Summer vacation is not about rest and relaxation for Michelle and Brian Coleman – it’s about activity and adventure.
The Fairborn couple is in the midst of their third pilgrimage, traveling from Aigle, Switzerland to Rome on foot. That’s about half of the 1,200-mile Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route from Canterbury, England, to Rome.
Michelle, a Clark State College professor, and Brian, vocal music department chair for West Carrollton City Schools, walked the Camino de Santiago (Camino Frances route) in 2017 and a portion of the Camino Frances and the Camino Portuguese in 2019.
And what better way to celebrate their wedding anniversary and milestone birthdays than some serious togetherness? The couple weighs in about their 70-day adventure, which they are chronicling on their blog, Cruisin’ with the Colemans.
Q: What prompted this most recent adventure?
Michelle – After watching the movie, “Much Ado About Nothing” we decided we had to go to Tuscany for our honeymoon but, because of schedules, our honeymoon happened over Christmas break which is not a good time to be in cold, dreary Tuscany. Fast forward to 2022, we both turned 50 this year, we wanted to do something epic and at the same time celebrate our 15th anniversary, so Italy immediately came to mind.
Brian – We had heard of the Via Francigena (VF) while on other pilgrimages and the idea of exploring Italy on foot appealed to both of us. We may be a bit old for a “gap summer” backpacking across Italy, but why not?
Q: Why was it important to you to make this journey?
Brian - Many people go on pilgrimage for spiritual purposes, but you don’t have to be Catholic, or religious to walk the Camino or the VF.
Michelle - A long walk is good for the soul and the health of our relationship. Getting away from the hustle and routine of life puts a spark back into our soul like nothing else can do. I find we are both more in touch with each other, more creative in our work, and we come home reenergized in a way that cannot happen on a typical vacation. Not to mention, who doesn’t love pasta?
Q: What types of reactions do you get when people learn about your journey?
Michelle - People who know us are not surprised, but they already think that we are a little crazy. Some people think we are trying to “top” one adventure after another, but that’s not the case. We strive for variety in our lives and to push the limits of what we are comfortable doing. Many often wonder how we have the time. We are thankful to be on similar work schedules and empty nesters so that we can afford this time away together.
Brian - Here in Italy, we’ve gotten more than a few “Mamma Mias!” from locals who hear we are walking to Rome. A surprising number of people here have no idea that this trail is passing right through their town. Many Europeans will walk a week or two at a time and complete the VF over many years, not one long trek as we’re doing.
Q: How does this compare to your first pilgrimage? What lessons have you learned?
Brian - Climbing to the top of Grand Saint Bernard Pass in the Alps was probably the biggest hike we have ever accomplished. Then coming back down over two days was also very hard on the body. Looking ahead, walking through Tuscany we have huge elevation gains and losses each day even through the rolling hills are not that high. We have several days where we will climb over 3,000 feet. Big challenges are still ahead for us.
Michelle - Mentally, this is easier because we know what to expect. The more we travel abroad, the less overwhelming it feels. Physically, it is the most challenging walk we have done so far. Another challenge is the distance between villages where we have accommodations. We have several days that require walking more than 15 miles, which is where the busses and trains come in. We plan to walk most of every stage and use public transit as needed. This is one of the things that we learned from our past trips. Yes, it is a pilgrimage, but it is also a vacation. We want to enjoy the walk yet still be realistic in what our bodies can handle day after day.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of this experience?
Brian – Eating! I love to explore the local foods of each region and even city. Tonight, I had a local delicacy for dinner: frogs. The pizza, pasta, risotto, polenta, the list goes on and on. I also love exploring local culture and history. Seeing these amazing churches and artwork is incredible.
Michelle - Besides getting in a great workout every day? Immersing ourselves in Italian culture. We are not just tourists; we are meandering through small villages that most tourists would overlook. We are eating in restaurants and sleeping in accommodations that have been in the same family for four or more generations. We’re engaging and interacting with locals in a unique way that normal tourists never experience.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect?
Michelle - It is more than just a long walk. We’re carrying everything we need for 10 weeks on our back, minus the tent and cooking equipment. This means I have two outfits to wear for the entire summer. Our daily routine is walk, eat, walk, hand wash our clothes – often in a tiny sink – eat, sleep, repeat. It can get monotonous, but the views make up for it. My backpack weighs about 18 pounds and Brian’s is about 20, without water. This is another appealing part of pilgrimages in Europe - every night we have a shower, homemade local food, and a bed to sleep in. Our gear weighs a lot less than a typical backpacker and we appreciate that luxury.
Brian - The language can be a real barrier. We started in Switzerland where people mostly spoke French and, after a week, we were in Italy trying to use Italian. I pick up language pretty quickly, but it can still be difficult. Showing the locals you are trying goes a long way and they usually help or even gently correct our mispronunciation. Charades can also be helpful. It’s humbling that most people in Europe speak two or three languages while some days, I struggle with one.
Q: How important is it to you to keep people up-to-date on your experience through social media platforms?
Brian - We started our YouTube channel so that our friends and family can keep up with our travels and follow along, but it has become a bigger network of even more friends who want to “take an adventure” with us. We are honored anyone would even care about the crazy things we do, let alone take time to watch and read about our experiences.
Michelle - As educators, we know many of our students are watching our travels and we are challenged to inspire them to travel the world. We want travel to be accessible to anyone. We hope after watching our YouTube videos our granddaughter, and anyone else who watches, will say, “I want to do that too!”
Visit www.cruisinwiththecolemans.com to follow the adventure.
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