Beloved among all saints, Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) shone an enormous light onto medieval Italy. A child of prosperous merchants in the Umbrian hill town of Assisi, Francis abandoned the life of a young knight and took on a radical form of Christianity that led some to call him, “The Second Christ.” Francis preached throughout Italy and Europe, but many key episodes in his life were within 100 or so kilometers of his hometown.
In the late 20th century several Italian leaders dreamed of connecting St. Francis sites into a single, walking pilgrimage. Some individuals, like Angela Serrachioli and Giordano Pinchi, created walking pilgrimages in and around some of the main Franciscan sites. The Regione of Umbria and the Regione of Lazio joined in, along with the Province of Rieti, and soon there were several paths. Leaders now have merged most of the paths into the Via di Francesco, beginning at Santuario della Verna and ending at Rieti. Guidebook authors like Kees Roodenburg and I connected Santuario della Verna to neighboring Florence, and Rieti to neighboring Rome to create a Florence to Assisi to Rome itinerary that captures these famous Franciscan sites:
- Florence – the Basilica of Santa Croce, largest Franciscan shrine in the world;
- Santuario della Verna – where St. Francis received the stigmata;
- Montecasale – site of the conversion of the thieves;
- Sansepolcro – where St. Francis thought he’d failed to make a miracle;
- Gubbio – scene of the famous story of St. Francis and the wolf;
- Valfabbrica – where St. Francis was beaten and thrown into a snowy ditch;
- Assisi – his home, full of many scenes from his life, including the Church of San Damiano and his final resting place;
- Santa Maria degli Angeli – home to the Porziuncula, Francis’ headquarters;
- Eremo della Carceri – a place hidden for Francis’ prayer;
- Foligno – where he sold his father’s cloth;
- Bevagna – site of a miracle;
- Spoleto – home to one of the few manuscripts written in Francis’ own hand;
- Monteluco – a place of prayer in a holy Roman wood;
- Piediluco – where he preached along the lakeside;
- Faggio San Francesco – an ancient birch tree that shielded Francis from a storm;
- Poggio Bustone – a Franciscan convent. The cave above was site of the visions that began his ministry;
- La Foresta – scene of the miracle of wine;
- Rieti – with Greccio and Fontecolombo nearby, places beloved to St. Francis;
- Rome – site of St. Francis’ conversation with Pope Innocent III and the beginning of his Franciscan order.
Although the path does not follow a historic itinerary, it does offer a very close connection to sites central to the life and ministry of the saint. It follows the western slopes of the Central Apennine mountain range through forests, olive groves, sheep pastures and offers unforgettable mountain vistas while remembering the saint who so loved Creation.