One of our violinists, Julia, embarks on the Via Francigena soon, walking approximately 1900km from Canterbury to Rome. Accompanying her will be a newly crafted Pilgrim’s violin, a lightweight full-size pochette made for her by Finn Trucco, a student at the Newark Violin School, which she will be playing on her travels. Keep an eye on these pages for updates of her progress…
(Weeks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ,6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 now below…)
As I look back on the week and write this from the beautiful town of Arras, I realise just how fortunate I am to be doing this journey. So far I have walked 175 km, which is not as far as I would normally get (on my ‘fast’ Camino stage I averaged 43km per day!) but because I have had glandular fever flashbacks since mid April I decided I needed to be slow and steady at first. As I keep reminding myself, it’s not a race! And maybe it’s God’s way of telling me to slow down… Overall it’s been the most amazing week
Particular highlights have been
- spending such a lovely time with my eldest son who walked the first three days with me – and receiving hospitality from the friends who I have stayed with en route.
- beautiful scenery of the North Downs,
- walking along the beach between Calais and Wissant on a perfect day of azure sky with the White Cliffs of Dover over the sea, so clear all day
- Learning more about crops being grown – I can now identify vetch and a linseed crop (pre-flowers) and many encounters with nature, from an owl flying in front of me on an overgrown path to hares running through fields
- The amazing people of North France and it’s food, customs and history. Also art work, especially the modern stained glass
- Exploring and observing historic war defence installations along the coast
- Being completely overwhelmed by the atmosphere in certain churches, especially the church at Carrier – a ‘thin place’ if ever there was one
- Playing my little Pilgrim’s violin all afternoon in a beautiful little private Chapelle – just me, my violin and God
- Last night’s host, who has walked pilgrimages all of the world, refused to let me put more than half a litre of water in my bottle on the grounds that a Pilgrim should be asking for water and bread as they go along the route – he said people love to give something simple like water and bread to others, and by asking and receiving you make them so happy. I was to learn the truth of this today in Arras, where an old lady, Marie-Thérèse, who I met in a church, insisted on taking me out to lunch, despite my protestations. She showed me around Arras and later made sure I got to the Diocesan house where I was staying. She was so overjoyed to give something to a Pilgrim, it was extraordinary. I played on my violin to her and a friend later as a thank you, but it seemed insignificant in comparison…
- The joy of waking up every day and deciding whether to follow the official Via Francigena GR145 (which zigzags horribly in the Pas de Calais) or whether to divert and do my own thing. Mostly I’ve chosen to divert and go direct, so I’ve seen things that otherwise I wouldn’t have ( industrial ex mining towns and the extraordinary Cité des Électriciens, for instance). There’s an incredible freedom in this, along with the slightly staggering knowledge that it’s unlikely anyone else will choose exactly the same route as myself to Rome…
Low points have been
- missing the last bus to the last foot-passenger ferry from Dover – all was well though, as kind P&O staff came to the rescue and got us on the boat!
- Two days of 32° – significantly higher temperatures than forecasted and horrible to walk in, especially through fields with no shade at all wearing a mask to limit the hay fever…
- Sheltering from aforementioned heat at midday by having a kip and lunch in shade of a hedgerow (no trees for miles around) Seemingly a good plan for 30 minutes until cloud of thunder flies decided it would be entertaining to cover all of my body whilst I was trying to eat my sandwiches – tickly and itchy all at the same time – an experience not to be recommended!
- Not being able to find my gîte etape at the end of a long walk and on the point of tears, only to bump into my host who had just popped into the village with flowers for the church. At that momentarily, truly an angel in disguise!
- And finally, a postscript…a sad conversation about Brexit where the host said that for the last few months, Pilgrims from the UK were insisting on being written down on the forms as being Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish, anything but UK. She had never known this before. She turned to me and said ‘it seems that Brexit has caused the United Kingdom to become dis-united and it is liable to become permanently divided’. My hosts were not particularly pro EU, (they had been cattle farmers, but gave cattle up because of EU regs) and all around the table (French & Belgians) agreed it was far from perfect, but they all saw it as a way of ensuring peace and stability in Europe and a voice on the world stage – and sitting in a farmhouse in Pas de Calais, an area that has been fought over and occupied so many times over many centuries, where so many have died fighting and whole communities have been erased for refusing to swear allegiance to the occupiers, it was hard to disagree.
I realised that some of you will not know the history of the Via Francigena and I should have started the first blog with an explanation. So to make amends…
The Via Francigena (‘the way through France’) follows the route described by Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, when he journeyed to Rome in AD 990 to collect his pallium, or cloak of office, from Pope John XV.
Many others would have made similar journeys at that time, but Sigeric had the foresight to have one of his party record the 79 stages of their return from Rome. Sigeric’s De Roma ad usque Mare, which is preserved in the British Library, forms the basis of today’s Via Francigena across England, France, Switzerland and Italy.
The historical route was revived and put back on the map in the 1990s by a group of enthusiasts who faithfully followed Sigeric’s stopping places, only adapting his itinerary where the old Roman road had become a modern highway. So, now you know all you need to know about the Via Francigena!
Anyway, another incredible week, and I’m now in Champagne region having finally reached Reims, some 410km into my journey. This week I have been walking through Pas de Somme, and along the Western Front, so it has been a somber and emotional week of visiting BEF Cemeteries en route. Again I’ve chosen to do quite a few diversions, and by doing this have discovered German War Cemeteries too. My experience of them is that they are very different to the BEF ones, generally in wooded places and with rows of wooden crosses – four bodies marked by one cross…
Much of my walking has been through fields, but I’ve also done some canal-side walking and a day in the forest of St Gobain, and again it’s been a week of joy observing nature; grouse, butterflies and dragon-flies – and I saw a hare so huge that I thought initially it was some sort of miniature pony in the distance!
The walking has settled into a rhythm now and become almost meditative and my body seems to be bearing up to the strains and stresses well; my legs and feet are in better shape than I’ve any right to expect. I know people have been praying for me and I thank you all – this journey really does feel “prayer-assisted”.
Once again it’ll be easier to summarise high and low points. First the high points
- Joys of dawdling – I’ve been staying in a few Airbnb places this week which means that I generally can’t get into my lodgings until teatime so I have learnt to dawdle – to take little detours to discover interesting things on the map that otherwise I wouldn’t have seen – grottos, historic landmarks and alas, cemeteries. Another consequence of having to hang around for a while when I reach my destination is that I’ve got pretty good at kipping in parks. Pilgrim = basically very close to itinerant 😂! In fact, I was reading an exhibition on Pilgrims whilst in Laon Cathedral and they explained the three marks of a medieval Pilgrim which I reproduce in the original (so you can have the joy of translating)
- Les attributs du Pèlerin
- Le bourdon – Le bâton de marche est l’épée spirituelle les Pèlerin …un signe de reconnaissance qui distingue les Pèlerins des touristes
- La besace pour transporter ses effets
- La crédentiale qui est une sorte de passporte attestante sa qualité de Pèlerin et non pas de vagabond…
I love the last one! Luckily I have a Pilgrim’s passport (or crédentiale) so I’m definitely not a vagabond. But worryingly, I don’t have a ‘bourdon’, so maybe I’m just a tourist…
- Joys of AirBnB – I know Airbnb is not always regarded as a good thing, especially in tourist-y cities where the abundance of AirBnB properties is actually starting to change the nature of neighbourhoods, because so many people are AirBnB-ing their places rather than renting them to locals, but in its purest form it’s a fantastic idea and this week I have really benefited from it. From Claudia and Bruno who made me so unbelievably welcome, did my washing and invited me to join their evening meal, to Nadia and her mum, (& Jean-René) who welcomed me with Russian delicacies and afternoon tea, and who stated that they looked after their guests well; after all, you never knew if it was Christ who was visiting…I have had the most wonderful exchanges and conversations, and I thank all of them from the bottom of my heart
- The pilgrim’s violin really came into its own this week. Everyone falls in love with it because of the way it looks, and it has been a great source of conversation and connection with all my hosts. It’s been such a privilege to play for them and my repertoire of unaccompanied Bach, Biber, Irish and English fiddle tunes has entranced and pleased people. Then, inevitably, I get asked questions about violins and strings etc. and a lovely, though slightly hilarious, chat with my crazy French ensues. My vocabulary is definitely expanding though! So Pilgrim’s violin = a definite hit; thank you, Finn, for doing such a great job of making it!
