Via Francigena

The Via Francigena winds through England and over the channel into France, Switzerland, and Italy—over 2000 km (about 1,056 miles). Quite the hike. It is the ancient pilgrim’s path to Rome and, from there, to ships bound for the Holy Land.

While the Camino Santiago handles traffic from more than 300,000 people every year, the Road to Rome draws a much smaller crowd—maybe 25,000 people who don’t necessarily cover the entire distance or go as pilgrims. It got much more traffic in medieval times but includes a lot of beautiful territory and historical holy sites.

Probably a few details have a lot to do with this: 

  • The Via Francigena is more than twice the distance of the Camino Santiago
  • Its terrain is more varied and sometimes more difficult
  • Those who desire a more peopled path go where the people are

Me? I like the “road less traveled.” In a couple of years when our friends get married in Tuscany, questing the Via is how I want to round out that trip.

Bikers along the Via Francigena

Why Canterbury to Rome?

How unusual that Peter, the rough fisherman-apostle, should become the Rock on which Christ built his church. It is on this basis that Rome became the center of Catholic Christianity 

After the passing of Peter, crucified upside-down, its popes essentially became Peter’s replacements as leaders (though some were questionable in this capacity). Because of the importance of the place honoring him, some of the world’s most brilliant artists gave their talents to creating something beautiful in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome. It is, perhaps, one of the greatest Western architectural achievements.

And the road that takes you there comes in through France, thus the name: Via Francigena (basically, “the road that comes from France”). Yet it’s not all road and, in parts, there’s more than one path running roughly in the same direction. 

But why Canterbury as the official starting point?

Because that’s where Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury at that time, began his own pilgrimage to Rome around 990 AD to get his pallium—a journey he recorded in some detail. The brief account of his itinerary is currently kept at the British Library in London.

The Quire at Canterbury Cathedral

Things to Know About the Via Francigena

  • In places, you’ll need to (or will have the option to) take a train or other transportation through parts. For instance, the English Channel. Most of us won’t want to swim it.
  • The pass through the Alps can’t be crossed in winter, and the weather can be iffy the rest of the year. So factor that into your planning.
  • Because of its length, sometimes people complete this pilgrimage in segments—for instance, starting at the highest point: the Saint Bernard Pass.
  • There’s a lot of opportunity for solitude on the Via Francigena—great for reflection or prayer. For me, the solitude is a gift. But if you’re a person who gets uncomfortable being alone (or just prefers a buddy system), be true to yourself and partner with someone. Even if you don’t always walk together, knowing that person is close by might provide the mental comfort you need.
  • Many famous people have walked this road, including Napoleon, Oscar Wilde, and the heroic Saint Maurice, former leader of a Theban legion and patron saint of the Vatican Swiss Guard. 
  • Pilgrim hostels through churches and monasteries are available in many places and make it easy to sleep in a bed and economize. If you prefer to spend more for greater comfort and privacy in a hotel and a later departure time, you can (but you don’t have to).
  • When you’re passing through Tuscany, you should treat yourself to gelato. It’s sooo refreshing after long days of walking, especially in the summer, and is so good.
  • Even if touristy areas have a lot of people who know at least some English, it’s good to know at least some basic phrases in the local languages. Google Translate (or similar) can provide a back-up, but really … a little effort goes a long way.

Inspiration for the journey...

Going on pilgrimage? 
Here are some tips to physically prepare ... good for anyone, but especially thought out for older pilgrims!

The Saint Nazaire Basilica in the medieval walled city of Carcassonne is my all-time favorite. I can see the worship of God in the excellence of the work, the holiness...