Via Francigena pilgrimage route

The pilgrims' road from Canterbury to Rome

San Quirico d'Orcia

Bagno Vignoni

Via Francigena


In English

In italiano

The Via Francigena or Via Romea is a famous pilgrims' road that was first documented in 990 by Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his diary describing the places he passed through as he returned to Canterbury after receiving his cope and pallium, a circular band of white wool with pendants, worn by archbishops over the chasuble, from the Pope. The roads that Sigeric followed became known as the Via Francigena (the road to France) or "Via Romea" (the road to Rome) and for centuries were used by merchants, prelates, soldiers and pilgrims travelling back and forth from the north of Europe to Rome and Jerusalem, carrying ideas as well as money and produce. These people travelled on foot or on mules and horses, and rarely by cart because the conditions of the road varied continually.

Via Francigena

The road was built and maintained by the local nobles. Because it was not constructed with the idea of connecting places of great importance and distance like the Roman roads, it was a series of local paths and trails of various widths and various materials, which linked mountain passes, bridges, ferry boats and villages. However, it had two distinctive characteristics, the first being the location of the places where one could find refuge for the night, closer together if the travelling was difficult and wider apart if the going was easier. The second was the constant danger involved in a trip of great distance: bandits, difficult terrain, wild animals and disease. In fact, because of the constant dangers involved, if one undertook a pilgrimage there was a ritual to be observed regarding the preparations. Usually the pilgrims were men, but women could undertake the trip as well. The person had to pay his debts, prepare a will, receive from his local priest his pilgrim costume, ask forgiveness of anyone whom he might have offended and finally to say goodbye to everyone before leaving. The chances of returning were not all that good.

pilgrim on the road from Canterbury to Rome Via Francigena pilgrimage route

The pouch traditionally carried by pilgrims in the Middle Ages is known as a scrip.

Many things were specified in the will. For example, his heirs, the purpose of his trip, the length of time he was supposed to be away, and the places he was supposed to visit. This last item was proven upon his return by the "souvenirs" he brought back. In the case in which the pilgrim had not returned after the length of time he was supposed to be away, plus one year and a day, his property was distributed among his heirs. The preparation of the will was followed by his being dressed and blessed by his local priest or Bishop. By doing this, the individual entered into the "Order" of the pilgrims and he probably wore a kind of habit which consisted in the 11 C of a pilgrim's staff, which was a stout stick with a metal point, of a long garment of rough texture and dark colour and a leather bag which hung at his waist and which he used for food and money. This uniform also had various symbolic aspects. For example, the staff, the dress and the bag representing Faith, Hope and Charity, as well as having been blessed to protect him against the temptations of the devil and other evils.

The souvenirs brought back were usually small items or symbols of some kind that could be shown off as proof of where he had travelled. For example, a sea shell from Santiago, a palm leaf of Jericho, or little lead figures of the patron saints of the places visited.

The diary of Sigeric begins in Rome and proceeds northwards to Canterbury, but the route is normally described from the north to the south since the pilgrims' main initial objective was to reach Rome.

Via Francigena in Italy

Click here for a transcription of the Latin version of Segeric's itenierary,
listing the stages marked on the map.

Today the Via Francigena enters Tuscany at the Cisa Pass in the area called Lunigiana north of Pontremoli and heads south toward Acquapendente in Latium passing through Lucca and Sienna. It is still possible to follow approximately the ancient road and to find refuge in most of the same villages mentioned by Sigeric. The route passes through four distinct geographical areas where the landscape, the building materials and the gastronomic traditions follow their own local traditions, occasionally still reflecting mediaeval influences.

guida francigena

The best guide book to the Via Francigena in Italy is written in Italian. However, its maps are incredibly detailed, there are many photos and much information can extracted even if you can't read Italian.

Monica D'Atti & Franco Cinti "Guida alla Via Francigena" ISBN 8889385650

There is a separate set of three maps with distances and GPS settings from the same publisher. ISBN 9788889385609

The first of these four areas begins at the Cisa Pass, the crossing point from the Region of Emilia Romagna into the Region of Tuscany, north of Pontremoli in the Appennine mountains, and follows the valley of the Magra river down to Aulla and Sarzana. This area is called Lunigiana, after the Roman port city of Luni, today an archaeological site, where marble was sent by ship to the rest of the world, as from the port of Carrara today. Sarzana, further inland, became an important intersection where the Roman road, called the Via Aurelia, and the Francigena met. This area is characterised by castles, walled mediaeval villages and isolated monasteries, constructed primarily of the gray limestone found locally. These places are never of great size and were built on the steep slopes of the mountains along the principal road and were easily defended. All around these locations there are woods, small tributaries and natural caves.

