Final Wrap-Up of Cammino di San Francesco 2013

May 30, 2013 — Rome

20130530-184257.jpgOur last full day together in Rome –goofing off in front of Trevi Fountain
It’s been an amazing camino, with the best as always being the times spent with fellow pilgrims. I’d happily walk anywhere in the world with Sebastian, Jacqueline and Andreas. We’ve become a close family that has grown stronger through daily reliance on each other and mutual trust and affection. I’ll miss these three tomorrow when I head to the airport.

Last night was a highlight. A Seattle friend, AJ Boyd, is doing a doctorate at the Pontifical Institute here and is living in a church-owned residence just above the Colliseo. He invited us to join him for a walk in the gardens, for dinner there and to meet the community of lay students with whom he lives. We could immediately tell this was a dream of a place, and when we sat down with the 40 or so students for dinner we were all reminded of the blessing of community life. If I were a little earlier in my earthly pilgrimage I’d have to find a way to study in a place like that, with friends like those.

One of my reasons for blogging my caminos is to share with potential pilgrims the lessons I’ve learned in order to help them on their way. As I prepared for my first camino I appreciated online forums and camino seminars, but the most helpful and enjoyable lessons came from those who took time to write down their adventures and share them in books and blogs. Hence my daily blog posts, aimed toward friends and family, but also future pilgrims who one day will travel these paths.

In that spirit, here are some statistics, reflections and practical notes about our 2013 pilgrimage from Assisi to Rome.

Overall Statistics and Impressions
The walk from Assisi to Rome was 235 kilometers (146 miles), which we accomplished in 13 days of walking. For Camino de Santiago veterans, the 18 km/day average seems light, however this is a much more difficult walk, in terms of terrain, in directions and in lack of infrastructure. There are many very significant uphill/downhill stretches and the uphills in particular eat up the time. It was not unusual to have an 18 km day that took 8 hours to walk. We often compared the 690 meter ascent on the first day out of Assisi to the climb over the Route Napoleon that begins the Camino Frances, but in reality it is about half the elevation gain. Still, almost every day there were similar stretches, with the result that this camino feels more difficult. Basically a person climbs from mountain to mountain each day. In the first week, by the time you get to Piediluco, the boundary between Umbria and Lazio, you have climbed 2800 meters (roughly 8400 ft). This is Route Napoleon, Alto de Perdon and Cruce de Ferro all rolled into one week. The next two days after Piediluco feature nearly 1000 meters more to climb, which gets you to the halfway point between Assisi and Rome.

So, pilgrims should be prepared for an aggressive walk, more physically challenging than the Camino Frances, but with its own rewards, as I hope my daily reflections point out.

Daily Itinerary and Lodging
Here are the places where we stayed along the way. Note that in all cases, even the hostels, beds came with sheets and blankets. This allowed us to leave our sleeping bags at home, which helped us keep our pack weight quite low — mine was about 6 kilos (13 pounds).

Our lodgings ranged in price from 25e to 50e per person per night. Here are our overnights:

AssisiCamere Carli. This is a pensione near the top of the town, off Piazza San Rufino. Just below is a cute shop owned by the same man, and adjacent is a separate cafe for breakfast and snacks.

Spello — It’s nice to find something right on the trail, and that happened to us as we walked through Spello and foundĀ Il Cacciatore midway through town. This is a pleasant hotel with a great, green view to the south. The restaurant is super and rooms were pleasantly warm.

Trevi — As we walked into Trevi we had no idea where we’d stay, so we stopped at Tourist Info where we heard about a four-star hotel with a special room for pilgrims. Soon we were climbing the spiral staircase to our room at Hotel Antica Dimora alla Rocca. The young owners are doing a great job with this grand, old hotel.

Spoleto — Toward the top of town, just a block or two below the Duomo is Hotel Il Panciolle, where we had a nice view room and a fine dinner in the restaurant below. Unfortunately there was no heat in our room and no laundry service available. Still, we’d come back here again for location and to enjoy the nice staff.

