All Roads Lead to Rome

•December 5, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(This post is from the evening of November 19th)

“What the…,” I muttered to myself, heart beating faster than the pace I was walking merited.  Looking up and to the right, I could see the back end of the large, blue, Volvo SUV that had just whizzed past about six inches from my right elbow.  The driver of the car clearly didn’t embody the high standards of safety for which his car’s manufacturer is known.  Examining my position—firmly on the left-hand side of the road, I realized that there was no reason for him to have come that close to me unless it was intentional.  Thank goodness I hadn’t moved any further to the right.

This driver wasn’t the first to come close today, but this was certainly the nearest encounter I had had on the way from Bolsena to Montefiascone.  What was perhaps more surprising than the near miss was that I was taking a short alternate route meant to avoid another “dangerous and busy” section of road.  God only knows how I might have fared there.  The walk so far had been pretty unremarkable.  After the wonderful views and incredible solitude of the paths of the Way of Assisi, I was a little disappointed at my return to the Via Francigena to finish the last 160 or so kilometers to Rome.

I was really looking forward to the journey of the next seven days.  At this point, I considered myself an old hand at pilgrimages, and had packed the lightest pack yet of my travels while being the strongest I’ve been at probably any point of my life—a far cry from the way I arrived in Italy nearly three months ago.  In addition, I thought that the way would be made even easier by the time of year.  Cooler temperatures would make for easier walking—as long as it didn’t rain—and I was hoping that the reduced pilgrim traffic would mean I wouldn’t run into trouble finding places to stay.  This, however, hadn’t been the case in Bolsena the night before.  Finding two of the listed religious hostels in town completely occupied, I felt a bit like Mary and Joseph who, discovering no room at the inn in Bethlehem, had to take refuge in a manger.  My manger turned out to be a fine hotel, but it cost more than a stay at one of the religious hostels, and worse still, robbed me of what I thought of as a true “pilgrim experience.”

Bolsena was actually a very nice town with a well-preserved historic center.  Religiously, the town is important for a miracle that is said to have taken place there in 1263.  A priest from town, who was apparently having doubts about the doctrine of Transubstantiation—the actual transformation of the elements of communion into the real body and blood of Christ—saw the bread he had just consecrated bleed.  Later, a basilica was built to commemorate the event.  It houses several stones which were said to have been bathed in this blood, and is built over some ancient Christian catacombs which contain the remains of Saint Christine—a young woman martyred during the reign of Diocletian.  Beyond that, the town is known for the large lake lying just to the south and west which bears its name.  The lake was formed by the collapse of an ancient volcano into a giant aquifer below.  Roman documents report geological activity here as recently as 104 BC, but the volcano has remained dormant since.  Two islands at the south end of the lake—which you can visit during the summer months—were actually formed by volcanic activity.  The town of Bolsena is a sort of resort in warm weather, and I surmised by some of the signs over shops that it must be particularly popular with German-speaking people.

Not long after my encounter with the car, I turned off the road and found a path through some trees.  This was much more pleasant, and, after a while, I felt like I was back in the wilderness on the way to Assisi.  After following a gravel road for some time, I turned onto a large set of stones placed into the earth.  My guidebook identified this as the “Old Via Cassia” and I looked down again to realize that I was standing on an actual ancient Roman road.  It was amazing how well it had survived over the centuries.  A sign nearby explained its construction and stated that this was the model upon which all roads were built until the advent of asphalt.  I could believe it.  Smooth and stable, it was better than many of the modern roads in Italy.  It is understandable that the Romans would need to build such good roads to manage their vast empire, but I had no idea how well-put-together they actually were until I had been on one myself.

Eventually, I reached the outskirts of Montefiascone—my destination for the night.  Set atop a hill, the skyline of the town is dominated by the giant dome of its cathedral—Santa Margherita.  Climbing up the hill, you reach the historic center that is of typical, medieval Italian design.  In addition to the cathedral, the relatively small town holds a castle that belonged to the popes containing an extensive set of gardens.  The town is very proud of its wine tradition, which is highlighted by one story from the end of the 14th Century.  While on his way to Rome, a German canon from Augsburg instructed one of his servants to travel ahead of him and identify inns along the way with the best wine by writing the Latin word ‘est’—‘there is’—above their doorways.  In Montefiascone however, the wine was too good to be awarded only one of these indicators of quality.  The steward wrote the word three times—“EST EST EST”—to ensure that his master would not miss the incredible wine.  Legend has it that the German canon loved the wine so much that he did not make it any further to Rome and instead settled down in Montefiascone.  This might hold some truth, as the man’s body still remains in the church of San Flaviano, just outside the walls of town.

