Via Francigena: Ancient pilgrimage from France to Rome an enlightening journey for this American wanderer
I’ve always said travel isn’t just about the destination. It’s about the journey. But what if the travel is the journey? That’s what you call a pilgrimage. During four days in Cinque Terre last month I met one of the American kings of pilgrimages.
Kevin McAllister, 66, was sitting at Burgus, a tiny bar on the waterfront piazza in Vernazza, home of maybe the prettiest harbor in Italy and to so many tourists in July, Italian seems like a second language. Kevin wasn’t used to so many people. He was taking a rare break from a 735-mile (1,182 kilometers) pilgrimage from Pontarlier, France, to Rome. That doesn’t count the “warmup” of a 15-day, 165-mile (265 kilometers) hike through Slovenia’s Julian Alps with his wife and two others. That’s 900 miles (1,448 kilometers) in 71 days.
He earned his seat at the bar.
The big hike was on the Via Francigena, a historical pathway that dates back to the Middle Ages. He averaged 12-18 miles (20-25 kilometers) a day for 56 days, finishing off many a long morning in blistering heat with a 45-minute hike straight up to one of Italy’s many walled hill towns where he’d mercifully crash for the night.
But along the way, he saw some amazing sites. He told me of the couple who has a home with a glass floor over an original Roman road. He saw so many beautiful churches that would be architectural marvels any place but stood empty in the middle of the Italian countryside. He marveled at the sheer beauty of Lucca.
He hiked Spain’s famed Camino de Santiago twice but this was different. This was Italy post-Covid restrictions. While 300,000 annual pilgrims make the Santiago in places seem like a pedestrian mall, Kevin found himself spending miles and miles with no one.
Kevin, like myself, has traveled most of his life. A native of El Segundo, Calif., he spent 2 1/2 years working for the Peace Corps in Paraguay, teaching geology at the university level. He eventually settled in Northampton, Mass., where his software education company sent him all over the world: From Afghanistan to Vietnam, from Bangladesh to Africa.
Now retired, he and his wife in recent years visited Antarctica, Iceland, the Galapagos Islands, Africa and Costa Rica. Then Covid hit. The Via Francigena marked their big return to the road.
Francigena doesn’t have the cache of the Santiago, where the cathedral allegedly holds the remains of the apostle James the Great.
Via Francigena history
Via Francigena was made famous as it follows the journey of Sigeric, the archbishop of Cantebury during the 10th century when he was named cardinal by the pope. He walked from Canterbury, England, to Rome and the modern route marks his footsteps. It also covers original Roman roads taken by Hannibal when he approached Rome in the 3rd century B.C.
Around the 8th century the Francigena was the main connection between Southern and Northern Europe. Merchants, armies and pilgrims used it to cross the continent.
At the start of the 2nd millennium, the three centers of the Christian world were Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Rome. Via Francigena was the central junction of the three. Later in the 13th century it was used to transport silk and spices from the East.
A fellow American friend, Chandi Wyant, wrote a successful book called “Return to Glow” about her 255-mile (425 kilometers) trek along the Via Francigena. She had her own self reflections. I wanted to hear his in depth. I told him to look me up when he got to Rome. On Saturday he did.
I invited him to the rooftop bar of the Atlante Star hotel, with one of Rome’s greatest views: St. Peter’s, all back lit, at one end and the Il Vittoriano monument in all its glorious white massiveness at the other. I thought after walking 900 miles this would be a good place to put his feet up before flying back to Boston the next day.
So over a couple of Negronis, Kevin told me about his remarkable adventure. (Interview has been trimmed for brevity.)
How was the trip?
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE EXPERIENCE OVERALL?
This is the third time doing a pilgrimage. It gives you time to test yourself physically at this age. I’m 66. It gives you that time to really think about things and experience things, especially as an American because most Americans don’t travel and if they do travel they don’t really experience the country. So walking a country, staying in places, hanging out with the people, talking the language, really immerses you.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO DO A PILGRIMAGE?
