Into the woods

Day begins

This morning we said farewell to our hosts at Il Beccafico, Masako and Ivo, and set out under clearing skies for Valfabbrica. Robin and I were still under the spell of Il Beccafico, their home, as we started down into another beautiful Umbrian valley. The day was warm and seemed to offer a better than average chance of a dry day. And so so we moved on. Tight muscles gradually got the message that there was work to be done and it was time to get with it. And so off we went ready and open for what the day would bring. We wound around through rural lanes and soon came upon a monastery, the Eremo di San Pietro in Vignetto. We walked in and met an Italian hospitalero, Stephan, who welcomed us and gave us a tour of the grounds. It is now a a donativo pilgrim hostel, that can accommodate 50 people. He showed us the chapel with a fresco dating back to the 1300’s. A beautiful guy and a beautiful refuge. He did say he is open all year round. After bidding Stephan adieu we moved on and continued enjoying a gorgeous morning. We soon encountered a group from the USA who were traveling with REI, The huge American outdoor outfitters. They were all part of a hiking tour and were coming from Assisi and heading for Gubbio. We chatted a for a bit and then went our separate ways. In short order we entered the woods. While yesterday’s walk was on on leafy country lanes today’s took us into the woods and on to forested paths. We had the usual mix of ups and downs, stream crossings, and mud slicked climbs that drained us. But we moved through it all joyfully and still found ourselves marveling at the beauty of it all. We felt particularly strong. A gimpy knee that rose from wherever, seemed to retreat to from whence it came and life was indeed much better. Robin and I just putted along at what I felt was a comendable pace. There really was nothing to it. We just set out for a good walk and there it was. No magic involved, just lots of gratitude. We have found beautiful caring people all along the Way of St. Francis just as we have in Spain walking our various caminos. It is this kind of connection with people that continues to draw us back. Of course we also try to do our best to measure up, but that is another story, for another day. Life goes on, regardless. Eventually we popped out off the woods in the early afternoon and found ourselves on a paved road that with a few twists and turns led us to a quiet path that took us into Vilfabbrica. This day is done. Tomorrow we will be in Assisi. Thanks be to God.     


Chapel along the way


Pilgrim hostel in church


Chapel fresco from 1300


Stefan the hospitalero


Creek crossing




And now to Assisi

Stairs occasionally helped

Our hotel in Valfabbrica hosted a hoard of Assisi bound pilgrims. Germans and Italians seemed to be the majority. Breakfast was a raucous communal affair that made us wonder whether our final push to Assisi would be less tranquil than we had hoped. But we quickly decided to linger at the breakfast table long enough for the large group, that was obviously anxious to depart, to finally get going. By 8:45 the hotel was still as a church with only family members starting the ever present chores of readying the hotel for the following night’s guests. Off we went up into the nearby hills, and into a day full of promise and pleasant weather. Today’s route took us up one long and occasionally mud slicked climb. For an hour and a half we made slow but steady progress until we finally topped the hill. Our reward once we cleared the forest was a paved road and shortly thereafter our first glimpse of Assisi with its fortress castle and the Basilica being the most prominent landmarks. The time slipped past as we immersed ourselves in the joy of this day. The tranquility factor was indeed high as we found ourselves almost totally alone (we only saw two other pilgrims) with bird song accompanying us every step of the way (very Franciscan). We arrived in due course at the foot of the hill upon which Assisi sits. The weather had been pleasant all morning but we now felt the heat rise with us as we chugged up the last final and somewhat steep hill to the Basilica of St. Francis. Once through the city gate we made our way to the lower Basilica plaza to check in with the Pilgrim Office for our credential stamp and our Testimonium (similar to the Compostela one receives as a pilgrim arriving in Santiago). As it turns out it was closed until 2:00 pm so off we went to find our hotel and check in. True to our habits as pilgrims the washing was next on the to do list, but fortunately we found a drop off laundry service on the far side of town that would handle that chore for us (sink washing clothes only can get you so far).  Now with laundry handled, we started back across town to the Pilgrim Office to finalize our documents. On the way we stopped for a bite of lunch, pulled the lever on the cash machine, and ambled off towards where our hearts have always been focused, the church of St. Francis. What a perfect day. At the Pilgrim Office we concluded our business and discovered there would be a pilgrim mass at the Basilica at 6:00 pm. We had some time on our hands so we toured the Basilica, a stunning display of frescos to be sure. The tomb of St. Francis lies below the lowere basilica and is a powerful place of peace and prayer. You cannot visit there and walk away untouched by the miracle that was the life of this most humble of all the saints. I happened to overhear a tour guide describing a fresco near the main altar in the lower basilica as containing what is believed to be the first portrait of St. Francis. As my gaze followed the pointing finger of the guide to the indicated image I was stunned at how small and ordinary Francis was. Yet, this scrawny little guy was able to accomplish more by virtue of his deep faith and love of God than countless armies and legions ever were able to do by shear force. How can you not feel the strength of his love that he poured out, unceasingly, and abundantly, upon all of God’s people and creatures. Love was his sword and shield. He changed the world by being able to reach into the hearts of multitudes both in life and in death, and allow them to see the truth that love conquers all. What a remarkable journey this has been to the tomb of possibly the world’s most beloved Saint. Robin and I feel so gifted to have been able to walk here, and share this moment of prayer giving thanks for the life of this miraculous man and all that he was able to accomplish. Later at the end of the pilgrim mass the priest called the pilgrims who arrived today, by name, and invited them to come forward for a special blessing. What a perfect way to end the day. We feel blessed indeed.   


