Could this be your next trek?
Follow in the footsteps of pilgrims and legionnaires on Italy’s heavenly Wonder Ways.
On the outskirts of Itri, a sleepy, terracotta-roofed city in the Italian region of Lazio, the moss-encrusted wheel ruts worn into the Via Francigena pay testament to its venerable history.
All of the Roman Empire’s major highways radiated outward from its capital. Thanks to the launch of “Wonder Ways” − a quintessential quintet of restored Italian pilgrimage routes that includes the Via Francigena −the expression “all roads lead to Rome” now rings true for a growing number of hikers exploring the stunning sights (and tastes) of Umbria, Lazio, Tuscany, and Marche.
The Wonder Ways were launched in late 2016 as a smaller-scale Italian counterpart to Spain’s renowned Camino de Santiago, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed pilgrimage route.
The five routes are promoted by a collection of more than 200 hospitality, food, and service companies collectively known as the Francesco’s Ways Consortium. This offers tailored routes and packages to everyone from religious pilgrims and those seeking for a spiritual experience to serious hikers, bikers, families, and even horseback riders.
Many of those looking to explore the Wonder Ways simply pick up a map and guidebook and travel independently at their own pace. Regardless of your mode of transport or reason for travel, the emphasis is far more on connecting with local people and places than keeping to any strict timetable.
“American marathon runner John Bingham once said that ‘the joy is in the journey, not the destination,’” says Daniele Ruggieri, a guide and hiking enthusiast from Nemi, a picturesque Lazio town on the route of the Via Francigena. “This is the essence of the Wonder Ways.”
Making the connection
Today the Wonder Ways network includes restored and well-signposted sections of the Via Francigena north and south of Rome. But the trail itself extends all the way from the English city of Canterbury, through France and Switzerland (Via Francigena acutally means “the road that comes from France”), to Rome, and then onward to Jerusalem.
The official history of the Via Francigena begins with Sigeric, an archbishop of Canterbury who travelled to Rome in 990 A.D. to receive honours from Pope John XV. In days gone by it was not simply a single road but made up of several possible routes that changed over the centuries as commerce and the popularity of pilgrimages waxed and waned. Rather than taking the shortest distance between cities, it connected abbeys and monasteries where travellers could seek shelter and food.
Many places along the contemporary Via Francigena still evoke this sense of hospitality and a selfless desire to help hikers and walkers perform a journey of personal discovery. Those arriving at the Abbey of San Magno on the outskirts of Fondi typically receive treatment so benevolent it can revitalise the weariest of travellers.
Founded in 533 A.D. at the foot of Monte Arcano, the abbey is situated close to a spring that flows into the nearby Licola River. It is this burbling brook which nourishes the abbey’s bountiful vegetable gardens, and from which head monk Francesco Fiorillo takes the water with which he greets new arrivals.
“Everyone is welcome here, regardless of age, background, race, or religion,” says the jovial, twinkly-eyed Italian. “The Wonder Ways continue the tradition of travelling with your heart and soul and discovering something about yourself that you never knew before.”
Choosing to explore the Wonder Ways can mean walking for a few days or a few months.
Fiorillo’s ministrations don’t stop at a refreshing draft from the local spring, however. The monk frequently washes travellers’ feet by hand, dispensing water from a copper jug before wiping them dry with a pristine white towel. Only those who have just hiked for kilometres under a cloudless Lazio sky will know how divine this feels.
Choosing to explore the Wonder Ways can mean walking for a few days or a few months. Belgian Michel Goletti and his dog Laika have been hiking all the way from Inverness to Santa Maria di Leuca in southern Italy. Taking in most of the Via Francigena, his 5,400-kilometre, 200-day hike raises money for a Belgian charity.
“It sounds like a cliché but my journey has already been a life-changing experience,” says Goletti. “The encounters I’ve had with complete strangers have really restored my faith in humanity. I’ve slept everywhere from hay lofts to four-poster beds, all completely free of charge.”
The Wonder Ways are about far more than just walking. There’s nothing like exercise and fresh air to work up an appetite, which is lucky, because Wonder Ways pilgrims travel through some of Italy’s finest gastronomic regions.
Along the Via Francigena, many mouthwatering recipes stem from medieval traditions, such as testaroli from Lunigiana (a special type of macaroni typically dressed with basil pesto) and Siena’s famous panforte (a delicious dessert). Lying on the southern section of the Via Francigena, the city of Terracina is home to the renowned Moscato di Terracina wines, produced from locally grown white Muscat grapes. And at the Abbey of San Magno, diners regularly sit at tables groaning under the weight of homegrown vegetables, freshly baked bread, finocchiona (a type of salami seasoned with wild fennel), some of Lazio’s creamiest mozzarella, roasted chestnuts, and huge pans of fresh ravioli.
Food, friendship, and fantastic scenery aside, perhaps the greatest attraction of the Wonder Ways is the very undiscovered nature of their wondrousness. In 2017 nearly 300,000 people walked the Camino de Santiago, while only a fraction of this number chose to explore its Italian equivalent.
Text and photos Daniel Allen