Acquapendente to La Storta

Walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, and edging in on Rome

180 kms – 8 days

I’d been walking in Lazio for less than two days, and the rolling, golden hills of Tuscany already felt like a lifetime ago. Lazio was lush and green, the slopes of its once-upon-a-time volcanoes covered in dense forest. The tourists of Tuscany where nowhere to be seen, and were replaced with farmers on aged tractors. Farmers not unlike my ancestors, who hailed from this corner of Italy. Over the coming days I would stray from the Via Francigena and venture to their hometowns, walking the paths they once used to walk. My entire journey through Italy has felt like a sort of homecoming. But my real homecoming was here, in Lazio.

Olives ready to be picked

My first detour took me through clouds and farmers’ fields as I climbed high and crossed in to Umbria, heading in the direction of a small town called Castel Viscardo where my late Nonna, Dina, was born. Cars stopped me as I walked, their drivers puzzled by my presence. They asking where I was going, and if I’d lost the path of the Via Francigena. They asked if I wanted a ride, but when I explained why I was walking to Castel Viscardo they understood. They nodded, shouted “Complmenti!” and drove off into the rain.

Arriving in Castel Viscardo, Nonna’s birthplace

I last visited Castel Viscardo in 2016 with Nonna, when we were holidaying in the area and decided to take an afternoon drive and a trip down memory lane. This time around I spent some time visiting the church where she was baptised, and the Commune (town hall) to explain that I had walked from London and was after a stamp for my pilgrim’s passport.

Castel Viscardo is a very typical Italian town

Heading back towards the Via Francigena I snaked through dense forests where gun shots filled the air. It was hunting season, and every man in Lazio seemed to be on the look out for cinghiale, wild boar. Italians take their hunting seriously, dressed head to toe in camouflage and some also driving camouflage trucks. Showing off the fruits of your labour is taken pretty seriously too. I was sat in a bar in a small town, refuelling on pastries before walking the rest of the day’s kilometres, when a man parked up outside. Everyone in the bar flocked to the street as he pulled dead animals from his boot and passenger seat, proudly displaying them on the tarmac.

Walking past farms in this part of the world can be a hazardous business. Sheep and property are guarded by Maremmani, Maremma sheepdogs. I remember some years ago visiting my Mum’s uncle, Serafino, and thinking that his big, white, oversized Retriever was adorable. But the working Maremmani are far from friendly. I’ve been chased and barked at when my path skirted the land they are protecting. But my heart was well and truly in my mouth when, spotting a pack of seven Maremmani in the distance, one raced after me and followed me down the road, barking and snapping at the air around my ankles. A passing Fiat Multipla, of all things, came to my rescue, tooting it’s horn and giving the dog something else to bark at.

Lago Di Bolsena

Taking a steep and muddy path through the trees, I got my first glimpse of Lago di Bolsena. Its glistening water and familiar outline brought tears to my eyes. I’ve been coming to the lake since I was a babe in arms, and have many happy memories of times spent there from my childhood through to a holiday earlier this summer. It is, for me, a place that feels like home. And it felt utterly surreal to know that I had walked there from my other home in the UK.

Lago di Bolsena is the largest volcanic lake in Europe and reaches depths of over 150 metres. It’s two islands, Isola Bisentina and Isola Martana, have been inhabited since Etruscan and Roman times, have passed through the hands of royalty, noble families, and popes, and are now privately owned.

The view from Bolsena’s castle
A quiet street in Bolsena’s old town

Although I’ve been coming to the lake my whole life, I’m not particularly familiar with its northern shore. The Via Francigena took me to the town of Bolsena, which is famous for a miracle that occurred in the 13th century. I wandered around Bolsena’s churches, explored the nooks and crannies of its old town, and took in the lake views from its imposing castle. And I sat on the lake shore, too cold to take a dip but warm enough to eat a gelato, and looked across to the town of Capodimonte which I escape to every summer.

