Nomad’s Land: In the Footsteps of Saint Francis
Trekking through Marche and Umbria, from Ascoli Piceno to Assisi on the Italian Wonder Ways
by Libby Key
Outside the home of the so-called hermit of Amandola, in the Italian region of Marche, giant blocks of olive-oil soap lay out to dry in the sun. Maurizio, a forest guide, points to a sign on the side of the house, which reads “Eremo dell’Incarnazione” (Hermit of the Incarnation) in carefully painted white letters.
“The most important thing on any pilgrimage is the people you meet,” he says, as we sit down to wait for the hermit to return home. “This is as true today as in the time of St. Francis.”
Born around eight centuries ago, St. Francis of Assisi was, by all accounts, the world’s first nomadic environmentalist. An ardent nature lover and philosopher, he walked across Italy for years, evangelizing and extolling the beauty of God’s creation. Inspiring countless others to take similar life-changing journeys, he was even made Patron Saint of Ecology in 1979.
To emulate the wanderings of such a luminary is clearly an experience to be cherished. It was therefore with a sense of nervous excitement that I received the call from L’Italo-Americano, telling me that my candidate application was “the chosen one” for the six-day pilgrimage across central Italy. Could I do justice to St. Francis? Would I last the gruelling itinerary? Where were those brand new hiking boots that I’d discarded so carelessly last Christmas?
Picking its way through the verdant valleys and high mountain passes of Marche and Umbria; my 160-kilometre journey would start in Ascoli Piceno and finish in Assisi, with a final stop in Rome. As part of the Italian Wonder Ways project (#IWWays) – a newly launched venture aiming to rival Spain’s vaunted Camino de Santiago – it would follow il Cammino Francescano della Marca, the route taken by St. Francis as he preached his way through the region in 1215.
Every Night, a New Town
We were holy nomads – resting our heads in different hotels each night. The first night we stayed in Hotel Sant’Emidio whose marble interiors reflected the travertine exteriors of outside of Ascoli Piceno. This charming town is captivating – from its vast marble-like piazza to its Sant’Emidio Cathedral, it’s a true gem of the Marche regions. On the last night we stayed in Hotel Grande Villa Tuscolana, which is a luxurious Villa high up on the hills, overlooking Lazio. We had a royal feast of regional delicacies including panzarella Toscana and appetizing antipasti that would melt in your mouth like chicken-liver mousse covered in chopped nuts.
The Cammino Francescano della Marca is a trail that immerses the traveller in unspoiled nature. In fact, the Umbrian and Marche landscapes are so compelling that modern pilgrims may feel as one with nature as Saint Francis himself. I found myself asking whether Saint Francis’s vow of poverty inspired by the richness of creation around him? Walking the Cammino Francescano della Marca, one can imagine Saint Francis giving thanks for “Sister Moon and the stars” and “Brother Sun” in his Canticle of the Sun because nature is so near. Hiking through springs and rivers, tramping across marshes, highlands and woods, this is truly a spiritual, cultural and ecological pilgrimage.
The Bounty of Nature
In Saint Francis’s hometown of Assisi, we stopped to admire the stunning Basilica di San Francesco, with original frescoes by Giotto. We gazed at hermitages in Loreto, Ascoli Piceno, Sarnano, Pieveboigliana, Pale and Foligno. Our cammino also wound its way through four parks: Monte Subasio, Altolina, Colfiorito and the Sibillini National Park. We finished our journey walking through la Riserva Naturale dell’Insugherata in Rome, before hearing a message from Pope Francis himself in Saint Peter’s Square. Preaching a message on forgiveness, he extended his blessing to the crowds under a cloudless sky. Having walked the way of Saint Francis, it was a special moment to be blessed by a Pope with the very same name.
Walking every day in the sunshine and fresh Apennine air was revitalising. The fresh air literally revamped my cells: I have returned feeling able and limber. My group was made up of nine other people from all over the world. Spending six days experiencing everything together was extremely bonding. In addition, we met local people on the way that were so wiling to share their terra with us and their ways. I think particularly of an elderly woman, Franca, who lives the life of an eremita on the mountainside who invited us in for rest in the shade and water. The trail was full of people like her – warm, welcoming and passionate about their land.
A Holy Trail
Was this a spiritual journey? Yes. I think I was the only Christian in my group – the others were either agnostic or atheist. Nonetheless, there was a spiritual element for them too, because it was a walk in nature – and nature is tantalizingly spiritual. Each day on the trail brought a different challenge. Some of the paths were stony and steep. Others required the steadying help of a stick, the shoulder of a friend, or the reassuring encouragement of a co-pilgrim. We placed trust in the leadership of our guides and kept looking ahead, much the same as in my walk with God and my walk in life.
As a group, favourite food moments were had at the Chiostro di San Francesco in Pievebovigliana (Caldarola, Marche) catered for by the Carnevali hotel. Here, Saint Francis stayed and founded the monastery. In the warm shade of the convent, we dined on unforgettable cannelloni and tender rabbit. It was the combination of this marvellous food and the peaceful setting of the chiostro that created a food memory I shan’t ever forget.
You don’t have to be religious to undertake a pilgrimage. For believers and non-believers alike, walking one of the Italian Wonder Ways’ quintet of trails is the ideal way to get closer to the nature, cuisine and people of central Italy. As for myself, the journey was a life-affirming experience that will always be close to my heart.