Starting the Via Francigena – Day Zero getting to Viterbo (11-12 October 2023

Pictures relating to this part of the journey are on Google Photos here.

This is the third time that I have flown to Rome. My first overseas trip was in 2007 to Constantinople, and my third was started in Jordan. So yes, my fifth overseas trip. I’ve been to Jordan, to Israel, Turkey three times, Italy and Rome three times – most recently travelling as far north as Florence in 2017. This trip will take me a bit further afield. Firstly it is the first journey that I will be doing mainly on my own (except for the time of the seminar in Rome), and it will be my first visit to Germany – Munich and Regensburg. It will also be the first time that I have done a walking pilgrimage overseas. I count most of my earlier visits as incorporating pilgrimage – to the tombs of the apostles (Peter, Paul, John, Philip), to Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre, to Hagia Sophia, to Gallipoli and so forth – but this time I am incorporating two short walking pilgrimages. From Viterbo to St Peter’s (and specifically the tomb of Pope Benedict XVI) and from Marktl am Inn (the birthplace of Joseph Ratzinger) to the Marian shrine of Altötting in Bavaria. I am very much looking forward to walking in Europe, something I’ve had little experience of to this point. I had planned to do the Camino de Santiago in April 2020, but we all know how that ended. So this is now my big adventure.

At the same time, the real purpose of my journey is for my PhD research. Firstly, it is my university, ACU, that is sending me to Rome for a four day seminar with 12 PhD students and half a dozen professors from ACU, Leuven University in Belgium, and St Michael’s School of Theology in Toronto. One of my ACU colleagues is on this flight with me, although the seminar does not begin for a week. This is his first trip to Rome, so he is making the most of it staying in the city. My supervisor then advised me to take further advantage of the opportunity and to do some research on my PhD subjects, Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger. Hence I am also going to Munich, where the Karl Rahner Archives are (I might also visit the Episcopal Archive while there, as Joseph Ratzinger was Archbishop of Munich for four years), and to Regensburg where the Papst Benedikt XVI Institut is located. On my last day in
Germany, I will stay overnight in Freising where Ratzinger lived for the majority of the period of his theological studies. So in fact this part too is a pilgrimage of sorts. I’ve actually mapped out a full pilgrimage which includes not only Marktl am Inn, Freising, Munich, Regensburg and the Vatican, but also the other places Ratzinger lived as a child with his family, and the three other cities where he was a university professor – Bonn, Münster, and Tübingen – but that will have to wait for another time. One day too, I should seek out Rahner’s grave and make a little pilgrimage to that…

So I am now on the plane with about two hours to go out of the almost 14 hour flight to Dubai. Mercifully I have slept for almost 10 hour of that period. The flight left Melbourne at 10:15pm and it has been endless night ever since. We are due to arrive in Dubai at 5:00am, where we will give the sun a chance to catch up with us before leaving at 9:00am local time for a seven hour flight that should get me into Fiumicino Airport at 1:35pm local time. This is a part of the trip that I have been most anxious about, because I need to catch the train into Rome to Trastevere where I will leave my suitcase with my hostess where I am staying when I arrive back in Rome next Tuesday, and getting back to the Trastevere station with my backpack to catch the 5:06 train to Viterbo where I have booked to stay in a convent-run albergo overnight before starting my pilgrimage the next day. Part of the pity of this will be that I will not have time to properly look around Viterbo itself, which will probably be one of the more interesting of the various towns and villages through which I will pass on the Via Francigena over the next five days. The Via Francigena (VF) is the ancient route of from Canterbury to St Peter’s which has been revived in the last 20 years or so. It is not at the same level of fame as the Camino de Santiago, and not quite so well accommodated, but I will have a pilgrim passport (purchased online by donation and arranged to send to my albergo) to collect stamps in along the way, and will qualify for the credential if I walk more than 100 km of the route. In fact, it is about 118km, so that should be okay. The weather report says that it will be fine and possibly quite warm. I am imagining that after this hot summer the countryside will be quite dry. While I’ve planned all my accommodation I really do not know quite what to expect. But that is part of the excitement of any pilgrimage.

