Loving being on the road again. What is it about choosing such agony that releases the spirit?
We woke early-ish in our wonderful room below the castle, the best room we’ve had yet. It even came with shampoo!, so I got to wash my hair for the first time since I cut it off 10 days ago. Now I get to see what it looks like without fancy hairdressers’ gels.
And I’m loving travelling with Ben. We laugh a lot. His dad laughed a lot too. We wake to excessive traffic and people noises and wonder how on Earth such a tiny town high on a hill so far from the autostrada gets so loud and so busy so early in the morning. Ben is especially puzzled. ‘Italians don’t get up this early,’ he says, having walked through Italy’s north into Rome. ‘Even if they do, they go to the bars for their coffee.’ In which case Tivoli is frenetically un-Italian. A cool breeze blows through the shutters, drying the washing, and we’re pleased to meet a cloudy day.
I lie in bed and do a rollcall: big blister under the ball of one foot (in praise of Compeed) and a very sore little toe (nothing a bandaid won’t help). My legs aren’t quite as sore and my shoulders not as stiff. In two days I’m already feeling stronger and I’m sure as hell sitting up a lot straighter. We have brekkie near the castle, coffee and pastries, and two questions linger in my mind: 1. how did they ever get these things built before an invading army came to snatch it away? And 2. when (and why and how and what was it like when) did the castle pass from being pivotal to village life to being ‘the past’?
We load up with cheese and bread and chocolate for the road and by mid-afternoon, having taken advantage of a good-sized town to attend to the businessy side of life – including finding a decent map of the mountains, we were on the road. No doubt we took the long way out of Tivoli (we forgot to look at our map) but eventually fancy stone villas and city walls gave way to trees and fields and supermercatos in the middle of nowhere. Relatively speaking, that is. ‘Nowhere’ in Europe is a very different animal to ‘nowhere’ in Australia. As we walk along the backroads I ponder the wisdom of choosing the country roads over the autostrada . . . at least on the autostrada there would be room for us. On the backroads our path is a narrow strip of bitumen between the white-painted line at the edge of the road and a cement retaining wall dripping with blackberry snags. By ‘narrow strip’ I mean anywhere between 6 and 18 inches. Where new bitumen has been laid our path widens to 3 to 4 feet. The problem with this is that cars then cut corners. Our little path is like a parallel zone . . . as if we’ve wandered through the mists of time into an Otherworld, unseen and unacknowledged by those loud metal machines bearing down on us.
We stop by the roadside amid the brambles and rubbish for a rest. My shoulders scream and my feet ache.
‘Does it get any better?’ I ask Ben.
‘I assure you,’ he says, ‘it gets better. It doesn’t stop hurting, but it gets better.’
We roll around laughing. We share chocolate. I lie back on my pack with my face to the sky and, like turning a dial, the white noise of pain clears and I tune in to the world around me. Suddenly life is crystal clear and broadcasting all around. The tiny black berries high on the tree above, the red flowers on the tree across the road, the soft whistles of the songbirds and the slow yellow of the turning leaves.
Moving on is a lot like getting out of the water when you’re surfing – there’s no right time to do it. We load up. We walk on. Ben’s rhythm puts him a couple of hundred metres ahead. I enjoy the solitude, the wild fennel, yarrow, pennyroyal and mint sprouting along the roadside; it’s like keeping company with old friends.
We make it to Saint Cosimato and neither one of us is willing to scale those steep streets scouting for the possibility of bed and food. We walk on. We take a break for cheese and chocolate. We walk on. There is a rather closed looking restarante. We ask for pasta. They feed us. We ask for hotel. They shake their heads. We ask for camping ground. They shrug. We ask for ‘tente’. More shrugs. Our fingers make the shapes of church steeples: ‘tente’. They shrug again. We must look a little lost. Delirium takes a sharp left hand turn. They offer us their verandah, tiled and clean. We pitch our tents in the dark beneath a full-bellied moon. New tents, both. Neither of us has any idea how our tents work. Neither stands without ropes. We each tie one end to a table and on the other corners I post my sentinels for the night, delighted with their symbolism: a pot of rosemary (for the strength of women) and a money plant (obvious).
We sit at a restaurant table and Ben asks me how I feel. I say: Very tired. Very sore. Better than yesterday. Pilgrim humour being what it is we roll around laughing. That about sums up every day, said Ben.
Tired. Sore. Better than yesterday.
I lie down in the tent. The body remembers. Having walked the road to Santiago there is nothing novel about this pilgrimage as it lives in my body. What is novel is a land of no hotels or rooms or camping grounds; just the earthen-tiled verandah of strangers kind enough to meet the needs of those they don’t understand (linguistically or otherwise!).