An emperor and a  Duce. Encounters on the #viafrancigena 

Last night I stayed in Sutri which I suspect is the last decent town before I hit Rome.

It’s fanous for a number of reasons ..not least the amphitheatre carved out  of solid volcanic  rock which  academics  – in their own inimitable way – think is definitely Etruscan.  Or Roman.
But it’s the encounter with two formidable characters from history I’ll always remember. 

The emperor Charlemagne whom  I encountered on the  Camino de Santiago passed through here and was rather taken with the local Sutri beans which cured his wind.  I have to say it rather did the opposite for me.

But sitting in a cafe at the evening’s end I had a more sinister encounter.

My waiter , who had the appearance of an ugly front row hooker who used to play for England,  had an unusual tattoo on his forearm.  looking more closely I noticed with some alarm it was a very detailed representation of Mussolini.

“WTF!” ! I exclaimed to a fellow pilgrim who spoke Italian.

She had a quick conversation with the waiter and explained all was OK

“OK?.How the hell is that OK?”

Was it some kind of ironic gesture accompanied by a  subtle anti fascist message ?

“no…his grandfather admired Mussolini and told him that he did some good things in Italy ” 

Not a view which I suspect would be echoed in what was Abysinnia or by those Italians who shot him and strung him upside down  from the roof of a petrol station. 

My grandad had certain right wing views but I never had the urge to have the masthead of the Daily Express carved into my arm.

And as a New Zealand pilgrim here said ..

“if he respected  his grandad so much why didn’t he have HIS face tattooed on his arm ?”

Which I think is a sensible point. 

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What a silly Fugger. Over imbibing on the #viafrancigena

There are many reasons to regret leaving Montefiascone.

The stunning views of Lake Bolsena  and the sunsets from the Pilgrims Tower 

The hospitality of the nuns at the convent.

But mostly it’s the local wine.  Called Est! Est!! Est !!!

The legend says a 13th century German Bishop Johannes Fugger – on his way to the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor – preferred to lubricate the long stages of his journey.  Like me. 

He sent his servant ahead to identify which places served the best wine with instructions to write Vinum Est Bonum (wine is good ?) On the doors of worthy inns.

The servant – through laziness or a drunken inability to write, abbreviated it to Est.

When he reached Montefiascone the wine was so good he wrote Est!Est!! Est !!!

Not that it did Bishop Fugger any  good. He stayed in Montefiascone and drank himself to death.

For which I have a sneaking admiration. 

But to be honest. He was a bit of a stupid Fugger. 

Night in a convent. Third week on the #viafrancigena #Italy 

Last night I stayed in a convent.  Not something I do on a regular basis .

Only two nuns live here now. So tthe place is run for pilgrims by hospialeros Roberta and Maria. They  do a fantastic job welcoming us and cooking our evening meal.

There’s no set fee. It’s donativo which means you give as much or as little as you wish.

The meal was followed with some sort of alcoholic liquorice spirit concocted by one of Roberta’s mates.  

Didn’t Just William drink liquorice water ? If he’d drunk this stuff his band of outlaws would probably have been pissed enough to carry out an actual breach of the law. 

It was a great evening.  Ending with The Great Washing Up debate.

As,pilgrims we had a moral duty to help so I donned rubber gloves and ran the water at its hottest.  With plenty of washing up liquid.

I was passing  the pots to my Dutch friend to dry when one of our Italian pilgrims informed me I wasn’t doing it properly.

“Don’t tell me how to wash up…I KNOW how to wash up.  I spend half my life washing up…”,

But apparently,I know nothing cos I  had to rinse the pots under the cold tap before,passing them to the drier 

My protestations that putting them under the cold tap made it harder to dry were ignored with contempt.

“Faster faster .” She ordered until I  was virtually slinging plates and pots across the kitchen in an attempt to prove my domestic virility.

Next time I’ll do the cooking 

Fire down below. Walking the #viafrancigena through #Italy 

A fee days ago I witnessed the aftermath of a wildfire as I walked through a  charred and smoking wilderness 

Today, from an paralleled viewpoint , I watched this depressing spectacle unfold in front of my eyes.

From the castle tower at Radicofani we were enjoying what is,the most spectacular landscape I’ve ever seen..the rolling Tuscan hills stretching to the horizon.

Then we noticed a puff of smoke about two miles to the west.  It grew. The yellowed grass seem to turn black as we watched.  Then I saw flames…like an advancing army just ahead of the blackened fields.

A fire watchman was co-ordinating the emergency response via radio from the tower.

One helicopter arrived making repeated runs to a pond to scoop up huge containers of water.  but the flames,spread.  Every so often a tree would explode as the fire swept down the valley.

I’ve walked through those woods,and can attest to the variety of wildlife…wild boar,..hawks and livestock as well.

Another helicopter arrived. I was Impressed by the way they constantly flew deep into the blinding smoke to drop their water bombs.

I know they,say fires can lead to regeneration. But after a most enjoyable day it was a little depressing. 

Landscape and Losers. Week 3 on the #viafrancigena #travel #Italy 

It feels like I’m moving through the real Tuscany.  Vineyards abound.  Along with olive grives , pencil -thin cypress trees, fields of  sunflowers and olive groves.

