Posting 16: 14/08/2006, San Miniato Basso (320 kms to go)
I am now on the final section of the route - the Via Francigena which I joined at Sarzana on 6th - but first, some headlines that 'might have been'.
1 "Pilgrim arrested for walking down prohibited road"
As I mentioned in the last posting I had decided to continue along the coast instead of heading inland to Pontremoli. This was fine up to Sestri Levante where I was on the Via Aurelia all the way. But at this point, the Via A goes inland. Shortly after Sestri you are heading into an area called the Cinque Terre which has a series of well-known scenic walks. Initially I was going to try some of them but when I bought a detailed map of the area I noticed that there was still a coastal road. Being lazy I decided I would take this from outside Sestri. Off I went down to the coast and after reaching the coastal village, the name of which escapes me (and I have sent the map home!) I set off down the road. It led to a tunnel controlled by traffic lights. I could see that there was no footpath or protective barrier as there had been with other tunnels but the traffic was one way only, controlled by the lights. They were red but off I went. I thought people were looking at me strangely but ignored it. There was someone on foot ahead of me anyway.
I reached the end of the tunnel and there was just a short stretch of road before the next. Now I could see quite plainly at the entrance to the next tunnel a sign that said 'Pedestrians and cyclists prohibited'. I didn't know what to do. Consulting the map showed me that the footpath I had originally planned to take actually met this road so I decided to just push on and get to it. The second tunnel was a bit longer, and traffic was faster. I reached the third tunnel and as I was walking along I could hear the rumble of vehicles and luckily there was an alcove for shelter. I took it and was glad I had done as the traffic had now built up speed and went by rather fast. This was quite a long tunnel and I started to count steps between the safety alcoves so I would know whether to run forwards or backwards when I heard the traffic. Then I remembered seeing a news item about a crash in a tunnel with video footage, so from then on I wondered if I was being videoed and if so perhaps any minute now the Italian Police would appear to take me away!
I heaved a great sigh of relief on reaching the end of the third (and quite long) tunnel to see the path I needed to follow - and my exit from the prohibited road!
2 "Pilgrim forced to call Mountain Rescue"
I took the path up from the prohibited road though it was more overgrown than I had expected. It climbed up and up and eventually met another more major path which initially was wider and easier then the one I had just used. This continued the climb but to my consternation the path gave way to rocks. It was not that high really, only about 300 or so meters but still a goodly plunge down to the sea and now there was no path. There were way marks at very very frequent intervals and it was more a case of going in the direction of the way marks rather than following a path. I am very grateful to the people responsible for way marking because they were very clear and frequent. I tried hard not to think about what the route down might be like (I knew I had to descend back down to sea level to reach my destination). At one point as I tried to get up a slope, using my hands to grab whatever offered help, the top of my rucksack caught a low hanging branch and I nearly toppled over backwards. "That’s it" I thought to myself, "No more scenic coastal paths for me!" I still shudder when I think of what could have happened!
At long last the ground leveled out and the rocks gave way to earth and there was a discernable path. Unfortunately it was heading to another ascent! Despite the prospect of more climbing I decided to stop for my mid-morning break. It had clouded over and was a little chilly though my clothes were now wet through with perspiration. I took off my top and shorts to let them dry out and wrapped myself in the fleecy sleeping bag liner I had bought some time ago having discovered that the silk liner was not enough (I had sent my proper sleeping bag home at Aix to save weight).
I munched away on olives, oranges and crisps, feeling nice and snug with the fleece wrapped round me. Just then a military-looking helicopter flew overhead and I wondered whether I would have to call Mountain Rescue for help to get down from this hill/mountain - I still did not know what lay on the other side!
After a good rest I set off again and to my delight the path veered away from the next ascent and went round it instead.
It then continued gently downwards through trees. It was a really pleasant walk down and eventually came out on a tarmac road which then very steeply descended to Moneglia where by now I had decided I would stop. Took the first campsite I came across which was a several star one with a price to match but what a rip-off! It was the most expensive so far and hot showers were not included and there was no washing machine (I had planned a short day 'cause I had wanted to do a big wash). I wasted a load of time wandering around the town looking for a launderette but there was only a place that was not self service & washed clothes but took several days. I returned to the campsite and slept then woke in time for the dark ominous clouds to do what they promised - a storm with torrential rain. I tightened the tent guy ropes and yes the tent stayed watertight. I was very relieved. After the evening meal I settled to sleep and actually woke up in middle of the night cold so donned the thermals which did the trick - and I had been considering sending the thermals home!
