Via Francigena

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The Via Francigena at the 11th Annual Forum on Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe in Chania

The Cultural Routes Programme celebrated its 35th anniversary in Chania with three days of interactive sessions, workshops, debates in the presence of 430 international delegates.

The city of Chania, on the Greek island of Crete, hosted the event from 5 to 7 October, which was attended by over 430 delegates: from the Council of Europe to the European Union, from the World Tourism Organisation to UNESCO, from representatives of over 50 European Cultural Routes, certified and non-certified, to representatives of the Ministries of Culture of the countries that are part of the Council of Europe’s Enlarged Partial Agreement on Cultural Routes.

This year’s theme was ‘Council of Europe Cultural Routes: Safeguarding European Values, Heritage, Dialogue‘.

The European Association of Via Francigena Ways (EAVF) was represented by Luca Bruschi, Director, and Elena Dubinina, head of European projects and international relations.

Bruschi spoke during the plenary session dedicated to ‘Safeguarding Cultural Heritage‘, with a focus on the main challenges for the protection of cultural heritage and sustainable tourism use of the Via Francigena.

Dubinina intervened in the session together with all the representatives of the routes to share the EAVF’s experience within the European project rurAllure (Horizon 2020 programme), which focuses on cultural heritage and museums along the pilgrimage routes.

During the Forum, the EAVF was able to strengthen relationships with the delegates of the cultural routes that have similar themes: Way of St. James of Compostela, Via Romea Germanica, St. Olav, Way of Stevenson, Via Romea Strata (in the process of certification).

It was also an opportunity to meet the representatives of the Ministries of Culture of the countries crossed by the Via Francigena, such as Italy and Switzerland, but also the ministerial representatives of the countries present along the extension of the path towards Jerusalem, following the ancient Via Egnatia: Albania, Greece, Turkey.

The Via Francigena reaffirmed the European values underlying this cultural itinerary, which connects local communities, supports the economy in rural Europe, generates job opportunities for young people, and encourages cultural, interreligious and intergenerational dialogue.

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EAVF’s General Assembly will be in Viterbo on 14 October 2022

The City of Viterbo will host the General Assembly in its autumn session of the EAVF’s members on Friday 14 October 2022.

The General Assembly is made possible thanks to the contributions of:

Other contributions were received from: Rotary Club di Viterbo, Graphic Art 6, Banca Lazio Nord , ANCE Viterbo.

Click here for the complete programme of the days 13-15 October

👉🏻 REGISTER HERE*

* participants who are not members of the EAVF may only attend the Assembly as auditors, as voting rights are reserved for members

The General Assembly and the events in Viterbo are open to the public upon registration.

The EAVF’s international network returns to meet in physical presence after the well-attended General Assembly in Canterbury (Kent County, UK) in April 2022. The main item on the agenda will be the discussion on the status of the candidature of the Via Francigena as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Attention will then turn to the main projects underway in England, France, Switzerland and Italy. Finally, a special focus will be on the best practices concerning the route, reception and signposting.

The meeting in Viterbo includes, in addition to the statutory assembly attended by the 214 member municipalities and 70 friend associations, a series of discussions, cultural events, guided tours, convivial moments and a ‘I Love Francigena‘ walk from 13 to 15 October.

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Francigena as UNESCO heritage: Italian regions and ministries join forces for the candidacy

The path that aims to lead in 2025 to the recognition of the Via Francigena as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) takes another decisive step forward with the renewal of the memorandum of understanding between the seven Italian regions of Sigeric’s itinerary, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This was decided at a meeting held on July 6 in Florence at the presidency of the Region of Tuscany, with the participation of President Eugenio Giani, the Undersecretaries of State of the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs, Lucia Borgonzoni and Benedetto Della Vedova, the President of the European Association of Vie Francigene Massimo Tedeschi, Maria Pianigiani, UNESCO Focal Point of the Ministry of Culture, and Roberta Pesci, UNESCO section chief of the Cultural Cooperation Office in the multilateral sphere of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Representatives of the Italian regions crossed by Sigeric’s Via Francigena attended: Jean-Pierre Guichardaz, councillor for Cultural Heritage and Tourism of Valle d’Aosta; Stefano Bruno Galli, councillor for Autonomy and Culture of Lombardy; Alessandro Piana, vice-president of Liguria; Andrea Massari, president of the Province of Parma, for the Region of Emilia-Romagna; and Roberto Ottaviani, director of the Lazio Tourism Agency.

The protocol“, said Undersecretary Borgonzoni, “marks another fundamental step toward the recognition of the Via Francigena as a World Heritage Site. A challenge that began years ago, which the Ministry of Culture has been able to promptly take up, working tirelessly alongside the regions. The inclusion of this historic route in the UNESCO list would give a strong boost to the cultural and social, tourist and economic growth of the territories involved.”

