You know the films set in the something 100’s (Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian-era etc) that depict people walking long distances to get from one province/city to the next, especially pilgrims traveling to sacred places for religious reasons? Well, I can now say that I’ve partly lived that life. Well, not fully, ok maybe for only about 3-4 hours. Regardless of how long, I’ve experienced a part of that life.
I want to share with you one of the loveliest pieces of history that I discovered while living in Siena – Via Francigena. In Italy, as is in many parts of the world, many street names reflect a very important part of their identity, culture, and history. Via Francigena or Street/road Fra is no different. It represents both the Italian life, past & present and that of Switzerland, France & England. I guess you can think that this Via(road/street) binds them.
In the Middle Ages, Via Francigena (road from France) was the major medieval pilgrimage route to Rome coming from the north which was limited to scholars, which pilgrims today now travel. The routes changed depending on the time of year, political situation and relative popularity of the shrines of saints along the route.
It became more well-known and traveled in the recent years due to pilgrims who had done the Way of St. James in Spain, who now wanted to make the pilgrimage to Rome on foot as well. In Italy, this gave birth to a network of lovers of the Via Francigena, who with paint and brush, began to mark its trails and paths (power to the People!). These people were joined by religious and local government agencies who also tried to recover the original route. Where possible, today’s route follows the ancient one but sometimes it deviates from the historical path in favor of paths and roads with low traffic.
In Italy, the VF goes through the Region of Valle d’Aosta, Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, and finally Lazio. The difficulty with this route is the limited amount of lodging as the road passes through a lot of rural areas. In Italy, some monasteries and religious houses offer dedicated pilgrim’s accommodation. These are called spedali that offer cheap and simple dormitory-style accommodation to pilgrims who bear a valid credential (pilgrim’s passport), usually for one night only.
My dear Surinamese friend Fa Lu, who has a deep appreciation for nature and hiking shared this hiking route that she discovered and had already walked about 3 or 4 times since arriving in Siena (7 months to be exact). So we planned our own hiking expedition on August 16th, 2016 because of the holiday thanks to the Palio celebration. This is how it went…
We began at Porta Camollia as we had decided to take the northern route towards San Gimignano. This was the farthest to the north of Siena that I had ever walked and it was a great feeling and wonder as we entered gaps that I had only passed nearby while on the bus. We had no physical map nor any data on our phones to use Google Maps and were left to use a downloaded map on Fa Lu’s phone, the Via Francigena signs and some common knowledge. Unfortunately, all 3 genius methods failed us on our mission to the north. We ended up circling an entire route to end up back at the same corner where we had previously asked a local for directions.
All roads now led to Rome! And disappoint us, the road did not. We left the city via Porta Romana (Romana because it led to the south of Italy, towards Rome & this is where anyone coming from the south would enter in medieval times) and made our way through the Tuscan countryside with only the help of the signs.
The temperature was just right with enough breeze to keep us cool. The victory came with the crossing the boundary of Siena and entering new territory. Along this journey we passed near a dry vineyard, an impressive entrance to a home, a hotel with the entrance over a porta and a foot away from the road, a tiny snake to which a dog barked behind (thank God it was behind a fence), views for days and the most exciting part was having met some hikers along the path too. It felt so surreal! I mean, that’s stuff you see on tv or read about.
It was refreshing to be out of the city walls on foot; to have a glance of life on the outside and most rewarding to see Siena from afar.
That still view of the city walls, the bell tower-Torre della Mangia, Il Duomo di Siena and the bricked houses takes you to a time past and in the present moment makes you question if this is what the pilgrims and other travelers saw and felt when they saw this city.
Mi viene in mente una scena dei serie di freschi di Ambrogio Lorenzetti “Il Buono e Il Cattivo Governo”.
From where we stood in an open field, Siena exuded richness and power.
My companion Fa Lu made this 2-hour hike peaceful and deep as we always have “philosophical conversations” which allowed us to bond even more because of our appreciation for this moment given to us. I remember one of our talks were about how much of a blessing it was for only the two of us to have been selected from our country and possibly our region to study Italian on a scholarship and be in this astounding country, Italia. More so, our unique friendship. Thank you for sharing with me that piece of you Fa Lu, Via Francigena.
The hike ended with us picnicking in an open field overlooking the main highway leading to Siena and beyond.
By the way, Fa Lu is totally a rockstar. She’s hiked to Rome using this route.
The many names of Via Francigena…
The route was first documented as the “Lombard Way”, and was first called the Iter Francorum (the “Frankish Route”) in the Itinerarium sancti Willibaldi of 725, a record of the travels of Willibald, bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria. It was “Via Francigena-Francisca” in Italy and Burgundy, the “Chemin des Anglois” in the Frankish Kingdom (after the evangelization of England in 607) and also the “Chemin Romieux”, the road to Rome. (Thanks again Wikipedia)
Essentials for hiking Via Francigena
- comfortable hiking shoes
- a cap/hat; comfortable clothes depending on the weather; comfortable bag pack
- water, snacks
- a map or a Via Francigena app
- a camera
Reads on the Via Francigena experience by others: