Spanish Camino or Italian Via Francigena – which one is for you?

Since 2013 I have walked three caminos, all concluding at Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. The ever-popular Camino Frances was my introduction to the wonderful world of long distance walking. Bitten by the bug, I returned to Spain for the Via de la Plata from Seville in 2014 and then stepped out on my own on the Camino Portuguese from Lisbon in 2016.

With all those caminos under my belt I thought it was time to break out of Spain (J) and, for something different, last year I walked 1046.9km through Italy on the Via Francigena.

But what is the difference between the two? And which is the right one for you?

people hiking through wheat fields on the camino frances

Strolling along in Spain on the Camino Frances

Terrain

There are some stiff climbs on the caminos I have completed, however I estimate that there would be 40% more ascents on the Via Francigena and generally, the ascents would be substantially steeper and more taxing.

The path underfoot in Italy is a good mix of dirt back roads and some forest paths, although, I estimate 80% of the route in Italy was on asphalt or other hard, manmade surfaces of some sort. Other than the Camino Portuguese, this was significantly more than the Spanish caminos.

Also, I think because the caminos are much more popular and busy, the local associations and support groups make a greater effort to reroute walkers away from the main thoroughfares. On the Via there are some long (sometimes around 10km) and unpleasant sections on the edge of busy roads with no verge, which really put a dampener on the enjoyment of the day’s path.

Distances

In the north of Italy, the distances between the towns and villages would be comparable to the Via de la Plata. There are some days in both walks when you have to walk +30km to get from accommodation to accommodation. The Via Francigena path can take you through some sparsely populated areas and public transport may be non-existent. Some people I met along the way split long section of the Via by staying in agriturismos (farm houses) or by pre-arranging a taxi pick-up. This takes a little more research and planning.

via francigena signageSignage

The quality of waymarking varies a bit through Italy, but overall it was very good. When I walked the Via de la Plata in Spain, I experienced many days when the signs/arrows simply disappeared. Perhaps this has improved since 2014.

Accommodation

Because the Via Francigena is substantially less popular or well-developed than any camino, there are few private ostellos (equivalent to albergues). The main source of cost-effective accommodation is in monasteries and convents who provide a simple, but warm welcome. Please note that often accommodation places are not permanently staffed or may be staffed by volunteers. I recommend you book ahead so they know you are coming. I found this to be quite different to the caminos where the albergues seemed to be open all the time and, as many of them were private businesses, it was in their interest to be open and waiting for pilgrims to arrive.

A bronze shell shows the way on the Camino Portuguese

A bronze shell shows the way on the Camino Portuguese

Food

Both Italian and Spanish food are delicious and readily available. ‘Pilgrim’ menus are not common in Italy however some cafés and osterias offer fixed price menus for lunch and dinner for around €12-15.

In both countries, fresh food street markets and supermarkets are plentiful and economical options for those people who like to eat simply.

Many bars in Italy are open very early in the morning and provide delicious coffee and fresh pastries to fuel up on before you set out. Up north, coffee and a donut or croissant cost around €2, however it seemed to get more expensive in direct relation to the size of the town as I travelled southwards.

Cost

As you may have worked out by now, I tend to eat and sleep simply so my average daily expenditure tends to be around €20-25 in Spain and €25-35 in Italy. In Italy, sometimes it is necessary to stay in a small hotel if an ostello/convent bed is not available and that can blow the average out a bit.

People drinking beer and Celebrating the final steps into Santiago de Compostela

Celebrating the final steps into Santiago de Compostela

Social

Unlike the caminos, the Via Francigena is very quiet. I walked late Summer and sometimes I would walk all day and not talk to (or see) a soul and then later, I could be the only person in the ostello at night. I did meet some wonderful fellow walkers as I journeyed south and they certainly brightened my day.

Having said that the local people were very friendly and supportive of walkers. The Via Francigena is not as well known amongst Italian people, but everyone was very welcoming.

Language

English is not as widely spoken in Italy, especially in the north of the country. It is the right thing to do to learn some basic phrases in either Italian or Spanish depending on the walk you are planning. It will make your life a whole lot easier and is a sign of respect to the local people.

An early morning stroll between Italian pencil pines

An early morning stroll between Italian pencil pines

Maps/Apps/Guides

Although there are less people undertaking the Via Francigena, it has some excellent supporting resources, just like the most popular caminos. Certainly the Via Francigena app is a superior navigational tool and I will be searching for something similar when I walk in Spain again.

