Day 74: Montefiascone to Viterbo (18 km)
From the windows of the Benedictine Convent in Montefiascone we woke to find the hilltop bathed in brilliant sunshine, but the valley below entirely obscured by a thick mist stretching as far as the eye could see. The warm sun soon got to work however, and within half an hour the green of the valley started to appear through the perfect white of the mist. We were walking just 18 kilometres that day, and after my 39 kilometre adventure of the day before I was quite happy to have a relaxed and somewhat late start. To exit Montefiascone the Via Francigena takes pilgrims up the very summit of the hill to the Rocca dei Papi (Rock of the Popes), a papal residence dating back to the 13th century but now an impressive ruin surrounded by a lovely garden. Before tackling this first climb we needed some breakfast, and in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele we found a wonderful café, creatively called ‘Il Caffe’. With its distinctive Fascist façade and streamlined interior we were magically transported to Italy of the late twenties and thirties. If I hadn’t realised that I was very near to Rome from the sign in the piazza announcing I was 100 kilometres from St. Peter’s tomb, I would have realised by finding one of my favourite Roman treats piled high in the glass case– cornetti integrali, or whole wheat croissants. Filled with either jam or honey, these cornetti simply melt in your mouth and I eagerly ordered one to have with my caffe latte. It was not to Roman standards, but its taste suddenly made it very real to me that after travelling for eleven weeks I was soon going to be in Rome!
The steep climb to Rocca dei Papi rewarded us with a spectacular view of Lake Bolsena, the last time we would see it on our journey. We had a little trouble finding our way down the other side of the hill, and missed a left turn down a pathway. After realising our mistake and backtracking however, we soon found the familiar markers of the Via Francigena and were walking out to the city limits. The way was quite flat and along country roads with some trees for shade. Martina was delighted by everything and had a constant smile on her face. We chatted animatedly so that both time and distance went quickly by, until I was stopped in my tracks by a marvellous and long-anticipated sight – a paved Roman road. I had found the Via Cassia. The medieval route of the Via Francigena had finally joined the historic route that Romans travelling from Britain would have used on their journey to Rome. I had seen a Roman paved road before. The Via Appia in the south of Rome runs in a straight line out of the city with original paving stones for the first three miles. I remembered how impressed I had been by the massive irregular-shaped stones of the Via Appia the first time I saw them. My reaction to the Via Cassia however, was even stronger, perhaps because of its particular significance to my journey and my engagement with it. I was not a tourist seeking out a monument simply to see and wonder at it. By walking the Via Cassia I was re-establishing the road’s original function. After countless miles walking rocky and winding paths I could appreciate the smooth surface of the stones and the sturdiness of its construction. I had wondered throughout my journey how quickly and efficiently I would have been able to walk from Britain on a well-surfaced road. I thought back in envy to the Romans who had travelled on these roads. There are countless things which are easier to do in the modern age, but walking long distances is not one of them. For twenty minutes on the Via Cassia I was able to share in that experience of walking on a Roman road. All too quickly the paving disappeared under a modern road and our way continued on a dusty track. Viterbo was visible in the distance. We passed the sulphurous baths used since Etruscan times. The baths were free to pilgrims, but in the midday heat we couldn’t conceive of entering the 60 degree (Celsius) waters. Viterbo beckoned to us.
The way into Viterbo was a confused experience of busy modern roads, but once we caught sight of the city walls of the historic centre we knew we had arrived. Entering the Porta Fiorentina we only had to follow the walls to our right to find our pilgrim accommodation, in the Ospitale Torretta Pio VI. Torretta, or little tower, was a just name, as the hostel was inside one of the medieval towers of the city’s defences. This particular tower has an interesting history, as Pope Pio IV spent a night here as he went into exile during the time of Napoleon. The hostel is on three floors with a dormroom on the top floor and a room that sleeps three on the first floor. We were the first pilgrims to arrive, and so were privileged to have our very own room in the medieval tower. The short distance for that day meant it was only early afternoon by the time we were ready to explore the city of Viterbo.
Viterbo is most influenced by its medieval history, with its defensive walls, narrow, winding streets, papal palace dating to the mid-thirteenth century, and cathedral. The history of the city however, goes back to Etruscan times and the city is one of many layers. Near to the Duomo are remains of Etruscan masonry foundations, and on ‘Vicolo dei Pellegrini’, a Roman inscription has been incorporated into a wall. There are jewels of architecture to be discovered around every corner, but Viterbo does not have the glistening appearance of Tuscan cities such as Pietrasanta, Lucca or Siena. The modern populace however, filled the streets with activity, testifying to the fact that this city is lived in, and not simply the domain of tourists. Tired from our sightseeing we settled on a café for an aperitivo and sat down to pass the time until restaurants started serving dinner. We had received a text from Fabrice and Isabelle that they had arrived at the Torretta, having walked from Bolsena. We wrote back inviting them to join us for dinner, very happy to be able to share one last evening with them.
Following a recommendation given by a local lady, we discovered a restaurant in a historic building, serving many Roman and local dishes. Fabrice and Isabelle were returning to Paris the next day, planning to finish the remaining four days to Rome the following summer. We therefore, had a good reason to celebrate and so indulged in an assortment of bruschetta with artichokes and mushrooms, dishes of homemade pasta, and one of my favourites – parmigiana. We finished the evening with our customary gelato, and sat out in one of Viterbo’s squares to savour them in the warmth of the spring evening.
The light from small windows of the Torretta welcomed us back as we walked up the gravel drive. Martina had managed terrifically on her first day on the Via Francigena, and we only had another short walk of 17 km to Vetralla the next day. In no great hurry to get to bed, we bid a lingering farewell to Fabrice and Isabelle, promising that we would see each other again one day in Paris. The last light went out in the medieval tower just past 11 p.m. Three sleepy, satisfied pilgrims lay awake just a little longer, reflecting on a day of Roman roads, medieval palaces and the delights of Italian cuisine. What would the next day bring?