I called around to the different places listed in my book as being open to host pilgrims.  The first woman I spoke to said that the refuge had been closed since last month, but she gave me the number of another place I might try.  Calling there yielded no results, as no one answered the phone, so I phoned another place I knew of that was a bit further out of town.  A woman picked up and informed me that there was room for me tonight and asked me the usual question of when I was planning on arriving.  I always struggle with this, because I’m often not entirely sure of where the religious hostels are located.  While my guidebook is very good at indicating directions out in the countryside, it becomes less detailed when you reach settled areas.  In addition, it only has maps of fairly large cities, so a religious hostel listed under the name of a town could actually be up to five kilometers away from the center, and you have no way of knowing before you get there.  “I’m not really sure,” I answered.  “Right now, I’m in the central piazza of Montefiascone.”  “Oh, you’re at least 20 minutes away.  Ask for the Convento Cappuccini.”  “Great,” I thought.  It had just become dark and now I would have to find my way to this place 20 minutes away.  I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to walk on any busy roads.  My earlier experience with the reckless driver made me disinclined to try my luck at night on the poorly-lit Italian streets.

It was actually fairly easy to find the convent, and I arrived well within the 20-minute window.  I rang at the gate and a woman’s voice came out of a window from the second floor.  “I’m coming,” she shouted.  I continued to stand at the gate, waiting for the woman, and noticed that there seemed to be a lot of commotion coming from the building.  There were a bunch of cars parked outside and the activity within deviated from the normally-hushed atmosphere that I was used to at places like this.  The woman finally arrived at the door and ushered me into a small room near the entrance.  Looking at the mattresses covered in dirt, she said, “Those kids really made a mess.”  Kids?  What sort of a convent was this?  “Do you want to eat with us?” I paused to consider if this would be appropriate or not, and she repeated in hesitant French—even though she knew I was American—“Mangez avec moi?”  “OK, sure,” I replied.  “Alright.  We’ll eat at 8:30.”

A few minutes later, a knock came at the door.  The woman had returned, but she had with her three others, perhaps a few years younger than I.  “Let’s show you where to eat,” the woman said.  They led me across the courtyard and pointed down a hallway.  “That’s where the dining hall is.  8:30.”

At 8 o’clock, there was another knock on my door.  “Dinner time,” said the woman who had been taking care of me.  I was shocked.  For once, a group of Italians was early about something.  I followed her back across the courtyard and down the hallway, whereupon turning a corner, I was surprised to find a room full of shouting children. There were perhaps 60 in all, and the scene reminded me of a school cafeteria.  One of the young people who had been with the woman the first time she came to the door—Marco—came up to me and brought me to a seat next to him.  In front of everyone were plastic plates filled with gnocchi covered in thick looking brown stuff.  I’d never seen anything like it.  Soon after I sat down, everyone began smashing the table and clapping in unison, in the pattern of the beat in We Will Rock You.  One of the other young people who had helped show me to the dining room—Francesca—began to call out in song, and the kids all answered “All- e-, All- e- LU- IA!” again in the pattern of “We will, we will rock you.”  From this response and the words I could make out of Francesca’s chants, I gathered that this was their way of praying before the meal.

Apparently, I had stumbled upon a large church youth group from Rome.  They had come to the convent over the weekend to go through the steps of confirmation.  The kids older than 14 were there to help out as counselors.  I got asked the question—“What are you doing here?”—by practically everyone who talked to me.  They seemed to think that I had something to do with their program, but most seemed to get it when I said that I was on a pilgrimage.  They were very eager to practice their English, and I only got the chance to use Italian when they ran out of vocabulary or couldn’t understand what I was saying.  “It’s hard for me to hear English when it is so fast,” said Marco after I had translated something I was trying to communicate to him into Italian.  I don’t think I speak particularly quickly, and I found it amusing that an Italian was complaining about the speed of another person’s speech.  The kids were not very enthusiastic about the brown pasta dish, and when I was offered someone’s leftovers and quickly finished the plate I was asked if I actually liked it.  “It’s fine,” I replied.  “Plus, I’m hungry.”  Truth be told, they had reason to dislike it.  I have no idea what it tasted like, but the texture of the sauce-y stuff reminded me of old, refried beans that were beginning to congeal.  There was no way I was going to pass up a warm meal, however.  Next, came plates with lettuce bathed in olive oil, some sort of crispy, sautéed mushrooms, and a short, thick sausage link.  This was much better than the first course, and I was happy to be offered an extra sausage before they ran out.  As dinner ended, things began to get crazy with kids running around the room, so I made my way out quietly after thanking the woman that had invited me to the meal.  As I sat in bed, I could hear the sound of running footsteps and shouts above me until it was all silenced promptly at 10PM.


Finishing what I started

•November 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Just because I made it to Assisi doesn’t mean that my time in Italy is over.  Over the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing more about my travels including a trip to Switzerland, a longer stay in Florence, and finally the final leg of my pilgrimage on the Via Francigena, heading to Rome.

Don’t tune out just yet.  More blog posts are right around the corner!

Assisi at Last!

