Small roads lead to Rome

When silence falls, things start talking,
stones, animals, plants become brothers and sisters.
And they tell us what we cannot see.’

Ernst Junger, sign in Etruscan tower in Formello on the Via Francigena

‘Roma, Roma, Roma,’ the sound of my boots on the empty stoney path outside Viterbo.’

I am on the final stage of the Medieval pilgrimage, the Via Francigena, and I have another 100kms to walk before I get to St Peter’s Square.

I talk to myself, I talk to the birds and I talk to Him. It’s when He starts talking back that I realise that I am getting delirious and need to get back on the right track… and eat. This is the story how I found my Way.

Day 1: Roma to Viterbo (100kms)

An inauspicious start. I am in the one-horse town of Cesano, 55kms south of where I start my pilgrims’ walk the next day and the horse has just left, and the train, and the last public bus.

And it’s 11pm,

I am looking at either bunking down for the night on the station forecourt or putting on another 55kms on to my journey by walking… and in the wrong direction.

Transport in Italy seems to be totally on the QT.

I learn through my broken Italian of a white private bus which will leave in half an hour from the train station.

An hour later it comes and one and a half hours after that I am at the old walls of Viterbo fumbling at my map and looking for my billet.

So much for a gentle introduction!

Day 2: Viterbo to Betralla (estimated time 4hrs 30m, 17.9kms, 20C)

There’s often an American Brother on the first day of your pilgrimage. I tailgated one on the Camino last year. I reckoned if anybody would know his way!

This year’s Brother and his party, though, hightail it after breakfast, either walking very fast or cutting out some of the trek by taking the coach.

Either way, they are the last pilgrims I will see for two days.

Red and white signposts with Via Francigena (pronounced Franch-ee-cheena) and/or and old pilgrim with a stick, guide my way out of town

It is Autumn and in Lazio and chestnuts and olive husks litter the floor of the country paths and forest trails.

My itinerary, mapped out for me meticulously by my holiday providers www.CaminoWays.com points me through an olive grove and assures me that there will be red and white stickers on the trees to help me out…. it’s just knowing where to find them.

It will be my cross to bear over the next five days, but it is a light one, the sun is beating down on a golden day and there are rich rewards for staying on the rich path, the Vice Croci, the Stations of the Cross are subtly embedded in the stones.

Every Italian town has its own story to tell.

Viterbo is where the first Papal enclave was held in 1267 when indecisive cardinals were kept under lock and key (con clave) until they finally elected Pope Innocent V.

I always feel the best way to immerse yourself in a country’s culture is to go where they pray and play.

I head to the pizzeria, the Italian version of our chipper, for un mezzo al fungi (a slice of pizza with mushrooms) and a Peroni biro all for under a fiver before watching the calico, or football. It is Italy’s other religion.

Goalkeeper Gigi Buffon enjoys godlike status with Azzurri fans but he has feet of clay on this occasion, fresh-airing a kicked clearance and Italy only manage a 1-1 draw with Spain.

He could have done with watching me kick the chestnuts down the path to Vetralla.

Day 3: Vetralla to Sutri (6 hours 23.4km, 19C, scattered showers)

I set myself up for the day with a bag of groceries at the Eurospin supermarket before getting in a spin myself.

In my defence, Sigeric the Serious, the 10th Century pilgrim, in whose footsteps I’m walking wouldn’t have had to cope with trying to find a railway crossing through a housing estate and a myriad of roads.

History doesn’t tell us if he had a wee brother called Flavius the Frivolous but this is not the time to get distracted by such flights of fancy. I have lost my way,

I ask for help, not for the first time, at the pharmacist.. she tells me I’ve gone right off course and should take the bus.,

I desist but if I am going to trudge on now would be the time to get some band aids for my blistered feet.

Of course, I don’t and will later pay for that, but now I am heartened after hearing the shrill of a train and I am back on track.

It won’t be long though before I lose it again.

They have only gone and put a hazelnut grove in my way.

I ask the locals again. If anything this is helping my Italian.

Above the wailing fo his dog – he nearly has the arse out of me – I make out it’s gira sinistra (turn left) and tutto dritto, semipro ditto (straight on, always straight on) through Capranica, whose old town doesn’t look as if it has changed since Sigeric’s days, And then through the most enchanting wood.

Why couldn’t I have got lost in here.?

When I emerge blinking into the sunset two horses are grazing in the glades. It is time for me to the same. Another mezzo, another birra, another day.

Day 4: Sutri to Campagnano di Roma (7hrs 30m, 27.5kms, 24C, hot)

Francesca, the hotel manager, greets me in the morning with a smile, band aids for my blisters and a blessing.

Well, the hotel does have its own church on the grounds!

She tells me to keep the river to my right. It’s only when I pass women with shotguns and pheasants slung over their shoulders that I realise I’ve only gone and got lost on a straight road!

I find the river again and look back to hear shotgun fire in my slipstream.

I put on a spurt.

When you’re on a a walk it can be tempting to forge ahead to your next destination but you miss so much with your head down.

Checking that I’d inadvertently drifted onto another game reserve, I rested by a stile, listened to the birds and admired the proud cypress trees.

