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.
When we think of Switzerland we naturally picture soaring snow-capped mountains, lush green fields, cows with cowbells, chocolate, watches and possibly, St Bernard dogs with their trusty brandy barrels fastened below their chins.
But did you know that the dogs have been named after their home? The Great Saint Bernard Pass.
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.
I would love to be one of those laid back, chilled out individuals.
One of those people who seem to cruise through life and things seem to effortlessly fall into place.
But, No. That’s just not me…
I am a planner, an organiser, and I try to cover every eventuality. This goes into overdrive when I am planning a long walk, but now that I have completed my fourth long distance stroll, I have finally identified the top five things I DON’T need to worry about. Continue reading
Date: Thursday 20 September
Distance covered to Rome: 1046.9km
Terrain: busy roads, forest paths, busy streets
Overnight: Barbineri Luxury Rooms (a very generous description), €72
Feeling: happy and amazed!
When I woke up this morning I could hear the swish of car tyres on the roadway which indicated one thing and one thing only. Rain! It was a bit disappointing, but we weren’t going to let it stop us striding into Rome and doing a happy dance in St Peter’s Square.
Before that we still had a few kilometres to cover and all of them in the drizzle. It was that annoying sort of rain – enough to wet you, but not enough to make you put a rain jacket on. In those situations you are often wetter and hotter in the rain coat than in the rain.
I tried to be an optimist and wish the rain away and eventually, with 5km to go, it worked. We managed to get some hazy photos from Monte Moro and then the real thing in the Square itself.
To be honest I am feeling a bit numb at the moment. I can’t believe I am here and I did it! There were days when I really thought I had bitten off more than I could chew, but I guess you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other until you reach your goal. How’s that for some mixed metaphors??
Thanks for all your comments, likes and support. It was truly appreciated!
Tip of the day: it is always beer o’clock somewhere in the World!
Hmmmm, now where to next????
(Sorry for the delay in posting. More internet issues!)
Date: Wednesday 19 September
Distance covered to Rome: 1025.7/1027km
Terrain: not what I expected.
Overnight: Hotel Cassia, €55 (Double)
Feeling: excited and amazed that I am almost in Rome.
Today wasn’t what I expected at all. I was thinking that, because we are so close to Rome, we would be subjected to endless industrial estates, road walking and monotonous traffic. Instead I was pleasantly surprised with lots of paddocks, sheep, even more babbling brooks and Etruscan ruins.
The weather forecast for today was rain from 900am so we got an early start in the hope of getting as many kilometres done before the rain set in. Our luck held although it was very humid and sticky and the sweat just poured out of us. Perhaps they should promote this walk as a cleansing process as the pores really get a work out.
A highlight of the day was to see quite a few mobs of sheep being closely guarded by their Maremma dogs. The dogs are so calm and gentle, but I am assuming that would change quickly if the flock was threatened.
You may be thinking, from the distance figure above, that tomorrow I am going to overshoot Rome and start heading south. When I did my original planning I searched the internet for as much information as possible about each stage/leg and selected the longest distance for each stage to develop a ‘worst case scenario’ overall distance. Even with all that, it seems I have underestimated the distance, but what’s 20km between friends?
Here’s to tomorrow!!
Tip of the day: Hang in there! You can do it!
Date: Tuesday 18 September
Distance covered to Rome: 1001/1027km
Terrain: flattish farms and countryside climbs.
Overnight: Centro Parrocchiale, €10 (Donativo)
Feeling: happy to be inside out of the storm.
We survived the festival last night and managed to get some sleep despite the fireworks. We all agreed that the fireworks were more like massive explosions rather than the normal ooh-ahhh fireworks we experience in Australia. The pyrotechnics were showcased at a Roman amphitheatre. I can’t help but wonder about the impact of all that detonation on the ancient structure. It would certainly have shaken the dust out of the rafters!
We have decided that this part of the world is in the commuter belt to Rome. Even at an early hour the roads were super-busy and people seemed to be carpooling to get to work. Thankfully we weren’t on the roads much today and we could stay well out of their way.
The path does seem to be getting busier though and last night we met seven Americans who are just walking the last 100km with baggage transport and hotel accommodation only. Each to their own and perhaps they are way smarter than me!
Olive groves, hazelnut trees of all different ages and stages, and immaculate golf courses that were being pedantically groomed. Eucalyptus trees to remind me of home, gurgling streams and dashing waterfalls, and angry dogs to ensure I don’t get too comfortable.
And then there was the marijuana! Well, I am not an expert by any means, but it looked like a carefully cultivated crop, complete with irrirrigation. Perhaps it was hemp instead? I have noticed in a few towns there are ‘Weed’ shops. Perhaps it is legal in Italy or it is for medicinal purposes only? Or maybe they just don’t inhale?
Tip of the day: If you are walking strongly at this stage of the game, consider combining some of these last days to reduce the number to two or three stages. Accommodation seems to be more plentiful, but so are the number of walkers.
Date: Monday 17 September
Distance covered to Rome: 974.8/1027km
Terrain: babbling brooks and forest paths.
Overnight: Hotel Sutrium, €50 (Double)
Feeling: ready to sprint into Rome.
These last few days have been a great way to finish off the via Francigena. The terrain has been relatively kind, the days short and the scenery attractive. Today was no different with lots of forest paths, dappled shade and babbling brooks. Yes, there is the odd unexpected breathtaking climb into or out of a town, but generally the path is more consistently flat.
We were also treated to extensive hazelnut groves (or orchards?). The farmer had hung tonnes of signs warning of poisonous sprays, danger etc etc. I am wondering if this may be a ploy to discourage hungry pilgrims from filling their backpacks with fresh nuts?
We are back into a small 2-star hotel tonight as all the ostello accommodation was booked or closed. At least we get WIFI!
Sutri is a gorgeous little town. We received a royal welcome with celebratory fireworks. Apparently that is just a warm up for tonight’s fiesta, so there may not be much sleep!!
Tip of the day: sometimes you need to ignore both the signs AND the app to get to your destination!
Date: Sunday 16 September
Distance covered to Rome: 951.7/1027km
Terrain: nothing too strenuous.
Overnight: Monasterio Regina Pacis, €25 (DBB)
Feeling: very relaxed.
What a difference it makes to both body and mind when you are only doing short days. I realise 19km is not everyone’s idea of a short day, but in comparison to some I have walked over the past month, it is a breeze.
It was quite unremarkable walking today. The path was intent on keeping us away from towns and cafes, as well as main roads and other asphalt surfaces. It meant there were no coffee stops however we were lucky to score a coffee before leaving the hotel this morning, so we were turbo charged before even stepping out the door.
Olive trees were today’s feature. Lots and lots of very old olive trees marching in rows up and down the hills. The olives themselves seemed to be very small and hard and a conversation ensued about when they are normally harvested. It wouldn’t be much of a harvest at the moment. Can anyone shed any light?
More angry dogs and more farmers out shooting up Sunday with their trusty double-barrel shotguns. Supposed views of the sea lost in the early morning haze and Roman and Etruscan ruins that never appeared.
Hard to believe we will be in Rome in only four short days.
Tip of the day: good conversation makes the walking time fly.
Date: Saturday 15 September
Distance covered to Rome: 932.3/1027km
Terrain: mostly flat on back country roads.
Overnight: Hotel Tuscia, €55
Our walking party grew to six today with the addition of my husband. It felt a bit strange to see him striding out ahead when I hadn’t seen him for over a month. He quickly ‘got with the programme’ and looked like he had been part of the scenery for the past 34 days.
This morning’s walk was all about the play of the mist. Just when I thought the colours couldn’t get any softer or more muted, the heavy mist added a whole new dimension. The mist also kept the sun at bay and the temperature down, and you have been spared more boring sunrise photos!
The highlight of the day was that our group was adopted by a very friendly and very large white dog. He bounded up to us, across a large paddock, as we were having a breakfast break and was more than happy to receive pats from us all and lead the way as we set off walking again. We walked and walked and the dog trotted along happily doing the usual dog things and checking that we were following. We started to worry that he was going to be a long way from home, but what could we do?
After about 4km a small, rusted out car stopped on the road up ahead and a wizened up old man got out and started yelling. It was hilarious to see the dog’s reaction as you could tell it had been sprung big time by its owner. The dog headed across country, but we were able to lure it back and the old man opened the back door of the car and the dog jumped in with a very sheepish look on its face. Obviously a repeat offender!
The sad news of the day is that we have said goodbye to Thea, Victoria and Mary. They need to skip ahead a bit so that they can catch up with the Pope on Wednesday. They have been fabulous company and it is a real highlight of walks such as these to meet such warm and generous people who are strangers for only a split second before becoming firm friends.
Seeking a cheap hotel in Viterbo we found that they don’t exist. Oh well, it is nice to have a private bathroom and WiFi for a change!
Tip of the day: not every dog in Italy is mean and nasty!
And, happy, happy BIG birthday, Mum!!! Xxx
Date: Friday 14 September
Distance covered to Rome: 914.3/1027km
Terrain: constant climbs, both big and small.
Overnight: Convento Divini Amore, €15
Feeling: gobsmacked and loved!
None of us wanted to be late this morning as it was our first day walking as a quintet rather than a quartet. We arrived at the designated meeting point early when the girls spotted a bar with its lights on and all thoughts of walking to Montefiascone were postponed until a sufficient amount of caffeine was consumed.
The rest of the morning was completely unremarkable. The path climbed steadily all day, but we were given some lovely glimpses of Bolsena Lake through the trees. The lake is the largest volcanic lake in Europe and covers around 153sq km. Last night we saw fishermen making the most of the sunset and today it was the sailboat’s turn.
We made good time and arrived before it got too hot. After showering and the usual domestics, it was time to track down some lunch. Ross, Mary and I found a small bar in the main square and settled in. After a few minutes Ross got up and said he would be back in a minute and disappeared. Then he returned with a very tall man wearing a backpack.
“And who is this now?”, asks Mary.
“That’s my husband”, said I!!!!!
Yes, can you believe it?? My husband flew all the way from Australia to surprise me and walk the last week with me into Rome! How lucky am I?
For the first (and probably only) time in my life, I was truly speechless!
Tip of the day: never underestimate a man!
Date: Thursday 13 September
Distance covered to Rome: 895.8/1027km
Terrain: a pleasant stroll through the countryside with water views.
Overnight: Casa di Preghiera Santa Cristina, €11
Feeling: excited with only 7 walking days to go.
None of us got much sleep last night with the rally drivers and motocross riders using the incredibly narrow street outside our window as a race track. How there were no accidents I will never know. You would be taking your life in your hands just stepping out of your front door.
Despite that we were packed and walking by 0529 and again were treated to a breathtaking sunrise. Every morning I tell myself that I am not taking any sunrise photos today, but I just can’t resist. The colours are just so attractive.
Thankfully today was mostly on dirt roads and farm tracks through paddocks and paddocks of potatoes. It was fascinating to watch them being harvested, but we couldn’t understand why they left so many behind. It seemed such a waste to leave the really large and the small ones behind, but maybe it is simply uneconomic to collect them all. More Italian agricultural mysteries!
We left the fields behind and were treated to beautiful views over Lake Bolsena. A massive lake edged with many touristy and holiday towns. It was a grey day today so the tourists weren’t as plentiful and, I understand, the European Summer holidays are now almost over. Back to the grindstone again.
Walking into Bolsena we were greeted by the smiling face of Ross from Sydney. Ross and I are going to walk to Rome, but in the meantime he must also contend with Mary, Thea and Victoria, plus Moi! A very brave man!
Tip of the day: it is better to have Radicofani in the far distance behind you, than in front!
Date: Wednesday 12 September
Distance covered to Rome: 872/1027km
Terrain: down, down, down, flat, flat, up and up.
Overnight: Casa del Pellegrino San Rocco, €10 (donativo)
Feeling: almost ‘over’ pasta and pizza.
I was feeling a bit doughy this morning when we set off. Normally I seem to refresh overnight, but I guess the big distance, endless climbs and heat took a bit out of me. Perhaps having already walked 872km may have something to do with it too?
Anyway, the legs warmed up soon enough on the big descent from Radicofani.
We seemed to follow series of ridge lines as we descended which gave us a bird’s eye view of the surrounding countryside. Even the farmers were up early and out in their paddocks. Italian farmers must have a strong ticker to maneuver their tractors on such death-defying gradients. Many of the tractors are more like mini bulldozers on tracks (to lower their centre of gravity I am guessing) although some farmers still use the traditional wheeled variety. I am in awe.
A highlight of my day was watching a small fox pup playing on the road. It kept bouncing in and out of the blackberry bushes trying to work out if I was friend or foe. It eventually must have decided I was a rough and ready looking sort and disappeared for good.
Lots of road walking in the last half of the stroll undid some of the enjoyment of the early morning. Oh well, swings and roundabouts.
Tip of the day: when a car drives by and its breeze ruffles the hairs on your legs, it is time to lift your game!
Date: Tuesday 11 September
Distance covered to Rome: 846.3/1027km
Terrain: OMG! Ascent: 983m, Descent: 612m
Overnight: Rifugio Comunale A Gestri, €16.70
Feeling: Completely stuffed!
Today was the hardest day’s work I have done in a long, long time. Yes there have been some tough days in the last month and today was right up there with best, or worst, of them. The app describes today as ‘ very challenging’. The only ‘ very challenging’ rating in the whole Italian section of the Via Francigena. They were not kidding!
I was climbing soon as I left the streets of San Quirico. It did not augur well for the rest of the day, which turned out to be a series of ever-steeper climbs and finished with the last 8 km of straight up climbing! By this stage, the day was really starting to warm up and it was a real challenge to stay hydrated. Luckily there were some water points along the way, but no food.
I can only imagine what the people in cars and on motor bikes were thinking as they flew past. Yes, another nutter walking the via Francigena!
For a good part of the walk I could not even see my destination, Radicofani. Even though it is located at the top of a mountain, there were equally high mountains in front of it, blocking the view! Yes, I am a nutter!
So, 7 hours and 21 minutes later, I finally made it to Radicofani. No town ever looked so good!
I have shared some photos here from the early part of the day. For the bulk of it, I just didn’t have the energy to drag the camera out of its case.
Tip of the day: skip this section if you can!
Date: Monday 10 September
Distance covered to Rome: 814.3/1027km
Terrain: non-stop climbing and only a little descending under Tuscan skies
Overnight: il Palazzo Pellegrini, €10.50
Feeling: like all roads are leading to Rome!
It was a day of ‘girl power’ as Thea, Mary, Victoria and I were up at 430am and out the door before 500am. None of us are fans of walking in the heat and are more than happy to sacrifice a few early hours of sleep for the benefit of walking in the cool.
We walked under cloudless sky which gave us a beautiful view of the stars. For some reason I wasn’t expecting to see many stars over here thinking that there would be too much light pollution and I was proven wrong again.
