Fizzy red wine, horse meat, Carabinieri and crossing a raging torrent

Day One: Piacenza to Fiorenzuola d’Arda — 32 km (20 miles)

Pilgrim begins his progress at the start of the day.

As I studied the guidebooks prior to today’s walk I noted a discrepancy in the distance for today. Alison Raju said to expect 23 km while the SloWays site said 32 and the Lightfoot Guide warned of 34. Somehow in my head I prepared for the shorter distance, anticipating an arrival time of 1:00 or 2:00 at the latest. Instead, I rolled into Fiorenzuola d’Arda at 4:30 with two blisters after nine long hours of walking.

Nothing happened today, except for being stopped by the Caribinieri, fording a raging torrent, finding Black Stallion on the menu, and beginning what I hope will be a long and happy relationship with fizzy red wine.

The Caribinieri — these are Italy’s national police force. As I walked along another endless flat stretch, two Caribinieri in a white squad car stopped me to ask what I was up to. They’d heard of the Via Francigena and guessed I was Austrian. Must’ve been the lederhosen-like hiking shorts. I marveled at their gorgeous uniforms, deep blue with red piping. Which reminds me of one of the many Caribinieri jokes. “Why do Caribinieri have a red stripe on their pants from heel to hip?” “To help them find their pockets.” Other than a wrong guess, though, these Caribinieri seemed plenty nice, smart and competent.

First of many way marks on this well marked trail.

Fizzy red wine — Yes, it’s a thing here. A nice thing. As friends would attest, I’m a little bit of a red wine snob. Little did I realize how much I’d like red wine — with bubbles!

Horse meat on the menu — Never have I been so proud to be a non-red meat eater.   I’m hoping I have the translation of cavallo wrong because it’s on menus everywhere here. “Cavallo Crudo”? After all that horses have done for us?

Street scene in early morning Piacenza

Crossing a raging torrent — The rivers and streams around here are all optimistically called torrente. I had read in the guidebooks about the need to ford various streams and how important it would be to wade across only in the dead of summer, when the streams are quiet. Finally a torrente appeared ahead of me and I carefully noted that the calendar identifies today as early spring. So, although the stream appears calm, I assure you that, according to the guidebooks and the calendars, it actually is a raging torrente. 

The torrente in its quiet rage

My much abused feet, preparing to cross. Perfect time for a horse to appear and carry me across. Oops, they’ve been eaten.

After an uneventful 32 km (20 miles) I stumbled into the church offices at San Fiorenzo parish and claimed my place in its empty, four-bed hostel. Then it was off to dinner for fizzy red wine and anything but horse.

Crossing under a highway near Piacenza

Poppies by the rail tracks in the sun.

I prefer my busy streets with sidewalks.

Typical view. All day.

Church by the Castle of Paderna

Lunch at Chero’s restaurant. No horse served here today.

At the end of this Fiorenzuola lane is a tower in a piazza with a church that has an office that runs a hostel with a bed for me.

Guest register at the hostel. There are pilgrims not far ahead.

How to order your Via di Francesco credential


2014 Credential for the Via di Francesco from Florence to Rome

I’ve lately fielded several requests from people about how to secure a pilgrim’s credential for the Via di Francesco. Although I give pretty specific instructions in the guidebook, The Way of St Francis: From Florence to Assisi and Rome, the process has changed slightly and it requires a little Italian and some computer skill to get it just right.

First, what is a credential? Experienced pilgrims (and few others) know that a credential is a pilgrim passport that identifies the pilgrim, allows them to stay overnight in pilgrim-only accommodations, and, if they meet the criteria, to receive a completion certificate at the end of their walk. The pilgrim secures a stamp (tinbro) at or before the start of their walk and then has it stamped each evening at their place of lodging — one stamp per overnight as proof of having walked the previous day.

What credential do we recommend for the Way of St. Francis? There are three main routes to and around Assisi (we won’t go into details here), but the credential of the Via di Francesco is the only one that is officially approved by the Region of Umbria, the Conference of Umbrian Bishops and the Franciscan Family of Orders at Assisi. It’s also the biggest and prettiest, which means a lot since you’ll be lugging it around everywhere you go and it’ll be a keepsake from the walk. So for those and other reasons, this is the best option for walkers along the Way of St Francis.

You should know, too, that your completed Via di Francesco credential qualifies you for a completion certificate — a testimonium — in Assisi or in Rome. A lovely memento of your walk. I should say too that we’re working to make this process much easier. Credentials will be available in Florence soon, but the wheels of change move slowly in Italy!

