Thursday, December 31, 2009

A lilliputian puppet

Sometimes, ya just gotta laugh...

On my way over a few final mountains before the deep descent into Balaklava, I encountered an uncommon fence barring my way. Anyone familiar with walking in Colorado leaps over 3-strand barbed wire fences all the time; similarly, stile-stepping over stone walls is common in the UK. But my long walks through Ukraine so far have required infrequent barriers like these. This particular fence was something on solid ground I could have easily vaulted over; however, today, there was plenty of mud and evidence of many farm animals recently passing by. Because of the stinky mud, I chose not to remove my backpack and drop it over the fence before climbing over it myself. That was the foreshadowing of a minor disaster. Just as I crossed my first leg over, my hiking poles slipped and crash, bang, I lost my balance, perching myself somehow with the slats of the fence lodged between my back and my backpack, my toes just shy of the mud no matter how much I kicked and wiggled. Hung up like a puppet. I had to laugh out loud at my own predicament.

Before I had a chance to unclasp my hipbelt and drop into the poopy mud, and still laughing at myself, I heard the guffaws of two people behind me. Unable to turn around because of my pack, I wiggled all the more to see my heckling audience, making even more of a fool of myself. Two Tatar adolencents moving a few goats came up splitting their sides laughing. I laughed even harder. Each stepped over the fence with long-legged ease and came to my aid. Taking me by the elbows, the boys lifted me from my perch and delivered me to the drier grass. One of the guys retrieved my poles and washed the mud off in a brook. With the other, I was able to converse - my bad Russian being remarkably better than his bad English. They were from some 'stan' I didn't recognize but have lived here for a few years, I gathered. Nice kids.

It just goes to show that visual comedy, even unintended, transcends age, gender, nationality, culture and language. We all laughed hard at the silliness of my getting hung up on a small fence, there on a hillside above Balaklava, just above the valley where a light brigade charged in some battle long ago.

Monday, December 28, 2009

That was a gun in his pocket...

That was a gun in his pocket - he wasn't just glad to see me =) Actually, all of the police and security types I've run into along the way were just doing their job, asking questions of an obvious stranger. No harm done.

I'm making my way along the coast, staying as close to the sea as I can because the main road is often out of view of the sea and a bit too busy with traffic for my enjoyment. The scenery is pretty spectacular - definitely the nicest I've seen in Ukraine so far. And this will be hard to beat. Though the villages lack any kind of charm, the natural landscape shines through all the more so for it. The rugged hills are full of cypress and juniper, particularly fragrant; the sea crashes onto the steep coast. Fishing villages are absent entirely - no natural harbors, and apparently, no fish. It's a bit odd to see a sea with nary a fishing boat in sight, no screeching gulls, no sea shells on the beaches. I can see why it's called the 'black' sea - the gravelly sand is pitch black.

There's a fringe of strewn boulders and cobbles at the bases of the mountains - some 300+ meters (1,000-ish feet). I was able to walk from Morskoe to Alushta entirely on the edge of the gentle waves, occasionally having to dash and roll between crashes when the beach part disappeared for some little distance. Alushta is a nice town, St. Andrew visited it, too, and there's a 6th-century watchtower, one of the few antiquities available to see. I was really hopeful about continuing my seaside route despite advice from my lovely Russian hosts, Natasha and Sasha, to stay on the highway. After some kilometers on the busy road in a light rain, I plunged down down down to another modern village being built up for the tourist trade. I asked many people if it was possible to walk all the way to Yalta along the sea. For the most part, the answers always involved bus numbers, but some sort of nodded without much interest.

I wended up from the sea and down from the vineyards many times. At one point, I came to a tall, impassable wall around a vineyard... hmmmm... concertina wire, motion sensor cables, closed-circuit TV cameras... hmmmm... I couldn't have imagined such well-protected grapes. What could I do but look right into one of the cameras, smile and wave. I walked alongside the wall from the bluff over the sea about a kilometer inland where I was met by the well-armed security detail. Their uniforms were emblazoned with the Ukrainian symbol - feds, in a sense, guarding the grapes, it seems. Hello, boys. They spoke Ukrainian and Russian, and in the pouring rain, I explained in my best bastardization of both languages that I'm an American pilgrim on the trail of St Andrew passing through on my way to Yalta. 'Wanna see my credenziale? I've got lovely stamps.' The chief among them conveyed my information into his shoulder (really, it wasn't his cuff) and they escorted me further uphill and waved me through another field and out of their domain. Before I left them, I asked if I could continue around their particular 'vineyard' back down to the sea and thence to Yalta on the beach. They were adamant that it could be done, so with a smile and a wave, I left the boys with their guns.

The real answer, I found out with quite a lot of energy expended, is 'nyet'. I walked treacherous cove after cove dashing between waves and clambering over coastal rocks (limestone and some sort of quartz-injected igneous formation)thinking all the time that St Andrew chose wisely when he opted for a mountain route to Hersoness. Around one cove then another and five or six more, I passed, until I met the east side of Bear Mountain unable to continue without getting in up to my neck. The sheerness of the 200-meter mass of black rock meant that scaling it without technical equipment was not an option. So in the even more pouring rain, I climbed nearly straight up a waterfall course, hand over hand - through lusciously fragrant undergrowth - until I got to the top and stumbled on a hiking trail - these things always work out.

On the impromptu ascent, I had the pleasure of grabbing frequently onto the branches of a strange tree that brought to mind Chiluli glass sculptures - barkless trunks of brilliant oranges, yellows, golden, and fiery red colors, at least in the heavy rain. Or maybe I got Chiluli all wrong and his sculptures reflect this species of tree. Anyway, it kept my mind occupied rather than on the evident risk of a single missed footing and the churning sea below. Not much in the way of fauna, but the flora of these Crimean mountains are delightfully unique.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Little Update

I've reached the Black Sea. My planning estimates were rather low - I underestimated the distance to Sudak by nearly 300 km, but I'm less than a week behind schedule and should have no trouble making it to Patras by Easter, which was my target. No worries. Finding accommodation is still the greatest challenge, but I've worked out the keys - the priests and the shop-ladies and haven't been caught out. The food hasn't been to my liking much, well, I haven't asked for any recipes, let's say. The wine is pretty atrocious - they gave the recipe to Vicks and Vicks improved on it for their cough medicine. Sweet, thick, and made from cherries. Yeah, and they call it wine. No where to go but up. I'm about 25% of the way to Patras. They claim a relic of St Andrew in the last town I stayed in. Nearly all people I meet are surprised and impressed that a pilgrim would undertake such a journey. I haven't had any untoward experiences, nothing frightening at all. I've managed in the terrible weather to make about a dozen watercolors so far, but haven't found the means to scan them or have someone photograph them and transfer the files to the net. I'm working on it. I would like to have made more watercolors, but mostly it's been a weather thing; also, the days are pretty short, so I walk from dawn to dusk and don't find many places to sit down and paint. Now the days will be getting longer, and as I walk westward, the sun will set a bit later, too. Pilgrim life is grand.

Three times an angel

During this advent season before western Christmas, I've had three strange and coincidental experiences.

Three weeks ago, a priest of a tiny village found a widowed grandmother to offer me a bed for the night. It was the smallest hovel I've seen. One room, sparsely decorated, with an enclosed stove, an alcove on one side for cooking and another behind for sleeping. The alcoves were separated from the main room with thin curtains. Once the priest left, I tried as much small talk as my Ukrainian vocabulary can manage. She was married in 1943, widowed in 1946, had two sons who have both since died, one grandson who lives in Canada. Sad story, but a jovial lady. Next to the stove, a small cot looked comfortable enough for me, but the woman, Marie, she told me her name, insisted I take her bed on the other side. I tried to decline, but she repeated over and over 'Angel'. I told her my name, the name of the mother of her namesake. That convinced her - I'm an angel come to take her to her husband and sons. Yikes! I'm a pilgrim not an angel. The sounds of her heavy breathing and frequent uses of the chamberbucket during the night at least gave me some assurance that she wouldn't be joining her family before dawn when I'd leave.

The following week, I arrived in a village large enough that I sought to ask someone where I could find the church. The young woman I randomly saw on the street, listened to my story about being a pilgrim and needing to find a place to sleep for the night. She changed her path and took me to the church herself, calling the secretary of the church on her mobile phone as we walked to make arrangements for something to eat as well. She gave me an apple out of her purse and then reached in again for a little money. 'Please light a candle when you arrive at St Andrew's Cathedral in Patras,' she urged. Her sister had recently died in a car accident. I asked her sister's name - Anna. When I told her that was my name, she fell to her knees crying, sobbing into my gloved hands right there in the street. 'You're an angel,' she told me, come to let her know her sister is safely in heaven. Whoa, I'm just a pilgrim.

Last week, during the worst of the blizzard, I finally arrived in a town, unseen in the driven snow, but the smell of coal fires led me in. The tall, elderly woman who was to host me as prearranged by the priest of the last town, was frantic, unsurprisingly, because of the lateness. She stripped me down in front of the stove in the flickering candlelight, expecting me to be drenched through. She has no clue of modern fabrics like Gortex and softshell and was convinced I should be frozen because my clothes are thin, not at all like the thick wools and copious layers of waxed cotton she's familiar with. She reached under my silk camisole and was incredulous that my skin was warm even though I'd been outside all day in the storm. 'You're an angel,' she suddenly smiled. She stood me in a shallow bucket filling it slowly as the water heated on the stove and scrubbed me down (I don't think she knows what freckles are, either, or that they don't come off.) Smiling, repeating, 'an angel, an angel'. Her daughter spoke some French. I asked her what she meant. 'She thinks you're an angel sent from heaven to tell her that she's still needed here at home.' Her husband was dead, as were two of her three children, and the world has changed a lot for her in the recent years. Somehow she connected my improbable arrival, warm and in a snowstorm, with an extended purpose in life.

It's not like these three ladies were telling me 'you're an angel' as if to say 'you're sweet' or 'you're a doll'. They each had an idea in their head and out of the blue, I showed up with some sort of connection to them. Eerie. I'm a pilgrim, not an angel, but if there's something to be gained from the thought of mystical actions usurping my personage for some sort of devine messaging, well, okay. Why not?

