Tag Archives: Via Francigena

Crossing the St. Bernard Pass in Winter (By Ian Brodrick)

[Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard]

The Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard.
Photo courtesy Ian Brodrick.

I first heard of the St. Bernard Pass, in the Swiss Alps on the way to Italy, when I was quite young. Ever since, the name makes me imagine monks and their St. Bernard dogs wading through deep snow to rescue travellers.

I recently found out that pilgrims walking to Rome on the Via Francigena take the St. Bernard Pass, but I imagined them walking in warmer seasons.

It turns I was wrong—at least a little. Ian Brodrick recently braved winter conditions on the pass with Regula Burri, a Swiss friend he met on the Camino. He summarizes his findings below for other pilgrims who are interested in the same journey.

* * *

At the end of January, I crossed the St. Bernard in two days from Orsieres to Aosta, following the route pilgrims on the Via Francigena usually take in summer, with an overnight stay at the Hospice-du-Grand-Saint-Bernard. I made the trip to assess the route’s viability in winter, and to enjoy an Alpine winter walk.

The road normally closes in October and the route is a very different proposition in winter. It should really be considered Alpine winter walking, both on the graded slopes of the road and on other tracks. In our case, Orsieres to the hospice took about nine hours. The main problem was that we had to spend a couple of hours high up on the pass in the dark, with falling temperatures. It was very cold, reaching -15 to -20 degrees Celsius very early in the evening.

I would not discourage anyone with the will and experience to make this journey. But keep in mind it needs a good deal of thought, preparation and perhaps experience.

I would suggest most winter walkers take the bus from Orsiere to Aosta—especially if you’re in any doubt about your abilities or the conditions. There are two buses a day in winter, and they are very quick indeed.

For most people, I think the walking season starts when the road is cleared and the paths defrost. But in late spring, with longer warmer days, snowshoeing might be a pleasure not a trial. It might be worth trying then, before the cars return to the road (which is closed all winter).

Obviously many of the local facilities are closed in winter, while winter sports shops and resorts are open. This includes Crystal Sports in Orsieres, where you can hire snowshoes of some sort. You will also need very warm outdoor clothes, a compass and a head torch. For us, water was freezing in the pack in half an hour or so. It’s always good to carry a decent steel thermos with sweet tea.

To stay at the hospice it is necessary to call in advance (the day before)—and you must stay there. All of the other facilities on the Col are closed with the road.

The Route to the Col

[St. Bernard Pass]

The second day of the trek over the St. Bernard Pass, descending to Aosta.
Photo courtesy Ian Brodrick.

The first thing to say is that the trails marked out for the Via Francigena are for the most part unused in winter. For us, it was icy in the lower northern valleys in Switzerland, with melting and refreezing covering even the forest floor with sheet ice, and there was deep snow higher up toward Bourg St. Pierre and up to the Super St. Bernard ski location.

Routes marked out for snowshoeing were entirely unused, even the one next to Orsieres. Some parts were covered in sheet ice, and others in hard snow.

It is essential to have snowshoes or walking crampons on the trails, and then good snowshoes on the snow-covered Col de St. Bernard road to the hospice, and to leave ample time in the short days.

Without proper equipment, adequate experience and planning the route could be dangerous—I must stress that here.

In relation to distance, it would not be unreasonable to add a further fifty percent to the time you’d need under better conditions. I would say that for most it would be unwise to attempt to reach the hospice from anywhere further away that Bourg St. Pierre. Even then, I found all of the Via Francigena trails to have been completely unused for the winter period. Some few intrepid souls walked the road towards the tunnel to get to the hospice.

Most skiers and snowshoers are simply dropped off at the bottom of the road at the super St. Bernard ski station, and use cross country skis to ascend! This is not really what we are doing.

From the Super St. Bernard ski location, the climb on the snow-covered road begins. In January, I found that even moving well we could not get to the hospice in daylight from Orsieres.

