Tuesday, February 15, 2011
the via francigena
Though a constant stream of pilgrims, merchants, conquerors, ecclesiastics, vagrants and migrant workers tromped the Via, only one voyager left behind a record: Sigeric, who visited Saint Peter's seat in 989 to be made Archbishop of Canterbury and took note of the stops on his return trip from Rome. (He did well to make it back to England; one of his predecessors froze to death in the Alps.) It is Sigeric's itinerary that provided the basis for the brand spanking new Via Francigena, launched in 2007. The "new" Via is modeled very much on the Camino de Santiago. It is a project that had been in the works forever (it was supposed to be ready for Rome's 2000 Jubilee), but finally took flight thanks to the personal intervention of ex-Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who had done the Camino by bike and insisted that Italy deserved its own pilgrim way.
It's a stupendous journey - 1900 km to Rome from Canterbury; 900 from the Alps. It crosses geographical, linguistic, cultural and (importantly, for this is Italy) culinary divides. It is a journey through time, through history, a journey of the spirit... The question is, will it fly?
The Camino de Santiago is in many ways an organic growth, the fruit of the unbidden work of countless hands and feet, an event that assembled itself. The Via Francigena, by contrast, bears all the trappings of a "tourism initiative," a pilgrimage by decree, dreamed up and presided over by a classic EU bureaucracy. Do the people on the ground - I mean, the Italian people - have any interest in this thing? Enough to make it work?
It's been a couple of years now that I've been mulling over whether to go for a long walk on the Via Francigena, so I finally went to Italy last fall to take a look. I didn't have time at my disposal for walking, so I scouted instead, following the route as closely as I could by train and bus. I knew that would rob some suspense and surprises from the eventual foot journey. On the other hand, it meant I could gather bags and bags of research material - books, maps and brochures, not to mention a couple nice bottles of red - without worrying about my knees giving way beneath me.
Will I go back? Well, duh. It's only a question of when. In the meantime, I'll be putting up some Via Francigena photos and blogs in the weeks to come, so stay tuned.
For anyone wanting a detailed, up-to-the-moment account of conditions on the Italian pilgrimage front, order yourself a copy of An Italian Odyssey by Neville Tencer and Julie Burk - though it's hard to say whether the book is more likely to lure you onto the Via with its delicious descriptions of cities, landscapes and meals, or scare you off with its portraits of sketchy lodgings, unmarked paths, wrong-pointing signs and places that can't be found even with GPS devices.
You'll find more information, including some dynamite photographs, on the Italian Odyssey Facebook page. You can also read an interview with Julie and Neville on Anna-Marie Krahn's website. Enjoy!