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.