Merry (western) Christmas, everyone, and to all a good night.

And a special Christmas greeting to two other winter pilgrims out there - to senior Merideth on her remarkable 6th trek on the Camino de Santiago and rookie Paolo, walking from his home near Rome to his girlfriend at Cambridge along the Via Francigena Ultreia, pilgrims.

The sounds of a pilgrimage

The events of some days put the Raiders of the Lost Arc theme firmly in my head as I gain those last few kilometers. I had quite a succession of these since approaching Crimea. First, there was the edge of the blizzard I outran; then, the two days of fierce ice storms encrusting me thickly with crystal clear mobility-constricting ice. I persisted southward unashamed to accept 25 km of progress from Vladimir, the giant snow plow operator. I controlled the sander lever as we spoke in the German he learned during his long-ago military deployment to Dresden.

Two more windy days of heavy rain leaving me looking like something the cat dragged out from uner the river bank as I arrived in villages of locked, priestless churches. One night, I slept soundly in a school corridor protected by two elderly nightwatchmen, snoring loudly at the other end of the hall, and one night in a former school dormitory that's been condemned but occupied by a few kind squatters who've tapped into a power feed and waterline, though with the amount of macrobiotics floating in the water, I suspect maybe they've rigged a cistern on the roof. Still, I managed my treasured bucket of hot water from an electric tea kettle.

Now let the soundtrack crescendo... a gallbladder attack! Most inopportune. Not as intense as when it happened on the Camino to Santiago last winter, but equally unpleasant, especially with the headwind. At least the rain had stopped. Leaving a thin trail of bile, I prudently diverted my rural trek toward a town of a few hundred inhabitants and a church. Locked and priestless...rats... but those shop-ladies came through for me. They took care, called the emergency services, such as they are, then when the ambulence failed to show up, the ladies found some guy with a car and I was driven back to the town where I started the day to a small hospital outpost. Quite an experience. A few injections, an IV drip, & a nice night's sleep - finish the music now - all is put to rights.

I've picked up my pilgrim trail again - the sun's come out, temperature's rising, the wind's died down. The landscape into the famed southern mountains of Crimea is spectacular: gorgeous hardwood forests, harmonious Christian and Muslim villages, peaceful atmosphere, and, most soothing on the refreshed eye, valleys full of vineyards =) Ahhhh... opening bars of Grieg's Pyre Gynt come to mind. This is nice pilgriming again.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Island Hopping across the Frosty Azov Sea

The weather has been particularly wintry lately - a veritable blizzard one day, followed by a few days of ice storms. I had a tricky time pacing across some islands in the Azov Sea that link Crimea to the mainland by a series of interconnected causeways. Electricity was lost in the region during the heavy snow, but because most villagers use wood-burning stoves for heat and cooking, the effect was pretty minimal. The ice storm brought down a lot of power lines. It's a different kind of nice. I wouldn't mind a few nice days, and I should get them by the time I cross to the southern coast of Crimea. I'm heading for Sudak, where Marco Polo and his father and uncle lived for two years before taking off for China overland. I'm pushing a bit hard to be there by western Christmas Eve. Gotta run now there, time's running out on the internet...

What does a pilgrim need?

During my previous two long winter walks, I thought I knew exactly what a pilgrim needs - a hot shower, a chance to wash a few clothes, maybe a hot meal, and a dry place to sleep.

My paradigm's been shifted this go-round. In the conditions here, it's the hot shower that's been redefined from a 'need' to a 'want'. Most of these village houses and some of the block apartments in the provincial cities, lack the plumbing to accommodate the hot shower.

After a day's 30 km, I still desire to wash, of course, but the manor in which it's accomplished has broadened. Most often, two buckets of well water (generally the color of weak tea) are drawn. One is heated on the wood-fired stove. A third bucket is scrounged for waste water and a wash basin or forth bucket for the actual washing to take place. Surrounded by buckets in front of the warm fire becomes an ideal situation. It works and I'm happy for it.

Occasionally in these village houses, there's a bathroom - specifically a room with a bathtub. Rarely is there also a sink, so everything dealing with water is performed in the tub. Well water is pumped directly into the tub and then buckets heated on the stove are added to balance the temperature. Good enough. I wouldn't have thought to configure a room like that.

On one fortunate occasion, I had the luck to have an English teacher as a happy hostess. Nearly forty years teaching English and I was the first native English speaker she'd ever met. She understood my desire for a shower yet had nothing to offer. Instead, she ran over to the neighbor's. A half hour later, she reappeared, gleefully announcing in the style of Hyacinth Bucket, 'Your bath has been drawn and shall be rrrready in two rrrrrrapid hours.' A wood-burning steam sauna in the backyard - fired up weekly for family bath night. The day was advanced so that I might have the first timeslot. A heavenly, if slightly unsanitary, way to wash.

A pilgrim needs somewhere to wash the day's underclothes and a dry place to sleep, and wants something hot to eat, and some type of washing facility. Nice.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What of a man?

Several of you in the blogosphere have wondered what a man might experience as a pilgrim in Ukraine. I've given this some thought. A young man, say mid teens to mid twenties would likely be lauded as a great hero, wanting to see the world, meet its people, trusting, hard-working, gentle, and dedicated. Everyone feeds me as though I were a growing teenaged boy, I can't imagine the amount of food they'd offer a young man.

A slightly older man might be viewed at first with a little amount of distrust - where's the wife and family, the career, the contribution to society? Ready and plausible answers to this would lift suspicion and everything would be fine. A mature man, say late forties and upward, again getting past the initial suspicions of abandoning a normal life for that of a pilgrim, would also be made to feel welcome quickly.

Starting with the village priest, convincing the crowd of the peaceful intent of a pilgrimage is the key to removing any threat. I'm a woman, and a small one at that, and pose a threat to no one; a man might have to demonstrate this. I think of all the priests' homes I've been hosted in, I'd have equally been hosted if I were a man.

In the villages lacking a priest, naturally I'd go find the village women. A man would likely seek out the men of the village for guidance on finding lodging. In a village large enough for a shop, there's very likely to be an old Lada up on blocks with a group of men poking around to try to get it to run. A pilgrim man could approach these guys easily, I imagine. Even lacking the group of men, the women of the village I think would be responsive to a stranger's needs regardless of gender. The priest or villagers might billet a passing male pilgrim with a family or widower on his own rather than a widow, but I don't think it would be difficult. From my experience, hospitality is genuine and no gender-defined.

Pilgrims ho! Man or woman.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Across the Snowy Steppes...

Winter arrived quite suddenly. My gracious hostess a few nights back - a retired English teacher who'd never met an American before - dramatically entered the room before dawn as I was getting ready for the day's journey and announced: 'The world is covered in white'. Indeed and a cold wind with it. Winter. With the sandy tracks covered with snow, it didn't really matter if I stayed on them or just walked across the vast plowed fields in the direction of the distant village that would be my day's destination. Studying my handy Russian military map, I plotted my desired direction, struck a bearing on the compass, adjusted for declination, scanned the distant horizon for a suitable landmark, silouetted by the slight pinkening of the sunrise behind otherwise dark clouds, and started walking across the nearly frozen steppe. This is the hardy kind of pilgriming I like =)

On this third day of flurrying snow and ever-more frozen land, crossing mostly open country, I've crossed the Dnepro into Zaparozia. I'll leave the river course and head directly south to Crimea. Villagers think I'm daft, of course... walking is hardly considered a sport around here and no one seems even to venture to the next village by foot, much less across the country. No one can offer advice on how to travel through the back-country because they only know the routes the buses take. They've never given consideration to distance - 10 km, 20 km, it's all the same on a bus. Still, there's generally a cup of tea, bowl of soup, bread and kielbasa, or some other fortifying snack offered hospitably to help me along the way. I can sit on an upturned crate in a tiny village shop for a short rest and chat with the ladies, laughing and smiling. A few of the villages where I've ended my day's walk lacked the priest I was hoping for, but the village ladies are quick to offer a comfortable bed without hesitation. Nothing creepy at all about it.

I've observed a stark difference between the haves and the have-nots of the land. The have-nots have no running water in their old cottages, even in provincial cities, heat only by wood-burning stoves, concrete floors covered with newspaper; the haves have big modern houses behind great fences and gates and drive cars as modern as anything seen in America or any western European country. Neither group seems to resent the other. It'll take time to bring things into closer equilibrium. One thing is clear when walking in and out of cities: whoever addresses the sanitation issues of the country improves the quality of life of every citizen. The haves and have-nots together live surrounded by open trash dumps. Twenty years of remediating hazardous, toxic, and radioactive waste gives me insight the environmental damage has on the water supply and ecosystems. It's sad to see yet easily remedied. I hope for the sake of the Ukrainian people, this is addressed soon.

My presence seems to be noted as I pass from one province (oblast) to the next. I've come to find out that various priests whom I've met write something about me in the local papers; at least once I've been mentioned on television: American Pilgrim Among Us. I haven't seen an article yet - by the time I'm mentioned in the paper, I've already passed through that area. I realize that I'm the first American many people have every met or would hope to meet and that for many, I'm the first foreigner.

Many have asked how I'm able to blog... in a town of size, maybe more than 10,000 inhabitants, there's typically a large central post office with telecommunications available. They've got long-distance phone lines and telegrams in addition to a few computers for internet connection. Because the internet uses the Latin alphabet (i.e., 'www'), the computers are set to toggle between Ukrainian, Russian, and American English. Each key on the keyboard has dual stickers for the Cyrillic and QWERTY layout. I'm happy to find it's so easy. I'm not disappointed that I didn't bring my own little computer... wifi is not widespread and mobile coverage is dependent on the competing companies. These post offices work well enough for me.

Happy pilgriming...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Wayward Advice to a Good Time

Isn't it always the way? There's bound to be a Jonathan Edwards in every Puritanical crowd...

