Dec 30, 2014

Bradashesh, briefly

I checked out and was on the road early this morning. No breakfast, but a double espresso. It was sunny, but extremely windy. At the first service station with a café, I fished the nylon shell trousers out of my pack and ‎pulled them on. I'd hoped to get something to eat at the same time, but had to settle for another coffee. This set the pattern for the rest of the day, right down to the details of speaking English with kids and not being allowed to pay for my coffee.

Well, that's not quite true. In the town of Pajove, I saw food on display through the steamed-up window of the café, so I did get my first taste of the Albanian version of a triangular flaky pastry with nuts soaked in sugar. It's called "trigone." I chatted with some of the young people in the café for a good 20 minutes, and when I went to pay I was told that one of them was the proprietor and he would not take my money.

By noon, I was starting to feel it. I spotted a Bar/Kafe/Restorant ahead, but they only had beverages. I ordered a coffee and pulled out my little bag of snack food -- which has been supplemented several times by road-side vendors who wave me over, ask me where I'm from, and give me oranges.‎ Some leftover cheese I'd bought in Rome, some leftover panettone I'd bought in Durrës, a few bites of chocolate, and an orange. When I'd finished and went to pay for my coffee, my money was refused. Albanians rightly pride themselves on their hospitality. (It may also help that I greet people in Albanian, order coffee with a "ju lutem" and "falemenderet," and apologise for not speaking Albanian - in Albanian. {The latter piece of dialogue brought giggles to a school kid yesterday.})

At any rate, the puddles remained frozen all day, although it wasn't cold enough to freeze the running water.‎ The wind, though! Once again, I disregarded the beautifully written and researched guidebook to avoid fording those icy cold streams. I missed out on some glorious views, but I had the chance to meet some wonderful and warm people. And drink coffee. (Not many cafés on those mountain trails.) Another benefit is that the 39 kms of trail walking is only 33 kms by road.

I didn't make it all the way into Elbasan, though. I'd had it in my sight for over three hours, once the road had rounded a ridge and the valley opened up before me. The city is nestled at far edge of the valley, at the foot of a series of snowcapped mountains. Very beautiful scenery, but the headwind was even more fierce. (My phone was swaddled several windproof layers deep, so there are no photos.) The road followed the contour of the surrounding hills, so it was a little maddening to see my destination just... over... there... and see the road wind its way along.

I was still 4.5 kms away from the heart of the city when, with daylight rapidly fading and the temperature dropping, I saw a sign. It said HOTEL. Tomorrow I'll sleep in, walk an hour into town, and find a place to stay for New Year's Eve. I'm pretty sure there's an Orthodox Church in town, so I may even get to Liturgy on January 1 and start the new year off well.

And before I venture into the mountains, I'll be buying a proper pair of gloves. My light touch-screen gloves sheathed in yellow rubber gloves are fine for wind and rain, but just aren't adequate for below freezing temperatures.

Prayer of the Pilgrim at the Ford

It was slightly more than a month ago that Danilo the ferryman took me across the River Po. When we arrived safely, he gave me this card, which has the following prayer printed on the back. In light of recent events, I thought it was a good time to share it.

Lord God, Thou who hast accompanied and given strength to my feet along the paths and roads around the world, now that I am in front of the ford of the river, help me to cross it, that I may land on the other shore and resume my walk. Help, support and give comfort to the heart of the boatman, protect and defend his boat from the evil waves, so that we can reach the mainland and together raise a hymn to Thy glory. Amen.

Dec 29, 2014


The name of this town is pronounced "Pecheen" in Albanian. I've learned that the accent typically goes on the last syllable, and I've started to decipher the consonants. 
c = ts
ç = ch
dh = th (like this and that, not like thick or thin)
j = y (as in you, never as in sky)
q = ch (only it's a harder sound than ç)
x = j... 
There are a few other cases, but that's enough. When I see the word "pice" on a sign, I know it says "pizza."

When I woke up this morning, I was in pain. Yesterday afternoon I had only just noticed the lack of handrails on the rain-covered marble staircase when down I went. Those three or four steps on my tailbone hurt‎! By the time I went to bed last night, it felt like there was some swelling in the area, although it's kinda hard to tell. It was certainly tender. I stretched as best I could, and got an early night.

Over coffee this morning, I was reminded again about the party at the reception hall this evening, but I decided to head on out rather than spend all day sitting. The hotel in Shtodhër is a few hundred metres from a highway service centre, and there are farmhouses edging the highway, but that's about it. I thought it would be better for my aching butt to walk than to sit. It's awkward and a little painful to bend at the hips, which makes sitting down or reaching for something on the floor a rather deliberate manoeuvre, but walking with my pack was pain free.

It was chilly as I began walking, but once the sun cleared the bank of ‎clouds on the horizon it warmed up nicely. I knew that up north and in the mountains, the heavy rains of yesterday had come down as snow. As I've said before, given a choice of walking through snow at -5 Celsius or rain at +5, I'll take the snow every time. Naturally, the only way I can realistically make that "choice" is by selecting my route.

Ever since I arrived in Durrës, I've had people telling me that it's "very cold" in the mountains in the direction I'll be heading, but nobody has been able to quantify that.‎ This morning at my first coffee break, I saw a weather forecast, and now I finally have some numbers. By the end of the week, the country will be mountainous enough for the highs to be around -5, while the overnight lows will be in the (negative) low teens.

That suits me just fine! I didn't do nearly enough walking at home to train for this pilgrimage, but I did get out on some of the bitterly cold days we had last winter to check my layering. As long as I have shelter by sundown, there won't be any problems, and since I no longer face the deadline of a visa restriction, I can afford to take it easy.

I could reach Elbasan tomorrow, although I may break the 39 kms up near the halfway mark. My guidebook, published just this spring, indicates‎ that there's a family in Broshkë which is happy to have overnight guests on their farm. I missed the local weather forecast, so I don't know what I'll be walking through come morning. Either way, it's time for me to pop online and post this, and then get to sleep. (No WiFi here, and data costs!)

Dec 28, 2014

Bari - Kavajë

I had decided to sleep in Tuesday morning in Bari since, apart from visiting St. Nicholas and buying a ticket for the ferry to Durrës, I had nothing planned. I was awake, although lounging in bed, when I heard the first of the very strenuous (and loud) rattlings of a nearby door. It was loud enough, and went on long enough, that I finally pulled on my clothes and went to investigate. 

My fellow guest from the night before had managed to lock herself out of her room, and the hostel was currently unstaffed. I tried to help her, with no success. (I don't like those skeleton keys, and usually just leave my room unlocked. The poor man laughs at thieves.) She roused another guest, who was similarly unsuccessful. I tried to find a contact phone number that we could call, to no avail. At this point, the poor woman broke down and started sobbing quietly, but with great force. The other guest re-emerged from his room, and this time managed to unlock the door. The sobbing continued for several minutes, but at least she was back in the privacy of her own room. I finished my breakfast and packed quickly. As I left my room, I saw that my neighbour was seated at the table eating breakfast. I caught her attention and wished her "Auguri." 

 It was a bright clear morning, and I walked briskly down the broad sidewalk towards the old part of Bari which I'd inadvertently explored the evening before. The hostel where I'd spent the night included "breakfast" but didn't provide any form of caffeine. Highly irregular, especially in Italy! I was caffeinated a few short moments after leaving the hostel behind. 

 It was a few minutes past 9:00 when I entered the Basilica of San Nicholas in Bari for the first time. This large church was built in the 11th century to house the relics of St Nicholas of Myra (in Lycia - modern day Turkey) which were stolen from the cathedral there by 62 sailors from Venice. They made landfall in Bari, and I'm sure their names are recorded somewhere. ("Thief! Baggins! We hates him!") As I entered, I noted the sign requesting silence posted on the doors was printed in three languages: Italian, English, and Russian. 

 I won't bother with a description of the church. It was impressively big, with some 15th century arches spanning the nave to provide support for the walls, and there were some very nice 14th century icons, but none of that was why I had chosen to come to Bari instead of leaving Italy from Brindisi. I had come to venerate the relics of St. Nicholas. 

