I love the Camino. It’s been a huge part of my life for several years now, and I must confess to writing this whilst sitting in one of my favourite bars in Santiago, having just completed the last 100kmwith another fantastic group. I’ve walked various sections of the Camino many times now, but each time is special, it’s as simple as that.
However, this year a new contender has come into my life – the Via Francigena. The glittering prize is Rome, the eternal city. That needs no introduction. But when I recently walked the last 100km, from the medieval town of Viterbo to Rome, I was taken aback by how much this “new” (to me) pilgrimage took hold of me and won a place in my heart. Although following in the footsteps of Sigeric the Serious (yes, seriously, that was the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury who famously completed the pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome in the tenth century), I felt as though I was the first one to do it. It’s a more or less established route of course, though there are several variations and alternatives which can be a little confusing, but it is so much less commercialised than the Camino. There are comfortable hotels to stay in, fantastic medieval towns and villages to pass through, and the restaurants serve high-quality dishes which are justifiably famous and much more than just pizza and pasta. But no souvenir shops selling pilgrim regalia, no plethora of albergues, bars and vending machines….. and no T-shirts.
I was an individual walker through beautiful, rural Lazio, my pilgrim status kept within myself and not on display. At times I missed the instant camaraderie of the Camino: no calls of ‘Buen Camino’, no-one to swap stories with or compare blisters….. but to be fair, in early March I was the only walker, pilgrim or otherwise, and later in the year there will be more encounters with fellow pilgrims. However, there was more time for reflection, quiet times to appreciate the scenery, opportunities to talk to local people. If not exactly a novelty, I was certainly noticed and received many friendly waves and offers of lifts by passing cars. There were not as many coffee stops as I’ve become used to and look forward to, on the Camino. But whenever I passed through a village, I was always rewarded with superb coffee and cakes, as arguably only the Italians know how.
There were many memorable moments. The two old farmers who stopped in a red jeep offered me a lift to my destination and couldn’t really understand why I preferred to walk – in the pouring rain! The Etruscan amphitheatre and rock church in Sutri, with wall paintings depicting pilgrims doing the same as me – just fifteen centuries earlier. Walking along a small section of a Roman road, knowing my feet were treading on the same stones as who knows how many people before me. The old nun at the Sanctuary who leaned out of a window to greet me, and the cat who showed me the way into the church. Dinner in Isola Farnese where the whole restaurant had been taken over by a family party, but I was welcomed and given a table in the middle of the festivities. The first sight of the dome of St Peter’s from Monte Mario, with Rome, spread out before me like a map. I could continue, but this is my story and, like walking the Via Francigena, it is very personal and special to me. I can only urge you to do it yourself, especially before it becomes more well known.
I received my Testimonium, the Pilgrim’s certificate, and will proudly display it with my Compostellana. My heart lies in the Camino, that hasn’t changed. But maybe my soul is in the Via Francigena – and I don’t need the T-shirt to prove it.
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