09 Aug Stage 28: Arrival
Monte Sacro, Rome, 08:35, Friday 22 September 2017. We’re on the last stretch of the Way of St Francis, within touching distance of our final destination, the Vatican. People of Rome are making their way to work. I’m aware of a nagging feeling since yesterday’s trek. It doesn’t feel like a pilgrimage. Everything looks so mundane.
In no time we’re fully into our stride. It feels strange to be walking without hiking poles. I tuck my thumbs under the shoulder straps of my backpack. We have some way to go before we join up with the route on Stage 28 of the Via di San Francesco. Soon we cross the Ariene river. Sandy Brown gives the distance 15.4km* for the Stage. This stage is definitely “as flat as a cow’s how’s your father,” as Niels would put it. None of the previous stages climb 158m or less like this one. Only three stages drop by a few meters less than 168m.
A strange thing happens approximately 1km after the sidewalk has become a bike path. I pick up a €10 note. Niels and I see nobody around, so I keep it. Not too far away we see a bald man wearing a jacket out on his morning stroll. Niels suggests I ask him whether or not the money belongs to him. The man takes out his wallet and indicates that he hasn’t lost any money. He insists that I should keep it. I thank him, pocket it, and carry on.
For a stretch, we walk between the river and elevated railway tracks. The same trains that took us to Florence speed past us. For them, it’s the beginning of a 2½-hour trip. For us, it’s the end of a 33-day trek. Apart from the trains, it’s surprisingly quiet along this part of the path.
Lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (in The Dry Salvages) come to mind:
When the train starts, and the passengers are settled…
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
I am not the same person who started this pilgrimage.
Losing the Path for the Last Time?
In spite of Sandy Brown’s very clear instructions about crossing the Via Salaria and the Via del Foro, we manage to lose the path. Fortunately, we realise this quickly. It’s less than a 15minute addition to our walking time. I simply smile. This has so very much become part of our daily routine.
We wind our way along the Via di Ponte Salario. This is probably the steepest hill we’ll have to climb. The road is lined with beautiful trees. Passing through a community of gypsies and refugees I can feel their eyes on me. It makes me feel uncomfortable and a bit exposed.
St Francis and the Meaning of the Mosque
Following a bike trail along the Via di Moschea, we pass the Grand Mosque of Rome. It’s not only the cultural centre of Muslims in Italy, but also the largest mosque outside the Muslim world. When it was built, one of the issues was the height of the minaret and its effect on the Rome skyline. In spite of it being only 1m less than the Dome of St Peter’s Cathedral, I can’t remember seeing it when I first saw St Peter’s yesterday’s stage.
It is so fitting that the path of the Via di San Francesco passes the Mosque because there was a very important connection between St Francis and the Muslims. In 1219 he met with Sultan al-Kamil Muhammad al-Ayyubi, a nephew of Saladin, in Egypt. During the Fifth Crusade, St Francis wanted to have peace. He was horrified at the ravages of war as the armies faced off at the Nile. The two men met for days at Dumyat.
While the meeting itself did not lead to peace, it improved Christian-Muslim relationships in the long run. After the fall of Jerusalem in the early 1400s, the Franciscans were the only Catholics allowed to remain in the Holy Land. Later they were recognised as Custodians of the Holy Land.
Niels and I pause a moment. I take a photo. He looks uneasy. I know his views are very Christian Protestant although he is tolerant of other religions. Mine, on the other hand, are far more open. To me, religion is only a lens through which one can perceive or experience a minuscule part of the reality of God. Different religions provide different perspectives. Ultimately, one has to build one’s own relationship with God.
The Last Stretch to St Peter’s
Not long after, we find a caffè to have some refreshments. I’m surprised at how much I’ve sweated, despite it being quite cool. The chill of my shirt clinging to my back feels uncomfortable. My thumbs feel tender from keeping them tucked under the shoulder straps.
Soon we’re off again. Our next stop will be in the Piazza San Pietro. We pass through a pleasant part of urban Rome before getting to the Ponte Milvio pedestrian bridge over the Tiber River. It feels like ages since we first saw the river on the way to Sansepolcro.
My sense of frustration of not being there yet begins to recede. I really don’t know what to expect, but my anticipation steadily grows as the last landmarks get noted: the Corte di Cassazione. Just before we turn up the avenue headed towards the Basilica of St Peter, we pass Castel Sant’Angelo and cross the last bridge.
We step out of Italy and into the Vatican. To begin with, the tourists and hawkers are overwhelming. It is so crowded that I feel claustrophobic. Then the piazza of St Peter opens before me.
Finally, here I am! I’m standing by the obelisk – the witness. Pillars and statues surround me. And there it is – the majestically beautiful St Peter’s Cathedral. The bursting feeling in my chest threatens to turn to tears.
We have made it!
*Conversions from Metric to Imperial
1km = ~0,62 miles
15.4km = ~9.6 miles
158m = ~518’
168m = ~551’