Ceselli — This remote little town is a surprising place to end a stage of this camino since there is only a tiny store/bar open for only a few hours each day. There’s no hotel, but thank heavens there’s Case Vacanza Il Ruscello where the owners kindly drove us 4km to the next town so we could buy groceries to cook for ourselves.

Arrone — Again we had no idea where to stay, but when we asked for suggestions in this town where everyone was very helpful we were directed to the Case Vacanza Fiocchi where we were shown to an enormous 3-bedroom apartment at an excellent price. The staff washed our clothes and we hung them out to dry. A good night’s rest in our biggest accommodation of the camino.

Piediluco — We walked the entire length of this lakeside town before being referred to La Locanda dei Frati Hotel above the town’s main church. The hotel rose from the rubble of a medieval monastery, which gives it charm, and we enjoyed a delicious dinner in the hotel’s restaurant.

Poggio Bustone — The first actual hostel of our stay: La Locanda Francescana. Feliciano and his partner have a nice hostel and a good restaurant a few blocks away. Laundry service was available, but without a machine to dry. Without heat in the building that meant two days for our clothes to be ready to wear. Still, we loved the hospitality of our hosts and the cleanliness of this super hostel.

Rieti — Jacqueline went ahead by bus, so by the time the rest of us arrived she had us set up at the Grand Albergo Quattro Statione just off the main piazza. Breakfast in the morning included eggs — perhaps the best breakfast of our walk. And it was warm inside. The elegant style in this grand old building and the great location make it a winner.

Poggio San Lorenzo — We saw signs for many miles, then realized we should have immediatrly followed the arrows to Agriturismo Santa Giusta. This stone farmhouse a few kilometers from Poggio San Lorenzo has several rooms and a large dining room. The food was excellent but we wished for more heat as well as laundry service. The staff was very hospitable and this was only choice near PSL — so we took it and didn’t regret it.

Ponticelli (Salaria) — This is another example of lack of infrastructure on this camino. The stage ends at Ponticelli, a lovely town with no lodging options. Several agritourismos are within a few km of the main piazza, but we opted to catch a 15-minute car ride with our Dutch friend to the Salaria Hotel. Here we had access to heat, a laundromat and a nice restaurant. We liked the “hotel” experience after many days in farmhouses and hostels.

Monterotondo — While catching a quick gelato and wondering where we’d stay, a Google search led us to a delightful B&B just a few quick blocks from the main piazza. La Cupella has about four rooms, each with a renovated bathroom, and a great rooftop breakfast room with views of the town. Jacqueline loved having a heater that worked and everyone loved the showers.

Monte Sacro — The Domus Citta Giardino appeared on our left as we walked the last steps to the piazza in this Roman suburb. A relaxing garden, a nice shower, and a nearby laundromat made this a great choice.

Rome — Near the Vatican and reasonably priced, the Hotel Santa Maria Alle Fornaci met our needs very well. The dorm-like hotel is run by the Trinitarian Fathers and presents a Spartan but clean and handy option. The walk to the Vatican is just 10 minutes and a nice laundry within two blocks will wash your clothes.

In spite of the occasional lack of infrastructure we loved our Italian camino. In comparison with the Spaniards, the Italians have a higher quality standard for food and each day seemed like a new adventure in great cooking.

And of course we enjoyed becoming familiar with St Francis, the famous friar of Assisi. He daily reminded us of the life of trust and simplicity that leads to joy in the presence of God’s beautiful creation.
20130530-031208.jpgInterior of the Church of St John in the Lateran

20130530-031237.jpgFrancis monument opposite Lateran church

20130530-031304.jpgFour pilgrims in front of the Colisseo

Dancing to the Tomb of St Peter

May 28, 2013 — Monte Sacro to Vatican City

I was trying to describe to Sebastian this morning how I feel when I near a pilgrimage destination on foot. It’s happened all four times on the way to Santiago. I feel like I’m walking downhill and the forces of momentum and gravity are carrying me forward beyond my ability to control. When the end goal is less than a day away — even perhaps 40+ kilometres (25+ miles) — I can’t seem to stop. I have to go until I get there, no matter the cost.

