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

This Can’t be Italy

May 18, 2013 — Spoleto to Ceselli

Our room for the night in Spoleto had three beds — two singles and one double — and somehow I managed to score the double! That meant a luxurious night in a bed which was not only big, but comfortable. I slept well.

We awoke at 6:30 to discover the water was back on, so it was showers all around, followed by a breakfast of brioches (croissants) and Nutella, which seems delightfully omnipresent. By 8:30 we were out the door, then off to the ATM for cash, then up to the top of town to find the waymarks for our route.

At the sunny Duoma Piazza we discovered the road blocked due to more filming of the Terence Hill show. Next to the policeman who told us to find another way to our goal was our friend Daniele, with Atan. He was eagerly awaiting Terence Hill’s arrival so he could get an autograph, and it was great to share a final “arrivaderci!”

Our detour led us handily to the necessary waymarks and we were soon climbing east of the piazza toward the castle above. The castle sits on a circular mountain above the city and we walked around its base to the side opposite the city, where we discovered an enormous stone bridge that stretched across the canyon to the next mountain. Our waymarks directed us across the bridge and we made the most of the acrobatic walk, snapping photos of the wooded mountains and distant valleys.

At the end of the bridge the signs directed us to a steep, gravel path that switched back and forth up the mountain, climbing 300 meters (900 ft) in two kilometers (1.4 miles) through thick forest to the tiny settlement of Monteluco. Here we found a hotel with an outdoor bar, where we enjoyed an orange juice and rest, well-earned after our tiring climb.

As we paid the bill, Sebastian pointed out an old motorcycle sitting across from the bar. “Come,” the bartender said, and he led us back to his shop/showroom full of restored and nearly-restored Italian bikes. We recognized Moto Guzzi, Vespa, Piaggio, and many others. After admiring his motorcycles and thanking him for the tour we headed along the path and discovered a small, medieval Franciscan monastery from the year 1218. We toured the tiny monks’ cells, met a young friar, and asked him to stamp our pilgrim credentials, a task to which he cheerfully obliged.

We headed again to the trail, knowing we were only part way through with today’s ascent. After first missing our marker near a field below the monastery we rejoined the gravel path up the mountain. By noon we reached the summit of our climb, Valico Castel del Monte, nearly 500 meters (1500 ft) and just 7 km (4.5 miles) from our starting point in Spoleto. As we shared a lunch of bread sticks, tomatoes, cherries and cheese looking down on a view of green mountains and rich valleys we congratulated ourselves on how quickly our legs were at pilgrim strength, allowing us a big climb in good time with little pain or weariness. After four days we felt ready to climb anything.

For today’s hike it was all downhill from here. We walked down and down, by vast vistas of mountains and valleys, through the ghost village of Sensati, then past a cemetery and the tiny town of Nevi. Finally at about 3:30 we reached Ceselli and were waved into the town’s single hotel, “Il Ruscello,” by it’s proprietor. Famished as we were by now we accepted his offer to take us to Schreggino, where we had beer and ice cream for snacks and bought pasta for dinner. Arriving back in Ceselli we had showers, did laundry, then cooked our dinner, which we enjoyed over a bottle of the local vintage.

Most surprising of the day was the realization that the miles of green mountains we’d enjoyed were Italy. I’d always thought Italy was made up of dry grass, barren hills and lone cypress trees pointing to the sky. Turns out this part of Italy could just as easily be the hills of North Carolina or France or Wisconsin. Today was a beautiful experience in joy and beauty in a warm, green place with dear friends. A day that began in an annoying detour ended in a gracious meal of pasta and wine and loving conversation.

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