stia.  The restaurant was only 2 minutes away but the heavens opened and we donned our raingear for the short journey.  I didn't mind as this was to be the Shrove Tuesday banquet. Tomorrow the start of Lent and following family tradition no booze and little meat until Easter. My head was full of pasta y fagioli soup,  my very favourite, and perhaps a steak or lamb.  This evening I'd splash out on a Chianti or Barola reserva. The brightly lit restaurant was warm and inviting.  The waiter stepped forward and as I started to take off my jacket he said, "sorry gentlemen, the entire restaurant is booked this evening for Carnival." Alarmed we asked if there was anywhere else open and he directed us to a Pizzeria along the road. As we walked along in the rain I felt a little crestfallen but we were soon at the Pizzeria.  Jam packed with people the man at the door looked doubtful but asked an older woman who was bustling about.  She looked at us dripping in the doorway and beckoned us in.  In a jiffy she pulled a table out virtually into the entrance corridor and told us to sit.  My mood darkened.  Ever the sensible one the Big Man whispered "we can't leave, there may be nowhere else." The menu arrived. I searched for soup, I searched for meat. It became clear that the señora who had seated us was the mother of the restaurant and clearly the boss.  I asked about food as she passed by.  "Pesce, pesce,  pesce"  she cried.  "We don't do meat here."  I took a deep breath and decided I would have the mussels to start and a pasta to follow.  The señora seemed pleased but was back in a moment to tell me there were no mussels left. Stephen sensing what would happen next said,  "stay right where you are or we'll be out in the rain and starving."  I nearly saw red but hunger and good sense prevailed.  "I'll just have a salad to start," I said.  The señora seemed pleased as I pointed to a line that started "insalata". Both starving the atmosphere was tense.  Not only sore and hungry I was worried about the weather and the very difficult walk in the morning when we were planning to combine two stages.  The first very difficult. We also needed to carry food. In short I was being His Majesty The Baby. Then with a flourish the señora placed my "salad" in front of me.  Pulpo on a wooden board just as it would be in Galicia.  This was so improbable I burst out laughing.  The señora asked why.  We explained I lived in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia,  the home of pulpo.  "The Camino?" she said in very broken English.  And in a few sentences she knew we were Scottish and all about the current pilgrimage.  Saying no more she turned with a "leave this to me"  attitude.  The pulpo was delicious in fact.  But almost instantly a foccacia dripping with molten mozzarella almost covered the table.  Next a giant jug of wine. She set it down with only one word "Scottish".  We set to and polished off the food. "Still hungry?" she said as she ushered still more diners past our table.  Before we could reply she shouted "two spaghettis" to the kitchen.  Out came two steaming bowls. She was beaming.  Then she appeared with what looked like a mound of chocolate. "We only have one of these left,  eat it quick."  Two spoons appeared.  This was the most delicious tartuffo I have tasted in my life.  The bill was ridiculously modest and she gave us directions to find the supermarket in the morning.

Back at the hotel I set my alarm, closed my eyes and woke 7 hours and 45 minutes later not by my alarm but by the Big Man who was fully dressed and sporting a carrier bag with freshly made sandwiches for our journey.  He'd gone out to find the start of the route, met the señora from the restaurant in a coffee bar, followed her directions to the shop and returned victorious.  And it wasn't raining. I asked him if he'd also recited morning prayer and jogged round the Plaza a few times as I put the pillow over my head. 

By 8.30 we said goodbye to the helpful staff of the excellent hotel Albergo Falterona. No sooner had we taken a few steps than hail poured down on us, cold and wet.  The guidebook had warned us of a stiff hike uphill that could take 6 hours and we were apprehensive.  However within a few kilometres of what proved to be a hard climb up to the start of the really hard stage the skies cleared and the sun shone. The view became increasingly spectacular and the few local people we met smiled and said " up,  up,  up."  We were walking strongly and well protected against the chill wind.  We spoke about Lent and the symbolism of the ashes dispensed to Catholics on this the first day.  We wondered if we would get our ashes that evening when we arrived. Most of all we were agreed that Lent should be more a time of change for the better than just giving something up. A time to give more.  This was very reminiscent of the lessons I had learned on Shikoku.
Up we went to encounter a charming little church in the village of Lonnano. It was open and there on the altar we found everything laid out for the Mass of Ash Wednesday including the ashes of course.  The village priest wasn't there but I had one with me and with a prayer Stephen blessed me with the ashes using the modern form of words, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel".  As he said this I remembered vividly the older form of words which my mother often repeated,  "remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." I shared with Stephen that in saying this my mother explained her philosophy that we are only given this one life and we should wring every drop of fun we can out of every day. 

