Wednesday, 17 February 2016

More adventures on the Way of Saint Francis - a tale of two dinners

Pieve Santo Stefano - Valfabbrica via

Sansepulcro - 25 kms
Citta di Castello - 32.8kms
Pietralunga - 29.8 kms
Gubbio - 26.5 kms
Biscina - 22.7 kms - not walked
Valfabbrica - 15.9 kms

This pilgrimage wasn't planned far in advance. There was time between lots of commitments,  the long range weather looked not bad and there were flights available.  Now having walked for 11 days from Florence we are aware of how lucky we have been to have set out so early in the year.  Firstly had the weather been even a little more difficult some stretches of the route would have just been impossible. Secondly a lot of the accommodation is seasonal and in two strategic places so far there has been no accommodation available.  However people were very helpful and although in the smaller places taxis are non existent we have been able to arrange to be picked up and dropped off where and when we needed.  We have had to cut the route into 24 days because of commitments in Santiago which has meant dropping about 50 kms in total and one stage. We were able to arrange this easily and all of our accommodation has been reserved on

The days from Pieve Santo Stefano to Valfabbrica have been full of very good walking, two days of torrential rain, overnight temperatures of minus 2 and some of the best hospitality, accommodation and food I have experienced on any Camino.

But there is a fundamental aspect of this pilgrimage which is setting it apart from all of those which have gone before.  I'm sure I won't be able to describe it adequately.  There is a feeling about this route which seems to me to be more holy,  more peaceful and more special than other routes I have walked.  The name Saint Francis of Assisi has been known to me since I was a child. The image of Francis as the role model of selflessness and caring is strong.  And here we are actually walking where he walked and where the great Franciscan Order began.  The fact that Francis chose never to become a priest puts him higher up in my estimation! We pass the sites where he travelled,  preached, and prayed.  It is said he tamed a ferocious wolf which was killing local people.  My most favourite story is when he tried to cure a sick woman.  He tried to perform the miracle but she was still sick.  Embarrassed he skulked off.  Sometime later she sought him out to explain she had got better.  Francis realised miracles were down to God and not him.

Following in his footsteps took us to a fabulous candlelit bed and breakfast in Sansepulcro with walls covered in modern art. As we looked for Mass in the church of Saint John we passed a little chapel with a 15 th century painting on display.  No alarm. I just sat and gazed. 

Then the mighty stage to the walled town of Citta di Castello where we had some issues with changes to the waymarks and flurries of rain but we staggered into the modern hotel La Mura which was warm and had a very good menu.  Although exhausted we dragged ourselves out to Mass " Sunday evening mass would be a quiet and quick affair " I thought.  The Cathedral was stunning and the clue as to what was to come was the 30 voice choir with organist assembling.  Then in strolled the Bishop. Organ voluntary, entrance procession and a full,  glorious sung mass followed.  It was wonderful as was the dish of Taglia which followed.  Thin slices of local beef, served pink on a bed of rocket.  Sleep comes very easily these nights.

Up early next morning we decided to shave 10 kms from the length of the stage to Pietralunga which proved to be a good decision because that meant we only had 5 hours walking in continuous, unrelenting torrential rain.  The day concluded with a steep walk up to the hotel Tinca accompanied by sheet lightening and thunderclaps.  Fabio in the hotel knows pilgrims.  He turned the heating up full in the room, provided newspapers to dry our boots and had hot coffee and sandwiches ready in a jiffy.  The rain continued to pour down and this was an evening to have a quick but very good dinner in the local restaurant then snuggle under the duvet to watch the steam rising from the radiators. 9 hours later I awoke to dry clothes and a little light drizzle.  Fabio gave us a huge breakfast and insisted on coming with us to show us the route. 

It rained on and off all day. We were lucky that it was dry and clear as the path rose above the valleys and the kilometres passed quickly.  I had read about Gubbio with very authentic Francis roots and I was eager to get there.  One day closer to Assisi!

