The Italian Camino, Day 9: The anti-climax in Rome
Day 9 (Sunday)
Starting point to end point: Isola Farnese to Rome
Distance walked: 19,18 km (4,4 km/h average)
Height climbed: 127 meters
Highest point on the route: 172 m
Descent: 199 m
Lowest point on the route: 35 m
Distance to Rome at the start of the day: 19 km
I’m awake hours before my alarm goes off, even though I’d gotten to sleep pretty late the night before. From my bed I can look out far across the valley.
I feel so privileged to be here. A week ago, I left rain-drenched Aquapendente and hiked 24km to Bolsena in a monsoon. And now, it’s suddenly spring in Italy, just one week later.
Once again, I’m happily surprised that I’m not stiff or injured, despite a few demanding hills and descents, and having hiked more than 150km.
One last time I check over my “pilgrims kit” that I laid out in preparation last night: The Terra Firma backpack that sits so comfortably on my back, the Hi-Tec-boots https://www.capeunionmart.co.za/hi-tec-altitude-6-mid-boot-ladies , which I’m sure are a large part of the reason why I haven’t hurt myself on this Camino.
Today the Atlasware flask can stay packed away in my backpack – we’ll be passing by plenty of coffee shops, but I decide to keep the Rehidrat close at hand.
Gerhard and I have arranged to meet each other downstairs at 7:30 in the dining room, and to walk together today. We take one look at the plastic-wrapped croissants and weak coffee and decide to hit the road instead.
We can pick a better coffee place somewhere on our route. According to the hotel manager, it’s just 15km from here to the Vatican, but I learned long ago to take all distances in Italy with a pinch of salt. According to the Suunto it’s still 19km away.
There’s a train...
Our first mistake for the day is that it’s 19 km from La Storta to the Vatican, but we’re not quite in La Storta itself. Isola Farnese is still a good 3 km before La Storta. Not that I can complain about the accommodation that caminoways.com booked for me in Isola Farnese.
La Storta looks fresh but sombre on a Sunday morning, with all the weekend’s rubbish lying on the sidewalk in stinking piles. At least I got to experience one last piece of the Italian countryside.
Right from the start we’re walking along the busy Via Cassia, and I’m surprised at the amount of traffic on the road this early on a weekend. Last night over dinner, Gerhard and I swapped notes, and both of our guidebooks warn that the last day on the Via Francigena takes your breath away for all the wrong reasons.
Coincidentally, I also ended my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago on a Sunday, but it was unforgettable, with large groups of young people singing together as they walked the last few kilometres.
Today I have to struggle along on busy roads. My guidebook, The Lightfoot Guide to the Via Francigena, bluntly states: “For those not wishing to deal with the Rome traffic there is a frequent and inexpensive train service from La Storta.”
But really, who wants to complete their pilgrimage on a train?
The triumphant tar entry
The GPX map on my Suunto keeps us on the Via Cassia for the first few kilometres, occasionally indicating the distance to the Vatican every now and then.
But Gerhard’s book suggests that we turn-off onto the Via Trionfale, another road that pilgrims have used for centuries to reach the Vatican.
In my imagination I can picture the chariots and people with laurel wreaths around their heads, but towards the end, the Via Trionfale runs right next to the train tracks and doesn’t have a proper shoulder to walk on for long sections.
It looks like Voortrekker road in Bellville. We walk past various train stations. Every now and then Gerhard and I wonder whether we should follow the guidebook’s advice and just hop on a train, but in the end, I maintain my conviction: As long as I’m healthy and fit, I’ll be reaching the Vatican on foot today.
I don’t know what we were expecting, to reach Rome via quiet farm roads? It’s one of the busiest cities in the world.
After the first 8km we decide it’s the perfect time for a break and slip into a little coffee shop. It’s not yet 10:00, and one of the locals is sitting here drinking coffee in his pyjamas. We drink coffee and nibble on croissants. I ask Gerhard what his surname is, because for our entire journey, we’ve only used each other’s first names.
He says his surname – quite a mouthful – and on seeing my expression, explains that it means “the beautiful hill” in Dutch.
“That’s quite fitting for our travels,” I remark. Gerhard is an experienced hiker and has climbed most of the “beautiful mountains” in the world. Of course, he asks my surname too.
