Figuring out our route and exactly how we were going to get from Rome to Canterbury was a daunting task. There were actually two aspects to the route planning task. First was the overall route plan, which is the list of where we'd be stopping at the end of each day as we made our way along the route. Second was the detail of the route we'd be following each day. Both aspects required a lot of time. Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to help. I’ll describe them in more detail at the end of the blog.
Overall route plan. The various guides and apps we’ve acquired describe the current ‘official’ route of the Via Francigena, as well as many alternative routes. Many pilgrims we met followed the official route to the letter, but we diverted regularly from it for several reasons:
The stages of the official route vary from 8 miles to as much as 22 miles a day. When we walked the Thames Path last year, we found that 15 miles was about the most we enjoyed doing each day, while 8 miles was a very short day. I wanted our route to have stopping places and lodging of some sort every 12-15 miles along the route. (After 2-3 weeks of constant walking, we had no trouble averaging 15 miles a day BTW, but even so, a 22 mile day is still a major push for us).
The official route was developed in part by local walking/hiking clubs. They often seem to think it’s desirable to find the most challenging, albeit scenic, route between two points. This might be fine for Sunday day hikers, but for us, adding 2-3 miles to the day’s trek for no apparent reason other than the opportunity to climb more hills wasn’t a major plus.
The official route doesn’t follow the exact route Sigeric took in 990. That’s just not possible – Sigeric’s secretary didn’t document every step of the path, so there’s no way of knowing what his exact route was, and even if he had, the route is not walk-able in many sections because of highways, private property, new bridges and sprawling cities. Our rationale was that as long as we walked every step between Rome and Canterbury and generally followed Sigeric’s route, our route was as good as the official route.
I wanted to complete the overall route plan before we departed because working on it required, among other things, three hardbound books which we wouldn't be taking with us, as well as a considerable time investment doing internet research.
This was a long process. I used the hardbound route guides, a couple of eBook route guides, the Via Francigena app, a couple of map apps, and the Bookings and AirBnB apps to figure it all out. The kitchen table was covered with books, notes, my notebook computer, an iPad and an iPhone, all the associated chargers and cords, plus, depending on the time of day, either a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.
What I ended up with was a spreadsheet listing the 112 towns or villages where we'd be stopping each night, the daily distance to be walked and notes about the lodging to be found there, for the entire route from Canterbury to Rome. Pretty cool, except we then discovered that because of the visa rules in the EU and the flexibility given by France and England, we’d be better off walking the route in reverse. I sorted the spreadsheet in reverse order, then spent an entire day editing it until I then had the overall route starting in Rome and ending in Canterbury. Whew!
Off we went to Rome, and the plan was working quite well until Marcie developed that pesky bout with shingles. The first week, she was unable to do much walking at all, and for the next four weeks, she couldn’t carry her pack because of the shingles related blistering on her shoulder, neck and arm. We came up with Plan B and modified the stages of the overall route to start and end in towns that had rail or bus stops, which allowed us to continue making progress. By the time we were back in the groove again, we had lost enough time that it was apparent we wouldn’t be able to complete the Via before our return flight. On the other hand, it was also apparent that we could walk much further than the original 15 miles/day we had planned on. I reworked the route plan once more and was able to reduce the total number of stages to 88, enabling us to reach Canterbury with a few days to spare. Double whew!
Daily route plan. One of my chores each evening was to plan the next day's route. There was no one path to follow... there might be half a dozen variations in any given leg. I tried to figure out the best route to take based on a number of factors: the weather conditions, both for the next day as well as the last few days; the length and difficulty of the various options; and the points of interest along the route. For example, when it had been raining the last few days, we wanted to avoid paths that involved fording rivers, traversing swampy areas and paths that were likely to be knee deep in mud. When the temps were expected to be in the 90’s or higher, I’d try to find the route that had the most shade, or that at least had frequent shady places to stop and cool down.
Once the exact route was determined, I plugged waypoints into the Maps.me app so we’d be able to follow the planned route without too many miscues. I’d also make notes about the villages we’d be passing through, any points of interest we’d be seeing and distances between watering holes – meant both figuratively, as in bars or cafes and literally, as in places to refill water bottles.
All in all, the planning worked out quite well. There was rarely a day, however. that we didn’t have to do a little backtracking. Sometimes we’d be talking or lost in thought and miss a turn. Sometimes, the map showed paths where they didn’t exist or traversed private property – often with snarling dogs on the other side of the fence we’d have to climb if we were tempted to continue.
Resources. The following are the resources we used for planning the route:
Smartphone and tablet apps (we used an old unlocked iPhone and an iPad):
Via Francigena - Official App (itinerArea) This app shows the latest official route and your current GPS location in relation to it.
sloWays (itinerArea) Very similar to the app above, but covers Italy only.
maps.me offline (MY COM) A very handy mapping tool, since the maps can be used offline, i.e. with no internet connection. It will find the shortest walking route between two points and shows your current GPS location. We found that it uses a lot of power if the route is left active all day, but I found it much less of a power hog if I put waypoints all along the route, and then deactivated the route. It was amazingly accurate for the most part, finding all kinds of obscure paths we never would have guessed were there. On the other hand, it occasionally found paths that weren’t there at all.
Booking.com. This was our main tool for finding lodging in the towns and villages we traversed. It rarely finds the smaller hotels, hostels, B&B’s, however.
AirBnB. Another good tool for finding lodging. Unless the B&B lists with them, however, it won’t show up on the AirBnB app.
Lightfoot Guide to the Via Francigena (3 volumes) Paul Chinn, Babette Gallard. A good planning tool. but there is no digital version. The three volumes are much more weight than we wanted to carry and we left them in Las Vegas.
The Via Francigena - Canterbury to Rome (2 volumes) Allison Raju. A good resource - we bought the digital version and took both volumes with us. The book is a few years old, and the official Via route has changed in a few places since her book was published. None of the changes were serious, however. The books are quite complete in describing both the official route as well as any alternative routes. The book lists the distances between all the villages and towns along each route, and my only real complaint is that many of these distances are inaccurate. Unfortunately, the errors are usually on the short side, so many times we’d be expecting a 15 mile day that turned out to be 17 or 18 miles… it’s quite disappointing at the end of the day to discover that instead of being almost done, we still had 2-3 miles to go.
Via accommodation list. This is available in digital form from the Via Francigena website in the UK. It lists many of the accommodations that other pilgrims have used, and is updated frequently.
Blogs. The Via Francigena website also maintains a list of blogs and journals submitted by other pilgrims. Some are quite useful, while others… not so much.