Come walk with me in beautiful Italy in 2017!

ItalyTrips

Via Francigena route in red pins, Via di Francesco in blue (Florence to Assisi) and purple (Assisi to Rome).

Over the last years I’ve come to understand how much fun it is to be a pilgrim walker — to me it’s travel at its best. But over the last months I’ve come to understand how much fun it is to be a pilgrim leader. By the end of September I will have led a couple of dozen people on pilgrimage adventures from Assisi to Rome, and it’s a total blast! I love watching people accomplish things they never dreamt they could, and see things they never imagined they would see.

So this year I made a big decision. I’ve decided to work with an Italian tour company to put together a series of package pilgrim itineraries in 2017 that will allow people to join me on what I consider to be the two great pilgrimage routes of Central Italy: the Via Francigena and the Via di Francesco.

I’ve come to love both of these Italian cammini over the last couple of years. My book, The Way of St Francis: From Florence to Assisi and Rome is the sole English-language guidebook for the Via di Francesco, and I’ve researched it in-depth and walked it several times over the last three years. It’s a green and scenic walk, punctuated with historical, artistic and gastronomical treasures. Then, just this year, I walked from Piacenza through Lucca and Siena on the Via Francigena, also a beautiful and historic route with world-class wonders of its own.

So my question is: “Wanna walk with me in Italy in 2017?” I’ve posted my schedule below and I invite you to come along on any or all of these five package itineraries. They offer potential pilgrims short or long walking opportunities along these scenic and historic pilgrim trails. The benefit is that my Italian tour company and I will make all the overnight and food arrangements along the way in convenient hotels and agriturismos, we will guide you in preparation and packing and then I will accompany you so you won’t have to worry about directions or translations. We will also have a daily baggage service which allows you to carry only a light day pack. Your job is to walk, discover, and enjoy. The trip will be limited to no more than 10 in a group, and a key consideration is that pilgrims walkers must be fit and healthy enough for what are often challenging days of trekking.

Here are your 2017 options:

July 1-8, 2017: Lucca to Siena on the Via Francigena*

The bookends of this adventure are two of Italy’s most beloved and historic towns — Lucca and Siena. In between are historic towns in their own right, like the towered city of San Gimignano and the walled hill town of Monteriggioni. Unforgettable scenery nearly every day through the heart of Tuscan hill country.

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Lucia’s cathedral facade.

  • Day 1 – Gather, tour, overnight in Lucca
  • Day 2 – Lucca to Altopascio
  • Day 3 – Altopascio to San Miniato
  • Day 4 – San Miniato to Gambassi Terme
  • Day 5 – Gambassi Terme to San Gimignano
  • Day 6 – San Gimignano to Monteriggioni
  • Day 7 – Monteriggioni to Siena
  • Day 8 – Tour of Siena
  • This trip can be paired with the following trip for a Lucca to Siena to Rome itinerary

July 9-21, 2017: Siena to Rome on the Via Francigena*

Siena’s cathedral is one of Italy’s treasures and the charming town is filled with art and architecture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Climb to the castle at Radicofani on a day of stunning scenery. Look out from Montefiascone’s Pilgrim Tower over Lake Bolsena and then enjoy pleasant and picturesque Italian villages before making your triumphal entry into Rome.

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Piazza del Campo in Siena.

  • Day 1 – Gather, overnight in Siena (optional Siena tour)
  • Day 2 – Siena to Buonconvento
  • Day 3 – Buonconvento to San Quirico d’Orcia
  • Day 4 – San Quirico d’Orcia to Radicofani
  • Day 5 – Radicofani to Acquapendente
  • Day 6 – Acquapendente to Bolsena
  • Day 7 – Bolsena to Montefiascone
  • Day 8 – Montefiascone to Viterbo
  • Day 9 – Viterbo to Vetralla
  • Day 10 – Vetralla to Capranica
  • Day 11 – Capranica to Campagnano di Roma
  • Day 12 – Campagnano di Roma to La Storta
  • Day 13 – La Storta to the Vatican

July 23-August 7, 2017: Assisi to Rome on the Via di Francesco*

Few Italian towns are as beloved as historic Assisi which holds the birthplace and final resting place of St. Francis and his friend, St. Clare. Explore quiet hill towns and majestic panoramas on a trek through beautiful Spoleto and Nera Valleys of Umbria and Sabine region of Lazio. End with a joyful entry into the unsurpassed Eternal City of Rome.