Again, I must stress that for most walkers, being in Alpine winter temperatures and conditions in the dark is not safe and should not be contemplated. While the road is marked with snow poles, they may not be easy to follow in bad conditions. Previous tracks are easily covered by a slight wind.

A head torch is good for when it gets profoundly dark, but otherwise peripheral vision in the snowy conditions will work (but wear dark glasses in bright snow conditions). The hospice has exterior lights. They are only visible in good weather relatively close to the Col, and it is easy to see that navigational errors could lead to a serious incident.

Navigation is not difficult, even at night, if you are a little used to night walking in the hills and in extreme cold, but errors are possible in a number of places. The route is mostly in a valley, with only a couple of wrong turns possible—but they are possible. In tough conditions people normally make errors that would be inexplicable in other circumstances.

As mentioned, there are snow poles (less visible in bad weather), and often tracks I guess come from touring skiers. These can’t be relied on.

The temperatures after dark quickly went down to -15 or -20, and required good equipment. I strongly advise that anyone contemplating this route in winter ensures that they have daylight, along with the equipment and some skills to deal with the conditions. It is essential to research the weather.

Low visibility and high winds create complications—and indeed mean the majority should not consider this route. The other issue that must be mentioned is avalanches across the road—I’ll discuss that more later. The monks at the hospice keep records and can be relied on for day-by-day weather updates. You can find contact details on the Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard website.

My view is that a mapping GPS would be very useful to someone crossing the pass—but you’d need to keep the batteries warm. Also note that using a GPS exposes the hands to frostbite, and that would be a real danger if it were, say, -20 and windy. It’s best to wear good fingerless gloves under a windproof thin pair, with a pair of mittens over the top.

In winter, always let people at the next place you’re staying know you are coming, and give them an estimate of arrival time. It may be your only chance of rescue. Having said that, this is Switzerland, and there is mobile phone signal throughout the pass!

The Hospice

The hospice is open in winter and excellent. In January there was no problem at all with space. It was a delight to find this wonderful institution in the freezing and profoundly dark night. We were chided for being late for dinner at 7:30pm!

The route south from the hospice toward Aosta also follows the snow-covered road. The trails are under deep snow in winter. Competent touring skiers can use their own judgment to shorten the route. Everyone else needs good snowshoes—perhaps rather better than the “walking the dog” ones hired out by Cristal in Orsieres. MSR Lighning or similar might work well. This is a basic matter of safety.

There is a real issue with avalanches on this route south. We could see many slab and powder avalanches, and in places they took out the road barriers. Few people had ventured up or down from the Aosta Valley this winter, although we found the conditions safe enough. It is necessary to ensure the conditions are safe before making any attempt—and to be able to deal with whatever conditions you find.

After two or three hours of descent down the original track, you come across the Italian end of the tunnel, and the going gets flatter and easier. The new road to the tunnel continues above in concrete conduit. Near to St. Remy the road is open, but some of the trails used by the Via Francigena are closed. The route can be found just above the village at the end of the cleared road. It is necessary to walk to Etroubles and on to Aosta on the roads.

St. Remy is now bedecked in Via Francigena signage, and emblems—and that includes the street lamps!

* * *

Many thanks to Ian Brodrick for this informative article.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 3:17 pm
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This Week in Pilgrimage: The Camino Aragonés in Danger?


Photo of the Week
In Pomps, on the Chemin du Puy.
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It seems I’m really committed to walking the Vía de la Plata this spring. I have finally have tickets! They’re from Toronto to London, which might seem odd, given that I live in British Columbia (three time zones away from Toronto) and am going to Sevilla. But I’m visiting friends near Toronto and Oxford on the way, so it actually makes sense. I just need to book a few more flights.

Anyway, here’s the news I’ve found this week.

The usual disclaimer: I’ve done the best I can to ensure accuracy, but a lot of this information comes from Spanish sites and my Spanish isn’t perfect.

