Day 69: Siena to Buonconvento (32 km)
In Siena I woke up reluctantly, having managed to get only four hours of sleep. The rock concert that had finished only at 2.30am I discovered had been loudest in the back of the building where Joanna and I had been sleeping. At the simple breakfast served by Sister Ginetta at 7 am I found out from other pilgrims that they had not been so disturbed in the larger dorm rooms in the front of the convent. I tried not to begrudge them their good night’s sleep as I poured myself a generous coffee. Joanna had not managed to find herself a pair of walking shoes during her stay in Siena, but after talking it over we decided the best thing for her to do would be to buy some trainers she had found in one of the shops and then she would take a train and meet me in Ponte D’Arbia, just 5.5 km to Buonconvento, our destination for that day. Her feet were still not 100 % healed and I thought it a good idea that she have an additional day of rest. Joanna stood at the door of the convent and waved me goodbye once again as I started down the quiet medieval streets of Siena. Via Roma (Rome Street) leads pilgrims directly to the Porta Romana (Roman Gate) where the Tuscan countryside begins almost immediately. Unlike the approach to Siena, I did not have to walk through noisy streets in the outskirts. I found myself walking on a pleasant country lane past historic homes and a grand hotel. A not too pleasant section then followed which led me to an industrial area. There was one café at this point where I could have stopped for something to eat, but it didn’t seem very appetising so I decided for once to forego my habitual breakfast of cornetto and cappuccino. I was in quite a hurry to get through this area. I first had to walk through a disused railway station, then to Isola d’Arbia, through which runs a busy and dusty road. Once I had crossed the road and walked through a residential area full of blocks of flats I was back in the countryside with large swaths of grassy fields stretching out before me once more.
I fortunately had some snacks with me as there were no other villages until I reached Ponte d’Arbia 16 km later. The day became very hot, reaching 33 degrees with very few opportunities to find shade. Desperate for some reprieve I was extremely grateful to find a pilgrim rest area in a private garden. The owners had generously provided a bench shaded by a simple roof of palm leaves and thankfully a water fountain. I stopped for over half an hour to enjoy the shade and to drink the lovely cool water. I was now only 6 km from Ponte d’Arbia. The last section was extremely flat and I had a last surge of energy and consequently was charging along at a quick pace, poles flying back and forth with a brisk ‘click, click’ when I saw two ladies sitting by the side of the road ahead. They turned out to be Californian mother and daughter Betsy and Catherine. I stopped to have a quick chat and discovered it was their very first day on the Via Francigena. I was surprised they had travelled so far to walk this section, Siena to Rome. They were staying the night in Ponte d’Arbia but we were sure to meet the following night in San Quirico d’Orcia so we bid each other a Buon Cammino looking forward to the chance to properly get to know each other the next day.
I found Joanna waiting at a café with a large terrace out front just off the Via Francigena in Ponte d’Arbia. She was wearing her lovely comfortable new trainers and looking quite spotless and rested. I however, was red faced and visibly tired from the lack of sleep and the 26.5 km. We decided to have some lunch at the café so left our rucksacks outside and went in to order sandwiches and get a big bottle of sparkling water – the ‘naturally effervescent’ variety which I have yet to find in any other country and which is always so refreshing. We couldn’t resist a dessert of an ice cream before we picked up our rucksacks and went out into the intense afternoon sun.
