It all went too quickly.
And yet at the time, there were days when it was a hard slog.
In nine days we climbed a total of nearly 6kms.
And we descended a total that was a bit over 6kms.
Each day on our walk we averaged an O Cebreiro. Up and down. Anyone who has climbed up O’Cebreiro on the Camino Frances knows what that means.
And what it feels like!
Ok – no more whinging.
It was magnificent – in part because of all the mountains and valleys. It has to be the most stunningly beautiful walk I’ve ever done.
I will always remember looking out across valleys threaded with streams, over green patchworked hilltops shrouded in mist and dotted with old stone farmhouses, to distant mountains, and crumbling castles silhouetted against threatening skylines.
There were no big cities, no ugly industrial zones, often no noise other than cuckoo birds and the tinkling of streams. And the ever present rustle of wind through trees.
No pilgrims too.
We only met up with a few pilgrims in the last couple of days. For the rest of the time we were the only people on the track.
I felt a deep connection to this walk that transcended mere beauty.
There was something else at play here.
The walk began casually, after a gorgeous Tuscan lunch, with a short sharp climb from the township of La Verna up through mist to the monastery that sat atop a heavily wooded mountain.
We arrived in swirling mist – walking into the square in front of the monastery’s church, at the edge of which was a large knobbled wooded cross.
As with everything to do with St. Francis, that cross was unadorned, simple, and humble.
The monastery was where St. Francis experienced his stigmata, and where he often stayed for long periods.
At 3pm every day, the monks conduct a short service in the church, then walk in procession carrying a large cross along a covered corridor to a chapel – something which they’ve done every day for hundreds of years.
We attended that service, and trailed along behind in the procession.
And later we explored the monastery – and began to get a strong sense of St. Francis, and what this place meant to him. That evening we bedded down in the monastery after a delicious but simple meal.
The following morning – the first day of our walk – dawned sunny with blue skies. In the few days prior, it had been raining and drizzly. But from that first day on till the end of the walk, we would have no rain.
After an austere monastic breakfast, we set off to walk the 185kms to Assisi – a walk which would take us 10 days, including one rest day in Gubbio.
We walked some 400m out of the monastery, found a roadside cafe, and stopped for 20 minutes to have a decent coffee!
Then the walk truly began.
Over the next several days, until we got to Assisi, we would find churches, shrines by the track, and towns which held dear the spirit of St. Francis.
You didn’t need to be a Catholic, (which I’m not), or even particularly religious, (which I’m not), to be affected by the energy of St. Francis that pervaded this path. It’s a walk he did many times, from his monastery to Assisi, and his soul imprint lies within and without.
We were conscious that we were following in his very footsteps.
In many ways this for me was a far more intense experience than the Camino Frances.
Perhaps because it’s so short. 185kms is not far, and yet the geography of the route is physically demanding at times. So you pack a lot in over a short distance.
Perhaps also I found it more intense because the walk is connected to an historical figure. It’s personal.
The life of St. Francis of Assisi is well documented. We know a lot about what he did, what sort of person he was, where he went and why he did what he did.
With the Camino Frances you’re walking with a concept.
With the Via di Franceso you’re walking with a man.
The two are no less spiritual in their gestalt – and I’m not saying one is a better experience than the other. I’m just saying that for me, kilometre for kilometre, the Via di Francesco punched well above its weight.
What makes any walk a great experience though are the people.
And I was surrounded by wonderful wonderful people.
Things I remember:
Elena driving the “Special” Bus with Monaco Grand Prix nerves of steel. And chasing those people at the Mozzarella Farm to ask them if they would sell us some of their stash…
Elena’s calm and elegant manner, and her exhaustive attention to detail, helped make the tour run as smoothly as it did…
Patty Talbot’s quick laugh and sharp wit. And her indomitable spirit and courage.
And let’s not forget the night we told her about Drop Bears….
We couldn’t stop laughing.
Then there was Angela Mitchell’s unwavering care, kindness, and generosity. And the flowers in her pack… I discovered that she’s not only weird and whacky, but she’s also a closet hippy…
And her husband Ken, and the way he’d turn his back on me and laugh as he walked away when I said something truly offensive. And how he climbed those mountains with a dicky knee and never once complained.
I was grateful for Peter Lander’s steadiness and strength – and again his wonderful sense of humour. Oh, and his newly bought Nordic walking poles, which I’m sure will change his life…
Our dear Marie Dominique Rigaud – and her good natured negotiations with waiters each evening to get food she could eat. And her roadside yoga…
Ivan & Giovanna – our time with them was way too short. They brought laughter and light to our walk, and we missed them terribly when they had to leave –
The glorious welcome given to me by Sigrid, an Austrian pilgrim I’d met on the Camino Frances. She and her husband happened to be in the area, and they detoured so that they could have lunch with us.
What can I say about Jennifer, other than she shone the whole way…
I would also like to thank Sandy Brown, from Seattle, who has written a guide book for this walk, called The Way of St. Francis. The book will be published in the fall, I believe.
Sandy very kindly gave me access to a pre-publication version of the book, which covers the route from Florence to Rome in exhaustive detail. We would have got lost several times if not for Sandy’s book.
I have no doubt it will become the “bible” of this route, in the way John Brierley’s guide has become essential reading for anyone walking the Camino Frances.
Sandy also provided me with GPX tracks for the route, which I then loaded into my iPhone, and this made it impossible to get lost. So his generosity and kindness were very much appreciated not only by me, but by everyone on the tour.
For anyone interested in doing this walk, Sandy’s blog is:
Thank you Sandy.
It was a great bunch of people on this tour. Some of us were friends from the previous tour. Those friendships have only deepened. Patty came in new, and within one or two days she was a mate to us all – like she was someone we’d known and walked with for years.
This was a powerful experience, this walk.
It was fun.
It was hard.
It was spiritual.
It was beautiful.
We ate well, we had good wines, and we laughed more than is socially acceptable, and sometimes we were naughty and politically incorrect, and sometimes we were politically appalling, but always we cared for each other.
The Via di Francesco is a walk I’ll never forget.