Friday, May 22, 2009

Walking with the Saints through Time

I heard an interesting explanation of what it is to be a modern pilgrim last winter while walking the via francigena to Rome. When I reached Lausanne on the northern shore of Lake Geneva, I was tired. I had walked through fog for some days and then in cold rain. Although I had already walked 500 enjoyable miles from Canterbury and was looking forward to the next 700, at that moment, I was unfocused and fried. I saw a lakeside café and plunked my pack and myself down at a table for a hot cup of tea.

Next to me, a young woman was buttoning up some small kids to leave. She noticed my pilgrim symbols – I was going to Rome, she was sure; I had been to Santiago de Compostela, she guessed. She told the kids this, pointing to the crossed keys and the scallop shell. She explained the significance of each, the keys for Saint Peter, patron of Rome, and the shell of Saint James, the fisherman, patron of Santiago de Compostela. She explained to my great surprise that pilgrims are holy people and should be helped along one their long journey. They are not beggars, she was clear about that. ‘Pilgrims walk with Saints, through time’ she said to my greater surprise. Having their lesson and now buttoned up, the woman and children left the café.

I contemplated her explanations to the kids while I sipped my tea and rested my fatigue. I never would have said those words myself, but her point was suddenly clear to me. She was right in a way. For the past six weeks and for the next seven, my steadfast companions were and would be Saints, if not in spirit, at least iconographically – carved in stone or wood, painted on canvas or frescos, imaged in stain glass… I could recognize the same Saints nearly every day. Saints who were all once real live people; many of whom walked in the same places as I. I could rely on them almost daily to present themselves unbidden. Encouraging fellows, those Saints; cheerleaders on the trail.

To know their stories adds to the experience. Saint Rocco became a frequent favorite in France and Italy. He may not have walked everywhere I walked, but the essence of the pilgrimage by foot carries through regardless. There’s a true sense of companionship, though my companion pre-dated me by seven centuries.

Other Saints peek out at predictable and unpredictable places – carved on churches, sure, but also in precariously placed niches high on mountainsides or, often in France, at deserted crossroads. Joan of Arc is common in France; Saint Catherine of Siena in Italy. Saint Martin seems to be everywhere ready to share his red cape, half of it anyway since he’s often depicted rending it in two with his sword. Benevolence at the broad side of a weapon. Before these folks were Saints, they were people representing all walks of life – rich, poor; old, young; educated, simple.

All of the pilgrims through history, all of the scholars, tradesmen, migrants, clergy, soldiers, royal figures, all of them passed some of these same monuments to the Saints. Many of them have been around for a millennium. It’s awe-inspiring to think of it that way. It’s true, then, those of us modern pilgrims who have awareness of our surroundings, can truthfully be considered to walk with the Saints through time.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I can’t help but be planning for the next one...

I noodled the theme of continuing my progress through European cultural history while I was walking through the west of Spain. What is it that turns me on so much about these cultural pilgrimages? I pondered this question often while covering the long kilometers, especially when the weather was particularly crappy, and questioned why I still really cherished where I was and what I was doing.

I like to learn – the language out of necessity and courtesy, the history out of interest, the culture out of curiosity, why not? It’s all right there. I like to see the art and architecture, especially to note the regional variations in style, method, and colors – it’s all so lovely. I enjoy the physical challenge, and rewards, of just walking every day, be it over the Alps on snowshoes, across barren plains, alongside peaceful rivers, over hills, dales, through fields and forests, wherever the course takes me. I like, most especially, to mingle with the local people in these areas where I walk. I noticed this particularly in Spain along the fully beaten path of the camino frances. The indifference of the local people toward a single pilgrim is understandable considering they’re accustomed to seeing tens of thousands upon tens of thousands every year.

