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.