Review section

Introduction

Well I managed it in the end! Barring a day on the train and the odd bus ride across town, I walked the entire length of the ancient Roman road, the Via Francigena, connecting Britain to the heart of the ancient empire, Rome. My journey began in Canterbury, now the official starting point and ended in the Vatican Square, outside of St Peter’s basilica.

The official route suggests its 1800kms but I suspect I walked well over 2000kms; when taking into account the number of times I got lost, walking to and from accommodation and food sources, and detours to explore local places of interest.

IMG_2269(2)

I had set myself a couple of tasks. Obviously and unstated, I hoped to finish and not need to be hospitalised! The first, was to reflect upon my late parents, Franco and Maria; the second, was to consider the nature of God or god. How did I do? But first, a very brief summary of the more memorable elements of my journey across Europe.

20171106_094549

Memorable bits

Good things

Friendships made en route albeit necessarily temporal but meaningful nonetheless and far too many to mention;

Historic places, towns, and ruins. The entire route is full of them;

Beautiful places of prayer such as churches, chapels, convents, and monasteries;

Restful accommodation eg St Loup’s Tyburn convent; and at Brigitte’s home;

Kindness of strangers eg Enric in Chamblain d’Abbe helping me to rescue my phone;

Food in Italy eg pinci pasta; Italian cream doughnuts and croissants;

Equipment taken with me eg silk liner instead of a sleeping bag;

Follow up meetings eg Cristina in London, and Fabbrizio in Rome;

The two weeks rest before returning home;

Ichnusa beer in Italy;

Seeing both sides of my family in the days afterwards;

Cresting the Alps at Col Grand San Bernard;

Less good things

Getting lost so many times;

The painful walk through bamboo hedging in the Po Valley;

Falling down a hill in Val D’Osta and hurting my left hip;

Bad water in France;

Lack of food, signage, or free water across France;

Eye problems in France;

Pain throughout most of the journey esp hips, knees and feet;

Heel splits and blisters;

Getting caught short a few times;

Unbearable heat some weeks in France and Italy;

Overly heavy rucksack;

Vicious dogs;

Intentional misdirection en route up to Radicofani;

Various tourist information staff esp Lausanne and Champlitte;

Collapse of energy upon arrival in Rome;

Weird things

The sarcophagus of Santa Rosa in Viterbo, Italy;

Toilet/shower arrangement in the Franciscan hostel in Chatillon, Italy;

Small dog licking the back of my neck in the village of Marador, France;

Farcical toilet incidence en route up to Radicofani, Italy with Fabbrizio;

Buying ingredients in a supermarket with a total stranger, Angela, Langres, France;

What could I have done better?

Loaded the VF software onto my phone before departure;

Should have started off with much less weight in the large rucksack;

Trained harder beforehand ie carried a heavier rucksack and walked further;

Bought better sunglasses for the journey;

Read Beloc’s excellent book on his VF journey before my departure;

Bought a European plug to USB adapter rather than carrying a UK plug and adapter;

Taken a tube of savalon;

The fundraising for Hostage UK has been disappointing, not even reached 15% of my target!

20171106_094713

Franco and Maria

My objective here was to be able to talk about my late parents without being disabled by emotion; to this end, I had thought that allowing myself the time and space to consider them as people; to develop a more balanced view of them; and reflect upon what they actually did for me, the extended family and our local community, I would find a place to locate them in my memories and develop a form of words that would allow me to talk about them more freely.

To some extent I have achieved this. I feel a huge burden of debt to them, in that, they provided my sister and I with a stable, loving home. We ate good food but in the conetxt of very limited material wealth, such as books and toys. We may well have been the last family on the street to own a car; not on environmental grounds but due to our financial limitations. Oddly, my parents set high standards of where they wanted to see me as an adult, eg they felt I should become a doctor or a lawyer, after all they thought I was bright enough, as a child, and they had sacrificed much since their arrival in the UK as migrant workers in the early 1950s. What they didn’t know, therefore couldn’t share with me, was how I supposed to achieve this objective. I certainly had no idea, and ending up in an awful secondary modern school, I was given little or no encouragement to study or to think beyond traditional forms of employment such as industrial apprenticeships.

My father is without doubt the source of physical abilities, what little I have that is, and these are consistent with many of the Laurenzi males, however, I didn’t get all the genes, in that, I’m the only bald one! My father was an emotionally literate character and a tremendously good host, warm and welcoming, however, he was stubborn, irrationally biased against all sorts of things, in way we would, today, consider it, bigoted. He liked the idea of being a sort of community leader but couldn’t really deliver on this task, and much was left to my mother and I to sort; whereas he got the credit. Yet he never made any pretence when it was just we four at home; it was just a show for the Italian public of Leighton Buzzard.

My mother on the other hand, gave me my character, values, and a deep sense of responsibility for others. It is hard to imagine a kinder, more loving woman but she had a terrible temper, much like my father. But unlike him, she enjoyed me sharing ideas, concepts, and things I’d learned, mostly from books. Often on Sundays, whilst my father was at work, we three would talk for ages about things, that is, as long as they didn’t conflict with Catholic teachings! I remember one such lunch where I used a torch and two balls to explain why the moon changes shape; my mother was speechless but I’m not entirely convinced she believed me.

I am more able to talk about them without resorting to blubbering. Interestingly, whilst I can do this in English, I struggle talking about them in Italian. Not because I don’t have the same lexicon, but, it being their language, the language of our home, just makes it all the more poignant.

I am left with a strong sense of my childhood and family plus a deep feeling of gratitude. It reinforces my belief that money is not everything and it certainly can’t buy you love!

The big conceptual task I set myself was to consider the nature of god. In the blog intro I mentioned that I had given up on the concept about the age of 14 or 15. I had been comfortable in my atheism for decades, indeed brought up my two boys, in that tradition. I believed that one could have a strong moral framework without reference to god or an established religion. I still believe this. I have worn my atheism like a safety blanket and when things didn’t fit I just put them on a shelf, intellectually speaking. The problem for me was the shelf was getting over crowded and ran the risk of collapse.

