Via Francigena in Italy
Via Francigena in Italy is part of the Tentative list of Italy in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
The Via Francigena in Italy is the first and most important road that in the Middle Ages connected the countries beyond the western Alps to Rome. Dating back to the Longobard era, the road was not a single road, but a network of roads, which converged at junctions or mandatory points of passage. During the Middle Ages, this road was used by pilgrims to Rome, one of the main destination for pilgrims from all over Europe, and is still used by pilgrims up to the present day.
Map of Via Francigena in ItalyLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
This proposal is not entirely clear to me, or better: it is actually very simple in its grandiosity, as it just encompasses all the route from the Great St. Bernard Pass to Rome and everything that is found along it, but then I do not fully understand why some specific co-ordinates of historical city centres are given, i.e. Aosta, Vercelli, Santhià, Susa, Pavia, Fidenza Sarzana, Siena, Sutri, Viterbo and Rome, while other important passages like Piacenza, Lucca or San Gimignano (already having WHS-status just like Siena) are left out. The first hypothesis coming to mind is that they are chosen to represent in some way all 12 stretches of the Via Francigena, but still there are some gaps and I am left wondering about the exact criteria behind this.
Briefly put: in my opinion the Via Francigena is not eligible as WHS. But I am of the rather radical opinion that no route in general can be considered a "site" (as discussed in the forum some time ago): it is a historical, logical, naturalistic, landscape thread that collects many interesting sites, it surely has its original motivations and fascinating history, it also is an experience in a sense, but it is not a real entity by itself. The physical path itself is no more worth than any other. So, if the Via Francigena, or any pilgrim or other route for that matter, identifies with a collection of places of very different nature and with dramatically diverse landscapes, I think that those places are what should be considered, each for its own merit, as a nomination (below I discuss those along the Via Francigena). However, seeing that Italy has withdrawn some tentative sites (e.g. Lucca, Pavia) along the Via, I get the impression that efforts are being focused on this nomination, and indeed, for quite a few of these towns a sparse, para-serial site like this might be the only... way (this is a pun if you consider that way can be translated as via in Italian... sorry) to land on the List.
However, if we are to consider that the route of Santiago de Compostela is already on the list (and the pilgrimage routes of the Kii mountain range, as mentioned in the dossier, even if I am not sure how close they are to their European counterparts), then there is absolutely no discussion that the Via Francigena should have its place there, too. But that is the fact: as said, I am not sure that neither the route of Santiago de Compostela can be a WHS. Like for the Francigena, I am not claiming it is not a wonderful experience traversing charming places, but simply that they are more an abstract, spiritual concept than they are possessed of a tangible WHS-substance. Given this, I feel that the dossier for the Via Francigena does a good job in highlighting the virtues and the importance of the proposed property (because they are undeniable), so I suspect this candidature might be strong if pursued. But as it is clear by now, I would prefer another approach. Some slight aversion on my side, I admit, might be generated by the Via Francigena having greatly risen in popularity in the last years and become a constantly marketed fashionable brand, with the side effect of multiplying enormously minor, local routes as "variants" in a rather sly way, in my opinion. But the official nomination is clear in detailing the main route, as is the associated website. Still, this problem is tied to the "abstractness" of such a proposal.
The route stretch by stretch, under a WHS lens! To be completly honest, I have not really walked the Francigena, just more or less randomly some of its segments and branches, but I have covered most of its key points.
- Great St Bernard Pass to Pont St. Martin: it goes through Valle d'Aosta region, with its eponymous capital city Aosta. I don't think there is much to nominate here; there are lots of castles and hill towns, and the centre of Aosta is very interesting with its Roman ruins, but in general nothing too remarkable that I can think of. I cannot say about the landscape.
- from Pont-Saint-Martin to Vercelli: Ivrea is already a WHS, even if for totally different reasons than a Medieval pilgrimage route. Santhià is nice, but nothing special; Vercelli has a wonderful XIIIth basilica and is a typical lowland town, but again, nothing too special here. Ah, I was forgetting the fundamental pile dwelling at the lake of Viverone!!!
- Variante della Val Susa: it passes straight through Turin, whose city centre is a former tentative site. Absolutely worthy of a visit and a lively and tremendously interesting city, let's say that it and its area is already covered by the Savoia WHS. Whereas the Sacra of San Michele, at the entrance (or exit, if going towards Rome?) of val di Susa really is stunning. It has no need for a Via Francigena to become nominated, and in fact it already is on the tentative list as the spearpoint of Benedictine settlements and churches over the Peninsula, which I think it will be a very worthy and promising nomination if it is developed and honed a little.
- Vercelli to Piacenza: many nice sleepy towns and placid countrysides of the lowest Po valley that I always enjoy exploring in random bouts of Sunday activity, but, without wanting to consider Vigevano, which sits a bit too away, though alluringly, from the route, the true highlight here is Pavia. Apart from my personal bias for this city (I love Pavia for many reasons), I wonder how it was not yet nominated somehow. The historic centre and the chartreuse (two clearly distinct sites, by the way) were recently withdrawn from the T-list, maybe with good reasons, but the strange thing is that it is not part of the Langobard's connection, even if it long was the capital of the Langobard kingdom and, apart from being a charming and historically rich town in its own, remnants of this past are to be seen, for example the wonderful church of San Michele. So again, Pavia is (was) a mandatory stop on the Via Francigena, the Langobard capital, a seat of power, and it could stand on its own. While Piacenza is nice, but nothing more.