Sunset on Lago di Bolsena

I set off on another detour from the Via Francigena, towards the place my Mum, Luciana, and my late Nonno, Marino, were born. I cut across farms and wandered down dirt tracks. During WWII Nonna was walking this route with one of her brothers, Dario. They were fired at by a British plane, but neither of them were harmed. However their father, who heard the gunfire from their family farm, had an anxious wait to see if they would both return home.

In the middle of nowhere an old lady appeared, surrounded by a harem of dogs. She told me that I was going the wrong way, and directed me towards a path that cut between some olive groves. I took her advice and went off on my way, but sadly after a few hundred metres the path was totally overgrown – I’m not sure she had walked it in recent years.

Eventually I arrived in the town of Bagnoregio, where my Mum was born. I visited the Cattedrale dei Santi Nicola, Donato e Bonaventura, when Nonna and Nonna were married and my Mum baptised.

Inside Bagnoregio’s Cattedrale dei Santi Nicola, Donato e Bonaventura
Stunning Civita di Bagnoregio

A short walk outside the town is one of Italy’s truly remarkable sights, a place that I’m fortunate to have a personal connection to as its where Nonno was born. Civita di Bagnoregio is an island village, seemingly stranded in the Calanchi Valley and accessible only by footbridge. Once connected to neighbouring Bagnoregio by land, earthquakes and erosion have led to its current isolation. But there is an upside to isolation, as a visit to the village has the feel of going back in time.

I’ve visited this special place many times, but I’ve never stayed the night. It was one of the biggest treats of my walk to Rome to have the place to myself after the day trippers had gone, to wander the streets and for it to be so quiet that I could hear a woodpecker working away on a tree in the valley below, and to see a sky full of stars when the village turned in for the night.

Civita di Bagnoregio’s San Donato church, where Nonno was baptised
All is quiet after the day tripper have gone

Crossing the footbridge back to the mainland, I meandered along country roads back to the Via Francigena. Farmers were busy picking grapes, and there was a smell of wine in the air. In the distance I could see the hilltop town of Montefiascone, famous for once being the summer residence of popes and for its Est! Est!! Est!!! wine.

Montefiascone’s Basilica Santa Margherita, looking out over the volcanic hills

The dome of Basilica Santa Margherita, one of the largest in Italy, dominates the town’s skyline. Nonna never set foot in the Basilica her whole life, being somewhat afraid of how it towers over you when standing at street level. In recent years she expressed an interest in visiting it, but we didn’t manage to take her before she passed away. So on arriving in Montefiascone I headed straight for the Basilica, and took a moment to enjoy it’s beautiful frescoes and huge dome for Nonna.

The dome of Basilica Santa Margherita

Being so close to Rome, there is a temptation to wish the time and kilometres away. There is an eagerness to get there now. And there is the temptation to see the final stretch as a chore, something that just needs to get done. But my days walking through Lazio have been full of adventure.

The historic city of Viterbo was full of medieval houses and bell towers, and its surrounding countryside dotted with hot springs that helped to soothe my aching bones. I felt like Indiana Jones as I walked through the Cava di Sant’Antonio, an Etruscan road carved out of volcanic tuff, with walls rising up to 10 metres high. The forest floors were covered in a blanket of lilac cyclamen, and I stumbled upon countless people searching for porcini mushrooms.

Viterbo’s old town
Visiting the hot springs outside Viterbo
Walking through the Cava di Sant’Antonio

I walked through endless olive groves, flourishing in the black, volcanic, sandy soil. For days I got lost meandering through huge plantations of hazelnut trees. Squirrel like I collected fallen hazelnuts and walnuts from the ground, and munched on them as I continued my journey south.

A Roman road leads the way through olive groves
Hazelnuts!
Harvest time

With less than 100 kilometres to go, the Via Francigena still had some gems up its sleeves. The towns of Capranica and Sutri, perched high on volcanic tuffs, were full of narrow, cobbled streets and weatherworn doors, lavish churches and busy piazzas, a Roman amphitheatre, and cave churches and tombs.

