Walking in Spain and Italy

Now that I have completed two long walks in Europe, I thought it would be interesting to compare the experiences. In the spring of 2015, I walked about 650km along the Via Francigena from Piacenza to Rome and in autumn 2016 I walked around 1,000km from Seville to Santiago de Compostela along the Via de la Plata and the Camino Sanabrés.

Both are pilgrimages following the approximate route of very old paths. In Spain, the route follows that of the ancient Roman road for much of the way and was also the route taken by Christians from Arab Spain, or Mozárabos,  to Santiago. The modern Via Francigena follows the route from Canterbury to Rome described by  Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his diary from the year 990. The pilgrimages were to the tombs of apostles – Saint Peter in Rome

Saint Peter statue Berceto
And Saint James in Spain.

Santiago oldest statue Santa Marta de Terra
Medieval memories like these can be seen along the way in both countries.

Walking along the Via de la Plata I heard someone call out “Buen Camino!”to me many times and on more than a few occasions, people offered advice about the rouite ahead or told me if I’d taken a wrong turn. In Italy, the pilgrimage route is much less well known and recognition by people I passed by is much less common. Having said that, there were still some lovely experiences. For example at Avenza, the local bar gave free breakfast to pilgrims, something I never experienced in Spain.

Sign posting along the Via de la Plata is quite comprehensive with offical signage provided by the various Regional Governments supplemented by unofficial signage in various forms. For example. in Extremadura, cubes indicate the way ahead.

Extremadura Via de la Plata cube

The shell symbol is ubiquitous.

Camino Sanabrés sign

and yellow arrows have been painted all over the place.

Camino Sanabrés yellow arrow

There are also all sorts of unofficial and miscellaneous signage.

Via de la plata

In Italy. there is also a system of official signage.

Via francigena sign

However, these can be confusing as often the route indicated may be the “scenic” one for weekend walkers going up and down mountains rather than pilgrims , or even refer to the route for cars. There are many stretches without official signs. Often local groups have provided various forms of unofficial signage. In some areas such groups or local towns have even provided rest areas and first aid kits! Where this hasn’t happened, it was possible in 2015 to walk for many hours without seeing any signs. This is where a GPS or a good map becomes very handy.

Via Francigena back of sign

Via Francigena sign

I’ve given more  examples of these signs in a previous post.

The two walks are linked via pathways through France. In 2015, I met one intrepid young pilgrim walking from Rome to Santiago, probably a 3 month walk.

Santiago to the left, Rome to the right!

On both routes, a pilgrim’s passport or credenziale/credenciál is used for identification and to obtain a certificate upon ultimate arrival if required.  They are also necessary in both countries to stay in a pilgrim’s hostel or ostello/albergue. In Spain, these can usually be found at convenient intervals, though along the Via de la Plata there are some stages in excess of 30km due to the spacing of villages. In Italy they aren’t quite as common and I found myself staying by necessity in Bed and Breakfasts or cheap hotels occasionally. It’s also a good idea to book ahead in Italy where possible whereas in Spain booking isn’t possible in Spanish Albergues.

Via dea Plata


Francigena hostel

Italy is a lot more densely populated country than Spain. Unfortunately this means that there is more walking on the side of busy bitumen roads than on the Via de la Plata. Sometimes these can be a bit scary with heavy traffic.  However, like in Spain, a lot of the walking is on quiet dirt roads and on ancient tracks.

Some examples from Italy –

A scary road

Francigena risky road

A quiet road

Via Francigena

A beautiful path
Via Francigena Tuscany
Via Francigena TuscanyIn Spain, there was a similar mix but with a bit less asphalt walking and with a lot less traffic. There are also often warning signs for both walkers and motorists in sections where you are forced to walk on the edge of the road. This certainly doesn’t exist in Italy !
Hard on the feet and hot!


There were lots of pleasant dirt roads.


and some beautiful paths as well.
Via de la Plata
I have to say that you eat a lot better in Italy. Perhaps it’s because the economy is still recovering in the very small Spanish villages in the west, but the food there is quite basic and no matter what I ordered, it always came with chips or fried potatoes.  Apart from Galicia where I encountered some interesting regional dishes, the food was pretty much the same for the entire walk.