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The Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi

  • Day 1 – Gather, tour, overnight in Assisi
  • Day 2 – Assisi to Spello
  • Day 3 – Spello to Trevi
  • Day 4 – Trevi to Spoleto
  • Day 5 – Spoleto to Macenano
  • Day 6 – Macenano to Arrone
  • Day 7 – Arrone to Piediluco
  • Day 8 – Piediluco to Poggio Bustone
  • Day 9 – Poggio Bustone to Rieti
  • Day 10 – Rieti rest day (optional Greccio, Fontecolombo and city tour)
  • Day 11 – Rieti to Poggio San Lorenzo
  • Day 12 – Poggio San Lorenzo to Ponticelli
  • Day 13 – Ponticelli to Montelibretti
  • Day 14 – Montelibretti to Monterotondo
  • Day 15 – Monterotondo to Monte Sacro
  • Day 16 – Monte Sacro to the Vatican

September 3-10, 2017: Florence to della Verna on the Via di Francesco*

After enjoying the capital of the Renaissance we figuratively step back in time to ancient forests and monasteries of the Middle Ages. The beautiful Casentino National Forest is the setting and St Francis’s beloved Santuario della Verna atop serene Mount Penna with its active Franciscan convent is the goal. This is a challenging itinerary and includes mountain hiking in the Central Apennine range.

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Florence’s famed Duomo and Baptistery

  • Day 1 – Gather, tour, overnight in Florence
  • Day 2 – Florence to Pontessieve
  • Day 3 – Pontessieve to Consuma
  • Day 4 – Consuma to Stia
  • Day 5 – Stia to Camaldoli
  • Day 6 – Camaldoli to Badia Prataglia (or Santicchio)
  • Day 7 – Badia Prataglia (or Santicchio) to Santuario della Verna
  • This trip can be combined with the following trip for a Florence to Assisi itinerary or can be combined with the following two trips for a Florence to Assisi and Rome itinerary.

September 10-19, 2017: Santuario della Verna to Assisi on the Via di Francesco*

From the heights of Tuscany to the fields and forests of Umbria we enjoy sites off the tourist track. Gubbio, a pristine medieval town, is the centerpiece while Assisi is the crown. In between are blue lakes, fields of sunflowers and vast forests of pine and oak. Each night features another gastronomical delicacy from the rustic Italian kitchens of the Valtiberina and Valdichiascio regions.

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Palazzo dei Consoli in Gubbio

  • Day 0 – Optional tour of Santuario della Verna
  • Day 1 – Santuario della Verna to Pieve Santo Stefano
  • Day 2 – Pieve Santo Stefano to Sansepolcro
  • Day 3 – Sansepolcro to Citerna
  • Day 4 – Citerna to Citta di Castello
  • Day 5 – Citta di Castello to Pietralunga
  • Day 6 – Pietralunga to Gubbio
  • Day 7 – Gubbio to Biscina
  • Day 8 – Piscina to Valfabbrica
  • Day 9 – Valfabbrica to Assisi
  • Day 10 – Assisi tour (overnight option)
  • This trip can be paired with the following trip for a Santuario della Verna to Assisi to Rome itinerary

September 20-October 5: Assisi to Rome on the Via di Francesco*

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Me with two Italian pilgrim friends entering Rome.

The two capitals of pilgrimage in Italy are Assisi, home to St. Francis and St. Clare, and Rome, home to Sts. Peter and Paul and a panoply of others. This itinerary links Assisi and Rome in a green and beautiful walk of sixteen days through Umbria and Lazio and enters busy Rome along a scenic and quiet bicycle trail.

  • Day 1 – Gather Assisi (tour option)
  • Day 2 – Assisi to Spello
  • Day 3 – Spello to Trevi
  • Day 4 – Trevi to Spoleto
  • Day 5 – Spoleto to Macenano
  • Day 6 – Macenano to Arrone
  • Day 7 – Arrone to Piediluco
  • Day 8 – Piediluco to Poggio Bustone
  • Day 9 – Poggio Bustone to Rieti
  • Day 10 – Rieti rest day (optional Greccio, Fontecolombo and city tour)
  • Day 11 – Rieti to Poggio San Lorenzo
  • Day 12 – Poggio San Lorenzo to Ponticelli
  • Day 13 – Ponticelli to Montelibretti
  • Day 14 – Montelibretti to Monterotondo
  • Day 15 – Monterotondo to Monte Sacro
  • Day 16 – Monte Sacro to the Vatican

So what’s next?

