Walking the Via Francigena.
A very brief history.
This is a pilgrimage route that dates back to the Middle Ages, first being documented as the ‘Lombard Way’, or ‘Iter Francorum’ (the Francish Route). It was in 725 the recorded travels of Willibald, the Bishop of Eiehstatt in Bavaria.
In Italy this route was called the ‘Via Francigena-Francisca’ and in Burgandy the ‘Chem des Angloris’ also the ‘Chem Romieux’.
At the end of the 10th Century it was Siceric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, who walked from the Cathedral in Canterbury all the way to Roma and documented his journey.
The Via Francigena is 1900 km long and starts at the Cathedral in Canterbury, UK, and travels south to Dover then crosses the English Channel to Calais in France. It then passes through northern France, the Champagne Region, across to Switzerland and on into the Alps. From there it follows through St. Bernard’s Pass and down to Italy, travelling into the Aosta Valley, the Apennines, Tuscany, Lazio and finally ending in Roma. Well actually it officially ends at the Vatican City.
When planning this walk or any walk you MUST research and be prepared. Find out as much information as you can, not only on the walk itself but also on the country you are travelling to. What is the weather going to be like at the time you plan to be there? What about Culture? Language? Holiday seasons? All important to know.
This walk is a very long walk. This does not mean you have to walk the whole walk, though I know we wish we could have. We all have time restraints, you might only have 2 weeks or maybe a month. Whatever time you have, choose the section you can walk comfortably in that time don’t try to do too much, it won’t be fun and all you will get is exhausted and maybe have injuries that could have been avoided if you slowed down. Enjoy the walk and what it has to offer then maybe you can go back another time and enjoy another section.
Do you have to carry your own pack? On most walks around the world you do have a choice whether to carry your own pack or not or get a company to transport it for you. There are plenty of companies out there that offer this service as well a small group tours and they can even organise your accommodation for you. We did not use this type of service for this trip so I cannot recommend any companies but will suggest Google and get onto the VF forum (see Social Media below) and ask. There are benefits as well as pitfalls in doing a walk this way. It just depends on what you want out of the walk and what you personal capabilities are.
A big must to find out what you would expect from the terrain. Is it in your capabilities? On the VF there are some difficult stages to get through. Some sections can be quite long without facilities like shops and cafes or even places to sit and take shelter. Always read the guide lines before hand to find out where these sections are, you may decide that bit isn’t for you and you perhaps might want to skip those sections.
You are also going to encounter hills and mountains on the VF. Be prepared to get those legs moving up! In Switzerland you have ‘la Grande Borne’ (1040m), ‘Bourgeois Saint-Pierre’ (1632m), ‘L’Hosipalet’ (2120m), then ‘Col du Grand Saint-Bernard’, the Great St. Bernard Pass (2473m) and the ‘Passo della Cisa’ (1040m). This is just some of the heights you will discover.
Guide Books and Maps
Having the right guide-book and map is important for any trek. Now a days we also have the luxury of the internet where there is a lot of information available. Having so much to look at can be so over whelming so I’m going to share with you some that we found useful and hopefully that will help take away some of the confusion. Firstly let me stress a ‘Guide Book’ is exactly that a guide! I have met so many people who complain that their guide-book is different to the route markers. This is because a guide-book is someone else’s interpretation of the route. Also always get updated info as things change constantly and you will be frustrated.
- The book ‘A Cicerone Guide’ by Alison Raju is a good one. There are two books to the route. Book One; Canterbury to Great St. Bernard Pass and Book Two; Great St. Bernard Pass to Rome. These books have maps, trail descriptions, accommodation and any useful info you might need and it is not to big to carry. This is my recommendation.
- There is also the Lightfoot Series. This is a three-part collection plus an extra companion book. Written by Paul Chinn & Babette Gallard. The three books have lots of information on the walk including maps, trail descriptions, accommodation and other useful information you may need, though they are not walker friendly as they are big and heavy. The companion book is just extra info and interesting to read but no maps.
- Maps you can get from the Via Francigena Association as well as a full list of accommodation places with contact details. This is really helpful and I would recommend having it. It is light weight easy to carry and you can tear off along the way if you choose. To get this visit www.francigena-international.org. This site is also in 4 languages.
