The Italian Camino, Day 7 & 8: Artichokes and a glass of wine on the cusp of Rome
Day 7 (Friday)
Starting point to end point: Sutri to Campagnano di Roma
Distance walked: 23,5 km (4,6 km/h average)
Height climbed: 258 meters
Highest point on the route: 312 m
Descent: 296 m
Lowest point on the route: 164 m
Distance to Rome at the start of the day: 70 km
That night, I discover that one can sleep surprisingly well under the watchful eye of a nude painting in Montefosco, just outside the town of Sutri.
It’s Day 7 of my journey on the Via Francigena, where I’m tackling the last 200 km of the traditional pilgrimage to qualify for my Testimonium in Rome. After today, I’ve still got another 2 days of walking to reach the Vatican.
On Day 2 of my journey, I left Aquapendente in pouring rain, and the following day I braved rushing rivers on my way to Montefiascone. But here I am, with about 70 km left of my travels, and overnight the first blossoms of Spring have begun to bloom on the trees outside my window.
At 07:00 I’m promptly in the dining room, where Angela has laid out a thousand forms sweet treats for breakfast.
It looks like a children’s party, and my stomach grumbles in protest. I wrap up a slice of cake in a serviette to enjoy with my coffee later and dish up some post-toasties for myself. But the Italians don’t have these with milk, they eat them with unflavoured yoghurt, so they stay crunchy and hard.
By 7:30 I’m on the road. I have to walk about 2 km to get back onto the Via Francigena, but I follow beautiful farm roads. Although the sun is shining, it’s still icy cold. A rubbish truck is busy collecting dustbins from the farms, and at one farm gate there are three bicycles waiting to be picked up.
My Suunto watch picks up the route quickly, and this morning it keeps me on the alternative path of the Via Francigena, criss-crossing over farmlands. It’s beautiful! I can see that I wasn’t just imagining it yesterday. I splash through puddles as I walk along with my Hi-Tec boots.
By 09:00, I’m freezing, and settle myself down on a bench next to a farmgate for my morning cup of coffee. I remember that I’ve got my stolen piece of cake tucked away in the pouch of my backpack!
It’s a morning where I have to share the rural tar road with herds of sheep being driven forward by shepherds in bakkies. The farmers hoot a friendly greeting and raise their hats to me. Today comes with an added bonus: There’s an in-between town (Monterosi) on my way to Campagnano di Roma.
The first café I come across has a big Via Francigena sign indicating that pilgrims are welcome, so I step in for some tea and to use the loo.
Afterwards I almost miss my turn-off, but luckily the Suunto gets me back on the right route within 100 paces.
Temptation crosses my path about 12 km into my hike.
A sign on the busy Via Cassia indicates that I can either walk along this main road to get to Campagnano (a distance of 10 km), or I can take the route which follows the farm roads, which is 14 km. I decide to play it safe and take the 14 km option.
Ten kilometres can be bloody far if you have to dodge traffic on a busy road the whole way.
It turned out to be a good choice. This road doesn’t just lead me through orchards, but also through two small national parks. There are still no other pilgrims in sight, but lots of sheep, cattle and curious horses to keep me company. I drink my Rehidrat like I’m royalty.
Twice more the Via Francigena signs tempt me with the choice of quicker routes, but because both are safe and pretty, I go with the shorter options. At one, you can turn right and walk 12 km, or left for 9 km. And later you can choose between 15 km or again 9 km. (The signs on the Via Francigena don’t always make sense, so the directions on the Suunto were really a fantastic help.)
As always on the Via Francigena you have to climb a hill to reach Campagnano di Roma, but the view from the top, and the town itself, is worth it. My accommodation (thanks to caminoways.com) is 200 meters from the town square in the old part of the city. It’s lekker to be back in the heart of a village like this one.
The hotel owner greets me with a welcome drink before leading me up the stairs to my room for the night, gallantly carrying my Terra Firma backpack for me.
In the afternoon I take a walk to the city gates and wonder through the streets. Near the entrance I find a fruit stall where I can get some bananas.
I also stumble across a little pizza place, where I order a slice of pizza with zucchinis on for 2 euros. I know I’m getting closer to Rome, because two nights ago a single pizza slice cost me just 1 euro. But I decide it’s still a bargain.
In the shop near the hotel, the assistant fetches a bottle of water for me from the storeroom. Once again, I’m the first South African she’s ever met. When I leave, she greets me with a friendly “buon Camino!”.
I sip on a cappuccino in the pub below the hotel.
It’s late on a Friday afternoon, and some noisy teenagers are getting excited for the weekend ahead. One group plays cards on a table nearby, and another plays pool in the corner.
I suddenly realise that by the time these kids go back to school on Monday, my adventure on the Via Francigena will be over. I can’t help but fall in love with Campagnano di Roma!
Although I haven’t bumped into Gerhard since we parted ways in Sutri, we’d arranged to meet each other at 19:30 on the town square if we were in the mood for company. So at 19:30 I walk the 200 m to the square, but there’s no sign of Gerhard.
To add to my disappointment: I walk up and down, through the town, but there’s no restaurants in sight, except for the little pizza place I visited earlier.
I decide to ask the barman, who’s got a smattering of English, for help. I ask “ristorante?” and make eating motions with my right hand (you usually get surprisingly far with sign language in foreign countries.)
