Many guidebooks like to advertise all the off-the-beaten-path-secret-locals-only places that they’ve quote unquote discovered. And sure, there might be a super cool part of Versailles that only gets 100k tourists instead of a million, or some “hole in the wall” restaurant just off the main square that has a menu in two languages instead of 10. Yes, those places exist. But if you’re looking for something even less known, more ancient, and sufficiently challenging, try the Via degli Abati: literally an unbeaten path.
Before I continue, I should clarify that the Via degli Abati wasn’t always an unbeaten path. In the seventh century, the Via was an important pilgrimage route connecting the Lombard capital of Pavia to the main pilgrimage route towards Rome. At the time, the via was a small stone paved path that wound through the valleys, rivers, and mountains of the Apennines. Fourteen centuries, plenty of dirt, and one fallen Lombard kingdom later, the route is now a trail that bushwhacks through some of Italy’s most unknown mountains only recently rediscovered by a local historian.
The ancient Lombard capital of Pavia is the historic start of the route. Upon arrival at my hostel, I was quickly reminded by the owner of the city’s past.
“You know Pavia was an important imperial city when Milan was just a village, plus it’s much more beautiful.” I set out to see the city and decide for myself. First on the list is the city’s cathedral, home to Italy’s fourth largest dome—a sight that I’ll admit has been on my bucket list for some time. Walking through the narrow streets towards the cathedral, it’s hard not to notice the many medieval towers that compete with each other to dominate the skyline. Yet the sheer size of the cathedral’s dome dwarfs the brick towers. It is easy to feel eclipsed by the enormous dimensions of the church.
After a quick walk around the cathedral, I remember my pilgrim passport and try to use it for the first time. Each pilgrim on the Via has a “passport” used to collect stamps from the churches and cities that they visit. Unfortunately, no one at the cathedral knows where the stamp is, so they recommend another church that for sure will have the stamp.
With that goal in mind, the next morning I decide to visit the aptly named San Pietro Ciel d’Or, a Lombard church famous enough to be mentioned in Dante’s Commedia.
“Down yonder in Cieldauro lies the body,
from which this soul was driv’n; and to this peace
from martyrdom and banishment it came.” (Paradiso X, 127-129)
The nave was bathed in a dim golden light that reflected the mosaics above the altar, creating the namesake “sky of gold.” Still searching for the stamp, I headed to the sacristy. I was in luck: a priest quickly found the stamp in the drawer of an old wooden desk. But, as I was wearing slacks and a button-down, he proceeded to make fun of me for not having hiking clothes or boots (such is the difficult life of a research-writer without checked baggage). But in my defense, the real grit of the journey was yet to come.
To save myself a hot August slog towards the Apennine foothills, I decided to ditch the walk and take the bus to city where I’d start the hike: Bobbio. But, as a testament the decline of the Via as a transit route, there is no direct transport from Pavia to Bobbio. Instead, a quick transit in Piacenza is necessary.
Either the object of mockery by other Italians or proclaimed on tourist brochures, Piacenza’s name closely resembles the Italian words for pleasure: piacere. While the city is not on the tourist circuit, it does house an incredible frescoed dome by Pordenone that is a pleasure to see. Standing outside that basilica, I meet the first of my fellow pilgrims, a couple of recently graduated students from Milan who are hiking the Via Francigena, another pilgrim route that stretches from Canterbury to Rome. We quickly get into a conversation about the pronunciation of Canterbury, a notoriously difficult word for Italians to pronounce. I have a brief moment of fame in their video blog, comically correcting the pronunciation and making jokes in Italian.
But enough with architecture and public transportation: it’s time to hike. An hour on a van turned public bus led me to “the most beautiful valley in the world”—that is, if you believe Ernest Hemingway.
My 100-kilometer trek started at the Abbazia di S. Colombano, named after the swashbuckling Irish monk who tricked a Lombard emperor into giving him the swathe of bandit ridden (more on this later) mountains traversed by the Via. Ironically enough, the trailhead starts at a bridge supposedly constructed by the devil. My goal for the day was to reach Groppallo, a village with—supposedly—a small room for pilgrims. Without a working cell phone, let alone any good cell service in these rural parts, arranging accommodations was difficult and, of course, I hadn’t made any reservations.
Fate has a way of working things out in the Italian mountains. After hiking about 20 kilometers (2/3 of my goals), I met a family picnicking outside their small hut in the forest. Before I knew it, their initial offering of water turns into:
“Sit down, here have some focaccia.”
“Give him the mountain bread with potatoes, it’s so good.”
“Don’t forget about the salami your brother made.”
“We have wine; do you drink red or white?”
A full blown feast, one of the best espressos I’ve consumed in my life, and hours of conversation later (the latter being prompted by the admonishment of, “You don’t know real coffee, they don’t have that in America”), I was escorted by this family to a place they insisted I must stay at: the B&B of an expat near the village of Nicelli. Though I offered to keep hiking, the men of the family told me that the women have already decided. To say anything else would be futile. The expat’s reaction after I bid them goodbye at the B&B was typical of the spirit of the Via.
