Today was one of those days in the Lunigiana. After a night of thunder and pounding rain, the day dawned gloriously, the skies cleared to an impossible blue and immediately we thought of eating lunch outside.
Off we zoom. The skies darken, but it’s still warm; there is hope. We decide upon a restaurant, then think to chance it and go to one that’s a bit further along. But the restaurant in Gabbiano is closed. “Ceasing business” a sign on the ground says. So we’re off again on the Lunigiana’s twisty roads until we come to an agriturismo that doesn’t serve lunch but does have a gaggle of barking guard dogs and finally we end up in Monti, where we know the Ristorante Venelia is reliable.
There we have a great lunch. After, the skies clear and we have a great walk.
The reason I relate this story is that it is typical of our region. The weather seems capricious, the path twisty and unreliable, the maps prone to errors, and there are dogs, horses, bicycle riders and even, gasp, Italian drivers on the road. Any day can be daunting.
And then a miracle happens. You eat well with a gaggle of other people happily eating equally well—and eventually realize the journey has been worth it. Furthermore the dark skies over the Duomo, in retrospect, made the scene maddeningly beautiful…and who makes a stinco di maiale cooked in beer like that anymore.
Canadians Julie Burk and Neville Tencer embarked a while back on a journey from Switzerland to Rome along the ancient Via Francigena. It’s not as popular a walk as the Camino de Santiago, which they had walked earlier. The Via Francigena isn’t, after all, a well-marked freeway trampled by carefree pilgrims and spiritual wannabees; the kinks in its navigation have yet to be worked out. The pair had trouble finding their way. Lots of trouble.
Neville and I had conversed about the via before; it passes through the Lunigiana close to where I live. It’s surprising how many pilgrims can be seen wandering through the villages here.
The result of Julie and Neville’s walk is the recently published book called “An Italian Odyssey: One Couples Culinary & Cultural Pilgrimage.” I was immediately drawn to it. It’s the walking/culinary thing.
And once I got to reading it (cheating by starting with the part about the Lunigiana, then starting the whole thing over again) I was delighted that it wasn’t one of those feel-good books that are all the rage, you know, where a woman of 30, lamenting her advanced age, embarks on a “spiritual quest” which invariably comes to a climax over a heavy shaving of winter white truffle atop a carefully constructed pyramid of scrambled eggs that, when consumed (finally!) soothes the lost soul, in this case a soul held aloft by impossibly high heels. No, indeed, like the “unfinished” via, like our afternoon in search of a restaurant, things don’t always work out on the Via Francigena. There are walks along busy and narrow roads, there are streams to ford, there are hostels without hot water after a long day…
Julie and Neville spare you none of the problems. It is a bittersweet journey; there is no sugar coating, no high fructose corn syrup an editor needed to get into the plot by the third chapter. What you have here is the grubby truth about pilgrimage, the yin and yang of it, the supreme lows interspersed with moments of enlightenment. That’s what makes the book compelling. That’s (probably) what makes pilgrimage compelling. (What was memorable about that lazy and uneventful stroll in the park you took last year?)
Narration toggles between Julie and Neville’s observations of each leg of the journey. Neville gives you the historical facts of the places he’s carefully researched along the way; Julie, thoughtful and reflective, is in quest of the culinary masterpieces Cucina Povera can produce. Together they share the feelings of a couple unable to escape each other’s presence during a difficult journey. Travel for couples is seldom easy.
Along the way Julie and Neville will introduce you to characters that the folks who live here long enough will recognize and love—like the winery owner who will sell them a bottle of wine for 2.5 Euros or a glass of it for 3…
By the time Julie and Neville reach Siena, (“The Good City”) it’s as if a weight has been lifted of your back. The journey has suddenly become a walk in the park. The tension is lifted. Hallelujah! If it doesn’t make you feel good—at least to know that the couple’s endurance has gotten them to a very good place—then you have no feelings. It’s all in the contrast. It’s all downhill from here. The good downhill I mean.
So, if you’re tired of the same old Italian love stories or dopey lists of the TOP 10 PLACES TO VISIT IN ITALY! variety, you might try toning down the sugar level by buying yourself a copy of An Italian Odyssey. It will introduce you to many places way off the beaten track that are all the more compelling because the locals remain pure to their own way of doing things. And that just might be the place you’re looking for. You never know.
And I hope I can convince them to come back to the Lunigiana. I mean, gosh, they had Zeri lamb and didn’t like it as much as they thought they would. Julie and Neville, the lamb deserves another chance!
You can get a copy of An Italian Odyssey: One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage whizzed to your door from Amazon, and I hope you’ll do that.
Where is the Via Francigena? See our Via Francigena Map