Back on the road – Rome to Castel Gandolfo (23 km/14 miles)
It has been just under two years since I walked into Rome after a journey of 80 days on the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome. On Saturday, 13 May I was back in Rome, but this time Rome was the starting point of my journey rather than the destination. I was beginning the Via Francigena of the South – a route which runs from Rome to the port town of Brindisi in the heel of the Italian boot. The route is far from developed, with only a suggested path outlined on the website of the Association of the Vie Francigene. I have been longing for another adventure and an opportunity to create more memories on the Francigena, and so, I decided a few months ago to try a small section of the Francigena of the South. I was also keen to share the experience with others, as well as to ensure that I had some company on the route that is currently travelled by few pilgrims. For this reason, I extended the original initiative of the project ‘Kent on the Via Francigena’, the aim of which was to promote the route and to enable students from the University of Kent to experience a pilgrimage for the first time. With generous funding from both the Kent Opportunity Fund and the European Centres of the University of Kent, five postgraduate students were able join me for the six-day journey from Rome to the port town of Terracina. The students come from a range of disciplines – archaeology, anthropology, creative writing, English literature and heritage studies (Karl Goodwin, Oscar Kruger, Jane Hartshorn, Claire Hurley and Elle Arscott respectively). Apart from providing what I hope will be an extremely rewarding experience for these students, I am interested in their varying perspectives on pilgrimage, coming as they do from such different fields of study.
Our journey began on a bright Sunday morning on the Aventine Hill of Rome. It always amazes me how quiet pockets of Rome can be, and the Aventine typically feels like a sleepy village rather than an area lying within the centre of Rome. The air was filled with the fragrance of honeysuckle and parrots squawked overhead as we made our way down the hill to the meeting point at the Circus Maximus.
By 9am the group for the day was assembled. There were six University of Kent students, including myself, a French couple, Isabelle and Fabrice who I had met on the Francigena in Tuscany two years ago, and three good friends of mine in Rome who had managed to convince some of their friends to join us for the day from Rome to Castel Gandolfo. We were fourteen in total and made an impressive line of pilgrims as we departed from the Circus Maximus, where we had views of both the Colosseum and the dome of St. Peter’s. This is the starting point of the Via Appia, the oldest road of Rome dating to 312 BC. It originally was built to connect Rome to its port of Terracina, where critical supplies, principally of grain from North Africa and Sicily, were unloaded and then transported on the Appia into the city. We would be able to follow the Via Appia out of the city, through what is now a wonderful park, until it joins the Appia Nuova, a motorway that has been built over the original road. At this point, we would be forced off the historic route and up into the Alban Hills and then the Apennines until our last day, when we would return to the Pontine Plain and the Via Appia into Terracina.
The Via Appia, as it exits Rome, takes us past the huge complex of the Baths of Caracalla ca. 212 AD, the tomb of the Scipios (the most famous Scipio, Africanus, defeated Hannibal in the Punic Wars but was not interred here), and through the San Sebastiano Gate of the Aurelian, 3rd century walls. After a short section on a busy road, walkers enter the tranquil and lush grounds of the Catacombs of San Calixtus. Just outside of these grounds are another set of catacombs, those of San Sebastiano where we stopped to get a pilgrim stamp in our credentials. The Via Appia was incredibly busy because of a festival, ‘The Appia Day’, for which all of the sites along the route where open. There were stalls set up of local goods and groups of people dressed for different periods of Italian history. There were ancient Roman soldiers, a procession of Romans led by a man dressed as Pan, presumably recreating a pagan harvest celebration as they carried baskets of wheat. The pan-like figure carried a banner with the words: ‘Aeneas: the origins of Rome’. There were also Renaissance costumes and of the 18th-19th century. The atmosphere was merry, and it was wonderful to see so many people engaged with the history and heritage of Rome and the Via Appia. We weaved our way through the crowds, past the Circus of Maxentius and the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella. After a short break in the site of some Roman baths at Campo di Bove we were walking on the ancient basalt paving stones of the Via Appia with fields stretching out on either side. We were of course heading dead straight and covering a good amount of ground as we chatted to other members of the group. It was a wonderful feeling to be back on the road, catching up with old friends and making new ones.
