Pilgrimage in Italy: Walking in the Footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi

Let me tell you what is this all about. I was in Italy in September having a lot of fun and exploring different parts of the country. Many of you have seen my posts on Facebook. But at the very end of the trip I met with a good friend from US: Fr. Christopher Savage, superior of the New Skete Orthodox monastery in Cambridge, NY. He was at the beginning of four week long pilgrimage hiking along St. Francis trail (from Florence, to Assisi, to Rome). We spent couple lovely days together and…

…and his plan and itinerary really inspired me: I have never done anything like this before. So, I first went to a few destinations along the St. Francis trail. Perhaps, most special was Chiusi della Verna – the place where St. Francis received his stigmata, but…

…but it did not feel “right,” because Chris was properly hiking with small backpack along entire trail while I was simply taking local buses to each destination (my regular vacation luggage was a not suitable for going on trail). And so I returned back to US, took care of a few important things and…booked the ticket back to Italy to hike with Chris along the last leg of the pilgrimage: from Arrona (Umbria) to Rome. 7 upcoming days are probably too short to be a “real pilgrim,” but hopefully they will give, at least, a “flavor” of pilgrim’s life” Speaking of which, the main goal of preparation for this trip was to reduce all “worldly possessions” to absolute minimum. Look at this beautiful backpack:

I found it on Amazon for just 14.99. As it turned out, all what I really may need fits perfectly into it and weigh just 12 lbs. Currently in Dallas, about to board the plane for Rome. The next “report” will be from Arrona in Umbria (meeting point with Fr. Christopher). Questions and comments are welcome….

Day One

It is 6.30 am local time. Looks like a perfect day ahead. My plane is about to land in Fiumicino airport.

First destination was Arrone in Umbria – another beautiful and – so far – undiscovered by mass tourists medieval hill town. What was truly amazing about the area, how fresh the grass and flowers looked and felt: much more like the spring rather than late fall. The major pilgrimage today was to the sanctuary of Madonna dello Scoglio – an amazing church carved in the cliffs with the stunning view of surrounding landscapes. The trail there was virtually non-existent: hence, myself and Fr. Christopher arrived to the church slightly bleeding (literally) after stumbling and making our way through the fairly thorny bushes….

Day Two: Waterfalls and the Village of Labra

8.30 am. Time to leave from Arrone and say “good bye” to our absolutely amazing AirBnB. Called Cuore del Castello, it was inside of 14th century house and had truly commanding view of the area

In about one hour of hiking I felt as if “pilgrimage” was something that I did routinely for many years. St. Francis trail is perfectly marked with “blue yellow” signs. Which made me think: was he (St. Francis) a “secret” Ukrainian?

First “reward” of the day were Marble Falls. Not a bad stream of water for this time of year. By the way, hard to imagine, but essentially these are “man made” waterfalls. The dam in upper part of waterfalls (which assures supply of water) was built in 11th (yes, eleventh) century.

A small “set back” was to discover that today (Thursday) the trail leading to the upper part of waterfalls was closed for visitors. That was bad, because this was part of St. Francis trail. The alternative was to go by the normal road “around” which would add 13 km to the hike. I did not feel like doing this and said to Chris that we will do it “Alexei’s” way: that is, ignore the locked gates, climb over, and continue our hike in a perfect solitude without other hikers. Father Christopher was first reluctant, but then said that this is actually fun. The view from “illegal observation point” at the upper part of the falls was amazing

We are staying tonight in another mountain village called Labra: it is already in Lazio. Look at this garden: some local folks have really stunning “backyards”

Let’s go and explore this village (Labra) before it gets dark…

Day Three: Under St. Francis’ Favorite Tree

The day began from amazing sunrise over the lake. This picture was literally first thing that I saw in the morning

Well, the next two hours (after breakfast) were not fun: very steep climb to this cross and, in a second, I will explain why we went there

About one kilometer from here, there is a special destination for all St. Francis followers and pilgrims. A huge beech tree under which – so legend says – St. Francis used to take a shelter while walking this road and on his way to Rome.

My personal highlight of the day was a time of short but very personal meditation in a small chapel carved inside of the cliff (has taken a good hour to climb there) where – again according to legend – St. Francis used to come for his self-reflection and prayer.

