Derived from Via Romea Francigena, or the road from France to Rome, the ancient route served as a pilgrimage itinerary from northern Europe to the tomb of Saint Peter in Rome. The route did not focus on cities, but rather on religious centers such as abbeys. During medieval times, the Via Francigena accounted for much travel from Europe to Rome. Although largely forgotten after the late medieval period, a renewed interest in Christian pilgrimages in the late 1980s led to the official designation as a Major Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in 1994. From 2009, the Italian government, Region of Tuscany, and the Catholic Church have initiated projects to improve infrastructure and promote tourism on the route.
Today, the remnants of the route offer an unforgettable connection with ancient and medieval history, while allowing tourists to visit sites without unnecessary vehicle emissions.
Although the name might suggest that the route was a single road with a linear itinerary, the Via Francigena actually evolved and altered course at several times in history, depending on the popularity of pilgrimage destinations at the time. Historians can more accurately pinpoint distinct portions of the route. Today, history and nature enthusiasts and Christian pilgrims alike are able to retrace much of the route, much of which is unpaved, secondary streets and narrow hiking trails.
One well-documented historic itinerary is often used as a starting point for pilgrims: that of Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury (990 A.D.). Generally, the Italian portion of the route begins in Aosta, the northwestern most region of Italy, advances through Piedmont, touches Lombardy, and continues through Tuscany and Lazio to Rome. The International Organization of Via Francigena lists the full itinerary here.
One noteworthy leg of the trip is the 30 kilometer route from Monteriggioni to Siena, both in Tuscany. Starting in at the abbey of San Salvatore d’Isola (est. 1001 A.D.), a main pilgrimage of the original Via Francigena, tourists can continue to the medieval walled town of Monteriggioni. The town is immaculately preserved, with its wall’s towers and turrets even being referenced in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. This itinerary finishes in Siena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its cathedral, central square (Piazza del Campo), and medieval horse racing tradition (Palio di Siena).
Planning Your Pilgrimage
Whether you are interested in nature, Christian history, or are simply looking for an adventure, making the choice to follow the Via Francigena will certainly result in an unforgettable experience in Italy.
Historical and contemporary itineraries can be found online, most notably through the aforementioned International Organization of Via Francigena. The organization has also published a mobile app, an invaluable resource for tourists and pilgrims to use for planning and during their adventure on the route. The app can be downloaded here.
One important aspect of planning a pilgrimage is ensuring that accommodation is secured prior to departure; unlike the more well-preserved Way of St. James pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, many sections of Via Francigena currently lack traditional tourism infrastructure. The European Council’s official website for Via Francigena offers a list of accommodation, including traditional hostels specifically for pilgrims. You can view accommodations and other pertinent infrastructure information here.
Since the rediscovery of Via Francigena, several international organizations have worked to promote tourism on the route, often by promoting alternative modes of travel besides walking. One such organization is CicloVia Francigena, which promotes cycling itineraries throughout Italy between Switzerland’s Gran San Bernardo pass to the Eternal City. Specific itineraries, and even guided tour information, can be found here.
The Italian peninsula offers unrivaled opportunities for tourists, including several free and one-of-a-kind options for those seeking authentic, ethical experiences. Following the Via Francigena by foot, bicycle, or simply visiting sites along the pilgrimage will not only provide an enriching experience, but will also help promote continued interest and investment in the ancient route.