The first seven miles of the Via Appia are maintained as part of the park and are spectacular. Other sites include views of the Claudian aqueduct, the Villa of Qunitili and the remains of several tombs which would have once lined the road. The Via Appia was a very desirable place to have one’s final resting place – in full sight of the many travellers on the road who would read the inscriptions as they went by, or would admire the magnificent marbles used, the design or size of the tomb. Once the road exits the park the scenery started to become scrubbier and the road less defined. The only place to stop at this point for lunch was at a roadside café, where we could at least shelter from the blazing sun and enjoy a cool drink. The destination of the day was Castel Gandolfo, which sits on the top of the crater of an extinct volcano (or thought to be until very recently) of the Alban Hills. The peak had been looming in front of us for the past few hours and the climb would soon begin. The promise of amazing views and a gelato in the square gave us a boost of motivation as we wound our way up the hill along quiet narrow lanes of houses and vineyards. The final push was exhausting to all but finally, as we neared the top, we were able to see the breath-taking Lago Albano, a crater lake of shimmering blue water set within a ring of rich green slopes. As we entered the town of Castel Gandolfo we were afforded another view – the sea.
Castel Gandolfo is believed to be the site of the Latin town of Alba Longa. Domitian had a villa here and the tradition of escaping the summer heat of Rome in the high altitude of the hills was followed by Renaissance popes who built a Papal palace here. The town has a delightful historic centre where you catch views down every side street of the lake. As a group we each selected a well-deserved treat – gelato, beer or a slice of pizza, and mingled in the square for a good half an hour, recovering from the efforts of the day. It was then time to go our separate ways. For those of the group who had only joined for the day it was time to take the train back to Rome, but for the rest, the comfort of the evening’s accommodation beckoned. We went to sleep that night tired but content. The next day’s stage was reported as ‘easy’ in the description of the Vie Francigene, and the receptionist of the hotel had assured us that the walk to Velletri would be full of tranquil woodland paths and stunning scenery.
Day 2: Castel Gandolfo to Velletri (19.7 Km/12.2 miles)
The breakfast room of our hotel offered a tremendous view of the water of Lago Albano glimmering in the morning sun. I alternated admiring the view with studying the maps for our journey from Castel Gandolfo to Velletri that day. I was using the official route as designated by the Association of the Vie Francigene, but as the route has only recently been defined there are no guidebooks currently available and the maps do not afford much detail. Despite my many travels, I have much to learn in using maps and planning routes, particularly in using gps points to navigate. I have resisted up until now to use an app where you can upload the gps points, but now that I was dealing with maps that were not very detailed and a route that would likely be poorly marked, I needed to consider this option. Karl made a suggestion that would prove incredibly useful – an app called View Ranger which shows a map with contours and the route using the gps points. Karl already had it on his phone so I designated him leader for the day. We had all agreed to make the trip to Terracina as collaborative as possible. This was a perfect opportunity for me to take a backseat for the day.
The beginning of the walk was along a busy road. We set out after 9am to ensure we were not caught on a narrow road with Italians rushing to work. Within half an hour we descended from the road onto a path that wrapped around the inner slopes of the crater. The path was generally flat and shaded by hardwoods. The scenery was wonderful, with the lake below and Castel Gandolfo sitting up high on the rim of the crater. The sunlight, as it penetrated the canopy of the woods, turned the foliage a captivating luminescent green. Along the path we discovered the remains of an ancient underground aqueduct that was partially exposed in places. There were also a series of small entrances to quarries all along the side of the crater rim. Oscar and Jane dared to venture into one of the openings and came out to report the tunnel continued well beyond what they could see. A very special discovery was a section of an ancient road with basalt paving stones. The road was a timely reminder of the area’s ancient past as we were just about to see Lake Nemi, another crater lake that is particularly well known for the discovery of Caligula’s pleasure boats and their extraction from the bottom of the lake in the 1930s. Two boats, each over 70 metres in length and equipped with both hot and cold water, were able to be extracted when engineers partially drained the lake using an ancient conduit through which they pumped the water out into the valley below. A museum was built to house the enormous wooden structures and decorative elements such as bronze railings were sent to a museum in Rome (they are now in the Museo Nazionale, Palazzo Massimo). Unfortunately, the Museum of Nemi caught on fire during the Second World War and the ships were almost entirely lost. There is still a museum in Nemi, but unfortunately we did not have time to visit it or the nearby ruins of the temple to Diana.
The town of Nemi, similar to Castel Gandolfo, sits on the steep interior walls of the crater of an extinct volcano overlooking the crystal waters of the lake. The sun was intense by the time we made the final climb up to the town. After a few minutes sitting in the sun enjoying some pizza a taglio we retreated to the shade of a pedestrian street with convenient steps for us each to sit on. In Nemi we discovered the fragoline (wild strawberries) for which the area is famous. These tiny versions of the gargantuan strawberries found in supermarkets today have an entirely different taste. They are strangely reminiscent of strawberry-flavoured sweets making it difficult to believe they are a product of nature. They were clearly full of natural sugars and just what we needed as we began the final stretch of our journey to Velletri.
