In the footprints of the ancient wayfarers

Along the pilgrims’ ways which furrowed all the lands of Western Europe in the Middle Ages heading for sanctuaries, churches and shrines, not only did bridges, hostels, and inns spring up, but also monasteries, churches or simple oratories. These often had adjacent hospices for travellers, and represented landmarks for wayfarers marking off the various legs of their journey. The area near the River Po was always busy and an obligatory step for those from the north who were heading for Rome and the Holy Land. And in that same period various buildings appeared to offer accommodation to the countless wayfarers who numbered not only pilgrims, but also merchants, soldiers, clerics and scholars.

Parish churches and Benedictine abbeys were seen as a safe haven for travellers who could receive food, hospitality and assistance there. The monks also saw to building some “cells” along the unsafe thoroughfares, where a torch was lit every evening to light the way during the night for anyone passing. By the end of the XI century travelling, transportation and commercial trading had increased enormously and a major trafficking of goods and ideas began to develop along the roads. Matilda dominated and controlled the territory and we have her to thank for a major reorganisation of the roads that led from north to south.

At that time, the Via Bibulca and the Via Francigena were the main thoroughfares from the north to Tuscany in the south. For a long time, the Via Bibulca was part of the property of the powerful Abbey of Frassinoro founded in 1071 by request of Beatrice of Lorraine, Matilda’s mother, and for centuries it allowed the passage of goods, wayfarers, pilgrims and armies from the wide Secchia Valley to San Pellegrino in Alpe and from there into Tuscany. With respect to the normal gruelling tortuous routes that snaked along the side of the Apennine, the Via Bibulca was a cart track at least two metres wide which allowed a cart pulled by two oxen to pass.

Amongst the numerous roads to Rome which reached the capital of Christianity from different parts of Europe and Italy, one of the oldest documented is the "Via Francigena” or “Francescan” way, in other words, coming from France. Its origins date back to the Lombard era: In fact, when the Lombards established their dominion over northern and central-southern Italy in the VI century, to reach their dukedoms beyond the Apennines they were forced to seek a safe route, far from the undoubtedly more convenient ones controlled by their enemies the Byzantines.
Thus they opened an alternative route that passed via the Apennines near Parma and reached  major centres like Lucca. After the Lombards the Franks arrived, extending and consolidating the route in the direction of France - hence the name “Francigena” - and in the direction of Rome. It must be remembered however, that this was not actually one road, but a network, a set of routes used at different times and conceivably with different functions, according to the types of traffic and each area’s political, topographical and climatic vicissitudes.
Many itineraries meeting at certain hubs. The Via Francigena, an artery for traffic and pilgrims was to become a fertile ground for cultural exchange, as well as a major thoroughfare. Monuments and art treasures enrich the main centres along its route: splendid cathedrals, like those of Lucca, Sarzana or Fidenza, churches which kept precious reliquaries connected to pilgrimages, like that which is traditionally said to come from the praetorium in Jerusalem kept in the crypt of the Cathedral of Acquapendente dedicated to the Holy Sepulchre, or like the enigmatic “Holy Face” of Lucca.