Via Francigena, Hiking a Pilgrim’s Route

IMG_0156Twenty years ago after hiking the Camino de Santiago for the first time I’m still at it. This time I found the Via Francigena in Italy. It’s another 1100 year old pilgrim’s trail that takes you from Canterbury, England all the way to Rome: 2,000 km. 

IMG_0151After a lot of research I decided to hike the section between Lucca and Viterbo, a 375 km stretch of the trail taking you through much of Tuscany and a small section of Umbria. According to reports on the app of the Via Francigena (VF) it is probably the most scenic of the entire trail. France apparently offers hikers many problems, Switzerland is beautiful but being so mountainous that’s obvious very hard, northern Italy is nice but somewhat boring, so the Tuscan section is supposedly the nicest. 

And, yes, I can vouch for it to be a fantastic experience. The trail is mostly off pavement although there are some sections along highways that are dangerous, but by and large it is through the countryside. Lots of hills (up to 800 meter high) with absolutely outstanding views. 

The trail markings (small red and white signs, brown traffic signs with a pilgrim, or old stones with VF painted on them) are good. Not as good as on the Camino de Santiago, but I needed my VF app only occasionally to verify that I was heading in the right direction. The best time of year for this section of the VF is April and May or September to mid October. The summers in this part of Italy are simply too hot for much hiking.

IMG_5158There are lots of accommodation choices along the way, from a 15 euro a night hostel to 100 euro plus for a 4 star hotel. We started in Lucca, one of the nicest old cities in Italy, and in a week hiked to Siena, another beautiful, historic city. 

After a day of rest I continued for another week to Viterbo, another 250 km closer to Rome. I decided to stop there because the last few day sections into Rome lead you through the outskirts and Rome’s industrial areas. All together an unforgettable hike through some of the nicest landscapes Europe has to offer.

Radicofani is by far the nicest old village I came across. It has few if any tourists, no hotels, just a hostel and it is the cutest little village I have seen. No new construction, narrow streets, steep as can be and very few facilities. Truly a place to be seen. 

IMG_0158The trail varies greatly, most of the time it is on gravel roads or pathways. About 25% is on pavement and 5% of that is along dangerous busy highways where you really have to watch the oncoming traffic. Italian drivers are all on a phone and since they speak with their hands they don’t have any available for steering. 

Just outside Vibrato I hiked on the actual, original Roman road. A Roman road was 14′ wide to allow two chariots to pass each other!

No more chariots flying by, but do be aware of dogs. Yesterday I had to be rescued by a passing motor cyclist who positioned his big bike between me and two vicious sheep dogs. I almost had to mace the dogs, and was shaken up pretty good. Usually my hiking poles are enough to keep smaller yipping dogs at bay, but not the big ones. 

The season really seems to end by mid October, during the last 3 days of hiking on this pilgrim’s trail I saw one other hiker. Often I walk through areas totally devoid of people or buildings. It can be lonely, but that is part of the charm. 

Weekends are hunting days. You hear gun shots far and near throughout the day, no wonder I have seen only one very scared little deer throughout the 300+ km I walked so far.

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Make sure you bring lunch or at least a solid snack because there are stretches where there is absolutely nothing to be had. When you go shopping in Italy – for clothes or just for milk and margarine – you need to remember what time it is. Stores open early but, like in Spain, close again for a long siesta. By 1 PM most shops are firmly closed, to open again around 4 PM. They’ll stay open til 9, 10 even 11 PM. So you can go stock up on veggies at 10 PM but not at 1:30. You just need to get used to it. For budget conscious pilgrims, hostels are cheap: 15 to 20 euros. Twice I was all alone in the entire building because the season was basically over. However, there is also no heat in many hostels so I did sleep with socks on a few nights. Meals are inexpensive compared to Canada and groceries are also cheaper.
It’s amazing how quickly a hiker’s day fills up. We get up around 7:30, dress, pack our packs, go for breakfast and then walk out the door. By 10 AM we’re ready for coffee, if we can find any.

By 1 PM we’ll have lunch, either in a ditch or on a patio if one is nearby. We arrive at the next hostel or whatever place we’ve booked for the night, around 2 or 3 PM. Then we fall on the bed, exhausted. After a while we’ll get up, shower, change, do our laundry in the sink hoping everything will be dry the next morning.
I might have a nap, read or write. Then we’ll go in search of a beer and a glass of wine. Most restaurants don’t open til 7 PM so we need to be patient, even if we’re hungry. After dinner we plan the next day’s hike, charge all batteries (including our own), read and fall asleep shortly after 9. 

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