Meeting people is a terrific part of a pilgrimage - everyday, new people to talk with, even with my scant command of Ukrainian. The priests were doing a bang-up job passing me from one to the next down the right bank of the river. As soon as I'd pass into the sandy village, some sentry alerted the priest who would invariably be waiting, smiling, with a small gift and a translator of some sort. A veritable feast, humble, but warm and from the heart. Bliss.

But it all began to frizzle apart when I entered Svetlovodsk. Stern Father Vasylie (every third priest in this country seems to have that name)was alerted as I came into this larger town - potholed asphalt roads, few signs, little in the way of obedience to traffic laws. He took me to a large outbuilding of a small church. The choir was practicing some new passage; I was given some borscht and black bread, soon after led to a garret bunkroom. A basin was brought for me to wash, and steaming buckets of water from the wood-burning stove as soon as they heated. While I washed, the stern priest set up a old Panasonic VCR camera in a small room below, lit by a single suspended light bulb.

An English teacher, Olga, was brought in from the next town. She first berated me that my black wool hat was inadequate head covering for a woman in an Orthodox church (contrary to other advice I'd been given). She fixed my headscarf so tightly around my head I'm sure my face was beet red. She explained that the priest would interview me on camera about politics and religion. Yikes. It didn't take long to realize that they weren't speaking Ukrainian. I'm not even sure it was Russian, but the ancient Russian language used in the church service, I think. Father Vasylie of Svetlovodsk grunted a lot as he spoke, glaring at me down his long angular nose. He clearly did not approve of me. The camera was pointed only on me; I sat under the light bulb. It was all so very dramatic and I had no idea why.

Olga told me that I was to look at the camera and repeat each question so that it was clear I understood it. Nothin' doin', do I look like a rookie? "America is the source of all evil"; "the devil has control of America and all of its inhabitants"; blah blah blah... I repeated none of these outlandish statements for the camera. I silently let him listen to himself with no clue what bee was in his bonnet except a hard life under communism that he hasn't let go of. I judged him to be on the far side of 70... how sad his life brought him to this. "It is written" he droned on grunting each sylable, "America will destroy itself in 2012." "The current president will be the last." "America is to be destroyed because of the evil it has caused in the world." Get over it, dude. He hasn't even seen the new Hollywood film.

He similarly bashed Catholicism as being evil and misguided. He urged me to convert to Russian Orthodox, the only true and pure religion, and because I've not done my duty to God by having children, pushed me to take vows and enter a women's monastery... yeah, sure, if it's God's will I assured him, thinking it's far more likely that America will self-destruct in 2012. (What happens to Canada?) When the interview was over, beady little Olga explained that the priest is obligated to try to convert anyone who isn't Russian Orthodox. Obviously, 'celebrate diversity' aren't words in his vocabulary. When St Andrew and the other fellas set out with the gift of tongues to spread the word to the various lands, I can't imagine they intended that everyone must conform to the same way of covering their heads, crossing themselves, lighting candles, kneeling, sitting, etc... Someone's missing the point, perhaps.

Needless to say, he wouldn't tell me the name of the next priest to seek out. He drove me across the Dniepro the next morning, stopped the car and pointed, gesturing 20 km, there'd be a church. Icky guy and poor sausage all at the same time. I was glad to be done with him, but very concerned that in a practical sense, I was now on the wrong bank of the river. The left bank is marshy and low, with broad unfordable tributaries. No good to a walker. The right bank has nice bluffs, villages, easier going... Why was I one left bank all of the sudden?

By mid-afternoon, I found the church after the standard inquisitive search. The candlelady wasn't interested in helping me. There'd be a service beginning in 3 hours and the priest would come then, she told me, not before. I sat down, a bit forelorned. The church was cold. I stared at the candlelady long enough for her to start asking around. Eventually a woman came over to sit with me. I gave her my letter of introduction, which prompted her to call an English-speaking friend to come and straighten things out. That's when the fun began.

"I was called to speak English with a woman who needed help." Irena later told me, "Expecting a proper Englishwoman, imagine my surprise when I arrived to discover an American alpinist! Jolly good." Half-way through the sung service, Irena and Natalia, the kind woman who took the initiative to help me, concluded that the priest would be tied up for another few hours, so it would be better to go home with Natalie to sleep in her spare room, and return to the right bank in the morning. We sat chatting away most of the evening. I raised a glass with Ivan, Natalia's husband, so he could have full bragging rights to drinking a beer with an American in his own livingroom. Cheers to that!

Since ths episode a week ago, I haven't been able to get back into full swing with the village priests... the priests I found when I got back to the right bank were visiting from other parts of the country. One spoke German; we could communicate directly without an Olga in the mix. They made some phone calls and told me the names of villages where they were told priests lived, but no such luck. The village ladies get things taken care of - one village produced a Seventh Day Adventist to take me in, another, a Baptist... they hear 'polomnitza' and find someone related to a church, any church. Ah well. Whatever works. Everyday, I meet people, we talk, we always laugh, and more miles are behind me. I'm at the big bend in the river now, heading south.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hail the Icon Painters

Hail the Icon Painters, and there seem to be plenty of them. At the direction of the local priests, I've lodged with them many times now and have enjoyed every experience. They're always a happy, peaceful group. Mostly, they work in teams of 6 or 7 painters, remarkably young, generally, and take years to paint the interior of a single church. Styles vary... at one place, I was surprised at the number of chickens running about the churchyard until I was shown how they laboriously grind minerals and mix them with eggs to apply as a vibrant paint of incredible durability. Others use ready-made paints from small plastic containers. Some styles the standard religious figures in bold cartoonish ways, others in muted ancient tones. There have been countless churches refurbished since the independence of the nation almost 20 years ago and each gets it walls and dome interior painted as a matter of course. It's beautiful to see complete, but I've immensely enjoyed seeing the work in progress. The icon painters proudly take me up the [non-OSHA-approved] scaffolding and explain the details and inspiration of their subjects. The themes may be repeated from one church to another, but the intensity of the individual artist is expressed when the artist shows it off. This wonderful way of traveling, but foot, slowly through the hospitable land, has given me these grand opportunities to be part of the prosperous regrowth of this country. Way cool.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Glimpse of Village Life

I'm generally following the right bank down the Dniepr River, though it's got pretty swampy edges so I stay a kilometer or two inland from the flowing water. I try to avoid busy roads, instead, sticking to the forest paths - that many people seem to fear - and small roads connecting villages of a hundred inhabitants or so.

Villages that I've seen consist of cottage houses of white-washed brick or block with colorful trim and metal roofs. Each house has a large kitchen garden. Chickens, ducks, and geese abound through out the village. The main road is paved but the others are packed earth, so near to the river, this means sand. Occasional pigs and goats wander around as well. Ornate exterior doors stand isolated from each house and lead down a flight of covered stairs to a root cellar. Water wells with pitched wooden roofs and great metal windlasses also occupy each yard. Outhouse latrines stand behind the houses.

If there's a church in the village, it's a small one. So far, each I've seen has been padlocked, so I haven't seen the interior of any of these village chapels. The onion domes are metal like the rest of the roofs of the clustered houses. Like the grammar schools, if there is one in the village, outhouses are in the corner of the yards.

If there's a shop in the village, it's identified only with a small sign over the door - 'magazine', written in Cyrillic; otherwise, it looks pretty much like any other house. There's a surprising variety for such small shops - some fruits and veggies, lots of bottled drinks, both alcoholic and non... a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi, for example, sells for about 1 USD; a 1/2-liter bottle of beer, about 0.60 USD, also bread, candy, sundries, and buckets of fish, [almost] live, pickled, or salted, salamis, cheese, chicken, but no other meat. I've seen some balance scales with removable weights for measurement and some electronic, but every shop I've stepped into has had an abacus for tallying up the bill. Although the little shops are not cafes or bar, each time I've asked for a cup of tea, the woman who runs the shop makes one for me as I sit and rest on an upturned crate or small plastic chair. I've not seen a man in any shop, either as a customer or worker. The shops are definitively for the villagers, not really for passers-by.

Grown men wear enormous fur hats or small leather ones; women colorful kerchiefs; children knitted caps. Everyone I pass smiles and either offers a 'dobry dehn' greeting or replies likewise if I offer it first. Many elderly people have added something in German, schoolkids in English, reflecting the fact that I'm immediately taken as a foreigner.

Dogs abound throughout the villages to stand guard, but though some bark with an annoying intensity, none has been aggressive toward me. Cats equal dogs in number and come begging for food and a loving pat. I've seen few other animals in the forest - the odd red tufted eared squirrels and plenty of small song birds. Stork nests stand empty - at least one in each village. The storks, I was told, return in spring to have families.

With one week's walk behind me, the greatest concern I had - finding lodging - has been assuaged. Each priest calls the next and tells me which village to walk to. What a relief! A few priests even came out to meet me at the edge of the village - no doubt having some look-outs sentried to give him the word that I'm arriving. No one has heard of a foreign pilgrim before, so I've been the welcomed oddity of each town I've stayed in. Several times, the English teacher has been called in to translate, but a few times only the German teacher was available. No matter, we talk in a very friendly way and I'm treated very cordially. Soup, bread, cheese, all homemade; a cot by the central firebox keeps me warm all night. Very nice.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Oops, Wrong Monastery

Oops, wrong monastery, but what a terrific find =)

The exit from Kyiv was as to be expected - an hour of noisy, stressful convergence of main roads into highways, but they eventually petered out and I got safely into a delightful pine and oak forest, sparsely peopled with mushroom-hunters and their dogs on the cloudy day.

The word of the day could easily be 'smile'. Nearly everyone I encountered smiled kindly at me. So many people were eager to strike up a conversation. I'm an oddity, clearly, owing mostly to the hiking sticks, I think. ...or just the fact that someone, especially a woman, would be backpacking through their chanterelle-filled forest. The preponderence of 'o's in their gibberish indicated to me that it was Russian I wasn't understanding rather than the 'i'y Ukrainian. Whatever, they were smiling at me and offering to help guide me to where I was going. A few even whipped out their mobiles in the midst of our little chat to bring in a ringer who knew some English. Very kind, very smiling people I saw.