It has been suggested that my encroaching age produces an urgent sense of one’s own mortality; I’m sure this true, maybe even for me. After all, I feel some urgency about getting things sorted, such as my will but I have no sense, whatever, that my life is about to be over any time soon. I am still strong, fit and healthy, especially for my age. The urgency is driven by frustration, about how, as a species we organise ourselves, the harm we do to each other and the planet, and wanting to see my sons leading meaningful, independent lives. And, oh yes, I really want to be a grandfather, many times over!

The review for me began at two starting points. First, why do we seem predisposed to want to have a god, in almost every culture, and every era, people have felt the need to refer to god/gods. Ignorance must play its part, but not every culture or every point in history can be said to suffer from such ignorance. The second, is based on whether there exists anything independent of us, as corporeal and sentient beings, if so, what on earth could it be?

The ignorance point was easier to deal with for me, in that, it runs against common sense, to assume we are either biologically programmed or predisposed towards easy answers, a form of intellectual laziness; or maybe, a desire to blame something other than oneself or one’s own community or tribe, when things go wrong. I simply don’t buy this argument, if we are programmed for god, where is this function located; which are the genes responsible; and why have so many bright people come out in support of the idea of God. Ignorance doesn’t stack up for me.

So, if there exists something separate from us, as humans, what is it and what is the relationship between us and them/it? I continue to be skeptical about the god of the main religions, founded in the middle east: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They present an understanding of a god that seems both redundant and impossible. A rigid idea born out of its time in the middle east and since then we continue accepting too few serious revisions. I know virtually nothing of the other major religions, such as, Hinduism, so there has been no consideration of this or other religions or philosophies on this trip.

My sense today, is that something sentient exists, separate from us, but its too early for me to say what, let alone why. It could be something like Jung’s collective unconsciousness; a sentient energy operating much like cloud computing; or another dimension we have yet to properly understand. I am sorry to those of you that wanted something more tangible or definitive, but for me, its still a work in progress.

Whilst walking, I wanted to look at the items I had put on the shelf. I won’t bore you with all the details but will pick two. The first, is there have been so many times, when I faced death, from infancy to recent adulthood, and yet each time, I was either unscathed or ended up with little damage. The second, is more complex and perhaps also easier to dismiss. I feel able to do some things that I’ve never been shown or learnt. It could, in fact, just be a degree of intelligence, rational thinking, unconsciously having learned a thing, or even genetic memory. But what if I’ve been given a helping hand? It, of course, begs questions such as by whom and why? I have no answers to these. I shared these things liberally and openly with fellow walkers and pilgrims, as one does, but I did not always like their answers. I am unhappy with suggestions of being special or chosen. Too many bad things have arisen when one group considers itself either special or chosen! I certainly don’t feel either.

An interesting conversation I had with journalist and author, Timothy Egan, that maybe you don’t have to be special to be chosen. I am uncomfortable with the notion of being chosen at all, not so much out of modesty but fear of what I might be chosen for. What’s if I don’t agree with it; or am totally unsuited for the task; or that I don’t even realise I’ve been given a task! It was put well in the 1970s, in an otherwise rather silly book, by Richard Bach, the reluctant messiah.

I have enjoyed spending time in monasteries, convents, churches and chapels throughout my walk. My journey began at Westminster cathedral and Canterbury and finished at the Vatican and San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome. I found sung vespers a rewarding experience but still do not feel inclined to join in with services, such as mass. The act of structured mediation or prayer, when done my way, it would probably not be considered as praying at all. It is something I missed during my long period of atheism. Maybe it’s just the space for quiet reflection rather than prayer; after all, I don’t repeat anything proscribed nor do I adopt any conventional line of engagement. It’s more of a sense of opening myself up to the ether. I expect no reply, yet often come away with answers, much in the same way, as if it had been considered using a pen and paper. Yet things to do with deep feelings and emotions don’t lend themselves to ordinary forms of calculation, its not like working on a maths formula or planning a recipe. Being still and open, seems to work for me. Maybe its just the process of quietening a busy brain, rather than mediation or prayer; in truth, I don’t really care which it is, it just seems to work for me.

Post walk recovery

I had around three weeks after completing the walk before returning home. I spent it in three phases: Rome, mostly in bed for a couple of days; 10 days in Calabria staying with my sister; and finally about a week back in Rome, before returning to the UK.

The first couple of days, I did, literally spend it laying down in my B&B, Colazione al Vaticano. It was very close, as its name suggests, to the Vatican. Like many Italian B&Bs, they haven’t understood that the second B stands for breakfast; indeed I was only offered breakfast, in one such place in the whole of Italy.

Watched a lot of TV and ate. Having lost 10 kilos and in a good deal of pain, coupled with a terrible headache, probably borne from exhaustion, I really did need peace and quiet, lots of rest, and plenty of food!

I enjoyed my short sojourn to Calabria, where my sister lives, as well as many rellies on my mother’s side, of my large extended family. It was not really restful but it was good seeing everyone once more. I really hope my sister, Emilia, returns back to the UK, we all miss her. 10 days came and went, and I could feel the weight returning to my body. Ice cream from Cesare; coffee granita with panna at Sub-Zero; and gorging myself on frittole with my family; it all helped my waist line to return to pre-VF dimensions!

My handful of days back in Rome were enjoyable but I was ready to return home. It felt odd that whilst I’d been walking the VF, I’d rented out my home for a few weeks. Not sure that it was worth the cost and effort for the rent received! I tried several times to get into St Peter’s but the queues seem never to go down. I visited some old favourites such as the Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and Trajan’s column. I had the time to explore new areas but always walking very slowly, almost gingerly, as the soles of my feet continued to be sore. The new places include, EUR the modernist district set up Mussolini; Circus Maximus; and the beautiful St John in Laterans.

