Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Assisi Diary Post 15: Assisi

Assisi Diary Post 15: Assisi 0 kms left!

Last time I did a post I was in Foligno with only a very short distance to go. While there I had the opportunity to be shown round the Convent in which I was staying and which had some amazing and very old (some dating from 13thC) wall frescos. This was after I had written the posting and I wanted to share a photo with you. The depth and perspective of some of them was amazing and the photo I am including does not really do it justice.

Next day, 13th I set off from Foligno rather undecided as to where to make for and what route to take. If I stayed on the road along the valley I could probably easily make Assisi that day. On the other hand, Yvonne was coming in to meet me and it would be so nice to walk in to Assisi and have a welcoming committee (albeit of one!). I could take the high route from Spello to Assisi I had found in a walkers guide in Foligno (this was the last piece of the jigsaw I wrote about in the last diary item) but it entailed an ascent of up to 1200 metres but it took you into Assisi by the Sanctuary of Eremo Delle Carceri where St Francis used to go on retreat. I very much wanted to arrive at Assisi via the Eremo. If I did plump for the high route should I try to do it all today and stay at the camp-site near the Eremo, thus making it quite a long demanding day, or should I stay in Spello tonight (only 4 kms from Foligno) but then have quite a long day tomorrow?

All this was going thru my head as I left Foligno. In addition, to add another dimension to the situation, there had been the mother and father of a storm last night and it looked from the sky that there may be still more rain to come!

I arrived at Spello having followed the main road along the valley floor, the road I had actually wanted to take was subject to roadworks and the signs said it was now a dead end. Like many of the other towns I have seen Spello was perched on a hillside

There I visited the Basilica but also another lovely Church (the name of which annoyingly escapes me) which had beautiful music playing, unusual for Churches in Italy in my experience, and had a truly wonderful fresco capturing such love and tenderness I was really moved and stood in front of it for some time. Cannot remember the artist or date or anything. It was a scene where Joseph is embracing Mary after she has told him of the Annunciation.

Anyway went to the Tourist Office to see if I could get more information about local paths and just as I did so the heavens opened. As always the girl there was very friendly and helpful and gave me a really useful book showing all the paths in the Mount Subasio park which was possibly my route. I asked her about the weather. She checked the internet and said it would clear and be OK this afternoon but would be raining tomorrow morning. That settled it. With the walk info I could see another route which would take to the Eremo but much lower down (I might add here you are still talking about going up to 800+ metres in altitude). If it was going to be fine this afternoon I could do it. If it was going top rain again tomorrow morning I did not want to heading off to the Eremo. So I decided to have a long stop here and then resume after the weather cleared.

Naturally I took the wrong route out of Spello, lost the height I had gained by going up into the town and found myself again on the valley floor road that would lead to Assisi!

At that point I had a chat with God. I said ¨Look God, my feet are in your hands. I can error-correct this mistake but I don't know whether I will recognise the turnings when I come to them. I don't know whether I will find the pedestrian path to the Eremo. I don't know whether I will camp wild in the mountains, make the Fontemaggio camp-site or end up in Assisi looking for the pilgrim Refugio. I will be guided by wherever you send my feet.¨

Got to the turning that I though would correct my mistake and sure enough found myself on the correct road. Then arrived at the next place I should turn off but again I was not sure. It was not signposted to the village I hoped it would, it was just a street name. I took it anyway. There were another few junctions that I just navigated using 'gut feel' (or divine inspiration). Eventually I came to a T junction where I thought I knew where I was, though the road had not behaved as it looked on the map so I could have easily been somewhere else. The weather was worsening. I could go left downhill and arrive probably at Assisi. I could go right and continue climbing, not necessarily on the right road. Even if I was on the right road I might not find the sentier to the Eremo. I know this 'cause it has all happened to me in the past!

I went right.

I could hear a voice telling me that any sensible person would not be heading up a mountain into the clouds looking for a path that might turn out to be as hair-raising as the one I took to Monteluco. Up and up the road I went. I could see the valley below with the houses getting smaller and smaller. Soon I was getting into cloud level - see pics below

I kept looking at the map to try and judge where the sentier should be and realized there was a point on the road I should recognise and if I did not find the path after that would have to retrace my steps. There had by then been a few cart tracks leading off in the right direction though none had been signed.

