Trekking the Pathway to Paradise
by Brandon Wilson, © 2005, all rights reserved
Originally the Via Francigena (VF) stretched as a series of trails from Canterbury, England to Rome. As far as anyone knows, its existence was first documented in a diary by Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, who returned via the route in 990 AD. It is open to speculation, but many say this route existed long before Siric’s wanderings as a major cross continent trail for early kings, traders, artists and invading armies alike.
Before leaving on this pilgrimage, you can contact the helpful Association Via Francigena in Roma to request this passport-like document. The credenziali del pellegrino Romeo, with its origins in the Middle Ages, identifies you as a “true” pilgrim, and not just some impostor taking advantage of everyone’s hospitality along the route. Arriving in each village at night, you take your credenziali to the church, cathedral or duomo and have it stamped by the priest or even an unassuming archbishop, such as the one who stamped mine in Viterbo, Italy.
En route, however, this passport has more practical purposes. Presenting you as pellegrino, it is a great conversation starter, a source of local amazement, and may even open the door for you to sleep for little or no cost in the local parish, monastery or convent. This is an experience not to be missed.
(Besides, travelling light with only a small backpack, cruising the local discos was never an option for me. I had nothing to wear.)
Carrying your own pack, you quickly realize what is most important on the trail and, perhaps, in your life. Extra weight is equated with more aching muscles and bigger blisters. So, what you don’t need–definitely leave at home. Pack as if you’re going for a weekend hike in the mountains. A stove and tent are unnecessary. Food supplies are plentiful–and exceptional. Taking a lightweight sleeping bag is a good idea since many parishes still do not have beds, let alone bedding. Here, again, is where that good guidebook comes in handy, especially one with suggestions of where you can stay.
Today, in many ways, anyone following this trail is a "pioneer" of the new Via Francigena. Although village priests are generally curious, approving and supportive, many parishes are unequipped to deal with overnight guests. Oddly, I found that sometimes the most opulent cathedrals and richest parishes were less welcoming than the tiniest of crumbling village churches.
There’s nothing more disheartening on the trail than, after walking in the often brutal heat for eight hours, to arrive at an imposing church, present your credenziali to a smiling priest for its stamp, then be told essentially "there’s no room at the inn." It does happen. Don’t be surprised when you’re told "so-and-so" town is just 10 kilometers away. Little do they realize that involves a several hours trek in near darkness. But this is the exception.
Generally, I found the French and Italians delightful and generous. Some of my fondest
memories of the journey were nightly sessions spent practicing my mangled Italian and awkward hand gestures with curious villagers. There was a universal astonishment that someone would walk to Rome, a wide-eyed fascination with the Via Francigena, and a genuine warmth you don’t find among jaded locals in major tourist destinations.
From the simple fruit peddler who wouldn’t accept payment for his apple, to the café owner who treated me to a steamy morning espresso, to the small town priest, his housekeeper and mother who treated us like royalty and wept when we left, to the local mayor who let me use the village’s sole internet connection to check my e-mail, to the Sisters of San Guistiniana who took me in for the night and fed me when I could walk no farther, to the amiable WW II paratrooper who’d served with the American Allies who bought me a glass of vino to toast his comrades, these folks were a few of the unexpected treasures along the VF.
So who walks the Via Francigena today? Unlike the thousands trekking the Camino de Santiago, you will still be a pioneer today on the VF. During a pilgrimage in fall 2000, my pellegrino companion for the first two weeks was Juan Ignacio Preciado, a Basque engineer who had hiked part of the Camino with me in 1999. Over four weeks on the trail, I met a total of six other pilgrims: a Frenchman bicycling to Jerusalem and five German cyclists enroute to Roma.
So what is it that attracts today’s pellegrinos to the VF? It’s still a spiritual odyssey. It’s a chance to shut out the distractions of a busy world, to meditate, to reaffirm your faith, to search for answers, to find inspiration. This is the perfect venue, closer to a walking meditation than a marathon.