I enjoyed my evening with Don, who lives in Rome, and sits on the board of both Hostage US and Hostage Italia, the latter, I am keen to help get off the ground. My cousin’s daughter, Oriana and her partner, Sal plus his dad and brother in law, and I, had a great day out in Ostia. The ancient port of Rome, with its own, remarkable architectural style, a blend of fascism inspired monumentalism crossed with Hispanic, Santa Fe, sounds contradictory but the description works for me! I had a day trip to Assisi to meet with my cousin, Roberto, who was curating a series of historically themed events for the region. It’s so him! He, despite being busy, kindly introduced me to what I can only describe as a super-pilgrim, Francisco Sancho, who has walked 13000kms over 7 years. His Assisi exhibition was outstanding, it was simple yet deeply moving.

Since returning to London on 5th October, my body has begun to re-adjust back to urban life. My legs ache quite a bit and have asked to have x-rays on my hips; plus a proper look at my eye, but this being the NHS I can’t even get on the waiting list to have my eye looked at! It been enjoyable meeting up with friends – old and new, doing DIY and overseeing an extension to my home, and yet I can’t seem to settle. Unconsciously planning my next walk maybe? I’ll need a new pair of boots, the ones below have quite worn out!

20171004_105433

 

Advertisements

September 16

Made it to the Eternal City. Said goodbye to folk. Made a new friend. Feet very sore. There’s flooding all round. Nearly get run over.

Up at 5am and on the road after a quick breakfast by 6. Walk down a road that has almost become an old friend, Via Cassia, for almost 5kms. Today it’s V&G, Vaclav and I. Wave the Cassia goodbye and cut down into a nature reserve, Parco Insugherata.  It’s a scrappy looking place, like many European urban reserves. Most of us got bramble tears on our legs or clothes. The slope up at the other end was tough. My legs hurt, consequently my pace dropped a fair bit. A bit further along Vaclav throws his walking pole in a dumpster, which I remove, then lean it on a fence. Someone is bound to want it.

Stop for a second breakfast in the Monte Mario district. Decide not to have coffee but a sort sausage roll made with German sausage and spinach. Gave some to a beggar from Africa, who swallowed it almost without chewing. He was a hungry young man.

Follow the Triomfiale for ages and then cut through another park, MonteMario. Another steep walk up followed by a silly, steep descent. I wish I’d gone around the long way. The rest of the walk was easy and flat, swerving around bins, badly parked vehicles, and impatiently driven cars. Eventually catch the top of the famous Basilica and head straight towards it, along with countless tourists. I leave the group once we’re inside Bernini’s famous colonnade. I do a quick tour of the obelisk and rejoin the group for a hug and photos. We are the first to register for the testinonium today. A sort of certificate to confirm completion.  In reality one would only need to walk from Lucca. I would have liked it to say I began in Canterbury.

Inside the Centro San Lorenzo, I recognise the artwork on the walls I’d seen in a dozen hostels across Tuscany. Then the artist Andrea turns up and we have a long chat. A sweet guy. Some of his Christian inspired monochrome work is quite beautiful.

The four of us head for a plate of pasta and a beer. I am falling asleep when I say goodbye to the three of them, to go in search of my accomodation. Irritatingly Google doesn’t recognise the address so it takes me longer to locate it than it should have!

Short nap and meet with Don, who’s kindly been looking after 2 parcels of mine, sent ahead, so that I’d have some decent clothes to change into. Don is great guy and we exchange details of our respective Italian ancestry over a beer.

I head back, excited to see what’s in the parcels. I sent them so long ago, I’d almost forgotten. Lay everything across my room and decide its too complex to decide how to repack my stuff today. Am just too tired.

I decide I fancy a kebab, so Google my options.  Get dressed and head out 7.30ish. In a few minutes it’s a torrent. I’m soaked. Google no longer shows the kebab shop so head off in another direction to my second choice. In the meantime the first one re-appears on my phone screen. I am now in between two places and my blood sugar is very low and have a headache.  Decide to head to my first choice and, of course, it’s no longer trading! Head towards the other, on the far side of the Vatican for choice number two and it’s bucketing. I’ve now been out an hour and besides my low blood sugar, I’m thirsty. There’s no sign of the second shop. Give up and go for a takeaway pizza. Which I order without a hitch. There’s a lovely German girl of about 8, speaking to a waiter in Italian, she tired me out, watching her dash about. Her dad was tall, large and subdued and remanded me slightly of the Panzer tankdriver in Kelly’s Hero’s.

Walking back to my accomodation when a young woman decides to overtake stationary traffic and jump a red light almost knocking me over on a crossing.  Luckily you could hear the roar of the engine over the rain. I won’t repeat what Rude Laurenzi shouted, very loudly.

Ate my pizza; planned my travel to Calabria; and tried to watch a little TV. Italian TV is even worse than the US, which take some doing. The only thing I could bear to watch was a black and white 1960s production of Maria Callas, singing various pieces. That woman can sing!

I am trying to stay up a bit longer than usual, so that I might lay in tomorrow. I am brain dead tonight. I will head to St Peter’s tomorrow but beyond that who knows?  I am too tired to review where I’ve got to. I will, of course,  add in some photos and do a final edit once I return home. But for now I’m signing off until the big adventure.

Thanks for having followed me.

September 15

One day to go. Throw up. More Etruscan ruins. Helpful TO staff in Formelo. Talk Seattle.

Pleasant start to today’s early start. Breakfast with V&G around the small dining table.  Even had a cup of tea albeit not very nice. Said goodbye to the Sardinian couple. Start long call to my son, Jack, in Seattle, which took me most of the way to Sorbo. It was great talking to him. I miss my boys.

