I love Florence. Everything about it. So obviously do Americans as I almost heard more American accents than Italian. But it is understandable that so many from the new world come to this fountain of the Renaissance. I live in a medieval city but this one is special. To be honest I find it almost overwhelming. When I visited Rome the first time with the choir I conducted years ago we arranged a programme to sing in Saint Peter's and then a different basilica every day for a week. Before starting though I visited the Sistine Chapel. I could easily have cancelled the week of recitals and just stayed there lying on the floor. Florence affected me the same way. I'll return again and again.
We went to Mass in English in the Cathedral. It was a cold night and so was the priest. He had on lots of lace and seemed very pleased with himself. I wasn't.
For Mass before we set out on this Route of Saint Francis we went to the Church of the Holy Cross where we would get the first stamp. When we presented ourselves the guard at the desk told us to ask in the next booth, when we did that the attendant had to phone someone else. The feeling that there aren't a lot of pilgrims on this route was reinforced when we reached the appointed place next to the cloister. "Timbro" we asked. He looked blank. Showing him our bright new credentials we made the stamping motion familiar to all pilgrims. Expressionless he turned and opened a cupboard. It was obvious no one had ventured there for some time. Under a pile of debris he produced a stamp, blew the dust from it and stamped the first box. "We're off walking to Roma" we said. What might pass for a smile of concern reserved for the gravely ill crossed his face as we left. However the Mass was a delight in this the largest Franciscan church in Italy. The priests were smiling and warm and the parish choir did their very best. It was quite moving leaving knowing that after a light supper and an early night the next adventure would begin.
Next morning the sky was grey and heavy and there was rain in the air. It was cold but we were well layered! There were no waymarks and so we followed the detailed walking instructions in the newly published Cicerone guide. No more than 4 kms later we were out of the city and thereafter the route followed 20 kms of sleepy roads and tracks through beautiful and charming Italian countryside. We crossed wide valleys where stone farmhouses and villas seemed to majestically preside over all before them. Olive groves and uniform lines of funereal Cypress trees complete the picture. We greeted local people and we were always rewarded with a smile in return. However we did get the impression that pilgrims especially foreigners were not common. Several times we had to ask for directions when the guidebook failed. I deferred of course to the Big Man who holds a Bachelor of Philosophy from the Gregorian University in Rome. That was some time ago but his fluency was demonstrated as he took to smiling before sticking the guidebook under the nose of some innocent local and asking "Dove?" whilst pointing to where we were going. However it worked!
I hadn't done much serious walking for a year and by around 15 kms I was starting to flag. We were also starving. Entering Cecia we noticed the shops and bars were closed. Attracted by a group a few hundred yards away we made our way along to what appeared to be an open restaurant. As we walked through the door into a very busy dining room the chatter around the tables fell silent. Children stared. People with their backs to us turned to look. A fat bulldog under a table raised his big head and growled. This was like the wild west. A young waiter passed several times with eyes cast down. But the sight behind a counter was at that moment more glorious than Michaelangelo. There was a huge wood fire with a spit roasting whole chickens, rabbit and huge, delicious sausages. Talking returned to normal when platters heaped high with bread and roast meat and french fries were passed from a hatch. Eventually the Big Man stood in front of the oncoming waiter. He asked in Italian if we wanted to eat and pointed to a small table amidst the crowd. As we sat down grateful to get the weight off of our feet a man at the next table who looked just like Pancho Villa fixed us with an intense stare. We got his meaning. One word out of place and we'd die.
After an interminably long time the waiter appeared to tell us all they might not have left. He said one or two words of English. We pounced with compliments. "Are you English?" he asked recoiling at our frowns. When we mentioned Scotland he lit up. "Alex Fergusson" he said several times. Now I know nothing about football and particularly how football crazy are the Italians and so when Stephen said, "Yes, I know Sir Alex" the waiter stopped dead in his tracks. He obviously told the others in an unintelligible burst because the level of interest in the two foreign backpackers went up several notches. Then I think just from sheer hunger the Big Man's customary reticence disappeared and he added "and David Beckham". This needed no translation. The waiter gasped and Pancho Villa looked as if to say "they're having a laugh, let's kill them now." But through the wonders of the Smartphone the Patrons of the Big Man's charitable organisation were proudly displayed. The waiter embraced him, Pancho smiled and suddenly there was lasagne left.
As for waymarks there were none dedicated to the route but we turned a corner and there on the side of a house was a plaque which says: Santiago de Compostela 2056 kilometres.
Good omens today.