Beatrice Moricci found an unlikely gift wrapped up in the chaos of the global coronavirus pandemic: freedom.
An Italian destination wedding photographer, Moricci had grown accustomed to being on the move. “My clients mostly come from abroad and love to get married in the stunning Tuscan countryside, so I travel often, but I am always in a hurry because of the timetable of the wedding day,” she says. “Wedding after wedding, I felt the need to visit those places slower.”
But in March, when life came to a screeching halt in Italy and around the world, Moricci, like many others, was propelled into a less hurried pace during a three-month lockdown. With nearly all her weddings canceled or postponed, she found herself with the summer free, unfettered by schedules and deadlines for the first time in a decade. She did the one thing she could in this situation: put one foot in front of another.
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.
“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.)
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”