These friends of ours watched “Wild.” Remember the book about the Pacific Coast Trail? This woman, Cheryl Strayed, who walks the Pacific Coast Trail? It’s a book and a movie with Reese Witherspoon. This woman whose life falls apart says, “Screw it. I’m going to walk the Pacific Coast Trail” which is like from the Mexican border to Canada. So this friend of ours comes over who’s completely out of shape and completely nonsensical and completely unrealistic says, “I’m walking the PCT.” Over dinner. We’re like … “No. Get serious. You wouldn’t make it 40 miles.”
This was 2016. Over dinner I said, “You know, there’s this walk in Spain that’s actually possible called the Camino.” Dinner ends. They go home. He and his wife book this walk in Spain. They call us the next day and said, “We booked the Camino.” Oh, well. You only have to walk the last 100 miles to get the certificate. You don’t have to walk the whole thing. So six couples booked this trip. I told my wife I want to do the whole thing. So I’m going to walk the first 350 miles and I’ll meet you guys and the 12 of us will walk the rest of the way (another 150 miles). So that’s what we did. It just sort of fell together. Then two years later we did it again.That took 70 days. I’d walked Spain. I’d walked France. So when this came up I thought, You know, I really want to meet Italians. I want to learn better Italian.
AFTER YOUR FIRST CAMINO, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF? AND WHAT’D YOU LEARN FROM THIS TRIP THAT WAS NEW?
I got a feel for rural Italy. It’s one thing to go to Venice and Rome and Florence but to walk through the Po Valley day after day and Vercelli and Pavia and Ivrea. And the rice fields. It’s just kind of neat. Every night I would be in these small towns. I got to experience a lot of that. There were a lot fewer pilgrims. In Spain, when you go into a small town at night, a third of the people in the bars and restaurants are all pilgrims. Here it would be one or two.
HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE RURAL ITALY WITH RURAL SPAIN AND RURAL FRANCE?
That’s a good question. One thing that’s not different is just how it’s emptying out. In both rural France and rural Italy, everything is for sale. Every house. Every farm. Every town. I don’t know what the future holds for those areas. It’s just a very quick observation. You walk through these fields and farms and it’s “Vendesi. Vendesi. (For sale)” On everything.
IS COVID TO BLAME?
If you go to Kansas or the Midwest you see the same thing. The kids have all moved out. The jobs have all gone away. What is that? What’s left except tourism? There’s just not a lot.
You have these incredible buildings and incredible churches. But there’s nobody there. Churches have mass once a week or twice a week and there’s no priest. But it’s beautiful.
HOW DO YOU FIND THE ITALIAN PEOPLE?
Well, compared to France they’re a whole lot friendlier. Oh, absolutely. I found the small-town people very friendly, very accommodating. Often you come into a town and there’s a bar. You sit down and a bunch of old men are sitting around. You can interact immediately with them. Once you start talking to them, they are very friendly. I can ask questions and answer. They ask, ‘Where are you from? What are you doing?’ I tell them and they’re like, “Walking? Really?” You get these guys who can barely get up and they’re like, “You just walked from France to here?”
TALK ABOUT LOGISTICS. I LOOKED AT THE WEBSITE AND IT LOOKS PRETTY ORGANIZED. DO THEY HAVE CERTAIN PLACES TO STAY ALONG THE ROUTE OR ARE YOU ON YOUR OWN?
You’re on your own. They sort of have lists and in some places like in Spain it’s much more active. There are two levels. In almost all these towns, a church or a convent or sometimes the town hall will have a room or a bunkhouse where they’ll put people up. They might have a shower. Sometimes they do communal meals. I don’t do that. I’m too old to sleep in a bunkhouse with 15 other people.
NEITHER DO I. I SWORE OFF YOUTH HOSTELS 30 YEARS AGO
That exists and that’s why there are two levels on these pilgrimages. I tried to stay in a B&B kind of place. Sometimes it was pretty cool and sometimes it was pretty primitive.
DID YOU GET RESERVATIONS ALONG THE WAY OR WING IT?
I used Booking.com.
HOW FAR IN ADVANCE?
I started with three or four then as I started to book farther out, in some of the towns it was getting real slim pickins. The last thing I wanted to do was get stuck somewhere so I started booking three or four weeks out.
EVER GET STUCK WITH NO PLACE TO STAY?