Coming from the crypt, I could hear the sounds of the assembled faithful at prayer, so I decided to look around the church until Mass was over. Once people began coming up from the crypt and entering the nave, I headed down. 

 My timing couldn't have been better. The altar area in the crypt is surrounded by an impressive iron cage, but the gate in front of the altar table containing the relics of the saint was open, and people were approaching to venerate the tomb. I gratefully got in line. All the relics in Rome were safely locked away from pilgrims, tourists, and would-be thieves, so this was a unique opportunity for me. 

 A similar gift was given to me in Santiago de Compostela in 2010. My last day in the city, I'd walked the few kilometres to the cathedral from my hostel with my backpack and walking stick, and headed down to the crypt to say a final farewell. It was early enough in the morning that I knew there would be no crowds, so I was very surprised to discover I'd blundered into the midst of a Mass being celebrated on the crypt altar. As silently as I could, I placed my pack on the floor, and remained kneeling outside the sanctuary. (There were only half a dozen people inside, plus the priest.) When the Mass concluded, everyone present venerated the relics, and I was invited to do likewise. Then the gates were locked up against the flow of people soon to come. 

 Shortly after I'd had my turn with the relics of St Nicholas, the priest closed the gate, and that small window of opportunity for other pilgrims along with it. After spending a few more minutes in silence, I headed back upstairs, collected my backpack from the pew where I'd left it, and started off to the port to see about buying passage to Albania. All I knew about the schedule was that there are two companies offering passenger service from Bari to Durrës, and they each run two ferries per day during the work week. A few minutes and €79 later, I had my ticket for the 11:00 PM ferry. 

 With thirteen hours to kill, I sat at a café and had a coffee and foccacia. I also found WiFi, so I posted a few random thoughts to Twitter. Thus fortified, I returned to the basilica, and this time I took pictures. While sitting in the crypt, I also took the time to pray for all the Nicholases and Nicoles that I know (that scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, right?) and bought and lit a bunch of candles. 

 After leaving the church, I headed over to the sun-soaked sea shore. The old city of Bari juts into the Adriatic, with the port on the north side. I basked in the sun for a bit, and then headed back to the basilica. By this time, the sun had come around enough for me to get a decent photo of the facade. After clicking away, I wound up at a café with free WiFi, where I ate lunch and uploaded some photos. 

After wandering a bit and meeting up with an Italian man I'd spoken with earlier in the basilica, I paid a whopping €3 admission to the "Castello Svebe." The original fortifications on the site are credited to Roger II, the King of Sicily. He was the second generation of Normans to come rampaging through southern Italy, and he succeeded in conquering not only Sicily, but all of southern Italy right up to the border of the Papal States. (His heirs were not able to hold their patrimony.) 

 After wandering through the site, I headed to the port, checked in six hours in advance, and proceeded to wait. Boarding began at 7:30, but it was 9:00 before I got on board. Since I hadn't paid for a cabin, I was left to find a place in one of the lounges. I wound up unfolding my sleeping met and using it for its intended purpose for the fourth time on this pilgrimage. I wish I could say that I slept well, but the lounge got very warm very quickly, and there was a very convivial and loud group of Albanians nearby who didn't bother sleeping during the overnight passage. 

 Once I cleared customs, I went looking for a place to stay. I walked in a rather large circuit before arriving at a hotel about 15 minutes from the port. It was also a ten minute walk from the Cathedral of St Paul and St Astius, the Orthodox cathedral in Durrës. After checking in, I went to find out what time the Christmas Liturgy would be celebrated. (6:00 AM Christmas morning.) 

 I went to bed early, and was at church by 5:50 AM. By the end of the services, I was able to recognise certain key liturgical phrases. After Liturgy, I introduced myself to the head priest, and he in turn invited me to a reception in th church hall for the local politicians. After this, I headed back to the hotel, and typed up one of my overdue updates. 

 On December 26, I arrived at church an hour late. (I'd misunderstood the time the previous day.) Once Liturgy was over, arrangements were made for me to visit the Monastery of Shen Vlash. This was reestablished on the site of the former monastery following the collapse of Enver Hoxha's communist regime in 1991. The monastery now hosts an orphanage and the Theological Academy of the Resurrection of Christ. 

 I'd arrived to see the monastery and get a blessing from the bishop (and a stamp for my pilgrimage book). I was served coffee, and then appetisers arrived. After I'd finished those and was preparing to leave, I was told, "Lunch is ready. Won't you join us?" Albanians rightly pride themselves on their culture of hospitality. 

 Afterwards, I headed back to the hotel and checked in for one more night. It had started to rain heavily by this time, so I was glad of a familiar place of refuge. I ventured out to see whether the Archeological Museum was open (it wasn't), and got dinner on my way back. I tapped out more of my Rome update, and got an early night. 

 My summary for December 27 adequately covers the next day. 

 I woke up today to the sound of a ferocious wind rattling the windows of my hotel room in Kavajë. I knew that the forecast called for lots of rain, but the wind was a surprise. Nevertheless, I geared up and headed out for Peqin. An hour later, I stopped for a break at a service station a few kilometres out of town. My body was warm and dry, but my knees were damp and chilled because of the strong wind and the cold rain. 

 The first person I greeted in the café offered to buy me a coffee. We chatted a bit in Italian, and he told me there was a hotel just a few hundred metres ahead. Since I'm no longer racing the Schengen Area visa deadline, I checked in. 

 After chatting with the men in the café downstairs for a bit, I headed up to my room. I surprised myself by falling asleep for an hour and a half. When I came back downstairs, I was just in time for lunch. Fresh stewed beef, two kinds of cheese, Albanian corn bread, olives, and oranges grown by the proprietor. 

He owns a reception hall next door to the hotel, and invited me to come with him to a wedding reception that was ongoing. The music was loud, the spirits were high, and there was WiFi. ;) As it was winding down, I eased out the side door and headed back to my room. 

 The forecast for tomorrow looks good for walking, although i've been invited to a party with (what I'm told) is the best live band in Albania tomorrow evening here on the outskirts of Kavajë. I'll see how I feel in the morning.

Rome to Bari

On my last day in Rome, I slept in and then had breakfast with Frere Bernard in the chapter house. My French is better than his English, so we communicated in scrambled French and Italian, aided by copious amounts of good will and humour. I'm sure the strong coffee also helped. 

 Since my train to Bari was scheduled for a 6:00 PM departure, I had decided to do as much as I could and then head back to pack and say a final farewell to my hosts by 4:00.

 My first visit was to the archaeological site of Ostia Antica. Originally this coastal settlement was simply known as Ostia, which is derived from the Latin for "mouth, " since it was located at the mouth of the Tiber River. This port was Rome's gateway to the Mediterranean for centuries, but eventually it was abandoned. The harbour had been gradually filling in with silt, and then a large earthquake shifted the course of the Tiber away from the infrastructure that had been built up in the town. By this time, a second larger harbour had been constructed a few kilometres north of Ostia, which connected to the Tiber through a series of canals. The 50 hectare site is one of the best preserved Roman cities extant, rivalling Pompeii, but without the sudden fiery death associated with that site. It took me 90 minutes to reach the site, located some 30 kms southwest of Rome. A subway ride connected to a regional light rail line, which took me to within a few hundred metres of the entrance to the site. And since it was a Monday, the site was closed. (Shoulda planned that one better!) Their English language website has a lot of information (and photos!), so if you'd like to learn more, I encourage you to browse on over to I was a little disappointed, not only at not getting to visit the site, but also at the lost time it represented. Still, it was a beautiful sunny day, and at least I hadn't walked there! I was glad I'd spent the money on the Roma Pass, if only for the unlimited use of public transit it allowed me. 

 So, back on the LRT to the Metro and my next stop of the day. This was the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (St Peter in Chains). This church was consecrated in 439 as a place to house the chains from which St Peter had been freed in Jerusalem. (See Acts 12:3-19.) These chains had been given to the mother of the wife of an emperor by the bishop of Jerusalem, and the emperor's wife in turn gave them to the Pope Leo I. There are actually two sets of chains displayed in the reliquary below the main altar. The second set are said to be the chains which bound St Peter while he was a prisoner in Rome. Apparently, these two sets of chains were miraculously fused together to form one long chain when they were laid side by side for comparison by Pope Leo. Here's a description of the Feast of the Veneration of the Precious Chains of the Holy and All-Glorious Apostle Peter, commemorated on January 16.

