Posts Tagged With: long distance trekking

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: The End is Near

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Reg blazed another trail through the tall grass and thistle today, our last day of walking through the countryside.  Tomorrow we’ll aim our boots towards Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican City, a ten mile walk that will officially complete our journey.

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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: Are We There Yet?

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The dawn of a new day found us three days out from our last rest day in Rieti, with just three more days to walk until we reach Rome, our final destination.  Our feet are tired, our hips are sore and barking dogs are getting on our nerves.

But we’re still doing it…uphill and down, along miles of ribbon-thin trails through wet thigh-high grass, trails of sticky, gooey mud and trails so steep they must be paved to keep from washing away…and we are having the time of our lives!

But, there are still miles to go and much to see before we’ll feel lucky enough to relax and truly celebrate.

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The Way of St. Francis: An Easy Stroll Along The River

After our marathon day yesterday, we spent a leisurely morning, enjoying the hospitality of the folks at 3 Archi Hotel.

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Our day was a short one, just over 6 miles to our next stop in Arrone.  We took one last look back toward the mountains we had scaled yesterday, thankful for our flat, low altitude stroll along the river.

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Just after our lunch stop, we met this gentleman, a Pilgrim from Luxembourg.  Traveling alone, he was eager to stop for a chat and told us he was on his way north to Assisi.  Rather than carrying his belongings, he had a unique towing system, his cart strapped to his belt.  Reg and I wondered how he’d fare on the mountain pass.

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The Way of St. Francis: Snapshots from a rainy day

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As we said “ciao” to the flowered hilltop city of Spello before 8 a.m. today, Trevi beckoned from its mountaintop perch 12 miles away. Several hours of mostly forgettable city and suburb walking followed; a bar stop for coffee and lunch supplies was the highlight. The expected rain began, so we hurriedly donned rain gear for the first time on our trek to Rome.

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A left turn on the Way of St. Francis took us gradually uphill to an afternoon of snapshots for the memory book. Olive groves, with red poppies bursting beneath them. Large shade trees sheltering the packed gravel farm road. A tiny medieval village looming high above. Lunch on a bench next to a monument offering a place for rest and contemplation. And, the best sandwich of the trip: ham, egg, and mayo on a flaky-crusted squishy roll.

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The rain drops got bigger as the trail narrowed and entered a thick forest. Geese scolded from behind a fence. The path eventually opened to a narrow road through a handful of homes. Three young people in a tiny car gave us enthusiastic thumbs up from behind their hard-working windshield wipers.

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Rounding a corner, we caught a glimpse of Trevi above the olive trees. It looked so close. But it was not going to be an easy catch. A treacherously steep single-track path remained as water dripped from our wide-brimmed hats. In medieval Trevi, GPS led us to our hotel, where our host quickly ushered us into our warm, modern room. A large, tiled, walk-in shower became our best friend. In the hotel dining room, hot English breakfast tea and a plateful of cookies provided a crowning snapshot of our day.

 

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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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The Way of St. Francis: Packed and Ready to Go

Ready or not, we’re off to Italy where we’ll begin The Way of St. Francis, a pilgrimage that traces the pathway traveled by St. Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century.

Our journey begins in the eastern portion of central Tuscany in Chiusi Della Verna, a small community located below Santaurio (Sanctuary) Della Verna. It was in this area that St. Francis is said to have received the stigmata. We’ve allowed two nights here to explore the history and beauty of the region…and to catch our breath after what promises to be two pretty hectic travel days.

Then we start walking, traveling mostly southward, with a goal of reaching Vatican City (not quite 300 miles away) by mid-May.

Many thanks to Sandy Brown for allowing me to use the above map, his incredibly detailed trekking guide, the links and foolproof instructions for downloading the GPX tracks onto my phone app and for hosting the Way of St Francis (Official Group) Facebook page. The information is invaluable!

As always, we will post on our blog when we’re able, so feel free to follow along on our journey as we walk The Way of St. Francis.

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The Way of Saint Francis: Training Begins

I stopped for a quick photo this morning as Reg and I neared the top of the 500 foot climb behind our home.

With our upcoming Italian pilgrimage (The Way of Saint Francis) just around the corner, today seemed like a good day to reacquaint ourselves with our backpacks. If the weather cooperates, we should have a couple months to work out any kinks!

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