I was trying to explain that this morning as Sebastian was trying to tell me in his kind way that I was stupid for wanting to walk all the way to Rome yesterday. We’d just finished a 28 km day. Why would I want to walk another 30 km right after?

When I woke up this morning, 15 km shy of Rome, there it was — that pull. I’d managed to subdue it yesterday, and wait with my friends to walk the remaining 15 km, but it expressed itself today in an almost manic happiness at breakfast, followed by a blistering pace with me in the lead for our first kilometers.

20130528-145521.jpgJacqueline found this, our first waymark of the day

We set out at 9:00 from our B&B in Monte Sacro and found our first waymark, a pitifully worn yellow marker on the sidewalk of the street corner a few blocks away. These painted waymarks usually are two squares, side by side, one with the image of St Peter’s keys, the other with the image of San Francesco’s hands lifted to the stars and birds. This pitiful waymark had definitely seen better days, but finding it was one of many little victories today that ended up leading us directly to the Vatican.
20130528-145945.jpgOur path followed the river through glades of bamboo

Whoever planned the pilgrim track into Rome clearly had a specific idea in mind — keep pilgrims near the parks and away from the traffic. That is precisely what they accomplished. Our path from Monte Sacro all the way to the Vatican was like a surgeon slicing through flesh but missing every vital organ. The very first Roman monument we would see, after walking all the way through the Eternal City, was St Peter’s Basilica. No Victor Emmanuel, no Pantheon, no Coliseum, no Spanish Steps. This neat task was accomplished by keeping us on a bike path past two huge Roman parks, then hugging the river as it winds its way through the city. We marked our progress by counting parks and bridges, and then in one surprising moment we looked across a riverbend and behold!, the Vatican. Gravity won, the inevitable, irresistible pull had tugged us to the goal. We had arrived — a day later than I might have if I’d been walking alone, but we had arrived, and together which is really the best way of all.
20130528-150025.jpgFollowing the bike paths by Rome’s big parks

The huge and diverse crowds around the entry to St Peter’s Square could not delay us as we elbowed our way toward our goal. As we stood in awe before the immense building we heard the sounds of English being spoken and asked for our photos to be taken before the church facade. Then we dropped our backpacks off at our nearby housing and returned to secure our final credential stamps and inspect the site.
20130528-150043.jpgAh, there it is!

After 30 minutes in the security line we were inside the Basilica, looking at our amazing surroundings then looking for the Sacristy where we would get our credential stamps. We were led back to a grand and ornate room where a man behind a desk stamped our pilgrim passports, then we headed out of the church to find where to get our “Testimonium,” the official completion certificate. We finally discovered the “afternoon location” of the office and, after our credentials were inspected, were assured our certificates would soon be in the mail.
20130528-150055.jpgPilgrims arrive at the tomb of St Peter

That left us an afternoon to relax and then our first of three evenings to enjoy the cuisine of this great city.

Tomorrow we will go to the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, the Victor Emmanuel Monument, the Coliseum, to my friend AJ’s community of scholars, and most importantly we will visit the Church of St John at the Lateran. This is where Francis of Assisi concluded his original Roman pilgrimage with his audience with the Pope and it is where we will pray and give our thanks and meditate on this amazing two weeks of walking in the footsteps of the simple man of Assisi.
20130528-181639.jpgThis beautiful church was always on my list to see.

20130528-235133.jpgMy pilgrim credential, with today’s stamp, final for this walk, in the lower right

First Views of Rome

May 27, 2013 — Monterotondo to Monte Sacro

Our B&B in Monterotondo won our hearts — space heaters in the rooms to get rid of the chill, warm showers and a rooftop breakfast room with views of the red tile roofs and TV antennas of this classic, Italian hill town.

