“Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Soren Kierkegaard
When life becomes unbearably painful, sometimes the only thing to do is go for a really long walk. In this episode, Chandi Wyant talks about how walking the Via Francigena in Italy for 40 days helped her heal after a painful divorce, and how the lessons of pilgrimage can take time to emerge.
Chandi Wyant is an author, a Florentine Renaissance historian, and an accredited guide to Italy’s museums. Her latest book is Return to Glow, a Pilgrimage of Transformation in Italy.
- Why Florence and Italy
- What is the Via Francigena?
- The spiritual lessons learned on pilgrimage, even if you’re not religious
- The challenging emotional and physical aspects of pilgrimage
- Digging deep to face the fears that come with traveling solo
- How traveling can increase our appreciation for other cultures
- Travel book recommendations
You can find Chandi Wyant at ParadiseOfExiles.com
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Chandi Wyant is an author, a Florentine Renaissance historian, and an accredited guide to Italy’s museums. Her latest book is Return to Glow, a Pilgrimage of Transformation in Italy. Welcome, Chandi.
Chandi: Thank you, Jo, for having me.
Joanna: I’m excited to talk to you today. So, you’re American but Italy is your passion.
What drew you to Italy in the first place and the Renaissance period in particular?
Chandi: You’re correct that I’m American. I was born and raised in California, although I’m also British. My mother is British, as were my grandparents and my great-grandparents, everyone back on my mother’s side.
When I was 19, I budget backpacked around Europe. This was back in the 80s. And, when I got to Florence, I was just astounded by the beauty of the city, and I thought the language was the loveliest thing I’d ever heard. And I became determined to learn to speak Italian.
What was interesting on this trip is I went all over Southern Europe for 6 months, and, at the end, I was in Portugal and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get back to Florence one more time before I fly home.’ I did a 3-day train ride, that was before high-speed trains, to get back to Florence. I didn’t speak a word of Italian, this was before the internet.
I thought, ‘Okay, how do I figure out what language school I could attend here?’ I opened a phone book and managed, I’m not quite sure how because I didn’t speak Italian, but to find the schools for foreigners that existed. I went knocking on their doors and asked if they were affiliated with a program in the U.S., so I could get credit.
I hadn’t started university yet. I found a school, got myself signed up, and I returned…that was in September, I returned by January to spend six months there learning the language as best I could and taking some other courses.
That was what kick-started it. And then, over the years, I just returned in various ways. It wasn’t until I was 40 that I went back to get a second master’s degree, this time in Florentine Renaissance history.
Joanna: I’ve been to Florence, and some people listening may have been. But what is it about Florence in particular that made you want to re-cross Europe to go back there? And, again, when you’re 40, you have that ‘what am I doing with my life?’ moment, and you decided to go back there again.
What is it about Florence that keeps drawing you back?
Chandi: In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful city in the world. The most special because it holds one-fourth of the world’s great art in its historic center. And you can walk across the historic center in 20 minutes, it’s very pedestrian-friendly.
Joanna: I’ll never forget seeing David for the first time. You can see so much of this art online or in books and, until you see it in person, it’s not as powerful. I remember going in there and seeing David and also seeing Michelangelo’s slaves. I think it’s at the Accademia?
Joanna: And just kind of realizing the scale of things…and, at the same time, there was a display of Michelangelo’s inventions, his machines. I was backpacking, at the time, and just like, ‘Wow,’ it did affect me and I still remember being there.
And also the striped marble I guess it is on the basilica. As you say, the visual effect of Florence and the river and these things stick in your mind. I imagine you’ve walked around there at all times of day and seen all of these beautiful things.
Chandi: It really has an amazing abundance of beauty in all different lights, different times of the year. Like you said, the polychrome marble, the way the river changes color, the view of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo at sunset. It can be very dreamy.
Joanna: Your book is about refinding yourself.
What is the Via Francigena and why did you decide to walk this Italian stretch?
Chandi: The Via Francigena is a pilgrimage route from the middle ages. It starts in England, in Canterbury, and crosses France and Switzerland, before entering Italy at the Gran San Bernardo pass. It’s a lot less known than the one in Spain, referred to as the Camino.
