How a walk near home can take you to the other side of the world
I am driving up the twisty road surrounded by tall, century-old chestnut forests that leads to Soriano nel Cimino (Viterbo), a little hillside town of the Cimini Mountains. It’s a beautiful and sunny Sunday morning, a perfect day to join the hiking tour held every year by “Take Off Association” chaired by Silvio Cappelli. It will take me through marvelous hamlets, fields in bloom, secular woods, and hidden archeological sites, always accompanied by the professional guide of Anna Rita Properzi. Actually, this walk will take me much further, but I don’t know it yet.
As I drive through the valley I see in the distance, up on the hill, the magnificent town with the huge Orsini castle that stands on the top of its historic center. How amazingly beautiful! Anytime I come here, I am pervaded with the same wonder and I never get used to this incredible beauty. Then I think that this castle was built, upon a preexisting medieval structure, in just one year (1278-79) to be destined as the summer residence of Pope Nicolas III and I get shivers. Though, that’s nothing if I think that many traces of previous habitation date back to prehistoric people, the Etruscans, and successively Ancient Romans. That seems a fable and, captured by these thoughts, I almost lose my sense of time.
Smiling amusedly, I park my car pretending to leave my carriage and horse, and I head over to the hiking tour meeting point. On the other hand, the same hiking tour has been organized to go back in time. We are going to hike on the same path that the young and fragile Saint Rosa walked along during her exile in the 13th century. The story says that on December 4, 1250 this girl was sent away from Viterbo by the podestà (mayor) Mainetto Bovoli (Lieutenant of Emperor Frederick II) because he wanted to prevent her to profess and spread the Catholic faith. The same Pope Gregory IX had forbidden the apostolate to the laity. She first found shelter in Soriano nel Cimino, then in Vitorchiano before returning to Viterbo. The poor girl was suffering from a rare disease, which was the congenital absence of the sternum, and the sad exile she was forced to live was fatal to her life. She died on March 6th, 1251 at the tender age of seventeen. During her short life, Rosa performed a few miracles, the reason why she is much-venerated by Viterbesi (inhabitants of Viterbo).
Rosa is today the patron saint of Viterbo and every year, on the evening of September 3rd, the city holds a big festival, followed by thousands of people, to commemorate her figure. A hundred men called Facchini di Santa Rosa (porters) carry on their shoulders, and through the narrow streets of the medieval town, the “Macchina di Santa Rosa”, a huge tower 30 meters high (98ft) and fifty-one quintals of weight (about 11,000 pounds). The importance of Saint Rosa also explains why today there are almost 200 people gathered in the main square of Soriano nel Cimino to attend this hiking event on her memory. The path is 18 kilometers (11 miles) long and it is just one of the three stages organized by Take Off Association on the way of S. Rosa’s exile. We will stroll along a trail in the stunning nature that unfolds into woods, hazelnut groves, waterfalls, and ancient ruins to reach the town of Vitorchiano.
The square is crowded and the atmosphere is cheerful. We are almost ready to leave when a pretty and smiling lady comes towards me: “Does someone speak English? What is going on? Why there are so many people here?”, she asks. “It’s a walk on the way of S. Rosa’s exile”, I answer. Amazingly enough, she decides straight away to call her husband to join the excursion. “What an incredible encounter!”, I tell myself. “Adela and Larry, a fantastic couple from Fairbanks (Alaska) right here, in Soriano nel Cimino!”.
“Why are you here?”. I ask them while we are walking. “We came to attend for the second time the Chestnut Festival”, they say. “It is a feast very popular among American people. We love to come here to enjoy this tradition”. I am quite surprised and really proud to hear that this local tradition is well-known in the US. And I am also proud of this area in which I live, because this small chain of mountains with modest high (the peak is 1053 mt – 3,455 ft) called Cimini, is an authentic monument to nature. It’s an area rich in beech trees, oaks, hazelnut groves and above all chestnut trees that I heard were brought here in the 13th century by Cistercian monks.