We had to walk on another section of a windy road with traffic whizzing by for about 20 minutes before we were back on a woodland path. We had make very good time and were again grateful for the shade of the woods. We were clearly walking through a managed wood as neat bundles of cut branches were placed throughout the forest at even intervals, suggesting pruning had recently been undertaken. There were few birds to be heard, but there were several different species of butterflies fluttering to and fro and the biggest bees we had ever seen. We even found a porcupine quill on the ground but it seemed the wildlife of the Castelli Romani were too cautious to be spotted by hikers.
From my now extensive experience of walking long-distance I’m getting the point where I worry when things seem to be going so smoothly as they were at that point. There seemed little that could disturb the peace of that walk through the woods until we caught the sound of chainsaws in the distance, which became progressively louder as we continued on the path. The evidence of the pruning we had seen earlier on the path was now a work in progress as the path in front of us and the entire forest floor was covered as far as we could see with cut branches. There was no way around it. We had to forge our way through the branches. Fearful of taking a step that would result in a twisted ankle or worse, we tread carefully, making slow progress. The sound of the chainsaws was now very loud – we were getting close. We could only hope that we would soon overtake the workmen and their obliteration of the path. At the point in which we met the two men with chainsaws, we had a fair number of scratches between us. The men indicated the way to avoid the worst of the branches, and thankfully within minutes we were back on a cleared path where we stopped to liberally apply some antiseptic cream to our wounds. Why the workers had not been instructed to keep the path clear as they worked was a mystery to us. We had overcome the biggest challenge of the trip so far and were now only a few kilometres from our destination.
The path emerged from the woods onto small country roads that descended steeply, putting undesirable strain on our knees. The descent continued for a good 20 minutes before levelling out at an extremely busy road with trucks bustling by. We stopped to rest on a wall by the road contemplating the dangerous section of the route. Fortunately, what we found around the first corner was a pavement that brought us safely into Velletri. Our stop for that night was at the only religious house and official pilgrim accommodation we would find on this section of the Francigena, The Seminario of Don Orione which is led by the wonderful Don Filippo. Don Filippo and his seminary students greeted at the entrance to the Seminary and offered us tea, coffee, biscuits and apple juice made from the apples of their orchard. The Seminary was kept immaculately and the grounds extended to all sides with olive groves, vineyards, orchards and a cherry tree whose branches hung heavy with ripe cherries. We were shown to three rooms with bunkbeds and en-suite bathrooms. Don Filippo invited us to wander freely through the grounds, and to help ourselves to fruit from the trees. He left us to settle in and we promised to arrive punctually for dinner at 7.30.
Although we had so far spent two comfortable nights in hotels, I was relieved to find myself in this place of peace, simplicity and tranquillity. Staying at pilgrim accommodation, whether it is a religious house or a hostel catering to pilgrims, is such an important element of a pilgrimage. As a pilgrim you step outside of your everyday life, stripping down to the absolute essentials. On a pilgrimage, crisp white sheets and marble bathrooms have little appeal in comparison to a warm greeting and a simple bed and meal that are offered with no expectation of anything in return. It is a shame that on the southern Francigena there are few options for pilgrim accommodation. I asked Don Filippo that evening at dinner why other religious houses along the southern route do not offer accommodation to pilgrims. He answered that because the route is still not travelled by many pilgrims, the monasteries are not prepared to accommodate them, particularly if they are in groups as large as ours. It is also additional work for communities that are already struggling to manage to fulfil their duties with fewer and fewer members. He assured me that if one or two pilgrims need shelter, then something can typically be arranged, but it is essential to call ahead to give some warning rather than just arriving at their doorstep. This was good news, as it means that for the typical pilgrims who walks alone or with a companion it is in fact possible to stay in donation-only accommodation.