So, how do you get it now? Here are the easy steps to follow:

  1. Start about two months in advance of your walk. Download the Request Form either right here (RichiestaDellaCredenziale-) .
  2. Print it out — one form per person.
  3. Fill in the form(s). If you’re not an Italian speaker this is where the trouble begins. To help, I’ve created this handy translation of the form below (English in red). I recommend writing your mailing info in the upper left corner in the exact form that will satisfy your country’s postal service.
  4. VdF-Translated Credential2

    Translations in red. I recommend you add your mailing info in the upper left exactly as it should appear on the envelope.

  5. Fill in the form(s). If you’re not an Italian speaker this is where the trouble begins. To help, I’ve created this handy translation of the form at the right (English in red). Don’t forget to add your country and postal code since they’ll need all your mailing info.
  6. Once you’ve filled in the form(s), scan it on your scanner (or take it to FedEx/Kinko’s where they’ll put it on your thumb drive for you.
  7. Email the scanned form(s) to: Feel free to write your email in English, no problem. Every week the kind folks there answer emails like this, enroll pilgrims on the official pilgrim register, and send pilgrims all around the world their credentials for free. It’s a beautiful thing.
  8. If you would like to make a donation, the kind folk on the other end of your email will tell you how to transfer funds to their donation account. To initiate that, just write something like, “Can you send me information about how to make a donation to cover the cost of my credential?” They’ll send your their bank transfer numbers, which for security reasons I won’t post here. FYI this is commonly done in the EU and UK, but is rather expensive for people in the US or Australia.
  9. Your credential will arrive in the mail in about 6-7 weeks. The camino overseers there will move Heaven and Earth if necessary to get you your credential in time for your walk.

Also, you can simply pick it up at the pilgrim office in Assisi, if that’s where you’re beginning your walk.

That’s it! I hope this is helpful. Below are some photos of testimonia I received in Assisi and in Rome. Buon cammino!



Our September walk from Assisi to Rome is filling up! Here’s more info (and photos!)


Map of our pilgrimage trek from Assisi to Rome, September 3-15

I’m thrilled to be offering old and new friends the opportunity to walk with Theresa and me from Assisi to Rome September 3-15 of this year. I’m working with my friend, Bret Thoman of St. Francis Pilgrimages, and we’ve put together a super itinerary for our group. You can download the PDF and registration form here to learn the details. Suffice to say, it will be the walk of a lifetime.

Since our brochure didn’t have enough room to show some of the most amazing photos of the walk I thought I’d post photos to whet your appetite! The pics come from either my 2013 or 2014 hikes. I’ve also added a little text to explain more of what the days’ journeys will be like.

Our Itinerary


Inside the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi

September 3: Arrival in Assisi. Meet Theresa and me along with fellow pilgrims at an orientation session in St. Francis’ lovely hometown. There’s a pilgrim mass each evening in the lower Basilica of San Francesco, so we’ll enjoy that before having a fine dinner together inside beautiful and beloved Assisi. If you’d like to explore Assisi a little more, you should plan to arrive a day or two early. We can help you make arrangements to have a guided tour of town, or you can simply walk and discover. Enjoy the churches, museums and castle of the town, or just enjoy the Italian sunshine and amazing views to the valley below.


Walking downhill toward Spello

September 4: Assisi to Spello – 11 miles. Spectacular views of the Tiber River Valley greet us as we walk along the slopes of Mount Subasio to beloved Spello, a hill town famous in its own right. On the way we visit Francis’ beloved Carceri Hermitage then relax for lunch or a beverage in Spello. Since the scenery would be very similar for the next two days of the walk, we skip two stages ahead to sophisticated Spoleto, whose historic cathedral holds one of the few handwritten notes of St. Francis (Overnight Spoleto). Option: Avoid the first stiff climb up Subasio with a taxi ride to the Carceri Hermitage where you rejoin the rest of the group.


Dramatic landscapes on the way to Macenano from Spoleto

September 5: Spoleto to Macenano – 12.7 miles. Pass Spoleto’s medieval castle and cross its dramatic Ponte delle Torre bridge into a vast forest. A brisk 45-minute climb takes you to the Monteluco Franciscan convent, and then a long downhill wilderness trail leads you along dramatic gorges into the Valnerina recreational area. Freshen up at your hotel in convenient Macenano and walk to a sumptuous dinner at the ancient Abbey of San Pietro in Valle, a gentle 1.5km above Macenano. (Overnight in Macenano)


View from beautiful Labro

September 6: Macenano to Piediluco – 15.5 miles. We walk through farms and pastures to majestic Marmore Falls and serene Lake Piediluco, where St. Francis preached. A climb up to the tiny hill town of Labro gives a peek into life in a medieval village untouched by time. A private van carries you three miles from the shores of Piediluco to the hill town of Labro (Overnight in Labro).