The sanctuary of the Madonna of Sorbo is a very pleasant and tranquil place. I really liked the modest, small church, with its complex yet enduring fresco.

 

Bumped into V&G and we walk to Formelo together, sharing many an anecdote. For the first time today I realised that I’m well travelled.  An odd thing to realise, yet, this fact makes no direct difference to my life whatever but maybe it does to other folk?

The old town of Formelo is lovely. It has in its museum a partial reconstruction of a Roman Mansio. It’s 2 staff were great. Helpful, informative, and generous with their time. Stick that Viterbo!

We three walk out of town together and I leave them at start of a very long track. Made of compacted earth alternating with dirty white limestone. Later it would be replaced by long stretches of hard, jagged lumps of tufa or tuff. Tufa really tears at my soles, whilst it’s light like pumice, it’s very sharp. My boot soles have worn down through the Vibram layer, so cannot now be resoled. I only hope they will last another 24 hours!

Start to feel ill around 12ish ie after 5 hours walking and I still have about 4kms to go. Say hello to 2 guys who walk swiftly through.  I follow but can’t maintain their pace. The path cuts through some former Etruscan burial sites in the ancient province of Veii. Reach a former medieval watermill and decide to follow the four feet high tunnel lit by my trusty torch. Hadn’t realised that my hat and the top of my backpack are covered in cobwebs. I thought I had merely surprised the rather large family of three but on reflection I must have looked a sight emerging into the daylight like some trogdelite creature woken after millennia. To make matters worse I walk about 20mts and start to retch. I don’t vomit very much but I’m not well. The two guys who passed me earlier were picking figs and took pity on me and offered me a ride into La Storta.  It’s only 2kms but they drop me at the wrong place and I have to walk up hill through hundreds of school children.

The nun on duty here is sister Ornella. I love her: everyone says the same. I wonder whether I can adopt her as an aunt? The place is clean and tidy, and it soon fills up with pilgrims.  My dorm is full with the late arrival of Vaclav, who’s on the bunk above me.

The various groups head towards the same bar, and later on, the same restaurant. I hear that there’s an American couple from Seattle, researching the Francigena. I introduce myself and next thing they’ve joined us for dinner. Tim; Joanie (sp?) and I chat freely about Seattle, the VF and God. They very kindly pay for my meal. It was good chatting about Seattle and WA. A part of the US I’m now familiar with.  In the end, all I paid for was the Nastro Azzuro beer for us four, which doubled as an aperitif!

Saddened by news that my adopted home of London, where I’ve lived most of my life, has had another terror attack. It is self defeating in the end. It’s a great city and won’t be browbeaten by a bunch of nutters.

Feel more human again. Tired but ready to finish this thing I’ve started. Something tells me that this is only the start but of what I cannot say. For now I want to complete the VF tomorrow and then rest for a couple of days.  I really want to eat eggs, I miss them. Silly really, the small things that I’ve missed, like the Today Programme and poached eggs!

September 14

Run across dual carriageway. Guidebook sends me into an industrial estate. Spend two hours alone in an empty hostel. Arrive in Campagnano by lunch time.

Leave Sutri around 7.15 and it’s a beautiful day. Stop by the amphitheatre made from a quarried mound of tufa. It’s more sculpted than constructed. The walk along the road at this point is fine. There’s a gravel track which runs for 3kms and ends at an odd complex of golf venues. It is, apparently, the Italian national golf centre.

The track becomes asphalt before entering the town of Monterosi. Where it’s time for a second breakfast! V&G arrive just before I leave;  I try to explain the inappropriateness of the cafe’s name, gorgeous. The funny part, is that the aged waiters with gorgeous written across their shirts do so with no sense of irony! I tried to explain this to the owner but he just shrugged!

Forget to take an early crossing over the Cassia and end up on the wrong side of a dual carriageway.  Decide it’s better, overall, to clamber over the barriers and run across four lanes. Quite a feat of reflexes and coordination but in reality an exercise in lunacy! Must have been quite a sight! Walk along a protected lane, where the protection soon fizzles out but it still feels safe. Cross a bridge and follow the slip road onto the southbound Cassia and the trucks are mightily close and very fast. Guidebook says there’s a footpath in 400mts. Find something but it fizzles out and comes to a halt with a 3mts drop into a recycling centre. Drop bags and slowly lower myself down. I’m in the middle of an industrial estate and the only way out is the fast flowing SS2. Take a glimpse and the hard shoulder is narrow and the speeding trucks large. Ask advice from a young woman parked on the slip road  who gives me a ride to the next exit about 500mts away. Cross over and head south on the opposite slip road and come out where I should have been. It is lunacy to suggest to readers to walk along the dual carriageway. I’ll be having words with Ms Raju when, and if, I get home.

It’s a long 6kms into Campagnano. The VF path takes an indirect route, as always. Find a pleasant fountain in the middle of nowhere and eat an early lunch. Yesterday’s foccacia, some nuts and an orange. Decide to air my damp clothes in the bright sunshine. A gust of wind leaves my T shirt in the dirt and my pants in the water.  Rude Laurenzi has a field day ranting, peppered with loud expletives.

The walk into town and getting to then hostel seems to take forever. Get to the hostel at 12.40 it’s open but no one there. Find the office but it too is empty. Decide to do some personal admin but get cold sitting on the marble stairs. Find a bed and get sorted. Leave a note saying where I am. Have hot shower and about to wash clothes when V&G say there’s a spare bed in their B&B style hostel, pack my stuff once more, remove note, and cross town into the old borgo. I was two hours in a building which the management were unaware of!

There are now five of us staying  in a former chicken coop, including an elderly Sardinian couple. It’s cosy to say the least. They decide to eat out and I offer to cook pasta, fusili all’arabiata to be precise. Go for a quick tour and food shop. The nice Sards buy us three large bottles of what is currently my favourite Italian beer, Ichnusa, from the Greek Hyknusa, their name for Sardinia.

