An Introduction to Camino Life

Sometimes the need to walk away from your life can become overwhelming. Do you ever wish you could walk for miles each day, across open farmland, over rolling hills lined with vineyards, and even along suburban thoroughfares, past gas stations, mini-marts and fast food take-outs, even as your feet become blistered and sore? (Okay, I know that last bit didn’t sound so appealing!) I think people have always had this desire to some extent, even if they aren’t fully conscious of it. Across the world there are ‘pilgrimage’ trails – some of which were established for more traditional pilgrimages, or long walks that have a spiritual significance. Others are newer – old roads and sheep trails through mountains become pathways for tourists taking the slow route. The resurgence of interest in pilgrimage routes in recent years is a clear indicator of how much this desire pulls at us.

The Tuscan hilltop town of San Miniato Alto after a September rainstorm.

The desire to step out of my life for a bit and walk in another land, on another continent, has always been strong. For me, walking is an opportunity to slow down and get to know a place in a way that I couldn’t have if I had been moving through on a bus or train. Travel can often involve a rush from one guidebook highlight to the next, without a chance to feel the space between. If I want to know a place, I have to walk across it. And, as I’ve mentioned previously, it’s the chance to get to know who I am in this moment of life, to spend time in my own thoughts listening to the person that inhabits this body at this point in time.

When I imagined walking across a European countryside to clear my head, I initially thought it would be on the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route through Spain that attracts (literally) hundreds of thousands of people each year. But the more I considered it, the more I wanted to try something a bit quieter, and less well trodden. That’s when I found the Via Francigena, the road to Rome. If I were to walk the whole thing, I would have to start in Canterbury, England. The full walk extends from Canterbury, through northern France, into Switzerland, across the Alps, and through central Italy to Rome. But I just wanted to taste the Tuscan segment of this walk. I only gave myself a week for this, after all.

Like the more famous Camino de Santiago, the Via Francigena has a well mapped and well marked route southward. You can plan to do this type of walk however you like. Some people carry all their gear and camp in farm fields along the way. Others stay in hostels and guesthouses, hiking anywhere from 8 to 25 miles or more each day. There are extensive guidebooks on these types of multi-day/week pilgrimage walks, and there are often recommended ‘stages’ that take you 15-30 miles a day. Because I was traveling alone, and fairly new to this whole long-distance walking culture, I had a travel agent* book my lodging and bag transfer each day, so I could walk along with only my daypack.

I started in the town of Altopascio, to the east of Pisa, then worked my way south, but I did not walk the whole way. I shortened the trek for the first couple of days, from 30 km, to about 12 or 15 km by having a taxi drop me off at the halfway point each day. Despite the new muscles in my legs after hiking in Cinque Terre, I knew my feet wouldn’t be up for an 18 mile walk right away.

In general, the Via was very well marked. Admittedly, it was a bit overkill at this trail junction, but it gives you an idea of the types of markers you find along the way. Sometimes, the only indicator of the trail was the little red and white sticker that you see at the top of the wooden sign on the left.

I felt the thrill of adrenalin as my driver dropped me off at my starting point on Day 1 of my pilgrimage, then zipped off to take my luggage to my first B&B. I was in a small town with a medieval-looking bridge. I crossed the bridge and found a trail marker, and started following my route along a wide canal bordering farmland that had recently been plowed. The heavy gray sky threatened rain. I hoped it would hold off so I could enjoy my first hiking day.

And it did hold off – for about five minutes. Forty-five minutes later, I was still trudging along muddy farmland paths, a bit sweaty under my big poncho. My feet and legs were soaked. After about 3 miles, I came to the city of Fucecchio. The Via Francigena had me cross right through the city center, past the cathedral and lots of shops and restaurants. I hoped to find a covered cafe to sit and wait out the rain, but the only cafe I found was closed. Eventually, I found a post office with a wide covered patio, and moved there to dry out for a bit.

I should mention that despite trail markings, it’s sometimes easy to lose the trail. Especially as you’re making your way through cities with winding roads that seem to radiate out in all directions from the city center. But my travel agency had provided me with a map app for my phone that showed me exactly where I was at with respect to the trail, whenever I needed to know. It probably sounds a bit like cheating. But this little tool was invaluable at a couple of points on my walk. Google maps also saved me on a few occasions. On this particular occasion, Google showed me a bus station about half a kilometer from the post office where I was sheltering, with a bus route that would take me within two kilometers of my B&B. As much as I wanted to walk, I realized I had nothing to prove on my first day, and no shame in taking a bus.

But the Google doesn’t always tell you what type of bus you might be catching. And that’s how I found myself on a bus full of yelling middle schoolers. It wasn’t a bus that normally stops for other people, but the driver took pity on me. He didn’t speak English, but with my limited Italian (and thanks to many years of studying Spanish), I could communicate well enough with him. He actually took me much closer to the B&B that I thought we would go.

Regular pilgrimage walkers say, “The camino always provides what you need!” So I figured the rain and the school bus were part of my initiation into pilgrimage walking. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut, and you end up finding what you need.

Endless vineyards in the Chianti region of Tuscany.
Abandoned farmhouses were not an uncommon sight along the way. Sometimes, there was a newer house just around the bend in the road. But sometimes these places simply stood alone, weathering back into the countryside.

