Brenda experience on via francigena header

Brenda's Experience on Via Francigena

11 Jan 2024

After sharing Joan's inspiring journey, we couldn't resist inviting another remarkable traveler to recount her adventure on the Via Francigena.

Our aim is to encourage fellow travelers, especially women, to embark on this magnificent pilgrimage. Meet Brenda Roper, from the USA, who embarked on a solo trek from Lausanne to Rome, a 60-day-long, extraordinary journey she meticulously chronicled in her travel journal. Her journal is adorned with captivating photographs capturing her daily discoveries, providing glimpses into the mesmerizing landscapes and the fascinating people she encountered along the way.

This wasn't Brenda's first experience on a Camino trail; she had previously walked the St. Francis Walk with us, from Chiusi della Verna to Assisi. SloWays were more than happy to sort out all her logistics, accommodation and luggage for her epic trip. Intrigued by her journey, we reached out to Brenda to delve deeper into her experience, and she graciously shared her insights with great enthusiasm.

What first sparked your ambition to tackle the Via Francigena?
It's been on my list for a few years. Initially I went to Spain. Mostly because of the movie "The Way". I've walked the Camino Frances (twice but with variation), the Coastal Camino Portuguese + Finisterre and Muxia and the del Norte/Primitivo. Once the Camino became a part of my reality I started looking for other Pilgrim paths and of course the Via Francigena appeared. I read whatever books I could find. In fact I thought of walking it back in Fall 2019 but in the initial research discovered the Way of St. Francis (a lot of people who don't know the various routes of the Italian Caminos get confused thinking they are the same when they are two different routes --as did I--) at the time a friend and I decided to do that instead.  We booked through Sloways. I finally made the Via Francigena my priority for 2023. A friend was able to join me for the first two weeks. We rendezvoused in Geneva and walked together from Lausanne to Ivrea. That was nice. In the planning I still had to ask myself if I had enough time and resources to take 60 days but in the end I decided to do Lausanne all the way to Rome. It was fantastic. I highly recommend it

What is the appeal about walking Caminos – as this is you've walked several? 
I love everything about it. The way my mind expands within the structure of walking everyday. It is truly meditative. Your body becomes strong. The whole mind/body connection works for me. I enjoy the natural beauty. The small towns. The wildness. The dishelvement in some of the bigger cities. I love the community of others on the path. The shrines and churches. I'm not religious but I try to go into every open church along the way. I light a candle. I feel the spirit that comes from a quiet mind or sanctuary. On the path I think of all who have walked before me. I think of my own life. How can I keep doing this and still manage to support myself? It is truly a privilege. But also brings my life into balance. I feel I am more in touch with my authentic self walking through the world. It brings me happiness and I feel free

How do you think your experience on Via Francigena was different from San Francis and other Caminos you have walked? 
That's a good question. The section I did on the Via Francigena: from Lausanne to Rome, was 60 consecutive days. There is something magical that happens and falls into place when this becomes a way of life or even a job (to loosely translate how it's possible to walk up to 20 miles or so a day to others who can't fathom doing it, but also not necessary with proper planning if you are not capable and that's okay). It's the only thing I have to do. To walk

In 2022 I walked the Camino Frances/Invierno (with a friend) took 5 days off then walked the Camino del Norte/Primitivo (solo). That was the first time I gave myself permission to travel/walk for over 2 months. I carry so much with me in my heart and mind and often overthink every decision so I admit I am, on some level, seeking an epiphany that might guide my life in a new or different direction. While the history of the via Francigena and Sigeric tells an ancient story of pilgrims along the path --also shared with the Camino Frances (Spain) as the Way of St. James does. The Way of St. Francis is more a meandering path of areas where St. Francis was said to explore and spread his kindness. All that aside I found the Way of St. Francis is more wild and wilderness - like. True trail hiking and route finding and challenging. I loved it but was also glad to hike with a friend. It was my first time using a trail app --a learning curve for me but invaluable. My friend was much better with technology. I've improved over the years. Lol. The Via Francigena has this quality too (mountain hiking) and lots of variety in the different regions - so much beauty especially in the Alps and Aosta Valley, but even though one might hike all day without small town services, in my experience, it is more cultivated. Well marked. It's older/well established. And that part of the path shines through. In my experience each Camino is a little bit different but equally wonderful. For me it is truly about walking through the landscape for days on end. The wild and then the infrastructure that makes it possible. Accommodation. Wine. Food. I could go on and on about each trip and their highlights but truly it is about who you meet along the way or how you choose to interact (or not), how your body feels, what you bring to the journey, etc

