An Italian Pilgrimage with a Dog and a Donkey

Myra Robinson, che abita in Veneto, ha avuto l'opportunità di conoscere Cindy Chopard, una donna francese, che sta percorrendo Roma a piedi. Chopard ha cominciato il suo percorso del suo paese in Francia che si chiama Besancon. A una fermata, Robinson ha conosciuto Chopard. Chopard, chi ha 35 anni, ha deciso di fare il percorso denominato Via Francigena con il suo asino Nanette e suo cane. È già passato qualche mese ma non ha ancora finito il viaggio. Con l’aiuto dei social media, il suo viaggio è diventato famoso. Molte volte, quando arriva in un paese, i cittadini le offrono un posto per dormire, qualcosa da mangiare, e una serata di chiacchiere. Chopard ha ammesso che durante il suo viaggio, non ha mai avuto un dolore o una malattia. Non sa che farà quando arriverà a Roma, ma per adesso, continua a camminare piano piano con Nanette e il suo cane.

My sleepy village in the Veneto is not exactly known for major happenings, but a few weeks ago there was a ripple of excitement. I heard from my friend on the next street that a young pilgrim who had walked north all the way from Rome would arrive that evening and was to be offered accommodation and a meal before she went off the next day along the San Antonio route to St Anthony’s Basilica in Padua. Would I like to meet her? Of course! It sounded interesting and was a very unusual event. 

That evening, we met on the street corner to walk over to the local gymnasium where she was to be accommodated. It was already dark but as we slid open the heavy gate at the entrance, a slim, young woman in shorts came out to greet us. A small dog ran along at her heels, and she greeted us in heavily accented Italian: she’s French. She looked full of energy and not at all tired. It was hard to believe she’d already walked around 1,000 miles.

As we made our introductions, I noticed a large, dark shape looming out of the darkness on the opposite lawn. It began to move. It snuffled and snorted, and a pair of gentle eyes looked at me. A donkey! This noble animal (called Nanette) was her companion, carrying her tent and survival kit each day as they made their way along the ancient pathways which cross Europe to holy places of pilgrimage.

Cindy (an unusual name for a French woman) Chopard comes from near Besancon in the French Jura Mountains where she lives on a small farm with chickens, a horse, a goat, cats and dogs, and her donkey. She had decided to mark the momentous occasion of her 35th birthday by leaving her job and setting off on foot, eventually following the great pilgrim route, the via Francigena, to Rome. At first, she walked along the Ligurian coast, but met another pilgrim enroute who persuaded her to take the path to Rome, which she did. 

The via Francigena was first recorded in the 10th century as a route for pilgrims from Canterbury in England (but with other starting points) to Rome, taking in the towns of Aosta, Vercelli, Piacenza, Lucca, Sienna, and Viterbo. It is becoming increasingly popular as a walking holiday, and there is even a marathon along its route in May.

She crossed Switzerland and the Alps via the St Bernard Pass, through snow, rain, hail, intense cold, and then intense heat, covering 10 to 12 miles per day. All her personal possessions were carried on her back, while Nanette carried the other bare necessities of life: a tent, a stove, a sleeping bag, and a few utensils. Mina, her little dog, trotted along at her side, but she sometimes had to carry her as the dog was hardly more than a puppy. She had reached her destination in Rome in the early months of 2021 and was now returning home by other lesser-known trails. All this had taken place during the deadly Covid 19 virus, but she walked on in isolation, well away from the crowds.

Cindy had walked anonymously for months, but slowly word began to spread via social media, and people not only knew where she was, but began offering a place to stay. Either a space for the tent, Mina and Nanette in their garden, or a room in a house, or more often, a space in a municipal facility, as in this case. The local gym offered showers, a corner with a make-shift bed, and a group of volunteers happy to deliver a pizza. Cindy has been amazed by the friendliness and generosity of the many people she’s met on her journey. She has asked for nothing, but gratefully accepted what was offered. A lover of nature, she told me she has particularly loved the open spaces and the landscapes of Umbria.

After chatting for a while, we heard movement from Nanette who was settling down for the night, rolling onto her side. We kneeled around her while Cindy rubbed the insides of her velvety ears, a fond caress which she particularly likes, and shows her appreciation by thrusting out her bottom lip. Nanette is 16-years-old, but still quite youthful as donkeys can live well into their 40s. Donkeys are uncomplaining and will do whatever task they are given, which is why Cindy takes such great care every morning to brush her fur and check her body for ticks or cuts because she could be in pain but would not make it obvious. She compared her donkey with her horse, totally different in terms of temperament. At any sign of discomfort, a horse would let its owner know it, and could be difficult to motivate on a long trail such as this one.

I asked her if she feels any similarity with Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of “Travels with a Donkey” about his walks in the Cevennes with Modestine, his donkey. She replied that at that time a donkey was not regarded as a friend, as Nanette is, but a beast of burden, and poor Modestine was not very well treated, whereas Cindy’s animals are her constant companions. But she and Stevenson have in common their need to be at one with nature.

 As Stevenson put it, “I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly.” Stevenson had only walked 120 miles, however. Cindy, 1,000 with another 500 to complete.

We discuss her health, although it seemed rather pointless as she seems full of life and energy. In this entire long walk she has never had any muscle pains or felt unwell. I ask about her footwear. On average her shoes can last for over 400 miles, which seems quite a lot, but by that time, she says, the soles are almost dropping off.

Does she keep a diary? No, she says. She has many photographs on her phone which remind her of her travels, but she has not kept any detailed records. So, what will happen when she finally arrives home again? Will she write a book about her experiences? She smiles. “I don’t know. First I need to find a job again because I have no money.” She was confident that with her skills and unusual profession as a goldsmith, this wouldn’t be a problem.

And will she set off on her travels again in the future? Who knows? There are plenty of other ancient pilgrim routes, and with Mina and Nanette at her side, perhaps another challenge will find her.