Duration: About three months. (85 days without stops).
Distance: 1900 km, navigates through England, France, Switzerland, Italy.
The ‘Via Francigena’ is the most famous pilgrimage path that spans more than thousand kilometers of the distance & goes through the four major countries in Europe. The path starts from the ‘Canterbury’ in England & concludes at Rome in Italy. The road was documented for the first time in 990 A.D. by Archbishop of Canterbury named – ‘Sigeric’ in his diary. Sigeric was awarded a pallium i.e. a circular band of white wool with pendants, worn by archbishops, by the Pope in Rome. While returning back from Rome to Canterbury, Sigeric described in his diary about the places & the route he covered. The route opted by Sigeric to receive his honor from Pope, later on, became well known as the holy path of pilgrimage-‘Via Francigena’ or ‘Via Romea’.
Via Francigena then became a trade route & was used for centuries by merchants, soldiers, commuters & pilgrims travelling to & fro between the north Europe & the holy cities in southern part like Rome & Jerusalem. People used to cover the entire distance on foot, on mules & sometime even by boats as the entire path used to go through ironically varying terrain.
Over the years, ‘Via Francigena’ gathered the popularity among devout Christians & was accepted by the masses as the holy route of pilgrimage. The way leading to Rome wasn’t in a great shape as it wasn’t meant to connect the vital places in Europe. However, at few places, local nobles did try to build & maintain the roads in good shape to provide some patronage to the pilgrims. But the majority of the path was the chain of local trails of varying sizes & conditions that used to pass through the mountains, rivers, villages & valleys. Such diverse terrain together with other impediments such as threat from wild animals & ruthless burglars, epidemic diseases etc. kept this route intricate & one of the most invincible path of pilgrimage for years!
Considering the challenging nature of the pilgrimage, the preparations used to begin after observation of some sacraments. The pilgrim had to pay his debts & prepare a will before leaving for the journey. He had to receive his pilgrim costume from the local priest or Bishop & had to pray for mercy to everyone whom he might knowingly or unknowingly have snubbed. The individual’s name used to get recorded in the ‘Order’ of the pilgrims & he had to dress in accordance with the ’11 C of Pilgrim Staff’, comprising a long, dark colored cloak of rough texture, a leather bag hanging around his waist & a stout metal point stick. He would then get the final nod to embark upon his mission though the chances of his returning back were seldom.
The will used to elaborate many vital things such as his heirs, the purpose of the journey, the estimated time the journey would take, list of places on his way etc. In case, if the pilgrim failed to return back within the stipulated time, officials used to wait for another year & a day before distributing his belongings among his heirs.
The original path depicted in the diary begins from Rome & concludes in Canterbury. However, the path from Canterbury to Rome is considered as the pilgrimage path as the motive was to reach Rome!
Today’s Sigeric’s holy path traverses England, France, Switzerland & Italy. There is an alternative path that starts from Arles & proceeds via Vercelli joining the Caminos de Santiago. The route follows the directions taken by pilgrims over the centuries although at some places where the original trail has now become a highway, alternative paths can be used.
The part of the pilgrimage that goes through the Tuscany region in Italy offers the best chances to find refuge at almost the same places as mentioned by Sigeric unlike other places on the route & occasionally give the testaments of its medieval influences.
Condition of Route
Today’s life along the pilgrimage path is way secured than the earlier days. The surfaces are easy to walk & the way goes through the minor farm trails. The highest altitude of the route navigates through the Great St. Bernard Pass at 2469 m.
As far as way-marking is concerned, France seems to be disappointing as the path is not marked at all. In Switzerland, it is marked as TP70. Italy provides with the best marking as the route is marked vividly in both the directions.
The path being walked by thousands of pilgrims over the span of thousand years, the evidences of past pilgrimage activities & its medieval connection can be seen in the form of several chapels & cathedrals. Cathedral of Canterbury & Reims & St. Peter’s Basilica are certainly among not to be missed.
Arras, Reims, Besancon, Lausanne, Aosta, Vercelli, Lucca, Siena, Viterbo & Rome are the towns that will fall in your way which can take good care of your accommodation. Church halls, former schools are made available in countries like Italy & Switzerland wherein you can enjoy a halt on your way.
‘Via Francigena’ is definitely a voyage worth trying as it may offer you ample opportunities to explore the adorable small towns & villages hiding peacefully in the arms of graceful nature which otherwise remain obscure while rampaging through modern day highways.