(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.