Walkabout 2010 – Via Francigena
- September 13 2010
Walkabout Day 1, September 13: Lucca to Ponte a Cappiano
I couldn’t help but think “its all about the team” as we made our way to Lucca to start Walkabout 2010. Serena, Patricia, and Jeff arrived from London with my parents, uncle Wato, Luis and I. My cousin Maria Luz flew in from Sudan, and our good family friend Jorge drove in from France.
After a good night sleep, our alarms woke us up at 7 am and we set in motion. We had a hearty breakfast full of protein and carbs and packed some portable snacks to take with us (our own homemade sandwiches of cream cheese and ham). “Everyone put on your t-shirts!” I exclaimed, as the team gathered around the breakfast table to pick up their Walkabout gear. We all adorned ourselves head to toe in Walkabout attire and accessories with t-shirts, lanyards, pins, and stickers. Proudly sporting the foundation’s logo, we took one big group picture in front of our hotel and began the day’s journey.
The Via Francigena is an ancient path made famous by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric the Serious, when he traveled from Canterbury to Rome in the 10th century to be consecrated by the Pope. Sigeric the Serious recorded his route, marking every step of the way, which is the exact path we are following today. However, unlike the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Via Francigena is not as traveled by “pilgrims” and the trail is not as marked per se. There are no arrows to follow, but only sporadic yellow and white stickers of a cute, bubbly, and plump little pilgrim and the occasional red and white stripes to indicate the way.
The first few kilometers of our walk took us through the very center of Lucca, within the historical city walls. Under the beautiful Tuscan sun we worked our way through the windey cobble stone streets, strolling past butchers and fishmongers who prepared their shops for the Monday morning chaos. Upon exiting the city walls, the Via immediately took us on transit roads, busy and populated by hundreds of cars, buses and trucks. We walked in a single file line. At times I led, at other times my mom, and sometimes Serena, Patricia and Maria Luz were the leaders of the pack. But Jeff, being the only guy in the group (and a true gentleman indeed) was always the last keeping an eye out on everyone else in front of him.
To our most welcomed surprise, the Via detoured off the main road and we followed the pilgrim sticker down a small residential street. With mountains to our right and fields to our left, we felt blessed by the beautiful scenery. But before we knew it, we had reached an intersection and taken a wrong turn. I was too busy looking at my surroundings that I failed to follow where the guidebook suggested we go. As a result, we ended up back on the tarmac, the main road, the busy secondary two-lane highway with a zillion cars and buses traveling full-speed at us. We had no choice but to stay on this trajectory and follow it for miles and miles, and hours and hours, until we reached our mid-day point, the small town of Altopascio.
Upon entering Altopascio, we ran into my father and Jorge who had been riding the cyclists’ route all morning. They had found a small restaurant that was open (strangely enough, Mondays are the equivalent of Sundays in Altopascio where absolutely everything is closed) and we joined them there. We were visited by our dear friends, Duccio and Nicolle, who happened to be driving from Rome to Milan today, and my aunt Clara who flew in from France with my cousin Alejandro and two of her friends. We could not have been happier to have more Walkabout supporters, more family and friends, join us on this adventure.
After stuffing our faces with pizza and tagliata for lunch, we hit the road again around 3:30 pm, joined by Clara and Alejandro (who mind you is only 8, the youngest walker to join us ever!!!). We walked on the secondary highway under a big dark cloud for approximately 4 kilometers until we reached a fork in the road and took a right turn down a dirt path that was signaled by a small sign that read “Ancient Via Francigena.” The dirt path led us across a small bridge and into the woods. We were literally on Little Red Riding Hood’s trail, what felt like a fairy tale, when the thunder started to sound and the rain started to pour.
As we made our way into the forest the rain got harder and harder. Before we knew it, we were soaking wet and the ponchos we carried did little to help. It was dark, and given that the Via was not properly marked, we suddenly found ourselves unsure of which way to go. We proceeded straight ahead and got stuck in a thorn patch, thousands of branches of stinging nettles that felt like they were attacking us. “Ouch, ouch, ouch,” Serena screamed. We trekked through the bush and made our way out to the other side as the rain continued to fall. We began to fret, we were stuck in the forest at 5 pm in a dark storm. Luckily, we met a local who advised us to exit the forest and head towards the main road given the dangerous conditions.