All very life enhancing but two days ago I wasn’t feeling quite as uplifted 

We’d stopped at a hostel run by Roberto and his wife.  Dedicated Christians and I guess spiritual descendants of the Knights Hospitalers who have protected pilgrims down the ages, they performed a rather eccentric foot washing ceremony.

Mrs Roberto solemnly moved down a line of pilgrims arranged in a half circle of chairs.  She poured water over our frankly putrid feet before kneeling to kiss our shins.   I was on the point of warning about my athlete’s foot but kept quiet on account of not knowing the Italian for horrible fungal infection.
But the real “fun” was drinking in The Worst Bar In The World 

It was just across a hot  dusty road and the bar doubled as a petrol.station 

All the local losers gravitated to this watering hole which seemed to be run by the senior petrol pump attendant.  A youngish Italian dude clearly frustrated by the roll of the dice that life has dealt him. 

His mate had one job to do.  Waiting for the odd car to arrive.  But he was drunk and when a driver made the horrible mistake of stopping and   expecting a re fuelling. -. he just sat at the table looking sullenly at the customer  before being bollocked by his boss.

And for some reason the boss   appeared to be wearing underpants on his head.

A few local drunks turned up. Had arguments. Pushed each other.

Then two cops arrived. They pulled over a hapless motorist.  Searched  his car  -.presumably, for drugs,and then let him continue on his way with a shrug of the shoulders and wave of the hands 

A drunk with a face of a bruised pomegranate accosted one of the cops and pointed him towards the guy with the Y fronts,on his head 

I have no idea what this local grievance was about but it resulted in Pomegranate face and Underpants Head having a massive row 

All the time, the shaven headed cop who had the physical and indeed facial characteristics of a gorilla just stared them before shrugging his,shoulders,again and walking away.

Just another typical day on the road 

Turtles, Snails and a Daughter of the Road.  Third week on the #Viafrancigena #Travel 

I’ve reached Siena and learned today that it was a city built around the Via Francigena pilgrimage trail I’m following to Rome.

So if you thought Siena was about the Palio and the Palio only, you can think again.

Or maybe not.  Because it’s impossible to come here and not be awed by the history of The Palio. Where riders race three times around the Piazza di Campo smashing each other with whips in a race that lasts all of 90 seconds.

“It is not a race, it is war,” a turtle told me.

The turtle being Nicholas, custodian of the Tartuca (turtle)  museum which he kindly opened up for a personalised tour and two hour history lesson on  Siena.

A teacher whose eyes burned with passion for this city,  Nicholas explained how Siena is divided into 17 districts known as Cantrade – each named after an animal and dating back to medieval times.

Ten of the 17 race against each other for the Palio…a strip of embroided cloth that brings much honour for the winning contrade.

Nicholas showed me Palio won by the Turtles going back to the 17th Century

Ancient rivalries abound.  The Turtles and the Snails hate each other. But everyone agrees that the Rhinos are good chaps who don’t annoy anyone.

You know you are in their contrade when the symbols on walls, houses and fountains change

He also showed the medieval costumes that they wear in the parades associated with the Palio. Right down to the wigs. In July. When it’s 35c +


I had reservations on grounds of animal welfare but was told the horses are specially bred for their sturdy legs and that they are retired with a city pension

“We love the horses more than the drivers” said Nicholas.

Each contrade has its own church and horses are brought inside to be blessed before the big event. Nicholas showed me their church tucked away in a back street

Last year one horse died in retirement at the age of 24.

But if you’re a jockey suspected of underhand behavior such as throwing a race then retribution is swift.  And often violent.

Tomorrow I’ll resume the trek. The Via Francigena brought wealth to Siena which is why it’s called a Daughter of the Road.

Pilgrims  would be given letters of credit, providing they left their money behind in the city. If they failed to return from Rome the city kept their cash.  It’s how the first banks were built.

Screwing the poor out of their cash.  I’m glad times have changed.

Heaven and Hell. Contrasting landscapes on the #Viafrancigena #travel 

Gambassi Terme. A town that – had things turned out differently – was destined to live in infamy. At least in my heat stroked mind.

It began well enough today.A 5am start after an air conditioned sleep in a hostel run by health care volunteers. ;Six beds and only me there

The first few hours were beautiful. Walking high above Tuscan valleys;Isolated farms. thin cypress tree .dotting the landscape

But then…a scene from hell. acre after acre of burned fields and olive groves..fields. crops ;trees , still smouldering. The acrid smell of burnt grass heavy in the air 

The flames had even licked farmhouses , leaving their doors singed and blackened

I’ve never seen anything like it.



So I was looking forward to a pub called the Pilgrims Hostel which was basically the onky decent stop.in 30 km

When it’s  36C a watering  hole assumes mythical proportions.
I was imagining a beer garden. With parasols and fountains. Ice cold drinks served in ice cold glsses by a friendly Italian barmaid impressed by my walking heroics.

What i got was a surly moustachioed Italian guy in a vest who informed me that although this was indeed an historic pilgrims rest..it was closed until 8pm.
He wouldn’t even serve me from the fridge.

I stomped off in a bad mood towards Gambassi Terme. A mood which becane darker when I walked an unneccessary extra 4km cos i couldn’t find my hostel.

However. Salvation in the form of tourist official Michael Angelo (yes really) who foubd it for me. Got the owner to pick me up and divulge the rather important information that tonight there is a beer festival.

I love Gambassi Terme