As we left the town I was excited to see that we were now on the Via Cassia, which is the name of an ancient Roman road. This section however, is not ancient. Since coming inland at Pietrasanta I had been following a medieval route to Rome rather than an ancient one as the ways to Rome changed in the medieval period. Although we would follow the Via Cassia for the next few days, it was only when we reached Bolsena that we started to walk the ancient road which ran from Florence (Florentia) to Rome in the Roman period. This modern Via Cassia was a dangerous road with traffic moving at high speeds and many trucks. The Via Francigena therefore, diverted as per usual, up a steep hill to keep us out of harm’s way. In that heat, and with only 5 km to go I groaned when I saw the gravely road turn to the left to the hill in front of us. Once we made it to the top we needed to take a break in the shade. The views were captivating and we lingered longer than we really needed, just to take in the varying colours of the landscape. The area was dry and had no rivers or forests, only grass. It was remarkable how many shades of yellow and browns there were. I had never seen anything quite like it. A light breeze rippled through the grass creating even more variety of colour and patterns. We followed the ridge of the hill for the next 4 km until we descended to Buonconvento. We had to cross the Via Cassia to reach the town and I wasn’t very hopeful that our destination would turn out to be much to look at. I was delighted to see however, that despite the bustling road, Buonconvento was a charming walled medieval town. The pilgrim accommodation was just through the gate and down a narrow street that followed the curve of the wall to the left. Signs with pilgrims and arrows on them directed us to the correct door of where we were greeted by a ‘Benvenuti a Casa’ (welcome home) sign. There were clear signs that pilgrims had arrived before us –pilgrim attire already hung out to dry on the clothes line. We entered the accommodation to find two dormrooms and one small bathroom. A local lady of the parish was there to welcome pilgrims and we were told to make ourselves at home and that she would be serving a pilgrim meal with the priest Don Domenico at 7pm. The news of a home-cooked meal was very welcome.
Once I had showered and changed I wanted to take a look around the little town before dinner. Inside the small church a man was practicing the organ and so I sat inside the cool for a few minutes enjoying the music until the organist was disturbed by a friend who had stopped by for a chat. I wandered for a few minutes through the pedestrianised main street looking in the windows of the over-priced clothing and food shops which clearly catered to the tourist trade. I found a small fruit shop selling gorgeous apricots and peaches and waited patiently while two locals ladies hummed and hawed over their purchases. Once it was my turn I ordered five apricots and two peaches and got a surprised look from the fruit seller when I said that was all. I think his typical customer usually leaves weighed down with bags of his wonderful produce.
At 7pm myself, Joanna and one other pilgrim, an Irish gentleman, punctually arrived in the upstairs apartment of Don Domenico. A softly spoken man, Don Domenico greeted us in English and invited us to sit at his table already covered with a large bowl of salad, buffalo mozzarella, slices of cantaloupe and prosciutto, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and a basket of fresh crispy bread. It was wonderful to be able to enjoy all of the fresh ingredients, when bread and pasta had been my staples for over two months. We all tucked in and passed a lovely evening with Don Domenico as our host. He spoke about the Via Francigena and of the history and archaeology of the area. It was almost 10 o’clock by the time we said goodnight. We agreed on an early breakfast as Don Domenico said he was usually up by 5 o’clock. We were not that eager for an early start, so decided on 6.30 am. What a wonderful pilgrim spirit there was in Buonconvento.
Day 70: Buonconvento to San Quirico d’Orcia (21 km)
It was a lovely start to the day to return to Don Domenico’s hand-crafted table which was laid out with baskets of bread and large jars of homemade jam. Don Domenico himself prepared coffee and brought a saucepan of hot water to the table, well-accustomed by now of catering to foreign pilgrims who enjoy a large cup of coffee in the morning. We enjoyed brimming cups of coffee with our breakfast, lingering over them perhaps a little longer than was truly necessary. It was not going to be too long a journey to San Quirico d’Orcia, but the day promised to be scorching hot with few opportunities for shade.
By 7am the sun was already hot. We left Buonconvento on a route that took us off of the dangerous Via Cassia and onto a path made specifically for pilgrims on the Via Francigena until it joined with a country road. The road led us up to the peaks of the rolling hills where the fields of grass stretched out before. In the distance we could make out an impressive town sitting high on a hill. For one moment we thought we would have to climb up to the defensive towers but then the road brought us off to the left in the direction of another town, which appeared quite modern, sitting on a much more manageable hill. There was no shelter or any structures at all on which we could rest for the 14 km between Buonconvento and the town of Torrenieri, and so at one point Joanna and I plunged into the tall grass by the side of the road, desperate to take the weight off our feet and to have a snack. We were no doubt a strange sight for passing cars, but perhaps not an uncommon one as so many pilgrims are starting to walk this section of the Via Francigena in Tuscany.