EAVF’s President Massimo Tedeschi recalled the various steps of the candidacy process, “which began in 2010 with the initiative of the Province of Siena, resumed in 2015 in Fidenza with the meeting of municipalities that relaunched the project. In 2017 a preliminary analysis of the Italian route was carried out by EAVF, commissioned by the Regions of Tuscany and Lombardy. In 2020, the European thematic study encompassing the entire Via Francigena of Sigeric, from Canterbury to Rome, was carried out by EAVF. The next crucial step is to involve the five countries of the Via Francigena – United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Italy and the Vatican – in the approval of the European thematic study, thus allowing each country to proceed with its own candidacy.”

The agreement has already entered the operational phase with the next technical meeting convened on July 20. The Region of Tuscany will chair the coordination committee in which all signatories are represented. The European Association of Via Francigena ways will provide technical and scientific support.

In addition to the candidacy, actions to improve the infrastructure will continue, from safety to reception, signage and accessibility, to give daily and concrete answers to the thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world, who travel along the Via Francigena.

The unanimous hope is that by 2025, the year of the Jubilee, the dossier for the recognition of the Italian route of the Via Francigena in the UNESCO World List can be filed.

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Francigena Romea Marathon in Lazio: the Italian Minister of Tourism Garavaglia walks with us

More than 1,400 people cheerfully invade the Via Francigena and Via Romea path from Acquapendente to Bagnoregio for the Francigena Romea Marathon, with stages of 10, 20 and 42 km.

A virtually summery day, sunny and hot, over 30 degrees. A day of great celebration, which coincided with the anniversary of the Italian Republic. This year, the Francigena Romea Marathon was graced by an illustrious walker and guest, the Italian Minister of Tourism Massimo Garavaglia, who walked the Acquapendente – Bolsena stretch (25 km): an important signal of the Italian government’s closeness to the Via Francigena and slow tourism, a sector that is growing and expanding rapidly with important tourist-economic repercussions on territories. In this post-pandemic phase, there is an even greater desire for the Via Francigena, for open-air and outdoor walks, on foot or by bicycle.

I didn’t think I would make so little effort to walk 24 km“, commented Minister Garavaglia, “it is so nice to walk in the middle of forests and beautiful landscapes, chatting with so many people and in different languages. It was my first experience and it certainly won’t be my last“.

The Via Francigena Marathon is now ten years old, since the first edition took place in 2013. Right from the start, the formula was chosen to walk 10, 21 or 42 km, a distance that coincides with the length of a proper marathon.

The event has been consolidated year after year, becoming a moment of celebration for the entire area crossed – but also an example to follow, so much so that in the following years two ‘sister’ initiatives were launched: the Francigena Tuscany Marathon and the Via Francigena Marathon Val Susa.

The reasons for the success of the Latium Francigena Marathon are many: first and foremost, there is the great synergy between institutions (Acquapendente, San Lorenzo, Bolsena, Bagnoregio), associations (CAI Viterbo section and local associations) and private operators who work together in harmony. And then there is passion, lots of it. Behind the scenes since the first edition has been a great friend of the Via Francigena and lover of sport, Sergio Pieri, then an official of the Acquapendente municipality. Together with him, many other enthusiasts who have always collaborated in the spirit of sharing the Via Francigena. It is no coincidence that this successful event that brings families, young and old, runners and sportsmen to walk has since spread to other regions, becoming a fixed appointment also included in the calendar of annual initiatives in which the European Association of Via Francigena ways has participated since the first edition.

Minister Garavaglia’s presence was flanked by two other people from the Ministry of Tourism: Palmiero Perconti, advisor for Jubilee events, and Stefano Mantella, head of the PNRR unit. I had the pleasure of sharing this fascinating part of the journey with them and was surprised by the brisk pace of their walk at almost 6 km/h! But who said that the Ministry and the government don’t walk? Not only do they do it, regularly, but they are also well trained! Despite the brisk pace, there was plenty of time to enjoy the breathtaking scenery, to meet people and to thank the municipal administrations of Acquapendente and San Lorenzo, as well as associations who welcomed us with open arms. This is the beautiful spirit of walking.

During and at the end of the stage, there was plenty of time to reflect on the future of the Via Francigena, also in view of the Jubilee 2025, with reference to the services that are increasingly being requested by wayfarers. Minister Garavaglia emphasised, as he has already done on other occasions, that ‘that of the Via Francigena and the walking routes is an authentic tourism made of people and extraordinary excellences capable of promoting the economic rebirth of many areas. It is a form of tourism that is gaining more and more momentum and that from being a niche phenomenon is becoming a true mass trend that can give impetus to the restart of quality tourism‘.

This was an Italian Republic Day celebrated on the Via Francigena, with joy and moments of sharing, rediscovering the time and pleasure of meeting each other.

