When walking the “French Way” of the Camino de Santiago last year, I learned about many other multi-day, inn-to-inn, through hikes in their countries from pilgrims I met. (I have built a database of these hikes that I will happily share with anyone interested – just let me know!)
Two such routes in central Italy seemed a good introduction for Joanie to this type of trekking. She is still working hard in her career and limited in her available time off, so the 6-day Via Degli Dei and the nearby 8-day Via di Francesco seemed ideal for this trip.
These two Vias are still relatively new for recreational purposes, even though they often follow paths used for centuries (even millennia). Thus, they are less developed than most of the Caminos de Santiago routes in terms of planning guidance (books and websites), lodging and dining infrastructure, and en route signage – particularly for non-Italian speakers. It took me only a few days to conclude that while the Camino Francés can be considered a series of long walks, these Italian Vias are better considered robust hikes.
Generally speaking, the paths are narrower (often single-track), steeper (up and down), more remote, and with further distances between accommodations, water, and food sources than anything I found in Spain. I met many Camino peregrinos in Spain who were not experienced hikers, and they did just fine on that walk. I would have been surprised to find anybody on these Vias in Italy without some long-distance experience and fitness. I am sure this was one reason we saw far fewer people here, making them much less of a social experience than I experienced on the Camino.
La Via Degli Dei (The Path of the Gods)
Our first trek, the Via Degli Dei, is a relatively new through-hike over the Apennine Mountains that runs along the Italian peninsula’s spine from Bologna to Firenze (Florence). Translated as “Path of the Gods,” this refers to the many mountains it summits or traverses which are named after Roman gods of old. It has a nominal distance of 138km (85.7 mi) and nearly 5,000m (16,400 feet) of elevation climb. It is not a pilgrims’ path, like the Caminos de Santiago or the Via di Francesco – instead, it is a recreational trail and even has an associated cycling route. One feature that peregrinos will find familiar is the “passport” we have stamped along the way in our lodgings and some restaurants and bars. Despite it being a new route, it still has fascinating ties to the region’s ancient history. We walked upon stones in certain stretches laid nearly 1,800 years ago. I love that connection with history!
I am publishing these blog posts a few weeks after our return home, yet I have decided to retain the present tense I used when sharing these stories and photos daily during the journey. This will help keep the freshness of the experience – the highs and the lows – the surprises and the disappointments – the observations and the thoughts – just as they occurred.
Via Degli Dei – Day 0: Bologna
After our trans-Atlantic journey, we transitioned today, adjusting to the time change in the beautiful city of Bologna. We explored the popular sites and caught the last day of a summer festival celebrating their portici (porticoes), the covered walkways in the city, built initially to accommodate university students and provide lovely covered protection from the elements.
No other city in the world has as many porticoes as Bologna: all together, they cover more than 38kms (23.6mi) only in the historic centre, but can reach up to 53kms (32.9mi) if those outside the medieval city walls are also considered.Wikipedia, Porticoes of Bologna
Speaking of university, we learned that the University of Bologna is the oldest continuously operating university in the West, founded in 1088, and claims many notable figures in my life and studies, including Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo Antonioni, Thomas Becket, Nicolaus Copernicus, Umberto Eco, Enzo Ferrari, Guglielmo Marconi, and Petrarch.
Bologna is also famous for its towers and churches, including the Two Towers and the Basilica of San Petronio, one of the largest in the world, started in 1388 and still unfinished. It is truly immense and has a capacity of 28,000 people! Its massive facade dominates Piazza Maggiore, from which we will begin our Via Degli Dei tomorrow and where we fell asleep this evening alongside thousands of Bolognese cheering on Thelma and Louise at movie night (awww, jet lag!).
Here are some images from our full day, starting with the colorful shops…
The hallways of the old buildings at the University of Bologna are masterpieces!
Another university highlight was the Anatomical Theatre, first built in 1637 and restored after severe damage from bombardment on January 29, 1944, reusing the original wood sculptures recovered from the ruins. For centuries, medical students sat in two tiers around the subject body on a marble slab…
… while the maestro instructed from the lectern above…
… beneath the elaborate astrological figures around the god Apollo…
… and the watchful eyes of Hippocrates.
Also on display was a guidebook for setting broken bones.
Can you imagine taking classes in a room like this?
Or finding your reference texts in a library adorned such as this?
Before we climbed the tallest of these 12th Century towers, seeing the old paintings and photographs on display was a lot of fun.
Then it was my turn to find unique perspectives.
There are 498 steps to reach the top of the taller Asinelli Tower, 97.2 meters (319 ft) above the city, yielding remarkable views in all directions.
Our first goal tomorrow is the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca atop the distant hill on the right.
It is such a large and imposing structure and dominates the Piazza Maggiore from whence we’ll start our walk tomorrow.
Once inside, it feels overwhelmingly cavernous. They claim a capacity of 28,000 people, but I found no record of any event that attracted such a crowd.
A fascinating feature is a small, decorated hole in the ceiling far above, through which a beam of sunlight tracks across the floor along a meridian at noon each day. Our visit was just two days short of the summer solstice – it would have been fascinating to watch the sunbeam reach the end of its annual journey!
A post from Italy would only be complete when sharing examples of the delicious food we enjoyed. I promise to include photos of our meals whenever possible.
As evening approached, so did the crowds for their summer movie night. We wanted to join the rest of the Bolognese population to watch Thelma and Louise, but we only made it through the previews before jet lag caught up with us.
The hotel’s excellent breakfast spread prepared us for the long day of walking ahead.
Our last step before starting our Via was checking out of our hotel. Joanie found her knight in dull armor. I’m hoping to be the one in shining armor.
