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The GPS stats from my Suunto watch

Start and end points: Aquapendente to Bolsena

Distance walked: 23,9 km

Time: 4:52 (4,9 km average)

Height climbed: 985 meters

Highest point on the route: 518 meters

Distance descended: 1005 meter

Lowest point: 352 meters

Apparently, when a tsunami is about to hit, it’s the deadly stillness that warns beachgoers of impending disaster. For a few minutes before the giant wave strikes it’s ominously quiet…I discovered that the same goes for small villages.

The quieter the Saturday afternoon, the louder the party that’s approaching on Saturday night. The town is so quiet because the locals are napping under their duvets to conserve their energy for the night ahead.

Day 2

Help, there’s ’n DJ in my room

The Alberge Toscana is in the heart of the town, and at 3:30 on Sunday morning, I’m still wide awake.

Aquapendente apparently has less than 6 000 residents, but I swear every single one of them is partying underneath my window, and the DJ has set up his turntables in my bedroom. Even the fillings in my mouth are vibrating to the music.

And this is not the first time it’s happened to me. On my Camino in Spain I endured a similar night at Villafranco del Bierzo. Later I scratch around in my backpack, looking for the earplugs I got on the airplane.

At least I can try get a few hours’ sleep before my alarm goes off. It’s eventually the pouring rain that ruins the party, and while I’m glad, the rain does not bode well for me. 

Farewell, Aquapendente
It's 6 degrees Celsius and pouring!

Of course, there’s not a single soul in sight when I poke my head out the front door the next morning.

I’m wrapped up in every warm thing that I could fit into my Terra Firma-backpack, finished off with my rain poncho, that I’ve pulled over both myself and the bag. I look like a bat.

The weather app has an alert about heavy downpours for the day and for a change its actually right – there’s not a single minute it does not rain, right until I reach Bolsena. At the entrance to Aquapendente I walk past the cathedral and come across a sign that says Bolsena is 12km away.

But that’s 12km if you walk along the main road (the Via Cassia). I wouldn’t chance it on a misty, rainy day, when I’m basically wrapped up in a black bag. Incidentally, according to the guidebook, you shouldn’t chance it in good weather either.

I’m taking the pilgrim’s route, which, the book says, is a little less than 22km. 

There is nothing romantic about today's route

One foot in front of the other 

The whole day, words from the twitter handle of Paulo Coelho, the author of The Pilgrim, are running through my mind: “There are days that life is about dreams, goals, brightness. And there are days that life is just about putting one foot in front of the other and continue walking – there is nothing wrong about that.”

It’s a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other type of day. The stretch between Aquapendente and Bolsena is the first “compulsory” section for pilgrims that want to apply for their Testimonium (certificate of completion) in Rome. It’s anything but inspiring.

It’s a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other type of day...

The blue line on my Suunto watch is following the official route today, which first takes you out of the city via an industrial area (with not a single person in sight)  and then you wander through the rain and mud on remote roads.

I survey my surroundings every now and again, but thankfully it’s just my own synthetic hiking pants that are rustling like a matric dance dress from1985 as I walk.

This stretch must have gotten more rain in the last day than the Cape has in the last two winters.

This is the day

In her book about the Via Francigena, Stumbling to Rome, Sunshine Jen writes that this section was an absolute low point. Likewise, Maggie Ramsay and her husband write in The Italian Camino that they just decided to take the bus to Bolsena.

I try to break the silence with singing. My preacher-brother and his family sent me a WhatsApp voice note that morning, singing “This is the Day…” and so I sing it as loudly as I can for as long as I can, with somewhat less melody perhaps.

Later, the church hymns become a little less holy, when for some inexplicable reason Gé Korsten’s “Hier is die mens” gets stuck in my head.

At one point I decide to memorialise the moment and set up the Canon M100 on a tripod, but seconds later I have to pull it back into the safety of the rain jacket.

The Canon M100 is “waterproof” but you basically need an underwater camera for days like this one. 

The quiet, remote roads to Nuovo

Why do you have to be a heartbreaker?

