Pilgrimage Redux: The Via Francigena

It was early 2019 when the aching surfaced; a restlessness and longing for… walking. Far. Long. Wide. Open. Nature. It didn’t take me long to recognize the call of the Camino. Any camino. Quite possibly, a new and different path of pilgrimage. Much like last year’s unrelenting compulsion, to finish writing, editing and publishing my book, this rumbling also gnawed at me; a clarion call demanding heightened attention and action.

What to do? Pay heed, research the wide network of pilgrimage routes in Europe, and finally settle on the Via Francigena in Italy: Considerably less populated than Spain’s Camino (Frances), with lesser infrastructure to boot, it felt right nonetheless – confidence and courage trumping certainty.

Then came the fanning out of invitations, texting, inviting, beseeching friends and others to come along. Hands were raised by some eager wannabe-long-distance-walkers.. eventually downshifting into regrets and wishes, from the comfort of home. Facing the distinct possibility of pilgrimming on my own, but praying silently for a walking partner while summoning my guardian angels, I issued a last call. And waited. At the 11th hour, my friend I.T. (aka Oma) came through. Va bene!!

Once Oma and I secured our respective plane tickets, we agreed to meet in Lucca, from where we would set out to wander through the hills, valleys and forests of Tuscany, on our way to Rome. We set ourselves a schedule of roughly three weeks to reach the eternal city – or, more precisely, the city of eternal pizzerias and gelaterias.

First off: Lucca, eminently lovable. A medieval village that welcomed us, and offered us a room, company for dinner and a daylong invitation to explore the cobblestoned alleyways, churches, surrounding fortress walls and dining options – we lucked out at lunch: plates of verdures al fuego (grilled veggies)! We collected our credenziale (pilgrim’s passport) from the official entry point to the Via Francigena (VF – for those starting off from Lucca) that doubles as a museum and screens a short film about the VF.

The path from Lucca to Altopascio is widely poo-pooed by experienced VF pilgrims; a stage, they contend, ought to be ignored, leaped over, trained through, avoided at all costs. Too much asphalt. Too many roads. Ugly. Fine. But if, on the Camino de Santiago, I took the bad with the good, the unsightly with the beauty, the mud and Meseta with the majesty, there was no bypassing villages along the VF’s disagreeable parts either. They need love and pilgrims and our Euros too.

We were all set to leave Lucca – when a small blip delayed our departure (someone, who shall remain nameless, left her backpack inside a now-locked apartment). This marked the first of many unexpected (and mostly laughable) setbacks and incidents that unfurled over the weeks. After parting from our bags (thanks to a luggage transport service – this stage, care of Zaino Trasporto!), we forged ahead with smaller day packs dangling from our backs. Oh, the joy of walking unburdened by extra weight!

We passed through a series of villages, all ending in “i”: Capannori, Porcari, Pozzeveri; and walked under arches, across roundabouts, alongside wheat and corn fields. We spotted homes with slatted ventilation windows that seemed representative of local vernacular architecture. We were greeted by sunflowers, pomegranate trees, and a shopkeeper who generously reopened his just-shuttered kiosk so we could stock up on peaches.

At every turn, we searched electricity poles, fences, roads – for an image of the little pilgrim. Sure we had the VF app and GPS on our phones, but these telltale signs confirmed beyond all doubt that we were indeed, heading the right way.

The town of Altopascio was basking in the glow of a setting sun when we arrived. After checking in at a pilgrim hostel (thanks to directions from the librarians), we strolled and wandered around town; winding down with pizza and gelato.

Eager to see more of the next town, we agreed to wake with the sun and set out even earlier; which set a precedent for the remaining days of our pilgrimage. We would wake at sunrise (or, more often, and preferred by us both) long before sunrise. Waking in a shared room or dorm, we would pack our bags quietly, (carry or wheel them to where they would later be picked up by the luggage-transporters) and set out in darkness. The slight chill of an early start meant that the bulk of our walking wrapped up before the high heat of midday.

The path from Altopascio to Ponte a Cappiano led us by a stable of horses. A horse-whisperer from childhood, Oma was in her element. In fact, as friends AND fellow animal-lovers, we both instantly stopped when we caught sight of a wide-eyed, possum immobilized on the path, then at length mulled over what to do. (In the end, we left him there, reluctant to stir up any fear).

With renovations in full swing at the hostel, the caretaker led us to a neighboring apartment – where a young, monolingual, Florentine who was staying at the same facility, served up a pot of pasta for our trio; as he slowly shared his numbness and grief over a friend’s recent death. Understandably, his food was dry and tasteless; and nowhere near as edible as the culinary delights we’d dined on earlier at the nearby bottega, when a feisty shop-owner named Luana dished up a 3-course pilgrim’s menu.

The following days saw us fording forests, following ancient stone paths and fields of sunflowers. In San Miniato (Alto!), we stayed at a convent; in Gambassi di Terme (after a massage), we stayed at a hostel – where we swiftly befriended Giuseppina, the effusive owner/hostess whose generosity (with time, food and advice) was unparalleled. In Coiano, we found a shady site behind a church, with picnic tables, a water fountain and a heavy dose of quiet. And in San Gimignano, we navigated through heavy crowds and guides (to reach the gelateria, of course!) and slept in a camping site; in a private cabin, surprisingly well-equipped with hotel-style twin beds, a sleek (though smelly) bathroom and other modern conveniences.

