Although today’s was to be a relatively short walk of about 20 kilometres we decided to set out early anyway, and left our B&B with day sacks at 0650, just as it was beginning to get light. What a luxury to carry just lunch and rain gear!

Ours are the two ground floor windows to the right of the entrance door – just to prove how early we got up! Does our lodging look a bit like prison?

It was rather pleasant to have the streets almost to ourselves, and to be able to admire the varied architecture without fear of bumping into someone or being run over. We passed several very impressive and ornate palazzos, a number of ”ex” churches – the Church here is clearly struggling to maintain all its assets too – many fancy metalwork grilles over windows and ornate metal gates. As we passed through Piazza Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour traders were just beginning to set up their Saturday market stalls, and we gave them a cheery “buon giorno” as we walked by. Though tempted to ask if we could buy some local cheeses we decided to avoid carrying the extra weight.

The Piazza Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour as market traders were setting up

We were clear of the urban area surprisingly quickly – unlike the long drag in from Santhia a couple of days ago – and soon crossing a bridge over the river Sesia, which is split into multiple channels at this point. To our delight the Alps were in clear view to the north of us, with recent snow cover, which fell here as rain a couple of nights ago. They glowed pink as the sun’s rays began to curve over the horizon. The blocky massif of Monte Rosa, at 4634m the second highest of the Alps lay directly in front of us. A quick internet check confirmed that Bourg St Pierre, our last stop in Switzerland before the Grand St Bernard pass, and St Rhemy-en-Bosses this side of the Alps are both now blanketed in snow. That’s a snow level down to about 1600 metres. We were glad we got over when we did!

The distant snow covered massif of Monte Rosa with the River Sesia in the foreground

After a short walk along the side of the busy road to Pavia, we turned off onto farm tracks, making our way around fields of harvested rice and wheat, and poplar plantations for most of the day. At the first farm, Cascina Bischizia, we met a young woman out collecting mushrooms who told us she had made the sign we had just admired. We chatted for quite a while in a mixture of our pidgen-Iti, English and her beautifully expressive Italian. Somehow we managed to hold a most interesting conversation about our pilgrimage, about the diversity and history of church architecture along the route and the pressures of farming in this very dry year. She agreed to add Salisbury to her sign showing the different pilgrim routes leading to Rome, though we were slightly worried that she referred to it as Salsbourg (Salzburg in Austria?). Carla Morello, who calls herself ‘ The Young Farmer Girl’ on line, has also very kindly advertised our fundraising campaign on her Instagram feed which describes the pilgrims who pass her farm. This chance encounter was one of the highlights of the day.

Carla and Tom discussing the sign
Looking back at rice fields and poplar plantations with the snowy Alps on the horizon
Harvested wheat field with straw roll-ups divided from a rice field by one of the many irrigation channels, again with snowy Alps on the horizon
One of several abandoned farmsteads, occupied only by pigeons – a sad sight reflecting depopulation of the countryside

As the tracks were dead flat we were able to stride out and cover the kilometres fairly quickly, albeit with quite a lot of twists and turns to circumnavigate the irrigation channels. By mid morning we were very hungry, having eaten only the light sweet cakes that comprise an Italian breakfast so, coming upon a place to sit, we stopped to tuck into our packed lunches. We were making good progress and reckoned we’d get to our destination in time for lunch in a cafe.

Second breakfast or very early lunch?

Just along the track was the village of Palestro, which has a church, a turreted tower, and a railway station, but like many of these smaller places it is very quiet and has seen better days. From the train on the way back to Vercelli we could see a quite extensive area of derelict industrial buildings, though no indication of what had gone on there in the past.

Approaching Palestro with its turreted tower (to the right) and church (to the left)

On leaving Palestro we turned off the road onto farm tracks meandering through more rice fields and poplar plantations. This part of the walk was slightly rough going as we negotiated our way over and around a complex system of drainage/irrigation channels, some passing over or under others, with complex systems of conduits and hatches – all rather reminiscent of the chalk-stream water-meadow systems at home, albeit on a rather larger scale.

Leaving Palestro on a farm track, large irrigation channel to our right and smaller one to our left
Picking our way across an aqueduct wall where one channel crosses over another channel several metres lower

For the next couple of kilometres we walked around the edges of fields with a drop of several metres to a drainage channel to our right, and other fields also at the lower level. We wondered when all this engineering had taken place, and marvelled at the amount of work that had gone into ensuring these extensive irrigated field systems are productive.

Recently sown rice in fields several metres above a water channel to our right

Once more into open fields we came upon a set of wooden seats made from fallen tree trunks and neatly placed in the shade of an oak tree. They looked so inviting we just had to stop there awhile! As we had found a couple of days ago, spiders are particularly active with making webs at present, and the seats were bound to the branches above by lots of tiny threads.

Along the next stretch of the track Tom spotted a kingfisher and a grey heron which we were able to get quite close to by ’stalking’ it behind a tree until the heron heard us and took off.

Grey heron taking off over harvested rice fields

Another couple of kilometres walking on tarmac roads brought us into Robbio, our destination for today. On the way into town we passed by the local farmers’ cooperative building, quiet on a Saturday lunchtime, and a small romanesque church, sadly closed, but it did offer seats and a water tap outside.

Finding somewhere we could have lunch wasn’t quite as simple as we’d hoped as the couple of bars we passed were serving only alcohol or coffee. Pausing outside a closed restaurant a very kind man came over to us, enquired if we were looking for somewhere to eat, and directed us to a Chinese run cafe 200 metres down the road where we found filled panini, very similar to our intended lunch rolls, and a glass of white wine!

Robbio railway station with rice processing factory adjacent

Fed and watered we headed off to the railway station to get a train back to Vercelli as there is no accommodation to be had in Robbio. Indeed, Robbio looks like another small rural town which has seen better days, though there is a rice processing plant adjacent to the railway station which seems to be active. We don’t know how the processing works, save that it involves many stages of refinement, but how much employment it provides we also don’t know. The railway station was in a very poor state of repair, and there was a lot of uncleared litter on the platforms, including an empty brandy bottle! However, we were very glad to find a train service still functioning which enabled us to complete another day’s walk with the promise of a comfortable bed at the end of the day!

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