Whilst the sauce is cooking, we talk about loss and adjustment; and, of course, the nature of God. Interesting insights all round.

The Sard couple return and we chat for a bit before everyone heads to bed, leaving me a quiet moment to write this short post. Two days walking left and around 40kms to go. Its hard to believe that in 48 hours I’ll be sitting in a Roman bar wondering what all the fuss was about!

September 13

Pull a double etape. Great weather. Another volcanic lake. Carmelites keep me hanging on. Sutri is a surprise.

Vaclav is up at 6am and out the door by 6.45; he’s aiming for Vetralla today, where I’ve booked him into a monastery and a haircut in a pet shop.  Might not see him again, but do have his email address. His surname is Smirnoff!

Decide to try the route I heard about yesterday which misses Vetralla altogether and goes to Sutri. I have only a photo of a handrawn map to go by plus of course my apps to verify my location. Leave by 7.30 and feel strong this morning, must be all that pasta I ate yesterday!

Get to the bottom of the road and something is not right with one of my boots. I can feel an unusual rub on a toe. Whip off both boot and sock and find nothing; must have been the tiniest fold of the sock.  After 10 weeks you notice these small things, which, if ignored can result in painful blisters.

On the foot front. The final adjustment to my right insole has worked well and the pain in the balls of my right foot have receded. I am close to losing two toenails, only hope that it’s after I finish!

All I have with me are a handful of the delicious grapes left by Vaclav. Each cafe bar seems teeming with noisy teenagers and it’s not yet 8am. Must be the first day back or something. Odd, the place reminds me of Istanbul. I need to eat and to buy food, as I believe I will pass very few towns on this choice of route.

Find myself walking out of Viterbo with little water, no food, and not having had breakfast. Very poor start for me. It will be three hours of uphill walking which I hadn’t appreciated. Need grub and quick!

Soon pass through Bel Colle which is really just a massive hospital complex. It’s a bit ugly and not the sort of place you want to end up in.  A few kms later along a dangerously narrow SP9, it’s the delightful respite of San Martino de Cimino. It’s a small place with an impressive square lined with shops. Find a bar and eat! A couple of doors down is a wonderful general alimentari store. Buy large bottle of water, fruit, a massive filled roll, and an emergency slice of focaccia! I am a bit over laden and the way out is up and I mean up. I could barely walk up past the church, so as to leave by the southern gate.

Exit town and it’s almost an hour up hill on the SP81, to the suggested path through the extensive woods overlooking lake Vico. I notice an odd looking cat, it had perfectly circular, deepset eyes much like an owl, it was staring but not moving. Makes you wonder whether other mammals actually think in anyway we would detect or understand?

Reach the edge of the wood and it’s uphill for another 30 minutes and then its a long ridge walk through miles of majestic beech. I love this tree even though it has a tendency to lose branches and fall over for no reason. Maybe it’s just clumsy?

The view of the lake to my left is limited as the woodland vegetation is so dense, likewise the valley below on the other side. The lake, like it’s near neighbour, Bolseno, is a volcanic crater, extinct, and then filled up with rain water over thousands of years. It’s a huge attraction for water sports enthusiasts as well as for wildlife.

The woodland path is soft and damp smelling  much like the walks I often took in the Washington Cascades. Reminds me how much I miss my son, Jack, who is struggling to survive in the cut throat world of US retail.

I am out of the woods at noon and seek a spot to sit and eat part 2 of my lunch. The beech have been replaced by oak initially, and then field after field of hazel. It must be the world centre for the nut. The legendary chocolates, Baci, are made just down the road in Perugia, with their distinctive hazel nut centres. Like a loon I’m gathering up fistfulls of those I find in the road, what I plan to do with them is unclear. Finally find a wall which sadly was in the sun but you can’t have everything. I notice three people across the road sitting on the ground eating. I ask whether they’re gathering up nuts, which they confirm. As I leave they ask me questions about where I’m from etc. They have a look of genuine astonishment at my answers, as if I’m a fictional character suddenly come to life before them.

Half an hour later I’m in the marvellous town of Ronciglione. Totally unexpected. Its has an amazing medieval borgo or old town. Absent mindedly wandering through it I find myself deep in a seasonal gully, which of course means that I now have to walk up the other side with all my gear on! Decide on a route but Google maps neglects to show that the road hits an embankment which is only a few metres deep and below the raised main road. Decide to climb through the dense vegetation and soon find myself bleeding from bramble tears.  Soon on the road for the final 6km leg into Sutri.

It’s turning hotter but there’s a decent amount of intermittent shade.  It’s uninspiring except where someone dumped a loo (excuse the pun), a bright spark put up a notice saying 21st C toilet welcome to use. It reminds me of an April fools joke we played on the fire brigade trainees who shared a floor with us, when I was at LWT. There a was an unused drinking fountain which we made look like a bidet replete with towel and standing stool. The look on the faces of the unsuspecting trainees will remain with me. Childish yes, but certainly funny.

As I’m writing this post I can hear that someone near here also has a donkey/ass braying ring tone. Why?

Get to the monastery at 14.40 but it doesn’t open to pilgrims until 3.30 and 4.30 for everyone else.  Wait patiently despite having finished my water and it’s hot. At 3.30 begin ringing buzzer at the third attempt someone tells me they’re not able to take in anyone. Am slightly annoyed but ring a B&B and get a room straight away.  The Seminary B&B is in the main square. Sort myself out and promptly fall asleep. I awake feeling tired and drowsy. Head out for a meander but am just too tired. Go for a pizza and salad in a decent sort of place. The type that exist all over Italy. On the way back I bump into V&G, an effusive pair, who’s company I enjoy. We discuss the mysterious, the as yet, un-named, now returned woman, who’d gone off piste a bit.

