"As he reached the mountain, which was full of large forests, innumerable birds greeted him and sat on his shoulders and hands until he blessed and dismissed them." This is how Hermann Hesse described the arrival of Francis of Assisi on La Verna.
The mountain in Tuscany is said to have been the favorite place of the saint who brought a new view of nature into the world.
Until then, it was seen as threatening and dangerous.
It was a matter of avoiding or subjugating them.
Francis, on the other hand, praised in the Canticle of the Sun, his most famous prayer, “our sister, mother earth, who sustains and guides us and brings forth various fruits and colorful flowers and herbs”.
Francis almost felt a kinship to plants and animals and wanted to protect nature: Back then, in the 13th century, that was a thoroughly revolutionary idea.
For Hesse, Franz was a “dreamer, hero and poet”.
For the Catholics he is not only the patron saint of Italy, but also of animals and nature conservationists.
This man, who according to the Catholic faith received the wounds of Jesus on his own body on La Verna, is worshiped 800 years later by agnostics and atheists.
How can that be?
Hiking from Florence via Assisi to Rome
The Franziskusweg, which is around 600 kilometers long, may offer answers.
The pilgrimage route leads from Florence via Assisi, the place of birth and death of Francis, to Rome.
Much of it is marked with yellow-blue signposts and a yellow T, which stands for the Tau cross, the Franciscan identification symbol.
For the entire route through Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio you have to plan between 28 and 33 daily stages, depending on your fitness level and hiking guide.
Very few have that much time and wanderlust these days, which is why many pilgrims do not go the entire way, but only part of it.
Source: WORLD infographic
Popular, but not overcrowded even in the high hiking season in spring and autumn, is the 177-kilometer route from La Verna monastery to Assisi.
Sometimes the routes and kilometers indicated in different travel guides differ from one another.
The hiking guide from Rother-Verlag suggests eight stages for the route between La Verna and Assisi, they are between eleven and 30 kilometers per day, an average of 22 kilometers.
This can be done with good will and good equipment.
But since you can only make three and a half to four kilometers an hour with a backpack in the often surprisingly hilly to mountainous landscape, individual stages can be very strenuous.
Cheating is allowed here - or let's call it “pilgrimage light”, that sounds nicer and means the same thing: shortening some particularly arduous marches by bus or taxi.
Francis of Assisi saw nature as a reference to God
A good 300,000 pilgrims a year hike along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, unless a pandemic restricts travel options.
According to the number of pilgrim passes issued in 2019, around 7,000 people, 388 of them from Germany, walked the St. Francis Way in central Italy.
Not only in Corona times you are mostly all alone here.
Often you don't see another hiker for a whole day.
The mountain forest of La Verna also appears quiet and empty.
Only the churned-up forest floor next to the steep path, the work of wild boar trunks, indicates that there are animals in it.
The path leads between wet gray rocks, past the moss-padded roots of mighty beech trees and a cloister with a clump: it is easy to imagine that Francis' favorite place looked like this during his lifetime.
A highlight on the pilgrimage: the Francis monument in front of the Basilica San Francesco
Source: Bernd Hauser
Brother David, a 40-year-old Croat, is the deputy head of the monastery on La Verna.
He is not as strict about asceticism as his role model.
He wears socks in his sandals and has trouble getting up in the morning.
“The alarm goes off at six.
Then every five minutes again until half past six because I keep dozing off, ”he says and laughs.
However, he speaks only with great seriousness and respect about the founder of the order.
“Francis was never concerned with nature conservation for its own sake,” says Brother David.
Franz understood nature as a reflection of God's beauty: “That is why it must be preserved.
Because it points to God.
This is what distinguishes us Franciscans from NGOs or environmental activists. "
And why is this medieval monk still fascinating today?
For modern people, Francis is a kind of projection surface, says Brother David: There is the picture of a young merchant's son who dreamed of a career as a knight, but recognized early on that hedonism was not fulfilling him.
Who rebelled against his parents, threw the fine clothes at his father's feet in order to live poorly in the future and to devote himself to the needy - in other words: who realized himself.
Pope Francis at the tomb of the saint
It is no coincidence that the Pope's first trip since the beginning of the corona pandemic led to Assisi at the beginning of October 2020.