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The Road to Rome stick, a symbol of peace, returns to the Km zero in Canterbury

On the occasion of EAVF’s General Assembly, the 26th of April at 5 pm, a special ceremony takes place in Canterbury’s Cathedral: the blessing of the “Via Francigena. Road to Rome” stick that traveled across 3,200 km in 2021, along the entire itinerary.

The “Via Francigena. Road to Rome” stick, after almost one year, returns to the ‘km zero’ – the majestic Cathedral in Canterbury, departure point of the Via Francigena. The stick was the absolute symbol of the long march that crossed Europe from north to south in four months, between 15 June and 18 October 2021, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the EAVF. A journey full of emotions, encounters, unexpected events, extraordinary moments and difficult moments, joy and tears. In the year of the 2021 Olympics, the stick was also metaphorically an important symbol of dialogue between 658 municipalities and 4 countries, as it was carried firmly in the hands of pilgrims on their way, as if it were an Olympic torch.

The story of this hazelwood stick is beautiful. The idea of making it a symbol of the ‘Road to Rome’ initiative came from Giancarlo Laurenzi, a pilgrim, President of the London-based Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome. But where did this object come from? It was made by Michael Walsh near Holycross Abbey in Tipperary, Ireland. The stick was seasoned, cleaned and prepared for the long journey with more than 10 layers of boiled linseed oil. The subsequent decoration on the stick, with the recognisable icon of the pilgrim symbol of the Via Francigena, was engraved by an artist from London, Julie Helen Sharp, and the rope grip on the handle was prepared by specialist craftsman Declan O Shea.

The stick, blessed before the beginning of “Road to Rome” by Brother Celsus Tierney, set off on 15 June from km zero in Canterbury, in front of the Cathedral, to walk the distance to Dover in the company of enthusiasts, pilgrims and representatives of the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome and of the Kent County Council, who handed it over to Captain Nick Jones (P&O Company) in the port of Dover on the morning of 17 June. He transported it on the ship to Calais, on the French shore on the other side of the English Channel. Welcoming the stick at the port were EAVF’s President Massimo Tedeschi, Calais municipal delegate Dominique Darré, EAVF’s Director Luca Bruschi and the event’s social media manager Myra Stals. This moment was particularly emotional.

From there, the continental journey of the stick began, passing into the hands of the various representatives of local institutions and associations, as well as other pilgrims who accompanied the Road to Rome group on the four-month journey.  An epic journey, narrated with photos, videos and a travel diary that put people and local communities at the centre of this experience.

Six months after its exciting arrival in Santa Maria di Leuca, Puglia, the stick returns to Canterbury where a ceremony is scheduled for Tuesday 26 April in the Cathedral. On this occasion the staff will be blessed by Reverend Robert Willis in the presence of representatives of the European Association of Via Francigena ways, the city of Canterbury and the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome. It will be an emotional and symbolic moment which strongly links the journey of the Road to Rome to the meeting of peoples – sending out a strong message of peace at a delicate moment in history, with the ongoing war in Ukraine, at the gates of Europe. The stick of the Via Francigena is meant to become a symbol of peace and hope.

After the EAVF Assembly on 27 April in Canterbury, the stick will return to Italy, in Fidenza (where the EAVF headquarters is located). This geographical position is perfectly in the middle of the whole European journey. As well as being a beautiful reminder of the Road to Rome march, the stick will continue to be a symbol of unity between peoples. It will continue to meet pilgrims from all over the world.

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UNESCO: the Mayor of Calais writes a letter to President Macron. The candidacy of the Via comes back to the fore

The long walk “Via Francigena. Road to Rome 2021. Start again!”, which took place during summer 2021, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the EAVF. The event prompted the candidacy of the Via Francigena to join the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Good news finally arrives from France as well, as for the revival of the candidacy process. The letter of Calais’s Mayor Natacha Bouchart to the President of the French Republic Emmanuel Macron has a remarkable value.

The Via Francigena is a “Cultural Route of the Council of Europe” since 1994, hence it is part of the prestigious network of itineraries created in 1987 by the Council of Europe in Santiago de Compostela. Following such certification, in 2015, the Via Francigena network settled a second major objective for the route: its inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The starting point was the meeting on 15 June 2015, requested by the municipalities of Fidenza and Monteriggioni, which was attended by numerous representatives of municipalities and regions, but also of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage. As a next step, the Italian Regions, coordinated by the Region of Tuscany, signed an important collaboration agreement on 4 March 2017 in San Miniato, which led to the drafting, in 2017, of the preliminary analysis of the UNESCO candidacy of the Italian section of the Via Francigena. In 2019, the thematic study of the entire European route, from Canterbury to Rome, had been prepared as well. The EAVF coordinated the technical and scientific work process of the two documents, which list the 540 eligible assets along the 2000-kilometre route, in accordance with criteria number 2, 4 and 6 of the UNESCO Regulations.