The Ending

Like the Compostela you receive in Santiago de Compostela, you finish your Via Francigena adventure by collecting your Testimonium at St Peter’s Basilica. A word of warning though, the reception I received at St Peter’s was lukewarm to say the least, perhaps ‘indifferent’ is a better description. Other than walking into Rome with some very special people, there was little sense of celebration or achievement provided by anyone else, other than ourselves. It has a completely different atmosphere. You are swallowed up by, and lumped in with, the other thousands of tourist milling around the square. Make sure you pause for a moment and pat yourself on the back.

Overall

Overall, I found the Via Francigena a much more challenging and physically demanding experience. It was wonderful and amazing and I am glad I did it, but I am still trying to work out whether I ‘enjoyed’ it. Enjoyment may not be the right word. Maybe if I had had a walking companion it would have been a more enjoyable experience and the good and bad times could have been shared and halved.

So, which would you choose to walk?

August/September 2018

Religious icons

A small selection of offerings at a wayside chapel in Italy.

#viafrancigena, #pilgrimage, #caminodesantiago

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17 thoughts on “Spanish Camino or Italian Via Francigena – which one is for you?

  1. I walked Frances in 2014 and Portuguese from Lisbon 2015 and 2016. I broke a knee cap in 2015 so had to return to finish Portuguese in 2016. In 2017 my partner joined me for the Chemin d’Arles to Puenta de la Reina. We did VF from St Bernard in 2018. My experience is in many ways sinmilar, but I perceived the VF as having a lot less road than you. Yes, hard surface, but not much traffic.

    We tend to stay in private lodging and Italy is much more expensive for that. No albergues with private rooms, you need hotel, BnB, Airbnb or sometimes hostel.

    My own impression is that Italian food was far superior. Probably the biggest difference for me is on VF I lost a lot of “camino” feeling because I found I wanted to experience the tremendous cultural and artistic interest of Italy. That is antithetical to “just keep walking.”

    Although my solo experience on CDS and CP are very precious, Italy had more plain old enjoyment for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe I over estimated the percentage of hard-surface road walking, but it certainly left an impression. Other than on Sundays, the roads seemed to be busy with plenty of truck movements and it always seemed to arrive at the end of the walking day, turning it into a bit of a slog. But that is what I like about long distance walking, you learn to take the good with the bad and everything in your stride!

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  2. I totally agree with you, your assessment is spot on, although on the whole I prefer Italian food to Spanish! I have walked both the Frances and Portugués Caminos in 2014 and 2016 (and a few other long distance walks) and last year my husband and I walked the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome. There was much more walking on alsphat the whole way compared to the Camino and there were sections that I found very stressful when walking along the road. Signage is much better in Italy than in France by the way! A lot of people did not know about the VF but nonetheless we found everyone very friendly. They just don’t call out ‘Buen Camino’ like they do in Spain! We met so few pilgrims along the way and, like you, we were often the only people staying in a place. I missed the social atmosphere of the Camino. Arriving in Rome after 2000km was a complete let down; we just looked at each other and said, “ok what now?” and our Testimonium was handed to us with complete indifference!! I can also vouch that the VF was definitely more expensive. Well done for writing about the comparisons.

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    • I am in awe of you and all the others who walk all the way from Canterbury to Rome. That has to be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Thanks for your feedback on this post. Although we walk the same path, we do have different daily experiences and take away different memories and learnings. I am pleased I did the Via Francigena, but it challenged me on so many levels and here I was thinking that I had this long-distance-walking caper down pat. I guess you are never too old to learn AND challenge yourself! Have a great day…Mel

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  3. Thank you for this excellent (and timely) post. So far, I have walked three Spanish Caminos.
    (Tui, Portugal to Santiago in 2010, SJPP to Najera in 2016 and Najera to Finisterre in 2017). This June and July my husband and I will walk the VF from Lucca to Rome. We currently have zero Italian, and our language learning skills are minimal. We are hoping to stay in low-cost accommodation as much as possible. Do you simply need to phone these accommodations 1 – 2 days in advance? Do they speak any English or did you have someone help you? Thank you for your advice. I greatly appreciate it.

