La Via Francigena – Reflections from Home

Richard and I are now back home. We are grateful for our experience on the Via Francigena and are appreciative of all of the support that we received along the way. A few commenters asked for a summary of our general observations, surprises, warnings, and suggestions. As conditions change rapidly, no two walks on the Francigena are ever the same. Here’s what worked for us.

Guidebook: A good (lightweight) guidebook is invaluable. We used “The Via Francigena: 1,000 kilometers on foot from the Gran San Bernardo to Rome, 2nd Edition, Terre di Mezzo, Editor.”

Backup Plan: Your guidebook is just a guide and situations may have changed, even since the most recent publication. A water fountain, shop, or accommodation may not be in operation as indicated. Be sure to have extra water and a backup plan.

Be Prepared: Before leaving home, be sure to include some ‘practice hikes,’ with a full backpack, for the daily length that you plan to be walking on the trail. Include hilly climbs…and don’t forget your water bottle and snacks.

Official Stages: Know that the ‘official stages’ are not set in stone. Many of them can be broken up, or expanded, depending on what walking distances are most comfortable to you. If planning on modifying stages, know your options ahead of time.

Flexibility: When planning your trip, including more days than you believe you will need can help give you more flexibility and room for the unexpected. For us, this helped us to have a very relaxed trip with tons of options.

Signage and Apps: The sections of the Via Francigena that we walked generally had proper signage. We also used the official Via Francigena App that worked off-line to show us our route. This significantly added to the ease of our journey.

Packing: Pack well ahead of time and continue to revisit, edit, and reduce items that you do not need. Quick-dry clothing is generally lighter, takes up less space, and is easier to hand-wash. You can purchase goods along the way. ‘Just in case’ items are often best left behind. The lighter your pack, the easier each day will be. Be sure to choose a pack with a proper fitting hip belt. This will help transfer much of your pack weight off of your shoulders and onto your hips so that you can use your legs to carry most of the weight. Trust us–you need much less than you think you do. Good quality hiking poles can also make a huge difference. I used foldable, carbon tips which were both light and durable. Richard’s poles were also foldable, but a bit heavier….I think that he secretly coveted mine!

Italian: Any Italian that you can learn ahead of time will be extremely useful (and can be a fun way to help you prepare for your trip).  If learning languages is not your thing, write out a few key phrases that you believe you will need and keep them handy. This is especially important if you will be booking hostel accommodations along the way.

The Way of St. James (Spanish Camino) and The Via Francigena: We have walked the Spanish Camino on three separate occasions, and three separate routes. This definitely helped prepare us for the Via Francigena…but not completely. In general, we found that the Francigena had more frequent climbs, fewer pilgrims, was more expensive, had less facilities along the way and required a bit more advanced planning (especially in terms of accommodations).  Both routes are historically and culturally rich and offer varied, stunning paths. It would be impossible to choose a favourite, but we did find the VF more challenging.

Accommodations: For two out of our three Spanish Caminos, we never booked accommodations ahead of time — a feature that we loved. On the Via Francigena, we booked our first three accommodations before we left home (via email). All other accommodations we booked a maximum of 3-days ahead of time, and often on the same day of arrival. For pilgrim hostels, prepayment or credit card details were not required at time of booking.

Highlights: Visiting villages, towns and cities solely on foot gives you a much more intimate, immersive experience than any other form of travel.  Walking from Lucca to Rome allowed us to experience unique places and stunning views that we would have missed out on if not on our feet.  Endless rolling hills, the remains of 1st Century Village tucked away near a waterfall, a sheepdog guarding his flock, a host generously touring us through his small town — not allowing language to be a barrier, and a twisty, overgrown path that felt like it  had never seen a tourist — these images, and so many more, will remain with us forever.

Fears: By reading the experiences of others, and letting my imagination run wild, I began to develop a list of fears. My main fears included: aggressive dogs, relentless mosquitos/ticks, snakes, death-defying traffic, horrendous climbs, incessant rain, water crossings, being unable to communicate, not being able to find an affordable place to stay for the evening and the hike proving to be too hard (and me too much of a chicken).

Reality: We only came across one unleashed, growly dog. He was a sheepdog protecting his flock. As soon as we took a step back, he continued his work until his sheep were safely across the path. He then gently came back to us as if to say, “you can continue walking now.” It was an incredible experience that was one of the many highlights of our trip.

Mosquitos and ticks are an absolute reality of this trail. We met two others who had a tick buried into their forearms. Fortunately for us, it was not mosquito season, and the ticks left us alone. As for snakes, we only saw one (sadly squished) fella.

We were pleasantly surprised at how well the Via Francigena kept us away from traffic and provided options for alternative, more scenic routes. As we got closer to Rome, there were a couple of unavoidable, shoulderless highways, but they were not as terrifying as my imagination had envisioned.

Walking in June, we had only one 20-minute session or rain (total waste of carrying a raincoat all of that way), and the water crossings were very mild.