The Via Francigena is based on the descriptions of an archbishop of Canterbury, called Sigeric the Serious, who walked it in 990 AD. He needed to walk to Rome to receive the pallium from the pope, which is a cloak that you need to obtain when you become archbishop. So, he took detailed notes on the route.
In the 1980s, the Italian researchers used Sigeric’s diary to revive the route. And it started becoming a little bit known in the 90s. When I walked in in 2009, it was still in its infancy.
I decided I wanted to walk 40 days to Rome because I wanted to heal in the wake of a divorce and a traumatic illness. I knew that 40 days had that amount of time, had a spiritual connotation in various religions.
So, I chose a point in Northern Italy that I figured would be about 40 days from Rome. Oh, by the way, the name Francigena means, ‘Coming from the Frankish lands.’ People stumble a bit on that name.
I chose it over the Camino because I speak Italian, I don’t speak Spanish. So, I was going to be doing it alone and I wanted to be able to interact with the locals. It’s particularly nice to be able to do that when you’re traveling solo.
Joanna: What were some of the highlights of the way in terms of places you walked through?
Chandi: I would say the lesser-known places. I’m quite familiar with Tuscany but I wasn’t familiar with the places in Lazio that were on the route. For people that don’t know, Lazio’s the region just south of Tuscany where Rome is.
I really enjoyed discovering Lago di Bolsena, which is the largest volcanic lake in Europe. The route led me along the edge of that lake through some wheat fields and red poppies. When I got to the town of Bolsena, I stayed with nuns there.
I discovered the church of Santa Cristina there, which was very interesting. It’s named for a girl Christina who lived in the 3rd century and converted to Christianity when she was about 12 and then she was persecuted for it. Apparently, she survived being thrown into Lake Bolsena with a stone around her neck.
There’s the altar in the grotto of the church that, apparently, has that same stone. And there are other miracles that, apparently, occurred in that church that made it a sight for pilgrimage in its own right, apart from also being on the Via Francigena. I had a great experience with the nuns there, at the convent.
Moving further into Lazio, closer to Rome, I discovered the town of Sutri, which I hadn’t even heard of. And Sutri is built on a cliff and it was one of the last strongholds of the Etruscans. It has an ancient amphitheater that’s older than the Colosseum, which, apparently, could be Etruscan. So, it could’ve been the inspiration for the amphitheaters that the Romans later built.
Joanna: I love that you had a great time with the nuns. I call myself ‘spiritual, not religious,’ and I have a degree in theology. I love staying in religious places and visiting religious places. Is it something similar for you? Because, obviously, 40 days has a religious symbolism, you’re staying with the nuns, this is a religious pilgrimage.
What was the spiritual angle for you?
Chandi: I’m not religious. And, at first, I felt like a bit of an imposter. Some Italians I met on the road, would say, ‘Oh, you must be really Catholic to be walking to Rome.’ And it was an aspect of the pilgrimage that I hadn’t thought about when I set out to do it.
I traveled around the world quite extensively in my early 20s, and I picked up aspects of different religions and spiritualities that I encountered. I feel like I have this universal outlook on spirituality.
But one thing that happened with the nuns, in Bolsena, is I went to Mass with them, it seemed to be the right thing to do when they invited me to go. Even though I’m not very familiar with Catholic Masses. But I realized, from spending some time with them doing that, because I had an extra day in Bolsena to rest up, I realized that I had memorized, without really knowing it, the Ave Maria. And then I would start reciting that to myself when I was walking alone, I found it comforting.
And then what was interesting is how these gifts show up later in your life.
Because, speaking of spirituality, my parents were utterly non-religious. Not just no religion but no spirituality. And about 4 years ago, my father was passing away, at the house in California, and it was only my mother and I present.
He’d been in bed and we’ve been caring for him for weeks or months. But he started exhibiting the signs that the hospice people told us would happen. So, we knew that the passing-away process was starting. I noticed that my mom just didn’t have anything specific to do around that because of her utter lack of religiosity and spirituality. So, I said, ‘What if we sing songs?’
And, so, we did that, as he was passing. And then, when he actually passed, I noticed there was still this void because of not having any religious or spiritual practice. And, for me, it was too much of an absence, so I found myself saying the Ave Maria in Italian.