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    • Lovely to hear from you and lovely to hear that you are stepping out on the VF. Lucca is a popular starting point for many people and you will see some stunning scenery. If you wanted to spend some extra time in Lucca, you could skip the first day walk to Altopascio and just catch an early train there and then walk on. That stage was probably the most unattractive (endless industrial estates and road walking) of the whole 40 days I walked. Yes, I would recommend you phone ahead a couple of days especially as you will be walking in the Italian Summer when many locals have their holidays. You may experience an increased demand for accommodation, but even so it shouldn’t be a problem. You will love not having to compete for a bed. Most people speak some English, but often it is quite broken. I met an Italian lady her in Aus a couple of months before I left and got her to write out a little spiel that covered the basics. I will find it and attach in a separate reply. Very quickly I got my confidence to use this over the phone rather than just emailing. I emailed many accom places and they never replied. Phone is best. I know of some pilgrims who asked their host (for that night) to phone ahead on their behalf. This is excellent if you find a friendly host! You will need to have your pilgrim credencial to be able to stay in many of the ostellos and convents etc. Mel

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    • OK – here goes….

      Buon Giorno / Buona Sera (Good day / good evening)

      Mi chiamo Melanie (My name is Melanie)

      Purtroppo non parlo Italiano (Unfortunately I don’t speak Italian)

      Sto facendo la camminata della Via Francigena verso Roma (I am walking the Via Francigena to Rome)

      E vorrei prenotare una camera singlo (o un letto) per …….. (lunedi sera) / per la notte di (lunedi…)
      (I would like to book a single room ( one bed) for ……. (Thursday night) / for the night of Thursday.

      Grazie in anticipo (thanks in anticipation) (used when I was emailing)

      I hope the above helps. It served me well all through Italy to the point where, even though I said I didn’t speak Italian, they would reply in rapid fire Italian!!! 🙂 You will need it adapt it to a double and/or 2 beds and it would great if you knew someone Italian who could help you with pronunciation. I listed to a lot of Italian language CDs driving around in my car before I left, just so that I could get my ear ‘in’.

      I would recommend learning the really words to get by just to book a room and order a meal. You shouldn’t have a problem the closer you get to Rome and most younger people have an excellent working knowledge of English.
      Have fun, Mel

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  4. Wonderful! Thank you for all that great information.
    When we walked the Lepuy route, I initially experienced a lot of resistance, I think mainly because of the lack of pilgrims and the camaraderie that goes with that. But I adjusted and ended up really loving it. It was hard to stop walking when we reached our destination of SJPP.
    There is something to be learned from each journey!
    Did you enjoy the Portugal walk? Did you do the coastal or inland walk or a combination?
    I will order the Brierly book for Portugal today.
    Which guide did you use on the Via Francigena? I already have The Cicerone Guide.
    Thanks for the great basic Italian phone verbiage.
    How was the language barrier in Portugal?
    Thank-you!!! So much fun to plan our next walk!!!

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    • Hello Again. Yes, I enjoyed the Portugal work very much. It was incredibly beautiful and the people were very friendly. The thing that did my head in was the amount of road/hard surface walking including endless cobblestones! Even in the remotest corner you would have to cross a cobblestone section! Ugh! Very hard on the feet at the end of the day. I did a combination for this walk. Inland from Lisbon through Coimbra and up to Porto. Then I followed the coastline to Caminha and followed the river up to Valenca/Tui. If I had my time again I would cross the river at Caminha and keep following the coastline as far as I could. It is so beautiful and no where as busy as the route from Valenca/Tui. The bun fight for beds was a real shock! No problems with language in Portugal – many people speak basic English and sometimes the words are quite close to Spanish, so you can work out what they are saying. For the VF I also had the Cicerone Guide but it was so out of date it was a real waste of time to carry it. There is a more up to date (2017?) guide printed by Terre di Mezzo, but I met people using it and they also found it out of date. I would wholeheartedly recommend you use the app off the Via Francigena website. It was the first time I ever used an app and was a convert within a day. You can download the maps and use them offline so you are not using all your data all the time, and they still connect to the GPS. You still need to pay attention to the signs and uses some common sense, but the app was the best. Happy planning, Mel

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  5. Hi Mel,

    Thanks for the great information. How can I find out more specific info about where the convents & monasteries are along the Via Francigena? How do I find out whether they accept pilgrims or not? How do I get a “pilgrim’s passport” for the Via Francigena?

    Thank you very much!

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