Sunrise in Poggio Bustone

September 7: Labro to Poggio Bustone – 10.5 miles. We leave behind high pastures and walk up to the St. Francis Birch Tree, where tradition says a beech tree protected St. Francis during a harsh winter storm. Walk downhill through lush forests to the hill town of Poggio Bustone, site of the spiritual transformation that began Francis’ ministry (Overnight in a comfortable Poggio Bustone pilgrim hostel). Poggio Bustone dangles on a steep mountainside and its narrow streets are little changed in centuries.


The hidden treasure of Cantalice

September 8: Poggio Bustone to Rieti – 11 miles. — A quiet and green walk through the gorgeous village of Cantalice and then the Franciscan sanctuary of La Foresta where legend attributes a key miracle to St. Francis. The day ends in nearby Rieti, capital of the Sabine olive-growing region of Italy and itself an historic Roman town (Overnight in a Rieti hotel). Theresa and I loved quiet and scenic Cantalice, with its winding alleys and hidden piazzas.


A rest day in beautiful and scenic Rieti

September 9: Rest Day in Rieti. Central Rieti is a shopper’s paradise, but also has a colorful history since before Roman times. There’s lots to do in this town that is capital of the Sabine olive-growing region, and we’ll stay two nights at a lovely hotel in the heart of Rieti’s old city. The local area is steeped in St. Francis lore, as well, so we’re offering another possibility for those interested:

Option: Rieti/Greccio guided tour. A local expert guides you through the Underground Rieti Salt Road and takes us in a private van to the nearby Franciscan sanctuary of Greccio, the scenic mountainside convent where Francis and local villagers created the first Christmas nativity scene. (Overnight in a Rieti hotel).



Tiny and quaint Poggio San Lorenzo

September 10: Rieti to Poggio San Lorenzo – 13.5 miles. Walk along the Roman Salt Road through quiet farms of the Sabine Region to the tiny, Roman village of Poggio San Lorenzo (Overnight in Poggio San Lorenzo). This is a mostly flat day’s walk and the scenery of woods, farms and olive groves is much different from the previous days’.



Olive groves among the rolling hills after Poggio San Lorenzo

September 11: Poggio San Lorenzo to Ponticelli –14.4 miles. A day of forested ridges, olive groves and sheep pastures with views to castles and quiet villages (Overnight in Ponticelli). The word “undulating” is best to describe the terrain here. With a combination of rocky soil, lots of sun, and regular rain, olive oil from the Sabine area is prized among Italian varieties. Most of the non-agricultural areas are protected forestland, meaning the day’s walk is quiet and far from automobile traffic.


Orsini Castle dominates the area

September 12: Ponticelli to Montelibretti – 8.2 miles. Forests and olive groves punctuate today’s walk, with constant views of towering Castello Orsini on one of the nearby forested mountaintops (Overnight in Montelibretti). The Orsini family was a powerful, medieval clan of Roman nobles and their castles and secured the Sabine area and reminded visitors of the power of nearby Rome. Today the castle is restored as an opulent hotel, whose grounds include a lovely swimming pool and excellent restaurant.


Olive groves are replaced by wheat fields outside Monterotondo

September 13 Montelibretti to Monterotondo – 10.3 miles. With Rome near, the territory changes to olive groves and vast fields of grain as you walk through the Gattaceca Nature Reserve. In clear weather the first glimpse of St. Peter’s is visible in the far distance. Enjoy an evening stroll (passegiata) through the delightful Old City (Overnight Monterotondo).


Outside Monterotondo and less than a day from Rome and still in beautiful green valleys

September 14: Monterotondo to Monte Sacro – 12 miles. After half a day’s walk in the peaceful Marcigliana Nature Reserve you will follow sidewalks into the outskirts of urban Rome (Overnight Monte Sacro). The path carefully avoids the congestion of Italy’s largest city and allows a quiet walk through small and large farms. The transition to the outskirts of Rome is abrupt and for the first time on the trek we walk sidewalks next to busy streets — with ample gelato stores along the way!


Crossing the Tiber in Rome on the Ponte Milvio

September 15: Monte Sacro to Vatican – 9.5 miles. Though Rome is bustling around, you will share quiet paths with bicyclists and strollers along the Ariane and Tiber riverfronts until rounding a bend in the Tiber at Castel Sant’Angelo for our final entry into glorious Vatican City. It’s the Holy Year and we will have reservations to walk through the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. Pilgrims share a final dinner together at a delightful Roman restaurant (Overnight Rome). Will you plan another day or more to enjoy Rome?

We still have a few places available on the trip. I hope you’ll join us for what will certainly be an unforgettable trip!


St. Peter’s Square in iPhone Panorama mode