Soon we settled back to what was a glorious day's mountain walking that was becoming increasingly steep.  Throughout this day on the mountain we saw many trees felled by the winter storms. None more so than on the ledge we had to negotiate as we went up.  At first I thought the way was impassable. Two large trees had blown down and with them a mountain of earth and mud blocked the ledge.  Because of the drop to the right I got on hands and knees in the mud and found handholds in the roots which allowed me to swing over and round - always leaning in to balance the weight of my rucksack.  On another day with rain or snow we would have had to turn back.  I was relaying where the handholds were to the Big Man who was now also in the mud when I heard the retort,  "your family must have been a real barrel of laughs if this is your idea of wringing every drop of fun out of the day."

But we made it and following a break for some chocolate and water we set off up a steep mountain path which over 3.5 kms would take us to the top.  This was very strenuous walking which had to be taken slow and steady with plenty of stops. Looking back we were ascending at 2 kms per hour. We joked that this was like getting on a step machine at the gym for five or six hours with an invisible hand increasing the incline regularly.  But no gym could ever reward with such spectacular views of the Tuscan countryside

The temperature was dropping as we went up and soon we were above the snow line with remnants still around.  Exhausted but pleased we reached the road at the top and made our way down through the picturesque forest to the Hermitage of Camaldoli.  The hermitage has a dual life.  One of a monastic community and the other where members live separate lives as hermits with the simplest of existence.  A fascinating place it has been there since the 11th century. Although very unusual the aesthetic way of life seems to me to be like a spiritual counterbalance to the fancy frills and material excesses of other parts of the church. There was a café open to the public - with heating and hot coffee!
Fully restored we made our way down to the next village about 2 kms away.  From there we had only 8kms of straightforward walking to get to our hotel.  As we walkers all know sometimes going down is as tough as going up and the descent was painful. The forest was dotted with waterfalls cascading over rocks and we could easily understand why the guidebook described it as a "fairy-tale"  forest.

Reaching the Monastery of Camaldoli we spotted the sign which would take us onto the last 8kms which the guidebook promised would be positively relaxing in comparison to what had gone before.  First I had to sit down to rest.  One of the problems of winter walking is that it if there is no shelter it is warmer to keep moving.  As I sat for a few minutes a portly figure wearing an apron appeared from the door of the Monastery.  He came over and we struck up a conversation.  I have found in Italy that if I speak in Spanish slowly they understand a lot. Thankfully the Big Man was on hand to help with the bits not understood. This was Germano a brother in the Benedictine Monastery.  He explained that there are 35 in the community both priests and brothers.  The fratelli. This is a medieval Monastery and spreading his arms wide he explained that all of this enormous forest as far as the eye could see and beyond belonged to them. "This is our work"  he said.  A genial and peaceful man I enjoyed talking with him.  He chortled with laughter when I suggested he walk to Rome with us.  But time was marching on and we stood to get going again.  "Where are you going?"  he asked. "To the next village of Badia Prataglia where we are sleeping tonight." "Then I will take you he said,"  pointing to a white van.  We said we had to walk.  He said he had to drive us.  "Would Saint Francis have accepted a lift from a Benedictine?"  he laughed. There was no sensible answer to that and so we accepted gratefully this modern expression of the traditional monastic hospitality given to pilgrims.

We're bone tired.  The hotel here is modest and draughty. The temperature has dropped again.  We asked about food and there was good news: the lady gave us a huge tureen of minestrone followed by piping hot tagliatelle and then two hot chocolates.

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of Him who brings Good News.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Consuma - Stia 17 kms

I'm tired. My feet have gone from being numb to throbbing. I'm fine when I don't move but when I do everything hurts. 

We all know that feeling at the end of the day.  Oh I can hear you saying but it was only 17 kms.  Well...

The day started very well. I'd slept soundly and in the apartment Irina lets out the heating came on at 7am.  The weather was bright and clear. Irina picked us up and took us back to the Pastelería for breakfast.  After paying the very reasonable bill we set off. Within minutes were out of town and although at times the path was tough going the sun broke through the clouds and everything changed.  We had a glorious day walking. More vistas were revealed.  We lunched on sandwiches Irina had given us and we made our way up hill, down dale and across several streams on our way to Stia.  This was perfect walking weather and a lovely stage today.

Some elevations were nippy and some of the downhill stretches were really quite tough hence my aches and pains.  But today was so lovely I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

More soon!

Pontassieve - Consuma 18kms Castles in the air

I found it difficult to get up this morning although many of the aches of last night had gone.  The first few days are always like this.  Breakfast in the very adequate Hotel Moderno was splendid and although the skies were still grey there was no sign of rain and the locals weren't carrying umbrellas.  The guidebook advised that we should take food today as the only bar in Diacceto may not be open.  It wasn't but we were able to feast on fabulous sandwiches of prosciutto and tomato we purchased as we set out.