A notable exception was the cheap and very good meal I had with two  pilgrim friends at Rionegro del Puente.

Me gusta comer

A typical Italian home made pasta dish – this was a pilgrim menu. These aren’t as common in Italy as the almost ubiquitous Menú del Peregrino in Spain.


In Italy you’ll come across a lot of regional specialities , for example boar meat around Siena.

The Via Francigena in Italy is quite hilly and once you get to the Appenines, it’s a rare day without considerable climbing, especially in Tuscany. Some experienced pilgrims I met said that it reminded them of the Via del Norte in Spain.

Via de la Plata TuscanyThe Via de la Plata was a lot flatter  with only occasional climbs. Things got hillier in Galicia but still with less climbing than in Italy.

Via de la Plata
Arriving in Rome is not that pleasant as the last day comprises mainly ugly suburbs. Many people skip the walk and take a train. A very pleasant moment is a short diversion up Monte Mario. This was known to pilgrims in medieval times as Mons Gaudii or the Hill of Joy as from this vantage point the first view of Saint Peters church was possible.

With the large numbers of tourists in St. Peter’s Square, the arrival of pilgrims on foot goes unnoticed. For me it was a very emotional moment as I had started off with no idea of whether I would be able to finish a long walk. A very special experience was getting my Vatican visitor’s pass and entering around the back way past the Swiss Guards to get my Testamonium.

The situation in Santiago de Compostela is quite different as it’s a small town and dealing with pilgrims forms an important activity. For me, arrival this time was something of an anticlimax. The journey had become more important than the arrival.

There was a pleasant view of the cathedral approaching Santiago.

And there is the twice daily pilgrim’s mass, often finishing with the swinging of the giant botafumiero or incense burner.

In both Italy

Via Francigena
and Spain

Via Sanabrés
you will see some beautiful countryside.

Another thing in common is that you’re sure to meet lots of interesting local people and other pilgrims

In both Spain

and in Italy


Buen Camino , buona caminata!




















The Via de la Plata and Camino Sanabrés

After reading Tony Kevin’s book about his pilgrimage along the Via de la Plata almost 10 years ago, I’ve wanted to do the same thing myself. It’s only this year that I’ve had the 6 weeks free that I needed to complete the 1,000km walk. Already, less than a week after completing my walk, it seems like a dream. Another pilgrim I spoke to in Santiago who finished the Via Francés about the same time said exactly the same thing to me.

For anyone thinking about this walk, I’ve collected a few of my photos below to give you a little insight into the route. For me, photography is an important part of a long walk. You get the perfect opportunity to take photos and in just under 6 weeks I took over 4,000.

It can be a bit lonely. I found myself walking alone and often not seeing any other pilgrims all day for maybe 80% of the time, however most nights there were others in the Albergue. Mysteriously some times I would walk  alone for a few days and be the only person in the albergue then arrive one evening to find 15 others who had appeared out of nowhere! For some reason, this walk holds a fascination for some. I met one Irish pilgrim doing it  for the 8th time and an 84 year old from Aosta in Italy doing the Camino Sanbrés for the 9th time.

For me, a fascinating  aspect of the Via de la Plata is the change in landscape, architecture and climate as you traverse Spain from south to north.

The landscape changed significantly .
Via de la Plata


Via de la Plata

Via de la Plata

Via de la Plata


Camino Sanabrés

Camino Sanabrés

The villages I passed through could have been in different countries.

Via de la Plata
Via de la Plata
Via de la Plata

Via de la Plata

Camino Sanabrés

There are lots of animals.

Via de la Plata
Via de la Plata
Camino Sanabrés
Camino Sanabrés
There was some variation in the signage.

Via de la Plata

Via de la Plata
In Extremadura, the way was marked by cubes with colour coding indicating whether or not the path coincided with the ancient roman road.

Via de la Plata

Some days there were innumerable farmer’s gates to pass through.


Via de la Plata

These signs mimic the ancient Roman milestones seen along the way.

Via de la Plata
Via Sanabrés Camino Sanabrés

Via Sanabrés

Camino Sanabrés

And changes in the food ? Hmmm

Via de la Plata

However my strongest memory will always be the people I met and chatted with along the way. Although I know this is not practical or possible for many, I’m very glad I spent 6 months working hard to resurrect my very rusty Spanish with the help of my teacher Alejandra. I had so many interesting conversations with the very friendly people I met along the way.