There are a few times when the Via Francigena signs break your spirit. At the entrance to Saint Lorenzo Nuovo there’s a sign that claims Bolsena is “3” away, but they don’t quantify the 3.

Three kilometres means I can enjoy a Sunday lunch in Bolsena, similarly, 3 miles means happiness is just around the corner. 

Later I suspect some miscreant intentionally scratched away the “1” from in front of the “3” because there’s no sign of civilisation in sight.

Now I’m singing “Why do you have to be a heartbreaker...”

The eerily quiet Saint Lorenzo Nuovo
In good weather you can see all the way to Bolsena from here

This is one of the few days where there’s a town between my overnight stops, and Saint Lorenzo Nuova is easy on the eye. But it’s just before 12pm on a rainy Sunday, and not a single shop is open. Even the restaurants are very definitely closed. 

En route to Bolsena
The Hi-Tecs do surprisingly well in water

At the 12 km mark I make peace with the fact that it’s never going to stop raining, and that I’ll can’t walk the whole day without sustenance passing my lips. I make some Rehidrat just before the path swings down into a forest, and treat myself to a banana.

I realise that under other circumstances – with better weather, and if there were more pilgrims on the path – this would be a feast for a hiker. 

The road to Bolsena

It looks like the Knysna forest, with a bush trail that twists and turns through the fairy-tale forest. I’m grateful for the blue line on the Suunto that keeps me on course.

In the rain it’s not so easy to spot the tiny Via Francigena stickers (In some places the route markers are just a sticker two fingers wide that have been wrapped around a pole).

I get another sign that says Bolsena is “2,5” away, but my Suunto (and my common sense) tell me that I’m at least 7km outside the town. 

The road crosses over farms that are used for agri-tourism

It doesn’t rain, it “bolsenas”

About five hours after poking my (previously) dry nose out the door at Aquapendente, I reach Bolsena, soaked to the core. As you reach the crest of one last hill, suddenly the town and the lake are spread out before you.

The town is beautiful! I’ve heard people speak about Lake Garda in Italy, but I’ve never heard of Bolsena. And here it is, sitting like a jewel on this beautiful, huge lake.

Not everyone shares my amazement of Bolsena, but out of four stories about the Via Francigena, not a single pilgrim reached Bolsena dry.

In fact, Maggie Ramsey writes that she and her husband referred to heavy downpours as “it’s bolsena-ing again” for the rest of their pilgrimage. 

The view of Bolsena

Even Charles Dickens spent a night in Bolsena in January 1845. He was clearly far less impressed with the place than I was.

He writes about it in his travel journal, Pictures of Italy: “We came, at dusk, within sight of the Lake of Bolsena, on whose bank there is a little town by the same name, much celebrated for malaria. With the exception of this poor place, there is not a cottage on the banks of the lake, or near it (for nobody dare sleep there); not a boat upon its waters; not a stick or stake to break the dismal monotony of seven-and-twenty watery miles. We were late in getting in, the roads being very bad from heavy rains; and after dark, the dullness of the scene was quite intolerable.”

Intolerable Bolsena. Sjoe. Now that’s a stigma that this village doesn’t deserve. 

The Hotel Royal looks out across the lake
One of the hotel's pleasant sitting rooms

“I know everyone ...”

My Suunto takes me to the square in front of the famous cathedral, and following the directions from I reach my accommodation, the Royal Hotel. (Now David Kramer’s song is in my head...)

It’s a four-star hotel with a view across the lake. I can’t believe my luck! In the reception area I meet a Swiss man named Fred, who says he’s also walking the Via Francigena, but didn’t have the will to face the rain today and decided to spend another day in Bolsena.

According to him, the weather is supposed to be better tomorrow. I don’t want to break his heart, but my weather app says it’s still going to “bolsena” for another two days.

Along the Bolsena Lake

I’m put out at first when the receptionist tells me that out of season, the hotel functions as a B&B and the restaurant won’t be open for dinner tonight. But I forgive her when it forces me to “walk back” to the town.

In my dripping clothes, and with the backpack on me, I’d thought the hotel was “outside” of town, but it’s actually only 700m from the cathedral, right in the centre of the village.

