A “Via Francigena” – or road of the Franks – is a pilgrim route. The name derives from the main route from Canterbury, through France, to Rome used by devotional travellers during the Middle Ages. But although this is the origin of the term, not all pilgrims converging on Rome began their journey from Canterbury and of course, the faithful travelled to many other shrines and sanctuaries throughout Europe. Almost anywhere there was a shrine to an important saint – St James in Campostela, or Saint Michael in the Gargano, for example – became a destination for pilgrims.
So in due course, a network of pilgrim routes became inscribed across the territories of Western Europe. And these today are known as the Vie Francigene, or Via Francigena in the singular.
Rather than a physical road which has left its mark as a topographical feature on our landscape however, they were more often a series of overnight stops, between which there was a variety of alternative paths – perhaps one avoiding a forest or a hill, or another to take advantage of a view or a popular hostelry. Where the route crossed a river or visited a town, these alternatives might converge on a bridge or city gate, but between these nodes the route would fan out in a plethora of choices.
This obviously creates a difficulty for anyone today trying to recreate these ancient routes. Fortunately however, some pilgrims – notably Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury in 990AD on his return from Rome to Canterbury – kept a record of their route. And this has helped historians and geographers recompile the likely paths.
In recent years, interest in these Vie Francigene has revived. Whilst the idea of making a pilgrimage might seem quaintly old-fashioned, it nevertheless inscribes purpose into a journey. Not only does the journey have a destination, but the time in making the journey acquires meaning – perhaps as time for inward-reflection, or the formation of friendship, or the appreciation of the landscape. It is a recognition of the fact that journeying in itself doesn’t need to be toilsome but can actually be pleasant and worthwhile.
It is also a healthy way to travel and many people now walk these pilgrim routes as a way of “getting in shape”, or at least trying to shed some of their sloth. And in addition, it is also an ecologically-friendly way to travel. The fuel we are consuming for the journey is our own excess weight.
Furthermore, like any road, the route also attracts economic activity through the people who service it: the hotels and restaurants, the souvenir sellers who can profit from the passing trade.
For all these reasons, the Via Francigena in northern Italy was conferred the status of a “Cultural route” in 1994 and as a “Major Cultural Route” in 2004, subsequently attracting the interest of walkers, pilgrims and not, from all over the world. And this surge of popularity in the routes of northern Italy and Spain, has in turn spurred an interest in the ancient pathways of Sicily.
During the Roman Empire, the major towns of Sicily – Messina, Palermo, Marsala, Catania, Siracusa and Agrigento – were all connected by a good network of roads. These are represented on the Tabula Peutingeriana (a medieval copy of a Roman map made in the 4th – 5th centuries AD), one of the few ancient records of the roads in Sicily. However, it is likely there was a further network of roads, tracks and paths connecting the outlying estates and farmsteads, creating an elaborate and efficient means of communication on the island.
Occasionally, walking through rural Sicily, in the middle of farmland one comes across short stretches of cobbled track, arriving from nowhere only to disappear beneath the loam of pastureland after a brief flourish of a few tens of metres. I am thinking, for example, of the vestiges of a Roman road that one can find above Gangi Vecchio in the centre of the island. Although some of these routes were paved however, it is probable that many of them weren’t. And hence they have become lost from memory. Nevertheless, we can safely assume that at least once upon a time, they were well maintained.
It was this same system of roads that the Normans inherited when they arrived in Sicily in the eleventh century. Known for their devotion, they would have used these routes to reach the ports of Palermo and Messina for onward journeys to the great abbeys of Calabria, the shrine of St Michael in the Gargano, and possibly thenceforth to destinations as far afield as Jerusalem.
During this time we also find the first reference to a “Via Francigena” in Sicily: “Ten odon, ten megalen ten Fragkikon tou Kastronobou” (the road, the great Francigena of Castronovo) in a Greek document from 1096.
This same system of roads remained in use long after the Normans and five hundred years later became the base of the Bourbon “regie trazzere” – a system of roads connecting centres of both greater and lesser importance. Even today, the documents affirming these roads and their passage through private estates are kept in the State Archives of Palermo and Agrigento. Just as in northern Italy, it is these ancient routes which have aroused the imagination and curiosity of walkers in Sicily today.
It would be more correct to have called this article the “Vie Francigene” of Sicily – expressing it in the plural rather than the singular, because in actual fact there are four routes existing today:
- Palermo to Messina (or Taormina) passing south of the Nebrodi (the Via Francigena per le montagne)
- Palermo to Agrigento (the Magna Via Francigena)
- Palermo to Marsala to Agrigento (the Via Francigena Mazarese)
- Agrigento to Catania via Grammichele (and extending on to Maniace) (the Via Francigena Fabaria)
As perhaps already inferred from above, it must be pointed out that these are “historical routes” rather than dedicated “long-distance footpaths” in the true sense of the phrase. They therefore sometimes follow (albeit minor) asphalted roads as well tracks, bridleways and paths. But nevertheless, they are well documented and signed and accommodation is available at the necessary stops along the way.
If ever one were needed, their existence is just one further incentive to explore Sicily on foot. Travelling slowly, with time to enjoy the landscape, tasting the wine of the vineyards, and dining on the pasta, beans, cheese and meat grown, produced and reared in the countryside through which you are walking are all staple ingredients of a memorable and pleasurable journey.
Esplora Travel run several walking holidays in Sicily.