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.
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!