We were relieved when we reached Torrenieri and entered the cool interior of the first café we passed. Inside we found Betsy and Catherine, American mother and daughter pilgrims who I had met the day before, and their current companions, three Italians – Andrea, Enrico and Alessandra. Joanna and I sipped a litre of chilled sparkling water between us while the other pilgrims related their adventurous night at Ponte d’Arbia. In comparison to our lovely evening with Don Domenico and a blissful night’s sleep in the quiet of Buonconvento these pilgrims had found themselves staying at a community centre that was hosting a celebration of the last day of school for the local children. The festivities had apparently continued until 1 am. After the rock concert in Siena that had deprived me of sleep two nights before, I was very grateful I had not been subjected to another night of disturbed sleep.
We set off back into the heat of midday, more or less as a group. We continued on a quiet road that wound up then down the swathing hills. Once we had reached the crest of the hill San Quirico d’Orcia came into sight. It sat up high on the next ridge and did not seem very far away, but as the heat became even more oppressive our speed slowed. We sought some shade before passing under a motorway and attempting the final steep climb up to the town. It took a concerted effort to push on. Half way up the hill we passed the three Italians sheltering in a grove of olive trees. We were afraid that if we stopped we would never get going again, so we waved and continued on, passing Betsy and Catherine a few metres later sitting on a shaded stone. Just beyond we saw the path wrapped around in a semi-circle where it then entered the walls of San Quirico d’Orcia. One last incline and a series of steps and we were at last in the town centre.
We were exhausted and hot and had arrived two hours too early to check-in to the hostel. We therefore, camped out in a café where we could cool off and have a cold drink. The other pilgrims joined us not long after. The town was very tranquil, with only some locals and tourists shopping in the artisan shops or eating alfresco at the quiet restaurants. Once we felt refreshed we individually took a look around the town, which was really one main street lined with shops and with small narrow residential streets branching off. The historic centre was then enclosed by a defensive wall. Within the walls were several small gardens such as the Garden of Roses, and also one large one called the Horti Leonini which is an example of an Italian formal garden. I wished I had had more energy to take in all the wonderful hidden jewels of the town, but after a superficial wander I needed some energy. This was well-timed as an artisanal gelateria was just opening. After an almond and chocolate gelato I felt much better. The hostel was also now open and so we all made our way the twenty or so metres to the church of the Collegiata di San Quirco d’Orcia. Through a side door to the church we entered the hostel run by the parish. It was on three floors with two dormrooms, a large common room, a small kitchen and two bathrooms. The hostel is run completely by volunteers and kept up by the charge of 12.50 euro per person. Apart from myself and Joanna, the three Italians and the two American ladies, there was also a French couple, two more Italian men and a German man. As a group we were fairly representative of the future of the Via Francigena – manly Italians who would walk their local sections for a short period, and foreign pilgrims coming from other European countries or as far as the US and Australia. I have in fact noticed a large percentage of visitors to my blog are from these two countries.
A group of us went out for dinner that night in a beautiful restaurant with a vine-covered terrace out the back. The menu included some regional specialities such as pici, a type of pasta that originates from the area of Siena. I had never seen pici before which is shaped like a thick noodle. The types of sauces included one of my favourites, a Roman dish called cacio e pepe which is essentially a cheese sauce with a generous amount of black pepper. It is a very simple dish, but not easy to make well. It was cooked to perfection, and with a bottle of local red wine to accompanying it and a bite of Catherine’s Panna Cotta to finish the meal, I was in heaven.