After breakfast we headed down and out of town, following road names that remember saints like Santa Chiara and Catholic orders like Brothers Minor — just one more way Italy celebrates its Catholic heritage.

20130527-195444.jpgWay, way off in the distance: St Peter’s Basilica — 30 km away

The biggest part of our walk today was through a vast wildlife refuge on the outskirts of Monte Sacro. To get there, though, we had to successfully navigate two unusually difficult obstacles.

First, we arrived at the bottom of a hill where our gravel road took a hard right turn apparently through a series of farms. Oddly, the waymark sign pointed left instead of right. Andreas grabbed the sign and turned it on its mount so that the arrow on its back side pointed right. Then, believing we’d done future generations of pilgrims a big favor, we began walking that way. We then heard shouts from a man working in a field 50 meters away, “Go the other way,” he shouted, pointing to a field of tall grass with no apparent trail. We puzzled about our odd choice, then changed the sign back and plunged into the virgin field, finding a dim track of hardened earth beneath our feet. This invisible track carried us around the man’s farm and precisely to the correct location suggested on our map. Who knows where the “obvious” path would have taken us, but we were thankful for the man who encouraged us to follow the sign that seemingly led nowhere.

The second obstacle presented itself about 3km later. We followed a paved road that we were certain was our correct path until it ended in a “T” at a gravel road atop a hill. Momentarily we were distracted by what was obviously a distant view of Rome, crowned by Michelangelo’s dome at St. Peter’s. When we went to find our route, though, we realized that the gravel road ended both to the left and right at gates sternly marked “Private Property.” We stood befuddled for about 5 minutes, debating what to do, when a man smoking a cigar drove up in a black Mercedes and explained that our path was around the private gate at the right. While he unlocked the gate and drove through we ducked around the narrow opening on the right. Before long we were clearly back on track, but who would’ve guessed that a major pilgrim path would require a person to disregard a private property sign?

20130527-195559.jpgThree pilgrims, nearing Rome

After these obstacles we settled into a walker’s paradise — a gravel road through car-free wildlife refuge with crisp sunshine and mild temps. The reserve includes vast fields of red poppies, tall evergreen trees, and the soft sounds of the occasional burbling brook. These were among the most pleasant miles I’ve ever walked on any camino.
20130527-195653.jpgThree pilgrims ahead, getting close to Rome

All good things must end, and the wildlife area turned after several kilometers into the exurbs of Monte Sacro, which in reality are the ex- exurbs of Rome. Our gravel path became an asphalt road, and soon we were hopping on and off sidewalks at pedestrian crossings between zipping cars and motorcycles. The noise reminded us of how long we’ve been away from city life and how odd it feels to someone who hasn’t relied, if even just for two weeks, on the 2- and 4-wheeled conveyances that help us do our work and play and that unsettle and complicate our lives in so many ways.
20130527-195801.jpgChurch of Angelli Custodi, Monte Sacro

After a quick gelato at a strip mall cafe we trudged through the noisy streets toward the end of today’s stage, the Church of the Angelli Custodi. Just a few blocks before our goal we nearly walked right past a B&B which we would ultimately choose as our lodging for the evening. With a laundromat across the street and a pizza/rotisserie takeout a few blocks away we were set for a relaxing evening — our last night outside of Rome.

Our Italian Movie — “The Full Monte”

May 26, 2013 — Ponticelli to Monterotondo

Sebastian ended the night sad and Johann happy as the two finished their night by watching the European Team Championships in soccer. Powerhouse Munich was playing against Sebi’s team and it didn’t go that well for my dear friend’s soccer club.

By the morning Sebastian was over it, and after breakfast and a ride back to Ponticelli we were back on the trail.

Over dinner we, the original four, had decided to push on to Monterotondo today. This would mean a 28 km (17.5 mile) walk, but it would also get us into Rome a full day earlier than our original itinerary. Unfortunately it would also mean we would say “goodbye” to Johann, since he both was weary from yesterday’s walk and already had a reservation for Montelibretti, just 15 km ahead.

