I know a lot of people who have walked on the Camino di Compostela di Santiago, which is the most famous pilgrimage route in Europe but it has never really appealed to me. But listening to Sandy Brown talking about his experience hiking the Way of St Francis (Via di Francesco) caught my attention immediately.
The scenery around the famous Camino doesn’t seem very inspiring and the fact that 237,000 people did this camino in 2014 puts me off as well.
But the idea of a pilgrimage – following an ancient spiritual path is something I would like to do at least once in my life. Perhaps the mystery of following the footprints of ancient pilgrims offers something intangible, alongside the physical achievement of hiking.
In fact Europe has a whole network of major pilgrimage itineraries, and the gentle monk St Francis was a traveller on many of these.
The idea trek from Florence to Rome via Assisi covers many of the locations significant in the life of St Francis, as well as some of Italy’s most gorgeous landscapes and gastronomical delights. The man was, and is, one of the most important Christian figures, whose humility and compassion set him apart and whose call to “preach to all creatures” made Christianity for everybody.
Sandy Brown is quite honest in explaining that there have been many variations on this theme over the years but his goal over the past few years has been to prepare a Cicerone guidebook that attempts to offer the most walkable and interesting route from Florence to Rome.
This is not a true historical route but rather a new route linking the Franciscan sites, and with an aim of reintroducing the Franciscan experience.
The starting point is in Florence, at the Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce to be precise, where many famous Italians are buried. While in Florence why not take a cooking course and experience the best of Tuscan food?
The Way of St Francis continues through the forests and fields of the charming Chianti district and on into Umbria.
Umbria is where I got married and I have returned several times to enjoy this rich landscape with its many small, ancient towns.
The climax is a visit to Assisi itself, that heavenly cream-coloured town on the hillside where St Francis was buried surrounded by his friends. I went to Assisi on my honeymoon and would love to approach it on foot rather than in a car!
There are many other highlights over the 550-kilometre Via di Francesca, including lakes, mountains and unspoilt villages. Don’t worry you can hike the Way of St Francis in stages (28 of them), starting from many different places along the route.
Of course the guidebook has the usual excellent Cicerone features such as elevation diagrams and maps. I have used Cicerone guides many times, most recently for my Tour du Mt Blanc hike.
You can get your Way of St Francis passport stamped along the way and then you get to enter a not-for-the-public area of St Peters in Rome to collect your certificate of completion!
As Sandy Brown said, there is something about hiking that allows you to focus on yourself, your spirit, on just walking, with every day filled with great joy. I think I have found my next hiking in Europe goal!
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you hiked a pilgrimage trail?