Australian pilgrim Bill Bennett describes his walk on the Via di Francesco as “Sublime and Profound”

(Editors note: At our request, Bill Bennett, an Australian filmmaker and pilgrimage lover, has written his reflections on the Via di Francesco. We shared an advance copy of The Way of St Francis: From Florence to Assisi and Rome with Bill so he could check the itinerary and get back to us with comments and suggestions. Bill can be reached through his website and blog.

unnamed-1
Arrival in Assisi

Earlier this year my wife and I and a group of five others walked a section of the Via di Francesco, from Santuario della Verna to Assisi.

That we were able to do it so capably, without once getting lost, was testament to Sandy Brown and his wonderful book, which I believe will become as essential to this walk as John Brierley’s guide is to the Camino Frances.

Sandy also very kindly provided us with GPX coordinates which, once coupled to an app on our iPhones, meant we knew exactly where we were at any given moment.

Sandy, thank you for making this pilgrimage so easy for us!

We were all experienced pilgrims. We’d all previously walked the Camino Frances, and other Caminos too – but without doubt we would count the Via di Francesco as the most sublime, profound, and spiritual of any walk we’ve ever done. Why?

unnamed-6Starting off in the monastery at della Verna certainly was a deeply moving experience. This is the place where St. Francis experienced his stigmata, and it’s a crucial part of his story.

We stayed in the monastery the night before we began our pilgrimage. It was a wonderful introduction to the life of the saint. We participated in the traditional procession to the Chapel, which has happened each day at 3pm for centuries. It takes you from a small church through a covered corridor, the walls painted with frescos depicting the life of St. Francis.

The following morning we set off, following instructions in Sandy’s book, and his GPX coordinates. For the next ten days we meandered our way south, through some of the most glorious country I’ve ever seen. I have to say of all the walks I’ve done, the Via di Francesco is by far the most scenic. At times you have to just stop and take in the wonder of what you’re seeing.

The walk also takes you through some wonderful Tuscan and Umbrian towns – and the food is incredible. Not expensive, but it’s the best Italian food I’ve ever had, and I’ve travelled extensively in Italy.

unnamed-2Because we were a fairly large group we chose to stay in hotels – and so that dictated our stage lengths each day. With a fewer number we could have stayed in agriturismos, which are cheaper and get you closer to the local people. If I were to do the walk again, and I’m thinking of it because it was just so wonderful, I would definitely stay in these rural B&Bs.

Reaching Assisi, and spending time in that sacred city, was the highlight of the walk. If you are seeking a spiritual experience, there is nothing more profound than going to St. Francis’s tomb at the Basilica. If you’re simply wanting to hang out in one of Italy’s most beautiful historic cities, then Assisi has everything you could want.

Some months later now, the power of this pilgrimage stays with me. I have recurring memories of moments of exquisite beauty, and of a transcendent spirituality that is palpable on this walk.

unnamed-3I would not have attempted this without Sandy Brown. I mean that. Knowing that the route had been meticulously tracked, and there was a guide book which I could constantly refer to, gave me enormous comfort. I found that the information in Sandy’s book was accurate often down to the metre! He even described barking dogs on one section, and as I walked along it, sure enough there were barking dogs!

The Via di Francesco will never supplant the Camino Frances, however I believe it’s more beautiful, it’s just as profound as a spiritual journey, and it gives you the life and story of St. Francis, which will stay with you for the rest of your life – and beyond!

Bill Bennett

unnamed-4

Exciting new developments as The Way of St Francis guidebook gets closer and closer

St Francis draft cover.jpg

Draft cover for the St. Francis guidebook

Late last night I pinged Lois, head editor at Cicerone Press, to see if the cover had been designed for The Way of St. Francis: From Florence to Assisi and Rome. My hope was that, given the time difference from Cumbria to Seattle, I’d wake up to good news. Sure enough. When I woke up this morning there was a lovely image awaiting me in my Inbox. I just had to sit and stare for a few moments as feelings of joy, satisfaction and excitement swept over me.

Over the last weeks I’ve been working with Cicerone’s designated editor, Georgia Laval, to get the manuscript ready for publication. Georgia is a young woman, graduate of editing and proofreading school, who has a keen eye for typos, grammatical mistakes, inconsistencies, ambiguities and other obstacles that writers unwittingly put in the way of publishers as we write our manuscripts. Georgia read the text through then sat down with it, meticulously comparing the text with maps and profiles so she could ensure the routes are as clear as possible for the book’s end users. She had lots of suggestions and sent them first in an “edit queries” document, followed by a full “draft” edited text. As I reviewed her edits I also sat down with the maps and marked items on them that we both felt should be called out in each daily stage.

Sample map, this one from Stage 8.

Sample map, this one from Stage 8.

An example of the work is the map to the left. The red line is my GPX track from walking this stage in August (or, actually, from riding a rental bike that day). The track was superimposed onto the map by Cicerone, then I marked in black the beginning and end of the stage while marking in red various highlights from the text. This particular route happens to be a combination of the Via di Francesco and the Cammino di Assisi and solves a dilemma of how to get from Pieve Santo Stefano to Sansepolcro in just one day. The map will be divided into two sections and then will be presented on two different pages in the book. Cicerone’s job is to make it all look pretty and professional in the finished product.