- Observing farmers at work – sprinkler systems everywhere, high-tech tent ‘thingys’ on wheels set up to protect the pickers and the weeders, complete with solar panels to produce electricity (and air- conditioning I suppose) – I even saw them using drones to check the crops
- The joys of getting stamps in the crédentiale! Most gîte etapes are used to this stamp-getting scenario, but when you stay AirBnB, you need to go to the Mairie (mayors office) to get one. First, I explain I am “une Pèlerine de la Via Francigena” which is often met with confusion, and then once they understand and have found the town/village stamp, I then produce TWO crédentiales and explain, with as much gravity as I can muster, that one is for me and the other is for my violin. (PS this is my eldest son’s fault as he thought the violin should take over his credential when he went back to the UK). At this point they give you a very special look which has two variants – incredulity mixed with pity and incredulity mixed with admiration. I prefer the latter but often receive the former!
- The last 3 km when you can see where your destination is and visualise resting and having your pilgrim’s beer.. Low points
- the last 3 km when you’re so tired that you keep almost falling over things that aren’t there, and you discover your destination is uphill (or in case of Laon, up 300+ steps!)
- The last 3km in Péronne, when having walked 3 km down the hill into town, I discovered my lodgings were back 3 km at the top of the hill. In my defence, I was staying in an old Mill house and there was a massive river at the bottom of the town, so I had assumed it was there, but I made a resolution always to check the address in future…
- My worst lodgings of the trip so far at a historic Pilgrim’s hostel for Pilgrims of both the Via Francigena and Compostela. I hesitate to criticise in a public blog, but the lodgings, although in a beautiful lakeside setting, had seen better days and were somewhat ramshackle. It had the distinction also of being the only pilgrims hostel I’ve ever stayed in not to have a washing line – as this is one of the most basic requirements of a pilgrims hostel, I was somewhat surprised. And I had already done my washing, so I improvised and hung my clothes on the wire perimeter fence making sure to avoid the worst of the bird droppings , and hanging them outside the property so that the resident billy goat wouldn’t eat them! On the plus side, I was greeted with much enthusiasm and beer, and the host was obviously a highly interesting man – a sculptor and deep thinker
- Being feasted on by horseflies as I walked through the forest. They completely ignored my bare flesh and tucked in to my legs – through my walking leggings! Wished I had a horse’s tail to swish – ended up taking my hat off and using it to bat them off my legs. Took anti-histamine at lunch, but not soon enough to prevent some bites from suppurating…
The following poem, discovered in a church in Pas de Calais, has haunted me all week, especially whilst walking through the Somme;
Your Christ is Jewish, Your scooter Japanese; Your pizza is Italian, Your couscous Algerian; Your democracy is Greek, Your coffee Brazilian; Your watch is Swiss, Your shirt Hawaiian; Your MP3 player is Korean, Your holidays Turkish, Tunisian or Moroccan; Your numbers are Arabic, Your writing Latin, and yet…. …you reproach your neighbour for being a foreigner!
One definition of a Pilgrim I read this week was “étranger et voyageur”. As I walk through France, I am certainly a stranger and a traveller, but in conversation with the people I’ve met, I’ve discovered so much in common with them. People all over the world may be culturally different, yet all want the same things; love, health, family, friends, a decent job and place to live. All the cemeteries I passed through this week were so different and yet all had one thing in common – everyone was dead; generations of men betrayed by populist demagogues. Most war is essentially a failure of dialogue, so we need to keep talking to people we don’t agree with and leave the safety of our comfort zones – no great things emerge from comfort zones! Vote wisely and for future generations, not our own. Check facts, don’t believe everything you read. Do what my parents used to do – they now read the Times, but they used to take the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, (and the Sporting Life!). Growing up, this confused me, but now I see it was a stroke of genius: if you can read about the same events through different ‘filters’, you will see the truth is somewhere in the middle. So left-wingers, read a right wing newspaper occasionally, it won’t kill you; you won’t like it, but it will be good for you. Right-wingers do the same. Try to understand how it is that people with the same ‘facts’ at their disposal can interpret them so differently. Do research to find out (as much as you are able) what the facts actually are, and speak up when untruths are peddled as facts. It’s hard and will take a constant effort, but it’s necessary if we are to avoid the tourists and pilgrims of the future visiting War Cemeteries muttering “oh, how sad” over the graves of our children and grandchildren…
I have reached Bar-sur-Aube! A beautiful and important medieval town in the champagne region some 560 km through the Via Francigena. This week has been a week of longer walks through the Champagnois in more challenging temperatures. It started with walks down long canal paths; then for the first time I was climbing hills and scrambling through vineyards (with their rose bushes) and observing fascinating tractors that go through the vineyards over the tops of the vines – all very high tech. And then a couple of days down an old gravel Roman road, all the paths everywhere hot and dusty, with the chalky soil of the champagne region coating my trousers and boots with white dust. The farms were much bigger here and fields spread out as far as the eye could see, and there were many wind farms. Many fields were being harvested or had already been harvested, so there was a fair amount of stubble and dry straw around, but often the air was thick with the scent from fields of beautiful purple clover (herbal leys?), and the noise of the crickets was overwhelming. On my last day, I saw my first few fields of sunflowers…
I also encountered my first Pilgrim en-route; Frans – a Belgian retired classical guitar maker. I was the first pilgrim he had encountered on the road too, and maybe because of that we got on famously! There was much laughter and talk about all sorts of things – music of course, then Brexit, alas (he seem to understand a lot already, but asked for many detailed explanations), but we also swapped funny stories of what had happened to us en-route. He said he had had an encounter every day with someone that had lifted his day, and I agreed that that had been my experience also. I was very glad to walk with him for other reasons too – soon after we met, three farm dogs came rushing after us trying to attack us and he beat them off with his walking sticks – not sure what I would’ve done on my own with none! Also, he had got the details of a new pilgrims’ hostel that had just opened in Bar-sur-Aube, and there I was given the numbers of a whole network of private hosts on a new alternative route to the GR145 that keeps more closely to Sigeric’s stops. At the Pilgrims’ hostel, we were joined by a Swiss lady, Claudia, who is walking to Vercelli only and not Rome, due to lack of time; she is to be priested at the end of August and then will become Pastor of a small community in the mountains. She had done extensive pilgrimages in Japan and told us many things about the hostels there and their traditions. Over some beers, they both expressed their admiration for the English singing tradition, not just choral, but communal – rugby songs etc. She talked about the difficulty of getting the congregation to sing in Swiss church services, and how singing seemed to be dying out – a legacy of Calvinism, with only a few hymns being well known and many of the traditional hymns fairly downbeat in minor keys. She had plans to set words to the better-known English hymn tunes which tend to be more positive in an attempt to overcome this problem
As I left them in the bar to catch my train, (this being my first Pilgrimage ‘pause’ to do concerts in Beaune) I reflected on the irony of my first Camino-like experience on the Via Francigena being on the very last day of my first section…
So, as I look back on the past week, what have I learnt?
- I am getting better at clearing my mind of thoughts, and paying more attention to the sounds around me and take in the scenery. Maybe the vast expanses of fields have helped…
- I have been become better at navigating difficult paths. I have become more confident as I have been bitten, stung by nettles and scratched by brambles. I have become braver as I scrambled up and downs slopes and more determined to surmount obstacles in my path, even removing and replacing safety barriers on occasion (ahem!)
- Walking in extremes of heat is simply way more exhausting, and this has led me to speculate afresh how the national characters and traditions of the different nationalities in Europe have been influenced and shaped by the weather.
- Solitude is good, but difficulties are probably better faced alongside others…
- I have become better at improvising (& I don’t mean musically!) In one house in the champagne region where I stayed, my host inadvertently gave me an unwashed dinner plate – I didn’t want to offend her and my paltry French deserted me, so when she went into the kitchen for 30 seconds to fetch my omelette, I tore off a bit of napkin, soaked it in my glass of her family-produced champagne (sob) and used the champagne to clean my plate. I reckoned I could get most of it off quickly and any bugs in the remaining debris would be killed off by the alcohol in the champagne!
But what has been impressed upon me above all, not just this week, but on every day of my journey, is what a powerful thing simple kindness is. I have been overwhelmed by kindness; the kindness of strangers in the street, offering water and coffee and food and hospitality, the kindness of the private Pilgrim hosts, many of them ex-Pilgrims themselves, (thus understanding just what is needed and offering this so freely), and the kindness and care of the few other Pilgrims I’ve met, sharing everything they have, and giving advice for the route ahead.
