Every Italian paesino has a church, a cemetery and a café. We passed through many that were little more than a quiet road with a couple old buildings sagging in the sun. The countryside is full of little towns with dusty cars and old folks that sit in the shade speaking softly in dialect. From the window of car or a passing train it would seem abandoned, but if you walk slow enough you see the life that lives quietly in the hills of Italy.
It took us five days to walk from Bologna to Florence, 80 miles along the via degli Dei– the Way of the Gods. I texted Yuri a few days before and he brought his tent from home. I bought a map and we marked the route. It seemed doable so we did it.
We make a strange duo, Yuri and I. Him, a city kid from Milano who’d seen fireflies only twice before, and me, the American who stumbled through a year at the University of Bologna speaking fluently, yet half-heartedly in Italian with a Wisconsin accent. We both had a backpack and a shaved head, we looked like the brothers from American History X but we’re about as far from neo-Nazis as you could be.
Yuri talked to everyone we passed, stopping to ask for directions even if we knew where we were going. He is one of the most confident and extroverted people I know, he knows what to say to get anyone to like him. He doesn’t speak much English, so for me, even after a year, it was still language practice. By the time we reached the top of Monte Adone I had heard every blasphemy in the Italian vocabulary but whenever we went into town, Yuri spoke formally with his best manners and I watched how he showed respect through language alone.
We woke every morning without knowing where we would sleep that night, for the first few days Firenze was like a joke on a distant horizon that we would tell when people asked where we were going. We left on Monday morning with a smushed loaf of bread, two soggy sausages, a jar of Nutella and a can of pineapple. My stomach growled.
Not far outside Casalecchio we passed an old lady sitting outside a shuttered restaurant overlooking the River Reno. It was a beautiful view but there was no one around. We sipped tiny caffè and ate apricots from a nearby orchard; she talked almost non-stop in thick dialect about the old days, when her restaurant was full every night. But her husband died and the neighbors all moved away. The hillside houses sat empty and overgrown, now the only business she got is from passerby like us on the way to Florence. She said she heard how the cities were overcrowded with migrants and that they should move to the countryside and work the land. It was hard to pull out of the conversation but we had to keep going. I looked back and she was still sitting there looking out at the panorama, waiting for the next people to walk by.
By midday it was too hot to walk. Not used to being bald, the top of my head was sunburnt. Badolo is one of those towns with hardly ten buildings, but a young family playing outside refilled our water bottles and we sat in the shade on the terrazza of a closed osteria and ate our food. If your hungry enough, anything is good. We discovered that Nutella and pineapple go surprisingly well with bread and sausage.
That afternoon we climbed Monte Adone, then descended into Brento to find a place to sleep. We were walking into town when an old man stopped his car alongside us and asked if we were looking for a space to pitch a tent. He told us we could sleep down by the soccer field, where there was a bathroom and a shower. If we take a shower, put three euros in the bucket, he said, otherwise, it was free. We couldn’t believe it. We pitched our tent and went to the osteria in town, where there were some other hikers eating. I was starving and sick of sausage, so I gorged on the antipasto buffet and ordered a plate of tagliatelle with zucchini and speck, authentic Emilia-Romagna cuisine. Half a liter of white wine put me right to sleep.
The night was cold, and we had no sleeping bags or pillows. I woke up shivering on the hard ground many times but when the sun hit the tent the next morning it immediately felt like a hundred degrees so when I woke I forgot how cold I had been in the night. We kept walking.
We were tired the next day, so we stopped in Monzuno for the midday heat. There was a pizza place on the main road with a couple old men sitting outside watching the street. It was another quiet town and I fell asleep laying on the concrete in the shade.
By the afternoon of the second day we were in the heart of the Apennines Mountains and the countryside spread out before us. It was still Emilia-Romagna but started to look a lot like Tuscany, the region to the south. We passed under wind turbines and walked along the ridgeline, a panorama on both sides. I heard something that at first I thought it was the wind, but as we kept walking the noise grew clearer. Someone up ahead was blasting techno music through the hills.
