Friday, June 30, 2006


Syl: "Under the Tuscan Sky". Today's walk was exactly as I imagined walking in Tuscany would be like - except from the unrelenting sun. San Miniato is on a steep hill - like most fortified towns, castles or monasteries, with far ranging views of approaching friends or foes. We left a quiet San Francesco Convent at 6.30am and wound our way down the district road until we came to the dirt road we would follow for most of the day. It was almost impossible to get lost today with a plethora of VF signs all the way to Gambassi. At first it was overcast, warm and humid and we made good time - 13kms in the first three hours. We meandered over wheat fields, bleached by the sun. Vineyards, olive groves and the occasional green forest. We climbed up and down hills, some with imposing stone villas lording over the vineyards and passed a number of crumbling abandoned villas. By the way, we have yet to see a Tuscan Villa painted terracota or Orchre, and none have Juliet Balconies or pillars and fountains. All those Pseudo-Tuscan developments back home must have been a fantasy dream by a drunk architect. Even the most imposing Tuscan villa here looks more like a Georgian mansion than a Hollywood 'Romeo and Juliet' set. By 1030 the sun burned away the cloud cover and we started to fry. There were no villages for 22kms between San Miniato and Borgforte - about 3kms before Gambassi. The hard baked dirt road became gravel and then deteriorated into a a cracked overgrown path, shoulder high with grasses and brambles. We forged on, pausing in every bit of shade to catch our breath. When we passed by a lone farm house I asked the owner for water and Senor Salvador kindly fetched iced water from his kitchen. When we reached Borgforte we saw umbrellas, a wonderful sight - just like an oasis in a desert. We collapsed into plastic chairs outside the little bar where we had ice cold water, cokes, coffee and ice cream before trudging on the final 2kms to Gambassi. It must be over 40 degrees today and it is madness to be hiking through the hills in these temperatures. Rayna looked white around the gills, Val was dizzy and disorientated and Marion and I agreed that we felt as if we couldn't walk in a straight line we were so exhausted. Kathys clothes were literally dripping with persperation. We were relieved to find our hotel at the same end of the town we walked into.
Marion: We started walking this morning and there was a lot of clouds which was wonderful as it was a lot cooler. We walked on sand roads, with very little traffic and then on paths through fields. I so enjoyed walking up and down the hills of Tuscany. It is everything I imagined. Rolling hills, olive groves, vineyards, cyprus trees lots of wild flowers and grasses. So many different tones of greens and browns. We even saw a field of smiling Sun Flowers! Every now and again a mansion on a hill with wonderful views. Unfortunately the clouds only lasted a few hours and then we had very hot sun beating down on us. I am sure it must have been 40 degrees. When we arrived at Gambassi I looked at my boots - I hope they are going to last the trip as they are wearing down very fast - I have hardly any heels left.

Val: I fear we are going to become immune to this beautiful landscape - I truly hope that we do not. It is picture postcard, it is the movie scenes, it is everything and more than we expected.

What is sad, is the graffiti and the litter problem which seems out of control. Lucca was the worst - this beautifully preserved medieval walled city with graffiti everywhere. On buildings of architectural splendour and a history to be protected. It is everywhere.

There appear to be no repetitive script or symbol which would suggest that it is political. Some of it is in the modern script of graffiti which I have know doubt that someone considers to be art. We are all quite shocked and saddened that they do not seem to be able to control either the graffiti or the litter problem. Another thing we have noticed is the high security - the burlar bars are over 1cm in diameter and fixed directly into the walls, doors have 4 -5 bolts in the centre plus top and bottom and then metal shutters. All the shops have huge shutters which are closed at night. We do not see any pedestrian police, but occasionally police cars. We have, however, felt 100% safe during the day and evening, walking freely through the villages and the towns.

We often have days where we do not see a village for the whole day which can be 7+ hours so we have to try to get water and something to eat the night before. This is perhaps the reason why we have become such expert scavengers. If we arrive late in the day at the fruit market they seem to feel sorry for us and give us fruit "gratis". We have learnt to waste nothing, and take every opportunity to"collect things". One apple in the supermarket warrants 5 plastic bags. Sugar sachets, honey sachets, salt and even oil and vinegar we pour into our little Alp Juice bottles (which previously held Old Brown Sherry and got us over the Alps). We eat wild cherries, mulberries, apples which are hanging over the public footpaths. Even a lovely red onion which we found on the side of the road which must have fallen off a truck. We weigh up if we can carry or eat it and then we take it. We pinch the soaps and shampoos and the plastic cups in the B & B bathrooms for our wine. Sometimes we arrive too late and the shops are closed, and we look at the fruit in the windows, wanting it so much - we imagine this is what it feels like for someone who is less fortunate and hungry every day. We struggle but have perhaps slightly a better idea than before our trip.

Kathy: (Ci puo consigliare un buon percorso?)
Tuscany at its best I imagine. Followed quite a historic route as Sigeric had mentioned two of the churches we passed today. (Sigeric 990) the first was the Parish of Coiano (nothing much else in Coiano not even a bar for coffee) and the Parish of Chianni just outside Gambassi. Pity that it was so hot, so we didn't linger at the churches and we have found most churches locked, a sign of the times I think. Marion and I attended mass at the convent last night 7pm service. It was held in a small chapel of the main church (church of Saint Francisco). Apart from the two of us, there were three people in the congregation. Five of the Monks conducted the service, each doing a small part. All in Italian so we could not understand much (anything!), 30 minutes long with some singing and we were able to share in communion.

Rayna: L'aria condizionate non funziona 'e fuori
It was very hot again today over 40 degrees. I think that the outside airconditioner is broken. I really hope it gets fixed soon, because walking in the midday sun is not fun for me. The scenery is beautiful with rolling hills. Yes this means walking up and down them. We are all developing serious t shirt, shorts and socks tans. I have a problem with all the dogs that we see on a daily basis. The dogs are kept in cages, often no longer than 3ft x 4ft. Today we stopped for a break at a deserted property. We heard a dog crying, Sylvia investigated and there was this poor dog tied up with water but with no food. Perhaps his owner was coming later to feed him but why tie this poor animal up in isolation?

Val : Food Report:
Well our accommodation turned out to be above a bar and ristorante and the owner Internationally trained. He also spoke 5 languages and ran a very good establishment with his wife and two daughters. We decided we would eat at his table this evening.

Today Italy were playing Argentina, starting at 9pm. The owner told us that his big TV was ready and tables laid for the locals. Our rooms opened onto the street immediately above the outside area so we didn't expect to get much sleep.

The ristorante served fish and specialised in seafood. The first we have seen. As such we had a lovely spread of salads, seafood kebabs and delicious grilled vegetables. We felt on need of chips - he bought us a huge platter of fresh crisp chips - he offered us tomato sauce, he looked relieved that we were not of the tomato sauce variety. He then came to the table with a bottle of liquor. This he tells us is made by his wife - he gives us the recipe, it is made from oranges that have no chemicals - you cannot buy it in the shops and you cannot buy it from him - you must be invited by the owner to sample it! We are honoured, it tasts like cointreau but better.

We attempt to sleep but the noise is unbearable...Italy is winning. I finally plug in my iPod and go to sleep with some Pavarotti - well "when in Rome!"

Thursday, June 29, 2006

THURSDAY, JUNE 29: - DAY 14 - Altopascio to San Miniato: 25kms

Marion: We were all up bright and early this morning watching bunnies running in and out of the Olive trees. Not long after we started walking, we took a turn onto an ancient medievasl road and then through a forest coming out into the village of Galleno where we all got our credentials stamped at a cartoleria - a little stationary shop. Along the medieval road every now and again, there were boards with the story of the road:
"A road of hope towards the most beloved aim. Once upon a time there was a path that still exists, which runs along the places where we grew up. It is not a fictitious road, living in the shadows of our feelings but a real one. It's disjointed stones tells us of a past that doesn't exist anymore of a past discoloured by the passing of the centuries. This ancient road has its own story as well as an important name. It is the famous Francigena Road also known as Via Romea. On its pavements the dreams of many pilgrims faded away. They entrusted this road with their hopes and wishes in order to reach the sacred places of Christianity where they got forgiveness for their sins and purification of their souls. The history of ancient Europe has been written on this road among its moss grown stones not only by pilgrims but by merchants, knights, kings and armies. It is our duty now to preserve this great scenery as a heritage of our valuable past.." Today ended up being quite a tought day and a few times I thought - how many people are there in the world like us 5? "Tooooo damn few!!!"

