This is one pilgrim’s perspective from a single pilgrimage ending in October and biased. However it will hopefully provide future pilgrims and Camino de Santiago veterans a sense of what to expect on Via Francigena (VF).
1. Longer Distance and Time:
Of course the length is variable depending upon where one starts but the full length of the Via Francigena(VF) is 2,000 kilometers from Canterbury, England to Rome. Camino Frances(CF) is 790K and even if you continue on to Finisterre and Muxia only 907K. Of course the Camino de Santiago can start anywhere in Europe but most begin in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or in Spain. I took 86 days to walk from Canterbury to Rome but that included 7 days of rest or side trips. If you are non-European and want to walk slowly it is problematic as Schengen Zone Visas are limited to 90 days.
2. More Difficult:
While any Camino can be described as difficult the VF is made harder by the sheer distance. It seemed like forever we were walking in France and even after walking 10 days through Switzerland to Saint Bernard Pass we were still only half way to Rome. Also the lack of other pilgrims makes it mentally more challenging. On the Camino when tired I would sometimes walk and talk with someone before realizing I had gone another 5K. In France and Switzerland it was rare to see another pilgrim while walking. There were a few more pilgrims in Italy with another increase in Tuscany but nowhere near as crowded as the CF. Walking over the Alps makes for more significant elevation changes and Italy is quite hilly in parts compared to the CF.
While I averaged about €25-€30 per day on the CF the VF was more like €50 per day. Of course if you camp and buy food at supermarkets and limit your stop at restaurants and bars you can significantly decrease your daily spend. 10 days in Switzerland brought up that average as it is quite expensive relatively. Probably spent €70-€75 per day.
4. Four Countries vs. One or Two:
This made for a significant difference. Most CF’s are entirely in Spain or a day in France. The VF has included 2 days in England, a month in France, 10 days in Switzerland, and over a month in Italy. In fact, when you reach St. Peter’s you have actually walked through 5 countries as The Vatican is a sovereign state.
While you are only in the UK a day or two, it is important as a starting point and also where Archbishop Sigeric began his journey from Canterbury to Rome in 990AD. The VF follows in his footsteps. A recommended side trip is to spend a day walking from Dover to St. Margaret’s Cliffe to take in the White Cliffs of Dover.
The walk through France from Calais to Jougne is a long journey in itself. From Calais there is pleasant coastal and forest walking. Within a week you travel through Arras and pass through many WWI battlefields and cemeteries which I found powerful. It was even more special given that both my Grandfathers fought with the Allied forces in The Great War. Of course the walk takes you through some beautiful towns with magnificent cathedrals i.e.; Laon, Reims, Langres, and Besançon. One rarely sees other pilgrims and some of the walking is in relatively flat land through fields of corn, bean, potato, wheat, etc.. making it sometimes a bit boring and mentally tough. The last part after Besançon takes you through the appealing, mountainous Loue River Valley providing a prelude to the Alps. The big difference though in France is the support of local people who take pilgrims into their homes providing dinner, a bed, breakfast along with conversation and kindness. Unlike the Camino in Spain where this is rare because of the volume of pilgrims, it is not uncommon in France. Not just on the VF but also experienced it on the Camino Tours and Chemin duPuy. Sometimes they were donation based but usually the cost was about €30 for bed, dinner and breakfast which was extremely reasonable. Occasionally they would even wash our clothes.
The Cathedral in Laon from our bedroom window7. Switzerland:
The big difference here is that the path takes one through the magnificent Alps, especially up to Saint Bernard Pass at 2,469 meters before entering Italy. Walking through the vineyards along Lake Geneva was beautiful as well. Unlike in France and Italy where you feel more like a pilgrim, here you feel more like a long distance walker as the Swiss seem somewhat indifferent towards pilgrims. The only exception was at the Monastery of Saint Maurice.
At 1,000K the Italy segment of VF is longer than the CF on its own. One walks through diverse regions getting an appreciation of how provincial Italy is. Walking down from The Pass into the Aoste Valley was like a breath of fresh air. The Italians were much more enthusiastic in their greetings and support to pilgrims than the Swiss. While there are many beautiful cathedrals and churches on the CF the ones in Italy were a cut above. The artwork; frescoes, statues, altars, etc. were both spectacular and beautiful. Even the small towns and small churches were adorned with great art. One negative though is it seemed there were an awful lot of mosquitoes in Italy versus Spain.