Then I saw it! And not only did it have red and white GR type signage but it also had the familiar Via Francescana waymark. I was so relieved. And it was a wide dirt track not a narrow footpath - see below

There was still a fair bit of 'up' to do and it was now raining. But the path remained reasonably easy to negotiate. At one point with the bad weather I did contemplate camping wild, and did find a suitable flat spot, but I was still not tired and did not fancy the idea of carrying a wet tent the next day. It did not look as though the sun would return to dry things out. So I pushed on. Eventually I arrived at the entrance to the Sanctuary but although the Franciscan Community were there, the actual Sanctuary was closed for renovation. The Church was not open for visiting but the Friar who gave me a stamp for my pilgrim's credential said it was OK to go in and pray which I did so, for my safe arrival.

I then walked down to the camp-site

which also was a Youth Hostel and decided to have an indoors bed rather than camp. I settled down knowing I had only about 1 km to walk the following day.

The next morning was bright and sunny, without the threatened rain and I set off in good spirits though ironically not knowing where precisely my pilgrimage would end. This was because with Yvonne arriving later that I would, I might walk down to the train station to meet her, in which case my pilgrimage would end at Santa Maria Degli Angeli.

Then suddenly I came round the corner and came upon the entrance to Assisi - Porta Cappuccini

I carried on down through Assisi and arrived at the Basilica of St Francis. There are two Churches here, one on top of the other. As I reached the entrance to the uppermost Church, I saw that Mass was about to start in the lower. I went there immediately and attended Mass. It was a very special time. Afterwards I requested a Mass be said at the basilica for all those who had prayed for me and wished me well. The Priest who dealt with the requests also blessed a small prayer card and again this was a very special moment for me. I share it with you with the picture of the card below. The image is part of a fresco in the lower Basilica and ironically I sat just under this image at the Mass.

I then asked the Priest about a pilgrim stamp, he told me where to get it, I got the stamp and stood outside the Basilica (see pic below) and realised that this was the end of my very long journey.

I went for breakfast - it was now midday and by the time had finished, realised it was too late to get down to the train station so arranged to meet Yvonne in the main square. I had booked us into a hotel for the next nigh onwards but we decided to see if we could stay from today and joy of joys we could. We were taken up to our room and what a view! We had a balcony with a fantastic view out over the valley below Assisi. I thoroughly recommend this hotel, it's called the Hotel Posta Panoramic and is very central, on Via San Paolo just a few minutes away from the main square and Tourist Office and handy for all the Basilicas. The staff are friendly, helpful and very accommodating. They even got in a bottle of champagne specially for me when I explained I wanted to celebrate. Alas the weather changed and we had several slightly chilly days with rain and I did not get a decent picture of our view but see below, it gives an idea

So what next? It will be a while before I am in England as I have a few other things I am doing beforehand. But as far as walking is concerned, I had always intended continuing from Assisi to LaVerna next year. But I missed quite a few places I had intended to visit this time because of the vagaries of my route planning. So I will probably walk again from Rome to Assisi and then on to LaVerna and Florence. But this time I will make sure I have all my maps and guides before I set off! There is a waymarked route to/from Rome which I actually stumbled across early on and I would like to try and follow it and perhaps write a guide to it.

As with my last pilgrimage, there were a number of people I met along the way for whom I had no contact details. I prayed for them at the Basilica of St Claire and they are listed below:

* A lad I met on 09/06/2008 at the Basilica of St Quintin. He was honouring the first anniversary of his father's death. I prayed for him and his father.
* A lady I met on 11/06/2008 at the Basilica in Laon. I prayed for her and her nephew, Francis.
* A lad I met on 15/07/2008 who served me in a food shop in Iverea and insisted on giving me some bottles of juice.
* A couple I met on 16/07/2008 on the way out of Iverea
* Emmanuel who I met sometime after 21/07/2008 who, when I told him I hoped to arrive in Assisi on 14th September, told me he was getting married that day at 17:00.
* A Parish Group from Lodi I met on 23/07/2008 at Santa Andrea where you take the boat across the Po. They were great fun and very kind. The Parish Priest could speak French and helped to arrange for the boat to come and collect me.
* A woman I met on 20/08/2008 on the way in to Viterbo
* A woman I met on 01/09/2008 on the way in to Bocchignano
* Andrea who I met on 05/09/2008 in Contigliano. He turned out to be another Guardian Angel
* A woman I met on 09/09/2008 in Cese. She was very kind to me, giving me a cup of coffee and some cake. There was no bar or cafe in the town. She missed her son who had died at the age of 29. I prayed for them both.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Assisi Diary Post 14: 12/09/2008, Foligno

Assisi Diary Post 14: 12/09/2008, Foligno about 25 kms left

To start with I completely forgot to tell you about my last meal in Rome, so what would an Irish Pilgrim eat on their last night in Rome? Why Irish Stew of course, washed down with Guinness!

