It is the summer of 8 years ago. I am almost 42 and my young beautiful daughter is 12. August can be a scorching month in Tuscany, and the 2012 summer had been one of the hottest in the last 100 years.
It is middle August, we are having dinner with some friends, and with no preamble I declare: “in two days Cecilia and I are leaving to walk the Via Francigena”.
Introducing the Via Francigena
As no one knows what I am talking about, I explain that is the name of an ancient pilgrim route, starting in Canterbury, passing through France, Switzerland, and Italy to reach the ports of embarkation for the Holy Land.
On August 16th, we leave from Altopascio at 5.30 am on the way to reach Rome; the road asphalt of the small city is still warm from the heat of the previous day.
Cecilia hasn’t agreed with me about this trip. She feels forced therefore she is furious.
During our 10 hours walking to San Miniato, she vomits her anger and her frustration; I am listening without replying as I promised before the departure that she would have had the space to be authentic, without receiving any interference from my parental role.
Finding our way along the trail
Our backpacks are heavy, we are running out of water, and we both are very tired. We stop to devour our sandwiches and fruits in the middle of a desert countryside, and we get lost thanks to my wonderful navigation skills. I am starting to doubt the goodness of all this idea. People stare at us, wondering what kind of mum I am, why am I forcing such a young pale creature to walk under an African sun, on the boiling and glowing cobblestones of the small villages we encounter.
While we are reaching the hill of San Miniato, (the final destination of the day), I feel overwhelmed; I look at Cecilia walking in front of me, with a sense of guilt; she is so skinny and young, and she is disappearing behind her huge backpack. Feeling my change of mood makes her stronger and after 42 km, she starts motivating me. Finally, we arrive at the Monastery of San Miniato: her fatigue melts like ice in the desert and she starts preparing the dinner with Father Giovanni, who is in charge of the pilgrims.
There are very few pilgrims with us. In 2012 Via Francigena hasn’t been discovered, and it is not very popular yet. A privilege, during the summer, to be very few!
The Effects of the Trail
Cecilia walks with me for two more days and her mood changes. The beauty of the countryside reaching San Gimignano transforms both of us. Even if she is tired and her back and her feet are sore, she looks happy. She knows she is achieving something great: she is the youngest pilgrim of the small group… I am immensely proud of her.
In San Gimignano, our ways are parted. She comes back home, while I’ll be walking for some more days, without any plans.
I remain on my own with a hole in my soul: I feel abounded; I realize that this is the moment in which she stops to be my child to become a creature who belongs to the entire world.
During each Camino I walked, every experience is amplified: a sunrise, an offered glass of water, a chair moved by a farmer on a porch to invite you to rest in the shade, the voices of those who walk with you, your daughter who leaves; everything deeply fills your spirit and your soul and each experience is enclothed in a powerful meaning.
Why I love to walk
Walking every day for more than 40 km, for a long period, under the sun or the rain, dries your thoughts, making them sharper and clearer. When blisters start to blossom on your feet, you realize that the priorities in your life have changed.
You need a bed to rest, your feet to heal, something to eat, and water. You feel blessed to have a shower every evening to wipe away the dust and the sweat of the day, a companion to listen to, a pair of comfortable shoes and clean socks. There is no need for anything else.
The more you look back at your normal life, the more you realize that there is nothing normal in searching to have more and more and being worried about that; you understand how useless are all the assets we have. You learn that the backpack on your shoulders is all you need, not only to survive, but to feel free happy and whole.
Since my way through Via Francigena, I have twice walked the Camino de Santiago, the most popular pilgrimage in Spain; the Cammino di Francesco in Umbria once, during the winter, because walking becomes a need. It is not an escape; it is a way to make space. To your soul, to your values, to the others.
Walking to connect to the world around you
It is a discovery of yourself, made also, through the eyes of whom you meet. It is an experience that brings together body and mind, that requires courage, sincerity, listening, and an opening to the unknown and the diverse. It is an opportunity to build communion with the Creator and with all you are surrounded by.
When you go back, you become a stranger to your previous life, as you are a different: probably stronger also because you learn about your vulnerability.
Back in the office, you search for the smiles of the other pilgrims, friends of an entire walk or just for a day. You look outside the windows searching for the sky, the rain , the sun, the beauty of nature, and you crave simplicity and authenticity…
After my walk in 2012, I don’t know exactly what changed in my life, but I felt I needed to know myself better… my way to do that is to sit and wait until I can put my backpack on my shoulders again and leave everything behind to walk towards another new and unknown destination.
Explore the Via Francigena!
2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the Via Francigena which will be celebrated by the Road to Rome Festival, a 3200 km walking/bicycling event from Canterbury, England to Santa Maria di Leuca, Italy. Check out their website for more details and resources such as the Via Francigena app to keep you on the trail!
About the Author
Giulietta Roz is a passionate, creative and independent woman and describes herself as a mum, an Italian oak tree, with branches spread into the world. In her profession as an architect and an interior designer she brings her love for the beauty and respect for the land, in which we are guests and on loan to us for future generations.
Photo Credit Feature Image: Luca Micheli, Unsplash