Sylvia: As we had already walked about 7kms out of Altopscio to our farm accommodation, and passed the turn to San Miniato, we arranged for a taxi to collect us and drop us off on the road to San Miniato. After a short walk on a Roman road through a shady forest, we took a wrong turn coming out of Galleno and ended up walking in single file on a very busy SS road for about 10kms. Then we had a "Blessing Momet". We stood in a group at a little side road to decide what to do. A truck came down the road and the driver told us that the village on the hill behind us was Ponte Cappiano. The VF passes right through it. So we were back on track. We stopped for coffee and then continued across a Medici Bridge (once painted by Leonardo Da Vinci) alongside a canal and through many very flat fields. All in the scorching sun. We stopped in Vececchio for lunch and then continued on the road and some side paths to San Miniato Basso. A digital roadside temp and date sign told us that at 14.50 it was +40oC. We had already walked our expected 23kms so we got a little shuttle bus to San Miniato Alto up the steep roads - where we were booked into the Convent of St Francis of Assisi. This is an enormous complex. The brother who opened the door for us led us to the refrectory to get us cold water. It is a cavernous room with three rows of tables and chairs leading down the entire length of the room and a main table across the end of the room - dwarfed by a gigantic mural of the Last Supper. It reminded me of the diningrooms in the Harry Potter movies. Sadly, there are only 8 brothers left, and only 8 places were set at the top left side table. San Miniato Alto is made up of a warren of narrow cobbled streets and clusters of medieval type buildings, that literally stradlle a ridge overlooking the Arno River Valley and San Miniato Basso below. The convent is like an imposing castle with views over terraced vineyards and small subsistence farms. Our rooms were spartan but very clean and we each had an en suite bathroom. The words "Little Things Mean a Lot" take on a new meaning when you are a homeless traveller. Finding soap, shamppo sachets and a large towel is cause for rejoicing! In the few places we have been able to us a washing maching, it was like winning the lottery! Even having sufficient space to unpack the backpack is a bonus. People here are amazed when we tell them that we are from South Africa and always the same reaction has been "Bianci??" (White?) Tomorrow’s stage to Gambassi Terme is described as demanding with 34% on Tar, 66% on dirt which could mean more bashing through overgrown fields and paths.
Kathy: After reading Syl's contribution above, I now feel very bad about reporting on 'revolting pilgrims" again. This morning in the taxi on the way to our start Val suddenly had a glint in her eye, and quietly told us of her plan..... we really wanted a day off our feet, so Val suggested we wuickly gag and bind Sylvia (sitting in front passenger seat) and she (Val) would hold driver hostage with her pepper spray, and say "Take us to San Miniato". Well, ... we all had a fitr of the giggles and decided we were revolters!! We didn't try our plan and the taxi driver safely dropped us as planned. I wore long pants today to protect my allergic legs, so you can only imagine how hot I was at 14h30.
We feel frot, cos it's too damn hot!
We've been on the trot, since 7 o'clock
We'll feel fine, when its quarter to nine
Hopefully sun will go down then,
We feel frot We feel Hot
We are ready to drop.ù

VAL: Yes it is sooooo hot and some of our sticks have warped. We have come to the conclusion that the Italians have no conception of distance. We ask "Is there somewhere to get a drink?"
"Oh, Si, Si - 50m around the bend"
We walk more than 50m and stop to ask another : "Oh, Si, si. It is 2kms ahead".
We walk up to a group of people and ask, "How far to San Miniato?"
"Another 10kms" says the first person, "Nonsense " says the next. "It is just 5kms"
"No. No. It is 1km - maybe 2kms"
"San Miniato - the last one asks - you have passed it already."
Today we need to find a ristorante for a drink and get ourt of the sun for an hour. We come across a group of men sitting on plastic chairs on the pavement - we ask if they can recoomend somewhere - they all tak at once, pointing in different directions but none of them agree "the Tratatorria is over there with the blue blinds" says the fiorst man. "Are you mad?" says the second. "The pizza is terrible". "Dobnt listen to them" says another. "The best is here, I will take you" says one man but he is too busty defending his culinary reputation and we walk off and leave them to it. It is very tempting to walk into a crowd and ask a question. Thjey never agree but it is wonderful to watch and listen - Italian is such a beautiful expressive language and the people are passionate. We are warming to this beautiful landscape and its people.
We arrived at the convent at about 3pm. One of the brothers met us and asked if we wanted water - the girls followed him tot he refrectory - Rayna and I did not need water so we stayed behind. A little later they return and the brother offered us wine - so we we follwed him to the refrectory - where we had a some wine. We have a new best friend! That evening two of the gfirls went to mass, Rayna and I hit the town. All the shops were open - gorgeous clothes and kitchen shops, copper saucepans for E35 - even I was tempted to carry one! Rayna and I had a lovely Spinach and Gorgonzola pasta overlooking the Tuscany hills and then crept back to the convent careful not to wake the household.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 28: - DAY THIRTEEN - Lucca to Altopascio - 19km

Kathy reporting on the walking surfaces: I have now realised that we were thoroughly spoiled in Switzerland as we could use their most functional bicycle paths that seemed to link the centres we needed to get. The bicycle paths were generally well signposted, scenic and relatively safe - we just had tohave eyes in the back of our heads tocater for cyclists approaching from behind. They didn't seem to have bells! Otherwise, we have walked on lovely forest paths, mountain tracks, narrow 30cm paths with a 90 degree perpendicular drop to the right, and a chain fixed to the rock face on the left. We have braved metal walkways in the mountains, steel steps and rickety wooden bridges over raging torrents. Some mountain paths were boulder strewn, filled with (past) avalanche screed, leaf matter orjust plain grassy. We have also used what are called mule tracks. Through many of thetowns we have walked on paved walkways, some dating from +/- 50 BC! We could only imagine who else had walked there before us. On the trip from St Vincent to Pont St Martin we walked on an ancient Gallic road that bears the scars ofmany wagon wheels - there are distinct furrows in the rock! On the way to Great St Bernard pass we also walked on the remains of an old Roman road to the hostel. In addition we have often been forced to use main roads, not a very pleasant experiernce. Roads are often not the shortest route from point A to B, go thru grotty parts of the towns and are busy . Today on our way to Altopascio we walked on a mian road with heavy trucks hurtling towards us, crazy drivers trying to get totheir destinations, cyclists etc. They drive on the other side of the road here, which has taken some getting used to and we still haven't worked out where cars come from and go to at intersections and traffic circles - as it is so different!

Rayna : We left Lucca early today - 7.40am. It was hot, very hot at about 8.30 we past an outside temeprature sign that said 39 degrees! Who knows if it was that hot, but if certainly felt like it. The breeze from the passing trucks was almost welcome. The air conditioning in the supermarket certainly was, as is the aircon in our bedroom.

