“So many pearls that keep together this beautiful necklace made of a dense network of people and villages. And there’s so much passion! And then the communication afterwards!’
These sentiments expressed by Luca Bruschi, Director of the European Association of the Via Francigena, capture the essence of the pilgrimage.
The Via Francigena route is based on a travel diary written in 990 AD by Archbishop Sigeric. He travelled from Canterbury to Rome to receive his Pallium from the Pope and on his return noted 79 places where he rested.
Last year I made the entire pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome and received the Pilgrim’s Testimonium. But, my pilgrimage was not just about receiving this treasured document. As Luca says the real joy is in being part of the network of people and the communication afterwards. For me, it is like a new beginning!
When I returned to Australia after my pilgrimage my passion for the Via Francigena intensified. So, I ended up back in Italy and Switzerland a mere four months later. My aim was to spend more time in the 7 places where Sigeric rested in Switzerland.
The itinerary map rather beautifully displays, like pearls on a string, the towns and villages that run through the Swiss Via Francigena.
Orbe was the last place in Switzerland (LV or 55) where Sigeric rested on his way back to Canterbury. It is an ancient Roman and Medieval town that still has Roman mosaics, ancient Swiss bridges and my favourite Swiss wine, Gamay.
On my recent visit, I walked for several hours along the Via Francigena pathways near Orbe and enjoyed the solitude of the Swiss countryside. My only companions were green and golden pastures dotted with tiny villages and the purple glow of the distant snow clad Jura Alps!
In Sigeric’s day, major crossroads passed through Orbe and would have been packed with travellers, and a few centuries later, with pilgrims. But, I had it all to myself!
Eventually, I ended up at Romainmôtier Abbey! It has the oldest Romanesque church in Switzerland, and was established in the10th century by Cluny monks. But, there is evidence that the church was built in 10 stages going right back to the 1st century. I did enjoy seeing the amazing Romanesque columns, capitals and frescoes!
After my walk I was badly in need of a cup of tea! So, I headed straight for the orange Tea House building – once the Abbey Priory. My pot of tea was truly refreshing, alongside a big bowl of local Swiss vegetable soup with bread and a huge plate of cheese.
I had true insight into how grateful medieval pilgrims must have felt to sit and eat this same fare!
Lausanne, Sigeric’s resting place (LIV or 54), is located on Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). So, I decided to walk up the steep slopes from the Lake to the Cathedral. The walk is well worth it for the vistas of the city and views to the Lake and Alps – but did result in blistered feet!
Lausanne’s 12th Century Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral is as popular today as it was for medieval pilgrims. It has many amazing features. I love the polychrome figures in the Painted Portal, the belfry and 13th century rose windows.
I managed to locate the Church of St Francis and feeling very weary after the walk, I was reluctant to go in. I tried to take a photo of the labyrinth on the door, but it kept opening. I figured St Francis was inviting me in to pray!
Later in the afternoon, I decided to walk to Vevey (Sigeric’s 53rd resting place). This was a little ambitious given the blisters and the fact that it is a four-hour walk. Fortunately, I had my sketchbook and pencils. So, I found a great spot to sit and sketch the Alps and watch the sun set.
Vevey glowed brightly in the distance, as did the vineyards of Lavaux. Then, as the light faded, I headed off to sample the local Lavaux wine and some Swiss-Italian cuisine!
Leaving Lac Léman the Via Francigena goes through the Alp encased Rhône valley. Sigeric rested in a small village near Aigle (LII or 52). This village is beautiful with its winding streets, the Napolean Bridge, Castle and surrounding vineyards and towering Alps.
The Abbey of Saint-Maurice
Another place in the Rhône Valley where Sigeric rested is the Abbey of Saint-Maurice (LI or 51). It is mid-way between Canterbury and Rome and has been a place of continual prayer, ‘laus perennis’, for over 15 centuries. In 2015 there were big celebrations for its 1500th anniversary.
This place is definitely a ‘pearl’ with so much to see! I loved visiting the Basilica, the archaeological site, the catacombs, the treasury and the cloisters.
Visiting this Abbey made me think of the fellow pilgrim I met last year. During that visit, I expressed that I was hoping to go back to France to see places I had missed. But, he very sternly reminded me that the way forward to Rome was so much better. I carried this piece of advice all the way to Rome, and into my daily life, making decisions that move me forward, not backwards. This has been a very big change for me!
The Via Francigena ascends steeply into the Alps at Martigny, arriving at Orsières (Sigeric’s rest place L or 50). I do enjoy wandering through the ancient streets, eating in the Café des Alpes and admiring the medieval belfry of the Saint-Nicolas’ church.
Bourg Saint-Pierre, at an altitude of 1632 m is the next place (LIX or 49) where Sigeric rested. In 810 it had a monastery dedicated to Saint Peter catering for pilgrims. The Romanesque belfry and the hotel where Napoleon dined are great to see.
At Bourg Saint-Pierre there is a tunnel through to Italy. At an altitude of 2473 m, Grand St Bernard Pass is only accessible 2 to 4 months of the year. So, walking the Via Francigena is quite limited here.
Grand Saint-Bernard Pass
I have been fortunate to visit Grand Saint-Bernard Pass several times. Last year, in October, we had our Pilgrim Credentials stamped at the Hospice. We received a true pilgrim’s welcome, with a warm bowl of soup, and a visit to the Chapel and Museum.
Outdoors, there is an ancient Roman road and a lake beyond which marks the Italian border and of course, St Bernard standing guard over the path to Rome and St Peter’s!
Travelling the Via Francigena
For more information on the Via Francigena visit the official website https://www.viefrancigene.org/en/.
There are more photographs and information on Carol’s website http://www.carolneville.com.au. Please contact Carol through her website if you wish to join an event in Italy or attend an information evening.