The annual scramble across Europe to the shrine of Santiago in Spain has become so hectic that it’s surely time to turn your boots toward the older charms of the Via Francigena, the ancient road to Rome
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Many pilgrims start their journey at the
Great Saint Bernard Pass, in the Alps on the Swiss–Italian border
WEATHER The pass is only open from mid-Apr to Oct. Daytime temperatures in northern Italy are 66–85°F (19–29°C) at this time of year
DISTANCE From the pass to Rome, it is 580 miles (930 km)
With over 100,000 pilgrims flowing in an endless stream to Santiago de Compostela every year, each one fighting for the best beds and the best stories, it can be hard not to feel like a spiritual commuter on a conveyor belt to salvation. The Via Francigena (the great pilgrim route from Canterbury in England to Rome), on the other hand, is not only emptier, but, even on a “short” section, offers a fascinatingly diverse succession of landscapes and civilizations, the likes of which could hardly be imagined on the parched plains of the Spanish meseta.
Pilgrims have been heading to Rome since the early days of the Christian church, following the Roman roads used by St Augustine in AD 596–7.
They come to touch the relics of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and to marvel at the many wonders of the Eternal City. It is still possible to walk in their footsteps for all or part of the journey, to feel history flowing in through the soles of your feet.
You can march with the ghosts of Roman Legions along stretches of elegantly paved road, the great basalt slabs as solid today as when those soldiers first laid them. You’ll pass Etruscan amphi- theaters that were already ancient when the first pilgrims passed this way, and pause at the Roman temples and baths that sprang up alongside them.
Ancient tracks hewn into the Alps guide you to the Col du Grand St-Bernard and the shelter of the monastery where trusty Saint Bernard dogs are still bred. Later, you will follow paths through the Apennines that bend beneath quarries of the dazzling white marble once worked by Michelangelo.
From the Apennines you descend to the bucolic, cypress-topped hills of Tuscany, where the road leads you straight along the main streets of turreted San Gimignano (see pp124–5) and honey-hued Siena. Then come the sun-kissed villages and volcanic lakes of Rome’s own region, Lazio.
Where Spanish Santiago announces its stolid granite presence in the rains that roll in from the Atlantic, Rome proclaims itself on the warm breath of the Mediterranean. Yet, as it draws ever closer, so it seems increasingly ethereal, dissolving into the sea of its own mythology. And, as the vision of Rome melts away, so does the flotsam of everyday existence. You are left simply to lace up your boots, walk, eat, and find somewhere to sleep at night.
However, when you finally reach Rome, its marvelous, marbled reality easily bears the weight of hundreds of miles of expectation. All the aches and pains of the route vanish within the embrace of Bernini’s extraordinary elliptical colonnade, gathering pilgrims within its porticoed arms before the vast Basilica of Saint Peter.
In Santiago, every second person seems to be a pilgrim. In Rome, though, everyone else is a tourist, and the sweetness of this knowledge gives wings to each airy step through the Eternal City.
FORGET THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO?
THE BUILD-UP Since the miraculous discovery, in the 9th century, of the relics of Saint James, millions of pilgrims have made their way to his shrine at Santiago de Compostela.
Countless churches, monasteries, and refuges line the Camino, and people have dedicated their lives to the welfare of pilgrims, providing food and shelter, building bridges and hospitals.
THE LETDOWN Along with fame come the freeloaders, ready to take advantage of cheap (or free) hospitality en route. Increasing numbers of cyclists whiz past, and you’ll find them settled into the best beds by the time you hobble into your hostel.
GOING ANYWAY? For any long walking route you should travel as lightly as possible, and stock up on things like blister relief and good socks. On the Camino, avoid the hot holiday months, especially around the Fiestas de Santiago (Jul 25).
Getting There and Around
There are regular, direct trains from Geneva airport to Martigny, where you can board the Saint- Bernard Express train to Orsières.
From here, you take a bus or walk to the monastery at the top of the pass. In Italy, there are good bus and train networks should your legs need a rest.
Where to Eat
Italy is perfect for carb-packing walkers. An infinite variety of pasta will get you from Piedmont to paradise, and a few final steps from St Peter’s is Da Augusto (tel. + 39 06 5803798), a truly Roman trattoria in Trastevere, for a well-deserved slap-up meal.
Where to Stay
Eurovia, a European pilgrimage support site, provides a list of budget accommodations along the route. For some, you may need to show a Pilgrim ID Card, which they can also supply.
When to Go
The best times are late spring and early fall, when the pass is snow-free but temperatures aren’t too hot for walking.
Budget per Day for Two
Allow US$150–200, including food and accommodations.