In 990 A.D., Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury, England, traveled to Rome to meet with Pope John XV. On his way home, he kept a detailed travel journal, noting 80 distinct stops along the route.
His notes were important because so many pilgrims wanted to made the long journey from far away to visit Rome. But because maps and itineraries were hard to find, those arduous travels were difficult.
Sigeric's diary and those stops have become the basis for the Via Francigena, a main route for pilgrims dating back to the Middle Ages that has since become popular with hikers, adventurers and modern-day pilgrims.
Starting in Canterbury and ending in Rome, the 2,000-kilometer (1,250-mile) trail passes through England, France, Switzerland and Italy. It winds through the countryside and cuts through cities and villages. It follows along mule tracks and cobblestone streets, climbs over mountains and along vineyards and ports.
The Via Francigena — which means "the road that comes from France" — meanders through beautiful areas such as the Alps and Tuscany. It crosses places of historic and cultural significance such as World War I battlefields and the Champagne wine region in France. And it ends, as they say, like all roads, leading to the ancient city of Rome.
The trail is open to walkers and bikers.
If you choose to walk the whole path, it will take some time. It's estimated that it will take about 100 days if you walk between 8 and 19 miles (14-30 kilometers) each day. Experienced cyclists should be able to complete the trail in an estimated 44 days at a pace of about 17 to 45 miles (27-27 kilometers) per day.
Before starting the route, hikers can apply for a pilgrim's passport. These documents allow access to special low-cost accommodations and meals along the way, often in unusual places like monasteries. Hikers get their passports stamped at each stop for a record of their travels.
Some argue that only those in need or those making a spiritual journey should use these advantages reserved for pilgrims.
"I long ago gave up trying to define who is and who is not a true pilgrim," Brian Mooney, chairman of the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome, a Britain-based group that promotes pilgrimages, told The New York Times. "As far as I am concerned, anyone who walks an ancient pilgrim route is ipso facto a pilgrim — regardless of their religion, motive or means."
But he added that he frowns on well-to-do travelers checking in to hospitable monasteries.
"I just draw the line at prosperous pilgrims, whether believers or secular, in exploiting religious hospitality for a subsidized holiday," he said.
The historical trail is nowhere near as well known as the Spain's famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage walk, which sees an estimated 240,000 or more pilgrims each year. Instead, the Via Francigena had an estimated 25,000 pilgrims walk at least part of the trail in 2015, according to the European Association of the Via Francigena, reports The New York Times.
Because the entire trail takes about three months, many people choose instead to only walk parts of it. Popular sections include walking in Tuscany, walking to St. Bernard's Pass in Switzerland, or the last part of the trail walking into Rome.
As it says on the official site: "Take the first step on the way to Rome. It doesn't matter where you start, nor does being a great athlete matter. The Via Francigena is for everyone."