The Dilemma of the Modern Via Francigena

If you’ve ever wondered why you see so many Via Francigena pilgrims walking down the main roads rather than cross country in Lunigiana, the reason is quite simple. There is a conflict between the original versus the official route, although the pilgrims themselves may not realise it, as the guidebooks and maps don’t always highlight the differences.

The original Via Francigena, as recorded by Archbishop Sigeric the Serious on his return from Rome to Canterbury, would have followed the Roman roads that facilitated trade and military deployment. The problem is that, ten centuries later, many of these Roman roads are now busy highways and roads. To limit the danger of traffic to walkers, the province of Tuscany with the help of the EU has made a considerable investment (around €16 million) to improve the safety of the route, and to provide signage and hospitality along the way.

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In Lunigiana, the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) has assisted in charting new routes. The difference between the new official routes and the original route can clearly be seen on this map by the author of the best English-language guide to the Via Francigena, Paul Chinn of Pilgrimage Publications. While ensuring the safety of pilgrims, CAI has also plotted routes that are both visually and historically interesting. These are now the official routes as recorded by the Associazione Europea delle Vie Francigene

This is where the problem lies. And the dilemma. The purists are not always happy with the changes, claiming they are designed for day walkers, can be too challenging, and are often longer than the original road routes. CAI is rather unfairly criticised for not understanding the needs of long-distance walkers. As a result, pilgrims, who often don’t know that alternative routes exist, are directed down the roads by their guidebooks and maps. Goodness knows why, as anyone who has walked down the main roads in Lunigiana knows that the traffic can be incredibly dangerous. To be fair, the long-distance walker generally wants to get to Rome as quickly as possible so is often quite happy to risk the busy roads. This situation is not unique to Lunigiana.

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The Dilemma on the Via Francigena in Lunigiana

  • The official route from the Cisa Pass to Pontremoli is largely off road and offers a beautiful cross-country hike. However, the original route would have been via Montelungo, where Sigeric stopped at the Benedictine abbey, and so pilgrims are often directed down this route on minor roads.
  • Between Pontremoli and Villafranca, the official route takes pilgrims off the road as much as possible including through Ponticello and several wooded and rural areas. However, the direct (and shorter) route is on the busy SR62.
  • The official route from Villafranca to Aulla is via Virgoletta and Fornoli. The original route would have been via the Castle at Lusuoloand so walkers are often directed down the bike road on the opposite bank of the Magra River.
  • The official route from Aulla to Sarzana is via the old castle at Bibola. The original road route would have been via Santo Stefano di Magro, which was an important meeting point for pilgrims heading to Rome, as well as for pilgrims heading to Santiago di Compostela in Spain.
  • I have also read the accounts of pilgrims, who simply thought (but later regretted the decision)  that following the bike route on the opposite  bank of the Magra River from Pontremoli to Aulla or following the SR62 from Villafranca to Sarzana would be easier and quicker.
  • Unfortunately, many of the official routes through Lunigiana are classified as difficult, which sometimes deters pilgrims from walking through the region. Some pilgrims have been quoted as saying that walking through Lunigiana is in places as challenging as crossing the Alps. The blogs written by pilgrims show that many simply take a taxi from Berceto to Pontremoli, or hop on a train and by-pass the region altogether, heading for the Cinque Terre or Lucca.

Sadly, many of these walkers have no idea that they have missed not only some stunning scenery but also the wonderful medieval bridges at Groppodalosio and Fornoli,  Ponticello with its ‘tower’ houses, the simple elegance of the Pieve di Sorano, and the hilltop village of Bibola with its castle. The beauty of Lunigiana is confirmed by a number of pilgrims, who in their blogs highlight parts of the Lunigiana route as being among the most memorable on the Via Francigena.

Lunigiana bridge of Groppodalosio

English-language guidebooks

There are two English language guidebooks to the Via Francigena.

  • The best English-language guidebook, in my opinion, is the Lightfoot Guidenow in its 6th edition (7th edition available soon), making it a well-tried and tested guide. Its author, Paul Chinn, regularly checks the route and has a network of people reporting changes to or problems on the route, which he reports on his website. His instructions are detailed, his maps are very good and include GPS tracks, which can be downloaded. The Lightfoot Guide also provides routes for bikes and horses, and advice on the most appropriate route for pilgrims to use in bad weather. The great thing  about the Lightfoot Guide is that it provides information on all routes, offers excellent advice, but leaves it to the walker to decide on which route is best for them.Lightfoot guide to the Via Francigena
  • The Cicerone Guide is the new kid on the block and is often chosen because it has been published more recently than the 6th edition of the Lightfoot Guide.  It receives mixed reviews, does not always give the walker a choice – in Lunigiana the official route between Villafranca and Aulla is not even mentioned – and it does not provide topographical maps, only diagrams. The blogs of walkers indicate that they frequently get lost using the guide, although they invariably make it to Rome.

Maps of the Via Francigena

There are a series of excellent strip maps of the Via Francigena through Italy by Franco Cinti and Monica D’Atti. They are bilingual – Italian & English. GPS data (for some reason only available for download via a PC not a Mac) is also available.  While the maps themselves are excellent, they suffer the same confusion of the official vs the original routes,  and pilgrims are directed mainly along the roads in Lunigiana, so they are best suited to bikers or those pilgrims who like walking on roads.

Official Website of the Via Francigena in Italy

The official website of the Via Francigena in Italy has downloadable maps and itineraries, gps tracks, as well as information on accommodation, news, and much more. These are excellent for pilgrims walking short stretches or for the day walker, but the long-distance walker needs a guidebook as downloading every stage is far too complicated.

 

The Dilemma of the Modern Via Francigena appeared on Ciao Lunigiana on 23 April 2015.

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Disclaimer: I am part of the Lightfoot Guide network that provides updates on the Via Francigena based on local knowledge. This is a voluntary position for which I receive no payment. Neither do I receive payment of any kind for recommending the Lightfoot Guide.
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