Day 71: San Quirico d’Orcia to Radicofani (32.3 km)
The route from San Quirico d’Orcia to Radicofani was understood by all pilgrims staying at the hostel to be particularly challenging. Plans had been made before going to bed to make an early start to avoid climbing the 400 metres over 7.5 km to the hill-top town at the hottest part of the day. Joanna and I had barely had any sleep in the stuffy, noisy dormroom, and were quite relieved when it was 5 am and time to get up. We were not quick enough to leave with the Italians but were on our way out of San Quirico d’Orcia at 5.45 am and walked through the sleepy town in the light of dawn. The views of the misty valley below, bathed in the intense rays of the low-lying sun, were spectacular. We first walked through a medieval town whose few houses had shutters still closed tight. We then started to descend into the valley. Halfway down the hill we passed Bagno Vignoni an exclusive little town famous for its natural volcanic springs with temperatures of 49 degrees Celsius. Known in the Etruscan and Roman periods, the spas became famous in the medieval period and were used by pilgrims travelling on the Via Francigena. It was 6.45 am when Joanna and I arrived at Bagno Vignoni, interested to see the village but more interested in finding a delectable breakfast. Unfortunately, the two cafes were not yet open and there was not a single person in the streets. We resigned ourselves to going without our cappuccinos and went to continue on our way but could not find how the route left the town. There were no signs or stickers and although the town is small we wasted over twenty minutes trying to work out which way to go. This mishap quickly became a stroke of fortune as we wasted just enough time to allow the café at the beautiful Le Terme Hotel to open. A warm light shining through the French doors of the café beckoned us in. Inside we were immediately enveloped by the delicious smell of freshly baked pastry and coffee. We were the first customers of the day and could hear the barista in a back room. Not wishing to rush him we sat down in two plush seats and waited patiently. Catching sight of us in the mirrored walls our order of two café lattes and two cornetti was soon placed in front of us. We were just finishing the last delicious bites when Alessandra and the American mother and daughter walked through the door. Although happy to see them again, Joanna and I realised that whatever head start we had had due to our early departure we had now lost. These ladies were only walking a further 12 km to Gallina, whereas we still had 27.5 km to go! It was time to get moving!
The barista at the café explained how to rejoin the Via Francigena by continuing downhill on the road until we reached a footbridge. Looking at the map and the terrain of the footpath I decided that the first section was an unnecessary detour and therefore continued on the road with the intention of joining the Via Francigena shortly after. Once on the Via Cassia however, I asked Joanna if she would like to try and shorten our journey by 6 km by walking on the road to Gallina. In the far distance we could make out our destination of Radicofani, sitting high up on a distinctive peak. It seemed so far away, the visibility on the road was excellent and there was little traffic. Avoiding 6 km was just too tempting an option for us to turn down and so within just over an hour we were able to arrive in Gallina. Looking back at that day and how difficult it was I cannot regret taking that shortcut. One note I would make to future pilgrims however, is that drivers on the Via Cassia were none too pleased to find us walking there. It is understandable considering a path has been created to keep pilgrims off the road, but as I heard from pilgrims that evening, there was nowhere to get either food or water on the entire route unless you deviated from the path to go to Gallina. Joanna and I were able to stop in café in Gallina and cool off on a shaded terrace with a bottle of cool water before we continued the 15.5 km to Radicofani.
We walked along dry dusty paths stopping only once more for a picnic lunch under a bush that offered some reprieve from the scorching sun. We had to walk on the Via Cassia once more for about half a km before we were able to cross and start the ascent to Radicofani. The path took us across a wide river that during a wet season would have been impossible to cross. Pilgrims before us had placed rocks to walk on, but they wobbled dangerously as we stepped from one to the other. I shared my walking poles with Joanna to be sure we crossed safely. Now it was time for the punishing climb. 400 metres at 2 pm and we barely had any water left. Joanna borrowed my headphones and phone to listen to music just to distract her from the difficulty of the climb. Up we went, putting one foot in front of the other, as only we could. I had not run out of water many times on the Via Francigena, but this struck me as one of the worst times it could have happened. Dehydration is a serious business and we were losing fluids at quite a rate. The castle at the top of the hill seemed to stay forever beyond our reach. When we were perhaps only 2 km away we had to take a break and so found a spot under a scrubby tree for some shade. The timing of when we got up was unfortunate as in that precise moment two deer decided to jump out of the long grass and run across the road. They leapt over a fence into a field and were running in a frantic and unpredictable manner when a car came around the corner. Joanna and I signalled to the car which managed to slam its brakes on just as the deer once more jumped into the road right in front of the car. Perhaps we had prevented an accident but it was scary to have been so near a crash. Within a few metres we were off the road and on a path leading through a shady wood up to the summit of the Radicofani.
