The Way of St Francis of Paola is a slow-moving route, 111.7 km long and divided into six stages, which follows the steps of the Calabrian saint, passing through the places that framed his life: the monasteries he built, nature and the surrounding villages.
The central position of the Sanctuary of Paola along the Way allows the itinerary to be covered even only half way, starting from one of the two extremes (San Marco Argentano or Paterno Calabro) and arriving at the Sanctuary of Paola.
Francis of Paola was born through the intercession of St Francis of Assisi and thus bears his name. At his birth, the child had a serious eye malformation and so the parents turned to the Seraphic and made a vow that if their son was cured, they would make him wear the Franciscan habit for a year.
The couple obtained a pardon and asked their son to release his vow when he turned 13. Francis willingly agreed to spend a year as an oblate in San Marco Argentano, in the Crati Valley, at the Franciscan monastery of the Reform.
At the end of the votive year, the brothers wanted to admit the young man to the novitiate, but Francis decided to return home to Paola. And it is on this path that the itinerary of the First Way, called The Way of the Young Man, develops.
It is a journey characterised by restlessness. Francesco in San Marco Argentano had felt a strong vocation, but he had also excluded that his service could take place in a Franciscan community. He returned home with the desire to consecrate his whole life to the Lord, although he did not yet know how.
Stop 1 - San Marco Argentano
Difficulty: Hiking (medium difficulty)
Height difference: 600 m uphill
Length: 11,750 km
Walking time: 5.00 h
The Way begins at the Chiesa della Riforma in San Marco Argentano, the heir to the ancient Argentanum, located in the valley of the Fullone River astride the Isthmian Way connecting the Ionian to the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Situated between the two seas, San Marco has been a crossroads of ancient trade since the dawn of Christianity, becoming a gateway between very different cultures and traditions. A nucleus where history and culture have merged and created a gateway that takes us directly to the past.
The Conventual Complex of the Friars Minor is one of the oldest Franciscan architectures in Calabria, and is said to have been founded by Pietro Cathin, a disciple and companion of St Francis of Assisi, around 1284. Within these walls, in 1429, the 12-year-old Francis of Paola wore the habit of the Minor Conventuals for a whole year. The grotto in which he prayed is preserved in his memory, on which the votive chapel of La Benedetta was built in 1762.
From the Riforma, the route runs for the first 3 km on tarmac roads, through the streets of the village, and then for a short distance on Provincial Road 94.
Leaving aside the diversions for the village of Cervicati, we leave the provincial road shortly afterwards and continue uphill on a dirt road through chestnut trees. We arrive at Aria del Vento (787 m above sea level), in an exceptionally panoramic position overlooking the Crati Valley, the Pollino Massif and the Orsomarso Mountains.
Continuing along the road, which follows the mountain ridge above the village of Mongrassano, we enter an increasingly dense chestnut wood. Once in Agine, at the Malpassaggio pass, the descent towards the village of Cerzeto begins. We cross the chestnut grove on the eastern slopes of Cozzo S. Elia (929 m a.s.l.) and, once in Osticano, we penetrate a hundred metres into the woods to admire the monumental chestnut tree known as the Patriarch of Kroj Shtikàn. The age of this gigantic tree, whose trunk measures more than 11 metres in circumference, has been estimated by experts to be over 1000 years old.
After a series of hairpin bends, we return to walking on asphalt. We soon reach Cerzeto, a municipality of Italo-Albanian ethnicity, language and culture.
Stop 2 - Cerzeto
Difficulty: Hiking (medium difficulty)
Height difference: 1090 m ascent
Length: 17,500 km
Walking time: 8,00 h
The second stage of the Camino starts from the village of Cerzeto.
It climbs to Osticano and Cozzo S. Elia, retracing the last few kilometres of the previous stage. At the Malpassaggio pass, the route follows the ridge through a beautiful mixed forest of chestnut and turkey oaks. We arrive at the western slopes of Serra dei Muli (1015 m above sea level), characterised by very tall fir trees, with a first picnic area equipped with a fountain and grills.
Continuing on, we enter a sumptuous beech forest, with centuries-old specimens of beautifully shaped beech trees.
Further on we pass another refreshment area with the characteristic Acqua del Cinghiale fountain, a spring with a boar's head carved in stone, where the water gushes out between the animal's tusks.
In a short time you arrive at the municipal refuge of Cerzeto Passo della Guardia, where there is another picnic area, equipped with children's games and toilets.
