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The route

Historically, we know for certain that Julius Caesar made the journey from Rome to England in 57BC, but apart from the verification that he had passed through certain locations (eg. over the Grand St Bernard Pass) exact details of his route are not known. Nor, too, are the details of the route taken by St Augustine when he travelled to Rome to recieve the pallium. We do know, however, that the Via Francigena was first mentioned in the Actum Clusio in 876, a parchment held at the Abbey of San Salvatore al Monte Amiata, Tuscany. At the height of pilgrimages in the 14th century, when holy years had been proclaimed (thus enhancing the spiritual benefits of such journeys!), droves of people from all over Europe made the journey to Rome.

It wasn’t until Sigeric the Serious who, having received his pallium in Rome, set off back to Canterbury, making notes of his return journey. His account is held in the archives of the British Library, and has become the object of recent academic research, thus helping to re-establish the route for modern pilgrims. Associations like the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome are working hard to foster a growing interest in such ancient, but forgotten, routes of pilgrimage, and hope that, one day, the route to Rome will develop into one of the well-trodden routes like the Camino de Santiago.

In true medieval fashion, I will begin my journey on August 29th outside my own front door, and cycle the 10 miles to St Hugh’s in Buckden, to receive a blessing for my journey after the first mass. My route will then take me to Medway near Gillingham, then on to Canterbury to attend Evensong at the Cathedral and receive a blessing from one of the Canons. The Via Francigena has a ‘kilometre zero‘ outside the Cathedral, and it is from this point I will begin the route to Rome, heading for the ferry at Dover. From Calais the route goes as follows:

Calais-Laon-Reims-Langres-Besancon-Lausanne-Grand St Bernard Pass-Aosta-Vercelli-Piacenza-Lucca-Siena-Rome. As a broad outline, this looks fairly straightforward, but the fascination will be discovering the smaller, insignificant places in between, and seeking accommodation in wayside monasteries, religious houses and hospices that will be sympathetic to the plight of the pilgrim. The infrastructure will be nothing like the Camino de Santiago, but it is travellers like me (and thousands to come in the future) who will help to pave the way to the growth of the network.

My trusty guide along the way will be the excellent Lightfoot Companion Via Francigena Canterbury to Rome by Babette Gallard, which gives extensive background notes to many of the places on the route.

Modern pilgrimage

The purpose of travel differs from person to person. In medieval times, the greatest travellers were usually pilgrims, who would set off on foot from their own front door in the direction of a distant holy place. They had to endure not only the hardships of the journey itself, but also the ever present dangers of disease, hunger and highway robbers. Many died en route. Those that arrived at their destinations could not rely on Ryanair to take them home again. The only way home was back the way they had come, on foot. This is what we would call ‘travel with a purpose’.

Modern pilgrimage is a much more clinical experience, though not without its stresses and dangers. With the invention of the bicycle, another mode of transport is added to the duo of walking and horseback. On both the routes to Santiago de Compostela and to Rome, the pilgrim must demonstrate they have travelled ‘under their own steam’ in order to qualify for the ‘Compostela’ or the ‘testimonium’. To do this, they have to carry a credential or passport, have it officially stamped along the route, and present it at journey’s end at the appropriate office.

The fascination of the ‘pilgrim’s progress’  is to travel in the footsteps/hoof prints of tens of thousands of others, along the very same route whose history stretches back 1000 or more years. In the case of the Via Francigena, its history goes back 1400 years to the year 598 when St Augustine trekked to Rome to receive the pallium from the Pope. His return journey would have taken a minimum of 6 months, probably more.

Our knowledge of the route has been informed by recent research into the archives, where the travel notes of Archbishop Sigeric, who travelled to Rome in 990, have been re-discovered and studied in depth. Although some place names have changed, and many of the traversable routes have been reconfigured, it is now possible to trace the exact same route as St Augustine in 598. Unlike the Camino de Santiago, which is now a well established and popular route of modern pilgrimage, the Via Francigena is still largely unknown, but beckons the modern pilgrim to pack his rucksack or pannier, and venture forth.

My plan is to do just that ;0)