The terrain today was challenging and we seemed to climb constantly. In reality that is not the case, you have to come down sometime, but that is not what it felt like.
Again we were treated to a dazzling sunrise and the views are enough to make it easy to pause often to catch your breath, guzzle water and mop my brow. This is definitely not a delicate activity!
The path ended with a hefty 3km climb up to yet another hilltop town. I am continually amazed at how they built such substantial towns on such small tracts of land. The simple mechanics of hauling all the stone and timber up such steep inclines just beggars belief. I am in awe.
Tip of the day: directional signs are just as important as the miracle of a bar open at 600am serving coffee and fresh donuts!
Date: Sunday 9 September
Distance covered to Rome: 787.2/1027km
Terrain: endless rolling Tuscan hills
Overnight: Centro Cristi, €10 (donation)
Feeling: happy to have friends again.
I felt rested and strong when I woke up this morning. Obviously the day off the path yesterday did me the world of good. I was packed and gone within about 20 minutes and out onto the streets of Siena.
Once again I was thankful for the app on my phone to help me stay on track through the winding streets. I suspect that, being such a historic city, Siena controls what signs can be erected and consequently there were virtually no via Francigena signs and very few of the red and white stickers that often clearly mark the path.
As you can imagine it was very quiet at 530am on a Sunday morning, except for a few happy drunks singing quietly to themselves. And yet, I could sense I was being followed. I could hear murmuring behind me and I started to form a bit of a plan covering how loud I would yell and scream and whose door I would bang on first. Until I heard “is that you Mel”? Sure enough it was my Irish friends Thea and Mary, and Thea’s daughter, Victoria.
What a happy reunion it was in the pitch black dark! We haven’t seen each for the best part of three weeks and now we are on the path together again. It was lovely to walk and chatter away through and over the rolling Tuscan hills. I was conscious though that we had to keep one eye on the path as it is easy to get so caught up in the conversation and miss a turn or a signpost.
More brilliant views, delicate sunrises and leaping deer. It is all too special for words.
Tip of the day: you can’t beat a friendly face and an Irish lilt!
Date: Friday 7 September
Distance covered to Rome: 760/1027km
Terrain: a bit of everything today including heart-stopping climbs
Overnight: Attilio Camere, $100.50
Feeling: Relieved to have a rest day tomorrow.
There is nothing more disheartening than stepping out of the ostello into the very early morning darkness to be greeted by thunder and lightning. Not the best way to start to the day. On went the pack cover and poncho at the ready. I did get rained on, but it was only for about an hour and it was only light. Yes, you have to look for the upside in these situations.
I walked hard today as I had a lot territory to cover and I hoped to do that before it got really hot. The first 15km was through undulating farm land and I was treated to a spectacular sunrise with the sun coming up directly behind Monteriggioni. Monteriggioni is yet another ionic hilltop town and, believe me, you have to work hard to get there. You cruise along country paths and back roads, and then you turn onto a path that seems almost vertical! That coffee at the top tasted pretty damn good!
From there into Siena it was more country roads and forest paths. I was delighted to see the palest mauve crocus and pink cyclamens growing wild on the forest floor. A splash of colour amongst all the greens and browns.
The path seems to be getting busier as I head south and there were a few other walkers out and about yesterday. As I walked behind one group I couldn’t help but notice that one woman definitely didn’t want to be there. She was moaning continually, dragging her feet and every step was a chore. Why sign up for these things if you aren’t prepared to do the miles? I pity her walking partners having to jolly her along the whole time and to have to slow their own natural walking pace to match hers. It makes it tough for everyone.
Siena looks like an amazing city although it was quite a shock to see so many people and all of them strolling slowing and generally being tourists! I immediately had to adjust my mindset AND my walking pace. Perhaps I will be better at that tomorrow when I am clean and rested!
Tip of the day: supercharge your day with coffee!
(Apologies, I am having email issues again. Can’t access webmail)
Date: Thursday 6 September
Distance covered to Rome: 723/1027km
Terrain: Beautiful valley floors and many stiff climbs to get out of them!
Overnight: Convento di San Francisco, €10
Feeling: excited that this time in two weeks I will be walking into Rome.
Just when you think these early mornings in Tuscany can’t get any better, this morning I was treated to yet another gorgeous sunrise, but this time accompanied by five hot air balloons floating on the horizon! Talk about a Kodak moment. Unfortunately they were too far away for me to create my own Canon moment, but I enjoyed the spectacle none the less.
And then another doe sprints across my path. I have heard of ‘chick magnets’, but not deer magnets. I think my deer count is up to about seven now. I sat at a restaurant the other day and the waitress was doing her best to explain the menu. She couldn’t think of the English word for venison and instead told me that I could eat Bambi! Not the best marketing spiel I have ever heard!
Today’s path took me through the glorious hilltop town of San Gimignano. It was only just waking up when I walked through, but even then it had a great atmosphere and oozed history. I think I should have planned a lot more rest days to explore all these places or maybe it is a good excuse for a return visit….in a car!
The path also gave me an option of taking a variant from the official via Francigena path, which brought me to Colle in a much more direct and consequently, shorter route. I had aimed to walk 33km today to get to my destination. I hope this means those missing kilometres are not added to tomorrow’s count! Oh well, take it as it comes…
Tip of the day: beware of via Francigena signs giving you the scenic route through a town, rather than the most direct one. App to the rescue!
Date: Wednesday 5 September
Distance covered to Rome: 695.2/1027km
Terrain: rolling Tuscan hills and country back roads
Overnight: Ostello Sigerico, €12
Feeling: hungry and a bit perplexed about the next two days.
So this is what I was expecting! The rolling hills of Tuscany and the many layers of valleys with the hills behind them.
It was stunning walking as the sun rose this morning. Everywhere I turned was yet another amazing view. I am sure my photos won’t do it justice, but I tried to capture the softness of the colours and that layering effect.
The countryside changed from ancient olive groves, to endless grape vines, to more open country and what looked like wheat stubble. I am not sure how they plough and harvest such steep country, but they have obviously been doing it for hundreds of years. Practice makes perfect.
Accompanying me on today’s stroll were about 100 biting flies and they were all determined to have a piece of me! I sorted them out with the RID, but they were persistent buggers. I think they are something like our March flies. Not pleasant.
My other small incident came straight out of the movies. Picture me striding along happily, picture car coming towards me at some pace, picture car driving straight through a largish puddle and making no effort to avoid it. Picture me with cranky face as I wipe off mud and water! It always looks much funnier in the movies…
And now I wait for tonight’s ostello to open. I seem to be getting used to waiting. I have had muesli for lunch as the restaurant that is promoted everywhere in this location, closes on Wednesdays. Bugger.
Tip of the day: carry bug spray! And muesli!
Date: Tuesday 4 September
Distance covered to Rome: 671/1027km
Terrain: mostlying forest paths and country roads
Overnight: Ostello San Miniato, €16
Feeling: like I know what I am doing….sort of!
Ah, what a difference a day makes! Today was much more enjoyable, despite the long distance.
It was the usual haul out of town on tar roads, but within a couple of kilometres it was onto back country roads and forest paths. So much more enjoyable.
The bonus today was that there were lots of interpretative signs explaining the history of the region, the path and the flora. At one stage I was even walking on Roman roads. A sign said that in 1804 this stretch of road was described as ‘appalling’ as carts and carriages would frequently roll over. I bet the same could be said for some of our modern day roads.
Tonight I am staying in a place called San Miniato. I thought my accommodation was in San Miniato Basso (lower), but of course not! I am in San Miniato Alto (high) which meant a huge climb up an equally huge hill! My current challenge, as I write, is to find a bed. I had booked at one ostello, but it looked completely abandoned and no one was there. My gut told me to move on, so now I wait for a much nicer ostello to open their doors….only a five hour wait ahead of me!
And it has started raining again. Oh well, at least it has cooled things down again.
Tip of the day: if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck!
Postscript: all good. I have a bed. Now I need to chase some food!
Date: Monday 3 September
Distance covered to Rome: 639.9/1027km
Terrain: Again, too much edge-of-road walking.
Overnight: Comune o biblioteca, €10
Feeling: glad to be off the busy roads
There is not much I can write about today other than it was gloriously short!
The path seemed to stick to roads and streets the whole way and most of them were busy. There were a couple of short stretches through the fields to escape the traffic, but they didn’t last long. I have been surprised by the amount of road walking on this route. For some reason I assumed it would be more rural or cross-country. Maybe the few stretches I did in the north are all I am going to get.
At least it was cool and overcast the whole walk. Perhaps this is the start of Autumn?
My big news for the day is that tonight I am sharing a room with a lady from Canowindra! Talk about small world!
Tip of the day: just because there are walkers ahead doesn’t mean they know where they are going. Follow your own directions!
Date: Saturday 1 September
Distance covered to Rome: 620.5/1027km
Terrain: Too much edge-of-road walking.
Overnight: Mimi Apartment, €72.50
Feeling: Happy to have a rest day tomorrow.
This morning I woke up at 200am thinking, “gee, it’s windy outside”. Then the penny dropped that it wasn’t wind, it was teeming rain! Uh oh!
It had eased dramatically when I made a start on the day, but I didn’t get fair without stopping to put my rain poncho on. Two kilometres down the road and it was teeming again and I had to make a call whether to walk back to Pietrasanta and catch a bus or train to Lucca, or push on. As the rain eased again, the optimist in me won out and now with my gaiters on, I set off up the road.
There was a lot of road walking today, and while it is fine when there isn’t much traffic, it’s not fun when the cars and trucks are coming thick and fast.
The grey clouds hung around all morning and then they started to be acccompanied by thunder and then lightning….and then bucketing rain. Now this is definitely the definition of un-fun!
I determinedly pushed on convincing myself that every step was a step closer to Lucca until the thunder and lightning seemed to be getting closer AND it started to HAIL! That was the last straw! By this stage I was sheltering in a motorbike shop and the lovely man called me a taxi. The best damn €15 I have ever spent!!
So, I missed out on 4km, but much better that than drowning, being fried by lightning or flattened by a truck. Yes, I have come to wisdom late!
Tip of the day: you can’t out walk an Italian storm!
Date: Friday 31 August
Distance covered to Rome: 590/1027km
Terrain: two stiff climbs and the rest doable.
Overnight: Casa Diocesana La Rocca, €10
Feeling: Tired, but surprisingly OK.
I was interested to see how the body pulled up this morning after such a big day yesterday. Other than being a bit tired, my legs were OK and ready to face another day. The good news is I only have another two +30km days to do over the next 18 days. Or perhaps I should just add here ‘that I know of’!
As I walked out of Avenza this morning I was teased with the perfume of freshly baked croissants! How cruel, but delicious at the same time. These sorts of walks really engage all the senses and smell is an important one. Yesterday it was the scent of apples as I walked past some orchards and then later today it was the smell of grapes being processed. There are also plenty of stinky smells I would prefer to avoid and I won’t plague you with them here.
All day today it was the sea on my right (about 10km away) and grape vines terraced up to the sky on my left. Another engineering masterpiece and would give the grape pickers a serious workout!
The region is also marble country – think Carrara marble. I haven’t walked through Carrara, but it is not far away. I was fascinated to walk past many industrial yards with marble blocks and slabs aplenty. I even saw a machine in the process of slicing a block into slabs. Yes, I know I am easily amused!
Just resting the legs now and then later I will head out to explore. Pietransanta looks like an amazing town with oodles of street art and sculpture.
Tip of the day: walk with all your senses.
Date: Thursday 30 August
Distance covered to Rome: 559/1027km
Terrain: Hard climbs and descents and endless flat.
Overnight: Parrochia San Pietro Apostela, €10
Phew! What a day!
I wasn’t expecting today to be quite so long. The schedule said 33km, but the reality was quite different. In the scheme of things 3km isn’t much, but at the end of a long day, it can seem massive.
Way back when I was working out the plan for this trip, I thought it would be possible to combine a couple of days. How hard could that be? (See commentary on Day 1)
What I didn’t understand at that stage was that their definition of flat and MY definition of flat could be quite different. I also didn’t understand their relaxed attitude to distances – give or take 3-5km!
So today, as well as walking the ‘challenging’ 17km stage, I thought I would tack on 16km of flat. However their flat involved near vertical climbs out of towns and innumerable ups and downs. Go figure!?
The good news is that I saw the sea today and apparently I am quite close to the resort town of La Spezia. Now there is temptation, right there!
As you can see by the photos, the views continue to amaze. I saw so many hilltop towns today and I took photos of almost every one. I am sure the novelty will wear off, but I am loving them all at the moment.
Tip of the day: when it is thundering, the power of positive thinking is pretty useless.
Date: Wednesday 29 August
Distance covered to Rome: 523.1/1027km
Terrain: Mixed. Busy roads and forest paths.
Overnight: Ostello di San Caprasio, €10
Feeling: Excited!!! Over half way now.
You would think that with all this fresh air and exercise I would be sleeping like a log, but No. I toss and turn for hours and then am awake at 400am! Maybe it is the pure excitement of another +30km day! Not!
More edge-of-road walking to start the day. It is not pleasant, but at least there is little traffic at that time of day. Once that was done, it was really pretty walking. I spent most of the day on small back roads and country lanes. The lanes were often lined with old, old rock walls, now covered in moss. Most of the walls are in a pretty sad state and no one seems to bother maintaining them anymore. That’s a bit sad as I can imagine what an important part those lanes played in the past. These tracks would have been the links between all the small villages, like little communication lines.
The disappointing thing is that some people think these lanes are their own personal garbage dump. I was about 500m down one lane and there were all these large plastic bags full of bottles and cans. Why?? Why not walk to the closest recycling bin or simply put them out on collection day? They do seem to have an active recycling programme over here, which makes it even more confusing. I just don’t get it.
After 33km I was desperate for a shower and to pull my boots off, but the ostello was closed until 3pm! That is heartbreaking for a sweaty walker, but those are the hours that most Italians keep (900am-1230pm, 300pm-700pm). It takes a bit of getting used to and understanding which shops and bars will be open and when. First World problem!
Tip of the day: ear plugs are essential when you are sleeping next to the church bells.
Date: Tuesday 28 August
Distance covered to Rome: 490/1027km
Terrain: Down, down, down the Apennines. (descent = 1325m)
Overnight: Ostello Castello del Piagnroella, €11
Feeling: a wee bit tried today.
What goes up must come down and I did for the best part of 6.5 hours.
I have decided that to tackle the Via Francigena you need a head for heights, no fear of narrow paths with sheer drops off the side, no fear of swinging bridges or angry dogs, and a very good pair of knees. I thought I had good knees, but we will see what state they are in when I get to Rome!
It was slow and steady wins the race today as many of the descents were incredibly steep with loose stone under foot. I think I may have mentioned my miraculous walking poles once or twice before?