•November 25, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(This post is from the evening of October 25th)

I left Valfabbrica later than usual, knowing that I had a very short distance to get to Assisi, and that the path I had to take would not be very difficult.  Like much of the second half of this pilgrimage, the walk was nothing particularly special, although I did get some pretty views of leaves changing color just before reaching Assisi.  I really had no idea what Assisi would look like or how it would be situated geographically, so I wondered what the gigantic building was that I could see perched on the edge of a hill in the distance.  It didn’t look like a castle, but it was too big to be a church, I thought, so I had no idea what it actually was.

At the foot of this hill, I crossed over a small bridge named for the Santa Croce monastery resting on one side.  The buildings of the monastery, as well as the bridge, were being restored, and it looked like the work was going nicely.  The small buildings and bridge seemed to be in a good state, and had held up much better over the centuries than all the abandoned houses I had seen over the last two weeks.

The path to town now began a long uphill stretch along a road with traffic going down the hill.  Because the road was so narrow, I had to be careful to make sure that the cars saw me and could give me room to walk.  Based on my guide, I wasn’t expecting such a steep final approach, but I knew that this was the very last bit of walking I had to do, so I kept pushing on until I saw the large, medieval gate of the city.

I passed through the gate which rested at the crest of the hill and saw a narrow road stretching out before me, leading down to the huge building I had seen from miles away on the road.  Now I understood.  This was the Basilica of Assisi, the ultimate destination for pilgrims to the holy city.  I was more emotional than I expected as I walked down the medieval street to the giant church.  I couldn’t stop smiling, and although I didn’t undertake the pilgrimage for particularly religious reasons, nor do I hold St. Francis in unusually special regard, I still felt the joy of arriving at my destination after two long weeks of hard work.  I walked down to the church and set my bag down in the square before sitting on the ground myself, soaking in the incredible sight.  I paid little attention to the groups of tourists—one large collection of Germans was led by a robed monk—as I sat there, having reached my goal.

After a few minutes, I got up, and saw a vast plane stretching out on the opposite side of the hill.  A city lay bellow, and you could see for miles and miles.  In the square in front of the lower level of the basilica, a large stage was being erected, and there were vans from RAI—the Italian public television company—parked along the side of the road.  I wondered what it was all for, but there seemed to be a definite air of excitement with lots of tourist groups—some comprised of monks and nuns, and there even appeared to be a children’s musical ensemble which began  singing and playing guitars in the middle of the square.  I went back to pick up my bag in order to visit the church, and saw a man dressed in burlap walking with a large walking stick.  He had nothing else with him, and was not even wearing shoes.  I had no idea how far he had come, but even walking one day without shoes would have been impossible for me.  This guy looked sufficiently crazy enough to pull off the feat, however.

Entering the church, I was disappointed to discover that you were not allowed to take photographs inside.  The interior of the huge building was beautifully frescoed with both biblical scenes and events from the Saint’s life.  Giotto, Lorenzetti, and Martini each lent their talents to the decorations, and the bright colors bring life to what might have been a dull and gloomy place with no windows to speak of.  I walked out the back of the church and visited the “Treasure Museum” which contains a number of beautiful religious artifacts from the middle ages and renaissance.   Going downstairs, I discovered the Lower Basilica, whiich is basically another giant church built under the first one.  The Lower Basilica has a more typical layout, with side chapels along the central nave.  Again, a room that could easily have resembled a dungeon is brought to life by the beautiful art work on its walls.  Down in the Lower Basilica, I noticed several television cameras set up on tripods that were on and recording, but without operators.  I still didn’t know what all the hubbub was about as I found the stairs leading to the crypt and the tomb of St. Francis.  This area was appropriately dark, and there was a small chapel in front of the tomb.  It looked like his sarcophagus had been placed into a shaft under the floor of the Lower Basilica, and then a portion of that shaft had been cut open so that it would be visible from the crypt.  There were several people—all men, curiously—who were praying in the chapel, and I walked up to the altar and found that surrounding Francis in the apse were several other friars who had been his companions.  On one side of the altar in the apse, a monk was chatting cheerfully with another man.  I thought it odd that the two of them were laughing and speaking so loudly, when just around the corner, people were sitting quiet prayer.  I left the crypt and went to find the place where I would receive the final stamp on my credential, and a certificate for having completed the pilgrimage.

Walking out of the Lower Basilica, I turned to my right and faced the entrance of the large convent.  Although there was a closed gate, I knew I was supposed to go here to get my stamp and certificate, so I walked through the large arch and found a small office inside.  I opened the door, uncertain if I was in the right place, and greeted the man sitting there with an, “I’m a pilgrim…”  “You’re in the right spot,” he replied.  “Your credential?” he asked.  I handed it over and he stamped one of the few remaining spots.  “Now, what’s your name?”  I pointed to the spot on the credential where it was written, knowing that it would be useless to try and tell it to him verbally.  He pulled out a manila folder and picked up the first paper.  To my surprise, it had my name already printed on it, as if they knew I would be arriving today.  He stamped and signed the certificate and then gave it to me along with a small piece of PVC pipe to wrap it in.  I thanked him, and that was it.  The pilgrimage was over.