It was just something I could offer in the moment. And my mother said, ‘I don’t know what you said but it sounded really beautiful.’ So, yes, there are a lot of gifts that came out of the pilgrimage that just percolate up years later.
Joanna: I love that, and I do think that there are a lot of frameworks that religions have for these important times in your life, whether it is a bar mitzvah for a Jewish man or marriage or death and that kind of thing. It is interesting, isn’t it, how we almost need that structure to come back to?
You were seeking and you went on a pilgrimage even if you didn’t resonate with the religious reason to do it, you still knew from some kind of deep human need that you could heal yourself by walking for a longer time, I guess.
Chandi: Exactly. And I think, particularly choosing to do it solo, gives you the solitude and reflection that you need to drop from your head into your heart.
Joanna: And, on that solo aspect, I haven’t done solo things myself, it’s sometimes difficult to balance the solo experience with meeting the pilgrims on the route. So, how did you balance that, and were there any encounters with people? You’ve mentioned the nuns, but did you meet other pilgrims on the way?
Chandi: What’s interesting is, because I was doing it when it was still in its infancy, I met a total of eight other pilgrims the whole time. If you contrast that with the Camino where you see thousands every day, apparently, I haven’t done it, so, there was a lot of solo time. And, so, basically, a need to balance, it didn’t really come up.
Joanna: That’s quite good. Did you have to find ways to talk to people in the evening when you got food? Or was being alone what you wanted it to be?
Did you miss other people?
Chandi: I never ever questioned, when I received this spiritual message to walk across Italy, when I was in this dark moment, back in I was in Colorado, at the time with the traumatic illness and divorce. I was in this particularly dark moment, this message came, ‘Walk across Italy.’
From that moment, I never asked myself, ‘Oh, do I want to bring a friend?’ it was very clear to me it needed to be solo. And I didn’t really go into it with expectations of seeing a lot of other pilgrims or having that camaraderie. I didn’t really know for sure what to expect.
The nice thing is, because I do speak Italian, I could go into a trattoria for dinner and chat. I found that there was times when I became quite a chatterbox when I would be in very small places off the beaten path. So, maybe often a trattoria that was quite empty or I was there after hours and whoever was working there just had time. You know what I mean? It was not a fast-paced restaurant situation. And, so, there were times when I had a lot of nice chats, which are recounted in the book, with proprietors.
Joanna: I think sometimes we think we just want to be alone all the time, and then we realize we need people. I think the pandemic has done that. I’m an introvert, I love being on my own, and yet, I have had enough alone time in this pandemic. I’m quite looking forward to being sociable again. It’s good that you have that balance.
You said that you heard this message, that feeling came to you, ‘Walk across Italy.’
What were the most challenging parts, emotionally and/or physically, and what fears did you have to overcome?
Chandi: The most challenging physically was, unfortunately, I developed plantar fasciitis within the first maybe like 3 or 4 days into it. I started having symptoms. It’s a very painful foot condition, it basically feels like shards of glass are being stabbed into your heels, as you walk.
I didn’t know what it was, I hadn’t had it before. I learned, on about the 7th day, what it was and learned that you’re supposed to stop the activity that created it. But I wasn’t prepared to abandon the pilgrimage. So, I had to deal with a pretty painful foot condition for, basically, the duration.
In terms of fears, I recount, in the book, that solo travel, for me, has been a way of overcoming the fear of violence against women. I had that fear, starting when I was a teen, because of a stalking incident. I really started pushing myself to travel alone after that first backpacking trip around Europe, when I was 19.
It helped me insist to myself that I wasn’t going to be disabled by that fear. And it helped me see that most people out there are good. But there are times, whether it was on the pilgrimage or other solo trips, where the fear comes up and I just have to dig deep each time to find courage.
What I notice is, if I pay close attention to myself and to my surroundings and to others, my intuitive skills are kicked into high gear, and solo travel gives me a wonderful opportunity to fine-tune my intuition. I think that’s the best thing you’ve got when you put yourself out there solo in the world.
Joanna: I love that, because it’s so sad that many women will never go anywhere, and put themselves at potentially a very small risk. As you said, most people are wonderful.
