Many people who are interested in walking the Way of St. Francis (Via di Francesco) in Italy have already walked a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, very likely the Camino Frances (French Way) in Spain. (And the names of these two routes are similar enough to create confusion for anyone not familiar enough with either.)
Having walked both myself, here are five ways in which the two are different.
- On the Via di Francesco, they speak Italian. This point may seem obvious, but there’s much more to it. On the Camino Frances, English, not Spanish is likely to be the common language, even if people come from around the world. While fewer people in small towns or villages in Spain speak English, most of the hospitaleros do, as do many pilgrims. An American can get by with minimal Spanish. But in Italy, there are even fewer people in the small/rural towns who speak English and while some pilgrims do, it is vital to know some Italian, especially basic phrases. On our walk, we met no Americans and only one Brit. Most of the pilgrims were from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
- There is a whole lot more climbing. A WHOLE LOT more. For those who have climbed the Pyrenees coming out of St. Jean Pied de Port (the starting point of the Camino Frances) the Way of St. Francis is like climbing that stage every day, for several days on end. This is especially true for the 6 days’ walk into La Verna. Elevation gains need to be taken into serious account and it’s not just the gain; the descents are often equally difficult, especially if the slope is rocky or muddy. Walkers can expect to make much slower progress. Poles are even more strongly recommended, especially for older walkers.
- There are fewer pilgrims-only accommodations along the way, with a mixture of hotels/hostels/pensions and guest apartments the norm. Call or email ahead, too, at least one night before. And unless you are in one of those rare pilgrims-only accommodations, expect to compete with other tourists and day hikers. On our 16-day journey from Florence to Assisi we found that we had to find alternative accommodations at least three times because there were no rooms available in our intended destinations and it wasn’t because there were a lot of pilgrims. And learn to ask (in Italian!) if they speak English, if you do call ahead. If they don’t, make sure you can ask for a room in Italian! (You can also ask a host to call ahead for you for the next night.)
- You will have to pack food and/or water for the day, for several of these stages. This is rarely the case in Spain, where a mixture of bars, restaurants and grocers are typically open in villages every few kilometers. Bars will give pilgrims water for free and many towns have fountains with potable water. On our sixteen day walk from Florence to Assisi, we found that we needed to pack food about half the time and extra water about a fourth of the time. This adds extra weight (just when you are about to climb, too!) and requires more planning.
- Much more of this walk is quite remote. The route through the Casentino National Forest, which comprises three of the first six stages, is largely dirt trails and dirt roads and few houses or villages, more reminiscent of the Appalachian Trail than the Camino Frances. Even in the remote a areas, however, we always had a good cellular signal. We were glad to have Italian SIM cards in our phones. In many places the trail crosses rivers and streams and on more than one occasion we had to ford them in our sandals.
- On the Camino Frances, you only need to follow the yellow arrows or the scallop shell. But on the Way of St. Francis, you should use GPX tracks to navigate, especially from Florence to Sansepulcro. While the walk in Umbria is pretty well marked (until Assisi) it is easy to get lost before then. I used the Guru Maps App on my iPhone, but there are others. Sandy Brown has created a set of files that you can find here. South of Assisi the markings vary, again.
To date we have walked about 3/4 of the route, first from Rieti to Assisi (in 2019) and then from Florence to Assisi, this April (2022). We loved every minute of it, even if it was challenging. The Italian hilltop towns are beautiful, the food delicious and the scenery charming and historic. I plan on finishing the last stretch–Rieti to Rome–in September of 2022, about 110 kilometers.
We recommend that experienced walkers look carefully at the elevations along the route before estimating distances you might walk in a day; consider shorter stages than the guidebooks recommend. A list of distances, elevations and percentage climbing for each stage is attached here. This list is according to Sandy Brown’s guidebook, Trekking the Way of St. Francis.
The most wonderful thing about this walk is how relatively uncrowded it is! While we encountered the occasional pilgrim, the small towns and villages were authentic Italy. Some places, such as Florence (a starting point) or Gubbio, La Verna or Assisi do have lots of tourists and we encourage booking lodging in advance for those stages.
Many pilgrims also choose to start the walk in either La Verna, Assisi or Rieti. There is no stated start/end point such as on the Camino, which makes it desirable for a one or two-week trek. Transportation to and between towns is also available on inexpensive buses, which also means that you can skip a stage one day if you are worn out, injured or just needing a rest. We did that at least once, when the weather was bad and the route ahead was expected to be muddy.
The Way of St. Francis is an adventure and a wonderful opportunity to experience the ancient, historic culture of Italy, one footstep at a time. Explore it!
Russ Eanes is a writer, walker and cyclist from Harrisonburg, Va. and the author of The Walk of a Lifetime: 500 Miles on The Camino de Santiago.