Looking at the certificate as I walked out of the office, I discovered why there was such a commotion around the Basilica today.  In two days, Pope Benedict would be coming to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the World Prayer for Peace Day, which had been held by his predecessor here in Assisi in 1986.  Police were out with dogs, searching for bombs, and some others were going around with a blow torch, welding shut all of the grates in the nearby area so that they could not be opened.  Everyone seemed excited for the Pope’s arrival.

It felt a little strange finishing my pilgrimage to Assisi, especially with the anticlimactic conclusion at the office of the convent.  After all, I was proud to have achieved my goal, and overcome some challenging obstacles in my way.  There were times when I felt lost, afraid, and alone, and exhausted beyond anything I knew before, but there were also moments when I experienced the great hospitality of strangers, and feelings of complete peace and harmony.  I expect that the difficulties of the pilgrimage will become footnotes in my story, with the larger text describing the breathtaking scenery, the interesting and kind people I encountered, and my new familiarity with—sometimes quirky—Italian customs and culture.  I leave Assisi with the pride of accomplishment, and a real sense that, with earnest effort on my part, good fortune usually awaits around the next bend.

Mud and dried riverbeds

•November 23, 2011 • 1 Comment

(This post is from the evening of October 24th)

When I left Gubbio in the morning, I had no trouble finding my way out of the populated area because of the great number of different signs pointing to Assisi.  The walk was largely uninteresting, following small country roads along hills on the way to Valfabbrica.  Eventually, I reached the point in my journey where my guide suggested turning off the road to walk along the river in the bottom of the valley.  According to the guide, going this way would save some walking distance and was the old line of communication that Francis would have actually followed.

Soon after descending into the valley, I regretted my decision.  The path was not very well established, and it was incredibly muddy from the rain of a few days ago.  I struggled through some thick brush and up steep, slippery paths—even though my guide said everything was downhill.  Looking down at the trickle of a river at the very bottom of the valley, I could see a cracked and dry landscape on either side.  Dead trees, empty of leaves, made for a beautiful sight with the cracks in the dried up ground, but I was nevertheless upset about having been duped into taking this path.  My feet were really beginning to hurt and I had to make an extremely steep climb—up again to the level of the road—in front of a giant damn that blocked what remained of the river.  Once on the road, I saw no cars, and the overgrown brush creeping onto the tarmac itself gave a very end-of-the-world feel to the whole place.

I reached the outskirts of Valfabbrica, and walked by some farm houses whose grape vines still had some fruit left on them.  I think the people had given up on the thought that the vines would produce anything good, because most of the bunches were completely dried up.  I picked some of the larger specimens, and they were actually edible, providing me a nice snack after the difficulties of walking through the mud.  I got to Valfabbrica, and found the town smaller than I expected.  At the bottom of the hill, there was a small soccer stadium, and outside there was a small group of what looked like miniature turkey wandering around.  A girl who had jogged past me on the entrance to town had stopped to take photos of the strangely clucking animals, and the birds had become frightened and began to run away as fast as they could—not very fast.  The birds were so stupid that a portion of them actually cut themselves off from escape by walking into the corner of a chain link fence.  When they discovered that they were trapped, they became hysterical, clucking and flapping their wings wildly.  The girl backed off allowing them to escape and rejoin their brethren who had managed to make it to the other side of the road.

I walked toward the center of town, not knowing where I was supposed to go to find the refuge, but a sign—“Ostello Francescano”—answered my question.  I followed it off the main square for a few blocks and reached a normal looking apartment building with the same sign over its door.  I rang the bell, and a young woman opened the door.  “Hello, Pilgrim!”—it sounds less like a John Wayne movie in Italian.  “I’m glad to have a pilgrim,” she continued.  “There haven’t been many recently.  Do you want to eat with us?”  “Yes, please,” I replied.  “Good, we’ll eat around 7:30.”  I went upstairs to a room full of bunk beds used for pilgrims and rested before dinner.

At 7:30, I went downstairs and found a group of three men already eating at a large table in the corner of the small dining room of the restaurant.  I was directed to sit at a different table by myself, however—not exactly what I had thought when my host asked if I would eat with them this evening.  I was brought a bowl of spaghetti and tomato sauce that could have been from America, except the sauce was better.  After I had finished that, a plate of roasted chicken came out of the kitchen, as well as a bowl full of quartered tomatoes.  As the men behind me finished, they began to ask for chestnuts for dessert.  A woman who I had not seen before came out of the kitchen and started fusing at them saying that chestnuts were too expensive to make for their dinner.  “Why don’t you just go out and find them,” inquired one of the men.  “There are no chestnut trees in Valfabbrica, you idiot!” she replied.  “Really?”  “No, you have to go far away to get them.  They are too expensive.”

