Inspirational women: Meet Jennifer Andrewes — a 2500km walk July to October 2024

Since the inception of MyFrenchLife Magazine, I’ve met and interviewed many inspirational women. Women of all ages, of various nationalities, whose life or way of living I’ve found inspirational.

I now have the pleasure of introducing you to Jennifer Andrewes. 

In 2014 Jennifer Andrewes and her family packed up and moved to Quillan, a French village in Aude, in the south-west region of France, nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The Aude region is on the 42nd parallel north. Wellington, Jennifer’s home in NZ, is on the 42nd parallel south and is the nearest thing the Aude has to an antipodal sister city.

Quillan, The Aude, France

Nowadays the family lives between France and New Zealand. Jennifer has long known about the Camino de Santiago and has (almost always) been an avid hiker. Living in Wellington New Zealand the topography is very hilly and perfect for challenging hiking, and the same can be said for Quillan, so hiking and hills are part of her life. In her book Parallel Lives, you can read about Jennifer’s life in France.

Then in around 2019, Jennifer was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease in her forties and has for some years now been facing it with courage, determination, and persistence. Jennifer was never going to let a diagnosis of Parkinson’s prevent her from embarking on multiple challenging trips. Each could be called ‘A trip of a lifetime!’.

  • In June 2022 Jennifer walked her first Camino of  750km Via Podiensis (the GR65), a route that took herself and a friend across France, starting at Le Puy and finishing in Saint Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees – at the end of June. Jennifer did a guest take-over our @maviefrancaise Instagram account as she took us with her!
  • Then in September 2023, she was off on another Camino: The #vialemovicensis from Vézelay to #saintjeanpieddeport where she arrived after walking 1,008km, with one pair of shoes, two minor blisters, and no falls!
  • And now in 2024, Jennifer is about to embark on yet another, bigger adventure—and alone!
    This time the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome is about 2,500km, so an average of 25km a day will take her about 100 days of walking! Leaving on 8 July 2024, Jennifer hopes to walk into Rome on her birthday, 26 October.

Are you inspired yet?

I find these trips extraordinary achievements and to think that Jennifer is doing this with her health challenges impresses me enormously. This time Jennifer will also be walking alone AND again she will be reporting in and giving us weekly updates on our Instagram.

I suggest you follow @maviefrancaise now, to miss Jennifer’s posts and be there with us as we cheer her along.

What’s more… Jennifer has very kindly agreed to answer questions posed by Jacqueline Dubois Pasqiuer. From Jennifer’s answers, you’ll gain real insight into her persistence, preparation, and planning, especially if you’re considering walking a Comaino, even a short one.

Interview: Jennifer Andrewes and Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier

Via Francigena

Jacqueline: What was your inspiration to do this walk, when was that and how did your thinking progress from there?

Jennifer: Growing up living in Wellington New Zealand, I’ve always walked everywhere – to and from school, university, and work. As a student, I did the occasional ‘tramp’ in the New Zealand backcountry, carrying a pack and staying in huts.  But it was when I spent a year teaching in France, that I first got into regular long-distance walking more seriously.

As a French language assistant in Dunkirk, I joined one of my colleagues in a local walking group on their regular weekend hikes to get to know people and to see more of the local, countryside. I think these were the first seeds of my attraction to walking across France, and to pilgrimage walking for the connections. I’m not sure where and when I first heard about the Camino de Santiago, but the Camino Frances route across the north of Spain is reasonably well-known in New Zealand.

At some point, I put it on my ‘bucket list’ and had a vague plan to walk the ~800km to Santiago de Compostela for my 50th birthday. Until Covid put paid to that.

A Virtual Camino

At the same time, a friend sent me details of a virtual Camino that a seasoned Camino walker was leading via a private FB community. Each morning at 5am she would drop an itinerary and notes into the FB group and participants would walk wherever they were ‘in the spirit’ of the Camino while sharing notes and thoughts and making connections via the FB community. I loved that virtual experience so much that when the same person offered a Virtual Via Francigena, I signed straight up.

That whetted my appetite for the actual walk.

I then started reading voraciously, seeking out books on the Camino (fiction and non-fiction), with some obsession, which only reinforced my desire.