Day 3: Velletri to Cori (22 km/13.7 miles)
Hoping to make an early start, I had requested breakfast for 7.30 the next morning. As it was only our third day on the Francigena, we had not yet settled into a morning routine. Some of the group came directly to breakfast while others were still getting ready or packing. I took advantage of the extra time as the others got ready to feast on the cherries in the garden. The ground was still wet from a strong storm the evening before which had cleared the air. Once we were all ready, we bid a fond farewell to Don Filippo and the seminarians and walked down the drive back out into the world from the haven of the Seminary. We were met almost immediately by morning traffic on the busy streets of Velletri. The Francigena signs led us into the historic centre where the noises faded and the air was full of the scent of freshly baked bread and pastries. As the town gave way to the countryside, we found ourselves on country lanes lined with orchards and vineyards until we reached a grassy track. At this point we encountered some navigation problems. Thus far, by using Karl’s app to read the gps points provided by the Vie Francigene Association and by following the signs, we had had little difficulty in following the path. There was a section here however, where the path had been altered. I was in contact with Marco Aguiari, who manages the southern section of the Via Francigena in Lazio. He had very kindly come the Seminary the night before to meet me and to give me some advice on the days ahead. Marco had done his best to ensure we would stay on the right track, but unfortunately, as there was both the old and the new signage still in place we took a wrong turn at one point that took us in the direction of Rome! It took us a while to realise our error as we were very happily walking along a gravel road through an incredible landscape of rolling hills of wheat and freshly ploughed earth set against a backdrop of the Apennine mountains.
Once we realised our mistake, we tried to follow a track indicated on the app’s map to bring us back around. This was our second mistake, as the track was not maintained. For a second day our legs suffered from numerous scratches, this time by brambles. Fortunately, our ordeal did not last long and our spirits recovered quickly once we were back on the right road. As with most approaches to towns, we were exposed to a road with busy traffic before we entered Giulianello. Once in the town we were greeted by the town’s ambassador – Billie ‘Il Cane del Quartiere’ (the neighbourhood dog). Billie was sweet-natured and took to the group quickly. As we sat in the shade of umbrella’s on a café terrace he lounged under our chairs taking pets as they were offered. The heat of the midday sun meant we lingered for some time at the café, but when we finally summoned the motivation to put the weight of our rucksacks back on to continue to Cori Billie too got to his feet. We petted him goodbye and got back onto the road, but Billie followed. I had heard that it was a big problem on the Camino when dogs follow pilgrims, as they often get lost as a result. I did not want this to happen to Billie, but we felt sure he would turn around soon and so only began to worry when we reached the limits of the town. We tried to encourage him to stay but he was persistent. After about an hour he was visibly suffering from the heat and once I had given him some water, I decided to call the number on his collar. The lady who answered was very concerned about Billie, but she had recently relocated to the North of Italy and so there was little she could do but try to contact another lady who had committed to caring for the neighbourhood stray. There were phone calls back and forth, but when it became clear that there was no immediate solution we decided to continue on and to do something to help Billie get back to Giulianello once we arrived in Cori. I wrote a message to our host for that evening, Laura of Minerva Domus, and asked her if we could bring Billie there. She kindly messaged back that she would help once we arrived, and so we continued on. Typically, we had a long climb ahead of us to reach Cori, the once ancient site of Cora.
We arrived in Cori to calls of ‘Billie’! Three gentlemen outside a café recognized the dog immediately, and informed us that he often follows walkers to Cori. It was a shame that no one in Giulianello had warned us of this! I had received instructions from Laura to continue to the highest point of the town where the famous Roman Temple to Hercules was located. Once there we followed some windy stairs down to the front door of Laura’s B &B. We couldn’t have asked for warmer welcome from Laura, who ushered us into the cool of her magnificent home of two floors with a rooftop terrace. As a ‘pilgrim friendly’ B & B, Laura knew very well how to cater to the needs of pilgrims. She first offered us a selection of drinks and biscuits as we made ourselves comfortable in the living room. She gave Billie a big bowl of water and arranged to have someone from Guilianello pick him up that evening. I was given a tour of the house where three bedrooms were at our disposal, two bathrooms and the roof terrace which provided a breathtaking view of the plain below and of the sea. I explained the accommodation arrangements to the group and Oscar immediately expressed an interest in sleeping on the roof. The roof was really the highlight of the accommodation, and after showering most of the group was up there admiring the view and doing some yoga. I didn’t linger as I was looking forward to looking at the Temple of Hercules.
