Today starts mundanely enough with the usual process of finding our way through city streets to emerge on the other side (my least favourite part of VF travel) and hopefully back on the VF. Last year we spent a significant amount of time trying to understand where a clutch of seemingly contradictory signs wanted to take us on this particular section. This year is not so different, but with the use of some painfully gained hindsight we manage to find a single and relatively simple route.
From here we more or less continue to retrace last year’s steps through unexceptional countryside, though primarily on minor roads and tracks, which makes the travelling easy. The change comes when we break away to do what we could not do last year with Lubie – cross the Po with the Guado, in his little motor boat – a reduction in road kilometres and much more fun.
Pisoni’s instructions tell us we must contact the Guado, Danilo, a few hours before wanting to cross and we try to do this in Sta Cristina, the town that sits exactly on the intersection between the two available routes – boat or bridge. For some reason the phone number does not seem to connect. Decision time. Risk it and see what happens? Or do the sensible thing and take the road route.
After two coffees and some one-dimensional discussion (because in truth we are already decided) the boat wins. From here the travelling is much more interesting – small villages, cycling along the banks of various waterways, then the Po, then signs for the Guado, then a small jetty with a boat tethered to it, but no Guado. We go back to a small group of houses we had seen 50 metres back, the archway entrance encouragingly plastered with VF signs. This is a fairly dusty collection and the customers in the only bar stare at us as if they don’t see too many people outside their own family, but this is just proof that first impressions can be unreliable. After explaining who we are and what we want, the bar owner springs into action: phoning the Guado on our behalf, asking if we mind appearing on television and then phoning again to get this organised too. Paul and I can only nod in agreement to everything, drink our beers and wait for whatever is going to happen next. Vasco, meanwhile, is being swarmed over by a crowd of kids and apparently enjoying the experience.
Pierluigi Cappelletti arrives shortly after, introduces himself as the manager of the sanctuary at Orio Litta, explains that he has been instructed to inform the local TV station if any pilgrims come through and asks if we know Jo Patterson. Yes, of course we do (fellow member of the UK VF confraternity and our first contact with the VF itself). The mutual acquaintance propels our conversation along even more familiar paths: pilgrims, signage in Italy etc etc.
Then the TV cameraman arrives shortly after and through a mixture of translation and tough intermediary work on the part of poor Pierluigi, we are filmed, interviewed and then filmed and interviewed all over again with Vasco, as usual being the star. From here it is time to get our bikes and luggage down the very steep and very narrow gangway, in preparation for the Gaudo, who, we are told, is on his way. The only fortunate aspect in all of this is that the cameraman and Pierluigi have left us to get on with it by ourselves, because the last thing we need is an audience for our slipping, sliding and swearing progress.
The small motor boat crests the horizon just as we dump the last pannier on the jetty and then everything goes quite simply smoothly. Within less than ten minutes, Danilo and Sergio, his mate, sort out the deck, arrange the bikes and then tell us to hold on tight. The Sigerac (the boat) may be small, but it can go unexpectedly fast. Vasco nearly loses his ears in the slipstream.
On the other side, at Soprariva, things just get better. Danilo and Sergio help us unload and then invite us up to the house for a beer. From here we exchange pilgrim gossip - people we know, guides we have used - and then we are given detailed instructions on how to to get to Piacenza, the parts to avoid, the routes to watch out for and so on and so on. An hour goes by before we leave, Vasco is fed and Danieli's wife phones through to the next hostel (San Lazzaro) to let them know that we expect to arrive somewhere between six and seven.
From here it is good travelling until we arrive in Piacenza. We already have bad memories of the place from last year, when we came in from the wrong side and had to negotiate a flyover with Lubie, but actually in hindsight this year is even worse. If you are planning to travel in Italy try to avoid the holiday period, because everything, and I mean everything, is closed.
We arrive late at the hostel and no one answers so our only alternative is to find a hotel - not a problem - but finding an open hotel most definitely is. After a slogging five kilometres we finally find a B&B on the outskirts where the holiday fever has not totally taken over. We are welcomed, offered a very comfortable room, but of course no food - needless to say we are starving.
No point in dragging out the agony, it is agonising enough. We have to walk another 3km back into Piacenza to find the only open restaurant, though in the end it is not all bad news because the food is excellent and Vasco shares a large portion of Paul's steak because we have not been able to buy any dog food that day.