I’m sure that many people will wonder what it’s like spending so much time walking on your own, and in particular, being female myself, how is travelling alone as a woman? 
Firstly, it's very safe. In fact, as an American, I generally feel much more safe traveling in Europe than I do in my own country. I rely on intuition. I pay attention. I'm organized. Same as I would at home. I smile a lot, especially since my language skills are terrible. I truly need to do better on that front and while I do learn basic phrases and might manage a complete sentence on occasion I get all mixed up (hence the smile) and give thanks to Google Translate. But really that feeling of "safety" is different for everyone. The trail is well marked. The app is invaluable if you have doubts. People are helpful if you need to reach out for directions or aid. In my case I find great comfort in being alone though I do love having someone to share a meal. That's the hardest thing for me to do by myself, have dinner in a restaurant, so I'll often do the grocery store dinner and other times I'm brave and take a seat at a nice restaurant or outdoor cafe. It depends on the day and the place and how much energy I have at the end of the day. I'm an introvert. An artist. Truly my struggle is in connecting with others. In opening up. In taking a risk to reach out, be visible and engage. I find when I do it's generally a blessing. And greatly adds to my experience. Being in nature has always been my happy place. I'd say if you want company you can find it. If you don't it becomes an exercise in boundaries. We tend to meet ourselves on the path

Does the trail feel noticeably different as you cross borders with Switzerland? 
The biggest difference is the price of things. Switzerland is expensive. But I loved it. And I highly recommend starting in Lausanne (if you aren't already starting in Canterbury or France). It is so beautiful. I loved those first few days walking along Lake Leman. The grapevines. The food and wine is excellent. Everything is manicured. Even up in the alps the fountains had geranium baskets set upon them. Incredibly picturesque.  The GSB pass is more monumental in that it is the build up. The long climb. The summit. All of those things on your mind in the days preceding. Will the weather be clear? Will there be snow? Am I in shape? And then you're there and the lake that divides the two countries is simply a stunning reflection that is a postcard worthy image. A border. The markers changed as I recall from one country to another but the path continued down into more and more beauty. That section is truly special. It was also nice to spend the night in the Hotel and visit the museum in the Albergue at the top. And of course the dogs.

What made you choose SloWays?
I initially used SloWays to arrange the Way of St. Francis in fall 2019 and was happy with your services. Great price. Reliable. Good communication. And I wanted to use a company from the country I was traveling to so when it came to arranging 2 months on the via Francigena that's where I started. And it was good. Thank you.

What would you say to a first-timers?
Just do it. Don't put it off. The world is changing and if this is a dream for you I encourage you to make it happen. If you have doubts or a fear of going on your own I would suggest doing a section that might have more people. Or take a friend. Or trust yourself and go on your own. There are a million opinions on how to do the Camino. Personally I feel a greater sense of freedom by having my accommodations pre-arranged. Others feel that is limiting. I like knowing all I have to do each day is to get up, have breakfast and walk. 

It’s such a profound undertaking on so many levels, to walk such a long pilgrimage route. Do you feel it is changing you?
I suppose, even without a grand epiphany. It builds confidence in small ways. Even though my accommodations are pre-arranged I still need to find each hotel. Sometimes I used the train or other public transport. Things out of my comfort level. I've cultivated navigational skills. Honed my intuition. Brought awareness to my doubts and fears. I have a great sense of curiosity and take delight in alternative paths and daydreams. I especially enjoy documenting my journey to share with others. It gives me a focus each day by combining my photographs and words into a journal. A timeline. A deadline. A memory to refer back to at the end of it all. Even though I love feeling free and unencumbered, I'm a person who needs structure. This small gesture allows me to combine my creativity with a feeling of purpose.