An Aragonese Court Ruling Could Lead to the Flooding of a Portion of the Camino Aragonés

The Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Aragón (Aragón High Court of Justice) recently ruled that the “regrowth” of the Yesa reservoir is compatible with the protection of the Camino Aragonés, which passes through the area. It sounds like the development of the reservoir will mean modifying the current Camino route.

I would like to look into this issue more in the future when I have time to struggle through the Spanish, but here’s what I know. I’m being as accurate as I can manage, but can’t make guarantees.

According to the cleverly named YESA NO site (scroll down for English), in addition to displacing local residents and causing social disintegration, the growth of the reservoir will threaten a number of archaeological and architectural sites along the Camino. I can’t tell if they’ll definitely be flooded, but the site seems to say so.

Then again, the court ruling suggests a judge thinks otherwise. If anyone knows more about this, please do comment.

Camino Bits and Pieces

  • The Mundicamino website now has a section on the Via Francigena pilgrimage to Rome, which is under construction. They’re asking for information and photos. The Spanish pages currently have the most information, and English pages just seem to be the Spanish pages run through an on-line translator.
  • The new Libro de Piedra (Book of Stone) website gives visitors a virtual tour of the cathedral, its museum, and a few surrounding squares, with some information in Spanish. I thought it would be completely gimmicky, but it’s actually kind of fun. A little slow, though—at least with my computer.
  • French statistics show that numbers of pilgrims/walkers on the Chemin du Puy are increasing. Numbers of pilgrims staying at the gîte communal in Arzacq-Arraziguet have risen from 2,147 in 2000 to 5,135 in 2010. According to the same statistics, 1.5 percent of pilgrims staying in that gîte walked for reasons of faith; 50 percent for the physical challenge; 30 percent to face a challenge with others (my translation may be a bit off on this one), and the remainder to live a new life, find companionship, change their outlook on life, or to meditate. It seems they’re asking different questions in France than in Spain. There’s definitely no “live a new life” box at Roncesvalles or at the Cathedral in Santiago.
  • The Camino de Levante will soon be way marked as the GR-239 (an official European long-distance path) in Castilla y León. The route is already marked with yellow arrows, but local Friends of the Camino associations believe the GR designation will help get support and protection for the route at various levels of government.
  • Burgos just celebrated its patron saint, San Lesmes Abad, a Frenchman who devoted much of his life to caring for pilgrims at the Monasterio de San Juan, where he was abbot. The celebration, which involves a religious ceremony, partying, concerts and other events, is always held on the Sunday closest to January 30.
  • Several towns near Mérida on the Camino Mozárabe (from Granada) now have special signs for pilgrims. The signs give information on population, monuments, important phone numbers, and more. Streets along the route also now have ceramic tiles with arrows pointing the way to Santiago, and the towns have pilgrim information centres, usually located in the local town hall.
  • Ángel Luis Barreda, the director of the Centro de Estudios del Camino (Centre for Camino Studies), and a Camino expert, talked about the Camino in a recent interview. He says now, like the Middle Ages, is a golden age for the Camino, with vast numbers of pilgrims. “The Camino belongs to everyone and no one,” he says (in my translation). “It is a space of liberty, and that is precisely its great advantage and its large problem.”
  • Two sites on the Vía de la Plata—the “Country House” at Mérida and a Roman bridge over the Aljucén River—received funding for archaeological work through the project Alba Plata II. Some fragments of Roman milestones have been found in the area.

Pilgrim Roads

I just had a great conversation with Canadian photographer Peter Coffman, who walked substantial parts of the Chemin du Puy and the Camino Francés with some serious camera equipment. He travelled with the late fiddler Oliver Schroer, who fiddled in churches and cathedrals along the way.

I’ll post the interview next week, but if you’d like to learn a little more now, I’ve already raved about the album that resulted from Oliver’s fiddling and Peter’s photos.

