The Italian Via Francigena – the Nuts and Bolts

Freshly home from the Italian section of the Via Francigena, I thought it might be timely to share the nuts and bolts of this pilgrimage route with those who may be considering a similar stroll.

It certainly was much harder than I expected, but it was amazing on a daily basis.

Sunrise on the Via Francigena

Sunrise on the Via Francigena

So here are the bare bones logistics of this walk. I have already posted brief descriptions of each day ‘live’ from the path and will share more detailed information in future blog posts, but now I will try to restrict myself to the basic data:

Start Day: Wednesday 8 August 2018, from Great Saint Bernard Pass, Switzerland.

Finish Day: Thursday 20 September 2018, at St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

Route: southwards through, and including towns of:

  • Valle d’Aosta: Aosta, Chatillion, Verres, Pont St Martin
  • Piedmonte: Ivrea, Vercelli
  • Emilia Romagna: Piacenza, Fidenza, Berceto
  • Tuscany: Pontremoli, Lucca, Siena
  • Lazio: Acquapendente, Bolsena, Viterbo, and onwards to Rome.

Distances:

  • Total: 1 046.9km (according to my Garmin watch).
  • Daily Average: approx. 26km
  • Longest Day: 38.4km
  • Shortest Day: 17.1km
The view to Italy - Great Saint Bernard Pass, Switzerland

The view to Italy – Great Saint Bernard Pass, Switzerland

Days:

  • Walking: 40
  • Rest: Four (Vercelli, Piacenza, Lucca, Siena)

Times:

  • Daily Starts: the walking day would usually start around 530am or 600am. It depended on the distance for the day and the expected temperature. Earliest start: 430am, latest start: 700am.
  • Walking Hours: again this was driven by the distance and, more often, the terrain. As the walk progressed, I became fitter and could cover more territory in a shorter time, but it was the terrain that really slowed me down. One day it took me about 54mins to walk 1km! It was that steep! Day 1 was over 10 hours of soul-destroying descent, while on other days I was done and dusted in 5.5hours.
Mountain views in Valle d'Aosta

Mountain views in Valle d’Aosta

Terrain:

  • The via Francigena’s terrain is incredibly varied overall and can be incredibly varied on any one day.
  • Close to the Alps in the North, it is naturally steep with descents to test the best set of knees.
  • Leading into Vercelli there are days and days of dead flat as you walk through areas of intensive agriculture including endless fields of rice and corn/maize. Some people skip this section, but I thought it was a lovely contrast to other parts of the path.
  • The Apennines get the heart pumping for a couple of days, and then into
  • Tuscany for beautiful paths and lung-busting climbs up to hilltop villages.
  • The path is predominantly on hard surfaces eg. back roads and asphalt surfaces. I would estimate 80% on hard, man-made surfaces.

 Weather:

  • Incredibly hot and humid. I was expecting the heat, but not the humidity. It was not uncommon for it be 24°C at 530am! Hence the early starts.
  • A few showers and one unbelievable thunder/lightening/bucketing rain/hail storm walking into Lucca.
  • I did not take a sleeping bag and only wore my warm jacket three times in 44 days.
  • Many ostellos provided blankets if required.
Roman Roads leading into Pont St Martin

Roman Roads leading into Pont St Martin

Maps & Guides:

  • The app from the official via Francigena website (IOS and Apple store) is vital and is really all you need. It is not perfect though and you still need to pay attention to various signs and use a fair dose of common sense.
  • This was the first time I walked using an app and I quickly became a convert. I downloaded all the individual maps in the app which meant I didn’t need data to access them.
  • I noticed a few people also carried the Terre di Mezzo book and used it as a back-up/reference point to the app. They also reported it was already out-of-date in a couple of places and it is the most recent publication.

Way-marking:

  • Overall, the amount of signage varied from ‘pretty good’ up to ‘very good’. Some days I barely referred to the app all day.
  • As usual, you need to be very careful entering and exiting cities (especially Piacenza and Siena) as the signs get lost in the busyness of the place.
  • Ensure you have the app downloaded to your phone if you need clarification and/or confirmation of direction.
Via Francigena signage

If I wear a scarf on my head, will a man carry my pack?

