Via Francigena – Day Two from Vetralla to Sutri (14 October 2023)

Pictures relating to today’s journey are on Google Photos and can be viewed using this link.

This morning at Albergo de Benedetta, a lovely spread was offered for breakfast. I was the first pilgrim in the breakfast room, and the nice lady immediately asked if I wanted a coffee. When I said yes, she replied (with correct assumption): “Caffe Americano?” “Si, con latte”, and a fresh long black with a little jug of milk arrived at my table. Besides myself, there was a large group of Italian pilgrims in their sixties (at my guess) staying at the Albergo. They were happy to chat among themselves, so I ate on my own and set off straight after breakfast at anbout 7:45am. Another warm sunny day – 26 degrees – was expected.

Having spent a good amount of time wandering Viterbo yesterday afternoon, I did not linger today. I tried the supermarket, because I wanted to get a few things, but it was not yet open. No 24/7 here. At first I headed out on the wrong road (the highway) and had to double back. The road up to the village of Giardino was a continual gentle rise of almost 100m above Vetralla. Some very nice villas along this stretch. At the top was a Benedictine monastery. As I entered Giardino, there was a small modern church. Inside, very liturgically modern, with a blessed sacrament chapel in a separate room. I sat and prayed for a while for the day’s journey and for fellow pilgrims and all we love at home.

Beyond Giardino, the VF enters an oak forest and skirts along and through it for a couple of kilometres. It was shady and cool. In fact, as it turned out, most of the day was walking in pleasant shade. Combined with the fact that there was a bit of cloud cover, the walking was actually easier than yesterday, despite the greater distance and more ascent and descent. Yesterday Alise told me that the one thing she was frightened of on the journey was encountering a wild boar! And there were signs up saying “Caccia al cinghiale”, which basically translates as “hunting the boar”. I never met one. Makes a change from looking out for snakes… The forest here is quite vast, and covers the volcanic slopes of the Lago di Vico, the large lake in the crater. Still being on these slopes, the trail continue to rise for the main until about 490m. This amounts to an overall climb of almost 200 metres till around 13km from Vetralla. After that, it is all pretty well even countryside, sloping downwards to Sutri.

After the forest, there was some country laneways with farms either side and barking dogs.Most excitable was a group of five Maremmas who were very bouncy and happy. Good fences are the pilgrim’s friend.

The trail crosses the two lane Via Cassia highway again – not a very safe crossing, as the cars are thick and fast. Annoyingly there is a little old church right on the highway that is practically inaccessible (I say practically, because I did it with some difficulty, wanting to get a good photo). The trail from here has been diverted from the past – many maps show it going through the orchard, but it heads along the highway for a little bit until reaching a high quality Pasticceria/Bakery on the roadside. I went in to see what they had, and wanted to buy everything in the shop. It was about 10:30am at this point, so I purchased half a strip of pizza con funghi – cheese and oyster mushrooms. There was some complications with the inevitable language barrier, and it was the first place where I needed to use cash to make a purchase (they had credit card facilities, but they were not turned on). The various pizza strips were precooked and on display – they wanted to know if I wanted it warmed up, but I couldn’t think of the word for “cold” (it’s freddo) – and could only think of “calda”, which is, of course, hot. So even more confusion… Anyway, I took my lovely pizza slices on the road with me and was lucky to find a seat by the trail just a little further on on the edge of the orchard. Rest time and breakfast. Pizza washed down with a few mouthfuls of the red wine I stowed last night. At this point I was passed by the Italian pilgrimage group from the Albergo, and a number of cyclists. It was only about 5km outside of Capranica, so locals were now using the trail (it was a Saturday morning after all).