Although the stage today is only 18 kms it has some bite with an overall elevation of 1000 metres.  For Scotsmen and experienced walkers at 3280 feet that qualities as a Munro.  My first since Shikoku over a year ago.

The thing I often find about these challenging stages is that they are immensely therapeutic. The exertion of walking inexorably uphill over a considerable distance focuses the mind.  I find repetitive prayer,  like a mantra or the rosary enhances the rhythm of walking and the mind clearing effects. This is brainwashing in the best sense.  Today we paced ourselves carefully because we also wanted to enjoy the vast vistas of the beautiful Tuscan countryside which revealed more and more glories as we climbed.  The Castello di Nipozzano now a wine factory looked down on us in the first part of the day.  Then the guidebook advised: "soon dramatic vistas of the forests and mountains around Pelago become visible and a castle like villa and the pointed yellow tower of Chiesa San Pietro in Ferrano can be seen to the right."  We were not disappointed and I stood at the doorway of the church of San Pietro and gazed at the magnificent panorama of the valley below.

Whilst talking about the guidebook let me say that Sandy Brown and Cicerone have done a first class job. Routes and therefore facilities for pilgrims only develop because guidewriters write guides.  The section of this route from Florence to Assisi has until now has had few walking pilgrims. Sandy's guidebook and the sheer beauty of the Way guarantee growth in pilgrim numbers.  However the route has no coherent system of waymarks thus far.  There are red and white GR markings around and a confusing mixture of local signs for walking paths which criss cross the route.  This means that Sandy's walking notes are often a description of what he saw in front of him when he wrote the guide.  But things change, often quickly, through the cycle of the growing season and things you can see in October might be totally obscured a few months later.  Similarly it was apparent several times today that junctions, particularly on forest paths, can change completely when a new track has been driven because of forestry work.  So until there are waymarks I'd advise caution in these early stages.  Walkers need to keep their wits about them,  have a sense of the direction in which they should be going, not be slow to ask directions even for reassurance and also perhaps to carry a GPS. Yesterday and today we had to backtrack a couple of times to get our bearings when the route wasn't clear.  The navigation app on my phone helped enormously.  Yesterday I wrote at one point "the guidebook failed us"  but that was wrong because in the absence of permanent and clear waymarks guidebooks can't forsee every eventuality. 

By mid afternoon with a couple of hours to go through the forest the weather broke and we hurriedly donned our raingear. The mist hung low over the trees and the temperature dropped.  But we were soon greeted with a welcome shout from Irina at the Pastelería where we had booked rooms. She drove us out of the village to apartments in the woods she let's out. Warm and rustic with great central heating the socks are drying and we'll be ready for 7.30 when she will pick us up to take us to dinner.

Consuma is a small village famous for schiachiatta bread and Irina's father Marcello is a gold star master baker.  Irina claims Consuma to be the home of foccacia the flat bread of Italy.  Whether true or not dinner consisted of a starter of cold meats,  cheese and schiachiatta followed by pasta with spicy sausage and porcine mushrooms.  This is mushroom growing territory and they were delicious. 

I thought, "here I am up a mountain,  with the rain lashing down outside and I'm eating fabulous pasta with homemade bread all washed down with a large Chianti. God is good!"

Tomorrow more climbing. Let's hope it is dry.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Scotsmen and lasagne- Florence to Pontassieve 23.8 kms

I love Florence. Everything about it.  So obviously do Americans as I almost heard more American  accents than Italian.  But it is understandable that so many from the new world come to this fountain of the Renaissance.  I live in a medieval city but this one is special. To be honest I find it almost overwhelming.  When I visited Rome the first time with the choir I conducted years ago we arranged a programme to sing in Saint Peter's and then a different basilica every day for a week.  Before starting though I visited the Sistine Chapel. I could easily have cancelled the week of recitals and just stayed there lying on the floor.  Florence affected me the same way. I'll return again and again. 

We went to Mass in English in the Cathedral. It was a cold night and so was the priest.  He had on lots of lace and seemed very pleased with himself.  I wasn't. 

For Mass before we set out on this Route of Saint Francis we went to the Church of the Holy Cross where we would get the first stamp.  When we presented ourselves the guard at the desk told us to ask in the next booth,  when we did that the attendant had to phone someone else.  The feeling that there aren't a lot of pilgrims on this route was reinforced when we reached the appointed place next to the cloister.  "Timbro"  we asked.  He looked blank.  Showing him our bright new credentials we made the stamping motion familiar to all pilgrims. Expressionless he turned and opened a cupboard.  It was obvious no one had ventured there for some time.  Under a pile of debris he produced a stamp, blew the dust from it and stamped the first box.  "We're off walking to Roma"  we said. What might pass for a smile of concern reserved for the gravely ill crossed his face as we left. However the Mass was a delight in this the largest Franciscan church in Italy.  The priests were smiling and warm and the parish choir did their very best.  It was quite moving leaving knowing that after a light supper and an early night the next adventure would begin.

