Preparations and Thoughts
Jeff Lock and Gillian Smith
(N.B. This was written in the Year of Covid when we were prevented from finishing the VF. In 2019 we had reached Pavia in Lombardy. But in 2020 we only managed one further stage of two weeks whereas three stages were needed to reach Rome. Covid permitting we hope to finish in 2021.)
In 2008, while walking in the Apenine Mountains of Italy, we came across lots of signs for the Via Francigena. We did some research and discovered that it was a 1,900 km pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome via France and Switzerland. But we were already committed to walk the camino to Santiago in annual stages from Vezelay (link) and so it was many years until we returned to the idea of tackling the VF. To start with it was only me who was interested. Finishing the camino had left a “hole” in my life and I needed a new challenge. I would talk enthusiastically about doing it: then dismiss it as logistically too difficult. I even considered starting from Besancon near the Swiss border because I believed that finding accommodation across northern France was too difficult. I guess the thought of doing it alone was also offputting. Then in the winter of 2017, my wife Gillian who is fluent in German, French and Italian started to take an interest which made all things possible. And so we planned to begin walking the Via Francigena in the hot summer of 2018. I was 73 and Gillian was three years younger.
The Story of the VF
The history of the Via Francigena dates back to the Middle Ages. In the tenth century Archbishop Sigeric, known as Sigeric the Serious, travelled to Rome to be ordained by Pope John XV. When he returned to England he wrote a travel diary, detailing his experiences and noting 80 distinct stopping places for pilgrims. The route defined by Sigeric remains the basis of the VF today but many of his pathways have become major roads and motorways which are, of necessity, avoided in favour of country byways, canal towpaths and field tracks. Around the end of the first millennium, Rome was considered holy ground and pilgrimage journeys grew in volume and importance. Often pilgrims would walk to Rome and continue onwards to a port in Puglia where they would take ship for the Holy Land. The VF became an important European trade route which led to the growth and development of many towns along the way. The number of modern pilgrims on the VF is very small compared to medieval times. However, it has been slowly rediscovered and in 1994 it received the award of European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe meaning more resources and funds were allocated to maintain, mark and promote the trail particularly by the Italian government. In 2007 a 0km milestone was laid outside Canterbury Cathedral, the official starting point of the Via Francigena. Like the Camino de Santiago, the VF is now more than just a pilgrimage: it is a spritual adventure that gives walkers and cyclists the opportunity to discover the places and cultures along the route at a slower pace than is usual in the busy world of today..
Northern France is generally flat with big horizons. There are many large fields to cross with some shady woodlands. The VF traverses the battlefields of the First World War and passes many war cemeteries. After Reims it enters champagne country and the route becomes slightly more hilly. Rural France is very beautiful over this part of the walk. But there are no serious ascents and descents until the VF passes Besancon and approaches Switzerland. After walking around Lake Geneva (or crossing by boat) you come to the Alps and there are several days of uphill climbing to reach the Great St Bernard Pass at 2,469m where you enter Italy. The steep descent down the southern face of the Alps brings you to the attractive Aosta Valley which leads you eastwards and releases you into the flat plains of Lombardy with their extensive rice paddies. Then you climb into the Apenines, a jumble of high mountains and ridges which will accompany you all the way to Rome via Tuscany and Lazio.
We obtained our pilgrim credentials from Canterbury Cathedral, which were stamped at each place we visited. When we set out, we hoped that these would be churches or cathedrals but usually the stamps were applied by local tourist information offices or the hotels or B&Bs where we stayed.
We set out knowing that accommodation would be hard to find. This was not going to like the camino across Spain where refuges and hostels were plentiful and local tourism was geared to the pilgrim. So we booked ahead for each section and effectively walked from lodging to lodging. Sometimes we booked an apartment where we could cater for ourselves. If you are young and strong enough to carry a tent, you can be a lot more flexible.
We never went hungry. Hostels, B&Bs, and auberges often provided an evening meal and there was the sometimes the option of going to local bars, cafes or restaurants. Failing this there was always a local supermarket or bakers where we could purchase a meal to eat back in our accommodation. Cold cooked-chicken with crisps and salad was a favourite. Most days there was a shop where picnic food could be purchased.
Carrying Our Belongings
Throughout the pilgrimage we carried our belongings in our own rucksacks. We were used to backpacking so this was no real hardship. Our packs rarely weighed more than 7 or 8 kilos. On the internet we did find companies that offered bag-carrying services but over the whole route this would have added a lot of extra cost.
Long Distance Walking
Long routes such as pilgrimages are accomplished by dividing them into bite-sized chunks suited to the capacity of the walker. We rarely walked more than 20 miles in a day and often the distances were much shorter. I have been asked whether continuous walking like this is boring. My answer is definitely not. There is always something to see, bird-song to listen to and landmarks to visit. Of course, there are bad sections such as walking on endless roads in heavy rain but adversity has it own rewards. You feel a significant sense of accomplishment when your destination is reached. Seeing other countries in slow-time is a wonderful experience. Every village, every field, every waterway, every blade of grass is there for your inspection.
Our experience of France in April (from the Camino) was that April was invariably wet. October also gave us several wet days in northern Italy. I would recommend walking between May and September but avoid the heat of July and August if possible.
Having a companion to share experiences and consult about the problems of the trail is invaluable. But solo walking, also has its benefits. It promotes conversation with other pilgrims or local people you may meet along the trail.