Italy 2023 – Via di Francesco: Days 1-2

La Via di Francesco (The Way of Saint Francis)

The Via Degli Dei we just traveled is a relatively new recreational trail. In contrast, the Via di Francesco is a pilgrimage route that commemorates the life and inspiration of Saint Francis of Assisi and is built in two main segments. We plan to walk the northern path from the Sanctuary of La Verna to the beautiful hilltop town of Assisi over the next eight days. The southern way lies between Assisi and Rome. Both trails are typically walked from north to south, but there is signage for anyone wishing to do the trip in reverse. Some pilgrims walk just one or the other segment, with a few combining them into a longer trip.

Why are we walking this Via? Neither of us is Catholic or even Christian. Religiosity aside, I have long admired the mythology of Francesco, inspired first by the 1972 Italian-British film Brother Sun Sister Moon, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. I don’t care about any miracles he is said to have made – for example, calming a wild wolf to protect a town’s sheep. But he was one of the better humans to reach celebrity status, and I have long admired the simplicity of life he is said to have lived and his seeming preference for nature over people. On my first visit to Italy, just a few years after first seeing the movie, I convinced my friend Iain to make a slight detour in our long drive from Venice to Rome. I wanted to walk the streets that had moved me to tears in Zeffirelli’s depiction – he filmed much of it in the town.

So this will be my return visit – and Joanie’s first chance to see Assisi. Furthermore, because we’ll be walking along footpaths and through villages said to have witnessed Francis’ life 800 years ago, the trek will also give Joanie her best chance of experiencing something I had on the Camino Francés last year: a shared connection with millions of people over hundreds of years.

I am excited to start this journey but a bit worried about our health and the weather conditions. We enjoy many options that pilgrims of the past lacked – will we need to avail ourselves of them?

Via di Francesco – Day 1: Chiusi della Verna to Pieve Santo Stefano

A whole mountain trail to ourselves!

Without means of preparing breakfast for ourselves, the local bar came to our rescue again with everything we could ask for. We are grateful!

Our trailhead is clearly marked next to the bar, along with many other trail signs. Despite having no one else around today, this is a popular region for trekking and mountain biking, so we’ll have to watch closely for “our” trailblazes. Over the next 8 days, we want to follow the “Yellow Taus” of the Via di Francesco (based on the Greek letter).

What the…?!? Am I being attacked?

After many hours, entirely alone, up and down hills, through woods and meadows, our destination town finally comes into sight…

We were happy to arrive at Pieve Santo Stefano.

And happier still to look up at the upper reaches of our night’s B&B!

From the dining room, our host pointed through one of those tall, arched windows, saying, “Just over that hill, 10 kilometers away in Caprese, my mother was born… and so was Michaelangelo.”

He further explained that the hills seen in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in The Creation of Adam, shown on the dust cover of his art history book, are those same hills we had walked today from La Verna. The emotional pull of this town is strong – we felt closely connected with Italy’s history and art!

That connection only got stronger as we learned that our host, Paolo Gennaioli, is an artist who has exhibited throughout Europe and supplements his income with his wonderful B&B, La Torre di Pieve.

A local café prepared a sumptuous ravioli for me and the simplest pasta for Joanie.

Day 1 Stats
Distance: 17.2km / 10.7mi
Elev Gain: 512m / 1,680ft
Time: 4:26
Steps: 29,026

Via di Francesco – Day 2: Pieve Santo Stefano to Sansepolcro

You see more when you walk. But sometimes, walking can mean you miss things…

Despite our fantastic first day on this Via, the projections for today were cause for a realignment of our plans: high temps, high humidity; 34km / 21.1 mi of distance; 1,311m / 4,301ft of elevation gain; and no interim towns or villages to bail out if needed.

We continued our evolution from pilgrims to tourists and opted to take a 30-minute bus ride down the valley instead of the 9+ hour hike along the adjacent ridge. This decision freed up time to enjoy the towns at both ends of the day.

It reminded me that walking is slow enough to allow us to see things we might miss when on bikes, cars, buses, and trains – which is one of its great appeals. However, walking with a pre-set schedule keeps us from seeing some things because we’re too busy getting there to be there. Today was a good example.

Our host, Paolo, was pleased with our decision and suggested the perfect activity to keep us from regretting not being on the hot and dusty trail. He explained that his small town of Pieve Santo Stefano is home to a relatively new and fascinating Italian government agency: the National Archive of Diaries. Since 1984, this institution has collected and cataloged more than 10,000 personal diaries, memoirs, and other autobiographical writings from “ordinary Italians.”

The Archive also spawned the Piccolo Museo del Diario (Little Museum of Diaries): one of the most unique and moving museums we have ever visited, filled with countless stories of love, laughter, family, pain, struggle, and triumph, penned by people driven by deep desires to express themselves. Should you ever find yourself in these parts, we cannot recommend it enough. (Here is Atlas Obscura’s article about the museum.)

Of course, my images can’t do justice to the results of the archivists’ efforts, but I hope they encourage you to learn more about it. Here are a couple of stories we learned about…

Vincenzo Rabito left school after the 3rd grade to help his widowed mother care for her family of 7 kids. He served in WWI and emigrated to the US before teaching himself to read and write later in life with the sole purpose of sharing his life story. On a broken Olivetti typewriter, he typed more than 1,500 pages: single-spaced, without margins, and with each word separated by a random grammatical symbol in lieu of a space (hmm… was the typewriter broken?). The National Archive published his work as Terramatta in 2007 – it became a best-seller.

Clelia Marchi wanted to tell about her life with her beloved late husband, Anteo, but couldn’t afford paper. She submitted to the Archive a double bed sheet she and Anteo had shared, complete with numbered lines to help the reader hold their place when reading her long story.

The bus ride to Sansepolcro was quiet as we dried our tears and absorbed the meanings of the stories we had heard. Once we arrived, we walked the narrow streets and explored its Cathedral.

Notice the interesting patterns in the church windows – not at all the leaded stained glass we’re used to seeing. To me, it resembled sedimentary strata or wood grain. Because of her long career in ophthalmology, Joanie saw layers of the retina. What do you see?

Even though we didn’t walk any of the Via today, we still felt exhausted when we arrived at our night’s lodging. Lucky for us, it was also one of the best restaurants in town, so we stayed in tonight and slept well. I’ll dream of getting back on the trail tomorrow!

We were entertained by another patron playing the piano between his courses. This felt more like someone’s home than a public diner.

Cold dishes, wine, and beer are just what we need in these hot conditions!

Author: Chris

Until 2019, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Namibia focused on Community Economic Development. Before that, I was a high-tech executive, small business owner, consultant and business broker.

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