 Of more interest to me was the statue of Moses, completed in 1515 by Michelangelo. That was cool to see in person. For only €1 deposited in a slot, I could turn on a set of lights which illuminate the statue. I'd noticed this set up in other churches, but it was the only time I was even vaguely tempted. Other visitors were quite happy to provide illumination for the rest of us. The lighting conditions proved to be too much for the camera in my smartphone, but a quick online search for Michelangelo Moses will provide much better images than I managed to capture. The Wikipedia article provides an amusing discussion of the horns of Moses. 

 From there, it was a relatively short walk along the Via Cavour to the Basilica of St Maria Maggiore. Unfortunately, I had walked the wrong way (downhill), and only realised my mistake when the road ended at the Forum. I could have turned around and trudged back up the hill, but with a transit pass in my pocket I decided to extend my experience of Rome's public transportation system by taking a bus. I'd almost certainly have arrived sooner if I'd walked, but at least now I'd travelled by subway, tram, LRT, and bus. The horse-drawn carriages and rickshaws weren't part of the Roma Pass deal, so I simply watched as they passed me by. I did qualify for a 10% discount on a Segway rental. Maybe some other time - if I return to Rome with a travelling companion, that would totally be worth it! 

 When I (eventually) arrived at St Maria Maggiore, my first impression was of the sheer size of the 18th century structure. The original church on the site was consecrated in 350, but all traces of that are long gone. In a previous post, I'd mentioned my dislike of Baroque architecture. At St Mary's, this general bias of mine was overcome - not because of the ornately beautiful decoration, but because this church felt like an actual parish church, where people were praying and using the confessional booths. Yes, there were tourists (and I guess I was one of them), but this did not feel like a museum or art gallery. It seemed like a place of community. I have no idea why I formed this notion, nor how much my feelings are to be trusted, but I left the basilica feeling uplifted. 

 From St Mary's, it was a short walk to the church of Santa Prudenziana. This is a small church, slightly off the tourist track, and my guidebook had warned that these smaller churches were often closed for several hours after lunch. Sadly, I'd forgotten this warning, and when I arrived at 12:45, it was to find a locked gate and a sign that said it would be open again at 3:00. I met three Americans at the gate, and one of them told me that St Prudenziana is the patron saint of the Philippines, so this is where all the Filipinos in Rome attend Mass on Sunday. 

 With slightly more than two hours before the church reopened, I decided to head to the catacombs. This involved a ride on the Metro followed by a short bus ride. (Both the bus and the trip were short.) I arrived at the 17th century church of San Sebastiano, which was built on the site of the original 4th century church. This is another church built outside the walls of Rome over a cemetery. Roman civil law prohibited burials within the city walls. (Pretty smart, from a public health perspective.) This is why so many of the ancient churches are to be found on the outskirts of Rome - as devotion to a particular saint entombed in the catacombs grew, their grave was excavated and a shrine built around it, with a church above ground. St Sebastian was martyred in the 3rd century. And the church was closed. There was a separate entrance for the catacombs, and a sign there announced they were closed for the month of December. I simply laughed out loud, and decided to head back to Santa Prudenziana. It had taken slightly over an hour to get to San Sebastiano, so I figured S. Prudenziana would be open by the time I got back. 

 As I was heading back towards the bus stop, I met up with another family of Americans. We commiserated over the closures, and then the wife mentioned that the catacombs of San Callisto just down the road were open. That was actually my intended destination, per Fr. David's recommendations, but I reached San Sebastiano first. On I went. 

 The guided tours of the catacombs at San Callisto ran every half hour, and they had tour groups for speakers of Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, German, English, and Dutch. They may have had even more languages available, but those were the people waiting for the 2:30 tour. 

 The catacombs of San Callisto extend over 20 kms. Originally there were four separate areas, but connecting passages had been cut into the tufa rock in the 4th or 5th century. This was the first cemetery in Rome exclusively for Christian burials, whereas at Santa Agnese pagans and Christians were laid to rest together. Another difference between these two catacombs is that the passages at S. Agnese were low and narrow and claustrophobic, but at S. Callisto they were much broader, and the roofs of the passages were 10 m high in places. The explanation for that was simple. They were originally cut to allow people to walk through. As the available space in the walls were filled with grave slots, the floors were cut lower to allow more layers of graves to be added on either side. Over the centuries, the passages acquired their current spacious dimensions. That also means that the oldest graves are the ones closest to the surface. 

The professional "grave diggers" (excavators?) weren't necessarily Christian, but they were paid by the Christian community for their work. Richer families would often pay to have private family rooms carved out, and some of these were also used as chapels. (Richer families also subsidised the costs for those who could not afford to pay for a tomb for their departed.) In the years of persecution, the state allowed Christians to bury their dead - this particular cemetery was built alongside the major Roman road leading to the south of Italy, the Via Appia. What was forbidden was Christian worship, so prayers in these chapels was illegal. One chapel is still used to celebrate Mass to this day. Several of these family rooms still have frescos on the plastered walls which date to as early as the 4th century. There are depictions of Christ as the Good Shepherd, scenes of baptism and the general resurrection, as well as various Christian symbols such as the Chi-Rho monogram and the fish. (The Greek word for "fish" is ΙΧΘΎΣ , which is an anagram for Ιησούς Χριστός Θεού Υιός Σοτερ - Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour.) 

 By the time we climbed back up to the surface, it was 3:00. I'd given myself a 4:00 deadline to return to my room and pack up, but I thought that I might still be able to squeeze in a visit to S. Prudenziana. Great plan, except that buses don't run as frequently in the outskirts as they do in the city. It was ten to four by the time I got back to the Metro, so I will have to visit S. Prudenziana the next time I'm in Rome. 

 I packed up, and realised it felt gooood to be walking with my pack again. Instead of taking the Metro to the train station, I walked. I still got there an hour early, so I waited for my train to appear on the departure board so I'd know which of the 30 tracks I should board from. When I'd bought my ticket the previous day, the noon train was completely sold out, and judging by what I saw once I was aboard, the evening train had sold out to. Thankfully, it was assigned seating, although there was so much luggage stowed overhead I spent the first hour with my backpack jammed in the small space between my feet and the seat in front of me. Coulda been worse, I suppose. I'd thought I would use the four hour train ride to write an update, but I slept most of the way to Bari. That also meant that I missed the opportunity to register for the free onboard WiFi. It was only made available to passengers immediately after leaving Rome. When I tried to connect later, I was electronically informed that the WiFi connection my phone could see was unavailable. 

 I arrived in Bari shortly after 10:00. I hadn't pre-booked accommodation, but I'd located a likely hostel while still in Rome. It was in the heart of the old city, a kilometre away from the train station. The streets in the new part of the city are laid out on a grid, but old Bari lanes and alleys resemble a plate of spaghetti. I did locate the Basilica of St Nicholas in my wanderings, and I made a mental note of its location for the morning. When I got to my destination, I discovered there'd been a change of ownership and the €16 per night hostel was now a €45 per night B&B. I headed back up towards the train station and found something a little more suitable. While I was registering, there was a slight delay while the desk clerk helped another guest with her room key. They were using skeleton keys for the rooms, and this poor woman could not get her door unlocked.  

Summary of Dec 27: Durrës to Kavajë

After the heavy rains and strong winds of the previous night, Saturday dawned clear and cold. I had a good breakfast at the hotel and headed off, stopping at the Cathedral one last time.

My guidebook recommended taking a bus to Golem and starting the walk from there, since the route out of Durrës simply followed the main coast road out of town. I didn't take the bus. Sidewalks most of the way, and then a low-traffic service road which ran right alongside the four lane divided highway. Given the state of the highway, I'd guess it's fairly new, and the road I was following was likely the only route up until quite recently. 

