I wish I could sit here all day eating juicy red cherries and watching the traffic pass me by, to rest my aching feet and weary body. But I need to get to Murlo where my accommodation is for the night. Again, I’m praying and crossing my fingers that maybe this time my room has a bath. I long to soak my tired body in hot, foamy water and let the the lingering tiredness dissolve away. Everyday, I have prayed for my room to have a bath tub but so far my prayers have gone unanswered.
I left Sienna 4 hours ago and after being lost twice already, I estimate that I have, at least, 4.5 hours of walking to go. So I pick up my sweat-dampened back-pack and put it back on my shoulders and resume walking. One foot after the other, I fall back into my natural rhythm, not fast, not slow. Once again, I am surrounded by orderly rows of green grape vines, barren of fruit. And as I breathe in the euphoric scent of sweet Jasmine, I realise, once again, that I am barely breathing. That in the tense, frustrated moments of feeling lost, my body has clamped down and my intake of life sustaining air is shallow. I breathe in one long, deep breath after another. My body softens as it relaxes. I wonder how much of each day I live like this, breathing so shallow as if I barely want to be in my body. Because I do want to be here, in this body, living every moment fully, now and always. Despite my tiredness and frustration at sporadically becoming lost, I don’t want to be anywhere else in the world. I want to walk each step, one at a time, savouring each full breath of this jasmine-scented Tuscan country-side arriving at my destination whenever I arrive.
Continuing to breathe deeply, I check my next instruction in the guide book.
Veer left down the path past the farmhouse
I continue down the white gravel path, grape vines to my left and the farmhouse to my right until I hit a T-junction.
At the T-junction, turn right. Note the greenhouses on your left.
Before me are some metal frames set up in a half-cylinder structure. They are not enclosed and I see a whole lot of weeds but no plants. I look to my left and to my right but see no other greenhouses. So I turn right on a sandy coloured dirt path and continue down the flat path until I reach another T-junction.
At the T-junction, turn right. Note, go over the bridge.
I look around, puzzled. The bridge in question is to my left. To go over the bridge, I need to turn left but the guide book says to turn right. I look to my right. The path meanders around a corner, past some tall conifer trees. I cannot see a bridge to my right. I pause. Now what do I do? I decide to place my bets on the bridge. Walking up to the bridge I spot not one but two Via Francigena signs. The horizontal red and white stripes are painted on a tree to the right of the bridge and just in front of it is a small rectangular metal sign on a wooden post depicting a yellow pilgrim and the words Via Francigena within a yellow border. I am walking the right way and so I continue along the path. But I am confused and perplexed by the guide book. Although I’ve seen the signs, a little seed of doubt bounces up and down in my stomach, questioning if I really am going the right way. As I walk, I read the guide book for my next direction
After the equestrian centre, turn right. Distance 900 metres.
I continue walking. Two little boys ride their bikes past me chatting happily away in Italian I don’t understand. “Ciao piccolo” I call out to them quietly. Up ahead, they are greeted by a man riding a grey mare, with no saddle and no stirrups. He speaks to them in Italian. From what I can comprehend from his body language, he tells them to keep their distance from the horse and to turn around and go back. Obediently they do. And I am left alone on the path. At least I know the property I passed is probably the equestrian centre.
I walk past Via Francigena signs frequently. They are mainly small stickers with arrows stuck on sign posts but there are also the red and white stripes painted on trees. So I know I am walking in the right direction. After 20 minutes, I appear to have walked a long way past the equestrian centre but I haven’t seen any signs telling me to turn right. Trusting the signs, I keep walking. As long as I see the signs, I must be on the right path.
From time to time, cars speed past me, throwing up a cloud of dust behind them and over me as they pass. I can feel the dirt settle in a greasy layer of grime over my face. As I wash the grit from my mouth and lips with my drinking water, I send out another silent prayer that the I may be blessed with a bath tub in my room this evening. Although annoying, the cars reassure me that I am not completely alone on this remote country road. Scattered amongst the rolling hills are few farmhouses. Looking back, I can see rusty coloured Sienna in the distance and a few kilometres to my right is a small village. I look at my map. I’m not really sure which village it is. Is it Sant’Agostino? Is it Isola D’Arbia? I hope not for then I’m really lost. I have a sense that I’m meant to be walking towards the village but still there are no signs.
After walking for 45 minutes, I reach a small side track on the right hand side of the crest of a hill. There are no obvious Via Francigena signs. I walk up to the electricity pole on the corner of my current path and the side road. The red and white stripes painted on it. If I was meant to walk down this path, there would normally be an arrow pointing in a straight up direction. But there isn’t. Nor is there one telling me to continue on my current direction. Do I turn right? Or do I continue straight ahead? I re-read the instruction in my guide book.
After the equestrian centre, turn right. Distance 900 metres.
It leaves me none the wiser although I am sure I have walked way more than 900 metres, more like 3 kilometres. I look around. There is nobody to ask for help. I have to make a decision. Unconvinced that this is the correct side road, I continue walking down my dusty country road.
I scan the trees and poles along the side of the road for Via Francigena signs. 10 minutes pass. There are none. Why are there none? And why hasn’t there been an obvious sign for me to turn down a side road? The lack of signs should be an obvious sign for me to turn back but I don’t. I keep walking and walking and praying there will be another sign. “Sometimes there hasn’t been a sign for more than a kilometre” I tell myself “so maybe there will be one around the next corner.” I reach the next corner and there is still no sign. I reach another side road with a sign depicting its name “Strada di Radi (Roma)”. I search my map but the road is not marked and it’s not mentioned in the instructions either. I can see a small town, Radi, on the map, but the Via Francigena doesn’t pass through there.
I keep walking and the throb in my swollen toe crescendos. I am so very tired but there is nowhere to sit and rest. The road is surrounded by a ditch full of long grass so I keep walking. Again, I survey the landscape around me. Rolling hills and more rolling hills, not even a farmhouse close-by. I am in the middle of nowhere, on a country road that I don’t know the name of with only a vague idea of where I am and my only way out is to keep walking. My eyes fill with tears and roll down my cheek leaving a muddy tell-tale sign behind them. After 80 minutes of walking down this path, I decide to do what I don’t want to do, to back-track. I let my tears flow for a few minutes longer, allowing some of my frustration out and to subside. Then drying my eyes and smearing dirt over my face in the process, I refocus on the task at hand. With long, deep breaths, I re-muster my resolve and I start walking back, from where I came.