As we hit the secondary highway, we stayed on the narrow edge sandwiched between fast trucks and barking dogs. Just as we thought we were going to have to cry for help, we found our rescue squad, my dad and Jorge, who had found sanctuary under the awning of a western-themed Italian leather shoe store. We were rained out, we were defeated by the thunder and lightning and had to call it a day. 23 kilometers completed, we had to turn back; we will have to tack on the remaining 7 kilometers throughout the coming days.
Luis on the other hand is our day’s hero. After having had cervical spine surgery only 6 months ago, he rode 19.8 kilometers around Lucca’s historical wall. The wall encapsulates the city and allows cyclists and pedestrians to ride and walk the rim of it.
We arrived at our hotel at 7 pm, cold, shivering and chilled to the bone, but fortunate to be underneath a splendid double rainbow. The rain continued but the sun began to shine once again, a positive premonition for the 37 kilometers awaiting us tomorrow.
We would not have been able to do it without the help, love, and support of the whole team. The team is what pushes, motivates, and drives us to our next destination.
Today we took one step closer to finding a cure for paralysis.
Walkabout Day 2, September 14: Ponte a Cappiano to Gambassi Therme
To quote one of my favorite authors Robert Frost, today we took “the road less traveled, and it made ALL the difference”…But let me start at the beginning.
We managed to get a head start this morning and left earlier than yesterday. We drove to Ponte a Cappiano where we were meant to finish last night had it not be for the thunderstorm, and we set off from the ancient bridge at a quarter to 10. There was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was blazing. The seven of us walked in line along a narrow river on a ledge of grass for approximately 5 kilometers. It was absolutely stunning, green fields surrounded us and in the distance we could see the quintessential Tuscan hills.
To our pleasant surprise, the Via was quite well marked this morning. Granted we had to look at our guidebook a few times and Hamed spotted an unanticipated turn in the road, but all in all, we seemed to find our way quite easily during the early part of the day.
The Via took us through a small town called Fucecchio, a village with a large piazza and a romanesque church, which we entered to light a candle. Upon exiting the church, we stopped at a little restaurant where Hamed and Jeff devoured a pizza. I’ve never seen two boys eat a pizza as fast as they did then and there.
We continued on our way through a busy road and then took a left turn through a pasture of crops which ultimately led us to beautiful street lined with trees on either side. Serena felt like she was in the Sound of Music; I was reminded of the avenues of Avignon and Provence. We began marching, left-right-left, and singing in chorus and in harmony. We sang every song we could think of from Hakuna Matata to the Little Mermaid and Lean on Me. The time passed and we arrived in the town of San Miniato where we had a steep ascent to the historical village hilltop.
We climbed for one kilometer to arrive at San Miniato Alto which had the most stunning view that awaited us. My aunt Clara was there to greet us with her two friends and my cousin Alejandro. She had booked a table for us at a local trattoria and invited us all to the most delicious Italian lunch of pesto and bolognaise pasta. There’s nothing like homemade Italian cuisine to cure any walker’s ailments.
We continued our climb up the long and windy road through the Tuscan hills, followed by Clara and Alejandro. After an hour of walking with us, they had to leave for the airport. A short but very sweet trip, I am forever grateful for their visit.
The seven dwarfs (my mom, Maria Luz, Serena, Patricia, Hamed, Jeff and I, as we like to call ourselves) did not stop to rest. We pushed on through the Via Francigena, looking out for the stickers of the plump little pilgrim. All was well until we came to a crossroads with signs pointing in opposite directions. While Hamed was a little hesitant about turning left, the group consensus veered us towards what looked like the scenic route. We began to descend through a valley of sheep, cattle, sunflowers, figs, and wine vineyards. We immersed ourselves in the aroma of the flowers and thought about harvesting the grapes. It was absolutely breathtaking but little did we know we were heading in the wrong direction.
When we arrived at a small “piazza” with a few houses, we asked a local villager in our broken Italian “que direczione??” and were informed we had walked 8 kilometers out of our way. The lady suggested we make our way back up the steep mountain and take a left on the asphalt road.