By the time I’ve had a hot shower and an hour’s nap (don’t judge me, remember I was still awake at 3:30 from all the partying at Aquapendente) things start looking up.

I take a walk in a short-sleeve t-shirt and shorts (the rest of my clothes are drenched) for a bit along the lake, and wander through the streets. Bolsena is a holiday town, and it’s clear that the holiday homes have their wooden shutters firmly closed against the winter.

That evening I enjoy a coffee in a quaint coffee shop. It’s here where I first encounter the Est! Est!! Est!!! wine (I’ll tell you all about that story tomorrow). 

Mamamia! This pizza is lekker!

It’s still too early for dinner, and I’m not really dressed for hanging around outside, but on the square there’s a bunch of Italian students eating slices of pizza.

I hunt down the source: The Mamma Mia Pizza Place! Unfortunately, the cathedral is closed (how can a cathedral be closed on a Sunday?).

I’m quite disappointed, because there’s a statue inside that I really wanted to see.

The sun sets in shades of blue over Bolsena

The lake is beautiful, and the sun starts setting in ten different shades of blue – along with an icy wind.

That night, half-astounded, I watch a cowboy movie that the Italians have patiently dubbed over. It doesn’t sync very well. 

These cowboys speak fluent Italian

I chat to my family over WhatsApp, who, as per usual after church on a Sunday night, are eating egg sandwiches in the church offices.

That night I pray that I’ll have dry clothes in the morning, and that I’ll cross paths with the Swiss guy again somewhere on the route.

I’ve already had two full days of walking without seeing another soul on the road, and the silence is becoming overwhelming. 

The story of Christina and Rocco

Bolsena is the birth place of Saint Christine (Santa Cristina), a martyr from the third century.

Christine’s father was furious that she converted to Christianity, and drowned her in the Bolsena lake, with a stone around her neck.

Shortly thereafter, the stone (with Christina’s footprints embedded on it) was found floating on the lake.

Bolsena, sometimes still known as Santa Cristina, was already an important destination for pilgrims when Sigeric stopped here in the 700’s. 

In the Chiesa di Santa Cristina there is an important pilgrim’s symbol, a statue of Saint Rocco. Saint Rocco is the protector of pilgrims, dogs (and dog lovers), as well as lone travellers (I tick all of the boxes).

Rocco was declared a saint because of his work during the Plague in Aquapendente. Rocco stayed in the town for a few months as a pilgrim to care for the sick and caught it himself.

Later in life, when he unjustly ended up in prison, the dogs cared for him by bringing him food.

Rocco is usually depicted with shells on his clothes or hat (an iconic pilgrim’s symbol), with a dog at his feet and a prominent sore on his leg (because of the Plague).

Please note his “Wellington gumboots” totally appropriate for rain-soaked Bolsena.

I really wanted to see this statue, but the cathedral was closed. This is how it looks on Wikipedia. 

Source: Wikipedia
Today's tip: Is it safe for women?

Readers often ask how safe it is for women to walk alone. If you want to do the Spanish Camino, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.

When I did it, it was also out of season, and I was surrounded by other pilgrims for entire days.

The Via Francigena is a bit different. Remember, only 2500 pilgrims walk this route each year, compared to the 250 000 pilgrims that walk in Spain each year. In the off season you’ll see very few other people on the road.

Some basic safety tips:

• If you can, walk with someone.• Keep a cellphone with an Italian SIM-card on you. The emergency number for the Carabinieri is 112, for the police it’s 113 and for the ambulance service its 118.

Remember that I’m writing this from the safety of my office in Cape Town. I was scared but – spoiler alert! – nothing happened to me.

And the Via Francigena is really very special. So, I wouldn’t want to put anyone off walking it.

Perhaps we need to organise a Via Francigena go! tour and do it together?  

This go! Via Francigena adventure has been made possible by Canon SARehidratHi-Tec,  Trappers and Atlasware. All photos and videos were shot with the Canon M100 organises walking and biking tours on a variety of Camino de Santiago routes. A six-day trip on the famous Camino Frances from Sarria to Santiago starts from 420 euro (about R7 000) per person sharing. (For details and a free quotation, contact or visit