Social media sites
Social Media! Love it or hate it, but it does help. For example Facebook you have the Via Francigena Forum, this is a world-wide forum with loads of information and other people who have or planning to walk the VF. I would recommend getting on to the sites and talk to people, ask questions, there are a lot of people with a lot of knowledge. While on there look for people’s blogs. Follow their journey, you can learn a lot by doing this. We always check out people’s blogs and on this walk were following two weeks behind two Aussie Girls. This was great as we could see what we were to expect, if they got lost we knew where to be cautious and we interacted with them along the way and still do funny enough one of them will be a week behind us on our upcoming Scotland walk. Site to check out www.viafrancigena.me
Signs and Way-marking
Learn what signs you need to follow. These signs can change depending on the region you are walking in. Be aware this is not the only walk that goes through these regions so you do not want to get confused and end up walking the wrong trail.
Research. The typical sign can be a pilgrim carrying a staff and a bag. There are also just plain red and white stripe or just the letters VF. You do get the occasional official sign saying Via Francigena and pointing the way.
Through the Italian section we found it to be quite well-marked. A few days of confusion and being pointed in the right direction by the locals. The most confusing would be the last day into Roma. Mind you we did walk, as most would, during Peak hour and it is on major roads, so if the signs were there I wasn’t seeing many. A lot chose to train the last bit because of the dangerous sections. Once in Rome just head to the Vatican, don’t worry about looking for signs you most probably won’t see them.
The VF is a pilgrimage walk so there is accommodation that caters to pilgrims, if you know of the Spanish pilgrimages it is very much the same set up, this of cause does not mean you have to stay in the pilgrim accommodation if you don’t want to. There is a very good list of accommodation you can get from the Via Francigena Association at www.francigena-international.org. Do note that in Spain the pilgrim accommodation is often called Albergues, this is not the case in Italy, an Albergue is a 3 star hotel in Italy they are sometimes referred to as Ostello. The cost of these can vary averaging around €25 each though some of the churches etc are by donation.
As the VF is a pilgrimage, just like many other Pilgrimages around the world, you can get a ‘pilgrims passport’ or ‘credential’ to collect stamps along the way. These are usually official stamps of the VF, though it doesn’t have to be, they can be stamps from places you stay, bars, churches etc. These prove that you have indeed walked the way and you are truly a pilgrim so at the end of your walk you qualify to receive a completion certificate. This is called a ‘Testimonial’ or in Spain they call it a ‘Compostella’. You do not have to do this but we love it, it’s fun collecting the stamps and getting the certificate. A cool reward.
When to go
Always research the weather for each region. If you plan to walk the whole route from Canterbury in the UK down to Rome then you must be aware of the weather in the higher regions especially when you get to Switzerland and head up over the St. Bernard Pass. This pass is not open all year for obvious reasons, Extreme cold and snow! This pass is only open in the summer time anywhere from June through to end of September. Check weather sites for this info.
A good time to look at leaving Canterbury would most probably be around April/May and that should get you through the pass providing it is not a late winter. Do be aware though further down in Italy nearer to Rome it can get quite hot in the summer months.
What to take
You pack it you carry it is what I would say, so do think long and hard about what you DO need over what you THINK you need. Do remember that you are entering into villages and large towns often so I would only carry food provisions for the day.
Water especially in the warmer months is very important and some sections you will go quite a few hours before hitting a town so always carry 2-3 litres depending on weather and section that you are walking. check your map each day before taking off to see where towns are. Unlike the Camino in Spain there are not as many water fountains along the way but when you do find them they are a welcome relief.
People do camp along the way but be sure to check the laws for each country and regions for this.
I do recommend a sleeping bag or silk liner or both as not all pilgrim accommodation has bedding.
As for clothes it really boils down to time of year. If you are walking the whole trail then do remember because it is so long the seasons will change on you so you are going to require different gear. My suggestion would be as you no longer need certain clothes, eg: thermal top etc, post it home so not to be carrying unnecessary stuff.