What was your favorite part of the Camino? 
That's almost an impossible question. Sometimes I feel as if it's my life-purpose to walk the Camino(s). The joy of movement in a foreign land. The art of walking. But what makes me smile is generally my interactions with a few special people along the way. They open me up to parts of myself I keep hidden. The unexpected interlude, sharing a meal, a laugh, a different opinion or observation. There is so much magic and realization. The challenge is to carry it home. Into the everyday.
And the worst?
I had one day where I was completely spent, though I can't remember it now. Not specifically. Maybe the heat or a moment of weariness but in general what I find most difficult is my fear of taking the train, getting on or off at the right stop. Validating the ticket. Kind of ridiculous to those who do those things easily or on a daily basis but that it isn't my world. It isn't hard but puts me more into the spotlight than I'd like. Not that anyone is even paying attention to me. But it pushes me out of my comfort level. It always worked out but the anticipation created some angst. 

How did you feel in the days after finishing the walk?  
Truthfully I was happy that I had walked to Rome once before and spent some time exploring the sights so when I arrived at the end of the via Francigena I was happy to simply relax. Take it in. My hotel was an old monastery in a neighborhood I hadn't visited before. A fitting ending to a pilgrimage. Wifi only in the public areas. That was actually perfect though initially I was like --what-- no streaming? But there was a gorgeous rooftop patio. I had a picnic one night and watched the moonrise. Or sat with a glass of wine and chatted with a friend. The bells chimed. It was lovely. I wandered to my favorite cemetery in Testaccio and the market. A woman I had met briefly on the del Norte Camino (Spain) saw a FB post of my hotel and recommended a family restaurant nearby so I went there for Sunday lunch. As a solo traveler that can be difficult but they were kind and gave me a nice inside table. It was such a sweet and delicious experience. I tried to avoid the crowds. It can be an emotional time. 

What do you think of the Sloways APP and documentation?
The APP is great. Invaluable really for double checking when there's doubt. And since it works offline even more so. I also carried a portable battery charger in my daypack just in case. Documentation was good. I looked ahead then always double-checked the night before to determine directions to my hotel (or a general idea) or if there was anything specific I needed to know before setting out. Once I chose to take a short-cut from my hotel and combine a stage rather than take the train to shorten the day. I like walking that much. Lol. 
What were your biggest heights and lows?
The lows: Generally to do with logistics or my perception of them. Trying to arrange the ferry or should I walk. Is there food available on site or nearby and right or wrong timing. Nothing too dire. Sometimes you just eat an apple and the cheese you've been carrying for a few days and call it good. 

The highs: The beauty of the Aosta Valley. Connecting with others along the way. Meeting a herd of sheep on the path. The Thermal pools in St. Vincent was fun. A few exceptional meals. A night all on my own in the farmhouse of Sulla B & B. Rooftop picnics. But maybe the long rainy day after the walk from before Radicofani to Acquapendente and my trying to communicate with my transfer by phone in poor Italian (who was so kind) to estimate my arrival. I was beating myself up at my poor language skills. Of course it all worked out and at the end of it I walked into my room to find a beautiful bathtub. And a small balcony. What a gift

What are your next plans? 
I'm considering Rome to Bari.  

Finally – a tip for someone who’d like to follow in your footsteps?
Gosh, there are companies like Sloways that can arrange a self-guided itinerary of any length or section. And they offer many more walks than the Via Francigena or Way of St. Francis. Do it for you. What do you like? What is your dream? Many people choose to start with the Camino Frances in Spain because it provides community and infrastructure. For others it can be too busy. The Cicerone guidebook by Sandy Brown (if you are an English speaker) is an excellent reference for Italy. Join a Facebook group (though do this with some discernment). Camino your way can turn into a lot of opinions on the best way to do something. But essentially people are helpful and want to share information. It's a good resource. You are welcome to read my blog. It's not a "how to" but paints a picture of my personal experience. And there are many books and blogs to choose from. For me walking is vital to my well-being. It keeps me sane. The pace is perfect for observation and photographs and thinking. If that resonates with you I'd say check it out. It can become a way of life. Buon Cammino.


Thank you Brenda, for your wonderful contribution, and best of luck for your next Caminos! 


Wanderlust Nominee Best Specialist Tour Operator 2023
Nominee Best Specialist Tour Operator 2023
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