Via Francigena – Day One from Viterbo to Vetralla (13 October 2023)

Pictures for today are on Google Photos here.

So I started off bright and early this morning after breakfast at 7am. Being Friday 13th, I have decided to take that as a lucky omen rather than an unlucky one.

Breakfast was a cup of camomile tea and a cup of coffee, a croissant with jam and a strange kind of hard toast with some chocolate spread. At the meal were Sergei from Siberia (who has walked the VF from Milan) and Giovanni, who is one of the serious VF pilgrims – he started from Canterbury 92 days ago.

I entered the old city of Viterbo through the Porta della Verita. There were a lot of young people about – some looked like school children on trips and others looked like university students – I think there is an educational establishment near there. Fewer people were active as I approached the old Medieval Pilgrim Quarter (as one street sign named it). I doubled back at one point because I missed (and especially wanted to see) the outdoor stone pulpit at Santa Maria Nuova where St Thomas Aquinas himself is supposed to have preached to pilgrims on their way to the Eternal City. The VF then leads to the Piazza san Lorenzo, where Viterbo’s cathedral is located. It was open, with only the cleaner inside, and the first rays of the sun for the day shining in through the doors. I went in, prayed and took photos.

The exit from the city, through the walls, is down the stairs at the Palazzo dei Papi onto the Via San Clemente. Before long, I was on a rural laneway running east with vineyards either side. In places, it was a bit like walking a rail trail through cuttings – there were banks of about 3 or 4 metres either side of the road with shady trees. In the cool of the morning it was very pleasant. I didn’t take much notice when the VF veered onto the “Strada SS. Ilario e Valentino”, (which crossed over the main state highway through the area) until I came to a large shrine/marker with a fresco depicting Saints Valentino and Ilario, who were martyred near this spot in the persecution of Diocletian. There was a sign in Italian which gave some info about Sts Valentino and Hilario, the VF, and some mention of an Etruscan tomb nearby that had been used as a catacomb by early Christians. From here the VF veered south and rather strangely into an olive grove and on a grassy side track, where the only way I found was the occasional VF sticker on a post, and the lightly trodden footprints of previous pilgrims. Also, I found that I was on an outdoor Stations of the Cross path – although it started at Station VI (obviously I missed the first five). And lo and behold: the Etruscan tomb – under a green painted, rusting and padlocked metal cover. The Italian sign at this point indicated that the martyred saints may well have originally been buried here (they are now in a church in Viterbo).

From here, the VF followed more country roads until it came back under the highway. At this point there was a sign pointing to a church off to the west saying “The Church is available H 24 The stamp for your credentials” [“Il timbro per le tue credenziale”]. Okay, I want that. Collecting “i timbri” is an important duty of the pilgrim, and I hoped the church might be open also. It wasn’t – and it was a little further than the 100m indicated – but the self-stamping station was on the church porch. As was an entire family of cats including a number of kittens. All were friendly enough, but their ragged look said “Don’t touch”, so I resisted the temptation. Sadly, I had nothing to give them to eat.

Back on the trail, the VF follows the main highway for a bit on a side road through cauliflower fields. Then a moment of excitement: a glance at my GaiaGPS app showed that I was about to cross the straight line that Hilaire Belloc drew as his route from Toule in France through Milan to Rome on his “Path to Rome”. One thing we know is that, after initially following his straight line through France and into Switzerland, his plan went wobbly when he hit the alps, so there is no guarantee that he actually walked on this spot – but we know he travelled near here. Again, he may well not have been on foot, as he also broke his vow to take “no wheeled conveyance”. Like many long distance pilgrims to Rome, he lost interest in telling us about his journey in the last few days. Still, if he had passed through here according to his plan, this was were he would have crossed the VF (the existence of which he seems to have been entirely unaware).

At the point were there is an exit on the highway, the VF turns off onto farm tracks through olive fields (and a bit of hill climbing). I was a bit weary at this point, and the shade of the olive trees, with the vista of vines on the other side of the path, looked inviting. I sat down and took off my backpack, and was about to take off my shoes when I noticed a little spider about the size of a 10c coin crawling on my arm. I shook it away, but within a few seconds it was back again. Again I flicked it off. But when it happened the third time, I realised that it wasn’t the same spider – I had sat down in a patch of spiders and they were all determined to climb onto the silly pilgrim. Snakes can make me jump, but spiders are even more effective in large numbers, so I quickly abandoned my rest.

And good thing too. Just a bit further up the the hill and around the corner, there was a picnic table overlooking the vast plain out to the west. A single tree had been planted not long ago here, and it was shade enough for one. Also, there was a box with an exercise note book and a pen in it for pilgrims to write a short message (which I did). Resting here, two other pilgrims happed along:
Daniel and Sarah from Canada. It was good to chat to someone in English about the experience of the VF. They were on holiday and had been walking for 18 days already. After they left, and just as I was getting ready to walk on further, another pilgrim, Alise from Switzerland, happened by and we ended up walking together for almost an hour. Her English was fairly good, so we had some good conversation on the way. This was more like my experience of walking with my pilgrim companions in the past. She began walking the VF in Switzerland 18 years ago, and over the years has done more and more of it, this time vowing to go all the way to Rome. She mentioned that when she first started, she never met another pilgrim, but now there were pilgrims every day. She also mentioned that she quite liked the solitude of walking the VF compared the the crowd on the Santiago pilgrimage, so when she said she was stopping for a rest, I took the hint and walked on.

