A new guidebook to the Via Francigena in Southern Italy has just been published… in English! My hope is that this new publication will draw international attention to this little-known route, which I walked in September and October of 2021, and make the part of the Via Francigena in Southern Italy more accessible to walkers from all over the world.
But why choose to walk the Via Francigena in Southern Italy?
Via Francigena vs. Camino de Santiago
Comparisons are odious. So the saying goes, and never is it truer than in comparisons between the Via Francigena and the Camino de Santiago. And yet I do sometimes find myself comparing the two pilgrimage routes, especially when trying to explain the Via Francigena to someone who has never heard of it.
“Have you heard of the Camino de Santiago?” – “Well, the Via Francigena is a bit like that, except that you walk to Rome,” I used to say; and then, after discovering that the Via Francigena doesn’t actually end in Rome, “and you can continue on south of Rome to the port cities in Puglia where pilgrims used to embark on ships to the Holy Land: Bari, Brindisi, Otranto. And even farther south, to Santa Maria di Leuca, at the very end of the heel of Italy – a bit like continuing after Santiago and walking to Finisterre.”
However, I often warn people who have walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain that they should not expect the Via Francigena to be the same. I don’t want them to have unrealistic expectations of finding an albergue where they can spend the night for ten or fifteen euros in every town they walk through. I don’t want them to expect pilgrim menus to be available in every restaurant, souvenir gadgets in every shop, or throngs of walkers from all over the world to share the trail with.
Walkers who have experienced the camaraderie of the Camino de Santiago need to realise that the Via Francigena does not have anything like the same number of pilgrims – and that it cannot be expected to have anything like the same abundance of services. But in my opinion, this makes the Via Francigena more interesting – and more authentic. You will not be drifting along in a “camino bubble”: you will be in contact with ordinary local people all along the way. And if you can speak a few words of their language, you will be able to share in their lives for a few moments each day. You may have an opportunity to stay on a working farm, or in a family home, or to attend the daily prayers of an active convent or monastery. You may even end up talking to people along the way who have no idea what a long-distance walk is all about, and are curious to find out where you are going, and why!
The Via Francigena south of Rome
This is even truer on the Via Francigena south of Rome. For while pilgrims have been walking south to the ports of Puglia to embark on a vessel to the Holy Land since at least the fourth century after Christ, the Via Francigena in Southern Italy has only been recognised as an official modern-day pilgrimage walk since 2019! So you ought to consider yourself a pioneer walker when you set off on this route. Be prepared not to run into any other walkers all day. Be prepared to be the only walker staying at your accommodations. Be prepared to find people staring at you, or asking you what you are doing, with your big backpack on!
I remember being one of the first walkers in the “Via Francigena. Road to Rome 2021 – Start again!” event last year to arrive in the town square in Sezze, in southern Lazio. A small group of local women sitting on benches in the square spotted us, with our backpacks and poles, and asked where we had walked from. “Rome,” I replied. Their reaction was total amazement – even though Rome was only four days away. “You walked here all the way from Rome??? – I don’t even walk to the grocery store!” one of the women exclaimed! So you can imagine her reaction when we said we were intending to walk all the way to Puglia….
Road to Rome 2021 – Start again!
Hopefully the ordinary people who live along the Via Francigena are a little more aware of its existence since the “Via Francigena. Road to Rome 2021 – Start again!” came through their towns last year. This was one of the goals of the project, and one of the reasons why I, and the other walkers, took the trouble to talk to the people we met along the way and explain to them where we were walking to, and why.
Personally, I hope that the Via Francigena will never become comparable to the Camino de Santiago, or at least the Camino Frances, where social interactions are primarily among walkers, and interactions with local people are conducted primarily for the purposes of commerce; where the townspeople view pilgrims primarily as a source of income.
We need to strike the right balance between promoting the walk and the services available along it, and maintaining the authenticity of the towns and countryside we walk through.
The new guidebook
An important step has just been taken to make the Via Francigena in Southern Italy more accessible to walkers: Terre di Mezzo has published a new guidebook to the Via Francigena in Southern Italy, available in Italian and now also in English!
I really like the Terre di Mezzo guidebook format, with its maps, elevation profiles and descriptions of each stage, complete with suggestions for where to stay and what to see. And I hope that the availability of this up-to-date guidebook in English will make the Via Francigena in Southern Italy more easily accessible to walkers from all over the world… not TOO many, though! 😅