And … Cows on the Camino

Just for fun, because it brought back memories, I’ll leave you with a video of cows on the Camino.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 6:14 pm
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This Week in Pilgrimage: New Albergues and More

[View from a Bar in Finisterre]

Photo of the Week
View from a bar in Finisterre, after my braver companions went swimming in the November-cold water.
Submit your photo for Photo of the Week.

The usual disclaimer: I’ve done the best I can to ensure accuracy, but a lot of this information comes from Spanish sites and my Spanish is, alas, far from perfect. This week, some information also comes from Italian and Norwegian sites, where I’ve had to rely completely on Google Translate.

As usual, get in touch if I’ve missed anything. Or for any other reason, really. I’d love to hear from you!

Camino Bits and Pieces

  • Puente Castro, a suburb of León, just opened a welcome and interpretive centre for pilgrims: El Museo de las Tres Culturas (The Museum of Three Cultures). The centre focuses on local history: Roman, Christian, and especially Jewish. Located in the Church of San Pedro, it’s described as a place for pilgrims to get information before entering León, rest and learn. The centre is currently hosting an exhibition called (in English) “One Camino, Three Cultures: The Puzzle of History in León.”
  • This information is from a week ago, so the situation I’m about to describe may have cleared up by now. If I understand this correctly, last year a disturbed Slovenian pilgrim tried to kill Tomás of Manjarin’s dogs. This same man reappeared last week on the Camino. He’s about 30 years old, has blond hair (possibly with brown highlights—I don’t understand that part) and has a blue backpack. Tomás wants anyone who sees the man to call him (Tomás) on his cell phone: 609 938 642.
  • Camino associations responsible for the Camino de Levante (southeast variant) want to make the route into a GR path. (The GR routes are seriously long-distance European footpaths.) They figure this would enhance the route, which would become the GR-239, and make it better known to hikers. It also seems that the route would become better way marked as a GR route.
  • According to a Diario de León article, representatives of pilgrim associations in Spain are afraid that in the last few years the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela has become increasingly about travelling the last 100 kilometres. The Burgos association says this trend (which isn’t general yet) “doesn’t fit with the spirit of the route.” The average distance walked by pilgrims dropped from 444 kilometres in 2008 to 435 kilometres in 2009 and 422 kilometres (the lowest of the decade) in 2010. I believe this is part of a continuing disagreement between the pilgrim associations and governments the associations say are trying to turn the Camino into a tourist fad, but I have an incomplete grasp of the Spanish language, and no grasp at all of Spanish politics, so please don’t quote me on that.
  • The Camino Mozárabe, which begins in Granada (or Málaga) and ends in Mérida, where it meets up with the Vía de la Plata, was recently promoted at the Feria Internacional de Turismo Madrid (International Tourism Fair of Madrid) in a presentation that aimed to promote rural tourism. I’m not entirely sure what this means for the route, except that it may well get more popular—and, we can only hope, develop some albergues.
  • A new albergue is due to open this summer in Medina de Rioseco, north of Valladolid on the Camino de Madrid. The Convent of Santa Clara, located at the pilgrim entrance to the town, is currently converting one of its buildings into an albergue that will hold 18 pilgrims. (Via Rebekah Scott.)
  • The city council of Otero de Bodas is turning an old forge into a small albergue with room for two pilgrims. The nearby Camino Sanabrés (from Zamora to Santiago) doesn’t actually pass through Otero de Bodas, but town councillor David Ferrero Rodríguez said pilgrims, particularly cyclists, often pass through when they follow Highway 631—and the town could eventually be on an alternative Camino route. The renovations should be completed by the end of January.
  • In airport news, EasyJet has just joined RyanAir in offering international flights to and from the Santiago airport. It now has flights between Santiago and Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Representatives of the Xunta de Galicia met recently with the mayor of Le Puy-en-Velay. They decided to work together to create a network of the regions that the Camino de Santiago passes through, “in order to maintain a common tourism policy and to organize a coherent proposal from the two points of the Camino.” I don’t actually know what this means. I suspect I wouldn’t really understand it if it were originally in English—sounds like opaque government-speak to me.
  • Santiago, Spain and Tanabe, Japan are making a joint effort to promote their respective tourist routes: the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and the Japanese Kumano Kodo, both World Heritage Sites. The website www.Spiritual-Pilgrimages.net, which has pretty pictures but not a lot of useful content, is part of the effort.
  • Pablo Mosquera-Costoya, a Camino pilgrim and mixologist from A Coruña, developed a new cocktail in honour of the Holy Year. You can read the story—and get the recipe—on the Savoir Faire website. (Via Sil.)
  • The library in the new City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela has just begun a series of sessions “that is presented as a dialogue between literature and the fine arts.” Each of the twelve sessions will be about a single author—nine from Galicia, and three “guests.” Each will open with a talk about the author by an expert, followed by “a performance related to the spirit of the author being honoured,” and appetizers. This free series started on January 15, and will run until June 25.
  • The Camino Documentary recently shared a video clip that has various experts talking about medieval pilgrim motivations.

