A long walk to Rome

A long walk to Rome

Thu 16 Jul 2015 12:00 AM



Walking a 400-kilometer stretch of the Via Francigena from Lucca to St. Peter’s Basilica was a challenge but a joy, bringing unexpected healing and renewed strength along the way.


The ancient pilgrim route of Via Francigena starts in Canterbury, England, winds through France, Switzerland and Italy to the Vatican City. Whereas pilgrims once carried a shell to identify their status, today’s pilgrims carry a ‘passport’ that is stamped at each stopover and receive a signed certificate upon reaching the Vatican.


While the paper certificate is a nice token of the achievement, our reward of completing the journey was much more meaningful. My 14-year-old son Ned, who suffers from debilitating epilepsy, was my companion. The long walk to Rome would be a major challenge—and important accomplishment—for him.


We gave ourselves a leisurely month, beginning our long walk at the end of autumn, a beautiful time of the year in Tuscany. The heat of summer would be gone and the filtered afternoon light would enhance the rich earthy colours of the hill towns.


Our pace, we agreed, would be slow: with a little under 10 kilograms each in our backpacks, we would cover an average of 13 kilometres every day for the month. We would wake when we were rested, unwind with a caffé and some crostini from the local bakery, buy our lunch provisions from the alimentari, and hit the track when we felt ready.


Setting out from Lucca, we left through the gates of Porta Elisa heading towards Altopascio. Following the well-marked route, we passed through woodlands, oak and chestnut forests, past olive groves, vineyards and market gardens, winding up and down the medieval hill towns of San Miniato, San Gimignano and Monteriggioni, and rested for a while in Siena’s piazza del Campo (and sampled some local delicacies).


The views along the Via Francigena are spectacular, with classic rolling Tuscan hills, erect avenues of Italian cypress pines, stone villas and rustic farmhouses. We stayed in the walled towns of Buonconvento and Radicofani and in San Quirico d’Orcia. As we headed down the slopes to Acquapendente, following the water to Lake Bolsena, we walked the original Roman stone roads to Viterbo. The thermal hot springs of Bagnaccio provided tired muscles with some relief.


ph. Edward Biggs 

Every day was full of surprises, not only the gardens we visited, but also the people we met. In Abbadia San Salvatore the two remaining Cistercian monks provided us with unforgettably wonderful hospitality. Indeed, theirs was typical of the kindness we received from strangers all along the route.


The real surprise, however, was seeing Ned get stronger day by day. But it was not always easy. Sometime I had to push him to keep going. And, worse, nearing our destination in Rome, we found that the pathway of the Via Francigena competes with lots of busy roads (epilepsy and roads with cars don’t mix). As we stood on the corner across from the Vatican, Ned had a seizure. I didn’t catch him in time, but fortunately he landed, uninjured, on his backpack. He was tired and dazed, but he completed the journey—a true pilgrim!


Completing our 400-kilometre journey on foot was an amazing achievement for Ned. Not only did it give him (actually, both of us) a great sense of satisfaction but it proved an opportunity for his body to heal. It was also a month of laughter, great conversation and a chance to get to know the real Tuscany as we encountered people at both work and play.


It was the perfect long walk to Rome.



3 gardens to visit along the way


Il Bosco della Ragnaia, a six-hectare garden owned by American Sheppard Craige, is a work of art.



Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri is a paradise of large flowering roses, woods and nearly 100 sculptures.

www.danielspoerri.org More: www.theflr.net/danielspoerri


La Foce, brought to life by the writer Iris Origo, is one of the finest gardens in Tuscany. www.lafoce.com. More: theflr.net/lafoce

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