Its been a while since I’ve posted anything to this blog, frankly I didn’t miss it much. I was pretty burnt out always writing about asthma related stuff. Instead, I spent that time trying to get into the best shape possible for my first ever pilgrimage walk. After setting several start dates and then having to cancel them at the last moment due to asthma exacerbations, on Feb 12th of this year I finally made it back to Italy and on Feb 25th 2024, fulfilled a dream almost a full year in the making. I walked from Siena to Rome, completing the last 10 stages of via Francigena.

This adventure definitely ranks up there as one best Ive ever undertaken. For me it was the perfect mix of exercise, scenery, history and solitude. I walked for hours everyday alone, sometimes in total silence and other times with music blaring in my ears. Then, in the late afternoons I would explore the village in which I would stay each night. Except on two occasions I prepared all of my own meals, and in one of the Ostellos I stayed at they they actually provided me with fresh vegetables and herbs from their garden to make a soup or pasta dish.

Of all the walking events I’ve done over the years, I dont think I have spent as much time or put in as much effort in preparing and training for something as I did for this. Yet, when I actually got there and completed a couple of the segments, it was much easier than I had anticipated. If anything, I probably over-prepared for this journey. Not just physically, but in just about every regard. I knew the route so well, that there were few surprises along the way. I remember coming to the end of a particular section between the towns of Vetralla and Sutri, when I suddenly realized that my surroundings looked exactly like those I had seen on Google street views and VF maps I had studied prior to leaving on the trip. Well, duh! Of course it looks the same.. IT IS THE SAME. I don’t know why I found that so reassuring.

The views along my journey varied greatly and changed daily. The via Francigena takes you on dirt roads through open fields, on narrow paths through secluded canyons, and into ancient cities on cobble stone streets. I saw a lot of agriculture, private farms, and lots and lots of Sheep. There were paved areas that winded through upscale neighborhoods and there were also some not so pretty roads that ran parallel to freeways and industrial areas. It was cold and mostly overcast when I was there, which made the surroundings appear very green, though also kind of gloomy. Because it had rained there were a lot of mud puddles to content with on the dirt roads. A walking stick that I fashioned out of a tree branch that I found along the way helped tremendously. I was also warned ahead of time about wild boar or dogs, thankfully I only encountered 2 intimidating barking dogs who were approaching me from behind, but I quickly realized they were pets and probably bark at anyone passing their house.

And speaking of houses, I stayed in a different one every night. These aren’t your 10th century pilgrim accommodations. Were talking a mixture of full service luxury Airbnbs, complete with Wifi, clean modern day hostels, and even comfy church rectories. It basically depends on your budget. If you’re doing a relatively short walk like I did, cost wasnt a big deal. But, a 3-4 month trek could run into the thousands. The places I chose were more out of necessity than comfort or price. Because of my health problems and if Im being honest, my age, I wanted to have private accommodations. Even the Ostellos that I stayed at, I had all to myself. Each and everyone of these places were great, as were the hosts. Modern day pilgrims never had it so good.

On my 11th day I made it to Rome. Because I had essentially been alone in the Italian countryside for more than a week and a half, my arrival to a rather busy, tourist filled St Peters square, was a bit disorienting. I had walked almost 5 hours from La Storta to get there,so when I finally arrived at the Vatican it took me a while to get my bearings. I had to figure out how to get to the office where they issue the Testamonium. Turns out that they actually have a dedicate lane for Pilgrims.They call it the “prayer lane” which bypasses the huge line of people waiting to get in to the basilica and museums. The special lane puts you out at the front of the security screening area. I showed my Pilgrim passport to one of the guards and he said…”just push your way into the front of the line”. I felt bad cutting in front of people who had probably waited an hour or more to get that far, but hey the guard told me too :]. From there the cloakroom and the reception area for Pilgrims was just a few yards away. According to the person who checked my pilgrim passport for the required passage stamps and issued me the Testamonium, I was the first and probably only Pilgrim to arrive at the Vatican that day. Unlike myself, most people do the VF in the Spring or Summer, not the Winter.

This pilgrimage was never intended to be spiritual journey or mission for me, it was more about seeing if I could actually do it, given my health. Still, you cant help but be moved in someway by everything you see and experience on a journey like this. So much history and culture everywhere you look. The sights, the people, the food, even the smells are unforgettable. And of course the wonderful people I encountered along the trail and in the towns, they were extra kind and welcoming. The fact that I speak a little Italian probably helped as well. Not surprisingly, I only met 3 other Pilgrims along the way, one from Germany and the other two were Italians. Saw quite a few people with backpacks while walking through Monte Mario, but not sure if the were pilgrims or just day hikers. The via Francigena is not as well known or tourist driven as the Camino De Santiago in Spain, so unless you’re traveling with a group or during the summer, its not unusual to go days without running in to another pilgrim. That’s actually fine by me.

In summary, my very first pilgrimage was all I hope it would be. Im so glad I stepped out of my comfort zone to do a totally different type of walking. Italy is a wonderful country to explore and reflect on. Ill let my photos and video clips tell the rest of the story, but in total I walked through 12 villages and a half dozen smaller towns in between. My lungs handled it just fine and despite walking 162 miles, I didn’t get a single blister or suffer any leg cramps like I usually do in marathon type races.

Special Kudos to the various volunteer organizations ( town Pro locos), for maintaining a safe and memorable passage through the various sections of the VF. You can tell that they take pride in the work they do, especially in the forested areas, as evidenced by freshly painted and markers, the clearing of downed trees and overgrowth, new fencing, creek bridges and little picnic areas specifically set up for Pilgrims. The signage along the entire route that I walked was excellent. So good in fact, that I really didnt need to use GSP or a map book to find my way.

So what’s next for me? Im thinking about doing the Via Francesco. It’s a newer..ish ( only 800 years old) pilgrimage route dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi

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