Val: We are walking to a farm today which will be out of town so we need to buy lunch, dinner and breakfast enroute. This is a priority! We come to the first real supermarket we have seen on our travels. We enter through automatic doors and all gasp - we haven't seen so much food on display in weeks - the locals guess as much, they eye us up as if we are out on a field trip.First thing I set my eyes on are whole "hams" of Parma and Proscuitto - the proscuitto costs Euro 35 (R300) that is so cheap compared to what we pay at home. I just reckon if I was to throw a few more things away and the little black number I bought for Roma one just might fit. Ok, Marion (guide for the day, sweeper and boss) ok!.Next, Mortadella. I've never been over keen on this Italian cold meat, it reminds me too much of spam. But according to our hosts and our Italian Menu guide it is Wild Boar? On a table next to the deli counter was a Mortadella to end all Mortadella's. It was 1 metre long with a circumference of 35cm. it looked like the body of a Wild Boar which of course it couldn't be because it is pressed meat. We bought insalata di mare (seafood salad) risotto, grilled and marinated vegetables, tuna, hams cheeses, really good bread, breadsticks, olives, soup, fruit chocolate and of course wine - last night we had a lovely Chianti from the "odd bins" for Euro 2, today a traditional vino frizzante (red) like Lambrusco ( neither Rayna or I were too keen on this). I didn't want to leave. I imagined being the winner of one of those competitions where you have a trolley and must load it with as much as you can in a given time - or like a child who hopes they can hide in a toy store and come out once everyone has gone home and have the whole store to themselves. I would start at the fish counter and end with the wine. After working for many years, one always has a title which usually becomes more grand as we become older - "tea maker" "shop Steward" "she who knows everything", "The Boss" - when I no longer have an official title what will I say when someone asks "what do you do?" I thnk perhaps "Professional Shopper, eater of Good Food with a Doctorate in Drinking". (NB - forgive our spelling mistakes - spell check is in Italian and we have to finish before the money runs out!)

Marion: We decided to leave early today as it gets so very hot. We were all out of bed by 5.30am. We left at 6.45am and it was already hot. I thought we would be having an easy 15km walk - "a walk in the park". Unfortunately not quite a walk in the park for me. it was easy but very flat along such a busy, noisy road that was dusty and full of litter. Mostly an industrial area. Also very hot - was I pleased to see the farm that we are staying in tonight. Our 15km ended up 19.5 but it felt like 30km.

Syl: Today we saw our first fields of sunflowers and Cyprus trees. Walking through village after village on a busy road (something like Old Main Road through Pinetown) I was struck by how almost every available piece of land is used for planting - sunflowers, maize, vines, even gladioli - squashed between panel beaters, brickyards, cash and carry stores and old churches. Very little is wasted. We saw our first VF sign. Altopascio was the home of Knights of the Tau and boasts a few historically important churches and monuments. We were just too hot to make detours and instead headed straight for the Sibolla Agriturismo Farm outside of town. It is a beautiful place with olive groves, vineyards and a stud farm. After settling in I showered and had a swim in the pool - bliss. Then walked to the paddocks to visit the horses and baby foal. Because this place is about 5km away from the exit to San Miniato - and we now have 25km "in the bank" we will get a taxi to fetch us at 7am and take us to the exit point where we'll start our walk tomorrow.

Addendum to Tuesday by Kathy:"The pilgrims are revolting - all but one that is!" Sylvia had a revolt on her hands at bedtime. Four revolting pilgrims refused to wash their clothes (as it is such a pain!) and went off to bed after dinner and a toothbrushing. All that got washed were "our smalls" and these - as you have read - were left to dry on the chandelair. Kathy had already worn her red shirt for 24 hours (yeuch!) Poor Sylvia - she dutifully washed hers, crept quietly into our sharedroom and hung her washing up to dry. By this time the other revolters were sound asleep. In the morning when we woke up we put on our slightly used clothing and Sylvia made us stand in line like cormorants in a row, while she sprayed Joy perfume under our arms. Sylvia is still complaining that she now knows why she didn't sleep so well last night.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Special Food Report (Settimo Vittone)

This eating experience deserved a special mention...On arrival in Settimo Vittone we stopped at a restaurant for coffee to prepare us for the climb to the castle which would be our rest place for the night. The owner, Signor Antonella greet us and we looked at photos of him on the wall - he turned out to be the conductor of the local band. We looked at the menu and said we would return for supper. Osteria La Sosta was well worth the 2km round trip. When we arrived in the evening the daughter greeted us and handed a postcard from the owner. He had written a personal message to us:

" Ladies - from the "Ospitality Il Castello" Dear Ladies, Unfortunately (for me, at least) I won't be there when you're coming tonight. I just want to give you some information about the way to have good food and not to spend too much. The PRIMI PIATTI and also the SECONDI are portioned for two people. The antipasti can be shared as well. The Spontine del Viandante is the Pilgrims Dish. Have a Good time and good luck for your trip."

Accompanying the postcard was a brochure and menu with the family history and a Dolci recipe. I collect menu's and this will become part of my collection.

Syl chose the grill di zucchine, melanzane - a selection of grilled vegetables. Kathy insisted on the ravioli cooked in the copper pan and said the sauces was delicious and spicy - she didn't offer a tasting - Kathy says she doesn't share!!

Val, Rayna and Marion decided to try the Proposte Di Menu De Gerstazione (E18) each. We had no idea what we were getting into.

Antipasti was served in two courses.
Sausage - red, could have been blood but we told ourselves it was beetroot.
Lard - literally strips of bacon lard - it tasted good but was spoiled by the voice in my head which was that of Chef Michelle of the Christina Martin School of Cookery lecturing us on the reasons NOT to cook with duck fat or lard..."it goes straight to the heart and arteries!" she would say.
Dried beef - Biltong?
Bowl of Salsa...which reminded us of Chakalka.

Second course of Antipasti
Carpaccio - delicious
Eggs on bruschetta - like eggs benedict without the spinach
Spicy sausage in yellow peppers

Ravioli meat
Risotto - cheese
Gnochi verde

Panna cotta al caffee con salsina alla branda (disappointing - too much gelantine?)
Sorbetto al limone - lemon sorbet - excellent
Tiramisu - because you have to! It is one of those disches that became fashionable and few of us probably would recognise the real thing. We went on to taste a Tiramisu made in heaven at the Hostel in Berceto - but remain unsure if it was the real thing. I need to look it up in Elizabeth Davids diaries of Northern Italy.

TUESDAY, 27: DAY TWELVE - Pontremoli to Lucca 14kms

TUESDAY, JUNE 27: DAY THIRTEEN - Pontremoli to Lucca 14kms
Sil: Kathy Marion and I took a walk down the treelined lane that runs between our old farm house B&B and green fields. An elderly woman on a bicycle was picking poppies and field grasses for her husband's grave. The fields and the farmhouses are bordered by an old stone wall that encircles the property of a past Marquis of Pontremoli. (Pronounced to rhyme with Emily - emphasis on the TRE and not on the Moli). We got to the station at 8.30 and had an hour and half wait so Kathy and I went back into town to the post office,. I had a large padded envelope with my vest, Fleece jacket, Italian plugs and a few other odds and ends that I wanted to post to myself Poste Restant in Rome. Although it was a modern Post office this request was met with - first a blank stare, then frustration that I couldn’t post an item with my name on it to myself. After some heated consultation with other colleagues and a phone call to Rome, I was given triumphant confirmation that my item could in fact be posted to Rome's Central Ferme Post Office. Whether I will ever see it again remains to be seen!The train journey to Lucca was uneventdful and we found our hotel inside the old stone walls that encircle the old town. The description of the hotel was 'Art Deco' - think shabby chic and you'll have an idea of what it looked like. We were given a capacious room dominated by a large double bed which Kathy and Rayna shared. Besides another three single beds, a desk and chair, pink draylon boudoir chair and a huge wardrobe, there was still enough floor space to do the tango! There was an art deco painted border around the walls with the design repeated in the middle of the ceiling from which a 6 arm chandalier hung rather grandly. The whole affect was spoilt by Rayna and Sylvia's skimpy undies hanging from the chandalier on plastic hangars! If we activated our red flashing lights - you could have thought ‘Bordello!' The smells of deep heat, shampoo, deodorants, arnica rub and muscle rubs completed the scene. Just a few words about Lucca. Although today was a no walking day we still managed to clock up 14kms on our digi-walkers. Some of that was climbing up the 45m , 230 step tower – and down again - in Lucca. We were thrilled to find an internet cafe, booked 3 machines and posted 4 days onto our blog. Then more sightseeing and a lovely dinner of Tarte d'Erbe, and salads made in the communal kitchen on our floor.