At around the same time I was diagnosed with early onset Parkison’s and it became obvious that long-distance walking would help ward off the symptoms and progression.

As a result, I deliberately set about making the pilgrimages happen, and the Francigena will be my third Camino route after the Voie du Puy (2022) and the Voie de Vezelay (2023).

Jacqueline: Jennifer, you’re starting in Canterbury, UK, and finishing in Rome, and you announced it would take you 14/15 weeks, but what is the part of this pilgrimage that is in France? Are you familiar with this section? And are there any parts that you are particularly looking forward to (or dreading)?

Jennifer: The Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome is about 2,500km, so at an average of 25km a day will take me about 100 days of walking. I usually plan for a rest day every 10 days, so that’s about 3.5 months.

I start on 8 July and, all being well, will walk into Rome on my birthday, 26 October.

The route cuts through four countries:

  • two days in England from Canterbury to Dover;
  • about 6 weeks in France from Calais to the Jura;
  • 10-14 days in Switzerland and over the Grand St Bernard Pass,
  • before a final 6-7 weeks in Italy.

Part of this route’s attraction for me is the section across France.

Because I love France, all things French, have fluent French, and love the people I meet and conversations I can have; but also because this route cuts through familiar territory for me. I taught in Dunkirk for a year, so I know Nord Pas de Calais pretty well and have friends there. This is the territory where I first cut my teeth walking in France, so there’s an emotional connection for me. I’m looking forward to walking through the areas so impacted in the world wars, including with NZ connections – relatives died at Passchendaele and Messines and are buried there; New Zealanders built the tunnels that are preserved in the tunnelling museum in Arras.

Further to the southeast, I have great friends in the Franche-Comte and Jura, where I have spent quite a bit of time as a child and young adult, including time in French school. All fond memories and I am looking forward to visiting old haunts and villages that I only know from having visited by road.

In between are whole swathes of territory that I don’t know, including the Champagne region. I predict some short days and long lunches through there!

If I’m dreading anything it’s possibly the challenge of long days of flat walking on long straight paths, with a predominance of road vs trail walking. I’m told there are long stretches with few places to stay and limited facilities, meaning I’ll need to plan to avoid running out of food or sleeping under a tree or in a graveyard!


Jacqueline: How long did it take you for the preparation of this trip? Others don’t know how to prepare as well as you do. Please tell them your normal walking routine and why. Then how you may change this leading up to such a challenge. Were you helped and advised by professionals in any way? Have you prepared yourself physically beforehand (and how?)

Jennifer: Having done a total of 1800km over two Camino routes across France, I know what it takes – particularly that it is as much a mental game as a physical one – perhaps even more so. Certainly, you need to have a basic level, of fitness. You need to be able to walk and to walk a reasonable distance, and day after day.

Ideally, you would have built up fitness and developed a walking habit (and worn in shoes and gear) before starting. Not because you can’t just warm up along the way as you go, but because it reduces your likelihood of injury.

Whenever you start, you start cold and as you wear-in your shoes and gear, and push yourself to keep going, you’re fairly likely to get blisters, turn an ankle, or experience pulled muscles, shin splints, or other such issues.

It’s far better to flush these out at home when you can rest without great impact, than en route, when you have bookings in place and plans that need to be cancelled, causing expense and regret.

Before my first Camino, I built up fitness over about 12 months – walking regularly for gradually longer distances and on more difficult terrain, walking more regularly in between, and doing regular gym classes to build cardio fitness.

I also bought and tested key gear (pack, shoes, poles) over several multi-day hikes, reassuring myself I could walk to exhaustion, eat, sleep then still get up and walk again the next day. In between Caminos, I maintain my fitness by walking to and from work, regular weekend walks of 12-20km with friends, and regular gym classes.

This time I’m a bit nervous about my preparation, as I have done relatively little regular distance walking in recent weeks and almost nothing with a full pack. But, now that I am in France, I am back into the local walking group and have a short trip to the Pyrenees for 4-5 days walking planned with my son.

Get the right gear for you

Jacqueline: What kind of gear did you buy? Is the whole enterprise costly?

