All roads lead to Rome, as they say, but none compares with the experience of walking the Via Francigena. A thoroughfare for a thousand years, traversed by kings and paupers, merchants and bandits, this little-known route laces the Italian boot and ties together a rich and rewarding story.
It isn’t the camino di Santiago, to be sure. You know that one, the legendary pilgrim highway that crosses the top of Spain from the Pyrenees, the one written about by travel writers and triathletes, by Shirley MacLaine and what’s her name – some New Age guru bent on finding salvation or romance or just someone to walk with for the long, tedious trek to Compostella.
Italy’s pilgrim path, by contrast, is an unsung gem. A route from the Alps to Rome that could benefit from better signposts, to be sure, but one that offers a window on the country like no other. To walk it is to get to know Italians and their landscapes, to feel the terrain and sate a well-earned appetite with an ever-changing banquet for the senses – of vistas, flavours and dialects as you traverse up and down one step at a time.
The route I walked that spring season not long ago extended well beyond my ambitions. The Francigena, so-named for being the route from France, actually winds its way over the Alps, across ancient Gaul to the English Channel and mile zero in Canterbury. A wayfarer in the tenth century by the name of Sergeric had the presence of mind to take notes and write about his journey to Rome. As an archbishop, it was his duty to make the pilgrimage. As a writer, he produced maybe the first travel book of Europe, one which lies in a museum in London, its Latin text perhaps not as useful to a contemporary walker as say a GPS might serve today. Still, his experience informs all those who have followed. The pace of the world may have sped up considerably since his time, but the measure of a man’s walk has not.
I chose to begin my path in Milan, a city I knew well from having lived there decades ago, when a young Canadian’s first foray overseas led unexpectedly to a job teaching English and a romance with the culture. To return now, with the intent on walking to Rome, baffled my Milanese friends. “The train will get you there in four hours,” one colleague said. “Pazienza” was my reply. “I want to slow down and get to know your country better.”
Pilgrims should not have to battle rush hour. At Milan’s hectic Stazione Centrale I boarded a local train for the closest connection with the path, which was out in the rice fields near a town called Melegnano where I consulted my map, hoisted my pack and set off. I planned to cover around 30 kilometres a day and make it to Rome in three weeks. But that sounds far too orderly, too Swiss, you might say, for a long walk in Italy. There would be days when blisters laid me up to convalesce, conveniently, at thermal spring towns along the way, like the spa at Terme di Miradolo on the first night where I soothed the shock to my system of having walked from nine to five. Hitchhiking here and there also stop-gapped bits of the route where the path simply disappears, where even locals were not aware of its existence.
A solitary walk is good for the soul and I can think of no better place than Italy to allow for the time and space to let your mind wander to places you may not let it otherwise go. Crossing the plains of the Po, head bowed in submission to my quest – and in awe of the force of my feet to propel me – I would glance up at the approaching Apennines, where I would forsake flat land for the rest of the trip. Italy, I would be reminded with punishing regularity, is a mountainous country.
Though I encountered few other walkers on my route, evidence of pilgrims past abounds. This route was in its heyday in Medieval Italy when walking to Rome was a right of passage. Carved in the façade of the Duomo in Fidenza is a bas-relief of pilgrims with walking sticks, wide-brimmed hats and satchels moving towards Saint Peter. The remarkable etching quite literally points others in the right direction. The office of the Via Francigena Society, formed in 2001 to promote the cultural and historic significance of the route, is located in this Emilia-Romagna town and provides maps and information on where to stay. I would pass the night at convents and small hotels, hostels and agriturismi out in the countryside.
Encouragement came from the locals I met as I walked through their villages, often followed by the offer of a glass of wine or a meal. One old man out for his daily ramble quickly deduced my mission. “Have you eaten?” he called out. A shopkeeper, too, sensed a pilgrim in his midst and gave me a giant foil-wrapped chocolate Easter egg, which I felt obliged to take. “Molto generoso,” I said, unsure how I would carry it, and gave it to the first young kid I encountered. The egg and the boy were the same height.
Mealtime was keenly anticipated, not only for the pleasure of sitting still, but also to sample the astonishing variety of cuisine from one town to the next. In Pontremoli, a beautiful stone village on the Tuscan side of the Cisa Pass, I tasted testaroli, said by the locals to be Italy’s original pasta, not that it looks like anything you’d think of by that name. It was more like soggy toast; flat squares of pasta are first baked, and then boiled. The pesto sauce was a reminder to me in this land dictated by passions for local flavours that I must have been approaching the border with Liguria, where pesto originates. In fact, it lay over the next hill.
From high on a ridge, in the warmth of the spring sun, I caught my first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea. The spent condoms that lay on the trail through this stretch of chestnut forest suggested I wasn’t the only one happy with the view. The path descended through balconies of macchia scrubland, of broom, pine trees and olive trees and suddenly I entered a Mediterranean landscape with iris and orchids in bloom.
The Francigena doesn’t dwell on the coast for long. It was a dangerous route where malaria and pirates put pilgrims at risk. The dangers today come from walking the shoulder of strade statali, busy two-lane highways. Beyond Marina di Carrara, where all those chunks of marble hewn from nearby mountains await transit to the far corners of the globe to be transformed into kitchen counters and birdbaths, the route cuts back inland – and over another mountain. But before I follow, I take off my boots and socks, peel off my shirt and swim in the sea.
