Since the fourth century, when the Roman Empire became Christian, pilgrims from near and far have made the journey to Rome. Some made the journey on foot, whilst others travelled by horseback. Some travelled alone, and others travelled in the company of family and friends. Yet every pilgrim had something in common – they journeyed along a network of ancient roads, all of which led to Rome.
In 990 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric the Serious, made the pilgrimage to Rome to visit the Pope. On the return journey a member of Sigeric’s entourage was tasked with keeping a record of the route, and the towns and villages they passed through. An itinerary of this sort was priceless in an age when travellers did not have ready access to maps. Sigeric’s route, which became known as the Via Francigena (the “way through France”), was therefore used by others who undertook their own pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome.
Power struggles and invading forces made parts of the Via Francigena perilous in the centuries that followed Sigeric’s pilgrimage, and the Camino de Santiago, which culminates in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, overtook the Via Francigena as the most popular pilgrimage route in Europe.
In 2004 the Via Francigena was declared a Major Cultural Route by the Council of Europe, recognising its history, culture, and stunning landscapes that cover a distance of half of Europe. The Via Francigena takes in the garden of England, First World War battlefields, the Champagne wine region, the Jura Mountains and the Alps, Tuscan hilltop towns, and, eventually, the Eternal City.
However walkers and cyclists continue to favour the Camino de Santiago, which sees thousands more visitors each year, to the Via Francigena. But, for me, that’s part of the its appeal. The road less travelled.
Sigeric the Serious started his pilgrimage from his home in Canterbury, and I’ve decided to tack on an extra 100 odd kilometers and start my journey from my home in London. When I close the front door behind me and take my first few tentative steps, full of apprehension about what lies ahead, I really will be able to say that all roads lead to Rome.