Wrap-up from Rome after 973 km of pilgrim trails

On the final full day in Rome after 973 km (605 miles) on the Via Francigena and Via di Francesco.

It’s such a funny thing to walk for a few weeks then wake up one day and realize the walking is all done. That’s how I’m feeling this morning as I finish breakfast on the day after my summer of walking is over.

What a summer. I set out on August 3 from Lausanne, Switzerland and walked over the Great St Bernard Pass into Italy, finishing in Piacenza after 478 kilometers over mountains and through rice fields. I’m still convinced it was the long days and hot temperatures that caused me to get sick in Piacenza. I then flew home for a hectic few days of moving household items in preparation for the sale of our Seattle home.

On September 1 I was back in Italy with Luke to lead our first tour group. With eight wonderful folk Luke drove our Sherpa van and I walked from Florence to Assisi, retracing for the first time my book research walk from 2014.

Then on September 19 Luke and I greeted our next eleven pilgrims and walked with them from Assisi to Rome.

Though I skipped two stages due to another illness, with the many extra kilometers of pilgrim herding the total distance clocked from Florence to Rome was 495 km.

The biggest blessing of the time was my month working closely with Luke. Since he grew up and moved out on his own we haven’t had anything like this intense time together. For 32 days, both of us working from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. we’ve laughed and hugged and strategized and overcome. Luke is a great young man and was a real hit with our pilgrims, who all love him to pieces — but none love him more than me.

As for me, I’ve lost about 15 pounds with all this walking. My feet are in great shape thanks to HikeGoo and surgical tape. I have a massive farmer’s tan. And according to my FitBit my resting heart rate is down about 17 bpm. I shaved my head in August in Aosta and I miss my hair. I used 12 gigabytes of data on my iPhone 6, and found Galileo Pro and WhatsApp to be invaluable aids. My Italian is becoming stronger, though no one is mistaking me for a native, and most of all I’m missing Theresa and home.

Tomorrow I speak at a conference near Assisi and then, due to flight schedules, I am in Italy until Sunday evening. That night I fly to London Gatwick, stay in a tiny Japanese style airport hotel, and then fly home to Seattle, Theresa, friends, cats, church, new home and the joys of the familiar, where I’ll begin to plan the next walking adventure.

Here are some of my favorite photos from these seven weeks of walking.

Roads Go Ever On

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen,
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green,
And trees and hills they long have known.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

—J.R.R. Tolkien

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. The 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