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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.