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 tenth week of reflections on the journey.
Thursday 15th June: Rasti and My Right Foot
He came in wearing slippers and shorts, sporting tattoos and long Rasta hair. He spoke in Italian to the same elderly lady who had let me into the accommodation. His name, Rasti, was given to him recently by a Swiss person. Rasti had left his home country of Germany in September last year. He had loaded his bike (he is carrying 8 bags weighing 45 kilos) and set off to explore the world in an effort to find himself. He stopped in places where he found some work and then carried on. Rasti is hoping to join an eco-community in the North of Italy for a while. He also hopes to eventually reach Bhutan. I had a great time sharing food, coffee, conversation and the accommodation space with him. Although he offered a share of the joint he was smoking, I politely declined. When he saw my sore foot he offered some of the marmot fat he was carrying in a jar. Seemingly marmots have natural steroids in their fat. I have given it a try.
Yes, my sore right foot! I probably have inflamed some of the tendons on the top of it. I got advice from an OT friend and a physio friend of my sister. They recommended rest, exercise and some ointment. I had a rest day and I am now walking shorter distances, monitoring my foot each day. Suddenly, the possibility that I won’t reach Rome becomes a reality and a hard one at that. It is easier to continue the journey than to stop. However, lasting damage to my foot is not worth it. But how do you know that at this point? The pain shouldn’t get worse, my physio friend had assured me.
Rasti’s parting words as we hugged each other goodbye were, ‘don’t wreck your foot’. The words have stayed with me. So, although I have only done 15km today and the pilgrim accommodation doesn’t open until 3pm (I arrived by 1pm), I decided to stop and rest in the shade and write this blog.
Today’s was once again through fields with maize and rice. Even the biscuits I had bought were made of rice and maize. The packet announced that they were 100% Italian. I heard and then saw a lapwing. I hadn’t seen this bird since France. She (presuming it was a she) was chasing away a crow. Then she made this lamentful sound while circling round and round over the same field. Had she lost her young? I still hear the cuckoo occasionally, but no longer the skylark. The swifts are still around though.
Today, I saw another butterfly with dark yellow patches. Butterflies of different shapes keep appearing and flutter in front of my feet. Only ever a few though. I like their company, like that of the wild flowers. Here the verbascum plomoides ( keizerskaars in Dutch) grow tall and abundantly in the verges, with flowers much bigger then the ones I see in England.
As always, there is ugliness too, especially in the industrial parks at the edges of each town. I recognised the awful smell from the barns that I passed: pigs or chickens are kept there. These are large barns with hardly any windows. It was strangely quiet, but the stench was pungent. Then I saw the sign: ‘Live animals are kept here: pigs, rabbits, turkeys and chickens’. And, of course, a large sign stating, ‘no entry!’ At that point, it was not only my foot that hurt – but my heart did also.
Friday 16th June: Early Starts & Butterflies
Her grey hair was tied back and a cigarette hung from her lips. A cat was resting at her feet and she held a fishing rod in her hand. I asked how it was going. Not very well, she replied. She was hoping to catch some fish for her cats. This took place in the back garden of the accommodation in which I stayed last night. An elderly man was speaking loudly into his mobile phone while attending a beautiful and healthy looking vegetable patch. The lady in charge of the accommodation was also a smoker. She seemed a very practical person and spoke in Italian to the pilgrims, regardless of whether they understood her or not. The accommodation was in a parish hall joined to the church di Sant Albino. There were 10 foldable beds, three of which were put out for the current guests: An Italian man who is a veteran of pilgrimages and is walking for 10 days, a teacher of theology from America and I.
Our meal was served at the table in front of the beds. It included salad from the garden, which was very welcome indeed. Both men had walked 35km and were tired and keen to retire early. They intended to leave early to do a 43km hike. I awoke at 5am. When I went back into the hall the lights were all on. So that was the end of sleeping time! The lady had put the lights on and was already preparing breakfast. By 6am I was outside with my rucksack watching the red sunrise.
I had aimed to walk 20km, but I arrived there much earlier than anticipated (11am). I missed the road to the pilgrim accommodation and found myself on route to the next city. It was a long walk and probably not wise with a recovering foot, but I’ve been surprised at how quickly my feet recover.
The route was through more rice fields, sometimes following a dyke wall. If it weren’t for the rice fields, it could have been The Netherlands.
