WALKING THE VIA FRANCIGENA
by Tamsin Treverton Jones
We spent the night in a vertiginous cell high above the truffle-rich Arno valley, guests of Brother Franco at the Convento di San Francisco in San Miniato Alto. After a dawn breakfast in a vast refectory we tiptoed through the holy doors, boots in one hand, Franco's parting gift of a carved wooden cross on a leather thread in the other.
The deserted Tuscan landscape offered cinematic vistas at every turn as we walked the spiky gravel tracks, soft sandy paths and exposed ridges of the Via Francigena towards the spa town of Gambassi Terme. Calenzano, Campriano, Coiano, Borgoforte; the names of the towns and villages ahead sang to us like some glorious, melodious score from an unknown Italian opera.
The Via Francigena starts in Canterbury, an ancient 1,700 km pilgrim route that tracks through France, over the Grand St Bernard Pass into Switzerland, dropping down through Italy to Rome. Unlike the more famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela, with its well worn pathways, its 100 bed refugios, the Francigena is sorely underdeveloped. No more than 3,000 people choose to walk this route compared to more than 200,000 people of all faiths who take to the Camino every year. The EU has committed large funds to promoting the Francigena, but it is underpopulated and still very much a work in progress — and we had decided to walk it for precisely those reasons.
By roaring fires in the dark winter months, my companion and I researched and planned our route, calculating that we could walk the final 500 km section from Massa in the north to the Vatican in three weeks if we averaged 25 km a day. We would stay in hostels and in the same convents and monasteries that had been giving shelter to pilgrims since the Middle Ages — a decision that was as much about budget as it was about wanting an authentic experience. We trained in the rainy Cotswold hills and invested in proper walking boots, breaking them in over a six-month period, as everyone who knows anything about long-distance walking had told us to do.
For the first-time pilgrim, however, the Francigena is hard-going, with inconsistent way-marking, regular detours onto fast roads, unreliable contact details, virtually no water fountains and a trickle rather than a flood of fellow pilgrims with whom to share the experience. Within days my feet had swollen two sizes in the searing June heat, my boots turned into a couple of lace-up leather torture chambers and I walked in a miserable fog of pain.
At the settlement of Coiano we turned onto a grassy footpath following signs to a picnic area behind the Pieve di Santi Pietro e Paolo, an imposing building undergoing restoration, flapping with blue tarpaulin. We found sturdy tables and benches on a raised and shaded platform of wood chippings but most welcome of all, a tap. I took off my boots and socks, held my feet under the gush of cool water, taking weary bites out of a bruised apple.
Within minutes we heard voices: a rangy couple was striding towards us from the opposite direction, waving, smiling. Almost immediately we learned that they were Belgian, in their late fifties and on a four-month pilgrimage from Rome to Santiago. They were tanned, in great shape, spoke perfect English and seemed to be having absolutely no problems at all with their boots. They were friendly and curious, invited us to take handfuls of health-giving nuts and dried fruit from efficient little clip-top boxes as they appraised our scattered kit, my unsightly feet.
Yes, they had walked the Francigena before, twice: from Canterbury to Rome and on to Jerusalem and yes, they had walked to Santiago, numerous times, from all the various different starting points in France, Portugal and Spain. They had taken early retirement from teaching in order to perfect the art of pilgrimage; back in Ghent they gave slide shows and talks on how to walk long distances. I surreptitiously picked up the browning apple core, retrieved my socks and boots, attempting to hide my black toenails, my putrid blisters.
The Belgians were genuinely puzzled that first time pilgrims would choose the Francigena over the Camino. Three weeks later at a pilgrim hostel in the medieval city of Viterbo, we met two more hardened walkers, 68 days on the road from Canterbury, who told us that the Francigena was more for practised pilgrims, those who had exhausted all the other routes to Rome and Santiago.
