Around 1,000 years ago, a Pommy bloke by the name of Sigeric the Serious (really) was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and summoned to Rome by the Pope to receive his pallium, a cloak that is a symbol of his office.
Sigeric set off from England and walked 2,000km to Rome, received his cloak and unlike modern pilgrims turned around and walked back again.
The world is forever grateful that on the return journey one of Sigeric’s clerks wrote a diary detailing the route and the towns in which they stayed, which for many centuries became one of the major pilgrim routes of Europe. Today it is walked by very few people, although in recent years the Italian section has been re-established with more information, literature, accommodation and signage.
The most favoured pilgrim route in Europe today is El Camino (The Way), which is walked by tens of thousands of pilgrims each year. The official start is Roncesvalles in north-eastern Spain (though most pilgrims start at Saint Jean Pied de Port in France) and the destination is Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain, the reputed burial-place of Saint James the Apostle.
The 800km route is well organised with alburgues or pilgrim hostels available in towns and villages along the way. Access to the alburgues is through a pilgrim’s passport or credential, a document obtained prior to the walk and stamped along the way. The passport with its accumulated stamps is the only means of access to the hostels.
In 2006, my very good friend Peter Stubbings, (hereafter referred to as Pierre, to avoid confusion) and I walked El Camino and made some lifelong friends along the way.
A New Dream
One of these El Camino friends, Marco, an Italian who lives in Bologna told me of the Via Francigena a couple of years ago and mentioned that the Italian section was reasonably well documented with route maps and information about accommodation. This section is around 900km in length and starts at Montgenèvre at the French / Italian border. It heads east towards Turin, turns southeast towards Vercelli before reaching the coast at Carrara, then heads inland once again before wending its way through Tuscany and on to Rome.
My research concentrated on the rest of the route through England, France and Switzerland, but I found little information until one day I opened a blog page which had a gpx file pinned to it that contained 2200 waypoints along the whole route.
I copied and pasted the first set of coordinates into Google Earth and lo and behold the magic carpet flew me straight to the courtyard of Canterbury cathedral in England! Excitedly, I repeated the experiment with the last set of coordinates and I was in St Peter’s Square in Rome. The start and the finish with waypoints galore in between; at last I had my route.
To this day, I have no idea who loaded that file onto the blog page but I am eternally grateful to this stranger, because without it I don’t believe I would have ever set off on the most amazing adventure of my life.
I eventually worked out how to upload the gpx file into Google Earth and I could see the whole route. My next step was to buy a GPS which was capable of uploading the data. I now had a route and an instrument but no maps. Another El Camino friend, a very beautiful Hungarian girl from Budapest, sent me a link to a web-page where I managed to source maps and coordinates for the Italian section.
So that was it, and I planned my journey.
Pierre dropped by one day and said casually, “I’m coming with you”. And he did.
The English Section
On a fine hot day in June 2011 Pierre and I set out from Canterbury with backpacks weighing around 18kgs, as we needed to carry camping and cooking gear, à la Bibbulmun Track. However, whereas the Bibbulmun Track is 1,000km long, the journey we were about to undertake was 2,000km and the Alps were in the way.
The English bit is only 40kms long, a walk of 25km through picturesque countryside, then camping near a wood outside Shepherdswell, after a compulsory stop at the pub.
In the morning, we strolled down to the docks in Dover for a ferry-ride across the Channel to Calais.
The French Section
Now it started to get interesting. Everyone in France speaks French, so we thought we’d better do the same if we didn’t want to starve to death or go thirsty.
We also realised we would never get to Rome by following the signs–there aren’t any.
The next realisation was that the route passed mainly through villages which had no shops or cafés. And, whereas every town or village on El Camino has a fountain or tap for drinking water, in France they didn’t. Consequently begging for water became a daily occurrence with the locals, who were only too pleased to give us bottled water from their fridges. They were constantly puzzled when we said we were walking to Rome. They had heard only of El Camino or Saint Jacques as they call it, and insisted we were going the wrong way.
