Vol 17 December 2012

The Wrong Way for a Pizza by Brian Mooney

In the hot summer of 2010, I walked from my home in Coggeshall in north Essex via London to Rome, a journey I distilled into A Long Way for a Pizza (Thorogood 2012). On my return I was challenged by a friend who said that pilgrims in the Middle Ages had to walk both there and back. Two summers later, in 2012, I took up the challenge and on July 14th, Bastille Day, I found myself back in St Peter’s Square setting out on the wrong way for a pizza.

Walking from Rome was an odd experience. The Vatican Pilgrim Office was perplexed. When I presented my blank pilgrim passport they wanted to issue me with a Pilgrim Testimonial. This was an arrivals office; they weren’t used to departures. It was unsettling also to recall the excitement and joy of arriving in Rome and this time to feel quite differently – full of trepidation at starting over again.

But there were some wonderful pluses to travelling the Via Francigena (VF) backwards. Walking north, I had the sun behind me, and it lit up and infused a landscape that was both familiar and refreshingly different. How many times do we look back when we walk?

Also, in the early stages, I met many more pilgrims than on my walk to Rome – those crossing my path coming towards me. I had a memorable encounter in Gambassi Terme with a former Guards officer, Harry Bucknall. Harry is writing a book about his journey – Like a Tramp Like a Pilgrim – a follow-up to his book on the Greek Islands. He has courageously exchanged his combat gear for a laptop.

Wherever possible, I varied my return route. I made my way to Viterbo over the Cimini Hills via Lago di Vico and crossed into Tuscany by Monte Amiata. I again followed the quiet Strada Provinciale on the Apennines and walked mainly on roads rather than farm tracks to get through the rice fields of the Pò Plain as swiftly as possible. I do not subscribe to the notion that there is only one ‘official’ Via Francigena – there are many converging ways to and from Rome, all equally valid. As on the way down, I spent my nights in hotels, bed & breakfasts and chambres d’hôtes, using a BlackBerry to locate and book them.

In the two years since I walked to Rome, the waymarking in Italy has noticeably improved – especially in Tuscany where there are now marker stones every few hundred metres. But there are still gaps or sections that are poorly waymarked, particularly in Lombardy and in Lazio on the approach to Rome. Although it was in Switzerland, and she was a silly girl for heading into the Alps without a decent map, the dreadful experience Alice Warrender describes in An Accidental Jubilee (reviewed in this edition), when she got lost making her way up to the Grand St Bernard, simply should not happen. We are still a long way from having a VF that can be followed without vigilant map reading and without anxious moments hunting for the next waymark.

Some of the VF, too, is rugged terrain over broken ground, and it is hard to see how it will ever be as well travelled as the broad conveyor-belt trail of the Camino to Santiago. The Col St Bernard, the forest route over the Cisa Pass, the climb from Aulla to Sarzana and even the path through the woods by Lake Bolsena are none of them strolls in the park.

There are many stretches in Italy where more investment could make a huge difference. A disused railway track, for example, runs beside the main road into Aulla, which is the current VF route, and this could be transformed into a most attractive new section. There are altogether too many uncomfortable sections on busy roads. But in today’s austerity Europe, funds for new footpaths are simply not available.

Even the Admiral of the Pò, Danilo Parisi, is short of money. Danilo had his outboard motor stolen earlier in the year, and he is struggling to make ends meet with the small amount he charges to ferry pilgrims across the River Pò. It would be a pity if he had to suspend his launch service between Corte Sant’Andrea and Sopravivo – which for so many pilgrims is one of the most memorable experiences of the journey.

I spent half a day with Danilo, going back and forth across the River Pò to pick up pilgrims. His leather-bound pilgrim book is one of the most reliable sources of information about the VF; from it he compiles annual statistics. According to his records, the number of pilgrims walking from the Alps or north of the Alps to Rome each year is still fewer than 400, and of them only a handful are from England. Of course, many others walk far shorter distances to Rome, starting for example in Siena, and still others bypass Danilo’s ferry and walk into Piacenza by crossing the River Pò over the bridge at Pieve Porto Morone.