The sandiness of the forest floor checked my pace more than I predicted. My legs and gluts got a good workout for nearly four hours. I stopped for refreshment in a village and asked the barkeep for specific directions to the monastery I hoped would put me up for the night. That the monastery I had heard of was a Catholic Oblates of St Mary was way more information than I could muster in Ukrainian. 'De monastir' was all I could comfortably blurt out. He marked up my map and I continued on.

A goatherd rose out of a grassy gulch to talk with me while his suspicious goats ripped at the lush grass. He led me a ways around some scrub brush and pointed to a great white church with green onion domes on a distant hillside. Yikes, I wouldn't make it by dusk. He implored me to take a bus, but I declined. Rather foolishly, I walked on, into total darkness. I asked a few more people in a series of hamlets to make sure I stayed on the right path.

An hour after the sunset, I illuminated a sign on the side of a little road with my flashlight: Monastir - 1.5 km. Ugh, more walking... 15 or 20 minutes more, and my legs shaking with fatigue. But knowing I was close, I was happy with the day's experience. Those minutes later, I went right to a lit window in an outbuilding near the entrance to the monastery and tapped on the glass. Two monks motioned me to the door and gave me a kind welcome. 'O'y, though, not 'i'y... Russian, not Ukrainian... Orthodox, not Catholic... it was all the same to me, but I wasn't sure what the rules are for giving pilgrims a night's accommodation in the absence of that convenient papal decree that western pilgrims have relied on since the Middle Ages.

Scurrying by more monks brought the surprisingly young abbot. He listened to my Ukrainian request for pilgrim lodging, and replied with gentle smiled gestures that the Catholic monastery is two km further. Rather than cry or sit in protest like I half felt like in my exhaustion, I proffered the prized letter of introduction given to me by the Ukrainian Catholic priest in Denver. The abbot smiled even more, handed me back the letter, and indicated that I was welcome. Phew! As it turns out, both the church in Denver and his church at the monastery are named Transfiguration of the Lord. What are the angelic odds of that?

He led me to the church and allowed me to sit (and fumble awkwardly with a headscarf) while listening to their chanted version of Vespers. Afterwards, the dozen or so monks marched to the refectory and I followed. One table for the monks and one for laypeople. Supper was rapidly eaten in smiling silence while one of the monks read incredibly fast. Black bread, pickle soup, kasha, some cabbage salads, and various relishes were all wolfed down by everyone. With the sudden ding of a small bell, everyone stood, genuflected aerobically in quick succession, and supper was over.

Among the lay people were two university students from Kyiv who volunteer there for the solitude and seven icon-painters currently decorating the interior of the church. One of the students speaks some English and everyone was full of questions. They courteously allowed me to shower and change out of the sandy hiking clothes before we would satisfy together all the curiosities of everyone's situation. Before much could happen, the abbot sent word that my presence was requested. The translater made an attempt at fixing my headscarf and was incredulous that I didn't have a skirt to wear - even the women icon painter wore ankle-length canvas skirts. Ah well, off to the abbot.

Soft spoken, he told me of the monastery, gave me a tour of the grounds, guided me through the finished paintings of the Chapel of St John the Baptist, up the bell tower to see the dozen hand-operated tuned bells, and further up the scaffolding to the interior of the cupola where the icon painters were finishing depictions of larger-than-life prophets to the sound of Byzantine chants coming from someone's laptop. It was all incredibly beautiful and tranquil. He floated the idea of my converting from Roman Catholic to Russian Orthodox and I promised that if I ever do, I'd return to have him baptize me personally. At a minimum, besides the obvious need to learn Russian, I'd have to get the headscarf thing down better... fluffy hair doesn't seem to be the right coif to keep it from sliding back all the time.

I was bestowed with gifts from the abbot and several of the monks - a richly embroidered cloth, small icons, a tryptic of St Andrew, a book on the monastery's founding saint, a small crucifix... The abbot had never hosted a pilgrim before. He made sure that several photos were taken of us together (promising to send them to me electronically so I might post them here).

All the lay folks gathered in the women's attic dorm room with a multitude of questions. The poor translater had a hard time of it, having much to translate all at once. One fellow's great-great-grandfather was said to have made a pilgrimage by foot to the Holy Land, but no one else had any idea that pilgrims exist as they do today.

Midnight was long past by the time we got to sleep. They slept on while I got up at dawn to head back to the forest path and make my way to the Catholic monastery I was sort of heading to earlier. I am incredibly grateful to the Russian Orthodox gang for their hospitality. Walking after dark, to the wrong place, was never so rewarding nor so much fun.

My first day of walking revealed to me the friendliness of the smiling Ukrainians.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Got Stamps?

These few days in Kyiv have gone quickly; I begin walking at dawn.

From what I've experienced, I find it a fun and pleasant city, even in the constant gray drizzle. I've seen many of it's sights, but not nearly everything the town has to offer. I notice architectural similarities to other northern European cities - Berlin, Krakow, Prague, Vienna... - and notice some grand city mansions are more polished than others suggesting a transitional period like Prague 8 or 10 years ago. The churches are what make this place unique - bundles of gold onion domes abound and make colorful landmarks for touristic navigation. I like it. There are many interesting places to see and I'm sure the city will only attract more visitors in the years to come. The abundance of art sold from table stands in the street is also unlike any place I've been before... a surprising handicraft I saw in abundance is the nesting dolls of Barak Obama. They're keeping with the times on the streets of Kyiv.

With my couchsurfing buddy, I've discovered authenitic night life... nice little bistros with live music always makes an evening more pleasant. It's amusing that these young Ukrainians sing American songs so beautifully and with such well-placed passion and emotion yet don't actually speak English. Unfortunately, the opera and ballet, the theaters and other performance halls are shut down because of the political nonsense about the flu... you can sit in packed bars and restaurants, but not the ballet... It seems ironic that the crowded subways - impressively deep underground, by the way - and buses are deemed safe for public gatherings yet the possibility of the flu spreading smong opera viewers is somehow too risky. I'll have to return to the city one day in order to see the fancy opera hall.

As to pilgrim business, I wasn't able to get too many stamps for my credenziale yet - just one from the Roman Catholic St Alexander's church and one from the Russian Orthodox Pechers'k Cave Monastery. The difficulty is in finding someone to ask! These churches seem to lack the ever-present churchladies in Catholic churches in Western Europe. They've always been so helpful to me. Maybe it will be easier in the countryside.

I'm eager to start walking. At dawn, I'll strike out for a Roman Catholic monastery of Oblates of St Mary in Obukiv. There's no way for me to contact them ahead of time, so I'm just going on faith that they'll let me stay the night. I'm ready for a little name-dropping (thanks Matt and Sylvia) and go armed with letters of introduction in Ukrainian (thanks Fr Vasyl, Nadja, Pani Olena)... and by tomorrow evening will have an idea how the pilgrim accommodation challenge might work in the east.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Feet on the Ground in Kyiv!

I arrived from Newark through Frankfurt into Kyiv with nary a hitch, nary a query about my one-way ticket with no checked luggage, and nary a mention of the H1N1 flu...just a slight delay due to fog. There's a reassuring sense that the world must be a safer place.

And I'm here. The planning phase of this winter pilgrimage is a thing of the past and I've begun execution. A pair of Jehovah's Witnesses welcomed me moments after I stepped out of the airport taxi and into the square in front of St Sophia's Cathedral. They didn't linger long after I said in Ukrainian 'ya ay polomnitza' except to say that they had never met an American pilgrim before. Alas, they were interested in the Kingdom of God and not about St Andrew's wanderings through first-century Ukraine. To each, his own.

For my days in Kyiv, I've opted to try couchsurfing for accommodation. There are many monasteries and convents I could have pursued for pilgrim lodgings, but my experience cautions me about the reasonable, yet inevitable, curfews and the disruption I might cause coming and going several times a day. Hotels here in the city are pricey and impersonal. Youth hostels I find unsuitable for my needs. The philosophy of couchsurfing has increasing appeal for pilgrim life. Through the website (, I've met Trevor, an Austrailian English teacher with a guest room in his city-center apartment. He's one of nearly 1,000 'couches' listed in Kyiv. Comparing the website and my sketched-out route, I hope to be able to couchsurf maybe once a week or so all the way to Greece.

The philosophy is straight-forward, people who have a spare bed at home offer it to travelers who are passing through. It's like having friends of friends all around the world. References and recommendations are posted on the website. It's fabulous. Trevor knows a bit about the city, has some guide books and maps, some insight about details of where I might find things I need, is a splendid conversationalist, offered me the use of his computer to enter this post, is a ready companion for the symphony for opera tonight, and we have a common language. Couchsurfing is a superior alternative to other pilgrim accommodation options. Anyone out there with a spare bed and an interest in meeting genuine people just passing through, please consider this wonderfully 'green' opportunity to engage with the world body.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Packed and Underway

I'm pretty happy with the final pack weight, 7.2 kg (15.8 pounds). I added a down blanket for this trip and combined several watercolor paper pads into a single book bound in leather to lighten the load compared to the last journey. Here’s the breakdown…

Backpack: 1.8kg (3.92lbs)
Teva sandals: 0.4 (0.8)
Down blanket: 0.6 (1.3)
Towel/bedding: 0.4 (0.9)
Daypack: 0.15 (0.3)
Emergency kit: 0.1 (0.22)
Liquid toiletries: 0.56 (1.23)
Dry toiletries: 0.04 (0.08)
Extra clothing: 1.6 (3.4)
Watercolor paper/supplies: 1.5 (3.2)
Notepads/miscellany: 0.1 (0.22)

Surprising distribution when I weighed it all out… 25% of the weight on my back is the backpack itself, and it’s a pretty uncomplicated 30-l Vaude.

After that, the next heaviest portion is all of the packed clothing. At 21% of the weight, the extra clothes takes up about half the volume. I organize the clothing into small ditty bags to keep them neater and so I can optimize the arrangement inside the pack. The list does not include the weight of the clothes I wear while hiking, which is 0.6 (1.3), nor the weight of my boots, jacket, and hiking sticks, which are all on my person, not on my back.