Marion: This morning before we left Pontrmoli I decided to leave my red hat behind as I could repklace the space it took with an apple. I put my hat on top of the bin downstairs so that our hosttess could see that i was throwing it away. I did not want her to come down the road after us shouting 'You have left your hat!? After breakfast we left and walked to the station to catch our train. As we arrived, a car pulled up with opur hostess jumping out with my hat! Did we laugh! I then left it on top of a post box - and hopefully it won't come back to me a second time!

VAL: The Italians are very honest, good citizens which can be very annoying when you are trying deliberately to leave something behind. As Marion has told you about her red sunhat, a Durban beachfront special, which much to our relief she hasn't worn was destined for the 'I'm leaving this behind bin.' We are still expecting it to turn up. Int he supermercato I deliberately left two water bottle and replaced them with new full ones. As we were leaving a woman came running after us with my water bottle, next a shop assistant came running out with my stick, thank goodness the Italians are such good citizens! Lucca is so special - what a buzz! It reminds me of a Varsity town- lots of students and bicycles. Lots of history and lots of gorgeous shops. Backpacking is cramping my shopping stryle, credit card is in shock. I'm expecting my credit card company's Fraud dept to phone me any moment and advise me that my card must have been stolen by someone that isn't using it! Well I couldn't reist in one shop they had the most amazing display of masks - the kind you would wear to a masked ball - they were all made in Vienna and so authentic that they even had those that the muderer in Agatha Christie's muder novels would wear. I had to have one - I just had to! They are so light. So I did! The look of horror on the other girls faces made it even more exciting. It fits int he backpack, see? My masks walked 20kms today and no problem.

Kathy and Rayna: K & R are so pleased that they were at the back of the scribe queue today. All Kathy wants to add is that she paid E5 (R45) for the privelege of walking 230 steps up and 230 steps down an anicent tower in Lucca. Rayna who didn't run up and down the steps, asks "Are they crazy or what?"
Addendum to Tuesday by Kathy:"The pilgrims are revolting - all but one that is!" Silvia had a revolt on her hands at bedtime. Four revolting pilgrims refused to wash their clothes (as it is such a pain!) and went off to bed after dinner and a toothbrushing. All that got washed were "our smalls" and these - as you have read - were left to dry on the chandelier. Kathy had already worn her red shirt for 24 hours (yeuch!) Poor Silvia - she dutifully washed hers, crept quietly into our shared room and hung her washing up to dry. By this time the other revolters were sound asleep. In the morning when we woke up we put on our slightly used clothing and Silvia made us stand in line like cormorants in a row, while she sprayed Joy perfume under our arms. Silvia is still complaining that she now knows why she didn't sleep so well last night.

Monday, June 26, 2006

MONDAY, JUNE 26: - DAY 11 - Cisa ostello Tugo to Pontremoli 24km

MONDAY, JUNE 26: DAY TWELVE - Ostello Tugo to Pontremoli 24km
Kathy - Mountain Goat: We had an early start leaving our youth hostel at 6.30am after eating our own yoghurt and fruit for breakfast. It was 2.5km on the main road up to the Cisa Pass (Passo De Cheeza) - what a relief, the literature

we’d read warned us of the ‘dreaded’ pass at Cisa (1040m above sea level). We left the SS26 and started our walk on tracks and forest paths. Think lower Berg, Krantzkloof, and you get the picture. We went up, down, up some more, across dry steam beds, through natural forests, man made plantations and open grasslands. I was in my element as I just LOVE this kind of off road walking. At times the paths were quite difficult as the surface was often very slippery with fallen leaves, pine needles or littered with shale, slate and scree.
Once again a hot humid day. The last 6km into Pontremoli were once again on the SS26 - a little like the old main road through Park Rynie on the Natal South Coast. Lush green, hot and humid and undulating. Nature news: saw our first Italian Serpenta today; luckily it was more scared of us. We also "rescued" a small baby field mouse on a hot path, putting it out of harms way, hopefully, in some shade.

Rayna: Who doesn't like down mountain paths. As Kathy says, it was a lot of "bundu bashing" today and the knees took strain - must be getting old or something! As we came into the almost abandoned village of Cavezzana a dog came out to greet us, followed by Senora Paulo who invited us in and made us the welcomest delicious coffee. She was visiting her holiday house from Parma, with her son Marcello, for a couple of months. We continued along the way until we got to the village of Groppo Over the Cisa Pass to Pontremoli. Here there was a local election station and much activity. We had some refreshments and left for Pontremoli.

Marion: Like Kathy I so enjoyed the terrain that we walked through today. I found the Cisa Pass very interesting - at the border between Emilia Romagna and Tuscany, the Cisa Pass developed an essential role in the old road networks. On the old Post Office building there are still signs that define the Dukedom in Parma and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. A long stairway leads to the sanctuary of the Madonna deila Guardia, 1921 devoted to the world’s sportsman. We climbed the steps up and then continued on a side path into the forest.

Sil: Our Cryptic Clues guide said: “Interminable stage in atmosphere mounts, Very demanding for length and unevenness, wonderful for the natural atmosphere in which it is carried out and for the beauty of the villages from Tuscany depositor.”
It also said: "Difficulty: Very demanding with 10% on tarred roads, 0% on gravel and 90% on tracks. Uneveness of climbing: 907m - 1229m to 235m.
Now I have come to learn that 90% on ‘tracks’ means rocks and more rocks. I Hate Rocks. I don't mind climbing up rocky paths forever, but I really, really, really DON'T like coming down them. I don’t care how much the others love this kind of terrain, I just don’t! Today was up, but mostly down, gravel ruts, pebble ruts, shale ruts, stoney, rocky, ankle snapping tracks where you have to watch where you put every step and even then you skid and wobble over loose rocks and stones.
At one stage we had to cross a river on a slope that had crumbling mud sides and only a few boulders to stand on. We had to go down on our backsides and hold walking poles out to each other to get across. We also did some forest walking which was great - even though the thick leaf mulch and pine needles were also slippery, it wasn't as demanding or tiring as the rocky tracks.
Coming out of the forest we heard a dog barking and knew we were close to civilisation. Senora Paulo was an angel to invite us all to rest on her patio and have a cup of coffee before continuing on our way. The village of Cavezzana where she lives is quite derelict and now only 5 people still live there. It seems that people in rural Italy are abondoning the village life for the lure of the cities. Some of the little places we pass have names but are merely a collection of three or four houses. No square, no shops, no street lights, no real streets, just a cobbled path appearing at the edge of the forest, passing between the buildings and soon reverting to a track into the forest again.
It was very hot today easily plus 35 degrees in the shade. The heat cannot escape the thick forest so it was more humid walking in the forest than it was walking in the road. We walked quite a long way into Pontremoli which is in the Magra Valley, before we found our B&B just outside the old town. It is on the top floor of a lovely, large converted stone barn that still has the animal stalls down below. Our charming hostess, Adriana, allowed us to use her washing machine – what a treat – and all the clothes dried within an hour. We are now in the very northern corner of Tuscany, sweltering under the Tuscan sun but happy to be here. Adrianna recommended a local restaurant that we will go to tonight for supper.

