Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Italian Odyssey: One Couple's Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage: Julie Burk & Neville Tencer

A couple of years ago I sent Neville and Julie a CD with maps, our daily guides translated from the Italian AEVF website and copies of our daily info sheets compiled for our walk on the VF in 2006.  Many of the maps had been sent to me by another VF Pilgrim, Jeff  McDonald, who walked the VF in 2004.  The others were downloaded from the AEVF website.  Neville and Julie were planning their walk on the VF from Martingy to Rome. 
In August 2010, Neville announced the release of a book about their VF adventure - "An Italian Odyssey: One Couple's Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage".  I couldn't wait to read it!  We had blogged about our walk and Val had written a whole section about food on the blog. 
Neville very kindly sent me a copy of the book and asked if I would write a review.

Last week, I posted this review on the Amazon website. 

"To be honest, I found it difficult to review this book objectively. Not because it isn't well written - it is. It is fast moving, with lots of interesting history and delicious food reports thrown in. It makes fascinating reading, especially for anyone contemplating walking the Via Francigena through Italy. The authors took more time out to visit places of historic interest than most pilgrims do and delighted in sharing their enjoyment of regional foods and delicacies. However, Neville and Julie's experience was so different from my Via Francigena trek that I found it hard to identify with their tales of hardships and their constant bickering and squabbling brought on by getting lost, searching for places to stay, often blamed on demons and trickery. When the going turned tough, the tough turned on each other!
Unlike them, we climbed up to the Gr St Bernard in beautiful June sunshine and although it wasn't easy traversing melting glaciers and detouring around large banks of snow, we managed the 11 hour haul to the pass with no dramas or extreme physical challenges and no fall-out.
I must admit that in 2006 when I and four friends walked the Via Francigena from Lake Leman in Switzerland to Rome, we were often bemused and confused by the signs and directions but we never  actually got lost, not once.
Perhaps this is because we listened to experienced pilgrims' advice and skipped a 200km section in the north and took a train from Ivrea to Parma.
We booked every night's accommodation ahead and, amazingly for 5 very different women walking together, we didn't have any heated disagreements or arguments even when the going got tough. I loved their idea of writing the story from a cultural and culinary perspective. This sets the book apart from scores of similar pilgrimage tales, which by their very nature, are often merely day to day accounts of getting up, packing the back pack, walking all day, arriving, eating and sleeping. This book is much more than that. In Julie's words, theirs was "an extraordinary experience with a bitter undertone but with time, sweet, spicy and delicious."
PS: I've been asked about the 3 Star rating. I don't like fights, especially between couples and when they nearly gave up walking because of them, I nearly gave up on the book. I'm glad I didn't because as the terrain inproved so did their disposition and the story!"

Neville explained to me that the worst part of the VF through Italy is the section we skipped - the section from Ivrea to Fidenza.  It is this tough, difficult section that is a source of grief for many. While there are other locations along the VF that could be improved, this ± 200km section was a source of lot of pain for them and hence represented their “hell” of a Dante 3-act play. They did not want to sugar coat their experience and hence the second section of the book focuses on the hellish experiences of this stage of the walk.  I take his point.  We followed the advice of Joe Paterson and Andrew and Carol Walsh who walked the VF the year before me and skipped that section altogether.
Another source of aggravation for almost everyone who has walked the VF is finding accommodation. As far back as 2003 when I was researching the Via for our planned walk, the only written accounts were Veronica O'Connors short diary of her walk in 2002, Brandon Wilson's diary of his walk from the Gr St Bernard to Rome and Jeff McDonald's diary of his walk in 2004. 
Jeff often referred to his frustration in trying to find a hotel at the end of a day.  His diary gives the time taken for each stage, and in it he writes:  'The times include finding accommodation each day, sometimes that could take an hour or so.'
My friend John, who is a seasoned pilgrimage walker, walked the VF in 2005 and on his return said that he would never recommend it to anyone. He struggled to find accommodation, sometimes having to sleep on a park bench, in a cardboard box, on the portico of a church and one night, in a police station.  He also got hopelessly lost on numerous occasions and said that he felt he was committing suicide walking on some of the busy roads with huge trucks and heavy traffic hurtling down on him.
Because of these tales of woe, we decided not to risk trying to find beds at night for five middle-aged women so I laboriously booked beds for every night before we left South Africa.  And, we were so pleased we'd done that.  No matter how far we had to walk; no matter how tired we were; no matter how incorrect the mileages were (some days we thought we'd be walking 23km and ended up walking over 30km) we always knew that there was a hot shower and a clean bed waiting for us at the end of the day.  It took the anxiety and panic out of the walk and gave us the lee-way to take our time, enjoy the scenery and interact with the locals.
The Via Francigena today is probably what the Camino was like 30 years ago.  We only met two pilgrims.  One at the Gr St Bernard hospice who was not walking to Rome, and a couple of cyclists in Sienna.  We bundu-bashed our way through ploughed fields, tall rows of corn, over dry stone walls and waded through rivers where the bridges had fallen down.  It was tough.  It was hot - sometimes over 40oC in the shade.  And, there was very little pilgrim accommodation - only two albergues which were not only for pilgrims.

What's it like now?  Reading Neville and Julie's book, I don't think much has changed.  There are guide books available in English and more pilgrim accommodation in monasteries and convents.  Perhaps VF pilgrims are no longer the 'pioneers' we were described as by Adelaide Trezzini when we joined the AIVF, but it is still a difficult walk made more so by the lack of infrastructure and accommodation.

(Tarta d' Erbe - made by Nona Norina in Pentremoli)