Today was the last day of our epic walk from Salisbury to Rome. It hardly seems real after taking so long and negotiating so many hurdles to get this far. As we started walking in the midst of Storm Dennis on 15 February 2020, it was perhaps fitting that we began the last day of the walk in the rain – though we would have been happier without that symmetry! However, it didn’t last long, and we didn’t get soaked through as we had previously.
Tom decided to let the worst of the rain pass through before setting out, and Julie followed an hour later after more time with a cold pack on her knee. We both had to walk down the busy Via Cassia initially, dicing with speeding traffic and cars parked where pedestrians might have taken refuge. Tom takes up his story.
The SS2 Via Cassia was every bit as busy as we’d seen it before with fast commuter traffic heading in and out of Rome. Fortunately for most of the 4-5km I was able to make use of a pavement (sidewalk) of sorts, but in many places that was occupied by overflowing waste recycling bins, blocking my path.
I’d chosen not to bother with rain gear or rucksack cover. Fortunately the rain held off and spray from passing vehicles gradually diminished. There was one section of a few hundred metres where there was no pedestrian walkway and I was forced out into the traffic with waving sticks – not pleasant!
My turning point to leave the SS2Via Cassia was where it crossed the GRA Motorway (Rome’s M25). However, since it was in a tunnel at this point I completely missed the turning. After a few hundred metres I realised something was wrong and turned back.
My route descended quickly into a steep sided valley and the Riserve Naturale dell’Inseghurata. The noise of the traffic fell away and I felt at peace at last. I was thrilled to see a number of oak trees freshly in leaf.
Up on the other side of the valley there was evidence of a recent fire. The pines seemed to have survived but there were burnt remnants of other trees including cypresses. Sadly, a rest area with information boards had been vandalised, as had others further on – perhaps an indication that I was close to a big city.
My path continued southeastwards alongside a small stream. The water in it was turbid and smelt strongly of sewage. I could tell from the absence of footprints on the recently wet path that I was the first person through since this morning’s rain. I saw nobody else and it felt like I had the place to myself, probably for the last time on my journey. By now the sky had cleared, the noise of traffic had gone, and life felt good.
Soon it was time to leave this lovely valley and climb up to Monte Mario Alto, the first of the suburbs of Rome. It seemed like a bit of a culture shock. Nobody acknowledged my “buon giorno” any more! This is a bizarre phenomenon which one seems to find in any big city. Eventually they’ll totally avoid eye contact.
Monte Mario Alto was busy with plenty of traffic. Fortunately the Via Francigena is well signposted as the route twists and turns and involves several major road crossings.
The route planners of the Via Francigena have done remarkably well on the approach into Rome, making good use of what green areas there are. At the next one, the Riserva Naturale di Monte Mario, the VF pilgrim is presented with the first views of the City of Rome – and quite stunning they are.
However, the sight of Rome doesn’t mean that you’re there yet! Rather tantalisingly the VF route then turns west again and circles around the back of Monte Mario itself before emerging on its east flank. There before me was the real arrival vista: the view towards Vatican City and the dome of St Peter’s.
Julie and I had arranged to meet at a cafe on the long Viale Angelico which runs from the foot of Monte Mario to St Peter’s Square. There followed another tantalisingly zig-zag descent on rough cobbles to the bottom. I had to tell myself to slow down as a twisted ankle would have been so easy on the awkward cobbles. From the foot of the mount it was still another 2km or so of street walking.
I found Julie at the cafe and sat down for a cafe latte – actually it was two – and a fruit tart. I felt exhausted. I’d found very few places to rest during the day and had pressed on with rather too much enthusiasm, not drunk enough water and had too little to eat. It had been pretty warm too. It felt good to be together again. I’d been reminded of something that Canon Anna at Canterbury Cathedral had said to us when we prayed together at the place of Thomas Becket’s tomb. She’d spoken about the responsibility we had to undertake this pilgrimage also on behalf of those who were unable to do so themselves, through sickness or disability. Little had I imagined that the last five days might be walked on behalf of Julie.
Leaving her comfortable cafe, we made our way slowly along the last few metres into Saint Peter’s Square together.