Via de la Plata beer

Via de la Plata

Via de la Plata

Camino Sanabrés

Camino Sanabrés
Camino Sanabrés

Also,  as it turned out the 3 people I spent the most time walking with were all Spanish and this wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t been able to chat with them in Spanish.

I posted every day during my pilgrimage and you can find many more photos in those posts. ¡Ultreia!

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago must have been a fascinating place back in the Middle Ages, with the huge focus on pilgrimage. Pilgrimage and associated tourism is still important and it was a bit of a shock to arrive here after travelling through so many tiny and simple villages.

There are many pilgrims each day arriving and I e never seen so many people hobbling around and using walking sticks!

The cathedral reflects the centuries of importance and patronage it has enjoyed but unfortunately the most famous of its features, the 12th century Portico of Glory, is closed for restoration. 

At the twice daily pilgrims’ mass, the Botafumeiro is often used. In medieval times it was a way of fumigating the massed stinking and often unwell pilgrims as well as being part of the mass.

The cathedral organ

It’s traditional for pilgrims to hug this statue of St James from the rear. 

Here’s the hugging queue which snakes right around the church

And here’s another queue outside to buy lottery tickets which seem to be immensely popular in Spain .

The special cross of Santiago can see seen everywhere . In the cathedral

On the Torta de Santiago which is a kind of almond cake

And on pilgrim’s hats

And there are lots of souvenirs !
A Galician piper busking 

Clogs in the Gallego folk museum

A bit of art nouveau amongst all the medieval buildings !

After having chips/ french fries just about every night for 6 weeks I went tonight to an Italian restaurant and ordered beef with eggplant grrrrrr! Time to go home.

Ponte Ulla – Santiago de Compostella October 27th

For dinner last night I thought it was time to take the plunge and try some Pulpo a la Gallega. This octopus dish is very popular in Galicia and actually has a long history. It was very popular with farmers coming into town for cattle markets and has a resulting alternate name of Pulpo a Feira.

It was only a 20km walk today through similar country to previous days 

The bus shelters around here are very cute – shaped like Hórreos!

Many of the fields have grape vines around their borders and I walked through this  beautiful arbor.

People take a lot of pride in their homes and villages with lots of gardens

I thought I must have been getting close when I came over a hill and there in the distance was the cathedral!

View of Santiago cathedral from distance Camino Sanabrés

One last medieval bridge, one last feed of figs from a roadside tree.


There were lots of pilgrims wandering around wondering what to do next like me. The impressive. building at the back  was originally the pilgrims hostel and dates back to the 15th century. It’s now a very posh hotel – not many pilgrims staying there! They do offer free meals from the staff canteen to the first 20? Pilgrims in the queue each day as part of their tradition.

I should have stayed in an albergue with bunk beds one more time but somehow I felt detached from the other pilgrims I saw. Many were in big groups and I saw lots with just little day packs. I think the fellowship I had along the way is what to remember. Also I could do with the sleep without all the snoring!

I little old lady came up to me touting her rooms for rent so I went with the flow. This is my little attic room for three nights until my flight back to Italy on Sunday

In the afternoon I went to the pilgrim’s office to get my certificates. I thought I’d done pretty well but there was a couple who had walked over 2,400km from somewhere in Switzerland!

This is what my credencial or pilgrim’s passport ended up looking like.

Credencial Vía de la Plata Camino Sanabrés
And these are my certificates 

Compostela Certificate Bid de la Plata Camino Sanabrés

Distance Certificate Via de la Plata Camino Sanabrés

Tomorrow I’ll do a tour of the sites of the city sites .

Silleda – Ponte Ulla October 26th

Last night I ran into two Italian guys I hadn’t seen since we were in Salamanca, almost 3 weeks ago. They hadn’t taken any rest days and so were ahead of me but now stopped as one of them was sick. I’m so glad that my health has been good as I’m walking alone

I haven’t had anyone to speak English with for a few weeks now so my head was full of Spanish and I kept using Spanish words by mistake when I spoke to them in Italian.

