We are snugly in bed as the only guests at the sweet and orderly Convento Divino Amore tonight in Montefiascone, on a hilltop overlooking the southern end of Lake Bolsena. The convent of Divine Love is run by nuns who just served us a three-course dinner in a cosy dining room. It has put stars in our eyes. We feel like we have just had the most unique experience, unlikely to ever be repeated. But that just sums up what it is to be on Camino and here on the Via Francigena in beautiful Italy. Unrepeatable experiences. You start to feel like the luckiest person on Earth.
Divine and love sums up today. But it didn’t begin that way. Of course it doesn’t, you have to work your way into it.
We left Bolsena (in the Lazio region) late, at about 8am, with only 18km to walk on today’s leg to Montefiascone. It was lovely – through olive groves, past small waterfalls and historic landmarks of Etruscan ruins from between the 4th and 6th centuries. We learnt the volcanic crater that created Lake Bolsena dates back to Neanderthal man. We came across and rested with Annetta from Germany at a picnic table and met another young German girl walking alone. Annetta taught us how to say “arschloch” properly – deep and guttural! We sang “Let’s hit the road Jack” and picked rosemary sprigs to adorn our backpacks. We click-clacked our walking poles up and down hills, breathing hard and patting sweat. We picked and ate figs.
I decided my backpack (I have called it Roma) has taken on a life of its own. She becomes as sweaty and organic as me. She creaks and groans when she is tired. When she’s had enough she grows heavier, making my shoulders ache, begging me to stop. We tussle with each other, but we are a fine team. We need each other; we both want to get to Rome and then home again. It’s a divine relationship born of the Camino.
So we made our way to Montefiascone where we celebrated the big pilgrim milestone – 100km left to Rome. I lost sight of Sylvie for a while, then found her and we decided to have lunch in the town before choosing accommodation. We tried the famous wine, Est! Est!! Est!!! The story goes that a bishop who was on a pilgrimage to Rome sent his runner ahead of him to write the word “est” (Latin for “it is”) on the door of any inn in which the wine was good. In Montefiascone, the wine was so good that the runner wrote “Est Est Est” on the door of the inn (the exclamation points were added much later for effect). It’s said that after the bishop arrived, he forgot his pilgrimage and stayed there enjoying the fine wine until his death.
After finding beds at the Convento Divino Amore after lunch, we set our hearts on an afternoon lulling at the nearby natural thermal sulphur-rich springs, volcanic in origin, in Bagnacchio. This would be perfect therapy for our tired bodies, but how to get there? Two ladies in the square tried to direct us to a bus and we ended up laughing so hard at all our animated hand and body gestures making up for broken English and Italian. Further along we asked at a bar. A man called Bruno offered to drive us there and we jumped at the offer. The 15-minute ride was full of attempted understanding of who he was and who we were. On arrival he gave us his number, insisting we call him before calling a taxi to return, as he might just be available. An hour later, feeling duly revived by the hot springs, we did just that, and before long Bruno was there and driving us back to the convent, doing an errand en route. Back in town, he shot to the top of the hill and insisted we dash in to see the prized Basilica Santa Margherita, which has the third biggest dome after St Peters in Rome and the cathedral in Florence. He proudly hooted greetings to friends roadside as we drove up the tiny streets and they looked twice at his unfamiliar blonde passengers.
We hugged our gentle Italian friend and gentleman goodbye and tried to pay him for the ride. He flatly refused. Sylvie shed a tear at the kindness in an afternoon that made our fun possible. I vowed to pay it forward.
We made our way into the Convento Divino Amore. How divine and lovely can a day possibly get?