I seemed to do it hard all day as I was short a few calories from yesterday (yes, another small catering miscalculation) and of course today there was not a bar or cafe to be seen. All praise to biscuits!
The slow pace gave me plenty of opportunity to admire the scenery, the tiny villages and awesome autostrada. That thing is just an engineering wonder as it disappears under massive mountains and sails across valleys on towering bridges. Why can’t we have that sort of engineering/development vision in Australia? Needless to say I wouldn’t want to live next to such a thing, but boy it would be handy!
I was rewarded for my hard slog with some very picturesque forest strolls over babbling brooks and ancient stone bridges. It is moments like those which make me realize how very special this walk is. Hard, but special.
My big news is that I am staying in a genuine castle tonight! The castle is a museum, but they also provide accommodation for pilgrims. I am surrounded by ramparts and towers and massive stone walls. How lucky am I?
Tip of the day: just because they tell you there is a bar, don’t assume it will be open before 3pm or serve food before 730pm!
Date: Monday 27 August
Distance covered to Rome: 467.1/1027km
Terrain: More up up up the Apennines. (ascent = 678m)
Overnight: Ostello della Cisa, €10
Feeling: surprisingly good!
Today had been described in various books and guides as the most difficult section of the whole Italian section of the Via Francigena. That is not a particularly attractive description, especially to someone who has to walk it! As it turned out, it wasn’t as hard as yesterday. Bonus!
However, it was no cake walk and there were some very steep sections, but they were short and sharp, and then they would plateau for a bit before another up. Again the views were stunning today. More mountains than I could count, more valleys with picturesque villages all tolling their bells.
The good news is that a good portion of the path was on beautiful forest paths and the trees provided lovely shade. The last couple of days have been slightly cooler, which I am loving, and I hope it is a sign of things to come. Ever the optimist!
I can’t remember if I have chatted about the Via Francigena app I am using on my phone. I am now an app convert and this one is a cracker. I love to see the little red dot (me) scurrying along the designated path, but I learned today that it is not perfect! I came to a point in the path where it split – one higher and one lower. My logic said to take the higher one as we were climbing, but my app mate said the lower one was the go. Off I happily trundled down hill, down, down and into a farmer’s paddock, frightening a gorgeous doe in the process, until the path became decidedly un-path-like. My red dot was now officially in the middle of nowhere and it was sensible to turn around and slog back up the hill again! Sure enough, the higher path was the correct one and the waymarking signs appeared again within about 100m. So, I have decided that to get from A to B in the shortest possible time, I must use a combination of the app, the signs and a healthy dose of common sense!
You learn something every day and it’s a dull day when you don’t!
Tip of the day: don’t believe everything the guide books tell you and always add 2km to their estimated distance.
Date: Sunday 26 August
Distance covered to Rome: 448.3/1027km
Terrain: Up up up the Apennines. (ascent = 997m)
Overnight: Ostello di Cassio, €16
Feeling: very glad there are no more mountains….today!
I knew today was going to be tough and I was not disappointed. Luckily I hit my first climb when it was still dark, so I couldn’t see what I was in for! No such luck with all the others!
I won’t bore you with every single sweaty step (and believe me there were plenty of them). It was a day of digging deep and even then I had some doubts whether I would make it. The only thing is that the path takes you to the middle of nowhere, so you just HAVE to make it. I did pass through a few small villages, but nothing was open, no buses and certainly no taxis.
The upside is that I was surrounded by stunning views and I didn’t need much encouragement to stop and enjoy them. There is a certain satisfaction to looking back and seeing where you have come from, until you turn around to see what is yet to be done.
With only 1.5km to go, the path wanted to take me bush again and I decided I had had enough bush for one day and chose to stick to the road for the remainder. Being a Sunday there were plenty of motor cyclists out enjoying the sweeping bends and downhill runs. Half their luck!
The ostello here is quite amazing. It looks like a combination of Copperart and a $2-dollar shop have vomited the decor! There are plastic flowers, dried flowers, stuff toys, dolls, kitten pictures, hot pink bedspreads and I have Thomas the Tank Engine sheets! But, I have it all to myself and I couldn’t care less who designed the decor.
Tip of the day: skip this section if you don’t like slogging up hills.
Date: Saturday 25 August
Distance covered to Rome: 427.3/1027km
Terrain: Stiff climbs
Overnight: Ostello Parrochia Santa Maria Assunta, €10
Feeling: Tired, but pleased to have the day done.
A shocker of a sleep last night saw me awake for a good part of it! It is just so hot and there is little relief at night, even with a fan on. So, I gave in and got up extra early and was on the road before 430am. I know that is nuts, but it beats tossing and turning in bed.
I feel perfectly safe out at that time and have my headlamp on to make sure I don’t miss any of the signs or waymarks. They were predicting thunderstorms and showers today and that was another reason to make an early start – attempting to get as many kilometres done before it set in.
Thankfully it never set in and instead, was gloriously cool for 90% of the walk. Heaven!
Today marked the first day of climbing and I do admit to a couple of “you’ve got to be kidding” moments. One climb seemed to go straight up through the middle of a farmer’s lucerne paddock. I have no idea how they farm on such inclines, but everything was ploughed and planted to within an inch of the path. No doubt I provided a some entertainment for the man on his tractor as I wheezed and puffed my way to the top.
Despite all that, it was a very beautiful walk today. More like the Italy we see in the media with the pencil pines and iconic farm houses. Again this region looks very prosperous, so there must be money in lucerne and stinky intensive cattle and pigs.
Apologies for the quality of the photos, it was a hazy sort of day.
The good news is I have caught up with Gerard from Sydney, so have some company in the ostello tonight.
Tip of the day: ice cream is a perfectly acceptable breakfast food.
Date: Friday 24 August
Distance covered to Rome: 394.9/1027km
Terrain: Flat and farmland
Overnight: Ospitale San Donnino, €10 (donation)
Feeling: a bit nervous about the climbs starting tomorrow!
Today was my last hurrah on the flatlands and I will no longer be trucking along at around 5.5km an hour. From tomorrow it is ‘Hello, hill climbs’. I know I have had it good for a long time and I just have to balance the strenuousness with the stunning views. Or that is what I am hoping anyway.
Very pleasant walking out with the farmers this morning. They were busy in the paddocks slashing, harvesting the tomatoes and ploughing. I know this probably falls into the category of ‘ too much information’, but they plough in the most amazing way over here. Their plough is only about 2m wide, but the disks/tynes are about 1.5m high. It turns over great sods of dark soil, almost a metre high. Obviously ‘no till’ agriculture is not a thing over here.
Unfortunately the number of angry and frustrated dogs was not so pleasant. Italians obviously love dogs as every second house has one or three, but they also have large signs saying ATTENTI LA CANE or Beware of the Dog. As I walk past the dogs, without exception, they all want to have me for breakfast. Big dogs, little dogs – it doesn’t matter. I find it a bit off-putting to get this sort of ‘welcome’, but feel sad for the dogs that this is the sum total of their lives. Maybe they are only being super brave and ferocious because there is a fence separating us? I don’t intend to find out.
Arrived at Fidenza nice and early, and certainly before the worst of the heat set in. A relaxing afternoon following the Australian political farce. I am glad to be out of the country and in ‘stable’ Italy!!
Tip of the day: Italian dogs do not like Australian accents!
Date: Thursday 23 August
Distance covered to Rome: 371.7/1027km
Terrain: Flat and amongst the traffic. Not fun!
Overnight: Parrochia di San Fiorenzo, €10 (donation)
Feeling: a bit foot sore.
A shocker of a start to the day with 10 solid kilometres of industrial estates and edge of road walking. I understand that in the latest guide book, it even suggests skipping this whole stage and I know a few of our previous pilgrim party did just that. Some are pressed for time so they made the call to catch the train from Piacenza straight here. A wise choice I think.
Thankfully the path did improve and it followed small country roads through an intensive farming area. Corn is still featuring strongly although there are also great swathes of tomatoes, lush lucerne paddocks and I was passed by a large semi-trailer filled to the brim with onions. The farms looked very prosperous and there was plenty of serious farm equipment about.
Glad to see the town and the cathedral spire on the horizon and get in out of the heat.
The most exciting thing of the whole day is that I have been able to do a load of washing in a WASHING MACHINE!! Too exciting for words.
Tip of the day: a large bowl of penne with bolognese sauce is a wonderful post-walk wind down!
(Apologies everyone. I am having terrible email troubles again and WiFi is as scarce as hen’s teeth!)
Date: Tuesday 21 August
Distance covered to Rome: 338.4/1027km
Terrain: Flat and a bit ordinary
Overnight: Duomo Guesthouse, €65
Feeling: a bit nervous about the next stage.
Today was another nice short walk although the nice bit relates more to the length/distance rather than the scenery.
We started the day happily with a ferry ride across the River Po. This trip is one of the highlights of the walk as the boatman is a real character. He truly embraces his role as the boatman and not only does he transport us, but he explains the history, stamps our credentials and we must sign his massive ledger and have the obligatory photo. All before we can start walking again.
From there it was just a slog into Piacenza. 95% of the path today was on the edge of quite busy roads so you needed to be conscious of where you were and what the traffic was doing. It then took us through a very rough and ready industrial estate before the final 5km slog into the city, also along the edge of busy roads.
I was not encouraged to see many of the farmacias displaying the temperature which ranged from 30C-34C. Too hot to be walking!
But I have a rest day scheduled for tomorrow and that is a beautiful thing!
Tip of the day: you just have to take the good with the bad.
Date: Monday 20 August
Distance covered to Rome: 320.1/1027km
Terrain: Flat with a couple of tiny climbs
Overnight: Ostello Grangia Benedettina, €10 (donativo)
Ah, if only everyday was a 17km day! It is such a civilized distance. One that you can knock over before breakfast even. Well, third breakfast anyway. Is it a Hobbit thing where they had multiple breakfasts every day?
So, how it works is that I get up early and head out the door, and as I walk I tuck into a muesli bar or similar. After two hours, if I am lucky enough to find a bar open, it will be coffee and a pastry if something looks appetising. If not, I will find somewhere comfortable to sit and eat from my well-stocked tucker bag. Another two hours and break and breakfast number two, and repeat until I reach my destination.
NB: cafe Americano and donut this morning was €2! Yes, I am in for a rude shock when I return to Australia.
I have been really surprised and pleased at how welcoming everyone has been so far. Most people (old and young) cannot believe I am walking to Rome, on my own and that I am from Australia. Through a mishmash of Italian and English I learn about their aunts, brothers, nieces in Sydney and Melbourne and unfailingly they wish me a good trip.
It is lovely to make these little connections as I walk and to share a joke and a smile. This morning when I bought some biscuits the man behind the counter didn’t speak any English, but in Italian he said (pointing to all the coins in my hand) that money is the international language! He is right.
The pilgrim group seems to ebb and flow daily. Today there are nine of us, two Italians, one Swiss, one Belgian, two Irish, two Aussies and one grumpy Russian. I will be a bit sad to lose them tomorrow as I have a rest day in Piacenza. Hopefully our paths will cross again in the next four weeks and hopefully I will meet up with others when I start walking again on Thursday.
Tip of the day: if you are coming to Italy, do try to learn even the most basic Italian. You will be welcomed with open arms.
Date: Sunday 19 August
Distance covered to Rome: 303/1027km
Terrain: Flat with a couple of tiny climbs
Overnight: Parochial Santa Cristina, €10 (donativo)
Feeling: like I am melting.
The heat is amazing. I think I am going to have to have a serious think about some of the longer days in the next month. I am not sure they are doable without walking a good portion of it in the dark. This morning I left at 505am and it was already hinting of the heat ahead. By 830am I was melting and by 1130am (when I thankfully arrived at my destination), I really was not interested in taking another step.
I must have looked pretty desperate as I went straight into a small bar to buy a cold drink and when I went to pay, the barmaid told me that a man further up the bar had already paid for it. He must have a very kind heart or incredibly bad eyesight as I am certainly no oil painting after sweating through 29km!
There are eight of us her tonight. Gerard from Sydney, William from Belgium, Thea and Mary, a Swiss couple and a ciclo (bicycle) pilgrim. It is all very social although we are all resting up now to avoid the afternoon heat.
A quirk of this ostello is that they would not open the doors before 230pm. I had time to kill, and I needed some sustenance, so I walked straight into the pizzeria and ordered lunch. The largest pizza ever was placed in front of me and miraculously it disappeared!
Tip of the day: carry more water than you think you need. No fountains today.
Date: Saturday 18 August
Distance covered to Rome: 273.8/1027km
Terrain: Flat with some Bush bashing
Overnight: Ostello Santa Maria in Betlem, €20 (including air conditioning!!!)
Feeling: under control.
I obviously survived the night to walk another day and I was soon stepping out into the dawn. I fired up the head lamp this morning as I knew I would be going slightly off piste to start with. I didn’t want to misstep and tumble into the canal to sink without a trace.
More rice, rice, rice, corn (see previous posts) and then a little hay and perhaps some lupins(?). My early morning peace was overtaken by multiple camouflage-clad men with dogs in dusty 4WD cars. Obviously Saturday is ‘huntin’ season’ and I scuttled along a bit faster.
I was lucky to score a coffee stop at about 730am and had a little moment when John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice’ came lilting out of the bar! Where am I? Moments like these really make me smile.
From then on I felt like I was in a very tame David Attenborough documentary. The path took me off the road and down by the riverside. There were birds aplenty and then there were the multiple lizards, rabbits and a very shiny black snake! Who knew that Italy had snakes? Thankfully we scared each other in equal parts and headed speedily in opposite directions.
Relaxing in Pavia as we speak. A really beautiful city with an amazing covered bridge.
Tip of the day: Don forget that you’re the Voice and you’ve just got to understand it!
Date: Friday 17 August
Distance covered to Rome: 250.4/1027km
Terrain: pancake flat
Overnight: Casa del Pellegrino Exodus, €20 Lunch, Dinner, Bed (donation)
Feeling: Good nah nah nah nah nah!
So, there was little sleep last night as the church clock, right next to the ostello, chimed the hour and half loud and long ALL NIGHT! I think if I lived in this town I would have to lobby for more civilised hours or carry out some sabotage! By 0430 I knew there was going to be no more sleep for me and I should just get up and get on with the day.
Rice, rice, rice, rice, rice, corn, rice, rice, rice, rice. No variation and no photos to show no variation. If you have walked the Camino Frances, I am guessing this region would equate to the Meseta. Apparently a lot of people skip this whole section, but I figure later on I will be begging for flat terrain, so I am enjoying it while it lasts.
The first town today was Mortara and I fell on the first coffee shop I came too and ordered two pastries and a coffee. I was missing some calories from yesterday and those two really hit the spot. Not sure if it was the caffeine or the sugar, but I felt almost human afterwards.
