What is the difference between the St James Way and The Via Francigena?
The main one is that one route is going to Santiago de Compostela and the other to Rome.
Even though they are two of the main pilgrimage routes in Europe and in the world, they present many different aspects.
Discover in what these two Ways differ but also find out if they have something in common.
On both pilgrimages, you will cross beautiful natural and historical heritage sites and you will live a once in a lifetime experience.
Let’s know more about them!
Difference in the signs of St James Way and The Via Francigena
This is probably the main issue that pilgrims find when they walk the Via Francigena.
On the one hand, the St James Way is a very well indicated path, almost on all its variants. On the other hand, the Via Francigena still lack of precision on this aspect.
Consider that in France hasn’t sign-marked yet, while in Switzerland it is marked as a long distance walking route.
While for the St James Way the signposts are always the yellow arrow or the yellow scallop, on the via Francigena is much more complicated.
Many pilgrims get confused along the route because they can’t find the signs and sometime they get lost at some intersections (there are several signposts as you can see here below).
Both paths are walked every year by thousands of pilgrims but there is still a lot of work to do if we talk about the Italian signalization.
Difference in the number of routes
One of the main differences between these two pilgrimages is the number of itineraries you can choose among.
In both cases you can decide where you want to start, how many days and how many km/day you want to walk.
The majority of pilgrims does the walk in different years.
They walk about a week or two and then they leave parts for future experiences.
In the St James Way, there are many official routes, and there are many variants (especially in the northern ones).
On the contrary, on the Via Francigena there’s only one route to follow, even though for what refers to Italy the two main sections are the one in Tuscany and Lazio regions.
However, we have to consider that there are some alternative routes along the way, but they’re just short pieces.
Having more choices in the St James Way, it means that pilgrims have a wider offer of routes to decide among, in relation to their preferences.
Thus, they can choose a more popular or more quiet route. Also they can choose based on the landscape, if they prefer a coastal or a mountain itinerary.
Walking the Via Francigena pilgrims can also decide what piece they want to walk (crossing vineyards, historical cities, natural landscapes, mountains, etc.).
The difference is that the Way is always the same one, from Canterbury to Rome.
On the other hand, as you can see from the map below there is a route that connect Spain to the Via Francigena and viceversa. Eventually, isn’t it true that: ” All the roads leads to Rome”?
The difference in prices along the St James Way and the Via Francigena
Another big difference, and related with the previous point, between the St James Way and the Via Francigena are the prices.
In general it’s cheaper to find accommodation in Spain than in Italy. Even though when we talk about the St James Way we have to consider many different routes and some parts will obviously be more expensive than others.
Along the St James Way, apart from few places, the costs for food and accommodation are quite affordable, especially in Galicia.
Italy is much more expensive, also because the Via Francigena is always passing through one unique way so you can’t get too much of variety in the offer. In addition to this, you might already know that Italy is one of the most touristic destination in the world.
If you sum up that pilgrims usually walk in spring/summer time, you will easily get to the conclusion that prices will be mostly higher than along the St James Way.
The difference in the number of pilgrims along the St James Way and the Via Francigena
When we talk about pilgrimage routes, we can easily see how the St James’ Way is the most important in terms of chosen destination.
You might be surprised to know that in 2018 alone, 327.378 pilgrims were registered in the Pilgrim’s Office of Santiago de Compostela to ask for their “Compostela”. This means that we can count only those pilgrims who asked for this certificate, but there are still many other pilgrims who didn’t request it and can’t be counted in the statistics.
We don’t have such a precise statistics for the Via Francigena, since it’s much “younger” in terms of development but we know that are less than half than in St James Way.
Where are the best sceneries?
Whereas these two countries are very different they both boast excellent natural and historical heritage sites.
There are lots of World Heritage Sites in Europe and luckily both the Camino and the Via Francigena cross many of them.
In either case, the variety of landscapes on a short distance is so amazing that you won’t believe to be walking in the same country.
This is, probably, one of the most surprising things if you are a visitor from a foreign country.
In Europe, we all breath a similar atmosphere since our past is still so alive in our walls, castles, churches and historical centres. We are sharing a common identity even if each country has its own past and traditions. For this reason, it is quite hard to say what Way is the most beautiful.
How could we say that the Wall of Lugo (in Spain) is less impressive than other Roman ruins (for example in the city of Sutri, in Italy)?
They are simply different but unique at the same time and we can (and should) just enjoy these wonders.
And, How about food?
Spanish and Italian gastronomies are two of the most famous in the world, and the reason for being so important is due to the freshness and quality of their ingredients.
Also, these two cuisines have a great tradition that dates back sometimes up to thousands of years! Not only we should consider these two countries alone, but we should mention that each region offers a unique variety of recipes and local delicatessen.
Again, we can’t choose what Way will offer you the best food and wine. However, we can assure you that neither of them will disappoint you.
Difference in the origins of St James Way and Via Francigena
The beginning of the St James Way
According to the legend, the first pilgrimage along the St. James Way took place in 9th century when King Alfonso II decided to walk from Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela (from here the name of this route ” the Primitive Way”). Under his reign, a shepherd found the rests of the body of the Apostle St. James, in a field in Galicia.