With that, dinner was over and I headed back upstairs for bed.  Tomorrow would be the last day of the pilgrimage, and I was already getting a bit sentimental.  When you start something like this and know exactly what you’re going to be doing every day for two weeks—walking—and suddenly it all comes to an end, you’re faced with thoughts like “What’s next?”.  I guess it’s sort of like approaching retirement.  Of course, I know nothing about that, but the idea’s the same.  You’ve been doing something for a long time, and then it all suddenly changes.  I was looking forward to seeing Assisi, but sort of sad that my journey was ending.

Gubbio: Another Medieval City

•November 21, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(This post is from the evening of October 23rd)

Opening the window of my hotel room in Pietralunga the next morning, I could smell wood fires in the air from the houses trying to combat the cold.  I got my things together and went down to the bar next door to the hotel to pay my bill and eat breakfast.  Inside the bar was a group of men reading newspapers around a small table.  The woman who was fixing coffee saw me come in and asked if I had stayed there the night before.  I told her I had, and she pointed to a room behind the circle of men where I could go and have breakfast.  I went in and found a number of different pastries, and soon the woman from the bar brought me another cup of Italy’s black coffee.  I finished breakfast, paid for my room, and headed out into the cold morning.  People were just getting to church as I left town.  I continued on small roads until reaching the countryside.

The walk was largely uninteresting.  Not much climbing or anything too hard, but lots and lots of small roads that led through semi-rural communities.  There were lots of dogs on this walk, as before, but Chihuahuas seemed particularly popular in this area.  It amazes me how nasty some of these yappy little suckers are.  You’d think that a tiny dog would know better and keep its mouth shut when facing a much bigger person, but they loved to yap and bark at me viciously whenever I walked by.  By about midday, I was walking through a small town and a little girl playing in the yard of her house called out to me.

“What’s your name?”  “I’m Peter,” I replied.  “What?”  Remembering that Italians can’t pronounce my name, I changed my answer.  “Pietro, my name is Pietro.  What’s your name?”  “My name is Laura Castellini.  Do you have any friends,” she asked.  “Yes, but they are a long way away,” I said.  “Over there?” she inquired, pointing down the road.  “No, in America.  I’m from the United States.”  “Oh.  Do you speak English?”  “Yes.”  “Why?”  “Everyone speaks English in America.”  At this point the dogs—more Chihuahuas—in her yard were at the fence baring their teeth and growling at me.  I could tell they were very upset and didn’t want to cause a problem with them getting too angry so I told the girl that I had to get going and continued on my way.

Eventually, I arrived at the central intersection of a town bordering Gubbio.  I sat down in front of the church to eat my lunch opposite the town’s panificio, or bakery.  Lots of people were doing their shopping this Sunday afternoon, and would park all over the street to enter the panificio to get their bread.  I saw people who looked like they were coming from church, and others who clearly had recently returned from hunting trips, dogs in tow in cages on the trailer behind their muddied cars.  After eating, I continued on my way, and before too long I had arrived at the edge of Gubbio.  Built on the side of a small mountain, the town was easily visible to me as I approached.  It looked medieval, and had a large building in its center resembling the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena.  As I got to the foot of the mountain, I came upon a large, grassy park with the remains of a Roman theater in the middle.  I took some time to examine the structure, passing the group of old men hanging out by the surrounding fence.  It was getting quite cold, but there seemed to be plenty of interest in visiting Gubbio.  The parking lot in front of the theater was full of cars, and every new arrival brought a camera out and headed to the center of town.  The refuge I was heading towards was still on the outskirts, so I held off on visiting the town center.

After a bit of confusion about finding the refuge and running into a huge group of French tourists at the hotel next door, I was let into a slender, three-story building that was supposed to be the office of the Gubbio church parish.  A short, young man greeted me and introduced himself as Don Marco.  Although Sunday, he was not dressed like a priest, wearing jeans and sporting a fanny pack and sneakers.  When he found out that I was from the U.S. he began his halting attempts to speak English.  He’d start a sentence and I’d finish in Italian for him, but he didn’t seem to catch the hint that I knew his language until 5 minutes after we’d begun talking.  After he finally gave up on English, I found out that, even in Italian, he was incredibly careful about how to phrase what he wanted to say, and I continued to finish his sentences for him in Italian.  From what I gathered, the second floor of this building served as his home, while the third floor held a room for pilgrims and another with a table and chalkboard set up for Sunday School.  Don Marco gave me a map of Gubbio and told me some things I should go take a look at, before informing me that the shower was outside, in the back of this building.  This worried me, because it was already very cold, but I decided to go and visit Gubbio before figuring out about the shower.  Several of my hosts along the pilgrimage had told me that Gubbio was a very nice place to see, and I knew that I only had an hour or two before nightfall.  I didn’t want to miss the chance to see the historic city.

