Now that we’ve been back a week and have had time to reflect upon our nearly four months walking along the Via Francigena, we wanted to share our thoughts about the trek. There’s no doubt that it was a phenomenal experience, but we’ve wanted to determine in own minds exactly why it was so phenomenal. What impressed us the most? What made walking this path so special?
Walking along ancient Roman roads, visiting medieval churches, taking in the sights and sounds along footpaths trod by millions of people before us. History surrounded us and astounded us everyday…sometimes in subtle ways… the smoothness of stones under our feet on a Roman road or the rough symmetry of a decrepit old stone wall… or other times in overwhelming grandeur… St. Peter’s Basilica, cathedrals in Siena, Lucca, Reims and Canterbury. To read historical accounts and stories is one thing, to live it and feel it each day is quite another.
We were fascinated by the diversity and distinct differences between architectural styles throughout the ages … Etruscan, Early Roman, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Modern. The difference in house styles from country to country, compared to each other and to how we build our houses in America was interesting. How man builds and expresses himself in architecture was the subject of many discussions. The basic, the ornate, the use of arches and columns, the blending of one style into another as renovations and upgrades occurred over the centuries… we tried hard to absorb it all and learned lots along the way.
3. Cultural Immersion
We walked through countries, regions, cities, villages and neighborhoods. We ate the food of the region in the local bars and cafes and restaurants. We shopped in the local markets and groceries. We drank the wine and beer drunk and sometimes produced by the townsfolk. We slept in local hotels and hostels and rooms in people’s homes. We walked along their farm paths and up their narrow, cobblestone alleys and through their vineyards. We spoke, albeit haltingly and in a limited fashion, in languages foreign to us. We chatted with people… sometimes other pilgrims, sometimes local farmers or bar patrons or people we met on the street. This walk only reinforced our views from previous travels around the world… people in a one-on-one situation are kind, helpful and friendly… no matter their color, religion, sexual orientation or nationality. We’re all the same.
4. Sensual Experience
Walking, the ultimate in slow travel, is like no other form of transportation for taking in everything around you: the sight of fields of scarlet red poppies swaying in the breeze; the sound of cuckoos singing, the flapping wings of swans taking flight or the crackle of dried wheat under your feet; the smell of wood fires in the morning or freshly mown hay in the fields or croissants fresh out of the oven; the feel of the sun on your back or rain dripping off your hat and down your face or the heat emanating from a rice field; the taste of just-picked, ripe blackberries or cherries on your tongue. If you’re rushing by in a car or a train or even a bike, you miss so much. A walking pace allows the opportunity for your senses to explore.
5. Spiritual Experience
When we arrived in Canterbury, we received a blessing from an Anglican priest who asked if we were religious. We replied that we were not. Why then, he wondered, did we do a 1300-mile pilgrimage? I replied that it was not religious, but it was indeed spiritual. Though many times we chatted as we walked, just as often we were companionably quiet, lost in our own thoughts. Walking can be and was a contemplative, meditative time. What have I done, where am I going, what makes me happy, how can I be a better person, what else do I want to accomplish in this life? No outside distractions, just the sound of our own footfalls marking time and steps along the path.
6. Diversity of the path
The diversity of our path kept it interesting. We walked through forests and cornfields and grape vineyards. We trudged up steep, steep hills and over mountain passes and along canals and through flat rice fields. There were logging paths and scrambling over boulders and downed trees and across snowfields. We passed country churches, regal castles, grazing farm stock. Sometimes it was sweltering hot and other times we were freezing. It rained, it snowed, it hailed, it sleeted and for several days, a blazing sun shone down without respite. Each day was different. Each day on the path brought something new to see and appreciate.
We definitely saw our share of the local flora and fauna. Wildflowers were bountiful and beautiful providing a pallet of vibrant colors that dressed the countrysides. From a family of boars on a forest path in France, to a heron devouring a snake in a rice field near Vercelli, Italy to marmots and ibex in the Swiss Alps, we saw an amazing amount of wildlife. We observed and heard birds everyday … songbirds, water birds, wading birds, raptors and the usual crows, magpies, swallows and sparrows. Red deer, hares and rabbits were common. We caught a glimpse of badgers a couple times and steered clear. Sheep, cattle, horses, pigs, donkeys, alpaca and goats were common. In Switzerland especially, huge bells hung around the cow’s necks and clanged incessantly.
8. The Challenge
Walking 1300 miles was indeed a challenge. Our ‘just a little further’ philosophy worked well for us, as did David’s solution-based walking options. My shingles threw a monkey wrench in the works for awhile since I couldn’t walk with my pack. Okay, how can we still walk the Via? Plan B & Plan C were conceived. We moved beyond the medical issue. We encouraged each other most days … we’re half way, we’re in single digit mileage now, just under five miles to go or, better than that, only four miles and change left today… easy peasy. Each day was its own challenge and for that day, the walk was all that mattered.
One thing about a long distance trek like this is that it keeps one focused. We didn’t worry about housework or yard work or car maintenance. We got up each morning and we walked. We ate, we rested and the next day we walked again. We didn’t have to think very much about what we’d do, the path was always there and prescribed. It’s rare we have the opportunity to focus on just one thing in our daily lives. There always seem to be interruptions and distractions. Walking the Via afforded us the time, space and freedom to concentrate on just one thing … walking.
10. Weight Loss – Physical Fitness
Losing weight and/or maintaining weight becomes more of an issue as we age. We’ve worked diligently over the past few years to maintain our weights and stay trim and healthy. We’ve walked religiously, worked out at our local health club and tried to eat healthy foods. Walking the Via, however, was outstanding for weight loss and our physical fitness and endurance, as well as our mental well-being. I’ve never felt healthier in my life.