Last year I took on the biggest physical challenge of my life – the Italian leg of the Via Francigena pilgrimage trail. Over a period of 40 days, I covered 1 046.9km (yes, that 0.9km is very important) and there were many days when I really questioned my sanity!
However, now that seven months have passed and, I imagine a little like the pain of childbirth the hard times have faded, I may be able to assess the whole thing a little more objectively…
Firstly, I am not ashamed to admit that I did a lot of stupid things by combining ‘short’ stages without taking into consideration the difficulty of the terrain! In one example, I joined two 15km days together without thinking that these days were short for a reason ie. the strain of descending the Swiss/Italian Alps. Ten hours later I could barely walk another step and even resorted to walking downhill backwards for short periods because I could no longer lift my legs high enough! Everything hurt, including my hair!
Key Learning: Temper my optimism and plan for both distance AND terrain.
- There is value and enjoyment in being part of something that is relatively undiscovered. Not that I was breaking new ground or blazing new trails, but it felt special to walk on my own, or with a small group of other hardy souls, on a path that has not been commercialised (like the Spanish caminos). The welcome by the local people was warm and genuine, and there was a sense of appreciation that we were supporting their communities as well as doing something pretty damn amazing, rather than simply being viewed as a source of cash flow.
I have no doubt that the Via Francigena will grow dramatically in popularity when other pilgrims decide that they want to try something other than the well-trodden Spanish camino routes.
- I needed to take more time to enjoy the journey as well as the destination. I find that once I start walking I get into a groove and create the ‘habit’ of movement and progress. When I am not walking and ‘making progress’ towards my final destination, I feel guilty, like I am slacking off. Yes, I need to come to my senses and simply enjoy going with the flow rather than feeling like I MUST cover 25km every day
There are so many gems along this path that I recommend scheduling more rest days if your calendar and budget allows. If I had my time again, I would definitely stay at least three nights in both Lucca and Siena, and then schedule rest days in small hill-top towns like San Gimignano.
Yes, the perfect excuse to return to Italy.
- The Via Francigena, or parts of it, would make a nice addition to any visit to Italy. There are a range of days, especially through Tuscany, that would really enhance an Italian holiday if for no other reason than it gives you the perfect excuse to consume unlimited quantities of pasta, pizza and gelato.
- There are a couple of items that I think are essential for this walk:
- Walking poles – for the really tricky terrain
- Quality footwear – with excellent tread and grip
- Mobile phone/device – with SIM card capacity
- Water containers – for the many days when there are no fountains.
- Walking the Via Francigena in Italy is an amazing experience, but it is not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes the terrain is incredibly challenging and the whole thing requires more planning than simply throwing on your backpack and stepping out on a highly-structured Spanish camino. With the passage of time, I have decided that I would recommend the Via Francigena, but with many of the provisos that I have included in this and other posts.
(Please note: I am not being critical of the many wonderful Spanish caminos as I am definitely a Camino Tragic and plan to walk other caminos in the future, it is just that the Via Francigena is a vastly different walking experience.)
Would I do it again?
I would have to have a long, hard think about that, but I suspect the final answer would be ‘Yes’. After being on the Via Francigena for a while and from talking to other pilgrims, I found out the path continues southwards from Rome, and then turns south-east across Italy, arriving at Brindisi on the Adriatic Sea. I have seen some glorious photos of this path and it is tempting….but then any long distance path is tempting!
Yes, I am a hopeless case.
So, what do you think?
Are you keen to give the Via Francigena a try?#viafrancigena, #pilgrimage, #longdistancewalking