Julie leads the way on one of the Via Francigena’s old Roman roads.
By Julie Burk and Neville Tencer
Images and map courtesy of the authors.
Independent mid-life travelers, Neville Tencer and Julie Burk, have wandered to many places, including Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. They seek out destinations where they can enjoy and appreciate the culture, cuisine, history, and traditions. Based on a 1,000 kilometer walk through the heart of Italy, An Italian Odyssey: One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage is their first book, co-written in the voice of both authors, so that readers may experience the story from two different points of view.
While walking Spain’s Camino de Santiago, I learned that there was another “camino” in Italy. Once back home in Canada, I discovered the other “camino” was the Via Francigena, a broad network of trails originating in ancient Francia (now France). It is part of a string of Roman and medieval roads leading to Rome. Via Francigena meant the “way of the Franks” and was used to describe the land route that people living in Francia would take to Rome.
Building began on Siena’s strikingly-designed Palazzo Pubblico in 1297.
From Francia, pilgrims would cross the Alps, enter Italy at Gran San Bernardo, and travel south through the Valle d’Aosta. They then journeyed along a series of medieval paths, passing through the western reaches of the Po River valley. Near Parma, they headed southwest, over the Apennine Mountains, crossing into Tuscany, toward the coastal port city of Luni. From there, they would continue south through the walled cities of Lucca and Siena and enter the region then known as Latium before finally arriving in Rome.
In the year 990, the English Archbishop, Sigeric the Serious of Canterbury, journeyed to Rome to receive the pallium (religious garment) from Pope John XV. On his return trip to England, he recorded the route he took, providing the first written documentation of the Via Francigena.
In the following months, Neville read about the trail’s origins and about explorers and emperors who had traveled the route, including Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hannibal. He discovered there were Etruscan, Roman and medieval sites along the route.
“It’s fascinating,” Neville would periodically exclaim, as he continued to enlighten me about his discoveries. “Can you imagine walking through Italy? Just think of the history. And all that great food and wineâyou’d like that.”
A Tuscan lunch is greatly enhanced by local red wine and sunflowers.
What most excited me was the diversity of food and wine in the five regions of Italy that the Via Francigena passes through. From Neville’s research, I learned that Switzerland and France influence the cuisine of the distinct region of Valle d’Aosta, a small French-speaking corner of northwest Italy: such as fine cheeses dating back to the 15th century, and typical meat dishes including a beef stew called carbonnade, and a rare prosciutto made of chamois or ibex.
Canadian adventurers Julie and Neville on the Via Francigena.
The rice capitals of Europe, Piedmont and Lombardy are located in the Po River valley. Here you find risotto dishes combining meats and cheeses in regionally distinctive ways. Further south, as the Via Francigena crosses the Apennine Mountains and enters the remote and tiny region of Lunigiana, the local cuisine includes dishes made with chestnuts (castagne) and wild game. Traditional foods include herb cakes called torta d’erbi, lasagna bastarde (lasagna made with chestnut flour), lamb from Zeri, flat bread served with pesto and local cheese called testaroli, and wild boar (cinghiale).
In 2004 Val d’Orcia, a region of Tuscany, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Moving even further south is central Tuscany, home to fava, toscanelli, and cannellini beans, as well as pasta dishes such as tagliatelle, homemade wide-ribbon pappardelle, and “rustic spaghetti” called pici, all mixed with large amounts of extra virgin olive oil. Other popular dishes include wild game such as rabbit, pigeon, duck, thrush, and pheasant.
Finally, entering the region of Lazio, the Via Francigena circles the old volcanic Lake Bolsena. Here they serve fish soup as well as coregone a lake salmon eaten roasted or boiled and served with different kinds of sauces. Another common dish is eel, typically fried and pickled with herbs and spices.
“I think we should walk the Via Francigena,” Neville finally told me one day.
“You know I love to walk, I’ll go anywhere, any time,” I replied.
“We’ll have to make all our own guidebooks and maps,” I told Julie. “There’s no English documentation on the Via Francigena. We can’t walk into our local bookstore and buy a guidebook, like we did for the Camino de Santiago.”
In early 2008, I concluded that we could walk from Switzerland to Rome, about 1,000 km, in roughly 50 days. This time factored in extra days for visiting historic cities and sites along the route. We wanted to make this a cultural and culinary walking adventure through Italy with a larger focus on food and history than with the Camino de Santiago.
Ponte Coperto, a covered bridge in Pavia, is a reproduction of the original bridge destroyed during WWII.
I merged and translated the information I had collected on the Via Francigena. The preparation included creating homemade guidebooks, a painstaking procedure that involved downloading Italian documentation from the Internet, translating the information into English, and repackaging it into a booklet-style personal guidebook. For each stage, I included the number of kilometers, the walking time, the change in elevation, the type of terrain, and the level of difficulty. I found and downloaded a series of rather dated topographical maps, 300 in total, and repackaged them into two booklet-style map books. They were not the best, but at least I could make out the names of the towns and villages and see the various demarcations and shadings of black that represented a road, a cluster of buildings, or farm pastures.
I also made an accommodation guidebook with possible places to stay along the route. Finally, with Julie’s assistance, I created a cultural and culinary guidebook, identifying the typical and traditional foods and beverages found in each region we would pass through. This would be Julie’s specialty. As a “foodie,” she was always keen on trying, and learning about, as many different culinary delights as possible.
After assembling all the information, I told Julie: “It’s not going to be easy. Many sections are unmarked, and along some sections, especially in the north, it’s dangerous to walk and one should take the bus. The terrain and the changes in elevation will be more demanding than on the Camino in Spain.” “Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked her.
“Walking the Via Francigena is just the kind of journey we’re looking for,” she replied.
The Via Francigena offered all the basics of a great adventure. We could explore Italy’s Etruscan, Roman and medieval history, experience first-hand Italy’s modern-day culture, and enjoy the fine foods and wines for which Italy is so famous.
By midsummer, however, we were both a bit concerned. We weren’t sure we had everything figured out or that this would work as expected. But underneath any misgivings, there was something bigger, a force pulling us, and we decided we were ready to embark on what we expected would be the cultural and culinary “camino” of our lives through Italy.
San Gimignano is a small walled medieval hilltop town famous for its high tower architecture.
Canadian authors Julie Burk and Neville Tencer share their story in a new book about walking 1,000 km on the Via Francigena, an ancient, often elusive pilgrim trail from Switzerland through the heart of Italy.
In this delightful travel memoir, An Italian Odyssey, the couple reveal that their initial plan was to walk and eat their way through Italy using their own homemade guide and map books. But their adventure takes on a life of its own as they face unexpected challenges. With both themselves and each other, they struggle with the constant physical and emotional demands and outcomes of navigating an arduous route.
However, with dollops of Roman and medieval history, a dash of contemporary culture, plenty of sensual food and wine, and gracious Italian hospitality, they also share many romantic and magical moments. Only after they endure sweat, tears, and frustration, do they realize the true meaning of their journey.
For complete information, visit Verdera Media at www.verderamedia.com, and for their photographic walk through the adventure, visit their YouTube presentation.
Paperback published in July 2010, 288 pages, 33 images and maps, ISBN 978-0-9865887-0-9.