The patron saint of Italy is St. Francis— known for his love of animals. He’s also admired for his alternative life style and devotion to simplicity and nature. His home town,the beautiful town of Assisi, is called The City of Peace in his honor. So, besides visiting Assisi, I always wanted to walk one of the trails he traveled on.
The series of trails called, Il Camino di San Francesco or La Via Francigena, start in Umbria and continue through Tuscany, all the way to Rome. Eight hundred years ago, St. Francis and his band of monks traveled the roads to preach about Christianity and peace. It wasn’t until the year, 2000, that the trails were restored so that pilgrims and hikers could retrace his steps and enjoy the natural beauty of the countryside.
It took us awhile to decide on which route we wanted to hike. We went to several towns in Umbria to investigate before we decided on the trail from Assisi to Spello, because we could hike it in one day. We also knew that the town of Spello was especially beautiful during this time because they were preparing for a big flower festival.
After a quick train ride from Perugia, we took a short bus ride to Piazza Matteotti, which is closest to the city gate that leads to the trail. Almost immediately, you enter a peaceful wooded trail that slowly climbs up the hills. It’s a steep, but lovely climb toward the hermitage of St. Francis, called Eremo delle Carceri. After passing this tranquil park, you do a lot of climbing toward the top of a small mountain called, Mt. Subasio. There’s still plenty of shade and fantastic views for this more gradual climb.
Once we reached the top of the mountain, we were surprised by some strong and chilly winds. We stopped to add more layers and then had to walk against the winds for awhile. However, we were now walking a relatively level path with meadows of wildflowers and wonderful views of the snow capped Sibillini Mountains in the distance.
We were also surprised to find several herds of beautiful horses and mules enjoying the greener grasses in the saddle of the mountain. We also saw some happy cows and a content herd of sheep being guarded by their two loyal sheepdogs.
The next part of the trail led us down a steep and narrow path back into the woods behind Spello. Often, the trail disappeared into the grass, so we had to watch carefully for the “trail markers”, which might be a rock painted red for trail #50. Other times, we would find the markers on a tree or a pole. Because there were several routes going to other destinations, we had to be alert! If you took the wrong fork, you could be walking for quite awhile.
Our route took us five and one half hours with only a few short breaks for water and energy bars. We descended into a picturesque olive grove bordered with vibrant red poppies and rock walls. It was the perfect ending to a perfect hike. We sat in a park and enjoyed our sandwiches and fruit. Then we walked into the quiet town of Spello, which was full of newly planted flowerpots and colorful vines in preparation for the “Infiorito”. Each year in June, the town uses flowers to design a trail from a town gate to the main church. They spend weeks getting ready for this important celebration of spring. After covering several blocks with intricate flower designs that take all night, there’s a procession to the church that destroys the flowers in a few hours. But, there’s also a competition for the prettiest street or alley, so the town looks great for the rest of the season and several weeks before the event.
We were glad we finally found a good route on the St. Francis Trail. It wasn’t as easy as I thought. At first we asked at the Tourist Office in Assisi and a few other towns along the route. But, the information can be sketchy, depending on who is working that day. Most of the people in the Info Points didn’t seem to know that there was a trail. A better place for trail information turned out to be the local book stores. The guy in the Assisi book was very helpful. And we also received tips from other European hikers (from France and Austria) who had somehow found good maps.
Now that we’ve walked part of The Franciscan Trail, we would gladly do it again. The trail is well-marked, once you learn the system, and the routes aren’t too difficult. During the month of May, the terrain is beautiful, the views are spectacular and the walk is peaceful—you might see a few other hikers along the way. Whatever time of the year you choose, the end of the trail leads to a wonderful Umbrian town, which is sure to have good gelato or a warm espresso to reward your efforts.