At 9:00, as we began, Johann came to understand what a determined group we can be when we have a challenging goal ahead. At Ponticelli we set a brisk pace up and down the requisite Italian hills, and by 11:00 we were already at the halfway point for Johann — the little town of Acquaviva. He wanted to stop there for a break so he wouldn’t grt into Montelibretti too early, but for us it was just too soon in the long day to pause. We exchanged phone numbers and said our goodbyes, with promises to get together in Rome in a few days. I think we all felt sad to let our new friend go, but it was easier knowing we’d see him in just a bit.

We set out for Montelibretti and, to our surprise, arrived at the base of the Montelibretti hill at about noon. By 12:15 we were in the main piazza of he town, enjoying the cheese, crackers, apples and bananas Sebastian and Andreas had purchased yesterday. We’d realized that most every Italian store would be closed today — Sunday — so the two loaded up on groceries for us in preparation for today’s lunch.

As we sat and enjoyed our simple meal I noticed another hill town off on the horizon and asked a dignified looking Italian gentleman if it was Monterotondo. “Yes,” he said, and then gave me driving directions for how to get there. I told him, in Spanish, that we were walking there today and his eyes widened in surprise. “It’s 15 kilometers,” he said. “Yep,” I replied in my best Span-talian, “we’re pilgrims to Rome.” Impressed, he tipped his hat and wished us a good trip.

Since we hadn’t done our push-ups, we did our three sets of 20 in the sunny piazza. Afterwards we headed down the nearby road which we followed out of town. The sun came out and a long afternoon of walking followed.

By 3:00 we were all beginning to drag somewhat, so since we were on a quiet road between farms we simply laid out a picnic spread in a shady spot under an old oak tree and enjoyed the leftover cheese, crackers and fruit. A half hour later we were back on the road to Monterotondo.

The thick forests of Umbria and northern Lazio have gradually given way first to olive orchards, then to vineyards and now to vast pastures, hay fields and grassy open areas. TheĀ mountains of the north are now rolling hills that are visibly opening up to wide plains. We’ve noticed also that weekend homes for urban dwellers are becoming more common and that the pace of life is quickening. Hill towns of Umbria would be quiet and empty on a Sunday afternoon, but these towns are a beehive of activity.

In keeping with this change our quiet country road gradually turned into an urban arterial and we found ourselves navigating the narrow white stripe at the edge of the highway as Italian drivers speeded by. After an hour or so of this we crossed into Monterotondo, climbed to the upper city, asked directions to the lower upper piazza, and strategized about our hotel options while enjoying a gelato off the upper upper piazza. Before long we found ourselves in an inexpensive B&B just a few blocks from the cathedral. We enjoyed dinner at a takeout pizzeria, then settled in for the night. Tomorrow’s goal is Monte Sacro, just one day from St. Peter’s in Rome.

Over the last days we’ve climbed more hill towns than we can count — Monteleone, Montelibretti, Monterotondo, and tomorrow Monte Sacro. “Monte this,” “Monte that” — it’s a “full Monte” of beautiful cities, but we’re also excited about leaving the beautiful countryside behind and seeing St Peter’s as well as the Lateran Church, St Francis’ destination in his 13th century visit to see the Pope and launch the formal phase of his ministry.20130527-073309.jpgLook for the castle up there on the hill20130527-073329.jpgOur noontime piazza — Montelibretti20130527-073343.jpgJacqueline and Andreas marching onward, Montelibretti in the distant background20130527-073359.jpgSebastiano Pelegrino20130527-073442.jpgB&B on the left, typical street of Monte Rotondo straight ahead20130527-073453.jpgScene of our Sunday mass — The Duomo of Monterotondo

Wind, Rain, Hail and Wild Boars

May 25, 2013 — Poggio San Lorenzo to Ponticelli

This morning at Agritourusmo San Giusto we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with our new friend and fellow pilgrim, Johann of The Netherlands, did our push-ups, then headed out at 9:00 for an unexpectedly challenging day.

