Posts Tagged With: Italian

The Way of St. Francis: Michelangelo is our host

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Rome is a great place to be as we miss the daily adventures of the Way of St. Francis.

We returned to Vatican City Friday for a nighttime visit to the Vatican Museums, where we marveled at Michelangelo’s genius in the Sistine Chapel for an hour. Perhaps we had not cleaned up well enough after our trek, because fewer than 100 people joined us. We were tempted to slide down the handrail at the spiral ramp on the way out.

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Saturday, we left the comfort of our hotel, which is in a quiet section of Campo Fiori, for a city walkabout that included a successful search for our favorite gelato. It was everything we remembered from six years ago.

We are back in our room, sipping wine, wondering where to find some good pizza or pasta for dinner. Hmmm…

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The Way of St. Francis: Reflections from our journey

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We were rewarded with our testimonium Friday at the Vatican. Our bodies are happy we reached the end of the Way of St. Francis. Our minds are swirling as we reflect.

The numbers from our trek: 23 days walking, 258 miles (415 km) afoot, 79,923 feet of elevation.

Toughest trek yet: What made it more difficult than Spain’s Camino de Santiago, Scotland’s West Highland Way, and the Alps’ Tour du Mont Blanc? We loved the Camino, but it is a stroll in the park comparatively. The Camino is longer, but the surfaces here test shoes and your body much more. And the climbing and descending are relentless and treacherous at times. There are rarely nice bars for a break. Mont Blanc had more elevation per day, but it was “only” 110 miles, and we didn’t carry everything on our backs in the Alps.

Best trek? For us, it is almost like saying which son we love most. We hold all four treks close to our hearts. They all have special qualities and memories.

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Camaraderie: We saw fewer fellow St. Francis trekkers in 23 days than we saw in just one typical morning in Spain. On many days in Italy, we saw no fellow trekkers. We befriended a few fellow “pilgrims” now and then, but just for a day or two.

La Verna to Rome: Of the trekkers we talked to, all were walking a shorter section of the Way of St. Francis than La Verna to Rome, which we walked. Some were doing a few days, intending to return another year. We met more people going to Assisi, Francis’ home, than to Rome. Francis walked to Rome to get the pope’s blessing for his work.

Who does this trek? From our small sample, most were much younger than us. Two were Canadian, the rest Europeans. No Americans. This trek attracts people who enjoy solitude.

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English? Most trekkers knew some English. The storekeepers and bar and restaurant servers, not so much. Many of our lodging hosts also did not speak English. Most were gracious in helping us with our limited Italian. Pantomimes helped. Lots of smiles and laughs as we all struggled to communicate.

Italian people: In village after village, bar after bar, hotel after hotel, people wanted to help us. A small crowd came to our rescue when we had trouble getting in the front door at a B&B. A young woman in a bar dropped everything to make us an early dinner of fresh pizzas.

So many proprietors went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable. Several times, we had trouble contacting our accommodation host when we arrived. Each time, local people volunteered to track them down for us. And they go about life with such passion!

Pilgrimage: This trek is designed to follow St. Francis’ steps to Rome. There are many churches and other sites where pilgrims can honor his memory and work.

The next Camino? The Way of St. Francis is gradually becoming better known, but I can’t see it attracting big crowds. Most people probably don’t want to work so hard and there are other trails that are better designed for leisure trekking. Accommodations are not as plentiful and are far more spread out than some treks, especially the Camino de Santiago. The Italian path is rough and at times disappears. Too much asphalt for many folks. But, I can see parts of it, such as Gubbio to Assisi, becoming more popular.

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Finding the way: We could not have done this trek without the help of Sandy Brown, author of the Cicerone guidebook and Facebook forum. He answered Sue’s questions while we were on the trek. He gave directions to downloading maps, which were critical to finding our way using GPS and Galileo Pro. We are so grateful for Sandy’s help!