Panting and heavily breathing, we made it to the top, where we had a massive moment of dejas-vu. We had already been there, in the same exact spot two hours before!!! We realized we had just walked 8 kilometers in a full circle!!!! We were exhausted and personally somewhat demoralized but in retrospect, it was one of the most beautiful 8 kilometers I’ve ever walked, not to mention, according to my mom and Hamed, they ate the most amazing figs ever!
We went back to the intersection where had taken the wrong turn and went the alternate way. It was 6 pm, the sun was beginning to fade, and we had 18 kilometers to go. There was no way we were going to make it to Gambassi Therme.
Exhausted and in pain, the seven dwarfs followed a straight road for another 5 kilometers. We began to lose Serena who was entering a state of delirium. Nevertheless, she was a fantastic trooper and carried on until reaching the tiny village of Dogama at 7:45 pm. The team stopped there and called the support vehicle. On the other hand, Jeff, Maria Luz and I, had the brilliant idea of continuing to walk in an attempt to reach our final destination.
The three of us found ourselves walking in the pitch dark along a busy street with speeding trucks and cars. We must have walked for another 3 kilometers when we decided to call it a day (or shall I say, call it a night). We sat down on the curb of an intersection and waited for the support vehicle to arrive. It was nearly 9 pm, we had no flashlights or reflectors. We were playing with fire unnecessarily; after all, we had already walked over 37 kilometers.
The support vehicle could not find us and the first four dwarfs waited 90 minutes to be picked up. By the time we all rejoined, Serena, Patricia and my mom were coughing and shivering. We all finally made it to the hotel and felt comforted to have a hot shower and a warm cup of tea.
Luis was able to ride today with my father and Jorge and did 15 kilometers through the rolling hills! He did amazingly well until he got a flat tire. I guess that’s all part of the journey and part of the ride.
Over 60 kilometers down and looking forward to San Gimignano tomorrow. The team continues to support one another, especially on that detour, that road less traveled that made ALL the difference today.
Walkabout Day 3, September 15: Gambassi Therme to Quartaia
Today was an absolutely beautiful day but a wild, wild adventure!
We started off at the Chiesa Santa Maria in the center of Gambassi Therme and took a left turn down a gravel road perched high above a valley of rolling hills. We walked on that ridge for approximately 3 kilometers until we reached another church, the Chiesa of Pancole. We decided to stop there and descend down a staircase into a dark and narrow cave where we were able to view the most precious life-size nativity scene. Before returning to the Via, we paid a quick visit inside the church despite it saying “no shorts allowed.” There we met a lovely Irish couple that was also walking the Via Francigena all the way to Rome. We told them about our cause and The Walkabout Foundation and gave them some pins and stickers to take with them.
Just as we did in the Camino de Santiago, here too we go throwing our little bread crumbs. Everywhere and anywhere we go, whenever we see an adequate and appropriate location, we place a Walkabout sticker along the way. We’ve been covering the whole route since we left Lucca.
At noon we found ourselves on an asphalt road under the scorching sun headed in the direction of San Gimignano. We were so proud we had not gotten lost this morning; we kept a vigilant eye out for the plump pilgrim stickers and Hamed took over the guidebook directions. The Via continued straight and before 2 pm we entered the ancient arches of the city of San Gimignano.
San Gimignano is one of my favorite places in the world. I have had the good fortune of visiting it before, but every time I come back, it does not cease to amaze me. It feels like a fairy tale, like a scene out of a movie, a picture from Romeo and Juliet. It is almost too beautiful and too perfect to be true. The churches, the squires, the squares, and most importantly the towers, transport you to a magical world. We were quick to find a sandwich and settle down by a fountain in the center of the main piazza. Those few minutes to rest your feet and legs are priceless!
We could not leave San Gimignano without having a gelato from the “world famous” gelateria. We each devoured a giant scoop of ice cream as we exited the city walls. We continued on a tarmac road for several kilometers until reaching a crossroads which indicated to the right for Gracciano d’Elsa and straight ahead for Colle Val d’Elsa. We took the longer route and the road less traveled and turned right.
Down a windy pebbled trail, we breathed in the fresh air. The beauty of Tuscany lay before our eyes. We climbed and descended, up and down the whole afternoon. Our feet hurt, our legs ached, at times we wanted to quit, but in the end we knew we had to keep going, going and going, for our cause. And that’s what motivates us to walk a little further, knowing that every step we take is one step closer to finding a cure for paralysis and helping people in need around the world.