The push-ups are a practice we began about ten days ago — three sets of 20 push-ups (or however many we can manage) and today Johann called us on the obvious. We’d been doing “easy” push-ups, not touching our nose to the floor. At his insistence we corrected our form and, of course, reduced our total count. Even though he reduced our sense of satisfaction at an ever-increasing push-up total, we were coming to enjoy our new fellow pilgrim.

We had met Johann a few days earlier between Ceselli and Arrone and then we discovered him last night at our agritourismo. We shared dinner and conversation and found him to be sincere and enjoyable. He’s an experienced pilgrim who’s walked many hundreds of miles, including to Santiago from his home in The Netherlands.
20130525-180002.jpgWe set out from Poggio San Lorenzo under partly cloudy skies

Our agriturismo was a couple of km outside Poggio San Lorenzo, so our first task was to get to the town itself. We walked down the hill, then up a hill some more, then up more and more to the town. Actually, this was the story of the whole day — up and down from town to town.

After Poggio San Lorenzo it was up-down, up-down to Montelione, where we met an Italian woman who’d been a pilgrim to Santiago. She asked us if we’d walked there, then joyfully told us in Italian about her Camino Frances experiences. We understood a surprising amount, through the universal language of happy camino memories.
20130525-180108.jpgPiazza at Montelione en Sabina

As we entered town Andreas ducked into a grocery store for his lunch and the rest of us headed to a bar just off the piazza for panini and potato chips. We gave thanks that our day had been relatively dry so far.
20130525-180227.jpgWalking through vineyards

We headed down and out of Montileone, past the Church of Santa Vittoria from the 12th century, crossed an ancient bridge across a small creek, then trudged up an enormous, concrete-paved hill path opposite the town.

At this point we realized this camino is actually very physically challenging. We have walked up and down countless hills. In fact, we have been in hills or mountains basically the entire time. Unlike the Camino de Santiago there really are no long, flat stretches. You’re always either going up or going down. The result is lots of exercise. In fact, when we arrived in Poggio Maiono there was a .20 Euro outdoor scale. I popped a coin in, stepped on it, and discovered I’ve lost 4-5 lbs (2-3 kilos) in weight in just 10 days. What a nice surprise!
20130525-180318.jpgViews through sporadic rain as we approached Ponticelli among olive orchards

As we enjoyed cafe lattes and caldo chocolates in Poggio Moiono the rain began, briefly turning to hail before continuing as cold rain. We waited it out, then began the final two hours of our walk — to Ponticelli. Unfortunately, after leaving Poggio Moiono the rain began in earnest and we each realized our rain gear would be on for the rest of the day.
20130525-180826.jpgView from one of the “ups” in literally an up and down day

As we neared Ponticelli we heard rustling in the bushes and noticed a brown boar ahead in the pathway. “Look out!” said Sebastian in excited German (I learned the translation later), “they can be dangerous.” The boar ran off, and then a few moments later off to the left we noticed an adult wild boar, two feet tall, brown with light brown stripes, and three of her piglets. They scurried around as they heard us, and we realized we didn’t want to be in the way of a mother boar’s wild charge. We hurriedly continued walking and soon the boars were behind us.

After eight hours of tough terrain the town of Ponticelli appeared before us. Our next challenge was where will we sleep? Johann came to the rescue. “Why not my hotel?” he said. Soon a driver from his hotel appeared and before long we were ensconced in warm room at the Salaria Hotel, a 10-minute drive from hotel-free downtown Ponticelli. Warm showers, pizza and laundry filled the evening of a cold and challenging day of rain, hail and wild boars.

