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 twelfth week of reflections on the journey.
Tuesday 27th June: The Broken Mountain
This morning I saw the smoke rising. I thought it was mist rising up in the warmth of this new day. (I did get out of the right side of bed this morning ) I wasn’t impressed when it turned out to be smoke! I enjoyed the early morning walk. Yesterday, there was no coffee shop along the entire route, which is quite unusual. Today was different though. I love those bars that open so early with the locals getting their coffees, which I think are mostly espressos. I order the same and a brioche con crema to go with it. I always feel better after this treat.
A lady stopped me to ask where I had come from. People tend to be impressed when I say that I have been walking from Canterbury. ‘Brava!’, she said. She told me about a recent encounter with a woman from Alaska who had started her walk on 5th March and passed through here at the end of April.
Soon after, I met a pilgrim going in the opposite direction to me (this happens from time to time). We exchanged brief greetings before moving on. However, one of them, Manuel from Spain, stopped in his tracks and explained that he had started in Rome and was on his way to Santiago. It always feels good to speak in Spanish. He recommended a hostel and complained about the tarmac and humidity (It’s not only me then!). We wished each other, ‘Buen Camino’ as we recommenced our journeys.
Lynn caught up with me at the half way point. I had spotted the large storage spaces with their slabs of marble. Lynn laughed when she saw that the edge of the pavement was made of marble. Our laughter was cut short at the sight of the ‘violated mountain’. It looked so destructive, particularly in contrast with the other hills which were covered in trees and vineyards. The mountain that was used as a marble quarry looked broken, the life taken out of it. It is becoming increasingly hard to see nature as an ‘it’. She is ‘she’. Life is taken out of ‘her’. What I had thought was mist rising at the start of the day was, in fact, dust clouds coming from this wounded mountain. There must be other ways.
Wednesday 28th June: The Diversity of Art
It’s thundering and the rain is pouring down. Thankfully, it started after I had arrived in this volunteer-run hostel in Valpromaro. The hosts, two Italian men, provide a warm welcome, even washing clothes for pilgrims and cooking for us. What an incredible treat! I am relaxing on a sofa, which is another luxury, as often I have only a bed and a hard chair to sit on. One of the joys of this pilgrimage is that things which are treated as ‘normal’ in daily life, become special once more. There are cotton sheets on the bed (most of the time you are given a disposable sheet, and have to use your own sheet on top of it or a sleeping bag). I carry a very small towel that doesn’t dry very well. To use a proper towel is such a pleasure! I am in the routine of showering as soon as I can after arriving at the pilgrim hostel, before I wash my clothes by hand. They dry overnight and are ready to wear the following morning. To have them washed by someone else feels remarkable.
The last couple of days I have walked along the coast, unfortunately not close enough to the sea to go for a quick swim. The area is built up with houses and one city merges into another. Today, I have left the coastal area behind to walk in the hills, and through woodland, along narrow dirt footpaths. It’s very beautiful. I enjoyed the cities too, particularly the smaller town of Piedrasanta, which is full of art.
What I like about Italy is that it oozes creativity in many forms. This ranges from the very beautiful, to the quirky and (in my eyes) the downright ugly. Various types co-exist and are rich in diversity. It makes me think about how we need diversity on all levels of life. We need biodiversity, diverse art-forms and diversity amongst human beings. Too often there is pressure to conform, to ‘be normal’, whatever that means. If we not only accept but celebrate and encourage diversity our world would be so much richer.
Thursday 29th June: Sister Spider & Brother Breeze
I set out at 6.30am today, ninety minutes later than usual. Carlos and Roberto, the hosts of the hostel, had prepared breakfast for us. They had made lovely strong coffee and put out sweet bread. A good start to the morning!