More rice, rice, rice, corn, rice, rice, rice, rice and it was time for a little break at Tremello. I had no sooner got my backpack off and a little old man cycled up on a red, white and green bicycle and wanted me to go with him. I tried to explain that I was just having a little rest and he cycled away only to return a few seconds later with Mary from Ireland! Carlo is the official pilgrim greeter in this town and he insisted on stamping our credentials, giving us a special certificate, a badge and plying us with ice cold mineral water! Now, that is a welcome!
Mary and Thea (English) started the day after me (from Great Saint Bernard Pass) and we had a lovely chat. I had been feeling a bit flat and lonely and meeting them perked me up no end. We walked for a while together, but our paces are different, so I left them to it. It was getting terribly hot and I wanted to get to my accommodation. Hopefully I will see them again tomorrow and on our way to Rome.
My ostello is slightly off the beaten track so I fired up Google Maps to bring me to the door. I wasn’t quite sure what I had struck when I walked in. Picture about 30 young men, pierced, shaved and tattooed to within an inch of their lives. I did a quick scan of the table and there were also a few women (normal) and children.
Not a lot of English was spoken, but I pieced together that this place is a home for troubled young men and they help them get their lives back together. Now I was feeling like I was intruding, but they insisted I share their lunch and afterwards escorted me to the pilgrims accommodation. I have the whole place to myself and they provide dinner tonight. Don’t worry, I feel very safe.
The other bonus is that even though I had to walk a further 2km to get here, tomorrow’s path is only about 300m away and will save me a couple of kilometres of walking! YES!
Tip of the day: trust a man bearing ice cold mineral water.
(With the photo in the header, I am wondering if I wear my scarf on my head, will some bloke carry my backpack??)
Date: Thursday 16 August
Distance covered to Rome: 220.4/1027km
Terrain: pancake flat
Overnight: Ospitale San Giacomo Madonnina, €10 (donation)
My rest day disappeared in a haze of slow strolling and sloth. When we walked into Vercelli on Tuesday the place was jumping, and yet I woke up in a ghost town! It was the annual Ferro gosto holiday and everyone seemed to have left town. Oh well, at least it was relaxing.
Up and at ’em this morning and back out into the rice fields and the whole day was accompanied by the plip, plip, plop of the little frogs diving into the rice paddies. They obviously didn’t trust me, but I reckon they should have been more worried about all the herons and ibis hanging about.
I made good time even though the heat was pretty energy-sapping. At one stage I had a nice chat to Alfredo from Rome who is cycling northwards to Great Saint Bernard Pass. I do not envy the ride up!
My first significant ‘lost in translation’ moment has occurred here in Nicorvo. I booked via email and when the lady replied she mentioned shops and a pizzeria. The only downside is that I missed the key word – CLOSED! So I have a night in a tiny village with nothing open and a town clock next door that chimes the hour and half hour with gusto!
I do have a fair few snacks and so far I have consumed, 60gm of fruit leather, a handful of nuts, a 200gm bag of lollies! To come are some biscuits and a couple of cans of tuna. The diet of champions!
It is going to be a long night!
Tip of the day: always carry bread rolls!
Date: Sunday 12 August
Distance covered to Rome: 194.9/1027km
Terrain: pancake flat
Overnight: La Casa Colonello, €60
Feeling: pretty amazed that I completed nearly a fifth of the walk.
I had the best night’s sleep of the whole journey last night. It may have had something to do with yesterday’s distance, but I suspect it related more to the very large beer (0.79c) I rewarded myself with at dinner. I shared the ostello room with a lovely young man (am I sounding old?) from Scotland called Liam. He is walking northwards on the via, so it was good to compare notes on the path so far. I was interested to see that his backpack was actually bigger than mine and he wasn’t using walking poles. I warned him about day 3 and I hope he takes extra care if he does decide to attempt it.
Corn as far as the eye could see this morning, which wasn’t very far when you consider it is 9ft high! Then it was corn and rice, and then just rice. Liam had warned me about the mosquitoes and I had the Aeroguard at the ready! They were definitely hungry!
I found a cafe, inhaled a coffee and was ready for the last 17km into Vercelli. As I left the village I was pleased to see another walker ahead. She turned, waved and waited for me to catch up. Fulvia has walked from the Great Saint Bernard Pass with her schnauzer dog for company and today was their last day. It would add a whole other layer of complexity to the walk to have a dog as company, but Fulvia wouldn’t have it any other way.
The time passed quickly as we talked all the way into Vercelli, and you wouldn’t believe the coincidence, that we were booked into the same little hotel.
A nice day, good company, and a trip to the laundromat meant sweet-smelling clothes for the first time in a week!
Tip of the day: kick off the boots, it’s a rest day!
Date: Monday 13 August
Distance covered to Rome: 166/1027km
Terrain: lots of flat and rolling hills
Overnight: Ostello Santhia sulla via Francigena, €10 (donation)
Feeling: footsore, but pretty pleased with today’s kilometres.
Yes, what a difference a few days of manageable terrain does to the confidence levels and kilometre count. Originally today was going to be a much shorter stage, but it was relatively cool and a breeze seemed to follow me all day, so I just had to make the most of that.
There was almost a stampede to pack and leave early this morning, so I am guessing other people were thinking about putting in a big day too. When I finally tied my boots on at 530am, I seemed to be the only person left. I thought they had all charged out the door and left me for dead. No matter, I set off into the breaking dawn.
I know what you’re thinking…..I am supposed to be on ‘holidays’….why am I getting out of bed at that horrific hour?? Yes, I’m hearing you, but it truly is the best time of the day to be walking.
The first part of the day was through some lush forests and then on some rural back roads. At one stage the app wanted to send me up yet another mountain to check out yet another historic church, but when I checked it out further, I could simply keep walking straight ahead, miss the ascent and the historical experience, and join up with the path again! Can you see I am finally starting to get a little wisdom?? Not much, just a little.
After the nightmare first three days I have decided to make this walk work for me, and if that means adapting the path slightly, then so be it! Possibly famous last words?
Anyway, I was making good time today with the slightly cooler temperatures and the flattish terrain. My pace was helped along by a couple of aggressive dogs who weren’t that fond of people walking on their patch. One sneaky bugger had a couple of goes at me, pretending to run away and then sneak up on me again! Once more I gave thanks for my trusty walking poles.
Over the last couple of days the path has started to take me closer to or through villages. This has dramatically increased my chance of a morning coffee. It doesn’t work out every day, but when it does, it is a very sound investment of €1. I realise I am probably a bit of a Philistine ordering a cafe Americano. Hopefully my €1 is as good as the next person’s.
I hit the 27.5km mark at 1200pm and the weather was still holding, so I made the decision to push on. The views were full of fields of corn and intensive animal farms. Other than in the Alps, I haven’t seen any cows in paddocks as such. I wonder why they feedlot all their stock?
These deep philosophical ponderings were accompanied by some very threatening thunder and when I turned to see what that was all about, there was a massive black thunderstorm bearing down on me! I doubt there was any visibly noticeable change in speed, but I hustled along and managed to tumble through the door of the ostello just as the heavens opened! My lucky day!
Not so lucky for all the other pilgrims who were actually behind me, NOT in front of me as I had thought.
Tip of the day: never say no to coffee or a cool breeze.
Date: Sunday 12 August
Distance covered to Rome: 127.6/1027km
Terrain: a mixture of stiff climbs and strolls through orchards and vineyards
Overnight: Ostello Ivrea/Canoa Club, €15.
Feeling: like I’m getting the hang of this thing
The further I head south, the more steamy and humid it is becoming. I was expecting the heat, but not the humidity. And Italians don’t seem to use fans, well not in this part of Italy anyway. I started walking at 530am as it was cooler outside than inside the ostello!
Straight up a mountainside to start the day and then it was through a rich agricultural region – grapes, corn, peaches, pears, plums and apples and the largest tomatoes I have ever seen! I was sorely tempted just to lean out from the path to grab a taste, but I refrained as it wouldn’t be fair on the farmer.
The good news is that I have finally left the autostrada behind and now I can walk in the relative quiet.
As I took a break for breakfast number two, I could see a huge thunderstorm working its way up the valley. Time to break out the new poncho! It worked a treat although I would have looked pretty funny trying to shimmy into the darn thing! Very hard to get it over my backpack. For the next little while I had to step carefully as everything was very slippery.
There were a few short road sections to be covered today. I was pleased to get those knocked over early when there wasn’t much traffic. The cars are quite considerate and give me a wide berth, but they move FAST!
Stayed in another really good ostello, right on the river at Ivrea. It is actually the canoe club and they hosted the World under 23 years canoe championships last month. It was great to sit and watch the Sunday paddlers navigate the course.
24 pilgrims in this ostello and 7 in MY room! VERY hard on the olfactory senses!
A proper Italian dinner tonight with risotto and grilled vegetables!
Tip of the day: when answering the call of nature, clear the area of stinging nettles and deer!
Date: Saturday 11 August
Distance covered to Rome: 104.1/1027km
Terrain: mostly flat and damn enjoyable
Overnight: Ostello Communale, €15.
Feeling: stiff and sore, but generally a happy camper
Yay! Light at the end of the tunnel or at least some flat terrain at last.
I left the ostello early again as I was wide awake at a ridiculous hour. There were about 15 other pilgrims at the ostello last night, mostly French and Italian. I didn’t see any of them during the day as they seem to keep more European hours (eat late, sleep late) than me.
It was very pleasant walking following the river through pretty stone villages and over bridges. The directional signage was very good and even better, there were lots of other signs explaining the historic sites AND they were in English. I love to learn as I walk rather than just saying ‘oh, that’s pretty’.
It was wonderful to see the original Roman road and arch as I walked into Donnas. I am continually amazed that something so old could still be standing.
Pont Saint Martin was jumping when I walked into the town centre. I had forgotten it was Saturday, plus Summer holidays, plus market day. I always feel incredibly self-conscious when I have to mix with the general public. I am hot, sweaty and grubby, and of course, everyone else is the height of fashion!
I found a bakery, pastries, and a quiet corner to work out where I was in the town in relation to the tonight’s ostello. What did we do before Google maps? A really excellent ostello in this town and I had the luxury of a room to myself.
I am yet to get into the local food and restaurants, perhaps that will come when I meet up with a few other walkers. In the meantime I am becoming expert at the supermarkets with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, salami and bread.
Tip of the day: stop and read all the signs. It looks like you are really interested and culturally-aware, but you are actually catching your breath!
Date: Friday 10 August
Distance covered to Rome: 85.1/1027km
Terrain: a nightmare of dangerously steep climbs and descents
Overnight: Ostello Il Casello, €24 B&B
Feeling: as if I may not make it
I turned into a mountain goat today! Admittedly a very arthritic and slow moving mountain goat, but I needed to dig deep and find my inner alpine fauna to simply survive the day.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, today was another to test my resolve and my sanity. I reckon those map-making people must have a sadistic streak! Yes, I appreciate that they want to get us off the road, out of the traffic, and perhaps show us a bit of scenery, but do they really need to take it to such extremes?
The day started with an all-but vertical climb out of Chatillon. OK, I can handle that and much better to get it out of the road early when I am relatively fresh. It was then a pleasant walk long enough to lull me into a false sense of security. The path edged the mountains and took me onto soft dirt tracks, under heavily laden grape arbors and over babbling streams. Once I was suitably distracted, reality kicked in and it all went to Hell in a hand basket. The climbs got increasingly vertical and the descents to match. This was made even more complicated with loose rock and tree roots underfoot. Maybe that is what all those religious shrines are for? Placed there by exhausted pilgrims in the hope that they won’t tumble off the mountain?
I do admit to have used a broad range of colourful language that day and it took me nearly 8 hours to cover the 21.9km!
Today was rated ‘Challenging’. You are not kidding!
Tip of the day: Catch the train!
Date: Thursday 9 August
Distance to Rome: 63.2/1027km
Terrain: gloriously flat
Overnight: Monasterio Franciscani Cappuccini, €donation.
Feeling: absolutely knackered x 2
This was another huge day, but I ‘cheated’ today and instead of following the designated walking route, I got smart and followed the cycling route which hugged the river virtually all the way to Chatillon.
The very thought of yet more cruel climbs and descents brought tears to my eyes and I knew I physically could not tackle that sort of terrain today, without doing some sort of permanent damage to my legs. That may sound a tad dramatic, but the day was about preservation not recreation!
So with every muscle screaming I set off in the early morning light to make the most distance I could while it was still cool. Even at 6am it is around 17℃ and only gets warmer from there.
The scenery was quite beautiful as the path twisted and turned with the river. Unfortunately the valley is also dominated by a four lane autostrada, so as well as the constant roar of river water you have the constant roar of traffic.
Fellow walkers will know that at the end of a long walking day, your accommodation will always be located at the top of a very steep hill. Today was no different.
Unlike the Spanish caminos, the via Francigena does not have the same sort of albergue accommodation. Instead you get to stay at monasteries and convents. What this monastery lacked in sophistication they made up for with a warm welcome. However I am not sure whether you have ever tried to use a squat toilet when every leg muscle is screaming at you not to bend or move an inch. It is not a pretty sight, but you have to laugh…or at least grimace.
I shared my room with a drop dead gorgeous Italian man and a vivacious French woman. I left them to it to go out to dinner and I passed out with exhaustion!
Sorry, not many photos today. I just had to get the day done.
Date: Wednesday 8 August
Distance to Rome: 31/1027km
Terrain: down-bloody-hill all the way
Overnight: La Belle Epoque,€48
Feeling: absolutely knackered!
Well, I can honestly say that I waaaaaaaay underestimated the via Francigena. I had heard about the Swiss alps and seen pictures of course, but I never knew the buggers were so big.
In my naivety I thought 30km in the crisp mountain air would be challenging, but doable. Ohh how wrong could I be?
I started walking just after 6 am and all-but crawled into Aosta at nearly 4.30 p.m. with absolutely nothing left in the tank and every muscle screaming blue murder.
A normal person would pay attention to the guide/map makers who recommend that this stage be split over two days, but me being the eternal optimist thought that one day would be fine.
Over the 10 hours I descended 1852 metres and my knees and leg muscles knew everyone of those metres intimately. It was a day to doubt my sanity, but when I took a moment to look up instead of where my feet were going, the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. I could not believe the pockets of snow still nestled at the mountain tops and the lushness of the forests, the fields of cows and obligatory cowbells.
￼I also could not believe the amount of people out walking on the same path. People of all ages, young and old, all out for a hike. Obviously they breed them tough over here. One additional challenge is for me to know whether to greet them with ‘bonjour’ or ‘buon giorno’ as French and Italian are spoken equally in this part of Italy.
