Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Day 62 - La Storta to Rome

Our final day on the Via Romea Germanica. After sixty-two days as pilgrims, our odyssey would come to an end.

The first portion of today’s stage found us setting out from the convent at which we had stayed. The convent was a couple of kilometers beyond the official starting point, so although the guidebook listed this as a 19 kilometer stage, we actually would walk a little further.

Rome has been having problems with its garbage collection over the past few years. That difficulty also seems to have struck La Storta, for the refuse containers were overflowing.

Garbage Crisis

We spent the first part of the stage on the extremely busy Via Cassia. Hard asphalt under foot and cars blasting past us. Fortunately, there was a sidewalk for most of the way, but I was happy when we finally turned off into the Insugherata Nature Reserve.

Via Cassia

Now here was an oddity. This park paralleled the Via Cassia, a large green space right on Rome’s back door. We thought we were done with bushwhacking, but the blackberry brambles were relentless and unwilling to surrender without a last few scratches.

Relentless Brambles

We were not alone in this unexpected wilderness. We ran into a flock of sheep.

Roman Sheep

Our path turned into a steep ascent that broke out into the Roman suburbs. We were thrown back onto the heavily-trafficked streets, and worked our way through cars and slow-moving pedestrians.

Back to the Suburbs

The route then took us to Monte Mario, another city park. From the top of the hill we were able to see the dome of St Peters on the distant horizon. Clearly we were getting close.

St Peters

The descent from Monte Mario switchbacks down the side of the hill on a rough cobblestone track. By this point of the walk, my feet were sore, and the added stress of trying to balance on uneven cobbles was most unpleasant.

After the last switchback, we re-entered the city. We placed ourselves on the Viale Angelico, and walked through tree-shaded streets to the Vatican. Although this isn’t the most beautiful part of Rome, it was much nicer than what we had experienced up to this point. I felt myself sinking back into past good memories of the Eternal City.

And then we hit the tourist throngs. My goodness. Thousands of people filled the streets as we approached St Peters. Nevertheless, having fought through brambles, faced down the treacherous slickenstone, climbed high mountain passes, and ferreted out the mysteries of the Etruscan cave, we were not going to be deterred. We worked our way slowly through the crowds and ultimately reached the Piazza San Pietro.

Our walk, which began two months earlier in Brennero, was done.


Today’s Distance: 22 KM

Total Distance: 1,200 KM

Monday, July 15, 2019

Day 61 - Campagno di Roma to La Storta

Our penultimate night on the Via was difficult. Although our apartment was nice, it did not have an air conditioner, which, with the outside temperature climbing back to 90F, left the interior quite warm. When we opened the windows in the evening, in came a mosquito. I take the position that if an apartment does not have air conditioning, it should at least have fans and screens over the windows to keep the night time marauders out.

We were not so lucky. Between the sweat-inducing heat, Sunday night parties in town, and the lurking mosquito, I got very little sleep.

Then, at 2:30 AM, it began to rain. A good soaking rain that was supposed to last throughout the day. We are ending our Via the way we began: rain-drenched.

Campagno di Roma in the Rain

The weather forecast for Rome called for afternoon rain, but when we departed Campagno di Roma, the rain was coming down in a steady stream. I have developed a fairly ingenious way of handling the rain: I put my cover over my backpack, and then I allow the rest of my body to simply get wet. After all, after months of shirt-drenching sweat, it is difficult to tell the difference.

The guidebook rated the penultimate stage as “medium” in difficulty. We did begin with a long hill climb out of Campagna, but it seemed much easier than other hills we have climbed. After climbing as many hills as we have climbed, it is difficult to rattle us with yet another steep uphill slope. You simply put one foot in front of the other and keep doing it until you reach the summit.

Approaching Rome

The rain continued to sheet down. The water running off the brim of my hat was brown. Mother Nature was giving me a good scrubbing before we reached the big city.

