Thermal heritage

and others on the Ways to Rome

The success in the recovery of the Way of Saint James has led associations and administrations in Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria to recover some of the medieval itineraries to Rome through their signage, the edition of maps and guides, as well as the adaptation of the accommodation infrastructure. The rurAllure pilot will focus on three major routes (Via Francigena, Romea Germanica and Romea Strata), aiming to supplement their ongoing promotion with the added value provided by the vast heritage treasured by the traversed rural areas. The rurAllure network and platform will provide common foundations for works that have commonly pursued similar goals in isolation. Indeed, Consortium partners have noticed that the main weakness of the Romea model is the fragmented and factual management of independent not-for-profit organisations, even if spatial planning remains the responsibility of public administrations. The pilot will pay specific attention to thermal heritage, which is attested in various ways, from rituals to architecture, from Antiquity to the current era.

Table of Contents

Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019


The pilgrimage to Rome was from the early third century throughout medieval times and until the rise of the Protestant Reformation, a common element of European Christianity. Its popularity varied over time depending on factors such as the pilgrims’ preference for the other two great destinations —Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela—, the political situation of the territories crossed, the attitude of the papacy and their promotion of the pilgrimage, and the position that the new reformed churches adopted before the cult of saints and relics. The major routes were joined by small routes that allowed access to them from a wide range of European areas. The description of these itineraries that has come down to us is due to chronicles of round trips to Rome made by various figures, both religious and lay.

  • Via Francigena is one of the oldest pilgrimage routes to Rome and served also as a military road and trade route, being a privilege vehicle of cultural exchange through Europe. It cannot be understood without the religious communities closely linked to it, which evolved from parishes to abbeys and monasteries and were responsible for the development of the very first hospitality facilities for pilgrims (hospitalia, xenodochia), being the Benedictine abbey a paradigm across Europe. Across the Way, also new settlements arose, new economic processes developed and art flourished.
  • Via Romea Germanica was the most important connection between Rome and the Germanic empires for many centuries. Its itinerary represents the most important historical “monument” of Germany from Stade through Austria to Northern Italy and Rome. Material and writing evidence along the route (mainly in the German imperial cities, castles, inns and churches but also in Austria and Italy) led to its study and research.
  • The Romea Strata refers to the pilgrimage paths from Eastern Europe: routes from the Baltic Sea (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), from Poland, Czech Republic and Austria through Tarvisio; from the Balkans through Hungary, from Slovenia via Gorizia and from Croatia through Trieste. These pilgrims could continue their journey walking along the ancient Via Annia, they could head toward the Nonantola Abbey and then, after crossing the Apennines, they could join the Via Francigena in the town of Fucecchio (Tuscany). From here, heading south, they could reach Rome and the southern ports to get to Jerusalem. Alternatively, they could head north-east directing their steps towards Santiago de Compostela.

Key Stakeholders

  • Via Francigena is managed by the European Association of the Via Francigena ways (EAVF, a rurAllure partner). This is a nonprofit organisation created in 2001, which currently represents 179 entities, including municipalities, provinces and regions.
  • Via Romea Germanica, defined in 2008 (Germany) and 2009 (Italy), was officially inaugurated in December 2018 in Bolzano with the creation of the eponymous European Association: the Via Romea Germanica Association. This is the managing association for the route that piloted its recognition as a Cultural Route of the Council of Europe in 2020. The University of Bologna (UNIBO, a rurAllure partner) is part of the Scientific Committee of the Association. Lists of supporting entities from Germany, Austria and Italy can be found here and here.
  • The revival of the Romea Strata as a comprehensive pilgrimage routes’ network was an initiative of the Pilgrimage Office of the Diocese of Vicenza, now Fondazione Homo Viator San Teobaldo (a rurAllure partner), in partnership with the Italian Centre for Compostellan Studies. The working group involves several associations, experts on different regional territories and on the rediscovery of ancient pilgrimage routes.

Geographical coverage

Source: Travel Emilia Romagna (high-quality image:
  • The Via Francigena stretches 2.240,5 km from Canterbury (United Kingdom) to Rome and 900 km from Rome to Santa Maria di Leuca along the Via Francigena of the South. It crosses 600 municipalities and 17 regions in 5 countries (United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Italy, and the Vatican City State).
  • The official Via Romea Germanica comprises a linear path across 2.200 km: 1.092 km in Germany, 83 km in Austria and 1.046 through six Italian regions. This route was known as Via Romea peregrinorum, called “La melior via” (“the best way”). There are two other variants, departing from Dutch ports: the one is located in French territory and follows in the footsteps of Via Francigena; the other departs from the Western German end and links with the Via Emilia (Bologna) towards Cesena and then towards Romagna Apennines and Arezzo.
  • The Romea Strata comprise routes from the Baltic Sea (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), from Poland, Czech Republic and Austria through Tarvisio; from the Balkans through Hungary, from Slovenia via Gorizia and from Croatia through Trieste. Pilgrims could continue their journey along the ancient Via Annia, they could head toward the Nonantola Abbey and then, after crossing the Apennines, they could join the Via Francigena. From there, heading south, they could reach Rome and the southern ports to get to Jerusalem. Alternatively, they could head north-east directing their steps towards Santiago de Compostela.