For a good part of the day the path followed an extensive water canal construction that provided irrigation water for the many farmers and their pastures. Even though Europeans are screaming about the drought it just seems to be endless water here in the north of Italy.
A memorable day for all the wrong, and quite a few right, reasons!
Tip of the day: buy yourself a good set of walking poles and bring them!!
Next week I will be stepping out of the Australian Winter and into the European, specifically the Italian, Summer. While I am definitely looking forward to the temperature change, I do have some reservations about the language change! Continue reading
It’s all systems go as I count down for my next long distance walk. This time stepping out on the Italian leg of the Via Francigena.
If I was really committed (or should that be, “I should be committed”!) I would start at the very beginning of the Via Francigena with my first steps from Canterbury Cathedral in England. But No, I will have to be satisfied with a simple Italian stroll instead. Continue reading
Of late, my thoughts has been focussed on all things walking and I can’t help but fondly remember my three Spanish caminos. I am hoping my next adventure, the Italian leg of the Via Francigena, will be just as enjoyable, or perhaps, ‘same, same but different’.
As I follow in other bloggers ‘virtual footsteps throughout the Iberian peninsula, I thought it may be useful to some would-be pilgrims to share my own experience and to compare and contrast the three separate walks I have completed to date. Hopefully this will help people choose the one that suits them best. Continue reading
You don’t wake up one day and decide, “I am going to walk 1000km”.
Or perhaps you do.
I have heard stories of people walking out the front door of their home in Switzerland, and walking all the way to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. So, it does happen
Me? I like to do a little more research.
Yes, it’s on again! Or should I say, the walking boots are on again, and I’m excited!
In 8 months’ time I will be stepping out across the Italian countryside, powering over the rolling hills and inhaling gelato.
You would think that walking from Seville in southern Spain to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain would be MORE than enough walking, but there has never been a better city to explore on foot than the UNESCO World Heritage city of Mérida.
Mérida is around 200km due north of Seville, or eight days walk. I entered the city over the bridge built in 25BC, made up of 60 perfect consecutive arches, and I knew I was in for something special.
In desperate need of coffee, I followed winding, cobbled streets and emerged into Plaza de España to be greeted by not only copious amounts of tasty and reviving coffee, but the heart of the city. The plaza was just coming to life – yes, it was pretty early, but the throng grew and it became a hub of chatter and gossip. Even the ubiquitous Spanish storks thought it was the best place to reside.
I think that Australia has a lot to learn from countries such as Spain. Either by good luck, good management or tradition, towns, cities and even the smallest villages in Spain have incorporated central spaces for people to meet and socialise. This has to be good for the soul as well as building a strong sense of community. It also gives the areas a warm, bubbling vibe. It attracts tourists like me and we stay and spend money. What is not to love?
Anyway, back to the history…
Mérida was established in the first century BC as Emérita Augusta, the capital of Roman Lusitania. It occupies a prominent position on the Silver Route (Ruta de la Plata), the main transport route for moving goods (especially silver) from southern Spain to the north, and is the basis for the 1000km-long Camino Via de la Plata trail. The Romans left behind lasting reminders of their occupation which are a feast for both the eyes and minds of amateur historians like me.
With only one and a half rest days in Mérida, I had to be selective about how I was going to spend my time. There is so much history, I simple couldn’t see it all.
The Tourist Office in Plaza de España sells tickets that include entry to many of the archaeological sites. For €12 you can access the Theatre and Amphitheatre, the Alcazaba, Circus and more. It comes with a handy map which shows you how to navigate the city to reach these sites.
My first stop was the Amphitheatre, a stage where burly gladiators wrestled with beasts. This building preserves some of its original elements, like the grandstands, the box and the gallery. I could almost hear the roar of both the audience and the ferocious animals fighting for their lives.
The Teatro Romano right next door to the Amphitheatre was erected between 15 and 16BC and can seat 6000 people. The original stage area is dominated by two rows of columns, decorated with the remains of sculptures of deities and imperial figures. When I visited, workers were busily constructing temporary stages and sound systems. I am not sure what performance was planned but I suspect it was opera. How cool would it be to watch any show against such a historic backdrop? Each Summer they hold the Mérida Classical Theatre Festival, apparently one of the most important of its kind in Spain. Now that would be something to see and a perfect excuse for me to return.
On the same site are a number of gardens and excavations revealing detailed friezes and parts of Roman buildings. It must be a nightmare to build anything in this city. As soon as you start digging a footing or similar, you find yet another Roman, Visigoth or Moorish relic. What I don’t get is where all the dirt comes from that hides the generations of construction? These are big buildings, how do they get buried so deep underground? Obviously more research is required on my part.
Back to the map again and off to the Roman Circus. Again, my imagination ran wild with the roars of the crowd and the pounding of the horse’s hooves. This is one of the best preserved circuses to be found and also one of the largest at 403m long and 96m wide. The stands could hold 30 000 spectators. What a sound they would have made when their charioteer was winning.
The Aqueduct of the Milagros is simply gobsmacking. How something so large and so old can remain standing for so long, I will never know. It is commonly known as ‘Los Milagros’, or the miracles, because of its ability to withstand the tests of time. More than 800metres of the aqueduct have been preserved and some sections are 27m high.
The Diana Temple was similarly astounding. An awesome piece of architecture squeezed into the Mérida CBD. I love how such history is juxtaposed with modern buildings right next door.
If I had had more time I would have liked to visit the National Museum of Roman Art. With more than 36 000 artefacts – all of which were found in Mérida and its vicinity – apparently it is an excellent snapshot of the history of the city and its Roman legacy. Again, that will have to wait until next time.
As I explored the city, I bumped into a few of my fellow walkers. Andrea from Italy was equally impressed with Mérida and he thought it contained the best range of Roman ruins outside of Rome. High praise indeed.
There were arches and forums and Christian churches and bridges and Moslem citadels. My brain hurt, my feet hurt and I simply couldn’t take more in. I suspect it is possible to spend days in this magical city and still not feel like you have seen it all. Even with a flying visit to the Arab fortress, the Alcazaba, I felt I didn’t even start to get my head around that period of history which followed Roman occupation.
Time and energy beat me, and with a flattened camera battery, I retreated to Plaza de España. Sitting there, I started to wonder what it would feel like to grow up and live, amongst such significant history. Would the locals become a bit blasé about it all as they stroll past yet another 4th BC dig site on their way to the supermarket?
How good would it be to go to school in Mérida and study ancient history at the same time? Not only could you study history but you would walk past it on your way to school. Or maybe I would be just another bored school kid, more interested in the playground and Pokemon Go than a pile of dusty stones.
More things to ponder as I shouldered my backpack and stepped out into the dawn, northbound once more …
What: Mérida is a city of around 60 000 people strategically placed eight walking days north of Seville. I had a rest day there as part of the Camino Via de la Plata and stayed at a nice little hotel called Hostal Senero, tucked in a small street near Plaza de España.
Where: Mérida – is about 200km north of Seville.
When: A rest day, so two nights in September 2014. Cool mornings and beautiful blue sky days.
Why: I had done some research before leaving Australia and all the forums etc raved about Merida as a perfect place to rest and soak up some ancient history.
How: I walked into town but it is also accessible by train, regular buses, or you can fly into Badajoz (about 50 km to the west of Mérida).
Who: Myself, and two hardy and inspiring Canadians.
Related Posts: For more information about walking the Camino Via de la Plata, have a look at https://melsonebigadventure.wordpress.com/category/two-feet-walking/camino-via-de-la-plata-2014/
Related Blogs: For more photos of Roman ruins, have a look at: http://www.takingontheworld.net/world-travel-blog/spain/merida
Read About It: For background information and guidebooks on the Via de la Plata, have a look at Book Depository
This has to be my favourite Camino so far. The Via de la Plata makes the most of Spain’s wide open spaces as you walk through large expanses of farm land, wheat fields, grape vines and forests. All that space is sprinkled with magical cities like Merida and Salamanca, and each day you walk in the footsteps of Romans, Moors and generations of Spaniards.
Yes, it was also probably the most difficult of the three caminos I have completed, but it was the most rewarding. The difficulty relates to the large distances that must be covered some days, just to get from village to town.
The Via de la Plata is definitely more remote than other caminos and that was what I enjoyed. It simply meant that I had to plan ahead, load up with snacks and carry plenty of water.
It is interesting how your perspective changes from camino to camino. On the Francés, 25km was considered a tough day, but on the Via that was ‘normal’ and 35km-days fell into the ‘tough’ category. Of course, there was always the option to catch a bus or taxi to minimise the long stretches but I simply kept putting one foot in front of the other.
So here are the basic logistics of this camino:
Start Day: Thursday 4 September 2014, from Seville, Spain
Finish Day: Tuesday 14 October 2014, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
- Via de la Plata: Seville (due north) to Granja de Moreruela (approx. 700km)
- Sanabrés: Granja de Moreruela (north westerly) to Santiago de Compostela (approx. 300km)
- Total: 1000km – give or take a few kilometres
- Daily Average: 26.3km
- Longest Day: 42km (by bad luck and poor management! A comedy of errors except I wasn’t laughing anymore!)
- Shortest Day: 15.7km
- Walking: 38
- Rest: 3 (Merida, Salamanca, Ourense)
Times: Southern Spain can be hot! Even in Autumn, I did my best to avoid the heat of the day by starting early, often in the pre-dawn dark.
Terrain: Very mixed. This camino matches the Camino Frances for variety. There is everything from quaint villages and towns, to Roman roads, farm tracks and a bit of scary roadside walking. There were days and days of walking through the wide open countryside, but also a number of tough days slogging uphill for the best part of the day. It felt good to reach the top!
Weather: Glorious most days. Cool crisp mornings to start out (I did wear a beanie and gloves some mornings) but it would heat up from about 10a.m. onwards. Some days are very hot, so make sure you stay hydrated and wear sunscreen. A good hat is compulsory.
Maps & Guides: This was a real challenge.
- I used Gerald Kelly’s – Walking Guide to the Via de la Plata and the Camino Sanabrés (Feb 2014). It was OK but I wouldn’t recommend it unless it has been comprehensively updated. Much of the content was out of date and many of the maps were seriously inaccurate – at times whole villages/towns were missing! (I have just checked and he has released a 2nd edition dated May 2016).
- I used that book in conjunction with the website godesalco.com. This site is very handy as you can customise your route before leaving home, according to the distance you would prefer to walk each day. It will also let you know the types of accommodation available in each town and show the elevation of each leg of the walk.
- Some walking companions had a copy of the guidebook printed by the Seville-based, Amigos del Camino de Santiago Via de la Plata. It was also not 100% accurate but, using our combined guides and maps, we seemed to muddle through OK. I would recommend using a couple of maps and/or guides just so you can cross-reference one with another.
- Another useful website is the Spanish site – Gronze.com/via-plata. It is all in Spanish but the maps are useful, as are the accommodation lists.
Way-marking: varied from being fantastic to non-existent.
- There were some serious road works going on when I walked and at times the path led me to the edge of a massive excavation/cutaway. One minute path, next minute nothing! That’s where logic and a good sense of direction were required as I navigated around and/or across these works to connect to the camino again.
- Beware: leaving Zamora. We walked out in the early morning dark and mistakenly followed the arrows that took us north-west on the Camino de Santiago Portugués Via de la Plata! After about 5km of cross country walking we were back on track and heading due north again.
Accommodation: the locals on this camino really understand the economic potential of providing services and facilities for pilgrims.
- Albergues are plentiful and mostly of excellent quality – both private and municipal.
- There was some chatter about bed bugs along the route but luckily, I had no problems. If you are susceptible to these critters, I would go prepared.
- Albergue costs varied from donativo (free) to €12, which included bedding, towels and breakfast.
- Small, private hotels started at €20 (single).
Food: typical Spanish fare with lashings of ham, ham, and more ham.
- Pilgrim’s menus or menu del dia were readily available.
- If you are a caffeine addict then you need to plan carefully or bring your own makings as, on some days, there are NO cafes from sun-up to sun down. Yes, a true crisis I know!
This is not an easy camino but I would recommend it highly.
If I were to repeat a camino one day in the future, it would be this one. My mind and spirit opened up to match the wide open spaces and gave me the feeling that I was truly walking the world!
Read About It: For background information and guidebooks on the Via de la Plata, have a look at Book Depository
Talk to any camino addict and you will be spellbound by stories of breathtaking sunrises, effortless strolls across the Spanish countryside, and the dazzling taste of that first ice cold beer at the end of each walking day. What they are less likely to share are all the ‘interesting’ things that happen along the way that add colour and challenge to walking 790 km in one go.
In 2013 I convinced The Brave Man* that walking the Camino Francés would be a wonderful holiday and marital experience. As we are not a couple known for, or good at, ‘fly and flop’ holidays, he readily agreed. What is that saying? “Act in haste, repent at leisure”?
Over the 31 days it took us to walk the Camino Francés, we had plenty of leisure time to consider the merits of this type of ‘holiday’. It started pretty much on day one as we clambered up the Pyrénées. Yes, we had trained and yes, we were pretty fit but those damn mountains just kept going up and ^%$#@ UP! We have mountains in Australia, but I had never experienced anything like this before. It was day one, I was jetlagged and carrying around 15 kgs on my back and it would have to be the hardest day’s work I have ever done in my life! That large, cold beer waiting for me on the Spanish side of the mountains was the only thing that kept me putting one foot in front of the other. As it was my idea to do this walk in the first place, I just had to keep plodding away, and I simply didn’t have the energy to throw a tantrum halfway up the mountain!
The days got better from then on as we left the mountains behind, even though only temporarily, and we quickly established a simple routine. Rise early (mostly in the dark), walk a couple of hours, find coffee and a bakery, walk another couple of hours, snack by the side of the road, then find a bed and a beer. Next day, repeat.
The volume of pilgrims walking the same path really surprised us but, being morning people, our early starts meant that we mostly avoided the daily stampede for beds in the albergues. Arriving at our destination around 1pm meant that we had the afternoon to rest, relax, inspect and repair our numerous blisters, delicately remove blackened and lifting toe nails, do some washing, massage sore muscles and stroll around the sights of whichever village we were sleeping in. Not such a good sight or sound was The Brave Man’s* mobile phone tumbling around in a front loader washing machine. Oops! Perhaps it didn’t work anymore but at least it was clean.
Along the way, I was frequently disappointed by the amount of litter by the side of the path, and the graffiti and/or vandalism of the waymarks. Both local government and voluntary associations appear to have spent a lot of time and money erecting distance markers and other information signs. Why would a person want to write all over them or steal the damn things? How does this help the thousands of pilgrims who will follow in the same footsteps? And isn’t it really bad pilgrim karma?