Getting Closer to Rome, but First the Mountains and Valleys of Lazio

May 26, 2013 — Rieti to Poggio San Lorenzo
20130524-170703.jpgSerendipity in the piazza

Sometimes you see the darnedest things if you pay attention, and today was an example. We awoke, got breakfast, headed out the door, then waited in the sunny piazza of Rieti while Jacqueline ran an errand. While she was gone a large group of food servers suddenly spilled out of a building, assembled a few tables, then gathered for a photo. I jumped in, said “fromaggio!” and snapped a photo of my own, to the surprise of the assembled group. They shouted “Queso!” “Fromaggio!” and “Cheese!” with big smiles. Then as quickly as they appeared they were gone, leaving us wondering what had just happened.

Jacqueline soon returned and we gathered up our things and headed to the supermarket for lunch items, asked directions to get out of town and then were off.

20130524-172955.jpgJust 100 kilometers left until Rome

About a kilometer later, just south of town, we saw an important sign by our trail: “100 kilometers (70 miles) to the Tomb of St Peter in Rome.” More important is what was just behind us — the Cottorella bottled water factory which bottles the pure waters of this region and distributes them all over Italy.

As we snapped our photos it began to feel like the beginning of the end of our pilgrimage. Just 4-5 days more and we will be in Rome. Perhaps it was that our goal was looming closer or perhaps it was the threatening clouds ahead –either way we walked ahead crisply, grimly and with unusually few words.

The trail followed the highway for some time, then ducked across the valley to a gravel track beneath a double row of stately trees. To our delight this continued on for several kilometers before the track moved beside the creek at the center of the valley. We followed its burbling sounds for several more long kilometers and then followed the trail through meadows to a quiet road on the west side of the valley. After a couple of kilometers we found a concrete bulkhead next to the road and shared our simple lunch of focaccia bread, cheese and nectarines.

20130524-173614.jpgTrail beside the burbling creek

At about 15 kilometers we followed markers to a gravel road that veered off to the right and followed this for several more kilometers. By now we were starting to get weary from our long walk, and we began to notice signs for an agritourismo (rural guest house) near our goal, Poggio San Lorenzo.

20130524-190220.jpgMy view much of the day, this time on a steep uphill

The gravel trail ended at a narrow, two-lane road with a hopeful sign: “800 meters ahead” to the agritourismo. The waymarks, though, pointed in exactly the opposite direction. We bravely followed them, ignoring thoughts of beds and showers and food, and walked uphill for 30 minutes until we saw another sign for the same agritourismo: “800 meters ahead.” The deal was sealed — we were staying there.

A quick call to the posted number and our rooms were reserved. A few minutes after that we were comfortably in our rooms, a day closer to Rome, ready for dinner at 7:30. As we waited for our evening meal we hand washed laundry, quietly wrote in our diaries and blogs and noticed from the warmth of our rooms it had started to rain outside.

20130524-191231.jpgPilgrims’ self portrait

Italian Hospitality? Molto Gentile. Italian Weather? Rain!

May 23, 2013 — Poggio Bustone to Rieti
20130523-084318.jpgFrom left: Sebastian, Andreas, Jacqueline, our host, Feliciano, me

Today’s weather report called for rain all morning, then sun in the afternoon. This grim forecast convinced our group to hang out in Poggio and hope for a dry 15 km (10 mile) walk after the rain was done. We waited in the “yoga room” of our hostel, La Locanda Francescana, which gave us time for good byes with Michelle, our hostess. Last night we enjoyed the cooking of her partner, Feliciano, at the hostel’s restaurant, and once again, as at Piediluco, we were overwhelmed by the generous hospitality of the local Italians.

Before cooking our meal Feliciano graciously asked for dietary issues within our group. I explained that I don’t eat red meat (a staple of all Italian second courses, it seems) and he kindly secured some “local chicken” for last night’s dinner. It was the first meat of any kind I’ve eaten in several days. On our way out this morning he shared the tender, Italian two-cheek kiss with each of us. The result with his day’s growth of beard was kind and scratchy-sweet. We left with a smile and a promise to come back.
20130523-100419.jpgOur group, this time in the yoga room with Michelle

Yesterday we noticed a barber shop just a few meters from our hotel, so this morning while we waited for the rain to stop Sebastian and I went over to treat ourselves — me to a haircut and Sebi to a straight-razor shave. Sebastian came out looking and smelling like someone ready for a Friday night date. I came out with the shortest haircut of my life — a 2mm razor cut over my entire scalp. My hair was already short, but by the time the barber finished with me his floor was covered with black hair that once had been mine. I shrugged to Sebastian, “Well, I have three weeks to grow it back!”