At Golem, I had a choice: follow the Via Egnatia hiking trail as described in the guidebook, or continue on with the service road a few more kilometres. Either way, I'd wind up in Peqin by the end of the next day. Yesterday at the monastery, one young man that I met urged me to simply walk along the autostrade instead of taking the mountain trail. I was a little dubious about walking on the main highway, but during the ride to the monastery and again back to Durrës I saw people doing just that. Highway traffic in Albania seems to move much more slowly than I'm used to, and there's just not very much of it.

I decided to keep on with the service road. The guidebook mentioned the need to ford at least one stream, which is fine during the summer, but we got a lot of rain yesterday, with even more in the forecast for Sunday. Taking the trail would leave me in the hills tomorrow for 55 mm of rain. Taking the road, I'll at least avoid the mud and swollen creeks.

I arrived in Kavajë as the sun was setting. There seems to be just the one hotel in town, and it's a cash-only proposition. Still, at €20 per night (or the equivalent in Albanian Lek)‎, it's affordable. I'm disinclined to spend another night here, so unless the rain tomorrow is of the torrential nature, I'll hit the road early and quick march the 26 kms to Peqin. There are several hotels there, and I'm hoping at least one will have free WiFi. I had a mobile data connection earlier in the day, but that seems to have been a one-off. 

The good news is that this evening I finished the comprehensive update for my last day in Rome, and I'm almost done my Bari update. I'm so much more productive when I can't be distracted with "research" online! That also means there will be a flurry of updates once I get online again, and then silence until the next WiFi zone.

Dec 27, 2014


I came to see the monastery and get a stamp for my pilgrimage book. I wound up being treated like an honoured guest. These were my companions at lunch.

Dec 26, 2014

Summary of Dec 22 - 26: Rome, Bari, Durrës

My time in Rome‎ was full of wonder and exploration, which explains the length of the last update. Unfortunately, a post of that length takes quite a few hours to compose as I reconstruct the day and do some background research to make sure I've got my facts straight.

I intend to continue writing those longer‎ pieces, if only to ensure I record the details while the events are still fresh in my memory. I realise that it may be a little much for a casual reader of my blog, so I'll be posting shorter summaries every day I can connect to the internet, and longer ones every few days. This will also depend on how many hours I've spent on the road. If I don't stop walking until 9:00 pm, I may scribble a few notes in my journal, but I'm not likely to post an update at all.


Monday, December 22: a lot of municipally operated sites are closed Mondays. I visited the Basilica of St Maria Maggiore ‎and the catacombs of St Callisto. Got back to my room by 4:00, packed, and headed to the train station. Arrived in Bari after four hours and started searching for a place to stay. Wound up in a hostel half a block from the train station, after walking several kilometres. Inadvertently explored the old city, found the Basilica of St Nicholas, was highly amused at the site of a public square edged with palm trees that had a beautiful fountain and an outdoor ice-skating rink.

Tuesday, December 23: had breakfast, walked to the Basilica of St Nicholas and spent some time there. Walked a few blocks to the port, bought a ticket on the next ferry to Durrës (Albania). I had 13 hours until the 11:00 PM departure, so I went back to see old St Nick. Hit the sunny seaside promenade. Lunch at a café with free WiFi. Visited the "Castello Svevo," a massive fortification overlooking the harbour. This "Swabian Castle" has a core built by the Normans when they were rampaging through the Mediterranean. Robert Guiscard is the name first associated with it, although Isabella of Aragorn also made significant contributions to the structure many centuries later. Went to the port and checked in and then just hung around waiting to board. It was 00:22 when we finally began pulling away from the dock, almost an hour and a half behind schedule. Slept on the floor of the lounge with many other passengers who hadn't paid for a cabin.

Wednesday, December 24: Arrived in Durrës and sailed through customs. Sunny and warm by the time I started walking around looking for a place at 9:00 AM. A few hours later I was settling in to my room at Hotel Lido, a ten minute walk from the Orthodox cathedral of St Paul and St Astius. Stopped by to enquire about service times and learned the Liturgy for the Nativity would begin at 6:00 AM on Christmas Day. Finally found a bank machine that operated on the same network as my debit card and withdrew what I hope will be enough cash to last the week I expect to be in Albania. Bought some groceries, headed back to the hotel, and continued typing my "Bridging Pagan and Christian Rome" update. 

Thursday, December 25: CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM! I arrived at the cathedral shortly before 6:00 AM. Although I didn't know a word of liturgical Albanian, the structure of Orthros and Liturgy is the same. And it didn't take me long to recognise certain key liturgical phrases. Met several English-speaking parishioners afterwards, and all of the clergy. (Four priests, one deacon - the bishop was at the monastery nearby.)‎ Back to the hotel, uploaded photos and finally posted my mammoth update that covered Sunday Dec 21. Went out, had dinner, found the Archeological Museum. I think it's the only thing in the city that was closed.

Friday, December 26: I'd misunderstood the time of this morning's Liturgy, and arrived with my backpack just as the people were receiving Communion. Chatted with Dmitri and Dcn. Anthony, and they arranged a ride to the monastery for me. I walked to the rendezvous and chatted with several folks while waiting. Beautiful sunny morning, but rain was forecast for the afternoon and evening and I was thinking of walking either 15 or 34 kms. Arrived at the monastery of Shen Vlash, which also has an orphanage and a theological academy on the grounds. Met the bishop, got his blessing, and a stamp for my little pilgrimage book. They offered me coffee, and while I was drinking that, a plate of appetisers was brought out. As I was readying myself to leave, I was told that lunch was ready. Would I please join them? By 2:00 PM, the sky was dark and it was raining fairly heavily. I got a ride back to Durrës and checked back into the hotel I'd left seven hours earlier. The receptionist asked if I'd had a problem. "Too much hospitality" doesn't qualify as a problem in my books. Typed this up, and now I'm about to revisit the museum. Its normal opening hours are 9:00-1:00 and 5:00-7:00. If nothing else, I'll have dinner before returning to the hotel. Early start tomorrow, with plenty of sunshine and a forecast high of 8 Celsius. Perfect walking weather!

Dec 25, 2014

Bridging Pagan and Christian Rome

 Thanks to my breakfast conversation with Pere Roger on Saturday, I learned about the Russian Orthodox Church just down the street from the guesthouse of the Religieux de St-Vincent de Paul. Sunday morning I arrived a few minutes before they began reading the Hours, had a chance to go to confession, and received Holy Communion. Then it was back to my room for a quick breakfast and off for what proved to be a very full day. 

My first stop was the Colosseum. I'd purchased a three day Roma Pass, which included unlimited public transit and free admission to two museums. Many of these museums have a dedicated lane for Roma Pass holders, which allowed me to skip the line. 

To be quite honest, the Colosseum looks better from the outside. The degradation to the structure (from the elements and from people simply taking it apart for building material) made it very difficult to visualise it filled to the estimated 75,000 person capacity. There were some info boards situated throughout the areas open to the public, and it was interesting to read about the system of lifts which were used to make scenery changes and bring animals in to the arena. There were two layers of passages beneath the floor of the arena, and much of the top layer is currently visible. Still, my visit to the intact Roman amphitheatre in Bosra, Syria was much more satisfying. (The Arabic word for amphitheatre literally translates as "place of stairs.") 

From the Colosseum, I walked past the Arch of Constantine and into the Forum. (A funny thing happened on the way... "I told him, Julie, don't go. Julie, don't go!" [And if that didn't jog any memories, search YouTube for Wayne and Schuster Wash the Blood off my Toga.]) It was neat to be able to walk around the site and see where the commercial wheeling and dealing took place. There were also some areas which had homes above the shops which opened on to the street from the ground floor. Some urban design ideas just never get old. 

 I also saw the Arch of Titus, built to commemorate his victory over the Jewish rebellion in 70 AD, when he levelled the city of Jerusalem and brought the seven branched candelabra from the Temple back to Rome as a trophy of war. (Also thousands of prisoners, but that's what happens, right?) He used the financial gains from the war to fund the construction of the Colosseum, which was built of the former site of the artificial lake Nero had built for his own personal use. Titus was a pretty shrewd politician, in addition to being a good general. 

