Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Great up-date and comments on the waymarking and signage along the VF

 Copied with permission of Dave Whitson, leader of a group of students on the VF from Montreux to Montjovet and Fidenza to Roma, and Paul Chinn, co-author of the Lightfoot Guides to the Via Francigena

The complete 2010 LightFoot Guide to the via Francigena consists of three books:

Vol. One Canterbury to Besançon

Vol. Two Besançon to Vercelli
Vol. Three Vercelli to Rome

Information provided in each section:
Instruction sheet/s comprising:
Detailed directions corresponding to GPS way point numbers on the maps Distance (in metres) between each way point
Verification Point - additional verification of current position
Compass direction
Maps comprising:
A visual representation of the route with way point numbers and adjacent details

Altitude Profile for the section
Icons indicating places to stay, monuments etc Relevant signs to look out for along the route
Map reference number/s for the section.

In this 2010 edition the authors continue to use the official route in Italy, as approved and signed by the Italian Minister of Culture, but also offer dditional opportunities where it is too challenging for one or more groups. This density of information has increased the number of instruction sheets and the decision has been taken to transfer all cultural and historical information to the Companion to the via Francigena

Dave Whitson
My group of 9 successfully completed our pilgrimage on the Via Francigena on August 4. We walked from Montreux to Montjovet, hopped on a train, and then continued walking from Fidenza to Rome. Having skimmed through emails on the list while I was gone, I realize I'm going a little against consensus when I write this, but I remain very positive and excited about waymarking on the VF.
Now, the Lightfoot Guides remain critical, both for the occasional stretches when the WM dry up and for places where the authors' recommended route alternative is superior to the WM one. But, we typically felt very comfortable allowing our students to walk without a teacher-guide, leaving them to find their way along the route.
There are a handful of exceptions worth noting, though. It's possible that these were addressed in the 2010 version of the Lightfoot Guide -  I'm still working out of the 2009 edition.

On the general issue of signing the situation has greatly improved over the years, but there remain provinces, principally in areas of the north which you were lucky to skip, where the situation remains poor.
It seems that you have also encountered the issue of what I think of as the Tower of Babel of signing. The 2009 edition of the book generally follows the "official route" as defined by the Ministry of Culture. The ministry, via the communes intended to fully sign this route, however the work is incomplete, and many of the WM's that you describe relate to other/prior views of the route and can and do conflict with the "official route". Hence some of the angst we have expressed on the issue.

1) On the walk from Villeneuve to St. Maurice, the book instructs you to stay on the canal at 37.14. WM guide you away from it, towards the small town of Chessel. I would follow the WM, as this is your last good chance at a fountain for a while.

Paul:  It is often a tough call between distance and amenity. I think the WMs that you mention must lead to the Rhone and then rejoin our route a couple of waypoints further on. If this is the case it would add about 1500m to the section. Happy to add a comment on this to the next edition, do you recall the style of WM - we are well off the official/70 route at this point?

2) On the walk from Martigny to Orsieres, soon after Chamoille d'Orsieres, yellow arrows will lead you sharply downhill on a footpath, past a house on your right, eventually taking you to the
highway. Ignore these and stay on the flat, paved road. The approach to Orsieres is much more pleasant.

Paul:  Agree. The current edition sticks with the small road.

3) Our students were not pleased with the "official" route from Aosta to Chatillon. The assorted uphills seemed unnecessary and particularly frustrating given the toll the previous two days of walking had taken on their bodies. I would probably follow the authors' alternative in the future.

Paul:   I am afraid this is an example of the challenges that face the route designer. The Ministry, I think, were very insistent on minimizing the amount of tarmac used - perhaps an over simplification of safety concerns. The official route then searches for pathways. In general these are not new paths but ones used by day walkers that are out for a short burst of vigorous exercise, but that also go in the right general direction. We have been lobbying, so far with no great impact, that the official route should reflect the specific needs of the (very) long distance pilgrim - so we come back to having to respect the "official route" but offer alternates.
This situation also applies between the Cisa pass and Pontremoli and around Massa where CAI paths have been subsumed into the VF

4) On the walk from Chatillon to Montjovet, take note on 42.045 the point about ignoring the turn to the R. Insistent yellow arrows will try to convince you to turn R downhill. This route just buys you a
lot of highway walking. Stick with the book.

Paul:  I think this might be an example of the Tower of Babel of signing.

5) Last time, I wrote that the Felegara area had no WM. It is now fully waymarked.

Paul:  The province of Parma have done a great job in signing. However, in Fornovo it seems that their job was too good. The pretty metal signs with the pilgrim have now become souvenirs - we have photos that show the existence of signs 2 years ago where there are no signs now and even a photo of a bracket minus its sign. There is a nice piece of research to be done here on the optimum capital cost/aesthetic/frequency/maintenance interval for signs - I am from the school in favour of cheap,easily maintained, vandal proof(ish), but frequent painted signs. Unfortunately I suspect the ministry would not wish to be associated with graffiti.

Very interestingly the VF route from Montgenevre to Vercelli is generally excellently signed with the painted yellow pilgrim and yellow/white arrows while the many CAI and Italian walking association routes also successfully follow this convention.
6) IMPORTANT - A shiny new WM has been added on the walk from Berceto to Cisa Pass, encouraging you to turn R off the route towards a hostel. This is one place where our students erred and I can easily understand. Without a careful look and knowledge of the route, I would believe the official route went that way. I'm not happy about this marker.

Paul: It does say Ostello on the sign, but it is (shades of the Camino) remarkably like an official route sign. I will try and strengthen the words of warning in the book.
7) The walk from Pietrasanta to Lucca involves some stretches badly overgrown with blackberry / sticker bushes. In particular, right after 59.007 and just before Montemagno are really, really bad.On the latter, I would just follow the road. 