A quiet street in Capranica
Sutri’s Roman amphitheatre
One of Sutri’s busy piazzas

Rome is now within spitting distance. Less than 20 kilometres away. Tomorrow I will walk into the Eternal City, and the Basilica di San Pietro and the Coliseum will tower over me. I don’t know how I will feel. No doubt I’ll be a mixed bag of emotions – elated to have arrived in Rome, in disbelief that I walked every step of the way from London, and saddened that my journey is over. But today I feel excited. Tremendously excited.

Throughout Lazio cyclamen create a lilac blanket on the forest floors

I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity, Mind. Last week I featured in the Metro’s “Strong Women” column. You can read the article, and my thoughts on mental health awareness, here. If you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site. Thank you.

The Grand Saint Bernard Pass to Pavia

Making tracks in la Bella Italia

272kms – 13 days

La Bella Italia…the land of Roman amphitheatres and medieval castles, the Alps and the Dolomites, the Tuscan hills and the mighty Vesuvius. The home of the Ferrari and the Vespa, of Giorgio Armani and Prada. The country that brought us pasta, pizza, Parmesan, and Prosecco. And gelato, let’s not forget the gelato. The home of Venice, Milan, Florence, and of course, Rome, the eternal city. Being half Italian I’ve spent many a holiday in this wonderful country. But never have I been so excited to see the green, white, and red of il Tricolore.

Perfect weather to cross the border to Italy

I was woken from a deep sleep in the atmospheric Grand Saint Bernard Hospice by a sort of Gregorian chant, which was played into the bedrooms to summon pilgrims down to breakfast. I pulled back the curtain to reveal a cloudless sky. Perfect weather to cross the border to Italy.

Stepping over the border felt momentous. Like a homecoming, but also like the beginning of a journey of discovery. Italy is so familiar to me, it’s my second home and a huge part of my heritage. Yet my journey to Rome would take me through unfamiliar territory, and would test my shameful language skills. I was excited – for the history, the culture, the landscape, for it all. And the food. I was ridiculously excited about the food.

Crossing the border
The rocky slopes of the Italian Alps

Leaving the rocky slopes of the Grand Saint Bernard Pass behind I descended into the Valle d’Aosta, an autonomous region where both Italian and French are official languages. I was soon snaking through forests and along the Ru Neuf. I kept turning around to check that the mountains were still there. I was torn – I didn’t want to leave them, but I was also eager to explore everything that waited for me on the road ahead.

Less than a few hours from the Swiss border, I felt like I was in a different world. The shiny Porches and 4x4s had been replaced with Fiat Pandas and Fiat Puntos, and occasionally an old school Fiat Cinquecento. Wooden chalets decked out with Swiss flags had been replaced by stone chalets with roofs made of slate tiles the size of tombstones.

Walking along the Ru Neuf
The charming village of Etroubles full of stone chalets with slate roofs

Italy is an assault on the senses. The houses and their perfectly manicured gardens ooze colour. The ortos (vegetable gardens) are pungent with the smells of tomatoes, figs, peaches, and kiwis, and they send your taste buds into overdrive. Italians don’t talk, they sing. And when they don’t sing, they shout. Whether it’s a seemingly abrupt “Pronto” when answering the phone, or a conversation that looks and feels more like an argument, Italy is loud.

The Arch of Augustus, built in 35 BC

My alpine crossing felt like a distant memory as I walked into Aosta, a city with history that dates back to the Roman times, with ruins of towers, gates, theatres, and arches to prove it. But the mountains were never far away. Aosta is surrounded by peaks, ski slopes that descend into vineyards the closer they get to the valley floor. They provide the backdrop to every colourful, crumbling street no matter which direction you turn. And the streets are full of life. People shopping in the artisan boutiques, people queuing outside delis to buy the locally produced Fontina and Fromadzo cheeses, and people sitting in piazzas drinking Aperol Spritz.

