On the fire at Oakey Park, 20th December 2019

This night the aftermath of the fire is so beautiful. There is a calm. One feels like praising and giving thanks. That I did and, besides, drank wine.

Dotted on the hills and even quite close, in the night, there are the firefly glows of burning logs but with the knowledge that they can do no harm. There is no contagion, for all around is already burnt.

In the last of the daylight, I walked perhaps halfway up to the rocks that sit sentinel above my house, my lovely house. The miracle was that, for all the intensity, power, speed of the onslaught, the canopy had remained unburned. The fire had been completely within the understory. The floor of the hill was carpeted with ash and the remnants of charred leaves. It was clean, as though swept clean, and of course it had been. Ants went about their business as though nothing had happened.

With good fortune, I had watched as the fire crested around the ridge to the east – not from where I had expected, that was to the north. But from the east, driven by the wind, came first a roaring then a flicker then a wall of flame high up through the trees. It came at me. I felt no fear, just a thrill of the power and speed and the noise and the light. Far away enough that I felt no threat, far away enough that I knew my solid old house would laugh at any attempt to intimidate it. My house, now 116 years old, must have seen many many fires, and some much worse than this.

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11. I find Heaven on Earth

Today has been the final full day on this journey – and an impromptu plan has made it very wonderful.

To spend three full days in Milan proved to be slightly, though not terribly, a waste. I’ve had the chance to observe suburban life in what is the fashion, technical, and engineering capital of Italy (if not the world): I have confirmed my understanding that I no longer have the slightest interest in seeing famous sites. Last night I went to a wonderful piece of theatre that really pleased me immensely: and I did go to a specialist motorcycle shop here in Milan.

Today however I fulfilled something that perhaps I should have done years ago but never got round to it. Certainly since my 1997 trip I have wanted to go and buy parts for my various Italian motorcycles, partly due to my tight-arsed hatred of exorbitant postal rates. But for 22 years it never happened, quite to my frustration.

Today I went to Mandello del Lario, a town on Lake Como and the home of Moto Guzzi motorcycles since 1922. I knew there were vintage spare parts dealers in the town and had researched the addresses in advance. I also knew that Moto Guzzi had a museum at their factory. What I hadn’t realised is what a stunning place Mandello is – the lake, the beginning of The Alps and, very noticeably, all the dogs are nice and friendly. Mandello gives the impression that nothing bad could ever happen there; it felt a true earthly paradise – calm, friendly, embracing.

And then there is Carlo Guzzi the man, the main founder of the company that still flourishes and bears his name today. I understand that he was a very special human being, not because of his motorbikes but because of his humanity and style. Probably the favourite of my five Italian motorbikes is a model called Lodola, Italian for Lark (or maybe Skylark). This was the very last Guzzi model designed by Carlo himself, I like to think of it as the child of his last swan-song. No other Guzzi is quite like it, for it is the sweetest, kindest bike I have ever known. It has a sense of humour and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. It has transcended all the macho motorcycle nonsense.

And today I went to a beautiful shop run by Signora Cosca, a beautiful woman of about 70, and bought THE MOST BEAUTIFUL exhaust pipe and muffler for my most beautiful motorbike. I’m not joking – when I asked to check it before they packaged it for transport, I held this piece of chrome-plated tubing between my two hands and I almost wept with the beauty of it. The (surprising) weight of it, the sculpture of the design, the utter perfection of Italian manufacture.

And then I went to the Guzzi Museum. On a tip-off from Signora Cosca I went an hour earlier than the official 3pm opening because there was a private tour booked and she was sure I wouldn’t be noticed. Whilst waiting I hooked up wih a couple of French guys (really hilarious) and tipped them off too. We joined a group of maybe 10 German/Swiss/Austrian Guzzisti, said Guten tag a couple of times, and had an absolutely free run through the museum. As we finished at 3pm, we ran into hoi polloi tourists, hundreds of them jamming the entry. So lucky.

 

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10. I find my feet.

Funny expression, no? Ah, my beloved English language and its quirky expressions. There they are – right at the bottom of my legs. Where I left them yesterday. Sounds like Eccles and Bluebottle.