Shortly before embarking on this journey, a friend from Uni days, Nigel, died of cancer; in preparation for his funeral, all who knew him were invited to send three adjectives that best described him. In the family eulogy at his funeral, his brother revealed that the word most used about him was ‘kind’. Nigel was Godfather to my youngest son, and as we left the wake, his brother said to that son, “…please live as Nigel-ish a life as possible: that will be his legacy…”
What a fantastic world this would be if everyone’s best attribute was kindness…
After arriving back from doing concerts, I began what I have named my ‘mountain stage’ and after 6 days, I have reached Besançon, the final big town in France before Switzerland; some 850km completed. This week, I’ve been walking in temperatures of 25-32 degrees. Most days this has been tempered by some cloud and/or a refreshing breeze – other days have just been hot! I’ve also had my first 10 minutes of light rain which was really nothing to speak of – just enough that I spread my jacket over my head and my backpack and that was sufficient protection.
I have left the champagne region, going through Haute Marne and Haute Saône to Burgundy and the French Comte region. I have still been walking through the same mix of forest, fields and canals, but the terrain has been much more up-and-down and the landscape and architecture has gradually changed. More dairy herds, and fewer wheat-fields interspersed with maize and vineyards.
The swifts and swallows in every little village are still much in evidence, but the song of the skylark has disappeared from my daily accompaniment. The nature I’ve the most noticed most this week has been lizards (scuttling away in fright) and the frogs (similarly jumping into ponds, puddles and lavoirs)
The music of Henry Purcell haunted me at the beginning of the week but I have managed to clear my mind and click back into Pilgrimage mode. I continue to be amazed every day that my feet and legs still seem to be OK. No matter how much my bones ache at night, the next morning I’m off walking with no real bother. Thanks to all who’ve been praying for me – sure this has made a difference
- More open churches. A lot in the Haute Marne have been open in the day and in Haute-Saône I’ve been able to at least enter the churches, albeit it with the presence of a metal grill to prevent entrance to the main section. Better than complete closure though. Have seen some amazing art and stained glass windows
- The joy of walking backwards uphill – I have re-discovered that walking uphill backwards is pretty great!. I haven’t had to use this skill much on the Via Francigena until this week, but doing this uphill exercises different muscles, gives the illusion of progress (not going as fast, but still eating up the kms) and it feels like a huge celestial hand takes the weight of your rucksack. In addition to this, there’s often the most wonderful view and it’s encouraging because you can see where you’ve been and how far you’ve come. Of course, this is to be done only if the path in front of you (or rather, behind you) is sound, and you don’t mind looking a bit mad!
- My first ride as a pillion passenger on the motorbike of one of my hosts – exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time. As the daughter of parents who were members of a motorbike club whilst courting, to have my first experience of riding a motorbike at my age felt I little overdue. When my mum heard, she laughed and said her first experience had been at the age of 12 on the back of her cousin’s bike; that’s my mum – always ahead of the curve!.
- Water – I’ve walked past many lavoirs (communal village stone troughs where people would do their washing etc) and along and across many rivers this week – the Marne, the Saône, the Marske, the Ognon, too many to mention. Many are depleted because of lack of rain and occasionally something that is meant to be a lake (according to the map) is just cracked earth. In the heat, I have been drinking as much as 5/6/7 litres whilst walking, so I have got much better at asking for water and people have also offered me some on route, sometimes with cooling mint in it. I had noticed that most cemeteries had a ‘robinet’ or tap, but wasn’t sure it was drinking water – but a host confirmed it was. To know that one can drink this water has made a real difference and was essential one day…
- Learning more about the many wood stacks there have been in forests and at the sides of fields. My hosts on my first night back explained that every house in the villages in the woods is entitled to a portion of the wood from the forest each year. Villagers have to go and collect and stack it themselves and a lot of locals rely on this wood for heating in the winter. The whole process is all tightly controlled by the French equivalent of the Forestry Commission. I spoke to a man and his grandson collecting wood from their pile – he was instructing his grandson how to chop and stack, thus passing on skills to the next generation. He explained how the wood and the way it was managed was good for the ecology, but that the winters have been much warmer with hardly any snow in the last 10 years…
- Within 10 minutes of starting this stage of the walk I had fallen uphill! I’m not sure that that’s physically possible, but somehow I managed it and landed really heavily banging both my knees…
- For my pilgrim’s violin (and my hosts.) Having to play Beethoven! I have still been playing the usual repertoire to those who want to hear, but whereas on the first stage I practised lovely Purcell songs, ayres and dances so that to listen to me practising would not have been too much of an ordeal, this stage I’m practising Mozart and Beethoven. And my violin’s not too keen on it, meaning my poor hosts have been subjected to much scraping and scratching as I try and cajole it into the idea that playing above third position is actually quite safe. Still, it is only a month old so we must make allowances for it – after all, the wood it is made of still hasn’t got over the shock of not being a chair or table, but a musical instrument… and I reckon if I can play classical pieces on my pilgrims violin with a pretty terrible sawn-off rebec bow using a French bow hold, it will be a doddle to play them on my classical violin with my proper bow when I get back to the UK
- Dogs of France! I salute you! Your devotion to your masters and their property is only to be admired – however, poor passing pilgrims are quite harmless and not trying to get into your house! It would be so lovely to have a day without being barked at or hearing bloodcurdling noises as you try and climb over fences to attack me…
- The ‘arriving-at-lodgings-hiatus’ – mostly this goes smoothly and you are greeted warmly (and with beer 😀) but sometimes these moments have the potential to be low points especially if your host doesn’t have any concept how tired you might be. The other day I had to stand (nowhere to sit except in the road, literally) for about half an hour in the hot sun after a 26 km walk in 31 degrees whilst waiting for a host to come and let me in. Then, when she did arrive, she said she wouldn’t show me to the facilities until the other pilgrims arrived – luckily only another 5 mins or so. But then she embarked on the history of making stone walls in the area, and whilst it was actually fascinating – interesting to hear that we in the UK have retained our dry-stone walling technique whilst the French have not, so artisans and their apprentices are having to retrain and a local school teaches them – I’d rather have heard such a lecture after a shower 😩. And I’m currently writing this weekly summary from a bedroom in an old person’s home (located in local seminary) because someone forgot to put me on the list for the Pilgrim’s accommodation – causing 30 mins of confusion with me trecking behind a member of staff who was trying to find where I might sleep in the huge Seminary. And it really is huge, and I can attest it has many, many long corridors and many flights of stairs. And all after a walk of 32 km in 30 degrees…
- Being covered with many mosquito bites after a night in a hostel – or perhaps they are the bites of bed-bugs…
I met my first British pilgrim in Langres. He had been walking for six weeks from Chester, but was injured with tendon trouble so had been there for nearly a week. He was a practising Stoic, so we had a very interesting discussion about this. I was very impressed by his knowledge and his passion for Stoicism – he spoke a lot about controlling one’s actions and thoughts and explained how Stoicism had turned his life around. For me though, all the ‘control’ he talked about and practised seemed so much effort, and Stoicism seemed to fundamentally lack what being a Christian and following Jesus offers – that is unconditional love, forgiveness and the possibility of transformation. He was also a Brexiteer and we had a very interesting discussions about that. We had talked earlier about the different regional characters of the people of England, and how he had noticed subtle changes in hospitality (or not!) as he had walked from Chester, but because he couldn’t speak French and he was wild camping, he had not had similar encounters with the French people, so seemed not to have noticed the changes in the little traditions and characters of the people of the different regions of France he had walked across. In fact, he stated French people thought of themselves as European, but I was able to recount some of my encounters and conversations about the EU and France that I had had with my hosts, farmers and people en route, and convince him (I hope) that for the French people ‘la France’ will always come first. When he explained why he voted Brexit, he talked about holding elected British politicians accountable and not letting them get away with blaming Europe – all very admirable – but he also talked about ‘taking back control’ and was of the view that the EU were being deliberately awkward re. the Irish ‘back stop’. I explained that all the EU were doing was making sure they had a border that could be defined and protected; because of my family connections I could explain in detail about the current suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the position of the DUP and the Unionists, the situation in Northern Ireland and the problems of any border in the Irish Sea or across the island of Ireland – poor guy, I felt a bit sorry deluging him in history and explanations, but I managed, I hope, to explain how it doesn’t make sense to talk about ‘taking back control’ if you do not have borders that can be protected and defined around your whole country: at the moment no one has come up with a practical workable solution to the Irish border problem, hence the necessity for the back-stop. Once again though, it made me sad that the impact of leaving EU on Ireland and Northern Ireland was never talked about in the Referendum, and that so many people voted not considering or understanding the situation of different regions of the UK.