Things went a lot more smoothly after that first rainy day. Although, I still had to contend with considerable rain and mud. But I managed to get my walking in early in the day before the rain got too heavy. My shortest walk on Day 2 took me about 7 miles, and my longest walk – the one that took me into the city of Siena – was about 14 miles. Each day I found myself in a new town, with new views, more history, another gelato shop. The Via Francigena winds through the Chianti region of Tuscany from one medieval hilltop town to the next. I stayed in a mix of hotels and B&Bs, and one very fancy vineyard/resort. Also, on one night I found myself in a 13th century monastery/pilgrim hostel, the Ostello Sigerico. This was the one place where I actually had a chance to meet other Via Francigena pilgrims.

My shadow on the 13th century pilgrim hostel. I had a room to myself on the third floor – the window is just above and to the right of the top of my shadow. This place felt a bit spooky, and I was surprised not to see any ghosts.

My biggest surprise about meeting other travelers was that they were all way older than me! I suppose young people do the Via Francigena, but perhaps more often in the summer. Younger people also tend to camp, rather than stay in posh little B&Bs or hotels. Everyone I met at the Ostello Sigerico was clearly over 50 (yes, I’m included in that camp), but most were over 60. I realized then that those are the people who have the money and the time to do these types of pilgrimages.

We had a group dinner at the Ostello, and I sat across from Jeff, from Canada, who had started this walk in Canterbury two months earlier (he skipped over some of the bits through France). He told me he had been doing these types of walks for 10 years, and now, at 66, he was eager to keep going. He had even taken an early retirement a few years ago so that he could do these walks around the world. Also at our table were two women in their late 60’s and an Italian father-son team. The son looked like he was about my age, and his Dad must have been pushing 80.

A couple of days later, on the outskirts of Siena, I met an Australian lady doing the walk from the Italian-Swiss border to Rome. She was carrying all her gear, doing the entire trek on foot, and she was in her late 70’s.

After meeting these energetic seniors, I felt like a complete slug for using a baggage delivery service. Clearly, this was not the norm! I also felt like such a wimp, having shortened my first couple of stages to ‘get my walking legs’. I am clearly a novice. Jeff told me, “You’re a newbie! It gets easier the more you do it. Your legs get used to it.” I was so inspired by these people who can walk 20 or 30 miles a day. What motivates them? Jeff told me he was motivated to walk for friends who no longer could – due to illness or injury. The Australian lady wore a ‘Stand up to Cancer’ jersey. While I didn’t feel comfortable asking her about her motivation, as she shared some of the struggles she had along the trail, it was clear that she was determined to prove to herself that she could do this.

Perhaps most of the people I met on the trail were older not because they simply have the time and the money, but precisely because they had experienced enough of the fleeting nature of life to convince them to head out and live life fully in every moment. It’s the hard things that sink beneath our skin as we age, and either drown us in sorrow, or light the fire that moves us to walk 30 miles in a day.

I want to fan that fire. I want to do what those people are doing.

I’ve been asked if I felt safe doing something like this as a solo woman. There was no point along the trail that I felt unsafe, or even uneasy. I often imagined, as I was walking, how I would feel if I were doing this at home, walking along a busy road, or a lonely trail, or across someone’s farmland. I’ve never done this at home. And I know that I never would. I don’t feel safe in my homeland – even to walk through my town after dark. That makes me sad. I do cycle alone on country roads sometimes – but not often, because that, too, makes me uneasy.

But I felt safe in Italy. I never had the sense that someone might pull a gun on me as I approached their farmhouse. No one at the grocery story had a gun holstered on their hip. I never had big pickup trucks spew black smoke in my face. Nor did I hear catcalls from men driving those pickup trucks. Never did anyone rev their engines just to make me jump. Never did I speak with anyone who made my spine crawl with urgent warnings. All of these things happen at home. In Italy, I talked with elderly farmers puttering in their fields, and hunters loading their dogs in the car. I even had some British folks stop in a car and ask me for directions (which, unfortunately, I couldn’t provide). Not to say that you don’t need to be cautious. But how nice would it be to live in a place where I didn’t have the hair rise on my neck as I wandered out from my home for an evening walk around the neighborhood?

The valley around San Gimignano, filled with fog in the early morning.

I wrapped up my week of walking just about at the point when my body was growing accustomed to it. I had my ‘walking legs’ as they say. Although, the blisters on my little toes wouldn’t heal fully until I was back at home a week later. But I wished I could have gone on. Despite the pain in my feet, I savored each day in the countryside, feeling a sense of accomplishment with each kilometer marked along the way. I imagined that I would spend my days on the trail thinking about life. But that’s not what happened. Each day I was living too fully to think too much about it – and often too tired to write much about it in the evening. Maybe that’s what’s got me hooked on the walking pilgrimage, and why I want to do this again.

I also know that sometimes that need to step out of your normal life becomes so great not because you don’t love your life, but because you need another perspective. You need to live another life for a little while to appreciate the one you have.

Resting at the end of my Pilgrimage at El Campo, in the center of Siena. This moment was followed by gelato and pizza, of course.

*I used SloWays in Florence as my travel agent, in case you’re wondering. They did a great job, and made booking from a distance easy.

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