The third time’s the charm, according to the proverb. It worked for me last spring, when I was trying to get to Italy to join a group of pilgrims to walk the Way of St. Francis of Assisi.
I was one of thousands of people whose travel plans were interrupted when severe weather wreaked havoc at the Atlanta airport in April 2017, causing the cancellation of hundreds of Delta flights.
My husband first dropped me off at Lambert Field in St. Louis on April 5. Within hours, he was on a return trip to Lambert to pick me up and take me home, only to try again 48 hours later. To my utter disbelief, my flight on April 7 was also canceled, requiring him to once again return to fetch me. When he took me to the airport for the third time on April 9, he wisely waited at the airport until I was actually boarding the plane before he headed for home.
I had almost given up after two delays, thinking maybe the universe was trying to tell me something. But an email from one of the group, telling me to get myself on the plane, spurred me to give it a third try. And it worked.
It is strange how mishaps can sometimes turn out to be blessings in disguise. Because my pilgrim friends had already set out on foot from our meeting point of Gubbio, by the time I got to Italy it would have taken a maze of trains and buses to try to catch up with them. I opted to go to Assisi and wait there for the group. Having two days to explore Assisi on my own turned out to be a highlight of the trip, and helped steep me in the life and legends of St. Francis of Assisi in preparation for following in his footsteps in the days to come.
From Camino to Via
How does a group of assorted pilgrims from across the United States plus Scotland end up walking together in Italy? It began on the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Spain, several years earlier.
I went on my first Camino in October 2014 and wrote about it for The Missourian in January 2015. Joette Reidy, of Washington, read the article and contacted me, and soon was on her way to Spain for her own Camino in April 2016. Meanwhile, I walked a different Camino route, the Sanabres, in October 2016.
Both Joette and I had heard about the Way of St. Francis in Italy, and were separately making plans for this journey. When we reconnected at a meeting of the St. Louis chapter of American Pilgrims on the Camino, she invited me to join the group she was assembling. It was serendipity.
Joette is a people person, through and through. For her the Camino was all about the people she met along the route, and the “Camino family” she created.
When she began researching the Italian route, she discovered it was quite different than the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is well marked (depending on which route you take) and well traveled, with plenty of fellow pilgrims to meet at cafes and hostels along the way. Not so the Way of St. Francis, or Via di San Francesco.
She discovered there are few pilgrims on this path, and that people reported they often found themselves alone and lonely.
“What?! People were the best part of the Camino de Santiago,” she said. “I also read in several travel blogs that pilgrim accommodations in Italy were farther apart and I would need to book a bed in advance. Then there was the physical challenge — so much more challenging than the Camino.”
Assembling a Tribe
Not one to be deterred, Joette was nevertheless concerned. “All of a sudden, I wasn’t so sure I could do this one on my own. But I still wanted to experience this pilgrimage. I decided to email six of my favorite people I met while walking the Camino de Santiago.”
Soon all six committed to join Joette on the Italy journey. “I wouldn’t be alone after all. I would bring my own Camino family,” she recalled.
Her tribe included Susan Peacock, from Florida; Gayle Peacock Wood, from North Carolina; Craig Halbasch, from California; Tony Rice, from Nevada; and Ron Neville, from Scotland — Camino veterans, all. A friend from Australia was initially part of the group, but about the time he dropped out, others joined in, including Ron’s wife, Tricia; Susan’s neighbors, Beth and Bob Gutman; and myself.
Joette’s husband, Ed, joined us for the last couple of days as we entered Rome. Joette referred to the group as “our Italian Camino family.”
It wasn’t until about three-fourths of the way through the trip that I learned that there had been a vote as to whether to allow me, a liberal Democrat, to join the group of mostly conservative Republicans. That left me to wonder if I had been the cause of the one rule for the group: no discussing politics.
The Way of St. Francis
The Way of St. Francis is one of many pilgrimage routes that traverse Italy, including the Via Francigena. Although departure points vary, all roads eventually lead to Rome. But to get there, you will definitely need a handheld GPS unit. The route signs are unreliable, confusing and sometimes simply missing. The only way to stay on track is to consult a GPS and make route adjustments as needed.
That is the aspect I liked least about the Italy pilgrimage. I want to be as unplugged as possible on these long-distance walks. I don’t want to have to consult my phone or the Internet; I want to focus on the scenery and my own inner thoughts.
