After many months planning a walk on the Via Francigena, the actual walking of it seems relatively simple. I first started seriously researching the ins and outs of this route five months ago, and now with two weeks before departure there still seems so much to do. The Via Francigena is such a challenge to organise because it is still in its early stages of development. Pilgrim accommodation, which is so common on the Camino Frances in Spain that pilgrims often have a choice between two or three at each stop, is only available in certain sections of The Via Francigena. Camping is a viable option for overcoming this obstacle, but as I will be travelling many stages on my own I prefer the security of fixed accommodation. The surety of some pilgrim comforts such as a hot shower may also have influenced my decision. I have 78 planned stops along the route to Rome, and each of those nights need to be carefully planned to be sure there is accommodation available at a distance I can reasonably cover in a day’s walking.
My first step in the planning stage was to familiarise myself with the route by studying maps available online and by reading the first of Alison Raju’s guidebooks of the Via Francigena, from Canterbury to the Great St. Bernard Pass.
This book provides a wonderful description of the route, its history, practical information and lists accommodation. Using this guide I made a first attempt to determine the stages of my journey in France. For Switzerland and Italy I used a pdf file provided by The Association of the Vie Francigene (find here) which lists accommodation by location and provides contact details and prices. Using the pdf list was much easier than going through the guidebook. I have since become aware of a full list of accommodation on the route created by those who have walked to Rome. This list is available through the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome. It is worthwhile investment of £10 to become a member of this group (go to Confraternity website), first of all because of the accommodation list they provide to members, but secondly, because they are an extremely helpful and experienced group of pilgrims who have answered many of my questions.
On Saturday, 7 March I attended the Confraternity’s Practical Pilgrim Day at St. James’ Church in Piccadilly. It was wonderful to be surrounded by individuals who are as interested in the Via Francigena as I am and the ‘camino sprit’, understood by all who have walked to Santiago, was evidently present within the group. Alison Raju of the Cicerone Guides was there to answer questions regarding the route, and Harry Bucknall, author of Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim, gave a talk on his experience of walking to Rome and read aloud extracts of his book, which revealed his account to be both humorous and informative.
The newly appointed chairman, Brian Mooney, presided over the day’s events and upon hearing of my journey to Rome, offered to put me in touch with two other young women who had similarly walked The Via Francigena on their own. Known as the two Alice’s, they are Alice Carter (née Warrender), whose account, An Accidental Jubilee, I am currently reading, and Alice Clough, who was only 21 when she set off and wrote a blog Rambling to Rome describing her experience.
The most important information that I learned by attending the Pilgrim Day in London was that the Great Saint Bernard Pass, the pass through the Alps that the Via Francigena follows, is only open from late May to mid-September. My scheduled arrival at the pass is set for the beginning of May and I was suddenly confronted with the knowledge that at this time of year the road is not yet open, and that to walk, or rather snowshoe or ski, across the pass would be quite dangerous due to the frequency of avalanches. I was advised to contact a Swiss member of the Association of the Vie Francigene to explore my options and was informed that I could either hire a guide, which is well beyond my budget, or I could take the bus from Martigny to Aosta. I had purposely chosen to travel early in the year to avoid crossing Italy in the heat of the summer, but the idea that the Alps would pose a difficulty at that time of year had not crossed my mind. I could instantly relate to those travellers who, over the centuries, had battled with the elements to cross these imposing mountains. This information was not going to delay my journey, as there is now the 11 kilometre tunnel which buries deep into the mountain allowing me in less than 30 minutes to cover ground which would have taken three days to walk. I feel however, that this part of the walk is essential to the true experience of The Via Francigena. I have therefore, formed a plan that will allow me to fill this gap in my journey. When I return to the UK I will not fly as planned from Rome, but will journey to Turin by train, walk back over the Alps in late June when the pass is open and then fly back from Geneva.
Armed with all the information I have gathered from Alison Raju’s guides and the personal accounts of other pilgrims I have determined the essential equipment I will need on this trip. Look for my next post coming soon on ‘What to Pack’.