Before beginning our walk at a disappointingly rainy noon hour we had a bite of lunch next to an intense card game at a bar off the main piazza. Jacqueline was not feeling well and had decided to take the bus to Rieti, so Sebastian, Andreas and I walked down and out of Poggio Bustone in the cold precipitation decked out in rain gear and hoping for the best.

Before reaching the bottom of this lofty hill town we had already lost the waymarks, so we headed onto the shoulderless car road to Rieti, which we daringly followed as far as the turnoff to Cantalice. Here an Italian woman in a grey car spotted us looking at our maps and pulled over to give us directions. Her suggestion was to follow a quiet auto road into Cantalice, rather than take the more direct but busier auto road straight to Rieti. Her advice was wise, but in the one dangerous moment of our walk we met a truck coming uphill on a narrow turn with a bus (Jacqueline’s, it turned out) coming downhill at he same spot. Andreas happened to be on the cliff side of the road while Sebastian and I were on the rock wall side. Traffic stopped in both directions while pilgrims and motor traffic took turns using the narrow road. As the bus passed we waved to Jacqueline and other pilgrims aboard who’d noticed us stopping traffic. We were happy to see Jacqueline, even if it was just with a quick wave from the side of the road.

20130523-224137.jpgCantalice rising above us

The rain and traffic soon subsided and we had our first good look at Cantalice, another Italian hill town, this one seemingly even steeper than each of the others. Our first thought should have been, “How beautiful!” but was actually, “Hope we don’t have to climb that!” We’d been without waymarks since we left Poggio and were delighted and disappointed to find them again at the foot of a steep staircase — this time pointing straight up the steep city streets.

We armed ourselves with cafe lattes from a bar in the lower city and climbed the steps up and farther up toward the church and castle tower at the summit. Someone commented, “I think the grandmothers in this hill town must have buns of steel!”

20130523-224910.jpgChurch of San Felize, in honor of Cantalice’s homegrown saint

We stopped for pictures of decaying doorways and ancient church facades in this mouldering town, then were given helpful directions by a Brit who’d heard sounds of English emanating from the path below. “Follow the road past the bar and keep going!” It worked, and soon we were heading along a ridge at the same level as upper Cantalice, enjoying views back to the town and, when the clouds cleared, as far as Poggio Bustone.

20130523-225738.jpgViews back to Poggio Bustone, today’s starting point, nestled on the mountainside in the distance

The ridge continued in a southeasterly direction, pushing us closer to La Foresta, our final St Francis site of this pilgrimage. We arrived there at about 4:00, finding an empty chapel and shuttered cloisters. That allowed a quick visit and we covered the remainder of the walk to Reiti in a brisk, 40 minute downhill march.

The outskirts of even the prettiest towns seem to be a maze of parking lots and strip malls, Reiti being no exception. But after passing through the gate of the city’s medieval walls we were in another world. The quiet streets were filled with workers heading home, grandmothers on errands, Italian soldiers in uniform fatigues chatting by fountains and cheerful teenagers enjoying dripping cones of colorful gelato.

Jacqueline, who’d arrived hours before, had found a room for herself and a triple room for us. We settled in, showered, dressed in clean clothes, and headed out with Jacqueline among us again, this time to enjoy the now dry and sunny weather as well as the sights and sounds of a beautiful, Italian town.

The evening’s meal was filled with good food, wine and laughter, plus the hospitality of a kind restaurant proprietor who opened his establishment 15 minutes early to accommodate a few tired and hungry pilgrims who had just finished their rainy day’s journey by foot or bus.

20130523-231025.jpgLooking toward the tower of Reiti’s cathedral