“Sola?” “Si, Sola.” Everywhere I went I was asked the same question: Are you alone? When I said yes, people were shocked and disapproved of me. Women traveling alone are still rare in inland Sicily, and those on foot are even rarer.
I walked the Magna Via Francigena – the Great Road of the Knights of the Franks – a nine-day, 186-kilometer, coast-to-coast pilgrimage from Palermo, the Sicilian capital in the north, to Agrigento in the south. The route, which follows old drovers’ paths, became a pilgrimage route in 2017 and is little known outside of Italy. It seemed to be the ideal deserted alternative to the Spanish Camino de Santiago.
After a few days in Palermo I picked up my “pilgrim’s passport” and got my first stamp at the cathedral. Pilgrims then get a stamp after each of the nine stages – and a certificate if they have hiked at least 100 km.
The first 7km is a tedious trek through Palermo’s suburbs and the invaluable website viefrancigenedisicilia.it recommends taking the bus to the nearby mountain town of Monreale, which I did, spending the night there and starting the actual pilgrimage in the morning.
I was so glad I did. Of all Sicily’s magnificent cathedrals, Monreale’s is certainly the most magnificent, every inch resplendent with mosaic scenes from the Bible. at aperitif Back when all the day-trippers had returned to Palermo, I had the terrace of Trattoria Fuori Orario to myself and watched the capital city glow in the distance.
I stayed in a charming apartment next to the cathedral for only €25. The Magna Via Francigena website lists discounted accommodation for pilgrims, from donation-only dormitories to fancy hotels at flea market prices.
Finally it was time to run. I had the maps.me app installed and downloaded the route to my phone. After an initial struggle to find your way (down a flight of stairs, as it turned out), navigating was a breeze. I hardly needed the map because the path was so well signposted: small stenciled pilgrim figures, Magna Via Francigena stickers, a splash of red and white paint. Whenever the path forked, a red arrow pointed the way and a red “X” blocked the wrong turn. It was like a treasure hunt.
I trudged through the Oreto Valley on paved roads to the village of Altofonte, where I stopped to fill up my two water bottles. Definitely use the public water fountains – in September it was still over 30 degrees; My hands swelled up when I didn’t drink enough.
From here the terrain became wilder. I was delighted when I reached Santa Cristina Gela, the end of the first stage. The 20km walk had been easy enough and my backpack was bearable. On the track itself I had hardly seen a soul and it felt perfectly safe. Whenever I reached a village, the people (mostly older men) I passed happily chatted despite my lack of Italian.
That night I stayed in the same apartment as two Italian pilgrims, Stefano and Filippo. It was nice to have company for dinner at the cheap and cheerful Picasso Ristopub. Stefano was worried about the weather forecast, but I thought I was more used to rain than a Neapolitan.
It rained all night. However, the next morning was dry and I set off early. The route was off-road and led through farmland and forest to the Sanctuary of Tagliavia. As I left the church, the rain started again and got heavier and heavier until I was no longer walking up a hill but was climbing a waterfall.
After nine hours of walking, Corleone was a little disappointing. Their mafia museum was closed, as were most of the restaurants (on a Saturday of all days), and the hotel charged me €50 instead of €30 on the Magna Via Francigena website.
I was happy to move on in the morning – until I actually moved. It was a steep climb out of town, my knee hurt and my new boots were starting to rub (rookie mistakes I know). Eventually I reached Prizzi’s Lake, only to see the city itself towering over me: the last few miles felt practically vertical. It was a consolation to discover a fairytale place with tiered and cobbled streets and flower-bedecked houses. I continued to a panoramic viewpoint and my jaw dropped. A viewing platform jutted out over the sheer chasm, and all of Sicily seemed to stretch out below.
On the 25km walk from Prizzi to Castronovo I was greeted by another elderly gentleman who asked if I was alone. I steeled myself, but he smiled and held up a clenched fist: “Strength. Donna forte [strong woman].“From then on, whenever things got difficult, I would repeat his mantra. Today’s trail passed through two shady wooded areas, the Monte Carcaci and Santa Caterina nature reserve, and past an abandoned village.
In Castronovo I again shared an apartment with Stefano and Filippo. Our host Francesca took us on a tour of the city. Bar Gattuso in the main square looked deserted, but a table was quickly set in the middle of the piazza and soon we were eating arancini, Kaponata, local sausages and many other Sicilian delicacies. The best table in Castronovo and only €20 per head for pilgrims.
The next day the three of us went for a walk together. It was less meditative but more fun, with stops to pick fruit, explore caves, and take selfies. We searched for prickly pears and figs and then passed a vineyard where an old man, Mario, was tending the vines. He invited us to pick grapes and brewed the strongest coffee I’ve ever tasted. Turns out I was staying with his son-in-law Walter on my next stop – central Sicily is a small world.
Shortly thereafter I parted ways with the boys. They were on a tight schedule, but I had scheduled a few relaxing days as I figured I could enjoy a break. I was right: my blisters were killing me. My first stop was the beautiful Equiturismo San Lorenzo, where I had a tiny stone cottage all to myself and complete peace and quiet.
I passed through the bustling twin towns of Cammarata and San Giovanni Gemini and an hour down the road to my next stop, Casale Margherita rural tourism. Here I had the luxury of an afternoon by the pool. Another short walk the next day took me to Tenuta Lanza “Il Mulino”, an agriturismo in an orange grove. The hotel was closed but Giuseppe, the easygoing owner, was happy to let a pilgrim stay.
The next day I walked through arid land with patches of charred soil from the summer’s wildfires, some of which were still smoldering. Upon reaching my destination, the fortified town of Sutera, I joined a guided hike to the top of Monte San Paolino, where we rang the huge ancient church bell and gazed across the island to Mount Etna.
From Sutera I walked to Racalmuto, the picturesque birthplace of the writer Leonardo Sciascia, then a little further into bustling Grotte, where I stayed in a fantastic palazzo in the main square, in a boutique-hotel-style room with a balcony. for €20 – including morning coffee and ricotta donut at the downstairs bar.
The penultimate day, after Joppolo Giancaxio, had the trail’s last real climb. Once at the top, I looked back to Palermo, hidden behind impossibly distant peaks, and on to Agrigento, almost within reach. It was hard to believe I had walked this far. When I arrived in Joppolo, my host Luana invited me to hang out with her and her friends at the adventure park. We drank gin and tonics, fired up the grill and shared thick Sicilian steaks cinisara Beef and wedges from Joppolo’s yellow melon.
On the last day of the trek, I had mixed feelings: sadness that the journey was almost over; Relief that I might soon be unlacing those damn boots; Excited to reach my goal.
The official endpoint is Agrigento Cathedral and its museum, where I picked up my final stamp and certificate. But it wasn’t until I visited the Valley of the Temples just beyond the city that I felt my pilgrimage complete. I had walked to one of the most amazing archaeological sites in the world – and I had done it alone.