After travelling along the Camino de Santiago, many travellers continue their journey along the Via Francigena, thinking that they will find a route similar to the Spanish one. This is partially true, but there are many differences between the two great routes, and travellers should be aware of them.
Trying to be as objective as possible, we list below the strong points of the two routes.
In general the route is more beautiful and varied than the Camino de Santiago: just talking about the Italian section, we go from the Alpine scenery of the Colle del Gran San Bernardo to the gentle hills of Piedmont, from the agricultural plain of the deep Apennines, from the Crete of Siena to the volcanic lakes of Lazio.
The cultural attractions are extraordinary: each leg of the journey touches on very important points of interest, with a stratification of periods ranging from the Etruscan and Roman periods the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The richness of food and wine in our country is such that on every leg of the journey products and typical dishes change and travellers find themselves in a pleasant situation of enjoying a journey where they taste different flavours every day.
There is now a constant flow of pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago: each leg is travelled every day by hundreds of people, above all in the last section of the French Camino. In some legs there is a sort of competition to reach the next hostel before all the places run out, and this can create some discomfort for those who like to walk in peace.
Along the Via Francigena there are fewer pilgrims; during low seasons you may walk for a whole day without meeting other pilgrims. The sensation of the communal spirit of walkers which is enjoyed along the Spanish walk, which for many pilgrims is fundamental, is very hazy, while the introspective aspect of the walk is privileged.
There are still relatively few hostels for pilgrims along the Via Francigena and they are often not very well organised and offer too few beds. During crowded periods sometimes pilgrims are forced to sleep on a mattress on the floor, or to resort to tourist facilities. The distances between hostels are often great, and may even be as much as 25-30 km, and this increases the difficulty of the route.
Some legs (for example San Gimignano) do not have any pilgrim accommodation facilities. Not all hostels are manned, and it is better to notify them the day before you arrive, and in some cases you have to book. Tourist accommodation facilities, on the other hand, are of a good level, but they must be booked in time in order to be sure of finding a room.
The flow of pilgrims towards Santiago, together with the differences in Spanish legislation regarding accommodation and taxation, means that the price of a bed in a hostel can be as much as 5-6 Euros, while in Italy it rarely goes below 10 euros for accommodation with the same characteristics.
Moreover, the “pilgrim’s menu” costing 8-10 Euros is common in Spain, but less frequent and more expensive in Italy. It is also true that in Spain pilgrims often have to sleep in large crowded rooms in conditions which would not be legal in Italy from the health and above all safety point of view.
The legendary “Flecha amarilla”, the yellow arrow, guides the pilgrim from the Pyrenees to the ocean, making it very difficult to get lost.
In Italy sign-posting has improved enormously in recent years, in particular in Tuscany, but in the other regions it is not perfect or unequivocal: in addition to the red-white signposts along the official route, other types of signs exist that correspond to un-official routes, which sometimes create a certain confusion.
In addition to what we have listed, there are obviously numerous other differences, which can be appreciated only by following the two routes. As we mentioned in the previous points, the differences do not necessarily mean that one route is better than the other: for those who like to walk in solitude and silence the Via Francigena is an ideal route, especially in certain sections, while those who look on travelling on foot as an opportunity to get to know new people, will prefer the Spanish walk.
Those who appreciate the adventurous aspect of the journey could be annoyed by the sometimes excessive use of signposts in Spain. Every now and again it is nice to trust your instincts in finding the right way, or to ask for advice from a person you meet along the way. Also so as to remind yourself that hiking is a metaphor of life, and therefore it is nice to trust sometimes in yourself, sometimes in others and every now and again to escape from the tracks that someone has programmed for us in order to tackle the unforeseen events that are the very essence of life.
Cover image credit: Alberto Conte