Mist was still suspended between the hills after yesterday’s rain. Spiderwebs were strikingly visible ‘bejeweled’ with tiny drops of dew. A good night’s work! Their creators were sitting in the middle of their creation, waiting patiently for a catch. I greeted them as I passed. I greeted the frogs too already croaking loudly into the silence of the morning. The birds are quieter now – I think it has to do with the summer solstice. The swifts are still around, but even their call is less intense. I try to greet them all. Likewise, I greet the breeze when it appears. It is so refreshing to feel the cool morning air soothing my clammy skin.
Maybe it sounds strange, all this talking to creatures and the elements. Yet, I think it is insane not to do so. Or at least it’s unhealthy not to do so. This loss of connection with things natural has brought us, partly, to the pretty dire state in which we now find ourselves. Many saints were in the habit of not only talking to the creatures around them but of listening to them too: St. Cuthbert, St. Hildegard, St. Francis. When we relate, we care. We need to care for everyone’s sake. I experience an enriched existence when I am aware of being surrounded by companions.
I have arrived in Lucca. It’s another milestone. I had three guidebooks covering the whole of the Via Francigena. Now I have only one, that deals with the last leg from Lucca to Rome, and which is set out in eighteen stages.
Lucca is heaving with tourists. I hear voices speaking German, English and Dutch. According to my guidebook, because of its well preserved and atmospheric centre, this city is one of Italy’s most beloved locations. I know that the American author of my guidebook fell in love with Lucca so much that he decided to move here. This hasn’t happened to me yet!
I had to pay to enter the Cathedral of San Marino (the first time I paid such an entrance fee). It cost only three euros, but for me it always feels strange because a church is, first of all, a place of prayer. Paying an entrance fee makes it feel like a museum of some sort. I wanted to see Volto Santo (the holy face), a carved wooden crucifix venerated since medieval times. It had been taken down for restoration. I could see it laid out horizontally through a window in a closed off section. An enormous figure of Jesus, wearing a long robe. It looked rather vulnerable.
I went to visit other churches but the many tourists, taking photos and ignoring the ‘silence’ sign put me off. It seemed to be more about consuming. I will be glad to leave this city behind. I did, however, enjoy the local ice cream 😊
Friday 30th June: An Invite & Rain
It’s not only time that’s elastic, distance is too! Kilometres can feel quite short in the early morning but they feel more stretched out in the heat of the late afternoon. Of course, it depends on the terrain too. Hills and tarmac seem to make the journey longer. Today, the kilometres felt short as I journeyed along a flat road in cooler temperatures. I knew it wasn’t going to be a picturesque walk. Lucca’s old medieval centre is contained between walls but after that the city spills out into ugliness with warehouses, industry and busy roads. At times, there is no proper footpath for pedestrians. Our world seems made for cars. They reign supreme!
It had started to rain as I was passing an old church surrounded by security fences. Behind the church was a lovely house. I recognised the words ‘Ostello’ and ‘donativo’, signifying a hostel on donation basis. The seats outside looked inviting but it was only 9am and it felt too early to stop. A woman called to me, ‘Would you like some coffee?’ Her name was Laura and, together with a younger woman named Julia, they look after the hostel on a voluntary basis. They had only opened last week. I was offered coffee and apple cake and they showed me around the lovely accommodation. They told me they also run a house in Assisi called, ‘Laudato Si’. I almost laughed out loud upon hearing this!
Two very good friends had suggested to me that I visit Assisi. I wasn’t sure about that. Would I have the energy? What would the purpose be? However, the idea of setting up a ‘Laudato Si’ pilgrimage stays with me. So, suddenly it makes sense to go to Assisi. I still have time to reflect on that further.
I left the Ostello as the rain seemed to be stopping. It didn’t stop, nor did the thunder. It was quite spectacular and I enjoyed it. When the rain became torrential, I found shelter under a bridge and later in a church in Altopascio. The downpour is such a refreshing change after a month of sunshine.
Saturday 1st July: A Trail of Stuff
It could well be the that I enter Rome with an empty rucksack, or without one at all! Some of my siblings and I are notorious for leaving stuff behind. My brother once forgot to take his dog back home. We are convinced that this is a genetic characteristic and there’s nothing much we can do about it!