Every year in October all the little towns in this marvelous area of Cimini organize their own Chestnut Festival. Particularly in Soriano, this event involves the whole town and its inhabitants and it includes a series of historical, traditional, gastronomic, and cultural activities. Colorful flags that represent each district of the town, a solemn historical parade with over 500 characters in costume (popes, cardinals, princes, princesses, ladies-in-waiting, knights, royal pages, squires, dancers, and musicians) and the Palio where the four districts compete in the test of Archers and in the Tournament of the Rings. Besides, there are special taverns to enjoy the local cuisine and, obviously, mountains and mountains of roasted chestnuts.
Larry and Adela seem to very much enjoy the whole area of Tuscia and today they have also the chance to enjoy its community and experience the power of Human Connections. And two hundred people marching all together to evoke the life of a saint in the name of peace and love, it’s really an amazing human connection!
Along the way we talk and talk and I discover that Adela is a photographer and author of best-selling fishing books in Alaska. The path we are following is the perfect environment to unleash all her creativity and she doesn’t miss to photograph each leaf, flower, and butterfly. As we walk with the long column of hikers, the scenery all around changes constantly except for the sky, always blue and bright. We eat hazelnuts and figs that we pick up straight from the trees, but also the delicious and huge donuts provided by Take Off Association. So good!
Step by step we approach to the marvelous archeological site of Corviano, an area that has been inhabited since prehistoric times. An incommensurable heritage, hidden in the wood and made of rock dwellings carved in the cliffs of tufaceous rock, remains of the hut floors from the neolithic and Villanovian eras, remains of megalithic walls, stone basins used for pressing grapes, and necropolises (sarcophagus and other tombs covered with peperino slabs carved with human shapes). A site also enriched by a beautiful waterfall. It is an amazing sensation to be here! In just a few kilometers, we walked through many eras and many sites of Universal Heritage. This is Tuscia. This is Italy!
Immersed in this luxuriant and perfumed wood, surrounded by ancient spiritual energy we enjoy our box lunch provided by the same association, before heading to our final destination: Vitorchiano. There are still a few kilometers to go and while we are walking up the hill the surrounding beauty relieves our fatigue. And here is Vitorchiano! This fantastic village stands tall in front of us, on a cliff of tufaceous rock overlooking the deep gorge we are climbing up. The scenery is breathtaking!
This walk is still taking us very back in time, since also the origins of this little town are most certainly Etruscan, as it is testified by the many tombs and grottos found in the area. In Roman times, it was important because of its strategic position. Conquered by Romans, after the fall of the empire a long period of invasion by barbarians followed. The medieval structure of Vitorchiano is still intact today, and it is one of the most picturesque towns of the region, with its splendid town hall, a guard tower, and the bell tower with the clock.
This beautiful day is going to end. We walked for 18 kilometers but the cheerfulness that we are sharing with all the other hikers makes us feel full of energy and joy. I spent all my day with Larry and Adela and now it is time to say good-bye. But it can’t finish like that! Larry and Adela are wonderful people and there must be a reason why we met today. The same Adela told me during the walk: “Giulia, do you believe in signs? Because you should do it! When signs manifest, you have to be ready to recognize them and follow them. Signs are God’s manifestation”. Like an illumination, I recognize a sign I experienced just today. We were about 200 people in the square but Adela came right to me to ask what was going on. So I decide I want to follow this sign and see where it will bring me.
I build a beautiful friendship with Larry and Adela and after 8 months I am in Fairbanks for another walk: the Midnight Sun Run! They invited me to Alaska and I spent with them some of the most beautiful days of my life, visiting their country and living in their stunning cottage immersed in the wood.
We started walking together in Italy to end up walking again together in Alaska. And this is not a movie, an invention or a fable. This is reality, anticipated by a sign and made possible by the power of human connections. Then, I think that if our bond is so deep, despite our distance, there must be something divine that kick-started our wonderful friendship that day in Soriano. Maybe, a Saint Rosa’s miracle!