There was a town that had nothing: Orio Litta. I went up and there was a hotel spa about four miles north so I just went up there and walked by it. The only place to stay was the parish hall and I was like … no. Especially when it’s 95 at night. These old buildings don’t cool down.
HOW’D YOU BEAT THE HEAT?
I’d leave, depending on how long it is, at 7, 6 or 5 in the morning because you have to be off the road by 11 or 11:30. If you don’t you will die.
HOW PHYSICALLY DAUNTING WAS IT?
One of the things about Italian towns like San Gimignano, San Miniato is you’re going along plains and the town (is behind a wall on a cliff). So after you walk 5 ½ hours in the heat then you go up — straight up — for 45 minutes. That’s killer at the end of the day. So every day was like, “Oh, my God. There’s the town up there and I’m on my last gallon.”
HOW MUCH WATER DID YOU CARRY?
I’m not a big water user. That was one of the differences. In Spain there’s probably a town every two or three kilometers where there was a cantina. There were plenty of places here in Italy where I went 15-18 kilometers … nothing. Fields and roads. So you got to be careful.
PHYSICALLY WHAT WAS THE WORST MOMENT YOU HAD?
Radicofani. From San Quirico there’s Radicofani and that leg is 23 miles. It was hotter than hell. It was seven hours. The last hour was straight up. Everybody talks about it. It is THE worst.
HOW WERE YOUR FEET?
They’re beat up.
WHAT DO YOU WEAR?
You wear really light shoes. I wore Sauconys. I thought about talking to them. Now I’ve worn them for 1,000 miles in Spain and 1,300 (kilometers) here. People who wear big, heavy hiking boots? They die. They get blisters. They just get hot and sweaty. You’re not mountain climbing. It’s just like walking your dog for a really, really long time.
DID YOU HAVE A SPECIAL DIET?
I can not pound down pizza and pasta day after day. But I had gelato multiple times a day. And granita. You’ve got to, it’s so hot. I have never really thought about my diet. All my life I ate whatever tastes good. Are you going to do more carbs? Whatever.
BECAUSE OF THE HEAT, DID IT AFFECT YOUR APPETITE?
It did. You don’t eat that much. Another thing I did is I’d vary it with one Asian meal a day. What’s weird is there’s a sushi restaurant run by Chinese people in every small town in Italy. In some of the towns it’s pretty bizarre. Beyond bizarre. I’d often try to do hot and sour soup, sushi and some raw fish. For dinner it would be lasagna, spaghetti.
GIVE ME THE BEST DAY YOU HAD, THE HIGHLIGHT
That’s a hard one. It’s funny. Given the routine, there aren’t huge highs and there aren’t huge lows. I told you Radicofani was definitely a low. I think meeting and remeeting people. You meet some really interesting people along the way. Like there’s one woman. She’s a nun. You wouldn’t know it to meet her. She was just hiking along, just pounding away. We hiked for a few days up by Fornovo. I lost track of her. Then I was in Berceto coming down north of Pontremoli. That morning I’m walking out, who’s sitting there having coffee? There’s Erica. So we walked up Passo della Cisa. When you go down the Apennines, it’s the highest peak after San Bernard. It’s beautiful. It’s just nice. People come in and out of your life.
We met this Italian couple from Milan outside San Kitticato (Tuscany). They quit their jobs, sold everything and bought this 16th century home which was a stop on the Roman Way. They had it remodeled and it is a knockout. It’s south of Radicofani. The Roman road goes right through their house. So they raised the house and the whole house has a glass floor with the road going under it. It is unbelievably beautiful.
THESE PLACES SOUND REALLY ROMANTIC BUT THE AMOUNT OF WORK YOU NEED TO RENOVATE THEM IS TOO INTIMIDATING
I would not want to be in charge but I probably found half a dozen places like that. We’re going to come back and drive this. I’m like, “We must stay here. We must stay here. We must stay here.”
DID YOU HAVE ENOUGH ENERGY AFTER THESE HIKES TO EXPLORE THE TOWNS?