We are all packed and ready to walk!
Via Degli Dei – Day 1: Bologna to Sasso Marconi
Everything was great, until it wasn’t…
I designed our itinerary, including today’s plan, six months ago. The devastating rains, flooding, and landslides in May 2023 forced some adjustments, but I felt confident that we could manage the first day’s hike in three stages:
- Climb up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca under the longest portico in the world (3.8km/2.36mi);
- Hike down on the other side of the mountain through numerous storm-induced variants to the standard Via Degli Dei route;
- Walk along the Reno River before fording it to reach our destination for the night, the historic Palazzo de’ Rossi, near the town of Sasso Marconi.
What I didn’t plan for, and which nearly ruined the whole day (if not the entire week), were the high temperatures and humidity, relentless mosquitoes, and unusable trails that lacked any documented variants. Sure, we are here for adventure, but these challenges caused us to seriously worry about what we would find in the coming days.
Here are some images from the day. You’ll see many of the great parts and none of the not-so-good parts.
Under Neptune’s watchful gaze, we stand at the Via’s first of many water fountains.
“Go that way!”
The long Portico di San Luca ensured we wouldn’t lose our way.
Upon leaving the City of Bologna, the portico turns across a road…
… and starts a steep climb.
Joanie’s pink cooling cloth and portable fan are the only clues of the 90F (32C) temperature.
The architecture and views were worth the climb!
The heat made the Via fountain a very welcomed sight!
Looking towards the other side of the mountain range, somewhere down there is our night’s lodging…
Views like this remind us always to look back at where we’ve been.
Finally, after several hours, we get off the pavement and onto the trail. Bikers to the left. Hikers to the right.
We caught our first sight of Spanish Broom, which we would see and smell for the next three weeks. It emits a luscious jasmine-like fragrance.
We also saw the first butterflies, bees, and other pollinators that would accompany us throughout our entire journey. We were fortunate to have so many wildflowers in bloom, mainly due to the heavy rains just a few weeks ago.
Some of these variant trails are still wet and muddy from the recent storms.
How hot and humid it was simply isn’t apparent in these photos. Those conditions and the vicious mosquitos made it feel like a rainforest!
We closely followed the new storm-induced variant instructions on our phones, which were supposed to guide us around areas destroyed by the flooding and landslides, but some were still impassable. A mudslide across our riverside trail diverted us up and over the hill.
Farther down the Reno River, we reached the ford we needed to cross. The angle of this first photo makes it look like there are more rocks than water, but the opposite was more the case.
By this point, after about 3/4 of our day’s hike, we were tired and sore, just as we expected to be. What surprised and frustrated us was how overheated and mosquito-bitten we were. We knew we had no choice but to soldier on, and suddenly confronted another painful and worrying challenge.
I have no photos or videos to share after this point. I was too busy struggling to press forward and lacked all desire to document it for posterity. Sorry!
For the next two-plus hours, we bushwhacked through thick underbrush and mud, fighting off numerous scourges of mosquitoes (now there’s a fun new word!) and getting drained by the hot and humid conditions. I lay down on the cool, wet mud at one point, overcome with nausea and faintness. I fought to regain my senses and balance while Joanie looked for a possible exit.
Once I regained my strength, we went to our lodging (walking along an industrial road rather than a trail). We arrived at the beautiful Palazzo de’ Rossi, where our hostess greeted us with liters of ice-cold water and arranged a pizza delivery (the hotel restaurant is closed tonight). We walked the palace grounds and feel amazed to fall asleep in a place built before Columbus crossed the ocean.
Apparently, the pizzas don’t have to be round!
The truly miserable and draining experiences of the latter part of the day prompted us to discuss actions to take in case of future emergencies. An important lesson and not the first I would learn on these Vias!
Day 1 Stats
Distance: 17.1km / 10.6mi
Elev Gain: 483m / 1,585ft
Time: 4:23 (plus nearly 3:00 of off-route scrambling)
Tomorrow’s forecast is for a high of 94F/34C, and the storm-induced trail variants call for a distance of 37.9km/23.6mi and an elevation gain of 1,763m/5,784ft.
We are in absolutely no shape to handle that!
Via Degli Dei – Day 2: Sasso Marconi to Madonna dei Fornelli
Sometimes, you just have to do what the body needs…
We again consulted the weather forecast this morning, spoke with some locals, and read the new posts from other Via Degli Dei Facebook Group hikers. Most importantly, we discussed our intentions and goals for this trip. Logistically, we wondered about our options if we walked only part of the way today. We could catch a taxi from Palazzo de’ Rossi to some interim point and walk from there, or maybe from somewhere else on the route to our final destination. Even in perfect conditions, Stage 2 of the Via Degli Dei is considered the crux of the 6-day hike, and things were definitely less than perfect.
The options turned out not to be viable choices.
We quickly learned that even the local taxi drivers were refusing to drive through the mountains because of collapsed roads and other storm-induced instability. Ultimately, we passed on the whole day’s hike altogether and caught a cab for the 45-minute drive to our next night’s lodging. Today is the Summer Solstice, and we spent most of it indoors and out of the heat, resting for a 5:30 am start tomorrow. Maybe that will help us beat the heat!
In our destination town, we found confirmation that one can arrive at the end of Stage 2 via foot or bike. We added taxi to the list!
The views from on high are beautiful!
And the local cheeses taste delicious!
This unscheduled rest day also gave us time to consider what happened yesterday that caused me to feel nauseous and lightheaded. We looked up the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Jet lag, travel fatigue, dehydration, lack of fuel, and food poisoning also crossed my mind. I may never know, but the experience highlighted the need to prepare for contingencies better than we had.