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.

Rain, thunder, bells and singing

Local artisans of Acquapendente assemble their flower mosaics under cover from the rain.

Day 16: Acquapendente to Bolsena — 20km (12.5 miles)

I planned a late departure from Acquapendente today so I could swing by the Santa Maria delle Fiore festival in the center city. My B&B hostess, Roberta, had put together a beautiful breakfast spread. I filled up with yogurt, fruit, juice and coffee then headed out the door — into a steady rain.

The flower parade would be delayed due to rain, so I headed out of town, following two Italian women pilgrims who were singing loudly as they walked in the rain. I passed them, spoke briefly, then enjoyed their music over the next kilometer or so as their songs faded into the distance.

Soon I saw Roberto and Stefano ahead and chatted some as the hills began to stretch out into wide plains, falling off toward what the maps promised would be the enormous volcanic crater-lake of Bolsena. Roberto and Stefano were ahead of me by a few minutes into the town of San Lorenzo Nuovo, where we caught the first views of the enormous lake to the sounds of Sunday morning bells calling worshippers to church.

Church at the center of San Lorenzo Nuovo.

First glimpses of Lago Bolsena.

After the lake appeared, it was downhill on the highway until a left turn put the track onto a 10km long dirt road that undulated among the hills and valleys above the highway and in view of the lovely lake. Partway through the walk, the rain started up again, this time with loud thunder, which continued all the way to the medieval fortress at the start of Bolsena.

A moment without rain, but just a moment.

Bolsena’s castle appears above the lake.

Here I saw Marta, Vitas and Mike, who insisted we pose for a photo, which I was happy to do. Pizza for lunch, then the short day’s walk allowed time to explore the town while dodging raindrops.

Snails, hot pants, and flower power

Leaving Tuscany and entering the region whose capital is Rome.

Day 15: Radicofani to Acquapendente — 24km (14.9 miles)

This morning I was in no hurry to get out of bed. It had been a long day yesterday and the hostel bunk was warm. I suspected my hand washed clothes would not yet be dry, and worse, I figured today it would rain. So with just 24 km on the day’s program, I left the hostel at a luxurious 8:00.

Last out of the building, I closed the hostel’s ancient door, made sure it was locked behind me, and headed across the tiny piazza in a light drizzle toward the welcoming cafe. Peter, a pilgrim from Luxembourg, happened in after a bit, and he bought me a second cappuccino as we lingered in the cafe during a sudden rain squall. He left when the rain stopped and I was out the door not long after, dressed in all my rain gear for what promised to be a wet day.

The first 10 km out of Radicofani are a long descent on a quiet and picturesque gravel road. As I plodded along I noticed a woman ahead searching with a stick in the undergrowth beside the road. I asked her if she was looking for mushrooms and she replied no, using a word I didn’t know. I asked if I could see in her bag and she said, “Sí.” Inside were 30 or forty good-sized, wiggly, moist snails.

Snails. Lumache.

Hmmm, I thought.

The sun soon made an appearance, and I peeled off my rain jacket. The clouds parted and I took off my sweater. The sun began to get warmer and I took off my hat. I looked around and saw rain clouds in the distance, otherwise I would’ve stopped, peeled down to my skivvies, and replaced my blazingly hot rain pants with my much cooler hiking shorts.

As I continued down the long gravel road, I met a man searching with a stick in the undergrowth. I asked him what he was looking for and he said that same Italian word as the woman had before. But he offered this additional insight: We soak them for 10 days and then cook them in a wood-fired stove.“And you eat them?” I asked, gulping.


As I continued on, my mind was filled with a mixture of thoughts. What would be left of a snail after 10 days of soaking and then cooking in the oven? What would it taste like? Would I dare to try one myself?

Anyway, I guess when I would use the words “gross, “disgusting,” or “yucky” a local Italian might say, Buon Appetito!

More amazing vistas.

Rock cairns on a bridge. A sign that pilgrims were here.

Sign on a building, “Galileo slept here on his way to Rome for the Inquisition in 1633.”

After the gravel road  ended it was back onto and off of the modern version of the Via Cassia, the historic highway to Rome. I dodged cars for a bit, then was glad to turn off the highway for the last four kilometers onto a quiet stretch of the Old Via Cassia. I looked ahead at the climb and thought for the umpteenth time how much I’d like to get out of my torturously hot rain pants.

Before I knew it, there was Acquapendente across a canyon to the left.

First glimpse of Acquapendente.