I’m sure that butterflies dislike tarmac roads too, as I only see them when the paths are small and of gravel or soil. I saw beautiful large black and white types today. I found on the internet that they are called zebra swallows.
The final part of the walk was along the River Ticino, which was beautiful and wide with many people canoeing on it. I have reached Pavia. Tomorrow is a new day, but now it is really time for bed after such an early start.
Saturday 17th June: Industrialised Landscapes
How I miss trees. In this flat industrialised landscape, under a blazing sun, I miss their comforting shade and presence. The only trees here are to be found in the soulless small lime plantations.
It feels like I have been walking endlessly alongside fields of rice and cornfields. Today, I was traversing a narrow dyke when a huge machine came towards me. It was wider than the path and being on a dyke I was unable to step aside. I felt startled as the machine kept coming towards me. Eventually, it came to a stop and I had to carefully negotiate my way around it via the sloping side of the dyke, trying to keep my balance as I went. The large machine reinforced my sense that this is an industrialised landscape. Everything seems shaped for production. There is no wildness and little beauty. However, in the forgotten corners, wild wonders bloom and butterflies find a space. More black and white butterflies crossed my path. I think they are marbled white. I also came across a sand quarry, which added to the industrialised scenery.
Before leaving Pavia, I wondered what I should do with my time here. Should I take a day of rest and visit the many churches in this old city? Or visit them in the morning and then do a shorter walk? I felt too restless and decided to walk early in the morning. Although I did stroll through the city but it was too early for the churches to be open. I probably missed seeing something really worthwhile, but I find this pilgrimage difficult to combine with sightseeing. The outdoors and the road keep calling to me.
In Pavia, I stayed in a hostel located in a convent. A religious sister opened the door and showed me the accommodation on the first floor. I had to show my passport and credentials before paying for my stay. That was it. It was rather cold and formal. There was no invitation from the sister to join them for prayers or an opportunity for conversation. I felt like a missed opportunity to connect with people, with their stories and their searching.
Lars, a young man from Germany, who I have met a couple of times on route, told me that he won’t continue to Rome. He started in Lausanne and needs to be back before 17th July – his girlfriend’s birthday. He had promised to be with her. Lars worked in the film industry, which he described as an industry full of narcissists. He grew to dislike it so much that he has now quit his job. Walking isn’t giving him much pleasure. He keeps saying that he wants to do something useful with his life.
I am now in Santa Cristina e Bissone, staying in accommodation which belongs to the church. Its caretaker wasn’t happy that I hadn’t booked ahead. I got the impression that, in general, he is not a happy man. Again, it was a case of filling in papers and collecting the keys and that was it. I so treasure the experience I had in Vercelli where each pilgrim was greeted with warmth, interest and a glass of cold water and where our hosts cooked a meal for all the pilgrims and, in doing so, created community.
Sunday 18th June: Elastic Time
Yesterday’s walk was suddenly brightened by a field of sunflowers in full blossom. The route continued through the cornfields and fields of rice, until we came to the River Po.
I have met up again with Lynn from Australia. We had started at a different pass, but when I was admiring an outdoor grotto depicting Our Lady of Lourdes and Bernadette I heard my name being called. Lynn was sitting in a corner enjoying a coffee. I joined her, before going together to the hamlet where we had booked a hostel.
Only eleven people were living in this little hamlet, with its many derelict houses. What would the hostel look like, I wondered? Surprisingly, it was lovely renovated house, both cosy and friendly looking. Christina, the host was friendly too as she welcomed pilgrims into her accommodation. I saw it had a kitchen with plentiful food supplies and a large garden. Lynn and I cooked a meal, together with Liv from Norway (she is a ‘force of nature’ who intends to walk the 1000km from San Bernard Pass to Rome in four weeks) and Lars from Germany. This is one of the pleasures of this pilgrimage – sharing with others. Later, three elderly Italian guys, who were cycling the VF, joined us.
I am now awaiting the special pilgrim ferry that takes us across the Po River. As it doesn’t depart till 9am, I had an early morning stroll to look at the stations of the cross that are spread over the different streets in the hamlet. As I walked, I helped myself as to the little yellow plums hanging abundantly from a tree. I made two pots of coffee for my fellow pilgrims and myself as we enjoyed a relaxed breakfast. It feels like a holiday .
