Thursday, October 28, 2021

Vivi ogni respiro - Walking for Charity

I met a lot of interesting people and made plenty of new friends on my 37-day Long Walk from Rome to Santa Maria di Leuca this September/October, and in this post, I would like to introduce you to two very special new friends!

Massimo Pedersoli and Alessio Tomasella upon arrival in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Leuca

Alessio Tomasella ( on Instagram) lives in Pordenone, and worked in the restaurant business before becoming practically a full-time walker. Alessio was born with cystic fibrosis, but he does not let this genetic condition, which has an impact on multiple organs of the body, particularly the lungs, stop him from walking. He walked the Camino de Santiago for the first time in 2010, just to see if it was possible for a person with cystic fibrosis to do it. Finding that it was not only possible but helpful for improving the functioning of his lungs and his overall physical condition, Alessio has continued long-distance walking over the years, on various Camino routes to Santiago as well as the Via Francigena, Nepal's Annapurna Circuit and even Mount Everest Base Camp. Allow me to add that while people with cystic fibrosis normally have an average life expectancy of 40 years, Alessio is now 37 and in excellent health! 

Massimo Pedersoli (Walking for Charity on Facebook and Instagram) lives in Genoa, not far from my own home - the only other person from Liguria I met on this trip! After travelling to Chernobyl as a photographer in 2019, Massimo began to rethink his life goals, and left his job to start walking - in the middle of winter! On that occasion he came down with pneumonia, but he has had better luck since. He walks for charity, to raise awareness and funds for charitable causes such as an association providing holidays in Italy for Belorussian children from the Chernobyl area and Omphalos, an association for families of autistic children for which he is currently walking. 

In February 2020, just before the Covid emergency broke out, Alessio and Massimo met on the Camino de Santiago and formed a partnership, deciding to embark on an epic walk together to raise funds for cystic fibrosis. This was postponed as a result of the events of 2020, but the two of them set off from the border between Italy and Slovenia on May 6, 2021 and walked the Via Postumia across northern Italy from east to west, ending in Massimo's home town, Genoa (over 1000 km) before boarding a Flixbus to Calais to walk the entire French, Swiss and Italian sections of the Via Francigena, a total of 3200 km (it was not possible to travel to the UK at that time to start at Canterbury Cathedral due to Covid travel restrictions). 

I first met Alessio at the pilgrim hostel in Rome before beginning my latest Long Walk. He set off from Rome a day after I started walking with the Road to Rome 2021 group, but Massimo and Alessio caught up with us when we had a rest day in Fondi a week later, and from then on we walked several stages together, separating again when they took a different route from mine in Troia but then meeting again in Bari to walk all the rest of the way to Santa Maria di Leuca together. We shared accommodations, washing machines and meals, and walked together - as often as I was able to keep up with their rapid pace! 

My 870 kilometres are nothing compared to the total distance Massimo and Alessio have walked this summer: approximately 4200 km! All this while carrying backpacks weighing 20 to 25 kg, in order to be fully independent, carrying a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad, food, water and cooking equipment. When I first met Alessio in Rome, the weight of the medications he had to carry was, alone, equivalent to the weight of my entire backpack! Of course the supply diminished as he carried on walking, but as Alessio only weighs 50 kg, he was still carrying approximately half his body weight on his back! Massimo is equally slender, and in their rain ponchos during that rainy final week in Puglia, the pair of them looked like a couple of gnomes, hunched over under the weight of their packs.  

Their project is called Vivi Ogni Respiro, meaning "live every breath" to the utmost, and it's not too late to help them reach their goal of raising €5000 for the Italian cystic fibrosis league - that's just over one euro per kilometre walked. If you would like to donate, click here

Thank you for reading this, thank you for donating, if you can - and thank you Massimo and Alessio for your excellent company on the Via Francigena between Rome and Santa Maria di Leuca! 


Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Via Francigena nel Sud: The Road to Home

The Road to Home part I: local bus to Lecce

Over the past 18 days I have walked the entire length of the region of Puglia, from the hills of the Daunia area at the foot of the Appenines, across the flat Tavoliere delle Puglie, along the coast and through the olive groves of the Salento peninsula to Santa Maria di Leuca, where the Ionian Sea meets the Adriatic and one can walk no farther. 

I can still hear the rhythms of pizzica music echoing in my ears, see the dancers' swirling red scarves and skirts, taste the pureed fava beans with greens, the deep-fried panzerotti, the cream-filled pasticciotti and caffè leccese, espresso served ice-cold with almond syrup. I can still smell the fig trees and the olive groves, healthy ones at first, bearing gigantic Cerignola olives, then the dead and dying olive trees struck by the Xylella plague further down the peninsula. I can still feel on my skin the strong winds that whip the Salento peninsula, the torrential rain that trapped us in the castle in Mola di Bari, the strong sun that finally warmed our weary bones as we rested on the beach yesterday in Santa Maria di Leuca. 

But now I am on a bus for a slow and bumpy ride back to Lecce, where I will spend one more day before catching the train back home. I'm glad the bus is a slow one, travelling small local roads from village to village, as I get to see more of this enchanted region along the way, to hear the accents of the local people chatting at the back of the bus, and have time to think and write about my time in the third and last region walked across on my Long Long Walk from Rome to Santa Maria di Leuca, the tip of the heel of Italy. 

