Walking in St Francis’ steps: when discovering beautiful Umbria leads you to an inner journey – World Meanderings (n°15)
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Believers or not the amount of people setting off on a pilgrimage road is growing exponentially: over 200.000 hikers walked to Santiago de Compostela last year and tens of thousands others put on their walking shoes heading for Lourdes, Rome or Fatima… The “Way of Saint Francis” is less known but from Florence to Rome it will take you through the “green heart” of Italy, a magnificent hilly country called Umbria. It’s a 550 km long way that is worth discovering by car, riding or walking. If you choose the last it will at least take you 28 days to get to Rome.
St Francis was born in Assisi in about 1181 in an upper class family and was trained as a skilled horseman, archer and warrior. In 1202 war broke out between Assisi and the city of Perugia. The Assisians were defeated and Francis was imprisoned for nearly one year before a ransom was paid for his freedom. A new man came out of jail: having faced human cruelty he felt the urge to change his life. Study, contemplation and prayer were his new daily routine. Through the years more and more people came to him and listened to his call to poverty and simplicity. Thousands of men joined his Franciscan order while women united with the order set by Clare of Assisi one of Francis’ friend and confidante. St Francis also was a traveller: he went to France, Spain and to the Middle East as a peace-loving adjunct to the 5th Crusade. He died in 1226 and in less than 2 years he was declared a saint and a Basilica was built in Assisi where his body was interred.
The modern Way of St Francis will take you to places and paths where St Francis used to go and you will actually follow his steps and easily imagine the way Italy was in his time. Unlike most modern ways to travel when just a few minutes on Internet are required to buy a ticket on a train or on a plane and to book a hotel room, this one will need preparation. No place for improvisation here! A careful preparation is the keyword and learning from other walkers’ experience is essential. Sandy Brown is one of them and after walking all the way from Florence to Rome in 2013 he knew he had to share this unique adventure with others and his extremely detailed guidebook to “The way of St Francis” has just been published.
It all started with a book for him too: after reading The Pilgrimage by Paolo Coelho in 1992 this ordained minister from Seattle, Washington, felt the need to challenge himself and started to walk. Today after 3,500 km on pilgrim trails in Spain and Italy, he is more than qualified to help you prepare your journey. First within two months of your departure you need to get your credenziale. , The credential is a pilgrim identity card certifying your pilgrim status and you’ll have it stamped on each stop of your trip. With your credential duly completed you will finally get a completion certificate, the Testimonium, in the Vatican City where pilgrims have the privilege to get an entry pass to the Palazzo della Canonica deep inside the Vatican walls. Can you imagine what a rare and indescribable feeling of accomplishment you’ll get by joining the countless pilgrims to Rome from over the centuries?
In his guidebook Sandy Brown will also explain everything you need to know: planning and training, budget, phones and internet, laundry, what you should take or not take with you, eating, sleeping, maps or GPS, waymarking and an indispensable blister kit! And most of all each stage of the route is precisely and clearly described. Following the guide instructions there is no way to get lost, every turn, path, bridge, castle or any landmark of the road are clearly explained and then easily identified. Admiring beautiful and various landscapes each of the 28 stages of the way will take you to typical medieval or Renaissance towns: Florence, Assisi, Citta di Castello, Gubbio where St Francis tamed a wolf, Spello, Trevi, Spoleto, Monte Sacro… Once in Rome if you have some strength left you can walk for one more day and do the “Tour of the Seven Pilgrimage Churches of Rome” as most pilgrims have been doing for the last 500 years. This 25 km walk will take you to different Roman districts, a new way to visit the Eternal City.
Apart from the obvious religious reasons most hikers will at first have difficulties to explain their motivations but they will find an answer along the way. As Rev. Sandy Brown would say setting off on a pilgrimage is like turning your back to your ordinary life. It will lead you to new mental and physical experiences, looking for nothing but finding it.
And “Buon Cammino !”.
For more information:
Sandy Brown’s blog: www.caminoist.com
On the editor’s site you will find all the updates for the guide that might happen in the coming years: www.cicerone.co.uk
To get your credential: www.viadifrancisco.it
Italian tourism official website: www.enit.it/en/
Umbria tourism office: www.umbriatourism.com
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny