John Martin, 81, reflects on the trip of a lifetime with his 16-year-old granddaughter, Ella Jane.
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The route the grandfather and granddaughter are hiking
Credit: From left: Courtesy of Ella Jane; Courtesy of S. Dow

"Count me in, Pops!"  That was my granddaughter's response when I invited her to make a 200-mile trek through the Apennines range of mountains down central Italy. I chose this trek after reading an account by a photographer friend who had done it several years ago.

A little history: A Catholic frier from a hill town in Italy lived and preached a life of poverty. He believed that he should pattern his life as closely as he could to that of Jesus. Others began to follow him and his teachings.

The trek we aimed to walk approximates the path taken by Francis and his first 11 followers from La Verna, Italy, to Rome in 1209 to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to establish a new religious order. We are not Catholic but can trace our religious heritage through Francis and his contemporaries. Appropriately, the walk is called Via di Francesco, or "The Way of St. Francis."

View of a hilltop Italy town
Credit: Courtesy of John Martin

Our plan to travel in May to avoid the heat was scuttled by COVID, but we were able to book a "COVID-free" flight from Atlanta to Rome in mid-June.

We were an unlikely pair; I'm 81 years old and 16-year-old Ella Jane was recovering from knee surgery. We both, however, took steps to prepare for 12-mile mountain hikes day after day. I had kept in reasonable shape and did numerous training hikes in our local mountains. Ella Jane faithfully did her post-surgery rehab and gained the approval of her doctor (providing she wore her knee brace). 

What to take? We were not camping; every night would be in a B&B or small inn. Our packs were roomy (to accommodate extra shoes and clothes), but the real question was weight. Electronics and charging devices, though small, were heavy. Laundry soap, clothesline, sketch book, and first aid kit rounded out the contents. We limited ourselves to a backpack base weight of 15 pounds so that (with the day's water and food) we would carry around 20 pounds. 

Carrying electronics? Can't leave home without 'em. We each had a smart watch, which helped us keep track of miles walked, heart rate, etc. And, of course, the cell phones. We used them to call ahead to make sleeping arrangements and for our photography, but the most important use was as a tool to navigate the trail. We downloaded GPS tracks for the walk (available free from Cicerone Press – the publisher of our guidebook) and Guru Maps Pro. The result is a real-time image showing the trail as a blue line and our position as a blue dot. It wasn't unusual for us to check our position dozens of times in the course of a day's hike.

We were glad we had planned a rest day before starting down the 200-mile trail to Rome.  On that day we took an easy walk up to Saint Francis' favorite place, the beech forest on Mount Penna.  Now it is the location of the Santuario Francescano built in the 15th century as a memorial to St. Francis. 

Sketch of grandfather napping on hike
Credit: Courtesy of John Martin

Also, on that first day, we began writing and sketching in our journals. Neither of us had done journaling before this trip, but it proved to be both satisfying and practical. At the end of each day's hike, we would record our thoughts and make a sketch or two of things (or people) we found interesting that day. Ella Jane is a natural artist. I'm a color-blind photographer. Her creative voice is clear and confident while mine is hesitant and often reduced to mumbling.

The Apennines span the full length of Italy and are similar in appearance to the Appalachians on the East Coast of the U.S. Travel in the 13th century was from town to town. These "hill towns" were walled and situated on hills for defensive purposes. We were greeted with curiosity and courtesy as we walked into these villages and small towns. I wondered how Francis and his band of ill-dressed followers were received on these same cobblestone streets.

At this time of year (and because of COVID), we met very few other pilgrims on The Way of St. Francis — most of whom were Italians. I suppose this apparent lack of traffic was due, in part, to all traveling in the same direction. We met no other Americans. Were we fearful? Not at all. I was about as frightening as window shopping in our little hometown.

Nighttime in italy
Credit: Courtesy of John Martin

A typical day's hike started around 8:30 or 9 a.m., although we started earlier if the forecast was for higher temperatures. We'd fill our water bottles — amount depending on if the day's hike included villages where we might re-fill along the way. On two occasions early in the hike we had to drink "questionable" water, which we processed through a small, hand-held filter system designed specifically for hikers. Most days, walks took us along a mixture of mountain trails, dirt roads, and the occasional paved section as we approached a village. There were a few days where the terrain was relatively flat, but we'll remember most the three days in which we climbed more than 3,000 feet. 

At the end of each day, we planned and prepared for the next day. An invaluable tool was the guidebook by Sandy Brown. The book contains detailed information for each of the 19 segments we would walk — including color maps, trail information, lodging information (with phone numbers), and interesting facts about the places on the route that relate to St. Francis.  

But plans don't always work out.

The first bump in the road happened on the third day while walking to Citerna.  Because I hadn't laced my boots tightly enough, my foot was able to move in the shoe, causing a huge blister.  Ella Jane was nice enough to not mention that I had warned her — repeatedly — about how to avoid blisters. That blister sidelined us for two segments of the trek and was to cause me pain for the next 100 miles. Who knew you could buy ibuprofen in family-size quantities?

Assisi charm on backpack
Credit: Courtesy of John Martin

One long day became even longer when Ella Jane discovered that the water reservoir in her pack had sprung a leak and soaked all her clothes. We backtracked several miles to the small hotel we had stayed in the night before and the owner dried Ella Jane's clothes in her electric dryer. Good customer service. We walked 17.5 miles that day.

Another un-planned-for event was the weather. We had walked several days in temperatures in the low 90s and when we saw temperatures of 100, 100, and 102 forecast for the next three days, we had a meeting. "Who thinks we should take a train around the next three segments?" Unanimous.   The good news is that it gave us an extra day in the beautiful town of Spoleto and an extra day in Rome before flying home. 

Watching the Italian people in their environment was fascinating to us. I had been to Italy three times before and knew what to expect, but this was cultural immersion for Ella Jane. We were fascinated, for example, by the small groups that gather at the café for early morning coffee and the swapping of gossip — the conversations conducted in that beautiful language (with arms waving) and the practice of turning up the volume to better make one's point. 

We will always remember the many Italians who showed kindness to us. One day we had walked nine miles of a 12-mile segment. The temperature was in the mid-90s. We were out of water and had found no streams. An elderly lady (I should talk!) was sitting on a bench in the shade of a small church. In response to our "sign language" appeal for water, she produced a one-liter bottle of a cold orange drink and two plastic cups. No hesitation, no question. This woman exemplified the spirit of St. Francis — and we felt it.

The orange-drink lady was only one of many. Perfect strangers gave us their time when we were lost, confused, thirsty, or just needed a translator.

Considering the segments not walked because of my blister and the super-heated days, we walked 133 miles of the 200-mile trek. We weren't disappointed in not doing the full 200 miles. We learned to roll with what was handed to us. St. Francis and his early followers believed in "living in the present" and not worrying about the future. That isn't totally practical in today's world, but it worked for us as we laced up our boots each morning to resume our trek to Rome.

I had the help of others who had walked The Way of St. Francis — mostly from the internet. Google "The Way of St. Francis" and you'll get 311 million results. 310,999,900 of those aren't very informative, but the other 100 are. The best written source was the aforementioned "The Way of St Francis: Via Di Francesco: From Florence to Assisi and Rome" by Sandy Brown.

For those interested in tips regarding a walk on The Way of St. Francis, John Martin can be reached via email at jmartin@hemc.net.