La Via Francigena

Phebe O. is currently a senior at SYA Italy and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from John Bapst Memorial High School in Maine.

Nature has always been the love of my life. It’s difficult to name something that makes me happier than spending time outdoors. I grew up in rural Maine, and for most of my life I took for granted immediate access to acres of woods, the ocean, and dozens of hikes, all within a few minutes of my home. Arriving in Italy, the one thing I began to miss above all else was this constant presence in my life. I have fallen in love with cobblestone streets and tiny Italian cities which feel like living museums, and I think in missing these, there will be some of the same irreplaceable ache when I return to Maine for a landscape that is entirely unique to one place, one home. 

I am someone who creates long lists of priorities, and it usually happens that the things I want fall far lower on my lists than those necessities like school and work. So it took a nature-related school project to actually get me researching, to get me hiking, to get outdoors. During the final few months of each year abroad, every student does a “capstone project.” As I began thinking about what my project would be, a small part of me wondered about the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage hike, the oldest in Europe, a trail all the way from Canterbury, England, to Rome and beyond. A few days later, talking about possible projects, someone directly suggested the pilgrimage as a possible project to me. It was settled within minutes; I would research and hike sections of the Francigena, a project that would allow me to connect with Italy and Italian history through the natural world. The part of my life in Italy that had been missing.

This past Saturday, the 19th, we took our first hike. Three friends from school agreed to get up at 7 am on a Saturday morning and come hike with me. I had never felt more grateful. Our guide, Pietro, was a constant source of knowledge and enthusiasm and humor. We all loved him immediately. Bussing to Montefiascone nearby, we spent an hour walking around the city before we even began our hike. Trying to buy local sandwiches to carry with us for lunch, we ended up waiting in a cafe for 40 minutes, laughing at the slow-moving Italian morning. I was buzzing with energy, ready to start. 

As we finally stepped beyond the limits of the city, I couldn’t stop the grin that took over my face. The world quieted. Suddenly there was just wind, birds singing, a friend humming quietly, the hush of my mind, of the business of life. This is what I had been missing. I listened to the scuff of my shoes against a dirt trail, pointing toward the central home of Italian religion and culture. This was Italy. All roads lead to Rome… from one ancient city to another, a path created a thousand years before American colonization even began. History has its brutalities, as I’m sure even this pilgrimage does. But there is something reassuring, something humbling and awesome about being held within something as wide open and grand and powerful as the natural world, walking the same steps that have been walked by millions over thousands of years of history. 

By the time we made it back to Viterbo my feet were crying, but my mind felt lighter than it had in months. Through the last miles, Pietro sang us an ancient pilgrimage song, teaching us to yell out the chorus lines as we made our way into the city. Laughing helplessly, we posed for photos in front of pilgrimage graffiti, eventually making our separate ways home. When I arrived at school on Monday, my first question was how soon the next hike could be. 

Italy will always be a second home to me. I have fallen in love not only with beautiful Italian cities, with a dozen different types of pasta, and with a culture and language that have become both exciting and comforting in their familiarity… but now also with a landscape encompassing a diversity and history and freedom that I hope remains a constant throughout my life. 

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