Am back inside by 8.45 and zombie-like, must have really overdone it today. Tomorrow is shorter at 24kms down to Campagnano do Roma. It seems to be an orbital town to the capital. It will put me less than 20kms from the Vatican. What on earth will I do with myself then? Take up knitting; breed snails; start gambling, the world is my oystercard!

September 12

Got lost and added 2 hours to today’s walk. Checked out some Etruscans. The rudest pilgrim host to date. Might not take my day off tomorrow.  Lots of Angry Laurenzi today!

Up and ready to leave the fine monastery of St Peter by 7am. See Brazilian couple whilst eating breakfast in a cafe. In an odd sort of dance they replaced Vaclav and I at the cafe table.

Got immediately lost exiting the old centre. None of the streets mentioned in the guide appeared on Google Maps. Hopeless really. Went too far West and spent the day correcting the error. A four hour journey took six. Angry with myself as well as my travelling companion’s lack of money sense and engagement with the details of the route. He’s aware that he’s on his own tomorrow.

Missed the Roman road Ex Cassia Antica. Which also annoys me. Caught another Roman road, a very long, straight gravel track with the occasional bend in it, all the way south until we find a eastward track . This latter route is surprisingly long, takes an hour longer than the map suggests.

We reach the outskirts of town around noon and it’s filthy. The motorway underpass has become a large rubbish pile. The hostel takes another hour to reach, and the sun is at its hottest. I can taste the pollution. Earlier a military helicopter hovered over us repeatedly as we walked past the base’s fence. My luck to get arrested for looking the wrong way. I kept an eye on V in case he decides to take pictures of the base!

The pilgrim host is as obese as he is rude. Got immediate shrift from me which probably helped; that, and I spoke to him in Italian. Later Luke and Nell would be treated really badly at his hands. He continued his rudeness even after I was asked to help translate. Ironically he kept saying he was late for his lunch. In my mind he’s already had far too many lunches! No ID docs are asked for, which is odd and no forms to complete….is someone on the take? Is there an Italian equivalent to Crimewatch?

Go into town and it’s like a dirty version of the Spanish district of Naples. I am saddened and disappointed by just how dirty the place is.  A quick plate of pasta and were off! Bump into the two Brazilians  and one of them is covered in similar bites to me but her’s are everywhere. Some talk of bed bugs but who knows.

Cathedral is really interesting architecturally, it’s almost brutalist grey exterior, which would sit happily in Aberdeen, is balanced by five airy domes inside. I found the side chapels uninspiring, all that is except one….There’s a mummy of Santa Rosa, the local notable from the 12thC. It’s macabre to say the least. It put me off lighting candles for my parents! Her heart and intestines are in special reliquies. The Catholic custom of such things comes across as very odd.

Next stop the national archaeology museum. Very interesting but the staff hopeless. The Etruscan exhibits are really interesting but it lacks proper context ie what was happening in the peninsula at the time, known languages, range of influences other than Greek. When I ask about the Etruscan language the unhelpful woman shrugs and tells me nobody knows. So enlightening!

Grab an ice cream and head back to get some belated rest and to book accomodation for Vaclav. Chat to Luke and Nell for a bit, who tell of an alternative route which bypasses Vetralla; instead follows the rim of an extinct volcano which hosts lago Vico. If Viterbo had been a little nicer I would now be happy to have a day off! I’ll let you know what I decide to do, tomorrow.

Meet the Swiss couple in the dark as we head for dinner. The waiter is thoroughly irritating but the food good. Wanted to mention to V that he owes me money but then he gives me a tiny Russian doll as a parting gift.

Really tired but can’t sleep just yet. So writing this post helps me prep for bed. Funny going to bed without a plan in place. New territory for me. I’ll let the dream process decide!

September 11

A big day in NYC but also in Orthodox Christendom. Hit 100km sign. Leave a Roman city  and enter an Etruscan town. Just missed the rain.

Surpringly I was the first up in our dorm around 6am. Tried to make coffee using a Nespresso pod but it was awfully watery stuff. Said goodbye to Laura who was still in bed. Fab joins Vaclav and I for breakfast and we say our goodbyes. I am sure we’ll meet up in Rome very soon.

The walk today is straightforward and fairly short ie 17kms. We follow the Cassia once more for almost an hour. There’s surprisingly little traffic considering it’s a Monday morning.  At one point we pass a vine which obviously had gone feral and is weighed down with grapes. We greedily stuff down a couple of bunches apiece.

Once the path leaves the road it begins to climb on a gravel track deep into a wood, mostly of holm oak, interspersed with small patches of olive. We cross the divide between Bolsena and Montefiascone created, in part, by a small river which apparently has no name! It does, however, have two lovely sets of falls which make quite a din for their modest size.

Having crossed that administrative line, the path continues to climb, as does the humidity, and of course, the number of mozzies.  My head is a mass of bites and so is my right thigh.  My left one remains unscathed.  Why? I am certain that mosquitos, and possibly other biting insects, have no concept of left and right; so why go for that leg and not the other or indeed both!

Today is a symbolically important day not just for NYC but for Americans everywhere. It is also an important day of religious observance in the Orthodox church, as it marks the death of John the Baptist.  It is said that everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. I was guest of honour at my Alma Mater and was still living in Wroxham Gardens. The live images on tv, of the second plane striking the twin towers, shortly after I got home, stays with me. I still have many pictures I took of the twin towers back in 1979. They were so tall that if you lay on the ground, between them, and looked up vertically, they appeared to touch.

The final 4 kms are an interesting set of detours and traffic avoidance routes as we slowly head into Montefiascone. On the outskirts we cross the 100kms to Rome milestone. It’s really only a ton if we stay on the Cassia but the VF is nearer 120, which is still manageable. The last half km through the great arch into the old city is delightful if not a bit steep. We hit the bell of the monastery at 11.05.  Both pleased to have got in on time, and are quickly and efficiently processed by the delightful sister Marie-Clare. A generous and warm hearted nun, originally from Gabon. We pay a tiny bit extra and have single rooms. V&G turn up a couple of hours later. I still can’t work out how they arrived so late when they left before us?