 The Palatine Hill was next. (All three of these areas counted as a single museum visit.) Ancient Roman tradition held that the hut of Romulus was located on this hill, and the specific structure had been preserved for several centuries before being lost to history. According to the exhibit at the Palatine Museum, this was the first area of Rome to be inhabited. The most obvious feature on the hill is the collection of ruins of various imperial palaces, dating from the late 1st century BC to the early 3rd century AD. In fact, the word "palace" (in English, French, German, Italian, and probably many other languages as well) is derived from the name of this hill. That's how impressive these structures were. (For more on the Palatine Hill, please see the Wikipedia article: ) There's a great view of the Circus Maximus from the palace walls on one side, and the Forum from the other. 

 After this, I headed down one hill and up another. The church of Santa Sabina is located on the Aventine Hill, and it's one of the oldest in the city. It was built in the 5th century on the site of a house used for Christian worship. It had originally belonged to St Sabina, who was martyred around the year 114. It has been remodelled over the years, but some frescos from the first millennium still survive. There are several other churches on the hill, but I had to be selective. If I had tried to visit every church in Rome, I'd still be there come Pascha! 

 My next stop was Santa Maria in Cosmedin. If that reminds you of the word "cosmetics," it's no coincidence. The interior of this Greek Catholic church is stunningly beautiful. Each of the three apses (apsi?) is adorned with traditional Byzantine mosaic iconography, and the floor is a marvel of patterned mosaic work. When I say "traditional Byzantine," that is a factual description. Although the church dates to the 6th century, it was renovated in 782, and much of the work was done by Greek monks who had come to Rome to escape the iconoclastic persecutions in the Roman (often anachronistically called Byzantine) Empire. 

 There have only been a few occasions I've regretted sending my wide angle, large aperture camera home to save weight. This was one of them. I've uploaded two photos from the church to Flickr, neither of which I'm really happy with. I arrived as a wedding was ending, and snapped a shot of the bride and groom as they walked towards the exit. (No "aisle," so it makes no sense to say they were walking down the aisle.) What struck me as odd is that there were far more people lined up outside in the church portico than there were inside the church. The attraction was the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth). If you've seen Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, you'll remember the scene where Peck's character pretends his hand has been bitten off by the carved face because he told a lie. It was cool to see the carving in real life, especially since I hadn't known that's where it is. 

 I headed back along the Circus Maximus, pausing to eat. The previous three days I had simply forgotten about eating until well after sunset, so I had used my little pack to haul sustenance so as to avoid that (not entirely unpleasant) lightheadedness and exhaustion that comes after a long day of walking with no food since breakfast. 

Refreshed, I hopped on the Metro and made my way to the Cathedral of St John Lateran. According to my Via Francigena guidebook, this was "the first building for public Christian worship erected in Rome -- and in the entire world..." In 312, the emperor St Constantine had issued an "Edict of Toleration" in Milan, which stated that Christianity was no longer illegal. It was the following year that he gave the property and buildings of the Lateran complex to the church. It's worth noting that all of the churches I visited have been renovated many times over the centuries, and much of what people see today is from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Some of the more ancient features which remain are frescos, mosaics, and flooring. Those were the features which most appealed to me in the Lateran. The ornate ceiling was impressive, but my preference for Baroque is limited to music rather than architecture. Still, it was very easy to pray inside this church, which is not always the case in Rome. 

 I crossed the square and entered the part of the Lateran complex which contains the Scala Sancta and the Sancta Sanctorum. The former is a set of 28 broad marble steps, said to have been the stairs from the palace of Pontius Pilate which Christ climbed on Good Friday. They were brought to Rome by St Helen in 326, following her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. (She was the mother of the emperor, so clearly she did "pilgrimage" on a much grander scale than most.) The steps are currently protected by an overlay of hardwood, and it's upon this wooden carapace that devout Catholics may ascend on their knees. (I walked up one of the four other staircases flanking this one.) At the top, visitors are able to peer through small windows at the private papal chapel known as the Sancta Sanctorum. This small chapel is richly decorated and apparently houses an extensive collection of relics. At one point in time, it was claimed (by the Catholic Church) to be the holiest place in the world. I had a look, and then moved on. 

 My final church visit of the day was to the Basilica of San Clemente. ( There are three levels in this complex, the uppermost of which is itself a few metres below the modern street. This ground floor basilica dates to the 12th century, and has some amazing mosaic iconography. (The photos on their website are well worth looking at!) Access to the lower levels requires an admission fee, but I don't regret the few Euros I spent on that. 

 This level, and the one below it, had lain untouched and forgotten until the 19th century, when Fr. Joseph Mullooly began his archaeological excavations. (Read more about him on the basilica website.) In 1863, he discovered the tomb of St. Cyril (one of the two Apostles to the Slavs, and for whom the Cyrillic alphabet is named) located near the left apse of the 4th century basilica which lies directly below the "modern" church. I had vaguely remembered from seminary that St. Cyril was laid to rest in Rome, but it was quite something to actually be there. His relics are now in a side chapel in the basilica upstairs -- unfortunately fenced off, but I venerated from a distance. The lowest level of excavations contained a Mithraim (temple for the mystery cult of Mithras) and an associated school. There was also a narrow alley, and a few homes. There was an American tour guide leading a group through the site while I was down there, and I successfully resisted the temptation to interrupt and tell the group that many of her "facts" were both erroneous and biased against the intelligence of the ancient pagans and against (small "o") orthodox Christianity. (sigh) 

 During the weekends leading up to Christmas, several major thoroughfares in central Rome are pedestrian-only in the evening, so I spent a few pleasant hours wandering. The lights and the crowds created a wonderful atmosphere, and even the street vendors added a certain charm. I passed by the Trevi Fountain, thinking it would be nicely illuminated, but the fountain was dry and the facade covered with scaffolding for restoration work. 

Next I headed to the Piazza Navona, on the advice of Fr. David Hester. This is an elongated oval the length of two city blocks, originally built as a stadium for footraces by Domitian. It's also the site of St. Agnes' martyrdom, and there is a large church (Sant' Agnese in Agone) dominating one side of the open area. Three fountains, lots of people and Christmas lights, cafés, and even a carousel! 

 Since I was planning to leave the next day and it was such a beautiful evening for roaming, I decided to take a tram up to the Milvian Bridge. I could have used this bridge to cross the Tiber when I entered Rome, but I'd decided to take the most direct route instead. The Milvian Bridge is where two major Roman roads converged and entered the city. I'd become very familiar with the Via Cassia, while the few hundred metres from the tram stop to the bridge were on the Via Flaminia. Crossing the bridge, I emerged on to a very large square filled with traffic, but on October 28 in the year 312 it was the site of a major battle which had enduring consequences. Historians disagree on what the nature of Constantine's vision was, and what symbol he had his soldiers adorn their shields with (even his biographer recorded slightly different versions), but his victory over Maxentius led to the Edict of Toleration the following year, and the eventual adoption of Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine is venerated as a saint in the Orthodox Church, but some believers have a certain ambivalence about the changes that came about when Christianity adopted the privileges of power. (For more background about the battle: ) 

 Now thoroughly exhausted, I started making my way back home. I stopped off at the central train station to buy my ticket to Bari, and discovered that the noon train was completely sold out, leaving me with the options of an 8:15 AM departure or a 10:00 PM arrival. Neither of these really suited me, but since my Roma Pass was good all day Monday, I decided to take full advantage of it and spend most of another day in Rome. But that will have to wait for my next update, since this is already far too long and the city of Durrës is waiting to be explored. 

 It's December 25 as I prepare to hit send. Christ is Born! Glorify Him! 

Gëzuar Krishtlindjet!