On CF the food is basic but good with most pilgrims opting for fairly consistent 3 course pilgrim meals; usually a first of mixed salad or spaghetti or soup, followed by meat or fish with fried potatoes. And a dessert of a flan or almond cake or commercial ice cream. Of course there are also many fine restaurants on the CF offering delicious food at a higher cost. While on the VF the food is much more diverse given the walk traverses 4 countries. I would say it is one of the real highlights of the VF sampling the many different dishes noticing how the type of cheeses and wines would change in France depending upon the region. The regional cuisine changes in Italy were interesting as well. And how wonderful the food all across Italy with the delicious fresh pasta starters, the delicious hams and cheeses near Parma, and exceptional Tuscany cuisine. And of course the pizza. One grows a fondness for mushrooms and truffles. The wine is excellent and if you stick to the vino de la casa relatively inexpensive. Certainly not as cheap as Spain though where often a bottle of wine is included with your 3 course meals, usually priced in the €9-€12 range. In Italy a 2 course meal with pasta and then a meat or fish dish along with ½ litre of wine averaged €20-€30. About the same in France for a 2 course meal with wine. Higher of course in Switzerland. At my first and only meal at a McDonalds on VF in Lausanne, Switzerland; a Quarter Pounder (Royale) Meal was €13 ($15.31). In Spain €6 or North America $6. And amusingly, I had to pay €.20 for a packet of ketchup.
10. Less Pilgrim Infrastructure and Support:
It is certainly not as strong on VF versus CF but there is decent support. The Via Francigena European Association provides a very handy App including GPS of the entire route as well as a listing of accomodations in each country. www.viefrancigene.org/it/app/ . There is also a separate helpful Accommodation Listing for France available from the Federation Française de la Via Francigena(FFVF). My real go to tool was The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome Accommodation Listing for the entire walk. They offer that and much more at pilgrimstorome.org.uk/. Regarding physical infrastructure there were much fewer parochial, church, and municipal albergues on VF. Just a few in France, a lesser amount in Switzerland, though a decent amount in Italy. On the CF the infrastructure is excellent and it is possible to stay only at albergue’s if one chooses. One caveat is that we walked VF in the time of Covid so there were a substantial number of dormitory accommodations that were closed. That said, if there wasn’t a hostel of some sort available there were reasonably priced guesthouses, B&B’s, and hotels. Via Francigena guidebooks are available from Lightfoot and Cicerone. I used the Lightfoot Guide for Italy after using just the VF App and Accommodation Listings for France and Italy. There are of course a plethora of guidebooks and listings for CF.
11. Not As Strong Spirit on Via Francigena:
Spirituality on a Pilgrimage is an intensely personal matter and each pilgrim’s pilgrimage is unique. That said, while finding VF quite special, It tended to be somewhat more of a long walk and more akin to the Camino Via de La Plata(VDLP) than the Camino Frances which has a stronger spiritual feel. The VF was more a walk in history with an emphasis on Roman but there were some interesting Napoleonic historical sights as well. I also found that ending in Rome was not quite as emotional as ending in Santiago de Compostela. Santiago de Compostela is a town built around the Cathedral whereas The Vatican is in the middle of Rome and was an important city before the time of Jesus. Also St. Peter’s seems to be a monument to the Papacy, more than a place of spiritual worship. Plus very few of the pilgrims to Rome walk there, while on CF most have. As part of my pilgrimage I walked on from The Vatican to a small nondescript church, Santa Maria di Monti, near The Colosseum. The tomb of San Benoît of Amettes, France lies there. San Benoît is the spirit of the VF more so than Sigeric in my opinion. When you leave Canterbury you walk in the footsteps of Sigeric. He was an archbishop who traveled to Rome in 990AD to obtain a Pallium or symbol of authority from the Pope. He documented his return to Canterbury from Rome and his route in his book is what led to the modern Via Francigena. Whereas San Benoît was a humble pilgrim who was not accepted as a monk early in his life and felt a calling to go on pilgrimage and ended up walking 30,000 kilometers to Santiago, Rome, Jerusalem and other holy sites. He was ever helping the needy and poor and became the patron saint of rejects, beggars, and the homeless. One of the most important lessons of a pilgrimage is learning humility and that is best epitomized by San Benoît. What humility you do not find at St. Peter’s perhaps you may find at Santa Maria di Monti.
-If you are seeking a long pilgrimage and prefer more solitude, diversity, and mountain hiking the Via Francigena is a great alternative.
-If you make it to Rome and still have time and the energy, the VF continues south from Rome as if you were continuing on to Jerusalem going another 861K to Santa Maria di Leuca.
-Another shorter extension to your pilgrimage is to walk on another 12 days to Assisi on the Via Francesco. I did that walk and it had a stronger spiritual feel to it walking in the footsteps of St. Francis vs. Archbishop Sigeric. Arriving in Assisi at the Basilica of St. Francis was an emotionally moving experience for me as was reaching Santa Maria di Monti Church or Santiago Cathedral.
-I walked during the Time of Covid so some Albergue type accommodations were closed. I had hoped to stay in Rome at The San Giacomo Albergue which has a Sister Albergue on The Camino Frances, San Nicolas, 34k before Carrion de las Condes. My stay there was special and I believe staying at the one in Rome would have been equally or more special and enhanced the spiritual aspect of my VF pilgrimage. With Covid, and walking with a partner we ended up staying at a hotel.
-Again this is my own personal perspective. Admittedly, each pilgrim’s experience is unique.