The Via Francigena
Nearly everyone who has been struck by the travel bug or is menaced with wanderlust has heard of the Camino de Santiago, or St. James Way. And the fact that the Camino has such an ancient pedigree lures us into assuming that it was always a big deal. But just twenty-five years ago only few would have ever heard of, let alone undertaken, a long-distance trek along its various 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 veritable streams (so we were informed by one of our hosts). While we were on the Camino in Germany, many expressed envy and were surprised to learn that our destination was Rome, not northwestern Spain. Clarifying that we were retracing Luther’s steps cleared up the confusion but made our pilgrimage a very different thing in there minds. It wasn’t the Camino. How… different.
But in the Middle Ages Santiago de Compostela was only one major destination for pilgrims. Rome was another, and as such was promoted by guidebooks and even printed maps. As with the Camino, there was in those times no difference between the path of pilgrims and regular trade routes. If you went to Rome, you shared the road with horses, carts, soldiers, and everybody else. The “pilgrim” routes went through major cities and divided the distance into day-sized chunks.
One of these itineraries to Rome has become known as the Via Francigena. It exists on the path it does now mostly because an Archbishop of Canterbury in the 10th century named Sigeric the Serious traveled the well-used route from Canterbury to Rome and took good notes on where he stayed the night. The Via Francigena was not some monastic creation but a record of a route in place since Roman times. The Peutinger Table, for example, contains many of its major points. Sigeric and his logbook merely give us a glimpse into the walking program of medieval pilgrims.
Around the web you’ll see claims that medieval pilgrims making their way to Rome from the north followed this “Via Francigena.” But that’s not really the case; the Romerpilgerkarte which we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, and which we believe Luther followed, names a different route through Bologna and Florence on its way to Siena, for example. And anyway, it’s highly unlikely they would have called this route by its first record-keeper; they were just headed to Rome.
From Pavia southward, we will be following the Via Francigena—but not because Luther walked this entire route. We will be following it because it is well-marked, has historical pedigree, and routes us away from roads. This is because the Italian Ministry of Culture, along with Unesco and many other Euro-institutions, have been busy marking and promoting it, hoping that it will be reborn in the same way that has made the Camino a household name and dream for many.
As we’ve already discovered, walking on roads meant for cars is a very unsafe and nerve-wracking enterprise. And as we could find no information about safe walking routes for the way Luther went, we’re headed into the hills, courtesy of the Italian Ministry of Culture and their program to get a bigger slice of the pilgrim pie.