Other Pilgrimage Routes

  • Caravaca de la Cruz, which is a Holy City because it has the Vera Cruz or True Cross (which apparently contains wood from Jesus’s cross), hopes to become a “centre of pilgrimage in southern Spain.” Walking-wise, nine (or five, or eight, or ten—there doesn’t seem to be any clear agreement) routes collectively called the Caminos de la Vera Cruz lead to the city.
  • The Cammina Francigena organization (which seems to be related to the Slow Movement), has mapped out accommodations on the Via Francigena along a GPS route. (Via Sylvia Nilsen.)
  • A wreath was placed (I’m not sure by whom) on Archbishop Øystein Erlendsson’s statue at the Nidaros cathedral on Wednesday to mark the 850th anniversary of his return home to Nidaros (now Trondheim) to become archbishop. Erlendsson was the architect who designed the Nidaros cathedral, where pilgrims go to visit Saint Olav’s shrine. According to the article, “he was the most significant archbishop in the Middle Ages and was held to be a saint after his death (January 26, 1188).”

Pilgrim Roads

I spoke with pilgrim author Brandon Wilson earlier this week about the Templar Trail to Jerusalem, and will be posting an audio interview and article based on that conversation next week.

Also, Ian Brodrick recently traversed the Saint Bernard Pass (on the Via Francigena), and will be reporting on the pass in winter. It sounds like it’s not a journey for the inexperienced.

Have a great weekend!

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:09 pm
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This Week in Pilgrimage: The End of a Holy Year

I’ve started a new blog schedule this week.

(Of course, you probably weren’t aware there was an old one, but it did exist—in my head.)

On Mondays and Wednesdays (Pacific time—it may often end up being Tuesdays and Thursdays in more distant parts of the world), I’ll continue to publish interviews, thoughts and stories on walking pilgrimage routes, with probably a little more historical content.

On Fridays, I’ll have a roundup of all the walking pilgrimage-related news I’ve come across over the past week, and other miscellaneous things that don’t quite fit into other posts. If you know of anything you think belongs here, please tell me. I definitely can’t keep track of everything.

Please note that a number of my sources are Spanish. My Spanish translation skills aren’t wonderful, and neither are Google Translator’s, but between us we muddle through. The information should be accurate, but I can’t one hundred percent guarantee it.

So without further ado….

The End of the Holy Year

The Puerta Santa has closed, and another Jacobean Holy Year has come to an end. The next isn’t for another ten years, in 2021.

In 2010, according to Pilgrim’s Office statistics, 272,340 pilgrims received the Compostela, up from 145,878 in 2009 and 179,944 in 2004, the previous Holy Year.

You can see a lot of other statistics, including gender, mode of transportation, age, motivation, nationality, profession, starting points, and routes, on the Pilgrim’s Office website. Do keep in mind that these statistics reflect only the pilgrims who received Compostelas—the Federación Española de Asociaciones de Amigos del Camino de Santiago estimates there were 300,000 pilgrims in all.

