Having packed away the hiking boots and washed all my incredibly grotty hiking clothes that could possibly have walked home on their own, I thought it might be timely to share some key learnings from my latest long distance walk through Italy.
I set off from Great Saint Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps and arrived in Rome 44 days later tired and amazed.
Here are a few thoughts that, I hope, will be useful to anyone contemplating this pilgrimage route.
1. Walking Poles: If I could marry my walking poles, I would (apologies, dear husband)! I know walking poles are not everyone’s cuppa, but I would strongly, strongly urge you to consider buying and taking a good quality pair of poles. Frankly, the path can be downright treacherous in places with unbelievably steep climbs, descents and loose rocky surfaces doing their best to trip you up. I found that walking poles provided valuable stability and support, especially when walking over rough ground.
2. Footwear: make sure your footwear is in good condition and there is plenty of tread/grip on the soles. As mentioned above, the path can be seriously steep with loads of loose and dangerous stone underfoot, so you need as much grip as possible. I completely wore away the tread on my ‘new’ boots during this walk. Everyone has their own preference for the style and type of walking shoe, so choose the one that you find most comfortable. I wear a hiking boot and like the solid and stable feel of this shoe with the additional ankle support.
3. Angry Dogs: See point 1. My walking poles saved my bacon on an almost daily basis. Never in my life have I met so many sad, angry and frustrated dogs who would like nothing better than to tear me limb from limb. Most of the dogs were behind fences, but some weren’t and there were a few scary moments when snarling dogs had me cornered before their owners called the dogs away (with no apology offered).
4. Water & Snacks: Always carry plenty of water and snacks. The path tends to take you away from villages and towns, and when you do walk through populated areas, bars and cafés were either non-existent or closed. I walked during late Summer and many café owners were still away on their long Summer break. For water, there are some fountains, but they cannot always be relied on to provide potable water. It was very warm when I walked and I consumed up to five litres of water per day and sweated out 4.5 litres!
5. The via Francigena Map/App: I will write a more thorough review of the app at a later stage, but I will say here that while it is an excellent resource, I found that both the distances and altitude quoted, could be quite conservative. I wore a Garmin sports watch and found that I needed to add 2-3km to the quoted distance for almost every stage. I didn’t get lost (much) or wander aimlessly, so I can’t really explain the discrepancy.
6. WIFI: WIFI is not as widely available as in say, Spain. Most monasteries and convent-style accommodation did not provide WIFI, which is completely understandable. I also found that many times bars advertised WIFI and it was either not working, or I simply couldn’t get my tablet to connect to it. Next time I will take a tablet with capacity to insert a local SIM.
7. Book Ahead: Always try to give your target accommodation advance notice that you are coming. I always booked ahead, often only a day or a couple of days, and I always received a warm welcome. I noticed a bit of tension when other people would just turn up at the door with no notice, expecting a bed would be available. Maybe I am imagining things, but I figure it doesn’t cost anything to be polite.
8. Accommodation Opening Times: Further, many accommodation places are staffed by volunteers or are not permanently staffed. Some places do not open their doors until 4-5pm, so when you book ahead you can find out all this key information. It is hard yakka when you walk 5-6 hours and then have to wait the same amount of time to get into a room and get a shower.
9. Solitude: Be prepared for solitude and isolation. This is not a Spanish camino with loads of people walking the same stage as you every single day. Sometimes I did not meet anyone at all during the day, and often I was the only person in the ostello at night. That can also be a good thing of course as there is less competition for a bed etc., but I just wanted to give you the heads-up that there is not the same social vibe.
Also, the path sometimes leads you into some pretty remote countryside with lots of open space and few villages. Stunning views of course, but no chance of hailing a taxi or catching the bus should you feel like cutting your day short.
The Italian via Francigena was an amazing experience, but the hardest walk I have done so far and unlike any of the three Spanish and Portuguese caminos I have completed.
Don’t get me wrong, that is a good thing as each walk has its own personality.
Needless to say I can talk underwater with a mouthful of marbles and I am happy to answer any specific questions you may have if you are contemplating this stroll.
What do you think? Is this walk for you?
#viafrancigena, #pilgrimage, #longdistancewalking,