The temple sits on a man-made terrace overlooking the plain below. It is dated to the 1st century BC and was once part of the acropolis of the Roman town of Cora which clung to the western slopes of the Lepini mountain chain. Today the temple is part of a piazza that is popular with dog-walkers. It is generally inaccessible and has become the domain of stray cats who congregate there, much like many archaeological sites even in Rome. In the twilight the white columns of the temple stood out in stark contrast with the deepening blue sky. The end of day three on the Via Francigena of the South and we were no longer in sight of Rome. The mountains blocked our view both of our place of departure and our destination of Terracina to the south. We were however, continuously reminded by these ancient remains along the Francigena that we were travelling a route that has connected these areas for millennia. By tracing this connection, we were experiencing the history and archaeology of the way to Terracina in a way that has been unknown for well over a century. Our pilgrimage was now half over, but the richness of the first three days filled me with promise for the coming three that would take us through more Roman towns, path Cistercian Abbeys and who knew how many beautiful sights.
Day 4: Cori to Sezze (32km/20 miles)
Our indefatigable host Laura had laundered our clothes, hung them out to dry and was preparing an elaborate breakfast buffet at 5am. Day 4 was to be our longest walk so far. The Via Francigena website states it is 29 km, but Marco Aguiari had told me it was closer to 36 km with a long climb at the end of the day. He had also warned me that we would be walking through a park in the mountains where there were cows roaming freely. He said that as the cows were sometimes attached by wolves they could be skittish and we should consequently be very cautious. This was not quite what I had expected when planning this trip on the Francigena of the South. We were after all, still not that far from Rome. I had crossed the Apennines in the North at the Cisa Pass in 2015 and had seen both a wolf and wild boar, but that is a very rural area. I had relayed Marco’s warning to the group and the majority had decided to go ahead a try to walk to Sezze. As it was going to be such a long day with possible challenges, I had recommended we make an early pilgrim start. It is very common on the Camino in Spain to start at 5am, in order to walk in the coolest part of the day. It was a lovely reminder of my walk on the Camino as I heard the rustle of the group packing up their rucksacks in the darkness of the early morning. We had the best start imaginable – a feast of eggs, cheese, bread, yogurt, homemade chocolate cake and refills of strong coffee. By 6.30 am we were walking out of Cori along a quiet country road that wrapped along the mountain side. The road was up and down for most of the early morning, but thanks to the cool temperatures we made good and relatively painless progress towards the first stop of the day – Norma. Norma is the modern town which lies just beyond the ancient town of Norba. The archaeological site, which sits on a natural terrace on the mountain side is famous for its impressive walls. The walls of Norba however, were unfortunately associated with its downfall. In the Social Wars of the Late Republican period of Rome, Norba sided with the ultimate loser Manius rather than the dictator Sulla. Norba’s sad history is related by ancient Roman historian Appian who tells us:
‘Norba… resisted with all its might until Aemilius Lepidus was admitted to it in the night by treachery. The inhabitants, maddened by this treason, killed themselves, or fell on each other’s swords, or strangled themselves with ropes. Others closed the gates and set fire to the town. A strong wind fanned the flames, which so far consumed the place that no plunder was gained from it’ (Civil Wars, 1.94).
As we walked past the site, still commanding an incredible position over the plain stretching out below, it was difficult to believe it could have been the place of such destruction and suffering. The ancient city was never rebuilt after 82 BC and so was a ruin even in the imperial period of Rome. The road into Norma has such wonderful views that it is clearly a draw to locals who were out in exercise clothes walking briskly by us. Some stopped to ask us if we were enjoying ‘their’ view – clearly very proud of the beautiful position of their town. Norma is a small town that is quite isolated due to its elevated position in the mountains. What struck us as we walked through the main street was the vibrancy of the community. Residents of Norma, young and old, were in the shops or sitting outside of cafes enjoying a coffee and a catch up with friends. We participated in the life of the town for an hour as we refuelled on coffee and pastries to keep us going until we arrived in the next stop of Sermoneta.
The walk out of Norma took us down an old donkey path that one could easily imagine has been travelled for centuries. It wound down the mountainside bringing us almost to the level of the plain. Ahead, high up in the mountains was a magnificent castle. The group asked me if we would have to climb up to that town, but I was quite confident that Sermoneta was just at the base of the incline. As we walked on the level roads we had a wonderful surprise – we passed the beautiful façade of the Cistercian Abbey of Valvisciolo. We could not very well pass by without stopping to admire the architecture and to get a pilgrim stamp. The Abbey is believed to have been founded by Basilian Monks and then taken over by the Knights Templar. When the Templars were dissolved in the 14th century, the Cistercians became custodians of the Abbey. The Abbey was clearly a popular destination for school trips, as there were coaches in the parking lot, and a group of children were listening to their teaching near to the entrance. I could overhear the teaching tell the children how long ago pilgrims would have travelled from far away to come to St. Peter’s in Rome and would have stopped here to rest. Not so long ago in fact!
