Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Greetings from the Iron Gates

Having just entered the narrow gorge where the serpentine Danube River squeezes between the snowy Carpathian Mountains of Romania and the rolling Balkan Mountains of Serbia, I've accepted the gracious invitation of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to take a day off.

Many days of cold, steady rain - coinciding with a four-day weekend to celebrate St Andrew's Day (Nov 30) and Romanian Independence Day (Dec 1) - were a tad grueling for me... despite the morning hoarfrost, the mud created by the excess of rain made the dike tracks impassable, forcing me to retreat to the paved roads where the periodic cars and trucks speeding by doused me with frequent showers.  Even the most impenetrable raingear takes a beating.  A day off to dry out, clean everything, make repairs, and re-wax my boots has been a good remedy.  Although I'm now out of duct tape and black thread, I'm set to resume the journey upstream.

A few hours with Google Maps and I've got a route sketched out that gets me to Belgrade for Christmas, including a deviation from the river to visit a little more of Romania before heading into Serbia.  Romania is nearly the size of Colorado and diverse enough culturally and geographically to warrant another pilgrimage here one day - I still haven't been to Transylvania or Romanian Moldova... one day...

A few noteworthy encounters came to me on the morning of St Andrew's Day... 

Even before mid-morning, I crossed a narrow bridge the same moment as a shepherd was driving some sheep across it.  The shepherd's dogs went barking, the sheep were agitated, a small commotion got the attention of some of the villagers nearby.  As I passed the first houses, an older man hurried up to the road bidding me in halting English to stop and talk with him.  I was sort of inclined to pass on the invitation, though his intent seemed pure.  I was having an inward day marching in the rain and the fussing of the sheep and dogs put me a bit out of sorts.  But he persisted, offering coffee - a magic word on a cold, rainy day - and announced his name as 'Johnny'.  I conceded.  With his own chained dogs barking and howling in the mud, he led me under a grape arbor, around some great baskets of apples, quinces, and pears, into a small unheated kitchen where a pot on the stove was boiling over with coffee.  He cursed, tossed the burnt coffee into the courtyard outside, and started a new pot, yammering at me the whole time.  He wiped two cups with his sweater and rummaged for some saucers to add some class, then finally sat at the table with me.  He wanted to offer more - a bone of ham, perhaps, some wet cheese from a small wooden barrel, some pickled peppers in jars of every description, a plate of meat (chicken? rabbit? goat? fried in small pieces, it was impossible to tell).  I had only been on the road an hour or so, so wasn't in the least hungry.  He persisted like an Italian grandmother - eat! eat! you're too small! you need energy!  I was more than satisfied enjoying the break out of the rain and mud and enjoying the coffee, hot and strong.  He boasted of his 200-meter long garden and orchard that he maintains and harvests for his own consumption - his children and grandchildren living abroad.  Wine! he remembered suddenly, and whiskey! please, you must try!! all homemade.  Too early in the morning for me, and too cold... still, he took me insistently to see the wine cellar, where enormous wooden casks and countless glass bottles full of red wine were stacked dirt floor to wooden ceiling... stay here, he urged, at least until Christmas... get to know the village, get to know Romania... eat, drink, be merry... he was quite the ambassador.  I was amused by his sweet and earnest demeanor, but twinged to see the situation with some clarity... these villages are already anachronisms.  Johnny was born and raised there in the house his father built and then went off to Bucharest for his education and profession - electrical engineer - and only returned on holidays.  His parents long deceased, their house became his for his retirement, but his still lives in Bucharest most of the time, a few hours' drive by car.  His own children and grandchildren have nothing to do with it or the bountiful garden.  Such is the case for most of the village's hundred or so houses - some abandoned, some only temporarily occupied, most falling in disrepair.  What will it be like in 20 years when Johnny and his companions are no longer there?  There was a bitter-sweetness to the encounter.  I managed to leave the dear old guy and head back out into the rain an hour later, but not without a large and tasty chunk of his homemade sheep's cheese, some fruit from his trees, and about a liter of his wine, a not unpalatable demi-sec.

