Ciao Italia!

When I set out on this half-baked idea of a pilgrimage through Europe, I had every intention of doing a lot more writing about my experience, but long days of hiking and wandering the cities of Italy have made me realize that the majority of my writing about this trip will have to take place after the fact, once I’ve returned home and am able to digest the enormity of what I’ve seen.

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The Roman Colosseum

In the past month, since starting my hike at the Colosseum in Rome, I’ve gone through such a wide range of emotions and experiences in this country, and reached the end of this leg of the journey with such a profound respect and admiration for the people, the culture, the history, the architecture, and of course the food of this truly amazing country.

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Sunset in the Valley of Aosta

In so many ways my approach to this first half of my pilgrimage made little sense.  I was going to hike the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage dating back to the middle ages as a route from Canterbury to Rome, and continuing from there to Jerusalem, but I was doing it in reverse.  Where every other hiker I met, with the exception of a couple doing a small section in Tuscany, was heading in the direction of Rome, I had opted to swim against the current, a Camino Contrario, as I was told it was called, and begin my hike at the Vatican.  In addition, I was opting, in an effort to save money, to avoid the traditional Albergos and Hostels set along the route in favor of discreetly (and illegally) camping along the trail as I went.  I carried little in the way of food and water, enough to get from town to town, and ate primarily at restaurants and cafes along the way, which was not always an option and I went more than a few nights without dinner.

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Radicofani Fortress in Tuscany

That any of this worked is kind of mind-boggling to me.  This trail is not set up for the approach I took to it, yet through perseverance, dumb luck, and a lot of kindness from the beautiful people of this country, I managed to make it from Rome to the Swiss Border at Grand St. Bernard Pass in one piece.  I had my share of struggles along the way, massive blisters and foot pain for the first 200 miles threatened to sideline me for extended periods of time, and a pinched nerve in my hip had me hobbling for three or four days straight.  I don’t know how much weight I’ve lost, I’m estimating around 20 lbs, and I feel like I’m in a permanent need of a shower, but I sit here waiting out a storm at the Swiss Border confident I can handle any future challenges this pilgrimage has to throw my way.

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The Via Francigena looking south toward the Valley of Aosta

With each day, each step, I’ve gotten stronger and more confident in my abilities as a long distance hiker, confidence that was sorely lacking after my aborted attempt at the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015.  As I write this, I watch snow fall on the Alps outside the hotel at St. Bernard Pass where I’m waiting out the storm, exactly 2 years to the day when a similar storm ended my dreams of a PCT thru-hike on Mt. Whitney.

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Jagged peaks at the snow-line heading to St. Bernard Pass

I’m nervous about the trail to come, a route through these imposing mountains that I pieced together myself combining a number of long trails between here and Geneva.  I have higher passes than this one to climb, with the potential of heavy snow fields and extensive meltwater flooding streams along the way.  I feel prepared and ready for the challenge, but I worry nevertheless.  I spend less than a week in Switzerland and France before taking a long train ride to Spain, but in many ways it has me more concerned than the entirety of the 500 mile Camino de Santiago.

 

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The Valley of St. Bernard, from atop St. Bernard Pass

Yet the fact that I’ve spent the past month crossing some of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes I’ve ever seen, handled every issue that’s arisen, from customs issues with resupply boxes to injuries to communicating in a language I barely know, gives me hope.  I set out tomorrow morning, hopefully in the light of the mountain sun, to tackle the great unknown challenge that awaits, and hopefully I’ll come out the other side unscathed.

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A cross marking the summit of St. Bernard Pass

In the meantime, I sit and reflect on the country I’ve grown to love so much over the past 32 days…

I think about the layers of history built upon each other in Rome and every other city I’ve come across, history so present it’s literally etched into the stone of each building and street…

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The ruins of the Forum in Rome  

I think about the stunning castles and the rolling wheat fields of Tuscany…

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Monteriggioni, in Tuscany

I think about the maze-like streets and beautiful canals of Venice, the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen…

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Sunrise over the Rialto Bridge in Venice

I think of the plains of Lombardy, the heat of the sun in and around Parma…

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Sunset in the streets of Parma

I think of the feeling of peace atop Cisa Pass in the Apennine Mountains…

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Cisa Pass

More than anything, though, I think about the wonderful people I’ve met; the family who made me a quick meal even though their restaurant was closed, or the group of Americans I met outside Rome who insisted on showing off all their REI-purchased gear when they found out I worked there, or the tour guide in Sutri who allowed me to enter into a centuries-old Mitreum that is normally closed to tourists, simply because I was a pilgrim.  The people of this country are the thing that made this entire journey special.  Never once was I treated unkindly or unfairly.  I was consistently afforded a level of patience and understanding, welcoming and hospitality, that I’ve never experienced before.  As beautiful as this country is, the people I have met here have eclipsed that beauty every step of the way.

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Sunset on the Via Francigena

And so I say goodbye to Italy, though I know I will be back before too long.  I leave a piece of my heart in this wonderful country, and will forever appreciate the way it has welcomed me over the long journey from Rome to here.

Goodbye, Italy.

Arrivederci.

Ciao, Italia!

 

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