Sunday, 25 January 2015

Background reading

My first text was a French one, "La Via Francigena. Sur la trace des pèlerins de Canterbury à Rome." Amazon link.

This is a generously illustrated guide to the route with helpful commentary on the history of the places passed en route with special reference of course to the Via itself. The book contains some useful outline maps together with some suggestions on roads to take or avoid; this is just what I need - it will help me tweak the waypoints on my satnav map. The book provides a quick intro into some of the visuals and history one will meet along the way. However, the navigational detail is probably insufficient for a walker  - a book with more explicit instructions will prove a better bet.

Friday, 23 January 2015

An authentic pilgrimage?

"A pilgrim (from the Latin peregrinus) is a traveler (literally one who has come from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place. Typically, this is a physical journey (often on foot) to some place of special significance to the adherent of a particular religious belief system." (Wikipedia)
Whilst walking the Camino de Santiago I encountered people who undertook the pilgrimage in all sorts of ways. A most engaging mode to complete the walk was with a donkey - everyone admired the donkey (and the person). Most people completed the route in the 'classic' way, i.e. they walked with a backpack and stayed each night in a simple hostel; others included 'days off ' when they would rest up regularly for a day or so in a hotel or upmarket hostel. Others again were part of an organised pilgrimage - these folk didn't carry their own luggage but had it transferred by van to the next (often superior) hostel. Finally there were the cyclists - lots of them. All of these options are of course perfectly valid and were seen as such by the pilgrims.

However, I suspect anyone attempting the camino by motorcycle might be perceived to be lacking in authenticity; perhaps because a pilgrimage should involve some kind of physical effort and - also -one is expected to follow the prescribed route reasonably closely. This is where riding a motorcycle is likely to be challenged as an authentic transport choice; little physical effort is required and one has to use metalled roads for the most part instead of the rough tracks of the original way. And of course one is excluded from using the pilgrim hostels so that unique community experience is denied the rider. So, should I be even considering using a motorcycle to complete a pilgrimage?

Well, I believe a case can be made. For one reason I've got to go to Italy anyway to meet up with my family, so a journey must be made; and secondly, following the VF is a golden opportunity for me to spend some time with my God  - a task that should not be too difficult since the VF is studded with sacred sites along its length. So to make my pilgrimage authentic I ought to follow the route as closely as possible - even if journeying thro' a myriad of villages slows me down. And I must be prepared to get off the bike regularly to undertake pilgrimage-type activities, e.g. visiting shrines, cathedrals and attending mass along the way.

I'm not sure how many pilgrims make the journey to Rome each summer - I believe it's many less than the camino to Compostella (see here) but hopefully I'll be able to spot some of them along the way. I'd like to be able to chat to them about their experiences, so it might help if I wore something that showed we were engaged in a common endeavour. Perhaps if I designed a pilgrim logo this might make it more obvious; and I could wear the logo on my T-shirt or helmet?

A pleasant hour or two spent on Photoshop and I came up with this effort. Those familiar with the camino will recognise the shell icon and colour scheme of the headlight's beam. If I still like the design by summer, I'll make up a couple of iron-on T-shirt transfers and stick them on a couple of tops to take with me on the journey. Hopefully, people will guess what I'm up to.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Pilgrimages past

In the last few years I've returned to two of my early interests - ones I'd always thought were incompatible with each other.The first is motorcycling - a pursuit that derives from the love of speed and is accompanied by buffeting and noise. The second interest - a much quieter and slower one - is walking; and specifically, along pilgrimage trails.

Pilgrimage has been an occasional part of my experience since boyhood; in Ireland my grandparents' farm was a couple of miles from the sacred site of St Brigid at Faughart and I'd be taken there by family to say the rosary from time to time. At 16, fascinated by stories of St Patrick's Purgatory, I took off for this well-known site; it was situated on an island in the middle of Lough Derg and surrounded by beautiful green Irish countryside. For three days, along with hundreds of other pilgrims, I undertook the prescribed regime of fasting and prayer. It was an unusual experience - full of repetitive prayers and physical discomfort - but I was fascinated by it and impressed by the sense of community displayed by the pilgrims taking part.