A few hours later, I had a quick chance meeting with a bicycling Belgian/British/Canadian adventurer heading to Istanbul and beyond.  He was the first such traveler I've met, both being rather out-of-season travelers of the Danube, and we took a little standing break to chat between raindrops.  We met because I was on the paved road, a domain I generally eschew and was there only because of the bad weather; on a laden bicycle, of course, he wouldn't have been on the rutted dirt dikes where I prefer to walk.  In truth, although there can't be a happier pilgrim than I, some days have more noticeable struggles than other days.  I was sort of moping along when we passed each other, both equally surprised by what we saw.  Even after just a few minutes of our little encounter, my soul was lifted and the bounce I hadn't noticed was missing, returned to my step.  ...and then he gave me a few chocolate bars =D  Kudos to Matthew the bicyclist.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Greetings from Ruse

The golden leaves covering the riverside poplars when I began at the Danube delta have nearly all blown off in the three weeks I've been walking.  Some rainy days, but mostly pleasant for walking.  Birds, mostly, keep me company along the tracks and small roads I find, but also some wild pigs and many stray (and very timid) small dogs.  

Pilgrim life suits me well, as everyone knows by now, and I'm delighted walking in the day and finding people in the evenings.  My routine is set - if there's a Catholic church, it's there I approach first, if not, an Orthodox church; or monastery - and there are plenty, and those of all sizes and age - but if there's no church to offer a lone pilgrim hospitality in Romania, I strive to meet the mayor.  Town/village halls all seem to have basic accommodation perfect for a pilgrim and a staff happy to entertain a visitor.  My arrival has prompted little parties many nights so I can meet various residents and try many local specialties - cheese, chicken dishes, lamb, rabbit, and plenty of river fish along the Danube, of course.

Last Saturday, I was walking out from a rather isolated and quite primative monastery named Adancata - which I later found out means something like 'muddy valley' and could not have more appropriately been named.  Many horse carts loaded with baskets of vegetables passed me by from behind, always with a cordial exchange of greetings.  One cart slowed to a walking pace and the wife of the couple gestured that I hop up on the pile of hay where a pig lay behind her and her husband for a lift.  I declined politely, enjoying the walk and wanting to take a sidetrip to St Andrew's Cave (he slept there, the sign says).  Many hours later, the couple again passed me from in front, empty of the pig and baskets of vegetables.  Pulling to a walking pace again, the wife leaned out and handed me a loaf of white bread.  Such a sweet exchange we had that afternoon, though very few words spoken between us.

People are universally surprised to find a winter pilgrim to begin with, but one walking upstream along the Danube seems to be the novelty.  Plenty of Germans come downstream, it's been reported to me, by canoe or bicycle, but only in summertime, and they camp in groups.  I've been compelled - to my shame - to rely more on my very poor Italian language than any other, but I've equally been able to use German, French and Spanish far more often than English... (I've got to make an effort to improve my Italian grammar...learn from my weakness fellow pilgrims!)

After a worthy visit to Bucharest's old town, I've endured a very long, narrow, and high bridge crossing over the Danube into the touristic Bulgarian city Ruse.  Even in the rain, it too is a worthy visit - so adorable these old city centers are, culturally their own gems.  I can imagine the river cruise ships stopping daily in summer to unload hundreds of tourists for a few hours.  I'm perfectly happy as a winter pilgrim.  I've also been enjoying the many Roman ruins, mostly reflecting the third century efforts under Emperor Trajan.  I've found these near towns and well marked with information signs, but also quite isolated on bluffs with hardly an access road to alert tourists they exist.  Pilgrim land is full of surprises.

I'm having a terrific pilgrim time - still, there can't be a happier pilgrim anywhere.  I plan to return to the Romanian side of the river to continue my walk upstream.  I'll keep an eye out for another chance to update.  Happy day!



Saturday, October 28, 2017

Winter is Approaching - of course it is!

St Martin was a Roman soldier of the mid fourth century.  The son of a Roman soldier, he spent much of his life along the frontier between the civilized world and the barbarian world.  The Danube River marked most of the border. This is a great setup for another epic pilgrimage, isn't it?

The pilgrim route this winter begins at the mouth of the Danube River, where it empties into the Black Sea.  I plan to walk the length of the Danube, staying mostly on the former ‘barbarian’ side, through Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, and Austria to the source in Germany.  I might pop across the bridges a few times into Bulgaria. After reaching the source of the Danube in Germany,  I plan to continue along the German-French border through Luxembourg and back to France visiting important Gallic places and places specifically important to St Martin.  St Martin is one of the few saints shared enthusiastically in the modern Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox cultures. Sexy Roman soldier with the red cape who established several monasteries and then became a beloved bishop. Many of the famed Irish apostles-turned-saints studied at his monastery in Tours.