Jennifer: The most important pieces of kit are your shoes and your pack. These need to be well-fitted, worn-in, and comfortable before you start.

I invested in an Osprey 36l pack and had it fitted in the shop by someone who knew what they were doing. As a result, once it’s on, it sits on my hips and even when full, I don’t know it’s there. The same pack did not work for a friend due to different height and weight. You will get loads of recommendations, but it’s most important you test options and find one that suits you.

Similarly shoes, which are perhaps the most important item in your kit as they have to carry you and support your weight for 1,000km. If they fail, you fail. I opted for lightweight trail shoes over boots as the trails I’ve walked are not too rough and ankle support is not vital.

  • The first year I wore Merrells,  which I’d tested and were super comfy, but the toe box was too narrow over long distance in heat and I got blisters on my toes.
  • Second time round I went for Salomon’s which worked better for me.
  • Definitely get at least a half size to a size bigger than you normally wear as your feet will swell a lot over the distance.
  • I also swear by walking poles for stability and momentum. I’ve now walked 1,800km without any falls or injury.

Other than that you don’t need a lot and can build up gear from what you have in your wardrobe, supplemented as necessary. Less is more and layers that are versatile are key, as you have to carry everything you take! Just one set of clothes to wear and one top and bottom spare, plus a warm layer and a rain layer, essential toiletries, and any medication*.

Cost-wise once walking you can do it pretty cheaply – especially if you are tenting. I stayed in hostels and homestays, convents, small hotels, and B& Bs and budgeted 50 euros a day for food and accommodation, which is definitely achievable, on average. Half board options with local hosts are typically 25-45 euros for dinner, bed and breakfast.

How to go from dreaming about doing a Comino

Jacqueline: Would you have any particular recommendations to give people who dream of following in your steps but fear it’s not for them, just for superheroes/heroines?


Just do it!

The hardest part is deciding to do it. Everything else is easy. If you’re thinking about it, seek out information: join one or more of the many general and specific Camino FB communities, connect with and chat to others who have walked, and read as many of the many Camino books as you can.

Plan – then throw the plan out the window!

Trust in the Camino and the universe that it will be fine. You can do this.

How can you support Jennifer this time?

Well… Jennifer has just launched a private Facebook Group ‘Walking the Via Francigena‘ and you’re invited to join by purchasing a ‘walking ticket’ to walk by her side: virtually. Here’s how she describes it.

Join me, a NZ-based writer and pilgrim living with early-onset Parkinson’s, as I walk approximately 2,500km from Canterbury to Rome on the historic Via Francigena route across England, France, Switzerland and Italy, over 110 days from July to October 2024.
– At the end of each European day, I’ll post a summary of my experiences and observations from the day’s walk, along with accompanying photos, links to sights of note, maps, and route details for the following day.
– Walk or journal along with me virtually, in your own time, in your own neighbourhood as you reflect on your own experiences. Comment on my posts to share your thoughts and insights.
– A ticket to walk with me and entry to this group is NZD110 – or a dollar a day. (A croissant with your morning coffee). I will send payment details when you join this group.
– Thank you for your support, which will fund the production and publication of a book about my Camino experiences. A percentage of proceeds will also go to Parkinson’s NZ.
– Content in this group is intended for members but if for any reason payment is going to be difficult for you, just let me know, and you can join me for free, no questions asked.” Jennifer Andrewes.
Here is the link again: Walking the Via Francigena

Have you ever ‘done’ a Camino? Which one?  Have you ever walked the Via Francigena? Please share in the comments below.


About the Contributor

Judy MacMahon

Experience FRANCE beyond the CLICHÉ with MyFrenchLife is for Curious Savvy Francophiles wherever you are. Meet Francophiles in France, online, and/or wherever you live. You’re very welcome to join us - Judy MacMahon -

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One Comment

  1. Judy MacMahon Jun 28, 2024 at 3:35 PM - Reply

    Jennifer invites you to join her private FB group Walking the Via Francigena – she’ll be posting there daily and already she’s shared her packing list, and more…
    You can buy a ticket to walk virtually with her for only $1/day.
    If you’re even thinking of doing a long walk this will be a great experience.

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