Thoughts on fear – I had an interesting question from a woman on the street; she is not the only person to have asked me this, but something in the manner of her asking affected me and I’ve thought about a lot this week. She asked where I was walking and then ‘are you not afraid to do this on your own?’ My answer was no and I truly meant it. Of course there have been moments on this journey, when I’ve got slightly worried and asked for a bit of divine protection, but generally I’m not afraid and there is no point in being so. Every day I place myself in God’s hands, and I take all the precautions I can to keep myself safe – I could be run over by a bus in Biggleswade as easily as here! But before embarking on this journey, I had to think a lot about death for various reasons, and I had to accept that a journey like this might lead to my demise: whilst that’s not something I want to happen, I could not complain as my life has been so blessed. We are not very comfortable in the western world with contemplation of our own mortality, but at the risk of sounding like some strange guru, I think it is sometimes profitable to think about death; it puts the rest of your life and it’s direction in sharp relief, and helps you see what’s really important…
This week I have been tackling the mountain range known as the Jura and have reached St Maurice in Switzerland, approx 1080 km from Canterbury. It’s been a week of dramatic scenery, rocky outcrops and gorges! I’ve had my first couple of half-days of rain – not bad when you consider I’ve been walking for 35 days now – and there’s been at least three tremendous thunderstorms, two of which were at night, so I enjoyed the ‘show’ from my bed, warm and dry. When it’s not been raining, I’ve been walking in temperatures ranging from 22-29 degrees, but it’s been much more humid…
I have walked through the Burgundian Franche Comte and the Haute-Doubs regions with their very picturesque villages, into the equally beautiful Swiss region of Vaud. As well as the more mountainous scenery, the architecture has changed, with the Burgundian houses with their characteristic semi circle door for animals/tractors, morphing into Swiss style chalet houses (with roofs at the correct angle for surviving heavy snowfall) the closer I got to the border. From the outside, Franche Comte churches also looked more ‘Swiss’, with decorated tile tower roofs and a more bulbous shape to the rooftop, but once I passed the border into Switzerland, the village churches became Protestant. So instead of the ornate baroque decorations that I have become used to seeing, with many paintings and statues of saints and especially of the Virgin Mary, the insides of churches have become plainer and more sparsely decorated. The few artefacts in the churches are often extremely beautiful, creating more impact, in my opinion, because there’s one or two artworks rather than ten. Altars are simple, even austere, and any windows that are stained glass are often very colourful – on the whole interiors have exuded peace and calm. There is also a much greater emphasis on the person of Jesus, more depictions of the Last Supper and other scenes from Jesus’s life and ministry rather than statues of the Virgin Mary pointing to the baby in her arms… And, most churches are open!
I have continued to see (and hear) herds of cows, goats and sheep in the pastures – all with bells around their necks, and the milk from these flocks are used to produce many varieties of delicious cheese, the famous ones being the hard cheeses of Comte in Franche Comte and Gruyere in Vaud. I have observed much wood being felled, gathered, stacked and chopped in readiness for winter, and passed through fields of stubble interspersed with maize, sunflowers and vineyards. I have been particularly aware of birds this week, with swans, ducks and herons much in evidence along the lake, and there were a group of red kites flying around the border, reminding me of my heritage as a Chiltern’s lass, as well as a pair of kingfishers feeding and diving, reminding me of Biggleswade.
Several times, I have chosen to do a historical variant to visit more of Sigeric’s stops and follow his route more closely, at the expense of seeing something considered more beautiful by the VFr route planners; it amuses me that as a Historically Informed Performance Practice musician (HIPP for short), I am doing a Historically Informed Pilgrimage (HIP) route!
Of course, now I’m in Switzerland the route has changed number. I had been told that the route was better signposted in Switzerland than France, but my experience would contradict that – I had seen no signage until today when, thankfully, the number 70 signs (VF) made an appearance. I put the lack of signs down to doing the historical variant originally, but that was only the first two stages, and I have done the equivalent of seven Swiss stages so far…
My feet and legs still seem to be bearing up – at one point I was worried because one of my Achilles tendons was very swollen, but it has not developed into a major problem – so heartfelt thanks again to all who’ve been praying for me – especially for my legs and my security
- The Cluny church at Montcherand literally took my breath away when I entered – with the most colourful Medieval wall paintings in the apse that had been whitewashed over in the Reformation, ironically, preserving them
- In the Jura mountains, walking along the gorge of the la Loue Valley for about 10km to the ‘Source de la Loue’ in torrential rain and thunderstorms – much scrambling up and down a sometimes slightly-too-narrow slippery path with a sheer drop and water gushing past below me, augmented by the rain. A truly awesome experience and one I wouldn’t have missed for the world – drenched, a little exhausted and exhilarated!
- Sharing hot chocolate and crepes with fellow pilgrims, Catherine & Claire, (a French mother and daughter) in the little cafe at the ‘Source of la Loue’. The cafe owners kindly opened up 10 minutes early so we could shelter from the rain and attempt to dry out. We were all completely soaked because the rain had been so intense it was like someone throwing a bucket of water over you. They encouraged us to drape our waterproofs over the chairs and tables and whilst we dried off (and our raincovers dripped and left pools of water on their chairs and floors!) we ate and drank, and shared our impressions of what we had just been through in the last couple of hours. What made the experience even more sweet was that the three Italian male pilgrims, who had been in the same pilgrim hostel as us the night before, chose not to take the path (on the grounds that their Italian guidebook said the route would be too dangerous in the rain) and took the road route instead. Our apps/guidebook didn’t give us the same warning and the stage was rated medium as usual, so we carried on (and survived!), and we all agreed that they had missed one of the best experiences of the Via Francigena so far!
- The joy of zig-zagging down hill – (another technique I discovered on the Camino) that make really steep descents on roads feel less treacherous – with the advantage that you exercise different muscles as you cross over the road and change directions, and it helps avoid the dreaded blackened-toenail scenario – with the proviso being the same as week 4 (sound road surface and you don’t mind looking a bit mad!)
- The morning walking from Lausanne to Vevey towards the mountains by the side of Lake Geneva: beautiful blue skies, hazy mountains in the distance, the sound of water lapping at the edge of the path, and swans, herons and other birds lazily feeding. So amazing and it felt like being at the seaside.
- Swiss breakfasts – in England, I would normally just eat a banana and have some tea, but every morning in France I have been making myself eat a typical French breakfast – endless bread with jam – all of excellent quality, but I never want to eat it again! In Switzerland, I have been given boiled eggs and cheese and it’s been such a relief to have a savoury alternative.
- Cenovis! the Swiss version of marmite. It is not as good as marmite imho (obviously), but better than Vegemite (sorry Colin) and, again, it’s great to have something savoury…
- Though the day crossing from France to Switzerland was fabulous, it was also a very ‘klutzy’ day – I slipped a few times, and actually fell down a hill. Ironically, I was trying to be ultra careful, managing a rocky path descent slowly whilst keeping an eye out for a sturdy stick that would help provide more security, when I tripped over the end of a stick that was poking out into the path but was obscured by vegetation. Initially thought I’d broken my nose, but thankfully not… And though there was rather a lot of blood at the time, my injuries turned out to be superficial – cuts and grazes – apart from a fabulous split lip, but overall more injury done to my pride! On the plus side, it gave me the excuse to buy sorbet as often as I possibly could that day to try to reduce the swelling! As for the stick, it turned out to be just the thing I was looking for and I ended up using it for the next 15km – in fact I couldn’t have got up one of the later ascents (over boggy and pitted pasture) without it. Just wish that my discovery of it had been a little less dramatic! I’m sure there must be some sort of life analogy along the lines of ‘the stumbling block is something you come to rely on’…
Thoughts on Fear (part 2). One of the reasons that the Italian men didn’t take the forest gorge path was because one of them had fallen whilst on the Camino del Norte and twisted their ankle badly. I, too, fell down hill very soon into my Camino, fracturing a rib; I could still walk with my pack, but it made sleeping very painful and difficult for the next week. I wanted to say to him, ‘please, don’t make the decision based on your fear’, but that would have been presumptuous (and anyway my Italian wasn’t good enough 😂). I think we have to face our fears to be free of them – easier said than done, I know. Since my fall downhill, I have been given many opportunities to face my ‘downhill fall’ fear and sometimes I have been full of trepidation; I know that I might fall again and it could be much more serious next time, meaning that I don’t get to Rome, but I have no alternative but to keep going and it’s been good for me. It made me think: in life we cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond. Sometimes we are able to be bold and positive and take a chance, whilst other times we know the path we should take, but we don’t take it because it’s the more difficult and fearful one. And as I was thinking about these things this sentence came into my head (weirldly enough, in French!) – une vie vécue dans la peur est une vie perdue…
As for my fear of falling, I have learnt over the past weeks that God is the God of synchronicity, and so many things (big,small, random, crazy) have happened to make my journey more amazing/more comfortable/more interesting/more thought-provoking, that I know I will be given the strength necessary to deal with whatever happens on my journey, and for this I give praise and thanks…
Firstly, before I summarise, a quick plug. I mentioned Nigel, my friend at the end of the week 3 summary. Another friend of ours, Steve, is doing a bike ride along the Rhein, from ‘Source to Sea’ in aid of Pancreatic Cancer research, and as so many of you reading this may having been praying for Nigel in the last two years, I include the link to Steve’s fundraising page…https://www.gofundme.com/f/cyclingfornigel?viewupdates=1&rcid=r01-156650460154-3ca3a5d3237d4410&utm_medium=email&utm_source=customer&utm_campaign=p_email%2B1137-update-supporters-v5b
This week has been the most incredible week of unbelievably beautiful scenery and challenging ascents and descents as I have been walking through the Swiss and Italian Alps via the Great St Bernard’s Pass and the Aosta Valley. I have reached Ivrea in Piemont, Italy, more than 1250km from Canterbury (though as the crow flies only 987!)
