As I sit on my bed with the sound of birds chirping outside the open window and the orange rays of the setting sun glancing off the floor of my room, I take stock of how I’m feeling today and ask the question, do I really get to do this for 30 days in a row?
Following yesterday’s grueling 30 km walk in the searing Italian sunshine I’m tired, my legs are sore from my hips to my heels, the toenail on my left foot is turning blue, I’m suffering from something called golfers’ vasculitis, and I’m missing home and loved ones. But I’m excited that I’ve finally hit the road and I’m starting to feel that pilgrim ecstasy that other pilgrims know. It is the joy of walking that pulls a pilgrim out of bed each day as the trail calls forward to each new day of challenge and progress.
The weekend began on Friday with a 2-hour train trip from Perugia to Florence, where I met Jacqueline of Vienna, a fellow pilgrim from caminos in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Jacqueline has already been a huge help to my guidebook project. She found a German book that describes this track and translated portions of it so I could more easily follow the less-traveled stretch from Florence to Della Verna, where the main trail picks up. In translating it she discovered the primary weakness of this route — there is no easy way to get out of Florence. In fact, the guidebook suggests starting in Florence by getting on the train for 20 minutes and then walking from a place called Sant’Ellero Sull Arno. From Sant’Ellero a person picks up a clearly marked trail to the next town of Consuma.
Well, Jacqueline insisted there must be a way to walk to Sant’Ellero, so she researched it online and decided to fly from Vienna to Florence with the express purpose of joining me for a walk, to prove her theory that the walk can be done without resorting to trains. Of course, we both knew that the primary requirement to end a walking stage is that there be accommodation. We also knew that the best way to see if there is accommodation is to go there and ask.
So…..on Saturday morning, June 7, we set out together from Florence’s Basilica of Santa Croce to walk to Sant’Ellero. A little overshadowed by its neighbor, the Duomo, Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world, which legend says was started by St. Francis himself. It’s also rumored to have relics of St. Francis — some of his clothes and such. Santa Croce is also home to the tombs of some of the most famous Florentines — Michelangelo, Galileo, Michiavelli, Rossini, and more.
Jacqueline and I set out after a leisurely breakfast at 9:00 in the morning. Oops, we missed the coolest part of the day. The weather forecast called for a steaming plateful of Italian heat, and even by mid-morning we had begun to sweat. The GPS track we downloaded from WikiLoc (thanks, Gigi Bettin), sent us along the Arno River, then out of Florence toward Bagno di Ripoli. After about 5 km we were beyond the exurbs of Florence and feeling good. We stocked up for lunch at a great roticceria and, seeing the mountains ahead of us, we began what we knew would be a hard uphill climb.
In fact, the road started to climb very steeply. At a settlement high above the valley called Bigallo we caught our breath at a very fascinating spedale (hostel) for medieval pilgrims who’d chosen to walk to Assisi from Florence and parts prior. This gave us extra confidence that Florence is a great place to begin this trek, after all, we were walking in the footsteps of pilgrims from centuries past.
After lunch we turned left, across from Bigallo, to begin the more remote section of our walk where we’d been told by a bartender in Bagno di Ripoli that we’d find a beautiful path along a Roman road. Sure enough, soon we were on gravel roads, climbing and climbing. Then we came across a stretch of what obviously was Roman pathway, given its ordered and rounded stones. We continued to walk. And walk some more. By olive orchards. Through olive orchards. Through forests of pine. Through forests of oak. Along gravel paths, along Roman roads, and only briefly along asphalt drives. All of the walk under the 90F (33C) Tuscan sun.
Even as very experienced pilgrim walkers we were a little overwhelmed by the distance. Part of it was the sun, another part was that I was stopping every few hundred meters to speak into the dictation program of my iPhone in order to take notes or I was pausing every little bit to take photos. By about 4:00 p.m. we’d already walked 7 hours, and we soon came across a sign that said the next town of any size — Rignano Sull-Arno — was still one and a half hours away. Our final goal of Sant’Ellero was another 3.7 kilometers beyond that. A little despair began to set in.
I started to drag a bit, and Jacqueline trudged on ahead. Finally we came to Rignano. After a tall iced-tea that perked me up a bit I began to ask in my two-week new Italian if there were any hotels in the area. Immediately two men in the bar were on the phone to find us a room for the night at the house of someone who lets rooms. I explained that it wasn’t for tonight we were looking, but for the future, and they left me with a phone number I could call for more info. We also noticed a campground here, as well as a B&B a few kilometers out of town. Progress.
By this time it was 6:00 pm and even Jacqueline was beginning to drag. Still, our goal was Sant’Ellero which also included a train station where we could catch an 8:00 train back into Florence. At a second bar we asked about foot paths from Rignano to Sant’Ellero, but were told the only way to get there was by walking along the highway. We scouted around a bit more before we left Rignano at about 6:30 p.m. for our day’s final walking goal.
The 3 km walk along the highway was every bit as treacherous as we feared. Cars whizzed by, while we had just the space of the white line and a few inches beyond it as our path. Thankfully, with 1 km left, a red brick sidewalk appeared and we headed off the white line and into Sant’Ellero, noting signs for a B&B 6 km out of town. Here we also found a map mounted on a wall at the train station that clearly spells out the footpath to Consuma, stage two of the grand St. Francis adventure.
Utterly exhausted and a little dehydrated after 11 hours of walking, much of it uphill in the blazing sunshine, we caught the 8:00 p.m. train back into Florence.
Over a dinner of pasta and salad, Jacqueline and I asked ourselves, would pilgrims really want to walk this hard and hot walk, and then pick up and do another hard and hot 25 km (15.5 mile) walk the next day? Especially in heat like this? On the plus side, there are amazing views of Florence and many panoramas of beautiful valleys and farms along the way. A walk along an ancient Roman road is pretty awesome, too. The lack of accommodation is a challenge, though, but a pilgrim can take the train back into Florence like we did — it’s just a €3 transaction and 15 minutes on the hourly train — and then return to Sant’Ellero the next morning by train for Stage 2.
Then we asked ourselves the more personal question: would we have the strength to go on after such a hard day? As I sat there on the terrace of the hotel with Florence active and loud below, I wondered what had brought me here and why I would even consider leaving home and family and church and community to walk a long, hard, grueling walk for 30 days in the hot Italian sun. Would I be in misery for the next month? Would my feet hold out? I laid on my bed after dinner, a beer, and two sips of red wine, knowing I’d sleep well.
When I woke up this morning something strange happened. I found myself asking, where will I walk today? Is it really true I don’t get to continue on the path? Do I really have to wait another three weeks before I pick up at Sant’Ellero and walk to Rome?
My body is tired, but my heart is full. I’m ready to go. I’ve caught the bug again. All those tourists I can hear outside my window in Florence are seeing some amazing sights, but adventure is up the hill in the distance, down it again, across the river and beyond to Assisi and then to Rome. When language school is done, when camino reunion in Vienna is complete, when June 27 finally arrives, I will be ready for the road. And I can hardly wait.
Today I’m thankful for my great camino friend, Jacqueline. She has been a huge help on this project and I can’t begin to say share with her my gratitude for her assistance and inspiration.