Four relevant events occurred during 2021:
  • During the “Road to Rome 2021” march, between 15 June and 18 October 2021, the topic of the UNESCO candidacy was systematically mentioned in all meetings with local institutions and associations. Parliamentarians and local authorities mobilised with regards to the French section. In particular, on 14 June, the Council of the Union of Municipalities of Béthune-Bruay, Artois Lys Romane (Pas-de-Calais department; Hauts-de-France region) and the councils of the twenty municipalities of the Union crossed by Via Francigena unanimously voted a motion of support for the candidacy sent to the French Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot. On 10 February 2021, the Minister and the Director General of Heritage and Architecture at the Ministry replied to all the letters received, assuring that the dossier was under examination in their offices.
  • On 25 February 2021, the Council of the Region of Tuscany unanimously approved a council resolution committing the Region to the promotion of the UNESCO candidacy, in collaboration with the other Italian Regions and the EAVF.
  • With decree no. 749 of 29 September, the Italian Ministry of Culture formally included within the Development and Cohesion Plan “Stralcio Cultura e Turismo CIPE” (FSC 2014-2020 ex delibera 3/2016) an allocation of 1.1 million euros for the UNESCO candidacy dossier of the Italian section of the Via Francigena.

The path towards the UNESCO candidacy has therefore been fully resumed and the Region of Tuscany, in collaboration with the EAVF, is organising a meeting in Florence in the coming weeks to overlook the current situation and ask for renewed consultation between the competent Ministries of United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Italy and the Vatican State.

Natacha Bouchart

In the meantime, the EAVF continued its activities by organising five meetings with local administrations in the French section of the Via Francigena: Calais and Béthune (2 February), Bruay-la-Bussiere (3 February), Bar-sur-Aube (3 March), Wisques (4 March). Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais and vice-president of the Hauts-de-France Region, fully shared the common objectives of the project and gave a strong political impulse by directly involving the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, to whom she sent the preliminary candidacy dossier asking for full support from the French Government.

Since the great “Road to Rome 2021” march last year, I have noticed a renewed and widespread interest in the UNESCO candidacy of the Via Francigena. The meeting with mayor Natacha Bouchart and the interest of the President of the French Republic are very significant steps. Today we can say that the objective of presenting the candidacy proposal in conjunction with the 2025 Jubilee is realistic. The Via Francigena is a precious source of European heritage, and the UNESCO inscription would enhance it even more by bringing together public institutions, private individuals, associations and volunteers. We want to place the values and the tangible and intangible cultural value of this great European itinerary at the centre of the project”, commented Massimo Tedeschi, President of the EAVF.

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Backstage of the march “Via Francigena. Road to Rome 2021. Start again!”: a story by Luca Bruschi

Every long journey begins with a first step

Every journey begins before departure. It begins in our head, when it takes shape. The idea of the long march “Road to Rome 2021” was conceived in a specific moment, in the month of August 2020, at the end of the Road Trip along the Via Francigena which brought me to walk with Elena along the 10 Swiss stages of the Via, meeting municipalities and associations.

Why not propose a similar initiative along the entire Via Francigena to celebrate the first 20 years of the Association, founded in Fidenza on 7 April 2001? Easier said than done. In this case, we also had to seriously consider the issues caused by the Covid pandemic, as it concerned putting 3,200 km in a sole network to organise a march that would last over four months. A journey that immediately presented itself as something epic, as “shining madness”. Afraid not to be able to make this dream come true? Yes, a lot.

The first phases of the project

We had to start somewhere. The first project concept emerged at the end of summer 2020, with the first discussion of ideas held with the European Association of Via Francigena Ways (EAVF)’s President Massimo Tedeschi, Vice-president Martine Gautheron, and, of course, all of the staff. At the beginning of autumn, discussions enlarged, involving municipalities and associations that adhere to the EAVF. We then present the project at the General Assembly on 23 October 2020 and recognised a lot of enthusiasm about this potential idea: there was a lot of participation and of moral support. The first stone had been cast and it started to roll very quickly. The organizational machine was launched.

We started to broaden the project, defining it in the various phases and objectives we wanted to give ourselves. In the meantime, the idea of a relay march was born. It is nice to imagine that there will be a stick to symbolically accompany us from Canterbury to Santa Maria di Leuca, on foot and by bicycle. It is also the year of bicycles at Tokyo’s Olympics, the Olympics delayed from 2020 to 2021. So, we too will play our Olympic games, and accompany the journey with the pilgrim’s staff, that replaces the torch – symbol of the Olympics, which are based at the International Olympic Committee headquarters located in the beautiful city of Lausanne, significant spot along the Via Francigena in Switzerland. We will have our own marathon – not a competitive one of course – for over 3 thousand kilometres. Oh dear, this is crazy. My legs were already shaking only at the idea and thinking about the upcoming months.