So I travelled to Rieti by bus and it was absolutely hair-raising! The road snaked up and up into the mountains and had blind bends on one side and sheer drops on the other. Sitting up high on a bus I could see over the low wall to the drop below. It reminded me of the day in 2006 when I walked to Menton, high up above Monaco with exactly the same sort of terrain, except the drop was to the sea as opposed to wooded valleys below. There were only 2 things on my mind - a) I would have to repeat this journey to get back to Poggio and b) how on earth was I going to be able to walk to Assisi if I had to walk along a road like this? (The reason for this intrepidation is my fear of heights.)

I spent 2 nights in Rieti and did get very useful info from the Tourist Office there although detail coverage was only for the Rieti Valley. The town itself like many of the Italian towns I have visited has a lovely old historic centre. The buildings often fused with the rock below - see pic

I did not realise it at the time but the information from Rieti was just another piece of the jigsaw that has been this section of my pilgrimage. I know I am travelling north from Rome but I have nearly lost count of the number of times I have changed my itinerary! Do you know the story about an American tourist who is lost in the country lanes of Ireland. He sees a farmer and asks for directions. Back comes the reply ¨Well I wouldn't start from here if I was you.¨

I seem to keep finding myself at exactly the same place i.e. the wrong startpoint!

I returned to Poggio Mirteto and started on my replanned route. This took me up high over the mountains - probably nearly 1000 metres. On the way up there was a layer of something covering part of the valley below. I am not sure it was cloud - I have found as I think I have said before that visibility is often not very good and I suspect pollution rather than cloud is the culprit. Anyway it gave an interesting effect - see pic

It was pretty hard work going up but the views at the top were great

After camping wild that night I set off for Fonte Colombo, a Franciscan Shrine, and when I reached the point at which I should have gone effectively right, and by the way found the waymarks for the St Francis Way, see pic below

but I went left instead towards Greccio, another Shrine. I can only believe I was being guided as I then subsequently met an Italian pilgrim who could speak very good English and who turned out to be another Guardian Angel in disguise. So I replanned again. And again my itinerary changed when I found the route from Greccio to Stroncone (part of my original itinerary that I couldn't find on the map) was signposted from the Greccio Sanctuary. This was another hard climb to nearly 1000 metres but was followed by a lovely walk along a plateau for several kms before descending to Stroncone.

More info from the Tourist Office in Terni gave me another piece of the jigsaw and off I went to Ferentillo. Having gone up and over the heights the previous day, and that morning it was a relief to walk along the valley floor - see below

The following day I put my faith and trust in God and did something I previously said I would not. I headed off into the mountains to try and find a path that was not marked on my map. The first part of the day again was a climb with great views but on a little used road. Then I found the path and more St Francis waymarks - see below

This was a pedestrian 'sentier', very pleasant in places going along the side of the mountain with shelter-giving trees on each side. But every now and then the trees on the valley side would disappear providing magnificent views across to the mountains on the other side, and down into the valley below - see pic

The problem is, as I have already explained, I am very uncomfortable with heights. On a narrow footpath this rises to real fear! I kept having to tell myself to look down at my feet and the path, not up at the lovely view. The picture above I took at a point where the path was wider and I leaned against the rock to steady myself. The bit of stone in the foreground is the edge of the path. At last I reached the top at 950 metres and the descent started. The sentier eventually came out on a road which it crosses and continues descending. I was so relieved I nearly got down on my knees and kissed it (the road I mean)! As it was going to the same place, needless to say I stuck to the road.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, the next day, armed with another piece of jigsaw I was on a nice, flat, safe cycle track.

