For those who want an adventure, a challenge, and a spiritual journey along a road less travelled you need look no further than the Cammino di Assisi, and the Cammino di Francesco in Italy.
You will notice that there are two Camminos (as opposed to Caminos), with different names, but are essentially the same path, just different starting points and different destinations. They are coordinated by different groups, have different guides, different credentials, different signs, and different certificates of completion (the equivalent of the Compostela). The path is around 550 kilometres in length, though, because it is so arduous it takes about the same length of time as most people allow for the Camino Francés. A couple of the stages are quite short, a relief after the long hard days preceding them. It is also good to allow some extra days for rest, with a day or more needed to see all there is to see in and around Assisi. As these paths are managed by two different groups there are two different signs to follow along the way, from la Verna the yellow Tau cross being prominent. As a warm-up, it is possible to link the Cammino di Assisi with all, or part of, the Cammini di Sant’ Antonio which begins at Padua and ends at Dovadola, part of the last stage being the same as the beginning of the first stage of the Cammino di Assisi.
Green arrow for Cammino Assisi, yellow Tau for Cammino Francesco, red and white GR signs found, and followed, on both
Part of the Cammino di Francesco credential
The Cammino di Assisi begins in a tiny village called Dovadola, on the road between Forli and Florence. The starting date for this path needs to be booked, and on arrival at the refuge pilgrims are given a series of little pocket-sized maps in Italian, along with the English translation, a credential, and a warm welcome by the priest. When I was there one pilgrim arrived 2 days later than his proposed start date and was instructed to catch the bus to the town 2 days further along the road.
This is done as far as I can ascertain to manage the, at times, limited supply of accommodation.
One of the simple hermitages
This Cammino is one of the hardest walks I have done, and certainly the hardest Camino. I might add that it is also one of the most wildly beautiful. What makes it so hard? There are a couple of things, one being the terrain, the other the daily distances which, due to accommodation availability, cannot be changed.
Looking at the terrain one also needs to look at the history of the Saint in whose footsteps the pilgrim on this way treads. St Frances was a walker and a traveller. In his youth, coming from a wealthy family, he would travel the countryside around his home in Assisi on horseback. However, after his conversion he gave away all worldly goods, dressed himself in a simple cassock gown and walked–miles! St Frances had a penchant for climbing to the high points of the mountains to pray and be alone. These places were sometimes caves, sometimes just simple dwellings, but walking this Cammino it is obvious that they were near, or on, mountain tops. He would regularly spend time, sometimes for days on end, at these places either alone or with just one or two trusted friends.
The hermitage of Greccio built on rock – inside is a display of nativity scenes from around the world
As more men gave up their lifestyles and began to follow his simple, prayerful way of life, communities became established throughout this part of Italy, particularly those places, Sanctuaries, where St Frances spent time in prayer. These places are known as Hermitages (or Sanctuaries), with some of them being simple, while others have grown more lavish and have become pilgrimage sites in themselves. Places like San Damiano, the little church which Frances rebuilt taking his instruction to “go, and rebuild my church” literally, Porziuncola, the tiny church that Clare fled to, Greccio, the site of the first (living) nativity scene, la Verna, where he received the stigmata, and many more. These places, with just a few exceptions, are generally near the top of a hill or mountain and are often built on rock. Even in the modern day they are places of tranquillity and silence.
Having set the scene with the historical background, and if I tell you that the Cammino di Assisi is a path which visits all of the Hermitages significant to Frances in his lifetime, the reader should then be able to piece together the sort of terrain this path follows.
Credentials for Cammino di Assisi (left) and Cammino di Francesco (right)
This Cammino basically follows what I call the spine of Italy, the Apennines, and much of it for the first few weeks traverses a huge National Park. It is wild and steep, and fortunately often shaded as one walks through ancient forests. I was fortunate to have a friend, Julie, meet me in Dovadola (this Cammino was part of a much longer journey), and there were many days in those first two weeks when we walked for a whole day without seeing a soul until we arrived at our evening’s destination. As a general rule, in the first few weeks, there are no villages along the way and as it was August and very hot, not only did we have to carry food for the day, but much more water than on the Camino Francés.
There is a season for this walk and it can’t be done easily in winter. At one refugio we stayed at our hostess explained how one year they could not get out of their house for six weeks due to the depth of snow. They dug a path to the animals, the snow was close to door height in depth, and the children could not go to school in this time. A rugged and tough environment!
One day we had a 1,000 metre ascent, but on another we had a couple of 500 metre climbs. Each, of course followed by an equally steep descent. The steep grade was one thing, but the terrain itself also added to the difficulty as it was often very rocky, and care had to be taken not to slip or trip as we rock hopped down the steep slope. Having said that, there were at times also lovely wide forest paths with easy walking to speed us on our way. Of course, at the top of each climb we were rewarded with magnificent views across the distance.
Our reward too, was the peace and tranquillity found at the Hermitages we visited. Some were tiny like the little Eremo Della Casella, others much larger and grander such as la Verna, Assisi itself and Gubbio. All of them, despite the throngs of people at some, were quiet and peaceful, especially compared to the noisy crowds found at some sites in Spain. At these sites you can see such things as the stones where St Frances rested, the cave where he prayed, and even the walking stick he used.
After Assisi, where there is a name change to the Cammino di Francesco, the countryside is much more populated, and the path passes through a number of villages in one day. It is still hilly, and here one is rewarded with overnight stays in ancient Umbrian hilltop villages, some of them totally unspoilt by the masses of tourists that congregate in the Tuscan hilltop villages. There is still the occasional hermitage to visit, as Frances travelled to Rome to have an audience with the Pope in order to get his order recognised, stopping at places along the way to rest and pray. Places like la Foresta, Poggio Bustone, Greccio, and Fonte Colombo. At Fonte Colombo he paused and had surgery on his eye, and here you can visit the room where this happened. Rieti is in a valley and is referred to as the Sacred Valley.
Even the last few days into Rome had their hilly moments, though nothing as severe as at the beginning, and the walk into Rome itself was surprisingly pleasant. This last part of the journey is also part of the Via Francigena and so we made our final destination St Peter’s Basilica where we received a Testimonium (the Via Francigena equivalent to a Compostela).
This was an exciting and exhilarating pilgrimage. It was arduous and adventurous. It was a journey that required determination and strength, but it was a path of peace and tranquillity and a path with a very tangible history. A history that was easy to connect to and a history that brought a tear to the eye at times. It is a path of great beauty. Great natural beauty and great man made beauty in the villages, sanctuaries and art. It is a very different pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but it is one that I enjoyed immensely, and would recommend to anyone who has the physical and mental stamina for such a solitary and challenging environment.