How do we want to create this official stick, which will walk with us? Our English friends from the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (London), long lasting supporters of the Via Francigena, helped us in this process. President Giancarlo Laurenzi searched for support in the creation of our pilgrim’s “torch”. After all, a stick made of hazelwood will be devoted to the initiative, provided 3 years ago by Michael Walsh, pilgrim and artisan, in the surroundings of the Holycross Abbey in Tipperary, Ireland. The stick has already been cured, cleaned and prepared for the long journey with over 10 layers of boiled linseed oil. The decoration on the stick will be carved by local artist Julie Helen Sharp, and the rope grip on the handle will be prepared by the specialised craftsman Declan O’Shea. Wow. Symbols are also an important element of this journey. This stick will go a long way, a very long way.

The name of the event still needs to be defined. After long discussions and debates, the EAVF group unanimously agreed on the proposal “Via Francigena. Road to Rome”. This name is connected to the desire to reinforce the close link between the name Via Francigena (a name which, outside Italy, is not so easy to pronounce) and its destination, Rome. You arrive and you depart from Rome, also to head south toward the marvellous lands of Apulia. “Start again!” was then added to “Road to Rome”, an additional proposal by President Tedeschi. The initial idea was to use “We’ll meet again”, an idea that arrived from the UK. It was, indeed, the ending of the message of the British queen to her population on Sunday 5 April 2020 on BBC, during a very uncertain phase amid the Covid pandemic. You may say it is apparently a statement as another, but it is not. It was the hopeful text of a song from the II World War. The Via Francigena family, too, wants to go back to see each other, and peacefully meet along the Via.

Let’s try and organise team and workload, both on the road and in back-office

Behind every project there must be a team leading and developing it. There must be a trainer guiding the team, even in the middle of a storm. Well, the trainer is our super-President Massimo Tedeschi, who has been convinced since day 1 about undertaking this event and bringing it to completion. I had the burden and honour of coordinating – both on and out of the field – an extraordinary staff that progressively augmented, going up to 24 people[1] including tireless interns that gave an important contribution to the success of the project. The staff worked behind the scenes, directing the project, but also had important role along the route, with at least one person always physically present with the walking group. The team is essential. As in an orchestra, each component has its own role and plays in harmony with the others. For me it was an honour, above everything, to conduct this orchestra.

Yet, who will be following the journey for EAVF and share it on our social media channels every day? For this fundamental role, we soon realised we already had the right person ‘on board’, at the right moment, in the right place. With the right enthusiasm: Myra Stals, Dutch girl that had just started collaborating with us for the European project rurAllure Horizon 2020, in which EAVF is involved. Yes, Myra would have been the face of this epic journey. The same girl that travelled most of Europe in the last few years with her cargo bike, leading environmental awareness campaigns. The Santiago de Compostela trail is male, and the Via Francigena is female. We could not do differently than choosing an official woman walker.

In the meantime, we tried to set the departure date. We begin on 15 June, from the ‘km 0’ at the Cathedral of Canterbury.

Municipalities and associations are on our side

Already during the initial phases, involvement of municipalities in the project represented an essential component. Firstly, because it allowed to organise hospitality and refreshments upon arrival in each stage, secondly because they supported the political value of this journey, which built a network of 657 municipalities located along the 4 crossed countries. Most of them believed in us from the very first moment, strongly embracing our coral initiative. National, regional and local associations also had an equally important and decisive role, becoming real “Trail’s Angels” for our trip. They helped us during the initial phase by defining the exact route and during the entire event by guiding us along it, holding us by hand and leading us to understand, once again, the importance of associations for the development of the Via Francigena and of local initiatives.

Refining the on-the-road team. Video makers and ambassadors will travel too!

The role of photographers and video makers was fundamental. Thanks to eight professionals[2] coordinated by the trio Stefano, Roberto and Camilla it was possible to report the long trip from the first to the last kilometre. But let’s take one step back. Precisely for this reason a call for proposals was launched in March 2021 to seek a trusted project partner which could join us in the event, collecting photos, images, videos, interviews and reels. The group SL Studios won the call, bringing together a group of talented young people that would follow us with their cameras, drones and remarkable professionality, ready to get on and off their bike to stay with the group every day, with their big backpacks on their shoulders.

A separate chapter should be reserved to bloggers, promoted to become central ‘ambassadors’ of “Road to Rome”. In April 2021, EAVF launched a second call for proposals for bloggers, inviting them to walk with us for a small part of the route. Over a hundred people answered! We could only select 28 of them, which would join us along very specific sections of the route with an average of 5 days. We were strongly convinced that their stories, blogs and videos, but also their fresh characters and their smiles, could provide added value to the initiative. Bloggers would become a very important element for the outreach potential of the project, but also to stimulate greater empathy with the public.