The possibilities are being narrowed down – I want to continue this long walk through Europe somewhere where I can learn about stuff, see cool things, walk in different terrain, and talk with people. Somewhere not so overrun with other pilgrims that each one of us becomes part of a Stalinesque statistic…

James was a real live guy before he became a Saint, so was Peter. These fellows set off into territories unknown to them and without any friends to evangelize about events they witnessed. That they were real live guys is not disputed; the points of their discussions were doubted and twisted during their lifetimes, for which each was martyred, and throughout all of the centuries that followed. The veracity of their relics has even been disputed. But it doesn’t matter. The legacy that each of them left has endured for 2,000 years and helped form the modern world. Pretty whooey dudes. Learning about them and being able to connect an awful lot of what I saw directly to their efforts led me to Santiago and to Rome. This has been a particularly cool part of the experience. That’s probably an important distinction between being a tourist and being a pilgrim.

The remaining famous pilgrim destination in the Holy hat-trick is Jerusalem, but it’s not for me at the moment. As wonderful as I can imagine that experience would be, an American woman walking alone from Rome to the Holy Land would not likely enjoy an unimpeded passage these days.

James drew the Iberian card when the boys were figuring out what to do next, and Peter took Rome. Pete's little brother, Andrew, headed north, along the Black Sea as far north as Kiev, it’s said. His impact was pretty impressive, too, if his work laid the groundwork for the modern Orthodox religions. I figure it would be wildly interesting to walk slowly through Eastern Europe, learning about the history and the culture and looking out for the influence this real live guy, Andrew, had on the art and architecture historically and even today. What similarities will I find with the two long walks in Western Europe? The schism of the Roman and Eastern Churches didn’t happen until the late 11th century – will I find similarities in structures predating that time? Interesting ideas. Oh, will it be exciting.

I’m doing some research at the moment to find an appropriate starting point. Kiev is an obvious one, but his influence reached much further north, so maybe St Petersburg would be a cool launch pad, too.

The Church of Saint Andrew in Patras, Greece contains his relics, so is the obvious ending point. He’s also attributed with founding the See of Constantinople, so Istanbul is a must along the way.

Once I find the starting and ending points, the path in between will be based on both places where Saint Andrew visited or otherwise left a significant trace and, experience talking, where I can find lodging. Winter comes early in St Petersburg, so I might need to morph into more of a late autumn/winter pilgrim. No matter. I’m planning, researching, boning up on important historical people and events to make the pilgrimage as meaningful as I can, and looking into existing pilgrim paths and terrain. I’ll need to brush up on that Cyrillic alphabet and then crack the grammar codes to Ukrainian and Greek, at the least… yikes! But how fun!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Camino to Santiago de Compostela or the Via Francigena to Rome?

I’ve done the two long hikes through Western Europe now, both utterly historic, both popular throughout the ages by pilgrims on foot, both enjoying an enormous resurgence in recent decades, both passing through gorgeous landscape, picturesque villages, cultural cities, both endorsed by the European Council… From my starting points – Canterbury and Aix-la-Chapelle – they’re both about the same distance, both offer stunning side trips, both have wonderful old monasteries to stay in, both offer challenges and support to pilgrims…

Since returning to the US, I’ve done many presentations about my pilgrimages and a recurrent question has been which one I would recommend. The short answer is easy – if you like crowds, go to Spain, if you like tranquility, go to Rome, but soon. That’s perhaps too general, though; here are some more specifics…

The via francigena was first created by Julius Caesar between the years 58 and 44 BC. It was used by all manner of people – pilgrims, traders, scholars, soldiers, etc – to traverse the continent north-south. In the year 990, a monk named Sigeric was made Archbishop of Canterbury and used this road to go to Rome to sign the paperwork and get his archbishop stuff. On his way home, he wrote, in his native Old Saxon, a diary of the places where he stayed. This diary was rediscovered in the British Library in the 1980s and became the basis for the modern interpretation of the via francigena. Naturally, the actual path on the ground meandered over time because of floods, wars, or modified political boundaries. Some parts of the trail are on actual Roman paving stones, but much of Caesar’s road has long been paved over.