This morning I attended Liturgy for the feast of the Nativity of Christ in the Cathedral of St Paul and St Astius in Durrës. For more about Shen Asti, please see the Wikipedia entry:

Welcome to Albania

Dec 20, 2014


First, I'd meant to include a "footnote" in my last update to explain the joke I started with, but I forgot. The letters SPQR ‎stand for the Latin phrase "Senatus Populusque Romanus" which was used from the days of the Roman Republic to demonstrate that  political sovereignty rested with the Senate and the Roman people. It fell into disuse during the reign of Constantine the Great, but was re-adopted later, somewhat desperately, to show the continuity of Rome with her days of strength and glory. (Wikipedia has more: )

The joke is that the Italian "translation" Sono Pazzi Questi Romani means, "These Romans are crazy." Obelix used to say this all the time in the Goscinny and Uderzo comics, and in the Italian translation, that's the exact phrase he used. (And if you've never read Asterix and Obelix, do yourself a favour and check them out! Doesn't matter which language, the translations are all brilliant.)

I arrived in Rome on Thursday and headed straight for the guesthouse operated by the Society of St Vincent de Paul. After a shower and a rest, I went out to explore the neighbourhood. Lots of hotels, a few embassies, and finally, a supermarket! I bought some food, but on the way back home I stopped off for dinner at an Eritrean restaurant. I hadn't eaten since breakfast, and walking through the supermarket made me realise just how hungry I was.

Friday I had breakfast with a few of the brothers and then headed off to the Vatican to get my pilgrim's credential stamped and receive the Testimonium of Pilgrimage. After that, I bought a mailing tube and posted this souvenir home. I spent the rest of the day at St Peter's Basilica. The lineup was long, but it was moving rapidly‎ and it only took half an hour to get through the security checkpoint.

When I entered the basilica, there were barriers up keeping visitors quite far back in the nave, and only slightly closer to the front of the church in the aisles. Pope Francis was speaking from the altar to seated VIPs, with several Swiss guards flanking the altar area. I have no idea what the occasion was, but as he finished speaking, a wave of applause filled the vast space. Not being able to see much at that point, I headed for the dome. Entrance to the basilica is free, but as at the Duomo in Milan, roof access cost €5 -- €7 if you wanted to use the elevator. 

The signage said there were 551 steps up, ‎and without my backpack on I handled them with ease. It was worth the climb. If I'd been thinking, I would have come later in the day to get the late afternoon light over the city for better photography, but the view was still spectacular.  I spotted snow on a few distant mountain peaks while standing in the hot Roman sunshine with my sleeves rolled up.  After walking around the viewing area on the dome, I headed back down to the roof. I was amused to see both a souvenir stand and a snack bar.

By the time I headed back down, the nave had been cleared of chairs. I wandered around a bit more and happened upon the stairs to the crypt quite by accident. I knew there had to be access to the lower levels, but I had no idea where.  ‎Public access was limited, but I was able to stand opposite the tomb of the Apostle, about 20 m from the relics of my patron saint.

Eventually I moved on, and emerged from the basilica in time for sunset. I thought about heading back up to the dome, but I was tired and hadn't eaten since breakfast. I started to walk back‎, enjoying the bustle and lights of a major city. Along the way, I bought some roasted chestnuts from a sidewalk vendor. [The first time I had roasted chestnuts was when my dad took me and my brother to watch the Leafs play at the Gardens in the 1970s. I don't remember who won, but I remember the chestnuts.]

‎I stopped at the outdoor/sporting apparel store I'd noticed in the morning and bought a vest. I'm not sure what to expect of January in the Balkans, but even in Italy it gets chilly when I'm not walking with a 13 kg backpack.

After that, I headed to the nearest Metro (subway) station.  When I was in Santhià and visited both Turin and Milan, I'd made the decision that my "pilgrimage" travels towards Jerusalem would be by foot as much as possible, but when visiting a city to see the sights, I'd take advantage of the local transportation. Since I had walked to St Peter's Basilica and collected my Testimonium, I felt justified in switching over to tourist mode.

Ah, but there's the thing! Rome has been inhabited for almost 24 centuries. (It's still a sweet young thing compared to Damascus and Aleppo, at 8000 years of continuous habitation, but neither of them are as vast as the Eternal City.) I'm planning to be in Bari on Monday. With the help of a priest who had lived in Rome before converting to Orthodoxy, I drew up a list of sites to visit. Even that small number of sites would ideally take a week, but at least it gave me something to work from, rather than being paralysed with indecision.

I spent Friday evening in my room with a (really inadequate) tourist map, a city guidebook, the list from Fr. David, and my phone's GPS app. My experience doing deliveries for so many years was an asset when planning my movements for the next few days!

Saturday morning over breakfast (Italian style {sigh}), my hosts were curious about my plans. I started listing off some of the churches I hope to visit, and even received help in locating one of them. A little later, one of the brothers ‎mentioned there is a Russian church a few blocks down the street. He wasn't sure of their schedule, as the information was only posted in Russian, but since it was only a ten minute walk away I decided to go and have a look and then double back to the Metro station to begin my day of church-hopping.

It turns out that the church is dedicated to St Nicholas the Wonderworker of Myra. Since the parish belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate, that means their patronal feast was December 19. As this fell on a Friday, the festal Liturgy was celebrated on December 20. I arrived during the first Great Ektenia, and stayed right through to the end of the memorials. (I had a schedule to keep, but I also have my priorities.)‎ I spoke with the priest afterwards, and tomorrow morning he'll hear my confession and I'll receive Holy Communion! 

It would have been nice to visit the scene of St Ignatius' martyrdom on the anniversary of his receiving his martyr's crown, but I plan to make the Colosseum my first stop after Liturgy‎ tomorrow. From there, I plan to visit several churches from the first millennium, and then perhaps try for the Lateran complex, depending on how much time I spend at St Mary Cosmedine, St Giorgios, and St Sabina in the ancient Greek quarter of the city.

That brings up another thing. The author of my Via Francigena guidebook writes, "Given the geographical dispersal of these buildings, Sigeric's must have been something of a whistle-stop tour – 'checking off' the churches one by one, much as a modern tourist might with sights on his or her 'must-see' list – even though he would have visited at least several of the churches on horseback."

I am not willing to do this. I'd rather experience one or two churches unhurriedly than say I "visited"‎ all the most important ones. After Liturgy this morning, I headed out to visit Sant'Agnese fuori  le Mura. As part of my visit, I took the guided tour of the catacombs beneath the church, and indeed the neighbourhood. There are 6 kms worth of catacombs connected to the tomb of the martyr St Agnes, above which the church was built. Given my propensity for seeking out nooks and crannies to explore, it's just as well there was a guide to keep me from wandering off and getting lost.

The mausoleum of St Constanza was next on my list, being as it is located on the other side of a large garden from St Agnes. When I walked up to the door, however, it was obvious I wouldn't be visiting just then. ‎The groomsmen standing at the door kept glancing worriedly towards the parking area, so I'm assuming the wedding was set to start almost immediately. It struck me as rather odd that a mausoleum church would be chosen as a wedding venue, but whatever. "Sono Pazzi Questi Romani."

Most of the churches I hope to visit over the next 40 hours are clustered together in different parts of the city, which makes visiting them that much easier. Even St Agnes "outside the walls" was close to another church I'd wanted to visit. My next stop was another church "outside the walls," but to the south of the old Roman walls rather than to the northeast. As ‎with St Agnese, the Basilica of St Paul has a nearby eponymous Metro station.

I didn't spend as much time at St Paul's as I did at St Peter's the day before, but I didn't rush my visit to the tomb of the Apostle. It was shortly after 3:00 when I hopped on the subway again. As with the previous two days, I realised I hadn't eaten lunch, and was feeling both tired and hungry. I stopped at the supermarket on the way back to basecamp and picked up a few things that I could carry in my small pack tomorrow.

And now I ought to prepare myself for Liturgy tomorrow morning. :-D

Dec 19, 2014

St Peter's Square

St Peter's Basilica



These initials are to be found almost everywhere one looks in Rome. Apparently the acronym stands for "‎Sono Pazzi Questi Romani."  (No, that's not my joke.) *

I slept in until 7:30 this morning‎ and took my time getting ready. I knew it was only 20 kms from the hotel in La Storta to the Society of St Vincent de Paul guesthouse where the friend of a friend had made arrangements for me to stay in Rome. I had an adequate breakfast at the hotel, and was on my way by 10:00. Shortly after that, my sleeves were rolled up and my sunglasses were on as I strode briskly down the sunny side of the street towards Rome.