After a couple of weeks, a very helpful Frenchman, who must have been at least 150 years old, explained that all the cemeteries have taps with drinking water and all villages have cemeteries–and so the begging stopped.
In the northern part of France we usually managed to find campsites, some of which were free as we were pilgrims and had our own tents. But soon the tourist spots disappeared and we found ourselves camping in forests or behind hedgerows, or in one instance, by a rubbish tip. Each day, we would seek out the mayor’s office, a tourist bureau or a church to get a stamp for our pilgrim passports.
One morning, a lady called out from a window across the street asking if we would like coffee. (Is the Pope a catholic?) So in we went. We were greeted by the lady and her husband who went by the names of Anne and René Rimé. (He even spoke like René from ’Allo,’allo except he could only speak French). Not only did we have coffee, we had a breakfast of cereal, toast, marmalades and jams from the fruits of their garden. As we took our farewells, René insisted on lifting our packs onto our backs to help the pilgrims on their journey.
On another occasion, a man who was just leaving his garden allotment invited us in, gave us vegetables from his garden, filled our water-bottles and escorted us to a table to sit in the shade and have lunch. In the meantime, he left due to a prior engagement, leaving us to let ourselves out–total trust in two complete strangers.
And again, while we stood by the side of the road looking at a dodgy map that Pierre had purloined from a tourist bureau, a car going the other way stopped and the guy pointed us in the right direction. As we set off he did a u-turn and disappeared. Further down the road he was waiting for us and directed us along a tricky bit until we picked up a track along a canal and we were on our way once again.
We found only one gîte, the French equivalent of an alburgue, but it was memorable. As we entered the village, a young man on a bike offered to take us to the gîte. When we got there, there was no one around, so the lad set off and stopped a lady in her car who then phoned around to find the hospitalario. In the meantime, we were told to go through a huge gate in a wall which opened into a courtyard. Up a spiral staircase was the gîte; a one star hostel which was open, no locks on any doors. We went in and settled down.
Eventually, the hospitalario arrived. She was 80 if she was a day, she had no teeth but she had a glint in her eye. She invited us into her home across the road where we had coffee and were invited back that evening for dinner. This consisted of a huge omelette with rice and vegetables then a fruit salad, all fresh from her garden. To complement this we had Pernod for starters, a rough rosé with the meal and some grappa at the end. (I now knew where the glint in her eye came from).
Pressing On Through France
Passing through the Somme was a sobering experience, with its countless immaculately kept cemeteries of the Great War, some with thousands of crosses. Many carried the anonymous epitaph Known only to God. One evening, we camped in a copse. I wandered a short distance from the tents to set up my camera for a shot, where Pierre joined me and said, “What are those?” On the ground were two unexploded shells, presumably from the Great War. We retreated with dainty footsteps and checked around our tents for evidence of others–fortunately none.
Then catastrophe struck. After three weeks and about 400km, Pierre said, “I have a blister on the ball of my foot,” an announcement that stunned me. I’m the one prone to blisters; Pierre had never had one in his life. I was taking precautions with Compeads, Fixomul and band-aids, using the old maxim of prevention is better than cure. I made it to Rome with hardly a blister, but for Pierre it was an event changing moment. He had three choices; sit and wait until it repaired, go home or buy a bicycle. He opted for the third choice, and so from that moment on, as far as the daily travel was concerned, we were both on our own.
Each morning I gave Pierre the final daily coordinate to punch into his GPS and left him to find it. I would meet him there, wherever it was, and we would search for a place to stay; a field or forest or, if we were lucky, a room in a one-star hotel. He strapped his backpack to the pannier on the back of the bike and covered it with a grey pack cover. I nicknamed it Emu. And so each day I walked into town seeking Emu, which always seemed to be propped up outside a café in which Pierre would be waiting for me with a cold beer.
