We woke late in our fabulously overpriced little hotel room and its fabulously affordable and delicious pasta. We laughed about last night’s agony and delicately stretched, testing feet and bones and muscles for life. Amazing what a good night’s sleep can do. I tell Ben I need better socks, that all my pilgrim woes would be fixed if I had better socks. We laugh so hard our bellies ache.
Today was a heading for the hills kind of day. By mid-morning (which in Italy is about lunchtime) we were on the road, fuelled by a typical Italiano breakfast of coffee and pastries. We walked along the edge of busy busy roads in the sunshine, all day. Tivoli, staring at us from high atop a distant mountain, was today’s Nirvana. The advantage of aging eyesight is that I just thought it was an interesting rock formation.
Walking along the road isn’t entirely unpleasurable, cars and trucks and buses barrelling towards us with the urgency of Time and Destination. Senses dormant kick to life. Fascinating to watch all these people, all of us, including us, all of us thinking we’re going somewhere. For every 1000 cars someone toots us, for every 200 cyclists we get a wave, for every 50 shopkeepers there’s a smile and sometimes even a hearty laugh. Life has very quickly been reduced to the simple things: food, bed, shade, smiles, feet. We took our first break in the middle of a busy traffic island, seeking shade beneath a bulbous billowy palm. As I peeled the pack from my back, the familiar stab of dagger-sharp pain between shoulder blades ecstatic with release, I laughed out loud as the three words that came to mind: painful, delirious, entertaining. This is the pilgrim’s journey. It’s madness, pure and simple. And we laugh, a lot.
It takes surprisingly little time today for the leg muscles to warm up and for my body to find its rhythm. In no time at all, pain gives way to warm breeze on skin and thoughts give way to clear blue sky. We walk all day beneath a pounding sun and the sweat pours off. Whether it’s the smog or the quality of the atmosphere, if this was Australian sun we’d have been fried. Shade was tantalisingly close, just on the other side of the road; but the only thing worse than having to walk in the sun is having that traffic come at us from behind. Often I walked on the other side of the steel traffic barrier, along a narrow strip of sodden weeds and rubbish, occasionally picking the seeds of wild fennel to roll between my fingers.
By late afternoon Tivoli had declared her hand as the interesting rock formation and I realised we were destined to climb that hill, straight up a narrow winding road in that relentless heat. Now and then, when the distance between us and the cars drove me over the guardrail, I’d shortcut through an olive grove. A few kms away a siren wailed and wailed and wailed from the top of the hill and I fantasised that it was coming for us. About a km from town I’d had it and announced I was hitching the rest of the way. Ben sat down in the shade and I stuck out my thumb near a driveway, giving cars room to stop. Ben started to cackle. ‘How long since you’ve hitched?’ he asked. I laughed too. Too long. High school long. Five minutes and no takers later I’d cooled down enough to make the final run to the top. This was a town so high you could fall off! And what a surprise was there to greet us! Tivoli was humming, Italianos streaming through narrow medieval streets lined with performers and a young man with three big dogs sitting mournfully in the shade, the dog bowl their begging bowl. Best of all was a most fantastic castle rising up from the earth, looking for all the world like a clever sandcastle. Sitting on crumbling stable ruins in the cool night air, we spent the evening listening to live music by the light of a near-full moon.