We came to a rest stop with a view and picnic tables. There was only one person there: a man sitting in the shade of a propped blanket hunched over a laptop, turning dials on his DJ set to the music. He was killing it with no audience. We walked closer and he looked up with a smile when he noticed us nodding our heads. “BIRRA?” he shouted over the music. We nodded and he handed us a beer, we sat down in the blast of the music. He was glad to have an audience and turned it up a few notches.
He said his name was Lele. He was 38 and lived in the village below, “paesino di merda,” he called it. His old neighbors didn’t like the music, so he went up in the hills to practice. He played shows throughout Emilia-Romagna. “The rave will keep you young,” he told us. I believed him.
We chilled there for a while, but the sun was getting lower and we had to keep moving; we had to make it to Madonna dei Fornelli before dark. He said we were almost there, just follow the road a few more kilometers. We walked away down the dusty lane and the music faded behind us.
Madonna dei Fornelli is a nice town at the base of a valley, not far from the confine with Tuscany. As the sun sinks every night the hills show their best colors: green fields dotted with yellow haybales under a pale blue sky. We were walking down a road through fields of oats when up ahead were two girls walking towards us. I looked at Yuri and he looked at me, suddenly remembering we hadn’t seen girls in two days. As we approached Yuri greeted them; as usual, confident, loquacious and hot like a dog. They were sisters from a nearby town, out for a walk in the hills. They were about our age but didn’t speak a word of English. We talked for a while in the golden light and I swear I’d had a dream like that once. They said there was a bar with people in Madonna dei Fornelli and maybe we’d see each other there. We parted ways and Yuri and I practically ran the rest of the way.
In Madonna dei Fornelli there were a bunch people who walked the via degli Dei, it was clear the village relied on the passerby to support the town. The lady in the café said they were happy to host the hikers, they brought life to the village. She told us to ask at the hotel if there was a space to put our tent. The man at the hotel said, of course, there was a lot out back where we could sleep for free, there was even a toilet and a shower. At that point I was still thinking about the girls on the road, so I took my first shower in two days. It wasn’t clean, but neither was I.
That night we sat outside the hotel bar, drinking a beer with some high schoolers from Ravenna doing the walk too. The waitress was our age and had eyes that wanted to leave. I told her she had a beautiful paesino and she told me she hated it. She wanted to live in a big city, but the biggest she’d managed was Rimini. We must’ve seemed cool- me from America and Yuri from Milano- because she hung by our table as the restaurant cleared. When she finished work she lit a cigarette and took us to a bar down the street. It was called American Bar, but I was the only American there; the crowd was a bunch of old townies speaking mostly in dialect. Our beautiful friend knew everyone by name. Her name was Alba, which means sunrise, but she left with the moon still rising, saying “see you in Bologna” and it was another cold night in the tent on the ground.
On the third day we reached Tuscany. The hills grew bigger and the horizon grew further away. Each view more impressive than the last. By then Bologna had disappeared in a blue mist beyond the hills behind us and Florence was nowhere to be seen. We walked on the road built by Romans almost two thousand years ago, through think forests and up rocky slopes. But the backpacks felt lighter and we could walk for longer. I hadn’t spoken much English at all in those days and as I walked my thoughts bounced through my head in Italian. It’s strange to have a limited vocabulary inside your own head.
That night the sun was setting when we walked down into Santa Lucia. We were sick of sleeping in the tent but the man in the albergo said they had no rooms available. We knocked on the door of a nice B&B but they told us a room would cost 70 euros. No way. We walked a little further down the road and found a spot in a field of oats. There were bugs everywhere but we said ‘this is camping’, and put up with it. We ate tuna from the can with Nutella for desert and I felt asleep with rocks in my back. It was cold at night, but hot when we woke. We kept walking. I just wanted to get to Florence, but we still had two days to go.
The fourth day was the hottest and we were the most tired. We walked through Barberino di Mugello, a small city spread on the north side of Lago di Bilancino, one of the biggest lakes in Tuscany. We swam in the lake surrounded by green hills with villas, then fell asleep in a cut field of grain in the shade of an olive tree.
