Today marks the final day of our 44-day Via Francigena pilgrimage. We awoke knowing we had less than 10 miles left to our destination: St. Peter’s Basilica.
Between the trash and the morning traffic, the first couple of miles on the Via Cassia were unpleasant. Some of the sidewalks were so littered with electronic parts and discarded furniture that they were unwalkable. It was hardly the way I had pictured entering the Eternal City.
A Brush With Nature and Sheep
Fortunately, the route eventually transitioned to a more rugged section that was fun and almost jungle-like. The dirt trail at Insugherata Park was perhaps a foot wide, with thick vegetation on both sides. Dan and I had to duck to avoid overhead vines.
When the path widened and the terrain changed to pasture, we were overtaken by a cheerful, fast-moving German woman.
“Buon giorno, how are you? I saw your parents about a mile ago.”
It dawned on me that I’m going to miss encounters like this. The pilgrim network is so familiar that almost everyone knows a little something about those who are within fifteen miles. Outside of the Via Francigena, I’d view with high suspicion any stranger who approached me this way.
Here, it’s completely normal.
I learned the friendly, well-traveled German was on a year-long sabbatical from her job at Adidas. Our conversation was abruptly cut short by an unanticipated sight: a flock of sheep headed directly at us. It’s the second time this trip that we humans have had to back down from sheep! Talk about a lesson in humility.
Much to my amusement, the super cute sheep dog ignored his sheep entirely. He pranced over to the German and stayed by her knees, happily getting his head scratched.
Hidden Gems On The Ancient Trail
After clearing the nature reserve, my brother and I stopped at the top of the hill for a cappuccino and cream brioche. We passed through another heavily trafficked section of town before entering the gates to Monte Mario nature park.
The path took us up a magnificent hill with gorgeous views. My heart skipped a little faster looking at Rome, Vatican City, and the Tiber River. I had lived in Rome for four years during high school and thought I knew it very well. Apparently not. I have never seen these nature parks before.
I had imagined the Via Francigena signs and stickers growing increasingly prominent as we grew closer to St. Peter’s Basilica. On the contrary, it became difficult to find them. I relied heavily on the app to verify we were on the correct streets.
It was a hot day. Since we were coming up on lunch, Dan and I stopped at a gelateria a half-mile from Vatican City. It was far enough away that prices were still reasonable. I texted Mom and Dad to ask about their whereabouts.
Their response came back. They were waiting for us at St. Peter’s. They had created their own route and gave me their precise location, with a warning that the place was packed.
Via Francigena: Arrival at St. Peter’s Basilica
For all the criticisms I’ve made about debris these past few days, things are much cleaner than I remember. The cars don’t emit as much exhaust or lay on the horn as frequently. St. Peter’s, too, looked far cleaner and brighter. The problem Dan and I faced was how to get inside the area. I gawked at the number of barriers and metal detectors, and by the length of the line to go inside the Basilica.
The volume of tourists was insane! They were arriving by the bus load. There were the usual students on a field trip; groups organized based on language; church groups; athletes. We dodged between tour guides with their flags, hearing a smorgasbord of languages in the span of 200 meters.
I felt annoyed. We were pilgrims, gosh darn it!
I laughed at myself.
We were in Vatican City. We were MOST OF US PILGRIMS!!!
Mom and Dad were on the left side, seated with their bags and hiking poles under enormous shady columns. We all hugged and congratulated each other.
“Do you want to go inside?”
I eyed the long, barely moving line.
“Let’s just sit and rest here a bit.”
I was deeply moved when Claudio, who had arrived hours earlier and already gotten his stamp and Testimonium, returned to say goodbye. Everyone was splitting up and heading home, if not immediately, then within 1-2 days. Rome is an expensive place to linger.
We were so fortunate to have met the people we did. The encounters may have been brief, but every single one was meaningful.
The Final Stamp and Document
It was Dad who located the correct office, presented our passports for the coveted final stamp, and completed the necessary paperwork. He returned with four white envelopes containing official recognition that we had walked the Via Francigena. Mom’s pilgrim passport was full; I still had a few spaces left. It was Dad’s love for collecting stamps at every opportunity that had made the difference.
Our Testimoniums are written in Latin. I don’t know what it says. It doesn’t really matter; I kind of like not knowing.
I had wondered how we’d feel at the end. St. Peter’s is a sacred place for Catholics, but it’s also meaningful on a personal level. We had all visited St. Peter’s multiple times over the years. So many family, friends, and friends of friends came to see us in Rome that my brothers and I were tasked with taking guests out and giving them tours.
I had been an altar girl here for the Mass marking the 50th birthday of our school; had watched as parents of my friends renewed their wedding vows in the underground crypt; had accompanied an 80-something old neighbor to see the beatification of Padre Pio.
How many times had I been here? Thirty? Forty?
This time around was much different, of course.
Reflecting on the Via Francigena
Mom and I had been planning and dreaming of this trip for four years. We had spent 44 days and several hundred miles walking – through meadows and over the Swiss Alps; past mosquito-infested rice fields and forests; alongside Etruscan ruins and ancient amphitheaters; by lakes and marble quarries; and into many a church.
I looked at my family. We were hot, tired, several pounds lighter, our shoes ruined from sheep dung, dust, and abrasive rocks.
In many ways, it was a day like every other day. We had arrived at the place we had intended to.
There had been no grand epiphanies, no shattering realizations or lightning bolts, no clear-cut answers. I felt the same vague sadness I do every time something I’ve put a lot of energy into comes to an end.
A lump formed in my throat as I identified the emotion that overrode all others. I felt GRATITUDE. In a sea of tens of thousands of people I did not know, here were those I loved deeply. We had known such joy and seen such beauty. What a blessing it was to have shared such a journey together. What a priceless gift to be here, right now, together.
That was all that really mattered.
And by God, we’d had fun!!!
Lodging (per person): $126