Continuing Through France
Although my trusty GPS was guiding us to each waypoint I turn, we didn’t know the names of the places that we would pass through–only the destination. So if we got lost, signposts were not helpful. Also, unlike Australia, signposts in France, Switzerland and Italy have no distances on them, just directions. Humorously, some sign posts would have two directions, one arm pointing to, for example, La Vèze and the other pointing to autres directions, or in other words this way to La Vèze and the other way to anywhere that isn’t La Vèze. And so, I kept walking…
For the next couple of weeks we followed the great canal system of France through the Marne, the Saône and the Champagne regions until eventually we started to rise.
Switzerland Was Beckoning
After five weeks the day dawned when we reached Pontarlier, from where we could see the mountains; we were about to leave France. In the morning we set off for Sainte-Croix, about four kilometres inside the Swiss border. I followed a track which looked easy-going–big mistake. Pierre decided to come with me, bike and all–even bigger mistake. The track took us up through a husbanded forest where the ground was smashed by the log-hauling tractors. The angle was 45 degrees, the soil was black mud and it was raining. It took us an hour and a half to cover 400m. At times I would get ahead, drop my pack, go back to Pierre and lift the front-wheel of the bike to help him travel 10m.
After two and a half hours it was all worth it. We arrived at the top. The rain had stopped and we came to the most breathtaking lookout across the mountains. The track then took us all the way back down to the main road, passing the distillery where Pernod is made, and then back up to the border and across into Switzerland, where we had to buy Swiss Francs. Since we only intended to be there for a week we had to ensure that we didn’t buy too many francs and double-exchange at the Italian border. Frustratingly, Pierre’s credit card refused to hand over any francs so we used mine for the duration.
The Swiss Section
What a contrast. Every village in France has some young hoon with a trail bike, a quad-bike or a motor-bike which emits 1000dBs, usually in the early evening as the villages comes alive. In Switzerland, none of that, not once in the seven days we were there. Mind you, they compensated for it in a big way on the first morning. We arrived in Sainte-Croix on the 31st July. Unbeknown to us, the 1st of August is Swiss National Day.
At five o’clock in the morning, a brass-band struck up outside our hotel. I’ve never heard anything like it. At first we thought it was a joke and that someone had turned on an amplifier, until we realised it was live music and right outside our window.
Then, suddenly, it stopped; the silence was deafening. As we were recovering, they started again about 100m away and carried on for the next couple of hours.
For the next two weeks I was walking alone along Alpine tracks in first Switzerland and then Italy. I was alone among the forests, with streams and Alpine goats; incredible creatures that can run down vertical slopes through the pine trees. The scenery is stunning; no photograph ever does it justice.
A goat leapt in front of me as I zigzagged down a switchback road. One bounded onto the road, another landed momentarily on the down slope crash-barrier with all four legs balanced atop the steel-section, then careened on down as though it were going for a stroll through in the park.
Again what a contrast: slow, cumbersome, clumsy me. One stumble on those tracks and it would have been weeks before anyone found my body. There was a constant background noise of cow, sheep and goat bells. The herds are turned loose and the herdsmen know their own animals from the sounds of the bells.
Two days after arriving in Sainte-Croix we were in Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva. After covering 35km that day we decided to treat ourselves and stayed in a three-star hotel called the Tulip. We were an incongruous sight, standing in the luxurious foyer in dirty old clothes, smelling like alligator’s armpits but as always, everyone treated us with the utmost respect and consideration because they knew we were pilgrims. They also gave us a discount because we were pilgrims.
The next day, after walking along the banks of the lake, soaking up the unimaginable beauty of the view of the Italian Alps, we arrived at Vevey and camped; a million dollar view for $10 a night. We continued our walk around the lake, passing through Montreux, and spent a wonderful evening with a Swiss family that we had met while legging it along the canal tracks of France. They live in Martigny at the foot of the Alps, which is on the route to Italy. They had invited us to drop by when we arrived, and so we did.