Our path led us to the Santuario Madonna del Sorbo, a small church set on a hillside. According to tradition, a swine herd used to work in these woods. He noticed that one of his pigs used to vanish every day. One day he decided to follow the pig, He discovered that the pig had found an icon of the Virgin Mary in the woods. The pig appeared to be praying to the Virgin. When the swineherd approached, Mary commanded him to build a church nearby, and the Santuario was the result.

Santuario Madonna del Sorbo

After visiting the church, we continued on through the rain, through a nature park, and then into the only town on today’s stage, Formello. We had hoped to sit for a few minutes at a bar and have a bite to eat, but none of the bars we passed seemed quite right. We walked up the hill to the old part of town, thinking we would find a bar there. Much to our dismay, after passing though some older houses, we were kicked back out into the countryside and sent on our way. It is interesting that often only one approach to a town has a commercial area.


We walked through the countryside, along winding, overgrown trails, ducking under bamboo thickets, dodging blackberry brambles and the occasional stinging nettle. It was as if the Via wanted to replay its greatest hits for us in the last few kilometers.

Ultimately we were brought to a point where we needed to choose between the primary Via Francigena route, and the alternate route that was slightly shorter and went by some archeological areas. I was dubious, as the estimated time for the two routes was roughly the same. I suspected that the alternate route might have some significant bushwhacking involved.

We chose the alternate route. I was right. The trail was overgrown in spots with some kind of weed that sported blue flowers. Our continuous companion, the blackberry bramble took optimistic swipes at our heads and legs as we passed. We did see an Etruscan stone quarry and a place where the Etruscans had carved a watercourse for irrigation.


After fighting the brambles around several farmers’ fields, the alternate course brought us to a lovely waterfall, and then we began the final ascent to town. After a long hill, we reached our evening lodgings in a convent. Tomorrow we shall take our last steps on the Via as we make our way through the suburbs into Rome.


Today’s Distance: 22.7 KM
Total Distance: 1178 KM

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Day 60 - Sutri to Campagno di Roma

We are nearing the end of eight straight days of walking without a break. Today’s stage, although labeled “easy” in the guidebook, was the longest of the last eight stages (25 KM).

Once again we departed early (8:00) and walked past the archeological park. The early part of the stage was on busy roads, so we had to keep our wits about us. After a couple of kilometers we were able to turn off onto some dirt paths, which offered a pleasant change from the asphalt.

Our path took us past the National Golf School, the small town of Monterosi, and kilometer after kilometer of farms.

Hours passed. We walked.

Gothic Barn

As we neared the Cascades of Mount Gelato, we met a French woman who was travelling in the opposite direction. She began her pilgrimage in the city of Rome and is walking back to France. We compared notes for a few minutes and then continued on our way.

After the Cascades of Mount Gelato, the road began to rise and we made a slow ascent toward our destination, Campagno di Roma. This little town is perched atop a hill, and the last half kilometer was very steep.

Mary of the Hill Paths

We made it and collapsed in our evening lodgings.

Campagno di Roma

Today’s Distance: 25 KM

Total DIstance: 1155.3 KM

Day 59 - Vetralla to Sutri

The day broke sunny. Since we had a longer distance to travel today, we made an earlier departure. A little after 8:00 we began the climb out of Vetralla. As the suburbs thinned, we trudged up a long hill on a sidewalk. A cool wind lapped our faces like a playful St Bernard.

Asphalt roads ceded to a forest path as we continued to climb. (Topographical note: roughly the first eleven kilometers of this stage go uphill). We walked through oak forests in a deep shade that was very pleasant.

The oak forest yielded to hazelnut orchards. We passed the Casale delle Capannacce, which apparently once served as a pilgrimage rest station. On the other side of the road was a tiny chapel, the Chiesuola di S. Maria di Loreto. It was locked.

Chiesuola di S. Maria di Loreto

We continued through the hazelnut groves until we reached two stone pillars. These were the Torri d’Orlando. In popular legend, they were linked to the famous Orlando/Roland who accompanied Charlemagne on his ill-fated campaign into Spain. According to local tradition, Orlando/Roland was born here while his mother was on her way to visit the pope.