8:56am Dubai: On board the plane now. I have a window seat – and this time (unlike on the last flight) there should be plenty to see – it was dark all the way from Melbourne to Dubai. But now the sun is shining. I see that we are flying over Syria and Lebanon – not something that was done on my last trip to Italy. While waiting for the flight, I bought a cup of orange juice – $13.60! I’ve sorted out my roaming cover from my phone company (I think) and made contact with Cathy back home. I was able to download some apps, maps, and phone dictionaries that I should have done before leaving. Nathan is sitting somewhere further forward in the plane to me. Currently there are two vacant seats beside me. That would have been nice last night, but I don’t feel like sleeping now… I am actually finally beginning to be excited, and not merely anxious!

12:04 somewhere over Turkey heading for Italy. We skirted around Lebanon, which meant going over Baghdad and Mosel. In other words, we took a route to avoid the unpleasantness in the Holy Land, and by doing so flew over territory which was itself the place to avoid ten to five years ago. I think I caught a glimpse of one of the great rivers – the Euphrates or the Tigris. The land below looked ancient and forbidding but was clearly the home to many people. My friend Nasir was born in and lived the first half of his life in Mosul, aka Nineveh. We will be flying over Ankara soon. Despite leaving more than half an hour late, we appear to be on time for our landing at Fiumicino. At the start of the flight I managed to get a hour or so sleep.

8:50pm Thursday 12 October. Well, that was embarrassing. I’d just returned from my “cena” (dinner), and was switching off the lights in the room in my albergo, and I pulled a string that I thought was the light switch. Instead, it set of an alarm that went for about 15 seconds, waking every other pilgrim in the hostel up and getting Sr Mercedes rather angry at me…

Apart from that, everything else has gone rather swimmingly. This was really the tricky part of the whole exercise – getting from Fiumicino Airport to my accommodation in Viterbo so that I could start my Via Francigena pilgrimage in the morning. Despite leaving late from Dubai, we arrived at Fiumicino on time. The route along the way was quite fascinating – having a window seat meant that I was glued to the window most of the time, identifying locations below that I had visited in previous journeys, most particularly the Sea of Marmare, Gallipoli, Thessaloniki, and so on. As we came into land, we flew over Rome, but I couldn’t see that from my window. We then flew a bit north of the airport before turning around to come into land, so I saw much of the terrain that I am going to be walking for the next five days. My impression is that is is very dry. I am not surprised. It was what I was expecting after what I have heard of Europe’s rather hot Summer. It looks just like Australia around February, except for the green bits of agriculture and forest.

Arriving at the Airport, I caught up with Nathan at the luggage carousel. It took forever for our luggage to come onto the belt, and when it finally did we headed down to the railway station. Nathan was catching the direct train to the Termini, whereas I was catching a regional train to Trastevere. The train got me to Trastevere by about 3:10pm. It was very warm outside, I’d have estimated at least 28 degrees, and I hauled my luggage up the hill to Sabrina’s place in Via Lorenzo Valle where I will be staying next week on my return to Rome. Originally I had planned to drop my luggage at the ACU campus, but that is another 1.5km further north and uphill, and that would mean that when I return next Tuesday night I would not have my luggage with me. So I asked Sabrina before leaving Melbourne whether she would be happy to hold my luggage, and she readily agreed. I was very thirsty when I arrived at Sabrina’s, but she was there waiting for me and went straight into the routine of showing me around. She decided to give me the access keys so that when I come back next Tuesday night it doesn’t matter how late I arrive – I can check myself in. This is all very good. The room is a double room and for well under $200 for the two nights, with lots of breakfast supplies laid on. There is no airconditioning in the room (I expected this as I had read it in reviews) and as it was south facing it was indeed uncomfortably warm, but the weather will have cooled down by the time I return next week so I don’t expect that to be a problem.

After a bit of conversation in broken English and Italian (her English is better than my Italian), I then hightailed it back to Trastevere station to catch the train to Viterbo. Despite other temptations (I passed several places serving beer and was still very thirsty), I pushed on to the station and managed to catch the 4:06 train to Viterbo – a whole half hour earlier than my original planned (and in fact prepurchased) ticket for the 5:06. Once you know the drill, purchasing tickets for the train is really easy. They have machines that do English and German as well as Italian. You just tell it where you want to go from and to, and pay for it with your card or cash (you can use your phone – I’m finding that works well everywhere) and it prints out a paper ticket with a barcode on it. You just have to wave this barcode at a barcode reader on the platform when you get on to validate it (or, as at the airport, to get you through the gate). The ticket for the 110km/1.5hr trip to Viterbo was just €5.60 (about $9). Once on the train, I finally felt that I could relax and enjoy the trip.

