Unlike many of the fellow pilgrims I met along my walk, I hadn’t done the much more popular walk to Santiago de Compostela in Spain at the time I did my Francigena walk. I’ve since walked along the Via de la Plata in Spain.
Most other pilgrims who had walked in Spain told me the Via Francigena is much more difficult, except for the northern route to Compostella through the Basque Country .
It certainly was not easy in parts. Some of the challenges included fording streams flowing quite rapidly with very cold water, scrambling up almost 2 metre high river banks where recent rain had caused wash-aways, long days walking mostly on asphalt which is very hard on the feet, negotiating paths where many trees had fallen in a recent storm with a 12 kg pack and long climbs up very steep paths with water flowing down the path carrying a lot of mud.
But I loved every minute of it, except for for the very dangerous sections walking on busy roads with absolutely no where to walk but on the road.
You certainly improve your fitness. After a few weeks I was doing steep climbs of many hundreds of meters with my backpack weighing up to 13 kg with two litres of water without getting puffed. And your feet harden up although the threat of new blisters was ever present for me.
I met many fellow walkers and it was fun to spend a day with a group then run into them unexpectedly a few days later. I’ve even heard of a couple who met walking the via Francigena getting married. Also I had so many conversations with people along the way as Italians love a chat. It certainly helped having a good grasp of the Italian language. This helped a lot also in organising accommodation a few days ahead.
Some people never bothered and just turned up at a hostel hoping for the best. Some nights I was totally alone in a big hostel with 20 beds and other times the hosts were putting extra camp beds in corridors to fit everyone in.Another interesting aspect is learning that you can live quite comfortably with only the things you can carry on your back. I guess you arrive so tired each night that there’s not much energy for usual activities in any event. I carried an ebook but probably only read from it one night in 10.
And then there is the beautiful Italian countryside, historic towns, wild flowers, farm houses, ancient fragments of road and all the other things you can see along the way. What a wonderful way to see the country!
I think walking in April was a good choice. The temperature was normally in a good range for walking – 5 to 15 degrees and I only had one day of really wild weather. Summer would be difficult as there are very long days where there is no intermediate place to stay, almost no shade and very little opportunity to get water. On some long days with no villages along the way,my two litres was barely enough in the cool April weather. I would be hard on a day with temperatures in the high 30s.
My thoughts often turned to the pilgrims of long ago. So many of the old farm houses, churches and even granaries along the route are heavily fortified that it’s obvious that travelling in Italy in medieval times was a dangerous undertaking. And I stayed at former hostel locations at Altopascio and Abbadia ad Isola that were also fortified and offered refuge for pilgrims from brigands, wolves, and who knows what other dangers. Given all this and the simple shoes and hard roads of the time, it’s hard to imagine just how difficult things were for pilgrims in those times.