Category Archives: Via Francigena

My walk along the Via Francigena

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!

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There were lots of pleasant dirt roads.

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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.

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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.

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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!


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Signs along the Via Francigena

I found that the signage along the Via Francigena varies from non-existent to excellent. One of the standard signs looks like this.  Sometimes there are signs for different modes of transport.

Via Francigena standard sign         Via Francigena three signs Via Francigena speed limit sign Via Francigena  sign

VF sign

This one was quite amusing.

Via Francigena Taro River sign

But sometimes these signs lead you astray from a shorter more direct path and are intended for people on short weekend walks. On one occasion I followed my guidebook and two other pilgrims followed these signs and arrived very tired at the hostel two hours later.

Another common sign is this “milestone” type one.Via Francigena milestone type Via Franvigena signNot a confidence inspiring milepost !

or this type. DSC00996

There is also a coloured arrow system in use in some places, with a yellow arrow pointing towards Rome and a white one in the other direction towards Santiago de Compostella. Its actually hard to walk in the reverse correction. I came across one guy who thought he was heading away from Rome, when in fact he was heading towards Rome. These rock signs will give you the idea.

.Via Francigena two rock sign   Via Francigena ceramic sign  Via Francigena street furniture sign Viss Francigena Santiago sign

Rome to the right , Santiago to the left !

Sometimes the Via Fracigena coincides with the red and white signs of the Club Alpina Italiana or “CAI” but then again sometimes they don’t !

Via francigena rock in forest  Via Francigena flapping in breeze  Via Francigena cani Sarzana sign Via francigena tree sign

Via Francigena CAI sign DSC01241  Via Francigena fallen tree  Via Francigena break Via Francigena rock

Via Francigena down hill

Then there are all sorts of variants.

Via Francigena cartoon sign Via Francigena pole sign Via Francigena back of sign Via Francigena written sign

Via Francigean roma sign  Via Francigena tree arrow sign Via francigena another tree in forest DSC01969

And there are guide boards, but often they show circuitous routes taking in lots of interesting sites.

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I think this was my favourite sign, with a little grotto.

Via Francigena grotto

And this one – well it had the pilgrim’s shells !

Via Francigena Chianti

My final sign – the hostel in Rome !

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Some thoughts on the Via Francigena for anyone thinking of walking along the route

 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.

A 800 metre descent all on asphalt
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.

I carried this keepsake with pilgrim shells given to me by a lady in San Miniato every day

 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.

 The signage along the way varies from excellent to non existent. I found a GPS with corresponding paper map excellent but others thought this wasn’t in the spirit of things

A path sign

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.

 Thanks to those of you who offered support via comments along the way, I really appreciated it. I’m now thinking what my walk next year will be !

Roma April 5-6 May

My wife Cathy arrived in Rome and we’ve been doing a bit of the tourist thing, although we already know Rome quite well so it was more a case of revisiting some favourite spots. 

vf spanish steps

We managed to fit in a visit to a few of the major basilicas that pilgrims would of visited. I’ve been wearing sandals and my feet have largely recovered – just one big blister left to heal. Firstly I took Cathy to visit Saint Cecilia’s where I had stayed in the pilgrims’ hostel the day before. A large group of foreign kids poured in wearing skimpy shorts and sat down. We thought it was a school group. An elderly nun in the church was extremely upset by the inappropriate dress and Cathy mentioned this to one of the adults and they all trooped out. Then they all started coming back in again wearing red robes ! It turned out they were the cathedral choir from Haarlem and had come to rehearse for a concert that night. 

 We visited Santa Maria Maggiore which dates back to the fifth century. Like most older churches in Rome, it has been heavily modified over the centuries and was also damaged and repaired after an earthquake in the 14th century. The mosaics date back to the early centuries of the church. Being in a central position, it receives many visitors.  VF SMMVF SMM floor

For contrast, we also visited San Lorenzo Fuori Le Mura or St Lawrence outside the city walls.  vf rome wall

 It receives far fewer visitors being a little bit out of the centre. It was built in the 6th century on the site traditionally believed to be where St Lawrence was martyred. It was hit by allied bombing in 1943 and restored after the war. 
  vf SL 2VF SL 1

vf sl feet

 Finally we also visited my favourite church – St Prassede. This dates from the 8th century and contains beautiful mosaics. The chapel of San Zenone appears just as it would have to medieval pilgrims. 

