Why Via Francigena?
The name Via Francigena was born thanks to the people of the Franks, those who lived beyond the Alps and started doing pilgrimages towards Rome and the Holy Land crossing the Moncenisio hill and Italy in the post-Carolingian period. This road more and more followed by travelers in the course of years became part of the many roads that linked the European spiritual places one to another and the Holy Land. Actually Via Francigena never means just one communication way, but a network of paths, dirty roads, secondary routes that, according to season, wars, and journey ease, could be followed by the pilgrims till the Italian capital city and beyond. The 1600 kilometers that link Canterbury to Rome pass from Dover, cross the Channel till Calais and go southwards to Reims and Losanne. From the Great St Bernard Pass they enter the Aosta Valley and then Piedmont to go down till Vercelli. In Lombardy they pass in the surroundings of Pavia just before crossing the Apennines in the Emilia region and entering Tuscany in Pontremoli. The pathway continues in the province of Florence and then in that of Siena to San Gimignano, Siena, San Quirico d'Orcia and the valley till Radicofani. The Tuscia and then Rome end Sigeric’s itinerary.
Along the Via Francigena by bike
The Via Francigena by bicycle is an exciting but also demanding itinerary: whether you leave to travel just a few stages or to pedal from Canterbury to Rome, it is advisable to be properly equipped to face the seasonal adversities and the dirty stretches you meet. From the town where Thomas Beckett’s homicide took place to the Eternal City passing through half Europe and the Alps with, first of all, the Great St Bernard Pass. On the official website you can download the gps track of what ECF and Fiab consider the Via Francigena for bicycles: the Eurovelo 5 route, the official website I refer you to for a description of the places to cover.
The Via Francigena as a pilgrim of the Middle Ages
When you leave to tackle the ancient Via Francigena by bicycle you feel unusual sensations: following paths that have been frequented for more than 1,000 years by monks, bishops, travelers, writers, wanderers isn’t an everyday experience. But how do pilgrims recognize one another? A practice still common among those facing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but also the Via Francigena, is to greet saying "Ultreya" (on and on) and to reply with "Suseya" (higher and higher) that is wishes for a happy journey but not only from a physical point of view... also in a spiritual way. With the bulky petaso on your head, the typical hat of wayfarers since the time of the Macedonians (today we have replaced it with the helmet!), pilgrims advanced in the pouring rain and under the scorching sun never looking back. The Via Francigena to Rome is still long and many the dangers, you have to pay attention!
When the north wind begins to blow harder, the intrepid pilgrim hides in her heavy cloak (the pilgrim woman) supporting herself on her stick, useful defensive weapon even against wild animals. The small sack tied to hips guards the small change for the trip, the road is long and the pilgrim knows that they won’t be enough to subsist on it until Rome, but trust in the charity of those who will encounter along the way.
Modern pilgrims are much different from the ancient travelers of the Middle Ages but are often animated by the same fire of discovery and mysticism of ancient times. With comfortable boots, bags, technical t-shirt, sweatshirt, windbreaker and k-way everything is easier, but 2,500 kilometers through places you do not know, with the weight on your legs, the blazing sun, the rain, the wind, sores on the saddle pad and only a few shelters along the way where to spend the night, are a real adventure also in the XXI century.
Via Francigena and its footprints
On foot, by bicycle, on horseback, accompanied by a pack-donkey... many and different are the footprints you can distinguish along the trails of the Via Francigena, the right vehicle for each, the right route for each. If on foot you have to have almost three month to travel about 20 km a day, by bicycle you will take a third of it. With the spread of cycling-tourism and travels by bicycle also in Italy, more and more travelers choose this vehicle, in my opinion one of the most advanced, as faithful companion of adventures. A robust roof rack can carry a lot of kilos, two adequate tires can shoot also on rocks or in the mud, two good trained legs complete the perfect picture of the cycling traveler. The experience of the Via Francigena on foot is completely different to that on two wheels: you proceed slowly, you meet people with which you can travel stretches of road walking at the same pace, you think about the shortest route because no one can come across the darkness while travelling... Different footprints and each of these tells a different story, a story of a travel and of an adventure along the way to the holy cities.
Shelters along the Via Francigena: hostels and refuges in the XXI century
In the latest years many Italian regions are rallying to bring back the former splendor of the Via Francigena improving the signage, investing in the replacement of bumpy stretches and opening hostels for pilgrims. Actually there aren’t as many refuges as along the Camino till Santiago de Compostela, but we have to be patient! In the Sienese stretch of the Via Francigena for example, there are more and more refuges for pilgrims: in Radicofani they will open one the next year (besides the one already existing in town where everyone can repay the hospitality with a free offer), while in the small village of Strove and in Badia a isola there are already two. Some of them are free, some cost a few euros, others instead have prices like those of an inn, but after a hard day on the way you don’t care at all... after 20 km or more you just dream of a hot shower and a soft bed for the night.
The pilgrim credential
The credential is that travel document that distinguishes a true pilgrim from a common traveler. The credential identifies who is a pilgrim, where one has been and in which direction is going. It is released by a religious authority, in Italy is the Confraternita di San Jacopo di Compostella, is free but who decides to ask for it has to accept also the spiritual way. By bicycle, on foot, on horseback, the credential is released to any pilgrim upon request and then, along the route, should be displayed in the different inns and lodgings where you will stop to receive the stamp attesting, at the end of your travel, your route.
The credential can be requested at the contact person in your area.
This article wants to be a summary of everything that goes around the Via Francigena. Regarding my experience along the Via Francigena, I discovered the daughters of the road, San Gimignano and Siena in Italy, discovering curiosity and anecdotes about the territory and the characters who live there. If you want to spend an unforgettable experience along the stretch in Tuscany, perhaps by organizing the trip from Sien or San Gimignano to Rome (because at least you have to get to Rome!), you should contact the boys of Vaga Mente. I met Lorenzo and he is a great guide: besides being super prepared, he will also tell you many interesting anecdotes! If you want to discover the most unexpected and unusual of Siena instead, refer to the city guides,that will take you to know even the most scenic and esoteric ones, while in Val d'Orcia, Valentina will make you feel at home in his land showing curious glimpses of natural beauty. For tourist information, accommodation and events, no one is more full of information than the official tourism website of Siena and province.