And now back to realities – of a very good – life: we stay this night in another charming “zero tourists” village called Poggio Bustone. It was a good day…Sure enough, besides “spiritual experiences”, it included about 16 km of hiking, gorgeous views, meeting couple truly interesting folks, having great picnic, and completing the day with some memorable local dishes and wines.

Day Four: Santuario Francescano de Madonna della Foresta

It was a beautiful morning in Poggio Bustone and as we walked leaving the town two self-reflections surfaced in my mind:

The first was about extreme kindness of many people expressed to us as pilgrims. I was on the trail only three days, but each day several locals would ask us if we need some directions or help. We walked by a small farm the owner of which was harvesting his vegetables. He came to the road and gave a nice “bunch” of fresh and super-tasty lettuce. In some places where we stayed, the owners gave us significant discounts: special price for pilgrims. Overall, one simply feels by the skin people’s appreciation of the pilgrims walking St. Francis trail. The second self-reflection was about perception of landscape and country when walking for hours and even days as compared to driving (even when taking country roads) or biking. There is something captivating when one can enjoy slowly “evolving” panorama of another hilltop town.

The highlight of the day were few hours spent at the so called Santuario Francescano de Madonna della Foresta

The legend says that late in his life and being quite ill, St. Francis needed rest and stayed at the nearby church of St. Fabiano for 50 days. But he was already a very popular person then and large crowds of people gathered and “camped” nearby consuming nearly entire year’s crop of grapes of the local farmers. The local peasants, seeing that their livelihood was nearly destroyed, approached St. Francis and asked him to do something. According to legend, he asked them to bring all remaining grapes to the wine press at the church. To their astonishment, after pressing these grapes yielded double the juice as compared to previous crops. This became known as the Miracle of the Wine and San Fabiano became a Franciscan convent called La Foresta – the guesthouse. We did not stay there but had a long picnic with nice wine. My toast was inspired by St. Francis miracle and, simultaneously, by the well known fact that in the years when grapes give more juice (say after rain), the quality of wine is typically lower. So, I said: “Let’s drink to double miracle: having as much as possible juice from the small amount of grapes without loosing in quality of wine.” Back on the road to town of Rieti.

Day Five: the Beauty of Simply Walking in Rural Italy

It was a very “usual” day. That is, we walked comfortably (no steep up- or downhills) for several hours, crossing corn fields, olive orchards, etc. At certain point, I found myself almost being hypnotized by the trail: so natural it felt simply making step after step. And…as a part of our daily routine, here is our typical daily picnic lunch while on the trail:

Day Six: the Town of Ponticelli – Best Ever Pizza with Porcini Mushrooms

My apologies: I never finished writing “day five.” What happened was that we arrived at Agriturismo Ristorante Santa Giusto – a rural hotel combined with a farm. We spent the rest of the day simply talking with Chris discussing many things including how this hike along St. Francis trail affects us. When we came to – a very elegant – dining room, we discovered that there are only three persons staying overnight at the hotel: us and a young German fellow. Well, for starters, we had a somewhat tense argument with him about what type of music to have to play in a restaurant while we were eating. He was a staunch proponent of Elvis Presley (and the owner played Elvis records for him), while we were much more in favor of something classic/Italian. But…the argument evolved in a friendship and the next morning we left all together – me, Fr. Christopher and Julian – to hike jointly to our next destination.

The first couple of hours we hiked chatting about miriads of things and without paying much attention to our surroundings. But suddenly I realized that we literally “walked into the autumn.” Remember, couple of days ago, I wrote that everything looks like in the middle of the summer: fresh and green. Well, today we arrived into the real fall. But very beautiful one.

And then, back on the trail, heading for the town of Ponticelli. The winding and beautiful St. Francis trail

The today’s hike was not an easy one. 22 km of constant “ups” and “downs,” but, at the same time, it was a day of the “constant beauty,” when another captivating landscaped would come after previous one.

The end of the day: sorry, I was really hungry and porcini mushrooms (pizza) are still fresh and in season…Good night!

Day Seven: the Oldest Olive Tree in the World

It was an easy and difficult day, at the same time. Easy, because of distance to hike (only 13 km) and fairly comfortable trail.