The second area begins at Sarzana and goes past Lucca to Altopascio. The principal characteristic of this sector is that the road hugs the foot of the Appuan alps and stays inland from the sea coast. The main towns one sees are Sarzana, Carrara, Massa and Pietrasanta, all in the marble working area, and Camaiore which is the only village mentioned by Sigeric after Luni. It is a flat area with some hills just before Lucca and was dotted with numerous churches, abbeys and hospices, the most famous being the Abbey of Camaiore, which goes back to the 8 C and where Sigeric certainly stayed. Lucca was already an important city at the time of Sigeric as it was the seat of the Duchy. Within the walled city of Lucca, the traveller today can visit many different kinds of museums and churches, particularly the Cathedral where there is a highly venerated crucifix said to show the real face of Christ. Lucca is also the starting point for trekking in the famous Garfagnana area where many foreign artists and musicians have settled. This sector ends at Altopascio which was, at the time of Sigeric, a very large centre for pilgrims, with places of refuge and hospices.

Pilgrims on the Via Francigena

The third sector is the longest segment of the Francigena and runs from Altopascio, down to Fucecchio, and on to Sienna passing through Castelfiorentino, Certaldo, Poggibonsi, San Gimignano and Monteriggioni before it arrives in Sienna.  Near Fucecchio, the road goes through very open and flat land that used to be swamp and which is still the crossing point of the Arno river, and there are rolling hills beginning near Castelfiorentino. All the cities were walled and the mediaeval atmosphere is still evoked by the narrow streets, gates and the buildings made from the local sandstone. The northern part of this sector passes small industries related to the tanning of leather and to the south through areas dedicated to the production of wheat, wine and olives. If one stops around Fucecchio, it is possible to make side trips to places such as Galleno, to see the longest reconstructed stretch of the original Via Francigena (1150 meters) or to Vinci the home of Leonardo, or Coiano mentioned by Sigeric, but today out of the way. The food is good and so is the local wine. After Fucecchio, one goes near San Miniato, a mediaeval village, through Castelfiorentino, Certaldo, Poggibonsi and San Gimignano. This last mentioned village is a very famous mediaeval walled city, today very active, famous for its 13 C towers and the Collegiata, where Ghirlandaio painted the chapel dedicated to the local saint, Santa Fina. Here again there are many places to visit - museums, churches and in the area some of the finest vineyards. Not far away there is Montelupo known for is pottery and ceramics. Next, we proceed to Colle Val d'Elsa, famous for its glass and crystal industry as well as for its historical past, and on to Badia a Isola and Monteriggioni, a splendid walled town. This is where one can again begin trekking and in fact there are remains of the via Francigena near here as well.

The fourth sector begins in Sienna and goes south to Abbadia San Salvatore. The geography is quite distinctive. The open rolling hills are planted with golden wheat, there are the gray crags of the Crete Senese and some of the most famous monasteries and great abbeys are located in this area. Sienna has always been an important political, economic and cultural area, and differs from the rest of the Tuscan cities in that it received many influences from France.

From Sienna south, the Via Francigena closely follows the Via Cassia, another of the old roman roads. Visits to Isola d'Arbia, Buonconvento, Montalcino, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and San Quirico d'Orcia are all worthwhile. However the last two stops of Sigeric, Bagno Vignoni and Abbadia San Salvatore, are the most spectacular. Bagno Vignoni is where for centuries people have gone for health cures because the sulphur water baths. The Abbey of San Salvatore is the best conserved of the mediaeval villages with a great Abbey attached. It was already famous in the 8 C.

As an alternative to the super highways, the Via Francigena is well worth the trip, and is an excellent way to see what Tuscany is really like. The food and wine are excellent. It is restful because the roads pass through the countryside and offer places for picnics and time for doing nothing but musing about the views. Some of the most important Italian artists and poets came from these places, including Leonardo, Boccaccio and Petrarch. Popes and bankers have donated libraries, decorated churches and founded schools, which make it today one of the most cultural areas you can visit.

In addition, there are also areas where one can observe botanical species not known out of their local habitats, such as the Appuan alps or the swamps from Massaciuccoli (Puccini's home) to Bientina and Fucecchio. And in southern Tuscany, wild boar, foxes and porcupines abound, as well as deer, hoopoes and other birds and mammals, as well as a wide range of reptiles, some rare elsewhere (slow worms, for example). There is more of Tuscany east of the super highway around Arezzo and Assisi and to the west around Grosseto there is the famous Maremma.

part of the via Francigena in Italy

The "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", which covers the period from 445 and 1150, records for the year 990 that the Saxon Sigeric was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury and that in the same year he went to Rome to collect the "pallium" or the investiture mantle from the hands of the Pope, as was customary for that period. 

"A.D. 989. This year died Abbot Edwin, and Abbot Wulfgar
succeeded to the abbacy. Siric was this year invested
archbishop, and went afterwards to Rome after his pall."

The voyage of this rather obscure Saxon prelate was nothing remarkable, as it was not different from many similar journeys undertaken by his contemporaries, were it not for the fact that he had it carefully recorded in a diary. This unique and invaluable document was compiled by a member of Sigeric's numerous retinue and offers a succinct account of a typical journey to Rome in the years around 1000 AD. For the Europeans of the early Middle Ages, Rome stood along the way to Jerusalem, and since the 4th century numerous pilgrims had passed through Rome on their way to the Holy Sepulchre. When, in 640, Jerusalem was conquered by the moslem infidels, such journeys came to a halt and pilgrims stopped at Rome. Only after the First Crusade, and only at intervals, did the way to Jerusalem return to being relatively safe.

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