There were, of course, difficult days when we questioned our decision to walk this way; but with every step came an appreciation of the landscape and an increasing awareness of our place within it. Any physical hardships were balanced by a divine sense of freedom, breathtaking views, heavenly food and a welcome everywhere we stopped. Above all, the opportunity to step behind the heavy, hallowed doors of convents and monasteries, feel the peace, hear the murmur of prayer, was a remarkable and unexpected privilege.
One night we slept on the spotlessly clean refectory floor of a convent in Bolsena, guests of the green-fingered Suori del Santissimo, who emerged with watering cans as the sun went down, moving soundlessly around their walled garden in the fragrant half light. At the Monasterio Regina Pacis outside Vetralla, Sister Justina, a smiling Congolese novice in full habit was the sole serene-faced representative of an otherwise completely closed order. Three days from Rome we were picked up in the centre of the Etruscan town of Sutri by a wimpled nun in a dusty blue Berlingo. She drove us to the Oasi di Pace, where Sorella Renata, a formidable Franciscan Mother Superior and her ten Filipino nuns were reciting mid-afternoon prayers in a shaded courtyard, fanning the folds of their grey scapulars against a fierce southern heat. We were tired and dirty but they received us with generosity and humour; our rooms spotless, the food, including delicately battered aubergine slices and home-made basil ice cream, exquisite.
We slept on bare mattresses in the run down parish hostels of Camaiore and Ponte d'Arbia; at the ambulance service HQ in Lucca we shared a sunny top floor apartment with an intrepid woman from Warsaw and endured a night in a dark dormitory with three snoring Italian cyclists at St Quirico D'Orcia.
We shared bathrooms, beers and blister plasters with pilgrims of all ages and backgrounds: Daniel, the limping rock star from Prague; Cecile and Laurence, a septuagenarian couple from Carcassonne making the pilgrimage to Rome on horseback; Gerard and Jeanne, bakers from Lille, slim and fit like they never ate a croissant in their lives and Roberto and Nonni, sprightly retired bankers from Padua, with whom we walked our final steps into the Vatican.
The hospitality we received and the people we met carried us to Rome on a gentle wave of support, generosity and respect; the individual stories of our fellow pilgrims, proof that walking is still a universal and profoundly vital act that can serve as therapy or prayer, as a quest for beauty, health, solitude or self knowledge, an act of remembrance or forgetting.
My own motives for walking the Francigena were a loosely-tied bundle of hopes, fears and personal challenges and I was warned not to expect any more than mere flashes of understanding or clarity along the way.
But at the hostel of the Confraternita di San Jacopo di Compostella at Abbadia Isola, a few days into the pilgrimage, when my feet were at their most painful, when I was considering giving up and going home, we experienced a sublime interlude, one that strengthened our resolve and validated our decision to walk.
After showing our credenziale and proving we were bona-fide pilgrims, Alberto the hospitalier and his wife Elvira invited us to take part in a traditional foot-washing ceremony — a symbolic ritual performed to recreate Jesus washing his disciples' feet, before sitting down with them for a cena pellegrini — or pilgrim's supper.
They donned their society's waist length black capes adorned with scallop shells and, as Alberto recited a short prayer, his hand on my shoulder, Elvira knelt, poured cool water over my embattled feet, patted them dry with a white linen cloth and, in an act that surprised and overwhelmed me, kissed them.
We then sat for hours at a long table, eating endless courses of food, drinking miraculously self-replenishing glasses of cold red wine. At midnight, nursing large glasses of local grappa, we watched, damp-eyed as Alberto stood and sang an aria by Puccini, loud, passionate and true, a tattooed arm around the shoulder of his beaming, beneficent wife.
The genuine and very moving welcome we received at Abbadia was repeated at another Confraternita hostel two weeks later, in the hilltop town of Radicofani: the kindness, interest and sense of unconditional guardianship we felt in these moments came to define our entire journey to Rome.
© 2015 Tamsin Treverton Jones