Tuesday, February 15, 2011

the via francigena

Throughout the Middle Ages, travellers to Rome from Britain and much of France followed a route known as the Via Francigena (Fran-CHEE-jay-na). The Via diverged, for the most part, from the itinerary of the modern traveller to Italy. Scroll down a list of its stopping places and you'll find names like Aosta, Ivrea, Vercelli, Pavia, Pontremoli, Pietrasanta, Viterbo... hardly the top of any tourist's wish list. Yet in their day, they were places of great importance and still now they sport their medieval (not to mention Roman and Etruscan) treasures of art, architecture and urbanism.

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.

Neville and Julie's Via sounds lonely compared to the Camino. They encounter precious few pilgrims along the way, though happily they do meet their fair share of helpful, outgoing Italians. Nonetheless, the story speeds along from episode to episode and is over too soon. The couple take turns with the telling, which offers an often-amusing synoptic view. They have some very useful tips for sleeping and eating (especially eating) and a wonderful description of a visit to a rice farm. There are also lovely photographs and whimsical hand-drawn maps. My only complaint is that Julie and Neville's misfortunes of the road keep prodding them into full-on, gasket-blowing slanging matches. I felt a little like the kid in the back seat listening to Dad and Mom fight (Would you two just pipe down and let me enjoy the ride?) Fortunately, all is sorted out by the magic of Siena, and we get to enjoy Tuscany and Lazio to the fullest.

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!


Neville Tencer said...

Hi Robert

Thank you for the honest review. We really did not want to down play the struggles we had - some obviously self inflicted - less somebody decides to walk the Via Francigena after reading our book believing it is a "sweet sugar coated candy" of a trail. There are some rough spots even today, but there are some great sections too. Overall, it was an extraordinary experience.

This leads me to the following comments.

I enjoyed reading your keen observations about the differences between the Camino and Via Francigena.

I must agree - it seems the Camino has that certain magic about it(real or otherwise) that was born through the actions of many, simply walking the route - a process that feeds upon itself even today (260 thousand last year).

Whereby the Via Francigena in Italy has that Italian top down "it might get done sometime this century" feel to it, and lacks that certain magic. Instead, it has a gritty feel to it, some days, and hence it has failed to ignite the imagination of others to walk the route en-mass.

I think the 30-year difference in time (the Via Francigena in Italy is described by some people as being much like the Camino was in the 1980s) might have something to do with it.

Nevertheless, the fact is the Via Francigena slices and zigzags it way through the heart of northern Italy. Meaning we see, up close, the good and occasional the bad, of a sometimes very crowded northern industrialized modern country - as compared to the Camino, which slowly drifts and winds along the remote northern, least visited, regions of Spain.

This suggests they are two very different trails in so many ways.

Thus, we must all agree that the Via Francigena will never be like the Camino, and maybe it should not be.

The Via Francigena needs to find its own identity.

I think that will only come from the people that walk it (vs. those officials that only promote from afar) and through the stories, they tell and write.


Neville Tencer, Author of An Italian Odyssey: One Couple's Culinary & Cultural Pilgrimage

Sil said...

Shooooooooooooo......... you two! Keep the Via a secret a little while longer. Do we want a race for beds and bed bugs on the VF?

Rob - you could write a book about the VF titled "Where are all the Good Pilgrims?"

Nev - all of the VF Five have read your book now and we are all so grateful that we did not have one shouting match or squabble on our 700km walk. Maybe that's a record for 5 very different women (ave age 55) bundu bashing through Switzerland and Italy in 2006!

Robert Ward said...

"Where are all the Good Pilgrims?" Thanks for the title, Sil. That's the best one I've heard since I told a friend I wanted to do the Japanese pilgrimage and he said "You can call the book 'From Camino to Kimono'."

Sil said...

That's a great title!
Or, "From Peregrino to Henro" !!

Sil said...

Hi Robert,
There was a lot of work going on behind the scenes long before 2007.

The Via Francigena was recommended as a theme, designated by the Council of Europe, in 1994 but it was only in 1996 that it was established as a European Cultural Itinerary. In 2004 it received its certification as a Cultural Route.

In 2001 a co-operative association of Italian municipalities on the VF was formed - the AEVF or Association of Italian Municipalities on the Via Francigena, Today they have 95 members of Local Authorities, including Rome, Canterbury (UK) and the French Community Lys-Roman.

The AIVF was registered in 2001 and by 2005 had 425 members in 13 countries on 4 continents.

Pilgrims to Rome (UK) was founded in 2006.

Robert Ward said...

Hi Sil
Thanks for this historical outline. Clearly there was a lot going on before the official "opening" of the route. I'm just saying that the VF, from my exposure to it, still in many ways resembles a "project" more than a grassroots movement. Hopefully that will change as more pilgrims take to the route and the locals increasingly take pride in this part of their history.