Torri d'Orlando

In fact, the towers have nothing to do with Orlando, but are the remains of a Roman funerary monument. It once stood sixteen meters high and would have housed the remains of a wealthy Roman family.

The first (and only) town of the day was Capranica. The Via Francigena traverses the length of the town. It begins with the modern suburbs, and finishes at the historic end of town. We stopped midway through town for a sandwich and iced tea at a bar. We met a couple of fellow pilgrims, Barry and Diane, who were from Scotland. They began their walk in Lucca, and like us, are only four days out of Rome.

“How could you have been walking for two months?” they asked. “You look so fresh.”

This is the second time in a few days that we have heard this, and it is mystifying. I haven’t had a haircut or a beard trim for the same amount of time. I have been wearing the same two shirts for two long months. After half a day on the trail I smell like a rotting rutabaga that someone has tried to freshen up with an application of ammonia. I have been sweating into my backpack lining for two months. In the evening, it sometimes gets up and moves around.


The last phase of the stage was a long walk through the forest, following the course of a small stream. Although the trail was generally good, we do move much slower on dirt trails, especially when they weave up and down stream banks.

We also had to cross the stream on small log bridges.

Ultimately, as we have on every day so far, we reached our destination, Sutri. We climbed the hill, checked into our apartment, and then, without showering, we ditched our packs and headed for the archeological park.

Across the highway from the town is a park which contains three major attractions: a Roman amphitheater, Etruscan tombs, and a church that has been carved into the side of a tufa mountain.

The Roman amphitheater was carved into the tufa. It was built (carved?) in the second to first centuries BC. Although it does not compare to the Flavian Amphitheater in Rome, it still could hold 9,000 people who would have been seated on three levels.

After admiring the amphitheater, we drifted north in front of a series of tombs that the Etruscans had carved into the hillside. At the far end of the tombs was a site with a locked door, the Church of the Madonna del Parto.

This church was certainly one of the highlights of our trip. It began its life as an Etruscan tomb. When the Romans displaced the Etruscans, they converted it into a Mithraeum --- a place where the elite worshipped the goddess Mithra. Later, after the Christianization of the Empire, the site was converted to a church.

We entered through the door with a guide. In order to keep the humidity down, they only open the church for ten minutes at the beginning of each hour. Inside were beautiful medieval frescoes. I was particularly taken by the fresco in the entryway, that depicted medieval pilgrims on their way to Rome.

From the entry, the “church” ascends between two rows of pillars that have been carved out of the tufa. At the top of the incline is a small altar and behind it, a fresco of the Virgin Mary. It was an incredibly interesting place, one that had served the religious aspirations of three great societies.

A massive thunderstorm was rolling toward Sutri as we hurried back up the hill. A torrent of rain began just before we made it to our apartment, closing out our evening.

Today's Distance: 24 KM

Total Distance: 1130.3 KM

Friday, July 12, 2019

Day 58 - Viterbo to Vetralla

Today was the last short stage until we make our final entry into Rome. Since we could not arrange early access to our evening lodging, we again made a later departure.

On the way out of Viterbo, we walked by the Palace of the Popes, a small fortress/palace complex for the pontiffs. We then passed through the city walls and were away.

Viterbo City Gate

The most fascinating sight of the day appeared on the outskirts of town. Soon after passing the McDonalds, we made our way into a narrow corridor carved out of the tufa hillside. This was the Cave di Sant’Antonio, a long passageway created by the Etruscans.

Etruscan Cave

The tufa walls closed in around us as we hiked along. A modern asphalt road has been laid at the base of the Cave, but it is only wide enough in places for a single car. The height of the walls varies, but I would guess that on average they stood about ten to twenty feet high on both sides of the road.

This raises an obvious question: why did the Etruscans invest so much time and energy creating this long stone passage? Unfortunately, although theories abound, no one really knows. Rather than simply walking over the hill, the Etruscans chose to carve a passage through it.

It was a fascinating place.

Etruscan Cave

The rest of the day was fine. We walked on a road that paralleled the highway for a couple of kilometers, we hiked through olive groves, and, at one point, we walked on a very long straight road.

