The Camino el Santiago and the Via Francigena (VF) share a common thread in that they are equally age-old, well-travelled pilgrimages, but in many ways they are also very different. Not only in distances travelled and terrain traversed, but the way in which they are viewed in the current day.
Via Francigena and Camino waymarkers
Why do we feel the urge to undertake such strenuous journeys? The reasons are many and not always religious in nature. Many people from all walks of life, all ages, all religions, and all nationalities are drawn to undertake these journeys.
Why did I first decide to walk the Camino de Santiago in 2011? Simple, I love walking: well, ‘simple’, or so I thought! I had previously walked the Pilgrims Way in England and a friend mentioned that there was a talk on at the WEA in Adelaide about the Camino de Santiago. I had missed it, but within a week I had coffee with a very inspirational lady, Janet (our Chairman – ED), who gave me the confidence to buy a guidebook, and book my flight to Paris and the train to St Jean-Pied-de-Port.
Via Francigena and Camino waymarkers
I prepared myself physically and mentally for both walks with lengthy treks around South Australia, often starting and finishing from my own front door and, more often than not, up to 20k in length.
The Camino Francés (CF) starts with a long hard climb up through the Pyrenees, so in preparation I did a fair bit of walking up onto the ranges of Willunga behind my home I did not want to feel totally stuffed at the start of the walk! I have always walked reasonable distances so I felt training on hill climbs was a must, having discerned from books exactly what I could expect at the start of the Camino.
Alison in the Pyrenees
I was not so concerned with my fitness for the Via Francigena, as the first few weeks through France are fairly flat land and I knew I could build my fitness levels up before reaching the Haute Marne Provence. Mentally, I did not know what to expect on the Camino, so I decided I would approach each day at a time. I continued this way when I started the VF, always telling
people I hoped to reach Rome but never saying that I was going to Rome! Never carry expectations along the way: you will always be surprised how much you can achieve without setting targets.
The Alps from Lake Geneva (I am going to walk up there!)
The Camino Francés is a reasonably easy walk: there are many people walking The Way and thus, a camaraderie grows amongst one’s fellow pilgrims, accommodation along the way is easy to find, either in albergues or hotels and there is usually a decent pilgrim meal at a reasonable rate in the evening.
The VF is a different kettle of fish mentally and I was concerned how I would cope with solitary walking fine for a day or so, but three months… I was worried. So my lovely long-suffering husband, whom I had not invited on the Camino, was invited to join me for a month in Italy. I found I enjoyed walking on my own I actually like myself! However it was lovely to meet up with the old chap in Aosta: we laughed lots, got lost as we chatted too much, ate heaps of pasta and I learnt to stitch his blisters!
Champagne cave near Epernay, France
On the VF I carried a small stove to cook up soup or noodles for lunch. The accommodation proved to be quite varied; I stayed in YHA camping sites, caravan parks, abbeys, monasteries, B&Bs and the odd hotel. I started by booking ahead, but after a few days decided it was not necessary; occasionally I got it wrong, and a couple of times I was fortunate to be offered a couch by a local! Most of the time I was the only pilgrim staying in the accommodation.
The CF through Spain is well waymarked and, with so many people, one hardly needs to carry a map. The VF route through France is not well marked and, although I took many maps with me, I did get lost often until I met with a Brazilian pilgrim who had downloaded guidebooks onto his phone. Not so technically savvy, I had contemplated this before leaving and dismissed the idea, but once away from everyday hassle and bustle of life, I took time to download these guide books and they helped me so much. I also called into many tourist offices and collected local maps whenever possible this paid dividends in the Haute Marne region of France where it rained so much and all villages were closed to traffic, but I managed to find my way up through local woodland hill areas without too much trouble. Once into Switzerland and Italy, I found the way reasonably marked although I continued to get lost my fault, as I often managed to get into my own happy dreamland! I loved walking alone. I had never thought I would as I am a pretty sociable person but for me it suddenly became fabulous… to walk daily with one’s thoughts. I loved the scenery, the flora and fauna, the history of the towns and villages, the kindness of people I met on the way. I found I started the VF as a ‘walk’ but felt I ended as a ‘pilgrim’: so many lovely things happened to me on a daily basis I found that the true spirit of human kindness is alive.
When walking the CF, it is pretty easy to get a bus from town to town. It is also possible for a fee to get your rucksack carried. On the VF, it is not possible to get local buses often and I saw no suggestion that there was a pack-carrying service. A couple of times I resorted to asking for a ride (in the pouring rain!), and I also took the paddle steamer across the lake from Lausanne.
Australian War Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux
The start of my pilgrimage on the VF coincided with the Anzac Day commemoration at Villers-Bretonneux. I had not planned on going to the ceremony but decided on short notice to make the diversion and attend. The Western Front stretches 130km from Ypres in Belgium to Peronne in France. In excess of 60,000 Australians lived, fought and died in the First World War, sacrificing their lives. VillersBretonneux was decked out in green and gold, with cardboard cut-outs of koalas and kangaroos throughout the village. I, along with 4000+ other Australians, attended. A most moving ceremony that will live in my memory.
Sunrise from a monastery window, Tuscany
Both the CF and the VF transverse some of the loveliest wine regions of Europe. I thoroughly enjoyed tasting wines from the Rioja and Navarra regions in Spain, champagne in France!!! In Switzerland I tried some lovely Gamays, whilst in Italy I tasted wines from regions in the Valley of Aosta, Piedmont and Tuscany.
On the CF, I had always thought I would arrive in Santiago, as it was a month’s walk and that for me would be possible, but… to walk to Rome… I was never sure until I stood next to the Observatory and looked down on St Peter’s!
Accommodation in a monastery
On both pilgrimages, I found I loved walking up through the mountains: maybe it’s a feeling of getting nearer to heaven (said with tongue in cheek!). I am pretty sure that God had a tremendous sense of humour well, man is on earth, so that proves it to me! I was fit for all the mountain-climbing and that definitely made life easy the air seems to be purer and life simpler.
St Peter’s, seen from the Observatory in Rome
How fortunate I am in the last couple of years to have walked both the Camino, from St Jean to Santiago de Compostela, and the Via Francigena, from Canterbury to Rome. Both pilgrimages have left me feeling so privileged to have completed them and should you be contemplating either, do it!