Val: Tuscany is unbelievably beautiful - words fail me. The beauty and the simple kindness, generosity and hospitality shown to us these past weeks restores faith in human kind and the will to preserve the nature we have in our own beautiful country grows stronger.
Today was a public holiday due to the Referendum and the bar we stopped at, the "official" polling station. Two policemen were on duty drinking beer and all voting had to be completed by 3pm due to Italy playing football. As such we couldn't get any food and walked plus 20km with only fruit and yoghurt at 5am.
We are starving now (5pm) and going to a restaurant at 7pm recommended by our host. Now there is something I really do not understand - it is so difficult to buy coke - bars only sell it out of siphon machines and whenever we find somewhere with a cool drinks fridge they have just 1 or 2 bottles or have sold out. Either it is not in demand or they have distribution problems. Coke advertise their sports sponsorship everywhere so its a mystery to me.
We are finding the Italians friendly and truly wonderful people - they are patient with our attempts at Italian and we help those who like to try out their English. They often think we are American or English. When they discover we are from South Africa they are very happy - "they prefer us" they say "than the English" - as such I no longer speak when we meet anyone!
In Switzerland we found the people far more reserved and impatient with our limited French, they also made no attempt to speak Italian despite being next door - perhaps the reason is their reluctance to join the EEC.
Well some of us took Italian lessons for several months and it definitely paid off - but the star of the show is Sil...she converses with the locals, our drivers, our hosts and her accent is superb. The other day we were taking a break in a street and an elderly man came out of his house speaking loudly and quickly as if he was cross with us...Sil said "Si..Si senor" - we were most impressed. When he had gone we asked "What did he say?" - "He asked if we would all like to go up to his room and I said Yes! Yes!”
Well, I doubt we could ever repeat the eating experience we had last night in Pontremoli. You would have to know about this restaurant as you would probably only find it by accident. It is in a side street well away from the more tourist area and up a flight of stone steps which at first appears to lead to nowhere. But we soon enter the large dining room of Trattoria Da Norina. We are barely acknowledged by the lady of the house who scowls at us and points to the clock - indicating that her establishment doesn't open until 7.30pm. Our host had booked us a table for 7pm. We asked if we could perhaps sit with a drink until 7.30pm? The eyes do not smile –
3 glasses appear on the bar and she pours red wine into one as requested. Then she picks up the remains of a carafe of white wine with "things" floating in it...I say "no! Signora No!" - I get the evil eye and then she produces a fresh carafe of wine from the fridge. This is not a comfortable situation so we hand her the business cards of our host and suddenly her face lights up with a smile - we are welcome - we are no longer "tourists" who found their way to Mama's restaurant by accident. And we are in for a treat of Regional delicasies.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

SUNDAY, JUNE 25: - DAY TEN - Cassio to Berceto & Tugo 19.5km

SUNDAY, JUNE 25: DAY ELEVEN- Cassio to Berceto & Tugo 19.5km
Sil: Felt a bit bombed after a fitful sleep with all the noise from the locals who sang and laughed right outside our window until the early hours. Marion, Kathy and I explored the little village (hamlet?) of Cassio and visited the church before packing and leaving the hostel. What a lovely pilgrim day we’ve had. The day started on the quiet SS road with VF markers – concrete stele with a terracotta pilgrim relief – lining the road like a guard of honour. They are actually quite confusing because they are spaced out every 15 meters or so - unlike the Camino where a "stele” with shell usually indicates the path one should take. After a few hundred meters we branched off onto a gravel path.
From then on we climbed very steeply through a shady forest, sweating like pigs and being forced to stop and get our breath every few meters. Then the path deteriorated into a narrow, rutted chalky track going straight up the side of the mountain. Kathy thought we'd reached the top when she saw the sky through the dense trees and shouted out to us but the track curved onward and upward – a-la Polly Shorts. Finally we crested the top coming out at a tiny village and visited the church before continuing. Then it was up and down through fields and forests until we crested a hill to see Berceto nestled between hills in the valley below us.
We followed a cobbled pedestrian path into the town to find a Sunday market in progress. There was a service in the Cathedral, which is dedicated to S. Moderanno, so we couldn’t go inside. We visited the very helpful tourist office for a stamp and collected a few brochures as well - had a coffee and pastries at a pavement cafe, bought some fruit, salad and bread and continued on our way up into the hills for another 7km.
I recognised our hostel from the photo on our daily info sheets. It is in the middle of nowhere - a huge, squat, deep rust coloured country house on the side of the road with no other sign of life anywhere close by. Downstairs is a bar and restaurant called the Via Francigena. Our dorm is upstairs and as we are the only ones staying here we have the place to ourselves. We had a shower, washed our clothes and had a salad, cheese and ham lunch. Will have dinner here tonight and will attack the dreaded Cisa Pass tomorrow.

Marion: There is such a lot of history around the towns that we are walking through. Cassio where we were staying last night is recorded in the description of the return journey of Philip Augustus, King of France in 1191 and the little town of Castellonchio’s main road is paved with slabs of sandy stone typical of the medieval era. All places were once sites of medieval fortifications. There is a beautiful church in Castellonchio in the middle of the village.
Just outside Berceto we passed a shrine with an effigy of Saint Moderanno - he was the head of the Abbey built in the 18th Century and it is mentioned by Archbishop Sigeric in his diary. We got stamps in our pilgrim’s passports at the information centre. We now have about 16 stamps in our passports.

Kathy: I offered to carry lunch today from Berceto to our B&B which was about 7km along the road. We had bought 2 large tomatoes, a bag of shredded lettuce, some sliced Parma ham and gorgonzola cheese. We had also bought a homemade-organic-ingredients, loaf of brown bread from the market, sold by weight! Rayna and I also had a banana each and an apple. This was all put into a shopping bag...Well... I think my arms are now 10 inches longer - the bag got heavier and heavier and at some point Val offered to take it over and we both decided that this was probably a very good plot, because as soon as I'd handed over the lunch bag it felt like my load was halved and I could do an extra 10km with the backpack. Val had a similar experience when she handed the bag back to me!
I'm still battling with hay fever itchy eyes and itchy legs every time we go through fields. The eye drops the Italian Pharmacist gave me have been fantastic and I'm using them frequently so am looking after myself.

Rayna: Well, I was the "Sweeper" today and the girls gave me no work, all remembering their sticks etc. etc. which we certainly need going up the steep hills. It was very hot especially after leaving Berceto as we walked mostly along the main road. There was very little shade. There were many motor cycles out today, even a cycle race with very good seconding that passed us going from Berceto towards Cassio.
After our late lunch Val and I crashed and had a very lekker 40 winks, broken by Val's alarm woofing at us. We are now soaking up the late afternoon sun.

Val: We are in Parma country - Parma ham and porcini mushrooms and of course the real Parmesan - but the mushrooms are only in season from September. The restaurant is part of the hostel and has a real "Mama" in the kitchen. Good menu of home cooked dishes featuring lamb, wild boar and guinea fowl. The body however needs a break so will be choosing something a little lighter tonight.
Whilst we seem to have a preoccupation with food it is not surprising given the demanding days we are having - we average 7 -10 hours of off road climbing in high temperatures. It is hot by 0800am until late evening. We are drinking coke and water to replace the electrolytes regularly. We are also carrying heavy backpacks, supposed to be maximum of 6-7kg - mine however weighed 8.5kg at the airport check-in - surely a little black number cannot weigh that much?
Not surprising then that my highlight and reward is a cool glass of wine and an espresso nightcap and of course something special to eat - our stomachs rumble all day as we burn up the calories so quickly.
So far I have managed to get a glass of wine every night, should I not for some reason, perhaps our song will go a little like this (to the tune of James Browns - "I feel Good")

♫ I feel Grim
Like a sad Pilgrim
when I can't find
A glass of red wine ♫

Saturday, June 24, 2006

SATURDAY, JUNE 24: - DAY NINE - Settimo Vittone - Casio (Train/taxi)

SATURDAY, JUNE 24: DAY TEN - Settimo Vittone - Casio (Train/taxi) 3kms
Kathy: Covered over 200km today - no, not walking in case you were wondering! But, by train and taxi. We left Settimo Vittone at about 8am this morning with Moreno (host's son) kindly driving us to Ivrea by car. A really spacious Fiat Ulysses. We then bought tickets, validated them as required and caught the 9.35 train to Torino (Turin) a distance of 62km. As this train was "retardo" - late !! - we didn’t have too long to wait in Turin for our next train. This trip cost ± E4 each. After a yucky cup of station coffee, we set off for Parma in the next train. On this train we had allocated seats - coach 6, seats 111 - 115. This trip cost about E19 each. The first train we travelled in had open seats but these had compartments with 6 seats in each compartment - this train was going through to Bari- long distance - so was obviously an overnight train.
We finally arrive in Parma at 3pm and as it was very hot and we had a long way to go so we opted for a taxi to the Hostel Cassio instead of walking. This trip took 1 hour in another suitable vehicle (a Renault Espace) and it was luckily air-conditioned. The temp leaving Parma was 35oC but we climbed up and up to Cassio with the temp dropping to 25oC by the time we arrived at our youth hostel. What a welcome sight!
Marion: We’ve had a few different loo stops on our walk. The normal conventional toilet, a long drop which Val used, the bushes where one has to be careful where you choose to go otherwise if you choose the wrong spot like Rayna did, you end up crouching on a stinging nettle bush - EINA!! Today after changing trains at Turin we went to the station loo. First of all you had to put 70cents (± R7) into a gate to get into the loo area and WHOOSH - sliding glass doors opened and you stepped into a disco! Purple fluorescent lights! As soon as you sat down the loo flushed - what a fright I got! Upon leaving the loo one had to push a button and - whoosh - the glass doors opened. I wonder what other loos we will find.