It is easy to imagine the relief that pilgrims feel after such a journey, when they are directed by local people to the pilgrim accommodation, and there find three elderly ladies with warm smiles who take them to clean rooms and promise a pilgrim dinner at 8pm. Chilled water was pulled from the fridge for us to quench our thirst and after a brief chat Joanna and I went about making ourselves more presentable. Once clean and refreshed we still had time to do laundry so it could dry in the afternoon sun. The accommodation at Radicofani is run by the Confraternity of Saint James. This Confraternity perform a traditional ceremony in their ospitale in which they symbolically wash and kiss the feet of pilgrims. When the volunteers explained that this ceremony would take place before dinner I was not quite sure what it would entail. Joanna was worried enough about people seeing her blistered feet, let alone having someone wash and kiss them. At 7.30pm however, all the pilgrims gathered in the dining room for the ceremony. There were the two Italians, Enrico and Andrea, the French couple Fabrice and Isabelle and a German gentleman, Helmut. We all sat down with bare feet as the three ladies, each wearing a cape of brown velvet with the symbolic scallop shells of Saint James embroidered on the front, read a prayer wishing us a safe journey. A bowl and pitcher were then ceremonially handed to one of the ladies who kneeing, took first Enrico’s foot and poured just a drop of water on it, dabbed it dry with a towel and then kissed the air. I was relieved to see that this was indeed only symbolic of the acts of the past where pilgrims’ feet were washed in a display of piety. This ritual was repeated for each pilgrim, a final prayer was spoken and then we were invited to sit at the table for our meal. We were served heaping dishes of pasta, followed by breaded chicken, salad and apples for dessert. As with any pilgrim meal I have ever had, there was a great deal of laughter particularly on the part of Isabelle who has a free and contagious laugh. Conversation continued well after the meal had finished and been cleared away. Wishing to capture our lovely evening together we all produced our cameras and phones for some group photos. It was just before 10 o’clock when we called it a night and got into our bunkbeds. Fortunately we were not yet in a deep asleep when it reached 10, as the bell in the church next door sent a clanging ten strokes through our small bedroom jolting us out of sleep. That was the last time the bell rang that night, leaving us to sleep peacefully in our hilltop pilgrim haven.
Day 72: Radicofani to Aquapendente (24 km)
We were offered a simple breakfast before we left Radicofani of bread and jam or Nutella and coffee. Joanna was a little late to the table and only had a few small slices of bread which was not enough to get her through to our next opportunity for a meal. At that time in the morning however, we did not think much of it. We were looking forward to reaping the benefits of our steep climb the day before by walking the first 8 km of the 24 km completely downhill, descending 450 metres. It was just before 8 am when we left Radicofani, but as it was a Sunday morning all of the cafes and shops were closed. We wound our way down the hill on a quiet gravelling road. Just as the sun started to become uncomfortably warm we had finished our descent and found ourselves under a cluster of trees by a farm where we stopped to finish off the snacks we had in our bags. It was only a few more kilometres to Ponte a Rigo where there was a café. I had been hoping that despite the fact it was a Sunday that the café would be open, but my fears were confirmed when we stepped onto the Via Cassia and saw the blinds were down. There was one more fork symbol on my map indicating a café or restaurant and that was in 5km. If that too turned out to be closed we would not be able to eat until we reached Aquapendente. This prospect was not a pleasant one.
Once the route reaches the Via Cassia at Ponte a Rigo it is possible to continue on the Via Cassia until just before Aquapendente, or there is an alternate route that goes via the medieval town of Proceno. The alternative seemed a much more pleasant path but it is 8.5 km longer and we were still quite tired from our exhausting walk to Radicofani. We could not face making our journey more arduous and therefore opted for the main road. The Via Cassia varies in how much traffic travels it. This section was particularly quiet, but that may have been because it was a Sunday. As we walked along the Via Cassia we came to a very unremarkable bridge that had a sign indicating that we were leaving Tuscany and entering the region of Lazio. I was sad to leave beautiful Tuscany behind me but I was now in the region of Rome! Our first stop in Lazio was in the small village of Centeno where we prayed the fork symbol would signify a possibility to have some lunch. There wasn’t a sound in the village and I was preparing myself for disappointment when we saw small a restaurant through a courtyard. It didn’t look open but when I tried the door it opened and inside I found a bar with an espresso maker. There was no food in sight but I asked the gentleman who came out of another room to greet us if they could prepare us sandwiches. I had a feeling that this was a fine dining restaurant that was getting ready to start serving Sunday lunch and that they weren’t really in the business of making sandwiches for dusty pilgrims but to my relief he said that would be fine and invited us to sit at a table at the entrance to the dining room. We had a bottle of sparkling water and were served thick slices of artisan bread with a strong hard cheese. It was just what we needed! We were lucky we had arrived before lunch had started because I doubt they would have had the time or inclination to serve us once they were busy. We bought ice creams before we left and started out of Centeno satisfied and rested.