Next morning the sky was grey and heavy and there was rain in the air.  It was cold but we were well layered! There were no waymarks and so we followed the detailed walking instructions in the newly published Cicerone guide.  No more than 4 kms later we were out of the city and thereafter the route followed 20 kms of sleepy roads and tracks through beautiful and charming Italian countryside. We crossed wide valleys where stone farmhouses and villas seemed to majestically preside over all before them. Olive groves and uniform lines of funereal Cypress trees complete the picture.  We greeted local people and we were always rewarded with a smile in return. However we did get the impression that pilgrims especially foreigners were not common.    Several times we had to ask for directions when the guidebook failed.  I deferred of course to the Big Man who holds a Bachelor of Philosophy from the Gregorian University in Rome. That was some time ago but his fluency was demonstrated as he took to smiling before sticking the guidebook under the nose of some innocent local and asking "Dove?" whilst pointing to where we were going.  However it worked!

I hadn't done much serious walking for a year and by around 15 kms I was starting to flag. We were also starving. Entering Cecia we noticed the shops and bars were closed.  Attracted by a group a few hundred yards away we made our way along to what appeared to be an open restaurant. As we walked through the door into a very busy dining room the chatter around the tables fell silent.  Children stared. People with their backs to us turned to look.  A fat bulldog under a table raised his big head and growled.  This was like the wild west.  A young waiter passed several times with eyes cast down. But the sight behind a counter was at that moment more glorious than Michaelangelo.  There was a huge wood fire with a spit roasting whole chickens,  rabbit and huge,  delicious sausages. Talking returned to normal when platters heaped high with bread and roast meat and french fries were passed from a hatch. Eventually the Big Man stood in front of the oncoming waiter.  He asked in Italian if we wanted to eat and pointed to a small table amidst the crowd.  As we sat down grateful to get the weight off of our feet a man at the next table who looked just like Pancho Villa fixed us with an intense stare. We got his meaning.  One word out of place and we'd die. 

After an interminably long time the waiter appeared to tell us all they might not have left.  He said one or two words of English. We pounced with compliments.  "Are you English?"  he asked recoiling at our frowns.  When we mentioned Scotland he lit up. "Alex Fergusson" he said several times.  Now I know nothing about football and particularly how football crazy are the Italians and so when Stephen said,  "Yes,  I know Sir Alex" the waiter stopped dead in his tracks.  He obviously told the others in an unintelligible burst because the level of interest in the two foreign backpackers went up several notches. Then I think just from sheer hunger the Big Man's customary reticence disappeared and he added "and David Beckham". This needed no translation. The waiter gasped and Pancho Villa looked as if to say "they're having a laugh, let's kill them now."  But through the wonders of the Smartphone the Patrons of the Big Man's charitable organisation were proudly displayed.  The waiter embraced him, Pancho smiled and suddenly there was lasagne left. 

As for waymarks there were none dedicated to the route but we turned a corner and there on the side of a house was a plaque which says: Santiago de Compostela 2056 kilometres.

Good omens today.

Friday, 5 February 2016


I look at the wardrobe where a long line of crisp freshly laundered and pressed shirts hang.  In many shades the blue, green, grey and brown stand there waiting for an outing.  There are formal shirts which expect classy cufflinks and their smart but casual cousins.  Striped and lined.  Thick and thin. Button down and stiff collars.  To the left hang more brightly coloured short sleeve linen shirts. They have a long wait for summer.  No wonder I often dither about which to choose.

There are a lot.  Much to the delight of my daughters I have no excuse to complain about their addiction to shoes.

My eyes move from this array to the bed where there is a much more modest assortment.  3 sets each of socks and underwear. A base, mid layer and outer fleece lie beside a rain jacket and trousers.  Gloves,  beanie hat, toiletries, medication, spare lightweight shoes and phone charger complete the gear which when stored in my rucksack weigh a total of 6 kgs. These are the simple clothes of pilgrimage.

No matter how many thousands of miles I've walked I'm excited and slightly afraid of the adventure before me.

The Big Man arrived from Barcelona still glowing from his visit to the Sagrada Familia.  Yesterday we provided the music in the church of San Agustín for the 94th birthday of Fr Calo who still says mass every day.  If he can do that,  I can walk from Florence to Assisi to Rome!

Following a shower with everlasting hot water I dressed in the simple garb of we pilgrims. Walking trousers and fleece.  No freshly laundered shirt.  It will be like this for a while. There will be no complicated choices of what to wear.

As I hoist on my rucksack I my eyes rest fondly on my pillows.  My head will rest on about 30 different ones before it returns to the comfortable and familiar pillows of home.

Several last nervous checks later,  water, heating, lights all off.  Passport, tickets,  guidebook.  The taxi is at the door.  And we're off.