Day 75: Viterbo to Vetralla (17 km)
The Torretta is on the route of the Via Francigena, and so to find our way in the morning was extremely simple. We followed the medieval walls to our right until we came to another gateway out of the city. The only problem was that we found ourselves almost immediately in the countryside, and having had no breakfast and with no supplies for the day, we had no choice but to re-enter the city in search of food. Back in the main square we easily found a good breakfast and after a quick stop in a supermarket for some lunch, we made our way back out of the city gates.
The route recommended to us by the hospitaeleros was slightly different to the official route and brought us along a windy road carved into a tufa outcrop. The tufa sides reached up at least 20 feet on either side, and walking through it was one of the most unusual experiences I had on the Via Francigena. Once we passed through the tufa we emerged again into a dusty plain which offered few opportunities for a rest. When it came time for lunch we unceremoniously sat by the side of a quiet road until we felt rested enough to continue. The route was not particularly scenic, though we did pass through some olive groves where we met fellow walker Francesca, who was walking to Rome alone. As we approached Vetralla, rain clouds were gathering overhead, and we just made it to a café when the sky opened. Our accommodation for that evening was in the Monasterio Regina Pacis, which was outside of Vetralla, about 2 km further on the Via Francigena. We did not imagine there would be any restaurants that far out of the town, and so stopped at a supermarket for dinner supplies before continuing on our way. We arrived at the monastery during vespers and were able to listen to the nuns singing during the simple service. The monastery was set within a beautiful garden and the pilgrim accommodation consisted of twin en-suite rooms off of a corridor looking out into the garden. It was little Eden – tranquil and comfortable. Everything a pilgrim could hope for at the end of a dusty day on the road. We dined alfresco that night in the garden, with our picnic wares. As the sun set the evening became a little chilly and we retreated into our rooms. I was called upon by Martina to tend to some blisters that had formed on her second day walking. I only hoped they would not became as serious as what Joanna had experienced. In that idyllic setting, I could not have imagined in that moment just how badly Martina would suffer in the last four days to Rome.
Day 76: Vetralla to Sutri (22 km)
The rain of the day before meant we woke to a fresh morning with a bright blue sky. The Via Francigena after Vetrella continues away from the monastery through a wood , and uncertain when we would next be able to find something to eat, we took a different route to be sure we would pass a café. This route brought us onto the very busy Via Cassia, which had a pavement where we could walk safely. Once we had breakfast we continued on the Via Cassia, looking forward to being able to escape the dust and fumes at the first opportunity. Finding our way back to the Via Francigena took some scrutinizing of Google Maps, but after some uncertainty we saw a sign for the route and were soon walking through the coolness of a forest.
Emerging from the forest we had a brief moment of panic as we tried to cross a two-lane road of constant traffic. Once we managed to reach the other side, the route went into a field of hazelnut trees. I had once spent a weekend near Lake Vico, which is not far from where we were, and I knew this entire area is covered in hazelnut trees, and that the nuts are used principally to produce Nutella. It is a happy thought to be walking among the trees, covered in blossoms that will mature into the nuts for the delicious spread, beloved by Italians for generations and now found in supermarkets all over the world. Our delight in walking in this wonderland however, did not last long, as a tractor pulled into the field and started to spray a pesticide onto the trees. The man in the tractor clearly did not care that we would be caught in the spray, so we covered our mouths with our shirts and tried to get out of the way. We told ourselves that such short exposure could not be harmful, but we were troubled by the lack of concern by the farmer. Waiting for a minute or two for us to pass would not have greatly impacted his efficiency.
A cloud of pesticides hanging in the air behind us, we hurried along a row of trees following lovely terracotta signs that marked the route. The signs had an impression of a pilgrim, an outline of a town, and the words ‘Capranica’ and ‘Roma’. We could not be far now from the town of Capranica. Our journey continued through fields of hazelnuts, where we happened upon a beautiful cherry tree heavy with red-ripe cherries. There were over-ripe cherries and numerous pits on the ground, clear signs that others had partaken before us and that the tree was not being harvested. It was like a gift to pilgrims. We reached up into the branches and pulled down handfuls of cherries staining our fingers and mouths. We started to walk again, still savouring the flavour of the cherries, up to a ruined tower that appeared above the hazelnut trees. There were in fact two towers, one of which had a sign describing it as the Tower of Orlando, dating to the 1st century AD. It had originally been a funerary monument, but a story from the medieval period associated the tower with Orlando, the nephew of Charlemagne.
The outskirts of Capranica didn’t give us the best first impression of what we found to be a beautiful medieval walled town. Once we walked through the town gate the world became instantly quiet and peaceful, as the bustle of the modern world continued without. We sat in the old town square which was decorated with pieces of antiquity, including a Roman marble sarcophagus, which I pointed out to Joanna and Martina. They were astounded that something they had only ever seen in pristine museums could be left to gather dust at the side of a public square – but this is Italy. A place so full of antiquities they are used as planters and piled up in corners of parks and private gardens. We had lunch in Capranica and then walked through the sleepy historic town back into the fields of hazelnut trees which continued until we reached our final destination of Sutri.
