Since starting this blog in 2005, Ive completed 3 dozen foot races, including 11 full marathons, 16 half marathons and an assortment of 5 and 10ks, but Ive never done a long distance, multi-day hiking type of walk. Health permitting, I hope to remedy that this October by walking the last 380 kms of the Via Francigena, from the city of Lucca in the Tuscany region of north Italy to St Peters square in Vatican city. I hope to finish the trek in about 20 days, give or take.

The inspiration to do a long hike like this actually came to me way back in 2008 while I was doing my first Rome marathon. It was during that race that I bumped into a young guy on the course who was dressed in full hiking garb. I thought it was really strange that a person would dress like that for a marathon, especially since it was so warm that day. As you can see, he’s wearing long pants, a winter jacket, backpack.. the works. Anyways, after walking along side each other for several miles, we started up a conversation. Turns out, Merri ( that was his name), was walking not only this marathon, but had walked all the way from his home in Paris France, across the Swiss alps into Italy and Rome. That’s a long walk!

Carrying a backpack on my walks is something totally new for me.
Merri and I at the 2008 Rome Marathon

We ended up crossing the finish line together, had hot chocolate at a nearby Café and then went our separate ways. Except for a single email a week later, I never heard from him again. But, the memory of our conversations about his travels has always stuck with me. So while recovering from a bout of severe RSV and asthma a month ago, and vowing to never put my body through the torture of another marathon, it dawned on me, why not do something a little different. Something like my young friend did way back when. Perhaps a pilgrimage walk?

The thought of doing a long distance walk along an ancient route is very appealing to me. And unlike an organized race where the fastest person wins, there are no time limits. I can walk as slow as I want and take it all in. If I were a bit younger and didn’t have these health problems, I would probably shoot for the entire 2,000 km journey from England over the Swiss Alps, but for now Id be totally happy if I can complete this smaller portion. Did I mention the fact that Im also doing this alone?

Many people do Pilgrimages for religious and spiritual reasons, I think for me it’s more about the physical challenge and experiencing a section of the ancient world up close. In fact, to me it has all the elements I look for in a good adventure. It takes place mostly outdoors and in a lot of remote places, it requires a significant amount of physical effort, forces you to step out of your comfort zone a little, has an interesting history and/or story behind it, is immersive with lots to the fill the senses, and Im sure it offers a sense of accomplishment when completed. Some people even claim that completing a long distance pilgrimage has changed their lives. I dont think it will affect me that way, as Im only doing a small section of the via and will only be out there for a couple weeks, not several months.

Right now in the very preliminary stages of preparation and the biggest obstacle Im facing is not so much my lungs or legs, its my friggin neck! Last year’s cervical spinal surgery really did a number on my neck and shoulder muscles. It seems no matter how much physical therapy or range of motion exercises I do, my neck muscles are always sore or cramping. This is a problem I have to overcome, because unlike the more popular Camino de Santiago in Spain, which attracts tour companies that offer luggage transfer service for Pilgrims, there are really no such available services on the section of the Via Francigena that Ill be walking through in central Italy. Therefore, I need to to carry all the essentials with me for the duration of the walk. For me that includes my nebulizers and a 2-3 week supply of medications. Time will tell how much weight I’ll be able to carry, but as it stands right now its looking to be no more than 7-8 lbs in total. Needless to say, I’ll be packing the very minimum when it comes to clothing, and everything else.

To lessen the anxiety that I’ll have enough of what I need during my trip, Im blessed to have friends who live in a city very near to the Via Francigena, about midway along the route Ill be taking. I’ve worked it out to where I can drop off and store my primary luggage at their home on my up north to my starting point. About a week and a half later when I reach the mid point heading southward, Ill stop in their city again where Ill spend the night and replenish my supplies. When I finally reach the outskirts of Rome at the end of the journey, Ill then take the train back up to their place and retrieve my luggage. The nice thing about this arrangement, is that my primary luggage, which contains all of the things I cant carry with me, like extra clothing and medications, heavy electronics, extra shoe, whatever will always be within a 100 mile range and easily accessible if needed.

As far as accommodations go, a lot of people who do pilgrimages stay overnight in Monasteries or Hostels along the way. Some of those establishments offer discounts to pilgrims, though not substantial enough in my opinion for you what you actually get….usually a bed and pillow if you’re lucky and sometimes a meal. Because of my health issues, I cant really stay in the these types of facilities. So, with the exception of a communal house which is set up for Pilgrims in the town of Campagnano di Roma, Ill be staying mostly in private homes and fully equipped Airbnbs. This will allow me to save a little money by cooking some of my own meals. Plus, I just prefer privacy. And speaking of privacy, how does one proceed when, shall we say… natures calls when in you’re in the middle of nowhere? It’s probably easier for men, but there’s as many women who do this trek and they seemed to have figured it out. I guess Ill find out.

So that’s the plan for now. Over the next several months, health permitting, Ill build up my strength and endurance and spend more time walking trails. I’ll also gradually increase the weight in my backpack on those practice walks until I can go 20-25 kms distances without killing my shoulders. We shall see, but if things work work I hope to finalize my plans sometime in September and will take the actual trip in early October. Im doing it pilgrimage alone and not sure yet when I will actually return home. I hope to stay in or near Rome for at least a couple more days after the hike, so that I can recover before hopping back on a plane for the long ass flights back.

A big thank you to the many volunteer organizations and travel companies especially the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome in the UK and the CFV in Milan for providing lots of helpful information and recourses, including maps and accommodation lists. A shout too, to those who have shared their personal stories and what they learned from the experience. Thank you Chris for letting me know about all the dogs and the possibility of encountering wild boar on the course. Never thought about that, but Ill take your advice if it happens.

Below is the Pilgrim Record and Credential, more commonly known as the Pilgrim Passport .The one I’ll probably use was issued by the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome Society in the UK. I also have one for the Via di Francesco or way of St Francis. The passport identifies you as a pilgrim and grants you access to discounted lodging at various hostels, monasteries and even some restaurants. Similar to the Camino de Santiago, as you make your way along the route and through the various towns, tourist offices, museums, restaurants and hostels will stamp your Pilgrim Passport with their unique stamps. These stamps or “Timbri del pellegrino” as they are called in Italian, serve as proof that you have passed though or completed the required stages of the Francigena or whatever Pilgrimage you are doing.

Pilgrim Passport with stamps

My passport of course is still empty, but I hope to collect some stamps.

Upon completion of the journey and by providing the stamped Credential to the Church officials, the Vatican issues the Pilgrim with a Testimonial to acknowledge their accomplishment. The would be a nice souvenir to bring home, but not super important to me.

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2 thoughts on “Next up, the Via Francigena

  1. Nekona says:

    This sounds like such a cool experience, I wish you the best luck and ability for this undertaking. Hopefully the trend of breathing better in the Italian air that you mentioned in another post continues for this trip!

    1. Hello and thank you very much. Yes, I think the air in the mountains is much better than the cities, though the air in Switzerland was great everywhere. Its also less humid.

      Btw, I like your name, Nekona


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