I’ve traveled a lot on my own. And, for example, you take precautions. I traveled in the Middle East, in my teens, and I wore a wedding ring on my wedding finger so people would say, ‘Where’s your husband?’ or whatever, and I’d say, ‘oh, he’s back at home.’ And people would respect that.
Obviously, I was lying at the time but it was a way that helped. And I used to dress in a modest way. And, for example, hiking alone, I wouldn’t hike at night. We can take precautions. But, like you said, overcoming that fear has given you so much more than if you had just stayed at home and been entirely safe.
Chandi: Yes, definitely.
Travel has enriched my life so much. And perhaps the most enriching times have been the solo journeys.
Joanna: Do you think we have to put ourselves at a little bit of risk and push our comfort zone in order to experience those things?
Chandi: Absolutely. Getting out of the comfort zone can result in so so many gifts.
For me, travel has given me more confidence, it’s driven me to be deeply tolerant and constantly curious. I love that when travel is done in an in-depth way and if you can have open-minded conversations with people of different beliefs and, like you said, abandon your comfort zone and seek cross-cultural knowledge, for me, it is so significant.
It’s a great way to promote cross-cultural understanding and tolerance. And these ideas crystallized for me on my first trip, back when I was 19, and they’re always waymarkers for my travels.
Joanna: You mention quite a lot of delicious food, in the book. I wondered if there was anything you particularly remember or a memorable occasion on your pilgrimage? Sometimes it’s the simplest things are really important. For me, on the pilgrimage I did from London to Canterbury, it was literally a gin and tonic, at the end of walking 40 kilometers, that was very memorable.
Is there anything you particularly remember or a memorable occasion on your pilgrimage?
Chandi: I love gin and tonics in the summer, in Florence, when it’s so over-the-top hot. I can’t even do wine because it’s so hot, I need a gin and tonic with a lot of ice, a lot of lemon.
It’s funny that you mentioned something that stood out at the end of a long trek because, as you asked the question, I started thinking about when I got to Rome. And, suddenly, I had so many choices.
One challenging thing that happened with food, it’s funny…some people who read my book, they say, ‘Oh my goodness, Chandi, you were hungry the whole time,’ and, ‘how does that happen in Italy?’ But what I learned is, if your destination is going to be one of these tiny little one-horse towns, with one grocery store and maybe a trattoria, everything is going to close, like it happened back in the 1950s.
Florence now, or Rome, accommodates tourists eating at all hours, but, traditionally, things closed down. And if you, as a pilgrim, don’t make it into that village by lunchtime, you can really be out of luck with getting food.
Then I arrive in Rome and the abundance of choices. I went to the office, at Saint Peter’s, to get my testimonium. And, as I walked into that office, who was walking out but this Italian man who had been walking with another Italian man and I had met up with the two of them. It was Southern Tuscany, they were staying in the same place I was and we had a nice long talk.
They were two of the eight pilgrims I met and we walked for a couple days together. And then they were much more in shape and could walk many many more kilometers than I could. And, so, they went on their way and that’s when I stayed in Bolsena.
But anyway, one of them was coming out of the testimonium office, as I was walking in. And, so, that was a fun moment and we decided to get lunch together.
And, so, we walked down the Tiber River to Trastevere, which is a lovely neighborhood in Rome, and picked an outdoor table at a trattoria. And I remember he just said to me, ‘Vuoi un po’ di vino?,’ ‘would you like a little bit of wine?’
And I just thought, ‘Oh, those words just sound so…’ just the epitome of, ‘Yes, this is what I want. I want to sit in this outdoor trattoria, at the end of my trip with this unexpected friend and have ‘un po’ di vino.”
Joanna: That’s brilliant. I do think the fact that a lot of places are closed is part of the Italian and in many senses, the European ethos. Which is life and god are more important than commerce. And that is one very big different thing, culturally, to America.
I’ve been to quite a lot of places in America and you can always get food and you can always get coffee. There’s always somewhere, isn’t there, where you can get something.
Chandi: Oh yeah, 24 hours.
