The Via Francigena is an ancient road between Rome and Canterbury, passing through England, France, Switzerland and Italy. In mediaeval times it was an important road and pilgrimage route. To pilgrims headed south, it was the Via Romea; to those headed north, the Via Francigena.
The pilgrimage to Rome
The Via Francigena was the major medieval pilgrimage route to Rome from the north; even today pilgrims travel this route, but in far fewer numbers than the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago). The route was first documented as the "Lombard Way", and was first called the "Frankish Route", the Iter Francorum, in the Itinerarium sancti Willibaldi of 725, recording the travels of Willibald, bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria. The Via Francigena is first mentioned in the Actum Clusio, a parchment of 876 in the Abbey of San Salvatore al Monte Amiata (Tuscany). At the end of the 10th century Sigeric the Serious, the Archbishop of Canterbury, used the Via Francigena to and from Rome to be consecrated by the Pope; he recorded his route and his stops on the return journey, but nothing in the document suggests that the route was then new. Other itineraries include those of the Icelandic traveller Nikolás Bergsson (in 1154) and Philip Augustus of France (in 1191). Two somewhat differing maps of the route appear in manuscripts of Matthew Paris - Historia Anglorum - from the 13th century.
In 1985 the Italian archaeologist of roads, Giovanni Caselli, retraced the itinerary as described by Archbishop Sigeric. The Welshman Rhodri Mawr in AD 880 and his grandson Howell the Good in 945 are both known to have visited Rome towards the end of their lives, but it is not known whether they went by land or by the dangerous and pirate-infested sea route via Gibraltar. Reports of journeys before Sigeric can only be apocryphal. We may be quite certain that the Benedictine St Thierry, known as William of St Thierry, used the roads towards Rome on several occasions at the end of the 11th century. The return journey by sea was likely to be easier, thanks to the prevailing south-westerly winds, but tacking down to the Mediterranean would have made a very long journey indeed. A statement that a historical figure "died in Rome" may have been a historical falsity, but a metaphorical truth.
The Via Francigena was not a single road, like a Roman road, paved with stone blocks and provided at intervals with a change of horses for official travellers. Rather, it comprised several possible routes that changed over the centuries as trade and pilgrimage developed and waned. Depending on the time of year, political situation, and relative popularity of the shrines of saints along the route, travellers may have used any of three or four crossings of the Alps and the Apennines. The Lombards financed the maintenance and defence of the section of road through their territories as a trading route to the north from Rome, avoiding enemy-held cities such as Florence. Unlike Roman roads, the Via Francigena did not connect cities, but relied more on abbeys.
Today some pilgrims still follow in Sigeric's ancient footsteps to Rome on foot, on horseback or by bicycle. However, they are far fewer than on the Way of St. James pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Consequently there is far less in the way of accommodation and other facilities for pilgrims along the route. Pilgrims in Italy often camp out rather than staying in hotels (which would prove very expensive over the weeks of the journey) though stays in pensions are a mid-priced option.
Walkers could choose to walk along the Eurovelo EV5 cycling route (named the 'Via Francigena') when this is finished. However, it varies substantially from the route given by the VF Association.
In 1994 the Via Francigena was designated a European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe.
In November 2005, Italian politician Romano Prodi announced that he would revitalize the Via Francigena if elected Prime Minister in the 2006 election.
On 11 August 2007 a group of 27 cyclists, including several members of Canterbury City Council, set out from Canterbury Cathedral to ride the Via Francigena to Rome in 16 days. This was a charity ride to raise money for the restoration of the cathedral and for other causes.
In November 2009 the Italian government launched a project to recover the Italian leg of it. The object of the plan is to recover the entire route (disjointed parts of which are already signposted) "not only in spiritual and religious terms but also in terms of the environment, architecture, culture, history, wine and cuisine and sport." The initiative was promoted by the Region of Tuscany, which hosts 400km of the Via, and which presented a plan detailing the low environmental impact infrastructures to be created. The plan will be shared with other local authorities located along the route as an encouragement to carry out similar recovery work. Tuscany has also announced cooperation with the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (ORP), the Vatican's organisation for encouriging pilgrimages.
The 80 stages in Sigeric's itinerary averaged about 20 km a day, covering some 1700 km; they have helped to identify the route.
Having crossed the English Channel to Calais, or, following Sigeric's example to Wissant, still called Sumeran (Sombres) by Sigeric, a pilgrim bound for Rome might stay in Gisne (Guines), Teranburh Thérouanne, Bruaei (Bruay), Atherats (Arras), Reims, Châlons-sur-Marne, Bar-sur-Aube, Langres, Besançon, Pontarlier, Lausanne and Saint-Maurice, then travel over the Great St. Bernard Pass to Aosta, Ivrea, Vercelli, Pavia, Fidenza, Aulla, Luni, Lucca, Poggibonsi, Siena, San Quirico, Bolsena, Viterbo and Sutri before reaching Rome. One of the best-known places on the Via Francigena is the Passum Padi in the municipality of Senna Lodigiana, where Sigeric crossed the Po River.