We had 6 more kilometres to walk until we would turn off of Via Cassia. On the way we passed Proceno to our right which was a beautiful little town full of towers and had completely unspoilt surroundings. I had wished in a way that we were staying there, but the road took us past the town and we were soon crossing the River Paglia over the Ponte Gregoriano. This bridge is named for Pope Gregory XIII who in 1578 ordered a ferry crossing be provided for pilgrims. Many pilgrims had previously died trying to cross the dangerous river. The water looked harmless enough on that sunny day with much of the riverbed exposed. A right turn now took us off the Via Cassia and at the crossroads there was the welcomed sight of a fruit stall selling fresh apricots and watermelons. Joanna and I bought some apricots and refreshed ourselves at the gushing water fountain nearby. Following the Via Francigena stickers we started to walk up hill on a shady quiet road. After about 2 km we saw a hilltop town appear around a corner. I looked at my map and had a terrible feeling that it was not Aquapendente. Just then a car pulled up to a fountain and a gentleman got out and started to fill up several empty bottles, a sign that the water from this fountain is locally famous for its taste and purity. I asked the gentleman which town was on the hill and he said Proceno. Oh no! We had turned off onto the alternate route and had been walking away from Aquapendente. There was nothing for it but to go back to the fruit stand and see where we had gone wrong. As soon as we started walking down the hill we could clearly see there was a small road behind the fruit stand that had been obscured from the other direction. This time we had a more serious hill to climb – 125 metres. The small road took us back to the Via Cassia which we then crossed and descended into an unpleasant outskirt of the town where we crossed a stream smelling strongly of chemicals and passed several dogs shut up in dingy kennels. Aquapendente did not make a good first impression. As we climbed back out of the gully the path had taken us into Joanna and I stopped to sit on a wall and catch our breath. We then walked though the quiet streets of the town looking out for the Associazione Case del Lazaro. I had just found the right road on the map when there was a loud crack of thunder. The rain came in heavy drops almost immediately and I threw down my bag to put the cover on and to get my jacket. The sudden change in the atmosphere was thrilling to Joanna who had not experienced any storms since joining me. I on the other hand was thinking that we were just about the climb to the highest point of the town and I was carrying metal poles. I wanted to get to the accommodation and quickly. We started to climb up a steep narrow road, no more than a driveway. The lightening flashed on the other hillsides around us. When we arrived at the top we hurriedly went to shelter in the covered doorway. I rang the bell and announced our arrival and a few minutes later a nun came to open the door of the convent and led us into the rustic cloisters. Walking around two sides we entered the main building where there was a kitchen at our disposal and upstairs a corridor with 12 or so cells that were once used for the monks or nuns and now given over to pilgrims. The rooms were basic but the bathrooms clean and modern. We were handed a key and left to settle in.
By now the storm was raging outside and streams of water were pouring from the roof. The lightening lit up the darkened sky. I felt safe out of the storm after our brief period of danger and it did not occur to me that the storm could still pose a risk, even inside the convent. I was desperate for a shower and so went directly to one of the bathrooms and just as I was about to step into the lovely hot stream of water a bolt of lightning came down directly outside the window. The sound of the thunder was deafening and my heart was racing. I reflected on my stupidity. Had the convent been struck the current would have travelled through the metal pipes and I could have been electrocuted. This was the start of several adventures that night.
The next adventure was to make our way back into the town for some dinner. At the convent we had been happy to find Fabrice and Isabelle again and had arranged to meet them at a restaurant serving a fixed pilgrim menu at 7.30pm. When we left the convent the rain had stopped but within minutes we were caught in a downpour with the streets filling with water, and consequently, our shoes. We arrived at Albergo Toscana dripping wet. I explained that we were pilgrims and the waiter showed us to our table. Once Fabrice and Isabella arrived I spoke with the waiter who explained that for 15 euro we would have a three course meal with wine and water. With glasses of the house red we toasted each other and the Via Francigena. The antipasto was served first and was so generous I began to wonder how I would manage a first and second dish as well. Each dish arrived however, with a sufficient break in between that over the two hours we were in the restaurant we were perfectly able to clear our plates of the mixed antipasto, asparagus risotto, a Caprese salad and even to have room for Vino Santo and biscotti.
