PILGRIMAGE IN ITALY. Marian shrines dot the route, which includes Siena (shown) and Castel Gandolfo. Shutterstock/Rasti Sedlak
Inspired by the movie The Way, about the famed El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage that ends at the tomb of St. James, Kenneth Nowell determined to undertake his own pilgrimage, but via a lesser-known historic route called La Via Francigena, which runs from France to Rome.
In honor of his 60th birthday last fall, Nowell, who is the author of Rome and the Vatican: Guide for Pilgrims (Vero House, 2013), headed out on his own to walk a portion of the route. He hoped to add a chapter about it to his book, while also growing spiritually.
Nowell is not alone in his desire to use a pilgrimage as a way to grow in faith. Barbara Banks, director of new trip development for Wilderness Travel, one of the first major tour companies to offer a trip along La Via Francigena, says the company has noted an uptick in people interested in pilgrimages. “Pilgrimage is becoming a really meaningful thing in people’s lives,” she said.
Named a European Council Cultural Route in 1994, La Via Francigena is slowly growing as a pilgrimage choice. “I think it will gain increasing popularity,” said Nowell. “For people who love hiking but want something new and a different adventure, there’s great beauty on La Via Francigena.”
And there is perhaps no better pilgrimage for the Year of Mercy. The route takes pilgrims directly into Rome, where they can cross the holy doors of the basilicas and visit the remains of eight apostles, not to mention attend an audience with Pope Francis.
La Via Francigena, which literally means “road from France” or “road from the Land of the Franks,” is a lesser-known pilgrimage route compared to El Camino, which sees hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year.
“It’s an undiscovered jewel; once people do experience it, they love it — and they tell their friends, and they refer people to the route,” said Leo Locke, vice president and COO of Donna Franca Tours, which helps pilgrims coordinate journeys along the ancient road.
The route, which dates back to the seventh century, originally spanned 994 miles from Canterbury to Rome. Since about the year 1000, Christian pilgrims traversed this route on their way to Rome, some continuing on toward coastal Puglia to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Over time, the road became an important trade and communications route, and Archbishop Sigeric “the Serious” of Canterbury, increased its notoriety when he documented his journey in 990, noting 80 places that he stayed on the road.
Pilgrims on the La Via Francigena will discover the many diverse landscapes of Italy as they cross from north to south. The path winds through the Italian countryside past olive groves, golden wheat fields, rolling hills, dense forests, hot springs and rows of cypress trees, crossing into the regions of Tuscany, Piedmont, Lazio and Liguria.
There are many beautiful and historic towns and hamlets along the way, many with their original fortified walls, including Viterbo (often called the “City of the Popes” and one of the best-preserved medieval towns), Siena, Montefiascone, Capranica and Sutri. These cities and some of the ancient structures that remain have played host to not just pilgrims, but soldiers and citizens on their way to Rome.
The River Arbia, mentioned in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and the volcanic Lake di Bolsena — whose Rocca de Papi (“Fortress of the Popes”) served as a safe haven for several popes during the 13th and 14th centuries — are a feast for the eyes.
Art and architectural discoveries lay throughout, from historic churches, fairy-tale castles and Etruscan tombs to a Roman amphitheater, portions of a cobbled Roman road and a Benedictine monastery.
La Via even passes the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, and there are opportunities for prayer along the way at a Stations of the Cross and several Marian shrines.
Banks says Via Francigena is historically significant and offers phenomenal experiences, ranging from the culinary (Locke advises looking for Porcini mushrooms along the way) and architectural to spiritual.
Preparing for Pilgrimage
Before you embark, you’ll need to prepare well for both the logistics and the physicality. If you’re walking the route as a pilgrim, you’ll want to secure a pilgrim’s credential, certifying that you are making a pilgrimage to a place of worship to help grant you access to assistance as you travel. You can purchase the credential at the website for the Association of the Italian Municipalities of Via Francigena, an organization whose aim is to promote the ancient pilgrimage route.
Additionally, the Vatican offers a testimonium, which certifies completion of the pilgrimage, to all pilgrims who walk at least 100 kilometers (62 miles) of La Via Francigena. You’ll need to have your pilgrim credentials stamped at each accommodation in order to receive it.
The route is also physically challenging. Wilderness Travel rates its trip as moderate, traveling between seven and 11 miles per day. “You have to be pretty fit, because these are medieval trails; they are not modern walkways,” advised Locke. The Italian National Tourist Board says pilgrims should expect to travel about 12.4 miles each day, and those looking to walk the entire route should plan about a month and a half to complete it.
How to Go
There are as many ways to travel the Via Francigena as there are people who go. You can travel on your own or with a group, by foot or by bike, with or without a guide, plan it all yourself or let a tour company do the planning for you. You can also choose to walk the entire route, a portion of the route or even walk only the safest and most beautiful parts.
Nowell recommends that first-timers go with a guide or through a company familiar with the route, such as Donna Franca Tours or Wilderness Travel, whose guide literally lives on the route. These companies also help travelers secure their testimoniums and other needed documents.
The Association of the Italian Municipalities of Via Francigena and Italian National Tourist Board provide sample itineraries for different regions and even ones for those who may want to travel by bike or with a dog. Spring and fall tend to be the best times to travel Via Francigena, avoiding the hotter months of summer.
Embarking on this journey for the Year of Mercy will certainly be life-changing.
“When you combine all the Imperial history with all the Christian history — even the saints’ burial places, the art and architecture — for me, it’s life intensified,” said Nowell, noting that one of the most significant parts of the journey for him was getting a firsthand perspective of what the apostles had to undergo as they traveled the world.
“It gives such great appreciation for all that has been done to spread the faith throughout the centuries.”
Lyn Mettler is a Catholic convert who joined the Church in 2013.
She is a freelance writer who writes about travel and Catholicism