Walking the whole Via Francigena: the path of Joan MacGregor

Walking the whole Via Francigena: the path of Joan McGregor

30 Sep 2021

 

joan macgregor

Not many people in recent times have attempted to walk the complete Via Francigena. At 1900km, stretching from Canterbury in southern England to Rome in Italy, it’s an undertaking requiring time, hard work, determination and belief in yourself.

In April, Joan from Australia, travelled to the UK to begin her 5-month journey on foot to Rome. Not only that, she decided to take on one of the biggest pilgrimage challenges…solo!

SloWays were more than happy to sort out all her logistics, accommodation and luggage for her epic trip and everyone in the office has been understandably eager to hear how Joan’s been getting on.

We caught up with her in Switzerland, her third country so far.

 

Joan, we are completely in admiration of you taking on this challenge. Firstly, what first sparked your ambition to tackle the Via Francigena?

“I’ve always done a lot of travelling all my life and in the last 15 years I’ve done a couple of Caminos through France and Spain. In the past 12 months, it was a time of life when I felt I needed a challenge - it was time to get less comfortable! I found I had the time and here I am….

I chose the Via Francigena because I had done some self-guided Camino successfully and I was confident I had skills now that would let me do a much longer journey.”

What is the appeal about walking Caminos – as this is your fifth one?

“It’s a family thing. A few years ago my father retired at the age of 80 and decided to do a Camino and that started the ball rolling. So I did one and then my sister did one and then my children got into the act.

My daughter asked to one at the age of 14 when school felt a bit difficult, so we walked the Via de la Plata together, so of course then my son wanted to do one and we did the Camino Norte. Then my other older daughter was determined to get her Camino in before she had children.

Every Camino was different and all amazing. Actually the Camino de Puy was like being Belle in Beauty and the Beast, with castles and belfreys, markets, boulangeries and patisseries everywhere!”

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?

“I have found being on my own a lot more challenging than I expected particularly in the section of France that the Via Francigena walks across because it’s so incredibly remote and rural.

I’ve no fears at all for my personal safety but I have found it intimidating sitting in a restaurant alone, particularly at first. Now I find I don’t care what people who I don’t know think any more! I just do the crossword which is perfect and the meals were something I did look forward to. Perhaps I have become braver!”

 

Does the trail feel noticeably different as you cross borders?

“Absolutely completely different. I was just 2 days in England walking, and then France was amazing – forests, agricultural landscapes and then mountains. If people are thinking of this trip they need to understand that it’s so wild, sometimes there’s nowhere inhabited to stop during the day – the SloWays team had explained this but to experience it was sometimes quite difficult. Switzerland was more populous with lovely places to stop and brilliantly waymarked paths and of course lakes and mountains too.”

This is your first trip with SloWays so what made you choose us?

“ I have never done anything with a company before but I felt my language skills weren’t up to dealing with French and Italian as I was travelling on my own. I also knew if I had any issues the operator would know and be able to help.

 I went to a travel agent in Canberra and they suggested SloWays!

It has been excellent to have the accommodation pre-booked and luggage transfer – even though I’ve got rid of everything and only have 2 changes of clothing, my pack is still too heavy to walk with every day. In the heat, I’m so grateful to have it all transferred, and even though sometimes I could have walked further maybe without the pack, on balance I wouldn’t do without it.”

What would you say to a first-timers?

“Take a very small pack, less than you want and go in with an open mind.”

 

It’s such a profound undertaking on so many levels, to walk such a long pilgrimage route. Do you feel it is changing you?

“At the beginning on the trail, I listened to podcasts but after that I got used the sounds of the birds and the forest, so it’s a change for me. I have such an active mind that to switch it off and just be in my surroundings is completely different.”


As you leave Switzerland, what has been your favourite part of the Camino so far?

“Bourg Sant Pierre to Col San Bernard. I know the day ended at San Bernard. It was just wonderful. And even better, I also ran into my friend from Ireland who is also walking the Via Francigena. I’d never met before I started  bumping into her along the way. I’d had a fall a day earlier and had had a drop in confidence but had managed to keep going after a lot of encouragement. And then I did make it and it felt wonderful

Also I have to say that every stop between St Berg to Col San Bernard was a gorgeous food experience. In some parts of France it was difficult because it was remote so I really appreciated it when I reached Switzerland even more.”

 

And the worst?

I’m find the app a little challenging in towns e.g. finding train stations, but I’m contacting SloWays about that in advance so I accept that as one of my limitations. My son is with me aged 25 and he just whips through the technology!

 

You’ve been on the trail since April, what’s been your favourite moment?

“I’ve met some extraordinary people and the human element of kindness has touched me.

My son has joined me for the past 2 weeks and it’s been wonderful. He’s possibly a bit sick of me now, but it’s been just great. Today was the first day he put his ear pods in!”


Are you looking forward to getting to Rome?

“Yes, I’ve been to Rome about 5 times. Every Australian who finishes school used to go to Europe as a rites of passage. The sense of achievement when I get to Rome will be amazing and I can’t wait!”

 

joan via francigena

We called Joan at the end of her 4 month journey on the Via Francigena, the road to Rome and her triumphant entry into the “eternal city”! Here is what she had to tell us regarding her epic trip:

 

Joan, welcome home! how was your experience on the last 50 days of your trip?

I arrived in Rome on August 20, having started my trip on April 25.

