The Power of Hindsight – Via Francigena Reflections

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…

  • A marble stone, engraved with the Via Francigena logo, is inserted into a dirt path to indicate direction
    Yes, you are still on the right track…

    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.

Pilgrims walking through the early morning mist on the way to the Po River
Walking through the early morning mist on the way to the Po River
  • 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.

  • a red and orange sunrise in Italy with trees in silhouetteThe 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.)

Anthony Bourdain Quote about travelWould 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?via francigena signage#viafrancigena, #pilgrimage, #longdistancewalking

 

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16 thoughts on “The Power of Hindsight – Via Francigena Reflections

  1. Hello Melanie, what a terrific post. I concur, this is no walk in the park and no Camino! My husband and I walked from Canterbury to Rome over 4-months last year. It was a wonderful experience and we saw some beautiful places and saw some stunning scenery and we ate good food and drank good wine, especially in Italy! However, unlike you, I wouldn’t do it again. It is too hard and too far and definitely lonely in parts! We are off to walk the Camino Del Norte this year, so we will keep walking because we have been bitten by the bug 😊😊 I would love to know what you are going to do next!

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    1. I am in awe of you! I do not think I could walk all the way from Canterbury. The Italian leg was tough enough for me! It was hard and physically demanding, but I think it was loneliness that I struggled with the most. You can only talk to yourself for so long without starting to doubt your sanity! The del Norte is also on my list, but I am thinking the Madrid/Salvador/Primitivo combination may be closer to the top of that list! Buen camino and thanks for reading, Mel

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  2. Thanks for the update and sharing Mel it helps to know what to expect for my future VF walk. I have done 3 Camino’s (Le Puy to Santiago in 2 long and 1 short stage) so far so well on the track for being a Camino tragic. I am looking to do the whole walk from Canterbury to Rome and will be relying on building enough walk fitness in the stages before Switzerland to be able to go over the St Bernard pass.
    Did you use an Italian SIM for the walk?

    I enjoy your posts so Keep on posting
    Steve

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    1. Hi Steve. Thanks for your feedback. It is amazing how often I think back to last year, even though it was so hard at the time. Yes, I used a TIM SIM and bought it in Aosta. Just check the package you buy includes all that you want ie. calls, texts and data. I assumed my package did all that until I wondered why I could receive texts and not send them etc. A bit of a different structure to what we have in Aus. Their coverage was pretty good across Italy and was pretty cheap (about $35 Australian for data and calls to start with). Have fun and when do you think you will start walking? Mel

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  3. Great post. Thanks. Very nostalgic. I agree very different to various caminos. I walked Canterbury to Rome last Spring. I came back in autumn and walked Rome to Brindisi. Right now I’m in Albania walking via Egnatia from Durrës to Istanbul (though only to Thessaloniki this time). I only met two walkers on path to Brindisi and none so far here. But of course lots of wonderful people!

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    1. Hi Tim. Thanks for the feedback. Glad to see you are still walking. Are you blogging too? Perhaps I have dropped off your list and I need to re-subscribe. Is the Rome-Brindisi stage/leg worthwhile doing? I am tempted to add it to the ToDo list for the future. Your walks and adventures are amazing and I am in awe of what you do. Travel safely, Mel.

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      1. Blogging in the road is very hard work I find. I am on Facebook – I don’t really like it but it does reassure people you are not dead! I’m also posting on Camino Forum – Live on the Camino here https://www.caminodesantiago.me/community/threads/via-egnatia-towards-jerusalem.61758/#post-739391 I prefer that, and the discussion there. So I expend a bit the for people who may walk themselves. I enjoyed Rome Brindisi very much. Not well marked. There is some accommodation but often you need a BnB. I’ve put a page or two together for potential walkers. I can send you when I get home. Keep in touch.

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        1. Yes, I agree. Blogging on the road is very hard at the end of a long day. At times I also struggled with it when I walked the VF last year, but the support I received via my blog really helped when I was feeling low. It made me feel like many of my friends were walking with me. Thanks for your thoughts on the path to Brindisi. Maybe it is back to Spain for me first. Travel safely and I will check out your adventures on the forum. Me’

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          1. Buy a steri pen. You will save money in the long run. They do sell bottled water all the way along the trail but it gets expensive. There are water stations on the way to EBC but not many. We will always take water purification tablets.
            I do have a packing list on the menu which I recently updated. http://theyearitouchedmytoes.com/packing-list-for-ebc/
            We took way too many snacks on the second trek. Last trek we took some chocolate bars and a few museli bars. I took some of those honey and sesame seeds rectangles. The ones in the little packets. I don’t think there is a need to go overboard. A lot trekking stop for lunch or for drinks on the way. just make the mistake of eating too much if you are going to have a steep climb. I had a bowl of noodles ( those two minute style noodles) at a lodge in Monjo before the big climb up to Namche Bazaar. Boy did I regret that. I really felt a bit full.

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