I'll be looking for cool places to stay, like old monasteries and small villages, maybe a castle or two. Within a fortnight of the November 1st start, I'll be in the area of an Orthodox monastery that houses the tomb of Vlad the Impaler... in all my years pilgriming, I don't think I've ever encountered an impaler before. I'll knock on that door for sure.

I wasn't able to get a visa to extend my time in Schengenland - not enough time, really, although it is do-able - so I'll have plenty of time to linger from Romania to Hungary - Christmas will likely be in Serbia; New Years in Croatia - but once I enter Hungary just after the new year, I'll be on a bit of a race to visit all of the places I'd like to go and get to Tours by Easter... April 1st, no foolin!

I admit to becoming increasingly poor at blogging over time, but I'll plead for understanding. These days, fewer people have computers in their homes, really, they have hand-held devices. It's pretty tedious to update a blog with two thumbs, especially on a keyboard in another language, much less alphabet. On top of that challenge, libraries are increasingly blocking email access from their public-use computers. Forgive me in advance. I'll make attempts when I get to parish or municipal offices, but it's very tempting to yammer with my hosts than to go off and update the blog. Still, I'll try. I'll make efforts to encourage people who take photos with me to send them into the blog as well, so even without a note, you'll see what fun pilgrimland is.

Happy winter!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Into the arms of humanity

Continuing along the spectacular Katy Trail, we occasionally fall in with day trippers and dog walkers and through-going cyclists. Connections are made, comparisons of notes, we see how small the world is. It's uncanny how few degrees of separation there are among us all.

My companion pilgrims have by now experienced for themselves the magic that appears every day in pilgrimland. They trust without expressing apprehension and events that can't be planned happen to our delight. Several churches where we've spent the night have been unarranged, yet have turned out to be delightful encounters.

After crossing the Missouri River, we left cutesy Rocheport, having slept in the historical United Methodist Church, with a list of potential churches that would work for us for the next night, but had no contact information, I went on ahead [oh, this is why the guys walk so much more than I do...I walk 3 or 4 hours a day, the guys walk 6 or 8, same distance, but the fellas take more time].

Using Google Maps as starting point, I strayed from the Katy to find Mt Celestial church that Google depicted as a suitable country church with a hall on the back but no phone number listed. Yeah..., no..., reality is, it's boarded up, danger signs, not at all acceptable for pilgrim hospitality.

Onward to the next closest church that had a phone number but no one ever answered.  I went, found no one, no phone number listed anywhere, time to find a neighbor, anyone with info about the church - could three pilgrims sleep in the hall. l spoke with some weekend workers on a water tower next to the historical cemetery, got a number of a local manager, called him, no idea of who to call about the church - he called back twice. He suggested another church a half mile away. I decided to walk there and to keep asking everyone I met. A jogger, a teenager out for a walk, a man walking his dog...no iinformation... here comes a man out for a walk. I explained, I asked, he knew nothing of that church but offered the church he attends on the other side of town "I can drive you and your friends there and bring you back in the morning". "Maybe, I'll take your number and see how it goes at the church at the next corner."

An hour later, my companions and I were with Jim-the-Methodist going to his church across town. The encounter was somehow predestined. The hospitality was fantastic, the reception in their community on a Sunday night, so open, so welcoming of strangers. They were enjoying youth night - jam session in the basement, a movie, nachos for dinner...20 middle and high schoolers with a handful of parent's:  pilgrims? what's a pilgrim? We three pilgrims sat at different tables telling tales of pilgrimland. An encounter that could not have been scheduled in advance. Angels nudged us together. Everyone benefited from the experience.

I credit my co-pilgrims for their trust. Someone once commented that what I do is like the childhood game - "do you trust me? fall back into my arms and I'll catch you" I do this every day as a pilgrim - fall back into the arms of humanity trusting that humanity will catch me, and they always do. This time, my pilgrim pals released the need to have a plan and locking elbows with me fell back together. Pilgrimland rocks. The Community United Methodist Church was our collective angel last night. Wonderful.