Accommodation:

  • There is a good range of accommodation in most price brackets in most towns and villages.
  • Many monasteries and convents operate on a donation basis or request a donation of €10.00 as a minimum.
  • Small hotels charge €30-40.00 a single or €50.00 a double with ensuite. Unsurprisingly, the larger towns tend to be more expensive.
  • Pack a silk sleep sheet (or similar) at a minimum as some ostellos insist on this and ban sleeping bags.
  • The accommodation list on the official via Francigena website is a very useful resource and is updated regularly. Download the list as a pdf onto your phone or tablet for quick reference. Naturally local tourist offices are also happy to book accommodation for you, as well as websites such as booking.com.

Food:

  • Small shops and supermarkets provide a good range of basic foodstuffs. Check closing times though as often shops will close from 1230pm for the afternoon siesta and won’t reopen until 500pm. Not good when you are relying on them for your lunch.
  • Bakeries (forno, panettiere and pasticceria) are everywhere with loads of delicious cakes and bread choices that are perfect for carb-loading.
  • Cafes: sometimes you can be really lucky and find a café open as you walk out of town at 530am! €1.00 for coffee and €1.00 for a fresh pastry. Life is good!
  • Menus: pilgrim menus are not common, but you can find a fixed menu for lunch with two to three courses for €9-15.00.

Overall:

  • An amazing experience, but much harder than I expected.
  • I would not recommend this walk if you are expecting a social, camino-like experience all day and every day.
  • I would recommend this walk if you are fit, have good knees and are not afraid of heights.

What have I left out? What else would you like to know?

 August/September 2018

#pilgrimage #viafrancigena #longdistancewalking

Religious icons

A small selection of offerings at a wayside chapel.

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11 thoughts on “The Italian Via Francigena – the Nuts and Bolts

  1. For all the ups and downs (pardon the pun), I loved indulging in the vicarious pleasure of sharing this walk with you from the comfort of my armchair 😀 Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you are remiss in not mentioning the percentage of the journey that is on the shoulders of 2 lane highways. Some times these are busy and the pedestrian hazard is significant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, there are some stages like this, but you could always plan ahead to skip them. I found that if I started my walking day early, in most cases I could get these sections done before the traffic got too bad. I agree with you though, it is not pleasant at all to have to mix it with the cars and trucks. Thanks, Mel

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  3. When did you make your reservations for the ostiaries you stayed at? I am planning my first foray in November, doing the final stage this time- will do a mix of ostiaries and b&b. Thanks

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    • Hi John. I tended to book 2-3 days ahead mostly. I started out emailing the different places, but sometimes they were a bit slow to respond and in the end I just telephoned. I have very basic Italian language skills but managed to make myself understood most of the time. If I was planning a rest day in any of the big cities, I would book about a week out via booking.com. I figured those places would be busier due to the number of tourists, plus I wanted to find something right in the heart of the city to save on walking!! 🙂 I met a few people who simply turned up on the day and knocked on the door. Sometimes they got a frosty reception from the nun or priest, but always seemed to find a bed. Have fun, Mel

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  7. Hi,
    So glad to read your stories and infos about VF.
    I’m planning to walk three weeks in early April 2019.
    Some questions:
    1. Safe for female solo?
    2. Is there any luggage transport service? Just in case if I need it.
    3. Will the host make phone call for next day accommodation?

    Thank you !

    Jennifer

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    • Hi Jennifer. Lovely to hear from you. Yes, very safe for a solo female. I didn’t have a moment’s worry the whole 40 days I walked, although I played it safe and wasn’t out partying at night until the wee hours. Just be prepared for a VERY solo journey as there were very few other walkers on the same path and I imagine there will be even less in April. For baggage transport, check out Sloways (https://www.sloways.eu/trasporto-bagagli-e-zaini-lungo-la-via-francigena/) plus you may find more people providing this service throughout Tuscany. I recommend you learn some basic Italian just to break the ice with people. They are unfailingly helpful and friendly and I am sure they would be happy to make a call on your behalf. Also all the larger size towns have a tourist office and they are happy to book accommodation in advance. With my basic Italian language skills I managed to call and book rooms a couple of days in advance. Happy to chat some more if you have specific questions. Have a good day, Mel

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