It’s in these moments when you give yourself over to God’s plan that He is prone to send a message.

Or a messenger…. Mine’s is Elke, a German schoolteacher and fellow pilgrim who restores my faith by saying that she had to use GPS to get out of the hazelnut grove.

Feeling vindicated and with renewed vim and vigour I scale the hill up to the charming town of Monterosi where I have promised myself a treat, una ciocolatta de clad dense, a Hot Chocolcate that thinks it’s a dessert.

I find Elke again on the downslope and we while away the miles to Campagnola.

We bathe our bruised feet in the Monte Gelato waterfalls and break bread.

But where is the video?

I’ll find it in Campagnano in a wine shop with a difference. I fill my litre plastic bottle with Merlot from one of a dozen steel canisters for €2. I have fuel for the next leg.

Day 5: Campagnano di Roma to La Storta (5hrs, 30mins, 22.4kms, foggy)

Stumbling, sometimes quite literally, into Medieval towns is one of the privileges of travelling a piedi (by foot) into Rome.

Today, I have found my pilgrims’ legs and am ahead of schedule and I have decided to tarry a while and take in the delights of Formello, eight kilometres into my day’s walk, in particular its Etruscan watchtower, the 17th Century Palazzo Chigi in the cobbled main piazza.

I scale the stairs… ignore the lift, and mark off instead each of the individual steps that represent a town on the 1700km road from Canterbury.

Learn too about the town of Formello and ponder on the wise words of history’s pilgrims inscribed on the walls.

For the rest, ask Furio. Furio is a a Twentysomething student volunteer who I meet in the hostel halfway down the stairs.

He tells me of the great families who ruled the town, the Etruscan roots and the artefacts kept in the museum on the ground floor which was due to be reopened shortly after I visited.

Furio also shares tales of St Patrick from when he walked our Wicklow Way.

Pilgrims take two forms, those who carry all their earthly belongings in a rucksack and sleep in hostels and those who have their suitcases transported ahead each day from the hotel where they’re staying.

I am the latter but if every hostel was like Furio’s with its breathtaking views of the rooftops and valley I’d be willing to mix it up.

And at €15 a night for pilgrims (they take their own sheets) and €20 for the rest of us, breakfast in the piazza thrown in, it won’t break the bank).

It being Sunday, I take in Mass next door in the Medieval church, say my peace and I’m on my way which is, of course, not the Francigena Way.

Attenti i cani are three words to put fear into the heart of any peregrine and if you find a vicious dog running after you from behind a mesh fence then you’re definitely going in the wrong direction.

A friendly local points me on the right path and a couple of hours later, and it was late, I stumble into La Start.

I lose myself again, this time to sleep, during the football.

Gigi has another stinker and Italy look to be on their way to defeat to Macedonia when I awake and discover they’ve won 3-2. Forza Italia.

Day 6 La Storta to St Peter’s Square, Vatican City

Elke’s race is run, she has been walking for five weeks from Milan and with La Storta being a satellite town of the capital she is now in the foothills of La Citta Eterna.

This is where she decides to take the bus.

We agree to meet in Rome. Of course, I never see her again.

The motorway leads to Rome but I am on the Francigena Way… or at least I should be.

Instead, I am stood in a car lot asking a second-hand car salesman the way, with his dog obviously yelping in our ears.

I am none the wiser for our conversation other than to be told what I already know, that the nearby train goes to Rome.

He is charming nonetheless although I didn’t understand everything he said and I think he may even have sold me a Fiat… I half expect a bill to land on my doorstep any day now.

Using my wits, tutto dritto, sempre dritto, and a signpost I enter the outskirts of Rome.

I’ve had it planned for days.

I will sit at the top of Monte Mario Park looking out over Rome and down to St Peter’s Square with a glass of wine and a Garribaldi biscuit.

There is a Piazza Garibaldi in every Italian town in honour of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the revolutionary leader who marched his troops into Rome fuelled by raisin-filled sandwiches.

The thought has inspired me in my lost moments these last few days.

Alas, though, I find myself wrestling through brambles and overhanging twigs in a wooded area of Monte Mario Park without every finding the perfect vista, my shot of St Peter’s Square.

I emerge instead in front of the Studio Olympic and the statues of Classical heroes in athletic pose who frame the running track.

I have arrived, sort of, there is still another 10kms to walk along the Tevere (Tiber) before I enter St Peters’ Square, have my pilgrims’ passport stamped for the last time and pick up my certificate.

But that can wait.

I climb onto the plinth of the statue of an Olympic discus thrower who competed in Zeus’s Games.

Today, I drink with the Gods.

Travel facts

How to get there: Aer Lingus operates two daily services from Dublin to Rome with one-way fares starting from €44.99 including taxes and charges. For more info visit aerlingus.com.

The package: Francigenaways.com (part of the CaminoWays.com family) organises guided and self-guided tours on the Via Francingena pilgrim trail to Rome. A six-night, self-guided trip walking the last stretch of the Via Francigena from Viterbo to Rome starts at €599pps inc. half-board accommodation, luggage,, transfers and holiday pack with route information. Visit francigenaways.com or email their travel specialists at info@francigenaways.com.

This article was first published in the Irish Daily Mail.

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