As we spent those four months traveling slowly through Italy, Switzerland, France and England, we observed that while the four countries were alike in many respects, they also differed in many more. Here are some of the differences we observed...
Italy: Food in Italy could be expensive, but two inexpensive and dependable standbys we could find anywhere were pasta dishes and pizza. Pasta was offered on most all restaurant or bar menus, and we ate our share of it. Pizza by the slice was available everywhere – bars, groceries, cafes, tobacco shops… we often saw school kids stopping at the local convenience store to pick up a slice for their lunch box. Both of these food options were great – at first, but by the end of our two months in Italy, we couldn’t face another dinner of either. It may be a long while, if ever, before we’ll look forward to pizza. Wine was cheap and good, however, and despite having it on a daily basis, we didn’t seem to grow tired of it in the least.
Switzerland: Food was similar to both Italian and French cuisine, but much more expensive. We usually found a grocery and bought food to eat in our room at night.
France: Great food and wine, generally priced lower than Switzerland, but higher than Italy. Despite Marcie’s reasonable French and the Google Translate App, however, we didn’t always know what we were ordering – or eating for that matter. Our daily diet also included their wonderful fresh baguettes and croissants, something we’ll need to cut back on now that we’re not walking 15+ miles a day.
England: England certainly isn’t famous for its cuisine. We ate mostly pub food, some of which we even liked. Beer and ciders are plentiful and reasonably priced.
Italy: What interested us most in Italy were the old walled cities. We could wander for hours along the tiny cobblestone streets and alleys looking at the old buildings and cathedrals, and sticking our heads into the little shops. We were told that in some cities, you could buy an old fixer-upper for €1 – about $1.15, as long as you were willing to spend the time and money restoring it. Now that would be an interesting adventure. Getting Blue home at night might be a problem, however. I’m not sure how they even got their tiny Fiats around some of the corners.
Switzerland: What comes to mind when I think of Switzerland are half-timbered buildings, and chalets. I also think tidy. Everything was neat and tidy. The houses all seemed freshly painted; the decks and the picnic tables were stained and varnished to perfection; the gardens were neat and orderly; the landscaping, whether gravel, mulch, plants or grass, was always perfectly manicured… even the big piles of firewood were stacked with meticulous detail. While the French and Italians seemed to spend more time enjoying their homes and less time maintaining them, I think the Swiss get their enjoyment doing the work necessary to keep their homes neat, tidy and perfect. Rare was the day when we didn’t pass half a dozen people busy raking, pruning, painting or washing.
France: Like Italy, France also had lots of old cities to explore, but since so many of those we passed through had been demolished and rebuilt during and after the two world wars, they seemed less fascinating. What I found more interesting were the old farms. Before the wars, when manpower was plentiful and machinery scarce or non-existent, most of the farms employed dozens of farmhands. To house all these workers, the farms became large compounds, typically with a big house for the family, a few huge barns and several large, two story buildings for the workers. All the buildings were brick or stone, and were usually arranged around a common courtyard. Now, modern machinery has eliminated the need for most of the farm workers, but the buildings remain and have been re-purposed… usually for hay storage, machine shops or lodging for travelers. We stayed in a few of these converted buildings and, as you might expect, the remodeling effort ran the gamut from quite well done to somewhat on the primitive side.
Litter and trash
If I were to rank the four countries by the amount of litter and trash we saw, the best by far, not surprisingly, were the Swiss, followed by the Brits, then the French and coming in a distant fourth would be the Italians. Rather than house to house trash pickup like we enjoy, many cities and towns in Europe have community trash depositories, with big bins for the various recycling items – glass, plastic, aluminum, etc. and garbage. In Italy, either they weren’t emptied often enough, or the townsfolk didn’t feel it was necessary to actually put the trash into the bins, because there always seemed to be bags of trash and litter piled around the bins. The French and British were better, but nothing like the Swiss. Their trash areas were spotless – not a piece of paper or bottle lying around. I think they must steam clean, refurbish and/or repaint their bins every other week, because they always seemed to be immaculate and even the garbage trucks were pristine. It was the same walking through the Swiss towns – the commons, school yards and parks were all picked up. Must be something in the water.