Sil: There is something very special about waking up in a castle surrounded by beautiful objects and padding through to a gorgeous bathroom with marble tiles, glass and brass, I stood looking around me and thought "I can't afford this!" But it was only E23 each! And then breakfast - what a beautiful spread. I'm sure Val will do it justice. The owners of this beautiful place are very artistic - Senora Clementine Nicoletta is a painter, potter, gardener and baker. She has made all of the ceramics in the Casa - crockery, light fittings vases etc. as well as paintings and murals all in a very romantic style eg each room has the name of a flower and we were in the IRIS room. Her beautiful son Moreno, is a photographer of note and she showed us one of his photographs that won 2nd prize in a national competition.
When we planned this walk we asked the advice of Joe Patterson, Carol Welch and others about walking a 30 day Via F. All recommended skipping the section between Ivrea and Fidenza or even Fornovo di Taro. So today Moreno drove us into town and we left Ivrea by train for Parma. As we left the Valle D'Aosta the mountains on either side became hills and we entered into the flat plains of the Po Valley. The scenery was rather bleak and industrial. We spent an hour at the station in Turin waiting for a connecting train to Parma. It is a large station and we were able to buy Val another peaked cap – this one with handy scarf attached to the back. As we neared Parma the vineyards returned, green fields and rising forested hills in the distance.
Due to train delays we’d arrived later than planned so we decided to get a taxi to the Cassio Youth Hostel. Climbing the hills from Parma was a little like driving to Cato Ridge from Durban - the further we got the more rural the landscape and then "The Valley of 1000 Hills" (or lower 'berg) with few settlements and heavily wooded hillsides.
One thing that has really paid dividends is the daily info sheet prepared before we left with a photograph of the town or village, a photo of the B&B/hotel/hostel, a copy of the confirmation of the accommodation booked, a map of where to find it and a short précis of the history of the town and area. The driver recognized the hostel right away from the photograph on the info sheet.
It is the job of the Group Leader of the day to read the info to us and tell us the distance to be walked each day, what the terrain will be like and approx how many hours we can expect to walk. Tomorrow we walk about 20kms, beyond Berceto, and Rayna will be the group leader.
After the IRIS room in a castle, we will spend the night in a youth hostel dorm tonight! Val was to sleep alone in the attic room so we carried her bed down to the main dorm to join us. This YH is clean and the ablutions are modern and we had it to ourselves. We were able to buy a couple of VF souvenirs and Kathy and Rayna each bought a shirt. The fellow who booked us in even showed us a catalogue of VF memorabilia that one can order. This is Parma-Fidenza country and the Associazione Europea VF is very active in this area.
Although our windows face the road there is no other building close by besides the tavern across the road so I doubt there will be much traffic and we should all have a good night's sleep. Buona Notte for now.

Friday, June 23, 2006

FRIDAY, JUNE 23:- DAY EIGHT - Pont St Martin to Settimo Vitonne

“Sitting at home and meditating on the divine presence
is not enough for our time. We [must] come to the end of a long journey and see that the stranger we meet there is no other than ourselves - which is the same as saying
we find Christ in him."
Thomas Merton

FRIDAY, JUNE 23: DAY NINE - Pont St Martin to Settimo Vitonne 20kms
Kathy: - aka Motoring Reporter (“guidare a passo d’uomo” – driving at walking pace!)

Really interesting to see the types of vehicles people use here! Every Italian home seems to have a Fiat of some kind. We have seen hundreds of Pandas of all kinds, shapes and sizes colours and ages, also Multiplas, Ulysses, Stilios. Lovely little Lancia Ypselons, Peugeots, and Suzukis. Our favourites however are the little three wheel scooter cum bakkie things that seem to zoot all over town. They are Italian made judging by the name and we would each like one to zoot around Westville, Bothas Hill, Kloof or Durban North. On a more serious note - walked from Pont St Martin this morining after a fanatastic breakfast at Fabio’s B&B. Have been really spoilt. Once again a hot humid day.

Rayna: Tonight we sleep at the L’Ospitalita el Castello. Opposite is a very old church that is a National Monument, the Pieve Di St Lorenzo e Bapttisterio D S Giovani. The murals on the walls date back to the 12th C. The shame is that the paintings are crumbling. There was a group of youths visiting the church who are here for 15 days touring and helping to repair the pedestrian route across the Alps.

Marion: Fab accommodation last night in the centre of town and a charming host. The only problem was the flies. This morning we found out why we had so many - two doors away there was a small herd of goats in the yard. The goats were cute to look at - the flies were not. Again we walked the whole day with mountains on either side of us. A very pleasant easy walk with lots to see, again it was very hot and humid. We had a long steep walk up to the castle but it was well worth the effort.

Sil: It was warm even at 6.30am when we all got up. Left Pont St Martin at ± 8.15am after a great breakfast and had an easy walk through little villages and vineyards mostly on side paths parallel to the main road. We are almost out of the Aosta Valley - Ivrea being the end of the Valley. Our B&B today was in a castle on a hilltop. There was a very steep climb to reach it – once again passing stations of the cross- this time sculptures in niches in the walls - but WOW, was it worth it! We rang the bell at a high, elaborately wrought iron gate and a bronzed young man, washing out a water trough (the upturned lid of an ancient sarcophagus) looked up, saw us and crossed himself before coming over to let us in. This was Moreno – son of Clementine and owners of the L’Ospitalita el Castelo B&B. We are in a renovated section of an old castle complex, the new B&B having been grafted onto the castle walls, the church, the pillars, the terraced vineyards right outside our windows.
After settling in we walked back down the steep cobbled path to the main road passing the 16 Stations of the Cross (knowing that it would be quite a climb going back up again) and got a bus into Ivrea. Walked along the river for a while and then a local directed us to an internet cafe where we were able to post two days on our blog. We were a little concerned about not being able to find our way back to the river and find the right bus stop to get our bus back to Settimo Vittone but once again a Blessing Moment - the bus stop for Settimo was right across the road from the Internet Cafe.
We have had many blessing moments! Even losing our box in Zurich was a blessing because we didn’t have to carry all that stuff to Vevey. Meeting the cyclist in Martigny (who had worked in JHB 20 years ago) and who put us on the right path was a blessing moment. And then coming upon a selection of walking sticks leaning against the wall of a closed and shuttered stone cottage with an honesty box for donations. Even having Bernd help Rayna carry our excess baggage when we walked down the mountain was a blessing. We seem to find just the right people to help us when we need them the most. I say thanks to Kathy who prays for us each day. We are crossing a country on foot without a guide or even proper way marks and need all the help we can get.

Val: Arrived at our accommodation - a castle on top of a hill - whilst we are not yet into Tuscany - one can't help but be reminded of the film "Under a Tuscan Sky". This place is too incredible for words (and we felt sorry for her when she was dumped by her man!) We have our song - It is James' Brown "I feel good" - we adapt it occasionally.

