Castellos and culinary delights en route to Tuscany
310kms – 12 days
Leaving the Vercelli rice fields and their mosquitos behind, I continued south through the fertile plains of the Po Valley, an area of approximately 46,000 kilometres that stretches from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea. From Lombardy I crossed into Emilia Romagna, nicknamed the “bread basket” of Italy and regarded by many as its gastronomic heart. Parma ham, Parmesan, and balsamic vinegar all hail from this region. And as I worked my way from one medieval town to the next, my reward at the end of each day came in a plate of delicious regional cuisine. It was the perfect way to refuel before crossing the Apennine Mountains and entering Tuscany.
Medieval castellos dotted the landscape of fields growing tomatoes, corn, and everything in between. Some were crumbling and derelict, home only to squatting pigeons and swallows. And others were immaculately preserved and enjoying a second life as a museum. One had even been reincarnated as a law firm, quite unlike the law firm that I worked in once upon a time. But they all had something in common – they were huge, and surrounded by sprawling gardens.
I walked my way to the River Po, which marks a huge milestone in a pilgrim’s journey to Rome. It’s a big deal because it involves trading two feet for another form of transport, a speedboat. For several decades Danilo Parisi, a legend of the Via Francigena, has recreated the role played by medieval ferrymen by helping pilgrims cross from one side to the River Po to the other. Danilo is larger than life, full of stories and jokes, and a guardian of the Via Francigena’s history. And he, of course, had the biggest pilgrim’s passport stamp that I’ve seen. I would put money on it being bigger than the one the Vatican will use for my final stamp when I arrive in Rome.
Piacenza, which is overshadowed by Bologna and Parma as far as Emilia Romagna’s cities are concerned, made a colourful pit stop en route to the Apennine Mountains. Its piazzas were dominated by medieval palazzos, and a food and wine festival showcasing the region’s finest. Its churches had huge facades, octagonal towers, and quiet cloisters. And its streets were busy with fruit and vegetable sellers, classy boutiques, and stylish Italians who could’ve all been dressed by Piacenza local Giorgio Armani.
Days of torrential rain made for tough walking. Stepping stones that are normally straightforward became something more like an extreme sport. I hid out in village bars and drank cups of thick Italian hot chocolate, and took shelter in roadside shrines to eat my paninis stuffed with locally produced provolone piccante.
My route was dominated by towns beginning with “F” – Fiorenzuola d’Arda, Fidenza, Fornovo di Taro. Each had a local church with a pilgrim house, or ostello, in an unrivalled town centre location. I shared these ostellos with other pilgrims from all over the world, travelling on foot and by bike, each with a different starting point but most heading in the direction of Rome. And my room always seemed to be directly under the church bell tower, which ensured I was up early and hitting the road south.
Leaving the agricultural plains of the Po Valley behind I started my ascent into the Apennine Mountains, a range that stretches roughly 1,200 kilometres along the length of Peninsular Italy. The misty mornings and hazy sunlight gave the landscape the look and feel of a fine art painting. The mountain tracks were quiet, save for the odd peacock that crept up on me, and the villages full of old nonnos (grandfathers) and nonnas (grandmothers) sweeping their patios and tending to their window boxes.
A rocky path took me up and down, up and down, through forests and tiny mountain communities, until I reached the quirky village of Cassio. I rewarded myself with a pizza topped with aged Parma ham and Parmesan, two of the region’s superstar produce, and enjoyed the mountain views from the comfort of a hammock.
I went higher into the mountains, to the top of Monte Marino (989m) which was of special significance to me as my nonno was called Marino. From the summit of Monte Valoria (1,229m) the mountains stretched out to the north and the south, and I posed for a photo with three Italians who couldn’t quite believe they had met an English lady who had walked all the way from London.
The road led me to the Cisa Pass (1,041m), where I marvelled at stained glass windows and sporting memorabilia from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and A.C. Milan sharing wall space inside the Madonna della Guardia chapel.
Crossing the Cisa Pass I entered the Italy of everyone’s dreams, Tuscany. I would spend the next few weeks walking through this region that draws tourists from around the world, a land that I’m not particularly familiar with given that my Mum is hugely proud to hail from neighbouring Lazio. I was excited to visit Lucca and Siena, and the world famous Tuscan hilltop towns in between. But I was just as eager to discover the Tuscany that everyone else forgets about, the historic territory of Lunigiana which covers much of the region’s mountainous north. And what treasures I found there.
Pontremoli, a stunning little town with a history dating back to 1,000 BC, is nestled in a fork in the River Magra and overlooked by its medieval castle. Its streets are lined with arty boutiques, wood panelled grocery stores, and bars that could be mistaken for churches thanks to their beautiful ceiling frescoes.
By day I sat in bars and watched people flow in and out of the town’s piazzas. And by night I sampled testaroli, a flat baked pasta that’s served with pesto. Not only is testaroli unique to Pontremoli but it is widely thought to be the first type of pasta, dating back to the Etruscan civilisation.
As I journeyed further south in to Tuscany I discovered countless other gems, some of which caught me by surprise having not noticed them on the map. This was the Tuscany that you don’t hear about – tiny hamlets with no tourists, distant colourful towns perched precariously on hilltops, and the dramatic outline of the Apuan Alps.
Walking through a dusty pine forest, the air started to feel fresh. I turned a corner, and there on the horizon was the Mediterranean Sea. It caught me off guard, and brought tears to my eyes and an enormous smile to my face. I had walked to the Mediterranean Sea! It edged closer and closer as the day went on, going from a distant horizon to the water lapping around my tired ankles.
For years I’ve been saying that I want to visit the Ligurian coast. And there it was, just a stone’s throw away from where I stood. So I walked to a train station, which I would return to in a few days’ time to continue my journey to Rome. I headed a stop or two north, marvelling at how quickly I covered the distance that I’d spent much of the day walking.
I’d been warned about the crowds in Cinque Terre, a UNESCO world heritage site that is undoubtedly beautiful and deserving of the millions of people that flock to it each year. After spending weeks in quiet towns and sleepy villages, I wasn’t ready to be surrounded by tourists. So I made my way to a place that I’d come across by chance when reading an article online. A place that’s managed to escape mass tourism and retain its authenticity. And it ended up being one of my favourite places of anywhere in the world.
Tellaro is a picture perfect village in the Golfo dei Poeti (the “Gulf of Poets”), so-called because it used to be the stomping ground of Lord Byron, P.B. Shelley and countless other literary greats. Colourful houses tumble down the forest covered hills, sinking into the crystal clear azures of the Mediterranean Sea.
I swam in the irresistible water, indulged in multiple gelatos and delicious seafood, and strolled around the warren like streets in search of references to the giant octopus that, legend has it, once saved the town from pirates by climbing out of the water and raising the alarm by ringing the church bell. And I enjoyed a front row seat at some world class Mediterranean sunsets.
I think I could’ve stayed in Tellaro forever, living in a colourful house with even more colourful shutters that open out on to the sea. But my feet were getting itchy and the pilgrimage trail was calling. And after a short train ride I was back where I had left off, and I was once again walking my way to Rome.
I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity, Mind. You can read more here, and if you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site. Thank you.