Sutri is another walled town, which sits on a hilltop, above the ruins of the Roman town which lies in the valley below. The position of the two towns reveal the different periods of security. During the Roman period there was no need of defences, while the relative insecurity of the medieval period drove populations to high positions. We arrived in Sutri with the threat of a thunder storm in the distance. We had some problems with our accommodation as the pilgrim accommodation at the Monasterio Carmelitane Santissima Concezione was full with a group of scouts. We had passed the group on the way and we couldn’t begrudge the teenagers for taking up all the beds. Rather, it seemed a good opportunity for a little treat. I did a quick internet search and found a hotel nearby with reasonable prices. I left Joanna and Martina as I sought it out, and soon returned with a key to our triple room – a three-star hotel, what luxury! We went a little crazy with long showers and an afternoon lounge in bed reading and chatting. At about 6 pm we were so hungry we left the comfort of our room to seek out a delicious meal. Of course it was far too early to be served. We looked at all the menus of the numerous restaurants enjoying the walk around the lovely town, our appetites only increasing. One restaurant was open, and despite looking a little touristic, this was compensated for by a huge terrace which offered an amazing view of the hills and forests of hazelnut trees stretching out to the east. We were the first ones to be seated, but our waiter was so friendly and welcoming we were immediately put at ease. We poured over our menus, undecided which of the wonderful options to choose. We decided on plates of gnocchi with a walnut pesto and tagliatelle with arugula in a cream sauce. I have no talent for describing food, but we all agreed, the meal was incredible. We finished with coffees and tiramisu and sat contentedly for some time, taking in the view and the warmth of the evening.
Day 77: Sutri to Campagnano di Roma (27 km)
On Martina’s fourth day her blisters reached a critical point. I had lost all confidence in my blister care abilities as her blisters became bigger and bigger no matter how much we drained them and despite the Compeed plasters. I couldn’t imagine the pain Martina was feeling, but she wouldn’t hear of taking public transport to meet us at Campagnano di Roma. I learned from Martina in the following days how much can be overcome through determination, and also, the inner-strength of my last companion on the Via Francigena.
Walking out of Sutri we passed the ancient Roman amphitheatre, which had been cut directly into the tufa bedrock. There was a ticket office and the way into the site was gated, but we were able to get a good view of the structure without entering. The oval shape has survived and the seating is still quite well-preserved. Walking along the Via Cassia we also passed the impressive Etruscan Necropolis, tombs cut into the tufa rock. Leaving these ancient remains behind us, we continued to walk for a few minutes on the Via Cassia before taking a right turn onto a relatively quiet country road. The official route of the Via Francigena takes a wide detour to avoid the Via Cassia, adding 4 km to the journey. We did not find this section of the Via Cassia particularly dangerous and found the shortcut worthwhile. Before long we found ourselves once more surrounded by hazelnut trees, and unfortunately had another encounter with a tractor travelling at a furious speed blasting a pesticide on the trees. We walked quickly through the ensuing cloud and breathed deeply once we found clear air. Just as the temperature started to peak at midday, we came upon a fountain of refreshingly cold water. We doused our faces and soaked our arms and wrists. Feeling very refreshed we continued for 2 more km to the town of Monterosi.
Monterosi is quite a pleasant town with a main street full of small shops. We stopped in the town for some lunch and enjoyed the shade of a café perhaps a little longer than was wise, but even after 77 days, it was still difficult to rouse myself from a comfortable seat after lunch and put the heavy rucksack back on, setting out to tackle another 14 km. Once I was up however, the road called and we found ourselves walking once more at a brisk pace.
The route is well-laid out from Monterosi and a new barrier to protect pilgrims has recently been constructed to take the Via Francigena across the Via Cassia, which at this point is a 4-lane motorway. Going along the side of the Via Cassia we were looking out for a left-hand turn. The first road to the left however, was not marked as the Via Francigena. There were however, white pilgrim signs indicating that we should stay straight. We decided to follow these signs, still looking out for the left turn. We were on a road that ran alongside the Via Cassia and only an occasional car passed us. I realized at a certain point that this could not be the official route, but I had followed the white pilgrim signs at many points in Italy and so, not wanting to turn back, continued on, hoping for the best. We walked about 6 km when the road stopped abruptly. There was a fenced field in front of us and the streaming traffic on the Via Cassia to our right. The pilgrim signs indicated that we should climb down onto the hard shoulder of the motorway. What a disaster! It was one of those situations when someone really needed to take charge and make a decision. I however, couldn’t bear to tell Martina and Joanna, who were both tired and hot, that we needed to go back. If I had been on my own, I probably would have just grit my teeth and followed the signs the 500 metres along the Via Cassia, praying under my breath as I went. I couldn’t ask them however, to follow me on such a dangerous route. We were all adults, and we needed to make our own decision. Nether Martina nor Joanna could face the walk back either but the Via Cassia looked truly terrifying. We could see that pilgrims before us had climbed through the fence into the field of scrubby high grass in front of us. Perhaps they had found a way through. We decided to try.
In the end, we each chose to find our own way. I was more scared of snakes in the field than cars, and so I took the Via Cassia. Martina came with me, and Joanna persevered with the field. The story doesn’t get any better – Joanna became stuck at a gate and Martina and I got off the Via Cassia and went back into the field to help her. We got over the gate and were relieved to be out of danger, but 2 km later we were back on the Via Cassia with no other option than to be as careful as we could until we were able to turn off onto a road that would lead us back to the official path. This was my 77th day on the Via Francigena, and it was not my worst day, but it was a frightening experience for all of us. I would later find out, speaking to Simone Quilici of the Department of Cultural Heritage for the Lazio Region, that the new route has been resisted by groups who want to maintain alternative routes that are more direct. When I told Simone about how we could not find the official route at that point, he said that the Department keeps putting up a fence that will direct pilgrims to take the correct turn, but that the fence is constantly being pulled down. I can agree that more direct ways should be kept available for pilgrims, but no one in their right mind would chose such a dangerous path and it should not have any signs.
Now we were out of danger, all we could think about was getting to our accommodation in Campagnano di Roma. We did manage to find the official route and once back on a path we were disappointed to find that it was covered in rubbish. “No littering” signs had been put up but clearly to no avail. What a tremendous shame to see such disrespect for the environment. It was the first time I had encountered anything like it in the 1850 kilometres of the Via Francigena. Another sure sign I was getting near to Rome.
