A different way to experience Italy: The Way of St Francis

2018-05-06 13:00 - Jarred Ruttenberg
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Italy is great by bus, train or boat but a walking

The low-lying mist added to the mystery of the moment, as we climbed our final stretch of Italian countryside… the mist stealing our sight but not our perseverance, forcing our legs to forget their exhaustion for these final steps of ascent.

A short forest walk soon gave way to a cobblestoned road. Then, slowly and reverently, the ancient city of Assisi began to emerge from the dense whiteness that hung around us. Resting high on the hill this 3000-year-old city casts it’s sacred and sagely gaze over the surrounding countryside and, even obscured by the mist, we were spellbound. My overwhelming response and mix of emotions were not only from sheer splendour of the city, but also because it had taken seven days to walk there.

The St Francis Way

I’ve travelled Italy by boat, bus, and train, but I’d never thought to explore the countryside by foot. During a spell of burnout, I’d read a novel about someone who - in a similar position - decided to go on a pilgrimage in Italy. I found myself quickly booking my flights. A walking holiday is, however, a different kind of holiday.

Writer and mountaineer John Muir said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” Sure it’s a journey of outward appreciation and experience, but also an inward journey, and one that’s not often afforded to us when we hurtle from place to place, directed by a packed itinerary.

Italy is great by bus, train or boat but a walking

Leaving the city walls and urban fringe behind, the excitement was tangible. Photo: Jared Ruttenberg 

Inspired by the life of St Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of Italy) The St Francis Way or Cammino di Francesco, is a walking trail similar to Spain’s famed Camino. The route ranges from the full 500km route from La Verne to Rome, or shorter variations, with most concluding in Rome. Symbolical of my need to move from a place of busyness to quiet, I chose to end my journey in the sacred city of Assisi. Joined by a friend, the bus took us from Rome to Gubbio which was to be our starting point.

Our section of the walk took us through the country-province of Umbria, affectionately dubbed the green heart of Italy, and exploring its perfectly preserved medieval towns by foot may one of the most special ways to encounter this sacred and historical part of the world.

Medieval Beginnings

After exploring Gubbio, including a ride up the mountain in the ‘bird-cage’ funicular, it was time to start exploring our Cammino. Leaving the city walls and urban fringe behind, the excitement was tangible, particularly as we embraced our first sights of the country. Not having to carry your food or sleeping gear means your bags are never a burden, and you can more fully appreciate the walk.

Day one I learnt an important lesson, perhaps one that I should know well as a seasoned hiker: don’t take shortcuts. After an 18km walk I was exhausted, and standing on the one side of a valley, could see our accommodation on the other side. Two farms and a river bed separated us, and I decided it was quicker to cut across than walk around the valley for a further six kilometres. Almost two hours later we arrived, muddy, sufficiently scratched, and having just survived an unhappy encounter with a farmer, a steep ravine and several brambles. No more shortcuts!

The walk is well signposted, and after a few kilometres your eyes are already  well-trained to look for the distinctive tricolour walk markings directing your way. Some days we were the only people on the path: on others we walked distances with other pilgrims and fellow travellers. Mixed terrains welcome you along route, giving you the opportunity to experience the Italian countryside up close and personal.

Italy is great by bus, train or boat but a walking

Similar to the Camino there are a variety of accommodation options along the route to suit all budgets and preferences: I made sure to try out several. Photo: Jared Ruttenberg  

Italy is great by bus, train or boat but a walking

Photo: Jared Ruttenberg

From Hostels to Castles

The first night we stayed in Castello di Patroia, a 15th century castle overlooking the country. Yes, casual. Next a farm cottage was our home, and authentic Italian from our hosts. Hostels abound, and the simple Ostello Francescano (and its welcoming owner Maria) made sure we felt at home. Lastly, sheer luxury, an underground spa and the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept  in marked the last night at the Nun Assisi Relais & Spa. Concluding an ancient walk with a luxury 1st century spa makes sense right?

You’ll need a full day to explore Assisi. Its basilicas and cobblestoned lanes are both enchanting and majestic. They usher you back in time to an ancient world where mystery and grandeur abound. The al fresco dining options, patisseries and cafes add to the ethos, offering welcomed breaks from exploring.

From Assisi, take the 4km walk up the hill to the Eremo delle Carceri. The most revered of the Franciscan monasteries, it was here where St Francis received his diving calling, and also famously preached to the birds. It’s a numinous sanctuary, and peaceful place to rest. Following prior arrangement, I was able to spend a night in the monastery with the 3 nuns and 3 brothers: something that I will never forget. Whilst overnighting is sadly not an option for the public, it’s a day-trip worth making.

Italy is great by bus, train or boat but a walking

In A Philosophy of Walking, author Frédéric Gros writes: “None of your knowledge, your reading, your connections will be of any use here: two legs suffice, and big eyes to see with… You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind.” 

Simple Pleasures

I fear that in much of modern travel, our research and itineraries may dictate the experience, but the beauty, and yes sometimes challenge of a walking holiday is truly unique.

It rained solidly one of the days - the rain almost pushing us into the ground. I decided to stop and wait it out – or hitch with a passing car for a section. After a 30-minute wait, the rain refused to relent, and not a car passed. I continued with the walk both irritable and unhappy. A little while  later I stopped, something changed, and I began to laugh. The laughter soon transformed into tears of joy. I realised I was in the heart of the Italian countryside, wet but protected by my raincoat, and around a few corners was a farm cottage waiting with a fireplace and home-cooked meal. I realised there was no place I’d preferably be, and continued to walk.

Italy is great by bus, train or boat but a walking

Avoid walking in winter and the peak of summer; September – October and March - April are good options. Photo: Jared Ruttenberg 

Italy is great by bus, train or boat but a walking

Photo: Jared Ruttenberg

Planning Your Trip:

·         Both Ethiopian Airlines and Alitalia have affordable flights to Rome

·         GoEruo is a great site for searching buses, trains and flights in Italy

·         This book is the best source for maps, accommodation and more on the route

·         You’ll find an online route planner here

·         I’d recommend avoiding walking in winter and the peak of summer; September – October and March - April are good options

My Itinerary

·         Day 1: Gubbio to Petroia, Sleeping: Castello di Petroia

·         Day 2: Petroia to Biscina, Sleeping at the Agroturismo  Tenuta Biscina

·         Day 3: Biscina – Valfrabbrica, Sleeping: Ostello Francescano

·         Day 4: Valfabbrica to Assisi, Sleeping: Nun Assisi

·         Day 5: Visit to Eremo delle Carceri Monastery