Another challenge, in the same vein, was the almost total lack of public toilets. In 2013, nearly 152,000 people walked the Camino Francés – providing a whole new perspective on a completely different type of litter. I am not pointing the finger at anyone here, as I also made numerous dives into the bushes, but I can’t help thinking that this would be a fantastic business opportunity. A few strategically placed portable toilets, on a pay-per-use basis, would make someone a fortune!
Each day brought new faces and new conversations as we walked along. The thing I particularly enjoyed was that the conversation could last five minutes or five hours, depending on the personal connection. There was no compulsion to chat or slow your pace if you weren’t so inclined and that was a good thing. Not everyone I met was fascinating, not everyone I met was even likeable. It’s all part of the walk, and a good reflection of life in general I guess.
The albergue, or hostel-style, accommodation can prove to be one of the walk’s major challenges for some people, but it is very sociable and invokes the true spirit of the camino. One day The Brave Man* was feeling a bit fragile, so I sped up and walked ahead to secure beds for us both in the next small village, which is known for having very limited accommodation. I was pretty pleased with myself as I ducked and weaved and overtook more laid-back pilgrims, and eventually pounced on the two remaining beds in the loft of an ancient, cavernous church. Unfortunately, The Brave Man* was less than impressed with the architectural aspects on the building when he found out that the ‘beds’ were gym mats lined up edge-to-edge on the floor of said loft. As we sneaked off into the pre-dawn dark the next morning, he advised me in colourful and no uncertain terms that he was choosing our next effing holiday destination! Oops again.
But the sun always rises and each day brings new joys. Just when I thought my feet would not carry me another step, I walked through a field of sunflowers where some smarty pants had created smiley faces to motivate and delight. I just kept reminding myself that whatever our experience today, it could not be one thousandth as arduous as the journey taken by the pilgrims in the 10th and 11th centuries. Yes, every pilgrim gets hot, tired, wet, sore and hungry, but all that is fixable just over the next hill or around the next bend.
The weird thing is that no matter the size of the disaster or the exhaustion of each day, many pilgrims – and I am one of them – can’t help themselves from starting to plan the next pilgrimage even before they have finished the first. That is where the ‘addiction’ description fits in.
Maybe the strongest, common links between all pilgrims is a sense of misplaced optimism. We know if we keep putting one foot in front of the other that one day we will achieve our goal. Perhaps a need for a clear sense of achievement, or spiritual enlightenment for some, enables us to push through the tough times until we stand in front of that imposing cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Then it all seems so worthwhile.
The Camino Francés is not perfect, but neither is life. Like life, it is totally up to you to find something special in each day.
The Basics Box
What: The Camino Francés follows one of the ancient pilgrim trails that pay homage to the Apostle St James. It is approx. 790km in length.
Where: This camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port (southern France), crosses the Pyrénées mountains and ends at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-western Spain.
When: We walked in Autumn but you could walk anytime except deep Winter when snow regularly cuts the path and it becomes too dangerous. It took us 31 walking days plus two rest days.
Why: We like active holidays and this trip came highly recommended as a way to meet a vast range of interesting people, get a deep insight into a country, eat good food and travel relatively inexpensively.
How: We flew into Paris and then travelled by train south to Bayonne – connecting to St Jean Pied de Port via an excellent shuttle company called Express Bourricot.
Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and thousands of other people. 500 walkers started out every day from Saint Jean Pied de Port.
Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Frances, purchase it from Book Depository
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
A flying trip to Vietnam in 2000 began my love affair with that country. I am not sure what it was that so deftly captured my imagination, as it could be described as no different from one of many frantic Asian countries. To me it is a magical blend of cultures – uniquely Vietnamese but with strong French, Chinese and American undercurrents.
Its siren song was answered in 2010 when I decided to return to Hanoi as a volunteer with VietHealth. This organisation delivers health services to people with disabilities, mother/baby health and HIV/AIDS patients. That was an interesting and culturally-challenging experience and I think it deserves its own separate blog post.
My role at VietHealth was your traditional Monday to Friday stint and I used some weekends to escape the happy madness that is Hanoi. Begging an extra day to offset some ‘overtime’, I booked a memorable, if incredibly damp, walking trip to Sapa in the far north west of Vietnam.
After a bit of shopping around and a small amount of haggling (something I am hopeless at) I booked a 3-day tour with ET Pumpkin. Not sure how they came up with that business name but it was certainly hard to forget. The day arrived and I was to meet my fellow travellers (a mini United Nations) at the travel agent’s office to catch a shuttle bus to Hanoi train station. It soon became clear that the bus was missing in action, so the travel agent paid a taxi to provide transport. Imagine our surprise when the taxi driver insisted that we pay again when we arrived at the station. We were not that gullible and pushed into the swarming crowd with an irate taxi driver’s shouts ringing in our ears.
The train station was absolute chaos with thousands of people milling about, jostling for tickets and seats. Once we got through security it was relatively straight-forward and we quickly found our train, our carriage and our 4-berth sleeper compartment. Being Vietnam, there were six people in the compartment including three sleeping in the one bed. Oh well, go with the flow….
After 10 hours on the train, we pulled into Lao Cai station early the next morning and a lovely lady woke us with the offer of coffee. This was just what I needed after a rough night interrupted by constant mobile phone calls and text messages (evil, black looks aimed at the multi-occupancy berth) and insistent rapping on the window each time the train stopped. Why? I have no idea. The coffee, when it arrived, was miniscule, disgusting and five times the normal price of a coffee in Vietnam. It should have been a wake-up call that there is no such thing as a free lunch OR a free coffee!
Lao Cai was a cacophony of minibus touts and local hawkers. After spotting a hand-written sign that said Mrs Melanie, my fellow ‘ET Pumpkinites’ and I found our transport, and journeyed up to Sapa in the lowering clouds and eventual rain. Sapa itself is a neat and clean town that clearly makes the most of its tourist status. We were delivered to the Pumpkin Hotel (what else would you call a hotel?) to await our guide while we watched the rain fall.
After shuffling luggage around (leaving the bulk of it at the hotel), we stumbled off into the deluge with our Vietnamese guide, Diep. I suspect we were most probably crazy but our craziness was matched by the determination of the Black Hmong women who followed us for two whole days trying to sell us trinkets and local craft. Now that is commitment to a sale!
I slid. I slithered. I slopped through puddles. If I was lucky, the mist parted for 30 seconds and the reward was a spectacular panorama of terraced hillsides complete with buffalo and quaint villages. Unfortunately Vietnamese mud has a greasy consistency and the ability to clump and clod, turning normal footwear into shoes the size of bean bags! It meant that 99% of the time I had to keep both eyes firmly glued on the path rather than peering through the rain.
“Pride goeth before a fall” as the saying goes, and I was feeling particularly cocky at one stage as I was still relatively dry and mud-free. Just as that thought exited my brain, I did an extremely inelegant pirouette and landed backside first into a rice paddy. Nothing like getting up close and personal with the local agriculture!
As I walked, I reflected that the landscape probably hadn’t changed much in the last 1000 years. Yes, the houses might be marginally more modern and the roads slightly improved, and the presence of electricity poles irrevocably changes the vista, but the locals were planting rice and farming with buffalos thousands of years ago and they are still doing it today.
While I wouldn’t wish to trade places, I can’t help but think there would be some small comfort in knowing what you are going to do every day and every season. A rice farmer is a rice farmer is a rice farmer and that is what society expects of you. No doubt younger generations yearn to join ‘modern’ society but I wonder how many actually get the opportunity to break out of their traditional roles?
Due to the desire to get out of the incessant rain, we covered the distance in record time and arrived back at the Pumpkin Hotel where I fell into a very welcome hot shower. I then had time to explore the town (in the ever-present rain) before the return bus trip to Lao Cai and on towards home in Hanoi.
The return bus ride was a highlight of the trip, thanks to my travelling companions. The bus trundled around Sapa collecting various ordinary tourists like myself as well as a number of locals cadging a free ride back to Lao Cai. Perhaps relatives of the driver? A none-too-hygienic lady plopped herself next to me, smiled and proceeded to eat her bread roll and drink my water bottle dry. She did ask permission via the usual international sign language and what could I do but say Yes.
Everything was going well until the bus shot around a particularly sharp bend and my Vietnamese lady flew out of our bench seat and landed unceremoniously on the floor in the aisle. After lots of laughter and more smiles, she decided to avoid this happening again – and hung onto me and my arm for the remainder of the trip. Gripping tightly, she couldn’t believe the muscles in my arm (yes, I am quite robust) and proceeded to roll up my sleeve to check them out. Even more shocking to her were the hairs on my arm, which she then pulled, tweaked and giggled at all the way to Lao Cai. Personal space? Who needs it?!
Despite the filthy weather and the invasion of privacy it was an unforgettable couple of days. If nothing else, walking for two days through rain, mist and the muddy rice terraces of Sapa confirmed to me the beauty of the country, the friendliness of its people and the privileged life I have with my ability to travel.
All those old clichés really are true.
International travel challenges, teaches and breaks down barriers.
Being both the Queen of the Dumb Question and the Queen of Ridiculous Theories About Everything, my most recent camino – the Caminho Portugués – gave me the perfect opportunity to empirically test my latest theory, “that I can walk solo across a foreign country for an extended period of time AND enjoy it”. Hardly a ground-breaking theory but, being the off-the-scale chatterbox/extrovert that I am, it could prove to be way out of my comfort zone.
I have come to the pursuit of long distance walking late in life so maybe it has been a bit of a vagabond mid-life crisis. In 2013 I walked the Camino Frances – from St Jean Pied de Port in southern France to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain – with my husband. I had visions of marital bonding over deep and meaningful conversations with The Brave Man* but did not plan for the fact that we walk at completely different speeds so we spent very little time actually walking together. Or maybe he walked extra fast on purpose to avoid the aforementioned conversations?
In 2014 I walked the Camino Via de la Plata – from Seville in southern Spain back up to Santiago – with a lovely Canadian couple I met on the previous walk. This walk was long – over 1000km – and yet we managed to navigate any slight differences of opinion and remained firm friends at the end of the 41 days of dust, sweat, blisters, rain and stunning scenery.
When I was contemplating another camino, I was inspired by the Australian author, Ailsa Piper and her book, Sinning Across Spain. She walked solo to Santiago, all the way from Granada in the very south of Spain, and I figured that this might also be a good challenge for me. With my need for constant chatter and feedback from another, could I walk a camino solo?
The short answer is – Yes.
Naturally 660km gave me plenty of time to think and reflect on everything from the role of religion in society to the need for new socks, the lack of public toilets, and the crippling nature of cobblestones. It also gave me time to consider whether solo walking was for me, and I progressively developed a list of pros and cons.
- Ultimate Flexibility. Walking solo means you can start when you want, stop when you want and do whatever you damn-well please even if that means smelling and photographing every flower from Lisbon to Spain.
- The Quiet. My mind wanders and I am able to follow every random thought down every rabbit hole for minutes or hours on end.
- The Quiet. Allows me to tread gently and to enjoy the local fauna such as lime green lizards, snakes and a large and loud bullfrog chorus.
- Being Present. I think walking solo allows you to be more ‘present’ in the moment. That may sound a bit wafty, but I did my best to simply absorb my surrounds and appreciate what I was seeing and experiencing. Not having to worry about anyone else meant I could just focus on the ‘now’ and what was in front of me. It is a difficult thing to do when our lifestyles/society expect us to be constantly on the move to the next ‘thing’.
- Sharing the Good Times. Unfortunately walking solo meant that I had no one to share the beautiful sunrise, the gorgeous blooms or the singing frogs with. A few times I did say out loud, “Wow, look at that!”, but it lost its impact when there was no one there to respond.
- Sharing the Challenging Moments. Going solo meant it was completely up to me to navigate maps, find missing arrows and translate questionable directions. Two heads are always better than one (well, almost always), even if it just to share the blame of an unplanned ‘detour’. Two heads or four eyes are also better at spotting tricky arrows that insist on hiding in bushes and up trees, or fading to nothingness.
- Taking Risks. If I had walked with someone, I would have felt a bit braver about taking that detour or exploring an appealing path. The Coastal route took me inland 90% of the time. If I had walked with someone else, perhaps I would have been more game to explore paths right next to the sea.
- Sharing the Load. Walking with others means it is not just my responsibility to find somewhere to eat, sleep, shop and wash my clothes. The simple logistics of living in a foreign country can get a tad tiring after a while.
- Eating. I am not a foodie so I was happy to snack and graze. I suspect I would have eaten more and better if I had been travelling with someone else. Then there is also the issue of dining out at a table-for-one with a very large ‘L’ for loser on my forehead.
- Sleeping. A single room is ALWAYS more expensive than a double or twin room on a per person basis.
- Safety and Security. I am a tough bird but I know people at home were concerned for my safety as I set out on my own. I am sensible and didn’t take risks, but there were lots of raised eyes and furrowed brows amongst family and friends.
So, overall? Yes, I enjoyed it and it was a memorable experience.
Would I walk solo again? Yes, I would if I had to but it would not be my first choice. As mentioned previously I am an extrovert and I love interacting and sharing with others. The fact that my walking day started early – usually around 5.45am – meant that all the sane people were still fast asleep and I walked the majority of the day on my own. The early starts maximised the cool temperatures and the gorgeous sunrises, but on the downside, I was a lone figure in the dawn landscape.
Hmmmm, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all………..
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
I am a country girl at heart and an urban landscape has to be pretty special to hold my interest and attention. Porto, in northern Portugal, has not only captured my heart but it has carried it away.
It seemed to take forever to walk into the centre of the city. The Camhino Portugués, and its yellow arrows, took us through the Porto suburbs for hours but even in the outlying areas there was a subtle buzz. The hubble bubble reached a crescendo as my walking companions and I arrived at the spectacular steel bridge that connects Gaia on the southern side of the River Douro and Porto proper. We all uttered a clichéd ‘WOW’ and proceeded to snap far too many photos – just like all the other tourists.
Porto is a city of around 230 000 people and is an effective blend of the old and new. The centre of Porto is classified as World Heritage but there is room for innovation via graffiti art, murals and quirky sculpture. Porto is home to two particularly famous graffiti artists who are now contracted to complete murals on behalf of business and the community.
Maybe this is something we could be doing in Australia to harness the creative energy of taggers and other graffiti ‘vandals’?
You would think that when I arrive in a city I would have had enough of walking for a while but, after a little rest, I always try to join a walking tour. In Porto I signed up for the free walking tour. I love the initiative of the guides and you pay/tip what you think the tour is worth. Unfailingly their love of history and passion for their city is infectious and guarantees an enjoyable and value-for-money four hours.
My chosen walking tour really ticked off the highlights of this magical city. The old vs new contrast was showcased by the shopping centre UNDER the garden – Jardim da Cordoaria. The shopping centre is a three layer affair – underground carpark, split level shops and then a spacious garden and park built on the roof of the centre, complete with 50 year old olive trees. A clever use of space generally but the inclusion of green space is even more important in my book.