I ambled into town and found dozens of people in the central piazza preparing for this weekend’s famous flower festival. I think it’s fair to say that the US has nothing like this, a festival that has happened here for hundreds of years and attracts villagers as well as local residents from the entire region to play their part in the festivities.

As I checked in to a little B&B for the night my host pointed out that this is the town’s annual festival — the infiorata festival — in which the streets are covered in flower petal mosaics. What a great weekend to happen into town.

A few of the flower mosaics created for this weekend’s festival.

As for me, I’m walking strongly, feeling good, losing a little weight, becoming darker on everything exposed to sun, and contending with only one annoying blister. I’ve so much to be thankful for as I start the last week of my walk to Rome.

Just walk to that castle on the distant, windy mountain

Looking back to San Quirico d’Orcia this morning.

Day 14: San Quirico d’Orcia to Radicofani — 33 km (21 miles)

With my clothes and boots wet from yesterday’s rainstorm I decided to splurge on a bargain rate hotel and I’m glad I did. Last night I hung my boots from the shower curtain rail and left the bathroom’s heat lamp and fan on all night long. By morning my boots were dry, as were all my formerly wet clothes. This meant I’d have dry things for what was billed as a long and difficult walk.

Stefano left. Roberto right.

Heading out of town at the same time were Roberto and Stefano, two young Italians from Lombardy who are on the same itinerary as me. We chatted on the road to Bagno di Vignano, a local hot spring once favored by the famous St. Catherine of Siena.

A town square made of a hot spring pool.

As we left the hot springs we looked off in the distance and realized we could see our goal for the day — the castle town of Radicofani — on a distant mountain. A beautiful sight at a daunting distance.

In fact, the castle of Radicofani was visible almost all day, a painful reminder of how slowly walking gets one toward a distant goal.

Look for a castle on the farthest mountain. That’s Radicofani

Not watching the guidebook carefully, Stefano, Roberto and I ended up taking the long way, which added another 5 km to the already long distance. Before long I said goodbye to the guys and pushed ahead to the day’s goal, first heading down the nearby mountains, then across the rolling hills dotted with sheep pastures.

Very, very slowly, as I crossed creeks and highways and walked alongside fields and farms, the castle began to grow larger. It loomed ahead of me like a hypnotist’s pendulum that had enchanted me and taken away my free will.

After many hours, the castle draws nearer.

According to the guidebook, the last nine kilometers (5 miles) are straight up. I would argue with that. I would describe the last 12 km as exhausting, a test of character and physical strength. Not only steep, but a 25 knot headwind to push on a pilgrim’s chest and blow off his hat. If there’d been a taxi driving by, I’d have waved it down. If there was a bus, I’d have stopped it. If there’s been a pickup truck, I’d have jumped in the back. If there’d been an ox cart I’d have offered to work for the farmer for seven years just for a ride up the torturous hill.

But, after pushing hard, I finally arrived at the top. I settled into the hostel, did my laundry, greeted Stefano and Roberto when they arrived, and then dodged raindrops to make my way above the village to the fortezza just so I could say I’d conquered the mountain.

The fortezza (fortress) from the charming town of Radicofani

Sadly, just as I arrived at the castle cafe, the heavens let loose in a torrent. I shall not be stopped by a torrent, I said to myself. So I waited out the torrent, only for the rain to be replaced by fog.

Walking up past the village toward the fortezza.

I climbed up the steps in the fog to the penultimate floor before the top and then stopped. I caught the scent of garlic on the wind from the village below. Supper calls, and rest. Today the mountain wins.

Fortezza wrapped in fog.

Raindrops, so many raindrops

Bridge at Ponte d’Arbia.

Day 12: Ponte d’Arbia to San Quirico d’Orcia — 23 km (14.3 miles)

As I walked through the mud between the field and the railway tracks I was imagining the farmer saying to his worker, “Mow the grass on the old tractor trail.” And I imagine the farmhand hearing, “Plow the grass on the old tractor trail….”

“Mow the old road,” I’m sure the farmer said.

So after last night’s heavy rains (and someone’s choice to plow the road), what the guidebook described as a tractor road was actually a plowed and muddy field. With the mud of a clay-like quality, my boots were covered in slimy mud by the end of the first hour of walking.

A rain cloud. full of rain, thunder and hail.

Finally finishing my walk through the field, I opted for the shorter route, as described in the Italian guidebook, along the Via Cassia to the charming village of  Torrenieri.