♫ We feel good
'cos Sil says we should
We feel Fine
When we are walking in Line ♫

Thursday, June 22, 2006

THURS JUNE 22: - DAY SEVEN - St Vincent to Pont St Martin 32.2km 9.5kms

THURS JUNE 22: DAY EIGHT - St Vincent to Pont St Martin 32.2km
Kathy: Talk about fauna and flora! We have seen domestic animals such as cows, sheep and goats. Cows and bulls with enormous leather straps and bells around their necks. A herd of goats being herded by a 'shepherd' and smart dog not far out of town, woolly sheep, lots of dogs, cats, kittens as well as ducks and ducklings, chickens etc. There are all varieties of dogs, Cairn terriers, Collies, St Bernard’s, St Charles spaniels etc. We have also seen two foxes - one near La Douay and one near Bard. We have seen some strange looking furry critters that could be ferrets or perhaps raccoons. We have seen raptors, crows, thrush-like birds, sparrows, swallows, kites, woodpeckers and many others. Silvia talks to the animals (and they talk back!) and has been nose to nose with a goat.
But today we also had the flies! Compliments of a yard behind our B&B that is home to a family of goats - this in the equivalent of West Street mind you! We are watching Val, as she is lethal with her pepper spray, having nearly killed us all in Aosta spraying it at a fly in our room!

Rayna: We left St Vincent on a lovely wooded path then we hit tarred roads which are hard underfoot and after a long day – 9 ½ hours - all except Kathy feels shattered. Kathy got a second wind went shopping and made us all dinner - Val will expand upon that.

Marion: Woke up this morning to the sound of WOOF-WOOF - which is Val's alarm sound! Sil and Val told me that my watch had woken them at midnight when the alarm went off. I was so tired that I didn't hear it. After getting dressed this morning I walked outside to a magnificent view, we were surrounded by mountains and across the valley there was a castle on a hill. It was so peacefull – the sun had just come up, birds were singing and I felt like I was in the middle of a dream. I felt so good for most of today, the backpack feeling like a part of me, (must be getting fitter) but as the day went on I really knew that I had a backpack on my back! Was very relieved to find our B&B.

Sil: Serve us right for being so clever yesterday and counting our sightseeing kilometres as part of our mileage and catching a bus. It's like Ride Now - Pay Later!!. 32kms might not sound like a lot but with over 150kms in your legs and much of that climbing up and down a 2 500m mountain, it took its toll on all of us today.
So, is the Via F what I expected? Yes and no. Yes - the scenery is spectacular - straight out of a Disney movie. High mountains, green meadows, acres of wild flowers - each small pasture like a country bunch! We have walked through medieval villages with stone buildings pressing in from each side. Sometimes we feel as though we are intruding when we walk right past someone’s barn or front door. Village fountains and water troughs keep us supplied with water. We walked through Montjovet, a village famous for its wine and then passed by two castles and a fortess on the way to Pont St Martin - St Germaine, Isogne and the stunning fortress of Bard. Walking along an old Roman Road with the ruts of chariot and cart wheels still visible in the large stones. We climbed high above terraced vineyards that look like pictures of South American terraced agriculture. It has been a visual and sensory overload.
NO?? Well, because I did not expect it to be so difficult - the terrain is much harder than the Camino. There are very few signs. We have had to find our own way every step of the way. The weather. It has been extremely hot. No snow, no cold winds, very little rain. Hotter at times than Durban in the summer.. So yes, and no - it is more than I expected and I am really looking forward to the next few weeks when we start walking through Tuscany.
Arriving in Pont St Martin we stopped at a police station to ask for directions to the B&B. A tall, dark and handsome policeman came out to point the way and I think Kathy was instantly smitten – tall, young, dark, handsome and in a uniform with knee high boots nog al! She seemed to get her 2nd wind while the rest of us were wilting so she offerd to make us all dinner. The accommodation has been wonderful. Most B&B's – like this one, the Al Castel - are apartments with kitchen, stove, fridge and we have even had use of the odd washing machine. And they only cost ± E25 each with breakfast.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 21: - DAY SIX - Aosta to St Vincent 13.3km

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 21: DAY SEVEN - Aosta to St Vincent 13.3km
Sil: Ok, ok - it isn't really only 13km from Aosta to St Vincent but we have got a good excuse for our short walking day. We got up early 5h30 and had breakfast at 7am determined to walk a full 26km today. But we were also determined to post updates on our BLOG as we'd been hiking in the wilderness for 3 days and, Kathy was desperate for antihistamines for her allergies.
We had a slow walk into Aosta and were told that the INFO office had internet. Nothing opened until 9am so we sat on the pavement in the square and waited. Val and I found an open Kodak shop and were able to email photos back home for the Designer Boys to post onto our Blog.
Then back to the INFO office to use the internet but no such luck. I walked with Bernd to the INFO office who said try the Library - trudge, trudge, trudge to the other side of town. Directed up 3 flights of stairs. No such luck – you have to book in advance and there are no free computers. “Try a snooker bar close to the station” which is right on the other side of town near the station. So, trudge, trudge, trudge. Yee-haa!! Four computers- three in working order - and so we all logged on and I directed the typists so that we could post Days 2-5 in order. Back into town for lunch and we'd logged almost 10km on our digi-walkers, but hadn't left town yet.
We couldn't start our 26km walk at 13h30 and the Cryptic Clues advised against walking from Chambave to Chatillon so we got a bus to Chatillon and walked to St Vincent from there. We walked through overgrown fields of dried grasses, tall flowers, floating seed pods and fluff. Poor Kathy started to itch, then to swell, then her eyes started to water and by lunch time she could barely see out of her swollen eyes. Val has a sore throat and the start of a cold. It poured with rain on the way and is drizzling now so we are pleased we didn't start walking further back.
St Vincent is a quaint town in the Mount Zerbion foothills that boasts Europe’s largest casino. We walked besides beautiful gardens to reach the Tourism office to get directions to our B&B and said goodbye to Bernd. The landlady at the Il Tiglio B&B where we are staying is a charming hostess and introduced Marion and me to her family. Her daughter was actually born in Johannesburg 27 years ago but she hasn’t been back since they left when she was three.
The rain stopped and we decided to risk going into the old medieval town to find supper. Kathy needed to withdraw money from an ATM and we all kept an eye on her when three strange guys starting hanging around. Val kept her hand on her pepper-spray and we planned how we would rugby tackle them so that Val could spray them if they got too close to Kathy! We are starting to think like a team!
Kathy: I've realized that walking in the most beautiful fields of wild flowers can be bad for your health. Kathy has some nasty spots on her legs and terribly swollen eyes. I take part of the blame for our late start as I had to get to a Pharmacy for some allergy medication. Found an English speaking Pharmacist who was most helpful and voila - I look a little normal again. Val and I are also encouraging a really good tan by using our Arnica oil as suntan lotion, not quite bikini babes yet - socks and shorts tan line will prevent that.

Marion: Our accommodation was really good last night and we had our own kitchen so we decided to cook instead of going out. We had delicious salad and pasta and lots of good fun. Aosta is a really interesting town lots of Roman ruins, very narrow streets and lots of shops. We walked past a shop which sold fruit and veg so we all went in and stocked up with fruit. Something we have missed. It was very hot and humid today so the rain we are now having is very welcome.
Rayna: Well the terrain is finally friendly - no ravines etc. Spending time in Aosta Val and I decided the next time would be buses and empty suitcases so that we could hit the shops and kill the credit cards! However with the exchange rate it could be a while.