Around 4 pm we arrived at the San Gimignano Castle and did not know which way to turn. We decided to turn right but then saw the trail we had come from straight ahead of us. Had we actually taken that turn we would have backtracked our entire steps and gone right back to where we started. Instead, Hamed and Jeff saved the day! They studied the directions and realized we had to make a left turn instead. There was no one for us to ask and confirm, the castle was deserted except for some mysterious ghost drummer that was banging his drums on the top floor of the castle, oblivious to our calls for help.
We found our way back on the Via and walked along the ancient Roman road (according to Jeff the most spectacular part of the trip), and made our way deeper into the forest. We came to a small stream in the middle of the woods that we had to get across, stepping on little stones in order to make it to the other side. On the other side we encountered a cage full of barking dogs, dozens of dogs that we later found out were used to sniff out “cinghiale” that were shot dead by hunters. We were in hunting ground and we had no idea!
Around 6:30 pm we found a house and a sign that pointed in one direction while our guidebook said to go in another. We followed the guidebook, and little did we know we were headed into the middle of an ungroomed field, a square covered on all four sides by trees, bush, and branches. We were stuck in this field, trekking through thorns, oak, and ivy. We knew we had taken a wrong turn yet again, and decided to turn back. Fear started to set in as it was getting dark and we had no idea where to go. We backtracked our steps and realized where we had turned by mistake. We entered a small dirt path, lined on either side by trees, and went back into the forest.
Everyone began to fret and hurry. We were scared of getting stuck in the woods as it was turning to night. All of a sudden we heard gunshots!!!!! We bolted, as fast as lightening, as fast as our two feet could take us, we ran through the woods trying to make it out to the other side. It is amazing how one can find the energy to sprint out of fear, when one second before we were at a point where we questioned whether or not we could walk another step.
The gunshots subsided and we found our way to the tiny village of San Donato. We continued one last bit to get to Quartaia where we got picked up nearly at 8 pm. We completed our 32.5 kilometers, each and every one of us!
Luis continues to be our hero and impress us all. He rode 21 kilometers today to San Gimignano, of which 11 were uphill! He’s a true fighter and has incredible determination. Under the blazing sun and in the heat of the day, he kept pushing and pushing until he arrived at his destination with my father, uncle Wato and Jorge. He’s an inspiration to all of us who know him, who meet him, and who see him along the way.
We all eagerly await tomorrow’s walk to Siena.
Walkabout Day 4, September 16: Gracciano d’Elsa to Siena
I am very proud to say we did not get lost today! We walked the whole 30.5 kilometers without having to backtrack any of our steps. Ever since we entered the province of Siena, the Via has been very well marked, with arrows, stickers, and wooden signs along the way.
We started off in Gracciano d’Elsa with a smaller group today. We lost Serena and Patricia who had to head back to London. Not only did they manage to keep up with the group and walk the whole distance, but they also brought so much joy, entertainment, and laughter to each and every one of us as we walked. Thank you Patricia and Serena for an unforgettable experience!
We walked for the first few hours under the radiating sun through the fields and pastures of Tuscany. We had more hills to ascend today than any other day, but given that we were a smaller group, we managed to pick up a faster pace and move along quite swiftly. Hamed stayed in charge of the directions, which meant I could somewhat relax and enjoy the scenery and views instead of having to look at my guidebook the entire time. Nevertheless, as Jeff said, you have to be looking down at your feet pretty much the whole time given the uneven turf, the pebbles, mud, and rocks.
We stopped by the most beautiful little church and lit another candle. In many ways the candles are our bread crumbs too. By lighting them, we are in essence creating one big flame, a symbol of our universal cause. We continued on the Via through the forest singing the Lion King’s Hakuna Matata in the direction of the Castelo de Monteriggioni.
To get to the Castelo we had to climb one of the steepest hills we’ve climbed thus far. We made it to the top and enjoyed the most quaint and picturesque little town I’ve ever seen. The Castelo is effectively a fortress with little restaurants, shops, a museum and a hotel. We made a quick stop at a local butcher where Hamed and Jeff ordered fresh prosciutto sandwiches and we continued on our way.