The outskirts of Campagnano di Roma greeted us with the barks of some quite vicious dogs. The signs so far were not indicating promising things of our destination. As we crossed the main street to find our accommodation we discovered that Campagnano di Roma is not at all like the idyllic medieval town of Sutri, but the accommodation quickly made up for any of the town’s shortfalls. Whereas my accommodation list described the accommodation at the Parish to be ‘mattresses on the floor’, what we found was a warm welcome, a fridge stocked with chilled water for pilgrims, and brand new dormitories and bathrooms with about 20 beds. Most of the beds were already occupied by pilgrims, including our German friend Gabriella, who we had been crossing paths with since Montefiscione.
Now safe in our comfortable accommodation we took stock of our situation. We were two days, and 41 km from Rome, and Martina’s blisters were a disaster. Her new boots had not been sufficiently broken in before she arrived, and were too small to accommodate her feet swelling in the heat. The result – her toes were covered in bulging blisters. Martina is such a positive and brave person that it was very difficult to judge just how much pain she was in. Just by looking at the blisters I couldn’t believe she was still walking. On the way to dinner we stopped at a pharmacy to replenish her supplies of Compeed and the poor pharmacist struggled to disguise her shock as she picked out an assortment of sizes to treat the various parts of Martina’s feet.
The square of Campagnano di Roma did not have a lot to offer for restaurants, but nevertheless, we managed to have not only a delicious meal, but also an extremely entertaining experience. The restaurant, which was run almost as a one-man show by its owner/chef/waiter, gave us an interesting insight into this small town. We were told that we could order anything we could imagine as he knew “hundreds of pasta recipes.” I could hardly resist such an offer. As a vegetarian there is one dish that I truly miss, and that is Carbonara. Italians think that to omit the pig’s cheek in Carbonara is a sacrilege and so I had never been able to have it in a restaurant. I took a chance and asked if I could have Carbonara with mushrooms. He hesitated for one moment, but was clearly reluctant to refuse the challenge and so broke into a huge smile while nodding enthusiastically. We had quite a feast that night – heaping plates of Bolognese, cacao e pepe and my mushroom Carbonara (which was all I had hoped it would be). We split a tiramisu for dessert and when we left we were each kissed in turn on the cheeks by our host and all of the other customers waved goodbye from their seats on the terrace as we walked back to the accommodation.
Back at the accommodation Gabrielle was already in bed, and two other women were sharing our room. Now that we were so close to Rome we were experiencing what is very common in the last stages before Santiago de la Compostella. In order to receive the Compostella, or the Testimonium when you arrive in Santiago or Rome, it is only necessary to demonstrate that you have walked the last 100 km. This means that the dynamics of the pilgrim community changes very much just at the end. For those pilgrims who have walked a great distance, it is quite a shock to see pilgrims looking so fresh and immaculately dressed on the route and in the accommodation. These pilgrims have more energy, and are unused to the early times the seasoned pilgrims go to sleep. This was the case that night. We were so tired from our long day that we went to bed at 10pm. The lights were off and we were clearly trying to sleep, but these ladies inconsiderately kept speaking to each other at a normal volume. Earplugs can only do so much, and so we lay there trying to sleep, all too polite, or perhaps intimidated of such inconsiderate behavior, to say something. Finally, they decided they too wished to sleep, and the dormitories became still and quiet. Barks of local dogs continued throughout the night, and these new sounds, after months of the dead quiet of country towns, prevented me from falling into a deep sleep.
Day 78: Campagnano di Roma to La Storta (24 km)
Due to disturbed sleep in Campagnano di Roma, I began my penultimate day on the Via Francigena quite exhausted. The day before had been fraught with dangers and I couldn’t help wondering if the journey would continue in this way as we walked into the capital city. In a city famous for its reckless drivers, I had been worried about the final stage of my journey from the very beginning. It was not by chance that I was arriving on a Sunday. It was a day when there is the least traffic in Rome.
The journey began that day quite uneventfully. The walk out of Campagnano di Roma was well-signed and on quiet country lanes. We went through the wonderful Veio Park, a stretch of protected countryside. The area is full of Etruscan and Roman ruins as well as medieval Sanctuary to Madonna del Sorbo. The site is linked to a colourful story from the 15th century about a swineherd with a mutilated arm who, out of curiosity, followed one of his pigs, which kept running off. He found the pig in a position of prayer gazing at an icon of the Madonna and child. The Madonna then appeared to the swineherd and told him to tell the people of Formello what he had seen; to prove that he was speaking the truth she restored his missing hand and healed his arm. Formello, a town which the Via Francigena passes just to the east, has recently opened a wonderful new pilgrim hostel that is run by local young people. This section was already quite short and so we continued to La Storta. I believe Formello however, is a preferable accommodation option, as we would later discover that La Storta is a suburb of Rome with little character.
This was the 78th day on the Via Francigena. The next day I was going to walk into St. Peter’s Square as I had imagined so often during the two and half months I had been travelling. The paths were dry and the sky a startling blue. All I thought I had to worry about was helping Martina with her blisters. I had walked through gale force winds in France, heavy rain in Switzerland and thunderstorms in Italy, over slippery rocky paths strewn with fallen trees, down steep inclines. I could never have ever imagined that it would be on the outskirts of Rome that, on a sloped dusty path, my right leg would slip and I would land with the full weight of my body and rucksack on my twisted left knee. The shock hit me first, then fear. I didn’t feel any pain. I couldn’t however get up. Martina and Joanna ran to help and I unstrapped my rucksack. I managed to straighten my leg and discovered my knee was badly scraped and bleeding. I got up and tested if there was any more serious damage and breathed a sigh of extreme relief. I hadn’t twisted or pulled anything in my knee. I did however, have an open wound and nothing to really treat it with. Hoping to find somewhere with water nearby I put on my rucksack and we continued on for a mile or so. There was nowhere to stop however, and I needed to clean the wound. I did what I could with some water, gauze and antiseptic cream. We had bigger problems to worry about. Martina was finally starting to show the pain that she had clearly been feeling for days. We made slow progress. It was at this point that we caught our first sight of Rome. We were still in the countryside, but the view of high-rise buildings in the distance was an unmistakable sign that we were nearing the capital city.
