What dates did you walk?
We walked from the 16th of September to the 15th of December. I preferred the winter, because you don't sweat as much. This also meant we had to sleep in our tent in cold winter nights. After our air mattresses broke we had some very cold nights. If you choose to walk in winter make sure you have a good sleeping bag, sleeping bag liner, and air mattress. On the coldest nights we used a space blanket (emergency blanket) on the bottom of our tent, this worked wonders!
How did you cross the Alps?
We took the Great St Bernard Pass across the alps. You can either take a hiking trail or take the main road. We crossed the summit around the 10th of October. At this point the main road was already closed off, and cars had to take the tunnel. Tourism offices advised us not to take the pass but instead get a bus. Until then we had never skipped any part of the journey and we weren’t going to do it now! We took the closed road anyway. It wasn’t as dangerous as tourism offices told us it would be. It was quite slippery from the ice.
The first part up the mountain, up to Bourg-Saint-Pierre will remain open year round. When we reached Bourg-Saint-Pierre, the last village before the pass, we called ahead to the hospice on top of the mountain so they knew we were coming and that they should alarm someone if we did not arrive by nightfall.
Does the hospice on the Great St Bernard Pass stay open all year?
Yes, the hospice is always open! Pilgrims can get a meal and stay the night for a donation.
How cold is the Pass in October?
Because the roads are fairly steep we ended up walking without our jackets since our bodies kept us warm. When you take a break you cool down extremely fast though. Until Bourge-Saint-Pierre the cold wasn’t bad at all. The sun was still shining and it was reflected by the snow. When we got higher it started to get quite cold. -3 -7 is probably what you should expect in October. With good layered clothing, gloves and a warm hat you should be fine!
How long does it take to reach the top of the Great St. Bernard?
In the 2 days before Bourg-St-Pierre (the last village before the pass) you continuously walk upwards. These 2 days are quite intense.
In Bourg-St-Pierre there is a hotel and bar where you can have rest and coffee. From there to the hospice on top is about 4 – 5 hours of walking.
What clothes should I wear on the Pass?
I had a base layer of Merino Wool, a fleece and a windproof jacket. I used a cheap poncho for when it was raining or snowing.
I also had skiing gloves, a Buff scarf, normal scarf and a hat. That was enough for me! I wasn't wearing my thermal pants, and wore only one pair of thick socks.
Did you have days off?
Of the 90 days that it took us to get to Rome we had 2 days off. In either case one of us had some minor pains in our feet, and after walking with the pain for several days we decided to take a day off. When you’re walking every day your legs and feet become extremely strong. But not having enough recovery time can actually make your legs and feet weaker than before. If you plan on walking without taking days, be sure you have done lots of hiking before you start.
How many kilometers did you walk each day?
In the beginning we started slow, walking around 15 – 20 kilometers a day. After a week we started building up, and after a month we were walking 30 to sometimes more than 40 kilometers a day. Making these long distances was hard at times, but the next day your legs and feet were ready for another beating. On average we walked 23 kilometers a day. This includes 2 days off.
How many hours did you walk each day?
On average we walked 7 hours a day. This is not including the short breaks we took every hour.
How often did you take breaks?
We took breaks every hour of about 15 minutes. It’s good to keep eating small portions instead of three big meals. This way you always keep the energy levels up, and can always think straight. That way you don’t get lost as much!
We did meet another pilgrim who took half an hour break ever 3-4 hours.
Did you have any blisters?
During our entire journey we had 1 blister each. The trick is to keep your feet, socks and shoes dry.
Every hour when we stopped for a break, we took off our shoes and socks, and let everything dry. This way our feet got fresh air, and by the time we started walking again everything was reasonably dry. Another trick is to put talc powder in your socks every time you stop. We did this in the beginning but found that the fresh air was enough for us.
I’m not from Europe do I have to do it in 90 days?
As far as I know, if you’re not From Europe you can only get a 90 day visa. This visa starts from the moment you enter France.
If you keep to your schedule you can definitely pull it off. We did it in 90 days including 2 days in England and 2 days off.
Since there is no fixed route but only 80 villages and cities that you have to pass through you can sometimes take others route than your guide-book tells you. Often the guide books tell you the scenic route. In france walking on the side of the road isn’t very dangerous and it can save you many kilometers.
Which guidebooks did you use?
We used the light foot guides. We found it to be very accurate with lots of information on hostels, churches and monasteries where we could sleep or eat. Sometimes the information wasn’t completely accurate, but that’s what happens with such a long journey. Another pilgrim we met used 2 different guidebooks, and found that to work quite well. Since I had my laptop with me for editing, we often made our own maps and shorter routes using google maps. We uploaded the maps onto our iPod or iPhone, and found that to work quite well.
Where did you get your pilgrim credentials?
Pilgrim credentials are little books in which you get the stamps of all your stopping places. There are several ways to get your credentials. By becoming a member of the Confraternity of pilgrims to Rome, which costs you around 10 euros, you can get your credentials sent to your address. You can also just buy one at the kiosk in Canterbury right next to the Cathedral where the journey starts. I think these were a bit more expensive.
Where do I get the stamps?