At 20% of the weight, my art supplies are an unnecessary indulgence most people wouldn’t carry, but I get enjoyment out of it, especially since I don’t carry a camera. Some might find the little nylon daypack is unnecessary as well, but I find it useful when I have those touristy moments roaming around in the evenings or on rest days when I won’t have my full backpack with me.

Everything else aside from the pack itself, clothing, and art supplies combine as the final 9% of the total weight. Not bad. The weight of the liquid toiletries – separated for the flights into a clear plastic bag hand luggage requirement – are pretty much at an average now and will vary along the way as they’re consumable and need to be replenished. Similarly, supplies of dry toiletries will vary a bit, but that weight is small potatoes.

Once the hiking begins, I’ll typically carry some nuts, chocolate, or dried fruit along with me in the pocket of my jacket amounting to negligible weight and perhaps a 0.3-l bottle of water, which might add a consumable 0.3 kg (12 oz). Not much there in terms of weight or volume.

I have a small leather pouch to carry on my hip for easy access to a map and my credenziale, a notepad and a pen, some pocket money. Hanging on my pack are a thermometer, a compass, a LED flashlight, and a durable timepiece. I’ve somehow become separated from the little plastic whistle that was on my shoulder strap on the last pilgrimage, so I’ll have to replace that one of these days soon.

I easily made the first leg of the journey flying from Denver to New Jersey to visit with Mom and Dad and other relatives before I leave the country for the next 5 months or more. Two more days here and I fly to Kyiv.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

St Rocco and H1N1

Since my pilgrim life began, I’ve become a great fan of St Rocco. His tale begins as a throw-away-the-wealth pilgrim of the 14th century. As it happened, during his walk toward Rome, the plague was fast running rampant. He helped plague victims, nursing them and curing them, with the sign of the cross, it’s said. Rumors got out that the plague would vanish from a town upon his arrival. That was a pretty powerful miracle in itself, on top of the plethora of curative miracles that were attributed to him. Alas, poor Rocco contracted the plague himself and was banished from the city walls. Taking refuge in a cave, he was sustained by a dog who regularly brought him bread, thus he’s usually depicted with a wound on his leg and with a dog with a loaf of bread at his feet. He lies in Venice today and is venerated for protection against contagious diseases.

The thing is, H1N1 is not spread by harboring fleas like the plague was. The current widespread occurrence of this new flu has nothing to do with a wandering pilgrim. Ukraine is gearing up for an election. Political mudslinging is as can be expected and those with something at stake are using whatever is available and emotional to push forward their own agendas, including tossing about vague ideas about ‘travel restrictions’ in and around Ukraine, just when I’m set to arrive. Bad luck for me… all sorts of people are sending me headlines and cautions that the borders are closing and quarantines are falling all around. It’s nonsense. The World Health Organization hasn’t indicated that Ukraine is any different from the rest of the world, although there have been high incidents of the H1N1 virus in the west of the country recently. I’m going to the east. Unless they close the airport – which I couldn’t imagine would be considered prudent in anyone’s view – I’m heading the Kyiv very soon to walk down the river, around Crimea, and along the shore of the Black Sea.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

St Andrew and a Can of Yams

I've been searching for the perfect pilgrim bling for this upcoming continental walk. A scallop shell is such an easy one for St James - the French order St Jacques right off the menu and get scallops. Crossed keys are a no brainer for St Peter, they're plastered all over Rome and anything to do with the Pope. Jerusalem is the palm leaf, far less violent then the recognizable crucifix, but well established as the appropriate symbol for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But my boy Andy... not so clear.

A bit of wiki research by a friend yielded some medieval blazons, crudely fashioned out of some soft metal to be sewn to a cape or hat. The thing was, the pilgrims who sported them were headed toward St Andrew's on the firth of Fife, Scotland. Maybe it was that not many Europilgrims headed to Patras? Nonetheless, asking around clergy, scholars, and any Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Turk, or Greek I've come across in the last few months got me no where - no one can provide any insight to a modern, known, universal symbol for timeless Andy.

Scots were somehow descended from the ancient Scythians, who lived in the 'Terra Incognita', and they did adopt Andy as their patron, so why not borrow the symbol of pilgrims from the Middle Ages? It's the best I've got.

Another friend offered up a can of yams. I removed the top and bottom lids and sautéed the yams for dinner. From one of the metal discs, I tinkered a prototype, making measurements and choosing the right tools from the basement collection. Once I got the kinks ironed out, I made my little blazon out of the other lid... tin snips, a hammer and awl, and a nail file, some felt, cement, and a ribbon off a Christmas reindeer in the basement. I've got a pilgrim symbol.

I found sporting a symbol on my other journeys absolutely useful, except in Spain where there are so many pilgrims, any symbol is redundant. From a greater distance, the message was clear. I was surprised how many people, old and young, recognize the significance of the symbol. The sight of it produced many a cup of coffee and glass of wine. The manifested symbol started many conversations. I like having the symbol hung around my neck to break any silence and demonstrate my mission.

From a can of yams, I have my pilgrim symbol. One step closer.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Countdown Begins!

That first long climb of a rollercoaster brings together stomach-churning excitement coupled with the disarming reality that there’s no turning back. That's the sensation I had moments ago when I hit ‘send’ and confirmed the booking of my flight to Kyiv, Ukraine. Gulp! Yeah! (Gulp!) It’s far more real now than when I was just googling around for fares. I’m now committed to arrive in Kyiv on November 12th and plan on beginning the walk on November 16th. The countdown has officially begun.

Planning is high up there on the excitement scale of any trip, but the existence of a hard date makes it something of a race. There’s still a lot to be done: continue with the languages, understand as much as I can about the countries and regions I’ll be going through, obtain whatever letters of introduction I can, get my hiking gear in order, figure out an appropriate route… I should probably reread the Iliad and the Odyssey, maybe Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, while I’m at it… I could fill a month or a year with all of this preparatory stuff; it’s time to get on with it. The snow’s already flying here in Denver.

The pilgrimage will allow me to explore the route of St. Andrew, a peaceful guy of the first century. The legend behind his travels is as probable as the legends behind St. James, of Santiago de Compostela fame. Both were pretty young fellows, likely in their 20s, and illiterate fishermen. Andrew has the distinction of being the ‘first called’ to the apostleship, but I haven’t read anything about why he chose to go to the area north of the Black Sea, labeled as ‘Terra Incognita’ on the Roman maps of the day. Whatever his reason, it must have taken some combination of great faith and chutzpah.

I can imagine Andrew’s apprehension, though I don’t really share it. These days American’s don’t even need special visas to stay 90 days or less (I’m planning about 75) in Ukraine. Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece are all in the travel-friendly EU now, and I’ll be able to get a visa for Turkey at the border. The Terra’s pretty well Cognita-ed these days. I should arrive in Patras right around Easter. I’ll look forward to two Christmases this year – I’ll be walking through in an area that uses both the Eastern and Western calendars for religious events. In 2010, however, Easter is coincident on both calendars. Easier on the waistline (and gallbladder?).

The network of Roman roads in the first century would have given Andrew a path to walk on between the Danube delta and Patras (Greece) by way of Byzantium (Istanbul). It will be interesting to see if there are any remnants of these roads left, as I found between Germany and Santiago and Canterbury and Rome. Parts north of the Danube were roamed by nomadic tribes during Andrew’s day, although it seems there were permanent settlements. Among the northern-most of these was Trypillia. The legend seems to indicate that Andrew went up the Dnepr River, which empties into the Black Sea just west of Crimea, about 800 miles to Trypillia and talked with the locals about recent events down in Jerusalem. During one of his talks, he’s said to have stuck his staff into the ground proclaiming that ‘God will grace the land’. An eponymous church was later built on the site, now in the center of Kyiv (Kiev). So this will be my starting point – St Andrew’s Church.

The absence of Romans, and thus their lovely roads, only suggests that the Roman-style civilization prevalent in Western Europe will not have left a mark in the first half of my journey. In fact, the total 2,000-mile journey I’m undertaking can be divided by this distinction – the first half historically independent of the former Greek/Roman/Byzantine civilizations and the second half the heart of it. From the perspective of history, it will be very interesting to see how this influences the modern world.

Nonetheless, the differences between the varied regions will be more distinct than what I experienced in Western Europe. The languages, food, customs – it’ll be great! Я є паломника! (= I am a pilgrim.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Preparing for a Pilgrimage

In addition to learning a bit of the main languages I’ll encounter, I’ve got to be prepared with some points of history. During my eight ‘euro-years’, I’ve compiled a cheat sheet to European history, divided into categories of Arts, Science, Religion, Rulers, and Significant Events from the 5th century BCE until the present time – clearly I’m from the generation of Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit! It might sound like I’m well into the red zone of the geek meter, but it’s the best way for me to keep it all straight when I’m on the go. How tragic it would be to see it all and not know what it means! My engineering education was sparse in the memorizations necessary to recall instantly such things like when the Cathars were doing their thing in the south of France, what was happening over in northern Italy? Yet, when you’re walking through it all, it suddenly makes sense.

What’s behind all the sudden burst of construction in the 12th century in northern Italy? Ah, right, that’s not long after the First Crusade modified the politics a bit and moved the struggle between the East and West away from Europe. The King of Genoa paired off monks and priests with a compass direction and number of days walk – go forth and build a parish church – then directed his subjects to get out of the overcrowded city and establish communities around the little churches in the now-safe countryside. And today, walk in the region beyond the Genoa city gates and you’ll see tons of little 12th century churches in villages or into the forests and stumble upon the ruins of an isolated 12th century church where, for whatever series of reasons, the village either never grew or later dissolved away.