I got a little lost at this point. Generally the whole trail today is very well signed, but at this point, where the diversion has been made recently, the sign was missing and I ended up against a fence in the back of the orchard. I made my way back to the trail, which lead through more orchards. I passed the Italian pilgrims again, who had stopped for their morning tea (or more probably coffee) under the shelter of a farm shed. I passed an enormous oak tree – I really like oaks – and then came across a woman raking up things off the ground. Here – and for the rest of the journey today – I noticed that there were what turned out to be chestnuts in their spiny husks all over the path. I am not familiar with chestnut trees, but I believe they are native to this area, and they were absolutely everywhere along with the oak trees in the forests. At this point too was one of the most interesting sights along the trail today: two ruined towers (marked on my map as Torri d’Orlando). The internet tells met that one is a funerary monument from the Roman era of the first century B.C. and the other was a bell tower belonging to a Benedictine church dating back to the tenth century.

Then back through olive forests, and a short walk on the road, passing olive harvesting (manually with rolled out nets under the trees). More lovely country lanes with nice villas led eventually into Capranica. The VF enters in at what we would call the “arse end” of this beautiful medieval city through the (not very attractive) living area. The benefits here were that I passed both a pharmacy and a small supermarket to find what supplies I needed. Being warned not to drink the fountain water in this city (for some temporary reason), I bought a couple of bottles of Gatorade which were very refreshing and refilled my bottle with this. Also, the spoon that I bought yesterday came in useful because I could buy and eat yoghurt. I was just setting myself down on a bench in the shade outside a hairdresser’s shop, when Cathy rang on Whatsapp (which we are using to communicate as the cheaper alternative – just make sure you have a good data roaming deal with your telephone company).

We talked for about half an hour as I ate my light lunch, and then I set off still chatting with Cathy (using my bluetooth earbuds) and so she “joined me” for my walk through the old city. I described what I was seeing and doing as I went along, and sent her pictures of what I was seeing (again, Whatsapp). So for the entire walk from one end of the town to the other, she shared the journey in real time. We might do more of this. I passsed three ancient churches walking through the city – all of them locked fast. One had a sign on the door, and I recognised the word “entrare”, and thought it would be instructions about how to get inside. Instead, my iphone translated it as a notice saying “entrance requiring masks and gloves” and to “maintain my distance”… Well, no worries there. At one point, I diverged from the main street to follow down the stairs of one of the side lanes, and came out on the top of the town walls overlooking the valley below, with an excellent vista of the north east side of the city. I didn’t find anywhere in Capranica to get an “il timbro” in my pilgrim credential.

At the far end of the city, there are stairs and a ramp leading steeply down into the valley and outside the walls. At this point I said goodbye to Cathy (she needed to go to sleep as it was after midnight in Australia), and headed off towards Sutri. In Italy, what goes down must go up, so there was another very steep hill to climb. After a short way along a gravel road, the route diverged off on a track through farm land, and then into a forested area that runs all the way along a creek called the Fosso Mazzano to Sutri – a distance of about 4km. At the very start was a lovely cool and peaceful glade with benches to sit on by the creek. AND, at this spot, yes, the very spot, Hilaire Belloc’s “straight line” from Toul to Rome crosses the VF once again. I could just imagine him pulling his old boots off and cooling his feet in the cool creek water. I was tempted to do just that, but instead decided to push on. The trail from here for the next few kilometres is through real forest – and it gives the impression of being much thicker and more substantial than it actually is. Changing literary metaphors from Belloc to Tolkien, I felt I could imagine myself as one of the hobbits walking through Mirkwood. It was the kind of forest where one would not be surprised to meet elves…

I did a silly thing at this point. I saw a wooden sign pointing off up the slope on the other side of the creek (over a very primitive looking but stable bridge) saying “Castellaccio”. Anything to do with “castles” interested me, so I followed the sign. I was told later that the word means “Ugly Castle” and that “it was probably made by boy scouts”. The climb was very steep and the path (such as it was) a bit treacherous. My knees were already complaining and I realised this was not the best thing to be doing carrying a full backpack. After about 180 metres, I reached the “castellaccio” – a great, obviously man-made, chuck out of the side of the cliff. It looked like the kind of place that bandits would hide out. In fact, I wondered whether original pilgrims really came this way along the creek through the forest, because it looked exactly the kind of place to get robbed by forest dwellers. I followed a little bit further up the trail, thinking there might be more to see (I never did take to heart the saying “curiosity killed the cat”), and found myself at the top of and at the very edge of the 20 or 30 foot cliff opposite the castellaccio. I noticed too that the leaves underfoot were very slippery, and thought it was probably best to turn around and go back. My knees voted in favour and so we abandoned any further exploration.