Here come partners and sponsors. If we want to do things properly, we need an economic plan and people to help us finance the project

We immediately realised that, to organise such a big, complex and ambitious event, our commitment and the ordinary resources of the association were not enough, despite the significant effort it demanded. We needed appropriate economic resources to face this epic relay march, to support it fully and communicate it to the public.

First of all, “Road to Rome” has been conceived as a proper working position (on top of a good dose of fun), to sensitise local institutions towards an increasing investment of energies and resources on the Via Francigena. Among the final objectives are the UNESCO candidacy of the itinerary from Canterbury to Rome and the official introduction of the Via Francigena in the South.

How could we reach significant sponsors and partners for the project? We found our way thanks to the extraordinary work of institutional relations, networking and project planning undertaken by the team and its friends, highlighting the values at the core of the Via Francigena Itinerary and of the 20-year-old activity of the association. One person supported and pushed us forward more than any other, since the very first moment: Mons. Liberio Andreatta, great supporter of the Via Francigena and of its spiritual and cultural value, which are at the basis of this millennial route.

Maybe “Road to Rome” really was the “right project at the right moment”, as Massimo Garavaglia, Italian Minister of Tourism, would say upon arrival in Santa Maria di Leuca. It allowed us to obtain the necessary resources to launch and consolidate this long journey and, above all, have meaningful partners on our side, supporting us.

Covid. How should we behave?

The organization of the event started in autumn 2020, but Covid continued being a serious issue during the following months. There were important restrictions, ‘red areas’, lockdowns for the entire winter season. The future was quite uncertain and the organisation of the Francigena relay suffered from it. I discussed this many times with the President, the Presidency office, the staff, members, project partners and regional health authorities. There were concrete issues we could not ignore, such as quarantines, swabs, reduced mobility and a virus that was heavily circulating at the beginning of 2021. We had already begun to think about plan B and C, which is always good to have ready. There was even a hypothesis of postponing the entire event to 2022, or only organising a few symbolic section walks in 2021. The final decision to depart was only taken on 17 May 2021, after EAVF’s General Assembly in which numerous members participated compactly. The unanimous orientation was to depart, organising an event for a small group of people and avoiding big gatherings. Obviously, the health protocol had to be respected very seriously. In the meantime, at least, the green light had switched on!

Departure. From Canterbury and from the headquarters of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg

Covid restrictions forced us to change the original plan. The official Group, ready to start walking on 15 June, could not reach Canterbury in England due to entrance limitations and mandatory quarantines. Yet, the substance did not change: we were supported by Canterbury City Council, Diocese of Canterbury, Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome and the Kent County. That day, in the morning, an evocative ceremony with the blessing of the pilgrim’s stick took place, and a group of people, guided by Giancarlo Laurenzi, started walking the English section of the Via Francigena. On the following day, in Dover, the stick was handed over to the captain of the ferry that transported it to the port of Calais, where the Road to Rome group was waiting to collect it. What an emotion to have the official stick in our hands! It is hard to imagine a better beginning than this.

We had arrived in Calais, in the north of France, after a stop in Strasbourg on 15 June. Precisely on that day, the “Road to Rome” delegation, guided by President Massimo Tedeschi, Vice-presidents Francesco Ferrari, Gaetan Tornay, member of the Presidency Office Pierre Contoz and myself, were honoured to be welcomed by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe Marija Pejčinović Burić. Yes, it really was an honour to start our journey across Europe from the “Palais de l’Europe” in Strasbourg, where, in 1987, the Cultural Routes Programme was founded – program which the Via Francigena joined in 1994. On this occasion, the keywords of “Road to Rome” were presented: relaunch, to react to the Covid pandemic; heritage, both material and immaterial, along the route; Europe, in the widest sense of the word, including all related humanitarian values.

The journey. The departure. The stops. The arrival. The infinite beauty.

At this point, the journey begun, and we started covering kilometres, meeting people, and crossing villages, one after the other. Ever since the first day, from that fascinating opening ceremony in front of the Cathedral of Calais, we realised that something extraordinary was happening. Something epic. One of those experiences that are so strong and intense that they might never repeat.

The full story of this 119-stages, 127-days, 3,200-km journey is collected in podcasts and in the daily blogs prepared by the tireless and wonderful Myra Stals, as well as in the posts on social media, in over 3,000 photos, 16 videos, 50 reels, in the pages of our bloggers and in the diary of “Ragazze in Gamba”. We really left a lot of traces behind us, along a route that crosses Europe.

During this adventure there were very important symbolic moments, such as our stops in Arras, Champlitte, Besançon in France; the unique Great St. Bernard Pass in Switzerland; Orio Litta, Gambassi Terme, Viterbo and Roma, the eternal City that we reached on 10 September; further south to Formia, Fondi, Telese Terme, Bari and ultimately the final destination, Santa Maria di Leuca, our De Finibus Terrae. A triumphant arrival that took place on Monday 18 October, under a light rain, with more than 150 following us and sharing emotions and experiences. We reached the Sanctuary and the legendary lighthouse (second tallest in Europe), representing the very end of Italy’s heel and of the “Road to Rome” journey.