The ferry didn’t arrive at the expected time. Domenico, an Italian pilgrim, said that time here is ‘elastic’. Thankfully, it was not stretched too far and Danilo arrived with his metal boat only fifteen minutes late. Normally, twelve people would fit into the boat. However, six of us with our rucksacks soon filled it. It was glorious to sail over the water, with its coolness and tranquility. It made a pleasant change to sit and move at the same time. I spotted brown foam floating on the river’s surface. Lynn thought for a moment that she had seen crocodiles, but it was actually litter. The boat ride was over too soon. We had to climb the river bank and go to Danilo’s house for our passport stamp. Danilo wanted to take a minute of our time to tell us a little of the history of the place. I knew that it would be an ‘elastic’ minute. Danilo had created a column in memory of the two famous men that passed through this region, following different routes: Sigero and Columba.
After an ‘elastic’ minute that stretched ever wider, we were invited to his outdoor office. We received the most beautiful stamp in our pilgrim’s passport and wrote our name, profession, where we were from, where we started from and where we were going to. Danilo had ferried more than 400 people so far this year.
We paid a price for this adventure. The route from the other side of river took us along tarmac roads and through industrialised areas into Piacenza. In contrast with yesterday, now we are in a modern but simple hostel. The caretaker has a bed in the dormitory and is busy getting more beds ready. He said that seven musicians will join us in the dormitory. I have bought earplugs just in case!
Monday 19th June: Saint Fiorenzo
He was sitting on a bench under a tree in front of St. Francis Church. I had seen him earlier when I had come out of the accommodation provided by the church. He called me over and asked if I spoke English. Hearing that I did, he invited me to sit down next to him. He said he liked to speak English but his compatriots don’t understand him. In 2016, he had made the journey from Nigeria to Italy, crossing the sea in a boat with 169 others. The boat was leaking and strong waves made it capsize. Only 59 survived. He had worked for a while but was only allowed to do so for short periods. He had to reapply for work again and was waiting for the response. He had his things in a small rucksack on his back and is staying with friends. ‘It’s not easy’, he kept saying. He would like to go to England because they speak English. The colour of our skin doesn’t matter – we are all the same, he said. We are one family. I agreed but was painfully aware of my comparative privileges.
I am in Fiorenzuola D’Astra, a lovely town that looks more affluent then the Piacenza that I left this morning. It was recommended that upon leaving yesterday’s hostel I should take on the train or bus for the first stretch of the route. Doing so would allow me to miss the ugly part of Piacenza and to avoid walking along the dangerously busy road. The official app and guide book didn’t mention anything about taking public transport. It didn’t feel right to skip a part of the route, especially as I am here not just to see the beautiful parts but to see the ugliness too. So far all towns seem to have a lovely centre but the outskirts are ugly due to commerce, industry and unsightly appartement blocks.
By 6.15am Lynn and I were already on the road. One section was quite dangerous as there was no footpath and only a narrow strip of tarmac on the other side of the white line. The cars flew past! Lars told us later that a lorry passed so close to him that it blew off his cap! Eventually, the route took us down narrow country roads where we passed fields of wheat and some with tomatoes. The weather was kind at first, with some clouds, before the sun appeared with full force. These are our last days wandering through the Po Valley. I heard the skylark again. The land is dryer here, which means she can nest here too. The cuckoo is still present. In every town in Italy I have encountered the swifts. They are here too. The many churches with their high towers provide good nesting places for them.
Francesco is a volunteer looking after the pilgrims accommodation but also helping out with Caritas and supporting the young men from Africa who don’t have papers allowing them to work. He offered to show us the church dedicated to San Fiorenzo, a French pilgrim who passed through the town on his way to Rome in 800CE. At that time, the town was in mourning because a child of the royal family had died. The saint brought the child back to life, giving glory to God for the act. The local church, originally dedicated to Saint Bonifatius, was then dedicated to him. Francesco told me that on 27th October, the Feast of San Fiorenzo, more people go to church than at Christmas. He said the people know more about the story of Saint Fiorenzo than they do about the birth of Jesus.
I told Francesco about my encounter with Bernard, the man from Nigeria. He told me about Bernard’s unfortunate addiction to gambling. I thought about the author Gabor Mate, who has written a lot about addiction and says it’s not about ‘Why the addiction?’ but ‘Why the pain?’
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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.
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Lya Vollering shares eight concluding lessons from ninety-six days spent walking the Via Francigena.
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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