Walking the Via Francigena

This great cultural route of Europe extends around 2000km between Canterbury and Rome and passes through five countries – England, France Switzerland, Italy and the Vatican State. It ranks with the greatest pilgrim paths of the world.

Walking this route, we put our feet in the footsteps of millions who have gone before – not only pilgrims, but soldiers, traders, states men, kings and queens, and clerics, not least Archbishop Sigeric in 990, whose clerk recorded the stages of his journey back from Rome.

From the seat of the Anglican Church in Canterbury to that of the Roman Catholic Church, the pilgrim on the Via Francigena walks the North Downs Way to the White Cliffs of Dover, disembarks in Calais, and follows the broad rolling countryside of Northern France, pausing to honour the poignant countless cemeteries of those who fell in the First World War. The path goes onward to the great cathedral cities of Laon and Reims, and through the vineyards of Champagne to glimpse at last the foothills of the Jura with their gorges, cascades and forests. Across to Switzerland with distant views of the snow-capped Alps, and onward through Lausanne and round Lake Geneva to the ever-narrowing valley of the mighty Rhône.

At halfway point – geographically and psychologically – in the pilgrimage the traveller crosses the Alps with the shades of Hannibal and Napoleon at the Great St Bernard Pass to rest a night at the Hospice where monks have welcomed travellers for more than a millennium. And then down through the spectacular Val d’Aosta, to find the misty waterlands and ricefields of the Po plain. One of the highlights for many pilgrims is crossing the vast Po river in the launch of Danilo Parisi, who will entertain you with his (apocryphal!) stories of Sigeric and his jokes, and then adorn your pilgrim passport with a magnificent stamp. After Fidenza the Appenines present the next challenge, and as the traveller crosses the Passo della Cisa they will glimpse the Mediterranean shining in the distance, and rejoice knowing they have walked from sea to sea.

Now the pilgrim is in beautiful Tuscany walking through the famed landscape of cypresses, olives, vineyards, through glories of Lucca and Siena, up to the landmark heights of the fortress of Radicofani, and into Lazio and so to Rome.

The current “official” route is about 2000km, but it is easily possible for a reasonably fit person to walk it in under the 90 days (allowed in the Schengen zone for non-EU travellers), even without taking variant, shorter, sections (find details on travel in the Schengen zone for non-EU travellers here).

Many pilgrims come to the Via Francigena having walked one or more of the Caminos to Santiago. It should be noted that the pilgrim infrastructure is less developed than on the routes to Santiago de Compostela, and in France where the VF passes through depressed rural areas where factories and farms have closed there are often few places between one evening’s stop and another where you can buy food. However, in France the organisation of the route in terms of accommodation and facilities has improved hugely in the past year or so, and it is a myth that  France is a boring “desert” through which pilgrims should speed on a train or bus. Our booklet, published in collaboration with the Fédération Française de la Via Francigena “Accommodation and Facilities” (available to purchase in the online shop), and updated every year, will allow the pilgrim to find a bed for the night on every stage of the journey – from the “donativo” pilgrim host household and the parish presbytery in the “chain of hospitality” to the luxury hotel. In Italy there are pilgrims hostels and religious accommodation (convents, monasteries) virtually all along the way. See our accommodation list and map here.

The use of all specifically pilgrim accommodation or the acquisition of a pilgrim discount requires a credential, stamped and up-to-date. It is also courteous, and usually indispensable, to ring ahead claim a place. It is also important to let a host know if for any reason you have to cancel. Emails are less likely to be answered than the telephone.

For this reason, if no other, it is useful and polite to learn a few basics in French and Italian. Google Translate will help you prepare a phrase to use when you ring up and demonstrates the pronunciation for you to learn. “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “Goodbye” plus a winning smile will get you a long way. Remember that even local people will not necessarily have heard of the Via Francigena if you get lost. In France a pèlerin is usually going to Santiago.

Way-marking is pretty good, but not quite the succession of yellow arrows as in Spain. In France it is either ubiquitous red/white GR© (Grande Randonnée) flashes (PIC), or in some départements the little pilgrim with his bundle shows the way (PIC). In Switzerland there are yellow signposts. In Italy there is a variety of VF signs: red/white flashes, the pilgrim, or brown and white (PIC). It is hard to get lost here.

We are often asked whether it is worth carrying a tent (and cooking utensils). It certainly reduces costs, and in France campsites are plentiful, and some accommodation will permit you to erect a tent in the garden. Wild camping is forbidden in France, Switzerland and Italy, and the few campsite are usually off the route.

It is not only in infrastructure that the Via Francigena differs from the Caminos in to Compostella in both Spain and France. The route is far less known still, especially in France, and therefore perforce more likely to be solitary. You may – or may not – meet companions on the road or in the hostel. In Italy, especially Tuscany and the final 100km to Rome in Lazio, the route is popular, and it would be unusual not to meet others.

It is not a difficult walk. By the time a pilgrim encounters the Jura mountains they will be walking fit, after nearly four weeks. The Great St Bernard Pass is in reality a long slog uphill with no tricky sections (though unwise in snow: see page on crossing St. Bernard Pass here), and similarly the Cisa Pass, the gateway into Tuscany, is not particularly steep.

But any effort is more than amply compensated by the intense beauty of this ancient path and its rich variety of scenery and experience.

Buon cammino.