We spent a minimum of 15 euros a night (for two of us) for bunk bed accommodations and a maximum of 65 euros for a private room with private bathroom. In the first three weeks of our trips, we were usually able to get beds for the two of us for 20 – 25 euros per night. As we got closer to Rome, true pilgrim accommodations were less available and more expensive, but we always quickly found a place to stay for a reasonable cost.

I am not an athlete (by any stretch of the imagination) and can be a huge fraidy-cat. What I loved most about the Francigena is that it is a great equalizer. Richard and I kept a slow, steady pace, and broke up longer sections into two more doable chunks. Never did we find the trail too difficult. We met other (significantly younger, significantly fitter) hikers who kept a fast pace and covered a long daily distance. They shared that they found some of the climbs to be much harder than they had originally anticipated. The Francigena provides endless options to tailor your trek to what is best for you. If interested, I encourage you to check out this trail further. Richard and I are grateful that we didn’t let our  (read here “my”) fears deny us this experience.

If there are any other questions that we can help answer for you about our experiences on the VF, please do not hesitate to let us know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

70 Replies to “La Via Francigena – Reflections from Home”

  1. Thank you, Donna, for an excellent summary. Our active imagination can put up so many barriers before we even leave home. I’m glad that you decided to proceed with the VF and appreciate very much your daily blogging. What an amazing adventure you’ve had. I’m impressed at the multiple caminos that you’ve completed. Congratulations!

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  2. What a great, helpful post! I am preparing for our trip in 8(!) weeks so this is really useful. The thing I am most concerned about is toilets!! Are they easily available on route or is it easy enough to hide al fresco?! Such a stupid concern I know…

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    1. Hi, Debbie – Thank you for your kind feedback. Your question is a good one. On our 24-day trip, there were only a few times that I needed to use an “al fresco” toilet. And in the later case, there was ample coverage. Good luck with your planning. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if there is anything else that I can help answer for you.

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  3. I haven’t had a chance to read all of your stages, but what I’ve read gave me a quiet yearning to be on the trail too. I didn’t feel this way reading Camino tales, but for some reason the Via Francigena felt differently.

    As a hiker I know the joy and awe that comes from time on the trail, however I reserve deep respect for those like you who tackle these long journeys day-in-day-out …. carrying a pack with all your belongings.

    Kudos! You have serious bragging rights in my book!

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    1. Hi, Joanne – Thank you for this very kind and thoughtful comment. The Via Francigena is a unique and special trail that does have a distinctly different feel than the Spanish Camino. This could provide another perfect adventure for you, Helen and The WBA! 🙂

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  4. Thanks Donna, for this wrap-up post!
    I thought of (and dismissed) the idea of me doing much thru-hiking (e.g. Appalachian Trail) as I don’t think I could carry the load needed, but a camino with purchased meals and an actual bed at the end of the day sounds do-able!
    I’ve really enjoyed “coming along” on your trip. Thank you for those awesome daily posts too!!!

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  5. Super excited about our trip on the VF next year. Your blog, Facebook posts and advice have given us great inspiration. Thank you for sharing. xx

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  6. WOW your tales have been fascinating to read and the pictures amazing! A trip that will stay, I am sure in your memory banks for years to come! Welcome home😎

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  7. Thanks for your summary – and your honesty. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed following along with you. I think I’d love exploring on foot and you know I’d love the food.

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  8. Hi Donna, I am glad to hear you are home safe and sound. Your information is invaluable. I continue to appreciate the generosity with your time and the information. I know you are helping others (possibly me:). An underlying message for me is expect the unexpected. All of your preplanning and physical preparation made a big difference. I am in awe of your photos, especially that you used your iPhone. I do not have much success with mine. Interesting info on the Off-line map. We received that advice on our Iceland trip and it really helped at times. I also made note of the ticks. Something we need to watch for in our neck of the woods. Speaking of our neck of the woods, we will connect soon re: timing and place. Thank you for sharing and taking me along on this adventure of a lifetime:)

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  9. That was an excellent overview Donna – highs and lows (and I think both are really important for those considering a long hike like this). I’ve pinned it to my travel board and hope others discover it from there x Glad you’re home safe and sound.

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  10. Welcome home to you and Richard Donna and happy Canada Day for a day or so back. It’s been wonderful to read of your Camino and to see photos – so, rest and digest well 😀

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  11. What I especially love and appreciate about the post is the section labeled “Fears”. You admit that you don’t consider yourself an athlete and that you feel you are a fraidy-cat, but the wonderful thing is you faced it all and came away stronger, more resilient, and wiser, with wonderful experiences to remember and share with us all. I’m in awe.

    Susan Grace

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  12. Donna, you and Richard are such inspirations who demonstrate the healthy, retired, leisure lifestyle! I appreciated this summary post with your proven tips, advice and lovely images. I have yet to travel abroad so I imagine jet lag will not be my friend. I’m sure you are happy back at home and catching up on your sleep!

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    1. Thanks, Terri – I know that there is an international traveler inside of you….and that you will totally handle the jet lag. To deal with my sleepiness, I am currently watching a Netflix movie….something that I almost never do. It’s doing the trick….I’m still awake! 🙂

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      1. Ha ha, movies help me to sleep. If I’m on a plane I put in my earphones l, turn on a movie and immediately go to sleep especially if it has to do with Harry Potter ha ha! True story 😂

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you, Donna for the great tips and advice. You have brought us along on your fabulous trip with beauty and honesty.