“Engelbrecht,” I answer.
“You probably know that Engelbrecht is Dutch for “sent by an angel”. He pauses for a moment. “And it’s also entirely appropriate for this trip…”
The day doesn’t improve. We struggle to stay on the busy streets of the Via Trionfale, and we’re grateful when we can start following the blue arrows on the Suunto again. Now there are no more signposts for the Via Francigena.
At one stage church music spills out of a cathedral’s doors, and I’m surprised by how moved I am – I’d forgotten that today is the Sunday before Easter weekend – which is a huge celebration in Rome.
The last section of the route takes us through a park in the middle of Rome –Monte Mario – also a centuries’ long tradition on the Via Francigena. A hill in the park is the highest point in Rome, and from here you can see out across the whole city. We’ve made it!
Gerhard and I sit for a while, but all we have with us to celebrate is a Snickers bar and some Rehidrat. From Monte Mario it’s just 2km – and a descent! – to the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.
But once again, we’ve miscalculated. It’s about 12:00 and Rome is dressed in its best for Palm Sunday. A horde of faithful Christians have gathered on the square in front of the Basilica, and the streets are filled with crowds waving massive palm fronds.
We see what seems like a thousand law enforcement officers in uniform manning the streets, some of whom are heavily armed, but the atmosphere is festive. We squeeze past a mass of people, eager to reach the square which is the official end of the Via Francigena.
The masses have come to a standstill about 100 meters before the last entrance to the square. The square is bursting at the seams and the police have cordoned off the area. A couple of thousand people have to move on before the next group can be allowed in. We can’t even move to scratch our noses, it’s so jam-packed.
Gerhard and I decide that it makes more sense to go to our hotels first and come back in the afternoon when it’s (hopefully) less busy. It is the biggest anti-climax of the year (you’ll notice on the map that I had to turn around just outside the square – at the massive circle.)
For a moment there’s an uncomfortable silence between Gerhard and me. I’m just wondering if I should hug him when he sticks his hand out and gives me a rather formal handshake. He thanks me for the company, then dissolves into the milling masses. I never see Gerhard again.
My last accommodation on the Via Francigena is at the Hotel Colors, less than a kilometre from St Peters Basilica.
“Congratulations with your birthday tomorrow,” the receptionist says, and I’m impressed that she picked that up on the system.
At 16:00 I decide to brave the streets again. I’ve been in Rome before, but I feel like I’m experiencing it for the first time. The queues to get into the Basilica are still unbearably long, and if this is what it’s like outside the cathedral, I don’t want to imagine what a mess of humanity it is inside.
I linger in the streets a bit in the hope that I’ll come across a memento of the Via Francigena. But there’s nothing, not a single magnet or pen or coffee mug in sight.
I’m actually quite glad about it, because it shows that after 10 centuries, the Via Francigena remains unspoiled by the hordes of tourists. And while Rome has a formidable list of restaurants that serve some of the best food in the world, I decide to pop in at a McDonalds, because for days I’ve been craving egg on toast.
McDonalds sells a breakfast muffin with egg and cheese and milky coffee. Just what I needed!
THE FOLLOWING FOUR DAYS
Happy birthday to me
It’s Monday, and my birthday! Not a bad place to turn 44. I lie in bed and think how I melodramatically declared that “all the fun is gone” on my 40th birthday. But the past four years have delivered some of the best moments of my life.
In fact, I think each new year improves upon the previous one. My mom has a tradition of calling her four children at the exact time they were born on their birthdays, which means I normally get my call every year at 8:38.
But this year I’ve asked her to call at 07:00. I’m concerned I won’t have WiFi if she calls any later.
I’m out the door before 8 in the hope that I can avoid the crowds at St Peter’s Basilica. I want to go there on my way to collect my Testimonium. The queues are shorter than yesterday, but I’m still sharing the cathedral with thousands of people.
It defies understanding how anyone can have a spiritual experience among the masses here. I wonder how disappointing it must be for catholic believers that their place of worship has become such a tourist trap. Still, it remains an extremely impressive building, especially when you’ve hiked over 9 days to get here.
In Spain, I queued for hours to get my Compostela, but today I’m the only person who shows up to collect my Testimonium, and it’s handed over to me without ceremony. The woman barely looks up from behind her desk.