Continuing on we come to the enchanting Faggio di San Francesco, in a pleasant spot, where there is a small chapel housing the statue of the Saint. The tree has a trunk that measures about 6 metres in circumference at the base; the three large branches that branch off the trunk form a deep hollow that is still filled with water. Here the faithful gather in mystical and charismatic prayer, as tradition has it, St. Francis of Paola did when he stopped here during his frequent journeys from his convent to San Marco Argentano. According to legend, St Francis quenched his thirst with water stored in the branches of the beech tree.
From the Passo della Guardia we reach the Cinque Vie locality, where four other paths meet, leading to Guardia Piemontese, Fuscaldo, Fagnano Castello and Laghicello di San Benedetto Ullano. At this crossroads you can admire the beauty of another centuries-old beech tree, low and twisted in shape.
The walk continues along the path to Laghicello, passing between the eastern slopes of Serra Pantanolata (with its 1404 m, the second highest peak in the Coastal Chain), where the vast Cinquemiglia Wood extends, a beech wood of rare beauty, one of the largest in Calabria, with monumental, slender trees.
Continue downhill to reach the Bosco Cinquemiglia Refuge, a shelter for the night.
Stop 3 - Fuscaldo
Difficulty: Hiking (medium difficulty)
Height difference: 750 m uphill
Length: 19,750 km
Walking time: 8.00 h
The last stage, the longest, starts from the Forestry Barracks in the Cinquemiglia wood. For the first 2 km it follows Provincial Road 31 (Fuscaldo-Montalto Uffugo), leaving it near Laghicello.
We take a dirt road, which after a few tens of metres leads to the small but suggestive natural pool of Il Laghicello (1135 m above sea level), surrounded by a beautiful beech wood, in which the rare Alpine Newt survives. The inexpectatus subspecies of Alpine Newt can only be found in five locations on the Coast Range and nowhere else in the world. The population is in continuous decline due to the natural evolution of habitats. In addition, the few known sites are potentially threatened by the introduction of alien fish or other aquatic fauna. For these reasons the subspecies is assessed as endangered.
Continuing on the dirt road we cross Serra di Ceccio (1227 m asl) and then, taking the ridge directly, we reach the summit of Cozzo Cervello (1389 m asl), the third highest peak of the Coastal Chain. From here there is a magnificent panorama of the Tyrrhenian coast and the Crati valley.
From this point the descent begins, through an evocative beech wood, leading to the crossroads of Croce di Paola and Montalto (1158 m. above sea level). According to tradition, this is the pass that Francis used to cross to reach Montalto Uffugo. Here, as a sign of devotion to the Saint, a life-size bronze statue has been erected.
As we descend in altitude, the beech trees are replaced by firs and maritime pines and then by scrubland with Mediterranean scrub, heather, holly and sorghum. Your gaze begins to wander over the Tyrrhenian coast, the village of Paola and the roofs of the Sanctuary, recognisable from a distance. On the last stretch, the path descends into the bed of the San Francesco stream, crosses cultivated areas and finally reaches the Sanctuary of Paola.
Paola is one of the most important resorts of the Riviera dei Cedri and its territory is renowned for its beautiful nature, the clear waters that bathe the coastline and the mild climate that makes it an ideal destination all year round. The area also includes part of the mountainous territory immediately behind the coastal zone.
The historic centre is a couple of kilometres from the seafront, which, with its long, wide beach and tourist facilities, is very crowded in the summer.
The ancient basilica of the Sanctuary of St Francis of Paola, in late Renaissance style, dating back to the 16th century, consists of a large, rather bare main hall and a single aisle on the right, culminating in the sumptuous Baroque chapel housing some relics of St Francis. In the cloister of the sanctuary, closed to the outside with stained glass windows, is the Saint's rose garden, which is now a large garden, and has frescoes along its interior walls depicting the main episodes of the saint's life.
Adjacent to it is the hermitage of St Francis, a set of narrow underground spaces that formed the first oratory with its cells for Francis and his first three followers. Not far from here, on the other side of the Isca Torrent, there is an even more ancient place: the Grotto of Penance or of the Desert, a tiny cavern dug out of the tufa rock. Here the young Francis began his hermitic life of prayer, penance and manual work. He was just over 14 years old and lived there for five years.
Stop 4 - Paola
The Testimonium is the document that certifies the pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of St Francis of Paola. It is the equivalent of the Compostela, which is obtained on completing the Pilgrim's Way to Santiago. In the historical tradition, this parchment was very important because the pilgrim, on returning home, could prove that the pilgrimage had been made and the vow dissolved.
Once arrived at the Sanctuary of Paola (after having completed the "Via del Giovane" or the "Via dell'Eremita") or at the Sanctuary of Paterno (after having completed the whole Way), presenting one's credential with the stamps of the various stage points, one is handed over the Testimonium stamped by the Order of Minims of Saint Francis.