On the morning of Tuesday 11th April 2023, Community of the Passion member Lya Vollering set off from Canterbury to begin walking the 1,800km pilgrimage trail known as the Via Francigena, which has Rome as its destination.
Walking an ancient path to the future, Lya does so as an act of ecological witness in the midst of our climate crisis, to call attention to the urgent need to heal and care for the earth, our common home.
Here we share her eleventh week of reflections on the journey.
Wednesday 21st June: Called to Stay
From the moment I walked in I was touched deeply by her simplicity, with her beautiful round arches and her stone carvings. Such a place of harmony and peace. I had been longing to find a simple church. Baroque is too much for me with its overkill of decorations and its multitude of angels hanging off balconies and organs, its silver sculptures of deceased popes and seemingly every inch of wall covered with paintings.
I had been sitting on a bench in Fornovo, unsure as to what my next move would be: to walk another 8km to the next stopping place (it was still only 11.30am) or to rest here. In the past two days I had covered 70km and my body was tired. In addition, my right foot was playing up. I decided to see if the church had accommodation for pilgrims. As soon as I walked into the church I knew I had to stay and spend some time there. A lady approached me and remarked on the surroundings, saying, “Bellisima, no?” I wholeheartedly agreed!
The church is called Pieve di Santa Maria Assunta. Sculptures on the façade date back to the 11th and 12th centuries. The side altar still has the plaster statutes you find in most churches. but that is alright. I appreciate that for the local people they are important. They don’t intrude on the beauty of this Romanesque church.
After what felt, at times, like endless days in a flat monotonous landscape walking on tarmac, I have reached the foot of the Apennines. Climbing brings it’s own challenges, particularly in this heath. It still is a welcome change. For the last couple of days, I have been rising at 4am and leaving at 5am. Even at that early hour, the temperature was 24 degrees but pleasant without the burning sun.
I have walked on my own for the last two days. Although I appreciate company, there is something I like about being on my own in the early morning when the world is not yet awake.
I am aware of a deep sense of joy at being alive and walking outdoors. It’s a deep sense of gratitude. It is easier to sense and to express when I am on my own.
I am writing this in the church cafe. Elderly men sit nearby, playing cards. A group of elderly women are sitting in a circle and having what sounds like a heated discussion. One of them is in charge of the pilgrim accommodation. I nearly got into trouble with her for letting in two pilgrims whom I know, while she was away for a couple of hours. I couldn’t let them sit in the heat outdoors. She wasn’t pleased at all when she saw them. I have made peace with her and apologised profusely.
The cafe is becoming too noisy for my liking. I slip away quietly to the coolness and tranquility of the church next door.
Saturday 24th June: Lost and Found
We got lost in the woods, the bramble scratching our legs and snagging our rucksacks. I had set off with Lynn and Lars after breakfast to follow the alternative route to Pontremoli. It was clear that this route hadn’t been used in some time. The track was hard to distinguish from the surrounding wilderness.
Yesterday, the three of us had met in a small cafe in Passo della Cisa. We had all taken the longer, more scenic route over the mountain thinking that it would lead us directly to our hostel of choice. However, the hostel we had in mind was closed. The person that had taken our booking hadn’t made it clear that we were booking a different hostel – one located 2.5 km further back on the main road. This was explained to us by the very kind cafe owner, who immediately phoned the hostel to say that had arrived at the wrong place. The cafe owner had to leave a voice message, so we decided to eat first. It always feels like a good decision! We were fortunate because it started to thunder and rain heavily. None of us wanted to walk in the direction from which we had travelled, so we considered our options. The only other place near enough to stay was 9km away and on the alternative route. The cafe owner offered us some ice cream. I think he felt a bit sorry for us! The person in charge of the hostel we had missed never called back. So we set off to find our way to the B&B. There was no sign of tarmac on this route. Instead, there were paths full of large stones that provided a different kind of challenge. No complaints though!
A lovely host welcomed us at the B&B and showed us to our rooms. Having bedsheets and towels is such a luxury as in most places we have to use our own. She also kindly allowed us the use of her kitchen, showing us where we could get spring water. Hens with chicks, as well as cats and dogs, were a feature of the house and seemed very much at home there. It was a good place to be.
The three of us deposited onto the table the food we had been carrying and eventually we managed to create a three-course meal of sorts.
There was no early departure today because we had agreed to have breakfast at 6.30am. After that, we realised we would require a second breakfast as toast with jam doesn’t sustain a long hike! Pontremoli was only 8 km away. However, we got lost on the way. Lynn’s hiking skills proved to be useful. She spotted the track we needed and eventually we made it to the town to enjoy our second breakfast. We had hoped to continue our walk but because it is the weekend, and we are in Tuscany there are no cheap places available outside the pilgrim hostels. Lars carried a tent and decided to take the risk of continuing on. Lynn and I decided to stay in Pontremoli and found refuge in the hostel run by the padres cappuccini. I went to visit the church of St. Francesco, founded by St. Francis himself. I was disappointed as it didn’t speak to me at all, unlike the chapel in the grounds, dedicated to St. Clare of Assisi, with its simple appearance.