We arrived in the exact spot where, according to popular common knowledge, the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionio Sea and, due to their different colours, a borderline appears in the water. We reached the southern end of this crazy European trip along the Via, which we shared with 15 thousand people in 4 months.

The emotions that arose from this journey are still strong. The faces and stories of the beautiful people we met along each stage are still shining in me. I remember the nice chats along the way, with my trip companions, our stops to eat, our early waking time, my feet soaking in water in rainy days, the colours of the fields and cultivations that change the scenery as we go; the embracing sunsets, the moments of silence, the moments of happiness that a walking journey gifts, the smell of the woods, the sound of the stick walking with me and giving the rhythm to travellers, the tiredness and the joy at the end of each day. I had an intense feeling, finally, from the smiles and hugs, true hugs that I had forgotten during the pandemic. The most beautiful and extraordinary part of this journey were the people.

Road to Rome was a journey that connected peoples, populations and territories. It gave each of us hope and pride. The Via Francigena proved to be a stunning long pearl necklace. We collected all these pearls, one by one, in the towns we crossed, and we managed to put them all together, one aside the other. A beautiful dream has come true.

Luca Bruschi, EAVF’s Director

[1] Staff: Sami Tawfik, Micol Sozzi, Elena Dubinina, Luca Faravelli, Myra Stals, Jacques Chevin, Martina D’Agostino, Sara Louise Costa, Marika Massotti, Eleonora Martinelli, Arianna Fietta, Simona Spinola, Nicole Franciolini, Cecilia Micciantuomo, Garance Potier, Edgar Lebras, Angelofabio Attolico, Giusy Baldacchino, Daniela Leo, Anna Maria Ganapini, Rosy Previ, Marco Tedeschi.

[2] Video makers: Mattia Poppa, Filippo Racanella, Andrea Ciotti, Enrico Baroni, Luce Scaglione, Sharon Di Cinci, Giulia Bertolazzi, Nicola Cagol.

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New construction sites for a great restyling of the itinerary: 19,1 million euros allocated to the development of the route.

An important infrastructural action begins from the Italian section of the route, at the end of the long “Road to Rome” march.

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Happy 20th birthday, EAVF! A beautiful story!

On the 7th of April 2001, the association of municipalities along the Via Francigena was founded in Fidenza, initially only with Italian municipalities.

It then became, in 2005, the European Association of the Via Francigena ways. Today, we celebrate a prestigious achievement: twenty years of activity of this bottom-up association, based on voluntary participation, that brings together municipalities and regions, local associations and enthusiasts, cultural operators and various economic realms, as well as academics. Here we share our conversation with the EAVF President Massimo Tedeschi, who had the early-on intuition and long-term mindset to create an environment for this international network, which is now active and in great turmoil in all territories crossed by the route and in its surrounding areas.

1) Let’s start with the history. In 2001, you were Mayor of Fidenza. What are the reasons that pushed you, that year, on the 7th of April, to found a network of municipalities, initially in the Italian section, along the Via Francigena? Looking back at it today, was it a good decision?

A. The reason was rooted, then and today, in what I would call European pride: the pleasure of being part of a European community which, after long historic developments, represents the world’s best example of respect for human values (political democracy, civil rights, human rights, intercultural dialogue, tolerance). These values were then transferred, on the 5th of May 1949, into the Statute of the Council of Europe in London (capital, not by chance, of a country where the liberal mindset thrives). The United Kingdom left the European Union but not the Council of Europe, similarly to Switzerland, which continues to be part of it since 1963.

Back to the 7th of April 2001: I remember that when I was elected Mayor, in 1991, a few enthusiasts (very few!) in my hometown Fidenza and its province started telling me about the Via Francigena, a totally unknown subject to people at that time. Nevertheless, when the Via Francigena obtained the certification “Cultural Route of the Council of Europe” in 1994, and in anticipation of the Great Jubilee in 2000, the number of the Via Francigena pioneers increased. I was then lucky to meet the French Middle Ages historian Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014). I first met him when he visited the Cathedral of Fidenza on the 21st of May 1998, then I met him again on the 21st of October 2000 in a crowded municipal theater, to award him with the honorary citizenship of the city – one of the most remarkable moments of my mandate. Six months later, on the 7th of April 2001, with representatives of 34 Italian local public authorities (who were the first, out of 150 entities, that accepted my invitation), the association was founded. Twenty years later, I am increasingly convinced that it was an excellent idea.

2) What are the key achievements obtained by the EAVF, and what are the most important moments it has seen in these 20 years of work? Today, the EAVF’s network is composed of 193 municipalities, 70 associations, and more than 400 private stakeholders.

