Those in search of a walking holiday, or seeking a pilgrimage abroad, should look no further than The Way of St Francis – Italy’s answer to Spain’s famous but often crowded spiritual path, Camino de Santiago.
The full length of this 340-mile trek, called Via Francigena di San Francesco in Italian, stretches from Florence to Rome via Assisi. It links the major sites in the saint’s life, but pilgrims have to walk only the last 62 miles from Rieti.
You’ll need a good companion – someone with patience, cheerfulness, a sense of humour and the knack of knowing when to chat and when to keep silent. All qualities possessed by my friend Mo.
Journey’s end at St Peter’s Square and the largest church in the world – St Peter’s Basilica
Crucially, we walk at the same pace. Going with someone much faster or slower would be dispiriting or annoying. And having separate rooms each night was money well spent.
We walked for hours every day, seeing barely a soul, feeling like explorers, pioneers even. Sometimes the only sign we weren’t alone in the world was the odd footprint in the dust.
During the whole week we met only a handful of people – Austrians and Dutch – although when we did meet again at random points along the way, we greeted each other like long-lost friends.
You cross a variety of terrains: steep hills, wooded valleys, nature reserves, rolling farmland with vineyards and olive groves.
There are reminders of ancient Rome, such as the Via Salaria (the Salt Road) and the Sabine Hills (whose women were notoriously abducted by Roman soldiers). And you can spot the leftovers from medieval conflicts, such as defensive walls and watch towers.
When our guidebook rates a section as hard, it’s not kidding. Even days rated moderate or easy are long, and all but one of them involve some serious hills. Over our six days we climbed a total of 9,445ft, twice the height of Ben Nevis.
And while you don’t have to be young or super-fit to take on The Way of St Francis, you should have some experience of regular five- or six-mile-plus walks, preferably involving hills. Stamina is equally important, as sometimes you just need to keep putting one foot in front of another and not weep with sweaty exhaustion.
You’ll quickly learn why a lot of the place names you’re heading to begin with the word ‘monte’ – Italian for mountain.
You cross a variety of terrains: steep hills, wooded valleys, nature reserves, rolling farmland with vineyards and olive groves
But the rigours are worth it. The views are spectacular, the sleepy old parts of hilltop villages feel timeless, the wild flowers are wonderful. Everything feels lush and fertile.
And at the end of a long hike, the agriturismi – ‘farm-stays’ – and B&Bs are warm and welcoming. One owner, when we were running late, actually came out to look for us. The big plates of pasta we were given never felt so well deserved. My favourite came with black truffles, butter and sage.
Essential kit includes good, worn-in walking boots, proper socks (bamboo ones never seem to smell), plenty of water and a hat, as although much of The Way of St Francis is mercifully in shade, meaning you can walk all day, there are some long sections where you are exposed to the sun.
And while I’m not normally a snacker, over the week I wolfed down nuts, crisps, cereal bars, fresh and dried fruit and boiled sweets by the handful. Often these nibbles had to do for lunch, as shops or cafes were few and far between. In some parts, they were non-existent.
A signpost that keeps pilgrims on the path
The luxury of having our luggage transferred between accommodation each day meant that while walking we had to carry only what we needed. We tried not to feel too sheepish when we met others who were laden with heavy rucksacks.
Most hosts speak some English, but it’s worth learning a few words of Italian: the usual courtesies, plus ways of asking – and understanding – directions. The Way is generally well signposted but it disappeared on parts of the penultimate day, making the guidebook’s instructions, previously just an adjunct to the way-markers, essential reading. You could, of course, use GPS.
The last day is urban rather than rural, but The Way makes maximum use of leafy cycle tracks and riverside walks, taking you along the Tiber itself to the Ponte Sant’Angelo and the road to the largest church in the world – St Peter’s Basilica.
There’s an almost childish pleasure in getting your pilgrim’s passport, or credenziale, stamped along The Way, and a great sense of achievement when you show it at the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi in St Peter’s Square to receive your testimonium certificate, written, appropriately, in Latin with the date in Roman numerals.
Of course you don’t need to be religious to do a pilgrimage. We are Christians, so there were spiritual resonances for us, but even non-believers tend to think Saint Francis was a groovy saint. With his respect for nature and love of all living things, he’s often seen as the first environmentalist.
But people walk for all kinds of reasons: as a physical and mental challenge, for contemplation, for camaraderie, to reduce stress, to experience a different culture and as a way of reaching places you would never normally visit.
Whatever the reason, it is spine-tingling to enter the Eternal City, following in the footsteps of all those who have walked before you for more than 1,000 years from all corners of Europe. But they then had to walk all the way home again – another hardship that, thankfully, we didn’t have to endure.