The rest of the afternoon was spent walking through the forest. Hamed, or “Magellan” as Jeff called him, managed to lead us through the woods in the right direction. Other than our very short break at the Castelo de Monteriggioni, we never once stopped to break again today. We literally were on our two feet walking for 8 hours straight when we came to a crossroads, a point in the road where we could turn right and follow the footpath back into the woods, or turn left and follow the secondary highway straight into Siena. It was a no brainer, we turned left and proceeded straight up the hill.
To get to the Siena we had to climb the second steepest ascent of the day. It was nearly 7 pm and I seriously couldn’t do it anymore. I was in pain, every single inch of my body hurt, every muscle ached, my legs were cramping, and I had the most enormous blister on my right foot’s small toe. My pinky was entirely covered in one big blister, it was so big that I could barely walk. Not to mention Hamed said it was the size of Manhattan.
We made it though! We made it in time for the sunset on the Piazza del Campo where the famous horse race, the “Palio di Siena” is held each year.
We met up with my dad and Jorge and then jumped into the support vehicle which transported us to our hotel. We had to trail my father and flash the car’s bright lights at him as he rode all the way back to our day’s final destination.
Back at the hotel, we had the most wonderful dinner of prosciutto de cinghiale, pasta, and lampchops with the whole group, including Luis and Ali Munir who had just arrived.
It was such a blessing to be all together and, hearing about Luis’s ride put the biggest smile on my face. He rode 15 kilometers today, all uphill. What a champion!
Tonight we have a few more people arriving. The group continues to get bigger and Walkabout continues to cover more and more Tuscan ground. We have walked approximately 120 kilometers.
With only 100 kilometers left, we appreciate all of the support we have had and we hope to reach our fundraising goals to be able to send a container of wheelchairs to Pakistan, Chile and Rwanda.
Walkabout Day 5, September 17: Siena to Ponte d’Arbia
When John Muir said that “in every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks,” he summarized our day in just one sentence.
We bid farewell to Hamed and Jeff early this morning who took a train to Rome. We are going to miss them dearly. After four memorable days of walking with them, they not only became an integral part of our team, but also members of our family. The two of them together made every step we walked that much more pleasant and enjoyable. Together we sung, danced, laughed under the Tuscan sun. Thank you Hamed and Jeff for being such amazing Walkabout supporters (and for carrying my mom’s bag the whole way!).
Despite losing two walkers, we gained another four this morning. Alex and his sister Marene arrived from London, along with my close friend Fernanda, and our family friend Pedro del Claux who you may remember from last year’s Camino. Alex is here with his Freedom Ryder to cycle with Luis.
We made our way back to the Piazza del Campo this morning and took the Porta Romana to exit the city. The first part of the day was incredibly pleasant, on tarmac roads but through the Tuscan rolling hills with nothing but 360 degrees of endless views of the surrounding beauty. The roads were deserted, not a car, not a person, not even a stray animal. It was incredibly peaceful and refreshing to breathe in the clean air and stretch one’s arms in the direction of the wind.
We meandered through the hills until arriving at a perfect spot for a break. On a small patch of grass under a few olive trees, we sat down, stretched our legs, and had a snack. My blister had popped, thank goodness, but it was now an open wound, a fresh piece of skin that was throbbing under my thick sock. I swallowed my pain and hobbled along. I knew we had to keep going.
As per usual on the Via Francigena, we arrived at a crossroads and had no idea where to turn. Pedro turned left to see if there was a sign, while the rest of us turned right and saw no indication either. The group consensus decided to go straight in the direction of the highway where we walked alongside the speeding cars and trucks. Luckily we re-found the Via and continued back on the footpath and up the rolling hills.
We walked for several kilometers along the ridge of the hilltops. The wind was strong, blowing us sideways and therefore making each step more strenuous and difficult. From high above, I asked the others how they would describe the 360 degree view. Ali said “pastel rolling hills,” Marene said “agricultural farmland Tuscany,” and Pedro said “king of the world.” All three of them had accurately painted the vivid picture. We could spot every color in the rainbow from where we were standing, we walked along hay fields and sunflower crops, and perched high high above, we truly did feel like we were kings of the world.
After eating our sandwiches, we quickly continued on our way through the fields and corn stalks. Today, Pedro was the group leader which meant his fresh and long legs walked at an exceptionally fast pace. I could barely keep up and by the end of the afternoon, I was exhausted. Today has been my worst day. Everything that hurt yesterday hurts even more today and my two legs feel more like bricks than an extension of my body.