Relationship with other routes

The EAVF works with local associations for the conservation of the route and has gathered them under the Trails Angels network. As a certified Cultural Route of the Council of Europe it keeps contact with other Programme routes, especially on benchmarking and best-practice exchange. It also maintains relations with relevant pilgrimage and cultural routes (Via del Volto Santo, Abbot’s Way, Via degli Dei, Materano route). EAVF also has cooperation agreements with the French Hiking Federation (FR), the Association Via Francigena France (FR), and the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (UK).

The Via Romea Germanica is a certified Cultural Route of the Council of Europe since 2020 and aims to support awareness raising about cultural and spiritual heritage, sacred and religious values. Along the way, a number of places are shared with the Via Francigena, starting from Montefiascone to reach the final destination in Rome. The same happens with the Romea Strata in its Venetian part, and other pilgrimage routes such as that of Sant’Antonio and Atrium. Since 2015 a joint pilgrimage has also been organised with St. Olav’s ways.

The Romea Strata grafted onto the Via Francigena to reach Rome, at San Miniato. As an official candidate for the Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe Certification, it is also in contact with other pilgrimage routes in the network.

Key locations and cultural assets

The Via Francigena boasts a wealth of natural tourist attractions and a rich and diverse cultural heritage, especially in architecture: cathedrals, churches, museums, historic bridges, hospitals, hostels, vernacular buildings and rural architecture. Beautiful landscapes vary from country to country, including vineyards and fields, rural areas, forests, etc. From Rome, the route continues to the harbours of Apulia, in the south of Italy, to provide a travel opportunity to reach Jerusalem via Greece, the Balkans and Turkey. Some samples:

    • In the United Kingdom, the Via starts in Canterbury, goes to Shepherdswell and continues to Dover, passing through Canterbury Historic Centre and Cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the Canterbury Roman Museum, Blean Woods National Nature Reserve and Wood Art Trail, Dover cliffs, etc.
    • In France, the Via crosses the regions of Hauts-de-France, Grand-Est and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, among others passing by Calais Historic centre, Arras Grand Place and its Cathedral, Cathedral of Reims, Fortifications of Vauban and Besançon Citadel (UNESCO World Heritage).
    • In Switzerland, across the Cantons Vaud and Valais, the Via passes by Romainmôtier, one of most picturesque villages of Switzerland, Lausanne architecture and landscapes, avalanche-protection traditions (UNESCO Intangible Heritage) and use of Saint Bernard dogs to rescue people, St. Maurice Abbey (founded in 515, the monastery never stopped serving as a religious centre and a refuge) and its treasury.

In Italy, across 10 regions, pilgrims can enjoy several UNESCO World Heritage sites: Ivrea, a historic industrial city; the historical centres of Lucca and Siena; Val d’Orcia cultural landscapes; the City of Rome and Vatican City, etc. Pizza and the Mediterranean Diet are examples of UNESCO intangible heritage encountered along the Via Francigena.

Important tangible heritage located near the paths of Romea Germanica include cathedrals, churches, shrines, monasteries, hospitals, hostels, historical centers, cultural districts, archaeological sites (WHS, National Heritage) and other cultural assets (museums, libraries, old Academies, open archives and so on). Intangible heritage is not less rich, including rituals, oral traditions, religious festivals, patronal feasts, urban pilgrimages and others. Pilgrims can appreciate the cultural landscapes (rural and urban) of Lower Saxony plains, the Turingia Forest, the Alps, along the Po Valley, Comacchio Wetlands (WHS), Ravenna’s Littoral Pinewoods (WHS), the Apennine Hills and Mountains (Casentino Forests National Park), the Tuscan Hills (WHS), the Umbrian Plain, the Lakes of Central Italy, and the Agro Romano unto Rome, with the Basilica of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (WHS). Many are the reference points that show a millenary religious, artistic and cultural history in an overall buffering area of 54.600 km2 in Germany, 4.150 km2 in Austria and 52.300 km2 in Italy, studded with exceptional thermal heritage sites.