He copies me, asking “Ristoranti?” making a similar motion. I wonder if I should also rub my tummy like a child just to emphasise how hungry I am.
“You want to eat?” he asks with raised eyebrows, as if it’s the stupidest question on earth.
I nod an enthusiastic yes, and he comes around from behind the bar to open up a side door for me. Lord. It really was the stupidest question on earth!
Just next to the pub (and 20 meters from my room) is the most charming trattoria. It’s got rough stone walls and a gas heater is cheerily burning. There are already people enjoying wine at two or three tables.
The menu doesn’t have a word of English (obviously) but with the help of Google Translate, I order the fettucine with artichokes. (I’d eaten enough meat at Nonna Angela’s the night before to keep me going all the way back to Cape Town). I think it’s the best meal on my entire pilgrimage.
I also enjoy an apple pudding and stumble up to bed. I sleep like the dead.
Day 8 (Saturday)
Starting point to end point: Campagnano di Roma to La Storta
Distance walked: 21,1 km (4,4 km/h average)
Height climbed: 292 meters
Highest point on the route: 383 m
Descent: 492 m
Lowest point on the route: 40 m
Distance to Rome at the start of the day: 41 km
When I walk down to the dining room at 07:00 that morning my breakfast is already laid out for me, complete with a table cloth. The café is busy, with various locals gulping down their morning espressos (in true Italian style). The local butcher stretches his arms wide for everyone to inspect how clean his apron is before he starts his work day.
I’m out the door around 07:18, and I watch the Campagnano di Roma waking up. At the city gates traders pack out their wares for the Saturday morning markets, and everyone gives a friendly greeting. It’s my last “full day” on the Via Francigena. Tonight, I sleep on the edge of Rome, and tomorrow I walk to the Vatican to complete my pilgrimage.
The morning starts off with a challenging climb, but it’s a lovely day to be out and about.
It’s the weekend before Easter and many of the houses have put huge wooden crosses on the sidewalks out front. It’s interesting to see how the Via Francigena beacons now show Rome is in one direction and Canterbury in the other. Thank goodness I’m not heading that way! (If you don’t know why the arrows point towards Canterbury, read here.)
Although I’m almost on the cusp of Rome, I’m still surrounded by nature. Rome is an impressive, busy city, and yet I find myself in paradise, less than 30 km from the Vatican. I think that my hike to Formella (another in-between town) is possibly the highlight of my whole pilgrimage.
A week ago, I was terrified by the stillness, and jumped at every crack and croak, but now the silence has become a blessing. I drink coffee at a dirty little café, because experience has taught me that you don’t have a lot of options in the Italian countryside, but I regret it. Formella has plenty of cute little cafes and I could have chosen better.
The arrow on my Suunto takes me over the town square and past the cathedral, and a young assistant insists on stamping my pilgrim’s passport. “To remember us by,” he adds with a friendly smile.
The day is unforgettable. Outside Formella I get stuck in a sheep traffic jam, but everyone is warm and friendly (even the sheepdogs, which are much bigger here than the kelpies that we have in South Africa).
The last section of the day takes me through a wood, and at one point the Via Francigena signs again give me the choice between two routes.
For a change, I decide not to follow the arrow on my Suunto because it’s leading me down into the valley, where I’d have to cross another stream, But I discover for the first time just how hard it really is to find the path without my watch.
The route is marked, but not nearly as well as the Spanish Camino de Santiago, and a couple of times I walk into corners or fences and I have to retrace my steps to find the Via Francigena again.
At 21 km I reach my last overnight stop on the pilgrimage, and for one last time, caminoways.com has chosen an outstanding location.
The hotel is in Isola Farnese (just before La Storta) and looks out over the valley. I send photos home over Whatsapp, and get some snotty messages in response, saying that I need to stop making people jealous. It’s just so lovely!
When I go to take photos of the tiny village in the afternoon, I run into my old friend Gerhard! He’s booked into the same hotel as me. This time I’ve asked the hotel owner if there’s a “ristoranti” nearby, and we arrange to meet each other in front of the hotel at 19:30 to walk there together.
From outside the restaurant looks just like a simple, slapped-together dining room from someone’s house, and we don’t expect too much. But it’s our last night on the Via Francigena, and neither of us is keen to munch cheese and biscuits alone in our rooms.
Sjoe, but I had to eat my words (and the food!). When we walk in, we’re blown away.
The restaurant is grand and takes about 100 people. The waiters make a plan to seat us because we haven’t made a booking. Are they really expecting this place to be full tonight? Apparently, yes. The waiter wears a smart black tie and folds my serviette onto my lap for me.
Gerhard and I look a bit out of place. And I suspect we also smell a little. But I’d hesitate to guess that we’re not the first pilgrims that have rocked up out of the blue at this restaurant. Gerhard insists that we order a good bottle of wine for ourselves to celebrate the friendship we’ve formed on the Via Francigena.
The waiter puts bread rolls in front of us with fresh tomato and olive oil. I order chicken breasts wrapped in Parma ham, and Gerhard goes for the ravioli. Along with that we get sides of salad, artichoke and stuffed green peppers, all off the top shelf! Our last supper is fit for a king!
I go to bed that night a lot later than usual, and struggle to fall asleep.
I’ve got the same butterfly feeling in my stomach that I used to get before a new school term started. I can’t believe that this journey, that has been the focus of my life for so many months, is going to be over in just 19km.
Caminoways.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit caminoways.com.)
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