Two months walking along Via Francigena in Italy during the pandemic 2020
This Photographer Walked Nearly 900 Miles Around Italy — Here’s What She Learned About Her Country, the People, and Herself
Beatrice Moricci found an unlikely gift wrapped up in the chaos of the global coronavirus pandemic: freedom.
Turning crisis into opportunity, as she puts it, Moricci decided to walk the Via Francigena path for two months starting at the end of June, once restrictions had reduced and locals were allowed to move from region to region.
Left: A shaded path between Tuscany and Lazio. Right: An old aqueduct in Minturno, Lazio.
“I started to think about the meditation of walking — the slowest way to travel,” she says. “The pandemic forced us to stay home, keep social distance, and be skeptical of others… I wanted to subvert everything and go back to the basics — adventure, nature, self-control — taking the essentials on my back and…facing the easiest and oldest way to move: walking.”
Dating to the Middle Ages, the 1,000-year-old pilgrimage route spans approximately 2,000 kilometers from Canterbury, England, to the Eternal City of Rome. Starting in northwest Italy — at the Great Saint Bernard Pass near the border of Switzerland — Moricci walked for 1,400 kilometers, staying within Italy’s borders and meandering through Valle d’Aosta, Piemonte, Lombardia, Emilia Romagna, Toscana, Lazio, Campania, and finally ending the trek in Santa Maria di Leuca. (She conquered another 400 kilometers by bike.)
Left: My shadow on the trail from Campania going to Apulia. Right: A sign that reads “il Giardino dei Lambi” in Castelluccio dei Sauri as I walk to the plain part of Apulia.
“I discovered the beauty and importance of slowing down, of staying more days in the same place to better know the people, the village, the culture, the architecture,” she says. “We usually move from inside to inside — home to office, home to shops — but walking lets you move from outside to outside.”
Antonio feeling better after receiving medications for his feet’s blisters.
An artist, Moricci paints quite the picture: She describes in detail the landscape, dotted with mountain paths; mule tracks; rural roads; cypress-lined dirt roads; cobblestone streets and sections paved with river stones; fields of corn, rice, tomatoes, peaches, and plums; vineyards; centuries-old olive groves; and coastal paths along the Adriatic overlooking the mountains of Albania.
Paolo is a shepherd since 50 years as his father and grandfather. He produces cheeses in Sezze, Lazio.
Although this wasn’t her first time attempting a similar feat — she walked for two weeks in Tuscany last spring — Moricci doesn’t consider herself particularly athletic. “I am not a very sporty person,” she says, explaining that she walked 10 to 15 kilometers every day for a month prior to train her “legs, shoes, mind, and imagination.” In the days preceding her departure, Moricci describes feeling both nervous and excited — “insecure to leave, and impatient to start.” She adds, “My parents and some friends discouraged me — they didn’t understand my choice and the fact of going alone, especially in this period.”
But as Moricci would soon learn, she wouldn’t be alone the whole time.
Left: Sermoneta, Lazio is one of the most beautiful medieval village in Italy. Right: Maria and Luigino, in Sermoneta, Lazio, have been married for 60 years. The secret of love is to argue and beeing able to stop arguing when it’s enough, they say.
Sure, there were long solitary hours in nature, but Moricci met plenty of people along the way, too. “I never felt alone,” she says. “Via Francigena is not a walking path in the desert or high mountains. The starting point and destination are always in a town — small or big — and the journey goes through fields, woods, mountain paths, and villages. I used to meet people working in the fields, local people walking with their dogs.” Always greeting the people she encountered, Moricci found that folks were generally friendly and interested in learning about her journey. And at a time when physical interactions were to be avoided, she was reminded of human kindness.
She recounts a few memorable meetings — one with a man working in a field in Apulia, curious and touched by Moricci’s courage and energy to walk alone, and another with Antonio, an 81-year-old retired tailor from Monopoli. She also met two nuns, Cristina and Rosangela, who, for years, wished to leave their community and live in the mountains, and now reside in Eremo di Perloz, making honey, tending to their vegetable garden, and occasionally hosting adventurers like Moricci.
Left: Summer is going to end and early morning we can now watch some fog on fields in Cannole, Apulia. Right: Antonio in, Brindisi, Apulia, uses the plow and his horse in his field because artichokes are delicates, he said
“I discovered the intense, pure, and natural one-to-one relationship between humans. Especially in this historical period of the pandemic and social distancing and technology, we need to find our deepest roots, our simplest acts, our humanity, and being open to others,” she says. “A lot of people along the way were willing to help me, talk to me, offering just a glass of water or coffee, a ride, giving me good words and support, or asking for my phone number and calling me to [make sure] I was well.”
Teo and his four 17-year-old friends walked together in Via Francigena for 2 weeks and are here sleeping in their sleeping bag under a tree in a famer’s field.
Nature, too, offered a source of comfort. “Nature was an observer, a silent comforter,” she says. “Nature doesn’t need us, and especially in this lockdown, it’s a big example of how it can regenerate itself. We should be very grateful to nature. Walking into it is a privilege.” She added that the landscape was also a source of nourishment, fueling her with energy.
Torre Guaceto, Apulia is a natural reserve.
As for accommodations, Moricci made the most of her “pilgrim passport,” a personal document that grants access to accommodations and facilities along the route, including monasteries, bed-and-breakfasts, and other refuges. “In late June and July, accommodations were never full, and they reduced the number of people, so I never felt unsafe,” she says. “I had the opportunity to sleep in the biggest churches in the heart of cities like Lecce, Pietrasanta, and Brindisi.”
Left: Dinner in Perloz Hermitage. Right:A sunset outside Exodus Community in Garlasco, Lombardia.
Of course, Moricci’s trip wasn’t without its hiccups: a storm in the mountains of Valle d’Aosta, stray barking dogs in the countryside between Campania and Apulia, getting lost in a field of corn with no internet connection or people, and of course, feeling vulnerable while alone, were among the challenges. “I learned how to be self-controlled and self-train myself during hard moments,” she says. “I learned that most of the time, it’s our mind that blocks us — before leaving, I was nervous. I needed that first step… to dissolve all my fears.”
Now that Moricci is back home, she’s able to reflect and relive, thanks in large part to the postcards she sent herself every two days from different towns. “This experience, in the historical period of the pandemic, was about finding my own ‘Middle Ages’ — doing simple things like walking, meeting people and talking and listening to them, [learning] their stories, contemplating nature and feeling involved in it, waking up at sunrise and going to bed at sunset,” says Moricci.
Left: River Dora moving from mountains of Valle d’Aosta to Piedmont. Right: Mailing postcards
As the future around the world continues to remain uncertain, Moricci also learned to embrace the present. “I learned to look at the single day — at the next few hours, at the moment I was in,” she says. “I confirmed that it’s not the destination, but the journey that’s worth it. The doing is more important than the outcome…Every day, I met wonderful people and [saw] beautiful places. The walk teaches you how to enjoy the moment you are living in because you are just passing through, and tomorrow will bring another day and destination.”
And at a time when we’re all home, discovering (and rediscovering) corners of our own backyards and savoring the nearby joys, Moricci was, above all, reminded of the beauty of the Italian people: “[I discovered] the big heart Italian people have to welcome people like me on the way, the experiences they want to share, the pride they have to live in this country, and their desire for freedom and courage.”
Alisha Prakash is Travel + Leisure’s senior digital editor. A New Yorker through and through, she’s caught in a love affair between big cities and the great outdoors. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @alishaprakash and Twitter at @alishasays..
Some of the postcards-portraits of people I met during the walk (project work in progress)