In 2011, Danilo recorded a total of 350 pilgrims, compared to 317 in 2010 and 338 in 2009. When I crossed the River Pò on August 5th 2012, I was the 307th pilgrim of the year. Of the totals who have been on Danilo’s launch since he began his ferry service for pilgrims in 1998, the overwhelming majority are Italian – 1,064. Next are Swiss (219), German (195), French (176), Dutch (113), British (50), Belgian (38), Austrian (25), American (24), Australian (16), Swedish (13), Spanish (22), Canadian (11) and Irish (6). Other nations with one or two pilgrims include Poland, Portugal, Vietnam, Estonia, Croatia, Hungary, Russia, Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Argentina.  Almost all were heading for Rome, but each year there are several on their way to Jerusalem, Santiago and Canterbury. Danilo has logged seven pilgrims walking to Canterbury since 1998 (compared to 19 to Jerusalem, and 16 to Santiago), and none, as far as he knew, had undertaken the two-way journey on foot. I learned later, however, that a retired lawyer and serial long-distance walker from Australia, Andrew Judd, had come this way a few weeks before me on a return journey from Rome to Canterbury via Santiago, and that he had regained the English shores on a ferry from Santander.

After Châtillon, I turned due north to Cervinia from where I crossed the Alps under the flanks of the Matterhorn over the 3,400-metre Theodule Pass descending to Zermatt. This involved a high altitude glacier traverse, for which I hired a guide, and after clambering down the Zermatt valley left me with a long haul along the Rhone Valley from Visp to Martigny. But the Theodule Pass is an ancient route once used by the Romans – Roman coins found there are on display in the Zermatt museum – and having skied over it a number of times in winter, and summoned by those coins, I wanted to walk it in the summer.

North of Lausanne I left the VF altogether and made a long tack from L’Isle to Mouthe over the high Juras during two days of violent thunder and rain storms, and then headed for the Canal de Bourgogne which I followed along its towpath through Dijon to the River Seine and on to Paris. St Augustine, sent to England by Pope Gregory in 596 on a mission to re-establish Christianity, and whose steps I was following to Canterbury, also travelled via Paris. Walking in and out of the French capital was rewarding and unexpectedly straight forward; the suburbs have well paved boulevards.

After Paris, I sped through empty country in Picardy and Normandy – 290 kms in seven days, covering big distances from Auvers-sur-Oise to Beauvais, Poix-de-Picardie, Abbeville, Montreuil- sur-Mer and Devres to Calais. I was finally reunited with the VF at Guînes.

My reception at Canterbury was marked by indifference. After attending early morning mass in the crypt of the Cathedral, I told the presiding Canon that I had just arrived on foot from Rome. “Oh how nice,” he said. The good lady who stamped my pilgrim passport at the visitor centre responded with equal nonchalance. “Rome,” she said. “Pouf, we get pilgrims arriving here all the time from all over the world.”

I was disappointed. In centuries gone by hundreds of pilgrims would have walked to and from Rome. But I cannot believe that there are many alive today who turn up in Canterbury having completed the “aller-retour” on foot, although it is true that Andrew Judd had arrived on his return trip via Santiago only a few days before me.

By contrast, however, I had been greeted with real enthusiasm at the Cathedral of St Étienne in Sens, where the Verger – excited by his cathedral’s historical and architectural links with Canterbury – went out of his way to show me the splendid vestments worn by Thomas Becket when he was resident there for four years in the 1160s, and I was also fêted at Notre Dame in Paris.

After St Augustine’s Canterbury, I followed the North Downs Way to Rochester and then crossed the Thames on the ferry from Gravesend to Tilbury, an old pilgrim route, to spend the final night of my journey at the Holiday Inn in Basildon – the Dubai of Essex. In a fitting salute to my journey from Rome, I briefly touched St Peter’s Way the following day on a footpath near Maldon, from where I turned up the River Blackwater to my home town of Coggeshall.

For the statistically minded, I had my boots re-heeled three times and I walked 2,117 kilometres over 69 days, which included five rest days. That worked out at an average of 33.1 kilometres a day. My longest day was 52 kilometres. I had covered almost the same distance in 2010 – 2,115 kilometres – walking from Coggeshall to Rome when I broadly followed the VF through France via Rheims and Besançon and crossed the Alps over the Grand St Bernard. Maybe Paris is, after all, a short cut.