I walked back towards the city the way I had come in, and ran into more tourists entering from parking lots at the bottom of the hill.  It was quite brisk out, and all the tourists seemed to be other Italians, wearing scarves, hats, and winter coats.  It was chilly, but certainly not as cold as their clothing would have had you believe.  Walking into the city, I saw many young Gubbians(?) walking around in small groups laughing and chatting with each other.  My strategy for visiting the city was pretty undeveloped, and basically involved visiting open churches and walking in whichever direction seemed interesting.  I visited two nice churches before coming upon a long, wide street cutting through the center of town.  This seemed to be the central meeting place, filled with people—both native and tourist—walking along the street.  Looking into one bar/pizzeria, I saw it filled with tons of kids eating slices and drinking beers.  While Sunday afternoons in the States often involve finishing up (or starting) homework due on Monday, apparently Italian kids—or at least those in Gubbio—schedule themselves a bit differently.

Wandering along the street, I could see signs indicating the different quarters of the city which compete with each other in festivals throughout the year, much as Siena’s contrade do in the Palio.  One such event in Gubbio is the annual Crossbow Festival.  At the end of the long boulevard, I turned left and entered a large church dedicated to St. Augustine.  The interior was beautifully decorated, with intricately frescoed side chapels and apse.  After my visit to the church, I went inside the building next door that used to be the convent of Augustinian monks who ran the place of worship.  I followed signs labeled “PRESEPE”—a word I was unfamiliar with.  I wound up in a room off of the convent’s central courtyard that was darkened and filled with a large nativity scene.  It was a wonderfully intricate piece of work, very much like a fancy model train set-up, but with a Bible theme.  Each part was lighted in a very specific way, and there was Christmas music playing in the background.  (Italians also falsely attribute Messiah’s “Alleluia Chorus” to the Christmas season, apparently).  The presepi of Gubbio must be pretty famous because after I left, I ran into a group of tourists who asked me where to find them.  I was pretty amused that they actually took me for a local, and happy that I was able to give them an answer so as not to dispel them of that myth.  I walked around the medieval streets of Gubbio in the light of the setting sun a few minutes longer, then decided that it was getting cold and I had better head back to the refuge.

Just after exiting the historical center of the city, I saw a large food stand in front of the Roman Theater that I had not noticed before.  I looked to see what they were making, and it was HAMBURGERS!!  Excited to see something more familiar to me than the food I’d been eating for so long, I ordered a “Hamburger all’Americana” and a Coke.  “Do you want to eat now?” asked the lady behind the cash register.  “Yes,” I replied, confused—“No, I’m ordering food now but don’t want to eat until 30 minutes from now?”  Immediately I was handed a pretty sizable burger with tomatoes and lettuce—that’s the “Americana” part, apparently.  Biting into it, as I walked off in the direction of the refuge, I was a little disappointed.  It wasn’t bad, but it certainly didn’t taste right.  Maybe it was the mayonnaise—much richer than our more watery kind—or the kind of lettuce—this was better suited for a salad than a sandwich.  Maybe it was even the Coke that accompanied the burger.  Although I know that European Coke is, perhaps, more “real” than our American version because it uses actual sugar instead of corn syrup, I still think it tastes less genuine than the kind you can get at home.  Maybe it wasn’t any of these things, but the setting itself.  Somehow, the medieval city I had just walked through didn’t exactly mesh with the idea of a truly “American” meal.  After all, the hamburger was invented thousands of years after the Bronze-Age origins of this Italian city.  Either way, I was mopping up my face from the spilled ketchup when I neared the refuge and saw a sign for the “Mausoleum of the 40 Martyrs.”

I turned off to see this monument.  Initially, I thought that it referred to Christians killed in the theater during Roman times, but apparently the 40 souls now honored by a white marble church were killed near the end of World War II by the “occupying German forces.”  A sign on the locked iron gate in front of the building listed the times Mass would be held at the church and listed Don Marco as one of the presiding priests.

After seeing the “Mausoleum,” I returned to the refuge and investigated the outdoor shower situation to see if I would be able to bathe.  I found the appropriate door, and went inside what appeared to be a locker room for the small soccer field behind the building that housed the refuge.  Aside from being filthy, the room was also freezing cold, and I realized that taking a shower would be very unpleasant.  It had been an easy day of walking in the cool weather, so I figured that I could survive one night without a shower and went back upstairs to the pilgrim room to get ready for bed.  My pilgrimage was nearly at an end, and while tomorrow’s journey didn’t look too difficult in terms of climbing or making steep descents, it was the longest stage of the whole trip—34km.  I would need to get up early to make it to Valfabbrica at a reasonable hour.

Memorials big and small in Pietralunga

•November 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(This post is from the evening of October 22nd)

I had been told that there wasn’t much to see in Pietralunga, my next destination, so I felt no great hurry to get there and look around.  I came downstairs to a kitchen empty of people but with a table full of things to eat.  The coffee that was on the table was getting cold —perhaps a sign that I had slept too long.  There were numerous jars of unidentified jams, for the most part unlabeled, except for an indication of when the jams were bottled.  On the table also was a stamp, so I took the liberty of filling out my pilgrimage credential and left money on the table, thinking I would just sneak out without bothering the family any more.  Tobias, the husband, caught me before I left, though, and documented my stay with a photograph.