When we woke it was past five and we still had to reach Tagliaferro before dark. We climbed the hills around the lake and down into the valley near Trebbio. There were horses grazing in the fields and old stone buildings covered in green moss. It was beautiful, but I was in a hurry. It was getting dark and I didn’t want to sleep in another field of bugs and rocks.
As we were walking down into Tagliaferro, we passed a nice house overlooking the valley. There was a family eating dinner outside and at first I didn’t want to disturb them; but Yuri went ahead and shouted over, asking if we were almost to Tagliaferro. They said we were, it was just down the road. We continued walking for a minute but then one of them shouted after us, “you want a glass of wine?” “Sì,sempre!”
We sat down at their table, introducing ourselves. They put plates in front of us and filled our glasses with white wine, telling us to eat whatever we wanted. At first I took a polite serving but as the conversation went on and it got darker, we slowly finished all their food. They were proud of their Tuscan cuisine. Rice with beans, salmon with avocados and tomatoes, tuna in a mango-tasting dish. “Try the olive oil,” the mother said, in Italian with heavy Toscana accent, “it’s made in the valley.”
We ate and ate and talked and ate. They were good people, two families from the area who wanted to meet and help us pellegrini, “do you have hats? You both have such short hair,” asked the father. “It’s nothing political,” said Yuri and they all laughed. They said they stuck hard to the left and as young people living in Bologna, it was obvious that Yuri and I were too. For an American living Italy, the conversation will often turn political and they were impressed by how much I understood about the recent rise of neofascism in Italian politics. They jokingly asked if I was in Italy to escape Trump, but I was not joking when I responded that I was.
We finished the food and another bottle of the best red wine I had ever drunk, aged 14 years, so good you could still taste the wood of the barrel. By the end of the bottle it was dark and too late to keep walking. No problem, they said, just pitch your tent in the yard. They gave us sleeping bags and pillows and for the first time I slept straight through the night, it felt like a five-star hotel. When we woke they said they had to go to work, but there was caffè and breakfast on the table. We said goodbye and I feel bad now because I don’t remember their names. We finished breakfast, packed up our tent and kept walking.
A few hours later we saw Florence on the horizon. The cupola of the Duomo stood out in the blue misty distance and as we walked it grew clearer. The last day was the longest, almost 18 miles. But the end was in sight and we pushed through with few stops. We were stronger than when left and it was mostly downhill to the city. My feet and back were sorely blistered and Yuri’s knee had him limping along, leaning on the same stick he’d carried since Brento.
We found a hostel on the outskirts of Florence. I took a shower and collapsed in the first bed in five days, exhausted, but not done yet. We went out later and ate a seafood dinner, which is not what they typically eat in Firenze but when your hungry anything is good. We limped our way towards the center to Piazza della Signoria, the official end of the via degli Dei. It was surreal to think we’d just walked there from Bologna and we sat down in the middle of the square crowded with tourists and drank a beer with a victory cigarette, tired as fuck.
The hostel looked like an old insane asylum, a rotting building set back in the woods. I was disappointed to find that the breakfast they offered was only bread and Nutella with cappuccino. The showers were musty and the bed itched. You were supposed to remove the bedsheets before you left but I didn’t feel like doing it at the time; as I was checking out the secretary asked me if we had removed the sheets and I said, “yea yea, we did, whatever,” and we quickly left. Yuri laughed, “you are becoming more Italian,” he said.
We took the train to the next station without buying a ticket, like Italians would do. We parted ways at Stazione Santa Maria Novella; we had left Bologna knowing each other a little but felt like lifelong friends by Florence. He went to Milano to go dancing, even with a bum knee, because he’s pazzo and never stops; but I was tired and just wanted to chill. I called Valeria, who lives near Firenze, but it turns out she was in Bologna for the weekend anyways. I looked around at the tourists in the train station, suddenly realizing I didn’t like Florence. People responded to my Italian with English and I didn’t like the feeling of being a tourist.
I took the regional train back to Bologna; it cost 8 euros and only took an hour and a half. I looked out the window, watching the blur of small towns that looked abandoned from a distance. But I knew there was life in those hills, you just had to move slowly to see it.