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.