The only minus point was that I had intended camping wild but there was no suitable place, it was all very open ground. I carried on walking until dark and eventually found a narrow stretch beside the track that could not be seen from the road running parallel. There wasn't room for the tent so I just bedded down there in the sleeping bag. Fortunately it did not rain!

Church of St Francis at Foligno

Now in Foligno I have the final piece, the itinerary from Spello to Assisi, though not from here to Spello so I will just take a minor road to Spello which is only a few kms away. I expect to reach Assisi on Sunday 14/09/2008.

It seems strange to think my journey is almost finished. I am getting a little tired and must confess that I am looking forward to not having to carry the rucksack day after day!

So hopefully the next posting should be after I reach Assisi.

Take care all

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Assisi Diary Post 13: 01/09/2008, Poggio Mirteto

Assisi Post 13, 01/09/2008, Poggio Mirteto 209 kms left (in theory - see below!)

This posting has 2 headlines.

Headline 1: Isn't it amazing how God brings us together?
Joe and I continued our way to Rome, discovering en route another section of old Roman road. We had decided to take an alternative route from Campagnano to La Storta which was outlined on the Psoni maps but was not way marked. Somehow we did not end up on the correct path crossing the Cassia but found ourselves on an old basalt Roman road.

We were very exited and thought ourselves real trailblazers! However this was short-lived as we discovered we were in a field with a high fence, high gate to match and no way out! The next thing a man appeared, I though to tell us off for trespassing, but no, he had a wire clippers and undid some of the fencing at the edge to let us out. He then offered us a coffee - it turned out he owned the nearby bar. We were certainly ready for a coffee and break.

We reached La Storta, the last stop before Rome without further mishap and after showering and dinner etc. discovered a Guinness pub just across the road from where we were staying. It seemed most appropriate!

Our walk into Rome the following day, Monday 25th August was amazing as we were accompanied by Alberto Alberti, a good friend of Joe's (and by the way who gave me a brilliant guided tour of Rome in 2006) and who has written a guide to the Via F between Siena and Rome. He brought us in through fields and trees and even in the centre of Rome we picked blackberries and figs and saw wildlife and farm animals - see pictures below

And finally we arrived in St Peter's Square

This was the end of the journey for Joe but just a short rest period for me.

After giving thanks for our safe arrival and discovering that I could not get my Testimonium in the afternoon, we went for a celebratory beer. Leaving Joe to look after the rucksacks, I went to the post office to collect the parcel of maps etc sent to me (thanks Jill) and just as I came out of the PO who did I meet but the group of Italians I wrote about in the last diary - though minus Matteo as he had had to return to work.

We couldn't believe it and squealed in delight and hugged each other. I had meant to contact them to say when we would arrive but thought they had already left. They came along to meet Joe and we arranged to meet the following evening.

Joe and I went to our accommodation, ate and to my dismay my body went into shut-down mode and I had to go to bed - it was only 21:45. I think it must have been because I had walked non-stop since 3rd August and the emotional release of arriving in Rome.

Next evening we meet Cecilia, Sara etc as planned and at long last I got the chance to wear my posh frock I had bought some time ago and which was in the parcel with maps etc. We had a great evening, Joe managed to find again the restaurant in which he and a friend had had an excellent meal a few years ago after walking the Via F from Lausanne. I was very touched when Cecilia gave me a candle to take with me and light at Assisi.

The next day was spent sorting out maps etc for the next leg of my journey as well as getting my Testimonium. Afterwards we went to Mass in the Vatican which appropriately was celebrated by Don Bruno who has just minutes before presented my with the Testimonium. I was leaving the Chapel after Mass and I saw someone I thought I recognised. I said to myself ´It can't be, can it?´ Then I saw who was standing beside him and I thought ´It is, it is´, and right enough it was!

It was Tom and Anne, set dance teachers from London, whom I have known for several years. Tom knew I was walking to Rome and Assisi but never dreamed he would meet me. They were not even staying in Rome but in La Verna and had only come to Rome for the day. And had come to visit St Peters and had been just in time to hear the bell for Mass. Tom said that when he went up to Communion he saw me and was thinking ´That's Ann, I'm sure that's Ann!´ So that was an even more amazing meeting, though given the surroundings we were not jumping up and down and squealing! Alas we were unable to do more than exchange greetings and hugs as Joe and I were already meeting Don Bruno again as well as Alberto. So Tom promised to give my love to the class and we parted. I am still amazed by that meeting, St Peters is so big it would have been so easy not to have met!