About 2pm, as we’re about to go out, the five Danes arrive and I help with my informal role as translator. I sometimes wonder whether that sort of intervention actually helps in the long-term? Maybe people would try harder to communicate with each other across the linguistic divide? In any case, I help and all parties seem appreciative.

I agree somewhat foolishly to accompany Vaclav on a little sight seeing.  Montefiescone is built around a steep hilltop; once an Etruscan fortress, later captured by the Romans. Like a lot of towns in the region they also held important roles in Medieval Italy.

The cathedral is an odd shape, essentially it’s circular under a giant dome. Architecturally interesting but decor is sadly Baroque, which I find a bit OTT. There is a small 12th/13th C church at the very top, about the size of a small chapel, St Mary of the Snows, which is more me. Modest, plain and somehow, feels more sincere. It has a remnant of a fresco hundreds of years old, where all the faces are clearly visible, quite brilliant. Sadly, the church also hosts a tiny statue of a Black Madonna, which looks like doll dressed by an over-imaginative child! The church gets its name from the time the local bishop visited the church in the 14th C and it was in such a bad state of repair, that snow had settled in the inside!

After a quick sarnie, a little more sightseeing, I want to get back to my room for a nap. Just as we reach the monastery gates it begins to rain. Intermittent showers nothing like yesterday.

At 5pm I attend sung Vespers. It’s wonderful. I’ve attended several of these recently and those sung by nuns definitely have an edge over the others. I have no idea what is being said but the melodic short sentences really appeal to me.

Catch up on some personal admin and it’s time to eat. There are 13 of us. Oddly biblical but when I mention this to the nun looking after us, she failed to see my point or maybe she did get it but thought it irrelevant!   Nice grub, light but plentiful. The veg, fruit and wine are all home produced. Discovered that V&G took the longer route out of Bolsena, so they were behind us, not in front!

Tomorrow is another shortish stage and should arrive in Viterbo by noon. It’s as well as I’ve not booked anywhere to sleep and I doubt Vaclav has either! I plan to take a day off and so spent a couple of nights in one of the most famous Etruscan cities. I’ve not had a day off since arriving in Italy.

As I fall asleep I’ll think about the loved ones of those lost on 9/11 and what they must be going through today.

September 10

Storms. Near misses. Crash in temperatures. Lazio floods.

Up and about early and on the road by 6.15am as we were expecting a day of storms. Pretty cool outside but no rain yet but we only got as far as the edge of Acquependente when thunder and lightening announce the arrival of several hours of torrential rain.

The VF path is almost unwalkable. Old tyre tracks have become many metre long puddles. Large tracts are covered in silt as the soil has simply been washed across the path. It’s often deep and always slippery. Even in the downpour, the soil around here looks beautiful. The darker, chocolate coloured earth has blended with the lighter sandy soil in large swirls, reminding me of my mother’s Italian marble sponge cake.

The gaiters hold back the wet for a bit but within 30 minutes my feet are swimming inside my boots. The four of us have lost all traction and the first leg of 12kms takes over 3hours.

Soaked we seek shelter in an abandoned farm outbuilding as we enter we’re confronted by two enormous rats who begrudgingly yield the space.

Get to San Lorenzo, the half way point, around 9.30 and all the previous night’s walkers are already in the cafe trying to warm up. The five Danes are catching a bus later on apparently; similarly, the Italian couple V&G caught a cab; the Brazilian and British couples decide to stay put for the night; leaving just four of us to walk the second leg of today’s walk into Bolseno.

Warned to stay off the remaining VF track, as it’s becoming impassable, we follow the old faithful Cassia, or today as it’s known, the SS/SR 2. Sadly, today its full of maniac drivers even in this pouring rain. One driver overtakes and almost takes out the four of us; the wing mirror flicked my flapping poncho. Any closer and I would become another statistic. Visibility is poor, rain still heavy, and the risk of skidding or acquaplaning high, so why take risks like that? Laura tells us that she uses a mirror to look behind her whilst walking. The rest of us thought it be fun to stick tiny wing mirrors on one’s glasses. Joking aside there’s merit in the idea.

Rain abates to a drizzle as we enter the delightful town of Bolsena.  It’s on the lake which is called Bolseno! An unnecessary confusion. A kind woman hiding under her umbrella takes us through the maze of pedestrianised streets to the hostel. I joke she might get end up being allocated a bed, if she hangs about with us; her retort was that she might actually get some rest that way!

We are greeted by the delightful Rina, an elderly woman living next door to the hostel .  She is  kind and firm, and at the same time talkative and funny. The four of us are in an eight bunk room with plenty of space. There’s an unwell man in a small room on his own; and the taxi-riding, V&G are in a small double. Whilst I’m in the shower, the five Danes arrive and have a large room to themselves. Everyone accounted for!

We four get showered, sort wet gear, and use washing machine; and are sitting in a restaurant by 1.30. We make a plate of pasta and a glass of wine last two hours; and then its time for a nap. I doze a little but don’t sleep, yet still enjoy two hours of warmth and rest.

Go for quick tour of this old Roman town, which seems to have come into it’s own after the renaissance as a lake port and spa town. Enjoy a beer in the main square until it begins to rain again. Get very damp heading towards the restaurant. A short one course meal with wine and fizzy water, a total of  €10 each. Not bad. The restaurant specialises in ultra-thin crust pizza, which they bring to you on a tiny wooden table-like structure. Each one is loaded with sections of everyone’s chosen pizza; the remainder staying warm in the kitchen.

Another stage of around 20kms tomorrow. It’s still raining tonight. It might have to be a day of minor roads and lots of caution. A different group of four tomorrow head out tomorrow on what is sure to be a damp Monday morning in Lazio.