It’s hard to describe how magnificent the scenery has been and words really fail me, but lots of people who have been looking at my WhatsApp status updates have commented on the amazing photos. I have walked paths cut into rock by the Romans and routes travelled by Napoleon and his armies, through a rugged and challenging landscape. I have walked uphill for kilometres and downhill for kilometres – ample chances to face my fear of falling down hill! I have been transfixed, not just by the drama of the landscape, but by the beautiful villages, with their roofs of thick local slate, glistening and many coloured from mineral deposits, and by the artwork, the Roman ruins… And I have met some extraordinary people and enjoyed some memorable meals.
- My day walking up to the Col du Gr St Bernard – no words, just totally amazing and one of the most memorable days of my life (and exhausting!). I even saw some of the dogs!
- Time spent with Luigi and Luca, two Italian Pilgrims – should have mentioned these guys before as I first encountered them two weeks ago and have been bumping into them regularly ever since. The first time I met them was in Foucherans where we all stayed in a museum of rural life (linked with the paintings of local artist, Courbert). The host of the Museum was very keen for me to play, and to encourage me he brought around cake and fruit juice, so I played not just for mine, but for everyone’s supper! I gave an impromptu performance of some Bach in the garden to the host and his partner, their next door neighbours and five other Pilgrims. Luigi, who was one of the five Pilgrims, turned out to be a conductor of youth orchestras all over the world, and a choral conductor running his own choir of men and boys in Bergamo! Luca, his friend, is a Quantity Surveyor and they had met on previous Pilgrimages and now walk regularly together (or so I understand – my Italian isn’t that great). It was obvious they were the best of friends and they were a classic double act – much joshing and laughter, so full of life, and whenever I met them en-route or in the evening at hostels, it always brightened up the day and I knew there would be fun. Meals, beers, advice on the next day’s route and where to stay – it was good to share all this with them. I even gained my first nickname of the Via Francigena – Forrest Gump, which Luigi christened me because I was faster than them and often got to hostels first…
- Crickets and grasshoppers – the route up to Gr St Bernard was obviously a paradise for crickets and grasshoppers and there were so many of them, in all colours and sizes – some as big as two inches long! They made an incredible noise – and it made me laugh so much. It occurred to me too, that they are the violinists of the animal kingdom…
- Working out how to cross Italian roads – Frans, the first Pilgrim I encountered, gave me some sound advice on this subject, which I had forgotten until I had stood at pedestrian crossings a few times and wondered why no cars stopped. He said Italian drivers only stopped if you looked them directly in the eyes and made it obviously you WERE going to cross that road, whatever. He was right. Works a treat – but blooming scary!
- Finding my stick! – this was a different stick to the one I fell over, but as the route steadily ascended a few days before Col du Gr St Bernard I realised a stick would help steady me on descents and might help my knees and ankles on ascent. I found the perfect stick for me, not straight, but a bit curved and I got very fond of that stick. And it made me feel like a proper Pilgrim – at last, my Bourdon that distinguished me from a tourist! In fact I decided I really wanted to take it all the way to Rome and I was wondering where I could leave it in Ivrea so that I could pick it up on my return. But then I thought, am I getting too attached to my stick and is this a good thing? God’s answer to this question became obvious 30 minutes later, when I accidentally left the stick on a bench, and, going back for it, discovered it had been broken in two by some local boys!
- My reception at the Hospice at Col du Gr St Bernard, which was less than welcoming due to a language mix-up. After my day of walking uphill for 26 kms on a path that was challenging (and often a stream), I was left waiting alone in a corridor for 30 minutes or more, and in that time I went from being ecstatic and on a real high, to being on the lowest of lows – emotional, extremely cold and very tired, and almost in a state of shock…
- Mealtime – generally a highpoint in this trip, but over the last week I discovered that saying you were vegetarian seemed to mean to some people that you only ate vegetables…Two examples – at the Hospice (where they knew I was vegetarian), myself and another vegetarian Pilgrim were served meat. We enquired what the veggie option was, only to be met with a blank look and told (not unkindly) that we had potatoes and vegetables, what more did we want?! We managed to get some cheese on that occasion. Another time in a hostel with the most amazing food, just over the border in Italy, whilst my Italian friends tucked into spaghetti bolonaise, followed by chickens and potatoes and vegetables in a hearty stew, I was presented with a delicious veggie soup (not the thick sort), followed by a plate of wonderfully cooked carrots! Luigi asked if I could have some cheese, otherwise that would have been it! What made it worse was that afternoon, when I had said I was vegetarian, the son of the chef said I would be getting spaghetti with oil and garlic, followed by the soup and cheese…
- Realising how dangerous the path could be – I was told by a German walker that hikers and motorcyclists regularly die and are injured – ‘every day’ she said, although I find that hard to believe. Luckily she told me this after I had completed the most challenging bit! She herself is walking from Trieste to Monaco doing the Alpine route (so more dangerous than the Via Francigena route) and she took extreme precautions safety wise – as she said, you don’t want to be 98% percent safe, you have to be 100% safe. She constantly checked path conditions, the weather, and asked for advice from locals before setting out, and has a special device on her belt that, if activated, a helicopter would come to rescue her, no questions asked…
I’m so, so, sorry to mention the B word again, but in the interests of journalistic accuracy and unbiased reporting, I have to. Because I am walking through Europe in the last few months before we leave the EU, it naturally comes up as a subject when I say I am from the UK. I really can’t help it; and I never bring the subject up myself! In fact, when a Swiss farmer asked me what a British person was doing walking through Europe at a time when we wanted to leave, I couldn’t face having yet another conversation about it, so I hid my face with my hat and groaned – it got a laugh and diverted the conversation. Anyway, I must report that the majority Swiss view (that I’ve encountered, anyway) is that they hope that Brexit goes really well for us, and that the EU is being appallingly arrogant in not realising that they are the problem, not us. Some also expressed a view that if another country left that would be the end of the EU and that was a good thing. But when I asked how comfortable they felt with the fact that they had to comply with rules and regulations that they had no say over and no input into, they found that difficult to answer. I hope they are right and that it is all a success, but I fear it will be very different. In particular, I worry that our cost of living will become as expensive as in Switzerland (I spent more on food and accommodation in 7 days there than I did in 20 days in France!) but without the high salaries that the Swiss earn. Thus making it hardest for the poorest in our society. I pray I am wrong…
Expectations – when I look back at my day walking to the Col du Gr St Bernard, it’s difficult not to feel that the reception misunderstanding at the Hospice could tarnish what was an amazing day, if I let it. In the days afterwards, trying to analysis why my reaction to the corridor wait had been so extreme, I realised it was because my expectation of the whole day had been so great. After all, when I reached the top I would be staying at the Hospice – the amazing Hospice which has been looking after Pilgrims for centuries, so they would know exactly what a Pilgrim required and it would all be done with Swiss efficiency. In addition, the day I arrived there, 15th August, was an important day to the Catholic church – the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, and a public holiday, so I was sure that there would be a special Mass, maybe special food in the evening and it would generally be an amazing time. The reality was rather different, mix up at reception, no feast or veggie food, and no special mass, just a vespers that was mainly silent (something I generally like) that left me stony-hearted. I think the expectation of my time there was so great in my head, that even if I had been shown straight to a room etc etc, the reality would never have matched the ‘dream’.