Just before we entered La Storta we passed the Etruscan archaeological site of Veio. The history of the place was unmistakable, even as we walked through a small wood, we found pieces of ancient pottery on the ground. We did not stop to explore however, as after all our mishaps, it was starting to get late. Two miles before La Storta, Martina started to really struggle. We found some relief at a wonderful gelateria where we sat outside and indulged in fragoline (little strawberries – or wild strawberry) gelato. We still had to walk to the accommodation which, for that evening, was in the Suore Santa Brigida Convent. We had already received a call from Gabrielle who had arrived earlier and was wondering where we were. Somehow me made it to the convent, and were saved from ringing the bell as the gate opened to let a group of pilgrims out. Among the pilgrims were the ladies who had kept us up the night before in Campagnano di Roma. Would it be another sleepless night? Once inside we found a large garden with Gabrielle seated at a table speaking with other pilgrims. She led us to the accommodation which was an apartment on the ground floor with three rooms with bunkbeds and a dormitory-style bathroom.
None of us were in high spirits that night. I tried to bandage my knee, Martina did what she could for her feet and Joanna gave out sympathy as required. We planned to wake up at 5am the next day to get into the centre of Rome as early as possible to avoid traffic. We therefore, wanted to have an early dinner. Gabrielle joined us as we sought out something nearby for a simple meal. We ended up at an unpromising snack bar with a ‘restaurant’ which was more like a few tables and a menu. We didn’t expect much, but as you often find in Italy, even the most basic place can prepare a decent plate of pasta. We didn’t linger after we finished but returned to the amazing gelateria we had been to before going to the convent. I wasn’t about to break with tradition on my penultimate day on the Via Francigena and not have my two gelatos. We arrived just as they were closing and took comfort once more in the delicious flavors as we made our way back to the convent.
As we had feared, the same two ladies from Campagnano di Roma were in our room and chatting away animatedly. All four of us tumbled into bed and switched off the light. Thankfully the two ladies left the room to speak. Anticipation for the next day kept me awake. I tried not to dwell on the knowledge that the next day was going to be my last of what had been an incredible adventure. Could I return to normal life after this? It seemed impossible. It was my experience on the Camino de Santiago that had motivated me to undertake the challenge of walking the Via Francigena. It seemed likely that my time on the Via Francigena would only motivate me to have more experiences. My journey to Rome would be complete on that 79th day, but I felt certain that my adventures were far from over.
Day 79: La Storta to Rome (17 km)
My phone sounded the alarm under my pillow at 5 am. I heard a groan of complaint from the two other pilgrims in the room, as myself, Joanna, Martina and Gabrielle started to get dressed and to pack our bags. It was a relief to walk out into the terraced garden, lit by the first rays of the morning sun. The air was cool and refreshing after the stuffiness of the room. The day felt full of promise and I was full of a nervous energy that I looked forward to dispelling with a walk in the cool morning air. Martina said little about the pain of her feet, but I assured her that we were now in Rome and it would be possible for her to take public transport at any moment. We set out, hoping to come across a café for breakfast before long. We walked out of La Storta on the all too familiar Via Cassia.
After La Storta there was a section of road, the Via Trionfale, without a pavement and with trees and bushes growing out into the lane, obscuring the view of oncoming traffic, and of us to the traffic. Fortunately, there were few cars as it was 6 on a Sunday morning. I was thankful I had planned to arrive on a Sunday. It would have been quite terrifying to walk this road with commuter traffic on a weekday morning. As it was Sunday however, each café we passed was closed. It was only when we were within 7km of the Vatican that we were able to sit and have breakfast. We had already walked 10 km and so had worked up quite an appetite. We were now within the city itself, near the train station of Monte Mario. We were so close but the last few kilometres were to be some of the most painstaking of the whole trip. There is a common expression on the Camino, that each person must walk their own Camino. This means that the journey is a personal experience that you can share with others, but ultimately, you must find your own way. This has a spiritual meaning, but also a practical one. In the last 5 km of the Via Francigena, myself and my three companions found our own way to St. Peter’s Square. This being so, I will speak now only of my own experience.
I felt so oddly at home as I walked into Rome. I passed the home of a friend, walked familiar streets, and realized for the first time in 79 days I knew exactly where I was. I could have easily found my way without signs, stickers or arrows that I had looked out so intently for during the duration of the journey. I was however, not following just any way to St. Peter’s, but the Francigena Way. Staying true to the route I continued following the stickers which were still to be found on signposts. I had passed these signs in Rome many times over the years I had lived there, yet until today, I had never seen them. As we entered the park of Monte Mario hill I felt a wave of excitement. At the top of the hill I knew I would catch sight of St. Peter’s. We followed the windy cobbled path up and up until there it was – a clearing of trees and in the distance, the famous dome of St. Peter’s set against the deep blue of the sky and the glories of Rome stretched out before us. This sight made it all seem real. I was in Rome, and I had walked here from England!