But despite these statistics, the regions of Navarra, Aragón, La Rioja and Castilla y León actually saw a three to six percent drop in the number of pilgrims that passed through in 2010 compared with 2009. It’s the astronomical number of pilgrims who started in Galicia who account for the large rise in Compostelas.

The director of the Centro de Estudios y Documentación del Camino de Santiago has explained this by saying (as far as I understand) that the majority of pilgrims who go for longer pilgrimages prefer the “soft symphony” of non-Holy Years on the Camino to the “big Jacobean hubbub” of the Holy Year.

Temporary Pilgrim Centre on Saint Olav’s Way

From what I can understand by using an online translator, a temporary pilgrim centre has been set up in Trondheim to help manage, develop and promote Saint Olav’s Way.

This is good news, because it means that the work of the Pilgrimsleden pilot project, which ended in 2010, will continue.

The Camino/Harry Potter Link

Writer and journalist Félix Pacho has just published a series of essays about the history of the Camino de Santiago. One of the stories he tells is of the alchemist Nicholas Flamel, familiar to some of us through the first Harry Potter book, who walked the Camino as far as León in search of someone who could translate an old book.

His Camino ended in León because he found the translator he was looking for: a Jewish doctor. The book turned out to be about both turning ordinary metals into gold and the secret of eternal youth. But the doctor died on the way back to Paris with Flamel, leaving the book only partly translated.

So Flamel didn’t get the secret of eternal youth … that time.

According to J. K. Rowling, he did find it eventually in the philosopher’s stone (sorcerer’s stone to Americans), which let him live another few centuries to become a friend of Dumbledore’s.

So … three degrees of separation between Harry Potter and the Camino. Who’d ever have guessed?

Camino Bits and Pieces

  • Spain’s new anti-smoking laws theoretically mean no more smoky bars, but Johnnie Walker reports that people are still smoking in the outdoor sections of bars and restaurants.
  • On December 27, the Spanish soccer team dedicated its 2010 World Cup win to the apostle Saint James.
  • In April of this year, the Santiago Cathedral will celebrate the 800th anniversary of its consecration. There are going to be two big exhibitions: one that tells the story of the cathedral complex, and another that tells the history of “Compostela,” which I believe means the city. There will also be musical concerts as part of the celebration. The cathedral itself will continue to undergo restorations throughout the year, and should be in “full splendor” for the next Holy Year in 2021.
  • As of yesterday, there were two new buses connecting Santiago de Compostela with its airport. From what I can gather, they’re wheelchair accessible, and depart every half hour. The first leaves Santiago at 6 a.m., and the airport at 6:45 a.m. The last leaves Santiago at 12 midnight, and the airport at 12:45 a.m.
  • In further airport news, according to Camino a Santiago on Twitter (yes, I’ve joined Twitter, which is actually a great place to keep up with Camino updates in Spanish), Santiago’s airport won’t have any international flights until spring—bad news, as they say, for foreign pilgrims returning home.
  • According to the mayor of Santiago de Compostela, the city’s historic centre may well be almost completely restored within the next five to seven years. Apparently, the number of the ancient buildings in poor shape decreased from 49.17 percent in 1989 to 16.65 percent in 2008.
  • Five Spanish communities: Euskadi, Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia and La Rioja, are trying to lure pilgrims north of the Camino Francés. They’ve banded together to produce two pamphlets, together called “Los Caminos del Norte a Santiago.” The pamphlets promote the Camino del Norte, the Camino Primitivo, and the Camino del Interior. The first has information on the route and attractions along the way—it sounds like an overview to attract pilgrims. The second is a practical guide in Spanish, English, French, German and Italian with information about accommodation, shops and hospitals and more. The article doesn’t say where you can get this pamphlet, but I’d assume it’s available at tourist information offices.
  • The lucky people of Dublin will soon have a chance to see The Way, the Emilio Estevez movie about the Camino. The movie will be part of this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
  • Raquel Martín, president of the association Amigos del Camino de Santiago en Ávila, reports a substantial increase in pilgrims on the Camino de Levante in 2010 compared to previous years, judging by the number that have stayed in the association’s albergue: 350. He hopes to soon see an albergue in every town in Ávila where pilgrims might stop for the night.
  • Emilene, who is already gearing up for her Camino in 2012, wrote this week about what she suspects are going to be her two biggest Camino challenges: getting lost, and not speaking Spanish. She has an interesting quotation from Tony Kevin, and another (you can decide for yourself if it’s interesting or not) from this blog.
  • Sil, who kindly gave me the words of the Dum Paterfamilas (the original Ultreïa song) the other week, wrote today about why non-religious people have spiritual experiences on the Camino, and speculates that it has to do with connecting with the right (intuitive) side of the brain.
  • Johnnie Walker, who has walked many routes to Santiago and produced guidebooks on some of them, recently published all his on-line videos in a single post. They cover everything from a variety of Camino routes to the Botafumeiro in Santiago Cathedral.
  • Neville Tencer and Julie Burke, whom I interviewed last month about their pilgrimage to Rome, wrote this week about linking the Camino de Santiago with the Via Francigena to Rome.