- from Piacenza to Berceto: no WHS-land here.
- from Berceto to Lucca: things get more interesting in this stretch. Pontremoli, Aulla and Sarzana are all part of an interesting, interstitial historical region, Lunigiana. It seems that something is stirring for a nomination of these mountain pass strongholds, and the one in Pontremoli harbours the ancient, mysterious stelae-statues which dotted the region. All these castles surely had a role in relation to the Via Francigena, but more generically since this was the easiest viable pass through the Appennines before Bologna (as today, if you look at the highways). I am not sure if they stand a chance, in the end. But then we reach Lucca, which might be a stronger contendant, especially considering its massive and preserved fortifications. Maybe less flashy than other historical Tuscan cities, but it does have its notable highlights (and Lucca Comics & Games).
- from Lucca to Fucecchio: let's go on.
- from Fucecchio to Siena: the absolute stars here are San Gimignano and Siena, which are meritoriously already WHSs on their own. The rest are very intersting towns, but again I don't see a particular potential apart from what has already been nominated.
- from Siena to Radicofani: well, a good part of this portion is already a very diffuse WHS, the Val d'Orcia. So nothing more to be done here: literally everything from Torrenieri to Radicofani, including the stars San Quirico and Bagno Vignoni and Rocca d'Orcia, and the very path itself, are on the List.
- from Radicofani to Viterbo: Bagnoregio is not too far from Bolsena, but it cannot qualify as part of the Via Francigena. On the other side, Viterbo is very nice, even if probably not mature as a WHS: most points of interest, some of which already on the T-List (such as Bomarzo) are scattered in the region.
- the Cimina variant between Viterbo and Rome: this should pass through the beech forest of Monte Cimino which is already a serial WHS.
- from Viterbo to Rome: OK, everybody knows Rome and the Vatican, and they overshadow anything else here.
So, already plenty of (T)WHSs on this very long road straddling the Appennines! The route nearly writes itself. And the rest? Many bigger and smaller, renown and forgotten places which, though they (or most of them) will never make it on the List, I hope will be fully enjoyed, regardless of their status, by any visitor coming to Italy eager to explore the country! Walking the Via Francigena could be the cherry on the top and the perfect way to discover many of them, but they all have their own histories that possibly deserve to be highlighted with other, more meaningful means!
PHOTO: Via Francigena road sign nearby San Quirico d'Orcia on the route to Vignoni. Some Friulian "pilgrims" passed here.
I had already visited several places which are part of the Via Francigena (some of which already inscribed as separate WHS) but in July 2019 I specifically visited the Sacra di San Michele, perched on top of Monte Pirchiriano on the south side of Val di Susa in Piedmont. It is the first main stop on the Via Francigena in Italy and served as one of the inspirations for the book The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
Apart from the magnificent views of the Alps and of Turin from the Abbey gardens and right behind the abbey church, the intricate elements of both Gothic and Romanesque architecture are worth viewing as well as the remains of the Tower of Bell'Alda and those of an early 11th century church, monastery and a separate building with guestrooms for pilgrims on the popular Via Francigena, probably on the remains of an ancient Roman castrum.
After the uphill walk from the car park, and after visiting the splendid interior, we hiked for a short while along the poorly signposted pilgrim route to a small bench on a hilltop overlooking the Sacra di San Michele. Apart from the breathtaking panoramic views, we practiced our drone flying skills here. We also met a few pilgrims walking on the Via Francigena in Italy as well as the impressive Itinerario di Gerusalemme which is an imaginary straight diagonal route connecting Skellig Michael, St Michael's Mount in the UK, Mont Saint Michel in France, the Sacra di San Michele and Monte Sant'Angelo (Puglia) in Italy, St Michael's Monastery in Symi, Greece, and finally Jerusalem.
In the near future I wouldn't mind giving part of the Via Francigena a try as a pilgrim, even though I don't know if it will ever make it on the WH list.
This nomination should make me happy, because it includes several sites that I like and visit at every opportunity if I am in Italy such as Siena and Viterbo. However, this is not the case and I am rather confused, I would say. I am aware of importance of Via Francigena in midle ages, and I noticed, for example in Montefiascone and other small towns of central Italy, that it is still somehow active as a modern incarnation into a tourist trail. It is certainly positive that one can move from one town to another by walk (that I really like), especially in Italy where everybody prefers car to walking...
I am however afraid that the testimony of Via Francigena is corrupted by this nomination and it will not certainly increase popularity of long-range walking. My suspicion is that it simply helps nice but not so important places in Italy to be inscibed as WHS. From the list, I visited Fidenza (nice small town in Po region with cathedral with fine sculptrural decoration on western facade), Siena (great WHS), Viterbo (one of my favorite towns in Lazio region), and obviously Rome.
Besides Via Francigena, there are comparable "sites" already in Italy: the road network from ancient Rome such as Via Appia (I can imagine OUV in this case), Camino S Francesco (I walked from La Verna to Assisi, but it continues to Rome), and also routes going to Palestina used by pilgrims and also crussaders among others (they usualy travel to Palestina via Bari or Brindisi). Another atractive place for pilgrims from entire Europe is Monte San Angello in Gargano (already WHS).
All in all, I do not support this nomination. I include photo of my favorite place in Viterbo: Fontana Grande from 13th century, because I am pretty sure that pilgrims walking on Via Francigena might be thirsty...
2019 Added to Tentative List
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