In 500 kilometers I walked less than a third of the 1700 km Via Francigena. I missed the days in England (though I visited Dover and Calais last year), all of famously unmarked France, expensive but beautiful Switzerland, and the mountainous northern stretches of Italy. But I did enough to confirm that the Via Francigena (VF) is one amazing walk.
What surprised me most was that the VF track stops at some surprisingly lovely and memorable towns. I’d expected to enjoy Lucca, Siena and San Gimignano. I didn’t realized I’d also fall in love with lesser known places like Piacenza and Monteriggioni and San Miniato and Formello. In fact, if an Italian town has an old quarter — a centro storico — I fall for it and I fall hard. Even industrial Viterbo, which I was ready to hate, has a charming center made of labryntine streets with little cafes and piazze that lend it that same irresistible charm.
And even Rome. It happened again as I was walking through Piazza del Popolo onto Via del Corso on my way to do some shopping. I suddenly remembered I love this town too. I mean, I love it.
When I came to Rome the first time it was on a bus tour. We were driven in and out of town as quickly as possible with warnings of “watch out for gypsies!” ringing in our ears. I can’t say I ever saw a gypsy, but I did get the impression that Rome was not a nice or friendly place. It wasn’t until I discovered Trastevere in April that I saw Rome’s softer side.
What I saw in that charming Rome neighborhood was a Roman version of Italian village life, the relaxed and intimate daily routine that puts your life into the lap of your neighbor. You open your shutters in the morning and your across-the-street neighbor waves as she’s beating out her rug. You water the plants on your terrace and your behind-you neighbor asks if you’re going to the outdoor market later. You see the same people each day at the market and the cafe and the post office and the concert. You welcome the tiny intrusions into your privacy, knowing you are part of each other’s story.
Italy does community so much better than America. Italians are very critical of their own country, but they’ve got an ingredient that we lost years ago with a suburbanization that is buried deeply under a thick layer of cocooning in front of the TV. As much as we love our privacy I believe we isolated Americans would love true community even more. This the kind of lifestyle we were made for, and even the gaping tourists are charmed by it.
That’s not to say Italy is flawless. I admit to making a rude gesture or two into the rear view mirrors of Italian drivers who nearly ran me down on the thin white line that doesn’t suffice for a sidewalk. I found restaurant prices around famous landmarks in Siena and Rome to be fabulously unreasonable. Too much cigarette smoke in lovely outdoor cafes. Too few healthy food options for breakfast and lunch. Still, I love Italy, and the VF was one good, long baptism into its beauties.
I promised folks I would give an overview of the trip along with some brief commentary on lodging, which is all very helpful for me since otherwise it all becomes a blur. Here you go:
0. April 25-26 Arrive Piacenza and rest day. Overnights Domus San Martino. A nice little boutique hotel in a very charming Italian town. I chose to start in Piacenza due to its favorable rail connections and proximity to a major airport (Milan) near the northern stretches of the VF.
1. April 27 Piacenza to Fiorenzuola d’Arda (32km). Overnight Ostello Parrochia San Fiorenza. I was alone in this very basic, donativo hostel of about six beds above the school yard. I learned that this stretch of the VF is quite flat, mostly in asphalt, well-marked but somewhat monotonous.
2. April 28 Fiorenzuola d’Arda to Fidenza (22.5km). Overnight Affitecamere al Duomo, a private guesthouse with simple bedrooms and shared kitchen and bath. On this day I injured my right ankle and had a painful walk to get into Fidenza across miles of asphalt, zigzagging through the countryside to avoid the busier roads. A seldom discussed disadvantage of asphalt walking is the “crown” of paved roads, which are designed to drain water to the edges. Walking all day against traffic, as is recommended, means repetitive stress from the road camber, which I think exacerbated my foot problem.
0. April 29-30 Parma rest and recuperation days. Overnights Astoria Residence Hotel. I limped to this budget hotel by the train station and learned my actual townhouse-sized room was in another building about a half mile away. Fortunately the hotel had loaner bikes, and an old one-speed became my ticket to mobility. Parma is very nice. And the cheese…..
3. May 1 – Train to Sarzana; Walk Sarzana to Avenza. Overnight B&B Giardino Antico. Still favoring my foot, I wasn’t quite ready to head back to a hostel. Once I found this little B&B with its friendly and helpful hostess, I was very happy with my choice.
4. May 2 – Avenza to Pietrasanta. Overnight Ostello San Pietro — basic, but one of the few hostels on the VF with a green lawn. Another cute, small Italian town. This one sporting a large and sunny piazza.
5. May 3 – Pietrasanta to Lucca. Overnight Ostello Misericordia, Lucca. Such a long walk into Lucca, and the VF frustratingly skipped nearby neighborhoods with cafes and stores. Nice hostel with double rooms and a kitchen.
0. May 4 – Rest Day in Lucca. Overnight Camere con Visto. Since hostels allow pilgrims only a one night stay, I booked a room at this great little spot very near the Duomo and across from one of Lucca’s top restaurants. I felt a little guilty about a rest day in Lucca, but I loved the town and am glad I tarried there.
6. May 5 – Lucca to Altopascio. Overnight Ostello Cavallieri di Tau. Once I found the hostel it was back to the library to check in and get keys. Here the old piazze seem deserted and the action takes place out in the new piazza with all the cars. A great bakery there, though, with a cafe that opens at 04:00 and good wifi.
7. May 6 – Altopascio to San Miniato. Overnight Convento San Francesco at San Miniato Alto. Even with GPS working I found it difficult to locate this convent. Once I found it though it was a charming arrangement, with pilgrim rooms right above the cloister. There’s a nice sense of community with the friars and their volunteers, but I never did have time to climb the big tower that can be seen for many miles.