Today I had a leasurely 20km walk to Ponte Ulla and arrived just in time for lunch!

A lot of the walk was in bitumen but they were quiet country roads.

More nice juicy figs

Those of you who have been following my adventures will have read how I’m  somewhat absent minded and at times miss arrows telling me to take a turn. Here’s a good example! I stopped to take off my jumper this morning and thought it would be nice to take a photo of my backpack resting against a camino sign . Then I charged off down the road and only realised 10 minutes later when I  looked at my GPS that I’d missed a turn. Of course it was the very marker I taken a photo of!

I’ve seen these plants growing alongside the road for many weeks now. They’re called ‘escoba’ or broom plants because of their shape .

Escoba plant

Chestnuts all over the road.

This is the bridge over the river Ulla which gives Ponte Ulla it’s name. In the background is the railway viaduct.

Sopa Gallega for lunch again .

The  washing place was the social centre of the village.

These bananas are trying hard, but I don’t think they’re going to make it with winter on the way.

It’s hard to believe , but I’m only 20km from Santiago. I don’t know what my feelings will be when I arrive tomorrow .

Monasterio de Oseira – Silleda October 25th

The local bar didn't open til 9am so after my night alone in the huge monastery room I had an improvised breakfast and headed off up a steep rocky track out of the valley in which the monastery is situated .
The view looking back gives a bit of an idea of how large the monastery is. My big room was on the ground floor of what looks like a small building on the left.

Via Sanabrés

Even I couldn't miss this turn

but once again I missed a clearly marked turn but this farmer told me I'd  missed the turn. Maybe I subconsiously missed it as the path I had to follow was a mixture of churned up mud and cow pooh.

There were lots of ancient pathways but the recent rain made the rocks slippery .

Look at the beautiful green pasture these cows have to enjoy !

A beautiful old bridge

This will be very familiar to Australians!

I saw a horreo ( see the last few posts) with its door open and it was being stacked with corn. It's interesting that some are still being used for their original purpose.

This is the best scarecrow I've seen


I was so intent on getting lunch that I didn't see that the Camino went off the road a bit before. After a very nice lunch

I blithely headed off down the main road. A very helpful woman ran across the road to point me in the right direction . People have. Been so helpful!

I've put in two big days – all up around 80km and 1,200m of climbing and I can now enjoy two short 20km days to get to Santiago!

Ourense –  Monasterio de Oseira October 24th

What a pity to leave my nice little room with my own bathroom and my very own power point to charge everything up ! But it was time to move on.

Looking up river towards the thermal springs there was a cloud of fog.

I met a Korean couple of about my age who had lived in Australia for 5 years some time ago . I was amazed to hear that they had left Seville a week after me and had stopped in Ourense for 3 nights. I thought they must have been speed walkers until they told me that the heat had been too much for them in the south and they’d skipped quite a bit using public transport .

There was a long steep climb out of the valley in which Ourense sits rewarded by a view of the city from the top.

Via Sanabrés

I met a man up there watching over some sheep . He was interested in Australia and we had a chat about travelling .

I passed more interesting old villages

Via Sanabrés

saw some more hórreos

and walked along some remaining pieces of medieval pathway.

Via Sanabrés
About this time in my usual absent minded way I missed a turn off and had to use my GPS to find a wast to get back on track. Just when I arrived back on track, two locals told me I had come the wrong way. Thanks!

A weird garden …

Pumpkins 🎃 and firewood 

This photo is a bit indistinct but usually feet take off as soon as they see or hear you . These two were a long way off and stopped still just long enough for me to take a photo.

Decisions , decisions 

Via Sanabrés

I took the route towards Oseira because  I’d heard that the Cistercian Monastery at Oseira was an interesting place to stay.

The monastery is huge, there must have been hundreds of monks here once . I went to Vespers and there were 10 monks there, dressed in their white robes with the peaked cap as well as some local people.

The albergue is in a huge room in an unused wing with I’d say 10 metre ceilings, 40 beds tucked in the corner and me all alone.

Luckily the local bar was open and I ate very so so food at high prices. Just me alone again!

And almost forgot to say – I lost count of how many figs I ate today – so sweet and juicy !!

Camino de la Plata, Via Francigena and other Walks.