Lessons from a pilgrimage

Walking in the footsteps of St Francis through Italy gave me plenty of time to think. It’s left me with some new travel and blogging goals for 2017.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

As I approach the end of another year, I’m becoming a bit reflective. I tend to do this at around the same time every year – look back at what I’ve achieved, think about what lies ahead. This year, my thoughts keep coming back to a pilgrimage I experienced in Italy recently.

I have already written a bit about the Way of St Francis in Italy, one of the most interesting pilgrimage routes in Europe. It starts from La Verna (a Tuscan cave sanctuary where St Francis is said to have received the stigmata), passes through his hometown of Assisi, and finishes at the Vatican in Rome.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

The thing with pilgrimages is that they’re generally about the psychological more than the physical. They give you time to think and consider issues. I love the way that thoughts pop unprompted into your mind and you then have kilometres of walking to mull them over. As someone who enjoys walking and does a lot of long hikes, I never find much physical strain, which means I can focus on my mind.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

The Way of St Francis pilgrimage gave me an opportunity to think about a lot of things. Many of them ultimately relate to my travels and my blogging – hence, to the core of my current life.

I’ve continued to consider some of these things and now, as I am in a period of deliberation for next year’s plans, I would like to put them out into the open. Please let me know in the comments if you have any feedback.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

There are three main takeaways that I have from the pilgrimage that I think I need to consider for my near future.

Length and depth

If you were going to walk the entire route of the Way of St Francis, from La Verna to the Vatican, it would a minimum of three weeks – probably longer to stop along the way for rest days and to see some sights. Unfortunately I did just a fraction of that.

My journey along the pilgrimage route was facilitated by the local tourism authorities. They arranged for me to do about five different legs of the trip (so, five days worth of walking) but at different stages along the way. I was driven in between each of them.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

The benefit of doing this was that I was able to see the range of landscapes and sights along the entire route, without having to spend three weeks doing the walking. It was a practical way for me to be able to experience enough to be able to write about it and share some stories with you.

The problem is that I felt like a blogger (or a journalist, to be technical) and not a pilgrim. I had long walks where I was able to think or talk to my fellow travellers. I ate local Italian food, stayed in accommodation that normal pilgrims would, visited the same towns and saw the same countryside.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

But I didn’t have that feeling of being a real pilgrim, where the day ends with the knowledge you have a dozen more just like it ahead. I didn’t have that compounding effect where each stage takes you closer to the destination… and closer to some form of enlightenment. Ultimately, I knew I was being inauthentic.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

And so this is the first of my realisations. As I have grown my blog as a travel resource for readers and as a business for myself, my trips have become less about me and more about the content I produce. A five day pilgrimage instead of 21 is what a journalist would do, not what an experiential traveller would do.

I, of course, still have many trips that I plan myself and are authentic and rewarding. But I need to focus on them. I need to go longer and deeper to really live what I write.

Themes

The Way of St Francis is slightly different to some pilgrimages. It is not about the destination, like the Hajj to Mecca, but about the locations along the way. It is also not based on a route that has a historical reason for existing, like the Camino de Santiago, but has been developed relatively recently.

The idea of the Way of St Francis is that it takes you through different places that are significant in his story, not along an actual path that he or his followers would have walked. Each day or two takes you to a new location where your understanding of his life and his teachings grow.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

As I talked to people along the way, I learned more about St Francis and what he stood for. One day I met some Australian women who were doing the walk from Rome to Assisi because they teach at a Franciscan school and believe in his message. We chatted a bit and their dedication left an impression on me.

So this is my second realisation. That spending time getting a better understanding of one thing is more rewarding than just scratching the surface of many. Quite often in my travels, I will jump around trying to do as many things as possible. Often there is no link to them all and if you tried to ask me about any one of them, I would run out of things to say in five minutes.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

I want to focus on themes and on topics that I can really learn about. I want to be able to have a discussion about St Francis – or Buddhism or Gothic architecture or modern Japan or conservation or whatever – where I can challenge your views and you can challenge mine and I don’t just end up shrugging because I don’t know what I’m really talking about.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

Spirituality

The Franciscan teachers I mentioned before were actually a bit different from many of the other travellers along the Way of St Francis. The teachers were doing their walk for religious reasons – or, at least, had a personal connection to the religion. For most pilgrims, it’s not about a particular faith.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

The thing about this pilgrimage route is that it takes you through some of the best that Italy has to offer. There are stunning cities like Assisi and small charming towns like Spello. There’s the beautiful Umbrian countryside with forests, rivers, fields and mountains. And throughout it all is the local wine and organic food that the country is so famous for.

So there are many tourists who see the Way of St Francis as simply a device to see the sights while getting some exercise and avoiding the typical tourist crowds. It’s an experience that makes a trip to Italy more memorable than many.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

But just because a walker is not connected to the route by a religion, doesn’t mean it is not a spiritual journey. This is a topic that came up quite often in my conversations along the way. What one person defines as ‘spiritual’ is usually different to how another would describe it. For some it’s about a connection to the land, for others about a period of self-growth, while for others it’s about getting away from modernity or just thinking about our purpose in life.

Ultimately, though, I think it’s about personal growth. It’s about starting a journey and ended up somewhere better – and I think that’s something I would like to do more of in 2017. There is much to explore in the world… and a lot within me too, I’m sure.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

St Francis

I should have mentioned this earlier… but I’ve actually been to Assisi before and I wrote about my thoughts on St Francis then. This was about four and a half years ago, when I had been blogging and travelling for just a year.

