The brown sign, marked Via Francigena, stands outside the castle in the Tuscan village of Monteriggioni, once a regular stopping place for pilgrims doing the 1,800-km walk. Marking out the 900-km Italian section of the Via Francigena, the Way of the Franks, is a key part of Prodi’s longstanding project to revive the old pilgrimage paths and render them usable for tourists and Italians themselves.
“It’s about the rediscovery of our identity: we need to revisit the itineraries of the past,” the Premier said at a ceremony held outside the gate of the Monteriggioni castle, which overlooks Sienese hills.
The idea is to re-establish footpaths and rights of way, tidying up the landscape and ensuring that modern-day pilgrims have access to inexpensive hostels.
Prodi said the best approach to the Via Francigena was to tackle it “slowly, with a lot of people,” in such as way as to allow casual meetings with “people you’ve never seen before”.
The route to Rome from Canterbury in southeast England meanders down through France, crosses the Alps near Aosta, then winds down through Parma to Tuscany before reaching Rome.
The itinerary was first documented in the 10th Century when the Archbishop of Canterbury Sigeric the Serious travelled to Rome to see the Pope in order to be consecrated. Walking it took about three months.
Few people nowadays are expected to do the entire length on foot but governments in Italy and France are keen to promote the old road as a vehicle for religious and cultural tourism.
“Cultural tourism is different from the usual invasions of consumer tourism. Here you can see the real Italy,” said Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli.
Prodi, a devout Catholic, got the idea 13 years ago when he cycled along the pilgrimage route to Santiago di Compostela in Spain and realised that his own country had many pilgrim ways as well.
The Via Francigena was designated a cultural route by the Council of Europe in 1994.
An American journalist, Eric Sylvers, walked the 900 km stretch from the Alps to Rome earlier this year for charity and is writing a book about his experiences along the way.
“Many towns keep their bit of the path in good condition but what’s needed is a broader project to rehabilitate the whole thing,” said Sylvers in an interview.
He also warned that some sections were practically unusable because they ran alongside heavily trafficked highways.
Moves to clean up the Via Francigena began in the 1990s and a Via Francigena Association was set up in Fidenza, one of the towns on the route. But signposting remained inadequate in many sections.