When one speaks of the Via Francigena today, he or she unconsciously refers to the standard Sigeric itinerary. Nonetheless, the Via Francigena is not a single "road' in any real sense of the word. It comprises several possible routes that have changed over the centuries as trade and pilgrimages developed or waned, depending on the time of year, political situation, and relative popularity of the shrines of saints along the route or simply the building of a new bridge that permitted an easier crossing of a river.
Currently there is still not one single “official” Via Francigena route; there never was, and probably there never will be. In many parts the original Via Francigena used the well-built ancient Roman roads northwards from Rome, i.e., the routes of Via Aurelia and the Via Cassia which are now mostly converted into busy main highways. Therefore, where necessary for the safety of walking pilgrims, today's Via Francigena has diverted to safer trails and alternative paths (or else to quieter secondary roads when no convenient pathways are available), and even to parts of older (i.e., pre-Sigeric) versions of the Via Francigena that include historical and artistic centres of interest to walkers along the route.
The word “corridors” is used intentionally, as the actual roadways or paths between overnight stopping points en route changed according to the various seasons, potential areas of civil unrest that had to be skirted, the use of new bridges as they were built, detours around sections of thoroughfare damaged by landslides, flooding, avalanches, etc., a change in route to include a local religious festival, a new shrine or monastery, an improved route as family visiting and trade between two nearby towns increased, and the different routes selected by different local guides. As well, there were always route options simultaneously in use, roughly parallel to one another but utilizing different intermediate villages and different river crossings. In this regard, for example, the Via Francigena corridor used at different times up to as many as four different Alpine passes in Switzerland, depending on weather conditions, the amount of fallen snow, and local preferences.
Images (at right): Picture 1: A medieval image of pilgrims.2: A St Bernard dog - now replaced by helicopters! Picture 3: Monastery and pilgrim hostel at St Bernard Pass on the Via Fracigena.
With all the above factors in the equation, it is easy to appreciate that no specific and sole Via Francigena route was signposted, at least not until regional tourist authorities have begun to do so in recent decades – for commercial and tourism advantage so as to encourage historical walking tours, and not primarily to promote religious pilgrimages.
In this way, the Via Francigena has essentially been re-invented in the past three decades, prompted by the rediscovery in the British Library in 1985 of Sigeric’s tenth-century pilgrimage itinerary, and the fact that some users of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage corridor (the Camino de Santiago, in English the Way of St James) wanted another pilgrimage corridor to traverse. The ancient Via Francigena – with specific sections of it no longer traversed and even hard to locate “on the ground” – was a challenge that they relished to bring back to life.
Statistics show that the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (“The Way of St James”) pilgrimage has experienced quite a renaissance in recent decades. In 1986, just 2,491 pilgrims collected their Compostela pilgrim’s certificate in Santiago, but by 2007 these figures had exceeded 100,000 people – an increase of 6,453 from 2005; 250 of them were over 75 years of age, and 40% of the total were female. More than 272,000 pilgrims made the trip during the course of 2010. The route was the first European Cultural Route declared by the Council of Europe. This happened in October 1987; the route was also named one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. Long before it became a pilgrim route, it had been an ancient Roman trade route.
During the War of American Independence, the future U.S. President John Adams was ordered by the U.S. Congress to go to Paris to obtain funds for the cause. His ship started leaking and he disembarked with his two sons in Finisterre in 1779, where he proceeded to follow the Way of St James in the opposite direction, in order to reach Paris overland. He did not stop to visit Santiago, and came to regret this during the course of his journey. In his autobiography, he gives an accurate description of the customs and lodgings afforded to St James pilgrims in the eighteenth century, and mentions the legend as it was then told to the travellers.
Over the last century, newer pilgrimage sites like Fatima and Lourdes – reached predominantly by aircraft, train, tourist bus or car - have surpassed Santiago in popularity, but many devout Catholics still make the trek by foot, bicycle or horseback to pay their respects to St James. In addition, Santiago's magnificent cathedral, medieval buildings, and charming streets draw thousands of tourists each year. Many modern travellers to Santiago, both religious and nonreligious, choose to reach the holy city by walking, biking, or riding horseback on the paths of the historic Camino de Santiago.
The number of walkers on the Via Francigena annually at present is minor in comparison to those on the route of Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St James) but, with the promotion the Via Francigena is now receiving, their disparity in the annual non-motorized traffic volume is likely to reduce in the coming years and decades.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet gallery on San Gimignano, a town on the Via Francigena, click here.
The Via Francigena. Details, images and links. http://www.paradoxplace.com/Perspectives/Maps/Via%20Francigena.htm