No. I’m becoming a walker; I’ve lost my fear. I can look at a hill a long, long way away and say “Yep, I can get there alright.” A photo from today’s walk illustrates this:

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Just below centre is the long streak of the town of Aulla where I started at 9:30. Then there’s a tiny white dot, a quarter from the left and halfway down. That’s the church at Bibolo, 3.5km from Aulla and 330m higher. That was a steep haul. Then three-quarters across and near the bottom is Vecchiatto, 1.5km from and 110m lower than Bibolo (that bit was easy). Now I’m 2.5km and 260m higher – another steep climb.

So in 3 hours I zigzagged (horizontally and vertically) my way over 7.5km distance and am half a kilometre into the sky; and I can trace it all in this one photo.

But look at that sky! And here:

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And here:

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Yes, I did get rained upon, but beautifully and softly. Less than a shower, more than a drizzle. My rain jacket was useless because my sweating produced more water inside the jacket than would have precipitated from above. So I walked gleefully drizzled upon in T-shirt and jeans.

For the first time on this short adventure, I felt that I did not need to rush today. I paced myself, stopped and savoured odd things like long areas of disturbance where (I’m guessing) a dog had been digging either for porcini mushrooms or maybe truffles. Many, many little streams bubbling down the hillsides in waterfall-ed leaps – there is so much water here; it makes an Aussie weep. Wayside shrines to the Madonna – more in this poor and more primitive area than before. I thought more about my photography, rather than just snap-and-run.

The walking today was a pleasure. Yeah, I could make it to Rome.

Next year.

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9. The walk begins.

It was dawn on this exciting day. Everything was planned, pinned down, organised. I was impressed with my own strategic exactitude. The one essential objective to begin my formal pilgrimage on the Via Francigena was to obtain The Pilgrim Passport – the credenziale, only available in a few places. The train to my starting point of Pontremoli had me arriving 15 minutes before the tourist office opened at 10:30. Yes, I checked the time and (more importantly in Italy the day AND the season). Yes, it would be open. My heart was light even with a sprinkle of rain as I walked the kilometre from the station to the town centre. I had the address – as I said, everything sorted.

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Pontremoli with the dome of the Cathedral

As I walked up the main square at exactly 10:30, I noticed an open shop with VF-ish sort of signs and merchandise. This wasn’t the place, more likely some sort of tourist spin-off. I continued on to the correct address. Which was shut, a notice directing back me to the shop I had just passed. I went back. It had just shut. A notice telling me that it was shut all day today, but (in case of necessity) I could call at the mayor’s office (quaintly called “The Office of Productive Activity”!). I asked the lady at the counter. She knew nothing, but called a colleague. The colleague suggested going to the monastery of the Cappuccin Brothers who operate a hostel. Good idea. I walked the kilometre, in the rain, back to the monastery next to the station. They were shut and did not open until 3pm, but (in case of necessity) I could call Gianpietro at this number. Which I did. No, he could not help me.

So now I’m spinning out. I am using the F-word. A lot. Repeatedly, rapid-fire. This is Italy. I am deciding I will just get on the next train home and go to bed.

Then I remember the lessons learned on my “warm-up” pilgrimage back in Australia only a couple of weeks back. That Pilgrimage is about overcoming. About facing challenges and NOT squibbing out. I think Pilgrimage is intensely psychotherapeutic. You are there. Things happen out of your control. Deal with it.

OK, I decide, do the Pilgrimage WITHOUT the passport. It’s not what I want but it’s what I’ve got. I return the kilometre (at least the rain has stopped) to the cathedral, the real starting point of any pilgrimage, to seek blessing, to request MY trinity of needs – courage, wisdom, insight.

As I walk up the town square towards the cathedral, walking towards me is a young woman of such astonishing beauty that I almost fall over. In the seconds before we pass I drink in every detail of her radiance. Twenty-five-ish, a face to grace the classiest magazine cover, tall, slim and elegantly dressed, large spectacles to accentuate her eyes and face structure. I gasp. I swoon. She passes. I think “Well, that’s a blessing of sorts. Just think, between the to-ing and fro-ing and decisions and indecisions, of the accident of timing that made that vision possible. Twenty seconds earlier, nothing. Twenty seconds later, nothing. It made everything worthwhile.”

