Ecumenical Pilgrimage - Pontremoli - The Mycological Wonderland and Other First Impressions of Tuscany

We pulled out yes ter day morn ing at 7:40 a.m., our ear li est depar ture yet, under blue skies but headed toward a mas sive pile of clouds squat ting over the moun tains peaks. Our ascent was quick and steep up to the first pass, the Passo della Cissa.

For our whole pil grim age, start ing in late August in Ger many, it has felt like the first week of autumn, even amidst the wild fluc tu a tions in tem per a ture. (The snow storm in Bivio is the one excep tion.) Just enough leaves had fallen on the ground to give it that dis tinc tive fall scent, and every so often there was just a blush of red on the leaves still on trees, and the light has been fad ing and slant ing more every day. I sup­pose we have been mov ing south quickly enough to keep steady with the seasons.

Now in the Apen nines it feels like the sec ond week of fall. From high up on the moun tains we could look over the vast forests on the hill sides, mostly green but glint ing as if a fine sift ing gold rain had fallen on them. The sun sets by 7 behind the peaks and is golden all day except right around noon. We’re crunch ing on more chest nuts and brown leaves as we pick our way on the old stone roads, so bumpy that they were clearly made for mules—not humans or cars.

We had nearly reached the pass when I spied some large beasts block ing our progress. They turned out to be wild horses, some white, some brown, some grayish-black. They seemed unfazed by our pres ence, but horses are pretty enor mous ani mals and on the touchy side. We decided to take the lit eral high road through the field above them instead of try ing to pass through their midst. A lit tle far ther along at the high est point there were bare field and more wild horses, shad owy in the mist. We peered over the edge and saw—nothing. Just white cloud, except for a few moments when a tun nel cleared through it and we saw, as if look ing down from an air plane aloft, the tiny cars and trucks hurtling by on the superstrada.

We actu ally had to descend a fair dis tance to get to the pass itself (i.e., the place where the cars go). Just as Andrew pre dicted, there was a café, a bar, and a sou venir shop at the pass, though only the last of these was actu ally open.

From there we mean dered around the hills through a lovely for est full of the biggest vari ety of fungi either of us have ever seen. There were lit tle round pink ones like para sols; tall white ones with caps almost as long as the stems, tawny brown ones seven inches tall and a cap wide and flat enough to seat the cater­pil lar from Alice in Won der land, oddly shaped ones drip ping black ooze from their rims, and—most delight­ful of all—the favorite mush room of Euro pean folk cul ture, a white-stemmed toad stool sport ing a bright red cap with white polka dots (I’ve even seen Christ mas tree lights in this shape).

We prob a bly had too much fun locat ing the mush rooms and daw dled too long in the for est, because by the time we came out the other side we had still a long, long way to go. Almost the whole route was up and down, up and down, on chal leng ing paths, lots of rocks and mud to nego ti ate. Going down hill was even harder than going up. Once we had to roll up our pants and take off our socks to ford a fast-flowing river, hap pily not glacier-cold. The rest of the river cross ings involved bridges, though some of them look­ing about from the Roman era and not likely to hold out much longer.

The scenery was gor geous; we walked the bor der between Emilia-Romagna and Tus cany on the moun­tain ridge and then descended into Tus cany. Still the Apen nines it is quite sparsely populated—every so often you seen a lit tle town built of stone nes tled into the hill side. We walked through a cou ple of these towns, won der fully 3-D in how they are built around the slopes, with ter raced gar dens and retain ing walls. As we walked along our poles brushed against the great clumps of mint and oregano grow ing every where, shoot ing their scent into the air around us. It was here that we saw our first olive groves, too, with their pale green fruit.

It was nearly 7, which means nearly dark, by the time we got to Pon tremoli. I had long since lost my energy as well as my reserves. Despite the beauty it was a painful slog to the end. The last lit tle bit was on a paved but unused road and we just flat out ran down it—so nice not to watch every step, so nice to move a lit tle faster. Once in town we were con fronted with the specter of a huge, ugly, crum bling build ing, and I said to Andrew that I hoped we weren’t stay ing there; and in fact I hoped even more than I knew, because it turned out to be the civil hospital!

Then we started search ing for our night’s hos tel, hop ing for a good park ing spot nearby for the camper… and found out that they weren’t kid ding when they called it the “castello ostello,” the cas tle hos tel, because the only way to it was up a nar row stair case off the nar row street from the mid dle of the old city! The stairs were not exactly an invit ing prospect after the 12 hours of walk ing, but the lack of park ing was a deal-breaker, so we man aged to make new arrange ments with the Cap pucin monks on the other side of town, con ve niently pos sessed of a park ing lot in front of the church.

One of the monks received us and informed us that we were crazy for hav ing come all the way from Berceto on the Via Fran ci gena, which judg ment I was inclined to agree with. When we told him the pur­pose of our pil grim age, he told us that he’d spent 30 years in Turkey, where Chris tians are such a tiny minor ity that all of them—Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox—live in a very friendly ecu meni cal friend­ship. He hoped the same would hap pen in Italy and else where, maybe as a result of the grow ing sec u lar­iza tion and cor re spond ing minor ity sta tus of Chris t ian believers.

We feasted on pizza fetched by the Wilsons—now includ ing Andrew’s older brother Jed, here to join us for a week—and then slept the sleep of the right eous, or as much as Luther ans are able to.