The Way of St Francis, Italy
It was in a small sanctuary in central Italy that St Francis apparently received the stigmata – the bleeding wounds that mimic those of Jesus on the cross. This was 800 years ago and, according to Christian legend, he was the first person in history to be marked like this.
St Francis kept his stigmata a secret and it was only discovered on his body after his death. By this time, the marks just confirmed to his followers that he was more than an idle prophet. When he died in 1226, he had already started a movement that was to be one of the most influential in the Catholic Church – and is still felt today.
800 years on, I’m standing in that small chapel at La Verna where legend says St Francis received his marks. It’s decorated now with a stunning glazed earthenware depiction of the crucifixion. A new monastery and church have been built above it since and the number of monks has expanded. But down a short set of steps you can reach a quiet cave, tranquil with greenery and the slight dripping of water, where St Francis would sit and meditate for hours.
La Verna – just a dot on the map about 80 kilometres from Florence in Tuscany – is the official start of the Way of St Francis, one of Europe’s most iconic pilgrimage trails. I’m about to get a taste of the route – and discover that it’s about much more than religion.
What is the Way of St Francis
It’s best to think about the Way of St Francis as a loose connection of important landmarks that are all part of the story of the man. It’s not a single path that he would have walked once from start to finish. Rather, he moved across these lands over the years, stopping at different cities and spreading his message, reaching receptive audiences. The route passes through them to see what is left of his legacy – physical and spiritual.
The official start of the Way of St Francis is in La Verna and the official finish is at the Vatican in Rome. Of course, it passes through Assisi, which was the centre of the world of Francis. You can have a look at the map below to see the route.
There are a few variations of the walk. For instance, some people choose to start the walk from Florence because it’s a much better transportation hub and – particularly for foreign pilgrims – a city they want to visit anyway. Also, from La Verna, there are a few alternate routes that have been proposed over the years that have slightly different deviations. However, I’m going to just talk about the official route which has the consistent markings along the whole path.
To walk the whole way from La Verna to the Vatican, it takes a minimum of 21 days. In reality, you would actually want to spend a bit longer doing the route so that you can stop for an extra day at some of the more interesting places (such as Assisi) and see some of the sights. So you’re probably looking at about 4 weeks to do the whole pilgrimage.
That means lots of things to see… and lots of time to think and talk.
Main sights on the Way of St Francis
I have written a second part to this post that explains my thoughts on the pilgrimage. There’s too much to capture here. Like the life of St Francis, you need to look beyond the material to find true appreciation. It’s the journey and the relationships we create along the way that really define the walk.
For now, I want to run you through some of the physical highlights of the Way of St Francis walk. From time to time, I would bump into other pilgrims along the path. Interestingly, many of them were not doing the walk for religious reasons. Instead, they saw the route as a way to visit some of the most interesting places in central Italy through a more rewarding experience than the average tourist.
So let’s have a look at some of the sites that are related to St Francis that you can visit along the way.
Of course, the main highlight on the route is Assisi, the birthplace and final resting place of St Francis. The Basilica of St Francis dominates the view as you approach the city along the route. Once you’re up the hill and inside the maze of streets, you’ll find smaller chapels, monasteries and historic buildings right through the city. At the other end, the Cathedral of St Rufinus and Basilica of St Clare are also both very impressive landmarks.
Gubbio is almost as spectacular as Assisi but seems to be much less-visited. Also built on a hill, you can use public elevators to go up to the higher levels where the city’s main cathedral looks over a large public square with the dramatic Palazzo dei Consoli on one side.
Gubbio is famous in the story of St Francis as the place where he tamed a wolf that was terrorising the residents. The legend is that the people saw this as a miracle and converted to his cause. You can see the ‘tomb’ of the wolf at the Church of St Francis of the Peace.
Spello is one of those small hillside towns that dots the countryside here in Umbria and feels as though tradition never left it. It is famous for its flower competitions and displays so you’ll find brightly coloured plants down alleyways throughout. From a historical perspective, the most important site is probably the Santa Maria Maggiore church from the time of St Francis, with its impressive frescoes.
Spello is built on Roman foundations but has a definite medieval feel to it. You’ll see the original layout as you come through one of the main gates.
You reach Greccio after a day of walking through forests that rise up and down hills. The first point you hit is the old Sanctuary of Greccio, a church and monastery created on a cliff face. It was here that St Francis created the first nativity scene, an image that was to stay within Christian tradition until today.
A little bit further on is the town itself, with a population of less than 1500 people. Its main central square gives you a view of most of the sights. There are some great places to eat and drink here with views across the countryside beneath.
What I like about the Way of St Francis
Other than Assisi, these are not all towns or cities that you might have visited otherwise – I certainly don’t hear tourists regularly talk about them. But they are just as beautiful, just as full of history, and just as interesting to explore. And the best thing – they don’t have the same crowds of tourists as some of the more famous places.
And then between them, you’ll pass through some wonderful landscapes. There are dense forests, mountain ranges, parklands, rivers and farms. With the warm Italian sun beating down, the smell of nature hangs in the air, far away from the sounds of highways and industry.
The food and the wine is local and plentiful along the way. Each little town has organic produce at reasonable prices. Walking is a pleasure but stopping to try the meat and the cheese is always welcome. It’s how you imagine Italian villages.
This is how it should be, exploring this part of the country. No need for tour buses, no need for tourist restaurants. St Francis guides the way but it’s my journey. More on that in the second part of this story…
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Francesco’s Ways but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.