For the most part, the food on this trip has been amazing. I am in Italy after all! But breakfasts have been a little hit or miss, especially when I’m setting off on a 15- or 20-mile walk. The best breakfasts have featured home-made pastries, home-made yogurt and ricotta cheese, farm fresh eggs (scrambled or hard-boiled) and a selection of sliced ham and cheese. But others have just been a random grab-bag of industrial pastries and cakes, with nary a yogurt in sight. I hit a real low point with my breakfast at the hotel in Buonconvento, which is a fabulous walled city outside of Sienna, just at the beginning of the Val d’Orcia in southern Tuscany, home to Brunello di Montalcino wines.
So, I was really happy at 10:30 am when I saw the sign outside the Caparzo Winery that said they had a Pilgrim rest stop with a sandwich, bottle of water, and glass of wine for 8 Euros.
Unfortunately, that was the end of the good news for the day, aside from the stunning scenery. I’d planned for a 30 km day without appreciating that I was going to visit 3 Tuscan Hill Towns that day. As I walked across vineyards and along gravel roads, with Band-Aids slipping and blisters complaining once again, I thought for the first time that I might give up before I got to Rome. I caught a bus for the last few KMs that day (straight uphill of course) and that evening, I found myself checking to see if I could get to Rome by train in the next few days and change my ticket home.
But in the morning, somehow, everything seemed a bit less grim. The B&B I was staying in had a great breakfast, I had managed to redo my blister coverings so I wasn’t in any pain as I walked around the B&B prior to making a decision about walking or finding some other mode of transportation, and, best of all, the owner of the B&B gave me the business card of a business that would ‘rescue pilgrims’ along the way that day if I found myself unable to keep going. That was important since there were no buses along the route I was going. I told myself I could stop walking whenever I want, and somehow just knowing that made it suddenly very easy to keep going. And, best of all, a new combination of Compeed and Band-Aids that I’d discovered meant that I was walking pain-free for the first time since my second or third day of walking back in August. And when I got to my destination that evening, they had a washer and a dryer I could use so I was finally able to get all of my clothes really clean. I’ve been washing things out in the sink every night, but there is only so much you can do in a hotel sink.
The next few days, to Acquapendente, Bolsena, Montefiascone, and Viterbo were some of my favorites of the whole trip. The scenery was astonishing – mountains, vineyards, lakes, gorgeous hill towns and perfectly preserved Castles. As I walked, I often saw people in the vineyards harvesting grapes by hand with small sets of shears. They’d take each bunch of grapes that they cut and put it in a small bucket, and when that was filled, they would take it to a wheelbarrow. And when I passed one winery, I could smell the grapes that they were pressing just a few yards from the path I was on.
The next week was sheer pleasure. I’d fallen in with some fellow pilgrims (4 Italian men and one Swiss/Italian woman) and we had a grand time walking together and having some very animated conversations about which turns to take when our guidebooks and apps disagreed. At one point, as we were paused at a trail junction, three American men came up to us. After I chatted with them a bit, one of them pulled me aside and asked, in a slightly worried voice, if we were fighting. “Oh no,” I said, “this is how it’s been for days. We’re just discussing which way to go.” I guess the volume of the conversation and violent hand gestures were easy to misinterpret.
And then, suddenly we were only 100 KM from Rome, in a town called Montefiascone. A highlight that day was a long stretch of Roman road that was even easy to walk on for once – astonishing that it has been here and in use in various ways for 2,000 years.
A few days later, once again on my own, I was walking on roads that were even older, though much more recently repaved. Leaving the town of Vetralla, the path takes you on over 5 KM of Etruscan “Vie Cave” (excavated) roads. Scholars believe that Etruscans made them over 2500 years ago as the iron-clad wheels of their wagons continually cut through the soft tufa (stone) that this region is full of. One of the roads I walked along was over 12 meters (over 39 feet) deep, and apparently, there are others that are twice as deep.
And the road was busy, too! I had to press against the wall at the side of the road to let this guy through.
The next day it was clear that summer was over – it was cold and blustery and drizzled a few times. It made the walking pretty comfortable, but I was really glad to get to a small town that had a trattoria open so I could sit down inside and warm-up and have a hot lunch. Most days lunch was usually a sandwich eaten somewhere along the way, sometimes while walking, so this was a real treat.
And then suddenly I was almost done. The town of Formello (which is basically a suburb of Rome) helpfully put a sign on the trail showing which way to walk to go to Canterbury, and which way to Rome. And the distance – 36 KM, or 22 miles. I’d already walked more than that on a really long day! Until that moment, looking at the marker, I hadn’t really believed that the trip would end. And suddenly I was going to be in Rome on the very next day.
I spent my last night on the road in a tiny town called Isola Farnese, which has a preserved castle (which you can rent out for weddings) and medieval street, and one hotel and restaurant. I got there in time for a very late lunch, and I was told that they only served one thing – a sausage sandwich. “Oh,” I said, “then I guess I’ll have that for lunch. How about dinner?” It turns out that my only choice for dinner was another sausage sandwich (which was good, but not THAT good), walking 3 KM uphill to the next town – in the dark – and back again, or getting takeout pizza. So pizza it was!
The next day – my last day of walking – was cool but sunny, and for the first time, I needed to wear a heavier shirt and scarf and had my jacket on for the first part of the day. The walk was supposed to be about 22 KM, but I skipped 8 km or so in the middle which was all highway walking, and took the train instead. I got off the train inside of Rome, at the outskirts of Monte Mario Park. I spent the next 1.5 hours hiking through a gorgeous hilly park inside of Rome, catching tantalizing glimpses of the city – and the dome of St Peter’s – several times as I walked through the park.
And then I came down out of the park and walked the last few KMs into the square in front of St Peter’s. I was expecting to be overwhelmed with emotions – which ones, exactly, I didn’t know. But instead, I was flooded with a strong sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Just…. I said I’d do it, and I did it.
I’ve been back home now for a few days, readjusting to my former routines. I am so happy to be with my husband, to sleep in my own bed, and even (for now) to be cooking my own food. And to be washing and drying my clothes once a week in machines instead of by hand every night. But I also miss walking. I miss waking up every morning and not having to think about much beyond making sure I got my blister bandages redone right, packing my suitcase and backpack up, and heading out the door. I miss the camaraderie that instantly occurred whenever I met someone along the trail, and I miss how hungry I’d get, and how good food tasted outside while I was walking, even bland supermarket ham and cheese folded into a stale bread roll. I miss the rhythm of walking, and oh how I miss the constant discovery – of stunning views, of an astonishingly wide variety of animals, and of people. If I could, I’d leave tomorrow to do the whole thing all over again, from the very beginning.
All along the trip, people I met along the way asked me why I was walking. At first, I didn’t know what to say. Then I’d mumble something about transitions and leaving a corporate life and talk about how much I liked to walk and how much I love Italy. But in the end, it simply boils down to one thing. Because I wanted to.