Expensive? This trek does not offer as many opportunities to get by on the cheap, like the Camino de Santiago does. There are some monasteries, convents and hostels that offer inexpensive lodging, though. Pilgrims usually need to phone ahead at such places to arrange arrival time. We stayed in B&Bs, hotels, and one agriturisimo. Nothing fancy, but all had private baths and were clean. Many were in small villages and a few were in a building far from town. We paid from 50 to 90 euro a night, and almost all included continental breakfast. Rome is the exception…we opted for location and a bit of luxury, so we are paying more.

Explorers? At times, the trail was so remote and without fellow trekkers that we felt like explorers. The mountains of Umbria are higher and more rugged than we expected.

Greetings by locals: In Spain, many people greeted us as we passed. The Camino is the economic life for their communities and has such history and tradition. The Way of St. Francis lacks that sense of community, but when we greeted locals, they almost always returned our outreach. Some drivers honked and waved. A few seemed to honk to tell us to get off the road. One truck driver swerved and stopped to block a loose dog that was barking at us. He yelled at the dog to leave the pellegrinos alone.

Booking.com: We used the website for most of our rooms and we learned to start with “booking.com” when we arrived.

Weather: The sun followed us the first two weeks, making some afternoons uncomfortably warm. Rain and thunderstorms threatened the rest of the way. Thankfully, we got stronger and faster, allowing us to beat torrential afternoon thunder and lightening storms. We walked in rain several times. Spring flowers were abundant almost the entire way. I would not attempt this walk during Italy’s hot summer.

Distances: It is incredible how far our feet took us. We would turn around after walking a few miles from the village where we stayed and it appeared so far away. It doesn’t work at the end of a long day, though. The town on the hilltop looks so close, but it takes forever to reach it. By then we were exhausted and so ready for a hot shower.

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The way to travel: For us, trekking is the best way to see a country and get to know its culture. We see villages and experience views we could only get by walking. It slows down and simplifies life. It is empowering to get by with so little. We feel fortunate to be healthy enough to do treks.

In the end, was it worth it? The Way of St. Francis was so many things to us. It tested us like no other experience has. When we arrived at the Santiago Cathedral in Spain, I felt strong emotion. Thursday, I was happy to stand before St. Peter’s Basilica, but I had little deep reaction. Later, as we sat on a building ledge at the Vatican, I folded my trekking poles and tied them to my pack for the first time in a month. Out of nowhere, I was overcome. That’s why I walk.

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The Way of St. Francis: Surprises lead our way

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A castle tower caught our eye today, but this sculpture made us wonder why it was standing in this trailside field.

Intermittent showers followed us Tuesday on the Way of St. Francis from Montelibretti to Monterotondo, a busy city of 41,000 that makes us feel like we leaped forward hundreds of years.

It is how we got here that is the day’s story. About noon, we turned from a lazy, tree-canopied lane onto a busy two-lane highway where cars zoomed by at motorway speeds. It was a shock after several hours of countryside trekking. Then the rain decided to fall faster too.

A loud noise snapped us back to the future further. Through the drips from our hats, we saw the source: a motorway filled with speeding vehicles. How do we get to the other side, where our apartment awaits? Harder rain confused us until we spotted a yellow stripe painted uphill on a pole to our right. Is that where St. Francis went? It must have been, because after climbing through knee-high weeds over a berm, along a strip of aging asphalt under tree branches that we ducked under, we found bent grasses that told us someone had walked this way.

Down we went until the motorway blocked us again. More bent grass led us down a steep slope along a fence to a rickety, five-foot-long, 18-inch-wide wooden walkway with no railings that crossed a concrete culvert. The rain followed us across, then down farther to a road — and an underpass!

As we walked on a soggy path to Monterontondo, we paused for a selfie. A few twists and crosswalks brought us to salvation: an Italian bar, where a young man and woman made us tall cups of coffee to go with our flaky-crusted berry torte. They worked so hard to make us feel welcome, a trait that helps make this country great in our eyes.

Now I sit in our modern one-bedroom apartment. I hear faint sounds of Italian voices from the apartment above. I sip a glass of wine as Sue prepares our dinner.

The Way of St. Francis is full of surprises. That’s one reason why I want it to last forever.