A Testing Time
The next day was a day I will never forget. We set off early from Martigny, which is only 400m above sea level. My plan was to walk to Bourg-Saint-Pierre at 1650m, with the intention to push on to Grand Saint Bernard itself, on the Swiss-Italian border at 2,500m.
However, I had misinterpreted the coordinates from the gpx file and thought that the stranger who had plotted the route had covered that distance in one day. Wrong! He had walked first to Orsières at 900m and then up to Saint Bernard the following day.
Pierre headed straight along the road on his bike and in four hours was at Bourg-Saint-Pierre. In contrast, after four hours I was two kilometres from Martigny, having risen to 900m, traversed around a horse-shoe mountain on a goat-track then back down to 500m. I crossed the valley and headed up to 1000m along a track which was nothing other than painted marks on moss-covered boulders. One stumble and a broken ankle was on the cards.
After eight hours I had not reached Orsières, I had no phone signal, my GPS was pointing me in the wrong direction and then at 1000m the GPS died and it started to rain. Fortunately, out of nowhere, a mother and daughter came walking past. I asked them directions and they confirmed that I was, indeed, heading for Bourg-Saint-Pierre. But they made it clear that it was a windy road, it was up and down and it was a long way.
Then, all of a sudden, I came across a village and thought “Ah, somewhere to stay for the night.” That thought quickly disappeared as I walked into the main square. There was a festival in progress, there was no room at the inn and so I kept walking, until out of the blue I saw a sign Bourg-Saint-Pierre – 8km. At last I was getting somewhere. Two hours later, I walked into the town. Mobile reception was back on and my GPS, miraculously – albeit after threatening it with violence – started to work again.
I sent a text to a worried Pierre, who had been waiting patiently at a campsite for nine hours. We had set off around 5:30am. I arrived around 8:30 in the evening. It had been fifteen hours non-stop, about 28km and increase in altitude from 400m to 1650m.
The next day was a doddle. Four hours after setting off, I was in Grand Saint Bernard. I had a couple of beers while waiting for Pierre to push his bike to an altitude of 2500m and that was it. It had taken us 42 days to get to the Italian border. It was to take us another 42 days to get to Rome and the adventures were only just beginning.
The Italian Section
In the morning, I set off down the goat-tracks while Pierre headed off down the road on Emu. The topography indicated that it would be an exceedingly fast journey for Pierre and a tortuous one for me, with a rapid drop in altitude. All the mini Mars Bar packs which had turned into balloons at the high altitude deflated to their normal size.
I got lost again and developed an uneasy feeling, one which Pierre must have experienced through France and Switzerland. He couldn’t speak a word of French and now I realised that I couldn’t speak a word of Italian. I had got by well enough with my French but now it was I who would be relying on Pierre, who could speak some Italian. Apart from “Vorrei due birre per favore,” I couldn’t speak a word. I was slightly better with reading it because of my schoolboy Latin from many years back, which had helped in Spain previously, on the Camino. For a few days I had no problem because the locals spoke French better than Italian but slowly I became more reliant on Pierre to look after me, and he did a sterling job. He found accommodation, shopped, lined up cold beers and asked directions.
We were still about a week away from joining the official Italian section because it starts at Montgenèvre on the western edge of Lake Lausanne, whereas we had passed around the eastern side of the lake to get to the Grand Saint Bernard Pass. The two routes converge to meet at Vercelli, the rice capital of Italy, about seven days from Grand Saint Bernard, a week riddled with even more unknowns than Switzerland and France. There we had a list of towns which were on the route. Now, until we hit the official Italian section, we had nothing other than GPS coordinates.
Each day as Pierre headed off to the last of the day’s coordinates I relied on him to text the name of the town as he arrived so I could at least have a fighting chance of knowing where I was going.
The “Real” Via Francigena
Then we noticed, all of a sudden, there were Via Francigena signs that did not go in the same direction as the GPS readings and a day or so later, we found out why. It became apparent that the GPS coordinates were out of date. The file was dated April 2008, and the readings were taken at unknown times prior to then.