There were still several kilometres of the path through forest along the creek to go. Today yielded a rating of ascent (descent) of 350m (-354m), which is quite a bit, even if you cut out the little ugly castle expedition. This section was to blame for a bit of that, as it undulated up and down in a way reminiscent of walking on the sand dunes of the Aussie Camino from the lighthouse around to Bridgewater. Up and down and up and down of rises of a couple of metres, making it very hard on the knees.

Finally, you come to end and come around the corner and the medieval cathedral city of Sutri makes its appearance before you. Of course, as always, it is up on a hill, so there is one last climb to make before you reach the main square. It was just on 4pm when I arrived, and there were already quite a few people in the square, and I could see that the eating places were opening up. Different from Vetralla. I headed for the Piazza San Francesco where the Hotel Sutrium was located, which I had booked on about a month ago. First I went into the church to give thanks for a safe journey (and to take pictures). The sign on the door did not look promising for mass tonight or tomorrow. I then checked in to my small double single bed room with private bathroom. I paid my €45 for the night (no breakfast included), and asked if there was anywhere to go to mass tonight. My host was a bit uncertain, but the one thing for certain was that there was no mass at St Francis.

I did my usual ablutions and washing, and then it was 5:30 and I had to go looking for mass. I had written a note in Italian saying “I am an Australian pilgrim who cannot speak Italian. Can you please direct me to a church where the Holy Mass is being celebrated tonight?” My host at the desk suggested I try Saint Sebastian’s, but that was closed, and the sign on the door for mass not times not very clear. (I realised later that “prefestivo” included Sundays, ie. Saturdays). So I kept on walking and showing people my little note. No one was able to help until one lady called out to a younger girl who acted as translator for us, and said that I should try the Duomo, the Cathedral. That was at the other end of Sutri, and it was now 5:45, so I hightailed it and made it to the Cathedral just as mass was beginning. I slipped into a pew towards the front and was immediately greeted by fellow pilgrim Giovanni, whom I had met at breakfast in the Albergo in Viterbo the day before. He had walked most of the day with the Swiss pilgrim Alise, but she had gone on to her accommodation five kilometres further out of town.

After mass (which was very normal and ordinary in every way, with a mixture of singing and speaking the liturgy and a very long sermon and Eucharistic prayer II), Giovanni told me that he and another pilgrim – a German named Roland – were staying in some rooms with a kitchen at a place that had once been a seminary (and is still called Il Seminario). He was planning to cook dinner and so invited me to join them. We stopped at a bakery to get strudel, and a little grocery store to get ham and cheese and olives. He assured me they had a bottle of wine! When we arrived at Il Seminario, Roland announced that he had invited another guest, a Swiss pilgrim – and of course, it was Alise – who had arrived at her booked accommodation only to find no one there, and when she phoned they were not even in town – they said she didn’t confirm her booking. So she had walked back to Sutri and was lucky enough to find alternative accommodation. So that made four of us for dinner: pasta with tomato and mozzarella, salad, olives, ham, cheese, bread and wine – all accompanied by conversation in German, English and Italian. I felt like a real pilgrim at last. We finished doing the dishes at 9:30 and Roland looked like he really needed to go to bed (his bed was in the kitchen!) so I said goodnight and came back to my own accommodation. It was really a wonderfully rich encounter and makes me glad of God’s good providence along the way.

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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