The Romea Strata goes through numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, as well as several candidate sites. In Italy there is Venice and its lagoon, the city of Vicenza and the Palladian villas in the Veneto Region, Padua and its Botanical Garden, Modena, the Aquileia Archaeological Area and the Patriarchal Basilica, and the city of Verona. Also to mention the Dolomites Mountains, the pile-dwelling sites of Laghetto della Costa in Arquà Petrarca and Tombola in Cerea; the Medici villas and gardens in Tuscany (Villa di Cerreto Guidi in Cerreto Guidi and Villa La Magia in Quarrata); the Venetian Defense Works, such as the City-Fortress of Palmanova; and the Lombard Heritage related sites. Other candidate sites are Padova, with the Scrovegni Chapel and the 14th century fresco cycles (nominated in 2016). Concerning UNESCO MAB sites it is worth mentioning Miramare, the Po delta park, the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, and the Ledrensi and Judicaria Alps (23 km between Riva del Garda and Rovereto).

Current status of development and promotion

The Via Francigena benefited from the rediscovery and flourishing of the Way of Saint James in the 1970s and 1980s, and so it also began to be studied and reopened to modern pilgrimages as a tool for sustainable development in the territories across the route. In 1994 it was declared Cultural Route of the Council of Europe. EAVF provides full-range services across the route. A wide accommodation offer is available, including pilgrims hostels, and private facilities. The official pilgrim’s passport which provides advantages and discounts for accommodations and services along the path. EAVF has also developed an official app and published a guidebook of the Italian segment. In 2019 the Via Francigena received about 50.000 walkers, and 19.000 official pilgrim passports and 15.000 official guide books were sold. The official app was downloaded 25.000 times, the website registered 1 million visits and Francigena’s Facebook profile reached 60K followers.

The Via Romea Germanica is managed since 2018 by the European Association Via Romea Germanica in collaboration with three national associations working since 2008 and with the support of the German Landers, the Tyrolean Bundesland, and the Italian Regions. Municipalities and districts collaborate in increasing numbers, stimulated by the economic and cultural opportunities they expect. For some years, tour operators have been taking an interest by building tourist packages purchased mainly by “foreign” pilgrims and other target groups, always maintaining a spiritual and sustainable religious approach. In spite of its modest numbers, Romea Germanica is today a significant phenomenon in rural areas, in particular in the plains and especially in the German and Italian hilly areas. In many religious places along the way, data of a few thousand (2500/3000 in 2018) were recorded, compared to the few pilgrims who completed the entire route from Stade to Rome.

The European Association Romea Strata (AERS, a rurAllure associate partner), founded in 2018, counts 30 founding members from Poland, Czech Republic, Austria and Italy. The members of the association work together to make this itinerary accessible to all, to encourage sustainable cultural tourism, and to raise awareness by promoting cultural, artistic and educational activities. In Italy, the itinerary has been entirely mapped and traced with GPS and signposting (road signs) has been completed with special arrows and bulletin boards along the way. A walking guide and 3 bike guides (in Italian and German) have been published by Touring Club. There is also a specific guide which contains cultural and food and wine insights into three areas: Osttirol, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and Vicenza. In Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland the itinerary has been mapped and traced with GPS and the signposting is currently being deployed. These works shall be upscaled to Baltic countries, as the AERS is contacting partners to define the route to Tallinn.

Rural surroundings

The Via Francigena crosses 17 regions and 612 municipalities in 5 countries and mostly traverses rural areas and small communities. More than 70% of the EAVF members are small villages and communities of villages, especially in France and Switzerland; in Italy the route crosses small towns and provinces uniting towns and villages. The communities along the Via Francigena depend on agricultural activities and have a low population with a visible decrease of population because of the internal migration, mostly in the mountainous areas. Pilgrimage along the Via Francigena generates significant economic benefits to local communities in terms of creation of SMEs, provision of services and socio-cultural exchange.

The Via Romea Germanica crosses 11 regions and mainly develops in rural areas with low and aged population density if compared to the national share, with the exception of the 6 Italian Regions. These regions show a good level of development in the context of an agricultural economy mainly oriented at the international market, with high availability of work, especially in the German part. However, the arrival, albeit limited at the moment, of pilgrims and slow tourists represents a significant opportunity for accommodation, shopping and sustainable social wellbeing, especially in the hilly and mountainous areas with a density of 20-30 inhabitants/km2.