Paul:  59.037? I know that thicket well. Despite having dragged a bike through it and ripped my shins, there were signs of some extra efforts to cut it back and so I had preferred it to the risk of the busy road. I gather that it must not have improved and so will note and offer the road with safety caveats.

8) The WM continue to disagree with the book on the walk from Siena to Isola d'Arbia, turning L instead of R at 64.014 (the WM route goes through Isola d'Arbia while the book's route bypasses it), from Bagno Vignoni to Gallina (the WM lead you past a spa, along a gravel road, and eventually deposit you on the Via Cassia, leading you through Gallina, which the book bypasses), and from Ponte a Rigo to Acquapendente (the book calls for you to turn R on the Via Cassia, while many insistent WM call for a L)
 Paul:  The book route is/was signed with the fancy new ministry signs. The prior route through Isola d'Arbia (where there is a nice watering hole) also involved the crossing of a muddy maize field of which I have other fond memories with the bike. Did you take the book route? Of course no one has taken responsibility to remove the old signs. On the route through Gallina this is a similar story, but I would argue strongly for keeping away from the via Cassia.
Ponte a Rigo to Aquapendente ditto.

9) The WM have changed slightly on the walk from Acquapendente to San Lorenzo, pulling you back to the Via Cassia a little sooner than they used to. The WM from San Lorenzo to Bolsena were unreliable in places. Fortunately, that lake serves as a handy navigational aid.

Paul: The book route, after leaving San Lorenzo, involves just 150m of the Cassia - did you follow the book here?

10) I have now twice tried and failed to find the Strada Sasso San Pellegrino called for on 70.027 on the walk from Viterbo to Vetralla. I've looked really diligently. I find it hard to believe, at this point, that the street exists. Instead, we followed the WM along the Cassia for probably 2km (maybe more) before WM took us L off of the Cassia shortly before arriving in Vetralla.

Paul: Our error the instruction is not clear - there is a bridge over the via Cassia before you take the ramp down to meet the road proper. You need to take the bridge to find Strada Sasso San Pellegrino on the far side. We will put this right in the 2011 edition.

11) The book instructs you to turn L on Via Dante before entering Monterosi, just missing all facilities in town - and getting an ugly walk out of the deal. Instead, walk straight into the center of town. At the central piazza, you'll find WM calling for a L. Proceed along that road, over a bridge, and eventually onto the highway. Very soon after, you'll fork left off of it. Again, soon after, you'll hit an inter-section with WM pointing you both L and straight ahead. Turn L. You'll be on a white road, the same one that the book instructs you to turn L onto at 71.030

Paul:  This stretch of the highway/via Cassia for me is one of the most dangerous parts of the entire journey . We have stuck with the official route to give it the widest possible berth.  

12) IMPORTANT - 71.031 is one of the most important route choices on the walk. WM will instruct you to turn L onto the paved road. This will result in you spending most of the rest of your walk to Campagnano on pavement and often on highway. Ignore these and follow the book, continuing straight on the dirt road. Eventually, WM will start up again. I can't understand why they don't have one at this
pivotal moment.

Paul:  Agreed

13) IMPORTANT - They have, for some unknown and bizarre reason, to add a shiny new WM in the Madonna del Sorbo park, instructing you to turn R off of the dirt road and walk through the park. I followed this last year. It was a near disaster. Maybe they've developed the route and it's nicer now, but it was a total fiasco 9 months ago. This is one of those frustrating VF spots where one group seems to have decided that they know better than everyone else and so they inserted a definitive WM, instead of indicating that both options are possible. Follow the book and continue straight. WM will resume in 100m.

Paul:  As you know we have battling to try and get some rationalization of the signing

14) IMPORTANT AGAIN - Sorry for three straight importants, but there's a lot going on along these final stretches! A new VF route was just opened in Formello and it's really nice! As you arrive on the edge of town, follow the old VF sign along the steeply descending road into town. Shiny new WM will lead you into the historic center and then out the other side. Purpose-built gravel roads follow, eventually transitioning onto dirt roads. It's a great walk, really pleasant scenery, and it eventually reconnects with the old route at Via Monte Michele. I enthusiastically encourage you to follow this instead of the older approach. 
More than anything, I was struck this time by the incredible level of hospitality offered in many of the stops along the way. My greatest concern with taking my students on the VF instead of the Camino is that they won't get the full sense of the pilgrimage experience with so many fewer pilgrims in Italy. Certainly, we missed the pilgrim community. But, the upshot of a more intimate route is that the level of hospitality offered can potentially be much higher and that it can be much more deeply personal, especially in Tuscany and Lazio. In Altopascio, the mayor actually welcomed us and asked to have his
picture taken with us. In Monteriggioni, Siena, Radicofani, Campagnano, and Rome pilgrim dinners (and sometimes breakfasts) were prepared by the hospitaleros or the community. When our hosts in
Siena and Bolsena learned we were leaving early in the morning, they stayed up and prepared sack breakfasts for the kids. Even in places where the accommodations were very simple, the priests or nuns were often very enthusiastic to have us, extracting all of the conversation they could out of our limited Italian.  On the Camino, quite often the popularity prompts the need for streamlining and efficiency in the albergues. On the VF, we were really touched by just how welcomed we were made to feel.

Paul: Thanks for this. The new route was inaugurated at the end of July and we have written to the municipality for more detail on its routing. If anyone has a GPS trace of this section we would be very grateful to receive it.

I think you have the sense of the VF experience just about right - for us the engagement with the communities en route has been the great joy of the route.

Paul Chinn and Babette Gallard -

No comments: