Italy by Foot: 5 Ancient Pilgrimage and Trade Routes in Italy to Explore this Year

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Thu, 03/09/2023 - 05:50
Above Lago di Bolsena
Above Lago di Bolsena / Photo: Mario Corvetto

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When planning a milestone trip to Italy, there can be a temptation to cram in as many big-ticket sites as possible, ticking off the major cities in a frenzied week of train journeys and museum lines. Walking holidays are the antithesis of this, forcing you to slow down and appreciate your immediate surroundings in a mindful way that’s hard to manage otherwise.

Whatever reservations you might have about going on a “walking holiday” can be set aside — intense hiking equipment is not necessary, and there’s still plenty of time for long leisurely lunches, beach days, cities and culture. What’s more, Italy is full of ancient pilgrimage trails and trade routes that carve through the countryside and stop in historic towns along the way.

“I don’t think the idea of following a pilgrimage route needs to be particularly religious,” explains Peter Blackman, who has spent over 40 years planning bespoke trips in Italy. Downplaying the pious connotations of the routes, Peter highlights their amazing cultural and historical importance instead, noting that they also happen to travel through some of the most beautiful countrysides in Italy, “lightyears away from the standard cruise ship or bus tour idea of the country.” Read on to discover five of his favorite walks in Italy for all abilities and interests.

Highlights of the Via Francigena between Lucca and Rome

Park of Monsters Bomarzo
The Garden of Bomarzo, AKA the Park of Monsters, near Viterbo / Photo: Mario Corvetto

The Via Francigena is a popular pilgrimage route that stretches over 2,000 kilometers between Canterbury, in England, and Rome. Here in Italy, one of the most scenic and culturally rich sections of the route lies between Lucca and Rome. Starting from the historic walled city of Lucca, you’ll meander through the vineyards and olive groves of the Tuscan hills, stopping in the medieval town of San Gimignano, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Siena and the picturesque Val d'Orcia region. As the route approaches Rome, walkers will encounter the volcanic Lake Bolsena and the splendid gardens near Viterbo before reaching their final destination in the Eternal City.

In the footsteps of Saint Francis

Tracing the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the most revered saints in the Catholic Church, this route begins in Florence and passes through the scenic countryside of Tuscany and Umbria on its way to Rome. The whole route typically takes about a month to complete, covering a distance of 550 kilometers, but Italy By Design’s experienced team can plan a shorter itinerary to suit your needs and time constraints. The popular trail stops off in many of the sites associated with St. Francis' life, including the town of Assisi, where he was born and is buried. Along the way, you can visit several Franciscan monasteries and churches, as well as enjoy stunning natural landscapes and historic towns such as Sansepolcro, Gubbio, and Spoleto. 

Italy coast to coast: Via Appia from Rome to Puglia

Palazzo Reale Caserta
The Reggia di Caserta was the largest palace erected in Europe during the 18th century / Photo: Trabantos via Shutterstock

The three main destinations for Christian pilgrims in the Middle Ages were Santiago in Spain, Rome in Italy and, of course, Jerusalem in the Middle East. From Rome, one way of reaching the Holy Land took advantage of an ancient Roman road, the Via Appia, between Rome and the port of Brindisi, on the Adriatic Coast, for ships heading East. A recent candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status, the 2,300-year-old Via Appia offers a chance to travel back in time. Along the way, Italy by Design’s itinerary, which can be done either on foot or by bike, includes such places as Castel Gandolfo, summer residence of the Pope, the breathtakingly beautiful gardens at Ninfa, and the splendid 18th-century palace at Caserta (pictured above).

The Via di Dante, Dante’s route between Florence and Ravenna

In 2021, to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death, a new walking route was launched along the medieval roads and pathways that the revered Italian poet traveled after his exile from Florence in 1302. The route covers various locations associated with Dante’s life, from his birthplace in Florence to his final resting place in Ravenna, many of which are mentioned in his long narrative poem, the Divine Comedy. The beautiful town of Brisighella, whose founder Dante used as an example of a politician who changes sides according to the direction of the wind, and Faenza, famous, then as now, for its brightly colored majolica, are just two of the places walkers can visit along the way. The trail offers stunning views of the Italian countryside, and walkers can immerse themselves in the history, art, and culture of Italy as they trace the footsteps of this legendary figure.

The Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods)

If you do want to hit the Amalfi Coast this summer, consider doing it a little differently: rather than sitting in grid-lock traffic waiting for a bus to the famous cliffside towns of Positano, Amalfi, or Sorrento, take the mythical hiking trail along the coastline. You’ll be rewarded by breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea, high above the crowded coast, as you walk through peaceful woods scented with wild herbs. And as Peter Blackman so aptly says, “When you are walking in good company, you tend to talk about just about everything under the sun.”

About Italy By Design

San Gimignano
On the way to San Gimignano / Photo: Mario Corvetto

Bespoke travel agency Italy By Design organizes and leads unique tours in all parts of Italy for individuals, families, and small groups of friends and business associates. With clients from all over the world, these trips are completely made-to-measure and can incorporate wine, art, walking, biking, history, music and, of course, Italian cooking.