The walk out of the Valle d’Aosta provided some of the most challenging days of my journey so far. Climbing and descending over 2,300 metres in two days, yet always staying between 400 and 700 metres above sea level. Days were spent going up to come down, going up again only to come come down again. And the blistering heat made things worse. But my efforts were rewarded with spectacular mountain views, and at the end of every climb there was always a photo to be taken and a chance to catch my breath.

The glorious Valle d’Aosta. Can you spot the hot air balloon?

Just as I was thinking that the only way to truly appreciate the valley’s beauty is from above, a hot air balloon effortlessly flew past. What I would’ve given to be floating down the valley in that balloon. But then I realised that while you may get amazing views, you don’t get to see how people in the valley live. You don’t get to see the one seater Piaggio pick up trucks weaving their way along the twists and turns of the valley’s roads. Or the vines growing on pergolas built on top of stone pillars called pilun, which absorb the sun’s heat during the day and release it at night, creating a mild microclimate amongst the vines.

At times the steep, forest covered cliffs of the valley transported me to the jungles of Brazil and Vietnam. But then I’d spot one of the many medieval forts and castles perched on hilltops either side of the Dora Baltea River. They were the strongholds of Italy’s noble families, who tussled for control over this important alpine crossing and collected tolls from those traversing it. Some were in ruins, and the path would take me through the rubble of their remains. But others were as imposing as they would’ve been in their hay day. Such as the Forte di Bard, which completely dominates the valley floor. It has the feel of being both impassable and impenetrable. And it almost was – it took two weeks for Napoleon and his army of 40,000 to push past the fort when invading Italy in 1800, following which he ordered its destruction (the fort that stands today was rebuilt in the 1830s).

The imposing Forte di Bard
Pont Saint Martin, dating back to the first century BC

Following Roman roads and crossing Roman bridges dating back to the first century BC, I continued making my way south to the city of Ivrea, home of the chef Antonio Carluccio, Olivetti the manufacturers of typewriters and computers, and a world class canoe slalom course. The valley started to broaden, and its walls began to sink into the ground until they disappeared. The plains of the Po Valley stretched out in front of me. I gave a nostalgic look over my shoulder, and said goodbye to the mountains. I couldn’t quite believe that I had crossed the Alps.

Arrivederci Alps!

Rice was to dominate the next week of my walk, as I made my way through the Vercelli rice fields. Italy is Europe’s largest producer of rice, an agricultural practice that dates back thousands of years. With rice comes stagnant water, and with stagnant water come mosquitos. The rice fields were full of them, and they had their fill of me.

Rice, rice, and more rice
Early mornings walking through the Vercelli rice fields

Early starts made for beautiful sunrises, but the sun was soon scorching everything in sight and I raced from the shade of one tree or derelict farmhouse to the next. When the sun wasn’t shining thunderstorms filled the air, which gave some respite from the mosquitos until the skies cleared and they returned with a vengeance.

The bell towers of village churches were beacons in a sea of rice, drawing me in to a place of shelter from the sun and the storm. Some were tiny chapels, big enough for a congregation of twelve people. And others were unexpected masterpieces that wouldn’t be out of place in the Vatican. After visiting the village churches I would procrastinate in the bars, which were full of people from morning until night. I joined them watching Formula 1 and Serie A football, was questioned about my thoughts on Brexit and Boris Johnson, and refuelled on gelato.

An unexpected find, the stunning inside of Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo in Cavaglià
A much needed gelato stop

The monotony of the landscape was starting to get to me. Maybe it was the heat, or maybe the fumes from my insect repellant, but a sort of delirium set in. My mind wandered and I imagined myself walking through the backwaters of Kerala, half expecting a houseboat to float by at any moment.

