The Po River: Cremona and Piacenza

Palm Sunday morning, the sun bathed my shoulders as I walked to the high spots of downtown Cremona. The town was smaller than I expected from the night before; before long, I was several blocks past the Violin Museum run by the Stradivari Foundation, and doubling back. The air felt fresh and traffic was almost non-existent.

I wish that I had studied more art history, because I would have not been surprised to learn that Cremona boasts a major figure in all different fields of art. This is the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth, and the Museo del Violino has an exhibit devoted to Stradivari and Caravaggio, who were contemporaries. The audioguide was included in the price of the ticket for the Museum, but I preferred to read the signs. In addition to a stunning collection of string instruments spanning five centuries, there was a glass-enclosed luthier’s workshop, with a graduate student of the attached Luthier Academy busy making a new violin. I learned that the viola was the first modern string instrument to evolve from the rebec and lute of the Middle Ages. The translations into English left me a little dismayed, but not surprised: viola was translated as “fiddle” and the luthier craft was called “fiddle making.” (sigh!)

I walked to the Cathedral after exiting the Museum. This time I paid more attention to the map, and made no mistakes. The Cathedral dates to the 12th Century, as does its stunning bell tower. It is the highest all-brick bell tower in the world, and the third-highest bell tower of any material in Europe. At the base, a universal clock tracks the date, time, season, and even eclipses of the sun. Each day, someone inside moves the sandbags that will power the clock for another 24 hours. It is the oldest functioning clock of any kind in the world. Massimo met me in the piazza outside, and we walked back to the house after taking some photos.

Cremona is not quite on the Po River, but I found the Viale del Po to the bridge easily and was soon in the rich and fertile countryside on the right bank of the mighty river. Another milestone passed, when I rolled the one-thousand mark on the odometer. It was lunch time, and I was starving, so I stopped at the Osteria del Pescatore off the bicycle path in Castelvetro, the town opposite Cremona on the Po. To my surprise, the place featured excellent fresh seafood, and I enjoyed a full, two-hour pranzo. After having had the northern idea of pizza for two days in a row, I was dying for some protein, especially fish. The owner surprised me after I paid the bill by offering to stamp my booklet. After some confusion, I realized that he recognized my pilgrim’s jersey and was offering to stamp my credencial, because the bike path was on the Via Francigena, the great Medieval pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome. I thanked him but declined. That made me wish that I had known, because I had been tracking along the Via Francigena from Formia, and could have been collecting cool stamps along the way. As it is, I felt like a pilgrim, with this crazy idea to visit the Santuario del Ghisallo on Easter.

The owner of the osteria also pointed out that the bicycle path outside his establishment led to Parma, not Piacenza. Armed with a good description of the tricky hidden turn to go back under the bridge on the River Po, I found the path to Piacenza, and was soon making dust along the levees on the right bank. The path dropped off the levees at each little town, but I managed not to get lost, having now learned to ignore the street signs (intended for cars), and look for the levees and any dirt track leading to them. I also passed a riverside quarry, the first of several, which showed me that the silt carried by the river from the Alps could be harvested for clays and aggregates.

A growing soreness down the outside of my right knee told me that I had overtrained the first two days, so I was glad that I only needed to ride 40 km to Piacenza.

Santiago, a graduate architecture student from Ecuador, offered to let me stay long enough for my knee to heal. I accepted an extra night in Piacenza. He lived in a charming, two-room flat that would have been my ideal apartment in Formia. Off the ground, with heating and a decent shower, and a balcony with warm sunlight most of the day. Blazing fast internet.

The first night we walked for ice cream after supper. With so much of the historic center converted to pedestrian use, Piacenza becomes a beautiful, quiet town after dark. The city theatre is a scale model of the La Scala opera house of Milano. At night, it is not obvious that the Basilica of San Francesco has a phony façade, until Santiago pointed out that the two side rose windows actually don’t work; the full moon shone right through them, because they were outside the roof of the nave. Santiago’s landlord was an electrician, and responsible for the splendid illumination of the Duomo, right next to the apartment building. Santiago showed me where the road over the Po was, which would be my escape route to Lodi and Pavia later. As we walked down the Via Francigena back to the flat, he pointed out that 53 churches lined the old pilgrimage route, one about every 20 meters, as it crossed the ancient city. One can do much worse than a guided tour with an architect. Not only do architects love buildings; they impart that passion when they talk about them. Santiago infected me with his enthusiasm for the beauty of downtown Piacenza.

I devoted Monday to recovering and letting the knee heal. I did the laundry, which dried in just two hours on the balcony. I walked back into the historic center to take daytime photos and shop. Santiago came back from school at dinner time, and we ate at an excellent trattoria near the house. Santiago hails from the Andes, and he loves the forest-covered mountains near his home. He is also a serious traveller; I hope that we cross paths again, because he will certainly make everywhere he goes an interesting place.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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