September 9

Autumn descends in the mountains. Pilgrim hit by car. Three breakfasts. Leave Tuscany and enter Lazio. Finish up in another lovely town.

Was almost the last one to leave; I was heading to the cafe with Fab at 6.45! Hadhad a quick bite at 6.15ish and still ate less than an hour later!

The weather was cold and misty. Radicofani is 850mts above sea level and today feels autumnal. The mist meant that we missed the expected panorama; in fact, visibility was about 50 feet. I could recite the guidebook, on the details, of the view but that would be silly.

During the foggy walk down towards Ripa, we meet an anxious hunter who’s dog has not returned.  In the gloomy descent, Fab and I discuss what a post-Human future might look like and it’s not all good! Glass can last 10,000 years but modern concrete won’t.

The route through this last section of Tuscany was along the Ex-Cassia, another long distance Roman road. Stop at a bar after 9am and it’s packed with last night’s hostel guests minus one. Staff miserable and appear over-worked.

An odd bunch of folk on the road this morning. An Italian couple, Fab, 5 Danish female pensioners, 2 Brazilians, and the British couple. The single Italian woman, from last night, has gone off piste!

We cross the regional boundary from Tuscany into Lazio, the final VF region, which also houses Rome. The transition was marked by no off road tracks after the first 2kms. The Cassia is a great road but its too fast and too busy to walk along. Find a large, recently dead, adult female badger, presumably hit by a vehicle. There’s some respite in the village of Centemo. It was where Galileo hid after being condemned to death by the inquisition. Today, it’s a pretty village, sadly, it’s water supply is currently contaminated with arsenic. It’s useful being able to read the notice above the tap!

We walked with V&G, the Italian couple, for the rest of today’s route up to Acquependente. The town is very nice. The hostel is a bit cramped and there are four of us men in a small room. I had to wait ages for a shower. The kitchen is small and ill-equipped, so I’ll be heading out for a large plate of the local handmade fresh pasta, Pici. Reminds me of the pasta my grandmother, Ada, used to make, known in Umbria as ciriole.

Didn’t eat pasta tonight but had risotto with zucchini instead. My stomach is bursting it’s so full. I will sleep well tonight. The large Greek guy recently arrived has opted to sleep on a spare bed in the lobby area. The guy in question is called Stephanos and is travelling from Rome to Canterbury. A sort of reverse Francigena, if you will!

It was he who was hit by a van a few days ago whilst walking the VF. He opted not to prosecute, which may not be the best decision as he’s not yet fully out of the woods re his injuries.

Two days of rain ahead of me. Tomorrow is Bolsena, by the lake of the same name. Tomorrow’s forecast suggests thunderstorms all day. Oh joy!

A quick update on my bites as I know you were waiting to hear. I got to 44 on my right leg and gave up counting . My ankles above the sock line are badly bitten. I don’t mean that the mosquitoes don’t know how to bite, I mean the sheer volume of the bites is worryingly widespread. The clustering on my face has given me a second cheek bone look. It looks ok from one side but from other perspectives I do have a certain Quasimodo about me!

 

September 8

Fab walk. Medieval town to medieval town.  Long hot day. New friend. Odd band of folk at hostel.

Got up a bit earlier than usual, partly because Vaclav is so noisy and in part due to it being the longest remaining stage. 32kms up to Radicofani. Plus I was warned that the final 8kms are very steep.

Left piles of food for the three cyclists. I later learned that the two women were seriously thinking of giving up, after their first day. Marco on the other hand was very grateful of the grub!

On the edge of town by 7am and surprisingly there are lots of cafes open. Don’t mind as I’d had a long leisurely breakfast. Made toast in a frying pan, camp style, which was pretty good with butter and jam. Just needed a poached egg this morning to make it complete!

The walk to the first town, Gallina a bit unpleasant, along the busy Via Cassia. I missed the spa town of Vignoni.

The pictures of it look amazing. Meet three Italians on the road: a couple, Vanessa and Giuliano plus Fabrizio. Fab and I walked together the rest of the day.

A quick stop for coffee and to buy a sarnie for later; the guy was so miserable, I’m sure he used yesterday’s bread.

Route goes off piste from here and the old gravel track becomes an abandoned asphalt road, which is easy to walk on despite the heat. Clouds are building quickly which is a worrying sign ie thunderstorms. Marco appears out of the blue on his bike but chooses to walk with us as he’s saddle sore. We stop at a long-abandoned crossroads to have third breakfast/early lunch. Next thing I know Marco has got his espresso machine on a camping gas stove.  Very good it was too!

 

V&G turn up and we soon break up into earlier formations. It’s now off road for a few hot kms on a pleasant walk. Cross an oddly coloured river and work out it’s from a nearby thermal spa. We were tempted to have a dip.

During the long hill climb up to Radicofani we share tales of walks and whether there might be something deeper to cammino type walka. We discuss at length the nature of God. Interesting and deep conversation which took us to the top of the hill.

On the way up we meet an English couple who had also started in Canterbury, back in May. I was aware of them as I’d heard mention of them many times. So now I know Nell and Luke.

Arrive before the hostel opening time so pop for a beer next door and were greeted by tonight’s volunteer, Guzmano. A really sweet guy. Lots of very interesting folk staying there.  Long chat with Laura plus L&N about the randomness of coincidence vs intention.

Dinner was due to be with V&G but when we got there there was no spare table so we decided to join existing tables of diners, Fab and I join the two women cyclists from yesterday, whilst V&G join a French couple they knew. It was fun seeing Martina and Elisabetta once more. It turns they work together in recycling furniture into a functional and artistic use.

Great evening but all my clothes are still soaked including my shirt and shorts. Not sure how I’ll manage tomorrow. I may just have to wear them damp! It’s 10.30 and a marching band has struck up, which along with Fab’s snoring is making it difficult to concentrate, let alone sleep!