The path soon led onto actual roads and passed through some very small communities and agriturismos in the hills.  Compared to other days, this hike was rather unremarkable.  The most interesting thing that happened was that I was passed by a man on a bicycle going incredibly fast downhill, and 300 seconds later and dog came running after him.

I got to Pietralunga a little bit after 1:00 PM and found my way to the hotel listed in my guide.  The door to reception was locked, so I rang the bell and waited for someone to let me in.  No one came, so I rang a second time.  I was about ready to look up the place’s phone number, when a ponytailed man came out of the next door bar and asked I were a pilgrim.  I was told to wait while he went back into the bar to get a key.  After returning, he led me into the hotel and took me up to a room on the third floor.  Pietralunga is built on the side of a steep hill, and my room—which was very high up—had quite view of the surrounding area.  It was strange to be in a real hotel room again after staying in the pilgrim refuges for the past week-and-a-half.  I was grateful to see that Pietrlunga had an actual grocery store.  They were selling many truffle products in advance of the truffle festivals that would take place at the end of the month.  Every sort of weird truffle mixture imaginable sat in rows of jars, but they were very expensive, and I wasn’t even quite sure how they would be used, so I didn’t get any.

I brought my groceries back to the hotel and went out again to take a look around the small town.  There really wasn’t much to see, except for a small church built next to the remains of a medieval wall on the upper edge of the settlement.  The church was rather plain on the inside, but the square outside was nice, with the wall serving as a backdrop.  In the square was a monument for the Pietrlungans who had died during the First World War.  Each face of the rectangular monument had the names of those who died in each of the war’s four years.  I was mindful of how this loss of life must have affected a community as small as Pietralunga.  When you think of World War I, you don’t necessarily think of Italian involvement in the conflict; but over the course of the war, Italy lost some 700,000 men, causing great hardship in the country.  Next to this monument was a large stone set into the ground that reads, “In memory of those who fell in the war from 1939-1945”.  This monument was almost covered up by a large bush that had been allowed to grow over it.  It is interesting to compare the pride of Italy’s contributions to the First World War and the efforts of the partisans in WWII to its relative shame for the part its fascist government played in the latter conflict.  Fallen soldiers must be honored, though, and the people of Pietralunga thought that this rather anonymous rock would do the job.

My evening of sightseeing had turned cold, and I headed back to the hotel.

Muddy Trails

•November 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(This post is from the evening of October 21st)

Before heading to the kitchen this morning, I went to the fireplace to ensure that my clothes had dried over night.  I found my things in a different formation than I had left them last night, but everything was there and, for the most part, dry, so I couldn’t complain.

Breakfast was waiting, and as I came in the man made a fresh cup of coffee.  When it was ready, it poured out into my cup pitch black—the color of moist, rich soil after a summer’s shower (to be poetic about it…).  I dropped a packet of sugar in, and it tasted really good.  It was by no means sweet like the things you find at Starbucks, but it didn’t have that nasty, bitter aftertaste of some of the other coffee I’ve had in Italy.  The other main attraction at breakfast was something I had never seen or heard of before—chestnut butter.  As I’ve learned, chestnuts are quite the thing in Italy during the fall, and not just in the roasted form.  Chestnut butter is sort of like peanut butter, but not quite as thick and a good bit sweeter.  It was delicious on bread, or spread on the small, biscuit-like cookies Italians like to have at breakfast.  I lingered, even after the man had gone to school, and talked with his wife about the pilgrimage and other things and eventually realized that it was getting late.  After gathering my things, I went into the kitchen to say goodbye, and the woman handed me a bag which she said contained my lunch—a salami sandwich and some more cookies with chestnut butter.  She was in no way obligated to give me this, and I appreciated the gracious and thoughtful gesture.

Beginning my walk, all the clouds of yesterday were gone, and I could see for miles across the flat, green land.  When I reached the small town at the foot of the hill, I crossed the highway and walked up behind a man who was singing to himself as he strolled down the road.  He saw me and stopped for a moment before continuing on, but a bit quieter now, as if he hadn’t actually been embarrassed to be caught.  As I was passing him, he turned to me and asked where I was going.  “Assisi, eventually,” I replied.  A look of bewilderment crossed his face, an expression that I was used to seeing in people who found out what I was doing.  He offered me water, and led me into the back yard of a house, which I presume was his own, and pointed me to a spigot coming out of the ground.  After I had filled up my bottle, he even offered me some breakfast.  I replied that I had eaten, and had plenty of food—tapping the plastic bag tied to the back of my backpack.  He wished me luck as I walked away into the fields.