That was the plan. But the problem is by the time you shower, all the places close at 2. By the time I step out all you have is bars. I’d often take a nap. It might be 28-30 degrees (82-86 Fahrenheit). I’d go out in the afternoon. So many of these towns like Vercelli and Lucca, I’d wander. I realized pretty quickly, many of these towns you want to read about and be there for two or three days.
WHAT’S THE PRETTIEST TOWN YOU WENT TO?
Lucca is up there. Siena is ridiculously nice. Putting that aside. I really liked Vercelli. I liked Pontremoli.
WHY’D YOU LIMIT YOURSELF? DID YOU HAVE A BUDGET?
I wasn’t limited by money. I was limited by time. Part of the pilgrimage is you’re moving. It’s different than if you take a car trip and visit three or four great towns and decide to take three days in each town. That’s a different kind of trip. My wife and I will do that when we come back next summer.
The hard part is how do you hit the high parts of a place like Lucca or Siena in four hours?
YOU SAID IT’S NOT A RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. YOU CALLED IT A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE. CAN YOU EXPLAIN THAT?
I think it allows you to just think about history, people, culture, yourself, where you fit, where you are in your life. Putting all that together and having hours to think about it is really rewarding. The other thing is I wrote every day on Facebook. I have 1,500 followers. So I had 200-300 people who were constantly asking me. I was taking these people along with me. For me, and I haven’t written a lot of it yet, but just thinking of America, the world, what’s happening. One question people ask is, How do you get 5,000-10,000 churches in these little towns, each of which would be a world-class gem, that’s sitting in a town in the middle of nowhere with nobody in it? And there’s 5,000 of them. How do these things get built and what happened to them? Just thinking of what was the world like in the 1600s.
Your outlook on the U.S. and the world?
HOW DID THIS TRIP CHANGE YOUR OUTLOOK OR CONFIRM YOUR OUTLOOK ON AMERICA?
I have lived and traveled like you outside the U.S. for a long time so I think it wasn’t like a huge change. But one thing that happens in every town when I’m in Europe is people go, “‘What the hell is going on with guns?” And you’re like, “I know. It’s insane.” You get that every day. “Why would you give an 18-year-old an army weapon? And let him buy it at the store? This is nuts.” I tell them I agree and in America it’s the definition of liberty. It’s crazy.
There are also things like we’re the only country without universal healthcare. The question is why not? The other is just thinking about what happens if the king, the church – if there’s one corporate monopoly that owns it all and it’s religion – how horrible the Middle Ages would’ve been? There were no alternatives. That’s where we’re heading with the religious right in America. Hopefully, we’re not quite there. But we’re getting there.
I LIVE IN ROME, TWO MILES FROM THE VATICAN AND THE CAPITAL OF THE CATHOLIC WORLD. WOMEN IN THAT NEIGHBORHOOD NOW HAVE MORE RIGHTS THAN AMERICAN WOMEN IN THE SOUTH HAVE. AMERICA IS MUCH MORE RELIGIOUS THAN ROME IS
A lot of places I traveled through had a lot of Ukrainian refugees. You think about that. The right-wing movement of Poland, the right-wing movement of Hungary, Belarus, almost Marine Le Pen of France. We’re in this scary time and not just in the U.S. (Also) in the Italian Parliament. These are really unsettled times all the way around.
WHAT ROLE SHOULD TRAVEL PLAY IN PEOPLE’S LIVES IN AMERICA?
I wish everybody traveled but Americans don’t. I can just speak for myself. For me, meeting people in their country at their level is the only way to understand the world. I can’t get enough of it. I walked with Slovakian women, I walked with Danish women and Ukrainians. Living in the Peace Corps for three years you live at their level and you learn pretty quickly that you need a roof, you need food, you need a basic income. Everything else is basically gravy. There are places where people are happier because they have that and that’s OK. They have family and kids. They’re not chasing the dream. They’re not chasing the profit.
ANY ADVICE FOR PEOPLE READING THIS AND GET INSPIRED TO DO THE SAME?
There is no official pilgrimage. Walk parts, all, multiple. whatever fits your health, schedule, budget. Make it work for you.
Use Jooble if you are looking for a job in the field of tourism, and maybe in the future you will meet Kevin or someone like him.