We who are about to die salute you!
(This post is from the evening of November 23rd)
Today was meant to be the longest of this last leg to Rome, but I was not overly concerned with running out of sunlight to complete the journey. Most of the next 25 kilometers were downhill, and the uphill sections were supposed to be short and easy. I left my room in Sutri early so that I could take a look at the archaeological site outside the center of town. I retraced my steps, heading down the hill toward the main road so that I would not pass through town and miss the ancient church, catacombs, and amphitheater all along the path my guide indicated. After crossing the main road, I walked along a pleasant footpath and came to the park in front of the Mithraeum—an ancient temple built for use by followers of Mithraism. Mithraism was a so-called “mystery religion” practiced in the Roman Empire from the 1st to 4th Centuries AD. The cult was based on religious figures from Persia and was particularly popular with members of the Roman army. This particular Mithraeum was later converted to use as a Christian church. These temples are normally built in naturally occurring caves, with architectural features carved out of the rock itself.
Arriving at the door to the Mithraeum, I found it locked with a sign saying that it was only open three times a day—at 9, 11, and 3. I had missed the opening at 9, and waiting until 11 would surely mean that I would not be able to make it to Campagnano di Roma before nightfall. I felt bad about not being able to see it, and thought it a bit silly that it was only open on such a limited basis. I continued on the path, following the signs pointing toward the Roman amphitheater.
The amphitheater of Sutri is carved out of the natural rock of the surrounding hills. Although small by comparison to some other venues of gladiatorial combat during the Roman period, the Sutri amphitheater is still plenty impressive in its size and scope. You can enter the arena from one of two main entrances, and looking up at the surrounding stands lets you imagine what it must have looked like for a gladiator “about to die” in front of the hungry crowds. You can also walk up to the first level of stands to get a sense of the view of the vicious combat. Although the events themselves have changed, sports arenas are really pretty similar to what they were 2,000 years ago; this amphitheater could very easily serve as a soccer stadium today.
Leaving the amphitheater and continuing along the path, I began walking my way along another side of the rocky cliff face and came across the beginning of the section of catacombs. Hollowed out cavities in the rock contained benches that must have held the bodies of the dead. Some rooms had several of these benches, and were probably used for multiple members of the same family. Others had decorations carved into the rock above and around their entrances. This side of the cliff held a vast number of these caves, and I wondered if any of the competitors who had had unsuccessful outings in the amphitheater I had just visited wound up in one of these holes in the wall. After passing the last of the tombs, the footpath ended, meeting the busy main road that I now had to navigate. Bracing my nerve, I began my way along the shoulder of the road.
The rest of the day’s journey passed uneventfully. In the late afternoon, I was approaching Campagnano on a small gravel road in the middle of huge fields. I couldn’t yet see the town, but I had a general idea of where it was—behind the hills to the south. I had been following the posted signs for the Via Francigena, checking the guide once in a while, but arrived at an intersection that confused me. The guide said to turn right, next to the large farm building 500 meters away from the last turning point. The next intersection I reached was well beyond 500 meters, but near no building whatsoever. I hadn’t passed a building, and could see none ahead, so I didn’t know what to do. There were no signs helping me out, and the “Private Street” sign made me not want to go to the right. I decided to take my chances, continuing straight ahead, but after another couple hundred meters I determined that this couldn’t be right. I turned around and went back. Despite the numerous fenceposts and light poles providing plenty of opportunities to place signs indicating the path, there were none, and I again began to doubt my revised decision. I turned back yet again and went further this time, still not seeing anything indicating that this was the right way to go. The sun was setting, and I knew that unless I figured it out soon, I would be wandering through these fields in the dark. I changed my mind one more time and decided to try the first turnoff I had passed. At least there were houses down that way, and I could ask for directions there. I climbed over a fence and walked through the field in the direction of the road.
Following the road, I passed between several farm houses at the crest of the hill. I could see in the distance in front of me a highway and, knowing that it would lead to Campagnano, made for that direction. I passed down into the bottom of the next valley and saw a large complex stretched out in front of me. Metal walls were blocking the land inside from view, but when I peeked through a gap, I could see that it was concealing a racetrack. I was surprised to find something like this out in the middle of nowhere, and continued along to find drivers running through large puddles in a parking lot next door. I gathered that this was a school for safe driving because of the instructors standing outside, watching as each person aquaplaned through the water. This suspicion was confirmed by the sign I passed at the entrance to the complex. By now, it was dark and I was grateful to find a bus stop on the highway by the entrance to the racetrack. I crossed the street to the stop and waited there about 15 minutes until a bus arrived. We were driving for a few minutes—just me and one other person in the bus—and the driver suddenly pulled to the side of the road as we came to the edge of town. “It’ll be just a minute,” he said, rising from his seat. Leaving the bus running, he exited through the front door, and I expected him to be replaced by another driver. Minutes passed, and I could see the man returning from the across the street, plastic bag in hand. Apparently he had just taken a break from his bus route to do his grocery shopping for the day. How typically Italian.
We did eventually make it to the center of Campagnano. I hoped off the bus and walked through the busy streets adorned with Christmas lights, and found a place to sleep. Just a few more days left for the pilgrimage. I was almost all the way to Rome.