Some people look at a walking holiday as an opportunity to explore the landscape at a relaxed pace, enjoy some invigorating physical exercise and immerse in the cuisine and hospitality of what's often an entirely different culture to their own. And right they are! But some people see a walking holiday as something deeper and more spiritual – the chance to follow in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims who, by their bold and pioneering spirit, etched the very history of the world into its vast connected landscape. |
One such route popular with bold travellers is la Via Francigena – the route to Rome. Lesser known and far less developed than the higher profile Camino de Santiago in Spain, a walking holiday along la Via Francigena in its entirely would necessitate travelling 2,000kms – so, needless to say, most people choose a particular section. Along the way, the fine line between a long walk and a pilgrimage becomes decidedly blurred.
The Route to Rome
The route emerged to connect the religiously significant English city of Canterbury with Rome, where pilgrims made the journey from the city of cathedrals to visit the Holy See and pay their respects at the tombs of Peter and Paul, the Apostles. While it dates back to the 7th century, the route was first referenced as la Via Francigena by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric the Serious, who used it to travel back from Rome in 994AD.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the route was an integral part of the network of roads used by pilgrims to connect the three major sacred centres of Christian worship: Santiago, Jerusalem and Rome. From Rome, part of the route split and created a southern arm that led down to Puglia, on the east coast of Italy, from where one could travel over the sea to Jerusalem.
Retracing la Via Francigena
For modern day pilgrims, those who want to complete the route from the UK set off from Canterbury down to Dover (all fairly flat terrain), then take a ferry to Calais to pick up the trail across France, Switzerland, along the Rhone Valley, then up through the Alps and over to Aosta, in Italy. From there, the route continues to the magnificent Italian peninsular and then to Rome.
The most popular section to tackle on a walking holiday is the Italian component, departing from high in the Alps on the French-Italian border. And while for those who embark on this experience of a lifetime the journey is certainly much less fraught than for their medieval counterparts, it is arguably just as arduous. It can take around three weeks to navigate the route through Italy, passing through spectacular scenery, including highlights like Lake Bolsena and Montefiascone.
The trail is a lot wider than the Camino de Santiago and also far less crowded with tourists. The other side of that is, of course, that it's also far harder to navigate, with little accommodation along the way and a distinct lack of signage. However, most people say this is actually a major part of its charm, often leading to wonderful interactions with the locals. Because they don't encounter too many tourists in this part of the world, they're curious to meet those who would tread the path of their ancient forebears on the route to Rome.
For those with an adventurous soul and a good pair of hiking boots, retracing the pilgrim route of la Via Francigena can be a truly life-changing experience and a walking holiday to end them all!
Antonio Nobile is Tour Operator & Researcher at Caspin Journeys, a specialist provider of small group walking holiday tours of Italy, England and Spain. Following in the footsteps of the company founders Pino and Caroline, he has exceptional insider knowledge and a personal devotion to all the tours he organises.
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