Drop me a line and let me know which of these — or which combination of these — are interesting to you. I’ll stay in touch as we get pricing and additional details. And one other little prize: Theresa and I are also putting together a two-week “stay-cation” in August 2017 at a lovely Umbrian guest house from which we’ll take day trips to artistic, historic and gastronomic sites. More details to follow. Hope you can join in the fun!

*Itineraries are tentative and subject to change. Pricing information to follow.

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Lake Bolsena along the Via Francigena.

Latest book updates and important news from the Via di Francesco

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Russell Jackson’s guidebook at the end of his Way of St Francis pilgrimage, as seen in his post on the Way of St Francis (official group) page on June 12, 2016.

As The Way of St Francis: From Florence to Assisi and Rome enters the heart of its inaugural pilgrimage walking season it’s been an exercise in joy (and a little worry) to watch pilgrims from all over the world use this new resource as they make their way on the Via di Francesco in Italy. On our Facebook group — which has become a gathering place for over 400 pilgrims to share questions and stories about their present, past and future pilgrimage adventures — I’ve enjoyed celebrating pilgrim achievements and wincing at the occasional pitfall. What I’ve learned is that the trail is ever-changing due to weather and human-made changes, that it’s vitally important for pilgrims to follow the directions (!) and that pilgrim guidebooks are a group effort. The book really benefits from pilgrims’ actual experiences and I’ve taken many suggestions to heart in the new update I’ve prepared. So, make sure to follow the directions — and then send me your suggested book updates.

If you’re planning to walk in 2016, please download and use this update. The update will also soon be available on the book’s Cicerone page. Here you go:

Author Update June 2016

Highlights of the update:

  • Credential and testimonium — important new information about how to receive these.
  • Additional directions for Pieve Santo Stefano to Sansepolcro — a logging operation has obscured the path and pilgrims have reported difficulty in the 500m after the Euro Hotel. These new directions should reduce confusion.
  • Lodging updates throughout.

Now for the important news. We have learned from pilgrim stewards in Umbria the very good news that this year the Via di Francesco route in Umbria will be combined with the route of Di Qui Passo San Francesco (sometimes known as “Angela’s Route”). This means that the large blue/yellow signs for the Via di Francesco and the painted yellow “Tau” signs for Di Qui Passo will be replaced with new way mark signs all throughout Umbria. In most cases the routes are already identical, but in some cases the two routes have diverged. Most importantly, the “Challenging Route” on Mount Subasio between Assisi and Spello will be replaced with Angela’s route. The “easy route” remains the same. Also, our guidebook’s route on the bike path between Trevi and Spoleto will become a formal, way marked, option for pilgrims who want to save a day and don’t mind missing Poreta. After Spoleto, the Via di Francesco route, which our guidebook follows, becomes the sole route and Angela’s route will be mothballed. We will post updates on the revised, combined route as we receive them from Umbria. It’s outstanding news that these routes will be combined. The fact that Italian pilgrim stewards are becoming more united in their trail markings is great news for pilgrims from all nations.

I’m in love with Italy, and other closing thoughts on VF 2016

Roman street utility cover. Somehow even covered in grime there’s a certain majesty to it.

In 500 kilometers I walked less than a third of the 1700 km Via Francigena. I missed the days in England (though I visited Dover and Calais last year), all of famously unmarked France, expensive but beautiful Switzerland, and the mountainous northern stretches of Italy. But I did enough to confirm that the Via Francigena (VF) is one amazing walk.

What surprised me most was that the VF track stops at some surprisingly lovely and memorable towns. I’d expected to enjoy Lucca, Siena and San Gimignano. I didn’t realized I’d also fall in love with lesser known places like Piacenza and Monteriggioni and San Miniato and Formello. In fact, if an Italian town has an old quarter —  a centro storico — I fall for it and I fall hard. Even industrial Viterbo, which I was ready to hate, has a charming center made of labryntine streets with little cafes and piazze that lend it that same irresistible charm.

And even Rome. It happened again as I was walking through Piazza del Popolo onto Via del Corso on my way to do some shopping. I suddenly remembered I love this town too. I mean, I love it.