My last week of walking was luckily blessed with more reasonable temperatures, as I had to face a heat wave in Switzerland and Italy – with days up to 40°C that put me to the tested. There were days when my determination faltered, but I quietened my inner voice and continued walking, setting off at dawn to avoid the blistering afternoon heat!

The whole experience was amazing, there were some real highs and yes there were also some downs and lows along the way.

 

How do you feel now you have finished the walk?

The arrival in Rome felt surreal. I felt disconnected from the bustling, noise, and speed of the city, having spent so long walking through peaceful countryside and sleepy villages, often on my own.

A sense of fatigue overcame me when I reached Rome though I do feel I had enough rest days along the way. While in France and the mild weather I would leave at 8am and walking until 4pm, while in July and august, in Italy I set off at 5am to escape the heat and get to my destination by noon, taking a nap before an early dinner.

What I feel was tiring for me was the mental adjustment needed – you have to process all the many changes that keep happening on a daily basis.

I feel very fortunate my son joined me for a couple of weeks as I entered Italy after I fell, my brother also joined me for a section in Tuscany. This helped me immensely and was very good for my mental health as I fell badly, climbing to the Saint Bernard pass and my determination faltered heavily, I nearly giving up.

My brother and son walk much faster than me, so we walked separately during the day, reuniting for lunch and then dinner. Having them with me was a great indulgence and an unexpected blessing.

 

How different was your experiences in each country along the way?

France – I started in Spring and the weather in northern France was often wet or cloudy, the daily distances were longer than in Switzerland and Italy and the villages were often tiny, many without a shop or bar for a coffee and a break. On the other hand, the locals were delightful and very helpful, driving me to a local restaurant so I could have dinner when the accommodation didn’t have a restaurant of its own.

Switzerland – I have a sweet tooth and every day there were wonderful pastry shops along the way with yummy cakes and sandwiches to snack while in the evening the meals were a pleasure to feast on.

Italy – The country is just beautiful and the food incredible especially the infinite variety of pastas! The accommodation varied a lot, some really great, some basic or plain with nothing more than a private room with ensuite bathroom. Being summer, the art cities feel very crowded, noisy, and touristic.

I am a quiet and reserved type which meant I spent may day’s without speaking to anyone. I met few pilgrims along the way, though 4 of them were doing the complete Via Francigena like myself. – but I didn’t mind as I never really felt alone, or unsafe. The App you provide ensured I always stayed on track, and you did an amazing job in helping and supporting me. Whenever I had a question, needed assistance or a transfer to shorten a section, I reached out and you arranged everything for me.

 

What do you think of the Sloways APP and documentation?

The App and support were simply fantastic. The Sloways team has been extraordinary and cannot thank them enough for how fantastic and helpful they have been! I have little sense of direction and am not very tech savvy. The app, working also offline, was very easy to use, having the hotels included in the itinerary made navigation to them easier. It was also helpful whenever I found the grass overgrown and the trail not very visible. Whenever the path was not accessible for some reason, you always helped me find an alternative solution.

 

What were your biggest heights and lows?

Highs:

  • The incredible sense of achievement, self-reliance and having done something incredible for myself.
  • The climb to Colle San Bernardo: the natural beauty of the landscape felt incredible.
  • Walking chatting and sharing part of my experience with my brother and son –having them join me in Italy at very short notice was just invaluable!
  • The assistance provided by Sloways!
  • The wonderful variety of foods and pastries I tried along the way.

Lows:

  • My hard fall climbing to the Saint Bernard pass stunned me. I felt very frightened and fragile and was in a state of shock for several days which nearly made me quit. On the backhand, overcoming the massive urge to give up, gave me an incredible sense of achievement.
  • The last few weeks were quite tough: It was hot, my brother had left, I really wanted to get to Rome, the end was so close, and the days didn’t seem to go by fast enough. I didn’t feel like doing any sightseeing, I just wanted to get to Rome.
  • The language barrier was also a problem for me. I studied a bit of French before the trip, which partially helped but I didn’t speak a word of Italian.

 

What are your next plans?

I’m planning on visiting my daughters in Singapore: I have thought of changing job, but have not made up my mind yet, maybe I will retire. Who knows!

 

Finally – a tip for someone who’d like to follow in your footsteps?

Learn a bit of French and Italian

To a degree, you need to have a good sense of personal responsibility

Plan at least one rest day evert seven days of walking – but not on Sunday or Monday, as in my experience a lot of things are closed on those days, especially in smaller villages. Choose a weekday allows you to explore and experience the place you are stopping in!

 

Joan, getting to know you and supporting you through this epic trip has been one of the most exciting adventures we’ve ever experienced!

This is definitely not a trip for the faint-hearted – but surely the experience of a lifetime for the brave-hearted! We are sure your journey will inspire other women to set off and head out of their comfort zone and on their personal hero’s journey – we will be here to support them each step of the way!

We wish you all the best for your future – hopefully our paths cross again soon!

Joan has walked the complete Italian section of Via Francigena

We also offer the entire Italian Via Francigena split into bite-sized week-long walking holidays or a combination of these to make longer immersive Italian pilgrimage trips.

You can also cycle various Via Francigena itineraries starting from 9 days with Siena to Rome to a full 24 days to cycle the complete Italian Via Francigena from Aosta to Rome.

Take a look at all our options here:  Trips on Via Francigena

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