In record time we arrived at our final destination, Ponte d’Arbia. We had walked 30 kilometers in 7 hours. As we crossed the street we heard a car honk and realized it was my friend Andrei from Oxford. He has come to join us for the last few days of the Via. We piled into his car and drove to Castiglion del Bosco, the most magnificent 4,500 acre estate I’ve ever seen.
All of us have been invited to stay at Castiglion del Bosco by Jorge and Martita Jasson. They could not possibly be more generous in having us stay at these beautiful villas near the town of Montalchino. The estate is comprised of villas, a spa, a golf course, a club house, restaurant, and the ruins of an ancient tower. Jorge mentioned that at some point the Via must have passed through there.
We all had dinner together at the estate restaurant. Our good family friend, Kevin Mahaney, also joined us who had flown in from the US. At dinner, Luis and Alex told us about the steep hill they had to climb, which was so steep that their front wheel elevated off the ground. Alex, like Luis, had a car accident 10 years ago. Seeing them both on their hand-cycles before they set off for their ride was priceless. The two of them together, one sporting a bright orange Dutch sweatshirt, and the other waving the Argentine flag off the back of his bike, looked effortlessly cool together. I think this is the beginning of a very long friendship.
I can’t believe we have only two days left. The irony is that it’s gone by so fast but at the same time, I feel like we’ve been here forever. I guess it’s the toll the walk takes on your body and how tiring it becomes to walk 8 hours a day, everyday, for five days straight.
But in the end, none of the pain matters. It’s the experience from the walk with nature that counts, and of course the cause we’re walking for.
Walkabout Day 6: Ponte d’Arbia to San Quirico d’Orcia
Endless but epic. Those are the two words I would use to describe today.
Our group changed yet again. Pedro decided to cycle today so we lost him but gained Andrei. My mom, Maria Luz, Fernanda, Marene, Andrei and I set off from Ponte d’Arbia at 9:45 am and began what we thought was going to be an easy and short day. According to my guidebook, today was only meant to be 27 kilometers.
The first part of the day was pleasant and overall very relaxed. We walked along the flat fields on country lanes. For the first time in six days, I felt comfortable following the stickers and the arrows. I finally trusted the signs and put away my directions.
The Via took us on the main road only once today. At around noon, we came to an intersection and had to follow the road up a steep hill for approximately 3 kilometers. Heading in the direction of Montalcino, we finally came to a dirt path that veered left. We turned left and proceeded uphill until arriving at a 18th century castle.
The castle was the perfect place to pause, sit down for a few minutes, eat a snack, and rest. We settled down, as if at home, on a small bench and devoured our picnic which consisted of nothing but a few cookies, dry cereal, and fruit. We all needed to use a bathroom and thinking that there was no one around, we relieved ourselves behind a tree. To our shock and surprise, a car drove past us at that very moment and a young man stepped out with a group of people. He was the owner of the castle, and was showing the group of people his house!!! We were mortified and despite the young man inviting us in for a rest, we decided to leave and continue on our way.
The rest of the afternoon was entirely up hill. Although it was a straight trajectory, we found ourselves climbing the Tuscan hills the entire time. The weather was perfect for walking. It was cloudy but not raining, not too hot and not too cold.
Unfortunately as the day progressed, Fernanda and Andrei both formed blisters, mine continued to throb, and my mom had a terrible knee pain. We decided to take another break on a small patch of grass on a hilltop. After elevating our legs against a tree for a few minutes, we continued up a white dusty road for what was meant to be 3 kilometers according to my guide. We slowed our pace and walked with the mind-set that we didn’t have that much more to travel. We strolled casually until we heard some cyclists screaming something unintelligible from behind. We looked closely and it was Kevin, Pedro, and my father!!!
The three of them had stopped at a winery and went for a quick wine and cheese tasting before finding us. What a way to enjoy the Via Francigena and Tuscany! Together, we looked at our guidebook and thought we were at the day’s halfway point. The cyclists went on their way and we continued to walk.
We came to a small town and found the only restaurant opened for lunch. We ate a quick bite and only then did we find out we were actually only half way to San Quirico; the walk seemed never-ending as we had several more kilometers to cover than expected.