Not much further on, on a road called the Strada Risere, I came across Sarah and Daniel again, seated at a little fountain of drinkable water on the side of the trail. I had just finished one of my bottles and was thinking it was rather warm, and so to refill it with cold spring water was lovely. The Canadians remarked that this was one of the only stretches of the VF that went from one town to another with no villages in between to refill with water, so this was very welcome. Sarah also said that there was a temporary “don’t drink the water” warning out for Capranica on tomorrow’s trail. They were eating apples and it occurred to me I should have brought something to eat along the trail, but I was thinking that it was not far to Vetralla and I would eat when I got there.

I hadn’t had much rest time at all really on this walk and by now I just wanted to push on and get to my destination. I estimated I would be there by about 1pm. It had definitely heated up, although the breeze was still cool, the sun was very warm. I came across another self-stamp site at the entrance to a pilgrim albergo, and it had a notice that somewhere ahead was a place where you could dip your feet in cold running spring water. Looking forward to this – as my legs and feet were beginning to ache dreadfully – I pushed on in hope. It was further than indicated on the sign, but eventually, down another very narrow path, came out onto the pleasant Surgente Fossato Callo. Despite being a bit overgrown, and the pools having a little more algae than I would normally be comfortable with in places, the water was running smooth and cold and so I did take of my shoes, and let the cool water flow over my feet for a bit, before just sitting there and enjoying the peace while I let my feet dry.

After that, it was only a couple of kilometres into Vetralla. It was a bit of a climb up the last road to the Albergo da Benedetta, but I arrived at about 1:50pm. I had to phone the Albergo to get entrance, but it seems that I had rung during Siesta, and would be admitted when the hostess arrived at 2:30. So I sat on the porch in the shade and did my stretches and foot care. When the hostess arrived, she showed me to a very nice double room with private bathroom on the first floor. It was cool inside after the warm outside. I decided to take a shower, wash my clothes, put on fresh clothes and go down to explore the town and get something to eat.

That was when I noticed that every place offering food – restaurants, pizzerias, cafes – was closed. Siesta still, I figured. So I did a bit of touring of the old town, from the one end to the other, mainly resting inside the old (and cool) stone churches. At one – the Church of St Francis at the very north-western end – I thought the entrance was closed (the front doors were bolted), until I pushed a spring-loaded panel on the side wall and it turned out to be a door. Very musty stone smell inside – and even mustier down in the columned crypt. As I was about to leave, I heard someone trying the main door, so went outside and found it was Alise from Switzerland trying to get in. I showed here the secret entrance, and then went off in search of food.

I walked from one end of the town to the other, and no-one was open. It was about 5pm now, and everyone was saying to come back at “sette mezzo” – 7:30! Not likely, I thought. Eventually, in desperation, I googled “supermercato near me”, and found a little supermarket hidden around a corner. There I bought a 500ml bottle of beer, some bread, sliced mortadella and sliced cheese. I carried these in my plastic shopping bag back to a communal park nearby and sat there by the duck pond having my “cena”. Not bad for just over €5,00! I returned to the supermarket to buy some fruit for tomorrow and some wine – getting a litre carton of Sangiovese for €1,20 (it turned out very drinkable and half of it has gone in a drink bottle for tomorrow). All this went into my plastic shopping bag and I trudged my way back to the Albergo (stopping in an all sorts store to buy a notebook and pen, a comb, and a teaspoon for eating yoghurt etc).

Back at the hostel, I had phone calls from Cathy (just after midnight back in Australia) and, surprisingly, from my daughter Mad, who was on her way back from a party at 4am in the morning! I finally connected to the internet and began the slow process of uploading the photos of the last two days. Then I started trying to write this account, but was very tired and so hit the sack about 8:30pm.

Today I walked just under 22km on the VF trail (I had initially measured it at 18km, but did several side detours), and another 6km around the town. The walk from Viterbo to Vetralla took me just under 6 hours including my (very few and very brief) rest breaks.

Tomorrow, I will try to get to Capranica in time to get something for lunch, and maybe have a bit of a siesta myself before pushing on to my hotel albergo in Sutri. If I arrive early, I will sleep so that I can eat at the accustomed hour in the later evening. We will see how that works…

I will add a link to the Google Photos album when all my pictures are uploaded.

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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2 Responses to Via Francigena – Day One from Viterbo to Vetralla (13 October 2023)

  1. John Gough says:

    Litre wine cartons are always drinkable, comparable to supermarket cask wine in Australian supermarkets. Sturdy, and without the weight and fragility of bottle wine, too.
    Mortadella is a go-to DIY snack / meal / sandwich in Italy.
    Instant coffee, and instant iced coffee sachets are also good when travelling, instead of relying on a cafe.
    Travel well!

    • Schütz says:

      Thanks John! Sounds like you have experience. I am right now sitting in my accommodation in Trastevere eating a self-made speck and ementale cheese panine, with a glass of amber ale I bought at the supermarket this morning. Rome is a bit more expensive than out in the countryside – or perhaps it is just that I haven’t found the EuroSpin supermercato here that I bought from in Vetralla (it seems to be the equivalent of Aldi’s in Australia).

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