We hoofed it to Colle val d’Elsa – and again, surrounded by wall-mounted crosses and quiet – slept at a convent. Monteriggioni was next – an uphill climb to the tiniest, walled, medieval village we visited; one could see the periphery while standing in its center (perhaps included on the VF for the sole purpose of boosting local tourism).

Air balloons materialized on the way from Monteriggioni to Siena, rising like oversized bulbs from vineyards and olive groves (reminding me of my balloon ride last summer in Lithuania). We stopped in at La Villa de Marcello – where pilgrims in the know, convene for conversations and breakfast by donation. There were peaches to buy at a bio (organic) market, and cherry tomatoes to procure from a farmer chasing her dog. And then, a horde of Korean tourists, covered in cloth from head to toe, marched right by us, apparently walking the VF in reverse…

Siena was a beaut. With its… Post-Pallio culture hangover. Plazza de Campo spaciousness. Narrow alleyways. Awe-inspiring architecture. Water fountains. Concept stores. A spectrum of languages striding by. Divine pizza. Glorious gelato AND panaforte.

We spent the rest of our days walking as before; to Ponte d’Arbia, through Buonconvento, Torrenieri and Radicofani – where we hitched a ride (when we’d wandered considerably off the path) from a couple vacationing from Canada. We headed on to Proceno, then on to Bolsena – featuring an expansive lake that we swooned over, and lounged by, to rest, rejuvenate and make art.

Leaving Bolsena, our next stop was Montefiascone – which holds a special place in our hearts for two reasons above all: a jaw-dropping cathedral interior… and a massive tray of pizza slices for us to share; each section smothered with a different assortment of vegetables – zucchini, flowers, greens, mushrooms, etc. In no time, and to the chef’s delight, we cleaned up that tray.

Onwards we went, to Viterbo. Another day, another convent. Food-wise, we scored big, concocting two sandwiches filled with pecorino (sheep’s) cheese, mustard and lettuce on a turmeric bun (yes, turmeric!) To wash it all down we treated ourselves to black charcoal / coconut / chocolate gelato. OUT of this world.

By the time we reached Vetralla, we were nearing the end. Rome was within a few days’ walk. It was also to be our last stay at a convent – or so I thought. Returning from our rather uninspiring late afternoon walk through the modern town, we were energized to leave even earlier than usual the next morning, and reach our next destination before noon.

Reaching its outskirts, Sutri was a vision to behold. High on the hill, with a main road running alongside its lower parts, with an ancient amphitheater nearby, Sutri spilled over with history and charm. We would stay for 2 nights, right in the historic center… where the sculpted water fountain, we quickly learned, was ground zero for all village life; where families gathered on evenings and weekends, where children learned to ride on tricycles, where the elders settled onto benches to read the newspaper, where pilgrims munched on improvised panini and fruit, and where a gaggle of circle of Dutch young adults drew glances from all, dressed as they were for a stylish country wedding.

What joy we’d had: long stretches of sky, farms and picturesque Tuscan homesteads, architectural details among ancient ruins, pilgrim-encounters, and the most delectable vegetarian options we could find (and afford). Above all, nature ruled. And captured my heart. I fell in love… with the towering cypress and pini maritimi (or maritime pines) trees.

As soon as we boarded a bus at the bottom of Sutri’s hillside, the slow and easy pace began to fade. The bus that drove us to the train that carried us to Rome’s Flaminio station that marked the very noisy, traffic-laden and crowd-rushing end to our pilgrimage. We were thrust into the frenzy, unsure – even with a functioning GPS – of which way was ours to follow. Another (city) bus delivered us close to our lodging – oh, yes, another convent; except this one was to invite us in, register us for a bed, offer us a foot-bath, then promptly turn us away (as we’d not “walked” into Rome. Pshaw!) By the time they had sent us packing (to another convent, of course), our legs and spirits were sagging.

But soon enough, we would realize that, outside the front door, lay one of the trendiest and food/eco-conscious neighborhoods: Monti. Well done, nuns! By the time Oma departed to London 2 days later (and left me to explore more of Rome on my own), we had jointly racked up considerably more sights and kilometers – including the all-essential detour to Trevi Fountain.

I squeezed in a few more adventures around the City of Seven Hills – including a visit to the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, a long n luxurious browse in bookstores, an indulgence in local treats, and an evening of drinks and dinner with the sister of a woman I’d befriended years ago (who had then died in an accident). Strangely, and for the first time in weeks, there was no Oma to navigate the way or sidle up beside me, ready at a moment’s notice, to follow and sniff out a lead, co-climb yet another steep hill, or lead us to the closest gelateria.

Some say the Spanish Camino calls us to return to the path. The same, I’ve come to appreciate, holds true for the VF… because here I am, already planning my return trip next May; inspired and eager to share the slow-and-easy-forest-bathing-rejuvenating-healing-silence-walking-meditation-movement-art-making-and-just-BEING-experience with others. *More details here

Ciao tutti!


1 Comment

  1. I long to wander the Via Francigena but it will be many years before I am on terra firma (or the European Continent for that matter) long enough to do it. So what a delight to enjoy a delicious taste of the region through your gorgeous images and word visuals. The lighting, the architecture, the village charm, the pasta, and the endless possibilities are beckoning me to get out of my comfort zone (for that is what life under sail has become for me) and onto the trail. Amazing to me to think that you’ve traveled from a near-death experience to walking both the Camino and the Via Francigena ..and that you re getting ready to do it again! Once again, you leave me greatly inspired.

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