Our final adventure of the evening was waiting for us when we returned to the convent. The convent was in darkness when we arrived and so we switched on the hallway light to find our way up the stairs to the corridor upstairs. I followed Fabrice up the stairs and as I turned to enter the corridor something caught my eye on the wall. It was a scorpion! I had seen very small scorpions before in Umbria, but this was at least four inches long and looked like it could give quite a sting. Although scorpions in Italy are not dangerous you do not want one wandering into your bedroom. The four of us were at a loss what to do. It was high up on the wall above the stairs. Isabelle was terrified as her room was closest to the stairwell. I asked Fabrice if he thought we should get rid of it and he nodded emphatically. I then asked him he if could do it and he shook his head with equal vehemence. It seemed clear that none of us would get any sleep with the scorpion in the building. I went looking for a broom and dustpan and successfully located one in a bathroom closet. Thus armed I went back to tackle my opponent. Isabelle and Fabrice went to the doors to hold them open ready for me. With a quick flick of the broom the scorpion fell onto the floor where I scooped it up and rushed out the door through the cloisters out the front door where I deposited the scorpion in a bush on the far side the parking area. I returned to the convent where I was cheered the spectators. ‘You are very brave’, Fabrice said with sincerity. We checked every corner of our rooms that night before going to bed, but there was nothing stopping a scorpion coming through the open window. We pulled the bed away from the wall and tried not to think about possible intruders. We needed a good night’s sleep, or at least I did. I had my last long day of the trip – 39.7 km to Montefiascone the next day. Joanna and I would be joined by our final companion, Martina Gannon at Montefiascone. It was a good place to meet with a train station with links to Rome but I had decided it was too far for Joanna and so our plan for the next day involved an early start, a walk of 22 km to Bolsena, where I would leave Joanna to take a bus, and I would continue on for an additional 17.7 km to Montefiascone.
Day 73: Aquapendente to Montefiascone (36 km)
It was before 6 am when we all left the convent in Aquapendente. The journey began on the now very familiar Via Cassia which was already busy with traffic. The Via Francigena followed trails that kept pilgrims off the road but it was quite a bit longer than the straight road to San Lorenzo Nuovo. We had already walked for 1km on the Via Cassia and were going at such a good pace that Joanna and I decided to stay on the road until the Via Francigena crossed from the left of the road to the right. When the crossing came another kilometre later again we made the decision to stay on the road. The verge was wide and the road straight so there was clear visibility and room to avoid the traffic. This decision meant it was 8 am when we arrived at San Lorenzo Nuovo. We stopped quickly for breakfast and then pressed on to the end of the town where the glittering Lake Bolsena came into view below. This lake, formed within the crater of a dormant volcano which Roman sources tell us was active as recently as 104 BC, is the largest volcanic lake in Europe. The crater was formed by the collapse of the area during an eruption of the Volsini Volcano 370,000 years ago. The 43 kilometres of the lake’s circumference are gentle hills and from San Lorenzo Nuovo we had a magnificent view down over the full expanse of the lake.
The Via Francigena from here follows a very pleasant path through woods and fields, the water of the lake shimmering through the trees to the right. We arrived in Bolsena before 12 pm, just in time for some lunch and a well-deserved break. The first glimpse of the town were the turrets of the Bolsena Castle. Built between the 12th and 14th centuries, the castle towers over the town which covers the hillside down to the lake. We wound our way down circuitous streets and several series of steps until we found ourselves in a very pleasant town square. The perfect place for a slice of pizza and a gelato! Before we had lunch though there were a couple of errands to run. First, to the post office where I sent one more box of things to Rome. Now I was so close there were quite a few things in my rucksack that I knew I wouldn’t need. Once the box was sent I can’t say I noticed a huge difference in the weight of my rucksack, but it was nice to have a little extra space for my last week on the Via Francigena. Next we went to the tourist office to find out about the bus for Joanna to Montefiascone. Once we had a timetable we got her bus ticket and then, feeling very organised, we indulged in our lunch break.