Another ‘new’ aspect was the McDonalds in the centre of town. Not that I am a McDonalds fan – however they have set up home in a glorious art deco café BUT they are not allowed to change a thing on or in the building. Picture a McDonalds with chandeliers and expanses of stained glass – trés chic even for a fast food outlet.
Porto is a very popular short-break destination and on the walking tour there were English, Polish, German and French tourists. I met a young Lithuanian cardiologist and GP couple, and did my best to recruit them to move to Mudgee! You can’t blame me for trying.
The old railway station is a hive of activity as visitors come and go but the station is a tourist attraction in itself. The foyer is covered with 20 000 hand-painted tiles telling the story of Portugal’s history as well as the development of transport in the country. Definitely worth a visit even if you aren’t going anywhere.
The tour continued through the old city back to the bridge that I originally walked over into Porto. The bridge itself has many stories, and interestingly it was designed by Gustave Eiffel’s company – yes, of Eiffel Tower fame.
We progressively wended our way through tiny back streets to arrive at the River Douro (River of Gold). Love it or hate it, this is probably the most touristy part of the city complete with multiple buskers and touts trying to lure tourists into their cafés and restaurants with promises of authentic Portuguese fare. This area – called Ribeira – has a vibrancy that needs to be seen and experienced to be believed. A constant flow of people, boats, music and hawkers. This is the main hop on/off point for river cruises – something I didn’t get time to do – and it would have been a picturesque way to fill in a couple of hours and get a different perspective on the city.
I am kicking myself but I also didn’t get time to visit any of the port wine lodges that fill the southern banks of the river. Obviously Porto gets its name from this historic and prolific industry, but the port lodges are actually located in the town (now suburb) of Vila Nova da Gaia, opposite Porto itself. It would be possible to spend days exploring the many different port lodges if you had the time and the stamina, but this will have to wait for my return trip.
My all-time highlight of the visit was the Livraria Lello book shop. I am a book nut from way back but this store is definitely worth the €3 entry fee. It is ranked in the top 10 most beautiful book stores in the world and JK Rowling supposedly based the library at Hogwarts on its interior. Established in 1906, it features sweeping timber staircases, floor to ceiling book shelves, and elaborate wood paneling and balustrades. It is possible to enjoy a coffee on the top floor but I was happy just to sit and be surrounded by the decadent abundance of literature. Yep, I am a book geek, but I believe there are worse vices.
My rest days in Porto were over all too soon and if I had my time again I would have allowed at least three full days to truly absorb all that the city has to offer. What I did plan well was my accommodation at Sao Bento Apartments – convenient, comfortable and private. Just what I needed after sharing rooms with 35 other pilgrims and their nocturnal noises for the previous 10 days.
Porto has converted this country girl and it continues to call my name.
Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Portuguese, purchase it from Book Depository
As I flew into Lisbon (a day late and without my backpack…..but that is a WHOLE different blog post) I was dazzled by the blanket of green on the horizon. In my jetlag fog I had forgotten that it was Spring in Portugal.
When researching each camino I spend a bit of time on a comprehensive web forum where passionate walkers share their experience and knowledge of all the different caminos. It seemed that walking the Caminho Portugués in Spring was a popular option, so I thought I would give it a whirl. My two previous caminos were in Autumn so subconsciously I was expecting a golden landscape – not such lushness. I quickly got myself into the new mindset and adjusted to damp, grey skies.
Yes, my wet weather gear got a bit of a workout but this was a small price to pay for a green vista in every direction. There was such abundant growth that at times I struggled to follow the dirt paths, especially when the path was only about 40cm wide and the grass was up to my waist. It is hard to manoeuvre walking poles through such groundcover and it dramatically reduces their usefulness. In the end I just had to hold the poles up high and hope one of my two left feet didn’t trip up. I also thanked my lucky stars I was walking in Spring before the snakes got busy or the chance of bushfire dramatically increased. I understand both are common throughout Portugal.
The apparently unseasonal wet weather, which I struck when I started out from Lisbon, meant that streams and rivers were high and busy gurgling away. It seemed that every turn in the path revealed another perfect photo opportunity – water streaming over rocks with an ancient stone bridge and shady trees forming a picturesque arch. A photographer’s paradise.
The rivers and creeks were fed by streams of water oozing out of the hillside, forming spontaneous waterfalls but also quagmires. There were times when I literally had to head to the scrub to circumvent the path that was either now a mud bath or a foot deep under water.
As I walked this camino solo, I decided very early on that I would take my time and stop whenever I damn-well pleased. So, I was conscious to savour every breathtaking view and allow myself time to stop and smell the roses – as the old cliché says. I may have looked a bit silly sticking my nose into every rose I saw – and there were many of them – but I wanted to absorb all the beauty that surrounded me every day.
Coming from drought-stricken Australia, it was a luxury to walk amongst fields of scarlet poppies and brilliant yellow daisies – all growing naturally. Wild roses twined their way through roadside trees and draped over stone walls, and Arum lilies were as big as dinner plates.
My sense of smell was rewarded on a daily basis with wild honeysuckle, jasmine and lavender sending out their signature scents. You can’t imagine what a pick-me-up it is at the end of a tiring day to be engulfed by their heady perfumes. It was the perfect distraction from aching shoulders and tired legs.
The Portuguese are dedicated gardeners on both a large and small scale. For days I walked through tomato, capsicum and corn farms as well as amongst grapevines as far as the eye could see. While I am very used to grapevines in Mudgee, there is something extra special about walking through vineyards at sunrise when the dew is still fresh on the young tendrils.
The backyard gardeners love their vegetable patches, flowers, potted plants and a diverse range of questionable garden ornaments. I imagine most of these are tended by older people, as the majority of towns and villages are empty of people under the age of 60. It was not uncommon to walk past fields and yards where old people were down on their hands and knees with a hand scythe trying to tame the Spring growth.
It would be interesting to find out if this gardening obsession is driven by tradition, habit or necessity. I learnt that in Portugal, 60% of the population has an average monthly income of only €520! Any home grown produce must be a useful addition to the housekeeping budget.
As well as the abundant flora, animals and insects were prolific. One morning I was walking and heard ahead the most almighty racket. I slowed and walked quietly to peer over a rock wall. There were 11 of the largest, fattest frogs sitting on the edge of a tank, croaking their hearts out. Such a happy sound, and it made me smile.
I also enjoyed watching the lime green lizards that were common on the Coastal route. They weren’t camera shy at all and were happy to be observed as they sunned themselves. I became quite the naturalist!
Springtime in Portugal was a feast for the eyes, ears and nose and a totally enjoyable experience. Not that a lot of what I saw was unique, but to spend days walking through such beauty made for a truly memorable camino.
Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Portuguese, purchase it from Book Depository
It is difficult to distill all that I saw and experienced in 23 days in Portugal down to 1 000 words, so I thought I would attempt to capture the essence of the walk in ten dot points. It’s not a definitive list and I’m sure there will be many tips that occur to me after I hit the submit button – but here we go:
1. Be thin before you arrive!: Portugal, unlike Spain, has a delicious range of cake shops or pastelaria. It is possible to eat your body weight in cakes – especially pastel de nata – every day! You will be walking every day so I think this gives you the perfect excuse to sample all the delights the cake shops and cafes have to offer. All in the name of research, of course!
2. Take good shoes/boots: I estimate that over 80% of the walk is on hard surfaces, i.e. tarred roads, edges of highways and kilometres and kilometres of mongrel cobblestones. Even the smallest, remotest village has wall-to-wall cobblestones underfoot and this becomes a special kind of torture at the end of the day when legs, feet and ankles are already tired and sore.
3. Friendly locals: you will find the Portuguese people unfailingly friendly and welcoming. A word of warning when asking directions. Be prepared for a long and loud stream of Portuguese with much finger pointing and arm waving. All to help you of course, but it can be a bit overwhelming when you only pick up every 50th word! Then the neighbours join in and give their 50c-worth of alternative routes and it becomes quite the community debate. Often I found that after this long conversation the person would insist on walking with me, grabbing my arm to lead me along, to ensure I got back on track. Very caring and nice to experience in this day and age when few people have time for strangers. (I did return the favour one day when I helped an old lady muster her sheep by using my walking poles to corral the recalcitrant sheep down the road! But that’s another story.)
4. Dogs: while the humans are super-friendly, Portuguese dogs would like to have you for breakfast. The security-conscious Portuguese all have bored, frustrated and very angry dogs of all shapes and sizes to protect their properties. While these are mostly behind locked gates and fences, it is still off-putting to be assaulted by a cacophony of barks and growls as you creep by. Then there are the packs of roaming dogs. They certainly give you pause but I quickly learned to use one walking pole as a prodder/barrier and then raise the other as if ready to strike. The dogs soon got the message and I walked on unharmed…but always with one wary eye checking behind me.
5. Plan rest days wisely: I am kicking myself that I didn’t allow more flexibility in my schedule to stay longer in a few places. I had rest days in Coimbra and Porto which were interesting and enjoyable, but I would have loved a rest day in Tomar to immerse myself in the Knights Templar history of the town. A couple of extra days in Porto could also have been easily filled with the sights and sounds and beverages of that amazing city. I would consider an extra day too in Valença/Tui on the border of Portugal/Spain. Its walled cities and cathedrals were worthwhile exploring.
6. Consider the Coastal Route: I only walked 5 days on the Coastal route and was kicking myself (again) that I didn’t allow time to walk the rest of the route from A Guardia up to Rendondela (along the Spanish coast). The sea breezes, port cities, and the lonely cry of a seagull, made for a completely different camino experience for this chick from the bush. The terrain was interesting with a smattering of Roman roads, and the route was well-marked and relatively free of crowds.
7. Calls of Nature: in contrast to Spain, public toilets do exist in Portugal and can be quite plentiful in some places. Unfortunately nine times out of ten, they are locked! Be prepared to dive into the bushes if nature calls but choose your location carefully. Beware of:
- Blackberry bushes and their thorny brambles that will snag socks, clothing and anything else exposed to the elements.
- Stinging nettles that hide themselves in the above-mentioned blackberry bushes
- Unsuspecting locals wandering by.
- Preferably choose a spot where mint grows wild. Your very own ‘open air’ air freshener.
8. Weather: prepare for everything. I guess springtime can be rather unpredictable but be ready for weather of all sorts. There are few fountains, or few with potable water, so ensure you carry water with you. Sunscreen is vital. It can also get pretty windy and there were a few days I did Marilyn Monroe imitations with a billowing poncho – rather undermining its effectiveness. Needless to say there was NOTHING else remotely Monroesque about me during the entire walk!
9. Be Bilingual: it is quite a culture shock to walk across the long bridge at Valença/Tui. Within minutes you are in a different time zone speaking a different language. Instantly it became ‘Gracias’ rather than ‘Obrigada’ but the locals are forgiving. If this is not doable for you, English is pretty widely spoken and it is possible to muddle through without a word of either Portuguese or Spanish.
10. Prepare for Crowds: it is relatively quiet and relaxing from Lisbon to Porto but that changes noticeably from Porto onwards, and especially from Valença/Tui (the border). What are all these strangers doing on my walk?? It is yet another small culture shock, and the competition for a bed ramps up significantly, but is it wonderfully social.
Portugal is a spectacular country and I was amazed on a daily basis by its abundance and the profusion of flora and fauna. I was expecting a more Mediterranean look and feel and, while the stone houses and crumbling villages were very similar to Spain, the people and the atmosphere was a whole new identity.
I haven’t done it justice in just ten dot points but hopefully it is enough to tempt you.
Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Portuguese, purchase it from Book Depository
Freshly home from the Caminho Portugués I thought it might be timely to share the nuts and bolts of this camino with those who may be considering a similar stroll. I have found that we peregrinas (or peregrinos for the blokes) are great sharers of information – all with the view of making someone’s future walk more enjoyable and/or easier.
So here are the simple logistics of this camino. I intend to wax lyrical about this adventure in future blog posts but I will try to restrict myself here to the basic data:
Start Day: Thursday 12 May 2016, from Lisbon, Portugal
Finish Day: Sunday 5 June 2016, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
- Central: Lisbon to Porto (approx. 400km)
- Coastal: Porto to Valença (approx. 138km)
- Central: Valença to Santiago de Compostela (approx. 122km)
- Total: 660km (estimated. Both the Portuguese and the Spanish have a very flexible approach to measuring and recording distances. Maps and actual signposts vary dramatically).
- Daily Average: 28.7km
- Longest Day: 35.4km
- Shortest Day: 16.4km (my last day into Santiago! Woo Hoo!)
- Walking: 23
- Rest: 2 (Coimbra and Porto)
Times: early starts made the most of cooler temperatures and regularly featured gorgeous sunrises. Average walking times varied from 5-8 hours each day dependent on distance.
- A lovely mix but predominantly hard surfaces such as tarred roads and &^%$# cobblestones – which I estimated to be 80+% of the whole walk. The detour I took to include the coastal route meant that I enjoyed many kilometres of walking on timber boardwalks. These were heavenly as they had a bit of ‘give’ in them – perfect for tired ankles and knees.
- the range of hard surfaces would make this camino ideal for cyclists or ‘biki’
- some stiff climbs but nothing like my previous caminos. Perhaps an hour or two of ascent, then the pain was over and I could enjoy the view and the descent.
Weather: Being Spring there was a bit of everything, including a handful of wet and windy days. Generally, daytime temperatures ranged from 8°C – 21°C – but then there is the ‘real feel’ equation to consider. One day was forecast for 27°C but the real feel was 32°C – far too warm for walking for this peregrina. Otherwise perfect walking conditions – cool and clear.
Maps & Guides:
- as mentioned above, adopt a very casual approach to any distance markers or maps. These should be used as guides only. Make sure you allow yourself extra time and carry enough water and snacks to cover an additional 5km should it occur.
- John Brierley’s 2014 edition of the guide to Caminho Portugués is woefully out-of-date in both content and maps. I trust the later edition is more accurate and useful.
- for the Coastal Route, I used interactive maps from www.caminador.es. I printed hard copies for the sections I walked and just tossed them at the end of each day. (I didn’t carry a mobile phone so couldn’t access the ‘live’ version. This system worked well for me.)
- generally very good with enough yellow arrows, shells, tiles, etc., to keep me on the right track.
- Beware: leaving the town of Tomar as the arrows are faded, are few or are confusing.
- Valença /Tui to Redondela Stage: at Orbenlle, the Camino Association has developed a new route (heading north/west) which means you skip the ugly slog into Porrino via the industrial estate. This has obviously upset a range of business owners who now insist on blacking out the Association’s yellow arrows. Just as you hit the outskirts of Orbenlle you will see a war of black and yellow paint. Turn left down a small, dirt track and you will be rewarded with a beautiful walk through forests and on country backroads. Similarly when you get into Porrino, just under/after a large overpass, you will see another paint fiesta. Again, turn left and enjoy a peaceful walk into the city on the edge of a river. In both instances, the arrows start to appear again after about 100m.