Val: I was very disappointed not to walk the full distance today, I would much rather have done so than have been forced to have lunch in the beautiful Italian town of Aosta! Our 1st Pizza!
I got into trouble last night trying to kill flies with my pepper spray - the table was laid, the wine open and the next moment we were all choking and had to move the entire table to the next apartment. Silvia was still stirring the pasta and had to put a dishcloth mask over her face.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

TUESDAY, JUNE 20: DAY FIVE - Gr San Bernado to Aosta 28 Kms

TUESDAY, JUNE 20: DAY SIX - Grand St Bernard to Aosta 28 Kms
Sil: I think I died last night because it seemed like my head had just hit the pillow when they started playing loud music through loudspeakers to wake up all the people in the dorms. Bummer.
Breakfast was at 8am sharp. Bread and jam and coffee or hot chocolate. Rayna decided not to risk her fear of heights on the steep down paths so she and Bernd, the German pilgrim who is on his way to Ivrea, shared some of our heavy gear to take with them in the bus. We bought a couple of souvenirs and then walked past the frozen lake after having our photo taken outside the Gr St Bernard altitude sign - 2473m - WOW! I don’t think I’ve ever been this high.
On the way down our VF sign indicated a path that disappeared into a large glacier with water rushing underneath it - I kid you not! We had no option but to walk on the road - and what a road!! Much steeper than the Swiss side - Sani Pass at a steeper gradient, twisting and hairpinning down to the valley below. We stayed on the road until we were at 700m – 1 800m down in 10 kms. The pilgrims from Brazil also tried the path in places but had to abandon it for the road.
We were supposed to walk 12 kms in 3½ hours but walking on the road added another 9kms to the route. Stopped for coffee in St Rhemy and when we reached Etroubles we had lunch and then decided to get a bus or taxi to Aosta instead of walking on the busy A road. The very friendly Tourism staff ordered a cab for us which dropped us at our hotel. We met up with Rayna at the La Roche B&B and as we have kitchens in our rooms we decided to stay in for dinner. We are still on track kilometer-wise.
Marion: It was a lot easier today going downhill. Wonderful views of the mountains, snow, ice and lots of waterfalls. It was a luxury to get a taxi from Etroubles to Aosta after a superb lunch, instead of walking on the busy roads. This gave us a bit of time when we arrived at our accodomation in Aosta to relax sort out our backpacks do our washing and get ready for tomorrow.

Val: We departed Gr St Bernado without seeing one REAL dog - very disappointing. We were forced onto the road due to the snow and ice so we decided to treat ourselves to lunch at Entroubles. Determined to try something different for my first meal in Italy I chose "Pappardella al sugo di Capriolo" - pasta with Roe Deer Sauce" € 9.30 (plus R100) Belissimo!!

Kathy: Nice to walk on roads for a change - much easier on the legs and body! Dropped altitude all the way! Some cyclists passed us going up Gr St Bernard Pass from Italy (looked like really hard work!) only to have them come zooting down again a little while later! Also, many motorcyclists on smart big bikes with panniers and many motorhomes. Had a number of vintage Citroen cars (all beautifully done up) come past us - almost like a small vintage car breakfast run.

Monday, June 19, 2006

MONDAY, JUNE 19: DAY FOUR - La Douay to Gr S Bernado 28Kms

MONDAY, JUNE 19: DAY FIVE - La Douay to Gr S Bernado 28Kms
I was a gibbering idiot this morning. All the diaries we've read tell about the extreme gradients climbing up to the pass. I had nightmares that it would be like yesterday - terrifying scrambles up rocky paths, clinging onto metal chains perched above precipice gorges, but although it was exceptionally steep - 1:2 in places - the paths were much better today. If anyone reading this is afraid of doing the St Bernard’s Pass bit, don’t be. It was much better than yesterday – honest!
We sorted more items from our packs into carry bags for Rayna to take to the Hospice in the bus so that our loads wouldn’t be too heavy. We started at 680m climbing straight up above the La Douay railway line, passing wooden shrines representing the 16 Stations of the Cross. For obvious reasons we didn’t complain about dragging our packs and ourselves up the hill! For the next 24kms we climbed and climbed, sometimes on gravel paths, wide moraine-stone heaps and landslide piles; sometimes on forest tracks, across rickety bridges spanning raging rivers and waterfalls. The scenery was spectacular and the closer we got to the higher peaks, the thicker the snow was on the sides on the path and in the gulleys. Marion took strain today, the steepness of the terrain getting to her. At one stage stopped and said to me “Sil – I am stuffed!”
We passed the old St Bernard Hospice a few hundred metres below the new one and stood on the hard snow singing. The road was only cleared of snow and opened on 14th June and huge, solid banks of snow still lie on either side. We had downloaded bits of other pilgrim’s diaries on this section and every one spoke of huge changes in the weather as they neared the top – ‘swirling mists” “driving rain” “huge drop in temperature” “strong gusty wind”. We were blessed with clear calm skies and bright sunshine the whole way. There was a lot of water rushing down with many small waterfalls and rivers where we could collect water for our bottles. The wild flowers here are all tiny – indicative of the altitude – with white star daisies (Edelweiss?) blue gentians, yellow milkwort and many others all attracting scores of butterflies.
The path we were on disappeared under a high bank of solid snow carved out of melting water gushing underneath making it treacherous to continue so we clambered up onto the road and the last 4km was on the twisting tarred road, hairpin bends - rising from 2000m to 2475m at the top. When I saw the Hospice complex I blew my whistle to let the others know that we had arrived. I was SO proud of us - especially of Marion - that I felt quite emotional. We had made it! For months we have been talking about crossing the Alps – like Hannibal and his elephants, like Napoleon and his 40 000 troops – and here we were – triumphant at the top of the pass with no back up, no porters, no mules to carry us up!! Val will tell you about our reception at the Hospice.
We met three pilgrims in the Hospice dining room – a German fellow covered in tattoos who was sleeping in the same dorm as us and who will be walking to Ivrea, and a couple from Brazil who are walking to Rome. Val went to have a shower and came back rather ashen faced. "There is a MAN in our bathroom!" she said, "And ... he is covered in tattoos. Just hope he isn't sleeping in our room." With that in walked Bernd - the German fellow we'd met at dinner. And yep, he was sleeping in the room with us, but we knew that 5 against 1 were good odds so we tucked our precious bags next to our pillows and crashed.

Marion: I knew that it would be a difficult day for me because of the height that we would have to climb - I always have trouble breathing going up extremely steep climbs. I knew that I would have to dig deep – “BUT” I never realised just how deep I needed to dig. I found the 11 ½ hours extremely gruelling and a few times thought I could not go on. Even though it was such a difficult day for me the scenery was magnificent and I am so proud of myself for making it to the Hospice. I am ever so thankful for such wonderful friends that pulled me through the day.
At first it felt a bit strange to me that we would be sharing our dorm with a stranger – “a male”. By the time I went to bed I was so tired that it never bothered me at all.

Val: On the first day I lost my hat and stick, and Kathy, ever the girl guide fashioned one out of a branch. I was so thankful for that stick yesterday and Rayna kindly gave me hers today. However just a third of the way into our journey we came across a row of sticks outside a cottage, made from old broom sticks, bamboo and metal piping with an honesty box! We purchased a few sticks and continued on our Trek as the Swiss do using two sticks.
We overdosed on magnificent scenery today, mountains that would make "Table Mountain" envious. I do hope that the Swiss appreciate their beautiful country. Everywhere is picture perfect and you can't help sometimes feeling that you are in a scene from the "Stepford Wives".
After 11plus hours we arrived at Gr St Bernard Hospice, dead on our feet and somewhat dehydrated as we had to rely on streams for water as it was impossible to carry sufficient for the day. Before we knew what was happening we were ushered down the stairs to "Evening Mass" and the four of us were swaying ready to collapse. Silvia sat down on a chair and put her head on her arms as she was feeling faint. People looked at her with understanding, thinking that she was overcome with emotion. We got the giggles and also had to close our eyes and bend our heads! We were able to excuse ourselves within half an hour and were given a welcome cup of tea. Then the bell rang and we had to go to dinner.

Kathy: Passed some very crosspatch, mean looking bulls with nasty horns on the way up - and they didn't look like they were very happy with us in their turf. These
big bulls are sometimes used as fighting bulls (2 bulls fighting each other) and look a little like buffaloes. Anyway - there was Sil in a red shirt shouting “Ole! Ole!” Kathy shouting “Voetsak”, all of us squealing like girls, and Val at the ready with her pepper spray. The bulls beautifully adorned with wide leather neckstraps and cow/bull bells, decided to move off a little and we passed safely.
On the way out of Orsieres, Silvia had her whole fist sucked by a calf so we decided to say hello too. Also messed around in the snow singing:
♫ We feel good, like we knew we would.
We feel good, like good pilgrims should♫

We had a great giggle that lifted our spirits.