The Road to Rome is an important event that joins the celebrations of the Compostela Holy Year and aims to strengthen the international fame of the Via Francigena, while reflecting on the future of the camino.
2021 will be a special year for the Via Francigena. The long “Road to Rome 2021” event will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the European Association of the Via Francigena Ways and primarily aims to strengthen the international fame of the Via by celebrating together with all the associations and municipalities situated along the 3,200 km route.
The “Road to Rome” is a great undertaking that will be faced head on with the support of many passionate fans and pilgrims. Among the goals are that of restarting sustainable and responsible tourism after the pandemic, as well as supporting the candidacy of the Via Francigena as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A GROWING TREND
The popularity of the Via Francigena is growing exponentially, which is a given fact. The year 2020, “annus horribilis” for tourism on a global scale, in the period from July to October has actually recorded a greater number of pilgrims on the Via Francigena than in the same period the year before.
More than 9,000 credentials have been distributed by the EAVF alone, and on top of these can be added the credentials distributed by other associations, often on a local scale. In addition to these numbers it’s necessary to consider those who walk only a stretch of the Via each year using the same credential (30%) and those who travel along the Via Francigena without a pilgrim’s passport (about 15%). The public that visits the Via has also become increasingly more international: in 2019 travelers from over 60 different countries around the world (!) were registered, while last year for obvious reasons most travelers stayed close to home and decided to travel along national stretches of the Via.
THE CHALLENGES FOR THE FUTURE. ENGLAND, FRANCE, SWITZERLAND
It is of the utmost importance to prioritize constructive work in specific areas to improve the future of the Via Francigena. However no magic wand is needed: all we need is a collective willingness of all those involved and a forward-looking, courageous approach that goes beyond the “domestic”, regional, or national views that are often associated with the Via Francigena.
In England the length of the Via is only 30 km, but this part of the route is of extraordinary importance for the Anglo-Saxon culture it represents. In these times of the Brexit, the Via Francigena aims to continue to firmly unite the United Kingdom with Europe through culture, history, tourism, and interreligious dialogue. Canterbury is the starting point of the route and it is also the place where Archbishop Sigeric returned to in 990 after receiving the pallium from Pope John XV.
In France it will be necessary to start to consider the Via Francigena not only as the national “GR 145” route, but instead as the “Road to Rome”, putting emphasis on the etymology of the name Via Francigena, which means “the road that comes from the land of the Franks”. The GR® (Grandes Randonnées) represent the French national trail network within which the various paths are cataloged and valued, but it is crucial that the Via Francigena receives a greater visibility that goes beyond the French borders. The Via Francigena, in essence, cannot be labeled as a “simple” GR along the more than 1,000 km and 47 stages in the land beyond the Alps. Sigeric’s itinerary represents an extraordinary opportunity for territorial development in all the 220 municipalities involved, 90% of which are located in rural areas.
In Switzerland the Via Francigena crosses 210 km across two cantons only (Valais and Vaud). Due to its marginalization, the path is poorly inserted within the national tourism promotion policies. Furthermore, for Swiss standards the route is classified as “easy to walk” compared to the many alpine and mountain trails which present more difficult itineraries. The Via Francigena in Switzerland covers 10 wonderful stages, immersed in nature, which I had the opportunity to cross entirely on foot last summer. You can find out more about this incredibly experience on the EAVF pages.
ITALY. ONE, A HUNDRED OR A THOUSAND PATHS?
By now the Via Francigena is well known in Italy, or at least the stretch from the Great St. Bernard Pass to Rome is. Thanks to the efforts of several regions, especially Tuscany, during the past ten years important infrastructural works have been carried out along the route. A significant restyling of the route on a national level is planned in 2021-2022 thanks to the CIPE ministerial funds allotted to the Via Francigena.
On a national level, however, there’s still a lack of awareness that Italy has “an important Camino de Santiago” of its own. This has been confirmed on the 17th of December at the “Value and Country” (Valore e Paese) workshop organized by the Agenzia del Demanio, MIBACT, ENIT, ANCI, ANAS, and Ferrovie dello Stato where it was stated that in Italy “we have 100 Santiago de Compostela itineraries”. The Via Francigena is too often seen as a local path, without considering its European significance.
Creating a uniform trail network across the entire national territory makes sense, just as it is important to strengthen the great variety of itineraries that are emerging throughout the country. But by doing so there’s also the risk of fragmenting Italy into hundreds or thousands of individual paths without having a strong backbone to begin with, thus creating a fragile system unable to sustain itself independently. Unfortunately, it is not enough to simply create or plan a path to make it live and survive over time: it requires organization and planning on a national level – starting from the maintenance of the paths – and therefore cannot be based only on the passion of local volunteers.