The incident that morning with the low hanging branch convinced me to return to the Via Aurelia so I plotted a route back for the following day.
3 "After 5 pints of Guinness, Pilgrim cannot find her B&B"
After Moneglia I returned to the Via Aurelia and in fact it was much quieter than I had expected. It was more like walking on a 'B' road. It was a very steep climb back onto it and then it climbed as well so that morning I went from sea level to over 600 meters. Destination for that night was another campsite and it turned out to be the cheapest and best value so far. Hot showers were included and they had a washing machine. I had made good enough time to get a wash done and for it to dry. I was well pleased. The decision to return to Via Aurelia seemed like the right one. The next day I continued along the Via A and then left it to bypass La Spezia and reach a town called Arcola only 6 or so km's from Sarzana where I would join the Via Francigena. I walked about 30 km's that day, meaning to stop earlier but there were no hotels or campsites. In addition there was another bout of rain which I got caught in though luckily I had reached a bus shelter when the worst of it came. When I eventually arrived at Arcola the Tourist Office was fortunately open and was able to find me a very hospitable B&B which was slightly inconveniently about a km up a steep hill away from the centre of town. After showering I went back down for food. On the way in I had noticed a sign which proudly declared 'Guinness sold here' and since I had not yet tried Guinness in Italy I felt duty bound to take this opportunity. I went in just for one pint before eating. Unfortunately the barman (who was actually one of the partners that owned the place) put on a fantastic CD of Kerry Set dance music and there was just no way I could leave! I ordered another pint and another partner brought me a tray of nibbles. Then some friends of the owners came in. They were young Italians, a chap and his girlfriend and another chap. we had lots to chat about as the three of them had done the Camino to Santiago last year and they were great fans of Irish music. The bar owner then put on a DVD of the 2004 Planxty Concert. It was a great night. Later on we had the DVD of the Pink Floyd documentary. In all I drank 5 pints. Very kindly one of the guys offered me a lift home (I did not relish the thought of that steep hill) but when we got to the road I couldn't remember exactly where the B&B was. We drove past it and into a dead end but when we turned round and started downhill again I recognised it OK. It was 3 am before I got to bed! Luckily I had only a very short walk the following day and curiously enough, I did not have a hangover. Your man keeps a very good Guinness.
Back to the Via Francigena.
Experience on it has been varied. Way marking initially was absent or sporadic but since Montemagno on the 3rd day it has been very good and I have not actually got lost since then! I met a couple of young Italian pilgrims and like what happens on the Camino to Santiago we parted and met and parted again without exchanging contact details but then we met again and we were like old friends swapping tales of mud and taking the unmarked 'variant' route. I won't meet them again as they have gone ahead of me and will not take rest days whereas I intend to stop for 2 nights in Siena. I'm hoping I might meet them in Rome as I will arrive only a day or so later than them.
The weather has well and truly broken and I got caught in a real tropical downpour a few days ago. The change in temperature has been a huge relief as I really was beginning to think I could not make Rome. Some of the towns I have passed through have been really beautiful and I am sorry that I did not have more time in Lucca. It is a town with thick walls and a bank of earth behind them. You can walk all the way round. The Cathedral exterior is beautiful with marble arches and carved biblical scenes. Its a bit like the Basilica in St Gilles where the information said the carvings on the outside were a 'book in stone'. Alas I was too late to see the interior but it is certainly a place I would like to visit again. The same applies to San Miniato but the 'Alto' rather than the 'Basso'. The Alto is the old town, again walled and on the top of a hill with wonderful views and a very warm, friendly Tourist Information Office.
The walking itself has been a mixture of roads and paths but yesterday there was one section of restored original roman road which actually was not so easy to walk on because of the cobblestones. But it was atmospheric and luckily the weather had returned to sun and blue skies but still not overbearingly hot. As I walked along I thought how difficult travel must have been in those times - how uncomfortable carts and carriages would have been jolting along over the stones.
Still do not know exactly when I will arrive in Rome as I am still re planning! Apparently the km's figures I used to calculate the route length are not correct - they are underestimates of the actual distance. Hopefully I will know by the time I write the next posting!