After twenty minutes of pictures and celebrating we continued along the cobbled path that wound down the hill to Via Beato Angelico. This straight road would later become Via Ottaviano from which we would pass through Bernini’s colonnade into St. Peter’s Square. I walked ahead of the group taking in the moment before I found myself surrounded by the friends who were waiting to greet me. It is said that life is about the journey, not the destination. That couldn’t have been more true for me in that moment. At the end of my journey I felt myself unable to celebrate my arrival. The strongest emotion was of sadness that the journey was over. I knew I would miss the rhythm of walking, the simplicity of my daily routine, the sense of purpose and of satisfaction at the end of each day. The time to reflect on this however, was not when I should be celebrating my achievement. I wanted to end the journey feeling triumphant, and so I directed my gaze to the end of the street ahead and my last steps were tread with the same determination as the countless thousands that had brought me this far. Just as we reached the outer walls of the Vatican we met Roberto Pecchi who had offered to film my arrival at St. Peter’s. From there, Roberto walked alongside us filming. During those last steps all other emotions but elation completely disappeared. As we entered through the colonnade we were confronted with a tremendous crowd of people. Of course, it was Sunday and the Pope was giving Mass. My elation was only intensified by the enthusiasm of the crowd. I could almost feel as though they were there just for me. The crowd cheered at the Pope and it matched perfectly with my own excitement. I didn’t know how I would find my friends, but with one glance I found one then another, and soon I was surrounded by their dear faces.
It is only very recently that a journey has come to represent a pleasant escape from everyday life. For most of human history a journey has represented hardships, danger, extended periods of time on the road, away from home, friends and family, with the real possibility never to return. Those difficulties however, must have amplified the feelings of relief and appreciation when a destination was reached, or a journey concluded. People have always been driven to see distant places, despite the dangers travel entailed. We are so fortunate to travel freely with relatively little risk, but we have certainly lost something by covering huge distances in the comfort of modern transport. There is so much close to home that tells us about our history and how we are connected to bordering nations. There are beautiful landscapes, friendly people and amazing cuisine. What adventures are possible if we take the time to discover them? If you have enjoyed reading this blog, I hope you were able to share in my adventure, and perhaps will be inspired to have your own adventure on the Via Francigena, or one of the numerous cultural routes around the world.
Contribution by Joanna Maskens
Best Foot Forward
My first day on the Via Francigena seems like a lifetime ago. Was that really me? I’d woken at four a.m., heart thumping, thrown on my rucksack, jumped on my bike and freewheeled past a haze of sleeping houses, yawning in the dawn light, to catch the first train from Canterbury East. I felt like Lara Croft or a Bond girl (despite the bagginess of my new Mountain Warehouse zip-off-at-the-knee walking trousers). I was off on an adventure, independent and worldly; all I needed were the few things in my rucksack and those in my head. A plane and several ‘Shit! This is my stop!’ trains later; I fell off at Pietrasanta, an idyllic little town in Northern Tuscany, feeling young and foolish. I had no idea what to expect; how our days would be structured, how my body would react to 27 or even 33 kilometre days and or how I’d get by without any Italian. Julia met me with a huge smile and a hug. In her little black dress, she looked ready for a night on the town or even a date, and not at all like she’d just walked 63 days in a row. Damn it! I didn’t bring a dress! I brought practical t-shirts and my grandmother’s kaftan. The sunset streets made up for my lack of glamour, however, and a meal in a local restaurant with Julia and her friend Eimear was all I needed to convince me that this was going to be a really great trip. We had bruschetta and gnocchi in a creamy pumpkin flower sauce… if this was a taste of Italy, I was sold.
The six a.m. starts were a shock at first, but I was surprised how quickly I settled into a pattern. We’d walk from seven in the morning ‘til three or four in the afternoon, stopping for the odd rest, perhaps some aqua fizzante in a shady bar and – thank goodness! – lunch. I quickly became motivated by food, leaping out of my bunk for breakfast (nothing quite matched the ‘Cappuccino Cornetto’ in Lucca; the latter’s light, buttery pastry falling apart in my hands and the marmellata di albicocche melting – literally, I swear! – into a glorious sort of inner sunrise… it sounds cheesy but if you haven’t tried it you don’t know, okay?); we devoured juicy peaches and litres of rainbow gelato, most nights I had to forcibly restrain myself from licking the plate clean. It was hot; way, way hotter than I had anticipated – 38 degrees on one day, apparently. If you moved even an inch, you were already dripping with sweat. Best not to imagine what we looked like after a whole day traversing Tuscany’s rolling hills with heavy rucksacks!
I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t feel held back in any way by my fitness. In fact, my body felt better than it had for a while, my muscles were being put to use in a way that they hadn’t for longer than I can remember and, after all that exercise, I slept like a log. What really got me though, other than the temperature (it seems English Roses do rather wilt in the heat), were my blisters. I was positive about them at first, reassured by Julia’s abundant experience; ‘they’ll disappear in a few days;’ but, after a while, we started to worry; ‘they’re worse than I’ve ever seen, they just keep coming back!’ Were my shoes too small? I know your feet are supposed to swell in the heat, but this was insane.
It got to a point where I was starting to walk funny to compensate for the pain, near to tears towards the end of each day and spending hours scrutinising my feet every evening. Worse than all of this, I was really slowing Julia down. Unfortunately, on the forth day or so, we made the mistake of accepting the help of a kindly Italian pilgrim, also on his way to Rome, who cut each blister with a piece of sting and poured a dark brown disinfectant solution onto the soft flesh beneath (apologies to the squeamish!) whilst I rolled around on my foam mattress crying and biting my fist to stop me from screaming/swearing. The band of cyclists sharing the sports-hall-come-dormitory with us was (much to my embarrassment) terribly bemused (and amused) by the whole thing (their Achilles heel located, of course, a couple of feet further up).
