England / France / Switzerland / Italy
Start: Canterbury Cathedral, England
End: Rome, Italy
Distance: 1,180 miles (1,899 km)
Time: 3 months
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Surface: Farm Trails, Sealed Roads
One of the great and ancient pilgrimages of Europe, the Via Francigena – ‘the road that comes from France’ – grew as a devout pathway to Rome in the years after Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 318 CE, an agreement to provide Christians with legal status and treat them with ‘benevolence’. It started as a collection of local paths and trails of varying quality and widths, maintained by local nobles and linking villages, mountain passes and seaports. Walking it was not without its dangers from bandits, wild animals and disease, and if you walked it as a pilgrim there was a lot to do before you even started: prepare a will, settle all debts, ask forgiveness from all one may have slighted, be dressed in a pilgrim’s habit by your local priest or bishop, and lastly, say goodbye to your loved ones. After all, the chances of making it back alive were not exactly encouraging, and even if you did make it back, if you were late in returning by more than a year and a day you were presumed dead, and your property became the property of your heirs.
It entered the historical record for the first time in 725 CE as ‘the Frankish route’ in the pages of the Itinerarium Sancti Willibaldi, a travel journal written by the Bavarian Bishop of Eichstatt and inveterate traveller, Saint Willibald. Rather than a central paved road, the trail began as a series of parallel and divergent pathways that altered over time as trading routes came and went. There were several points over which one could cross the Alps and the Apennines, and the ‘dots’ that joined the route were abbeys and not cities – dots that were more prone to being altered as the centuries progressed. By the close of the first millennium the route consisted of some 80 stages, each around 20 km in length, not dissimilar from the prospect for anyone contemplating walking it today. By the time Sigeric the Serious, then Archbishop of Canterbury, walked from Canterbury to Rome and back again in 990 to receive his Papal pallium – a simple woolen cloak embroidered with six black crosses, the symbol of his investiture – the route had become known as the Via Francigena. Pilgrim numbers increased greatly after 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII announced the first Christian Jubilee, where he would grant afresh ‘great remissions and indulgences for sins’ for all who came to see him. The Via Francigena is not nearly as popular as that other historic, much-trampled pilgrimage trail, Spain’s Way of St James, a fact due in part to there being fewer places to stay, on average, on this route, therefore any anxiety about whether you will get to a hotel at the end of each day is minimized if you are prepared to pitch a tent. Those who walk its entire length in any given year can vary between 2,000 and 3,000, as opposed to the tens of thousands that walk the Way of St James, which means you’ll barely see anyone else doing what you are doing until you reach oft-trod Tuscany. But any who attempt to walk its entire length, or for any who set out to conquer even just a few of its stages, to walk on what was Europe’s most significant medieval road will remain a life-changing experience.
Just decades ago the only people interested in the route were scholars. The rebirth of the ‘modern’ Via Francigena officially occurred in 1985 when the Italian Archaeologist of Roads, Giovanni Caselli, retraced, surveyed and mapped Sigeric’s route, as best he could along a road that had lain largely forgotten for centuries. On the way he found tantalizing traces of its presence: statues with inscriptions that read: ‘I show you the way to Rome’, and old Templar churches and monasteries that were able to fill in many of the route’s blanks. Pensions and hotels opened their doors to him. Slowly the old road began to take shape, and as awareness of its hoped-for restoration began to circulate, local governments became involved in uncovering and clearing their own sections, and volunteers began dipping brushes into paint tins and marking its trails.
Declared a European Council Cultural Route in 1994, in 2007 a group of cyclists set out from Canterbury Cathedral and rode to Rome in sixteen days, following, more or less, the route redrawn by Caselli. Two years later the Italian government started an initiative to uncover and restore their sections. Other governments soon followed. Walking the Via Francigena today requires a detailed map, as some of its sections are not as clearly marked as they could be. While in Italy if you’re able to obtain a Pilgrim Letter or identity card this will allow you to spend night in a monastery, convent, or other church building.
You begin in front of Canterbury Cathedral, and from there progress on to the flat expanses that are home to the North Downs Way, and on to Dover. Taking the ferry and alighting in Calais (neglect, if you like, the fact the actual landing point in the Middle Ages was down the coast at Wissant) you head for the Somme and from there to Reims through the vineyards of Champagne and the picturesque hilltop town of Langres. Quiet roads take you into Pontarlier, France’s second-highest town, and from there you cross the Swiss border and enter Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva. Passing through the famous vineyards at Lavaux with their lineage dating back to the Romans you cross the plains of the Rhone and soon begin your ascent to the town of Martigny (elevation 471 m)at the foot of the Swiss Alps on the eastern boundary of the RhoneValley. The route into Italy takes you over the Great St Bernard Pass (elevation 2,649 m), Switzerland’s third-highest mountain pass and a common route through the Alps since the Bronze Age.
The trail descends into Italy to the city of Aostao, where prayers can be offered in its 4th-century cathedral before heading to Pavia with its wonderful Duomo, and San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro which houses the remains of St Augustine of Hippo, the church’s great 5th-century philosopher and theologian. Vercelli on the River Po Plain is home to several Roman relics including a hippodrome and amphitheater, as well as the Basilica di Sant’Andrea, one of Italy’s finest Romanesque structures. You can choose to cross the Po here, just as Sigeric did, by ferry, and continue on to the Ticino Valley Natural Park, a tranquil diversion into Italy’s very first regional park established in 1974, a 91,000-acre sanctuary of conifer forests, wetlands, moorlands and farms that is home to 48 mammalian species including badgers, weasels and stone martens.
After crossing the River Po on your way to Piacenza you enter the countryside of Emilia-Romagna, home to Italy’s oldest human settlements. The route remains relatively flat and undemanding until you begin the climb into the Apennines where a twisting ascent takes you up to Berceto in the Taro River Valley on the road from La Spezia to Parma.
The Via Francigena is mostly on woodland trails here as you enter Tuscany after ascending 1,040 In over Cisa Pass near the source of the Magra River, before turning towards the Mediterranean Coast at Sarena. Then head south through Lucca, San Girnignano and Sienna, staying at refuges in the very same villages Sigeric passed through. South of Sienna the trail parallels another old Roman road, the fig Cassia. The Val d’Orcia Natural Artistic and Cultural Park, created to protect this beautiful valley’s cultural and natural heritage while at the same time avoiding turning the region into an open-air museum, is one of the route’s most beautiful segments. The final stage from Montefiascone goes via the thermal pools at Bagnaccio and on to the treasure of Viterbo, left largely untouched duringWorld War II with an historic centre that still lies, enchantedly, within its 11th- and l2th-century defensive walls. From here it is a mere 80 km to Rome, via the town of Bagnaia and its relic of aristocratic grandeur, the 16th-century Villa Lante which is also the site of one of Italy’s great gardens. Entering Rome you pass the remains of the Etruscan necropolis at Sutri, before weaving your way through a labyrinth of Rome streets, to finish at St Peter’s Square in The Vatican.
If you’re the sort of person ‘who likes the idea of making a life-changing journey, but are not particularly religious and not so enthusiastic about meeting lines of pilgrims and being coerced into a lot of impromptu chats along the way, then the Via Francigena delivers a perfect balance of socializing and solitude, on a road that, by virtue of walking it, became an act of penitence that delivered those who Finished it into the hands of God.