After a few stops the train filled up, but then by the time I arrived in Viterbo, my carriage was almost empty again. In general the landscape along the way was not “scenic” – it was urban and then rural with signs of a dry hot summer, but there were a few highlights. Right at the beginning the line passes St Peter’s and you can see the top of the dome and the Vatican Radio tower. Then later, it goes past Lake Bracciano, a volcanic lake. If there were not so many bushy trees on the side of the railway line there would be many good views of this. On Sunday and Monday I will be walking the other side of it, but on this side you can just get a few glimpses of the magnificent Castello Orsini-Odescalchi, which Wikipedia tells me was built in the 15th Century around earlier military buildings and is “one of the largest and best-maintained castles in Italy”. It certainly looked impressive. I read that its history involved various Renaissance popes, and Emperor Charles V when he invaded Italy in the 16th century.

When the train arrived in Viterbo, my initial impression was that it looked like all the other towns we had passed through on the way, but with my pack on my back and hiking stocks out, I started the short 1km walk to my albergo in Via IV novembre, and soon saw that this town was special. It is a walled city, and my route took me along the eastern exterior of the crenelated and towered walls. I passed two splendidly decorated gates and just got a peak through into the old city through which I will walk in the morning. I also came across the Church of Santa Maria della verita, a building of 14th and 15th century construction. Sadly the sanctuary had been unsympathetically modernised, but the rest of the sizeable building exuded the cool dampness of old stone, and had some nice surviving frescoes. Here I visited the Blessed Sacrament, prayed the Angelus (a little early), gave thanks for a safe arrival and prayed for the journey ahead. I wanted to light a candle for my family back home, but all the candles had been used up, so I just lit the little stub of a taper that remained.

Not very far further I came to the Albergo which was marked at the gate with the sign of the Via Francigena and used to be an educational establishment of the “Suore Adoratrici del Sangue di Christo” but since 1992 has been used as a “casa per ferie” or “holiday house” for students, pilgrims, and business visitors. It was just €30 (plus €1.8 tax), with a simple Italian breakfast included. The rooms are a good standard for convent/monastery accommodation and my room has its own bathroom and shower. The window overlooked the convent garden area and by nightfall was letting a cool breeze into the otherwise very warm building. Sister Mercedes welcomed me, and given she had no English we had to rely on my very bad Italian and charades to understand one another, but we got there. She had kindly held my pilgrim passport for me and entered the first stamp into it. Lights out is 9pm, so I went up and showered, shaved, changed – and washed my clothes in the basin. I intended to wear the same clothes tomorrow, but the day had made them impossibly stinky (“authentic pilgrim odour” my friend Sean calls it), and given the warm weather I figured they would dry overnight (which they (almost) did). Sister had recommended that I went back down to the pizza place I had passed at the bottom of the street, but I had seen that there was a “pasticceria” and wine bar just around the corner and I decided to go to this instead. It was a good and interesting choice. It was obviously a place for locals and their mates and families to hang out in the evening. It looked like a takeaway joint with plastic tables and so forth, but served beer (from a fridge) and food and, of course wine. Again there was the language barrier as the girl at the counter did not have much English, but we worked out that I could order a carbonara and I grabbed a beer from the fridge too (quite a strong Danish double malted brew called Cerus 7.7%). The service turned out to be very slow and it was about 50 minutes before my meal came but when it did, it was excellent – very salty, which was just what I needed. Together with a generous glass of rosso vino, the whole thing came to just €14 (about $24) which I thought was excellent.

And so I returned to my room at the albergo, and that was when, at 8:45pm (just before “lights out”) I pulled a cord in my room that I thought was a light switch and set off an alarm that sounded throughout the house and caused general mayhem for a while. Sister Mercedes made it clear that she was not amused, and that, if I had had my “cena” I should now go straight to bed! Why on earth they have such a thing in the room, I have no idea…

I started sorting things for the journey tomorrow, but was so tired, I just hit the sack, as they say, and slept fairly soundly until 5am in the morning…

I plan to upload my photos to Google Photos and put the link to the albums for each day here on the blog, but at the moment I don’t have a wifi connection, so I will update this tomorrow night. Actually, I have no idea how regularly I will be making these entries – it will depend on many factors. My main purpose for the journey, after all, is the Rome ACU Seminar and research and that will be my first priority. But I want to keep the whole thing going for the entire month that I am here in Europe, and not just this pilgrimage section. We will see how it goes.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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