When I came to Rome the first time it was on a bus tour. We were driven in and out of town as quickly as possible with warnings of “watch out for gypsies!” ringing in our ears. I can’t say I ever saw a gypsy, but I did get the impression that Rome was not a nice or friendly place. It wasn’t until I discovered Trastevere in April that I saw Rome’s softer side.

What I saw in that charming Rome neighborhood was a Roman version of Italian village life, the relaxed and intimate daily routine that puts your life into the lap of your neighbor. You open your shutters in the morning and your across-the-street neighbor waves as she’s beating out her rug. You water the plants on your terrace and your behind-you neighbor asks if you’re going to the outdoor market later. You see the same people each day at the market and the cafe and the post office and the concert. You welcome the tiny intrusions into your privacy, knowing you are part of each other’s story.

Italy does community so much better than America. Italians are very critical of their own country, but they’ve got an ingredient that we lost years ago with a suburbanization that is buried deeply under a thick layer of cocooning in front of the TV. As much as we love our privacy I believe we isolated Americans would love true community even more. This the kind of lifestyle we were made for, and even the gaping tourists are charmed by it.

That’s not to say Italy is flawless. I admit to making a rude gesture or two into the rear view mirrors of Italian drivers who nearly ran me down on the thin white line that doesn’t suffice for a sidewalk. I found restaurant prices around famous landmarks in Siena and Rome to be fabulously unreasonable. Too much cigarette smoke in lovely outdoor cafes. Too few healthy food options for breakfast and lunch. Still, I love Italy, and the VF was one good, long baptism into its beauties.

I promised folks I would give an overview of the trip along with some brief commentary on lodging, which is all very helpful for me since otherwise it all becomes a blur. Here you go:

0. April 25-26 Arrive Piacenza and rest day. Overnights Domus San Martino. A nice little boutique hotel in a very charming Italian town. I chose to start in Piacenza due to its favorable rail connections and proximity to a major airport (Milan) near the northern stretches of the VF.

1. April 27 Piacenza to Fiorenzuola d’Arda (32km). Overnight Ostello Parrochia San Fiorenza. I was alone in this very basic, donativo hostel of about six beds above the school yard. I learned that this stretch of the VF is quite flat, mostly in asphalt, well-marked but somewhat monotonous.

2. April 28 Fiorenzuola d’Arda to Fidenza (22.5km). Overnight Affitecamere al Duomo, a private guesthouse with simple bedrooms and shared kitchen and bath. On this day I injured my right ankle and had a painful walk to get into Fidenza across miles of asphalt, zigzagging through the countryside to avoid the busier roads. A seldom discussed disadvantage of asphalt walking is the “crown” of paved roads, which are designed to drain water to the edges. Walking all day against traffic, as is recommended, means repetitive stress from the road camber, which I think exacerbated my foot problem.

0. April 29-30 Parma rest and recuperation days. Overnights Astoria Residence Hotel. I limped to this budget hotel by the train station and learned my actual townhouse-sized room was in another building about a half mile away. Fortunately the hotel had loaner bikes, and an old one-speed became my ticket to mobility. Parma is very nice. And the cheese…..

3. May 1 – Train to Sarzana; Walk Sarzana to Avenza. Overnight B&B Giardino Antico. Still favoring my foot, I wasn’t quite ready to head back to a hostel. Once I found this little B&B with its friendly and helpful hostess, I was very happy with my choice.

4. May 2 – Avenza to Pietrasanta. Overnight Ostello San Pietro — basic, but one of the few hostels on the VF with a green lawn. Another cute, small Italian town. This one sporting a large and sunny piazza.

5. May 3 – Pietrasanta to Lucca. Overnight Ostello Misericordia, Lucca. Such a long walk into Lucca, and the VF frustratingly skipped nearby neighborhoods with cafes and stores. Nice hostel with double rooms and a kitchen.

0. May 4 – Rest Day in Lucca. Overnight Camere con Visto. Since hostels allow pilgrims only a one night stay, I booked a room at this great little spot very near the Duomo and across from one of Lucca’s top restaurants. I felt a little guilty about a rest day in Lucca, but I loved the town and am glad I tarried there.

6. May 5 – Lucca to Altopascio. Overnight Ostello Cavallieri di Tau. Once I found the hostel it was back to the library to check in and get keys. Here the old piazze seem deserted and the action takes place out in the new piazza with all the cars. A great bakery there, though, with a cafe that opens at 04:00 and good wifi.

