Vol 1 June 2007

Walking to Rome is tough by Chris Lawson

Walking to Rome is tough. It is not like the Camino de Santiago, as all the literature points out. It is also a tremendously rewarding experience. The pilgrim who takes up the challenge finds untamed territory, resembling the Camino as it was before its revival. Yet the landscapes are more varied, the cultures more diverse and fascinating, the sense of history just as overpowering. Waymarks are a real bonus when you can find them and even then, they are sparse, diverse, obscure, even misleading. As if this were not exciting enough, the end of the journey offers Rome, Saint Peter, “la dolce vita.” I had to do it.

For an Englishman, walking as a pilgrim through my own country made me see it as I have always looked at Spain and France. The drama of crossing the Thames opposite the Houses of Parliament, after morning prayers at Westminster Abbey, made for quite a moment of beginning. Within that first day, when I slept in Rochester, I had met a parish priest at Dartford who gave me £20 and told me to enjoy it. An older lady in Welling had asked me to read her gas meter for her (do pilgrims look like the Gas man?). I had got lost following Watling Street and Canterbury seemed miles away. Pilgrimage in England can be just as strange as Spain.

Canterbury welcomes pilgrims, is aware of the Via Francigena and will in time become a very good English version of Le Puy. However, the fun really started after walking into Dover ferry port on the fourth day and sailing away from my own language and culture. Later that afternoon, as I strolled along the cliffs of the Pas de Calais towards Wissant, past German gun emplacements, I could see Dover in the distance and it hit home for the first time that I was far from Rome and far from home, a feeling every pilgrim knows well near the start of a journey. I was unlucky on my first night in France, as the campsite at Wissant was very full. However, the tourist office advised me that since I was a lone camper with a tiny tent, I ought to simply “demander une place!” – a phrase even my level of French could understand. I therefore simply walked into the campsite, found a quiet spot behind the shower block and put up my tent hoping no-one would notice. I kept telling my English sense of propriety that I was a pilgrim now, not an Englishman, and that I would pay tomorrow, when it would be too late to remove me. (I did do this).

Accommodation was haphazard. I carried a tent and used it 22 times, two of which were illegal wild camps in forests, teeming with noisy nocturnal wildlife. ('Pas très bon” said the lady at the youth hostel in Langres, after one of these nights. “Pas très cher”, I replied.)

Once at Pietrasanta in Italy I slept rough on a railway embankment, having walked myself into “a corner with no exit.” I stayed in several youth hostels, some religious houses and several small hotels. In Italy, I was grateful to sleep in some local parish “caritas” houses, intended for emergencies. 

It is quite possible to walk the entire route without ever worrying about where you will sleep. With a reliable mobile phone and a smattering of French and Italian, a determined pilgrim should have little difficulty. However, I am one of the lunatic fringe and prefer the uncertainty of not booking ahead.

This attitude brought much discomfort, yet sometimes ended with delightful, moving surprises, such as the nuns at Villa Santa Maria outside Fornovo di Taro, who not only sat me down to lunch as I arrived, sweat stained and unannounced, but gave me a beautiful room, with a clean bed and a view over the Italian hills for which tourists would pay big money. The Villagio del Fanciullo, just outside Villafranca in Lunigiana, gave me a mattress on the floor, a hot shower and an evening meal in the charming company of the six resident priests. As we discussed the Iraq war and the fresh news that Italy might send its sons there, I asked them why. "You're going to Rome," they said. "You ask them why."

Don Camino of Fidenza gave me a splendid meal one Saturday night, in the priests' house, with fifteen other residents. When I explained that I had a tinned "dog food salad" saved for the following day, he gave me a big bag of sweets for my energy. The legendary Don Alberto of Vercelli received me at 9 pm. on the evening of August 15th, a major public holiday. Despite the hour and the lack of advance warning, I was treated like an honoured guest. I had known for whom I needed to ask, as I had been stopped by cars on the road before Vercelli. "You going to Vercelli tonight, pilgrim?" "Yes". "Ask for Don Alberto, he lives near the cemetery." (Is that what you call an oxymoron?)