Then, talk about timing, as I pass the original shop (remember, the one that was shut), the door was open to allow a couple of tradesmen to enter and there, supervising the coming and going, was the (I know nothing) lady from the mayor’s office counter!! As I passed, I jokingly said “Are you sure you can’t help me?” And she said “Hang on a minute, I might be able to.” She got out her phone, rang a number, explained what was going on and told me to wait 5 minutes.

In five minutes the shop lady turned up. It was HER – the Great Beauty! I got to spend five minutes in her presence, a lovely conversation, her being ever so helpful and friendly, even laughing at my grandad sense of humour, bad enough in English, certain to be horrific in Italian!

And then, on top of all that, I got my credenziale !!! I am VF Pilgrim Number 15740. It’s real!

I went to the cathedral to pray and to give thanks for such an extraordinary experience of highs and lows. At the very back of the church was a little prayer desk, obscure, out-of-the-way, but directly facing down the cathedral to the main altar. I knelt, as a pilgrim, to formally start my walk – whatever it may bring. The desk was devoted to “La Madonna del Popolo” The Madonna of The People, very appropriate I thought.

Then on to a beautiful salami and cheese shop – fine produce, foodie sort of stuff – where a lovely man made me a ham and cheese foccaccia to take with me. I walked out of Pontremoli’s centre just as the midday bells tolled. An hour-and-a-half later than my planning had been, but WHAT an-hour-and-a-half!

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8. The Triumph of Democracy

We, the People, have spoken. (per lettori italiani, quest’è dopo un’elezione nazionale in quale ha vinto la Partita Liberal – una partita ne liberale ne conservativa (come dichiarano), ma dei banchieri e degli impresari) and again we Aussies have shown that we are, despite being (I think) the second wealthiest per capita nation in the known universe, really a nation of hobbits and squirrels lucky enough to be girt by sea. No vision, no courage, no self-reflection. A wide brown land and a dull beige land. Can’t we just merge with NZ and inherit Jacinda Ardern as our PM? Please.

But (as Con the Fruiterer’s wife used to say) “I no complain”. It’s the truth and, since in vino veritas, I will just drink more wine. Western Democracy, whether one agrees with its outcomes or not, is by far the best system yet devised for the achieving the greatest good for the greatest number. Nonetheless, I retain the right the be utterly nauseated by the gloating of the likes of B Joyce and P Dutton.

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7. Glimpses of Sarzana

Again, thank you very much to those of you giving me such nice feedback and encouraging me to write again after two years of blockage. I did rather attack Italy in my first week’s enthusiasm and am now having a couple of days of less activity, so perhaps I can turn my mind to some more creative or reflective writing – some of which I share today.

The whirrrrr of a coasting bicycle coming from behind me, gliding down the gentle slope of via Bradia. I resist the urge to turn and see who it is, then instantly regret it as I am passed by a woman of a certain age – not young – well-dressed. I have a ¼ view of an ear and her hair, but whatever sadness comes from not observing a lovely face is assuaged completely by a soft trail of her scent, the loveliest of perfumes, that I enjoy for many paces in her wake.

Midday resting in Piazza Matteotti. The sounding of a first single bell presages a swelling as all the bells of Sarzana, both sacred and secular, join in in praise of both God and the hour.

At exactly that moment a gaggle of high school kids pass by my position and, like a flock of finches, there arrive one, then five, then thirty in a communal crescendo that, having peaked, begins its symmetrical diminuendo of teenage chatter. The last bell and the last student fall silent together. The hour has passed. Et in terra, pax.

My constant question here: Is there a historian of Sarzana?

The constant reply: There was, but he died.

Requiescat in pace, Homo storico sarzanensis, an extinct species.

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Do you remember a post from Day 1 wherein I giggled at Italian bureaucracy for erecting a hydrant sign bigger than the hydrant itself? On closer inspection there is metodo in their mad-a-nezza.

Today is roughly halfway between the Spring equinox and the Summer solstice. My bet is that in six weeks’ time the sign’s raison d’être will be molto claro!

Regarding my fascination with Vezzio the Butcher, Maria Grazia confirmed what Roxana at the grocery had said, although she softened it a bit to “un po’ strano – a little bit odd”. When pressed, all she could say to back that up was that he liked to talk (did that mean “gossip”?) and that he had a very short, very fat wife .