And that’s it … for this week.

If you have any additions or suggestions, or just want to chat, please do comment or write. Have a great weekend!

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 4:50 pm
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So Many Roads …

[Pilgrim Sign]

Caution, Pilgrims!

For most of the time I was walking the Camino de Santiago, I thought it was a one-off journey. I loved it, but I didn’t think I’d ever actually do it again. That’s part of the reason I walked all the way from Le Puy to Santiago: I didn’t want my once-in-a-lifetime trip to end too soon.

But as soon as I walked into Santiago, I wanted to do it again—maybe on a different route this time. I’ve been researching various Camino routes intermittently since I got back to Canada two years ago. The Arles route and the one from Vezelay in France. The Camino del Norte (including some of its branch routes), the Via de la Plata, the Camino Mozárabe, the Camino Portugués, the Camino de Levante, and even more in Spain.

And then recently I’ve been talking with people who have walked other pilgrimage routes: Julie Burk and Neville Tencer, who walked the Via Francigena to Rome, and Mark Nienstaedt, who walked the Olavsleden (Saint Olav’s Way) from Oslo to Trondheim in Norway. Those two routes sounded so amazing that I had to add them to my list, too.

There’s also the 88 Temple pilgrimage in Shikoku, Japan, which I first heard of on the Camino, and a longer Route to Trondheim from the German border that Mark told me about. And as I keep going with this blog, I’m sure to learn of more places to walk.

It’s exciting to have such a long list, but it really makes me want to get going. And I need to save up some money first.

I guess patience is the lesson I’ll have to focus on while I’m stuck at home.

What about you? What route(s) do you want to walk next? Share your answers in the comments.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:57 am
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Interview with Pilgrims to Rome: Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

[Noceto, Italy]

Noceto, Italy, from the Via Francigena
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

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.

[The Route Napoleon]

The Route Napoleon
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

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.

[Neville Tencer and Julie Burk]

Neville Tencer and Julie Burk, authors of An Italian Odyssey
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

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.

[Sign on the Colle del Gran San Bernardo]

Sign on the Colle del Gran San Bernardo
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

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.

[Palazzo Publico, Siena, Italy]

Palazzo Publico, Siena, Italy
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

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.

[An Italian Odyssey]

Julie Burk and Neville Tencer's book about walking the Via Francigena.
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

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.

You can read an excerpt from An Italian Odyssey on the Go Nomad site, and read some reviews on the Verdera Media site.

Julie and Neville have some wonderful photos they took along the Via Francigena on the An Italian Odyssey Facebook page.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:28 am
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