PAUL and Kaye Gilhooly have recently returned home after completing the ancient Via Francigena pilgrim route from Canterbury in south-eastern England, to Rome – on foot.
They walked the 2,193kms in 93 days, plus a few days to recover and rest their feet.
The Hobart couple are two of a very small number in the world who have completed the whole walk from Canterbury to Rome in one go.
Paul, 61, and Kaye, 58, (who also has osteoarthritis in her right knee) were significantly older than the majority of walkers they met along the way.
“This gave us a very special feeling and added to our sense of achievement,” Ms Gilhooly said.
The walk took the duo through four countries, setting off from Canterbury where they then walked the 32kms to Dover in England before crossing the channel by ferry to Calais in France.
From there, they crossed northern and central France into Switzerland around Lake Geneva, up the Alps and over the 2,473m high Grand St Bernard’s Pass into northern Italy and on to Rome.
“Each day was exciting and new with fresh challenges to overcome,” Ms Gilhooly said.
“As the weeks passed, we realised the journey became less about what we saw each day and more about experiencing the journey itself.
“Long distance walking takes you into a headspace of simplicity and calmness – everything is intensified and life is slowed down.
“Day-to-day activities of experiencing each special sunrise, walking the kilometres, finding food and accommodation take up most of the day.
“Of course, there is also many amazing things to see.”
They battled heatwaves in France, Switzerland and parts of Italy, rain and wind, swarms of mosquitoes and biting flies, sore feet, barking dogs, variable accommodation, language barriers and were always on the search for water, food, and coffee.
The couple carried everything they needed in their small backpacks, including water and food, discarding unnecessary items as they went along.
While the Gilhoolys only met a small handful of intrepid walkers doing the complete Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, they said they met a lot of “friendly and helpful people” throughout their travels.
“Some of whom welcomed us into their homes and offered us comfort and refreshments,” they said.
“We were immersed in history on a daily basis walking on trails used by pilgrims, travellers and armies for more than 1000 years, passing many amazing monuments, castles, towns, churches and ancient roads.
“In the first two weeks walking across the plains of northern France we were frequently confronted with the remnants, mass graves and monuments commemorating the wasted lives of millions of men and women over two world wars.
“Apart from historical places, we spent a lot of time walking through the rural landscapes across four countries now dominated by industrial agriculture.
“As a consequence, a lot of the small towns and villages are de-populated and lacked even the most basic services required.”
Ms Gilhooly said they accomplished many smaller achievements along the way.
“Walking from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, walking from one side of France to the other, crossing Grand St Bernard’s Pass, walking over the Cisa Pass, traversing the hot, humid, mosquito-infested rice fields on the Po Valley in northern Italy (the largest in Europe), to name just a few,” she said.
The Gilhoolys arrived in St Peters Square in Vatican City with mixed emotions of elation, relief and sadness that the walk was now finished.
“Although for us it was a non-religious pilgrimage, a priest presented us with a Testimonium from the Vatican acknowledging the completion of our epic journey to Rome,” they said.
The couple then travelled for three weeks through southern Italy and on to Istanbul in Turkey before returning home to Hobart.
“Now all that’s left is contemplating, what next?” they said.
Caption: Paul and Kaye Gilhooly on their 2,193km trek across Europe.