The Romea Strata in Italy crosses 5 regions, 6 provinces and 186 municipalities. The areas crossed are characterised by multiple cultural, historical and productive traditions. In Friuli, for instance, some areas once agriculturally depressed, have seen a great industrial development over the years. Agriculture no longer has the importance of the past, but it is a leading sector, and viticulture has had great development. Cities are mainly dedicated to the tertiary sector. The territories are rich in “cities of art”, museums and shrines. In Veneto and Emilia the population is not homogeneously distributed; depopulation of large cities has occurred since the 1980s leading to significant urban development and today the resident population continues to grow due to immigration.These two regions are among the richest in Italy. Today Veneto is the seat of important industrial and tertiary activities. Agricultural activities are still significant, but small family-run businesses prevail, specialising in the food, textile, footwear and furniture sectors. Cooperatives are also widespread.

Nearby heritage missed by (most) pilgrims

The following are just a few of the sites that provide an insight into culture, traditions, history and lifestyles of territories crossed by a pilgrim along the Via Francigena:

  • [FR] In Calais: Le Phare, a lighthouse from 1818 with a discovery room showcasing the history of lighthouses, beacons and maritime signals and the Museum of Lace and Fashion
  • [FR] In Omer: Saint-Omer Notre-Dame Cathedral (13th-16th century), a fine example of Gothic architecture in the northern provinces of France.
  • [FR] In Besançon: Chailluz Forest, a stunning natural site from where quarries provided the chalky mottled stone from which the majority of old buildings in Besançon centre are made of, and their Thermal Baths.
  • [FR] In Grand Est Region: Historic wine cellars.
  • [FR] In Ornan: Museum of Gustave Courbet, a French realist painter.
  • [CH] Switzerland’s highest vineyard in Valais region.
  • [CH] Collection de l’Art Brut Museum: Works by more than 1000 artists outside the mainstream creative community make up the collections.
  • [CH] Thermal towns of Yverdon-les-Bains, Lavey-les-Bains, and Saillon.
  • [IT] In Piedmont: Vercelli rice fields and thermal town of Acqui Terme (EHTTA member).
  • [IT] In Lombardy: Thermal towns of Miradolo Terme and San Colombano.
  • [IT] In Emilia-Romagna: Birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi; thermal town of Salsomaggiore (EHTTA Member); Tabiano thermal baths.
  • [IT] Thermal town of Sant’Andrea Bagni; city of Parma; circle of castles in the province of Parma.
  • [IT] In Tuscany: Thermal towns of Gambassi Terme and Chianciano Terme; Cooperative Terme e Valle del Lucido, Fivizzano.
  • [IT] Thermal town of Montecatini Terme (EHTTA Member); Terme di Montepulciano and Terme di Sorano; thermal baths and thermal towns of Equi Terme, Carlo Terme, Cinquale, Bagni di Lucca, Monsummano Terme, San Giuliano Terme, Bagno Vignoni, Bagni San Filippo and San Casciano.
  • [IT] In Latium: Thermal town of Bagni di Stigliano and thermal baths of Bagni di Tivoli.

Within 50 km from the main paths of Romea Germanica, all three sections show an important wealth of highly identifiable territorial characteristics:

  • [DE] Ostfalen, with a densely populated cultural landscape between Celle and Braunschweig.
  • [DE] Small villages and settlements past historic sites of world history.
  • [DE] Bergen-Belsen concentration camp memorial, where among the numerous victims we find the name of Anne Frank.
  • [DE] Thüringen: Homeland of Germany history.
  • [DE] Franconian wine country area of ​​bishops of Würzburg.
  • [AT] Innsbruck, with its churches and its 26 museums.
  • [IT] Po Delta Park: included in the WHS list annexed to “Ferrara, city of the Renaissance”, featuring several ducal residences which constitute a unique cultural and natural landscape.

The whole Romea Strata is rich in places of intense spirituality, many linked to the memories of significant saints, such as Sant’Antonio da Padova, San Zeno in Verona, and San Giacomo in Pistoia. Linked to Marian spirituality are among others Monte Berico, Barbana, Castelmonte, and Madonna della Corona. Places that are the driving forces of the primitive faith are also present: Aquileia with its extraordinary budding (52 dioceses are born from Aquileia) Concordia Sagittaria, Nonantola, Modena, etc. There is notable presence of the remains of two evangelists: San Marco in the Basilica of Venice and San Luca in Santa Giustina di Padova. In addition, the following places boast a cultural significance that helps to understand the historical value of the itinerary:

  • Cercivento: mosaics, murals and frescoes on buildings and streets.
  • Majano: Ancient Hospital of San Giovanni in San Tomaso and Pieve di Comerzo.
  • Sesto al Reghena: ancient Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria in Sylvis.
  • Concordia Sagittaria: Santo Stefano Cathedral with underlying archaeological excavations.
  • Quarto d’Altino: Altino National Archaeological Museum.
  • Monselice: the seven Roman churches of the Jubilee and the Church of San Giacomo, San Paolo Museum.
  • Montagnana: medieval walled city.
  • Nonantola: San Silvestro Abbey and museum.
  • Montegrotto: Thermalism Museum
  • Battaglia Terme: Museum of the Boatmen.
  • Fanano: church of San Giacomo and the village of Ospitale, Passo Croce Arcana.
  • Pistoia: Cathedral with relic of San Giacomo and San Zeno, Ospedale del Ceppo, Pieve di Sant’Andrea, …
  • Vinci: Leonardo’s birthplace with its museum.
  • Fogliano Redipuglia: Military Shrine of the First World War.
  • Aquileia: Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta and Baptistery, archaeological museum, Monastero area.
  • Rovereto: Opera Campana dei Caduti Foundation, church of San Marco, museum.
  • Schio: Museum of industrial archeology.
  • Bassano del Grappa: church of San Vito, church of San Donato and museums.
  • Borgoricco: Roman Centuriation Museum

Current needs and opportunities in cultural and touristic promotion

The EAVF is interested in reinforcing the work with thermal heritage along Via Francigena and developing a network of thermal baths on the route and next to the route on the entire European stretch from Canterbury to Rome and Santa Maria di Leuca. The objectives are:

  • to identify thermal heritage along the route and in vicinity of the route;
  • to develop an innovative tourism product which would include thermal experience and walking/cycling/horse-riding or by train along the route together with relevant stakeholders;
  • to develop a Via Francigena service card for thermal services and heritage; and
  • to launch a visibility campaign, including press trips and social media promotion. As Via Francigena is rich with gastronomic heritage, this is another aspect relevant to explore in the pilot.

The Scientific Committee of Via Romea Germanica has identified and listed the following thematic lines of interest for the shared exhibitions and guides to be created in the project: places as a religious destination; urban pilgrimages of the spiritual destinations; shared religious rites and identities; sustainable religious and tourist hospitality (in the SDGs approach); relics, saints and sanctuaries of Romea Germanica; sacred music; local communities between awareness and social commitment of the territorial heritage; local sustainable development; Romea Germanica Festival.

Romea Strata stakeholders have stated that it would be beneficial to have a unique and coherent information system on cultural attractions along with an appropriate use of storytelling to make them attractive to broad publics and proper dissemination in social media. This is especially relevant for the networking of museums and UNESCO sites can become a strong attraction for a target not yet interested in pilgrimages. There are museums in rural areas that are unknown or not connected. Schools and Universities may be involved into project’s activities to raise their awareness and interest, developing future publics. Specific thematic lines of interest for the shared exhibitions and guides to be created in the project include:

  • Commerce roads: amber, salt, iron, wool and silk roads; the Roman roads which became transit routes for goods, ideas and pilgrims; the Polish Post route from 1558.
  • The places of welcome: Ancient hospitality for pilgrims along the way; Roman, Lombard, Middle Age and contemporary period; monasteries and shrines of importance and significance along the way.
  • Notable pilgrims & travel diaries.
  • Religious dynamism in Central Europe: Slavism and Pan-Slavism; Hebraism; the protestant evangelical issue; memories of Jerusalem and of Calvaries: paths, places, relics and cities.
  • The socio-cultural fabric: shared religious rituals and patronal feasts; craft; sacred music; gastronomy.
  • The path of science and knowledge, on the steps of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo.
  • Rome, city of St. Peter and Paul, the eternal Christian religious destination between past and future.
  • Local communities between awareness and social commitment of religious heritage for gratuity and accessibility in a daily sustainability approach.

Strengths & opportunities

  • Strong interest and sensitivity for pilgrimage and on opportunities at the tourism level.

  • UNESCO and UNESCO MAB sites along the routes.

  • Trends in green, wellness, and slow tourism.

  • Mapped trails and religious ways around the area.

  • Relevant thermal and cultural heritage.

  • Contribution to sustainable tourism development and slow tourism niche.

  • Involvement of universities and research centers in route’s managing associations.

  • Deep involvement of consolidated European Associations, with significant geographic coverage and strong stakeholder networks.

Weaknesses & threats

  • Central areas are very content consistent VS poor rural areas.

  • Low presence of low cost or donor accommodation.

  • Relatively unknown routes and tourism products.

  • Weak promotion of the routes and poor communication to wider public, pilgrims and walkers.

  • In some cases, poor organisation at the local level for the maintenance of the itinerary (managed by municipalities).

  • Need for better governance and event coordination.

  • In some cases, cost of maintenance of hiking infrastructures.