Despite the mosquitos, the heat, and the storms, there is a certain kind of beauty in the rice fields. They create a landscape of vivid gold and green, and are full of birdlife – great egrets, herons, and sacred ibis to name but a few. And every few days my journey was, mercifully, broken up with a momentary change of scene. Afternoons strolling along the shore of Lago di Viverone and exploring the churches and cloisters of Vercelli, and sampling the city’s traditional bicciolani biscuits in gelato form, helped to save my sanity.

Sunset on Lago di Viverone
Abbazia di Sant’Andrea in Vercelli

Something else that helped me to keep going through the rice fields, together with a good luck message that I received from Stephen Fry, was the attitude of the local Italians. They embrace the Via Francigena like it’s a part of their family. Indeed it feels like Italy is the spiritual home of the Via Francigena – it means so much to the people here, and they are proud to be a part of it.

Children had tied “Buon viaggio” signs to lampposts, and there were tables outside houses with drinks and snacks for pilgrims. Cars stopped to ask me where I was going, and a man on a bicycle shook my hand as he pedalled alongside me. As I walked down the street I was met with shouts of “Brava!”, and as I passed some elderly people sat in rocking chairs they whooped and hollered “A Roma! A Roma!”. I’ve had requests to say a prayer for someone when I get to Rome, and to say hello to Papa Francesco, Pope Francis, from others.

A sign made by children wishing pilgrims a good journey

As I walked through the small town of Tromello, I stopped in a bar to have a drink and a snack. Before I’d even had time to sit down, an elderly man on a bicycle painted green, white, and red approached me and asked if I was a pilgrim. He asked if I wanted my pilgrim’s passport stamped, and told me that he’d be back shortly. He returned together with a certificate and pin badge. We had a brief chat about where I’d been and where I was going, and after a “Mamma Mia!” and a throwing of hands in the air, he cycled off on his way.

The certificate and pin badge I received in Tromello

Finally there was a light at the end of the rice fields. And that light was the university city of Pavia. Having walked for 18 days without a rest, I was exhausted and in need of a pit stop. But rest days are never zero step count days, as there’s always so much to explore.

Pavia’s is one of the oldest universities in Europe and I seemed to have timed my visit with students arriving for the start of a new term. I dodged the canoodling teenagers on the Ponte Coperto (covered bridge), and explored the city’s countless churches, marvelling at their melodious bell ringing. Once called the “City of 100 Towers” only five of Pavia’s medieval towers still rise up into the sky. The towers were a symbol of a family’s power, and the taller the tower the more powerful the family. A fresco in the Chiesa di San Teodoro helped me to imagine what the city looked like in the 1300s, a medieval Manhattan.

Two of Pavia’s remaining Medieval towers
A fresco in Chiesa di San Teodoro depicting Pavia in the 1300s
Exploring Pavia’s colourful streets

In an attempt to feel like everyone else in the city I shunned my hiking clothes, and instead of walking 30 odd kilometres I did as they did. I strolled the city’s cobbled streets and sat in a piazza watching the world go by. But as I watched the world go by, I realised there’s no way of hiding my pilgrim credentials. Everyone else was beautifully turned out, women in high heels and dresses and men in pressed shirts and blazers. I was in a scruffy dress that hadn’t been washed for weeks. Everyone else had flawless deep olive tans that they’d been working on all summer. I had tan lines that made it look like I was wearing socks and shorts even when I wasn’t.

It dawned on me that although you take a day of rest from your pilgrimage, you don’t stop being a pilgrim. The tell tale signs are all there, and your pilgrim mindset is too. You’re always wanting to say hello to everyone you pass in the street, until you remember that in cities that’s not what people do. You’re always noticing the little things that everyone else, rushing about in their daily lives, is too busy to observe. And you’re always looking out for the Via Francigena signs pointing in the direction of Rome.

Sunset over Pavia’s Ponte Coperto and Duomo

I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity, Mind. You can read more here, and if you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site. Thank you.