My first encounter with the Via Cassia‎ was a few hours after leaving Siena a week ago, and at that point it was a note in my guidebook, nothing more. When I stopped for coffee in Ponte d'Arbia just before sunset, the locals figured it was a better option for reaching Buonconvento in the dark than following the off-road trails of the Via Francigena. I remember watching for the distance markers every hundred metres, but can't recall how far from Rome I was at the time. (In Italy at least, all roads lead to Rome, and they are marked to show how far one is from the Eternal City.) According to my guidebook, it was a little over 200 kms.

It was the next two days that established my sense of familiarity with the Via Cassia. As it began climbing towards Gallina, it was a smooth, curving two lane road with very little traffic -- at least, very little on a Friday night in the Tuscan countryside. That day was my first 40 km day, which ended when I came across the "mediaeval" inn alongside the road. (I labelled that stopping point as Bagni San Fillipo on my Daily Stages page on the blog because that was the nearest village, but really this hotel/restaurant/gas bar was in the middle of nowhere!) 

Leaving the inn the next morning, I'd noticed a very large and fluorescent sign diverting traffic off the Via Cassia due to a road closure further down the way. That suited me just fine. I'd already diverged from the "official" Via Francigena trail, so rather than trying to figure out how to rejoin, I could simply follow the direct route to Acquapendente and let the VF find me. At this point, I was walking along a simple two lane mountain road on a Saturday morning, with a road closure some distance ahead. I may have seen a vehicle every hour, if that. Even after I crossed over the closure and saw the diverted traffic return, it was a quiet road with nice broad shoulders.

I stayed on the Via Cassia for the rest of the day, only leaving it briefly to hike up a very steep gravel road (which was probably the original route) in order to cut off a few kilometres worth of switchbacks. (I'd noted the turn-off earlier in the day when consulting my GPS app, but I'd have walked right on by if not for the two farmers selling fresh produce at the intersection. They hollered across the road at me, and probably saved me an hour.)

It was back on the Via Cassia for much of the next day, as well.‎ With the 90 day Schengen area deadline drawing ever closer, I'm eager to log as much distance as I can. (My earlier post about 110 Kms in Three Days was written while I was exhausted and feeling frustrated. Everything I wrote was true, but it wasn't the whole truth, which is always more complicated than simply blaming someone or something else.)

I had been following the modern road for so long because it remains true to the road laid out by the Romans in the 1st century BC, and even today this is usually the best course across the terrain. This means, of course, that pedestrians are left with finding other options when the road becomes too heavily travelled. Montefiascone is 100 kms from Rome by road, but the Via Francigena adds an extra 15% to that distance in order to keep pilgrims away from the traffic. (In the case of the route from Capranica to Sutri, that led me along a very steep and slippery path instead of the route described in the guidebook, but I was still most appreciative of the sounds of running water, and the smell of the verdant undergrowth after 12 hours of rain was a wonderful  tonic.‎)

Once I arrived at the last stop before Rome, I was ridiculously pleased to find that my path had once again rejoined the Via Cassia. The day before, it had been a major limited-access highway with concrete crash barriers on both edges and down the middle. I'm not sure where this highway traffic was diverted towards Rome, but when I left La Storta, the Via Cassia was a busy city street, with sidewalks and bus stops and traffic signals. I stayed with this route all the way to the Tiber and crossed over on the vast bridge where I took the photo. I could have made a slight detour and crossed into the city by way of the Milvian Bridge, but decided instead to come back and look at it once I was in sightseeing mode rather than as a pilgrim bound for a destination.

And now here I am, a guest of the ‎Order of St Vincent de Paul. Friday after breakfast, I'll head to the Vatican to get my pilgrim's  credential stamped and to see what I can see. I expect it to be a full day. The following day, I have a list of recommendations provided to me by Fr. David Hester, who had lived and studied in Rome for some time. (Thank you!) Sunday I hope to attend Liturgy in the morning before spending another day touring Rome, and Monday I'll be on my way again.

Dec 18, 2014

Peace, yo!

Sheet Metal Pilgrims

By the time I arrive in Jerusalem, I may be almost as skinny as these two!

On to Rome!

I woke up this morning feeling a little stiff. I suppose that isn't surprising, given the distance I covered yesterday. One thing which I'm planning to do, perhaps tomorrow or the day after, is find a reputable practitioner of Shiatsu and have a massage.

I hadn't phoned ahead to any of the three convents in La Storta which offer hospitality, and it was quite late when I arrived, so I grabbed a room at the first hotel I saw as I kept walking towards Rome. I took the opportunity to sleep in, and now I'm about to check out and hit the road again. It's about 20 kms to where I'll be staying, so I'll head directly there rather than to St Peter's. With security restrictions in place, I'd have to leave my backpack somewhere while I got my pilgrim's passport stamped and my lodgings are only 4 kms away from the basilica.

And now my phone's fully charged, ready for a day of navigation and photography. Andiamo! 

Sunshine and Pines

Dec 17, 2014

Tomorrow, Rome

It was a glorious day for walking. I'm in La Storta, 15 kms away from St Peter's Basilica. My feet are happy, even after the long walk today. Thanks to the friend of a friend, I'll be staying with the Re‎ligieux de St-Vincent de Paul. I spoke with the contact person today, and he assured me they were expecting me.

That's all for now, other than to say the photo was my first glimpse of Rome.‎

Dec 16, 2014

Night Moves

I woke this morning to the sound of thunder. When I realized how hard it was raining, I immediately began to wonder what I'd do to keep my drinking water in easy reach. In good weather, it's no problem at all to sling my pack off my shoulders, grab a swig from the bottle, and be on my way again. When it's raining, I'll want a dry spot on which to place my backpack. I can remove it while wearing my rain poncho easily enough, but putting it back on is easiest if I simply remove the poncho and then throw it on again once my pack is securely in place.

The other day I'd mentioned buying a Camelbak hydration pouch, the kind which goes in the backpack and has a long drinking tube which reaches over the shoulder for easy access. This morning I realised I didn't need to buy any more gear. Instead of looking to the dromedary for an answer, I went with the marsupial option.

Because I have some nifty sharp tools in my main pack, I had to check it for the flight to Paris. For my carry-on, I used a small lightweight nylon backpack, the kind that stuffs inside its own pocket‎, making a compact bundle smaller than my fist. This has been extremely handy for trips to the supermarket and laundromat, and today I found a new use for it. After putting my midday snacks and my water bottle inside, I put it on backwards, covering my chest. Then I put on my main pack, and draped the poncho over everything. A simple and elegant solution, if I say so myself.

So, what are these "night moves" I referred to? (No, don't bother with the Bob Seger lyrics.)‎ Yesterday morning, it took me quite some time to get moving, even though I'd decided to make it a short day (25 kms) and stay in Montefiascone instead of racing the clock to arrive in Viterbo before the parochial hostel closed for the evening. It was 10:00 by the time I'd taken my last photos from the highest point of the city and started walking.

I'm glad I didn't rush on through to Viterbo. The Via Francigena passes right alongside the site of a thermal spring. It's fenced off, and there are a number of artificial pools for people to lounge and bathe in. I arrived at 1:00, and I didn't need to explain that I was a pilgrim who wanted to soak my feet. If I'd been looking for full immersion, I've no doubt there'd have been a fee, but I was shown to a very small pool and told that I was welcome to use it.

By the time I'd dried my feet and pulled on my socks and shoes, it was 1:30, and the rain that had been forecast for the day was now threatening. I pulled my poncho out of its stuff sack and tucked it on top of my pack for easy one-handed access, just in case. Half an hour later, I was draped in yellow again, for the first time since I entered Tuscany.

The rain didn't last that long, but once I arrived in Viterbo, I was glad to get under shelter and remove my dripping poncho and my pack. ‎Then I had a late lunch and walked around the old town for a bit before I finally realised it was 4:00 and I still had 17 kms to cover. Even with the lingering twilight, it's dark by 5:30, and if I'm sharing a road with traffic I'll usually turn on my headlamp by 4:00.