So, my work with Georgia has been to connect the maps (which I’d never seen before) with the text and profiles for each stage. Georgia also confirmed each of the lodging listings — a huge task — to make certain we’re not leading anyone astray. She did it all without complaining and, in fact, thanked me for a smooth and fun process when we finished a day or two ago.

GigiAnd

Photo by Chiara Dall’Aglio of pilgrim pioneer, Gigi Bettin, with a Franciscan official at the dedication of the new pilgrim office in Assisi.

Speaking of lodging on the route, our listings are something of a moving target. For instance, this week in Assisi there was a very special celebration — an inauguration of several improvements that will make life easier and better for St. Francis pilgrims. First, Assisi’s first pilgrim hostel has been christened — the Spedale dei Santi Francesco e Giacomo. It will be a hostel in the style of the Camino de Santiago and is located at the historic cemetery to the north of Assisi proper (about 600m from the Basilica of San Francesco). Second, a new pilgrim office, the Statio Peregrinorum, is now in place in the convent area of the Basilica. Here pilgrims can receive their testimoniums at the completion of their walks. Third, a daily 6pm mass celebrates completed pilgrimages. It’s held in the lower Basilica. Each improvement builds infrastructure and pulls this pilgrimage ahead in the future, making it more and more attractive for prospective pilgrims.

So, even as the book is being edited I’m watching carefully for developments along the way. As much as possible these will be included in the book before it goes to press. I’m expecting the next step of editing in a couple of weeks, followed by review of the galleys and then the long spell of waiting until the book is printed and ready for sale. I’ve enjoyed this project each step of the way and can’t hardly wait to watch The Way of St. Francis be put to use by pilgrims ready to walk the paths familiar to the humble man of Assisi.

After the manuscript is written, but before the book magically appears

Cicerone author

Cicerone is now listing The Reverend Sandy Brown as one of its authors.

According to traditional Catholic cosmology, Purgatory is that grey region between Heaven and Hell where souls continue to be tested before they are sent to their eternal reward or punishment. “Limbo,” it’s sometimes called, and I’ve felt lately it has a lot of similarity to that period of time between when a manuscript is written and when the finished book is published and goes on sale. And that’s precisely where I find myself right now.

After completing Way of St. Francis: From Florence to Assisi and Rome back in early January, I sent off the manuscript and immediately heard back from the publisher: they had put the book into their workflow. That meant that a freelance editor had been assigned and I’d be hearing back in a couple of months with edits to the text. While the editing process takes place a few decisions need to be made by the publisher and me.

map_scale_compare

This image compares maps at 1:25000 (left) and 1:50000 (right)

The biggest decision is: in what scale will the maps appear? Our choices are 1:25,000 and 1:50,000. Both have their virtues. A tighter resolution of 1:25000 allows a very detailed view of the route — though it more than doubles the number of map pages. A zoomed out map at 1:50000 takes fewer pages and gives a better overview of the region, but lacks the detail walkers might need. According to the publisher, the book would be 288 pages with maps at 1:25000. Obviously, walkers want a helpful book, but they also don’t want to carry a lot of weight. Jonathan, publisher at Cicerone, promised to send along a couple of map samples using my GPX tracks so we could decide together what scale would be best for the book and whether the 1:25000 option is worth the extra pages. At the point the maps will be produced in draft form and I’ll begin the work of editing them to coordinate with the text.

So in the meantime, word has leaked out that the book is in production and I’ve been fielding inquiries from here in the US and also from as far away as Australia. Prospective pilgrims are interested in the route and are anxious to receive the book as soon as possible. They have questions about accommodations, way marks, best routes, and more. I heard from the Via di Francesco folk at the Umbria Tourism office in Italy that they’re also anxious for the book because they’re answering many inquiries from English speakers who want more information about walking to Rome.

That means that before and after my long days of campaigning for city council I’m in conversation with many of these people, providing what resources I can prior to publication of the book.

Some people’s plans are quite interesting. For instance, Bill Bennett from Australia is planning a culinary-focused April/May walk from Santuario della Verna to Assisi that looks fun and delicious. I’ve shared an unedited manuscript with him, along with my GPX tracks, so he can proof the text. A woman contacted me who’d like to walk from Florence to Rome, hoping to find solitude and peace after the death of her son. Another contacted me for a September walk, and we’re hoping the book will be finished on time so she can simply take it along.

SherisTalk

Fuzzy photo of Sheri Goodwin’s good talk on the “Way of St. Francis: Assisi to Rome”

Most surprising to me was meeting a local woman, Sheri Goodwin, who is giving talks about her walk from Assisi to Rome last year. Through her business, Transformational Journeys, Sheri trains women to walk on long treks. I was delighted to receive word that she was speaking on the Via di Francesco at a Rick Steves Europe event in Edmonds last month. Theresa and I attended and loved Sheri’s informative program and slides, which featured many locations dear to us from last year’s walk. We’ve agreed to team up for future talks at Rick Steves and other locations around the area once the book is published.

