The Via Francigena
Nearly every one who has been struck by the travel bug or is men aced with wan der lust has heard of the Camino de San ti ago, or St. James Way. And the fact that the Camino has such an ancient pedi gree lures us into assum ing that it was always a big deal. But just twenty-five years ago only few would have ever heard of, let alone under taken, a long-distance trek along its var ious branches.
And yet here we are in 2010, and New Age celebrities—Shirley MacLaine comes to mind—have done its length. Dutch cyclists flow along it in ver i ta ble streams (so we were informed by one of our hosts). While we were on the Camino in Ger many, many expressed envy and were sur prised to learn that our des ti na tion was Rome, not north west ern Spain. Clar i fy ing that we were retrac ing Luther’s steps cleared up the con fu sion but made our pil grim age a very dif fer ent thing in there minds. It wasn’t the Camino. How… different.
But in the Mid dle Ages San ti ago de Com postela was only one major des ti na tion for pil grims. Rome was another, and as such was pro moted by guide books and even printed maps. As with the Camino, there was in those times no dif fer ence between the path of pil grims and reg u lar trade routes. If you went to Rome, you shared the road with horses, carts, sol diers, and every body else. The “pil grim” routes went through major cities and divided the dis tance into day-sized chunks.
One of these itin er aries to Rome has become known as the Via Fran ci gena. It exists on the path it does now mostly because an Arch bishop of Can ter bury in the 10th cen tury named Sigeric the Serious trav eled the well-used route from Can ter bury to Rome and took good notes on where he stayed the night. The Via Fran ci gena was not some monas tic cre ation but a record of a route in place since Roman times. The Peutinger Table, for exam ple, con tains many of its major points. Sigeric and his log book merely give us a glimpse into the walk ing pro gram of medieval pilgrims.
Around the web you’ll see claims that medieval pil grims mak ing their way to Rome from the north fol lowed this “Via Fran ci gena.” But that’s not really the case; the Romer pil gerkarte which we men tioned a cou ple of weeks ago, and which we believe Luther fol lowed, names a dif fer ent route through Bologna and Flo rence on its way to Siena, for exam ple. And any way, it’s highly unlikely they would have called this route by its first record-keeper; they were just headed to Rome.
From Pavia south ward, we will be fol low ing the Via Francigena—but not because Luther walked this entire route. We will be fol low ing it because it is well-marked, has his tor i cal pedi gree, and routes us away from roads. This is because the Ital ian Min istry of Cul ture, along with Unesco and many other Euro-institutions, have been busy mark ing and pro mot ing it, hop ing that it will be reborn in the same way that has made the Camino a house hold name and dream for many.
As we’ve already dis cov ered, walk ing on roads meant for cars is a very unsafe and nerve-wracking enter prise. And as we could find no infor ma tion about safe walk ing routes for the way Luther went, we’re headed into the hills, cour tesy of the Ital ian Min istry of Cul ture and their pro gram to get a big ger slice of the pil grim pie.