Martina had by this time arrived at the airport in Rome, and we were texting back and forth to arrange when and how to meet in Montefiascone. Her train was due to arrive at 5pm. Joanna would be there well before me and so I didn’t need to worry about arriving before 5 pm. None the less, I was anxious to get going. I was just over half way there, and the kilometres always become more gruelling at the end of the day. As I left Bolsena I passed a very unusual outcrop of basalt called the ‘Thrown Stones’. The basalt formed by the volcano had cooled in such a way to create hexagonal shapes. In an attempt to explain this unusual formation before the science behind it was discovered the story developed that they had been thrown out by the volcano, and so they were called the ‘Thrown Stones’. I only saw this unusual geologic feature because I had once again decided to stay on the Via Cassia. The first section of the Via Francigena after Bolsena again makes a wide detour which involves a climb. The Via Cassia in this section however, is not straight and I would not recommend pilgrims walk on it. I tried to join the route after a few kilometres, but missed the turn that would have taken me to it and so ended up walking cautiously on the busy road. I was at least now, once again, on a Roman road. Starting in Bolsena the modern Via Cassia begins to follow the route of the ancient road which was named for the Roman Proconsul Cassio Longino Ravillla who was responsible for its construction between 117 and 107 BC. It linked Bolsena, which was once the ancient Roman town of Volsinii, to Rome. The Via Francigena does eventually join the Via Cassia again for a short section, and the region of Lazio has built a barricade and a walkway to protect pilgrims. Back on the signed route I soon took a left turn off the busy Cassia onto a country road which led me straight uphill into the heart of Montefiascone.
As you approach Montefiascone the first thing you notice is the cathedral to the far right of the hill. We were staying in a convent that night and I was sure that it would be near to the cathedral. Rejoining the Via Cassia for the last section I was brought to a crossroad where a small street entered the gate of the historic city. I had received a text from Joanna describing how to find the convent and by following the narrow streets I found myself at the door of the convent within a few minutes. It was 5 pm and all of the nuns were at Vespers. I was let in however, and a very elderly nun invited me to sit down and wait. She was very motherly and marvelled at the size and weight of my rucksack and at the distance I had travelled. ‘Like an ancient pilgrim’ she said approvingly. I knew Joanna was somewhere in the convent, but I was unable to get in touch with her and so, I waited patiently in the long corridor, seated in a high-backed oversized wooden chair. After about twenty minutes a black nun with a wide warm smile walked down the corridor towards me. The order of the convent is Benedictine and so the nuns speak French, but we spoke in Italian and from the first moment I spoke she began to praise me for my accent, for what I was doing, for how young I looked. Needless to say, I took to Sister Marie-Claire immediately. She explained the rules of the convent and was particularly emphatic about the time to return in the evening –‘ 9.45 pm or you will be locked out!’ Not an appealing prospect. It was already 6 pm and Martina had not arrived at the convent yet. I found Joanna in the dormroom and she explained that Martina was walking up from the train station which was at the bottom of the hill. I had just showered and changed when we got a text that Martina was almost here. Joanna went down to meet her and just as thunder began to crash overhead once more the three pilgrims who would walk into Saint Peter’s together in Rome were safe and united under the roof of the Monastero San Pietro in Montefiascone.
The time was nearing 7 pm when we left to find some dinner. Not wanting to waste time we quickly chose a pizzeria and were soon seated and enjoying large pizzas and glasses of red wine. We spent much of the meal filling Martina in on the adventure so far and describing what was ahead. As it neared 9.15 I started to get nervous and went to pay for the meal at the till, explaining with a smile that we were in a hurry to get back to the convent. There was just enough time to get gelato which we were still eating when we rushed to ring the bell at the convent gate. Three contented pilgrims settled on the sofa in the pilgrim wing of the convent to finish their gelatos contemplating what the journey of the next six days to Rome meant to each. For me, it was the last 6 days of 79, for Joanna 6 of 16 days, and for Martina her journey was just beginning.