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  • Mark Smith

Part-Time Pilgrims and Their Two-Wheeled Epiphany

At a dinner party in Paris a year or so ago, Roman friend Daniele Fano mentioned that he was planning to ride his bike along the Via Francigena, an ancient road and pilgrimage route that leads from Canterbury, England, through France and Switzerland, all the way to Rome. Daniele, an economist of some renown, spoke of covering only 400 of the ancient road’s 1700 kilometers, but it’d be some of the best, he said—along Tuscany’s famous strade bianche dirt roads and walking paths, through ancient villages, past vineyards and ancient monuments.

I’d never heard of the Via Francigena and I possess none of the stuff of which pilgrims are typically made, but the more Daniele talked, gesturing emotionally as if before a renaissance masterpiece, the more I, long an incorrigible atheist, became infused with a powerful spiritual calling.

“Count us in!” I told Daniele, pointing to my wife Anne with one hand and downing a glass of Chianti with the other.

The next day I began researching this intriguing medieval thoroughfare, the Via Francigena, whose exact origins are unknown, but the first recorded reference to which was found in a Bavarian bishop’s travel log dating to the year 725—the Itinerarium sancti Willibaldi or Willibald’s holy itinerary.

Ol’ Willi was probably one one of the first, but he was not the most assiduous. That honor belongs to the well-named Sigeric the Serious, the archbishop of Canterbury, who in 990 carefully recorded his Roman pilgrimage in 80 stages of roughly 20 kilometers per day. While a few variants of the Via Francigena co-existed until that time, Sigeric’s route remains the definitive version to this day.

A bit of competition among pilgrims is a healthy thing.

Every line I read about the Via Francigena reinforced my resolve to join in Daniele’s venture, not least the fact that the ancient road is virtually unknown to the masses and a mere footnote among tourist guides. In 2012, for example, only 1200 “pilgrims” walked the Via Francigena. By comparison, the hugely popular “Way of Saint James” pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella in Spain attracts more than 100,000 tourists every year—a veritable religious stampede.

“Opportunities like this don’t come along every day,” I told Anne the following morning. She looked up from her cup of tea dubiously.

“That’s a lot of kilometers on the bike, and it’s hilly there, isn’t it?” But she knew I’d won. She too wanted to see all the ancient monuments and good stuff. There are no free lunches. And so began the planning of our medieval adventure.

The Green Slug, a mode of transport akin to the medieval donkey in both speed and comfort.

You’d think it no major feat to get two people and their bicycles from Paris to Fucecchio, the Tuscan town where we were due to meet Daniele and begin our tour. But you’d be wrong. Air travel requires boxing, transporting and manipulating the bikes to and from airports. The overnight train to Florence, once a charmed mode of travel that welcomed extra baggage without a flinch, now also demands that bikes be boxed. I then briefly considered renting touring bikes from a shop in Florence, but for the same price we could’ve flown to Tahiti and back. Then it finally dawned on me: The car! Take the car! Throw the bikes on the rack and off we’d go!

Off we went, alright—for 14 hours over two interminable days, in a 20-year-old Renault Twingo designed for trips to the supermarket. We weren’t even halfway to Fucecchio before the idea of wrestling two monolithic bike boxes through Orly airport sounded like a game. Add the Alps and Italy’s macho road rage death wish to the deal and the picture is clear: You have just shortened your life by several months.

Fucecchio is a slumbering burg with a diminutive square, a trickling fountain and a grocery/delicatessen whose gregarious hostess serves homemade fare in the warm night air out front. Over a bottle of wine from the surrounding hills, Daniele laid out the morrow’s plan, which 65 kilometers anon would leave us in the hilltop town of Gambassi Terme—a place which, from Daniele’s mouth, sounds like a hot oil massage.

Those kilometers were just as we had imagined. Undulating dirt roads weaved between long rows of sky-high cypress trees leaning in the wind. Vast vineyards, some freshly pruned bare, others laden with sticky fruit, punctuated the peripheries. Huge hilltop farmhouses hid among giant cedars, Sequoias and Downy oaks.

The Via Francigena is a wonderful path to follow on a bike—everything Daniele promised, if you subtract the busloads of Chinese and American tourists that lumber agog through the streets of San Gimignano and Siena, inspecting folkloric plastic knick-knacks made in Shenzen sweatshops.

San Gimignano, a world capital of art, culture and sophistication.

Still one can take heart. Nothing is easier than dodging the mob on a bike. A mere 50 meters outside the stone ramparts of San Gimignano, for example, the Via leads into an empty footpath that swerves through sweeping farmland and hilly hardwood forest. You are free again. The trail gets rough, steep. You cross creeks, climb rocks, pass overgrown ruins. Then suddenly, for us, at a sharp bend in the path, a rambling two-story house appeared, a chalkboard against its gate announcing food and beverages under a grapevine pergola of a hippie inspiration.

Conversation is key under Santo's pergola.

A garrulous conversation ensued between Daniele and the house owner, a jovial fellow who introduced himself as Santo and who seemed genuinely pleased at our arrival.

We could all see the house was not a hotel, but we were tired and the sun was setting, so Daniele asked: Could we stay the night? And would Santo be able to make us dinner?

Well yes, and yes! said Santo. Everything was possible! Anne and I would take Santo’s room while Daniele slept on the couch. None of us asked where Santo would sleep, but he showed no concern. Before long we were showered and sitting under the pergola at a table laid with fine preparations of Santo’s own hand. He poured the wine with solemn ceremony before sitting down with us, whereupon a happy conversation continued until bedtime.

What pleasure! What simplicity! Here was the very difference between Italy and so many other countries, like France, where formal legislation and social norms would most probably have discouraged an impromptu solution to our lodging and dining problem. Here with Santo all was so suddenly easy, as if we were just tired and hungry pilgrims from a thousand years before—on the Via Francigena.


The official Via Francigena website

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