In no time at all it was Thursday and Joe departed for London. I had a solitary breakfast and later that day sat at lunchtime with a large bottle of Peroni but only one glass. Then Friday dawned and it was time for me to start the final part of my pilgrimage.

Headline 2: Walking in Italy is not the same as walking in France
(or the best laid plans of mice, men and pilgrims do not always go as expected!)

I had decided to formally start the next stage from the St Francis Church of the Stigmata, attending Mass there and perhaps getting a stamp. So I set off from St Peter's Square and walked to St Francis only to discover the Church was closed for renovations and Mass was not being celebrated there until September.

Off I went feeling a little disappointed but in reasonable spirits. I wondered what this next stage would bring. It took a long time to get out of Rome but at last I passed the 'you are leaving Rome' sign and ahead lay hills/mountains. I have to say I did not relish the idea of going up them!

I reached the turning for Guidonia, my destination for the day and great, there was a cafe. I stopped for a very good (and cheap) meal and discovered my map was gone. It had dropped out of my bag. Well at least I knew where I was going that day and I thought the town would be big enough that I should get another. It also looked big enough to have a hotel - I had no idea where I would sleep that night, but still had the tent so if the worse came to the worse, could camp wild.

Did manage to get a replacement map and have now been walking for 3 days. I did have to climb a bit on day 2 but it was hardly noticeable, the views were great

and the route took me along a lovely flat road running along the hillside. I also enjoyed lots of figs!

However I have run into a major obstacle - route finding. When I devised my itinerary I based it on a couple of guidebooks which I had borrowed. I had no time in England to buy these or indeed the appropriate maps. I assumed I would find the necessary material in Rome. Not so! The largest scale map I can find is 1 cm to 1.5 kms. I could not find either of the guidebooks. What I have now discovered is that there are several instances of 'as the crow flies' sections in my itinerary, and alas I am not a crow!

To explain take for example Day 6, Calvi del Umbria to Stroncone, 20 kms. The itinerary goes Calvi, Vasciano, Aguizzo, Coppa & Stroncone. The distance between Calvi and Vasciano looks to be about 10 kms but there is no direct road linking the two, there is just mountains. No doubt there is a track or path but its not marked. To go by road is about 27 kms. Similarly there is no direct road between Vasciano and Aguizzo. In fact the road stops dead at Aguizzo! There is no direct route either between Calvi and Stroncone so I can't just march down the main road to get there.

I decided to get to Poggio Mirteto as I could do so reasonably easily and it is a large town, and try and get more detailed information. But no, the tourist office is shut on Mondays and does not open until 14:00 tomorrow. Also the well stocked looking bookshop has no larger scale maps than I have already. Therein lies the headline. When I did a similar pilgrimage in France in 2003, heading off with just an itinerary of towns and no idea what I would find in terms of accommodation or route, maps of scale 1 cm to 1 km and 1 cm to 0.25 km of that region were easily available in tabac shops. Sometimes the little shops would have maps of neighbouring regions, but these could normally be found in larger towns as well so route finding was not a problem. In addition I found Tourist Offices in France readily available (and open) sometimes even in quite small towns and they were very helpful in finding accommodation. They often had free large scale maps of the town/local area showing local footpaths thus allowing me to plot more off-road options than I could have otherwise. I did not realise at the time how fortunate I was, never having walked anywhere before!

I know there are marked routes around Rieti, and it is the capital of the province and a very large town so I have decided to take a bus there and stay for 2 nights so that I can spend tomorrow trying to get more detailed maps or guides. If I cannot, I will have to redraw my itinerary using the maps I have. I may even postpone the walk altogether until next year by which time I will have been able to order the necessary maps and guides. I am too adept at getting lost and there is absolutely no way I am heading into the mountains without detailed maps or instructions. As I said earlier, I am not a crow, but neither am I some kind of strong Amazonian superwoman! I had wanted this stage to be a slow, meditative pilgrimage, almost a retreat so if I cannot continue the walk I will spend the time in a Monastery, perhaps in or near Assisi. A friend has kindly agreed to come out and meet me in Assisi so I intend to visit there anyway (and there'll be another opportunity to wear the posh frock!).

So take care all. We will see what the next day brings.