7. May 6 – Altopascio to San Miniato. Overnight Convento San Francesco at San Miniato Alto. Even with GPS working I found it difficult to locate this convent. Once I found it though it was a charming arrangement, with pilgrim rooms right above the cloister. There’s a nice sense of community with the friars and their volunteers, but I never did have time to climb the big tower that can be seen for many miles.

8. May 7- San Miniato to Gambassi Terme – Ostello Sigerico. Though a mile shy of the actual town, the deficit was made up by the excellent volunteer hospitaleri and the detailed tour of the adjoining historic church. Two bars catering to pilgrims, the first with some crazy good calzones.

9. May 8 – Gambassi Terme to San Gimignano – Monastero San Girolamo. I got the feeling that the town’s other pilgrim hostel was the happening place, but I scored a private room here and had a good conversation in Italian with the smart and friendly head nun.

10. May 9 – San Gimignano to Monteriggioni — Castello Casa per Ferie Santa Maria Assunta. This hostel is the only show in town, and if the priest is away, getting a key to it is no easy feat. Once in, it was a perfect place to rest and enjoy the tiny, walled village with its two cafes. Remember that there’s no store in town and the cafes open late.

11. May 10 – Monteriggioni to Siena — La Mercato B&B. I never liked hostels in big cities, so I booked this B&B just off the Piazza del Campo. It was a good find in spite of the chilly breakfast attendant. Siena’s cathedral? One of the most spiritual places I’ve ever been.

12. May 11 – Siena to Ponte d’Arbia — Hostel at Centro Cresti. The only lodging mistake I made. I switched rooms because I believed the floor under me might literally cave in. The hostel itself sits right on a highway and the only access to town is across a dangerous bridge. Next time I will walk the few extra km to Buonconvento, a charming town with more to do and see, whose hostel just had to be better.

13. May 12 – Ponte d’Arbia to San Quirico d’Orcia — La Palazzuolo Hotel. With wet boots and rain gear I was in no mood for another hostel, and I can’t believe I found this room in a nice hotel above the historic center for €50. Everything was dry by morning!

14. May 13 – San Quirico d’Orcia to Radicofani — Ospedale degli Santi Pietro e Giacomo. After the tortuous climb up to Radicofani the hostel was a delight. Within minutes of calling the number on the hostel door I was met by my host and led into the centrally located and historic building. Two bathrooms, plus a small kitchen.

15. May 14 – Radicofani to Acquapendente — Quasi Toscana B&B. Friendly Roberta was my hostess and her guest room had the personal touch of someone who takes pride in her home. I’m glad I arrived in time for the Infiorata, but sad the displays were rained out.

16. May 15 – Acquapendente to Bolsena — Casa Preghiera di Santa Cristina. Everyone else opted for the other hostel in town, ending up sleeping on mattresses on the floor. So this entire hostel was shared by just three of us. Nice hostess, good bathroom and kitchen facilities.

17. May 16 – Bolsena to Viterbo — Overnight in Piegaro. After walking the 30ish km to Viterbo I hopped on the train to my friends’ house near Lago Trasimeno. If you’re looking for a central place to park yourself while touring Umbria, choose the Antica Vetreria in Piegaro. Tell them Sandy sent you.

0. May 17 – Rest day, Piegaro. Overnight B&B Orchard, Viterbo. This was a true gem, and the host, Matteo, was beyond nice. Located in the old city, it was a good home base to explore Old Viterbo.

18. May 18 – Viterbo to Sutri. Overnight Hotel Sutrium. Just off the main piazza, I scored with a room facing the back side. Very basic, but handy and comfortable enough. Because I forgot to pay before I left and the hotel owners didn’t know how to make my credit card info work via telephone it took awhile to sort out the bill. Since I can’t do an IBAN transfer like a European I asked my friend Sebastian in Cologne to send the money via his account. Lesson: even if you give your credit card on booking.com don’t assume the hotel has used it to bill you.

19. May 19 – Sutri to Formello. Overnight La Francigena Casa Vacanza. I loved this little house. Right on the trail in the pedestrian zone. Heated. I had a hot bath!

20. May 20 – Formello to Vaticano. Overnight Air BnB. Everything was full by the time I started looking, and I was surprised to discover that Rome’s pilgrim hostel does not take reservations. You’re supposed to show up at 15:00 and stand in line for a bed. Knowing I’d be late after a long walk I took the safe route and found a place on AirBnB.