Mary of the Olive Groves

Trying to find any distraction, I began to compose a description of this road in the style of Ernest Hemingway:

The road was long and straight. It was flanked by a long hedge that ran straight beside it. A line was formed where the hedge touched the road. The line was long. The line was straight.

Well, I could have gone on in this vein for a very long time, but after a while we turned off the road, worked our way through some olive groves, and reached our destination for the evening: Veltralla.  

Today's Distance: 17.5 KM

Total Distance: 1106.3 KM

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Day 57 - Montefiascone to Viterbo

Another short stage as we close on Rome. We began our day a little later than normal, walking in the fresh air after yesterday’s heat-cleansing thunderstorm. A cool breeze suppressed the temperature, as we began our descent from the heights of Montefiascone.

We spent a significant portion of our morning on the smooth hard stone of the Via Cassia, an ancient Roman road that once linked Florence and Rome. Stones that were laid almost 2,000 years ago still form a walkway for pilgrims on the Via Romea. The Romans built their roads to last, and I was bemused to see streetlights lining one section of the Via Cassia as we skirted a town. Cars still drive on this road. It is incredible.  

The Via Cassia

We spent nearly all of this stage on the Via Cassia or a gravel road through the countryside. After we climbed the only significant hill on today’s stage, we saw two women walking ahead of us. Fellow pellegrini, how unusual.

Our pace was much faster, and we soon overtook the women. They were two school teachers from Milan, Chiara and Chiara, who were doing a segment of the Via Francigena.

“After the school year has ended,” they explained, “we like to get out and walk, and talk about how to improve our teaching.”

They were amazed that we had come all the way from Brennero. “You look so fresh,” exclaimed Chiara.

I don’t know how we looked, but I took care to stay downwind of the pair, lest the stench of my backpack reveal how long we had been hiking under the Italian sun.

Mary, Chiara, and Chiara happily chatted as we walked. As we neared Viterbo, I watched military helicopters making training flights from an airbase outside the city.

As we neared Viterbo, we reached the Terme del Bagnaccio, a thermal bathing spot that dated back to the Etruscans.

“They say that they let pellegrinos bathe here for free,” said Chiara. She and the other Chiara intended to stop and soak themselves in heated water under the strengthening sun. I suppose this proves that, despite our time walking across the country, Mary and I are still not prepared to fully embrace the Italian ethos. I could think of nothing I would rather do less than soak my body in hot water. Cool water -- certainly. But I have been battling the heat for weeks. No thank you to the thermal baths.

We parted company with Chiara and Chiara, the second and third pilgrims we have met on this trip. We continued on into Viterbo alone.

What a busy little city! After months of silence and tranquility, the rush of traffic as we walked up the hill to the historic center was truly disconcerting. We had to watch our steps carefully, but ultimately we reached our destination for the evening.

Palace of the Popes, Viterbo

Today’s Distance: 18.5 KM

Total Distance:  1088.8

Day 56 - Bagnoregio to Montefiascone

Although the day dawned clear and sunny, the weather boffins assured us that a reprieve from our recent heat wave was at hand. The day was supposed to cloud up quickly, with sunshine yielding to thunderstorms and torrential downpours.

This stage was relatively short, and since the temperature was supposed to moderate, and we couldn’t check into our next lodging until after 1:00, we were in no hurry to depart. It was 9:45 before we hitched on our packs and left Bagnoregio.

The tourists were beginning to arrive as we walked out of town. Traffic was heavy, and this was particularly problematic as the Via leaves Bagnoregio on a curving road with little room for hopping into a ditch when a truck races toward you. Near the top of the hill, we encountered two men painting lines on the newly asphalted roads. They didn’t seem to have any way to control the traffic (in the US, there would be flaggers to slow down the cars) and I wondered what the accident  rate was for Italian road workers.

Striping the Road

We turned onto a quieter country road, once more crossing an altopiano. The clouds were thickening as predicted, and they had become particularly dense in the north and west quadrants of the sky. I knew we were in for a race for Montefiascone if we didn’t want to be soaked.