And there was I thinking that maybe he cut up small domestic animals for his delicious sausages or that the local parents warned their children not to suck their thumbs or old Vezzio would cut them off (their thumbs, that is). Apparently neither.

But my investigation will continue.

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6. A piece of cake, then more music

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Vezzio’s sausages, potatoes al forno

After my delicious Sunday lunch (OK, it’s just sausages and chips!), I had turned in for a post-prandial nap (here charmingly called un pisolino). From outside my fuzzy, mind-wandering dozing, I heard a “ooo-ooo” noise. A bird? Snapping back to consciousness I realised it was someone at my (open) front door. There was Grazia, my host, asking me if I would like to come and have “a little slice of cake” with them. Her brother Gino had just arrived so, as a party was materialising before my eyes, I of course agreed. (Now Grazia had given me another “little slice of cake” a couple of days ago, so I realised she was a bit of a culinary goddess.)

I walked up the stairs to their little garden where Alfredo and Gino were sitting at a table. The day was “variable” as they say. Some sun for a while, then overcast, then windy, a drop or two of rain – all that within a space of ten minutes. We all remarked how weird the weather was, but otherwise ignored it. The conversation was great, never a pause, seamlessly drifting from topic to topic. Grazia came out with her “cake” fresh from the oven – it was the classic Italian crostata, an apricot tart crossed with a lattice of more pastry. She proudly announced (and indicated) that the apricots were from HER garden.

Just as the tart was being cut, Alfredo opened a bottle of Sardinian prosecco – so already this was more than just a slice of cake. The tart LOOKED so perfect, absolutely perfectly made and presented, just the right amount of caramelisation, a deep rich colour. But then the TASTE! Mama mia! It was to the palate as to the eye, deep and rich and ….. just perfect.

(I realise I just used the word ‘perfect’ three times in three lines – very bad writing, but that’s just the way it is).

As I was nibbling (and that’s what I was doing, I never wanted it to end) my piece of tarty perfection, Alfredo produced a little bottle of limoncello, proudly telling me that the lemons were from HIS tree. Grazia noticed my forlorn expression as the last crumb was licked from my fingers and graciously cut me another slice. Gino, not wanting to be outdone, then produced a little bottle of his home-made Plum Liquor (I immediately wondered if he had plum trees in HIS garden – probably).

At 4 o’clock I regretfully retired because I had a concert at 5. It would take me 20 minutes to walk there, so that left me 30 minutes to continue my nap – which I felt I badly needed, even more so now after all the unexpected accompaniments to that “little slice of cake”!

Music Festival, day 3

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Atrium of the Palazzo Remedi,

I had marked four events this afternoon, but the last two were a clash on which I had to make a choice. I arrived for the first concert – again in the atrium of a palazzo as I described before. This time it was Palazzo Remedi in Sarzana’s main piazza, and it was baroque music for harpsichord by Bohm, Vivaldi, Purcell, and Forqueray. The performance was competent but not more, but the venue was a dream – absolutely suited to the music and probably from much the same era.

The second was in the same venue after a 45 minute break (which I spent just mooching around the city centre). Now this was really something – a presentation of Corelli’s version of a Follia, a standard early music form of theme and variations. It was played by flute, cello and harpsichord.

This performance was excellent especially, as I have observed, in this beautiful, intimate (6m x 6m) highly acoustic space before an audience of about 30 people. What a privilege to be here.

As I walked out of the building, I was now faced with a choice of my final concert for the festival – both modern compositions, one for soprano and piano, the other flute and piano. They each were to begin in an hour; it was still only 6:30. Eeny-meeny-miny-mo.

The truth was that …… the ½ bottle of Barbera for lunch, the Sardinian prosecco, the limoncello, the slivovitz triumphed. I didn’t think I could last another hour, and there was a sneaking suspicion that neither of the two final concerts could top the Corelli. With a light heart but heavy feet I walked home.

Each night here I have gone to bed about 9 o’clock while there is still light in the sky. But here it is not from depression or escapism as it might be at home – no, it is because I am living each day to the full. I get into bed each night SO weary, but also so happy. Whilst I am still recalling the days’ events, I fall quickly and peacefully asleep until dawn. Pace.