The Via Francigena doesn’t have the official stamps like the Camino Frances does. Though in Italy you do get official stamps, most of the way you’ll just have to use your creativity. We got stamps from bakery’s, hotels, florists, tourism offices, butcheries and shoe stores. You can get them pretty much everywhere. Just make sure the stamp has the name of the town on it. This will be your proof in Rome that you walked through all the towns.
I'm female, is it safe to camp outside?
You should always use your own common sense in deciding if a sleeping place is safe. In the beginning sleeping in bushes on the side of the road, or in parks can be quite scary, there are so many unfamiliar sounds.
Being alone makes it even more scary. In the past few years I’ve slept in my tent in many different countries. From France, Spain and Morocco to Mongolia, Australia and Indonesia. I’ve had encounters with animals and humans but never anything serious. Usually the people don’t even see you, and if they do they are more afraid of you than the other way around. Some pilgrims try to sleep in hostels most nights, and carry a tent for emergencies.
Isn't it illegal to camp outside?
True, officially you’re not allowed to camp outside campsites in France. But the villages are far apart in France with lots of nature in between. Nobody really cares about it. Sometimes we’d come strolling out of the bush and say good morning to early dog walkers. One morning while we were in a forest packing up our tent, a hunter with a gun came running at us. We though we were in trouble but he just wanted to know if we had seen his buddy. Don’t worry too much about this.
Be sure to take all your rubbish with you though!
Are there hostels on the VF?
Almost every town has a hostel or hotel. If money is not an issue for you than you can probably sleep inside most nights. Be sure to call ahead every morning to make sure they have space. Maybe calling 2 days ahead would be even better. Personally I didn’t like all this extra organizing. I loved the feeling of just stopping anywhere, setting up my tent, and calling it a night.
I’ve also met pilgrims who use couch surfing on the Via Francigena. This is a website of people who love traveling, and will give you a place on their couch in exchange for some stories about your travels.
How did you charge electronics?
I like tea, lots of tea. That’s where I charged my laptop. My laptop than became my power station through which I could charge other stuff using USB. Other options are charging your phone using the bio-lite stove, or with a small solar panel for travelers. These days I use a Solar Monkey panel, works perfect for Iphones.
How did you carry the guidebooks?
We used the light foot guides, which are three books! I was very reluctant to carry all these books, but in the end I found it the best options since we could divide all our gear between two people. Every day we ripped out the sections that we needed, and threw those pages away at the end of the day. It became like a symbolic ritual. Throwing away the map for that day meant another milestone reached. Because of this our pack became a little bit lighter each day. I’ve thought about putting all the maps on a iPad or iPhone but I didn’t want to take the risk of the battery running out. With the step by step instructions that you’ll be reading from time to time your battery will be flat in no time.
If your walking alone perhaps you can send your guidebooks ahead. For example you can send the last book to the hospice at the Great St. Bernard.
What kind of shoes did you wear?
I used Meindles. I had these shoes in the army and used them on the Camino Frances as well. I’ve never had many blisters with them, and also liked that they are very water-resistant. I’d suggest getting high ankle support shoes for some of the rockier parts of the trail. When walking 7 hours a day having some extra support is quite nice! On the Camino Frances people walk on sandals and sport shoes. For this hike some real hiking shoes are worth the money.
How much did you backpack weigh?
Both our backpacks weighed around 10 kg. Since we could share shampoo, toothpaste, guidebooks, flashlight, and many other small items we could really keep our weight down. Because I was making the documentary I had to take a lot of extra gear including a laptop, 2 lenses, a tripod, DSLR Camera, and microphone. We really tried to keep our weight down because on top of these 10 kg we had to carry food and water.
Without the camera gear you can probably get down to 7 -8 kg per person. If your walking alone 10 kg might still be manageable if you make an effort to go ultralight.
How did you navigate in France?
We used the guidebooks, and every now and then google maps for backup. We didn’t have many problems navigating in France.
We did get lost several times, but that’s gonna happen no matter how good you prepare. It’s part of the journey, and you might meet unexpected people or opportunities along the way. So if you get lost, don’t panic too much. It’s gonna happen!
Did you ever run out of food or water?
Yes, we ran out of water several times. We just rang a doorbell, and people were always more than helpful to fill our water bottles. Often they gave us cookies, bread, cheese, and all kinds of sweets with it. Often people are very inspired by what you are doing, and want to be a part of it by helping you out. One day we got offered a meal and a place to sleep in a spare bedroom of a French family. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, or to ring a doorbell!
When should I start?
We started in the winter months but you will find more pilgrims in the summer months. Though it will be a lot hotter, and you’ll have to carry more water with you. Nature will be a lot more beautiful in summer especially around the Great St. Bernard Pass.
How do I get the certificate in the Vatican?
When you arrive at the vatican you have to talk to one of the swiss guard, and show them your credentials. As soon as they see this they will treat you very well, and bring you where you need to go straight away.
How does the Ferry from England to France work?
Just walk up to the port in Dover, and buy your ticket. It’s about 30 pounds. When you arrange it online you can get better prices, but then you’ll have to be sure you'll make it in time.
Do you have more questions?
If you still have questions,
please send me a message through the contact page so I can add it to this list.