There’s that phrase again, “once the book is published.” I hate to wish for time to pass quickly, but I’d love to move from the frustrating “not yet” into the joyful “already.” I’m starting to dream and scheme about heading to Italy after the election with a couple of boxes of books for a couple of weeks. It’d fun to see familiar sites and beloved friends again and introduce this book as a resource for others to use and enjoy in trekking on the Way of St. Francis.

But this purgatory requires patience. Let’s see, September 1 is exactly six months away. That’s about 180 days more of waiting and counting to go.

“The Way of St. Francis” is now in production phase

Submitting

The package containing my manuscript gets mailed to Cicerone Press

When I returned from Italy in September my top priority was reacquainting myself with the amazing Theresa Elliott, but after that my top priorities were beginning my run for Seattle City Council and finishing work on my guidebook, The Way of St. Francis: From Florence to Assisi to Rome. The reunion with Theresa was fabulous. The start of my campaign was smooth (as evidenced by this, this and this). And work on the book was….slow.

I returned from Italy with the basic text of the book’s 29 chapters complete. In September and October I contemplated my approach to the book’s Introduction, and then in November I returned to writing and editing.

It soon became clear that my biggest challenge would be the 40,000 word limit. In fact, by mid-December I was already at 57,000 words. I’d already had conversations about expanding the word limit with Cicerone Press, and they were none too keen on the idea. Long experience taught them that, the longer the book, the less likely people would want to carry it with them in their packs.

So, much of December was a process of culling the book down to its word boundary. A key issue became an extra chapter I’d written that covered the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome. The walk had been an eyeopener for me, and I knew people would enjoy a walking guide to these important, historic churches. The last thing I wanted to do was cut this 2500 word chapter.

By the end of the process I’d culled out about 8,000 words and then negotiated a new limit of 50,000 words with Cicerone. Hooray! After some final edits I sent the manuscript in. Here how it worked out by the numbers:

  • 29 chapters
  • 140 photos
  • 29 elevation profiles
  • 6 proposed section maps, plus 29 chapter maps to be supplied by Cicerone

The next step is a thorough edit by a Cicerone editor, followed by editing of the photos and maps. This process takes about six months, with printing encompassing another two-three months. In September the finished book will appear, just in time for people to start planning their 2016 walks.

One of the funnest tasks? Choosing a cover photo. Here’s what Theresa and I chose — actually a photo by Jacqueline Zeindlinger from our 2013 Via di Francesco. If Cicerone approves, this will be the cover pic folks see each time they pick up the book. Thanks to everyone who’s helped make this book a reality.

000

Jacqueline’s photo of me, Sebastian and Andreas walking in fields near Vallericco

 

The many Saint Frances routes between Florence, Assisi and Rome

Way of St Francis Walks

The many modern routes of St. Frances in and around Umbria in Italy.

I’m back to the writing routine for The Way of St. Frances: From Florence to Assisi to Rome and wanted to share some of the helpful info I’ve learned that might not make it into the book. One example is the graphic above of the many walks of St. Frances in and around Assisi.

As I’ve said before, my completed book will be the first one that actually guides pilgrims on every step between Florence, Assisi and Rome. The almost-complete guidebooks are Franziskusweg, a German book (in yellow above), along with the German language Outdoor Guide by the Dutchman Kees Roodenburg (not shown). Both of these guidebooks have pilgrims taking a train for the first day out of Florence and then taking public transport the last day or two into Rome. This is too bad, since there are good walking routes at both ends.

Another popular English (plus Italian and German) guidebook is by Angela Seracchioli (in purple above). Her thick and well-researched book covers the distances between La Verna and Poggio Bustone. The Via di Francesco (dark blue) of the Umbrian Tourism Department also starts at La Verna then continues on to Rieti, where the Via di Roma (light blue) picks up for the last 100 or so kilometers.

The Cammino di Assisi (in green) is a popular route among Italians that begins with non-Frances sites at Dovadola and then finishes at Assisi. There are several smaller routes as well, like the Holy Valley routes near Rieti and the Sentiero Francescano della Pace between Assisi and Gubbio.

The challenge I faced was to find a single route that actually has pilgrims walking on foot each step of the way between Florence, Assisi and Rome. This required some scouting and help from locals who know these routes well. The resulting route is marked above in red and, modeled after the Camino de Santiago in Spain, is doable in 30 days.

GPX Tracks for the Via di Francesco – Florence to Assisi to Rome.

GPXTrackAssisi

It’s now possible to download GPX tracks that cover the exact route of The Way of St. Francis book. Here’s how to do it:

You will need to purchase the book and create a Cicerone Library to collect the GPX files.

  • Go to the http://www.cicerone.co.uk website.
  • Click on “My Account” to log in or register as a Cicerone member
  • Once you’ve become a member, go to “My Library”
  • Click on “Books and Routes.”

If you purchased your book directly from Cicerone it will already appear in your library.

  • Click on the cover image
  • Click “Download GPX files”

If it does not appear then you can add it to your virtual bookshelf.

  • Click on “Add a Book”
  • Type in “The Way of St Francis”
  • Click on the cover image
  • Click “Download GPX files”