Due to our early start, it was just 12.30 when we neared Sermoneta. The route from the Abbey continued on quiet flat roads until I saw a Via Francigena sticker at the turn to a donkey trail, much like the one we had descended on from Norma. In that moment I realized my error. The castle that we had seen at the top of the mountain was Sermoneta! We now had to climb back up into the mountains in the midday heat! I was quite shocked by the amount of climbing we had done on the route, and I had certainly not expected this. It was time for me to pay much greater attention to contours on maps. The group had a little meeting to decide what to do. It was still at least 15 km to Sezze and I knew that once we were in Sermoneta there would be no options for public transport. At this point we were just over a mile away from a train station that would enable anyone who did not wish to continue to take a train to Sezze. Claire, who could not guarantee that she would be able to physically continue to Sezze, particularly as we were not sure of the conditions of the route, decided to head to the train station. We were all quite sorry to see the group divide in this way, but this was a result of walking a route that has no guide book or detailed description.
The climb to Sermoneta was certainly gruelling. I arrived in the wonderful little town bright red and incredibly hot. After a reprieve in the shade, I joined the others in the town square where I got a very large gelato! Gelato provides no end of motivation, and the promise of one had got me up that hill! The town of Sermoneta was like something out of Umbria. I couldn’t get over the fact we were in Lazio. I started to realise that I knew very little about the region I had lived in for four years. All of the streets and houses were built of the same light-coloured stone. The town is entirely medieval in street plan, with windy little streets that disappear through arches or up stairways. We could not afford to stay too long in the town and so did not explore to our satisfaction. As it was, once we had all refilled water, had lunch and got some snacks for the road it was 3pm by the time we were walking out of Sermoneta. You would think there was nowhere further to climb, but the road continued at an ascent for some time, taking us past a Franciscan Monastery and into a plain high up in the mountains.
The path to Sezze was quite easy walking in the end, on lovely tracks with beautiful views alternating between rugged mountainsides and lush plains. We did meet some cows crossing the track ahead, but they seemed very calm and we simply waited until they had crossed. All seemed to be going so well – always a bad sign! We were almost in sight of Sezze when we entered a plain that had been divided into fields where cows were grazing. On the track between the fields however, were more cows. There were about twenty females with very young calves. We and the cows were trapped on the track by the fences. We worried that when we approached them the females would become protective and possibly charge. We walked very slowly keeping our distance as the mothers and calves moved down the path mooing plaintively. We had almost reached the end of the fenced area, where the cows began to scatter when we saw dead in front of us was a bull! The bull stood his ground and starred threateningly at us. For most of the group, who were already nervous due to Marco’s warning and the sight of herd of cows with sharp horns, this was the last straw. They started to retreat and only Fabrice and I stayed at the top of the path to assess the situation. The bull never made any move to charge, but it was far from clear what we should do. A suggestion was made that we should go back to Sermoneta, but I couldn’t bear the thought. We could now see Sezze ahead – so temptingly close. A few plans were executed, including walking through a field of long grass trying to find an alternate way out, but it was only after about half an hour that we caught sight of the farmer and called out to him for help. Fabrice and I were the first two over the fence to talk to our ‘saviour’ whose name appropriately was Ercole (Hercules). When the rest of the group joined us with the farmer, Ercole couldn’t help but laugh at what he considered had been an irrational fear of cows! We tried to justify our fright, but to no avail. He continued laughing and assured us that families come up to the hills all summer to see the cows and that there has never been an incident of a person being charged. We took some comfort from this, but the fear was still too recent for us to completely disregard it. The good news was that we were safe and back on the road to Sezze. It was now quite late – almost 5pm. If we went directly to the hotel we should arrive by 6.30. There would unfortunately be no time to see the town of Sezze, but as it would have been necessary to climb into the hilltop town, we not too reluctantly elected to stay on the plain and walk around the base of the hill to our hotel which lay just on the other side.
We arrived at the hotel quite worn out and found Claire looking fresh and rested, having arrived hours before. We were all eager to have an early dinner and so agreed to meet at 7.30pm in the hotel restaurant. There was a lot to process from the day and to relate to Claire. This was sensibly done with some bottles of wine and what seemed to be endless courses. Even after three courses our waiter presented us with a plate of friend dough drizzled with Nutella. Just when we thought we couldn’t manage a bite more we were devouring the delicious treat. We deserved it after all!
