Long-trail hikes are gaining popularity, and the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrim trail from Canterbury to Rome, is no exception. Like the Camino de Santiago, the Via Francigena was a holy medieval pilgrimage road to Rome. It stretches over 1900 km and four European countries. The Council of Europe awarded the route status of the European Cultural Route in 1994.
Due to the length, the variety of terrain, and vast differences between the infrastructure and services available from country to country, Via Francigena, is not only beautiful but also challenging. Those new to long hiking routes should opt to do only a part of the route or choose a more adjusted route like some of the more known ways leading to Santiago de Compostela.
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Overview of Route
Via Francigena is one of Europe’s classic pilgrim routes. The first mention of this pilgrimage dates to a parchment that resides in the Abbey of San Salvatore al Monte Amiata in 876 AD. It winds through England, France, Switzerland, and Italy and takes approximately three months to complete.
While most of the way remains faithful to the original path, some variations occurred to avoid highways and other passages unsuitable for walking or cycling. The official start of the pilgrimage is at the famous Canterbury Cathedral. Similarly to the Camino de Santiago, you will need to obtain a Pilgrim’s Passport, which serves as a certificate of pilgrims status and is typically required if you want to stay in hostels and monasteries dedicated to pilgrims only. You can get one in the information office of Canterbury Cathedral. Collecting stamps in your passport along the way will also give you the right to apply for the Testimonium from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To be eligible, you need to walk at least 140 km.
On the road, you will enjoy some of the most alluring parts of Europe, including the lavishly green Kent, rough Dover cliffs, picturesque Northern France, a bubbly region of Champagne, Lake Geneva, ever-impressive Alps, a green region of Umbria, rolling hills of romantic Tuscany and, at last, Rome.
Being long makes the terrain on Via Francigena incredibly varied. Nonetheless, the surfaces are generally easy to walk. Most of the initial stages of the route through Kent and France are pretty flat. The terrain starts to turn mountainous as you enter Switzerland, where you must cross the Alps to reach Italy. You can enjoy fields, farmlands, small villages, cities, rivers, lakes and stunning mountain views. The highest point of the pilgrimage is the Great Saint Bernard Pass at 2469 m.
On Via Francigena, it is necessary to carry a guidebook and pay attention to the maps and notes as the quality and style of waymarking varies considerably among the countries.
In England, you need to look for a walking pilgrim sign. In France, look for the red and white stripes (long-distance route, corresponding with GR145 in some regions). In Switzerland, the way is, for the most part, waymarked as TP70 with a yellow diamond shape marker. And lastly, in Italy, there is a mixture of the Pilgrim waymarks, the long-distance red and white stripes, and other Via Francigena specific signs. Also, the waymarking in Italy is significantly better and more frequent than in other countries.
When To Go
The most popular time to undertake Via Francigena among pilgrims is the spring and autumn seasons when the weather is most convenient, neither cold nor too hot. The best time to trek the mountainous Swiss, Alpine, and Apennine section is in the summer. However, other parts of the route get very hot during summer.
Thus, whichever time you decide to walk, check the weather forecast to be ready if a bit more extreme weather conditions come along and avoid the winter months altogether. Given the complete pilgrimage takes around three months to complete, you can split it smartly over two seasons.
There are numerous hotels, B&Bs, and hostels along the way but not so many pilgrim-exclusive refugios until you get to Italy. It’s not surprising since few walk the entire length of the pilgrimage.
For those traveling low budget, France offers a few youth hostels, campsites and, a few monasteries. The situation gets a bit better in Switzerland and Italy, where increasingly more parishes provide simple improvised accommodation in churches or old schools, etc.
Because of the limited cheaper accommodation options, if traveling low-cost, it is best to plan your stages a bit more carefully, at least until you get to Italy. See here for more information on Italy travel tips.
What to See
Via Francigena has in store an array of natural, cultural, religious, and historical sites. You can be sure, you will not get bored. Some of the most prominent sites along the route include:
- The Canterbury Cathedral
- The well-known white cliffs of Dover
- Somme Battlefields from WW1
- Vineyards of Champagne
- Reims Cathedral
- UNESCO-listed Vauban Citadelle – a true military masterpiece (In Besancon, the last French city before crossing over to Switzerland)
- Lake Geneva in the Alps
- A marvellous wonder of nature – St Bernard’s Pass (only accessible in summer months)
- Lush region of Tuscany with romantic countryside and historic towns and villages
- St Peter’s Basilica in Rome
Best Guide Books
When it comes to English language guides, the gold standard is the Lightfoot Guides collection written by Paul Chinn and published by Pilgrimage Publications. The collection contains four books, three of which are guides to different sections of Via Francigena and the fourth one offers information about the historical and cultural heritage of each section.
The guides provide information for all, walking, bike and horse routes and are updated on a regular basis. They also point out the differences and variations between the original and official paths thus, giving you the freedom to choose according to your preference. The maps include GPS waymarks, plus the GPS data can be downloaded from the website. The information on accommodation, tourist offices, hiking shops, banks, and so forth is also provided.
The other English language guide worth mentioning is The Via Francigena Canterbury to Rome by Cicerone Press. It’s composed of two volumes. While the information offered is good, the maps are diagrams rather than proper maps, and there is no GPS information. On the other hand, it’s significantly cheaper than the first option.
Travel Along The Route
There might come a time you need to use public transport, whatever the reason. For a general search, you can refer to GoEuro website which looks up bus, train and flight connections in Europe, regardless of country. If you want to study up on each of the countries separately in more detail check out the Lonely Planet guides to public transport in France, Switzerland, and Italy.
Why Via Francigena?
Via Francigena is a long yet incredibly rewarding pilgrimage. Every step and drop of sweat will be rewarded with incredible sceneries, sites, and experiences you collect along the way. If you are a lover of long-distance hikes or if you simply crave a solitary adventure that will take you across Europe, Via Francigena is the right choice. Even if you can’t free yourself from reality for three months, you can always choose to walk a shorter section!