Early view of Assisi                    


Padre Pio  

City gate





Basilica of St. Francis

A man of peace

The tomb of St. Francis

Today was a rest day for us here in Assisi. We had some errands to attend to but mostly it was just a day to relax in this very holy town. We all visit many places for one reason or another. For Robin and I our travels tend to be connected to our faith more than anything else. Everybody has a focus and that just happens to be ours. Over the years we have been fortunate to visit several places that are central to our Catholic faith. We have been to Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes, Fatima, and several others. What dawned on me today was how important Assisi is to our faith journey. This is the second time we have visited here, but the first time arriving as a pilgrims on foot. Today we attended the 6:00 pm pilgrim mass once again and felt drawn to the spirit of St. Francis all the more. This holy place has a way of calling you even when you don’t seem to realize it. As Robin and I offered prayers at the tomb of St. Francis after mass we felt ever more connected to the long lineage of the faithful who have journeyed to this place seeking the peace that St. Francis graciously offered. I must admit that in our human world of words and descriptions I cannot find the the right language that speaks to this experience. Perhaps a gift, a blessing, or even a call or an awakening. It is all hard to pin down. But suffice it to say, we feel we are changed for the better for having been here. In the end that is what is important about being on pilgrimage, and that is what will guide us. God willing, and with our faith strengthened, we will find the path that has been set out for us to follow. The fine point is to accept that revealed path joyfully. Now that might require just a bit more work, but with the our hearts filled with the joyful presence of St. Francis anything seems possible. We love this place.

And on to Spello

In Assisi

We have reluctantly left wonderful Assisi to continue on to Rome. We only have a handful of days left before we are due to arrive in Rome, so walking all the way is out of the question. Robin and I have decided to walk to Spoleto and from there take the train to Rieti and the see what remaining stages can be walked. For the past couple of days we have walked to the beautiful medieval towns of Spello, Trevi and today Spoleto. We dealt with some moderate rain showers yesterday but other than that the weather has been fine. It was quite a treat to be sitting out on our hotel deck looking back up the valley last night and being able to see Assisi that we left two days ago. Today’s walk to Spoleto was almost exclusively on paved surfaces. The weather warmed up a bit so we were making best speed under the cool domes of our umbrellas. Our arrival in Spoleto was a bit of a mish mash. The guide book just didn’t seem to line up with what we were seeing. Of course we could see the city on a distant hill so in the end we just headed for the high ground and what looked like the city center. We had been on a very nice if uninspiring bike path for several kilometers before we turned left for Spoleto. Robin and I were both hot and tired and Spoleto just didn’t seem to want to arrive. We ploughed along uphill for ages and once in the old city itself our confusion only got worse. Our hotel was on a very small street that the locals we spoke to couldn’t identify. The general guidance was to continue going up. By now we were done with up and wanted to hear down, but that was not to be. So we swung long lazy arcs across the city hillside in hopes of picking up some hint that would lead us to our hotel. Our final bit of luck led us to a conservatory with the same name as our hotel. As were climbed up the stairs to the sounds of classical music we were met by a kind lady who clarified we were in fact not in the hotel, but would gladly sell us tickets to a recital. No thank you to the tickets, but she did point us across a square and then up a bit to find our hotel. At last we chased up a final steep and very narrow cobbled street and there it was. We stepped through the gate and into a beautiful garden. Home at last. Tomorrow we are jumping from here to Rieti by train and then will plan the final few days into Rome. Buonasera, from Spoleto.   

