Saturday, 11 August 2012

End of the Road...

The last two days have been a bit of a blur; a bit like a plane crashing my arrival at St Peter's in Rome all happened very quickly and within seconds it seemed I was catapulted into a maelstrom of taxis, porters, lifts, champagne and 5 star hotel rooms - the final seconds of the adventure dashed from my lips as I suspect I always knew they would be.

After 94 days, 1,411 miles (2,271 km), 4 countries, 3 mountain chains, through snow, wind, rain, fog and shine; 2 ferry passages, 1 boat ride, 47 maps, 2 pairs of boots, a couple of sprains, a lot of blisters and buckets of sweat, I ended up in the Vatican, one of thousands and thousands of pilgrims that morning all of whom had made their own respective journeys no matter whether it was by bus, plane or, in my case, on foot - in the Church's eyes, we were all pilgrims. And that, I think, is rather wonderful.

So, to all of you who have so loyally followed me this last few weeks, who have held me in the palms of your hands, I say the most sincere thanks from the very bottom of my heart. You can have little idea how much your words of encouragement have meant to me; they kept me on the road during the difficult moments - a constant reminder that nothing in this life matters more than human kindness, family and friends.

And with that, forgive me if I take my leave and go put my feet up... well, just for a short while anyway!

Photos: Monti Mario overlooking the Vatican; St Peter's and The Testimonium of Arrival.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Six days to run...

In tearing haste as another would say; this comes to you from the shores of Lago di Bolsena, a great sweep of a volcanic lake some 70 miles from Rome; the waves lap furiously at my side. Since Siena it has been an unrelenting few days, climbing up up to San Quirico and down into the Val d'Orcia which, in this punishing weather, was beaten dry and harsh unforgiving terrain to cross. The end of which was the severe climb to Radicofani, an impressive fortress that guards the entry to Tuscany from prying Florentines and Papal ingressions. What shall I say other than "great view" when you get there.

Now in Lazio, at Acquapendente there crept in a feeling of "job done"; the worst over and the rest a mere formality which, of course, could not be farther from the truth - I still have to walk every step of the way and there is no easy way round that!

Photos: Radicofani fortress (distance); Lago di Bolsena; Bolsena Castello; the road from Radicofani; Siena in the distance.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Meetings, meetings, meetings!

On the map, I am now at Siena; in reality I am staying in a little hamlet called Monte Benichi about 20 km away high in the Tuscan hills. A quiet retreat to rest up with friends, Richard Fremantle and Barbara Hieronymous. A chance for complaining feet to remind themselves of what life used to be like in the old times.

It has been a right cocktail party of a time this last period as I caught up with Helene Spanneut, also on her way to Rome, and Brian and Gail Mooney.

Brian's account of his walk to Rome, "A Long Way for a Pizza" - published earlier this year, you would think would have sated his desire to walk - at least for a bit; but no, he is now embarking on the Wrong Way for a Pizza: walking from Rome to London.

Brian's progress is a royal affair with all the pomp and ceremony of a Papal Nuncio's cavalcade as he moves with speed and grace from palazzo to Castello and the finest hotels of Europe. Gail, who has her head well screwed on, joined him for the Tuscan phase - most of which she saw from train and taxi while Brian flailed over hill and down Tuscan dale. She didn't go to Oxford for nothing.

I had, however, to keep an eye on Brian as I could see he had taken a shine to my stick; it would suitably complement the rambler look that he has, after many years, perfected with a sort of Tom Jones affectation giving off "wild man of the woods" vibes - until that is he dons his sun hat which would look good on Weymouth beach, but on the Via Francigena, that fashion central, well, let's just say the jury is still out.

Since I last wrote, I have passed through San Miniato - home to the Bonaparte family- San Gimignano and Monteriggioni, got lost in the woods of Montagnola and, yesterday afternoon, as I walked into Siena, saw the first road sign for Rome which more than put a lump in my throat.

Tomorrow, I will stay in Siena before the final ten day non-stop push - all aboard please for the Pilgrim Express!

Pictures: sun hat; the sensible one; San Miniato tower; San Gimignano; Montereggioni (in the woods).

Monday, 23 July 2012

The gateway to Tuscanny...

The civilised city of Lucca lies like a once powerful dreadnought now at rest; it's mighty walls and bastions that centuries earlier resisted the advances of Florence (and if I have this wrong, rest assured I won't in time) now given to trees and parkland where once cowed soldiery prepared to receive the brunt of neighbouring state's stratagems and aggressions. I was immediately reminded of the great Venetian defences of Iraklion on Crete, that for years held out against the Ottoman Turk or the citadel built by the Knights Hospitallers of St John on Rhodes before the Ottoman again forced their move to Malta in the 15th century.

Lucca was, for centuries, an important centre of pilgrimage because it is here, as of course you all know, that the Crucifix of the Holy Face is housed in the Duomo of St Martin. The original, surrounded by a raft of legend and tales of driverless carriages that transported it miraculously straight to the city like a scene from a Burton -Depp movie, was so powerful a symbol that it had to be replaced in the 13th century as the original had been chipped away by eager pilgrims in search of souvenirs or a piece of the wood for its allegedly healing powers. The crucifix, almost life size, has a forlorn look as it stares out inanimately at you with big doey eyes from its ornate cage.