Difficult, because it was the last day of proper hiking and I felt sad about this. I just “felt into the routine of pilgrimage” when one has a fairly established pattern of life. Getting up at around 7.30 am, being on trail one hour later, hiking until mid-day hopefully reaching a place related to St. Francis life, having a little personal meditation and reflection, a simple lunch, short siesta, back on trail, getting to a town “X,” setting into your accommodations, getting into town to meet the locals (who were always more than welcoming), learning a few interesting things about local life style, having a delightful meal in a local trattoria, failing into a sleep really fast because of physical tiredness. In short, I felt like I can stay on “the trail” for months. But…today was the last day. Montelibretti is the town to spend the night and I cannot wish having better accommodations and view from our room

If someone would ask: “What was most memorable about this day?”, the respond would be easy: the continuing amazing welcoming spirit and generosity of people whom we met. Just two examples. First, we settled into our B&B and mentioned to our hosts that – we heard – there is nearby a huge Olive tree which is believed to be the oldest Olive tree in the world: how can we hike there? Their respond was: sorry, it is a bit far away. About 20 km. So, we “rested our case” and forgot about our inquiry. But, couple of hours later, a knock on our door and our hosts ask us if we would like to have a ride there, to see the oldest Olive tree in the world (the estimates of age vary between 2000 and 2400 years old). Sure enough, the answer was: yes. Take a look. I have never seen anything like that

Then, back in town, we walked for couple of hours and stopped at the local bakery to get some supplies for dinner. We mentioned that we are pilgrims and that this is the last day on the trail. When we asked for the bill to pay, essentially we were told that “this is on the house.” Our attempts to leave money were absolutely unsuccessful: they simply won’t take it. So, here is our “donated” supper

What else to remember and mention? Pomegranates. We hit the zone where the pomegranates farms are abundant. And we did it in a right time of year when pomegranates are about to be harvested.

Heading for Rome tomorrow..

Day Eight: Back in Rome

What was special about this day besides – inevitable – feeling that “vacations are over and it is time to go home?” I would say, first of all, the contrast between relaxed and “take it easy” small-town Italy (previous seven days) and overwhelming with sounds,people, cars, and motorbikes Rome. It felt almost like “jumping” from one world into another. This is what I saw in the morning from the balcony of our B&B in Montelibretti

And this was only couple of hours later

Luckily, even in Rome, one can find quiet – and very pleasant – areas to enjoy, explore and relax. One of possibilities is to take a leisurely stroll along the Tiber river: not on the upper (street) level, but right next to the water. There is a very comfortable pedestrian path there, with the good views of Rome’s many ancient bridges and surprisingly few people walking and enjoying the scenery

And even in Rome, with its many “tourist traps,” there are still enough places to have a good and honest meal

This last day was also the day of reflection on entire trip. I never walked before along Europe’s many pilgrim’s trails. The experience of being seven days on St. Francis trail was amazing: it was an excellent combination of plentiful time for unhurried thinking about many things, powerful spiritual experiences when being at the sites associated with St. Francis, immersion (very pleasant) into the life of real rural and provincial Italy, and having many interesting conversations and discussions with the good friend, Fr. Christopher Savage. Needless to say that I am very grateful to Chris for being able to join him on the last “leg” of his nearly month-long hike from Florence, to Assisi and to Rome. Big THANK YOU, Chris!

What else? Rome is full of amazing (and imposing) churches and other religious and cultural sites. Unsurprisingly, on each trip there I “discover” something new and special. This time, these were Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere and the Santa Maria in Cosmedin Church. Both are among the oldest churches of Rome being built on foundations of pre-Christian temples. Santa Maria in Trastevere has stunning XII th century mosaics

Santa Maria in Cosmedin (which is Catholic Church of Byzantine rite) is much more ascetic. But it has a particular feel of many “layers of history” being present in the same place. Under the main church, there is the so-called Adrian’s crypt. It was carved in 8 th century by Pope Adrian in the space previously occupied by a temple – allegedly – devoted to Hercules. The crypt is shaped like a small basilica. The side walls have several niches, each with shelves made of marble, where the different relics are displayed. Myself and Chris spent a few minutes there praying at a small altar: very special feeling

Ok. This journey is over. Or, at least, I thought so until this very moment. I arrived perfectly on time to Fiumicino airport to take a plane to Milano and change there for San Francisco. But the sign on the fuselage of my plane says: Air Bulgaria. Really? We will see where I land. Good bye for now.

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