The Via Francigena just might be the one of the most famous roads in the world. If you’ve never heard the name, you still probably know about, it, without realizing it. Since the middle ages, this road was the main throughway for pilgrims heading from France to Rome, to pay homage to the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul and visit the Holy See. In fact, some sources even state the road actually comes all the way from England, crossing through various countries before finally arriving in Italy. Documents from as far back as 725 highlight the route and how important it was to the people who walked it. Formalized as a route in 990, like many roads, one can say they all lead to Rome!
In the year 990, an archbishop named Sigeric decided to go all the way from Canterbury, England to Rome on pilgrimage. What made his journey different from the thousands who went before him is that he closely documented his travels on his way back to England. Sigeric’s meticulous record-keeping highlighted every stop, every length of road completed and every overnight stay. Today, his route can be duplicated, averaging about 12 miles a day (20km) divided into 80 days, making the exact same progress and overnight stops many pilgrims completed a thousand years ago.
However, even though you can walk in Sigeric’s footsteps, doesn’t mean you’d want to. First, not many people have time to come to Europe and spend 80 days walking an ancient trail. Second, it is exhausting. The Via Francigena covers a span of 1,700km (1,100 miles) across England, France and Italy. Yet every year, more and more people are finding ways to enjoy this piece of history. Below are a few ways to get a taste of this trail without spending three months on it.
Visit nearby towns
From Sigeric’s itinerary, we know many of the major stopping points in Italy were also in Tuscany. In particular you can visit the Via Francigena from Lucca, San Gimignano, Poggibonsi, Monteriggioni, Siena and San Quirico d’Orcia. If you’re going to be in any of these towns, it would make an interesting day trip to also head out onto the trail. Over the course of a year, Via Francigena averages about 1000 trekkers, so while it isn’t a busy path, it isn’t empty either. You can easily pick it up and hike for a while before turning back to your destination, and not feel like you’ve gone totally off the radar.
Spend a few days on the pilgrim path
If you’re feeling fit and want to take the path for more than a few hours, it can be done. Camping is the usual form of accommodation so plan and pack accordingly. If camping isn’t your thing, another option is to stay at one of the many monasteries and religious hospices along the route. These places sometimes offer dormitory style accommodations or sometimes double rooms, for one night only, to pilgrims on the trail – and in fact grew up for just this purpose. Wear sturdy, worn-in hiking shoes or sneakers, and bring plenty of snacks and especially water – there are seldom fountains along the way.
A different mode of exploration
If you prefer, you can also consider biking or horseback riding on the trail. However, some parts of the Via Francigena are pretty rough and remote, so biking can be difficult. Be sure you have the correct kind of mountain bike with appropriate gear in order to consider doing this. Horseback on the other hand, can be a relaxed, calm and less exhausting way to see much of the trail. Various guides and options are available and can be arranged from day trips to multiple day journeys.
For a step by step explanation of the parts of the Via Francigena in Tuscany, see the official tourism network turismo.intoscana.it.