There’s a profound moment in the film Clockwise where the character played by John Cleese says “it’s not the despair, I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand” and I think there’s times in everyone’s life when we know what that’s like. And yet we need hope – as the Bible says in Proverbs, “hope deferred make the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” & “where there is no vision, the people perish”.
Without hope that things can be better, that situations can change, how can we live? – but it’s how to manage it. Maybe to hope for everything, whilst expecting nothing…
This week, after my concert pause, I’ve reached Piacenza; some 1450 plus kilometres from Canterbury. This stage did not get off to the most auspicious start though, with me breaking a little toe on my final concert day in Austria, thus delaying my re-commencement from Ivrea and slowing me down mileage wise. I also bruised my right heel early on, which meant I couldn’t put my bare foot on the ground and bear weight without pain. Nevertheless, I continued walking and have made progress. Fortunately for my feet, it has been a week of walking through flat and damp rice fields – I couldn’t have managed Alpine walking with my toe, so I was very thankful. Plenty of walking in sunshine in humid heat in the high 20 and low 30 degrees in damp shoes, being eaten alive by mozzies, (but on my legs only, in spite of covering myself with deterrent)
I have walked along with dragon flies crisscrossing the path in front of me and frogs, jumping off the path in alarm at my approach, as well as small fish and crayfish in the canals and streams. A heron took fright and flew off right in front of me, and I saw many grasshoppers and lizards as usual.
The landscape is so different from the Alps that it was hard to believe it is the same walk, but if I looked behind me I could still see the mountains for the first few days. I have walked through Piedmont, Lombardy and entered into Emilia–Romagna.
Highpoints this week
- discovering that ricefields make a very special sound in the wind…
- The amazing wealth of medieval and renaissance artwork, the frescos and the beautiful, if sometimes neglected, farm buildings and villages
- The enforced half day in Ivrea meant I actually got to see the ‘Olivetti’ Museum, which was fabulous; full of typewriters calculating machines and computers!
- A day of making mistakes enroute. A strange thing to say, but one day I made 3 mistakes and had to turn around and go back each time – leading to lovely encounters with people. Funnily enough, the day before another Pilgrim had said to me that sometimes God nudges and nudges you until you’re in the place that He wants you to be in, and I had agreed. The next day was proof, if proof was needed, of this
- Risotto! 😋 yum! With artichokes, four cheeses, vegetables, with pumpkin – I have sought out and cooked risotto as much as possible this week – once adding grains gleaned from the path. I managed to find risotto even in Vercelli where I’ve been told it’s notoriously difficult – it seems they export a lot of it but can’t bear to cook it! I’ve loved eating it so much; comforting, filling, delicious – I could go on…
- The crossing across the river Po on the Via Francigena ferry, piloted by the legendary Danilo, who has been in charge of the ferrying Pilgrims across since 1998. It was delightful to meet him and the ferry crossing itself was a cooling 4km stretch of river following in the exact path of Archbishop Sigeric in AD 990-994 and also of Saint Columba in AD 612-615
- Not sure if this is highpoint or a lowpoint, but I unexpectedly found myself doing a late night, outdoor, candlelit, impromptu concert. I had promised to play the violin to the Pilgrims in the Ostello that night, then went sightseeing, only to come back to find a poster outside advertising the concert. Apparently it was on Facebook too! I spent a frantic half hour writing out a speech explaining all about the violin in Italian, to pad out what I was sure would be a very short concert, and as the audience arrived it all felt a bit surreal. In true Italian style the concert started about 20 minutes after the advertised time, because all of us Pilgrims in the Ostello were still finishing up dinner! However it seemed to be appreciated. The only downside is that when I go to Ostellos now, often either the Hosts or other Pilgrims have ‘heard’ of my existence…
Low points this week
- Broken toe and bruised heel obvs! Getting my left foot into walking shoes with a broken toe was an interesting experience (to say the least), but thankfully the discomfort wore off after the first couple of kilometres. And thanks to all those who prayed specifically for my right heel on the day when I really thought I wouldn’t be able to walk at all. You know who you are and your prayers were amazing! I managed to walk 18 km that day and my foot was in better shape when I finished then when I started!
- Legs in general – prior to this stage my feet looked remarkably well for someone who’d walked nearly 1300 km, but with my broken toe (still twice its normal size) and the consequential bruising and swelling across the top of my foot, the skin on the top of my other toes rubbed red-raw by damp socks and shoes, a grumbling and swollen left Achilles tendon, plus the mozzie bites from my ankles to my knees (some suppurating and blistering, others causing localised haemorrhaging in spite of antihistamine use) my legs and feet are in a sorry state and would not currently win any prizes in a beauty competition 😂 But no matter – I’m still walking
- the few kilometres spent walking alongside some major roads with nowhere to get out of the carriageway! And when your Ostello host actually advises you to take the bus to bypass a certain section you know it’s going to be bad! I didn’t want to take a bus, as there was a distinct lack of buses in Sigeric’s time, so I got round this problem by working out diversions which of course added kilometres to my journey. And when it was impossible to avoid the main roads I would take a deep breath and walk the hard shoulder making myself more visible by flailing my red coat around rather in the manner of a latter-day Matador approaching a bull…
Final thoughts – a friend sent me this Thomas Merton prayer extract at the beginning of this stage and it has been with me whilst I walked
Whatever new direction God opens up for me. My job is to press forward, to grow interiorly, to pray, to break away from attachments and to defy fears, to grow in faith, which has its own solitude, to seek an entirely new perspective and new dimension in my life. To open up new horizons at any cost. To desire this and let the Holy Spirit take care of the rest. But really to desire this and work for it.
I have been thinking a lot about ‘opening new horizons up at any cost’ The problem is that sometimes we don’t recognise new horizons and by not being open, not defying our fears, we close down options in our lives. I was reminded of this as I walked the rice-fields paths this week; the very paths that I had dismissed beforehand as boring became a source of blessing. The flatness of the soft paths covered by their lush vegetation was like a padded respite for my poor feet. Similarly, I was also forced, by circumstance, to stay in a town where I really didn’t want to stay, and which I had, again, dismissed out of hand; yet that stay became one of the most fun, loveliest and unexpected days of the week with a lovely Ostello, the most welcoming custodians, amazing food and fantastic fellow Pilgrims. And the town was so beautiful. I have been taught this week never to dismiss anything out of hand – even the most mundane and boring thing could become an experience of beauty and joy if we let it…
I have arrived in Avenza, some 1650 plus kilometres from Canterbury. I’ve walked through Emilia Romagna, walked into Tuscany, touched briefly on Liguria then back into Tuscany. After my ‘flat’ stage last week, it gradually got more and more hilly in the Appennines and I climbed higher and higher culminating in the pass known as Passo della Cisa, which I joked beforehand was a sort of poor man’s/poor woman’s Col du Gr St Bernard, but turned out to be every bit as magnificent, albeit less taxing than the former; an amazing and extraordinary day of incredible views and slippery descents. I’ve stayed in a variety of Pilgrims Ostelli and Parochial Houses and in the last couple of nights it has become obvious that the route is becoming more busy – more similar to the Camino, but with less infrastructure!
Highpoints this week
- The day before Passo della Cisa was one of mist and low level clouds after a night of thunderstorms. It was blissful! It actually felt cold for the first time and was particularly lovely as the two days previously had been hot with humidity over 80%! The only downside was that I was meant to see some wonderful views but visibility was down to 10 m most of day, so I was none the wiser as to the beauty of the countryside I walked through
- Passo della Cita – having climbed Mount Valorie (which is an variant, not part of the path) and been rewarded with breath-taking views, I then descended to the Passo in swirling clouds, sometimes surprised as various things loomed, last minute, out of the mist; a group of Italian horse riders, a herd of cows (who I could hear but didn’t see until they were practically upon me), and, I think, a bull (I didn’t stop around long enough to make sure!) Whilst stopped at the cafe at the Passo I debated, over a cup of tea, the wisdom of walking the hill path, which, from the contours on the map, was going to be full of fairly fierce ascents and descent, was liable to be slippery in the mists and was only worth doing if you could see something, or whether to be safe and conserve energy and do more on the quiet road. I had decided to do the latter, and emerged from the Cafe only to find that the mists had cleared and in front of me was the start of the hill path with a very dramatic set of steps leading to a little chapel – completely hidden from view half hour before! I took the hill road…
- Three wheel ‘Robin reliant’ type trucks such as the Ape Piaggio, a three-wheeled light commercial vehicle based on a vespa scooter produced since 1948 – I have seen a lot of these in the last few days clattering through the mountains and they just make me laugh – and remind me of my Grandad!