A second point of weakness which could be improved is the investment in international promotion strategies and campaigns dedicated to the sector through the National Tourism Agency.
The example of Spain is well known when it comes to the rebirth of the Camino de Santiago: back in the 1980s some strong political choices were made by the Government and the Galicia region, as well as by religious institutions. The extraordinary animation work by associations and “friends of the Camino” contributed to the growth of the Camino as well. All of them had and still have a fundamental role in the development, safeguarding and promotion of the route, but essential to the success is a clear and strong governance. After more than thirty years, also in Spain dozens and dozens of new paths have flourished which, directly or indirectly, all belong to the historical one called “francès” that was officially launched back in 1987.
HOSPITALITY IN ROME AND THE SOUL OF THE VIA FRANCIGENA
Hospitality is one of the most important aspects along the entire route, in every single one of its stages. This aspect becomes even more relevant upon arrival in Rome and the Vatican. Over the last few kilometers, the pilgrims’ steps become full of emotion, hope, expectation. These moments, together with the final arrival, remain forever engraved in every pilgrim’s heart and memory.
The data from “Terre di Mezzo” that were presented on the occasion of the Autumn Fair “Do The Right Thing” (Fa’ La Cosa Giusta), highlighted the lack of actual numbers of pilgrims arriving in Rome as the end destination of their journey along the Via Francigena. It is now more than ever essential to measure those data that register the number of travelers, especially in reference to the final destination. Establishing a monitoring center on a national level is a necessity that can no longer be postponed, because it also becomes a decisive element for the credibility of the entire trail network. Such a center can also be used to measure the impact of the investments made by the government as well as by local and regional administrations.
It would be desirable to put an adequate hospitality system in place for pilgrims who arrive at St. Peter’s, which guarantees accommodation reserved specifically for them. This can be achieved by a strong involvement of institutions that are interested in collaborating, starting with the religious ones.
Besides the question of hospitality, there is also the need to recover the “soul” of the Via Francigena, i.e. the set of values that are inextricably linked to the route: they are values linked to its history as ancient Via Romea, but also to the fact that the Via Francigena holds a central position along the axis that unites the destinations of the three “peregrinationes majores” of medieval Christianity: Rome, Santiago and Jerusalem.
Let’s not forget that along the beautiful Italian stretch of the Via Francigena of the South, recently certified at a European level and currently under construction, there are other important destinations: Monte Sant’Angelo, Brindisi, Bari and, in fact, Santa Maria di Leuca, our De Finibus Terrae.
In my opinion, it is precisely on the soul of the Via Francigena that the future of the journey will be played out: there is a strong need to recover its spiritual and soul-searching dimension so that when the pilgrims have finished their journey, they can exclaim: “The Via Francigena has changed my life!“.
JUBILEE YEAR IN SANTIAGO
Meanwhile, in Spain, the spotlight has turned on the Compostelan jubilee year that could bring almost one million pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in 2021 and 2022 (if the pandemic allows it). The European Union has also made a statement to remember the importance of this event: The Vice President of the European Commission in charge of dialogue and religious communities, Margaritas Schinas, launched a beautiful message on the 31st of December concerning the start of the 2021 jubilee year, which has been extended to 2022 as well.
A Camino that unites Europe, a Camino of peace and hope that has been mobilizing pilgrims for over ten centuries. The Council of Europe recognized the Camino de Santiago in 1987 as the first European Cultural Route, followed in 1994 by the Via Francigena.
THE ROAD TO ROME, TO CELEBRATE THE “MIRACLE” OF THE VIA FRANCIGENA
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the European Association of the Vie Francigene, the “Road to Rome” relay race on foot and by bicycle along the Via Francigena fits perfectly into the context of the Compostelan jubilee year. The event will start on the 15th June from Canterbury and will arrive at the end destination Santa Maria di Leuca on the 18th of October. First and foremost, this journey aspires to be a moment of reflection, of personal encounters, and of sharing; it will focus above all on territories and people. It will also be a valuable opportunity to raise awareness among governmental, civil and religious institutions about the importance and future of this European path that unites Northern Europe with the Mediterranean.
Finally, the Road to Rome will be the celebration of all those who love the Via Francigena, but it will also be a time to celebrate the small “miracle” of the Via Francigena which, even today, after 20 years since the foundation of the EAVF, still manages to bring people together, to create a sense of belonging, and to support the growth of the territories involved and strengthen an extraordinary cultural heritage. If the pandemic allows it, then let’s celebrate all together in 2021!