The King decided then to walk this Way to pay his respects to the remains of the Saint, buried in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, according to the legend.
Across the Middle Age, this became one of the most famous pilgrimage route, at the same level of importance as Jerusalem or Rome’s ones (or the less known Saint Olav Way). Mainly, pilgrims started to choose these two European destinations because in 640 Jerusalem fell under Islam.
Nonetheless, this Way was already walked before the Christianity started to develop in Europe.
Thus, it seems that we could talk about a pre-history of the Camino where this same route was followed to arrive until the End of the World (Finis Terrae).
This was due to the idea that in that place pilgrims could get to know the magical world of the after death. To walk this route they were following the Milky Way, much before the 8th century!
Do you know when does the Via Francigena date back to?
This Way is first mentioned in a document in the abbey of San Salvatore al Monte Amiata in 876 AD. According to the legend, the history of the Via Francigena dates back to the conflicts between Longobards and Byzantines for the control on their lands and their need to create a route to connect their kingdoms.
Certainly, this routes knew a great improvement under the reign of Charlemagne and the name became Via Francigena “Route of the Francs”.
Nonetheless, only with the Archbishop Sigeric in 990, we get a real documentation on this route.
As often happen in history, the religious meaning of this walk started to spread out in all Europe and this became one of the main pilgrimage route in the Middle Age.
Thanks to the detailed diary of this incredible pilgrim, we could have the first description of this itinerary. Later in centuries, many other investigators could study the Via Francigena based on his legacy.
The following centuries along these pilgrimages
St James Way
Due to the political and economic problems, there was a decrease in the number of pilgrims in the XIV century. This was a consequence of the Christian Church crisis of that time.
In order to reconquer its power, Spain decided to start a war that will bring many negative consequences. All along the XV century, the country suffered for hungers, plagues and diseases.
As consequence, the Way lost relevance among pilgrims until the XVII century when the St James Way came back to be popular again.
The Via Francigena later changed its name for Romea. This route started to develop enormously, because of its commercial importance. In XIII century this was the main route to connect the East with the North of Europe mainly for the carriage of the most popular goods (like silk and spices).
We see here a first difference, between the St James Way and the Via Francigena.
Italy has always been an important place for its strategic position and commercial role. Therefore, the economic interest was the main reason to develop this path.
In relation to the Via Francigena, the anthropologist Giovanni Caselli started to study and investigate this route in 1985.
He rebuilt a complete map of the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, crossing the 4 countries involved in this walk; England, France, Switzerland and Italy.
As Caselli explained in an interview, the part of this route related to Tuscany region was already known before the II World War. Also, in the 70’s and 80’s two historians published a book about the Via Francigena, but never walked the road.
His commitment was much deeper.
He wanted to survey it on the ground so he walked the 80 stages recorded by Sigeric. Thanks to his effort he could complete a precise map exactly 1000 years after him with the help of technicians of the Italian Military Geographical Institute.
Many people consider Caselli the “father” of the Via Francigena. In 1990 he published the first modern guidebook for the Via Francigena, entitled “Via Romea, cammino di Dio” “Romea Route, Walk of God”.
What do these routes mean today?
Nowadays, after the XIX century scientific discoveries, the religious value of the Way has been replaced for other meanings.
Today, thousands of pilgrims walk the same route (more than 2000 km in total) either by foot or by bike. Beyond the religious meaning, many pilgrims follow these paths for several different reasons.
Pilgrims are not only moved by a mystical reason, but want to travel in a different way, get benefits from their walk on a physical and mental level and mainly meet people and share a common experience.
We can find a big similarity between St James Way and The Via Francigena in relation to this aspect.
The motivation to walk for one or two weeks (sometime even more than a month) in full contact with the nature, at your own pace, and mostly isolated, is very significant for many travelers.
As for the St James Way, the main reasons for walking the Via Francigena today depend more on the single individual.
Furthermore, we have to consider that a new kind of tourism is growing up pretty fast.
Today people choose a Slow Tourism, which allow them to cross an entire region, discovering the local traditions and gastronomy and talking to locals.
When we talk about this walk, we consider to live an experience at a different speed and with deeper attention to what happen around us.
That’s what these two routes mean nowadays.
Are they really so different in the end?
Although the differences between the St James Way and the Via Francigena are mentioned when we try to explore the logistic factors (signposts along the road, prices, numbers of pilgrims, ect..) the similarities are probably more than the differences.
Both these pilgrimages are a clear demonstration of the incredible past, culture, heritage and tradition that we want to discover and experience.
In conclusion, we could summarize that St James Way is the best option if you want to meet a lot of other pilgrims from all over the world and get a social experience at a more affordable price. However, if you are more likely to follow a quieter route, with less people for discovering one of the most touristic places from a different perspective, there is no doubt that the Via Francigena is what you should choose.
Remember! in Galiwonders we can help you to find the perfect custom-made itinerary for either Way, contact us!