But the country roads in France and well-marked trails in Switzerland and Southeast England are a pure delight. This is the way to steep yourself in local culture–and travel across time.
The Via Francigena presents many opportunities to discover precious art and architecture, such as Siena’s magnificent marbled Duomo, or its neighboring living museums in Lucca and San Gimignano. It’s a chance to stroll ancient Roman roads. Explore castles, elaborate fountains, frescoes, sculpture and holy relics sequestered in tiny chapels along the way. Experience local festivals, such as the Choucroute Celebration and “vendage” of the Champagne region.
For some, it is simply the opportunity to take part in a rich tradition of wandering the same path in the same spirit (earning the same aching muscles and blisters) as thousands of pellegrinos this past millennium.
And of course, no sojourn would be complete without sampling the most incredible variety of wines. Sip rare local champagnes direct from their caves, sample the refreshing white wines of the Lausanne region, savor deliciously chilled vino bianco at corner cafes from Aosta to the Ligurian Sea. Then continue your gourmet quest south with hearty Tuscan rossos, Chianti and refreshing Brunello of Montalcino, as you wend your way toward serene Lake Bolseno.
The faithful had come from around the world. But maybe I was the only pellegrino who had walked there.
While facing St. Peter’s Basilica, visit the Association Via Francigena’s representative who is located in the Vatican Post Office to your left and in back of the Pope’s podium. There, you will receive a hearty welcome and Vatican postcard stamped with your day of arrival.
Finally, no matter what your motivation for this journey, take the time to leave yourself open to the “magic” of the experience, the inspiration, your silent companion along the way. Besides relics, relaxation, food and fresh air, you will return to your everyday life with an even more precious memento of the Via Francigena. You will change. Life will never be the same. And perhaps you will have found the answers you truly seek. Buono viaggio! As the Italians say, "Sempre diretto!"
"May the stars light your way
and may you find the interior road. Forward!"
–traditional Irish farewell
Best time to go: May-September, however be prepared for hot weather or rain.
Access cities: If starting from Canterbury, England, London is the logical choice. If you only have time to walk part of the V.F., Geneva is very accessible to Lausanne, about midway on the trail, or Milan for points further south.
Currency: Euros and Pound Sterling.
Accommodation: Wide range, from B&Bs and small local hotels to convents, hostels and camping to luxury spas.
For further information: Association Via Francigena provides information, pilgrim passports, and publishes two useful guidebooks. www.francigena.ch/eng/via.shtml
Iubilantes is an energetic Italian based volunteer cultural pilgrimage organization planning trips throughout the world. http://www.iubilantes.it
La Via Francigena, 1000 Years Later (1000 Anni Doppo), guide to the VF in English and Italian, Gianfranco & Claudio Bracci, NaturArte, with maps, history and photographs, 2000
Other Related Books:
The Art of Pilgrimage, The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, Phil Cousineau, Conrari Press, 1998
An Italian Odyssey, Julie A. Burk & Neville J. Tencer, Verdera Media, 2010
the author: Brandon Wilson is a Lowell Thomas Award-winning
has walked ten long distance paths, including the Camino de Santiago (twice), the Via de
la Plata, the Via Francigena from England to Rome, and the St. Olav's Way across
Norway. In 1992, he and his wife Cheryl became the first Western couple to hike an
ancient pilgrimage trail 650-miles across Tibet, as chronicled in his IPPY award-winning
book, Yak Butter Blues. In 2006, he and a friend founded a pilgrim’s path following the
route of the First Crusades from France to Jerusalem, naming it the Templar Trail. Their
adventure is told in Brandon's book, Along the Templar Trail, named 2009 Best Travel
Book by the prestigious Society of American Travel Writers. His other books include:
Dead Men Don't Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa and Over the Top & Back Again:
Hiking X the Alps. They are available from Amazon.com or from your favorite
bookstore. Visit http://www.pilgrimstales.com for a preview and more.