In 2008, Canadian couple Julie Burk and Neville Tencer walked 1,000 kilometres of the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route that took them through Switzerland and Italy to Rome.
They recently published An Italian Odyssey: One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage about their adventure. (You can follow the links at the bottom to learn more about the book and its authors.) I’m looking forward to reading the copy I’ve ordered—judging from the reviews, it does an excellent job of showing both the highs and lows of travelling a route that’s much less developed than the main routes of the Camino de Santiago.
Neville and Julie recently took some time out of planning two upcoming presentations about their journey (in Victoria, BC, Canada) to tell me a bit about the Via Francigena, how it compares to the Camino Francés, and their experiences on it.
Anna-Marie: Where in Switzerland did you begin your walk to Rome?
Julie and Neville: We started in Martigny, about a 3-day walk straight up to Gran San Bernardo [Great Saint Bernard Pass]. You can easily start in a number of places, including Lausanne where the Via Francigena and Camino de Santiago intersect. Or in Aosta, Italy if you rather not climb over the Alps.
You learned about the Via Francigena while you were walking the Camino Francés route of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Were you at all worried about how undeveloped the Via Francigena is compared to many Camino de Santiago routes?
We were in Spain when we first learned about the Via Francigena but at the time, we really did not know much about the Via Francigena or even how to pronounce it correctly. Once back home in Canada, we discovered there was very little English documentation on the route, but we were able to locate a number of Italian websites, including one site that provided a daily stage plan of the route. Further research suggested that there were plenty of opinions about the actual route and even questions about the quality of signage and availability of accommodations. Nevertheless, we never seriously worried about how undeveloped the Via Francigena but we did try to plan around it, wherever possible, given what we knew. We decided to give it try and we would figure things out along the way.
Anna-Marie’s Note: There is now a set of three Lightfoot Guides to the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome available in English.
On the Camino Francés, a big part of the experience tends to be spending time with other pilgrims. Was it lonely on the Via Francigena in comparison, or were you able to meet a lot of locals?
It was never lonely. In fact, most days we went out of our way to meet and talk to locals. It was our plan to make this walk through Italy a culinary and cultural walk, thus talking and meeting locals was part of that plan. Some days we needed to talk to locals just to get directions.
Nevertheless, you are correct, there are very few pilgrims hiking the Via Francigena. However, when we did meet one or two other pilgrims, those moments were extremely special.
Are you fluent in Italian?
Julie did learn some basic Italian just as she [learned Spanish] for the Camino in Spain. Actually given that most Canadians know some French, learning Spanish and then Italian is easy for most people. However, not for me (Neville), since I was born in Australia and missed out learning French in grade school and hence my foreign language skills are basic, but I try.
Regardless where we travel, we always try to learn some basic words and phrases (myself included), so we can enrich our experiences. So we not afraid to say hello to people along the way—you will be surprised the things you discover from doing this.
How did the landscapes and terrain, and the difficulty of walking, compare with the Camino Francés?
The landscape is varied and different that the Camino Francés. For one, we started in Switzerland and we needed to climb over the Swiss/Italian Alps to a height of approx. 2600 metres and then later climb over another smaller range of mountains at approx 1000 metres in order to enter Tuscany; between were the flat plains of the Po River Valley. Further south were the rolling hills of Tuscany.
Thus the terrain might be described as more challenging, but not impossible to walk. In six hours of walking, you may not get as far as you would walking the Camino in Spain. It generally took longer to get somewhere each day.
I’ve read that the waymarking can be difficult to follow on parts of the Via Francigena route. What was your experience with that?
Signage varies from excellent, to good, to poor, to non-existent. And that can happen in all of one day. Some sections like the Valle d’Aosta generally have good signs, since other local hiking associations use this section of the route. The same applies for most of southern Tuscany. The Po River Valley was probably the most challenging for signage.
What kind of accommodations did you find along the Via Francigena? Did you usually have to book ahead?
At the time we walked the Via Francigena, we had to make our accommodation guide. We originally planned to stay in B&B, small pensions and hotels, etc. However, we also had a list of convents, hostels and monasteries and surprisingly decided to stay in these more often, since they offered affordable and very good accommodation.
Most days we just called ahead the day before and we strongly recommend doing this.
You stopped in some historic towns and cities along the way. Which was your favourite?
As you walk the Via Francigena, you pass through some great historical cities and many smaller towns and villages, many that originate from days of the Romans. This was the other big reason for doing the walk. Our favorites include Aosta, Vercelli, Pavia, Orio Litta, Sarzana, Lucca, Siena, and Proceno, but all are special.
Food was an important part of your pilgrimage. What was your favourite culinary experience?
All that great Italian food (and wine) was the other big reason for doing this walk. The Via Francigena passes through six special and unique regions of food before reaching Rome, which itself has some special food only found there. The most special food regions include the Valle d’Aosta, the area around Vercelli known as the Vercellese and Lunigiana, which is in the most northern part of Tuscany.
What was your best experience on the journey?
Meeting Maria, but people we need to read our book to understand why.
And your worst experience?
We wanted to take an alternate route to avoid a busy section near Marina di Massa, but instead we got lost and ended walking through a busy industrial section of the city in a pouring raining during evening rush hour.
Is there anything else potential pilgrims to Rome should know about the Via Francigena? Would you recommend the journey?
I recommend that potential pilgrims join the Yahoo Group for the Via Francigena. There they can ask experienced Via Francigena pilgrims about their personal experiences and get the most updated information about the route.
I recommend they also check out our website, Verdera Media, for more information about the route. The site includes the most relevant links to other associations and sites including the Yahoo Group, plus photos from our walk
Finally, I recommend that they purchase our book, An Italian Odyssey; One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage. Along with describing the special and unique historical, culinary and cultural attributes of the Via Francigena, our book gives an honest account of one couple’s walk along the Via Francigena, where we share both our tough times and special and magical moments.
Julie and Neville have some wonderful photos they took along the Via Francigena on the An Italian Odyssey Facebook page.