Suffolk, 24 October 2016
People keep asking me what I feel, and in truth I cannot give any coherent answer. Nor is it yet time to know the effects – if any – that these 2000km have had on me, other than an acutely painful knee and some black toe nails. I have yet to get my head round the fact that on Friday I was walking, still walking, to my goal, and today – Monday – I am back, safe home under wide Suffolk skies, in familiarity and security (and, I may add, cold – as I returned to a broken-down boiler and no heating). The transition from one life to another is probably one of the hardest aspects for the walking pilgrim.
So, while I collect my thoughts and emotions, here is the final week.
I left the mountain village of San Martino al Cimino, where I slept in medieval splendour and unaccustomed luxury, early last Tuesday morning. My way lay steeply up (there does seem to have been so much more up than down; but that cannot be so or Rome would be perched as high as Everest) to the top of the volcanic crater in which lies Lake Vico,
and then gently down through beech forests towards Capranica and then Sutri. The morning was gloomy with the promise of rain, and the solitude here slightly spooky.
People speak of the “other-worldly” approach to Sutri through the woods. The words “wet” and “slippery” seemed more apposite to me: the rain came, and the numerous streams had to be forded across bridges made of narrow, slimy logs. By then I had caught up with the Swiss couple, Joëlle and Pascal (who had walked from Nuremberg with their lovely Australian Sheepdog, Logan – though Logan had gone home from Tuscany to rest her paws with Pascal’s family). I was glad of the presence of others.
Sutri is well known for its Etruscan and Roman antiquities.
There are some remains of the ancient city walls on the southern side of the town, and some rock-cut sewers in the cliffs below them. In the cliffs opposite the town on the south is the rock-cut church of the Madonna del Parto, developed out of one of the numerous Etruscan tombs of the area, and – according to some scholars – a mithraeum. The most striking edifice is the rock-hewn Roman amphitheatre.
I mention all this because it might be thought that Sutri depends on the proceeds of tourism. If so they maybe need to be more visitor-friendly. The man in the tourist office was less than helpful: the Madonna del Parto? Last visit 3pm. The heritage museum? Closed. Frescoes? Don’t know.
The accommodation for pilgrims at the Carmelite convent was similarly unwelcoming – not today, pilgrims! So the three of us went to Il Seminario, a cross between a hostel and a B&B, where we had clean sheets, towels, and a clean kitchen where Pascal cooked us supper.
By now a sense of excitement was building – two more sleeps to Rome; an excitement that I sought to suppress, as – I said to myself – there’s many a slip…
…and that slip could easily have been the next morning in dense fog, with a two-kilometer walk along the Via Cassia at rush hour…no hard shoulder and blind bends. I had (fortunately) forgotten reports of an attack on a solo female pilgrim earlier in the year on isolated stretch before Campagnano di Roma, and enjoyed the walk through the nature reserve of the Parco de Veio
and past the Monte Gelato waterfall. Campagnano was, like almost every evening’s destination during the previous month, high on a hill, and the Centro Parrochiale was difficult to find. But it was worthwhile, with clean dormitories and bathrooms – and a nearby Bar dei Pellegrini offering a cheap pilgrim meal and wifi.
The final day was surprisingly rural so close to a vast capital city.
It provided both the familiar drenching downpour and another long, long hill up to la Storta which lies on the busy Via Cassia. The last night, the last dormitory, the last convent – the Suore delle Poverelle. There Joëlle, Pascal and I agreed to walk the final dangerous and deeply unpleasant 17km into Rome together.
I was glad we did, for it was reassuring (I would without doubt have taken wrong turnings alone) to be with friends, to be with someone to share that moment from Monte Mario
when one first glimpses the dome of St Peter’s, to be with people with whom one can without embarrassment shed a tears of emotion and relief as one arrives in St Peter’s Square. And it was a privilege to be with this lovely young couple who had trekked 1700km to get there. People might have thought they had brought their granny along, as we walked in on the stroke of 12 noon on Friday.
After the tears, the photos; after the photos the acquiring of the Testimonium, the Latin certificate awarded to those who have walked the final 100km or more to the tomb of Peter. The proof is in one’s credenziale, the pilgrim passport which must be stamped every day in churches, ostelli, town halls, and even bars or hotels as proof of passage.
I said a goodbye which was both sad and joyful to my pilgrim friends, and went to get my pass to walk through the Porta Santa into the Basilica. I did this as a Catholic in this Year of Mercy, mindful of my need of mercy, but knowing in my heart that pilgrimage is in the journey, and that the trappings of arrival are but symbols of what has gone on inside oneself.
It is too soon to know what I feel, what if anything has changed, what perspectives shifted. I have experienced the incredible kindness and generosity of strangers. I have seen faith and love in action. I know how dependent I am on others, and I know I know how much we are all interdependent. It has, I hope, taught me trust, for so many angels attended me in my travels, and came to my aid when I was lost, miserable, in pain or need. More than anything, perhaps, it has provided proof yet again that bonds become swiftly strong when we are stripped of what in “normal” life defines us – our jobs, cars, houses, possessions, clothes, accents. With none of the factors that cause us, even unconsciously, to judge, we relate to the other within the moment, and intensely. Is this perhaps “the kingdom of God”?
I will leave it to Marco, the Italian blues singer on his first pilgrimage, to explain what these journeys of faith and trust bring us: “People who stay in their security, in their comfortable lives, with their homes, their families, their friends,their jobs, their cars will never know. You have to step out into the unknown, take the risk. That is real living.”
- Some facts and figures
Distance: approximately 2000km (1200 miles)
Walking days: 75
Rest days (some enforced by knee injury): 9 (plus a 12 week return home to get the knee better)