- Coast Route: sometimes the arrows disappear completely so it is handy to have the maps to allow you to guesstimate which direction you should head (east or west) to intersect the route again. The caminador.es maps show two different routes – one right on the coastline and another further inland – the arrows take you on the inland path.
- the early stages in the Brierley guide are long, mostly because of the lack of conveniently-located accommodation. I am sure this will change dramatically in the next few years as the locals realise the business opportunities associated with the passing pilgrims.
- Lisbon to Porto: few purpose-built albergues but plenty of reasonably-priced hostels from €10-25. These include all linen and may also include breakfast.
- Porto to Valença (Coastal): albergues are more common but the youth hostels are also an excellent option with discounts for pilgrims. You do not need to be a member of the youth hostel association, but book direct for the best deals. Prices ranges from €7.50-12.
- Valença to Santiago de Compostela: you name it, it’s available. Albergues are plentiful, as is 4-5 star accommodation. Prices from €6.00.
- similar to my comments in the accommodation section above, this aspect will change to be more pilgrim-focused in the future.
- From Lisbon to Valença (via the coast) I found few menu do dias or pilgrim menus but generally eating is very reasonable. A large omelette with chips and salad can cost as little as €4, and a café Americano (black coffee) ranges from €0.55c to €1.20! A very cost-effective way to make the most of a caffeine addiction!
- Supermarkets usually have a good selection of pre-prepared meals including salads, tortilla española, pizzas and pastas etc.
- Pastéis de nata are delicious and you have a perfectly reasonable excuse to consume these cakes on a daily basis. Prices range from €0.26c to €0.50c.
I am now an official fan of Portugal and can’t wait to return one day to play tourist. The country is gorgeous and the locals are so friendly and welcoming – just be careful of rapid-fire Portuguese when asking for directions!
A highly recommended camino. Enjoy and Bom Caminho!
Sing along with me now….”pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.” While I may not be smiling the whole time I walk, the smiles certainly outweigh the frowns and weight is a pretty crucial when it comes to stepping out across long distances.
As I have mentioned in a previous blog, the ‘industry’ rule of thumb is that your backpack shouldn’t weigh more than 10% of your body weight. This statistic incites feelings of dread, guilt and failure as (without giving away the number that appears on my scales) my backpack is always almost double that figure! How could you walk so far with so little?
“How big is your pack and what is in it?” are often the first questions the uninitiated ask. My friends roll their eyes that I can get away without a hair dryer, hair straightener, extensive make-up and colour-coordinated clothes but I do just fine and blend in with all the other smelly, daggy walkers.
So here is an abbreviated packing list. I have left out a few boring things but this list is my whole world for however long I am walking.
Walking socks x 2
Wicking socks x 1
Undies x 3
Hankies x 2
Bra x 2
Walking shorts x 1
Good shorts x 1
|Walking shirt x 1
Long sleeve shirt x 1
Good shirt x 1
Head torch Charger
|Camera Card addtl
Water bottle x 1
Water bladder – 2l
Over door hook
Old tea towel
Moisturiser – Face
Moisturiser – Body
First aid kit
You may notice the limited underwear. The scarcity seems to generate the most interest for some reason. Yes, I only need three pairs of undies whether it be for a three-week walk or six weeks. A handy tip is to take all your all-but worn out undies and throw them out after you wear them – until you get down to your last, ‘best’ three pairs. Yes, I know I am an embarrassment to the female sex.
The same system can work for socks until you have a clean pair on and, hopefully, one clean pair in the pack.
Life becomes very simple when you only have one or two of each thing to choose from. It makes for easy decision-making and the focus quickly turns to basic cleanliness rather than stylishness.
You may have guessed by now that I am not one of those trendy walkers with all the latest gear and high profile brands. Other than my Deuter pack and Scarpa boots the rest of me is a mish-mash of beg, borrow or steal. In fact at the end of each walk I take great delight in throwing away almost all my clothes. At the end of six weeks my clothes are worn out (along with myself) and I am sick to death of the sight of them. Happily, this makes for an even lighter pack for the homeward journey.
Unlike some purists though, I do have a few necessities I simply can’t do without. A girl does have some standards:
- Pyjamas: some walkers sleep in the clothes they will walk in the next day. Not me! I like to get into my PJs at the end of each day. Old habits die hard.
- Journal: for better or worse I have created a daily habit of writing in my travel journal. It helps me think a little more deeply about what I have seen, as well as allowing me to record any weird and wonderful sights and experiences.
- Zero/Shotz Tablets: these are electrolyte tablets that keep my muscles working and me moving.
- Snacks: Yes, I am a snacker. I can’t walk on an empty stomach and need regular top-ups. I do tend to go overboard with this and realised when I started the Via de la Plata walk (2014) I was carrying nearly 2 kg of snacks! That is a little too prepared – even for me!
- Water: walking is thirsty work and I carry a two litre Camelbak plus a 750 ml water bottle each day. I normally drain these before the end of the day’s walk and probably average 5.5 litres per day.
All of the above adds significant weight to my load, but these items are important to me. At least by the end of the day the water and snacks have been reduced, making the pack a little lighter – just when I need it.
I blame technology for some of the excess weight too. I take a tablet, a camera and a headlamp. These require chargers and other bits and bobs, and all take up space and add grams. I could use my tablet to take photos, or replace both table and camera with a smart phone but again, old habits die hard.
A packing list is personal and mine seems to be refined each time I walk, with a few things added and a few things removed. To me, the most important thing to include in my kit bag is a positive (and slightly insane) mindset, a fair dose of determination, and the willingness to open yourself up to the world and the people in it.
Smile, smile, smile…
2016 and ongoing refinement
My passion for long distance walking began at a groovy little café in Potts Point. Not the most likely venue to launch into adventure sports I agree, but let’s just say the seed was sown. Over caffeine, a friend described his upcoming Camino Frances and his hope that it would help him sort through some stuff that was going on in his life at the time. I have no more ‘stuff’ than the next person but his trip caught my imagination and firmly burrowed into my subconscious.
It is weird how sometimes things that are on your radar – even ever so remotely – then start to crop up wherever you turn. Even before my friend’s return from Spain I was spotting books, newspaper articles and hearing stories of this ‘new’ thing called the Camino Frances. My friend’s triumphant and happy return confirmed that this trip was a ‘must’ for me. The thing that he raved about most was meeting so many amazing people throughout the 790km from St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to the final destination of Santiago de Compostela in the north-western corner of Spain.
Hence, it was a matter of talking the camino rather than walking the camino when we finally set out from St Jean Pied de Port on 3 September 2013. I had thought it would be a good plan to start walking in Autumn after the European Summer vacation had ended and school returned. Surely there would not be the crowds I had read about?? Wrong! We were told that there were 500 people leaving St Jean Pied de Port every day and 1000 people arriving in Santiago de Compostela every day. Hardly a stroll in solitude.
Like everyone else, we set off on Day One bright-eyed and with a spring in our step, ready to cross the Pyrenees. It has to be the most physically demanding thing I have ever done. The Brave Man* soon left me in his dust and I battled on ever-upwards, chatting and commiserating with whoever I passed or passed me. At one stage an Irishman came alongside. He gave me a sideways glance and muttered in a thick Irish brogue, “I thought this was supposed to be spiritual. Where’s the feckin’ spirituality in this?” He stomped off ahead of me and I would have laughed if I had had the energy!
The first day of many things is often the hardest and we soon found our individual walking rhythms and a rich mix of interesting (or not) people to chat to as we walked. Imagine a sea of humanity – a slight exaggeration, I know – all walking towards a common goal. Different life stories, different baggage, different socio-economic backgrounds, but the shared joy, exhaustion and sore feet from walking is a great leveller and a perfect conversation starter.
“Hello, I’m Melanie from Australia – where are you heading today?” We all became known by first name and geography only. “Have you seen Lue and David from Vancouver? Or Ross from Sydney?” No other descriptor was needed to identify new best friends and where they were on the on the route known as the Camino Frances or simply, ‘the Way.’
The beauty of these conversations was that they could last all day or 15 minutes. If my stride matched another’s and we both felt inclined, we might walk for hours together talking about whatever took our fancy. Many times conversations cut to the heart of the matter as there was no need for pigeon-holing or social one-up-manship. When I finally caught up with The Brave Man*, I would introduce my walking companion and he would introduce me to the ex-Emergency-Room- Trauma-Surgeon-now-Anglican-Minister from a small, rural parish in England or another equally interesting individual.
There are not enough blog words to cover the many insightful conversations I enjoyed and perhaps their impact would be lost in translation. Conversations would continue well into the evening as we shared communal dinners, or until we gave in to sleep. One memorable dinner at an albergue included ourselves, an ER nurse from Sweden, a computer programmer from the Netherlands and Ulrich. Ulrich was a 74 year old German, raised in Barcelona and a resident of Brazil for the past 26 years. He spoke four languages and a warmer, more genuine man would be hard to find. As the wine flowed, Ulrich shared his story. It was the 12-month anniversary of his wife’s death and the 10-year anniversary of their walking the Camino Frances together. As he walked this time, he read his journal from the first trip and savoured their special memories. Goose bump material.
As is the wont of the Camino, our paths crossed a few times over the next few weeks until we got to Santiago de Compostela. I said to The Brave Man*, “I feel a bit sad that we didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to Ulrich”. The next day we stepped off a tour bus, walked around the corner and straight into him. It was meant to be. We both expressed how pleased we were that we had met and Ulrich gave me a small, carved crucifix. I am not a religious person, but I carry it with me everywhere.
Not every conversation was at such a personal level but the openness and friendliness of everyone made each connection special. Glyn and Paul from Wales were like two lads on an over-50’s Contiki tour doing some walking, more drinking and having the time of their lives. Whenever we saw Paul, he had lost something, and he was almost entirely clad in hand-me-downs by the time we parted company.
We had a long and detailed conversation with a Spanish man comparing the cost of living in Spain vs Australia. We couldn’t speak Spanish and he couldn’t speak English but with much arm waving, pointing at ads for white goods in junk mail brochures and laughter, we managed to make ourselves understood (I think) and became firm friends for the rest of the camino.
Even today, three years on, we are in contact with people we met. I continue to marvel at how we simple folk can get on and be friends even when communication is a barrier. Why can’t our leaders around the world do the same?
Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Frances, purchase it from Book Depository
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
I truly dislike the time 4.34am. Tucked up in bed it’s dark outside, I imagine it’s cold and it’s probably windy. But it is not to be ignored as it’s time to pull on my hiking boots, strap on the pack and pick up my walking poles. Yes, I am training for another camino.
Apologies in advance as I am the first to admit I am a camino-bore. The species does exist – just ask The Brave Man*. I can talk walking, especially caminos, all day, every day – again, just ask The Brave Man*.
12 May 2016 will see the start of my third camino – the shortest I have tackled so far. The Camino Portuguese starts in Lisbon (Portugal – no surprises there) and strolls 620 km due north, across the border of Spain and on to Santiago de Compostela. It will be springtime there – my first Spring camino – and I am hoping for the full Spring-look, soft green grass, flowers, buzzing bees and more importantly mild, dry days.
While most people around me think I am crazy – and sometimes I do wonder myself – I simply love these adventures. I am quick to clarify that they are not holidays but adventures. I have decided that I do not ‘holiday’ well and prefer to be on the move, even if slowly.
The early morning training started gently back in January and now, a few weeks out, I will ramp it up. I plan to average around 26 km per day while in Portugal but sometimes that will blow out to 32 km. Even I admit that is a serious stroll. Unfortunately the first 10 days or so are all going to be 30+ km days and that is going to be a slight rude shock – but, I know I will soon find my rhythm.
The plan includes 21 walking days and a rest day at both Coimbra and Oporto.
For those unfamiliar with the camino concept, there is a whole series of pilgrimage routes from all over Europe that end in the north-west corner of Spain and the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, which contains (supposedly) the remains of St James the Apostle. I say ‘supposedly’ because so many churches and cathedrals throughout Spain proclaim to house part of St James that I imagine he is spread very thin indeed!
I am not a religious person at all, but I love the feeling of walking in the steps of history and I meet so many interesting people along the way. In fact, ‘camino’ actually means ‘way’ in Spanish.
The Camino Portuguese starts, at the time of writing, in Lisbon. It is an evolving journey as it often it relies on an enthusiastic bunch of locals to rejuvenate the route, re-mark it with the obvious yellow arrows and then promote it. In 2015 260 000 people walked the Camino Frances (from the French side of the Pyrenees), so you can imagine the huge economic impact this can have on a community. In the very early days pilgrims would have walked from the bottom of Portugal or even Morocco all with the aim of having their sins forgiven. I have a fair way to walk yet for that to happen.
So, starting in Lisbon on 12 May I will set out solo. This will be the first time I will walk a camino on my absolute lonesome and, while it is a tad scary, it will challenge me to meet even more people or learn to enjoy my own company.
As the Camino Portuguese is a relatively quiet walk (around 30 000 people in 2015) I am not expecting to have any trouble finding accommodation. Where there are no albergues (pilgrim hostels at €5-10 per night), I will stay in cheap hotels for €20-25 per night, which often includes breakfast. In the past I have found these little hotels to be pretty basic but clean and comfortable.
Yes, I will be carrying my pack. This seems to be a major turn-off for many people but after the first week I hardly even notice it is on my back – except for the last bloody walking hour of every bloody single bloody day. The rule of thumb is that your pack should weigh no more than 10% of your body weight but that is never going to work for me considering I always carry at least two litres of water. My pack usually weighs 13+ kg but seeing I am the one who has to carry it, I just need to pull on my big girl panties and keep walking.
The training regime has been going well – when I can motivate myself to get out of bed. I am walking 20 km two or three times week, plus some shorter walks. Our old dog used to come with me but we have decided that it is too much for him and I try to sneak away from the house unseen. Or is that un-smelled?
Despite the ugly hour, it is quite serene stepping out into the dark mornings. It is pretty quiet in town except for the stream of miners heading out to work. I suspect I look pretty strange striding through Mudgee at 4.45am kitted out in full hiking regalia – perhaps they think I am running away from home?
I do plan to keep more civilised hours when I get to Portugal and aim to start walking by 6.30am each day. The current early starts mean I can still be at the desk (very thankful to be sitting down) in the office at a reasonable time.
As the sun creeps over the Mudgee hills it is pretty special to see the countryside come to life. Kangaroos hop through the vines, I greet the cows and the sheep – no, nothing strange about me – and the magpies warble ‘Good Morning’.
It is on mornings like these that I am glad I made the effort to throw off the blankets, tie on the boots and step out into the world.
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!