Walking the Via Francigena is becoming more and more popular. For this reason, we decided to interview the American-born Chandi Wyant, one of the first foreigners to walk the Via Francigena when still unknown.
Chandi, who recently moved to Lucca, walked 425 kilometers / 264 miles along the Via Francigena in 2009 after facing a divorce and a traumatic illness. Starting from Fidenza in Emilia Romagna, she crossed the Apennines and the rolling hills of Tuscany to reach the Eternal City of Rome.
She shares her experience in her memoir called Return To Glow: A Pilgrimage of Transformation in Italy which is not just a story of her walk across the regions of Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Lazio, but also a personal journey of emotional and physical challenges, and a reminder of the magic of life.
Chandi Wyant during her walk along the Via Francigena – Photo Credits: Chandi Wyant
The Via Francigena is not a trail that many people are familiar with, can you tell us some basic information about it?
The route is based on the descriptions of the Archbishop of Canterbury Sigeric the Serious, who walked it in 994 AD. The name means “coming from the Frankish lands”. The “-gena” suffix in Francigena has the additional connotation of “coming from” or “originating in”.
It starts in Canterbury England and goes to Rome, which is about 2.083 kilometers (1294 miles). However many people choose to walk just the Italian part which I have heard is the most well-marked. (Have a look here at the map and itinerary of the Via Francigena in Tuscany)
Walking the Via Francigena a sign about directions to take – Photo Credits: Chandi Wyant
Why did you choose to walk the Via Francigena instead of the most famous Camino de Santiago in Spain?
It was easy to choose the Via Francigena over the Camino. I speak Italian, not Spanish. I was going to be doing it alone, and being able to interact with locals is particularly nice when one is alone. Having the language ability allows me to have a level of interaction that is meaningful for me.
Secondly, the Camino has thousands of people on it daily while the Via Francigena is in its infancy. It was appealing to be walking the route when it was relatively unknown. I liked the fact that there was potential to get lost and that I needed to rely on my wits and my intuition. It made it feel like a closer experience to what pilgrims of the middle ages might have gone through. I don’t like the idea of being one of thousands of people walking a trail. It would give me a feeling of being lost in a crowd. It would make it harder to feel like I am claiming my pilgrimage as my own.
Thirdly, before I heard about the Via Francigena, I had already decided to walk across Italy.
Signs to indicate a pilgrim route – Photo Credits: Simone Radavelli
What made you choose to do the Via Francigena?
When my divorce and a traumatic illness happened at the same time, I felt shattered. Emotionally and physically weak, and very alone. The concept of a long distance walk in Italy came as I was trying to figure out a way to put myself back together. I wanted to “get my glow” back.
Walking the Via Francigena in Lazio, close to Bolsena Lake – Photo Credits: Chandi Wyant
Did you do any physical training before walking the Via Francigena?
I didn’t actually prepare for it physically because I took it on rather impulsively after a debilitating illness— and my body was still weak. I wanted to do something positive to heal, so I took on the pilgrimage with a stubborn determination, telling myself the one thing I could still do was walk.
A white road walking the Via Francigena – Photo Credits: Simone Radavelli
Did it benefit you to do it solo?
I wanted the outer journey to facilitate an inner one, and I felt that to get the most out of the inner one, I needed to be alone.
Did you succeed in getting your glow back?
On the route, I practiced listening to my heart instead of my head and making choices from the heart. This practice became vital to connecting with the spiritual gifts that my journey held. I also learned a lot about my resilience.
I knew that a pilgrimage was not going to be a panacea for all life’s troubles, but I gave myself the tools for facing life challenges with an inner steadiness and with a clear knowledge of my resilience, which has served me well.
A narrow path walking the Via Francigena – Photo Credits: Simone Radavelli
What were the most challenging aspects of walking the Via Francigena?
I had no idea that walking on asphalt with the weight of pack could be so hard on the feet. I developed plantar fasciitis within the first four days. That painful affliction made the rest of the route extremely challenging for me.
Those who are involved with sign-posting the route do their best to keep the route on trails and off asphalt when possible, and this may be more the case now that when I walked it. Since it is unappealing in general to walk many kilometers on an asphalt road with a pack on, and harder on the body than hiking on a soft trail, I’d say those parts of the route are the most challenging.
What was your favorite landscape to walk through?
I had stopped in the morning in Bagno Vignoni to “take the waters” (hoping it would help all the aches and pains) and then as I stepped out onto the road heading toward Radicofani, I was in awe. There had been some slight rain and there were all these violet tones in the sky and an amazing variety of greens and golds in the fields. The sun came out and the green pastures full of white flowers sparkled and the fields of wheat caught the sun’s rays and turned gold, and the clay hills took on lavender hues. I could not help but stop constantly to take photos.
Tuscan Landscapes walking the Via Francigena – Photo Credits: Chandi Wyant
As someone with a Masters in Florentine Renaissance history, you already know a lot about Italy’s history. Was there any new history you learned while on the Via Francigena?
Arriving as a pilgrim in popular well-known towns like Siena and San Gimignano caused me to see those towns with totally new eyes. Prior to the pilgrimage, I knew nothing about their history as related to the Via Francigena.
I learned that they became important towns precisely because of being situated on the pilgrimage route. They grew to be significant due to the foot traffic of pilgrims who passed through. Within Siena’s walls, at least thirty-six hospices were developed in the middle ages to provide accommodation and medical care to pilgrims and I learned that some, like Santa Maria Della Scala, remain today. Santa Maria Della Scala was one the first in Europe that cared for pilgrims, assisted the poor, and provided for abandoned children. It apparently was founded in the year 898.
What are the reasons you would list to encourage people to walk this route?
I think the route is particularly alluring for those who appreciate connecting with rich traditions of western civilization. All the work that is going on to preserve and revive this route is a reaffirmation of those traditions and that history.
I mention in my book the times when I felt a connection to the pilgrims of the past, which then connected me more deeply to the roots of western traditions. This is one valuable reason to walk the route. Another reason is to give oneself a time to slow down. A pilgrimage can be an antidote a fast-paced life.
Shoes are the best friends walking the Via Francigena – Photo Credits: Simone Radavelli
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope that the sharing of my experience will help empower others who may be going through similar things in life, and for those who are wondering about solo travel but haven’t done it. I hope it inspires them.
I also hope that it encourages the idea in-depth travel of reaching out across borders and getting to know people who are from other cultures and breaking bread with them instead of fearing them and putting up walls to keep them out.