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  14. Excellent review and great tips! If I ever am able to or think about going, I’d love this information that you shared. Welcome back home, hope your home, sweet, home was a treat to see.

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  15. Hi Donna – that’s a great summary for anyone thinking of following in your footsteps along those pilgrimage pathways over history of centuries. It sounds like a really successful time – well planned and well organised … so pleased for you … beautiful views you shared with us … thanks for the daily updates – it’s been a great journey to vicariously travel with you … cheers and welcome back to the VI summer – enjoy being home … Hilary

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    1. Thanks, Hilary – As we were planning our trip, I followed a couple of other Via Francigena hikers who were posting regularly from their treks. Those posts were so helpful to me that I decided that I would try to do the same. Luckily, the blogging was much easier than I had imagined it would be…and Richard was very patient! 🙂

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  16. Hi Donna! welcome home and thanks for the great recap. I stand in awe of both you and Richard for your endurance and commitment! I would be too busy stopping for coffee, gelato, wine and great food that I doubt I would make it more than a few towns! 🙂 I’m looking forward to hearing (in person) about more of your adventure. See you soon! ~Kathy

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  17. Hi, Donna,
    You’re journey was both incredibly interesting and very inspiring to those of us that appreciate retirees determined to make the most of the “Golden Years “. Your summary is very informative. Helen and I just returned from a three month trip to the southwestern U.S. and I’m still playing catch up with our blog, but, now that you’ve posted a well-done example, I will do a summary soon. Thanks and glad y’all are back safely. Joe

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  18. Once again, I am so impressed by your adventurous spirit, Donna–even more so, after reading of your fears. The fact that you pushed ahead and had this marvelous experience is amazing to me. Thank you for sharing it with us, and welcome home.

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  19. Gosh, Donna, I am so impressed by your ambition in completing this hike. I’m not sure that it is anything Dan and I can attempt, given his physical limitations, but seeing the countryside in Italy from that perspective is amazing. I loved reading all of your posts along the way and living vicariously through your experience.
    Glad you are safe at home…what wonderful memories you have made.

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    1. Thanks, Nancy – Being able to immerse ourselves into the Italian countryside was an incredible experience. Slowly and steadily we continued to put one foot in front of the other. It is mind-blowing how far that can take you!

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  20. All good advice from someone who could write their own guide book! You’re very brave, your fears don’t include the one thing that would be at the top of my list – running into bad people who’d want to harm me or rob me. My days of international travel are over and although those trips were good and without any incidents happening, I have a different view now that I’m older. I am not going anywhere that I can’t take my gun, not even to the local mall or movie theater!

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  21. Interesting summary of your adventure. I’m glad you had a good time and got to experience Italy in this way. I’d never heard of this hike until you did this. Fascinating to find out exactly what it was like for you.

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  22. A great review with suggestions and comments. I most loved your “Fears” and “Reality” paragraphs. Ah, when we let go of fears, the glorious things we discover. What a wonderful experience you and Richard had.

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  23. I really enjoyed your summary Donna, as well as your honesty, in what worked or not for you. Your ‘fears’ also made me smile! If you hadn’t have carried your rain coat you know it would have rained every day don’t you?? I’m so glad to have been with you (through your posts) on this walk and I’m so proud of your efforts!

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  24. Nice overview. Donna. I’m glad you included a short comparison with the Camino in Spain, as I was interested in how you would compare the two now that you experienced them both in person. I remember in Spain a lot of pilgrim accommodation was free or by donation. That didn’t seem the case in Italy. Yet, the smaller crowds would attract us. I do agree with you that not two hikes – even on the same trail, at the same time of the year – are the same, yet, your tips and experiences are practical for all who entertain the idea of doing the VF.

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    1. Hi, Liesbet – When we hiked the Camino Frances (2016 and 2017) we always stayed in pilgrim hostels. None of them were ever free, but were usually 5 to 8 euros per bed. Definitely the CF is more affordable on a daily basis than the VF, but much more crowded. Both hikes have much in common and still have many differences. I do hope you do a Camino whenever the time is right for you. I think that you’d love it!

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  25. Donna, I really liked your practical tips. My question is, did you find that a large proportion of the hikers were doing it because of a religious motivation (ie., pilgrimage) or were many doing it because of the joy of hiking/touring on foot?

    Jude

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    1. Hi, Jude – That’s a good question. On both the Spanish Camino, and on this one, it was a very mixed bag of reasons for walking. One unique thing to this Camino was that almost all hikers whom we met had previously walked the Spanish Camino. The Camino is highly addictive!

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  26. I’ve loved reading about your adventure walking this trail, I’d love to do it. Great summary too Donna, I’d have loved seeing the dog in action doing its job looking after the sheep, wouldn’t have liked the ticks – Eek glad you didn’t get ‘bitten’ by any! 🙂

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