Puccini also lived here, when he wasn't down at Torre del Lago, on the coast, which I somehow suspect was his preferred residence - and who, in his right mind, wouldn't want to live by the sea?

Lucca, for me, is the gateway to Tuscanny and tomorrow I stride into Chiantishire and the laps of the Ladies in Lavender as I head for landmarks like San Gimignano and, at the end of the week, Siena and Val d'Orcia.

Rome and 9th August is now but 17 days hence; already I find myself reflecting on what has been a long, varied and wonderful journey which, of course, is still to run its full length. Do not be fooled, it doesn't get any easier until that very last step in Saint Peter's Square. However, once again, yet another, of the many, great legs is to come, of that I am confident...

Photos: San Michele (angel atop); Duomo San Martin; the city walls; Lucca views

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Off the rails...

The last few days, as I forecast, have been nothing other than a hard, gruelling slog making my way through the Apennine Mountains, over the Cisa Pass and out the other side following a severe 1,500 foot near vertical ascent out of Aulla which, in this heat, required a good sense of humour; but with my fellow pilgrim Reto Schilter from Switzerland we, as ever, pulled through - if a little drained as a result.

The terrain has changed once again and Italy is now a place of olive groves and hammered khaki landscapes.

And the reward? After 4 countries, 1,075 miles and 74 days on the go, the Mediterranean and it was, as you can imagine, a very special moment indeed.

Solo again, this finds me on the coast resting in Marina di Pietrasanta, just north of Viareggio; to be beside the sea is so refreshing after the toil of the last few days. Tomorrow I head inland again for Lucca and Tuscanny; another special phase of this
ever remarkable journey. Who said it was downhill all the way from the Alps to Rome?!

Photos: HB in Pontremoli; rucksack looking smarter!; with Reto Schilter after the climb; first sight of the Mediterranean; walking down the coast; donkey of the day.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Tea with the Grand Admiral of the River Po!

The approach to Corte San Andrea, the jetty where Danilo Parisi meets you on the north bank of the mighty River Po, was long and very hot indeed.

Danilo, as I suspected, was a great breath of fresh air and soon we were all laughing and joking - restored by his company. The journey across the Po was every bit as momentous as I had expected and there followed a protracted lunch with... A degree of singing; dinner followed not long after and the singing continued - don't start sending recording contracts in the post just yet even though In The Dolphin's Wake is now in the top 100 iTunes travel audiobooks.

We arrived in noble Piacenza as Italy was recording record temperatures, by 10.30 yesterday morning it was already 35 degrees. Today is my last rest day for 12 days and an important chance to rest blistered and swollen feet; it is also here that I have bid farewell to Andreas and Jock Davis - to continue the route and return to London respectively. It has been more than good to have their company. Another notable farewell is to the mosquitoes that have ravaged our lives this past week or more - no tears shed there!

And so, South of the River Po, now begins arguably the hardest four weeks of the journey and possibly my life as I walk consistently long distances over difficult terrain as I climb into the Apennine Mountains and walk in 40 degree (110 F) days. It all adds to his remarkable experience of course and tomorrow I start out at 4.30 am; Rome, on the 9th August, is but 27 days away!

Photos: In Piacenza; signing the Pilgrim Register in Danilo's garden on the South Bank; the River Po; Cat of the Day; Chignolo Po Castello; Jock and HCB with L'Ammiraglio Grande del Fiume Po (Danilo!).

Monday, 9 July 2012

Prost von Pavia!

And so, now we are three - I have been walking with a Pole, Andreas Brusti, who is also walking from Canterbury to Rome, this last two days and, now, Jock Davis who worked with me in the Army for many years has also arrived. Pilgrimville suddenly got crowded.

From Vercelli I headed back into the mosquito infested rice paddies to Mortara where, with Andreas, I stayed in a restored abbey, the Abbazia di San Albino. The heat is crippling, indeed Thursday temperatures of 42 degrees (114 F) are being talked of so, to get ahead in the day, we start earlier and earlier; Sunday we walked straight from Mortara (about 40km) in one hop. Our rate of march falling from 6km per hour to 3kmh by the end of a very long day indeed.

Pavia is a delight, the mosquitoes think so too; me dish of the day particularly it would appear. It is here that Charlemagne and the Kings of the Longobards were crowned and Saint Augustine is enshrined in the Basilica San Pietro.

Tomorrow starts an exciting phase as we set off at 5.30am to cross the Rover Po, a two day exercise leading us to Santa Cristina and then down to the banks of the river to meet Danilo Parisi who owns the little boat that will carry us downstream towards Piacenza. A very special moment in this great adventure; he is one of the Via's great characters.

Photos: the bridge at Pavia; the Abbazia Sant Albino; St Augustine's tomb; with Gigi, Franca (who run the hostel) and Andreas (beard) at Sant Albino.

Some facts, some figures and some news...

This post was meant to come to you from Vercelli where I was two days ago, but somehow the interweb thingy threw a spanner and "it",as they say, never happened. So here goes again.