Back then, the focus of my story was about materialism – in the case of St Francis, his lack of it. I wrote about how I had unburdened myself of so many of my possessions before I started travelling and how good it had made me feel.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

As I revisit not just Assisi, but the story of St Francis, I can see how much I have come in the time since I wrote that. I still believe those words from back then. I am much less interested in material goods and possessions than I was before I started travelling… but I must admit I have started to collect things again.

This time around, though, the things I have started to own have a purpose – they are more comfortable shoes for walking, a better camera for sharing my travels, clothes for different types of weather, trinkets that remind me of people I have met.

Thoughts from the Way of St Francis, Italy

I have come to realise that the possessions you really end up with when travelling are the memories and the stories. And walking some of the Way of St Francis… well, it’s reminded me how important it is to make the best memories and tell the best stories.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Francesco’s Ways but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

11 thoughts on “Lessons from a pilgrimage”

  1. Great post, Michael. I think the realization you had about experiential travel vs. travel for a blog was an important one. So much of our existence today is based around the electronic stories we tell others rather than our internal journeys. At the same time, I think that you can and will strike a balance between the two; as you said, you already do engage in authentic/rewarding trips–the question is how does one maximize their impact. I too have struggled with this, and my solution was similar to your’s–to slow down and spend more time in one place. I look forward to following your progress in the new year.

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  2. Love this post. I always get reflective towards the end of the year too (and a bit sentimental, I suppose). While I haven’t started my own process yet (I will wait until Christmas to get this craziness out of the way) there are some interesting insights that you have and the first one resonates with me most. I find it really hard at times to find the balance between expressing my own real thoughts and whatever I think I need to portray. I think as a content producer I have lost my innocence over time, mostly due to external factors out of my control. People say to stay true to yourself but it’s hard when no one is listening. You want to create something that has meaning and that is consumed by others but at the same time you come to realise that your own little world is not that important and that you need to find the sweet spot between expressing your inner self and servicing an audience. It’s a real challenge, and I think this is what sets really good writers apart from the mass. Travel is not just getting from one place to the other, it’s about how it changes us internally. And this is what we always need to put into our stories. Anyway, looking forward to your next post.

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  3. Great post – a long hike is always my chosen medicine to combat soul blues. It’s my me-time when I reconnect to my own thoughts, because the silence of the natural world and the rhythm of the walk finally lets me hear them again. For me, every hike is a pilgrimage.

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  4. Your posts (this and the other one about the Way of St. Francis) are insightful and moving. My wife and I have been on three long-distance treks and are addicted. We started in 2013 with the Camino de Santiago and it changed us forever. When we arrived in Santiago, I was overcome with sadness that it was over. I could never have seen that emotion coming, but I realize now it was about the path, not the destination. We have walked the West Highland and Great Glen ways in Scotland and trekked the Tour du Mont Blanc in the Alps last July. We plan to walk from Florence to Rome and along the Way of St. Francis in spring (May?) of 2018. Your posts make me even more excited about it. Like you, we enjoy writing about our experiences (carryoncouple.com), just for fun. I hope you get to return to Italy and walk more of the Way of St. Francis. I would love to read your narrative. Here’s to adventure!

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  5. Greetings,

    I just stumbled across your site via Twitter. I’m a lay Franciscan, and one of the two items on my bucket list is to go to Italy and spend a month (at least). (The other is to swim with dolphins!) Not only would I visit these places, but I would go to the area from where my Grandfather emigrated in 1913 to the U.S.

    Thank you for sharing your insights here. I would like to point out something about St. Francis. Yes, he was faithful to “Lady Poverty” but it’s too easy to mold him into a modern day environmentalist. The center of his life was Jesus Christ. Being poor wasn’t just for the purpose of solidarity with the poor (part of Catholic Social Teaching). It was to keep the heart from distractions that would fill it with anything other than the love and knowledge of Jesus. St. Francis suffered a tremendous amount, particularly when his order started to veer away from his initial vision. That radical life of singular focus on Jesus Christ as the Saviour of humanity is at the core of St. Francis. It is good for us to remember that and not turn him into a secularized patron saint of humanist ideals, as noble as some of them may be.

    I’ve signed up for your updates and look forward to hearing about more of your travels. And I will keep you in my prayers for safe and illuminating journeys, authentic and always drawing your eye to the Beauty in the world that is from God.

    Peace and all good,
    Elena C.

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  6. Wonderful post. Can you please tell me how physical this walk is. How would you rate the physical difficulty overall?? We have walked the Camino Primitivo and the Camino Francais. How does it compare if you know?? Thanks, Hilary

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  7. Hi Michael,
    Thanks for your story on your walk along the way of St Francis.
    I will be walking the pilgrim route solo in September this year from Florence to Rome and this will be my third solo “ramble” in Europe. I have previously walked from France to Santiago de Compostella, Spain and the Via Francigena from Milan to Rome. My reasons for this next walk is going to be more for spiritual reasons and your words seem to confirm my hope that this will be a “softer” more gentle and reflective walk. I do know that it will also be physically harder in some stages “crossing the Appenines) …but then again, one needs to work hard at times to feel a real sense of achievement. I look forward to your further notes and musings on your future travels.
    All the best!
    (P.S. Would be interested to read any notes if you ever undertake the Lycian way in Turkey)

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