A. The key achievement reached in these 20 years of activity is the double-faced benefit, both cultural and economic, that the Via Francigena has produced on small communities along the 2000 km route and its surroundings: thousands of people, from all over the world, have walked along the path and through these areas. The kilometers have become 3200 in 2019, when the “Cultural Route of the Council of Europe” certification was extended to the South of Italy, from Rome to Santa Maria di Leuca. When I speak about economic benefit, I think of the impact of tens of millions of euros, given the average duration and daily expenditure per person on the route, exactly on those territories that are virtually excluded from main tourism circuits.

When I speak about cultural benefit, I think of the exchange and intangible enrichment between newly met people: people who walk and people who live along the route. They learn and speak different languages, gain confidence with each other, admire various architectural styles, taste simple but delicious foods, exchange phone numbers, and create occasions to meet again.

Four years after the foundation, in 2005, the first non-Italian municipality joined the association: the prestigious city of Canterbury, whose leader was, at the time, Harry Craig. Following, the inter-municipal district of Bas Valais joined in 2010 as a first Swiss entity, thanks to the urge of abbot Joseph Roduit (1939-2015) of Saint-Maurice. In 2016, the first French municipality joined: Bucey-les-Gy (with only 600 inhabitants, in the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté), thanks to the long-term thinking of Mayor Emile Ney, who still collaborates with us. I would like to point out the importance of membership in the network not only of the 193 local entities and 70 friend associations, but also of 400 small enterprises that provide hospitality and restoration services to pilgrims. This network is continuously expanding.

 

3) The ongoing pandemic certainly had strong impacts also on the tourist sector and on the accessibility of heritage sites. However, the Via Francigena and pilgrimage walks and outdoor activities in general are sectors that will grow in the coming years, exactly because of their rural character, their connection with nature and with sustainable development. Can this segment, connected to Cultural itineraries and pilgrimage routes, really continue to grow?

A. The pandemic brutally made us realize the enormous importance of tourism as a form of exchange and consciousness and therefore as a way of protecting heritage and developing culture and economy. The Via Francigena and the entire Cultural Routes family can greatly contribute to the post-pandemic re-launch, as they allow to safely experience nature and society, two of the elements that people are missing the most today.

4) The Camino de Santiago has been recognized Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in 1987, 7 years before the Via Francigena. Even in numerical terms, the difference between the two routes is evident. What is the Via Francigena missing to gain greater international popularity and consolidate its identity?

A. The number of walkers on the Camino de Santiago has five zeros, whereas the one on the Via Francigena has four zeros. The main difference is that the Government and the Church in Spain aimed to the development of the Camino without dissipating investments on minor distracting objectives. This way, they managed to create a ‘narrative’ that built worldwide positive reputation, using cinema and literature as divulgation channels.

A similar investment, both cultural and financial, has not been devolved to the Via Francigena (road to Rome), neither in Italy nor in other countries crossed. This is partly comprehensible. In Rome, for example, millions of pilgrims always arrived from all over the world, thus it was not easy for civil and religious authorities of the country and of the city to identify and select the few thousand pilgrims that came walking from the Via Francigena.

Nevertheless, I think that, after the pandemic is surpassed, this argument will be tackled: we must understand how to give strength to the arterial system of the “vie romee” (roads to Rome), so that, in turn, it can spread blood along the entire venous system of walking routes, without any waste. We must also find a way to reserve a ‘special’ welcome to those who arrive to Rome after walking hundreds of kilometers.

 

5) After 20 years, EAVF decided to celebrate its anniversary with a long walking-event from Canterbury to Santa Maria di Leuca, involving all the 657 municipalities crossed. It sounds like a great challenge, almost an anticipation of the Jubilee! How is the organization of such a large cultural initiative progressing?

A. On the 30th of March 2021 the EAVF General Assembly decided to confirm the great march “Via Francigena. Road to Rome 2021. Start again!”. Its organization is keeping us very busy but is experiencing an incredible level of enthusiasm and collaboration of internal and external parties. You are right: this march is our Jubilee. We will leave Canterbury on the 16th of June (where sanitary restrictions will only allow a symbolic ceremony developed by our English friends); on the 17th of June we will leave from Calais (France), on the 23rd of July we will be in Orbe (Switzerland) and on the 1st of August we will enter Italy from the Great St Bernard Pass. On the 10th of September we will arrive in Rome and on the 18th of October in Santa Maria di Leuca, our Finisterrae.

This march is not only a simple initiative, although quite challenging, is a deep and complex occurrence because it puts all of us on the front line, physically walking. When we arrive in Santa Maria di Leuca on the 18th of October, 4 months later, we will have changed. We will have put in practice the principles and values of the Via Francigena, which I mentioned earlier: meeting new people, learning languages and stories we did not know; exchanging ideas and experiences; hiking and biking, and many more. We will be different people when we arrive, and I am certain we will have changed for the better.

 

Interviewed by Luca Bruschi, EAVF Director