The last few kilometers of the day were increasingly uphill, adding further pain to our aches and blisters. At one point, my mom was at the head of the pack, or as Andrei would call it, she was “the leader of the platoon.” All of a sudden we heard thunder and looked back only to see a massive dark strom brewing in our direction.
We hurried to our final destination, San Quirico d’Orcia, and Maria Luz and Marene who had proceeded ahead started screaming my name. “Run, run, run Caro!” they yelled; but I couldn’t. My legs felt like weights, like dumbbells, and I couldn’t move. When I heard that Luis and Alex were cycling into the town at that exact same time, I found it in me to sprint. I raced up a flight of stairs and saw them arrive. We celebrated the joy and victory together!
Luis and Alex embody everything that we should all aspire to be: fearless, determined, and with the kind of resolve that has historically lead individual men and women to achieve great things. Luis and Alex not only achieved something great today, but they also did something epic. They rode 35 kilometers of which the latter half was all uphill using only the strength of their arms (and in Luis’ case, only one arm, his left arm). They are a true inspiration to each and every one of us.
We eagerly anticipate our last day tomorrow. I can’t believe we only have one day left. 190 kilometers down, and a long 33 more to go.
Walkabout Day 7, September 19: San Quirico d’Orcia to Radicofani
I woke up at 4 am this morning when a lightning bolt struck the ground no more than two feet from where we were staying. The loud crash startled me so much that I sprung out of bed and ran to seek cover. My fear and trepidation subsided when I peered out the window and saw the most beautiful light show, a natural occurrence in the sky above the misty Tuscan rolling hills. I remember falling back asleep thinking, “please let this all subside before our last day.”
We woke up to the sun shining in between the broken clouds. Pumped, energized, and enthusiastic, we were ready to conquer our last challenge, the 33 kilometers to Radicofani. Our journey was coming to and end; in other words, our promise to walk 220 kilometers in just 7 days was about to be fulfilled.
We left San Quirico d’Orcia at 11 am, very late but incredibly happy to be joined by my sister Adriana who had flown in from New York and Daniele who had arrived from Milano. Our group dynamic continues to change as we gained two new walkers but bid farewell to Andrei who left for Romania and Pedro who had to head back to Spain.
We began our first ascent of the day and had barely walked 2 kilometers when the rain began to fall. The sun disappeared, the temperature dropped, and the day turned to dark. Fernanda’s knee began to throb and the thought of walking 8 more hours daunted her. She has a weak knee and her large orthopedic brace was no longer helping. With an imminent surgery, she thought it was probably best to call it a day. We asked one of the support vehicles to come pick her up.
At that moment, all eyes were on my mom. She too had a bad knee, swollen and inflamed. I had seen her limping the past few days and we were all worried about her. We asked her if she wanted to quit but she refused to give up. My mom is a fighter, always has and always will finish whatever she starts and sets her mind to. Her perseverance is astonishing and her courage to see things through is commendable. I speak on behalf of all my friends that have joined her throughout this week when I say that she is amazing. And I don’t just say that because she’s my mom, I say it because she really is.
The Via took us through a mountain bike race and we found ourselves walking among hundreds of cyclists that were pushing up the slippery slopes and rocky hills. Trying to dodge them as they came full speed around the bends, we gave them support and encouragement by yelling “fortza, fortza, dai, dai,” which translates to “strength, strength, come on, come on!” One cyclist must have crashed and fallen because he was covered, head to toe, in blood.
Our last day could not have been any more eventful. Between the rain and the race, we were surprised to also find ourselves amidst a Hummer car rally. A dozen SUV Hummers, in all different colors, sped by us and kicked up the mud as they went. The rain continued to pour and threaten us but we refused to let it win. When we then met another group of walkers on the Via Francigena, a group of 70 year old’s from France, we knew we had no reason to ever complain. If they could do it, well then so could we.
After walking on the ridge of a hilltop and along dirt paths through various farms, we stopped at someone’s house to find shelter. In the car park we sat down on the wet stone and ate our sandwiches and hard boiled eggs.