I just about made it through the next day, walking 24 kilometres on broken, half-formed skin, because I was stubborn but mostly because I had to. In the middle of nowhere on a bank holiday, there were literally no buses or trains running. It was like walking on sharp shingle before you get to the sea, but if the shingle were actually cutting into your feet. By the time we got to Gambassi Terme, Julia’s mind was set and I wasn’t complaining; my feet needed a few days off to heal and I needed time to buy new shoes. The next day, I set off, alone, for Siena by train and was struck by how much I’d gotten used to following Julia around. I needed to find my own way this time. The convent wasn’t where it said it would be and the nuns were less than impressed when I turned up without a reservation (we’d phoned ahead, but perhaps something had gotten lost in translation), but I got a room of my own, albeit with a rock concert next door (I slept through it), and a free meal in the company of some delightful characters. There, I met Gabrielle, a spiritual psychologist from Berlin, and Paolo, a retired Italian cyclist who summers in India.
Isn’t it interesting how, whenever we introduce ourselves to someone new, we automatically role through the same script? ‘Where are you from?’
‘Ah, I’ve ways wanted to go there.’
‘Yes, the culture… the arts… In Berlin, there is no hierarchy like you see in other cities because of the shadow of the wall.’ She sets out on a new pilgrimage each year and lights up when she talks about her son. Paolo is jokey and tricks Gabrielle that he’s from North Korea, even though he’s obviously Italian.
‘I do nothing since ten years, but I was a firefighter. In India, I smoke weed… I’m joking, but seriously it relaxes you. I find it hard to sleep because of the fire fights.’ The conversation moves onto technology and they argue it out, for and against. ‘Say, I want to contact Joanna,’ says Paolo. ‘I write a letter, I put it on the desk and I wait. I forget about it. I see it and I think of Joanna and I buy I stamp. I forget about it. I see it on the desk and I go out and I post it. She is twenty days waiting for my letter, I have been lazy. But… she opens the letter, she sees my writing, my calligraphy – how do you say in English? – and she is happy. I have made an effort. With email, you write it in two seconds and – bloop! – it’s gone, sent to 20,000 people. Hello Mr. Jones, Hello Mrs. Baxter…
‘When I go to buy a train ticket, I leave the house, I get on the bus… maybe I meet a nice young girl named Joanna and a woman called— what’s your name?’
‘Gabrielle. Someone asks me for the time and I say Ah, it’s twenty past three,’ he looks at his watch exaggeratedly. ‘And they say Oh, thank you very much and that makes me happy. Not the TV! Not ever in thirty years! I tell you, I turned it on and off again, and that was it. I’ve never watched it since. How do you call this in English, I think you’ll know what I mean, subliminal messages – that’s why.’ He smiles at me over his big round glasses so that his face creases up like a cushion. ‘More wine?’
In most cases, the dormitories were far more luxurious than I had imagined. Often, we slept in gigantic monasteries which leered down at the towns below. They weren’t severe inside; however, they were warm and friendly; the nuns excitedly awaiting our arrival as if we were prophets or disciples. I even had my feet washed on two occasions! Inspired by the last supper, it’s a sort of welcoming ritual that acknowledges the pilgrim’s plight. All the new pilgrims sit round in a circle whilst the hostel’s volunteers, clad in purple capes with white shells on, baptise one of your feet with a water jug and a bowl below, pat it dry and kiss it. It’s really hard not to laugh when a man with a brush moustache kisses your foot – it tickles. You’re expected to say the Lord’s Prayer in unison before the feet washing; that proved rather difficult too, given I couldn’t remember it entirely.
Most of the pilgrims we came across were motivated by religion. The Via Francigena is, after all, an ancient pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome to visit the Pope and be cleansed of all your sins. Neither Julia nor I are particularly religious, nor was self-purging our goal but, because of the people we met and the places we stayed, it was undoubtedly an important part of the trip. We attended evensong in convents and bowed our heads before pilgrim dinners, we ate breakfast with a priest and watched our new friends light up as they spoke about the saint and his story that got them through that day. Although I’m still very much agnostic, I can’t deny that the sense o f community borne out of these simple traditions was moving and inspiring.
Walking in the footsteps of so many people was humbling, as was sacrificing ‘fast’ ways of living (and travelling) for a slower, more natural one. I was limited to what my body could do; how far my legs could carry me, how well my head could navigate… When you’re walking for entire days, you become aware of every muscle, every slight twinge, and every burst of energy. After my blisters healed, I felt strong. I could feel myself getting fitter, my rucksack felt lighter and I could keep up with Julia far more easily. Better than that, my head felt clear; rejuvenated, just like my body. We had one simple goal for the whole day: to get from A to B. Gone were the to-do-lists of ordinary life, the procrastination and the stress when you haven’t achieved as much as you should have. We could gage exactly how well we were doing, in kilometres, and, best of all, there was nothing to think about but wherever your mind happened to wander. It was a childlike luxury, to have nothing to do but awe at the horizon, the mist, the Cyprus trees and the little line of ants on the path.
By the time Martina arrived, I was feeling fantastic. The temperatures had cooled slightly and we could relax into shorter, flatter days walking through Lazio. The three of us couldn’t shut up and, at times, it all descended into silliness. Fake accents, embarrassing anecdotes and singing in the street… Possibly the best moment of all, was when we came upon a huge cherry tree bursting with ripe fruit in the heart of a hazelnut orchard. We stuffed our mouths full of the sticky sweet berries like naughty children, staining our hands and our lips without a shred of guilt. Those kind of memories stick in the mind for a long, long time, and, so too, will those friendships. The pilgrims we met along the way were warm, genuine and totally open. Best of all, some of them were just as silly as us! Isabella and Fabrice, the Parisian couple we shared much of our time from San Quirico d’Orcia to Viterbo with, were utterly delightful; the kind of couple who’s happiness with each other extends to those around them. Next time I’m in Paris, I’ll definitely pop in for a visit!