 

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The Way of St. Francis: A deserted pilgrimage

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The red line has led us through trials and celebrations, more medieval villages than we can count, and memorable meetings with gracious Italians brimming with enthusiasm. We have met friendly and fascinating fellow trekkers, but many days we have not seen even one. We have yet to meet another American walker. We have not talked to anyone going as far as we hope to go.

How far have we come? After 20 days of trekking on the Way of St. Francis, we have come 226 miles with our backpacks (and many more exploring places without them, especially on rest days). More than 71,000 feet of elevation change, including 6,000 on Sunday. The steepness has been a surprise — there have been times it has been so steep that it has been difficult to stand when we stopped to take a breath.

A few scenes from the past two days:

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The bridge carrying highway travelers reminds us Rome is near, but the trail quickly takes us back into remote places.

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The guidebook today said to turn left at the fountain and two pine trees, but for us it was time for lunch.

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We are staying Monday in Montelibretti, barely visible from its mountaintop perch.

The Way of St. Francis is unique and especially tough, but it shares one characteristic with the other long treks we have done: the closer we get to finishing, the more we don’t want it to end.

 

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The Way of St. Francis: Pizza, pizza, pizza!

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Local Italian culture filled the tiny Pizzeria da Paldo next door to our B&B Thursday night in Rieti. We thought we ordered four pieces of pizza and a salad, but the enthusiastic man behind the counter served up a platter double-stacked with four kinds of pizza and a big plate of ensalada mista. We ate and ate the superb bar pizza while a steady stream of customers walked out with folded pizza pieces to eat on the run. We wrapped up the considerable leftovers, then expected bad news when I asked for the check. It was just 15 euro (about $18), including a large bottle of water. You can’t see them in the photo, but my eyes were bigger than my stomach!

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The Way of St. Francis: Italy at its best

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As I sipped coffee at a bar in Poggio Bustone Wednesday afternoon, Sue wandered down the road a few doors and returned with a dinner invitation. The fellow in the white t-shirt runs the La Laconda Francescana Ristorante and hostel, where he later served us a delicious two-course meal with more wine than we could drink for just 27 euro, about $33. The chef (dad?) was pleased to be part of the after-meal photograph.

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The view as we walked back to our wonderful accommodation, the San Francesco Suite, perched somewhere in this photo of Poggio Bustone. Such a quintessential Italian evening!

 

 

 

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The Way of St. Francis: It was going so well

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Our Sunday began shortly after 8 a.m. when we departed our Spoleto apartment for a detour from the usual Way of St. Francis. A 2016 earthquake left the Roman acqueduct unsafe to cross (actually, Sue was relieved she didn’t have to cross the narrow walkway over a deep gorge), so we went downhill and uphill to find the trail across from the fort.

Then the fun began. Two-plus hours of steep uphill. Rocky, narrow, slippery, so tough that we dared not pause for a photo until the path widened. One trekker passed us, saying “I don’t speak English.” He is the only fellow pilgrim we have seen on the trail for three days.

We climbed about 2,100 feet and followed a ridge for hours, pausing for a quick picnic. Lord of the Rings fans would love the dark pine forest, drippy mist and eerie silence. Sue and I loved the Sunday “stroll” up to this point. We even talked about how strong we felt after two weeks walking in Italy.

But the hard part remained. The 2,200 feet of descent would be a test on its own, but the treacherous, rocky, wet footing made most steps a calculation. Sue wondered how she would ever get help if I fell.

At 4:30, we found our isolated hotel and ristorante four miles beyond the bottom of the mountain trail. Four generations of a family live here and run it. A toddler runs around the dining room as we eat our yummy spaghetti carbonara. It is a surreal setting after a day that seems so real every time we move a muscle.

 

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The Way of St. Francis: Escalators to history

 

History is written all over Spoleto and our apartment is within the medieval Umbrian city center. We took a day away from the Way of St. Francis to explore an area where civilization dates to the bronze age.

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An aqueduct and theater helped emperors strengthen their control in Umbria.

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Popes extended their influence here through the 12th century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and the 14th century Rocca Albornoziana. The fort still stands guard above the city.