Knowing a little factoid like that makes finding such things more meaningful. I wouldn’t be particularly content to wander by an isolated church and not wonder what its story is. Information signs aren’t always where you want them. So my little cheat sheet, printed on glossy postcard-sized photo paper gives my experiences more comprehensive depth. In a quick glance, I see that St Francis was a contemporary of Attila the Hun, Berlin was founded 50 years after Moscow, which itself was just after paper being made in Europe for the first time, which followed the development of watermills, which was when troubadours started roaming in tights around telling their poetic tales…

During these closing days of summer, I’m preparing for the next pilgrimage, not by power-walking to get in shape, but by hitting the books, googling around, learning the foundations of the languages I’ll need (Ukrainian, Turkish, Greek [I’ll just have to linguistically fake my way through Romanian and Bulgarian as best I can with English, German, French, and Italian…], fattening my cultural timeline cheat sheet with enough history about the areas where I’ll be walking so I can make sense of what I’ll see on the journey, and finally, boning up on the various cultures ahead of time for some context of what to expect and how to behave so as not to piss anyone off unintentionally.

So far, I’ve been delighted to find the Ukrainian-American community in Denver to be hugely supportive and welcoming. I’m excited every day when I can learn a little bit more about the rich history and proud and vibrant modern culture. I’m looking forward to arriving in Kyiv before the snow piles too deeply to pass comfortably. I’ve taken my notes from ‘Teach Yourself Ukrainian’ and just checked ‘Beginner’s Greek’ from the Denver Public Library. Turkish will follow. The planning part is fabulous, too. Another language gaff with my simple name: in the Ukrainian alphabet, I'm 'AHA'.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Happy Ukrainian Independence Day =)

I’ve never celebrated this holiday before, but because I have a very strong desire to make a pilgrimage this winter starting in Kyiv – as I just learned from my new Ukrainian friends, not Kiev, which is the politically incorrect Russian transliteration of the capital city – I thought it well to start boning up on some language and cultural fundamentals.

The Ukrainian Byzantine Rite Catholic Church here in Denver had a wonderful celebration yesterday and I was invited by a Ukrainian-American I met. From the warm and generous reception, I’m more motivated than ever to get myself to Eastern Europe this winter… by November, I’ve been advised by Kyivians, after the worse of the autumn muds yet before the deepest of snow. The kind priest offered to write a letter of introduction for me in Ukrainian as an aid in finding accommodation from priests and monasteries I might encounter. Wow, how cool is that?

Reviewing the pages of ‘Teach Yourself Ukrainian’, I’ve concluded that this will be a little more challenging for me than learning Italian on the pilgrim trail. I’ve been on the Introduction pages for a week – and that’s just the alphabet. The 33 symbols contain enough oddities to make it seem illogical – the boxy symbol that represents the ‘D’ sound, for example, has a printed version considerably different from the handwritten version. Handwritten, the capital letter looks suspiciously like a cursive capital D, which I content with, but the lower case is decidedly like a g. Tricky. But not insurmountable. How hard can it be? I’ve got months to learn enough Ukrainian, Turkish, and Greek – each with its own alphabet – to get me by. (I figure I’ll fake my way through the language requirements of Romanian and Bulgarian… if I stick to the touristic coastline of the Black Sea, I hope that my German, French, and English will be enough.)

I have enough experience now to have a clear idea of the vocabulary I truly need to find a bed, some food, and directions to the next town, plus be able to explain who I am, where I’m going, and why. I’ve found that learning my half of these conversations and repeating them over and over again to anyone who might listen is a good way to progress, indulging on the pain threshold of the conversation partner. By the six or eight weeks it will take to pass through Ukraine, I should have some of that mastered to a satisfactory level. Pride, dignity, eloquence must be easily released to get through this. In the car on the way to the Ukrainian Independence Day picnic, I repeated countless times aloud ‘men-e-zvar-ta Anna’ as a way to introduce myself. No one laughed at me. My first Ukrainian sentence committed to memory, tried and tested – happy day!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Happy St Roch Day (or St Rocco, St Rock, St Roco, etc…)

August 16th is the day of celebration for this sainted pilgrim around southern Europe and anywhere Italians migrated. A parade in his honor even made the Godfather movies. In all my wanderings on both the routes to Santiago and to Rome, I kept running into statues, grottos, and paintings dedicated to him. I haven’t studied any real statistics, but I can guess that there are more chapels and churches dedicated to him than to any other Saint. His attributes are unmistakable: a medieval pilgrim with the standard floppy hat adorned with scallop shells, heavy cloak, walking staff with a water gourd attached, but with two distinctions – he’s lifting his cloak to show a wound on his muscular pilgrim’s thigh and there’s a dog at his feet holding a loaf of bread in his mouth.

His story’s a good one – these sorts of knowledge bites are sometimes written on plaques next to the churches or grottos and on guides to stain glass windows or paintings in cathedrals, or even on the paper placemats or menus in a restaurant called ‘St Roch’s Inn’ or something of the ilk.

Born in Montpellier, the legends agree, but when is a bit conflicting, with dates swinging over a few centuries from the 1200s to 1400s. All seem to agree that he, like St Francis, denounced his family’s wealth, dispersed everything he had to the poor, and went on pilgrimage, apparently to Santiago (he’s got the shell to prove it) as well as to Rome. In Acquapendente, on the via francigena, a plague had struck. It may have been the Black Death of 1348, but whatever, the date’s not really so important. He stopped his pilgrimage and aided the sick.

Next he showed up in Piacenza, a city also on the via francigena in northern Italy. He continued his work nursing the plague victims when he himself got the dreaded disease. The symptoms apparently include getting open wounds. He went off to the forest to recover or die on his own (peculiar thing to do) and every day a dog showed up to give him a loaf of bread. He survived, made his way back to Montpellier, got thrown in pokey through a case of mistaken identity, where he died right after dramatically revealing himself as the nephew of the governor responsible for the false imprisonment (okay, sure).

The thing is, regardless of the specifics of this man’s life, he was a real guy who lived centuries ago and he became a pilgrim along the same routes thousands of people make every year to this day. He generously interrupted his pilgrimage to help people in need. His kindness to the plague victims was so noteworthy that people years after his death decided that history should never forget his efforts or his character. Miracles were attributed to him during his lifetime and afterward. Sounds like he was the Mother Teresa of his day.

Were it not for the heinous devastation of the plague, would he have been just another pilgrim on the trail? Timing is everything, maybe, but afterward, during the subsequent not-quite-so-great European Plagues of 1575 and 1630, which especially hit hard in Italy, he was venerated by the individuals and towns for survival. Many of the statues, grottos, paintings, chapels evident today were created during and after these significant events. This was a pilgrim who made the big time.

The things you learn on a pilgrimage…

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Let’s tell the world about these European pilgrimages

My commitment to pilgriming includes sharing the experience with others, especially Americans… to spread the word that this particular way of exploring the world. This is a message that warrants a bit of evangelizing.

I’ll be giving presentations about my two consecutive solo winter treks across Europe – from Canterbury to Rome along the 1,300-mile via francigena, and the 1,500-mile walk from Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), Germany to Santiago de Compostella, Spain.

At the moment, I have the following talks scheduled:

August 27, 2009
7 pm
REI Boulder
1789 28th St
Boulder, CO 80301-1003
(303) 583-9970

September 8, 2009
7 pm
2525 Arapahoe
Boulder, CO 80302
phone: 303-786-8406
toll free: 866-786-8406

September 15, 2009
7 pm
REI Denver Flagship Store
1416 Platte St
Denver, CO 80202
(303) 756-3100

I expect these to be a lot of fun, talking about my experiences with the idea that anyone can do the same sort of thing, any time of year.

Go forth, see the world at 3 miles per hour, relax, get fit, eat well, enjoy…

Always interested in talking about this subject, I’ll post other dates as I get them scheduled.

Everyone is welcome =)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Travel Costs through Europe

Travel Costs through Europe

I just spent a month traveling around the south of Europe, with a small backpack and on trains and buses. I had a lot of places to visit and not enough time to walk, plus, the temperatures were generally just above or below 38C/100F – definitely not my kind of weather to be out walking in.

I traveled over 4,600 km (2,900 miles) in Spain, France, and Italy. I kept track of the costs for future planning purposes with the question in mind: is there really great value in Eurail passes? The short answer seems to be No.

Overall, I paid on average 0.11 € per kilometer (= $0.25 per mile) traveling mostly by 2nd class train, once by 1st class, because the 2nd class seats were all taken, once by sleeper-train in a 6-person cabin, and often by bus. Trains get fully booked in the summer.

An Adult Eurail Pass for a month of travel costs $1,199 (=850€). For the distances I traveled in the month, I would have been paying 0.18€ per kilometer (= $0.41 per mile) if I had purchased a Eurail Pass. [Were I a youth, which is under 25 by their definition, I’d have paid $799 (=567€) for the pass working out to 0.12€ per kilometer (=$0.27 per mile), about the same as without a pass, but there are often discounts at the station for youths anyway.]

With a Eurail Pass, one tends to stick to the trains to travel long distances. Wonderfully, buses go places trains don’t. The train-traveling crowds are thick and heavily burdened with enormous backpacks or wheelie luggage. They go places where the trains go. These crowds are not met on buses, which, for long distances, are quite modern and comfortable – restrooms far less skanky than on trains – and run more frequently than trains. My bus travels cost a mere 0.07 € per kilometer ($0.16 per mile).

Midway between bustling historic Genoa and the crowded but gorgeous Cinque Terre lies Portofino, a village on a rocky peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean. Nearly as gorgeous as the Cinque Terre, it completely lacks the crowds because it has no train line.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of convenience versus cost. For example, from Madrid to León, Spain, I stepped onto a bus within minutes of arriving at the central bus station, paying 20€ for a 5-hour ride. The alternative would have been paying 43€ for an hour and a half ride by train, after waiting for 3 hours. I’d have gotten to León at about the same time either way, by bus, I had a quiet relaxing ride where I could ask the bus driver some questions and have another 20€ in my pocket; by train, if there were a ticket still available – Spain is notoriously short on trains – I’d have been surrounded by other people’s luggage in the aisles and the ride would have been noisy from both the crowds and the lurching of the train itself. Whatever floats your boat.