It was after Torrenieri, in sight of the day’s goal of San Quirico d’Orcia, when the clouds that had been following me all day finally caught up and let loose a torrent. I was soon drenched. Boots wet. Socks wet. Feet wet. Wet t-shirt. Wet shorts and undershorts. Wet hat. Dry phone. Whew.

Everything will dry out, no problem. The big news is how beautiful everything is. And the rain helps with that, of course. Today I’ll explore this little, ancient, touristy town of San Quirico d’Orcia and perhaps the nearby hot springs.

Beautiful, changeable weather. A lovely day on the Via Francigena.

Homage to happy feet. At the church of San Rocca in Torrenieri.

Vista, back towards Ponte d’Arbia.

Main street, San Quirico.

San Q Collegiate church exterior. Interior below.

Nearing the goal. Rome — nine days away.

Working through my mid-camino Arya Stark revenge list

Leaving Siena through Porta Romana

Day 11: Siena to Ponte d’Arbia — 25 km (15 miles)

Pilgrim lore from the Camino de Santiago describes the mid-camino walk through the Spanish plains as a “cleansing of the soul.” The long, dry and monotonous stretches test the pilgrim, bringing out the inner demons so they can be put to rest before the camino’s final stages.

Midway through this walk I wonder if the same might be happening to me, today. I may be wrestling with my mid-Camino inner demons, because as I walked Today I realized I was mindlessly playing out conflicts in my mind, thinking about the people I’m nursing a grudge against.

Arya Stark in the Game of Thrones is may be best at it. Each night before falling asleep she would recite the names of those who’d done her family wrong — and that she was vowing to kill. Calmly and coolly she would say the names, one after another.

Siena’s Torre di Mangia stands out on the horizon.

Now, I don’t plan to put the breakfast hostess at the B&B to death, but she did get me going. Yesterday as the B&B owner showed me to my room he asked, “When do you want to leave tomorrow?” “I’d like to leave at 7:00 if possible,” I said. “The breakfast hostess gets here at 7:30,” he said, “so that’s the earliest you could get breakfast.” He then showed me how to make coffee in the ultramodern Lavazza machine.

I was in the breakfast room at 7:30. No hostess. I try to make coffee. No water in the machine. Hostess arrives at 7:55 and says, pointing to the Do Not Touch sign on the coffee maker, “Can you read English?” “Yes, I read English very well.” “Then don’t touch the coffee machine.” “Well, yesterday your boss said I could use it and taught me how.” “Oh, fine. Do you want a cup of coffee?” “I’ve been trying to make one for the last half hour,” I said, not shouting.

Little did she realize she had earned a place on my mid-camino Arya Stark revenge list.

She’s not alone. There’s also the woman who started a Facebook group named after my book on the Way of St Francis. She’s never walked that pilgrimage, but she uses the group to dispense advice — and resents it when I correct her.

There are a few others on the list. Certain people  from last year’s campaign. All gun rights absolutists. Donald Trump. My cell phone provider. Some unnamed others. And as I walk and walk and walk, I find myself inadvertently rehearsing gotcha conversations with them. I look for just the right words to slay them.

There are plenty of good psychological reasons for this kind of inner talk. It’s my Jungian “shadow side” for one thing. It’s an emotional expression of the pain in my feet and legs, for another. It’s unresolved anger.

But I don’t like thinking this way. Partway through the day I said, “Enough!” and decided to find helpful and positive things to think about. Things for which I could be thankful. 

And there’s so much. I had lunch at a little pilgrim rest area, maintained by a neighbor on the path. Nothing official, but it was perfect. Unmerited by me, just there from the kindness of someone’s heart. Thank you, pilgrim friends!

It’s hard to overestimate the simple pleasure of sitting down partway through a 25km walk.

Another example: I’ve been meaning to mention here the fellow named Mauritzio who live just outside Lucca. He saw me coming, could tell I was exhausted, and offered me water and a banana. Thank you, Mauritzio!

I’m thankful for my Norwegian pilgrim friends. So smart and loving and warm. I’m ahead of them now by a day and am already missing them.

There’s the nun who welcomed me to dinner last night at the San Girolama monastery without cost. Thank you.

And there is so much more. Too much beauty and live and grace around to note it all, really. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to repress the negative talk, the shadowy part of me. That won’t be healthy, I know. But I’m looking forward to more days of walking this mid-camino stretch so I can do this work of moving anger to thanksgiving.

The Ponte d’Arbia hostel is the yellow building across the bridge.