“I was sure that they were your family members!” she marvels.
The only other guest at the place was an elderly gentleman from the valley. Over dinner, I learned his life story: our conversation running the gamut from past lovers to fascism, nothing was off the table. As for the owner, she was happy that I’m hiking the Via and asked me my reasoning for embarking on this journey, whether it’s for time to think or spiritual reasons. I admitted that it’s somewhere in between the two.
The next morning before I head out, the elderly gentleman insisted we take a selfie together. I asked him why:
“There’s a valley of bandits you know, if they give you trouble just show them this photo.”
“I guess I’d better walk fast through the valley, then.”
“Oh no, it’s not this valley, but you’re close enough.”
Instead of meeting bandits, I met a couple hiking the trail together. The timing could not have been more opportune as I later had to ford a river, yet high water had washed away the trail. Upon finding a decent spot to ford, we threw rocks into the river till there was a stack high enough to jump across on. The real highlight of the day though, was lunch at Fratelli Salini, an inn-salami factory-restaurant (a better combination of things may not exist in the world). The coppa panino I gulped down will be remembered for a long time.
After surviving a close encounter with wild boars that afternoon—though unfortunately not of the gastronomic kind—I stopped for small cafe run by another expat. Over a much needed ice cold Coke, she told me about the area’s rampant corruption.
“Everyone has left,” she said. “They’ve all gone to France, Germany, or the UK.” I ask about the Via.
“It’s hard to get funding, even for small projects.” As I struggled to find accommodations, I saw her point. Even though the initiative is there, plenty of work remained to make the path easier for pilgrims and hikers to follow.
In a classic twist of fate, the painting that I’d hoped to see in Bardi, Parmigianino’s Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine of Alexandria, was currently at the Vatican for restoration. To console myself, I broke my strict budget and splurged on a plate of pappardelle with wild boar and local truffles (not the absurdly expensive kind, mind you). That night, at the small pilgrims’ room next to the church where I was staying, I leafed through the guestbook.
Seeing the comments of everyone who had completed the journey I was in the midst of was a relieving and moving experience. Some people wrote about why they needed the Via, others about its beauty, and some about the people they travelled with. One particularly frank pilgrim noted, “God, this is such a beautiful path, but man is it difficult.” I’ll admit I took too much pride in not seeing any other American comments.
Anyone who has hiked the Via will certainly recognize the unique architecture of the region. Of these elements, the dual basin fountains are a godsend. One of my favorites was by the mostly abandoned village of Monastero. Arches made from small stones provided shade for a long trough basin.
After gaining 2500 ft. in elevation and double checking the guidebook, I set off on a search for Pinno, the man with the stamp for Osacca, a small village known for its intense partisan resistance in World War II. A small sign led me through a courtyard filled with kittens to a set of stairs. Pinno appeared to have dozed off. I overcame my guilt and knocked louder once I decide that after hiking 17km in record August heat, I better have the stamp to prove it.
A louder knock wakes Pinno up. We sat, drank espresso, and talked about the best route to take. He convinced me that I must take the shortest route due to the abnormal heat.
Finding stamps was always a bit of a challenge during the trek, and the last city on my hiking portion of the Via was no different. While a small guidebook gave supposedly updated maps, water locations, accommodations, and locations of stamps, in reality, finding them was not always so easy. For the final stamp, I walked triumphantly into the church at Borgo Taro, having trekked 100 km in three days—much to the shock of a young couple making out in a side chapel. Such is Italy.
Taking the train back to Genoa gave me time to consider the events of the week: the kindness of the people I met, the food I ate, and the amount of physical exertion required to complete the journey. My feet were blistered, my back sore, and my face sunburnt, but I felt amazing. I had decided to embark on a solo hike for the first time in the form of an off-the-tourist-radar pilgrimage with little more than the last scraps of my Let’s Go stipend, my backpack, and an old pair of Rockport sneakers—and I survived.
The Via is part of a larger revival of pilgrimage routes that began in Spain with the Camino de Santiago. My own experience with this popular trend was unforgettable, but it’s difficult to pinpoint one element that was transformative. The Via makes its own demands, but it also gives back: exhaustion, elation, and a forced slowness.
Practical Information: The full Via degli Abati stretches over 200 kilometers from Pavia to Pontremoli. Weather conditions in the winter can make the hike difficult, as can heat in the late summer. Late spring, early summer, and fall are ideal times to do the hike. Information on accommodation can be found on the website (www.viadegliabati.it) and in the book published by Terre di Mezzo Editore, Guida alla Via degli Abati e del Volto Santo. Most of the information is in Italian, but can be clearly followed due to illustrations. For the most part the path is easily followed by the red and white stripe symbol of the path, but having a GPS with the coordinates is not a bad idea. Water is frequently available through fountains, but it is a good idea to carry plenty in case they temporarily dry up. It is best to pack a lunch before leaving each morning as many of the villages are small and have to facilities. There is limited cell service in the mountains and many religious accommodations do not have Wi-Fi. Elevation may pose difficulties for those with knee problems, my 100km portion of the Via had 15,446 ft. of elevation gain/loss.