Aside from that, the routes are spectacular. From one hill town to the next, the trails lead through the woods or along paved roads, through olive groves, vineyards and poppy fields, alongside lakes and streams. In some towns, you’ll discover local markets in full swing. In others, you might stop for lunch in a cafe, or stock up on foot supplies at the local farmacia (drugstore).
You also need to plan ahead for accommodations, and alter your daily route accordingly. Susan Peacock was the logistics chief for our merry band, and she did all the lodging bookings online ahead of time. There were no glitches with reservations, and no disappointments about any of the lodgings. (Perhaps St. Francis was watching out for us.)
I’d recommend allowing at least two days, more if you can, once you get to Rome. Even if you have been there before, there is so much to see and do in Rome that you will almost certainly wish you had more time there.
Certificate of Completion
Also, in Rome, you will want to get the final stamp on your pilgrim passport and your testimonium, or certificate of completion. This was perhaps the most anticlimactic part of the entire pilgrimage. In Santiago de Compostela in Spain, there is an official pilgrim’s office and a well-organized process for obtaining your compostela, or certificate. In Rome, it was a bit of a disappointment.
When we arrived in the afternoon, we went to the Pilgrim’s Welcome Office just outside St. Peter’s Square. You can get a testimonium and a passport stamp there, but it didn’t seem official. We wanted a certificate and a stamp from the Vatican itself.
The next morning we headed back to St. Peter’s Basilica, equipped with directions about how and where to complete the final steps of our long journey.
The way described in the guidebook is to go to the Sacristy, but there were thousands of people in line waiting to get into the Vatican for tours. We were turned away at numerous entry points, even though we were supposed to be allowed to enter by showing our completed pilgrim passports.
Seeking help, I talked to one of the Swiss guards. He directed us to go to the left of the Basilica, through an electronic security device, and into the private section of the Vatican, which is only open to tourists on special guided tours.
By showing our pilgrim passports, we were able to sail through the security checkpoint and on to the Vatican security office, where we again showed our passports and explained our goal. We were given an entry pass and directed to go along the Basilica wall to the Palazzo della Canonica.
We walked down marble corridors filled with sculptures to an office where a priest stamped our testimoniums and our passports, thus completing our long pilgrimage.
Meanwhile, Joette and Ed opted to keep trying to get to the Sacristy. Despite the huge crowds, she somehow connected with a guard who allowed her to pass the “no entry” signs and led her to the Sacristy, where she received her testimonium and stamp. So we were all official.
After walking 210 miles from the planned starting point in Gubbio to the Vatican in Rome, we had completed our Way of St. Francis.
Joette has just walked the Portuguese route of the Camino de Santiago, arriving in Santiago de Compostela on April 28. She is currently continuing the walk to Finisterre, or the “end of the earth,” and will complete her third pilgrimage about the time this article appears in print.
“There is Camino magic that happens along the paths to Santiago de Compostela that I’m not sure is available anywhere else in the world,,” said Joette before leaving for Portugal in April. “I hope to find the Camino magic alive and well.”
I am opting for a 335-mile domestic pilgrimage this year, walking from Mound City, Kan., to St. Charles, Mo., as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of the arrival in this country by Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne, who opened the first school west of the Mississippi River in St. Charles. (See www. societyofservantpilgrims.com for more information.)
Whatever route in whatever country and whatever language you choose, it is sure to be a life-altering experience. For as pilgrim Tony Rice put it, “The best way to see a country is at 5 kilometers (about 3 miles), or less, per hour.”
Buen Camino or Buon Cammino. Just start walking.
Before You Go . . .
If you’re interested in walking the Way of St. Francis, the first step is to order the guidebook by Sandy Brown, an American minister from Seattle, and join his Way of St. Francis Facebook page. The book is “The Way of St. Francis: From Florence to Assisi and Rome” (Cicerone). Updates to the book are posted regularly on his Facebook page.
There are many other sources available, which will pop up as you familiarize yourself with the various pilgrimage Facebook groups or by Google search.
For a day-by-day account of our walk on the Way of St. Francis, you can visit blogs written by some of the participants. Joette blogged about it at www.joettereidy.wordpress.com. Beth Gutman and Susan Peacock co-authored a blog about it at www.walkinganotherway.wordpress.com.