I had taken a wrong turn whilst following the river down the mountains and was legging it down the main drag looking for a bridge to cross to my right to pick up the next waypoint when an Italian fellow on a pushbike sidled up along side me and asked why I was walking on the wrong track.
He became very agitated and insisted that the correct track was to the left. It became an “is”-“isn’t”-“is”-“isn’t” argument so to placate him I followed him to a track which passed through a vineyard. Within half a kilometre I returned to the main drag, whereupon the same self appointed pilgrim policeman spotted me and the argument began again.
I told him, in no uncertain terms, that I had survived for seven weeks, over 1200kms through three countries without his help; I intended to get to Rome also without his help and would be very grateful if he would just leave. My language was plain and I’m sure universally understood.
Blow me down, 30kms down the road, the next day, there he was again. I started to form the same words and he got the message. Never saw him again.
For the next couple of weeks, as we passed through towns or villages we were accosted by similar helpers, all intent on making sure that we went through their patch, visited their church, signed their pilgrims’ register and bought their souvenirs. According to them, Sigeric had slept in all of their inns and dined in all their cafés. He would have taken several years to get home judging by the number of places he was said to have stayed. But it was all good fun…
The day we crossed the border the weather changed. Within a few days, as we dropped elevation, the temperature climbed to the high 30s and into the 40s. It was unrelenting for six weeks and we saw no rain until Rome, when there was a huge thunderstorm.
After a few days we headed into Ivrea where we knew of a Salesian Hostel (the Salesians are a Catholic Order which specialises in teaching trades to underprivileged youths and providing cheap accommodation). I stopped in a park while Pierre headed off to find it.
On arrival at the Hostel we were greeted by a jovial Salesian Brother who asked me if Pierre and I were brothers. When I said Pierre couldn’t be my brother because he was too ugly, he laughed heartily. From then on, every time he looked in our direction he would start to laugh – a little bit too much for Pierre’s liking.
The next day we arrived in Santhia where our very good friend, Marco, from the El Camino, arrived to walk with us for the next week. His elder daughter Federica also came along for three days which was a very pleasant surprise. Marco’s friend Bert, a giant of a man was there too. He had driven Marco and Federica all the way from Bologna to drop them off. Marco found a room for us for the night and so, the next day we set off for Vercelli; the three of us plus Emu.
The weather was shocking at 90% humidity and 42deg in the shade, with rice paddies or cornfields as far as the eye could see. Not a single tree anywhere, not a breath of wind, not a cloud in the sky. This went on for two weeks without relief. By day we had tiger-mosquitoes; in the evening, native mosquitoes–gazillions of them. Dining outdoors, we resorted to rubbing molten wax from mozzie-repellent candles onto our bare skin to keep the buggers off. Marco brought me a new pair of walking shoes that my wife had airmailed to him. I slipped my orthotics into the new shoes, put them on and set off as though I was wearing the old ones.
The following day we arrived in Vercelli and once again Marco found us a room. Strangely, when he booked by phone, the manager said one room was available immediately, but the other room was not available until 5:30pm, which seemed a strange time. The reason became obvious after we arrived. It was apparent that the hotel earned extra income as a brothel and the room was earning its secondary income.
On another occasion we stayed at a monastery where the local priest took great pride in showing us around his very ancient and lovingly restored church. He told a story, which Marco translated, of a fund raising function where the local restoration committee were having a barbecue. The weather turned wet so the priest invited everyone into his church to shelter. One of the committee members, being a Muslim, refused to enter the church unless the priest took down the crucifix of Christ because it was offensive to his religion. The priest in a burst of diplomatic genius told the fellow, in the same universal language that I had used to the cyclist, to leave. He left, but returned later and apologised to the priest for offending his religion. The two of them are now the best of friends.
After a few days with Marco we arrived in Pavia where Marco had spent his childhood, and where his mother, sister and brother-in-law live. We had a wonderful evening, communicating any way we could, with Marco acting as interpreter.