8. May 7- San Miniato to Gambassi Terme – Ostello Sigerico. Though a mile shy of the actual town, the deficit was made up by the excellent volunteer hospitaleri and the detailed tour of the adjoining historic church. Two bars catering to pilgrims, the first with some crazy good calzones.
9. May 8 – Gambassi Terme to San Gimignano – Monastero San Girolamo. I got the feeling that the town’s other pilgrim hostel was the happening place, but I scored a private room here and had a good conversation in Italian with the smart and friendly head nun.
10. May 9 – San Gimignano to Monteriggioni — Castello Casa per Ferie Santa Maria Assunta. This hostel is the only show in town, and if the priest is away, getting a key to it is no easy feat. Once in, it was a perfect place to rest and enjoy the tiny, walled village with its two cafes. Remember that there’s no store in town and the cafes open late.
11. May 10 – Monteriggioni to Siena — La Mercato B&B. I never liked hostels in big cities, so I booked this B&B just off the Piazza del Campo. It was a good find in spite of the chilly breakfast attendant. Siena’s cathedral? One of the most spiritual places I’ve ever been.
12. May 11 – Siena to Ponte d’Arbia — Hostel at Centro Cresti. The only lodging mistake I made. I switched rooms because I believed the floor under me might literally cave in. The hostel itself sits right on a highway and the only access to town is across a dangerous bridge. Next time I will walk the few extra km to Buonconvento, a charming town with more to do and see, whose hostel just had to be better.
13. May 12 – Ponte d’Arbia to San Quirico d’Orcia — La Palazzuolo Hotel. With wet boots and rain gear I was in no mood for another hostel, and I can’t believe I found this room in a nice hotel above the historic center for €50. Everything was dry by morning!
14. May 13 – San Quirico d’Orcia to Radicofani — Ospedale degli Santi Pietro e Giacomo. After the tortuous climb up to Radicofani the hostel was a delight. Within minutes of calling the number on the hostel door I was met by my host and led into the centrally located and historic building. Two bathrooms, plus a small kitchen.
15. May 14 – Radicofani to Acquapendente — Quasi Toscana B&B. Friendly Roberta was my hostess and her guest room had the personal touch of someone who takes pride in her home. I’m glad I arrived in time for the Infiorata, but sad the displays were rained out.
16. May 15 – Acquapendente to Bolsena — Casa Preghiera di Santa Cristina. Everyone else opted for the other hostel in town, ending up sleeping on mattresses on the floor. So this entire hostel was shared by just three of us. Nice hostess, good bathroom and kitchen facilities.
17. May 16 – Bolsena to Viterbo — Overnight in Piegaro. After walking the 30ish km to Viterbo I hopped on the train to my friends’ house near Lago Trasimeno. If you’re looking for a central place to park yourself while touring Umbria, choose the Antica Vetreria in Piegaro. Tell them Sandy sent you.
0. May 17 – Rest day, Piegaro. Overnight B&B Orchard, Viterbo. This was a true gem, and the host, Matteo, was beyond nice. Located in the old city, it was a good home base to explore Old Viterbo.
18. May 18 – Viterbo to Sutri. Overnight Hotel Sutrium. Just off the main piazza, I scored with a room facing the back side. Very basic, but handy and comfortable enough. Because I forgot to pay before I left and the hotel owners didn’t know how to make my credit card info work via telephone it took awhile to sort out the bill. Since I can’t do an IBAN transfer like a European I asked my friend Sebastian in Cologne to send the money via his account. Lesson: even if you give your credit card on booking.com don’t assume the hotel has used it to bill you.
19. May 19 – Sutri to Formello. Overnight La Francigena Casa Vacanza. I loved this little house. Right on the trail in the pedestrian zone. Heated. I had a hot bath!
20. May 20 – Formello to Vaticano. Overnight Air BnB. Everything was full by the time I started looking, and I was surprised to discover that Rome’s pilgrim hostel does not take reservations. You’re supposed to show up at 15:00 and stand in line for a bed. Knowing I’d be late after a long walk I took the safe route and found a place on AirBnB.
A note about Guidebooks: I came to Italy armed with every English language guidebook I could find, all of which fit neatly inside my phone.
I expected the Lightfoot guide to be most helpful, but then came to realize it is purely directional guidance and accommodation listings with scant information about historic towns or buildings. It’s like being told how to get there, but not knowing where you are once you arrive.
I found the Cicerone guide by Alison Raju to be difficult to read in its Kindle form and understood its layout better when I peeked at a hard copy. Alison’s place descriptions are unparalleled and alone make purchase of her guidebook worthwhile.
The SloWays App is an extremely helpful tool, connecting GPS guidance with downloadable maps. Sadly, my phone’s GPS function failed, so the app became almost useless. The daily descriptions are so vague as to be pointless, and SloWays sticks slavishly to the official route adding unnecessary km to the unwary pilgrim.
I ended up relying mostly on the somewhat obscure (for non-Italians) Terre di Mezzo guide. It is unafraid of route-shortening options, has passable directions, and includes interesting historical info. The maps are not wonderful, but GPS tracks are available. After my phone broke I wished many times I had brought my GPS and Terre di Mezzo’s tracks.
And how did I do? I’m glad you asked! After recovering from my foot injury I chugged along pretty well. My last week was blister free once I learned the right formula for tying my boots. As always I lost weight and got too much sun. My rain gear was fine when I used it, but it’s uncomfortably hot, even on cool days, so I tend to avoid wearing it unless I absolutely must. This led twice to me getting my boots wet on the insides. Not good.
Once again, a true highlight was pilgrim friendships. There were few solitary walkers, though, and those who weren’t in couples were either slower (Mike) or faster (Paolo) than me. I leave you with these photos of pilgrim friends. Ciao!