Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Via Francigena or the Camino to Santiago?

I’m in a position again to put forth objective information to those deciding between the two long-established and historical pilgrim trails across Europe. Last week, making my way to the pilgrim house on the Via Francigena in Tuscany, I stopped one night at a pilgrim house on the Camino in Ponferrada, Spain, thus, I can contribute decision-making knowledge first hand from both winter and summer experiences to those planning their pilgrimages.

- The Camino is incredibly crowded; the Via Francigena, is not. In summer hundreds upon hundreds of pilgrims daily versus maybe two (individual) pilgrims staying in any given pilgrim house (I saw it in Spain and am currently experiencing it in Italy). In winter, it’s more like 10 a day in Spain versus 1 a month in Italy.

- The villages along the Camino are heavily subsidized to receive and provide for pilgrims, which they do in a uniform, mechanical way; the villages along the Via Francigena make varying efforts to welcome pilgrims - if the town or village happens to be very touristic (e.g.., Siena), pilgrims blend right in with the other foreigners; if it’s not touristic, pilgrims are treated with rather high regard, acknowledged for their historic effort, especially if they’ve traveled a great distance.

- Companionship along the Camino is certainly and uniquely with other pilgrims; along the Via Francigena, companionship is with the people of the communities along the trail. On the Via Francigena, pilgrims are still an uncommon sight, thus intriguing. Of course, intimacies can strike up along the Camino among pilgrims in ways that would be difficult along the Via Francigena because of the fewer number.

- From my observation, large groups walk along the Camino, with a minority of solo walkers; on the Via Francigena, solo walkers predominate, and groups that come through are generally no more than two to five people.

- Both northern Spain and Italy are equally hot in summer 30-35 degrees these days (86 - 95F). Because of this, on both trails, there are those who want to get a predawn start to beat the heat. Dawn is around 5:00 in Italy and 6:00 in Spain at this time of year. Others, especially those walking short daily distances, want to sleep in until 7 or 8. Thus, in the crowded houses of Spain, the noisy pilgrims getting an early start wake everyone - it’s no fault of an individual, but in a house that holds 200, even 5% of them getting up early still amounts to a lot of collective noise from movement and repacking, lights going on, doors slamming, water running. In Italy, in a house with 3 pilgrims, if only one wants an early start, he can be out pretty stealthy without disturbing the others. There’s more of an interpersonal courtesy among fewer people than among a crowd; it’s human nature.

The pilgrims I’m encountering here in Italy as a pilgrim greeter have a unanimous voice that they have no interest in the Camino because of the crowds. The Via Francigena is unquestionably the better alternative for pilgrims seeking solitude and contemplation. It’s not just the pilgrim houses in Spain that absorb the throngs of pilgrims - the restaurants, cafés and shops, too, and the trail itself. I find it unsettling when long-legged Germans come up from behind sharply pinging high-pitched little bells they wear on their fingers to signify they’re getting ready to pass on the left. (Not a slam against the Germans, but they’re the only one’s I’ve seen do this, and many of them do it, in Germany, as well. Germans are second, behind Spaniards, in the nationality of those walking the Camino; they’re similarly outnumbered only by Italians in walking on the Via Francigena.) Parts of the trail are a veritable parade of pilgrims walking in single file or spread out across the broader paths. They’re just short the marching band.

I can’t imagine walking in the heat, but that could be dodged by walking early, taking a siesta, and then walking again late, if I had the time only in summer to walk. I certainly can’t imagine finding enjoyment in walking with the crowds and struggling to find a bed in the enormous pilgrim houses and, if successful, then struggling among the swarm of pilgrims to get to a shower - which will be cold - and doing daily laundry, then struggling further to find a place to eat, because the kitchen of the pilgrim house will be overtaxed well into the night. Not my idea of fun.

The crowds continue to walk and bike to Santiago because of its current cultural popularity. The number may wane in future years, but there’s no sign of that yet as the municipalities continue to build more and larger pilgrim houses to accommodate the predicted numbers. Next year is a Holy Year in Santiago and 250,000 pilgrims are expected to walk or bike into Santiago, significantly more than the 177,000 on the trail in 2008. The numbers in 2009 and 2011 are expected to be much higher than the past, too, as people wanting to avoid the Holy Year crowds spread themselves out. (The next Holy Year in Santiago isn’t until 2021.)

What’s the motivation to do this? Keeping with the ‘in’ crowd may motivate some people; wanting the bragging rights may motivate others. There is a financial consideration, that’s more tangible. My experience (in winter): during 50 days in Italy walking 1,007 kilometers, I spent an average of 31€ per day for food and lodging; in 30 days walking 916 kilometers in Spain, I spent an average of 21€ for the same, although I walked considerably faster while in Spain, so the cost are low in a direct comparison. In any case, an excursion though Italy will cost more (30%?) than through Spain. True whether a pilgrim or not.

My advice to pilgrims wanting a cultural excursion steeped in history and supported to an adequate degree by the communities along the way with pilgrim houses is to consider strongly the Via Francigena. True, the pilgrim houses are fewer and further between and those that exist suggest a higher donation (10-15€) than what the municipal houses (3€) demand in Spain, and true, there aren’t as many guidebooks, nor in as many languages, but for those who don’t need or want to rely on some unknown forebear’s experiences to find there own way across the continent, and are willing to ask at parish houses and town halls for advice on accommodation, then the Via Francigena totally rocks.

But hurry! The Associazione Via Francigena and other official groups are putting great effort into popularizing the route in its own right and as an alternative to the Camino, so the tranquility here won’t last forever. I feel a little ambivalent in promoting the Via Francigena like this, because it might just make it incrementally more popular, incrementally closer to the ruination the popularity of the Camino has caused - like once Rick Steves declares some little village in Europe to be a charming, quiet, off-the-beaten-trail place, the trail gets instantly beaten, it’s no longer so quiet, and the charm is gone. Alas. For the moment, objectively it can be stated that the Camino is grossly over-utilized and the Via Francigena is still grossly underutilized.


j said...

Hello Ann

This was well said.

We have walked both the Camino de Santiago and the Via Francigena, and both agree with your comments and observations

It will interesting to see what happens after next year, this being a Holy Year in Spain.

Giulia and Neville
Little Green Tracs

Umberto said...

In December last year, I walked the Camino de Santiago and it was rather quiet. Indeed, I walked the Portuguese way and the English way with these guys and I enjoyed it very much. They have plent of alternative to crowded routes. Aparently, the via de la Plata and Northern way are a lot quieter than the Frensh way even in summer.
I have to say I will give a try to either of these in 2010 althou a wholly year there.