Across The Po On A Punt And A Prayer
The next day was the last with Marco. It was a particularly hot and humid day but Marco came up trumps. The guide-book explained there were two ways to cross the Po; walk many kilometres to a bridge or call the ferryman. The ferry needed to be booked in advance but Marco persuaded the ferryman’s wife to fetch her husband from his job to come and pick us up. We arranged a time, and eventually he arrived in a decrepit old motorised punt with a very unreliable engine.
We made our way down a floating jetty – no mean feat with Emu--and gingerly climbed into the boat with our backpacks, expecting at any minute for them to disappear into the river. Some of the contents of the basket on Pierre’s bike did fall in.
We cast off and pushed out into the fast-flowing stream. A couple of pulls on the two-stroke lawnmower engine produced nothing. A couple more pulls, more vigorous this time, almost capsizing the boat, still nothing. Then suddenly it fired and off we went, hurtling upstream. After three or four kilometres we turned sharply behind a headland and into a backwater. We headed at full speed straight towards the side and spotted a couple of dogs coming down the boulder strewn, steep bank. A quick slam into reverse and we were there. Then up to the ferryman’s house with a very friendly dog escort.
For the next couple of weeks we pressed on, staying in pilgrim hostels, convents or monasteries, some memorable, others less so, but all of them an experience, while the relentless heat continued.
A Moment Of Anxiety
One day towards evening, a car stopped and the young male driver spoke with me in very broken English warning me that there was a car down the road with three or four Portuguese men who were claiming to have broken down and were begging for money for fuel. He told me to be careful, because they would try to rob me. I rounded a bend and saw the back of their car on the right-side of the road, which turned sharply to the right. Straight ahead was a minor road – the route I wished to take. I was on the left as usual, facing the oncoming traffic. When I was about thirty metres away, they spotted me and one man got out of the car, looked around for approaching traffic and miraculously a car appeared around the bend of the road I wished to take.
I slid my lock-blade knife out of my pocket and secreted it in the palm of my hand. The man paused to allow the car to pass. I quickened my pace, looking straight ahead and forged on. As the car arrived, another car appeared at the same bend. The man paused yet again. By the time the second car had arrived I was two hundred metres away – the danger had passed.
Next time I saw Marco I related the incident to him and asked if Italy had a problem with unemployed Portuguese persons in his country. They were not Portuguese, he said, it was just a word Italians use for ne’er-do-wells. (Who says racism is dead?).
On And On
We crossed a couple of passes at around 1000m and then headed down to the coast where there was a slight relief from the searing heat. Then back inland again into Tuscany with its rolling hills, dry, tree-less fields, ploughed to break up the clay for winter. We passed through several towns where granite and marble are mined and processed. Surprisingly these were dusty, dirty, unkempt places, out of kilter with the romantic image of marble statues, grandiose palaces and basilicas.
There were also ancient medieval walled towns, amazing places with narrow streets, old churches and cathedrals and, sadly, thousands of tourists. Tourists always mean ridiculously high prices. For example, in Siena in the main square, the Pallio, where the world-famous horse-race takes place, a 33cl beer cost around 5.00 Euros. Less than 100m away in a back street, sitting with the locals, the same 66cl beer costs 2.50 Euros, twice the volume for half the price.
The ancient cities were exciting, beautiful, and colourful and always on a hill; fortresses were all the rage in Middle Ages. Places such as Siena, Monteriggione, San Miniato, San Gimiano, Radicofani, San Quirico, Acquapendente, all wonderful places. I will return someday and give them the attention they deserve.
In San Miniato we needed to stay at a hotel since the monastery was full. We walked into town and found a café/pizzeria, which must be the only restaurant in the world with a zebra-crossing. The café is on one side of the street, the dining area is in an arched covered area on the other side, on a bend in the busiest part of town. We wondered if our meal would arrive intact or end up on the road, but the waiter was fearless…
Every town and village in Italy has fenced properties, containing dogs of all shapes and sizes, all with one thing in common; they are seem hell bent on tearing you limb from limb. I must have walked past thousands of the buggers. So, to while away the time, I decided to give them scores out of ten, as in Dancing with the Stars. They would get points for startling me, ferocity, valid attempts to break through the fence, growling and tenacity, while losing points for being half-hearted, uninterested and tail-wagging whilst growling.