A note about Guidebooks: I came to Italy armed with every English language guidebook I could find, all of which fit neatly inside my phone.

I expected the Lightfoot guide to be most helpful, but then came to realize it is purely directional guidance and accommodation listings with scant information about historic towns or buildings. It’s like being told how to get there, but not knowing where you are once you arrive.

I found the Cicerone guide by Alison Raju to be difficult to read in its Kindle form and understood its layout better when I peeked at a hard copy. Alison’s place descriptions are unparalleled and alone make purchase of her guidebook worthwhile.

The SloWays App is an extremely helpful tool, connecting GPS guidance with downloadable maps. Sadly, my phone’s GPS function failed, so the app became almost useless. The daily descriptions are so vague as to be pointless, and SloWays sticks slavishly to the official route adding unnecessary km to the unwary pilgrim.

I ended up relying mostly on the somewhat obscure (for non-Italians) Terre di Mezzo guide. It is unafraid of route-shortening options, has passable directions, and includes interesting historical info. The maps are not wonderful, but GPS tracks are available. After my phone broke I wished many times I had brought my GPS and Terre di Mezzo’s tracks.

And how did I do? I’m glad you asked! After recovering from my foot injury I chugged along pretty well. My last week was blister free once I learned the right formula for tying my boots. As always I lost weight and got too much sun. My rain gear was fine when I used it, but it’s uncomfortably hot, even on cool days, so I tend to avoid wearing it unless I absolutely must. This led twice to me getting my boots wet on the insides. Not good.

Once again, a true highlight was pilgrim friendships. There were few solitary walkers, though, and those who weren’t in couples were either slower (Mike) or faster (Paolo) than me. I leave you with these photos of pilgrim friends. Ciao!

Paradise. Hell. Heaven. Joy

Walking through the nature preserve at the start of the day in one word: Paradise.

Day 20: Formello to Vaticano — 35km (21.7 miles)

I arrived today in Rome, and rather than a long winded post I’ll share instead a series of photos and captions that describe the day.

I’d have happily spent more time in the pedestrian zone of lovely Formello., my home last night.

Stuck inside the stockades on the long and winding wrong road in paradise.

A pretty bridge in this paradise of a nature preserve. The only problem? I was lost.

Hell under the Umbrella Pines. Many long kilometers of walking on the road into Rome.

Two Dutch pilgrims at the overlook at Mons Gaudi. Very sweet, and generous with their fruit.

Can’t believe my luck. i’m walking to the Vatican to get my Testimonium just as pilgrim friends Roberto and Stefano are about to enter St Peter’s Square.

See the red/white marker in the pole? I followed these for 700 km to this, the last one before St Peter’s

They were out of blank Testimonia at the Pilgrim Office, so I convinced the official in the Sacristy to write mine by hand. He mispelled my name, but that makes this one even more special. Inside St Peter’s, designed as an image of Heaven on Earth.

Joy. A fantastic walk over many days. Full of memories.

From the ridiculous to the sublime

Leaving Sutri behind in the sunshine.

Day 19: Sutri to Formello — 30 km (18 miles)

At 10:30 today I made a choice that I immediately knew was a mistake. I said “no” to the simple question: shall I put my rain gear on? Within 10 minutes I was completely drenched, including inside my boots, which will take days to dry. The only good thing? Tomorrow is the last day I’ll need them.

This rainy cloudy day began in the sunshine. I was down at Hotel Sutrium’s breakfast room by 7:00 and helped myself to a breakfast of sweet bread, yogurt, juice and coffee, then I was out the door at 7:30, ready for another 30 km (18 mile) day.

The distance is a little longer than I’d rather walk, but after Viterbo there were 90 km left to go, which the guidebook split into days of 25, 25, 25 and 15 km. That meant four days for 90 km, which I was confident I could do in three days of 30. That’s eight hours per day of walking, but I’m in the groove and not really worried about the exertion.

Storm clouds gather.

The first part of the morning was spent on the trail to Monterosi, which was no real problem. As I arrived into town I was delighted to see Aura and Maribeth, two Dutch pilgrims I hadn’t seen since Sarzana, just getting ready to leave. As we said goodbye they asked which direction I was going and when I pointed up they hill they said, “Oh, you’re going on the road.”