The Basic List
- Boots or shoes you would be walking in.
- A back pack, the size will depend on you and what you are able to carry. I carry a 75lt as I need it for my extra equipment plus I prefer this size.
- Spare light weight shoes that you can put on in the evenings.
- 3 pair underwear, yes that is all you need. One you wear, One you wash and one spare as a just in case.
- 2 sets of socks. Liners are good to wear under the thicker socks as it not only can help prevent blisters they are also easier to wash more regularly as they dry quicker.
- 2 hiking T-shirts.
- 2 zip-off hiking pants (this will give you two pairs of shorts as well).
- Jacket for warmth.
- A thermal top, pants optional, up to you and the weather.
- Poncho or rain jacket, rain pants are personal choice.
- 2 hats, one for warmth and one to keep off the sun, you can also use a buff.
- Gloves to keep the fingers warm.
- Sarong – I recommend this as a must have item as it is so versatile, it can be a – towel, scarf, lightweight blanket, a bag, put on after your shower. rug to sit on and the list is endless.
- Something to sleep in esp if sharing a room.
- Sleeping bag and silk liner.
- 1st aid kit.
- Hiking sticks (if you use them).
- Water bottles/hydration bladder.
- Head torch (helps find the toilet at night).
- Earplugs, to avoid listening to others snore.
- Map and guide-book.
Any extras would be if you were camping
- Cooker/gas cylinder, lighter/ matches.
- Food utensils.
And as for any thing else that would really depend on you. I carry a mini I-pad for my work as well as extra cameras, sadly this means carrying extra chargers, batteries etc.
Our suggested itinerary for the Italian section
This is just a suggestion to help you plan you walk. You can use it as a guide line if you like.
- Day 1. Ivrea – Cavaglia 26 km
- Day 2. Cavaglia – San German Verselli 20 km
- Day 3. SGV – Vercelli 26.5 km
- Day 4. Vercelli – Mortara 31 km
- Day 5. Mortara – Groppello 32 km
- Day 6. Groppello – Pavia 19 km
- Day 7. Pavia – Broine 33.2 km
- Day 8. Broine- Piacenza (+boat ride) 33 km
- Day 9. Rest day
- Day 10. Piacenza – Fioenzuola 27 km
- Day 11. Fioenzuola – Costamezzana 29 km
- Day 12. Costamezzana – Fornovo Taro 22 km
- Day 13. Fornovo Taro – Cassio 19 km
- Day 14. Cassio – Della Cisa 18 km
- Day 15. Della Cisa – Pontremoli 23 km
- Day 16. Pontremoli – Aulla 29 km
- Day 17. Aulla – Avenza 34 km
- Day 18. Avenza – Pietrasanta 26 km
- Day 19. Pietrasanta – Lucca 34 km
- Day 20. Rest Day
- Day 21. Lucca – Ponte Cappiano 34 km
- Day 22. Ponte Cappiano – Coiano 27 km
- Day 23. Coiano – San Gimignano 27 km
- Day 24. San Gimignano – Monteriggioni 31 km
- Day 25. Monteriggioni – Siena 17 km
- Day 26. Rest Day
- Day 27. Siena – Buonconvento 31 km
- Day 28. Buonconvento – San Quirico 22 km
- Day 29. San Quirico – Abbadia San Salvatore 33 km
- Day 30. Abbadia S S – Acquapendente 27 km
- Day 31. Acquapendente – Bosena 22 km
- Day 32. Bosena – Viterbo 32 km
- Day 33. Viterbo – Capranica 35 km
- Day 34. Capranica – Campagnano 27 km
- Day 35. Campagnano – La Sorta 27 km
- Day 36. La Sorta – Roma 16 km
Check out our Snap Shots of the Via Francigena to see some fantastic photos of our journey.
http://www.caminodesantiago.me have a section on the Via Francigena and there are plenty of other sites, just google but I find this one to be very helpful as it is a forum and everyone on there a helpful and they have walked one route or another.
We also have a documentary on walking the Camino that you might find interesting – Camino Documentary
We also have our Snap Shots of some of our pilgrimages – Snap Shots of the Caminho Portugues.