Looking down from the ramparts of Itri Castle, I see an expanse of honeyed sandstone and terracotta that extends toward the craggy foothills of the Aurunci Mountains. Bathed in warm, early-morning sunlight, the undulating roofscape of this pretty Lazio town is quintessentially Italian.
Taking the chance to catch my breath, I stop to admire a view that’s long enchanted both locals and visitors. Charles Dickens, making a stop in Itri in the 19th century, likened the intricate architecture here to a ‘device in pastry’, while the town was also a popular waypoint on the European ‘Grand Tour’ undertaken by young English aristocrats.
Yet voyagers and vagabonds had been passing through Itri for centuries before Dickens arrived. The Appian Way, the Roman Empire’s most important paved road, once carried legions through the town on route to the Adriatic port of Brindisi. All in all, it seems as good a place as any to start my modest homage to Italy’s travellers of yesteryear.
Navigating the backstreets of Itri, I pick up a surviving section of the Appian Way on the outskirts of the town, as it enters the wizened olive groves of the Natural Park of Aurunci Mountains. An unswerving line of moss-encrusted flagstones stretches toward the middle distance, as my seven-mile hike to the town of Fondi begins under a cloudless sky.
It’s here outside Itri that the Appian Way briefly follows the Via Francigena, a much longer medieval walking trail that in its heyday ran all the way from Canterbury to Rome, and then on to Jerusalem. Last year, the southern section of the Via Francigena became one of Italy’s new Wonder Ways, a quintet of restored pilgrimage routes that take walkers through some of the finest scenery in Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany and Marche.
From Itri, the Via Francigena will take me to Rome in under a week. Within minutes of my arrival at Fondi’s Monastery of San Magno — in rather jaded condition — head monk Francesco Fiorillo hands me a welcome glass of water from the local spring. “Everyone is welcome here, irrespective of their religion,” says the genial, heavily bearded Italian. “The Wonder Ways are all about travelling with your heart and soul, and discovering something about yourself you never knew before.”
After washing and drying my feet by hand — a deeply moving gesture of humility — Francesco and his helpers serve up a sumptuous meal of homegrown vegetables, freshly baked bread, finocchiona (a type of salami) and mozzarella. Any soporific after-effects are staved off with a couple of heart-poundingly strong espressos.
Those who choose to explore the Italian Wonder Ways have the option to walk for a few days or a few months. After lunch, I chat with Michel Goletti, who’s just arrived at the monastery with his dog, Laika. Having prepared for five years, the Belgian is hiking all the way from Inverness to Santa Maria di Leuca in Southern Italy. Taking in most of the Via Francigena, his 3,350-mile, 200-day hike will raise money for charity. “It sounds like a cliché but my journey has already been a life-changing experience,” says Goletti. “The encounters I’ve had with strangers have restored my faith in humanity.”
Bidding farewell to Fiorillo, I set off for Terracina, the next ancient town on the Via Francigena. It’s only been a few hours, but the Wonder Ways are already living up to their name.
Published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)