Joanna: And, in fact, it’s difficult to be without food. Obviously, there’s poverty, but that is a very different thing that I feel Americans do. Even here in the UK, we do have a lot more places to go 24/7 but it is definitely not like America. So, that is a big thing for people.
This could be a metaphorical question, but what did you carry with you and what did you leave behind, on your pilgrimage?
Chandi: Thanks for that question. I admit, in my book, that I was having trouble with obsessing or, I think it’s called ruminating by therapists, but the process of going through the divorce. I was struggling with that. These stories in my head, right, that I couldn’t turn off.
One of my goals with this solo 40-day walk was to be able to overcome that, let go of that. And I did, I really did see a shift in that.
And then, a physical thing that I carried that I’ll mention, turned out to be the best thing I brought, were my trekking poles. Because I didn’t realize that there would be ferocious dogs leaping out at me. And the trekking poles were such a great barrier for that and really helped me feel safe in that way.
Going through different wooded areas, I was told to look out for vipers. And I was told, if I pound my trekking poles vigorously, as I went, that it warms the snake. So, that was very comforting as well.
Joanna: I don’t think people think about dogs and snakes in Italy. That just sounds feral and wild, not like Tuscany and Lazio.
Chandi: In each region, some of that happened. I started up in the region of Emilia-Romagna and I had to go over the Apennines to drop down into Tuscany. And that’s where I was warned about vipers.
Joanna: Wow, that’s exciting really. Do you think that you left anything behind on the pilgrimage, was it gone when you finished?
Chandi: I would say the significant piece, emotionally, that I left behind was the tendency to obsess and recount these stories in my head. There was a moment, leaving Siena, when I was able to view my ex-husband in a much more gentle understanding way. And I literally just felt like I almost just dropped to my knees with gratitude.
Joanna: I think that’s really important. And that’s why I think we do these trips because we realize there is no other way to deal with it. You mentioned a therapist, you could spend a lot of time in therapy. Or, if you walk for 40 days, you can get over quite a lot.
Chandi: Yeah. And then the process of writing the memoir was so wonderful. The extra depth of understanding that I received from working with all of that material, with the gifts of the pilgrimage, and going more deeply into them in order to recount them on the page, there were a lot more insights that came out from that process as well that were wonderful.
Joanna: While you were walking, how did you record your thoughts at the time? Were you journaling every night or something?
Chandi: I brought with me a couple of small notebooks and a couple of pens. In fact, did not own a smartphone, at that time, and I had a little old-style cell phone that was just for emergency phone calls. But I didn’t have a smartphone or a GPS or even maps.
I needed to be very lightweight, so I just tried to fit everything into these small lightweight journals. And, as far as finding my way, I had printed out directions that I found in Italian on one of the websites about the route. I would follow those printed directions at times when if there wasn’t the little yellow pilgrims spray-painted on a rock to indicate the way.
Joanna: I think, as you said, it’s become a bit more organized now and that you can also get route guides. And I think maybe they’re still spray-painted on the way but there’s definitely I think more of a route now.
Chandi: They’re always working to revive the route, particularly in Italy. I hear that it’s better signposted in Italy than in France. I don’t know if that’s correct, but that’s what I’ve heard that it’s really in Italy where they’ve worked very hard to revive it.
And, in fact, I’m not sure which entity in Italy is pushing this, but pushing for the route to become a world heritage UNESCO site.
Joanna: It is a really meaningful route I think. In fact, when I finished my own pilgrimage to Canterbury, there is a rock there with the beginning of the Via Francigena. And I was like, ‘I could just head off again.’ And maybe I will one day, but it was so funny because I was like, ‘I just finished one and here’s the beginning of another.’
Chandi: Right. You’re not done yet.
Joanna: Do you feel that? Do you feel like the gifts of the pilgrimage…obviously, they’ve brought you to where you are now.
Do you feel an attraction to doing such a trip again?
Chandi: If I was called to do it. I feel that these pilgrimage routes are more meaningful if you have a deep need to walk it, if you have something you want to release or something to ponder about yourself, a shift you want to make in your life.
Otherwise, if I’m not in that space and if I’m not called to do it, I’d rather just do my hikes on weekends. Does that make sense?