From the bus

From the bus

The Road to Home, part II: A day in Lecce

After our bus ride we settled into our comfortable holiday flat in the centre of Lecce, Casa Storta 34, rented out by fellow Ragazza in Gamba Daniela: the perfect base for exploring the old town of Lecce. The city is a triumph of Baroque architecture, and we started our tour of Baroque churches at the cathedral, continuing with Santa Croce, Sant'Irene, San Matteo and Santa Chiara. I'm not normally a fan of Baroque architecture, but here, the ornately carved columns and altars in warm hues of locally quarried pietra leccese stone create a sublime harmony akin to the complexities of counterpoint in Baroque music. 

Between churches, we stopped at pastry shops to stock up on goodies to take home and to sit down for a break and a snack in the sunshine - which has finally arrived now that our Long Walk is over! 

The rustico: a giant vol-au-vont, puff pastry with a tomato, mozzarella and béchamel sauce filling

Pasticciotto pastries with a variety of cream and ricotta fillings

But Lecce is much, much older than the Baroque style with which it is associated: underneath the town lies a Roman city, parts of which have been uncovered in recent years. A Roman theatre is squeezed between houses, while an amphitheatre with enough seats for 16,000 spectators has been partially excavated in the city's main square, Piazza Sant'Oronzo. 

Roman theatre

Roman theatre

Roman amphitheatre 

We also found time to visit the monumental library, with its annexed museum of print, and the Museo Castromediano archaeological museum, which is currently doubling as a vaccination centre! 

The Road to Home part III: night train from Lecce

After saying goodbye to my new friends Sylvie of Paris, Rosalba of the Aosta Valley, and Daniela, our hostess in Lecce, and a quick hello and goodbye to an old friend in the area, Ilaria, I boarded the night train to Turin. I booked my ticket early for a good deal on a "deluxe" single cabin, so I was able to get a good night's sleep while the train conveyed me up the peninsula to the foggy flatlands of northern Italy - luckily not ny final destination, but just a place to change trains and head back to sunny Liguria on the coast! 

I stop here for now!! 

"Deluxe" single cabin

My own personal washbasin 

Waking up in the foggy north

Changing trains in Tortona

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Via Francigena nel Sud Day 37: Tricase - Santa Maria di Leuca

Road to from Rome Day 37: Tricase - Santa Maria di Leuca

How to describe in a few words the final stage of an 870 km walk, in 37 days, from Rome, where I left off my walk from home along the Via Francigena in 2015, to Santa Maria di Leuca, at the southernmost tip of the heel of Italy?

Our group grew larger and larger along the way. On the previous evening people I had met and made friends with along the way began to reappear, and in the morning there were even more of them: members of the Gruppo dei Dodici who had accompanied us through Lazio, bloggers and photographers who had covered various parts of the route, walkers who had reluctantly left the group earlier but promised to return for the final stage. It was a strange and surreal feeling, seeing all these people again, in a different time and place, out of the context of their home regions... As if we had all died and gone to heaven, and been reunited there with all our long-lost friends!

At Gagliano del Capo the group grew even larger. After taking a break for a picnic in the park, scurrying for shelter under the arcades of the town hall when it began to rain, we set off for the final seven kilometres in the company of the group that had arrived from Otranto on a historic vintage train provided by the Italian national railways, a partner in the Road to Rome project, especially for the occasion. The group included the Italian minister for tourism and representatives of the British, French, Swiss and Italian Via Francigena associations. They all walked the final kilometres with us, in their fine clothes and under their umbrellas; as did the students from local high school Liceo Statale Girolamo Comi, getting wet in their jeans and sweatshirts, as well as a multi-national company of young actors in period costumes.

This colourful and highly various group arrived at the lighthouse and sanctuary of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae together, singing, clapping and rejoicing. 

We all crowded into the Basilica to shelter from the rain and receive the welcome of the Minister for Tourism and the Bishop, then we lined up to receive the final stamp on our pilgrim credentials. 

The rain stopped in time for the afternoon programme of events, including speakers from the associations of the Via Francigena in England, France, Switzerland and Italy, the city of Canterbury, the president of the region of Puglia, the Italian national agency for tourism, the French Fédération Grand Randonnée, and Frank Damiano representing all of us bloggers who participated in various stages of the Road to Rome. It was dark by the time Luca Bruschi of the European Association of the Via Francigena concluded the session, mentioning the collective diary initiative of the Ragazze in Gamba in which I have participated since I started in Rome. 

The programme continued with a theatrical performance by a French/Italian company of young actors centering around fictional adventures of the Archbishop Sigeric on the Via Francigena. And the evening ended with a seafood dinner and entertainment provided by our favourite pizzica dancer, whom we first encountered in Brindisi, and her band! 

The three participants who walked all the way from Calais to Santa Maria di Leuca were presented with a cut-out figure of the yellow pilgrim that symbolises the Via Francigena, while the staff and we bloggers received a souvenir necklace made by an artisan from Gambassi Terme using stones from the Via Francigena and the five of us who had walked the farthest - Myra, Alessio and Massimo from Calais, Alfredo and I from Rome - were awarded our testimonium. The dinner concluded with a special Road to Rome cake, and guess which piece I got? The one with Santa Maria di Leuca on it!