Among all roads that lead to Rome, the Via Francigena is a love affair for pilgrims
The great German writer of the Age of the Enlightenment, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, once said: “Europe was born on pilgrimage, and its language is Christianity”. That is very true, as European identity and its cultural heritage enjoyed its greatest rise in the Middle Ages, when the Via Francigena, together with the routes towards the Holy Land and Santiago de Compostela, was one of the three “Peregrinationes maiores”. This historical itinerary starts from Canterbury, in southern England, all the way to Rome, running through France (hence the name Francigena) and Switzerland, crossing sea, mountains, lakes, spiritual places and magnificent medieval cities, some of which, like Lucca or Siena, became strategically important thanks to the pilgrim trail.
In 1994, the Via Francigena was certified as “Cultural Route of the Council of Europe”, after some enthusiastic, local bodies retrieved the ancient path by putting a new marker and reopened hostels and welcome centers to offer the pilgrims an accommodation for the night. Furthermore, every pilgrim needs an important document during their long walk towards the Eternal City: the so-called Credential, a proper passport which is stamped in every church or facility they stop, just like it happened in ancient times with the “Testimonium”, a scroll that proved the pilgrimage had actually been undertaken.
One thousand kilometres, forty-five days: this is the Italian side of the Via Francigena to Rome. This was also the original itinerary made and noted down in a book in 990 AD, by the British Archbishop of Canterbury Sigeric, when he travelled from Canterbury to Rome to receive his “Pallium” — a holy vestment of the Roman Catholic Church — directly from the hands of Pope John XV. Following this brief summary, mark me, we will take you to magic places where time seems to have stopped.
From Aosta Valley to Piedmont – 175 kilometers
The pilgrimage meets the Italian border in the western part of the Alps, more precisely on the Gran San Bernardo pass connecting the Canton of Valais in Switzerland with the Italian alpine region of Aosta Valley.
Gran San Bernardo pass
This pass is one of oldest known across the Alps, used already by Celtic tribes, to then become strategic under the Roman Empire, when the Emperor Augustus took its control. At the time, a Roman road, a stopping place for the officers to spend the night (called Mansio) and a Temple of Jupiter were built. The traces of this strategic roman road survived over the centuries and, in 1049, the Italian monk Bernard of Menthon founded there a hospice for travelers which still exists in the form of a museum, to provide assistence, shelter and protection for the numerous pilgrims, and to keep the pass safe. Bernard would be canonized as Saint in 1681; in those years, monks on duty at the hospice acquired a special breed of giant mountain dogs, capable of engaging in alpine rescue operations. These heroic animals, trained here to this day, would be named “St. Bernard” in honor of the monk, exactly like the alpine pass itself, starting point of the Italian path of the the Via Francigena.
Aosta is the “alpine Rome”. Indeed, its name comes from the Roman emperor Augustus, who founded this colony on the model of a Roman military camp, due to its strategic position. Aosta was thus enriched with imperial landmarks that every pilgrim can still admire: the Triumphal Arch of Augustus, the remains of the Roman theater, the Pretoria Gate and the Stone Bridge over the old course of Buthier creek. Main city of the Aosta Valley, it keeps some authentic traces of the golden age of the Via Francigena. Among them, the collegiate church of Sant’Orso, that is home to a magnificent cloister with historiated capitals depicting sacred stories from the Gospels and the myths. Aosta is a can’t-miss stop for every devout pilgrim, a first taste of Rome.
The Via Francigena enters Piedmont through the evocative city of Ivrea, overlooked by a large castle with three massive round towers, built under the reign of the County of Savoy, in 1357. Ivrea owns also a beautiful cathedral, where there are old frescoes such as “A Miracle of the Blessed” by Pierre de Luxembourg and the spoils of the Irish bishop Thaddeus McCarthy, who died in a hostel for pilgrims in Ivrea on his return from Rome. For many Irish Catholics, this stage along the Via Francigena remains very significant. Indeed, Ivrea earned his fame in Italy for two main reasons: the historic reenactment of the “Battle of the Oranges” taking place during the carnival unique for its lively folklore, involves thousands of citizens and curious bystanders; second, the headquarter of the Italian information technology company Olivetti, founded in 1908 by the electrical engineer Camillo Olivetti, which released in the mid-‘60s the first commercial desktop personal computer in the world.
This town is an important crossroad on the plains along the pilgrimage road, with his beautiful Romanesque-Neoclassic collegiate church of Sant’Agata, from which the city took its current name in the 11th century. The church was built over a site where a rural “Pieve” dedicated to the Saint stood, and where even the Archbishop Sigeric stopped in 990 on his return to Canterbury. The oldest preserved parts of the church are the bell tower and the crypt of St. Stephen, located right below its surface.
The last leg in Piedmont is one of the most important and ancient cities of the entire region and of the Po valley. Vercelli is well-known as the “European Capital of the rice”, due to its cultivation and international trade in rice, the most thriving in Italy forever. Set among amazing and countless religious, civil and military architectures, the city is increasing its tourism also thanks the Via Francigena, and today always more hostels reserved to pilgrims are opening, like we were in the Middle Ages. The Basilic of Sant’Andrea, incorporated in a monastery, is regarded among the largest complexes and early Gothic buildings in Italy: the facade, decorated with sculptures from the school of Benedetto Antelami, and the cloister, next to which there was a hospital for pilgrims, are both very impressive.
Our first leg of the main road that leads to Rome ends here. Stay tuned for the second part!