The trip’s given me a new found appreciation for showers and cleanliness (and the comfort of my everyday life in general), for peace and ‘slow living,’ and for my own body (as the vessel which takes me from A to B, and, helpfully, carries my thoughts along with it as well). I still can’t quite believe it’s over; I miss my walking companions (and fellow food lovers), the lengthy, testing exercise, the heat and the thrill of setting out on a new adventure every day. But, now that I’m home, I feel stronger, braver and more optimistic. I feel like I can take things slower and, in that way, achieve more. And I’m filled with a new confidence, a new determination, that every day can be a new adventure, wherever you are.
P.S. I would recommend the Via Francigena to anyone and everyone (especially the Tuscany part) but, whatever you do, do not exfoliate your feet before a walking holiday…!
Contribution by Martina Gannon
I set off for the Via Francigena feeling excited, devoid of expectations and armed with the naïve belief that a two hour stroll was sufficient time to break in my hiking shoes. I could not have been less prepared for what the Via Francigena would do to me.
I joined Julia and Joanna in Montefiascone and we travelled to Rome, 100km away over the course of six days. Currently, I am in the process of dissertation writing for the MA in Comparative Literature so this sharp change of scene to exploring Italy came as a very welcomed break. The very first day I powered through our 17km from Montefiascone to Vetralla with little or no blisters. I relished the physical demands that the walk put on me, coming from having just handed in essays and working on my dissertation this break was just what I needed. I found myself slowing in pace to catch the changing scape of the countryside of vineyards, hazlenut farms (the home of Nutella!), cherry trees and Roman ruins. However, despite powering through the first few days of my walk I gradually became more encumbered by my feet and blisters. These types of discomforts became our realities during the walk and despite our squeamishness, if we didn’t attend to our feet we would not be walking anywhere. This was not an option that I allowed myself to entertain.
In retrospect, the pain of my feet and shoulders bizzarely completed and complemented my journey. Julia and Joanna congratulated me on putting on a brave face, to an extent I was, but very simply the only option I had allowed myself was to walk. Relatively, in comparison to the earliest pilgrims, who wore wool clothes, carried meagre sacks, had rationed food and encountered life-threatening dangers, I figured I could survive some discomfort. I was reminded of the relatively minor state of my struggles when on our last morning in Rome, in the beautiful pilgrim hostel (Instituto Sacro Cuore Di Maria Suore Francescane) we met a modern day pilgrim who was facing similar obstacles as ancient pilgrims. He was a young American priest in the making, the same age as Joanna and I, who introduced himself as Father Philip. He explained that he was part of the Sons of Jesus Christ Church in Colarado. He was a novice who had been sent by his church to walk a month to Rome with only a change of clothes, a bible and zero money. He had been instructed to rely only on the kindness of strangers along the way to survive. As had consistently occurred on my travels thus far, hearing the stories of other pilgrims stretched my mind and shifted my perspective on human limits and what drives pilgrims to do these journeys.
The biggest benefits I gained from this pilgrimage were the lessons and surprises I encountered. Pre-pilgrimage, I had been jamming my days with consecutive to-do lists, dissertation research and job search stresses. During the pilgrimage, technology and the Internet became quite an elusive luxury and I found myself with the sole concern of whether I could put one foot in front of the other.
In relation to lessons earned, the most refreshing knowledge I gleaned from struggles was that much of the limits I believed in were present only in my mind. With each labored step my limiting self beliefs fell away. The pain, in the context of the utter enjoyment and the learning earned was minor and was actually one of the biggest sources of learning. It also made me far more confident about performing minor self-surgery on my feet and how to treat my feet as if they were sacred!
In terms of the VF being educational, due to the unbelievable abundance of Roman ruins and remains that crowded around us in Italy it was effortless to imagine the Italy that the earliest pilgrims witnessed along their travels. I was astounded to hear from Julia that only 10% of Roman remains have been excavated in Rome. This neglect of heritage maintenance came to life for us one morning as Julia pointed out a decorated cement flower-pot and asked me to guess what it was. It turns out it was an ancient sarcophagus for a child. This recycling of ancient remains for modern domestic uses was chilling in a way yet it was also made for an interesting incorporation of modern with old and Italian attitudes towards historical remains. The benefit for us was that we could truly feel as if we were walking in the footsteps of Romans, as quite literally along one route we shadowed their steps on their huge slabs of volcanic rock that they had laid down 2000 years ago. This historical backdrop, combined with Julia’s informed and impassioned narrative of Italian history, culture, food and people hugely augmented my education on historical and modern life in Italy.
It was doubtless the brightness of Julia’s unfaltering passion for life, history and walking and her open-minded belief in herself and everyone around her that truly crowned this expedition. To set off on this journey with an Italian-speaking adventurer who was as impassioned about the VF as she was informed about the culture, food and history of the country, was a double education in itself. Her guidance meant that I was not just a tourist barely breaking the skin of culture but that I became immersed in a deeper understanding and respect for Italian culture, people and their history. Her commitment to the VF fostered an experience of self-education and an active learning experience that I cannot recommend enough to other students. The company of Julia and Joanna, our story swapping, discussions and laughs far out-weighed any obstacles and stood out as the highlights of my journey.
On reflection, the lessons and changes I have internalized from the VF seem out of proportion with the mere six days of walking that I did. Yet, if other pilgrims’ tales and my own experience can be trusted, this impact can be the far-reaching effects of this kind of adventure. Overall, this week long VF adventure blasted my perception of my limits, endowed me with de-stressing peace and cemented my decision to embark on future pilgrimages.
A huge thank you to the University of Kent and all the other sponsors who made Julia’s journey and our participation possible. I cannot recommend it enough to everyone, especially other Kent students.