Some were up there in the eight to nine range but a few were down around four, usually those which made it clear that although it was their job to protect the property they would much rather wag their tails and lick you.
The bush-telegraph worked everywhere. You could hear the first dog sending a signal to its colleagues to announce my arrival. Then they’d all start. By the time I’d reached the middle of the village there was a cacophony of barking, growling and howling. It took several minutes after my departure for peace to return.
Fellow Pilgrims At Last
During this period we started to meet fellow pilgrims for the first time. One lot was a group of eight French men and women with an unusual plan. Seven of them would walk while the eighth drove with everyone’s luggage to the next stop. This eighth person would book accommodation and unload the luggage. The next day, someone else would be the eighth person. It made for light travelling; a good idea if you are not very fit and have only limited time available. We last saw them in Siena.
We also met a French couple, Jean-Luc from D’Avignon and Christine from south-eastern France. They had met on the Camino several years earlier and were walking the Italian section of the Via Francigena from Montgenèvre to Rome. Lovely people, happy, fun-loving and fit; they had no problems covering the distances required. They were also very helpful. Christine spoke better Italian than Pierre and I spoke better French than Jean-Luc could speak English. Our conversations consisted of speaking in tongues, sometimes several in one sentence. It is wonderful how people from different parts of the planet can communicate.
One day, Christine and Jean-Luc, the French octet, Pierre and I all arrived at the same place, Monterrigione, a walled medieval millage. Pierre arrived first and saw a pilgrim sign outside what he thought was the tourist bureau – it was, in fact, a pilgrims’ hostel and it was free for those who had walked from Canterbury. Pierre and I were okay.
Jean-Luc said he’d walked from Canterbury so he was okay. Christine was happy to book a room for herself so that she had privacy, however when the octet arrived an argument broke out. Their guidebook told them it was free and they demanded to know why we had been allowed in for free and not them. I had to show them my pilgrims’ passport with the first stamp of Canterbury to get them to understand.
Into The Home Straight
And so we wended our way south with only 400km to go. No rush, we planned to arrive in Rome on the 24th September but we were ten days ahead of schedule, so we slowed down. The weather was still searingly hot but we had got used to it, and with 200km to go Pierre declared that he was ready to start walking again. We arranged to leave Emu in San Quirico at the hostel, and Marco drove up there later to pick it up. He still has it, a souvenir of the Via Francigena.
The first day back on his feet was a tough one for Pierre. It was hot, hilly and 30km long but the resting place was magic, a small ancient town called Radicofani. Once again we stayed at a hostel supplied by the local church.
A couple of days later we arrived at Lake Bolsena, a wonderful lake about 70km from Rome. We left Jean-Luc and Christine to walk into town while we headed for the lake and to one of the many campsites along its shores. This was the last time we used our tents, which had been faithful servants for many years. In Rome we donated them to the Convent where we stayed, to be passed on to others who may have a need of them. We had a wonderful evening, dining on the shore in a good restaurant and watching the full moon come up over the lake. Then on to Viterbo, where we caught up with Jean-Luc and Christine for the last time before Rome.
The next day we had a long and dangerous walk alongside a busy main road with no kerbing, where we had to step off the tarmac onto the verge and stand still if a truck came past. Half way along, some idiot in a car going the other way stopped just as he passed me and pipped his horn. I was not in the mood to add to the hazard he was creating, as we were on the brow of a hill, so I waved him away and kept going. Pierre was plodding along slowly behind me, so at a point where we could walk through the countryside I stopped and waited for him. He arrived and we had a break in the shade. I mentioned the idiot in the car. Pierre then told me that the idiot was the parish priest from the next town who had stopped to offer us a bed for the night.
