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In the footsteps of St Francis

29 January 2016

Sandy Brown follows the Via di San Francesco through the heart of Italy

Sandy Brown

Views of Umbria: a pilgrim walks above the Nera Valley

Views of Umbria: a pilgrim walks above the Nera Valley

STRETCHING out over 28 days and 550 kilometres, the Via di San Francesco, the Way of St Francis, unveils countless unforgettable wonders.

In Florence are the smooth, muscular lines of Michelangelo’s David, the amazing heights of Brunelleschi’s dome, the heavy bells of Giotto’s tower, and intricate details of Ghiberti’s bronze doors.

After Florence are countless medieval and Renaissance churches and monuments that stand in timeless testimony to a people’s enduring faith over many centuries. In Assisi, there are delicate frescoes by Cimabue and Giotto.

Roman amphitheatres, Etruscan arches, and relics of saints dot the path that traces a pilgrim walk through cities and villages, but also under the shade of mighty forests and ancient olive groves.

Many have walked to Rome — heroes and conquerors, saints and reformers; but none loved this land more than St Francis of Assisi, a simple man of Umbria, who became patron saint of Italy.

In his canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon,he offered a poetic vision for a life that calls people to befriend the earth and all God’s creatures. That song, and his life, sprang from this sun over these fields, these forests, these stones.

 

THE modern Way of St Francis connects places and paths that were important in the life of this beloved saint, and makes them available to pilgrim walkers who seek to retrace his steps and capture his love of this land.

Indeed,the ministry of Francis of Assisi began with a walk — in 1209, when he and his friends walked from Assisi to Rome to meet Pope Innocent III. His travels north of Assisi and in Tuscany inspire stories that are told to this day. He loved to visit the Holy Valley of Rieti for rest and prayer.

The Way of St Francis links these travels and destinations into a month-long walk that, after many centuries, still echoes with his presence. Today, as you walk from Florence to Rome via Assisi, it is easy to imagine the Italy of Francis’s time.

Still present are the thick, grey-brown walls of medieval hill towns, the quiet mountain pathways, the sweeping vistas of fertile farmland where wheat and herb are grown, and the ancient olive groves where locals know to find the tender stalks of the wild asparagus that they gather by hand, and toss with the pasta of their evening meal.

These Central Apennines contain some of the country’s most beautiful mountains and valleys, what Italians call il cuor verde d’Italia — the green heart of Italy.

 

IF THE mountains of Umbria, Tuscany, and Lazio could speak of all that has happened in their shadow, they would tell a rich and colourful story of armies and conquerors, of mysterious Etruscans and crafty Romans, of Christian princes and worldly bishops, of invading hordes and bumbling dictators — all of whom made marks on the land that are still visible to the observant pilgrim walker.

Every day of this walk brings evidence of another historic episode to see and touch: an Umbrian archway, a Roman road, a papal castle, a monument to soldiers lost in a war — a gleaming new EU highway. The Way of St Francis lays central Italy at your feet, and dares you not to love it.

When you finally arrive in Rome, and walk past the Swiss Guard to hand your credential to the man at the desk deep inside the Vatican walls, and are given your completion certificate — your testimonium — your sense of accomplishment will be well earned: you have just completed one of the world’s greatest pilgrimages.

But, much more than that, you will have joined the countless pilgrims to Rome from over the centuries who have made time to enjoy this beautiful land, its deep and rich history, its food and people, and its humble patron saint.

 

AFTER the death of Francis, his hometown of Assisi became an important pilgrimage site. Since the 13th century, pilgrims from all over Italy and Europe have travelled to Umbria to venerate Francis, and his friend and collaborator St Clare. Today, the Municipality of Assisi annually hosts more than four million pilgrims and tourists.

Since there is no historic text that proposes a specific itinerary, as with other pilgrimages, such as the Camino de Santiago, and Via Francigena, there are now several itineraries that link together beloved St Francis sites.

May, June, July, September, and October are the best months to walk. During these months, the temperatures range from mild to hot, and the rainfall is at its lowest.

The month of August — particularly its last weeks — is best avoided. For the past 2000 years, Italians have celebrated Ferragosto: a two-week holiday at the end of August when Italians close their shops and retreat to the mountains and beaches.

It is not unusual for small businesses and restaurants to be closed for the entire month; so an August walk could mean patchy services along the way.

The winter climate of the highlands, and the likelihood of heavy rain and snow, means that a pilgrimage between December and February on certain portions of the Way of St Francis is unwise. The possibility of trail washouts and signage because of snow — not to mention the danger of hypothermia and getting lost — seem unnecessary gambles.

Likewise, walking in the shoulder months of October/November and March/April can mean that some places are not open for the season.

 

The Revd Sanford “Sandy” Brown is an activist, long-distance walker, and ordained minister from Seattle, Washington. This is an edited extract from his new book The Way of St Francis: From Florence to Assisi and Rome, published by Cicerone at £16.95 (CT Bookshop £15.26).

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