The Via then took us down a dirt path that was in terrible condition given the rainstorm. It was beyond muddy, and with every step we took, the mud got thicker and thicker, digging its way into the soles of our shoes. The heels of our sneakers became so entrenched with mud, it almost felt as though we were wearing high heels, or better yet, moonboots. We couldn’t stop laughing. It was hysterical. We thought we were stuck there for good but our determination was stronger and we kept walking.
At last, the sky above cleared before us. We strolled through peaceful roads, between sheep, pigs, dogs, rabbits, cats, horses, and donkeys. At 6 pm, we faced another massive climb, a steep rocky ascent to the top of the hill. When we reached the top we realized we had yet another hill to climb. But this hill was not a hill; instead, it was a proper mountain.
By now time was of the essence. The sun was setting and we were working against the clock. The signs along the road indicated 5 more kilometers to Radicofani. That would take us over an hour, an hour of sunlight we simply did not have. Left, right, left, right, our feet were just moving automatically, as if on cruise control. At that point, every inch and every millimeter of our body ached and throbbed. We had been going for 8 hours straight with very little rest.
The mountain was relentless. It was a grueling climb with no flat points to break. We could see our destination in the distance, a medieval tower, of the kind you would see in a Rapunzle-like fairy tale. The irony was that the more we walked, the farther the tower appeared. It was playing tricks on us, mind games, taunting us. We were all dying!
As if almost by miracle, a second wind entered our bodies and we began to walk at a faster pace. The Via became alive with our presence. Adriana, Marene, Marialuz and I began singing. In harmony, we sang every possible song we could think of, from Disney songs, to U2, to the Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. The music provided us with the strength to keep on pushing.
Alas we arrived in Radicofani at nearly 8 pm. We did it, we were there, we accomplished our goal and promise, and had achieved a tremendous feat: over 220 kilometers in just 7 days! We were exhausted but ecstatic, and just as were all jumping around and hugging each other, my father and Kevin arrived in the center of town on their bicycles. I can proudly say the same about my father that I previously said about my mother. My dad too is amazing. To cycle over 60 kilometers a day at his age is beyond impressive and takes tremendous drive and will power. I only hope to be able to have that same love and zest for life as I grow older.
We found out Alex was only a few kilometers away riding his hand-cycle up to the top. He had come as far as we had and we wanted to encourage him to cross the finish line. We all piled into my uncle Wato’s car and drove down to see him. Marene, Maria Luz and I jumped out of the car and began running beside Alex. I will never understand how we found the strength to run, but we did and we cheered Alex on until he made it to Radicofani at the top of the mountain.
We couldn’t have asked for a better way to end the trip. Martita and Jorge had organized a pizza party for all of us upon returning to Castiglion del Bosco. Luis told us that he had gone out on a 20 kilometer bike ride around the vineyard, creating his own little circuit in the vicinity. He felt great and looked great! What a champion, after having had surgery only 6 months ago, he’s back and back with with full force! He and Alex are invincible.
At the end of this incredible journey throughout Tuscany, I take a moment to reflect on this past week. It would not have been possible without the love and support of so many. First and foremost, I am grateful to God for keeping us all safe and sound throughout the very challenging past couple of days. Secondly, I am beyond thankful to my parents who not only accompanied Luis and I on this trip, but also live, breathe, and believe in what we do.
I also want to thank my sister, my cousins Maria Luz and Alejandro who at 8 years old is the youngest person to ever walk with us, my most generous and loving aunt Clara who is by and large my biggest supporter and who has always encouraged me to follow my dreams, my uncle Wato, Daniele, and all our friends who joined us along the way, who flew in from so far to take part in this unforgettable experience. They made the minutes, the hours, and the kilometers go by faster. Their company made the walk that much more exhilarating and enjoyable.
I want to thank Jorge and Martita for hosting us all the last few days in the beautiful Castiglion del Bosco, for their organization, and treating us to the most delicious pizza! And last but not least, I want to thank everyone who is reading this email, all of our supporters who sent us messages of love and encouragement along the way, and who sponsored our walk.
Every step we took, and every step The Walkabout Foundation takes, is one step closer to finding a cure for paralysis.
A daily blog from The Walkabout Foundation’s journey in Italy in September 2010, walking 220 kilometers in just one week. Carolina writes every day about her experiences with her brother Luis, her parents, her relatives, and her friends as they walk and cycle nearly a marathon a day for 7 days straight in Tuscany.