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With the help of many, many euro from the European Union, Spoleto has built an elaborate people-mover system to help old folks like us get up the steep hills. It starts with elevators in hallways behind nondescript entryways around the city. They take you down to one of three escalator lines. Each line offers several landing areas where riders can exit for access to their destinations.

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Unfortunately, we are unlikely to find any more escalators as we resume our mountainous trek to Rome. But, there will be wine, beer and Italian cuisine at the end of each day. We walk 11 out of the next 12 days, with what appears to be the more difficult half ahead. We could blame it on St. Francis, but instead will honor him for laying the groundwork for this great challenge.

 

 

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The Way of St. Francis: What is it like?

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What is the Way of St. Francis like? After 117 miles in Italy, we have walked on busy highways, country roads, city streets, forest roads, paved farm roads, gravel farm roads, a long levee and wide gravel paths.

We have sometimes had to walk on busy roads because there has been no shoulder. Drivers here do pull over a bit, but it must be a sign of weakness to take their foot off the gas pedal.

On windy, narrow roads, we cross to avoid being on the inside of a blind corner, as Sue did today in Assisi before a white van zoomed around the bend. In cities, roundabouts pose special challenges. Also, drivers do not stop at crosswalks unless you are in the crosswalk.

Our boots have done some trail walking, but that has been a minority of the trek. Some of the trail portions have been in good condition, but considerable parts have been rocky, muddy, or rutted. Trekking poles often come in handy, especially on steep, slippery parts.

Once we were beyond the crazy streets of Assisi, today was relatively relaxing. There wasn’t much traffic, but Sue had to walk on the road next to a guardrail. We far prefer non-paved farm roads and forest roads, when all we have to do is enjoy the scenery — and walk uphill or downhill, most of the time. The Way of St. Francis is rarely flat.

Trekking is not a walk in the park. The challenge is one reason we do it. This trek has scenery to rival any, but our boots and bodies would be happier with less asphalt.

 

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The Way of St. Francis: A puzzling Assisi reception

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Our arrival at one of the most important religious places in the world did not go as expected. It left us puzzled.

The Basilica of St. Francis stands on the mountaintop in Assisi and sets a high bar for spectacular settings. We had completed the 109-mile pilgrimage from another icon of Catholicism, La Verna.

Now it was time to receive our Testimonium Viae Francisci, an official document honoring our walk on the Way of St. Francis.

“Come in, sit down,” said the brown-robed Franciscan monk, perhaps 25 or so.

A man in his 50s, in civilian dress, sat at a small table across from us in the Pilgrim Office in a building next to the grand Basilica. He was straight-faced, hands folded in front of him.

“Have some water, all you want. Drink, drink,” the monk implored us, pointing to several bottles and glasses on a counter in the tiny room. He burst into laughter. “Have some candy, have some candy,” he said as he waved a bowl in front of us. Laughing harder.

“Thank you, thank you, but we are fine,” we responded, turning our attention to the man at the table.

The older man said a few sentences in Italian and slid two forms across to us with pens. Sue handed him our pilgrim passports, which contained stamps from each of the nine places we had stayed on our journey.

As we filled out the forms, the monk continued to chuckle as his colleague seemed to battle bursting into laughter himself.

When they noticed that we wrote “Roma” for our destination, the monk said, “You will receive your testimonium at the Vatican then.” More laughter.

He saw the disappointment in our eyes.

“Would you like the blessing of St. Francis?”

He reached under the table. Was he going to sprinkle us with holy water? I looked at Sue, who returned my questioning look. I figured it would be rude to refuse.

“Yes, by all means,” I said.

I wondered what was next. Rather than a splash and solemn prayer, the monk pulled out two small certificates. More laughs from the monk and more Italian directed at us from the older man, still controlling an urge to giggle.

They both looked at us. Hmmm. The papers must be the blessing, I figured. As we got up to leave, we thanked them.

“You know, he speaks English,” the monk said, pointing to the man at the table. He laughed again. The other guy cracked a smile.

I am still puzzled by our visit. No questions about our journey. No “Why did you do the pilgrimage?”

Had we been part of a slapstick comedy routine? It was not what I expected after completing a walk that honors a saint.

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