Walking in the footsteps of St Francis

The Way of St Francis is an important European pilgrimage route but many who walk it aren’t religious because it also takes you through the best of Italy!

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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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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

So let’s have a look at some of the sites that are related to St Francis that you can visit along the way.

Assisi

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy
Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

Gubbio

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

Spello

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy
Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

Greccio

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

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.

Walking the Way of St Francis, Italy

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.

38 thoughts on “Walking in the footsteps of St Francis”

  1. Wonderful images and very helpful commentary. I am walking this route in October 2018. Is this a good time of year in your opinion?
    Thanks and kind regards, margo

    Reply
  2. October is a great time of year to do the walk! It won’t be too hot but nor will it be too cold yet. And there probably won’t be a lot of other people doing the walk so it won’t be that crowded. It would also be worth checking to see if there are any festivals on in any of the cities when you’re there.

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  3. This looks wonderful. Wish I had seen this 30 years ago. My hiking days are over. Is there a way to drive this route?

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    • Most of the main sights along the way are accessible by car so you would certainly be able to do a driving version of it, if you wanted. Obviously it wouldn’t take as long so you could see all of the best bits in a much shorter time too!

      Reply
    • I’m planning on starting next month and we have found Airbns and small hotels but there are also hostels and some accommodations in monasteries and convents for pilgrims.

      There are a couple of good guidebooks. One is by Sandy Brown and the other by Angela Maria Seracchioli. Visit the “Via di Francesco” website. Buon Cammino!

      Reply
    • Hi Judy. There are definitely lots of parts where you could use a joelette – but unfortunately I think there would also be some sections that you would find a bit tricky (although not impossible). The good thing about the path is that it often intersects with towns/cities/roads so there would be ways to avoid any sections that would prove too difficult. Unfortunately I don’t know the whole track so can’t give specific recommendations. What I would suggest is posting a message in the route’s official Facebook page to get answers from those have walked it recently/regularly. You can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/wayofstfrancis/
      Good luck and enjoy!!

      Reply
  4. I’m wondering if this walk would be safe for a woman walking alone. I wouldn’t hesitate to walk the Camino de Santiago alone, but I don’t know enough about the Way of St. Francis.

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    • Hi there. In general, yes, this walk is very safe. It is certainly not through a dangerous part of Italy and you will pass through towns and cities fairly regularly.
      However, having said that, the path is not nearly as well-travelled as the Camino de Santiago. That means there will probably be stretches of the walk and periods of time when nobody else is around. That brings a few risks for solo travellers – like it would anywhere else in the world.
      My overall advice would be to not let safety fears stop you from doing this walk because 99.999% of the time, solo female walkers will have no problems. But, maybe consider finding some other people who are also doing the walk who you could hike at a similar time to, so you know there are other people nearby.

      Reply
  5. What an inspirational journal you shared with us. I just learned of this ‘walk’ when I stumbled at an online bookstore looking for things Italy. Someday I’ll do this walk from end to end. I can already feel the magic and adventure seeing your pictures here. Take care.

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    • Hi Jo. I can’t speak from personal experience but I have asked others this question before. The answer is that you won’t find regular official camping grounds for each night at an average mileage – although there are a few along the way. However, if you’re prepared to do wild (and probably not technically legal) camping, then you won’t be the first who has done the whole walk that way. There has been some feedback that actually many local residents along the way are sympathetic to pilgrims and you may also get offers of private gardens and fields to pitch a tent.
      Good luck – and please let us know how you go, for the reference of other pilgrims!

      Reply
  6. That you for sharing such an intimate journey. I have for some years been inspired to walk this way so I thank you for igniting my interest into making it a reality. I go there later this year.

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  7. Hello, I would love to do this walk one day. Considering this October. Do you need to make any reservations or do you just show up and do the walk? I have a tent and sleeping bag, which I would prefer to use whenever possible.

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  8. I have a friend who well be doing the walk from San Bernardo Pass to Roma. She was planning on having a tent with her but has heard there are possible concerns with tent camping not being allowed in Italy. Can you give any information on this?

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  9. Hi Michael, I’m glad I ‘stumbled’ Upon your website!
    About 5 years ago I was visiting Assissi for 4 days (2nd visit); I sallied forth for an evening walk up the hill hoping to find the Carceri. I must have taken a wrong turn because after quite a while I realized I was lost, as it were, and suddenly glimpsed a signpost sating that I was on the Via Francescana which pointed to Rome actually!!
    At the time I was scared, it was dusk, dark under the trees and eerily silent. I found my way back to the welcome lights of the town. But ever since then I’ve wanted to walk this path, having had some very profound experiences of Francesco. I think you’ve given me the push to ‘Just Do It’ 🙂
    Thank you so much
    Iona

    Reply
  10. Are there hostels along the way, cheaper than hotels? What is the best way to do it? I can’t carry loads f stuff on my back so don’t really want to carry a tent etc.
    Thanks, Iona

    Reply
  11. Hello, what inexpensive accommodation is available along the route ? Are there Albergue ‘s like on the Camino Santiago ?

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  12. Thanks for this. Question: How much of this walk is on trails? How much on roads? Busy roads?

    I love your pictures of the trails–but is this the ideal? Or are you really walking a lot with cars wizzing by?

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  13. How can i do this in the most economical way? Though a single mom, it’s been my dream, so i’m hoping to do this in August. Tips on how to make it the most economical?

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  14. Which guide book did you follow from Florence to Assisi? Did you download gpx trails? Best month? Planning on doing this pilgrim next year as a solo pelegrina. Language no problem. Thanks.

    Reply

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