I left Santhia, which is for all the world one big street with an ungainly railway station at one end, and headed straight into the rice fields. Hot, sticky, punishing country it is as if you have unwittingly landed centre pan in the oven of Sunday lunch in the making and of course, it's flat; indeed so flat the Fens look mountainous in comparison.

Many of you back in Britain are by now well acquainted with the ideal growing conditions for rice; a simple grass which basically thrives in mud and, here's the English bit, lots of water. The other half in this relationship consummated of mud and water is, of course, the mosquito. In short, this place is to mosquitoes what Blackpool is to the blue rinse brigade - it is the holy of holies, the Mecca and the blasted beasts I can report are in fine and flying form; I have a head like an over zealous cherry muffin!

So to some facts and figures which I gleaned from the hostel in Santhia; though not definitive, as the Via is not a single road, more a broad corridor of movement,they are nonetheless indicative. For those of you who believe this is a young man's game, over half the pilgrims on this route are over 60 - the oldest 77. There have been so far about 100 - 150 people, I estimate walking the Via Francigena; 10 stated from Canterbury, 55 were headed for Rome and of those, 6 were going to Jerusalem. Most were Italian, then French, but we must'nt overlook 3 Australians, one Brazilian and a Cuban... and me! It would appear, as I have for sometime suspected, but could be wrong, that I am at present, the only Briton on the route this year.

And some news, heading to Vercelli, the rice (and therefore mosquito) capital of Europe, the customary cry of "Ho Pilgrim!" goes up and after the traditional linguistic jousting to work out precisely who you really are talking t, Franz, Helmut und Ich settle on German; they are cycling from Stuttgart to Rome. I ask news of Sylvianne, the marvellous lady who I met before the Jura Mountains.

"The girl in the wheelchair?!"
"No, we have not seen her, but we saw her name in the register in Cavaglia two days back..." which means that this remarkable person somehow or other made it over the Alps safely.

And, for that wonderful news alone, we must all dance a little jig for joy...

Photos: rice fields; news of Sylvianne; the road to Vercelli (yuk); arrival in Vercelli.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Farewell the mountain kingdom...

I am writing this in the main square of Ivrea - the mountain country now behind me; a large glass of Aperol and soda by my side, the world passes by. I gaze longingly at shop windows just to wear normal clothes again rather than my "prison fatigues" of dark blue t-shirt and shorts.

In two hours time I will be in bed, up at 5am to set out for Santhia, 25 miles to the south and break the back of the journey before the heat of the day takes a hold.

If I had the chance, it would be nice to linger here for a day; just as it would have been nice to do the same in Aosta but a pilgrimage is a relentless task master, driving you ever on until you reach your final goal which, in my case, is of course Rome. I will not hide that I am now very tired, 853 miles over 8 weeks and a steady climb over ten days to 8,000 feet and a drop in one day down to 1,500 feet I guess would catch up on most people. It is sheer bloody minded determination that drives me on. But to be here, in Italy, in Ivrea is wonderful nevertheless.

Last night I slept in Pont St Martin, a town dominated, as the name suggests, by a single span Roman bridge dating back to the first century BC. This enormous structure is still in use today.

I spent most of that day getting very wet while enjoying castle after castle that protect the valley on intermittent headlands. I sheltered from the worst of the tempests variously in a cave, under a tree and finally a rock. Somewhere amongst all the drippery I sat in a dead rat - much scrubbing of rucksack today as a result.

Two days and I reach Vercelli, on the rice plains, and a day off: well as much as you have days off in Pilgrimville which are more preoccupied washing and planning than putting your feet up, but whatever, I'll drink to that...

Photos: dog of the day; Ivrea rooftops; Pont St Martin at night; Aosta valley castle and "the road to Ivrea".

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The way to my heart...

... It's a simple life in Pilgrimville: get up, walk, eat, sleep, get up, walk, eat, sleep; pretty quick, you get the idea. So, sometimes its the little things that grab your attention and, in this particular pilgrim's case, a large bag of amaretti biscuits. Many of you know my, er, weakness for the sweet things of this world and one of the many joys ( if a tad masochistic) about the rather odd pursuit of pilgrimage is that you expend large amounts of energy therefore must replace. So, I have done just that - what amaretti biscuits? - I ask in disbelief looking at the very empty packet. I now feel extremely sick.... but they were so good, believe me. You had to be there.

It has been extremely humid today which has made for an unpleasant time on the road from pretty Aosta, although, now in Chatillon, it is as ever a joy to reach the day's destination.

French is spoken here as freely as Italian but with more of a Congolese accent than high Parisian, the cows have lost their bells and the cicadas serenade is my constant travelling companion. I am staying in a room provided by the Capuccin Monks who are a jovial bunch - well, for the short moment Fra Lucca poked his head round the door anyway.

Italy play Spain tonight, so I don't suppose it will be your usual Sunday night in ...

Down the valley tomorrow to Pont Saint Martin.

Photos: salami seller in Chatillon market; Roman bridge, Chatillon and a dog who wanted to say hello... Or eat my leg - I suspect the latter if I am honest and he had the chance!