I hadn’t really thought about that since I was just planning to follow the guidebook’s directions and make the distances as direct and short as possible. But before long, as predicted, there I was on the road.

By road I mean the Via Cassia, the same road followed in various forms by the Via Francigena for hundreds of kilometers from Northern Italy. I came to discover, though, that the Via Cassia this close to Rome is a four lane, access controlled freeway. Walking on the road would mean walking in the feeder/distributor lane next to the freeway, in tractor paths alongside the freeway, on old stretches of the former Via Cassia beside the freeway, and in some cases right next to the oncoming traffic on the freeway.

If it sounds perilous, believe me it was. But perilous became ridiculous when, walking alongside the freeway it started to rain. Cats and dogs rain. Buckets. Torrents.

And there I was, as the first raindrops fell, beside the highway having decided the rain wouldn’t last and — I would not put on my rain gear.

Any veteran long distance walker will tell you the biggest problem of rain is getting the insides of your boots wet. Wet boots mean wet feet. Wet feet mean blisters. And wet boots may stay wet for days if there’s not a good way to dry them out.

As the rain let up and I walked along the road to Campagnana di Roma I heard the fateful “squish, squish” of my feet inside my boots.

Well, I did have my sandals along. When I made it to Campagnana at about 1:00 I found a pizzeria near a cafe, settled down to a lunch of hot tea and pizza, took off my boots and socks, and let my feet sit in the breeze on the cold pavers of the piazza so they could dry. After lunch I put on my warmest wool socks and my sandals (deduct style points) and strapped my dripping boots onto the back of my pack.

Madonna della Sorba tower peeks through the trees.

Santuario Madonna della Sorba

 

And then everything about my day changed. The road between Campagnana and Formello was gentle and quiet, leading via the sanctuary of Madonna Della Sorba to the charming town of Formello where I’m spending the night. With the rain gone, my feet dry in my sandals and the road quiet and calm, my mind started to make a shift.

I started to enjoy the day. Then I went deeper. I started to enjoy the walk. Then my mind started to open up. I thought about this beautiful month I’ve had, and I gave thanks. I thought about Theresa, my beloved back home, and gave thanks. I thought about my kids and my old and new churches, about my friends and about many issues. And I felt a warmth coming over me, a sense of well being, of gratitude and joy.

The afternoon’s itinerary through the sanctuary takes the pilgrim into a deep, green valley surrounded by a deeper green valley contained inside a deep and green nature preserve. The sanctuary itself is a church that remembers a simple and unusual miracle from hundreds of years ago that goes like this:

A young swineherd with a mangled hand was out watching his pigs one day when he noticed one pig stray from the group, walk into the woods, and return an hour later. It did this each day until finally the boy decided to follow it to see what it was doing. He found it on its hind feet, standing up against the trunk of a sorba tree (hence the sanctuary’s name), worshiping at a small icon of the Virgin. The boy ran to the village to tell the people what he had seen. No one believed him, but when he put his mangled hand into his pocket, he pulled it out and discovered it was completely healed. The startled and suddenly convinced villagers built a shrine around the tree, and the icon worshiped by the pig hangs behind the altar of the church that remembers the miracle.

The long, quiet (and dry) walk to Formello.

So a day that started in a ridiculous manner ended up being one of the most precious. It turned from a mistake into a meditation. A little miracle of centuries ago and a quiet walk reminded me of the miracles in my own life. I had dipped myself into this quiet vale with its hidden shrine and when I came out I was restored.

In the apse, the original icon that spawned the miracle.

Climb a mountain to save a day

Looking down on Lago di Vico from Mt Fogliano

Day 18: Viterbo to Sutri — 29.4 km (18.3 miles)

As I was walking into Viterbo the other day I was stopped by a pilgrim returning from his walk to Rome. He had an important message to share with me as we looked out toward a view of Viterbo, some 10 km away. “Don’t take the shortcut over the mountain behind Viterbo,” he said as he pointed to the tall mountain behind Viterbo. “If you do, you’ll discover there’s an 800 meter climb.”

His words were very much on my mind today as I climbed the mountain behind Viterbo.

As I reviewed the guidebook it was like looking at a triangle. The official route follows the two smaller sides of the triangle, walking along the plain below the mountain. The shortcut, though, follows the hypotenuse. It is straighter and shorter from Point A (Viterbo) to Point B (Sutri). The only problem being there is a mountain in the way.