We trudged on to Vetralla, arriving early, so we whiled away the time in a café until the heat of the sun faded. As the school kids started to wend their way home we set off to look for the parish priest’s house. After a while, a schoolboy with a group of friends who were walking ahead of us fell asked if we were looking for San Francesco church.
He led the way to a building next to a church where an archway led through to a cloister, where a man beckoned for us to follow him. He led us to a corner, up some stairs and into a refectory. In the room were adults, many kids and some clergy at a table on the far side. All were dining on meals provided by the parish.
One of the priests was the idiot I had dismissed on the road. He stood and asked for quiet. As the room fell silent he explained to those present that we were pilgrims and that we had walked all the way from Canterbury. On hearing this, everyone stood up and gave Pierre and me a standing ovation. The priest came over to greet us and gave me a huge smile and a hug. I could feel the enormous warmth of this humble, caring man and I felt no embarrassment at all, just privileged to have met him. They fed us, put us up for the night, fed us again in the morning and set us on our way. The only payment requested was for us to attend their evening service in the church next door.
During the mass at the moment when the kiss of peace is invited by the priest, the whole congregation came over to us and greeted us with friendly handshakes or hugs and good wishes for a safe journey to Rome.
The Final Steps
The last few days were spent walking through hazel-nut groves during the harvest. The nuts fall to the ground, along with the leaves, and the gatherers walk among the trees with blower-vacs blowing away the leaves to expose only the nuts. Machines then move through the groves harvesting the nuts and blowing them into large carts to be taken to the processing plants.
Finally we were in the outer suburbs of Rome. Disappointingly, but hardly surprising for any metropolis, everywhere was dirty with rubbish all over the place. Our last night was spent in a convent, a beautifully kept place where we saw no nuns other that the one who greeted us. She asked for our passports and pilgrim passports which were returned, duly stamped, the following morning.
All Roads Lead To Rome
And so, the last day arrived. We set off before dawn because we had a lunch date with Christine and Jean-Luc. Within an hour we were lost yet again and had to backtrack for several kilometres, then passed through a beautiful park on our way to the Vatican with a view of Saint Peter’s in the distance. Down, out of the park, along a boulevard and we were there. I turned my GPS on, Pierre and I locked arms and we walked together into the square to the last coordinate and embraced.
Twelve weeks of amazing adventures, trials and new friends.
Two tourists standing nearby noticed us taking photos of each other and offered to take photos of us together with our cameras.
I asked, “You speak English?”
“Yes,” they replied. “We’re Australian.”
We had walked 2,000km through four countries and the first people we met on arrival were from our home town. What are the odds?
We were six days earlier than our calculation. We had calculated the 24th September we arrived on the 18th.
And so, this is where our story ends.
After picking up our pilgrims’ certificates from the Vatican and staying at another convent in Rome, we caught a train to Bologna to stay with Marco. Three other pilgrim friends from our Camino days, Enrico from Bergamo, Dario from Milan and the beautiful Emese from Budapest turned up to help Pierre and I celebrate our achievement and also my birthday. Camino friends become friends for life, as do Via Francigena friends. Christine and Jean-Luc have joined the club.
Pierre and I drove up to Bergamo, a beautiful and ancient city near Milan, a couple of days later to visit Enrico and his lovely partner Elise
After that, it was a train back to Rome, a flight to Kuala Lumpur and finally Perth and the welcoming, loving arms of my beautiful wife Julie.
Many other adventures, acts of kindness and memorable moments during this epic journey do not grace these few pages but will no doubt be told around many dinner tables or during barbecues and parties and be suitably embellished with the passing of time.
Stepping out of our comfort zone is something we all should do from time to time to help refocus our lives, to give an insight into where we are in life and to ask ourselves questions such as Who are we? Why we are here? What is important? What do we care about and whom do we care for?
But most importantly–to be alive…
[For the moment...]