Sunday 25th June: Deeper Sharing
The sound of the rooster crowing made me get up. By 5am I was walking through Pontremoli, an old city with tall buildings and narrow streets. There are houses that won’t see the sunlight. They must be lovely cool inside, but there is also a smell of dampness.
My walk took me through old villages and woodland. I am always disappointed when I find the churches are closed. I wanted to see the Pieve di Sorano at Fillatierra. According to my guidebook, it provides one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in the region. Closed! Maybe because it was only 7am. I asked the kind man in the coffee shop/bar at what time the church opened. He told me that they are not very well organised, so you never know. I walked on, enjoying the coolness of the morning, the gentleness of the paths and the presence of the trees.
I never seem to know what day it is. It’s Sunday today, but the bakers were at work this morning and so was a builder. There seemed to be more walkers than usual and definitely more church bells, whose chiming indicated it was Sunday.
Walking becomes hard when the heat hits you. This happened over the last two hours of the 32km walk. Walking into Aulla wasn’t a pleasant experience: busy roads, industrial sites and modern houses and flats. The hostel, however, is in the old part of the town. It belongs to the church and is a very pleasant, airy building. I am sharing a dormitory with Francoise from France, who is walking to Assisi, Jose and Judith from Spain, who are cycling to Florence, and with Lynn, who is also walking to Rome. The dormitory has five bunk beds and plenty of space. Our clothes are drying on the roof patio.
We went out for a meal together: menu piligrino. It was good fun and filled with interesting conversations. We talked at length about the refugee situation. Jose has been to Lesbos a couple of times to help out. We also spoke about the environmental crisis and how it is affecting different countries. The drought and heat in Spain has led to farmers having difficulties in adapting and in letting go of the attitude that says, ‘We have always done it like this’ . We mentioned, too, the flooding in Australia. Francoise’s 44 year old son doesn’t want to bring children into this world.
Meanwhile, we were entertained by the Italian cook and owner of the place. He suggested all sort of dishes but then decided himself what we should eat!
Lars got seriously lost yesterday. Thankfully, in the evening he was taken in by a kind family. He has recovered from the shock and, although he first thought that he would stay here for an extra day, he soon changed his mind and has walked on. I don’t think we will see him again. He is planning to arrive in Lucca by Wednesday and to take the train home from there. It was very good sharing with this kind young man. I really like the intercultural and intergenerational meeting and sharing that happens on the way. The challenge of long-distance walking and the sharing of dormitories and food invites a deeper sharing.
Monday 26th June: Heat
I’m not sure if I got out of bed on the wrong side, but this morning I was really struggling. At 5am, I was already sweating as I climbed up the mountain. I barely noticed the beautiful surroundings till I reached the top. There, I appreciated the mist hanging in the valley in the early morning light. The old villages with their houses plastered in shades of yellow, orange and beige, blended in wonderfully with this mountainous landscape. For the first time I saw the Mediterranean Sea. I registered it all but it didn’t really sink in. I think it is the heat and the late night (it was 9.30pm when I went to bed instead of my usual retiring time of 8pm)
It made me realise just how few of these ‘off’ days I actually have. So, it is alright. I was sitting on a stone in the middle of a path when Lynn caught up with me. We chatted for a while and that helped. She had enjoyed her morning walk, which was good to hear. We all have our own experiences. The heat and the landscape also brings back memories of the long walks I took in Guatemala.
Last week, I was quite pleased with how well I was coping with the heat. Normally, I struggle with it more than with the cold. Today, it was hard, but once I had showered and rested it was all washed away.
I know it is currently warm in The Netherlands and England too. The heat is not just confined to the traditional Summer months of July and August. Now, records are broken every year and in June it is already above 30 degrees. I grieve the loss of our distinct seasons, knowing that they won’t come back. With that comes, of course, the difficulties in growing crops. We need to adapt and at the same time continue to campaign for a system change that isn’t based on growth but on sustainability (with its many layered meaning).
It is past 8pm and bedtime. It’s a new day tomorrow, when I hope to get up on the right side of the bed!
You can follow Lya’s weekly updates here.
An exclusive extract from Rev'd Sue Parfitt's new book on Christians, Civil Resistance and the Climate Crisis - out soon via Lab/ora Press.
Jul 26 2023
Lya Vollering shares eight concluding lessons from ninety-six days spent walking the Via Francigena.
Jul 25 2023
Thanks for following Lya on her journey along the Via Francigena to Rome. Here she shares her reflections on the final week of her eco-pilgrimage.
Jul 18 2023