On the way to Spello




Arrival Spello
Departing Spello


Trevi in the distance
The last little bit to reach the road into the city


Approaching Trevi


Spello and further back Assisi from Trevi




Trevi at dusk



Leaving Trevi


Leaving Trevi


Trevi looking back


On the way to Spoleto


Our hotel in Spoleto



Almost there

Our start for today, Chiesa di San Vittore

Robin and I reviewed our schedule in Spoleto, and decided to take a train to Rieti, spend the night and then jump the next stage by taxi so that we would arrive in Ponticelli today, which we have. From here we will get a lift part way towards Monterotundo, and walk 15-20 kms tomorrow into Monterotundo where we will spend tomorrow night. The next day we will take the train into Rome and that will be that. Our sampling of the Way of St. Francis will then come to its end. In retrospect, it has been a revealing walk. The stages we walked were not easy, but were quite rewarding with gifts of beautiful scenery, abundant peace and quiet, and of course the presence of St. Francis. This is a walk that will surely grow in popularity. One of the limiting factors for future growth will be the cost of travel along the Way. As there is no albergue system similar to what Spain has, the cost of lodging rises sharply. However, with some planning, there are various churches and monasteries where beds can be found for cash strapped pilgrims. But, travelers on this road should expect some increase in costs compared to Camino walks in Spain or even in France. The terrain is also challenging. There are many steep climbs and not all of them are short. So come prepared for a bit of exercise. The terrain also accounts for the increased time it takes to cover distances that one might be used to covering more quickly. I also will throw in that the walk to Assisi, in my opinion, is the best of what we saw. Yes, there are lots of medieval hilltop villages to visit beyond Assisi but the joy of our walk seemed to wane after leaving Assisi. From then on it was just how to we get to Rome (so we can get to Santiago) and quite honestly we felt more at peace in Assisi (even with the crowds) then we did in Rome, even (especially) at the Vatican (bigger crowds). But that is just us. So for tonight we are lodged at the B&B Casale Della Stelle in Ponticelli. Giuseppe, our host, is preparing dinner for us and the laundry has been done. So all chores are accounted for. We shall be looking forward to our arrival in Rome on Wednesday, and even more so to our departure for Santiago on Saturday. As always with any journey there have been ups and downs, but on balance it has been a remarkable experience, and is one that I would highly recommend to others to enjoy. Ciao for now.  

Burning off breakfast







Always grateful

Pope Francis praying the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square

It has been awhile since I have posted, and I wanted to tie in our time in Rome, and now in Santiago, to what has been previously said. It is a coolish cloudy Sunday afternoon in Santiago. There is that lazy weekend feel to the day. My favorite local hangout, the Cafe Tertulia, has been filled with folks just passing the time of day and enjoying a break from whatever jobs or tasks await them when another work week begins tomorrow. I am sitting here late in the afternoon enjoying a beer while reflecting on this latest journey of ours. I sort of left things hanging as we approached Rome on the Way of St. Francis. I will now try to fill in the time between then and now.  Our arrival in Rome was not by foot but by train from Monterotundo. We could have managed to walk those last two days but in the end after that acknowledging that long transits through cluttered suburbs and industrial estates were not much to our liking, we hopped the train into town. In part our decision was also abetted by my previously posted comment that Assisi had seemed to us to be the sought after destination and not Rome. So, now in Rome we found our hotel, near the Vatican, reclaimed some stored clothes and shifted from pilgrim to something else, not tourists per se but something in between. We had a few days to fill so we set out to catch up with the daughter of our host in Ponticelli. She and a friend were visiting her father’s home in Ponticelli when Robin and I booked in for the night. She has a nice restaurant just off the Via Veneto, and we set a course for there as well as another small restaurant where her friend worked as a chef. Both turned out to be fun experiences, and the bonus was the wonderful meals we enjoyed. The days quickly filled with long walks through quieter neighborhoods, and visiting a plethora of beautiful churches. The Saint Ignatius church was particularly stunning and we made a point to return to attend mass there. And so our time in Rome slipped quietly by and soon we were headed to the airport to catch a direct flight to Santiago.  Santiago has a special place in our hearts. We have had many wonderful Camino experiences and have been blessed to have entered Santiago after completing several of them. In turn Santiago has become so familiar it almost seems like a second home. Even the climate matches up to ours in the Pacific Northwest. All along this extended journey we have been looking forward to this month we are spending volunteering at Camino Chaplaincy at the cathedral. We settled into apartment life, stocked the kitchen, caught up with all our colleagues and generally felt as though we had never left. Familiar faces constantly appeared and in many cases said hello and welcome back. Our life here is simple. Each morning we start off at the Cafe Tertulia with a coffee for me and tea for Robin. Fifteen minutes later we are ascending Rua de Hortas towards the cathedral where we generally arrive just prior to 9:30 am to set up the Capila de la Señora de Soledad for morning mass at 10:30. Robin sets about wiping off the dust that this ancient chapel presents as a daily offering. I attend to the altar and together we welcome pilgrims and visitors who start to arrive shortly after 10:00. At the conclusion of mass there is some tidying up so we are ready for the following day’s mass. Generally by 11:30 the heavy iron bolt slides across the gate and the old key turns in the lock as it has for generations and we exit amongst the throngs gathering for daily pilgrim mass at 12:00. It is a curiously rewarding experience as faith encounters the Camino experience in a endless variety of ways. Each day we are privileged to be part of the pilgrim community gathering in our chapel. There are always poignant moments when hearts are unburdened, and the often raw emotions of the Camino journey find a place for safe release. Many are the thanks that we receive for this chapel offering an English language mass, and it is just this positive affirmation off what we all do here in the Camino Chaplaincy that makes us ever grateful for being able, in some small way, to make arrival in Santiago a memorable experience for a great many pilgrims.  Happy at “work” in Santiago.

St. Peter’s Basilica


St. Peter’s Basilca
Sunday mass near St. Peter’s
Our neighborhood in Santiago
Drum club rocking Platerias
Day trip to Muxia