The Via Francigena is a pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome. It is based on a journey made by Archbishop Sigeric in 990 AD when he went to Rome to receive his Pallium from the Pope. On his return journey he wrote a diary recording the 79 places where he rested. These places form the basis of today’s pilgrimage.
Last year I made the pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome, mostly by car, visiting many of Sigeric’s destinations. The whole pilgrimage was so amazing and life changing that I have set up my own company Via Francigena Tours to share this experience with others. Be inspired by my story below and visit the Via Francigena Tours website to book a tour.
There are several features of this pilgrimage that set it apart from other forms of tourism. Firstly, for the fit, walking provides intimate contact with the beauties of nature. Then, there is all the ancient art and architecture in towns and cities. And, of course, the pleasure of sampling local food and wine. Overall, there is something for everyone!
The map below shows all the Via Francigena places of interest from Besançon in France, through Switzerland, and on to Ivrea in Italy. The countryside linking these places is magnificent. And, all of the cities and towns are filled with amazing historical and cultural features. However, my interest is in the 7 places Sigeric visited in Switzerlalnd.
Orbe was the last place in Switzerland (LV or 55) where Sigeric rested on his way back to Canterbury. It is an ancient Roman and Medieval town with an amazing old town, Roman mosaics, ancient Swiss bridges and my favourite Swiss wine, Gamay, is produced there.
On my recent visit, I walked for several hours along Via Francigena pathways near Orbe and enjoyed the solitude of the Swiss countryside. My only companions were green and golden pastures dotted with tiny villages and the purple glow of the distant snow clad Jura Alps!
In Sigeric’s day, major cross roads passed through Orbe and the roads would have been packed with travellers, and a few centuries later, with pilgrims as well. But, I had it all to myself!
My walking destination was Romainmôtier which has the oldest Romanesque church in Switzerland. But, I did have a rather long and very hot walk to get there. On arrival, I was badly in need of a cup of tea! So I headed straight for the tea house in the orange Priory building. Although it was a pleasure to indulge in a nice pot of eat, the local Swiss vegetable soup, bread, and cheese enabled me to sample local cuisine.
I felt felt like a real pilgrim in the tea house. And, I could easily imagine how grateful medieval pilgrims must have felt to sit and eat this same fare!
The history of Romainmôtier extends for about 2000 years. The monastery was founded in 450 AD by two monks, St. Romain and his brother St. Lupicin. Then, it became a Cluny monastery in 990 AD. The Abbey had its golden age around the 14th and 15th centuries. But, during the Reformation most of its treasures were destroyed. As a result, today there is an extraordinary mix of styles which makes the church so fascinating!
To walk through the Church is to travel through 15 centuries of history and prayer. The entry is via a 13th century Gothic porch which leads into the 12th century narthex.
Throughout the nave are areas dating from the 5th, 7th, 8th, 11th, 14th, and15th centuries. As a result, the columns and their capitals are varied and beautiful, as are the numerous frescoes. Also, the 13th century ribbed vault still still retains its original bright colours.
Lausanne, Sigeric’s resting place LIV or 54, is located on Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). The first place I wanted to see was Lausanne Cathedral. It is a steep walk from the Lake up to the Cathedral. But, well worth it for the vistas of the city and views to the Lake and Alps. However, I did get blisters on my toes!
Lausanne’s 12th Century Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral is as popular today as it was for medieval pilgrims. It has many amazing features. I loved the polychrome figures in the Painted Portal, the belfry and 13th century rose windows.
I did manage to find the Church of St Francis. And, feeling very weary after the walk, I was reluctant to go in. So, I tried to take a photo of the labyrinth on the door. But, the door kept opening. So, I figured St Francis was inviting me in to pray!
Later in the afternoon, I decided to walk to Vevey (Sigeric’s 53rd resting place). But, this was a little ambitious given the blisters and the fact that it is a four hour walk. Fortunately, I had my sketch book and pencils. So, I found a great spot to sit and sketch the Alps and watch the sun set.
Vevey glowed brightly in the distance, as did the vineyards of Lavaux. Then, as the light faded, I headed off to sample the local Lavaux wine and some Swiss-Italian cuisine!
Leaving Lac Léman the Via Francigena goes through the Alps encased Rhône valley. Sigeric rested in a small village near Aigle (LII or 52). This village is beautiful enough with its winding streets and the Napolean Bridge, but it also has a Castle and is surrounded by vineyards and towering alps.
The Abbey of Saint-Maurice
The Abbey of Saint-Maurice (LI or 51) in the Rhône Valley is another place where Sigeric rested. It is mid-way between Canterbury and Rome and has been a place of continual prayer ‘laus perennis’ for over 15 centuries. In 2015 there were big celebrations for its 1500 year anniversary.
This place is definitely a ‘pearl’ in the string of Via Francigena destinations. And, there is so much to see here. I love visiting the Basilica, the archaeological site, the catacombs, the treasury and the cloisters.
Visiting this Abbey I think of the fellow pilgrim I met last year. I was hoping to go back to France to see places I had missed. And, he very sternly reminded me that the way forward to Rome was so much better. So, I carried this piece of advice all the way to Rome, and into my daily life, making decisions that move me forwards, not backwards.
At Martigny, the Via Francigena ascends steeply into the Alps, arriving at Orsières, Sigeric’s rest place L or 50. I do enjoy wandering through the ancient streets, eating in the Café des Alpes, and admiring the Medieval belfry of the Saint-Nicolas’ church.
Sigeric rested at Bourg-Saint-Pierre (XLIX or 49), at an altitude of 1632 m. And, in 810 it had a monastery dedicated to Saint Peter catering for pilgrims. Two of its interesting features are the Romanesque belfry of the Church of St Peter; and the hotel where Napoleon dined.
Grand St Bernard Pass is only accessible 2 to 4 months of the year due to its altitude of 2473 m. So, there is a tunnel linking Bourg-Saint-Pierre to Italy. Consequently, walking the Via Francigena is quite limited here.
Grand Saint-Bernard Pass
I have been fortunate to visit Grand Saint-Bernard Pass several times. And, our Pilgrim Credentials were stamped at the Hospice last year.
The Pass is famous for its Hospice accomodating pilgrims and for the Saint-Bernard dogs used to find people lost in the snow. Today, the same hospitality is still offered and the warm bowl of soup very welcome.
I love visiting the Chapel, the Museum and the Hospice. And outdoors, there is an ancient Roman road, a Lake near the Italian border. And of course, St Bernard stands guard over the border and the way to Rome!
Travelling the via francigena
Visit Via Francigena Tours to view options for travelling all the way from Canterbury to Rome. Or, maybe you would like just enjoy ‘Sigeric’s Seven Stopovers’ in Switzerland.
For more information about the Via Francigena pilgrimage visit the official website.