And speaking of water, as pilgrims, the ability to refill our water bottles was an important aspect of each day’s walk. If we knew we could find water along our route, we didn’t have to carry as much. Italy shined in this respect. A tradition that dates back to the Roman days, every town and village had several public fountains with wonderful, cool water. We rarely had to walk more than a few miles without passing one. Switzerland also had a multitude of fountains, and we could depend on finding water in almost every town. France had lots of public fountains, often very nice to look at but which rarely worked, and when they did work, the fountain usually had a sign indicating that the water wasn’t potable. We frequently met people who offered us water, but that wasn’t something we could depend on, so we resorted to carrying a lot more water each day. In Italy, we could get by with a couple of ¾ liter bottles, or about a pound and a half of water apiece, but in France, we sometimes had to carry 6 liters to get us through the long, hot days - about 6.5 lbs apiece! We didn’t find as many public fountains in Britain, but we could usually find a faucet with public water in most villages and towns.
Italy: Everyone had dogs. Maybe it was because we were in rural areas for the most part, but it seemed that the Italians had the most dogs per capita than any other place I’ve ever been. As we passed through villages, every house had two or three dogs, all barking and growling at us. When we passed a farm there would sometimes be a dozen or more dogs all throwing themselves at the fence trying to get at us. The barking would start when we were a mile away and continue until we passed out of sight in the other direction. On the other hand, I’ll bet these places don’t get broken into very often.
Swiss: The Swiss like their dogs too, but not every household had them. When they did have dogs, they seemed happy with only one or two, but since they were often Saint Bernards, one or two were plenty. The Swiss dogs seemed less aggressive - they only barked as we passed and rarely appeared eager to have a light snack of pilgrim as the Italian dogs did.
French: Often, the French farms didn’t keep their dogs fenced in, which sometimes made us a little nervous. Usually, the dogs would bark at us, but stay on their property. Sometimes, they would lie quietly on the edge of their property eyeing us – daring us to take a step into their territory. On a few occasions, one or two chased after us, but brandishing our walking sticks and facing them always got them to back off. The most annoying dog was one we encountered as we walked through a small encampment of dilapidated RVs. Several dogs barked at us, but one little dog in particular came tearing out after us, snarling and barking. When we turned and faced him, he’d back off ten feet or so and continue to bark at us. As soon as we started walking again, he’d race in for another morsel of ankle. The owner was an obese woman sitting in a chaise lounge, watching. This was probably the highlight of her day. I pointed at her dog and shrugged – trying to convey the suggestion that it might be nice to call her dog. She just shrugged her shoulders and laughed. He was a persistent little bugger. If I could have swatted him with my walking stick on one of his attacks, I would have, but he was too fast. We ended up walking backwards quite some distance until he finally gave it up – much to the fat lady’s amusement.
English: The English go everywhere with their dogs – restaurants, pubs, buses, and especially walks. When we walked the Thames Path, we must have seen hundreds of people out walking with their dogs, rain or shine. Almost without exception, the dogs were friendly and well behaved.
When I reflect on the hospitality of the people we met, there was very little difference between the four countries - we found warm, friendly people everywhere we went. We did encounter the occasional rude person, like the lady and her attack dog in France, but that was very much the exception rather than the rule, and certainly no more so than we would have encountered in any town in the US. For every man like the Frenchman who watched from his porch as we tried in vain to get water out of the broken public faucet in his village and then told us there was no water in town before going inside… there were twenty like the Frenchman in another village who saw us getting water from the public fountain, and came over to inform us that the water wasn’t potable – would we like to come to his home, rinse out and refill our water bottles, and why not have a coffee while we were there? As we trudged along country roads, we were frequently offered rides (which we politely declined, of course). People oftentimes invited us in for coffee, meals, or a beer, and were always more than helpful with directions or information. That’s definitely one of the best parts of slow travel… one on one, people are friendly, intelligent and interesting. I can only hope that they found us to be the same. Well, okay, maybe the intelligent and interesting parts are a stretch, but I do think they at least found us to be friendly.
I couldn’t finish this blog without showing you this sign I saw in restroom in Switzerland. Even a slob like me knows it’s not cool to pee on the seats, but only the Swiss would expect you to don gloves and an apron and scour the toilet after you’re done. I looked around for the apron and gloves after I finished using the restroom, but didn’t see anything fit for purpose. My assumption was that any self-respecting Swiss would bring his own gear when visiting a restroom. How was I to know?
We’ve compiled all the information we gathered on walking the Via Francigena, from start to finish, on our Trekking page. Click here to visit it.
See you next week.