Costs vary by country, clearly. In Spain, I paid an average of 0.11 € per kilometer (=26¢/mi); in France it worked out to 0.16€ per kilometer (=36¢/mi); and in Italy, a mere 0.07€ per kilometer (=16¢/mi). Though the comfort of trains varies by country, their lack of punctuality was equal. Clearly, I wasn’t traveling in Germany where the punctuality, comfort, and network are hard to beat.

Interesting comparison: Arriving back in the US, I visited for a few days in San Francisco before heading back to Denver. Preferring the train to the plane, and having a few days to spare, I chose to take the Amtrak so I could experience the mountains from the unique perspective of the train. With an advanced-purchase ticket, the rate calculated out to $0.07 per mile (=0.03€ per kilometer), traveling a distance of about 1,260 miles (=2,000 km). Big difference, but proportional to the price of fuel, it seems.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Next train leaving the station…

Wow, have I stumbled onto some place great! I love this type of travel: the next train out of the station. Literally.

I arrived in Madrid Chamartin station at 8:30 am, by night train from the north. It’s Monday – the Prado is closed (I always seem to end up in Madrid on a Monday) – and my flight leaves in the morning. What to do with 24 hours… quiet, cool, interesting, stress-free, unique. These are the desired criteria posed to the tourist information desk at the train station. They were of no help. Typical. If you ask a question outside of their standard repertoire, ya get nada. With temperature set to reach, yet again, 100F, hanging around a concrete city I’ve seen many times (save the Prado) wasn’t appealing. After a night train – a shower and some rest are high on the list, and were I to stay in the city, I’d seek out a hammam center for the baths and a massage.

I looked at the board: next train 09.14 Alcalá de Henares. I checked the timetable – 34 minutes away (no idea which direction). With a mere 2.55€ ticket and grabbing a general area map, I boarded. What’s the worst that could happen? A wasted day in a dull place, industrial, maybe, a bedroom community for Madrid commuters? Not so bad.

We have a winner! The birthplace of Cervantes (1547) – his very house! (now a museum, closed Mondays)… on the Calle Mayor, only the longest arcaded street in all of Spain – right next door – actually sharing a wall – with the stuccoed massive brick Hospital of Antezana, which has operated continuously in the Palace of Don Antezana since 1483, and where Cervantes’ father was a blood-letting surgeon (he had to be something, but who would have thought a blood-letter?) …and, as if it’s place in history isn’t firmly enough set, the very building where Ignatio de Loyola (before he founded the Jesuits and became a Saint) lived while he attended Alcalá University, at the high end of the street. Well, who knew?

I sit with a bottle of the local Vino Tinto that comes with the delicious Menu del Diá of gazpacho, salmon, salad, and watermelon for a scant 8€ (try getting such a bargain in Madrid!) under the massive arcade with zinc downspouts formed into serpents on every of the many columns.

It gets better. Some Saints have sisters, and St Ignatio’s sister was a nun in an exquisite convent around the corner. The architecture of everything – the Cathedral, the university, the various convents and monasteries, the patricians’ palaces – show influenced of Mudehar, neo-Gothic, Italianate, and Spanish gothic styles. Not to be dismissed as insignificant, Roman-era college in a typical 1st-century Roman villa… pretty wow, even in my well-traveled experiences… I’ve seen many a Roman villa, but I don’t recall any Roman colleges…

The Cathedral’s story is interesting – twinned with one in Lovain, Belgium, which, titled ‘Magistral’, requires all canons (kind of like an abbot, but devoted to a Cathedral instead of a monastery) to have doctoral degrees in theology from the university here. The Cathedral was built over the tomb of two schoolboy Saints martyred here in 305, Justo and Pasto.

It wasn’t hard to find a room – everything from rooms-to-let in a boarding house to a 4-star hotel – I found something quite suitable (very nice in comparison to anywhere in France where I stayed) for 24€, including a pool, breakfast, and wifi.

What a great find, this Alcalá. If I were a tourist information worker in Madrid and someone asked me how to expend 24 hours beneficially, I’d tell them to get out of the city and go to Alcalá de Henares – not a disappointment. Sadly, being Monday, most of the museums are closed, including Cervantes’ house decorated as it would have been in his day. (I love the bronze statues of the dishevelled Don Quixote and the jovial Poncho Villa on the park bench in front of the house.)

Oh, and also, there is the synagogue – just off the Calle Mayor. We all know well that 'in fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,' but it was also the year that Jews were expelled from Spain, not to return for many centuries. Predating the expulsion, back many centuries when the Moors ruled the area in the 12th century, the Jewish population was strong, and the Jewish quarter of that era survives today. Pretty impressive little thing to come upon – rare in Spain.

To tie my travels together, there’s a cool-looking sister convent of Saint Catherine of Siena here – and I was just in Siena a few days ago. Go figure.

Playing the next-train-out-of-the-station game more often pays off well than poorly in my experience. Parks, palaces, museums, history, countless sidewalk cafés on narrow pedestrian street and fountain-cooled plazas… serenity, Roman, medieval, modern combined… For me, a calm, cool day on the arcaded Calle Mayor is a lovely alternative to a hot day in Madrid when the Prado is closed. Hopped the next train out of the station into a UNESCO town, of all places, and the tourist information folks had no inkling. Maybe this is what is meant by ‘Bon Courage’ I hear in France so often to people who travel – the courage to go to someplace unknown and see what it’s all about. Sometimes kind of dull, sometimes, like this place, pretty fantastic.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monteriggioni's History & Magic

Monteriggioni is a pretty special place, by all accounts. Only a lovely 12-kilometer walk north of Siena, on a well-marked path through the forest, punctuated by information signs along the way indicating historic events and monuments of yore, it’s a gem that’s endured 800 centuries. Like a piece of coal that’s undergone extreme heat and pressure to become a diamond, Monteriggioni has extracted itself from its militant beginning to something to be treasured as priceless today.

The via francigena began as a military road - and what a great story this is… - Julius Caesar: “Build me a road to the North Sea,” he told his road engineers when he became leader of Europe, “I’m going for that rock on the opposite shore.” Those orders were bellowed in 58 BC and in 55 BC he succeeded in his goal. That road, because they all led to Rome in his day, was dubbed the via francigena, the road originating in the land of the Franks.

Skipping ahead, Sigeric, a 10th-century Saxon monk, walked the same route in the year 990 on his way to and from Rome to pick up his Archbishop stuff to take up his new post in Canterbury Cathedral. It was still the primary north-south conduit through Europe. The blessed little guy left a travel journal behind, naming all of the places where he stayed. Today, the via francigena is not so much a paved path as a list of all of his way places, identifying the route originated by Jules. How colourful a story is this?! There are still many many miles of the original Roman road to walk on… the actual paving stones that Jules and his troops marched along… huh. It’s the route that Hannibal took on his way to destroy Rome and that, much later, Napoleon took to conquer Italy. Lot’s of action along this path… did Jules have any idea of what he created? Go figure.

Skipping ahead a couple of more centuries, business and trade associations were getting pretty influential and caused a lot of significant cultural evolutions - not to mention a sideline of art and architecture as the rich guys felt competitively compelled to outdo their rivals - and so the big towns of Tuscany became enormous merchant centers based along the via francigena, still the main trade route between northern and southern Europe. The exhibition of their rivalries can only be described as a guy thing, but Monteriggioni resulted from a rivalry between wealthy Sienese merchant/brigands and wealthy Florentine merchant/brigands.

Siena fortified the hamlet on the hill known as the ‘round mountain’ with an incredible encircling wall with 13 towers, with one gate opening to the south, toward Siena, and the other, more difficult approach, to the north, toward Florence. The purpose of this militant action was ostensibly to protect the merchants travelling with their wares along the via francigena, but there’s an argument put forth by the local monks of nearby Abbadia Isola that the hamlet wasn’t rightfully theirs to begin with, so in effect, they were no more than invaders and occupiers. Whatever. It’s history now.

The fortified castle hamlet wasn’t a stopover of Sigeric the Archbishop/monk - as it didn’t yet exist, and Sigeric walked right by the conical hill of the countryside and stayed with the boys at the Abbadia (abbey) not ever seeing the unique towered architecture that was to come. It was a thriving place when Dante did his thing in Florence a few centuries afterwards. He wrote about it in the Inferno, deservedly so, being built for defensive purposes and with a sullied history and all.

When I arrived a few weeks ago, the village was in the midst of its annual Medieval Festival, in which the defining battle between Siena and Florence is re-enacted, complete with jousting, troubadours, and pigs on the spit. Lots of fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. Every year, a few dozen actors play various Medieval roles for days (and take over the pilgrim house, I can add without much glee). I spoke with the guys portraying pilgrims of the day, sporting scallop shells instead of crossed keys and living out a stereotype rather than the real thing. They didn’t even know real pilgrims still exist! Actors!

In the late afternoon, I sit in the crypt of the diminutive church of Santa Maria Assunta, built at the time the walls of the town were raised - 1213, and await pilgrims. There’s a small exhibit about the via francigena for tourists to enjoy while simultaneously benefiting from the coolest place in the village - I mean cool as in temperature… the thick-walled crypt is on the east side of the church, below the altar, and because the town is the crown of a hill, every entry floor from the square, has a floor below it that walks out to the gardens interior to the wall. Such is the crypt, with north- and east-facing windows, well lit, but well protected from the sun and the heat of the summer day - hot hot hot, too, in July (I don’t know how any pilgrim can survive in this heat!) But the crypt is cool and bright, isn’t at all creepy, and has an enjoyable little exhibit along with some religious and secular hand-crafted items for sale to raise funds for missionaries in the Philippines and Brazil.

In English, French, and German, and still oh-so-pathetic Italian, I’m here to share with tourists the rich history of the via francigena and what it is to be a modern pilgrim. When pilgrims arrive, I greet them, help in any way I can, and later prepare them a simple Tuscan dinner from the local gardens, supplemented by the local Co-op. This hamlet, presently with 24 inhabitants, has greeted pilgrims since its origins, and the current priest, Don Doriano, has a colossal and genuine passion for the tradition to continue.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A word about language…

Isn’t it funny how we speak our own language so well, we don’t need to speak it correctly to be understood?

