Via Francigena. The Road to Rome

1 month of Road to Rome: a report of the first 30 days on the road

“Only 30 days? I feel like I’ve been walking for months” – says astonished Myra Stals on the phone, key representative and social media manager of Road to Rome, directly from the Via Francigena – which is, since the 16th of June, her moving home.

Four intense weeks have past, which opened with two days of official ceremonies in the presence of Carlo Laurenzi, President of the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome, given the impossibility of the Road to Rome’s team to reach Canterbury – km 0 of the itinerary – due to restrictions given by the pandemic.

A stakeholder meeting held in the Cathedral, the blessing of the pilgrim’s stick which arrived from England to the port of Calais, to be passed over to the group of ramblers; the meeting with Marija Pejčinović Burić, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, who received in Brussels a delegation of the Via Francigena and defined the event a symbol of sustainable tourism relaunch. A fast-paced succession of events filled the first 48 hours, followed by the first actual step along the 148 stages of the Via Francigena, that will sum up to 3,200 km, crossing 5 countries and 16 regions, and will lead the group to the final destination in 4 months of incredible adventures.

The enthusiasm of local people

“It was so intense, I experienced so many things, met so many people” – continues Myra, who shares her travel diary in the Travelogue on the website every day. Once the pilgrim’s stick was collected from the port of Calais, travellers started walking along the North Sea coast, and since day one the weather has not been particularly merciful. “Mud, rain and storms – atypical weather for this season, according to local people – were not able to ruin our experience, which is offering incredible encounters and surprises every single day. I remember that at the end of the first stage, arriving in Wissant after 20 km in a sway between rain and sunshine, a big crowd of people gathered in front of the church of Notre Dame in Calais to welcome us: I couldn’t believe my eyes”.

People are welcoming and enthusiast. Each step – tells us Myra – is accompanied by the Bonjour of people of every age who are curiously following the march as it passes in their villages. In fact, stages in this first month mainly crossed small towns, some of which are populated by 80 inhabitants, others even by 30! There are very few cities and urban centres, and the hilly landscape is mostly alternated with grain, potato and corn fields, but most of all with smiles and selfie requests from locals.

Road to Rome on the media

Great interest is also coming from municipalities, institutions and journalists, as demonstrated by the impact of Road to Rome on the media, both in France and in Italy. Many publications are reserved to the event, such as the interview to EAVF’s Director Luca Bruschi who walked in the first section of the Via Francigena, in the region of Hauts-de-France. He was interviewed by Le Pas-de-Calais: “The objective of this journey – he claimed – is to promote the Via Francigena and all its impactful aspects, and to support its candidacy to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Via Francigena represents a great opportunity for the growth and development of territories, but also of local communities along the route, which will always be involved in this project. It is a complex asset based on human heritage that deserves to be protected and valorised through the UNESCO network, on top of the Council of Europe which already certified the Via Francigena in 1994”.

The Italian press supported the Road to Rome project with great enthusiasm, promoting the relay march on some of the most important national newspapers: from Il Corriere to Ansa, as well as Repubblica and Il Sole 24 ore, but also on local media and specialised newspapers such as Trekking.it and Terre di Mezzo.

The project’s network

That which was born as a celebration for the 20th anniversary of the Association quickly transformed in an authentic mediatic opportunity, able to involve a wide range of sectors. Enit, Intesa Sanpaolo and Snam, in fact, decided to join the Road to Rome mission in the guise of main partners, finding a match between their constitutional values and a project that builds on the pillars of slow tourism, sustainability, and the rediscovery of Italy.

“Intesa Sanpaolo’s support to the Road to Rome 2021 highlights the willingness of the Group to support the economic development of territories, tourism and culture”, we read on the official website of the bank. Renzo Simonato, Head of Agribusiness Management of the bank, comments: “This project bears an optimistic message: returning soon to admire the Italian artistic and cultural heritage. For Intesa Sanpaolo, collective participation in the arts and culture represents a fundamental value that constantly leads our commitment”.

For Enit’s President Giorgio Palmucci and Director Giovanni Bastianelli, the relay represents “a return to true experiences, thanks to the storytelling of people who meet along the route. Italian lifestyles and the ‘Made in Italy’ stamp are peculiarities of this country, a unique territory and sole in the world having 55 UNESCO sites”. Patrizia Rutigliano, Snam’s EVP Institutional Affairs, ESG, Sustainability, Communication and Marketing, declared that the initiative “is very close to our mission and our values. Snam connects countries and communities, builds relationships with territories and ensures safe and increasingly sustainable energy provisions, through a network that crosses many spots along the Italian Via Francigena”.

The right moment to relaunch the Via Francigena

Against every prediction, summer 2021 seems to be the very best moment to promote the Via Francigena, despite restrictions in place during the past months, or perhaps ‘thanks’ to them.

The group of ramblers met many pilgrims on their way, such as 22-years old Vincent, who left alone in the direction of Rome, or Alessio, who is suffering from cystic fibrosis and yet travels with a 25 kg backpack on his shoulders; he is walking with Massimo to sensitise public opinion about this disease. The group also met Simon and Olga, Dutch travellers who left Amsterdam to reach Rome and are showing that it is possible to avoid following the classic trail and instead connect at a later stage from other walking routes to the Via Francigena. “This is why it is increasingly important to build a joint network of ‘Via Francigena ways’, which allows to expand the itinerary and create new intersections for travellers coming from all over Europe: Road to Rome is clearly an instrument that can raise awareness among institutions about this necessity, especially in a phase where slow tourism is experiencing an unprecedent growth” – argues Myra. After all, numbers speak for themselves: “accommodation structures where we sleep, mostly bed and breakfast but also hostels and hotels, tell us that a few years ago people would stop at their structures on their way to Santiago de Compostela, whereas now they all walk along the Via Francigena” – explains Myra.

Walking, day after day

We could not miss a few considerations about routine on the Road to Rome, given by the very person who will walk the entire Via Francigena for 4 months, arriving in Rome on the 11th of September and in Santa Maria di Leuca on the 18th of October. “Baguette and croissant are delicious and dinners are always very rich, certainly we are not missing food! What I miss the most is vegetables – it is hard to organize our lunch breaks in a practical way, and I miss Italian food!”, reveals Myra, who has been living in Italy for many years by now. It is also interesting to observe how the dynamics of the group change according to the group components: “until now I have always walked or cycled with different people - members of the staff who joined us for the first stages, curious locals of all ages, etc. - and the mood of the day changes each time. I will certainly need a few moments to be alone with myself, but I always enjoy the trip and all the surprises it is treasuring”.

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