At the tomb of the saint he signed his new teaching letter "Fratelli tutti".
In it, Pope Francis calls for a new world order in response to the Corona crisis, in which charity must be a political principle.
In the spirit of Francis of Assisi, it is now about "brotherhood and social friendship".
The Pope emphasizes the saint's care for others, but he also extensively pursued his own interests.
He was a medieval person who, despite all his fascination, appears alien in many ways, says Brother David: "For example, more than half of the year he was looking for solitude, especially in the forest."
Probably only there he could live it out like this: “He prayed with passion.
We know that he cried loudly and also screamed. ”He liked to retreat into cliffs.
In the Middle Ages, people believed that at the time of Jesus' death the rocks had split: "In these places Franz felt particularly close to God."
In the monastery church, the Franciscans display a habit of the founder of the order.
It is reminiscent of a sack.
It doesn't look warm.
"Praise be to you, sir, for brother wind, for air and clouds and bright and all kinds of weather," wrote Franz in the Canticle of the Sun.
The barefoot penitent spent around 200 days a year praying, mostly alone in the woods, crevices and cold chapels, Brother David says.
It wasn't healthy.
The saint was only 44 years old.
Interesting encounters on the Franziskusweg
Beyond La Verna, the area is less rough and the landscape is divided into small parcels, depending on the steepness, direction and height of the terrain.
Grapes grow below, olives above, then pastures and woods follow, through which men sometimes hurry with skinny, nervous dogs.
They are treasure hunters looking for precious truffles.
Here is a farm in the middle of the hill, there a ruined castle or even a town crowns a hilltop.
Many homesteads have been abandoned, the door of one is open, and bills from 1962 lie on the floor.
Divine accompaniment: images of Mary and Pope in a coffee bar on Franziskusweg
Source: Bernd Hauser
Sometimes you meet people in solitude.
For example on Isabella Dalla Ragione.
She lives on the Franziskusweg in Umbria not far from Città di Castello on the basis of a long-forgotten Franciscan community from the 14th century.
She kindly invites you to her property.
Grapes hang from the ceiling of their kitchen.
The lady of the house lets them dry over the hearth, then presses them into Vino Santo, a sweet wine that ages in wooden barrels for eight years.
“A lot of families used to do that here.
The wine tasted different in every house because every kitchen is different. "
Old tools and a Wehrmacht helmet hang on the wall.
Her father fought as a partisan against the Germans, says Isabella Dalla Ragione.
After the war he fought for biodiversity, and this also became his daughter's life's work.
Only three apple varieties are grown commercially in Italy, she says.
"All other varieties disappear."
That is why she has become a “fruit archaeologist”.
She looks for old varieties and places them in her garden.
Isabella stores her harvests in the chapel with faded frescoes attached to her house: apples, pears, plums, peaches, quinces, medlars, 400 varieties in total.
“I'm not religious, but I am Franciscan in a way,” says Isabella.
"Everything that lives deserves to be preserved."
The wolf as a symbol for the evil in humans
Like Gubbio's wolf.
Once upon a time, a giant wolf spread fear and terror in the city, it ate pets and people.
Until St. Francis found him in the forest and made him a good suggestion.
The wolf should stop killing, and in return the inhabitants would look after him for the rest of his life.
The wolf agreed and from then on walked through the streets like a lamb.
This story is in every travel guide about the St. Francis Way, and it is very popular in sermons: the wolf as a symbol for the evil in everyone.
The violence that longs for conversation, peace and reconciliation.
A pretty legend?
“No,” says Angelo Piergentili from Piccola Accoglienza, a group of volunteer pilgrims in Gubbio.
“This event happened like this.
I am convinced of that. ”Every year the pilgrim helpers have a different artist paint a picture of the legend that made their city famous around the world.
Gubbio recalls German war crimes
Gubbio is less fond of remembering another event when evil returned to the city.
This time it didn't come from the forest, but from Germany.
On June 22, 1944, Wehrmacht soldiers murdered 40 arbitrarily selected citizens here in a so-called retaliatory measure.
Two days earlier, partisans had committed an assassination attempt in a café in the city, in which a military doctor was killed and another German was wounded.
