What If We Walked?
Words & Photography: Courtesy of What If We Walked
It started with a simple idea and an even simpler plan: we would travel on foot from Canterbury to Rome. We are a couple of inveterate travellers anyway but this was new, it felt like an intrepid thing to do; something different from our previous adventures. It would be a 1,900km hike through England, France, Switzerland and Italy following the Via Francigena, a 1,000-year-old pilgrim route. We had learned about this little-walked path last year when someone we barely knew gave us a beautiful print of it. An unfurling seed of adventure was planted in our heads, a seed which quickly grew over a short space of time.
A few months later we set off from Canterbury Cathedral, feeling trepidation and foot-hopping excitement in equal measure. And here’s the thing; we are still walking. At the time of writing this we are only halfway to Rome. We are currently walking 2,469m high through the Alps. We are sitting right now at the Great St Bernard Pass, the oldest Pass through the mountains. It’s July but cold, with pockets of snow still lying about and clouds threateningly snagging the rocky peaks surrounding us. It has been quite a journey to get here. This is just a snippet of our story, but it’s an important mark; we are halfway there. It is also both the toughest and most beautiful terrain of the whole Via Francigena. It has tested our fitness and made us question our initial idea. Here is our halfway story.
The mountains had loomed for days beforehand as we made our slow way around the enormous Lac Léman. Eyeing the peaks ahead, we were nervous and with good reason. Before we had begun walking, months ago now, the Alps had dominated much of our conversation, tracing them on maps, worriedly calculating ascents and distances. We knew it was going to be high, steep and difficult. We comforted ourselves with the idea that we had weeks and weeks of flat walking through France and Switzerland before this point. Surely, after all this, we would feel fit enough, ready enough for the challenge of the mountains?
This question, a question with an answer we were uncertain of, grew in our minds the closer we got to the Alps. Our packs were heavy, we were tired from unseasonably hot weather and exhausted from the unrest of weeks of camping. We had struggled. Would one wrong footstep spell the end of our whole journey? We tried to push these anxieties into the back of our minds and concentrate on the simple task of putting one foot steadily in front of the other. As we reached the final house in the last village on the edge of the lake we paused and looked ahead, suddenly apprehensive. We were leaving somewhere comfortable and human shaped to head into something wild and perilous. It was a deep plunge.
We were therefore pleasantly surprised to find that for the next two days we walked along an entirely flat valley floor, following an easy cycle path. However, this did not last and we started to see the shapes around us slowly changing, growing higher and more jagged, the water by our feet ran quicker and became colder. It was then that the climbing truly began. We steeled ourselves for an impossible ascent, in places a terrifying scramble. Gentle inclines turned into steep ones, and each time we hauled ourselves up to the next plateau we were left panting but euphoric at each small gain we had managed to make. Every step took us further into the dizzyingly beautiful Alpine world of snow-capped mountains and vivid green valleys. It dawned on us we were doing it; something which had both scared and enthralled us for so long and each day was hard-won happiness.
The weather in the Alps had been hot and sunny, but on our final day up to the Pass we emerged from camp to swirling mountain mist and thickening rain. We started walking anyway, defiant in the face of this sudden weather change, but began to feel twinges of concern upon realising we were alone on the mountain, enveloped in cloud. Maybe not completely alone; tiny marmots kept popping their heads above the surrounding rocks, completely indifferent to our presence. For some reason, they made us feel less uneasy and sure enough our luck held; the clouds broke, revealing a grey-blue lake and towering peaks all around us, a landscape we had no idea was there five minutes before. These were magical visions.
The climb became tree-less and exposed but the poor weather had disappeared, allowing us to pack away our waterproofs and wander slowly, watching the winding road pass below us. It was following this track of bare rock that we were truly able to relax and enjoy ourselves, to breathe in the freshness of the Alpine air, to take in the sight of the tops of the actual Alps and let the tiredness of two months walking slowly slip away. We were left with an energy we had not possessed at the start of the climb. We stopped for lunch in a stone storm hut, graffitied with previous walkers’ monikers and with cloudy glass views of the mountains around, quietly elated at how far we had come.
As we finally reached the Pass, the path spilled out into an unlikely car park. Waiting for us at the top was a 12th century hospice, now a big complex of cafes, shops and hotels. We wandered around amongst a big throng of walkers and tourists, a St Bernard dog walking casually past us. The people around us had made the journey that had taken us five days in just a few hours, and with a lot less trouble. For us though, it wasn’t just about getting to the Pass, but arriving somewhere more symbolic; we had reached a momentous point on our journey, a journey that had been entirely self-reliant, both physically and emotionally. Here was the summit of our hardest, highest point – our halfway.
These days of walking have been thick with excitement and experiences, showing us time and time again how rich slow travel is, how unexpected and personal it can be. It’s important to us that we are only halfway; we are not sitting comfortably at home, looking back with nostalgia at all the amazing travel memories we have collected, airbrushing out the difficulties. This walk is uncomfortable at times, stressful and can be completely exhausting. We are not done yet and we still don’t know what the second part of the adventure will hold. We know we will descend, walk through the rice fields of Vercelli, over another mountain range, the Apennines, and on to the Ligurian coast. After that there’s the rolling landscape of Tuscany, where we first learned about the Via Francigena, Lazio and then, finally, Rome.
We are in the thick of the adventure, even as we sit here we can both hear and see the menacing thunder cloud rolling over us, but we’re sending out a message of wonder and gratitude. We have seen stupendous things, and have achieved them too. Our journey on foot is the rawest, most life-changing travel we’ve ever experienced.