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. The┬ámountains 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