Those responsible for the massacre were never punished.
The judiciary in the young Federal Republic only half-heartedly prosecuted war crimes that had been committed in Italy.
And the government in Rome was not interested in clarification because it did not want to strain relations with Bonn.
The city of Gubbio mentions six churches on its website for tourists under the keyword “Main Monument”, but not the mausoleum for the murdered.
It is only by chance that you come across the war crime if, while looking at the city map, you wonder why there is a central “Square of the 40 Martyrs” in Gubbio.
Steeped in history: The town of Gubbio in Umbria is known more for its medieval buildings than for the war crimes that took place there
Source: Getty Images / Mitch Diamond
Peter Staudacher, the son of the killed German military doctor, visited Gubbio on a vacation in Italy in 2003. He only knew that his father had died in the city.
He only found out about the massacre on site.
Moved, Staudacher left a few lines in the memorial book of the memorial.
Guglielmina Roncigli from Gubbio then wrote to him.
The Germans had chosen their father as one of the victims.
The two children of the same age, who grew up fatherless, gained trust in one another, and both traveled together to the grave of Staudacher's father in Rome.
There is a photo of an old man and an old woman with flowers in a military cemetery.
They would have stood there “like two lost children,” wrote Staudacher afterwards.
Roncigli wrote back: “Forgiveness is possible on both sides if there is the will to listen.” This is what it says in a book by an Italian journalist, to whom Roncigli handed over the correspondence in 2012 shortly before her death.
"The forest is a cathedral of nature"
On the next stage to Assisi, the silhouette of the Basilica of San Francesco appears hours before arrival.
You can see the church in which Francis is buried from the north, from the forest side.
As lonely as a castle, it seems to be enthroned on a rock spur.
But the impression is deceptive.
In the city, after a week of lonely hike, you feel a little overwhelmed by the many people strolling from church to church and from one souvenir shop with crucifixes, rosaries and statues of saints to the next.
One likes to flee back into the forest, to the nearby Bosco di San Francesco: a stone's throw from the basilica there is a gate in a wall.
You walk through it, you are in the forest - and alone.
Oak trees cast their shadows, all kinds of cyclamen feel at home on the forest floor, their pink dots are scattered over the slopes.
Here you can feel: Brother David was right in his parable of nature as a reflection of God's beauty.
“Think of Cologne Cathedral,” he said.
Trees are like the Gothic columns.
You would look up.
“The forest is also a place of worship.
A cathedral of nature. "
The forest, a place of worship: Brother David from the Franciscan monastery of La Verna
Source: Bernd Hauser
Tips and information for pilgrims
If you don't have enough time to start your pilgrimage from Florence, the best place to start is La Verna.
To get there, take the regional train from Florence via Arezzo to Rassina.
Continue to Chiusi della Verna by bus.
You can stay overnight in hotels, pensions or farms (agriturismi) anywhere along the route.
A double room usually costs 50 to 60 euros.
Some pensions have pilgrimage prices, some monasteries offer shelter for a donation.
The Franziskusweg is not overcrowded even at the best hiking time in spring and autumn.
To be on the safe side, you should make a reservation by phone the evening before in the accommodation of the next stage destination.
You shouldn't rely on Google Maps on your mobile phone.
Often there is no mobile network on the route.
We recommend a hiking app that uses GPS tracking to ensure that you do not get lost, even when offline.
Most of the time, however, the route is well signposted.
Sometimes the routes in different hiking guides run differently.
The guide from Rother-Verlag does a good job.
Some hikers opt for "pilgrimage light":
The tour operator SloWays (sloways.eu) works out tailor-made routes, organizes luggage transport to the day's destination and a shuttle service for shortening stages.
Ecologicotours (ecologicotours.com) and Dreavel (dreavel.com) have similar offers.
Italy is a corona risk area.
Entrants must show a negative test and complete a five-day quarantine when crossing the border by April 6th.
Quarantine and reporting requirements apply to those returning from traveling in Germany.
Participation in the trip was supported by SloWays. You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at axelspringer.de/unabhaengigkeit.
Participation in the trip was supported by SloWays.
You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at axelspringer.de/unabhaengigkeit.