Day 5: Sezze to Fossanova (22.2km/ 13.8 miles)
It felt like our journey had only just begun, yet we were now so close to our destination. We were about to descend to the Pontine Plain where we would be able to walk for the remaining two days on the Via Francigena of the South. The first part of the day we had to decide whether to descend from the mountains on a path that had recently been signed, or to the take the road that had a few sharp bends. At first we tried the path, as it is usually preferable to be off the roads, but after a few minutes we realised the path was not maintained and as soon as I saw cactus I advised the group that we should take the road. Our legs had suffered enough on the trip from pruned branches on the path on day two, and bramble-covered paths on day 3, I was not about to start making my way through cactus! The road turned out to have little traffic and had good visibility. We reached the plain therefore, without incident. The route continued on farm tracks and alongside canals through quite scrubby landscapes but which still had lovely views of the mountains. When the path was sheltered the heat became intense, but as soon as there was an opening a wonderful breeze that carried the smell of the sea came to cool us off. One of the main features of the area was a hill in the distance with a small historic town perched on top. This was Priverno, the first stop of the day. It required a little climb to reach it, but it was entirely worth the effort as we passed through the gates of the medieval town into the quiet streets of the historic centre.
I knew little of Priverno and so, like Sermoneta the day before, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover a quaint town with a beautiful piazza reminiscent of Tuscany or Umbria. Looking forward to some reprieve from the direct sun and some refreshment we chose a café in the corner of the square where we could best admire the facades of the 12th century church of Santa Maria Annunziata, the Palazzo Comunale (the town hall), and Palazzo Valeriani – Guarini – Antonelli dating to the 13th century. After a brief break I was quite interested to explore what the town had to offer, including the archaeological museum, which housed many of the finds from the Roman archaeological site of Privernum located in the valley below the medieval descendent Priverno. Karl, who shared my interest in ‘old stuff’ as the group had started to categorize the many historic sites we had encountered on the route, followed me across the square to the museum. We were the only ones there, but were both impressed by the archaeological remains displayed over three floors. It was clear that great care and investment had been made in interpretation of the displays, which few museums in Rome could rival. It was also apparent that the museum catered to local tourism, no doubt principally school groups, as the displays were only in Italian. Unfortunately, in a country that has so much to offer the foreign tourist, there were few who would venture to this corner of Lazio, despite the many remarkable treasures it held.
With our cultural visits complete and our appetites satisfied we decided to press on for the last 10 km to our destination of the Abbey of Fossanova, despite the now intense heat of the sun. Once we had descended from Priverno we returned to the path alongside a canal which brought us into the park of San Martino. The area was clearly a haven for wildlife, as we spotted an otter in the canal and the air was full of the sounds of various species of birds and the mating calls of frogs. A large tree by the canal offered some shade for one more break before we came into sight of the magnificent Abbey. The Cistercian abbey, whose name has the unromantic meaning of ‘new canal, sits on the site of a Roman Republican villa which was later converted into a Benedictine monastery. The land was given to the Cistercians in 1135 who built the ‘new canal’ to drain a nearby swamp. The Abbey is a wonderful example of Cistercian architecture and is similar in construction of the Clairvaux Abbey in France. I had passed the Abbey of Clairvaux while walking on the Via Francigena in 2015, but as it has been a high-security prison since the French Revolution, I was unable to visit the buildings. There is the possibility for a guided tour, but this was not a convenient option for a tired pilgrim who had just emerged from being lost in the nearby woods. That however, was a very different experience to what I had in Fossanova. The grounds of the Abbey felt abandoned. The only signs of life were a few Italians sitting on a wall and some white doves perched above the entrance. Walking into the vast space of the nave felt like going back in time. Any moment you expected to hear the chants of the Cistercian monks reverberate through the building so carefully designed for its acoustics. I have been in many churches in my life, but few have filled me with such a sense of peace as I experienced in the Abbey of Fossanova. I drifted from the church to the cloisters, and out into the garden to the hospital where St. Thomas Aquinas died in 1274, having fallen ill while on his way to Lyon from Naples. I had been advised by Marco Aguiari to visit the Medieval museum of the Abbey where I could see pilgrim badges of those unlucky travellers who, like St. Thomas, had died at the Abbey. The museum however, was closed. Not surprising when the Abbey was completely deserted.