A string of beautiful Tuscan cities and hilltop towns – Lucca, San Gimignano and Siena – owe their existence to the via Francigena. They were built to serve the tide of pilgrims and the commercial trade route that soon followed. San Gimignano’s peculiar skyline of medieval towers is well preserved today because the Francigena switched its course in the fourteenth century to the other side of the Val D’Elsa, which had the effect of preserving the town in its aspic of mortar as its importance waned.
I walked solitary back roads under a suddenly intense heat. The Cinta Senese pigs were listless in their pens, camouflaged in the red earth and dust that signalled I was in the land of Siena. It was too hot to walk in midday and it was only April. I wondered how anyone could make this trip under the fierce Tuscan soleone, or lion’s sun as it’s known, that stills life and scorches the earth in summer. I took cover in the shade of a holm oak and quickly fell asleep, only to be awakened by the call of a bird: ‘Cuckoo! Cuckoo!’ On hearing it, I laughed out loud and wondered whether the strain and solitude of this walk were getting to me.
Beyond Siena rises Monte Amiata, an extinct volcano that I knew would bring welcome relief and cooler temperatures. I lived there for a while in a small town called Castel del Piano where friends were awaiting my arrival. The local paper wanted to interview the Canadian who was walking the Francigena. For a few days break from the trail I was treated like a prodigal son. Everyone knew about the pilgrim route, but I couldn’t find anyone who had walked it beyond the bit that climbs their own mountain. Italians are fiercely local in their customs. Maybe that’s why the route doesn’t captivate their imagination like it can an outsider’s. A ribbon route across Canada would likely go unchallenged simply for the daunting prospect of geography, whereas here the weight of history is what keeps people rooted in their local ways. They have a name for this mentality: campanilismo, which refers to the cultural embrace marked by the distance that church bells can be heard.
Crossing into Lazio from Tuscany, I entered a world of fantastic religious lore. The area around Bolsena is particularly rich in stories of saints and miracles. These tall tales must have gone a long way to sustain the faithful as they entered the final leg of their journey. For me, making a stronger connection with the past was to walk on the original Roman stones of the via Cassia, laid 2,100 years ago as a consular road to the empire’s colonies, and still navigable today.
Under darkening skies, I took shelter in Montefiascone in the church of San Flaviano where the custodian told me about a German bishop from the twelfth century who knew how to travel. Johannes Fugger would send his valet on ahead to inscribe the word “Est,” meaning ‘there is’ on tavern doors that served a wine worth stopping for. This grape-inspired graffiti led the soused signor to Montefiascone in 1113 where his sommelier had exclaimed “Est!!, Est!!, Est!!”, complete with six exclamation marks. So enamoured was he of the local drink, the thirsty Fugger never left town, pickling himself into an eternal wine cellar of a tomb that lies in San Flaviano, third chapel on the left. That night I raised a glass in the taverna to him and fellow travellers with a thirst of their own to satisfy.
Beyond Viterbo, road signs counted down the distance to Rome, which put a spring in my step. Sixty. Fifty-five. Fifty. Too much of the trail is roadside here and as traffic intensified, so it seemed did drivers’ disregard for hapless pedestrians. But at least the road led me to Sutri.
This ancient town is mentioned by Sergeric as his first stop for the night on the long return trip back to Canterbury. For those headed south, Sutri has plenty to inspire a pilgrim on Rome’s doorstep. The landscape is suddenly different, with cantinas, garages and early mausoleums carved from the soft tufa stone, like something out of The Flintstones. Most impressive of all is an entire amphitheatre hewn from the porous rock. This moss-covered mini Coliseum complete with tiered seating and corporate boxes was rediscovered in the nineteenth century and dates from the last years of the first century B.C. That blissful afternoon I took a seat alone in the stands and cast my imagination back through the millennia.
In the dank cellar of the cave-like church of Santa Maria del Parto I came face to face with frescoes of my brethren pilgrims. There they are proceeding across the wall with their walking sticks and humble medieval attire towards Rome, which they know is nearby. The scene bears silent testament to the struggle these characters and I have faced together, in our own ways and with our own challenges, centuries apart. I am full of feelings of antiquity, as if I’m becoming one of them, a character from out of the past. I wasn’t looking for an epiphany from this adventure, but it came nonetheless – a connection with the shared human experience of sacrifice and endurance.
Pilgrims historically enter Rome through the massive gate at Piazza del Popolo, a square designed to impress weary warriors of the road. The effect is no less today, where an obelisk, fountain, twin churches and the buzz of life within the ancient city walls underscores one’s sense of arrival. A month’s walk had changed my physique. I shed pounds, built up muscle and now carried myself with better posture. This was evident on the streets of Rome where I strode like a purposeful pilgrim in my shorts and hiking boots. Ruddy and red necked with a worn straw hat that flopped over my ears, I felt other pedestrians saw the determination in my bearing, as if on the final stages of a long pursuit and nearing my goal.
The city was getting down to business on this warm April morning and well-dressed men and women of all ages were locking their scooters, talking on cell phones, smoking outside office buildings and looking very Roman about it all, oblivious to the circus swirling around them. Rome is a grand stage and its players all dress the part. A flock of nuns crossing the street in their habits barely gets noticed in this costumed parade of religious rank and file from all over the world. A white-gloved cop tries to make order of congested traffic with the flourish of a symphony conductor. Burly men in centurion outfits head for the Coliseum to pose for the tourists. And rather than just being a tourist, I felt that I too was part of the spectacle.
Paul French is a Toronto-based writer who has adopted many aspects of the Italian way of life, including a passion for walking.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 21.