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Peter Morris, trail manager for the North Downs Way, shares his experience and key learnings from the study visit which took place in April 2019. 

I’ve been very fortunate to be involved in the Interreg Green Pilgrimage project from day 1.  The initial seeds were sown at a meeting in Canterbury around Christmas 2015 and are now bearing real fruit. The project started life as part of our work managing the section of North Downs Way National Trail between Canterbury and Dover which forms the first 30km of a 1,800km historic pilgrims route to Rome, now subject of a BBC2 documentary following celebrities along the Via Francigena.

The project aims to share best practice and influence policy locally in the protection of cultural heritage through these ancient routes. The North Downs Way route follows both The Pilgrims Way from Winchester to Canterbury and the Via Francigena to Rome. Joining like-minded people and organisations from 7 other regions we have plotted our way across Europe with trips to Romania, Santiago (naturally), Sweden, Norway and recently found ourselves hosted by our Italian partners in Puglia region. Needless to say all these trips have been informative and our hosts have treated us to wonderful local produce, traditions & culture; and the stakeholders we have taken to each visit have come away with a deeper understanding of our work and how it can contribute towards the rural economy which we can use to influence investment and collaboration on the ground.

Initially staying in Bovino for the main conference, workshops and committee meetings we were encouraged by the level of investment in accommodation. Bovino, a small, inland village in the hills with narrow cobbled streets and traditional houses looks something like a set from The Godfather. The surrounding hills lined with Olive trees and vines, not surprisingly the cuisine was superb; local, authentic, simple and plentiful. LEADER funding had enabled houses to be restored to create beautifully designed and maintained B & B’s and local restaurants were busy with visitors. The local tourism office located on the main street seemed to be open most hours of the day and manned by knowledgeable guides and local experts. A really good example of how, with some investment and local ownership small, rural populations can prosper through a distinct tourism offer. Wearing my trail managers hat it wasn’t clear to me what trails (if any) ran nearby and how many visitors arrived on foot. Maybe some development work for the future.

Moving out of Bovino we walked around 10km on recently created trails, well-marked, not overly engineered (note to Santiago and your concrete pillars) to Mont Sant ‘Angelo through National Park land and towards the Adriatic. The town itself was bigger, more commercial (souvenir shacks, Sant Michelle fridge magnets etc.) and generally a little more hustle and bustle than Bovino. The brand new Pilgrims info point was opened during our visit and it was a lot more obvious that people walked to this location to visit the Sanctuary and cave of the archangel Sant Michelle. The views from the top of town along the curving coastline were somewhat reminiscent of the views from Folkestone Downs looking over Romney Marsh, Dymchurch and over to Dungeness. The old town was similar to Bovino in terms of narrow streets, steep climbs and lots of traditional whitewashed housing crammed in along the hills.

On our final day we visited the major city of Bari, our guide took us to the Bascillica and the Shrine of St Nicola (spoiler alert for Santa believers) and the more modern Cathedral of similar size and dimensions. These buildings formed the focal point for pilgrims and we witnessed coachloads of visitors being escorted around the town. We were ushered down a narrow side street where in open houses ladies made the local orecchiette “little ear” pasta on benches which were dried and sold in the street. We walked the promenade and passed fishing boats and a ferry terminal and quickly found some excellent local seafood. The Cammino Materano singage was evident around the town and seemed to be a destination growing in popularity for walkers.

Reflecting back on the visit my key learnings were:

  • That local sights, sounds and flavours are key to any tourism offer, having locals tell the story, grow, pick and prepare the food gives the experience a greater depth.
  • Having a central welcome point with walker specific information is vital for the experience (walkers and cyclists) have specific needs;
  • Trails can be marked and maintained locally without the need for expensive or complex signage that is expensive and hard to maintain.