You have just left the Alpine valleys, but the mountains continue to watch over your path. The glaciers of Monte Rosa at 4000 meters are reflected in the flooded rice fields in the spring. This is the best time to face the challenge of the Po Valley, the endless straights, the geometric fields, startling and unexpected landscapes. You did not expect to spend days walking briskly between surfaces of water and light, marked by thin dikes. The town of Santhiá envelops you in silence, broken only by the sudden flight of herons.
You’ll never walk alone on the embankment of the fields. Sooner or later a tractor will emerge from the mists to work in the fields. A steeple or the squat outline of a small farm emerges in the distance. Their foundations likely date back to Medieval times, when the plain was still covered in dense forests and swamps, yet to be reclaimed. Imagine the rice farmers, only a hundred years ago labouring under the intense heat of the sun. Treat yourself to a break in the village squares, where you’ll always find a café or a tavern where a plate of panissa, the robust risotto of the Vercelli tradition, that is sure to give you all the energy you need to continue the journey.
The cart tracks lead to the cities, which are announced from a distance. Their towers, domes and steeples guide you to the beautiful squares and arcades. In Vercelli the two main branches of the Via Francigena meet. They come from the most popular tracts: Gran San Bernardo, Montgenevre and Mont Cenis. Spend some time exploring its rich historical and artistic heritage. In Pavia, the capital of the Lombards, make a memorable entrance on its famous Covered Bridge. Its churches are among the most outstanding Romanesque monuments. Piacenza is no less important a hub of all the roads that came down from the eastern Alps. In Fidenza, the medieval carvings in the sandstone of the cathedral of San Donnino tell pilgrims which direction to take for the tombs of the martyrs and to Rome.
The exciting crossing of the Po River on board a small boat will awaken the senses. Take in the damp, cold wind of the morning, the mists over the poplar plantations in the flood plain, the vastness of the murky water. You arrive on the other side of the river, revived and with renewed energy for the journey ahead.