- Food! This region is so rich in locally produced delights – cheeses, (not least, the fabulous parmigiana-reggiano), mushrooms, pumpkins, tomatoes and other veg, fresh pasta, gnocchi, huge figs, delicious tarts made with fruit jams, nut and fruit liqueurs, honey, olive oil, wine- and I’ve tried to sample them all! I’ve had some truly memorable meals 😋
- Staying in a post-modernist villa once owned by a Mafioso who had his property confiscated as part of his punishment. He donated it to the local community and it’s now it’s the local library with a few rooms for guests to stay in. And an amazing garden -allegedly – I couldn’t see it because it was the day of thick cloud!
Low points this week
- Being pursued by a pack of ferocious-sounding farm dogs who, alas, were free and able to follow me. Luckily the farm drive was pretty long, so by the time they got to me I was nearly pass the farm. I just kept my head down in what I hoped was as non-threatening a manner as possible, didn’t make eye contact or even look in their direction, walking as fast as I could whilst lifting my hands as high as I could to avoid fingers being bitten if they decided to attack. They didn’t follow me very far and the whole incident probably lasted only 20 seconds, but it seemed like forever
- Being in the busiest hostels of the trip in Aulla where there were 24 pilgrims and only two toilets, and each toilet was in the same room as a shower and hand basins. I was first to arrive at the Ostello, so the implication of this bathroom arrangement did not become clear until later when a whole load of pilgrims arrived at once, and a massive queue for the bathrooms formed, with some poor pilgrims waiting a couple of hours for a shower! Even worse, the only basins for hand-washing clothes were in the bathrooms too…so there was no toilet available for use for about three hours whilst all the showers/laundry were happening!
Final thought – many people asked me before this Pilgrimage why I was doing it? Was I trying to ‘find’ myself? or was I running away from something? The answer to those two questions was no and no, but although I had an idea why I was doing it, as I toiled in extremes of heat and terrain, I have asked myself this question repeatedly without coming to any satisfying or definitive conclusion.
In the mountains this week, the first few lines of ‘Praise my soul, the King of heaven’ came into my head for no apparent reason. For those who are not familiar with it, I reproduce it here
Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven; To His feet thy tribute bring. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, Who like thee His praise should sing Praise Him ! Praise Him! Praise the everlasting King.
I thought about what it meant to bring a tribute to His feet. How could one do that? What even is a tribute? Then I remembered that in the Primary School where I teach, there was a beautiful display of butterflies in the School hall with the words “What we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.” – maybe a modern day explanation of “Tribute”?
As Christians we are taught that no-one can earn God’s love by anything one can do, by being good and doing the ‘right things’. Jesus said that no-one was good except God, but at the very same time He said you are more loved and accepted by Him than you ever dared hope – despite not being ‘good enough’. That’s grace. And that’s a belief he was willing to die for. We cannot earn that grace, because it’s free, unlimited and eternal, but we can bring tributes to Him. I realised suddenly that this Pilgrimage was simply my tribute to Him; a life-changing Tribute and a huge thank-you for life with all it’s possibilities…
I have arrived in Monteriggioni, some 1800km from Canterbury. I have been walking through Tuscany most of the week, and the trail has got increasingly beautiful as I climbed into the hills; the paths have been lush with Cyprus trees, Tuscan pine and olive groves. Although it is said that these are some of the most beautiful parts of the via Francigena, the Alps are hard to beat, and the real delight this week has come at the end of the day when you enter an historic Tuscan hilltown or fort; truly incredible places. The week started with some rain, but not much (the day has never turned out to be as rainy as forecast) and a walk by the sea between Avenza and Pietrasanta as I diverted from the official path and walked along the coast for a few hours, a third of which was along the beach. The path has got more sociable now, meeting more pilgrims; even if I don’t walk with anyone, we are either in the same hostels or we meet in the evening for a catch up and a drink and it is nice to have someone to go to a restaurant with for a change. I have also caught up and/or passed some of the pilgrims whose names I have seen in the Ostello books or who I’ve been told of; to finally meet these people has been very interesting. The majority of these people are English speaking, if not actually from the UK and it has been great to have an easy conversation in English for a change
- Lucca – though crowded with tourists, was so beautiful. San Miniato – an amazing hill-top town with a Tower where I stayed in a Franciscan Abbey and was treated to a tour of the Abbey with it’s refectory, cloisters and the church after dark. Gambassi Terme with it’s extraordinary Romanesque church. San Gimignano – so beautiful with it’s dramatic towers, and Monteriggioni, with it’s dramatic wall incorporating towers and considered the best example of Tuscan medieval buildings (built 1214) & mentioned by Dante in his Divine Comedy.
- An evening at the house of a Via Francigena volunteer and his sister. I promised I would do a concert for them, so they invited me to stay and a wonderful feast was prepared. Their friends brought more food and wine and the love and friendship between the family and friends was palpable and very moving to experience. It was such a privilege to be invited and it was a very special evening that I will treasure
- Pieve di Santa Maria a Cellole – a Church first mentioned in the 1100s. Simple, prayerful and with an incredible atmosphere – another ‘thin’ place, where earth and heaven come very close together
- Getting my first blister of the trip and totally self-inflicted. Long story so I won’t go into all of the details, but suffice it to say that it was at the end of the day in which I’d been wearing wet socks for 10 hours. I had had the opportunity to take those socks off in the middle of the day for about three hours, but did not! A salutary lesson that I should not get blasé about the hardness of my feet even after 63+ days of walking! Fortunately, it only caused me one day of discomfort and then conveniently sorted itself out the next day, but it helped me to be thankful, again, that I have not had the feet problem that some of my fellow pilgrims have experienced…
- Hearing about the collapse of Thomas Cook – the last British owned-and-run travel agency. Made me very cross and sad, and I stomped up and down a few hills. Not run well in the last few years, the final straw for it was Brexit fiasco. Ironically, it is those ‘pesky’ European regulations that will have helped protect many of Thomas Cook’s customers. And our government refused to help. Welsh hill farmers, I would be very worried if I were you …
Final thoughts – in conversation with a French Pilgrim in his late twenties, I was struck by how much we agreed on. We were talking about what it is to be a Christian in today’s society; I said it was countercultural and he agreed. He was not brought up a Christian and it was only after living what he called a ‘typical life of girls, drinking and general consumerism’ that he became increasingly disillusioned: he felt there was something missing and in seeking purpose to his life he discovered it in Jesus’s teaching. He had walked the Camino, and to Jerusalem to have time to think, and he told me that his friends didn’t understand his Pilgrimages or lifestyle, and ridiculed him for his belief. I said that, unlike him, I hadn’t encountered open ridicule, but people probably were dismissive of me behind my back – the Anglo-Saxon way! We talked about good and evil, heaven and hell – to many, outdated concepts. We agreed that what many didn’t realise is that heaven and hell do exist; not necessarily externally, as most people think of it, but internally, in our hearts and mind. And which ever side you ‘feed’ by your words, actions and thoughts determine how you live…
I have arrived in Montefiascone, some 1940 km from Canterbury. This week I have walked through the Tuscan hills into Lazio. The general temperature has been cooler, especially in the morning and evenings, and there have been some incredible thunderstorms. Once again, I have been walking through some beautiful countryside, through woods full of autumn crocus and cyclamen; I have seen snakes and deer, have visited most amazing towns, seen beautiful art and historic buildings, ate delicious meals and met more amazing Pelligrini. The route gets more crowded as we get nearer to Rome, but it is still easy to walk in solitude, maybe only meeting a couple of people on the day’s route. Finding a place to stay, however, has got a little trickier, with some hostels full, but I’ve not had to sleep under the stars yet!
