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!

No comments:

Post a Comment