It is easy to forget, when walking the well-organised Camino de Santiago, that a pilgrim relies upon hospitality. Such stories as I've just told are forcible reminders. None of these people had to do anything for me. Of course there were less pleasant surprises, such as the (few) bars which would not serve someone they clearly regarded as a tramp, or the cars which delighted in trying to shock me by zooming as close as they could.

These were not as hard to handle as the sun. On the road to Rome, I walked mainly east and southeast. The sun was constantly in my face, impossible to avoid. In Spain, as you walk west, it is usually only the left side of your body and your left hand which burns. As I walked in July and August, the heat was often severe, although at the top of the Great

Saint Bernard Pass on August 12th I was confronted by a snow shower and limited visibility. Around Besançon the rain seemed to pick me out for special soaking and on the open roads of the battlefields between Arras and Bapaume a sudden lightning storm scared my wits away. At six feet two I towered above the flat scenery that seemed to have no trees – a scar I think of previous, less peaceful events.

The whole route between Arras and Châlons-en-Champagne passed right through the middle of First World War battlefields, where cemeteries seemed depressingly common.

Reason enough, perhaps, for people of different nationalities to take up pilgrimage. Crossing over the Somme, I was astonished at how small the river actually was here, to have such a mighty name in history. Approaching Besançon, the Franche Comté département seemed like the land that time forgot, with its picture-book villages and steep wooded hills. The Alps were a dramatic and forbidding prospect, but the route rose gently up towards Switzerland, which I entered for the first time at a border post on the road from Jounge, where the man in charge was most amused and interested in my pilgrim passport, claiming never to have seen one before. "Where are you going?" "Rome," I replied. "But just to Lausanne tonight."

The walk around Lake Léman, between Lausanne and Montreux, was a real scenic highlight. Mountains on one side, water on the other and very safe, if very expensive. I had no problem with coffee in Switzerland, since the cafes all seemed to open before 6 a.m., to catch the Swiss going to work, which they seemed to do with a cigarette permanently attached to their lips. Not exactly paradise for an ex-smoker. From there, up to the Great Saint Bernard Pass the Alps became a challenging, but very walkable obstacle; not as hard as the climb to O Cebreiro at any stage. As I left Switzerland just after the pass, I entered Italy. The Swiss border guards were out checking passports and cars, whilst the three young Italian police 100 yards further on were all huddled up in their hut, watching what looked like a football match, on a small portable television. "Buongiorno Ragazzi," I muttered. They didn't notice. Welcome to Italy.

From there, Italy offered the Val d' Aosta; the plain of the Po, the Apennines and, of course, Tuscany. I saw the marble quarries at Carrara; Lucca; the splendour of Sienna and finally, on day 47, the most welcome sight of all, a sign telling me I had just entered Acquapendente – 130 plus kilometres from Rome, the beginning of the old Papal Sates.

Three days later, I was admiring the inside of a brand new pilgrim office just off Saint Peter's square. The lady in charge examined my credentials, gave me the certificate and wished me good day. If you have been to Santiago and experienced this, you will know what I mean. I did all the things I came to do in Saint Peter's Basilica itself and then wondered how best to spend the next three days before the flight home. As many have found before me, Rome is "not a bad place to spend time" - especially not for a Latin teacher like me.

It was certainly harder by a long way than even the Paris route to Santiago, which I have now walked twice. Even on day seven, as I struggled into Arras for a cold beer, I swore I was going to see this through, but never do it again. That was a lie, which I knew even as I thought it. The tears in my eyes when I saw the Hospital at the Great Saint Bernard Pass would be reason enough to go back and repeat it. In the 50 days that it took, I saw only ten other pilgrims - the first five in a group just after Aosta, who had all done the Camino two years before. There may have been others, but I didn't meet them, since I walked on lots of roads, having only 53 days holiday to complete the journey. It seemed to me that I was free to take whatever route suited me, as all pilgrims are. Anyway, all roads lead to Rome. (Bet you knew that one was coming).