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5. Music

With my characteristic good fortune, I arrived in Sarzana at the exact time of the 19th Festival of Music and Sounds. It’s an amazing event, unlike anything I’ve ever heard of.

We started off on Friday evening evening in the Town Hall (which is actually an 18th Century palazzo, subtly modified to house a completely modern bureaucracy) with speeches (Italians LOVE their speeches!). Now Italian civic speeches aren’t like Aussie ones; for a start, the Mayor (Cristina Ponzanelli) looks like a supermodel so it would be fine if her speech was boring, but her speech WAS interesting, articulate, humane – ranging with passion across hope, achievement, pride in the children and the elderly of the community, and the power of music to open our hearts and to enrich our lives.

 The mayors of Sarzana and Lithgow. Now, which one would get my vote?

The opening performance was by a group of high-school students doing a dramatised version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence”. VERY dramatised! Then an Art Historian led us, like the Hanover Pied Piper’s rats, on a walk through the town centre, stopping off in the atria (entrance halls) of about 6 of the town’s old palazzi in each of which there was a mini(15min)-recital. Kreisler’s Lieberslied, an Irish folk rock quartet, an Edith Piaf homage, blues guitar. These atria were all about 6m x 6m with high domed ceilings and marble or terrazzo floors – amazing acoustics and only room for an audience of 30 – 40, so there is a sense of real intimacy with the performers..

Yesterday there were more formal recitals, but still in these atria spaces. I went to two – the first a wonderful pianist named Giuseppe Santucci who played (as a philosophical duality) the Beethoven Appassionata sonata followed by some very dark and brooding piece of Liszt that I didn’t know (and still don’t) – all entirely from memory, with passion, power, and precision. He played on a beautiful baby Steinway (looked 1950s) and I was only 2m away from the piano. The experience was electrifying! Like the Liszt piece, he was a dark and brooding sort of guy, tall, slim, scraggy beard and bountiful hair jet black with unruly and defiant patches of grey.

My next experience was an ensemble of 8 women (Vaghi Concenti, which I guess translates as “Loose agreement”) singing a capella sacred works from Hildegard to Monteverdi to more modern. They were a bizarrely diverse bunch, both in appearance and vocal quality. They are clearly a community group and lacked the precision of professional singers, but good on them for their dedication, their bravery, and their great grace to present such beautiful work for us.

There is more today – 4 performances I would like to see if there are no overlaps with the 7 venues. The other thing to mention about this amazing, expansive, varied, and full festival is THAT IT IS ENTIRELY FREE. Three evenings of great and inspiring art as a natural part of the community life of this beautiful town, Sarzana.

But right now I am off to 10 o’clock Mass at the Parish Church of San Francesco. When in Rome …………

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As a resolution of something in yesterday’s post – I don’t care if old Vezzio is a vampire or bit weird in any way at all, for I can truly say that the steak I bought and cooked last night is EASILY the most perfect meat I have ever had in my life!

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4. Shopping

Last night and into the wee hours I felt so sick, so uncomfortable. It was the combination of too much (very cheap) wine and eating an evening meal much too late for my now-lazy digestion. I could not face the day until 10am and even then I had to force myself from that wonderful bed.

My stomach was begging for clean food – veges, anything green. My mind (or maybe just my chemical brain) wanted coffee. I wanted to live my pretend-Italian life.

Shopping seemed the perfect answer.

I showered and dressed and left without delay for the short uphill walk to the local shops in Via dei Mulini (Millers Road). These consist of a bar (Il Mulino run by Andrea), a butcher’s shop (run by old Vezzio), two grocers, two pizzerias, a wine shop and a hairdresser/beauty salon.

Coffee took first priority so I had my first cappuccino for the day. Andrea is about 50, tall and goodlooking, but not overly friendly. His coffee (Crastan brand) is not excellent but bearable, the cappuccino being thin in consistency. He followed the standard Italian barista rule and on this, my third day, he was slightly welcoming in a gruff sort of way. I’m sure after two weeks we’ll be best mates.

