Vol 4 August 2008

In the saddle with Sigeric: Canterbury to Rome by bicycle by Janet Skinner

Arriving late in Canterbury and leaving at 8am, I found nowhere open to give me a stamp for my pilgrim record, but the YHA does a good impression. I set off on a warm April morning at a smart pace and promptly got lost, several times. There is always a tap in a cemetery and I was lucky to find one as I neared Dover, thirsty and with an empty bottle. The only excitement in Dover was when a noisy earthquake rocked the building as we breakfasted.

No tsunami in the Channel and the ferry deposited me in Calais, where I learned there are few buses on a Saturday and none on Sunday in France. From Wissant on Day Three I marched inland and off across Europe, past Caesar's Camp and the Field of the Cloth of Gold. I was the first pilgrim at the campsite at Guînes, where the locals knew of the Via Francigena, and received a free night.

My feet were sore: boots off, sandals on. In a tent at 3am my teeth chattered with the cold so loudly I think I started the dawn chorus. After a few days my hips ached because my rucksack was too heavy. I sent the camping equipment home but then found that after walking 25km there was no reply at two B&Bs. Luckily the Chaussée Brunehaut is an excellent, straight road for walking but I had to go another 5km to find a bed for the night. I decided the daily worry of finding accommodation was more that I could cope with so next day I returned home by bus and train. I had the first Pilgrim Record issued by the CPR and I had failed.

Three weeks later, traveling by bicycle, I made my way back to Arras and set off again. Crossing the plains dotted with First World War cemeteries was saddening. It was clear why so many had died out in the open, with no natural cover. Medieval tactics used with modern weapons.

For me cycling was the way to travel. I still got lost, never found the Merovingian cemeteries, but had time to stop and stare at old buildings over a coffee. Accommodation in YHA or hotel was better than camping and I got tips from locals about what to look for in the next town. 

Laon has a funicular railway to get up into the hilltop town with walls, narrow streets and old buildings. Vauclair Abbey is a short deviation from the route well worth making; quiet, peaceful ruins. On that road I caught up with the sole pilgrim I met on the whole trip. A Frenchman using the both Topofrancigena map and detailed local ones, he too had been frequently lost using only the former.

As I was relatively close I made a detour to the Belgian border to visit the Merovingian capital Stennay and the Abbey at Orval, returning to the Via Francigena at Reims three days later. I was excited to find a plaque at the gate into Châlons-en-Champagne stating this was the Roman Via Appia, passing from Milan to Boulogne. Charlemagne's brother Carloman was buried here but I found no reference.

The 30km from Coole towards Brienne, where Napoleon learned his military craft, is easily followed. It's an old Roman road, straight and covered in white gravel, but walkers beware. There is no shelter and little habitation. Food, water and sun hats are a must. The wall around Clairvaux is most impressive but unfortunately the abbey remains are closed on Tuesdays. The Abbey at Mormant is on view by the road around farm buildings.

The most difficult town to enter was Besançon. I missed the route because the new TGV train line is being built across the road. The main road becomes an express route: no pedestrians, no bicycles. After two hours of wandering I suddenly found myself in a retail park with a cycle route towards the town centre. It was difficult leaving next day, walking and riding up a steep hill with much traffic until I could get off the road at Morre. I was lost several times that day but saw the most wonderful steep gorges and tumbling rivers. I also had my first puncture. The Jura Mountains lead into Switzerland and finally to Lausanne on Lake Geneva. Experiencing only my second wet day in three weeks I passed Chillon Château (recommended) along the lakeside, and then followed a flat cycle route along the river Rhône with mountains rising steeply in waves above me.

The Via Francigena is promoted at St Maurice and I was given a medal depicting St Maurice the Martyr. I stayed at the Abbey. From Martigny to Orsières I caught a train up the first 20km of incline. The remaining 25km to the top of the Great Saint Bernard Pass I cycled and finally walked. The road got steeper, the scenery more rugged, as I rose above the tree line and to the snow. How did Napoleon get 42,000 men, cannons and horses over it? At the top I found my second and last puncture.

Because of roadworks, gravel and frightful drops I was walking downhill next morning when a truck stopped and offered me a lift all the way to Aosta. I discovered the people of the Aosta Valley speak French as well as Italian. The sun shone and it got warmer as I went south. It only rained on one further day. I was soon down onto a flat valley under mountains holding castles and towers. At Donnas a piece of original Roman road lies beside the modern one. After the peace of the mountains I was shocked to witness a robbery in Santhià but out of town the traffic was quiet enough to follow the historic route past paddy fields. I crossed the river Po by bridge instead of ferry as intended and spent time in Pavia, Piacenza and Fidenza. I do wish the streets were not cobbled.

The Apennines were cooler with beautiful little villages and haymaking going on at full pace. Once over the Passo Cisa it was downhill to the sea. Lucca, home of Puccini, was fascinating behind its massive walls. Leave by the Porta Elisa and make for the green-domed basilica. The road does a gate-leg and you reach the Via Romana.

San Gimignano was heaving with visitors and I could not get accommodation so I set off for Siena. My back brake cable snapped. I had to walk down hills and cycle up for a change. San Quirico is a quaint little hill-top town with a parochial house. Sadly as in many places I was on my own, with beds for 20 pilgrims. My daughter had arranged to meet me in Rome. I was ahead of schedule so stayed in a mobile home 3 nights on Lake Bolsena and in a hotel 2 nights on Lake

Bracciano. In Vetralla kind nuns looked after me at a monastery. I was entranced by the Mithreaum and by the Roman remains at Sutri. And suddenly I was on the outskirts of Rome, arriving at St Peter's at exactly 12 noon on Monday 2nd July.

There is a strange feeling on finishing such a journey. Elation tinged with the knowledge that there is nowhere to go on to tomorrow. I first read about the Via Francigena in a book printed by the Italian Tourist Board in 1999. It has taken a long time to plan and execute. Let no one be unaware that this is a very different journey from the one to Santiago de Compostela. The route from the Italian border was easy to follow with frequent marking over the Apennines and detailed notice boards in Latium. Generally locals are aware of the route except for Tuscany who chooses to ignore.

I am 62, cycling long distances over the last 15 years. While this trip was not too strenuous, except for the Great Saint Bernard Pass, and visually, historically and culturally pleasing, I did find it very lonely. I was frequently the only person at a hostel or hotel and there were no groups of pilgrims to stop and chat to as on the Santiago route. Nevertheless I am delighted to have travelled the Via Francigena. Oh! And to my daughter's question - am I going to cycle to Jerusalem next? The answer is a resounding “No!”