We walked all the walks we could reasonably walk from Lucca and it was time to move on. We packed up and headed out, but we weren’t in any great hurry to leave on such a beautiful morning. We basked in the sun, drinking our cappuccini in Piazza San Michele within a stone’s throw of the cathedral. We caught a mid-morning train to Viareggio, then transferred to Pontremoli. All the while we were planning this move, we’ve been pronouncing the name of the town incorrectly. When we arrived at the station, I asked the conductor if we were in Pawn-treh-MOH-li. He smirked and said ‘No, but we have arrived in Pawn-TREH-moh-lee.’ Hmmm … what a difference an accent in the wrong place can make. We managed to exit the train in the nick of time.
Located on the Magra River, Pontremoli is located in northern Tuscany in an historical area known as Lunigiana, considered the ‘gateway to Tuscany’. Sigeric the Serious stopped here and documented it as his 31st stop en route to Rome in 990AD.
Truth be told, we didn’t explore the city as we had intended. It rained most every day we were there and we walked all but the days we arrived and departed. It is very much a medieval town with narrow, cobble stone streets, centuries old buildings, a castle and a cathedral. We did visit the cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta, built in 1635 by the people of Pontremoli as a kept promise to the Virgin Mary for saving the town from the plague. Here’s a glimpse of what we did see.
We lucked out in the accommodation department big time. Through Air BnB, we snagged a 5-room spacious apartment in the old city, but within walking distance to the train station. It was a third floor walk up, but it had everything we could ever imagine in the way of amenities including a washing machine, a full kitchen and a comfy bed. All for € 70/night. It was a great base for us, we got to cook our own dinners AND we got the laundry done.
Day 22 – Massa to Sarzana
It was cold, dark and damp as we made our way through the maze of streets of Pontremoli, crossed the Magra River stone-arched pedestrian bridge and headed to the station at 05:45 to catch the first morning train to Massa. The local brochures tout that ‘Massa is an ancient city where a medieval atmosphere still hangs in the air.’ Located in a valley nestled midst the Apuan Alps , the city’s origins date back to 882 AD and if we had more time to explore, we probably would have discovered more of its ‘medieval atmosphere’.
We certainly enjoyed the more modern street art.
First, we trudged through the industrial areas of Massa… marble, granite and tramontine stoneworks … one after another, after another. Then we maneuvered through small neighborhoods. We finally made it into the countryside. The path was mostly small country roads. At one point, we walked along an irrigation canal replete with fish.
‘The position of Sarzana, at the entrance to the valley of the Magra (ancient Macra), the boundary between Etruria and Liguria in Roman times, gave it military importance in the Middle Ages. The first mention of the city is found in 983.’ The same brochure touts the wonders of Sarzana.
The Via Francigena route tries to keep hikers off main drags as much as possible, but sometimes the diversions are quite long at the cost of additional miles. Sometimes, we’ve noticed however, that the diversions are just for the sake of diversions. For instance, the end of the route in Sarzana was a steep, steep hill to a fort high above the town, the Fortezza di Sarzanello, which might have been great if it was open to visitors, but it was not. Then we descended on a steep, rocky path back to the city. A steep mile up and a steep climb down for naught.
In town, we made our way to the Fortezza Firmafede which looked to be an outstanding extant fort worth exploring. Sadly, it too was closed. We usually arrive at our day’s end destination between 2-3 pm which is ‘riposo’ time in Italy. Every place was closed up and we found no place to obtain our ‘timbro’ (stamp for our pilgrim passports). Luckily, we’ll return to Sarzana tomorrow to walk the other direction to Aulla. Maybe we’ll have better luck with the timbro then. We only saw two other pilgrims today.
Day 22 – Massa to Sarzana
Miles walked: 17.3 / 40,293 steps
Leg distance: 17.3* miles/ 968 miles to Canterbury
*Note: Sometimes (but not usually) the leg distance shown in the guide isn’t correct or we find a shortcut, hence we count the leg distance and the miles walked as the same.
Day 23 – Sarzana to Aulla
It rained hard during the night and the forecast called for 90% chance of rain during the day. It wasn’t raining when we left, but it was dark and dismal. The rushing, roaring sounds of the Magra River under us as we cross over it via the stone medieval bridge is a little disconcerting so early in the morning when everything else in the town is still asleep.
The fog was thick this morning. It moved up and down and across the hillsides like a furtive animal, dipping into the valleys and slithering back up, slender tendrils branching off to explore further beyond our sight. It was cold enough for wood fires this morning and curls of smoke rose above the fog.
The VF guide suggested strongly that if it was raining, an alternate route (the highway) was the prudent choice since the path in this area was very steep, slippery and rocky. We heeded the suggestion and walked mostly on the highway for the day. It was a depressing, joyless walk with lots of puddles and splashes, sticking as closely to the side of the narrow roads as possible. Not our favorite!
We finally joined up with the VF path about 4-5 miles outside Sarzana and walked along a canal. It was wet and muddy, but preferable to highway walking. Again, we only saw 2 pilgrims today.
Getting that darned ‘timbro’ in Sarzana ended up being a royal pain. We arrived at 12:45 to find the Tourist Office closed at 12:30 until 4pm. We asked at a couple of other places, but no one knew anything about a timbro. Bah! We finally stopped at a cafe for an end of walk beer and got their business ‘timbro’, e.g. stamp for the passports and called it good.
The rain cleared by the evening, but it was quite chilly. We had dinner ‘at home’… I cooked for a change. It was a treat to relax, have something other than pasta or pizza for dinner, eat at our leisure at the kitchen table and get some laundry done at the same time. Of course, there’s no dryer … just a washing machine, but wet clothes overnight on the clothes rack did the trick.
Day 23 – Sarzana to Aulla
Miles walked: 12.96 / 30,150 steps
Leg distance: 10.8 miles / 957 miles to Canterbury
Day 24 – Aulla to Pontremoli
What a day! Long, hard and wet. It started out misty and cold, walking along the highway to join up with the path. It drizzled and spit enough to keep our rain jackets constantly wet. The path finally turned off the highway and that’s where the fun began.
We forded streams that should have been easy, but with all the rain they were swollen and the stepping stones for crossing were most immersed. The puddles were huge and deep, sometimes extending totally across the already muddy road.
Crater-sized ruts were ankle-deep in thick, yellow-brown clay mud. ‘Avoid the yellow mud; it sucks you down.’ There were rocky, steeps descents on slippery, rain-wet stones, wet leaves and slippery mud. Our shoes, clogged with the viscous mud and debris, had no traction.
We’d plant our feet firmly with each step, but feel ourselves sliding into the deeper mud on the steep slanted banks of the road. It reminded us of driving on icy roads when your car is totally stopped, but you can feel yourself slowly sliding off the road or worse, into the car next to you.
We experienced all kinds of rain throughout the day. There was mist and drizzle and spit, then torrential drenching downpours, then sprinkles. No thunder and lightning though, for which we were thankful.
We managed to work through it all, though we had our doubts a couple of times. We got back to the apartment cold, wet, muddy, but as always, with a sense of accomplishment. We removed the day’s mud and did laundry, had dinner and collapsed into bed.
Italian word for the day: il fango … MUD
Day 24 – Aulla to Pontremoli
Miles walked: 18.3 / 42,660
Leg distance: 18.3 miles / 938 miles to Canterbury
We’re about half way through the Italian portion of the Via Francigena now … about 1/4 of the way to Canterbury.
Join us next time as we try out David’s new Plan C for the first time!