Walking the Via Francigena
The Via Francigena is arguably the pinnacle of pilgrim walks in Europe. It is a journey across half a continent and four countries – England, France, Switzerland and Italy – with the pull of the Eternal City as a goal. Starting in Canterbury, the Via Francigena follows the North Downs to Dover and from Calais in northern France winds through the WW1 battlefields of Picardy and the Champagne region before entering Switzerland over the Juras. The way then skirts Lac Léman to approach the Alps, which are crossed by the Grand St Bernard Pass, descending into Italy down the Aosta Valley to Piedmont and Lombardy, and over the Apennines and the hills of Tuscany to end in Rome.
It takes around 90 days to complete the journey on foot, though some have done it in less than 60.
While well within the reach of an average distance walker, it is a tougher undertaking than the Camino Francés. There is less infrastructure in terms of pilgrim hostels and affordable accommodation, distances between places to sleep and shops and bars, especially in France, are far longer, and the route can be lonely and in parts it is rugged. Although the Via Francigena is growing in popularity, the numbers walking it are only a fraction of those on the Camino Francés. It is still possible to walk for several days without meeting another pilgrim. There is not much of the fraternity of the road that exists along the Camino Francés, where you get to know people as you go along. So you need to be self-reliant if you to walk to Rome.
You also need to be reasonably fit before you set out. While the first part of the route through Kent and northern France is relatively flat, pilgrims then face a succession of stiff climbs – the Juras, the Alps, the Cisa Pass, and the hills of Tuscany.
Unless carrying a tent (campsites are plentiful on the Via Francigena), pilgrims will need a reasonable level of French and Italian to cope with the mechanics of finding accommodation. An IPhone, or similar with internet access, eases the process of booking ahead. While it is possible to find affordable parish accommodation and pilgrim hostels along much of the way, having on occasions to stay in hotels makes the Via Francigena a more costly undertaking than the Camino Francés.
There is a deal more road walking on the Via Francigena than there is now on the Camino Francés, where much of the Spanish Camino has been re-routed onto newly cleared old tracks and paths. The Via Francigena demands more attentive navigation, and it is therefore more difficult to switch off as you walk, although the route is now, in the main, well waymarked. There are also a number of variants and alternatives – sometimes providing a more direct line – and these may suit certain walkers.