If someone asks us a yes-or-no question, how often do we actually begin our answers with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’? I’m smacking my head against the wall often enough these days, but little by little, my Italian is improving in my role as Ospitaliera in magical Monteriggioni. A pilgrim or two comes through each night, generally, though equally from France, Germany and Italy so far. Consequently, the language varies within those in my skill sets. Italian still lags, dramatically, but I can get through dinner conversation adequately.

I’ve concluded though, if we all just put enough thought into an answer to begin our diatribes with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the world of tourists and foreigners would run much more smoothly.

I’ve been right there with the next guy:
‘Is this the train to Siena?’ [how easy it is to respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’]

‘Sure thing, you bet’ [not words on the beginners vocabulary list, now, is it?]

From one English speaker to another, this exchange is absolutely clear, but by simply adding ‘yes’ to the beginning of the sentence, to the beginner English speaker, it does no harm and yet is so much more widely understood [Yes, followed by unintelligible babble the asker hopes is meaningless.] ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are pretty high on the list of words understood in another language.

Of course, my difficulty is not in expressing English clearly. This same thing happens in Italian. French, German, and Spanish from my experience, too.

Spread the word and spread some happiness: when dealing with someone who clearly doesn’t know the language well, please, answer a yes-or-no question with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Ja/Nein, Oui/Non, Si/No, Da/Nyet, etc…

(No need to shout, either, it really doesn’t help.)
(And if your experience tells you that most of the world speaks English, you’ve limited yourself to touristic places. Most of the world does not speak English. And that’s how it should be.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Via Francigena or the Camino to Santiago?

I’m in a position again to put forth objective information to those deciding between the two long-established and historical pilgrim trails across Europe. Last week, making my way to the pilgrim house on the Via Francigena in Tuscany, I stopped one night at a pilgrim house on the Camino in Ponferrada, Spain, thus, I can contribute decision-making knowledge first hand from both winter and summer experiences to those planning their pilgrimages.

- The Camino is incredibly crowded; the Via Francigena, is not. In summer hundreds upon hundreds of pilgrims daily versus maybe two (individual) pilgrims staying in any given pilgrim house (I saw it in Spain and am currently experiencing it in Italy). In winter, it’s more like 10 a day in Spain versus 1 a month in Italy.

- The villages along the Camino are heavily subsidized to receive and provide for pilgrims, which they do in a uniform, mechanical way; the villages along the Via Francigena make varying efforts to welcome pilgrims - if the town or village happens to be very touristic (e.g.., Siena), pilgrims blend right in with the other foreigners; if it’s not touristic, pilgrims are treated with rather high regard, acknowledged for their historic effort, especially if they’ve traveled a great distance.

- Companionship along the Camino is certainly and uniquely with other pilgrims; along the Via Francigena, companionship is with the people of the communities along the trail. On the Via Francigena, pilgrims are still an uncommon sight, thus intriguing. Of course, intimacies can strike up along the Camino among pilgrims in ways that would be difficult along the Via Francigena because of the fewer number.

- From my observation, large groups walk along the Camino, with a minority of solo walkers; on the Via Francigena, solo walkers predominate, and groups that come through are generally no more than two to five people.

- Both northern Spain and Italy are equally hot in summer 30-35 degrees these days (86 - 95F). Because of this, on both trails, there are those who want to get a predawn start to beat the heat. Dawn is around 5:00 in Italy and 6:00 in Spain at this time of year. Others, especially those walking short daily distances, want to sleep in until 7 or 8. Thus, in the crowded houses of Spain, the noisy pilgrims getting an early start wake everyone - it’s no fault of an individual, but in a house that holds 200, even 5% of them getting up early still amounts to a lot of collective noise from movement and repacking, lights going on, doors slamming, water running. In Italy, in a house with 3 pilgrims, if only one wants an early start, he can be out pretty stealthy without disturbing the others. There’s more of an interpersonal courtesy among fewer people than among a crowd; it’s human nature.

The pilgrims I’m encountering here in Italy as a pilgrim greeter have a unanimous voice that they have no interest in the Camino because of the crowds. The Via Francigena is unquestionably the better alternative for pilgrims seeking solitude and contemplation. It’s not just the pilgrim houses in Spain that absorb the throngs of pilgrims - the restaurants, cafés and shops, too, and the trail itself. I find it unsettling when long-legged Germans come up from behind sharply pinging high-pitched little bells they wear on their fingers to signify they’re getting ready to pass on the left. (Not a slam against the Germans, but they’re the only one’s I’ve seen do this, and many of them do it, in Germany, as well. Germans are second, behind Spaniards, in the nationality of those walking the Camino; they’re similarly outnumbered only by Italians in walking on the Via Francigena.) Parts of the trail are a veritable parade of pilgrims walking in single file or spread out across the broader paths. They’re just short the marching band.

I can’t imagine walking in the heat, but that could be dodged by walking early, taking a siesta, and then walking again late, if I had the time only in summer to walk. I certainly can’t imagine finding enjoyment in walking with the crowds and struggling to find a bed in the enormous pilgrim houses and, if successful, then struggling among the swarm of pilgrims to get to a shower - which will be cold - and doing daily laundry, then struggling further to find a place to eat, because the kitchen of the pilgrim house will be overtaxed well into the night. Not my idea of fun.

The crowds continue to walk and bike to Santiago because of its current cultural popularity. The number may wane in future years, but there’s no sign of that yet as the municipalities continue to build more and larger pilgrim houses to accommodate the predicted numbers. Next year is a Holy Year in Santiago and 250,000 pilgrims are expected to walk or bike into Santiago, significantly more than the 177,000 on the trail in 2008. The numbers in 2009 and 2011 are expected to be much higher than the past, too, as people wanting to avoid the Holy Year crowds spread themselves out. (The next Holy Year in Santiago isn’t until 2021.)

What’s the motivation to do this? Keeping with the ‘in’ crowd may motivate some people; wanting the bragging rights may motivate others. There is a financial consideration, that’s more tangible. My experience (in winter): during 50 days in Italy walking 1,007 kilometers, I spent an average of 31€ per day for food and lodging; in 30 days walking 916 kilometers in Spain, I spent an average of 21€ for the same, although I walked considerably faster while in Spain, so the cost are low in a direct comparison. In any case, an excursion though Italy will cost more (30%?) than through Spain. True whether a pilgrim or not.

My advice to pilgrims wanting a cultural excursion steeped in history and supported to an adequate degree by the communities along the way with pilgrim houses is to consider strongly the Via Francigena. True, the pilgrim houses are fewer and further between and those that exist suggest a higher donation (10-15€) than what the municipal houses (3€) demand in Spain, and true, there aren’t as many guidebooks, nor in as many languages, but for those who don’t need or want to rely on some unknown forebear’s experiences to find there own way across the continent, and are willing to ask at parish houses and town halls for advice on accommodation, then the Via Francigena totally rocks.

But hurry! The Associazione Via Francigena and other official groups are putting great effort into popularizing the route in its own right and as an alternative to the Camino, so the tranquility here won’t last forever. I feel a little ambivalent in promoting the Via Francigena like this, because it might just make it incrementally more popular, incrementally closer to the ruination the popularity of the Camino has caused - like once Rick Steves declares some little village in Europe to be a charming, quiet, off-the-beaten-trail place, the trail gets instantly beaten, it’s no longer so quiet, and the charm is gone. Alas. For the moment, objectively it can be stated that the Camino is grossly over-utilized and the Via Francigena is still grossly underutilized.

Monday, July 6, 2009

These days in Tuscany

These days in Tuscany are not hard on me. Relaxing is the better word, save for the heat, but we all know by now that I’m no sun bunny. I’m volunteering as a pilgrim greeter in one of the most picturesque pilgrim houses along the whole of the 1,400-mile length of the via francigena, and I’ve stayed in nearly all of them, so I know of what I speak.

Among the benefits of having made a pilgrimage along either the via francigena or the camino to Santiago, is it qualifies one for being a pilgrim greeter in any number of houses in Tuscany, for example. This is entirely different from being a volunteer in one of the pilgrim houses in Spain. From what I’ve heard and what I’ve witnessed, that’s hard work. The smaller houses accommodate 100 pilgrims; the larger ones more than 3,000! Yikes, what a business! Okay, I don’t like the heat and I don’t like crowds.

In comparison, this is a vacation in the Sienese countryside. The pilgrim house here sleeps five, but if needed, other rooms in the building usually rented to tourist families can be reserved for groups of pilgrims to increase the number to 20. Most commonly, two pilgrims wander in every day in the summer from San Gimignano, some 30 kilometers to the north. The next pilgrim stage is Siena itself where convents abound to accommodate pilgrims and tourists alike.

I have very nice accommodation in an attached townhouse to a 13th century church, my own bathroom and kitchenette, a desk where I can write with an incredible view down from this castle town of Monteriggioni, across the vineyards, the fields of sunflowers, and the olive groves separated by the ubiquitous Italian cypress trees… this idyllic tranquillity is hard to beat.

I only just arrived yesterday evening. As there was no pilgrim greeter last week, the tireless priest covered the needs of the pilgrims in addition to his parish duties, but left the cupboards rather bare. I look forward to heading out in the morning to re-acquaint myself with the contadinas, the local farmer-ladies who attend bursting kitchen gardens. Last year, I shared the pilgrim greeter position with an Italian grandmother who showed me the ropes of being a greeter and who insisted I only speak Italian (really, the best way to learn a language).

If there’s luck like last year, in my morning walk, I’ll be able to get some surplus tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants, and herbs, and some eggs with real luck… to supplement the pilgrim dinners I’ll prepare nightly to any of the pilgrims who want it.

It’s hard to go wrong making a meal out of the ground around here - the table wine and olive oil that come from the hillsides below this castle, the chickens and pigs are free-ranged on all of the farms around. I hope to walk further afield in my free mornings of the next two weeks to find some good cheese… Life here is pretty hard to beat.