The Big Man who very efficiently does the logistics for this pilgrimage had booked us into a modest 4 star hotel on the main square perched above the town. This was splendid.  I don't know how he did it but the room rate was only 10 euros more than the place some days before which had no heating or hot water!  I got to my room.  Lovely.  Looked out of the window.  Not much of a view. Tried the TV - English news channel.  Then I opened the bathroom door. I closed it again. Was I dreaming?  I opened it again and the jacuzzi bath was still there. With a a radiator from floor to ceiling. This meant an hour in the bath and everything could be washed.

With joy in my heart I called the Big Man and we set out to dinner.  There was only one restaurant.  Very fancy.  In we went. A woman in a gold cocktail dress approached and without a blink at our walking clothes showed us to a table. This was a beautiful dining room with a vaulted ceiling, table linen and silverware, a wall of bottles of wine and a display of very fine brandies and whiskies. The menu was extensive and the prices were eye watering. A very refined Maitre D approached.  He was a man easily in his 70's dressed in a fine suit with an air of being totally in command.  Just as he got to our table I was saying in English how starving I was and "despite the prices we'll just have to get on with it."  I nearly slid under the table with embarrassment when the Big Man said, " do you have a menu of the day?  We're pilgrims walking to Rome and we want something simple and hot."  The man bowed, "certainly sir, just one moment."

He returned to place a plate of five types of bread before us. Then a few minutes later a small bowl of bean broth with herbs and spiced sausage.  It was delicious but I was starving, this would never be enough.  The restaurant was filling up. At the next table the prosecco popped,  at another a deep red wine was being decanted.  Our little soup bowls were cleared away to soon be replaced by a larger bowl of "freshly made pasta with a sauce with cured ham".  This was the business! It was delicious and my spirits were rising by the minute. They removed the plates.  We were wondering what might be for dessert when the Maitre D appeared again placing two plates in front of us.  "Roast leg of pork with a red wine jus. Would sir like some potatoes roasted with fresh Rosemary?"  I was passed caring about the cost.  The food was superb. The lassie in the gold cocktail dress approached to ask if everything was in order. Then she appeared with two plates with a mountain of delicious creamy pastry running with honey.  "The deconstructed mille feuille". Well,  of course.
We declined coffee and asked for the bill.  As we waited the unspoken anxiety between us was exactly how large the bill would be.  Miss Goldfincher swished back with an elegant little leather folder. The Big Man looked and looked and appeared to be checking the addition.  "Is it OK" I asked timidly. He handed me the bill - "two special menus 19 euros each,  water, bread and service included."
The Maitre D came over as I was admiring a rather fine selection of rare bottles of Johnnie Walker. I have some of the same in my own collection at home.  It turned out that his aloofness was really shyness. He spoke perfect English having learned the trade in the Savoy many years before and he was genuinely interested in the pilgrimage.  A perfect end to a lovely evening.

Next morning we were up and ready for the car to take us 20 kms forward to Biscina where in season there is accommodation but at this time it is closed. He dropped us off pointing out the countryside around where from October to December he and his dog collect white truffles. We set off along a beautiful country path with views of a castle and churches in the distance.  Sun broke through the clouds and we had a great day's walking to Valfabbrica where we had booked rooms in the pilgrim hostel San Francisco.  This was very close to a regular albergue as we would know it in Spain. There were 30 beds in total with some singles and triple rooms.  There was a common room and a dining room with long refectory tables. There was heating and hot water but alas no jacuzzi in my room.

We had arranged dinner for 7.30 with Anna Rita the hospitalera. We were joined not by other pilgrims but by three Italian geologists on a field trip.  Guitano spoke English and the other two had been to Scotland.  Conversation ranged from walking to whisky.  There were a number of courses. Cold meats,  spinach and ricotta in pastry,  crostini, tortellini in sauce,  pork chops with roasted baby onions and homemade chocolate tarts.  Simpler fare by far than the night before and served in much more modest surroundings but the conversation with other travellers in English,  Spanish and Italian more than made up for that. Such is the way of pilgrimage, all days are different and you never quite know what will happen.  Like people - they aren't always what they seem. Often they are better.

Tomorrow - Assisi!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what bliss, and Assisi awaits. I am pushing Robin towards the kitchen. Your recollections of food in the Camino have got my stomach growling. Glad to hear all is well.