On this journey, so far, I have left a trail of belongings. The first item to be forgotten was my gloves. I was about to leave the monastery of Notre Dame in Wisques. I had put the gloves on top of the wardrobe, intending to attach them to my back pack before departing. However, to my surprise, I was invited by a nun to have coffee before leaving. Due to this pleasant delay, I forgot my gloves. However, in the present warmth of Northern Italy, I’m not missing them.
Elsewhere, I have left my swimming costume. However, I’m happy to swim in shorts and a sports bra. I also had an attractive lightweight tin with wonderfully smelling soap that Helen gave me. I left this in the shower at Dampierre sur Salon. The replacement soap was left in the shower room of the family in whose garden I had camped. Now, I have shampoo that I use for everything: for hair and body, as well as for laundry liquid. Whilst I was removing a tick from the steps of a church in Les Fourgs, I left behind the tweezers I was using for that delicate operation. One of my best socks was lost while walking through high grass. They had been hanging from my rucksack to dry and probably got dislodged by the grass. I’m convinced that I left my sunglasses on the counter of an Italian bakery. My small, quick-drying towel, a gift from my friend Rasha, was left hanging from the top bunk bed in Lucca. I was the first of the six pilgrims to get up that morning and I packed my bag in the dark. The towel, being dark grey, was not very visible and I left without it. I feel really sorry about that loss.
Yesterday, the priest had recommended a restaurant and had given us a note with the stamp of the parish and his signature so that we would get a discount. That never happened. We paid the full price for ‘a primo’ (a first course), which was all we could afford in this upmarket venue. Unfortunately, I left my cloth bag with a lightweight umbrella hanging on the chair on which I had been sitting. This was painful as it was given to me by Albrecht and Astrid, the German pilgrims with whom I had journeyed through France. It was also useful and it reminded me of them. I hope it’s put to good use.
Letting it play on my mind won’t bring it back. I will try to be more attentive from now on! Maybe age has more to do with it than I care to admit!
The pilgrims with whom I have conversed, have commented on the joy of living simply. It involves the realisation that we don’t need much. We can carry our belongings on our back and travel for months in this way. It brings such a sense of freedom. Lynn, my Australian companion, says that after a long hike she always feels the desire to get rid of ‘stuff’ when she returns home again.
I, on the other hand, think I need to get a few things, having left so much behind on the way!
Sunday 2nd July: Walking Through Tuscany
Last night I stayed in the convent of San Francesco, attached to a 13th century church with the same name. The convent wasn’t inhabited by religious sisters anymore but has been taken over by an organisation called ‘Nuovi orizonti’ (‘New Horizons’). They have provided hospitality to Ukrainian refugees and have hosted as many as forty families, but at the moment there are only eleven. Unfortunately, I haven’t met any of them. I shared a small bedroom with two Australian pilgrims. At supper we were joined by an Italian pilgrim. The four of us dined in an enormous refectory. It reminded me of Carmel House. The convent had a beautiful inner courtyard and a stunning view from the bedroom window over the olive groves and vineyards.
For the last couple of days I have been walking through bog area featuring a famous carnivorous plant called ‘Drosera Corsa’. I found this out from an information board. Unfortunately, my guidebook gives cultural and historic information about the cultural but says little environmental.
After that I followed a canal a canal before entering a landscape of gentle hills with olive groves, vineyards and old villages and towns. It was all so picturesque. I’m in a popular tourist region where there are more pilgrims.
I met a young Dutch couple who are walking from Lucca to Siena. I keep meeting Australians of a certain age who travel on a regular basis to Europe to attempt the different hikes. The hostel where I am staying today (Sunday 2nd July) is just outside Gambassi Termi. It has a beautiful garden with olives trees and the most healthy sage plant I have ever seen. From there, I saw the sun going down and the full moon coming up.
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