I was now in a totally different region geographically than earlier portions of the pilgrimage.  The flat land was fertile and farms covered nearly every square inch of the area.  I saw beautiful gardens holding all manner of vegetable, and some small pens holding animals, including chickens, goats, ducks, and a donkey.  The dirt path I was walking on had been severely affected by the rain; the footing was slippery and very muddy, adding weight to my boots that I tried to shake off every 20 yards or so.  At least everything was flat, and I made quick progress compared to the previous days of going up and down mountains.

After walking through a particularly muddy field, I came to a small creek which had a small dike built on it.  The route actually called for me to walk over the disintegrating structure, and I tapped each spot up ahead with my walking sticks to make sure everything was solid before proceeding.  The little creek bed was a pleasant place, so I decided to have my lunch sitting on the other end of the dike.  I opened up the bag I received this morning at the agriturismo and found two slices of bread stuffed full of small, round slices of salami—it must have been nearly the whole stick of meat.  Wrapped in a paper towel next to the salami sandwich were two sets of sandwiched cookies with the chestnut cream used as filling.  This was one of the first times I’d eaten a proper lunch on the trail, and I couldn’t have had a better one.  It was so pleasant that I probably lingered too long by the creek enjoying the nice weather, but I thought that my destination—a refuge on the other side of Città di Castello—would be fairly close by.

Città di Castello was a fairly modern town, without any particular charm.  I got to an apartment complex in the middle of town and completely lost any sign of the trail.  Often it has been the case that in urban areas where there are many more options for walking, the green arrows guiding the way actually become less numerous, and it is confusing, to say the least.  Finally, after about 30 minutes of searching, I found some more spray-painted arrows that led me out the back end of town, through the parking lot of several abandoned buildings.  As I passed the cemetery at the edge of town, I noticed new signs pointing out the direction of the path.  These large blue and yellow indicators on metal posts read, “Via Francigena of San Francesco: To Rome.”  The Via Francigena that I knew about and had walked on goes nowhere near Assisi, so I’ll have to do some more research to learn what these signs were indicating.  More and more, it seems that the name “Via Francigena” can be given to any pilgrimage route that runs through France and leads to Rome.

After getting out of Città di Castello, I walked for a while on small country roads until I was finally meant to turn off onto a path that led into the hills.  This was more of the sort of thing I had been walking on before and I was glad to say goodbye to the roads and buildings of the city.  I was less glad when I saw the next sign along the path—“Candeggio: 2.5hr.”  That was a problem.  If Candeggio—the location of the refuge where I hoped to stay the night—was really two-and-a-half hours away, I would be arriving around 7PM—just after sunset.  I was already a little worried that no one had answered the phone at the refuge when I called earlier in the day, and I didn’t want to show up and have nobody there to let me in after dark.  I kept on walking through the hills, however, knowing that if I was too slow, I might end up lost in the dark in the middle of nowhere.  With little of the sun’s light remaining, I called again and got the answering machine for the third time.  Finally, I saw a large building at the top of the next hill and hoped that it was the place I was looking for.

Walking up to the building, I could see lots of cars parked in the driveway of the gigantic house.  It certainly didn’t look like a pilgrim refuge, but I decided to go knock on the door anyway.  Opposite the house on the other side of the path was a large barn and pastures with signs saying, “Sheep at pasture.  Beware the sheep dogs.”  Just as I got to the driveway of the house, a small dog near the front door began yapping at me, and then I heard a more powerful bark from behind my right shoulder.  Turning around, I saw that a gigantic white dog had appeared, and as I watched, about a dozen more like him came over the crest onto the path and began to bark at me.  Soon, they ran up and started growling and nipping at my legs.

At this point, it was properly dark.  As I approached, I saw several signs on the road pointing in the direction of the building.  “CHE PASSO PELLEGRINO?” the signs said.  I called one more time, and was relieved when a woman picked up the phone.  She appeared at the gate to let me in, and apologized for being out earlier.  I was led into the building and up a narrow flight of steps to the second floor.  There, in a doorway, was a man, holding a little girl in his arms.  “Welcome!” he said, smiling.  The woman led me up another flight of stairs into a room full of bunk beds.  “Here is the pilgrim’s room,” she declared.

Around 8:15 I heard a call from downstairs.  “Dinner is ready!” shouted the woman.  I went to find everyone sitting at the dinner table in the kitchen—the little girl in a high chair.  The meal was unusual, in that it was lighter than most Italian dinners—tortellini served in broth, a cold spinach frittata, and some salad.  A black cat sat quietly on the chair next to me during dinner; the little girl, on the other hand, was somewhat restless.  Earlier, the woman had remarked, “We moved here to start an Eco-Village.” At the time, I really didn’t know what an “Eco-Village” was, but now I think I understood what it all meant.  Meatless dinner, books on “green cooking” lining the shelves, and the protest poster on their refrigerator, making use of a nuclear symbol distorted to look like Edvard Munch’s The Scream.  While most Italians I had met were more conscious about the environment than the average American, these people were truly living their ideals to the fullest.

The stage tomorrow would be much shorter, thanks to my long walk today, so I was looking forward to sleeping in a little.

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