The Road to Montefiascone

Our quiet country road terminated at a busy statale. Cars were racing past, and I was glad that the Via vectored us around this road. We crossed the statale and hiked a short distance to a small electrical substation. The road ended at the building, and there was no obvious way to continue. The building was surrounded by blackberry brambles and other thorny denizens of the forest realm. We spent ten minutes searching for a path forward, but found nothing.

That meant we would need to return to the very busy statale and take our chances on a narrow road with fast moving traffic. I know that my reader is probably growing weary of reading my complaints about the overgrown paths on the Via, but this time it involved a serious safety issue. If the path that has been selected to protect walkers is so badly overgrown that walkers cannot find it, then that is a problem. It becomes a greater problem when it forces hikers to endanger their lives because they cannot get through on the designated route.

Adding a little spice to the mix was the fact that the thunderstorms were now upon us. Thunder was grumbling on three sides, and the wind was bending trees and shaking leaves around us.

Gathering Storm

“We need to walk as quickly as we can along this road,” I told Mary. “There is supposed to be a sidewalk in a couple of kilometers, and if we can reach that before the visibility drops, we should be all right.”

We hiked along the narrowest of shoulders as the storn’s fury increased. Cars flung themselves toward us, headlights blazing. When it appeared that they hadn’t seen us, or couldn’t swerve because of oncoming traffic in the opposite lane, we threw ourselves into the ditch.

The rain began. We took refuge in a driveway, a little off the road, and put on our backpack covers. Battened down, we returned to the highway. Visibility was dropping, lightning was flaring, large trucks and fast cars were whipping past in the sheeting rain.

The rain intensified and then, on the other side of the statale, I saw the sidewalk. It suddenly began, with no apparent logic. We crossed over and gained a significant margin of safety. Now the traffic was rolling by a good meter from our extremities. Even though the rain increased, I felt much more secure.

We walked into town in the pouring rain, arriving like Poseidon amidst a vanguard of water.

In the city, we dashed into the church of San Flaviano. This is a famous pilgrim church. Montefiascone is at the intersection of two ancient pilgrimage routes: our Via Romea, and the western Via Francigena, which begins in Canterbury, England, continues down through France, and then comes down the western side of Italy. For the last six days, the two routes share the same path.

San Flaviano is a strikingly beautiful example of a romanesque church. Ancient frescoes adorn the walls and in one corner is the tombstone of a courtier named Defuk. In the year 1111, the German emperor Henry V traveled to Rome for his coronation. In his vanguard was a famous wine lover named Johannes Deuc (commonly known as Defuk). Defuk was so devoted to the grape, that he had his servant travel in advance of the royal party, and wherever the servant discovered a town or wineshop that served excellent wine, he chalked the Latin word “est” (here it is) on the door.

When the servant reached Montefiascone, he was so taken by the quality of the wine, that he wrote “est est est!” on the city gates. When Defuk saw that signal, he tried the wine, loved it so much that he refused to leave Montefiascone. He remained in the city and drank himself to death.

A salutary warning.

The two other main attractions of the city are the cathedral and the rocca dei papi (fortress of the popes). The cathedral is significant in that it has the third largest dome in Italy (after Rome and Florence). We had a look, and while the dome is large, I am not certain that the cathedral would make my top ten list of churches that we have seen.

Duomo, Interior

At the top of the hill is the rocca. In the early thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III ordered that a fortress be built for the popes in Montefiascone. Part of the reason was to help secure this part of the papal states, and the other was to serve as a potential refuge should the pope be threatened. Later popes enlarged or remodelled the fort; some popes, like Urban V used it as a summer residence.

Rocca dei Papi

Today it stands in ruins. A portion of the tower of the pellegrino remains, as does a smaller building. While it is no longer suitable as a fortress, the views from the top of the tower of the pellegrino are fantastic.

Tower of the Pellegrino

One other noteworthy item: in one of the main piazzas, a sign has been painted over the archway: 100 Kilometers to the Tomb of St Peter.

We are getting close.

Today’s Distance: 14.5 KM

Total Distance: 1070.3 KM