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VF sp feet

A pilgrim’s grave in Santa Prassede

pilgrim grave s prassede

vf pope

Roma – Città del Vaticano May 4th

Last night my long talk with Don Paolo got onto the subject of mosaics and he took me to a gallery overlooking the inside the church of Saint Cecilia. He opened up a window and we were basically looking straight out at the 9th century mosaics ! Down below there was a mass happening and the organ music and voices of the nuns singing drifted up. It was a special moment.

we were peeping through the little window above the arches on the right

In the morning I semi- hobbled back to the Vatican along the bank of the Tiber. It’s going to take a few days for my feet to start getting back to normal with that big new blister, numerous blood blisters, bruised toes etc  !

 By the time I got to the Vatican at 9.30, there was already a very long queue snaking around the huge square .

 The office that issues pilgrim testimoniums or certificates is inside the church. There were touts making offers of ‘skip the line ‘, I guess with others standing in the queue ready to give you their place. However luckily us pilgrims have a special way of accessing the interior of Saint Peter’s. Around the left side of the church is a big steel gate. Firstly you go through the metal detectors operated by the Italian State Police. Then you get checked by the Swiss Guards.

 I’m sure that although they are wearing quaint colorful Renaissance costumes, they’re armed to the teeth. Then you pass on to the Vatican City Gendarmeria who in issue you with a pass in return for your passport .


The next stop is the technical office who give you your final stamp on your credenziale or pilgrims passport and issue the Testimonium !

   My credenziale ended up looking quite impressive.

 On the way home, I stopped at the chemist for some foot cream and a weigh in. 88 kilos ! I still have quite a bit of flab but I’ve  lost 4 kilos.

Tomorrow I’ll start the tour of the pilgrims’ churches.

Formello – Roma May 3rd

I headed off with Beatrice and Emanuela again this morning . We passed through the pretty historic centre of Formello and back onto the Via Francigena towards Rome.

 Given we had walked a bit further yesterday and Rome was only about 30km away, I decided to skip the last stopover at La Storta and head straight for Rome. We passed through fine very pretty countryside before hitting the outer burbs of Rome .

 The rest of the walk was basically urban. There were some very busy roads, mostly with footpaths. The problem was that the footpaths kept disappearing on one side of the road and appearing on the other side . This meant I had to scuttle across at times 4 busy lanes a number of times. I finally reached Monte Mario , or Mons Gaudi (the hill of joy ) as it was known to medieval pilgrims . From here pilgrims would get their first view of Saint Peter’s after months of travel.

  It was only a few kilometers from here to Saint Peter’s and the end of my walk.

 I did have a few more kilometers to go to reach the hostel in Trastevere where I had a long interesting conversation with Padre Paolo who comes from the Veneto. We had the same foot washing ceremony as I had back in Abadia ad Isola as the hostel is run by the same confraternity, and a pleasant dinner with the volunteers.

My washing had a great. backdrop today !

Tomorrow I’ll be off to the Vatican  to collect my Testimonium.

Sutri – Formello May 2nd

Today was the most dangerous of all my days walking as we had to walk along very busy roads. The guide book said that there was unfortunately no alternative however we met a couple of Italian guys at the hostel at the end of the day who assured us there were other safer, if longer routes.

But back to the start of the day . I had a very nice breakfast and bid Claudio and Sarah farewell.

 I paid a brief visit to the crypt of the cathedral which dates from Longobard times and headed off by myself.

 I passed more of the trees I saw yesterday and was able to ask someone what they were – hazel nuts not pears !

I also saw olive trees with irrigation which I hadn’t seen before.

 About this time I caught up with my two friends from the B&B in Viterbo and we walked together for the rest of the day. This included following the route of the busy Via Cassia. At first it seemed like there would be a safe little track.

 But this soon disappeared . The pictures tell the story .

   After successfully negotiating this dangerous stretch of many kilometers we finally reached a safe country road through the beautiful nature reserve of the Parco Di Veio

 After a long day of over 30km we arrived at a beautiful newly built youth hostel at Fornello. It’s on the third floor of an ancient palace and the suburbs of Rome are visible in the far distance  !

https://www.hihostels.com/hostels/formello-maripara-yh-rome-hinterland/prices


 Five of us staying here all went to a nearby restaurant for the €12 pilgrim’s menu – delicious!