It was time to pull myself out of the reverie the Abbey had inspired in me, and think ahead to how we would reach our accommodation for the evening. There were limited options in Fossanova and so I had booked the group into two different B&Bs, which I now realized were both located up an incredibly steep and windy road. I took out my phone and put my trust in the kindness of strangers to help us reach the comfort and security of our accommodation. The first B&B was run by Marcelle, a lovely lady originally from Normandy, who said she wouldn’t hesitate to come and collect us from the Abbey, but unfortunately her husband was out with the car. There were no local taxi companies, so I tried the next B&B. Vincenzo of Casale Madeccia was quick to find a solution to our dilemma. He volunteered to come and collect us with two cars and promised to arrive in 20 minutes. My faith had paid off, and with a sigh of relief I joined the rest of the group who were seated at a café enjoying an aperitivo. Soon Vincenzo was there with his wife Llenia to whisk us off to the comforts of our B&Bs. They dropped myself and Claire at Marcelle’s B&B first, and then brought the rest of the group to their own wonderful B&B which they ran in addition to a thriving olive oil business. Their kindness however, didn’t stop there, as they also provided a taxi service to the nearby town of Sonnino, which sits high up in the mountains, so that we could all have dinner together in a pizzeria. This area is not a place you can live in without a car! Without Vincenzo and Llenia I’m not sure how we would have managed that night in Fossanova.
Day 6: Fossanova to Terracina (20.6km/12.8 miles)
On our last day walking the Via Francigena of the South we awoke in two different B&Bs sitting up high in the mountains above Fossanova. In order to return to the starting point at the Abbey we were once more indebted to Vincenzo, who managed to fit all eight of us and our rucksacks into his pickup truck. By 7.30 am we were in front of the Abbey, taping feet and filling up water, ready to walk the last 20 km to Terracina. We began by once more following a canal bordered by poppies, which after a few kilometres merged onto a road. We would walk on roads for the rest of that morning, but for the most part they were quiet country roads. Apart from the towering mountains to our left the landscape was quite featureless until we neared Terracina. Alongside the road to our left appeared large chunks of ruins at regular intervals, and on our right, was a covered aqueduct. We were back on the ancient Via Appia, the road that connected Rome to Terracina from 312 BC. Terracina was now in view, as was the sea beyond. We were so close, but the heat drove us into the shade of some olive trees to restore our strength and to hydrate before covering the last few kilometres into the historic centre. As soon as we passed the town gate, on which was inscribed S.P.Q.T ‘S(enatus) P(opulus)q(ue) T(arracinensis)’ – a variation of S.P.Q.R. of Rome – we were confronted with the town’s ancient origins. Like walking into an archaeological site, there were columns rising from high podiums, the ancient gate into what was once the forum beckoned us through, depositing us back onto the original paving stones of the Via Appia. Walking on those ancient stones provided the perfect sense of completeness to our 6-day pilgrimage from Rome. We ended as we had started – on the Roman road that had been built 2,300 years ago to connect Rome to Tarracina. The first road of many that would extend from the city to bring distant places and cultures closer to Rome, including places such as Durovernum (Canterbury) where my journey had started two years ago.
Our journey was over, but not our adventures. We had the evening and next morning to enjoy the coastal town of Terracina, with its ancient sites and long sandy beaches before returning to Rome. After lunch at a seaside café, dips in the hotel pool or the sea it was time to bid farewell to two of our walking companions. Isabelle and Fabrice, who had brought their good humour, acute observations and positive attitudes to our camino were returning to Rome that evening. It was a heartfelt goodbye, but I was sure that our paths would cross again very soon. The Via Francigena had brought us together each year for the past three years, surely it would grant us a fourth, or who knew how many more wonderful experiences together.
Having fallen into the rhythm of waking early and setting out most of the group felt motivated to rise early the next morning to walk up to the Temple of Jupiter Anxur, whose 12 arches of the large crytoporticus are visible for miles. I imagined the temple, now no longer standing, must have made a similar impression as the Parthenon in Athens, sitting high up on the cliff, stark white against the blue sky. The awe it must have inspired to those approaching Terracina by road or by sea. The climb along the windy road took over an hour. We passed several ruined towers that were once part of the city walls that had surrounded the town below and the temple complex above. The ruins of the temple are now part of a park that protects the natural heritage of the area as well as the ancient remains. The views of the sea stretching out to the hazy horizon was incredible. We happily wandered around the park for an hour, taking in both the history and scenery. I stood on the terrace created by the crytoporticus that once supported the temple and looked to the south. I could see where the Via Francigena continued, first to Fondi, then Formia, then on and on to other Roman towns such as Benevento and finally to Brindisi. This was not the end of the journey, but a new beginning!