- Siena – such a beautiful city – incredible buildings, and incredible food. I ate the most delicious gnocchetti of the entire VFr here. The only drawback was the huge amount of tourists (including myself) who flood into the city
- Pici – the thick Tuscan pasta, which I have enjoyed with the traditional cacia e pepe (cheese and black pepper) and truffle sauces – 😋 yum
- Wine tour – I was treated to a tour ‘behind stage’ so to speak, at a wine makers in San Quirico d’Orcia. And all by accident! I set off for the pharmacy to get some more painkillers, but got ‘distracted’ by a shop offering wine tasting who were also fermenting this year’s vintage in sealed tanks. I asked an innocuous question about wine yeasts, explaining that I did a spot of amateur wine making, at which point the owner, Andrea, invited me to go to a old building in the street behind where there were 50,000 bunches of grapes on bamboo slats that would be made into a special wine that is fermented in barrels for three years. He explained the entire process and we ‘compared’ production methods. There were of course, many similarities, but he chuckled as I showed him videos and photos of my wine and equipment – he had never seen demijohns with airlocks before and he made me promise to email him the videos etc. At the end I bought some wine for that night’s dinner, but he wouldn’t let me pay full price, and he presented me with an additional bottle. I never did get to the pharmacy…
- staying with the Cappucchins at the Convento Casa San Lazzaro in Acquapendente – such a warm welcome, a beautiful garden where they invited us to rest and to pick their cherry tomatoes and grapes to eat, and exciting caverns in their hillside to visit, a tasty and seemingly ‘never-ending’ meal, followed by a tour of the attached church which was damaged by earthquake a few years ago and now cannot be used – only late-night Pilgrim visitors get to see it
- Bolsena – with it’s beautiful medieval buildings and fort, and the views of the lake and Montefiascone with it’s Tower of the Pellegrini from where you could see the most amazing views for miles – we could see where we had walked from in the last two days and where we were to go…
- Cups of tea! I have worked out what to say to get a decent cup of tea and have indulged pretty much every day for the last two weeks. Mostly the bar owners take my instructions about cold milk without batting an eyelid, but occasionally it has caused a stir. For instance, in the bar of a rather swish countryside hotel, the barman reacted as if I had asked for the most exotic drink on earth, and after placing my order, I could hear him softly repeating my sentence “uno tè caldo con il latte freddo, aperte” and chuckling between repetitions. He brought me the tea with a huge smile on his face and almost a conspiratorial wink, saying the sentence yet again as he produced the tea platter with a flourish!
- Shoes – my poor shoes are disintegrating and I am nursing them to Rome, wrapping them almost daily in tape, which inevitably comes off or starts flapping after 5 or so kilometres…
- Saying goodbye to Marita, Stan and Sue. Marita, a feisty & amazing woman from North Sweden, started walking in the dark every day because she wanted to see the stars and to ‘see the new day born’. She encouraged me to run down certain sort of hills (it’s safer than walking, allegedly), and was always up for a gelato and a glass of wine. Sue & Stan, a gentle and lovely couple of experienced hikers from Idaho, were walking in Europe for the first time and it was so interesting to see things through their eyes. Sue also enjoyed trying the local gelato (all in the name of research, of course) and Stan’s treat at the end of a day was a small can of coke. We four had gradually become a sort of team over the last couple of weeks, not so much walking together, but simply bumping into each other enroute, comparing notes on the day and often staying in the same hostel at night. It would have been so easy and so good to carry on travelling the VFr and to walk into Rome together, but for various reasons I had to make the decision to walk 2 stages in one day, so the time came to say goodbye – a sad day. It was such a privilege to travel alongside them and they will all have a special place in my VFr memories
- Thunderstorms on the way to San Quirico d’Orcia – extremely heavy and violent storms that drenched most people and went on for hours – thankfully, that was the day that I had booked an apartment for us, so we had towels and lots of hot water, proper beds and a luxurious space…
- The day to Radicofani – a cold, wet, windy and long day. A day where Tuscany pretended to be the Pennines – same sort of hills, same weather, same light. There was nowhere to sit down and rest until the very end of the route, and when I did find a bit of wall and attempted to have some lunch, I was hit by a strong shower of squally rain and had to move on. So I walked 32km (a lot of which was uphill) for 8 hours with only a ten minute break, on a banana, a mouthful of cheese, a small square of bread and some salad. In addition, because of some crazy and inaccurate signage, for a good while Radicofani was continually described as 8km away, and by some strange optical illusion, though it’s Tower was clearly visible for miles, one never seemed to get any nearer! The last 3km was the worse and I was close to tears as I began the last ascent steeply up the volcanic cone on which Radicofani sits, struggling to stay upright against a wind that threatened to blow me off the hill completely, and fighting with my out-of-control poncho that was acting a bit like a sail – and not in my favour! Music came to the rescue in the form of an ostinato rhythmic pattern, a simple tune and words, which I used as a sort of mantra and pace-setter, and thus armed, I charged up the hill, overhauling and completely overtaking Roberto, an ex-military Italian man considerably younger than me! At the end, I staggered into the church at the top and collapsed gratefully in a heap at the foot of the altar, whilst Marita, who had got there first, 30 minutes previously, waited for the ospitalier to open up the (very cold) Ostello… we all agreed it was one of the toughest days, and whenever we saw the volcanic cone and Tower of Radicofani in the distance subsequently, we were very glad to have left it behind
As I get very close to Rome, I realise that I do not want to stop walking and I feel I could carry on for ever. I get very emotional at the thought of this journey ending and am so tempted to continue to Jerusalem! To pull on one’s walking shoes, day after day, and travel through the land from one town to the next is an incredible way to live and can become addictive – I hear tales of Pilgrims setting off on such a journey and still travelling years later, and I think I now understand how such a thing is possible.
People think that a journey like this is something extraordinary, but it is not – so many travellers have walked these paths for thousands of years. Like the Camino, the Via Francigena (and other Pilgrimage paths) gives you not ‘what you want’, but ‘what you need’. You are shown what things are essential in order to live and what things are just ‘so much stuff.’ I encourage any one reading this to consider doing something like this, in your own way, on your own terms; but if you do, be prepared for your life to be changed…
After 77 days walking and 2142km from Canterbury, I have finally arrived at St Peter’s Tomb and my Via Francigena journey is at an end…
No words can sum up exactly how I feel as I look back over the last 11 extraordinary weeks through a blizzard of emotions, but I must profess an overwhelming gratitude – to God who has protected and provided for me every step of the way, and ensured that I finally made it to Vatican City relatively unscathed, (although I did rather hobble into St Peter’s Square – maybe finishing barefoot over varying road surfaces and cobbles wasn’t the greatest of ideas 😂)
Gratitude to all those of you – family, friends and strangers – who have supported me from afar in prayer, in friendship, in practical ways, and with advice and encouraging messages – thank you all from the bottom of my heart and I hope to see many of you very soon.
Gratitude to Finn who made the Pilgrim’s violin that I played so many times and to so many people en route. Crafted in an extraordinarily short timescale; as we travelled together, it’s sound got better and better.
Gratitude to all the many people and parishes in France, Switzerland and Italy who have provided hospitality with kindness and generosity, and, last but not least, gratitude to my fellow Pilgrims, who have walked alongside me in a spirit of openness and friendship, and with whom I have shared some remarkable conversations and Via Francigena experiences.
Final thought – from brokenness to restoration…
A friend sent me an article he had written, and with his permission I reproduce an extract here (for full article go to https://senanofsomerset.co.uk/my-path/kintsugi/)
…“Kintsugi”. A Japanese word used to describe the art form that is; broken pottery that has been restored. It is a stunning art, where a broken pot, cup, vessel has not only been mended, but the mends are often accentuated with gold. Often, repairs in our western culture are thought to be good when you “can’t see the join”. Kintsugi actually does the opposite. In essence it is a celebration of all that has been broken and restored.
So often in my path I have met great people of faith. But often they have come from places of great “brokenness”. They are often not a case of “you can’t see the join”. Instead they show great and deep scars that are now inlaid with the gold from the healing of the Cross – the greatest symbol of brokenness of all time…
This really resonated with me and I thought much about brokenness and restoration in my own life. Later on, in an email to the same friend, I joked that my rapidly disintegrating shoes were in need of a bit of prayer, and I received the reply
…”Perhaps when you’ve finished, you can repair your shoes and inlay them with some gold… brokenness ended?…”
I laughed and cried at the very idea; or was it something else? God’s healing touch can be so deep, beyond our normal experiences, that our bodies just don’t really know how to react to what the soul is going through, so – just tears…
Kintsugi/brokenness/healing was also something that I felt moved to share with other Pilgrims at certain points. One Via Fr moment this week, that will stay with me for ever, was of walking uphill on a stony and gravel-ly path with a fellow Pilgrim who was sharing her story of broken health, restoration and healing. We had talked about the concept of Kintsugi earlier in the conversation, and as I walked in tears, astonished at what I was hearing, I noticed that there were many small pieces of glass and shards of broken pottery mixed in with the stones on the path; the sun glinted brightly off them – the discarded, the broken, and the downtrodden, being transformed into His light on our path…
And on the day we both finished the Via Francigena, after visiting the Vatican Office and receiving our ‘Testimonium’, (the document that attests to the completion of our Pilgrimage to Rome) we went for lunch, and she asked me “did you see? in the corner? the gold?” – and on our Testimoniums, to prevent forgery, was a tiny seal – of gold…