Like many Catholics I have been to Lourdes and each time I went, I used public transport to get me to my destination. However in my late 50s I dispensed with wheels and switched to 'foot' power; my first walking pilgrimage being St Michael's Way from Dorking in Surrey - near where I live - to Mont St Michel in France. The route is not very well known in England although it's thoroughly signposted in France. Support infrastructure along the route is minimal (except for the route markings) and so maps and guides are essential to assist - not least with overnight accommodation. I backpacked the route in summer, camping along the way; I have to say it proved physically and socially challenging. Carrying a full pack was at times exhausting and I never (knowingly) met another pilgrim in nearly three weeks' walking. Despite this, I fell in love with the silence and with the Norman countryside; I found walking on pilgrimage to be wonderful and I'd do it again without hesitation.


Following the Mont St Michel adventure I progressed to the Camino de Santiago to Compostella - a much longer trail this time, but with an excellent supporting infrastructure all along its length with ultra-cheap hostels to spend the night and budget restaurants to eat in. This time I could travel light since accommodation and food were easily accessible; and - unlike the Mont St Michel route - there were lots of people along the way to keep one company. Again, the pilgrimage was highly enjoyable and full of memorable moments.

To date, I've not walked any pilgrimages in Italy although I had the good fortune in 2011 to tour the country on a motorcycle for a month; I had a marvellous time (you can read about it in my blog Touring the Italian Peninsula on a Honda CB500.) Interestingly, I was able to use what I learned about lightweight backpacking on my walk to Mont St Michel to devise a minimalist style of motorbike touring which served me well.

I shall be travelling to Italy again in summer 2015 to see my in-laws and I shall do so by motorbike (my wife flies). And I'm considering whether I might ride my way along the Via Francigena pilgrim route. Pilgrims of course usually walk (or cycle) and I guess motorcycling might be considered heresy by the purists. But since I have already undertaken lots of pilgrimage by foot, I don't feel I have anything to prove. Nonetheless I shall be intrigued to see people's reactions along the way!

What is the Via Francigena?

The Via Francigena (VF) is an ancient roadway from England to Rome that has been used by travellers for nearly 1500 years. We know in some detail the stops along the way because in the 10th century bishop Sigeric of Canterbury recorded the route when he travelled to Rome.

The Via was used extensively by pilgrims in the middle ages when pilgrimage was widely-practised; and not surprisingly, parts of it were used also as a conduit for commerce. In our times there has been a renewed interest in pilgrimage and the European Community has been active in researching and re-establishing the ancient ways with a view to encouraging people to engage with their national heritage.

When I first hunted around for information about the Via, several years ago, I could find little; but the position is changing. There are now books, guides, web sites and blogs to help the enquirer. And of course as ever, Wikipedia is a helpful starting point for reearches.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Mapping the route 1

Navigation needs
To follow the Via as closely as practicable will inevitably involve travelling along lots of minor roads with many twists and turns. A map or guide will suit walkers' navigation needs but those of a biker are quite different. Whilst a map is indeed a necessity - and very effective for large scale route planning - a satnav makes light work of complicated routes since it can automatically direct the rider from waypoint to waypoint without the need to stop and refer to the map. A search on the web indicated a number of ready-made Via Francigena (VF) satnav files, although these appeared to be mostly for walkers or cyclists. So I decided to create my own route map and export it as a satnav file to use as a guide on my trip. I thought this might be a useful navigation exercise that would begin to familiarise me with the towns and villages along the route.

The most common resource for route planning  - possibly because it's freely available - is probably Google Maps, so I settled down to learn how to create my own map using this tool; it turned out to be remarkably simple.

The stops along the way were equally easy to find - Wikipedia lists all of bishop Sigeric's 80 stops along the way. And so my first task was to enter these into a custom Google map.

Tweaking the route
I need to decide how closely to follow the VF. I could travel from one of Sigeric's stop to the next, choosing the most interesting route (for a motorbike); this would certainly qualify as having completed the Via but there is a certain lack of authenticity about that, because I wouldn't have travelled through the smaller villages along the way - something that gives the routes its character. Or, I could find out the the walker's route from an authoritative source and attempt to trace this, Such a route would certainly take me through the villages and along lots of minor roads; but I would need to be prepared to travel more slowly. Which should I do?