Then on to the butcher’s – the macellaio. I walked in and there was the sweetest looking little man, about 70, talking to the previous customer. He gleamed with clean but was somehow batlike, in a Draculine sense, but with a sweet smile. After the initial banter (buongiorno, sorry I don’t speak good Italian, where are you from, Australia, oh! Australia!), I asked for a piece of steak. Well! No plastic-wrapped styrofoam trays here, not even a tray of pre-sliced steaks. Vezzio rummaged around and held aloft a gobbet of flesh straight from The Middle Ages. It must have been a good 10 kg. I told him I didn’t want all of it, just a small piece. Then began a lovely ritualistic process.

First he hand-sliced it, then took a cleaver to remove a piece of bone from the tail of my slice. He laid it reverently onto a piece of wrapping paper and (I’ve never seen this before) covered the top surface with a film of hygenic plastic wrap and, with what looked like an oversize coffee tamper, proceeded to surgically tap and smooth it out, presumably to remove any air bubbles! All carried out with such loving care and precision – beautiful.

He had some great-looking sausages there – two varieties. When I asked the difference, he explained and was visibly delighted when I decided to take one of each, and even more so when I asked his advice on how to grill them best. The piece of steak was $15, but I’ll get two meals out of it. Then he accompanied me through to the adjoining grocery where I bought some bread. The window advertised pane pontremolese – bread from Pontremoli, about 30km up the road. “Must be special” I reasoned, and bought one.

Then on to the second grocery (which also does fruit & veg) run by Simona, who is delightful and vivacious. I bought veges, water, and beer. There was another young woman there today, and when I remarked how delightful I had found Vezzio the butcher to be, this one raised her eyes to the heavens and they both had a giggle. “No?” I asked. They replied “We’re not saying a word”. More giggles and raised eyebrows. Interestingly, when I returned to base and was chatting with Alfredo and Grazia about it, Grazia said “Oh, he’s a bit of a strange one, that one.” She also had raised eyebrows. I thought of the bat eyes and ears, of the cleaver chopping through bone and sinew, and left it at that.

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3. In the footsteps of Sigeric

This morning I walked from Liguria into Tuscany. Sounds impressive, no? But it was all of 4km ! But then I continued for a total of 17km from Sarzana to the towns of Fosdinovo and Caniparola and return, a six hour excursion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMake no mistake, I love Australia – the land of my birth, life and (probably) death (who can tell?), but I have lived 65 years there, and in all the sum of those years have never seen such beauty as in just a 2 hour walk from Sarzana to Fosdinovo. It is a steep climb, 400m in 6km with four or five cruel little sections, but at almost any time you can stand still, rotate 360°, and see vista after vista that delights. This particular view looks across the valley of the Magra River to the Gulf of La Spezia, the Ligurian Sea and the beautiful town of Portovenere on its promontory.

In Italy, as in “England’s green and pleasant land”, the beauty comes from the overlay, the interaction, of human activity onto the landscape. It is a form of sculpture, crafted over thousands of years by women and men who owed their lives to the land but also who in turn gently transformed it to better meet their needs. They did it in a natural, sensitive, and sustainable way, learned over millennia; they did not pillage, so there is a gentleness.

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In Australia it seems to me that we have swung between pendulum points of being either passively subjected to the forces of nature or by ruthlessly or at least unknowingly exploiting the land. But certainly we had a less nurturing palette to begin with – “the wide brown land” in general tends to have thin soils and little water.

There has been a day and a half of rain since I arrived, and every crevice, every slope, is running with water in this mountainous terrain. Trickle joins trickle to form what the Italians call torrenti, not necessarily ‘torrents’ as we understand the word but anything from two trickles up to and including a catastrophic flood. It depends.

So, who is Sigeric and his feet? The Via Francigena (hereafter VF – it’s a mouthful) pilgrim route was made famous by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales but was first written up by Sigeric the Serious (!), the then Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury on his return from Rome in about 990. I get the impression he was seriously smart, not stupidly serious – well I hope so anyway.

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I first walked a short section of the VF in 2010 in an excursion with the Club Alpino Italia and my fascination began with this then little-known activity. In the nine years since, the Italians have become alert to the spin-off from the Spanish camino di Santiago experience and are cashing in big time. Last year about 2 500 people walked parts of the VF compared with about 280 000 in Spain. I think that’s what’s called a “growth potential” in a trashed economy.

The last section of my walk today, the 4.5km from Caniparola back to Sarzana was, in fact, the reverse direction of that very first walk back in 2010.

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