The first part of the route from Viterbo to Vetralla was ‎on a narrow and quiet country road that had been carved into the plateau sloping away from the city. The rock walls on either side were as high as ten metres. Gradually the walls got lower until I was back on an open country road. By this time the sun had set and twilight was long past, but it had been overcast all day and there was enough light pollution reflecting from the clouds to illumine my path. The road crossed under the highway and became a gravel track and it was about this time that it started raining again.

Still, I was warm and dry, and with all the moisture in the air I could actually see the trail better without my light. ‎I'd been consulting my phone's GPS app from time to time, so I knew the general direction and layout of the trail, and I was also using my headlamp to check for VF trail markings at every junction. With all of that, I still found myself staring at a locked gate across a private driveway where my GPS app said the track I was on should simply continue on and meet up with a secondary road which would take me directly to my destination. After backtracking about 500 m just to be sure I hadn't missed a turn somehow, I realised there was nothing to do but follow the trail. It looped away from Vetralla, heading towards the major road I'd hoped to avoid. 

Still, it was a good trail, and the rain eventually tapered off. Once I reached the road, it was late enough in the evening that there was very little traffic. I arrived in town shortly after 9:00, and made for the first café I saw. After ordering my drink, I said that I was looking for a cheap place to spend the night. The barista mentioned the first place listed in my guidebook, so it was there I spent the night.

Which brings us back to this morning. By the time I'd finished breakfast, the lightning storm had passed, but it was still raining steadily. Venturing out, I discovered that there was also a stiff breeze. This is my least favourite weather for walking (at least, that one would normally encounter in temperate climes). Rainy, temperature in the single digits Celsius, and windy. Not. Fun. At. All.

The first four or five kilometres out of Vetralla were on paved roads, but they were so uneven, there were massive puddles to dodge. To their credit, all the drivers who passed me on the road slowed right down to avoid splashing me. That was a most pleasant surprise! Eventually the VF turned off from the road and led tp what my guidebook had described as an earth track ‎uphill through the woods. Reading that in advance, and knowing the weather forecast, I'd been somewhat apprehensive, but the trail was actually better (in most sections, anyway) than the road had been.  After the woods, I found myself walking through vast groves of hazelnut trees, whereas up until only a day ago it was olive trees which dominated the agricultural landscape.

It was a long, damp, chilly slog. The 14.5 kms I covered by 1:00 felt more like double that. My normal light-footed rhythm of walking had become a heavy trudge, with the water in my shoes squishing at every step. I'd hoped to cover 40 kms today, leaving me with two short days of walking in sunny weather and arriving in Rome by early afternoon Thursday. However, I had also decided to evaluate the situation once I reached the halfway point, and that if the weather was just too u‎npleasant, I'd call it at 20.

Since I arrived in Capranica damp, chilled, and weary, I decided to have a proper restaurant meal instead of my usual quick and light lunch. It had stopped raining by the time I emerged from the restaurant, and after ten minutes of brisk walking and a steep hill, my body was generating enough heat to fight back the chill in the air. My feet had found their groove, and I was floating along.  I'd taken a quick glance at my guidebook over lunch, just to be sure I could find my way out of town again. ‎The trailmarks matched what I'd read, so I put my phone away and kept my eyes open to my surroundings. When the trail led through a public garden and down a trail behind it, I was a little puzzled, since the guidebook had indicated the next 5.5 kms was all on minor roads, but for a change, all the various markings left by different groups were unanimous. 

It was a very beautiful walk, down the length of a valley that began in the hills of Vetralla and continued more or less straight on to Sutri. The thing is, after twelve hours of continuous rain, this narrow leaf-covered earth footpath was now highly treacherous. And there was a good sized stream, swollen from the rain, at the bottom of the valley. This was probably the most perilous stretch of trail ‎I've encountered since climbing up towards the Great St Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps. I was able to enjoy the beauty of it, but I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it even more in warmer and dryer conditions. By the time I had reached Sutri, it was 3:30, and there was no question of pressing on for another 20 kms.

I'm currently in a room in a guesthouse belonging to the Carmelite Sisters. It's clean and quiet, and the sister at the cloister window I spoke with radiated love and peace. (I hadn't realised they were a cloistered order. Kinda cool arrangement.) I've eaten, done my laundry, and now I'll have to step out to the street to send this. (Had a great conversation with the proprietor of the laundromat - and to my surprise, it was almost entirely in Italian.) Funny thing, how thick stone walls and wireless technology don't work well together. These mediaeval walled cities are awesome, but my GPS tracker device just can't pick up a signal despite being at a higher elevation than the surrounding terrain.‎ (For those of you waiting for my "I'm okay" message, I'm sorry. I tried taking my Spotify out for a walk, but still no joy.)

The forecast for tomorrow looks good, I'll have a good night's rest tonight, and I'm going to try to pull out a 45 km day so that my final approach to Rome will be a short 15 km jaunt in the morning sunshine on Thursday. (45 kms needn't be tiring if one is willing to take it slow and enjoy the ride. And it helps if one is not averse to walking after dark. "Workin on my night moves!") If it doesn't work out that way, that's alright too.‎ In spite of the miserable weather and the grueling walk today, I'm very content.

Once I send this, I'll take a quick look over the description of tomorrow's route to avoid any surprises, say my prayers, and head to bed.

Dec 15, 2014

Thermal Footbath

My feet are fine today, but why would I pass up the chance to sit in the steam rising from a thermal spring while soaking them?

Lago di Bolsena from Montefiascone

Dec 14, 2014


When I left the B&B in San Lorenzo Nuovo this morning, it was with the intention of walking to Viterbo, some 43 kms distant. I reached Balseno, the next town, in good time, and from there I phoned the parochial hostel in Viterbo and asked if they were open. I explained that I might arrive rather late, perhaps by six or seven in the evening. No problems at their end, although the woman warned me they closed up by 8:00.

I did the math - I had eight hours to cover 32 kms. Easily done, even with a very steep climb out of the volcanic cauldron I was then in. I knew that once I reached Montefiascone ‎(14 kms away), it was all downhill.

It was a good walk. Although it was mostly overcast, the sun broke through on occasion, at which point I would shed my outermost layer and roll up my sleeves.‎  From San Lorenzo Nuovo, I descended 100 metres, walked parallel to the shore of Lago di Balseno, and then climbed back up another 270 to reach Montefiascone, on the rim of the crater.  At this point, I was averaging 5 km/h even with the steep climb, so I was on schedule to arrive by 7:00, allowing for a few short breaks.‎  

Once I walked up to Montefiascone, I was ready for one. The problem with these light Italian breakfasts is that they're just not enough to keep me walking for hours and hours and hours. While waiting for my pizza margherita, I swilled back a bottle of iced tea (which tasted strangely of lychee rather than lemon) and ran the time/distance calculations again.

Yes, I still had enough time ‎to make it to Viterbo before the folks at the hostel left for the day, even accounting for a slightly different trail pace after dark. However, there is a great difference between walking towards a deadline versus walking towards a destination. I made the decision to stay in Montefiascone for the night instead of pressing on with a deadline looming. I could have made it, but it would have sucked all the pleasure from the journey. I phoned the parish in Viterbo to let them know I had changed my plans, and found a place to stay.

After a hot shower and change of clothes, I lounged in my bed for several hours, reading ahead in my guidebook planning the next few days, and catching up on Facebook. I also had a look at the weather forecast. Rain for Monday and Tuesday. Blech. I'm thinking of buying a Camelbak (or similar) hydration system, mostly because at present  I need to remove ‎my pack to get at my water, and that is a real hassle when I'm wearing my bad weather gear. (Yes, it's possible to get dehydrated while walking in a chill rain!) One more thing to look into once I reach Rome. 

If I pull another few long days, I could be there by Wednesday evening, but I may stretch it out an extra day because of the weather and so that I can arrive in Rome in the daylight. 

The Green Hills of Earth

the high road

Leaving Buonconvento, there was a lot of fog. Eventually I gained enough altitude to leave it behind me. Not long after I shot this, I came across ice in a ditch. At that point, I had my sleeves up and my sunglasses on. (Yeah, I get warm while lugging a 13 kg backpack uphill in direct sunlight.)