City gate of San Martin al Cimino.

I don’t mean to sound overconfident or arrogant, but after walking over 600 kilometers in the last weeks, I wasn’t going to let a mountain get in the way of saving a whole day’s walking.

Breakfast was set for 7:30 this morning at the B&B Orchard where I stayed, but since I was up at 6:00 I decided to head out anyway for an early start. By 7:00 I had already had breakfast at a nearby cafe, but when I returned for my things Matteo, my host, insisted I let him make me a sack lunch with the fresh bread he’d just picked up from the bakery. So armed with a cheese panino and apple, I set out for Sutri at 7:15.

A long and wide path in the forest.

The first kilometers were on pavement, followed by a narrow path, then pavement again to the little, walled village of San Martino al Cimino. Did I mention that was all uphill? After that it was up an asphalt road, then very steeply up a wide forest path, followed by moderately steeply up the wide forest path. The guidebook promised vistas of Lago di Vico below, which finally appeared some 8 km into the uphill path.

The forested path ended at a narrow asphalt road leading to the small town of Ronciglione, where I stopped for coffee and met a trio of Italian pilgrims from Padua.

A palazzo on the main piazza in Ronciglione.

Then it was a long downhill to Sutri, where I found my room and headed for a cafe to catch a quick panino before my shower.

In all it was 30 km over a mountain, eight hours of walking that were very much worth it since I’ll get to Rome a day earlier. Right now the plan calls for me to walk into St Peter’s Square on Saturday morning. But who knows. Maybe there’s another shortcut out there.

Entering the main piazza in Sutri.

Walking the Roman road to Rome

Roman road.

Day 17: Bolsena to Viterbo — 32.4 km (20.1 miles)

Last night I carefully planned my schedule for today. In order to catch the train to Piegaro to see Colleen and Tom Simpson from Seattle I’d need to be at the station in Viterbo at 4:00 this afternoon. At my walking rate of 4km an hour, factoring in breaks, I’d need to leave Bolsena at about 7:30 a.m. So I slipped out of bed at 6:30, was in the cafe at 7:00 for breakfast and was out the cafe door at 7:30. Just in time to walk eight solid hours with no diversions so I could catch the train.

As I headed out of Bolsena I thought I’d poke my head into the famous church where a miracle of communion had occurred. I walked across the piazza toward the church and a nun loudly shouted at me in Italian, “No, the Via Francigena is that way.” She pointed to a street across the piazza. “May I see the church before I go?” I asked in Italian. “Oh. There’s a mass in five minutes. This is the church of the miracle of holy communion.” And with that she ducked into a side chapel of the church where music had begun to play.

The Via Francigena is the other way, but I was glad to have a quiet moment in this beautiful church before beginning the day’s walk.

Her words were a reminder to me that today I would need to follow the guidebook’s directions very carefully. Any diversion could add distance and time to my walk. I’d also need to keep a steady and quick pace all through the day.

The walk started out on the auto road, then a few km later headed for the hills, where it stayed all the way to Montefiascone. With the exception of one  sketchy creek crossing the morning was simple and quick. I followed the signs as the guidebook instructed, but somehow ended up at the “if you have time you should go” place listed in the directions.


Fortunately, the diversion was the Rocca di Papi, a hill above Montefiascone with spectacular views of the area, including the entirety of Lake Bolsena, as far north as the castle at Radicofani and west all the way to the sea. And the weather was perfect to see it all.

This picture cannot do justice to the amazing views from Rocca di Papi.

Nor can this one.

The excursion up to the Rocca cost me an extra 30 minutes, so as I walked briskly ahead, I started to calculate the remaining distance against the remaining time.

Thank heavens the road was a good one. As it happens, the Romans had built it nearly 2000 years ago. Their roads were built to last, with deep foundations and careful engineering to ensure a long life. The strip between Montefiascone and Viterbo is the original Via Cassia that essentially I’ve been following for three weeks. They now call it the Via Cassia Antica. As I walked it I watched for grooves in the stones, sure signs of countless carts carrying goods back and forth to the capital of the empire.

Once off the Roman road the last kilometers seemed interminable, as usually is the case with last kilometers. I arrived in town, snapped a couple of photos, and found a bar with a stamp for my credential. After finding the train station I had an hour left over. Credit in part should go to the workers and planners who built the road so many years ago.

City gate. Viterbo.