We decide to cover some distance so we join the motorway for a while. We see less that way and certainly have fewer adventures, but sometimes that can be a good thing, if one wants to make some headway.
As the sun sets, we roll into a campsite about 3km away from Assisi. We tend to avoid campsites, unless we visit a very touristic place or need access to the internet or a washing machine – in this case all three of these apply. Campsites are often full of the type of travellers we don’t really connect with, but in this case, the opposite is true: As soon as we switch off our engine, visitors arrive: we have Polish, Dutch and British neighbours and all of them pop in to admire Emma’s interior – the wood burner eliciting oooh’s and aaah’s once again.
Our polish neighbours have a son, Adam Walny, who is a puppeteer and they give us his book, a beautiful monograph about his work. We chat for a long time about our various children, their talents and courageous life choices for artistic careers.
There is something inimitable about Polish performing arts – it’s witty and gritty at the same time, raw and often very political, but on a personal, human scale. Although probably struggling just as much financially as in most other countries, it always seemed to me that artists in Poland have a much higher social status than in the UK. Looking at Adam’s book makes me remember the wild and wonderful times I had many years ago in Kraków, meeting Piotr Skrzynecki when I performed at the International Festival of Yiddish Music and Culture.
The next morning, we take the shuttle bus up to the city. I’ve been to Assisi once before, about 30 years ago, but I hardly recognise it, it looks so clean and perfect! (a few days later, we hear that it had been hit by an earthquake about 20 years ago and then comprehensively restored, which explains my confusion)
We walk around the beautiful domed basilica, dedicated to St. Francis, until we are both a bit ‘churched out’. Just as we are about to leave, a choir from the Azores starts singing in one of the chapels, so we stop and listen to the melismatic voices weaving into harmonies and drifting along the walls and ceilings of the church. There is a choir competition happening that day and we meet some of the other competitors walking around town. Unfortunately we don’t have time to hang around to hear them all as we have an appointment elsewhere later in the day, but it was fortuitous to hear the one choir practising in one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen.
On our stroll through town, we get chatting to a German pilgrim. He’s been walking for 9 months now. He started off in Santiago de Compostela, following the Portuguese route in reverse all the way down to Southern Spain, where someone stole his wallet and passport. He went to the German embassy to ask for help but they thought that, as he’d managed to walk all the way to Southern Spain, he might as well walk back home too and refused to help him financially! Days later, his boss rang up and said if you aren’t home within 3 days, you are going to lose your job. As he didn’t have the money for a ticket back home, he decided he might as well walk on. So he went along the coast across Spain and France all the way to Italy and thus arrived in Assisi. He said it is no problem walking without money. He didn’t look like a beggar to us, he was young, fit and sparkly-eyed. Where to next? we asked. I don’t know, maybe Rome and then Napoli. We recommended him to continue on to Sicily and gave him 10 Euros towards a ferry ticket.
I guess every pilgrim will have their own stories, and I’m not a fool to believe everything I’m told. It’s neither possible nor would I want to check the veracity of this particular one. Whether true or not, it was an inspiring story of courage, of Letting Go. It gave me food for thought about my own need for security in parts of my life, and why I still need to hold on to certain things to feel safe. We parted from the pilgrim and his dog, each of us smiling for their own reasons. That in itself was worth 10 Euros.
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