Joanna: Yes, they have to have a meaning, in some way. Although, a bit like you, I found a lot of meaning a month or 2 after the walk. When I finished my pilgrimage, I was a bit disappointed because I hadn’t had some huge insight into life. But 6 weeks, 2 months later, I had a lot of insights. It had just taken a while before they emerged. Maybe you found that in your writing process?
Chandi: It definitely more emerged in the process of writing. I can see what you’re saying.
Someone could just set off because they’re just curious about walking a pilgrimage route. And maybe they don’t have the strength, or the need that I personally had for making shifts, personally, emotionally. But then, like you said, they could do it for fun and curiosity, but then actually have more profound gifts come out of it than they thought. For me, it just worked to have that compelling reason to do it, that message I wanted to follow when I was in a difficult space.
Joanna: Your book is Return to Glow.
What are a few books that you recommend, either about pilgrimage or Italy or travel in general?
Chandi: I have a handful to recommend. I really love the genre of travel memoir. And I love it if it’s combined with lyrical writing that shows a mastery of the craft.
I recommend Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. The subtitle is ‘On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World.’ And what’s interesting is, usually, a memoir needs a narrative arc, but when you are as good at your craft, as Anthony Doerr is, you can actually get away with not a lot of narrative arc.
I think this one is more to be read to appreciate the craft. The topic of Rome is like icing on the cake but the actual cake for me, in this book, is the exquisite prose. His ability is like the literary equivalent of a Beethoven piano concerto.
And another, in the same genre, travel memoir or growing-up-abroad memoir maybe let’s call it, Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. It’s a memoir of growing up in Rhodesia, in the 1970s. And her descriptions of life in Africa, it’s lush, it’s violent, it’s intensely vibrant. And the writing is just gorgeous.
She doesn’t describe a gilded expat life, she has this wonderful device of writing from a child’s point of view. And it allows her to address the racism in post-colonial Africa and these dark family dynamics without any excuses. She just has this ability to write humorously about really challenging things, and that I found very impressive. But her descriptions of Africa, to me, are the most evocative descriptions of Africa ever written.
And another, that I’m reading right now, a different genre, history, which is my other favorite, The Saint and the Sultan, which is about the meeting between Saint Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt when Saint Francis travels to Egypt during the fifth crusade. Which he didn’t support and he hoped to prevent the violence and to end conflicts between the two religions.
It’s just brilliant because you see that Saint Francis and the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil both really cared about peace and were operating on a totally different plane than those who were battling in the crusades. And the meeting between them is so poignant, it has so much to teach us about the importance of breaking down stereotypes and engaging in dialogue instead of demagoguery.
I also want to mention writings, these compilations of women travelers, like there’s a handful. There’s one called Maiden Voyages, edited by Mary Morris, that compile writings of remarkable women travelers from the 1600s to the 1900s. I think it’s really worth seeking out these anthologies because they show us that courageous women were out there, hundreds of years ago.
They were bucking tradition and setting aside societal expectations and traveling to far-flung places and writing in a genre that was overwhelmingly masculine. A lot of their travel writing and their accomplishments weren’t really brought to light for a long time. I think it’s nice to pay attention to that.
And I just want to mention a film, if I can. I just saw this wonderful documentary recently called Maiden. It’s about the first all-female sailboat crew on the Whitbread Round the World Race. It was in 1989, and the concept of an all-female crew was considered inconceivable in the world of open-ocean yacht racing.
This first-ever all-women team just what they faced, corrosive sexism, it’s pretty unbelievable. But the film is absolutely riveting. You are on the edge of your seat.
Joanna: That’s fantastic, I’m looking forward to that. And it’s great to have book recommendations and film recommendations. So, thank you.
Where can people find you and your book online?
Chandi: My website is paradiseofexiles.com. And, on there, you can find information about the tours in Florence that I offered, that I was offering before COVID, and I hope I’ll be able to offer again soon.
I am a licensed guide to Italy’s museums. And then you can also find blog posts on there about life in Italy. And then my book, Return to Glow, is available in Kindle or paperback on Amazon and at some independent bookstores. And I’m also on Instagram @paradiseofexiles. And I have a Facebook page, also Paradise of Exiles.
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Chandi. That was great.
Chandi: Thank you, Jo. I love your podcast.