And now all of Rome lies in wait for me – I’m only flying back to Cape Town on Thursday.
As a special birthday gift to myself, I’ve booked my last few nights of accommodation at the Hotel Fontana – right across from the famous Trevi Fountain. Hands-down, the fountain is my favourite site to see in Rome – maybe because photos just don’t do justice to the size of it.
Unfortunately, the fountain is the favourite tourist attraction of a lot of people – so you’ve always got to jostle through thousands of people to find a spot where you can throw in your coins.
But if you’re spending a few nights there, you can slip out the hotel door early and have the whole fountain to yourself in the early hours. And because not even the coffee shops are open at this time of day, I enjoy a cup of coffee from my Atlasware flask on the steps.
It’s a huge privilege. The history of the Trevi dates back to the year 19BC, and according to legend, you’re supposed to throw 3 coins into the fountain. The first coin ensures that you’ll return to Rome, the third one ensures that you’ll marry someday.
I can say with great certainty that this doesn’t work – I’ve thrown my three coins into the fountain several times, and I’ve definitely remain unmarried. Apparently the three-coin legend results in up to 3000 euro (R40 000) being removed from the fountain every day, which is used for the city’s charity projects.
It’s not my first time in Rome, I’ve seen most of the tourist attractions, and after 9 days of intense silence, I find the busy tourist spots particularly overwhelming. I don’t feel up to the red-bus thing, and I feel like my legs have become lead.
I never wonder too far from my hotel. I walk to the Spanish steps and enjoy a deep-fried artichoke (My dad is carnivorous and is strongly convinced that artichokes are rabbit food, but I can assure you it’s delicious).
I walk to the Colosseum and turn around as soon as I see the queues. I walk to the San Pietro church (here you can see the chains of St Peter) to view the famous Michelangelo statue of Moses with horns on his head. I’m relieved to find just four people in the church, one of which is a very accommodating security guard.
Centuries ago, Moses was commonly depicted with horns. In the Book of Exodus, it’s said that his face shone when he came down Mount Sinai.
The original Hebrew word “keren” can apparently be translated as “radiant” or “with horns” and in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, Moses is described as having horns.
Izak de Villiers once wrote a captivating poem about this statue and I’ve always wanted to see it for myself.
On my way back to the hotel, I spontaneously stop at the Santa Maria del Popolo and I find the violin music surprisingly moving. I’m also surprised by the video quality of the Canon M100.
On my second-last day in Rome, I take the train back to the Vatican, and at 08:00 I’m in the queue in front of the Vatican museum in the naïve hope that I’ll get to enjoy it at a quieter time. The museum is so busy, I regret even going at all.
Hawkers harass you while you stand in the queue, and you have to strain your neck around the crowds to get a glimpse at the art.
The Sistine Chapel feels as packed as a school hall before interhouse. I try to imagine how the chapel must look when the cardinals come in here to choose the next pope, but right now the Vatican museum is overwhelming for all the wrong reasons.
Water under the bride
I get a Whatsapp from a friend the morning before I fly, asking if I can throw three coins into the Trevi Fountain for him. He just wants to make sure that he’ll return to Rome someday.
I toss the coins in en route to the taxi terminal.
Down a side street a tour guide is encouraging a group of 50 happy tourists to practice throwing their coins over their left shoulders.
In the taxi Adele is belting out over the radio: “If you’re gonna let me down, let me down gently... our love ain’t water under the bridge”.
Down one of the side roads there’s a tree that is bright red and pregnant with fruit – in the middle of the city – and people are wandering around past shop windows in short-sleeves. Winter left Italy overnight.
At the main station (Roma Termini) I sit myself down at the same café on the second floor where I sat the morning I was heading to San Gimignano. It feels like ages ago. And when you travel by foot, 9 days can be a lifetime.
I’m waiting in the sunshine for the Leonardo Express, which will take me to the airport. Around me trains are travelling to Milan, Florence and Siena. Once again, my feet start itching to travel. What a wonderful place the world is.
It was Jack Kerouac who wrote: “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
What a privilege it is to travel, and to be healthy enough to enjoy it on foot, I think as the train pulls in, and I throw my backpack on my shoulders once more.
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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