I didn’t notice any posted trail markers for the via francigena until I reached Switzerland. Maybe there were some in France, but it didn’t matter to me. My objective was to visit the places that Sigeric mentioned rather than to follow an actual path that some group decided was the ‘right’ place to walk. Most often, my actual path was dictated by the shortest way to get to a monastery or some other place to stay. I studied 1:100 000-scale IGN maps and highlighted back roads across farm lands or forests to get there. Often, I asked people in cafés or mayor’s offices for their recommendations. Generally, people took great pleasure in helping me, often indicating an interesting landmark or good place to cross a river or something. I don’t need a marked trail when I have a map. I found this way of travel exciting and fun – talking with interesting people, integrating with the local cultural nuances.

In addition, there are many ‘signs’ showing that I was more or less following the medieval route. On the exterior of churches and some civil buildings, a carved pilgrim figure holding one or more keys was an indication to illiterate pilgrims that they were on the right path to the Vatican, the city of Saint Peter, whose attributes are two keys. These carvings still exist, though without the knowledge of this symbol’s meaning, they just look like carvings. Similarly, I encountered a lot of village churches and forest chapels not just randomly named for Saint Peter but as a sign for the medieval pilgrim.

In Switzerland, I started seeing trail markers stuck to telephone poles or street signs indicating I was on the via francigena, but frankly, there’re limited ways to walk around Lake Geneva and over the pass at Grand Saint Bernard, so the trail markers were superfluous.

In Italy, there are obviously more clubs and municipal sponsorship of sections of the trail. Again, in many places, there’s really only one good way to pass through an area on foot, so though I noticed the signs, but didn’t rely on them to guide me anywhere. By Tuscany, there are many different groups vying for recognition of ‘their’ marked trails as the ‘true’ trail. I found this bothersome... six or more different stickers pointing me in different directions to get me to spend a few coins in different villages. There are rules prohibiting signs being placed in natural parks, so where a sign might be useful, there is none. Ah well, it’s Tuscany, you can’t really get ‘lost’, you can only discover a longer or shorter way to get to another picturesque village.

Another question to help one decide which trail to take is therefore, do you like the challenge, and freedom, of finding your own way, or do you prefer following someone else’s path?

The main trails in the southwest of France toward Santiago are not marked that I noticed, or maybe they are and I wasn’t on a specified trail between the pilgrim houses. The pilgrim houses are pretty easy to find, nonetheless. In towns that don’t have pilgrim houses, by asking at the mayor’s office, I got a list of local people interested in taking pilgrims in for the night. This gave me some sense that I was on the right track, but I was heading south along the west coast… as long as I didn’t swing to the east, I’d either hit the Pyrenees or the Atlantic, so getting lost really isn’t a possibility. And here, the scallop shell is the symbol of Saint James, and is seen in carvings on centuries’-old churches and civic buildings as an indicator of the ‘trail’ whether or not it is otherwise marked. I relied on 1:100 000 scale IGN maps again. No problems.

Spain is a completely different story. Along the main trail, the camino frances, the giant yellow arrows painted everywhere make staying on the trail pretty idiot-proof. A map is certainly not needed. This is Pilgrimland, the amusement park for pilgrims. I find it off-putting, myself. To me, there’s an underlying message ‘don’t think, just walk’. The surroundings are often, not always, but often enough, beautiful and peaceful. The local merchants and café patrons don’t really bother themselves with pilgrims – the many many hundreds and thousands of pilgrims every month - other than view them as economic targets. ‘Shut up and walk’ is a subtle message I got from this trail in Spain, which is in stark contrast to the genuine respect and admiration I got from the equivalent populace in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and northern Italy.

By studying the maps in these places, I became intimate with my transient place in the world – where I might find a village large enough to have a café or an ATM or something else I might need, where I might be able to cross a stream or river, where I could traverse some hills with the least elevation gain… I got to know the land. In Spain, I had very little sense of these things… small folded papers are offered at nearly all of the pilgrim houses with trail profiles and a list of the sequence of villages and the offerings necessary for a pilgrim – pilgrim house, café/bar, grocery store, ATM, and internet connection. Anything off the established trail is not in the purview of pilgrims’ needs. Pilgrimland.

There’s a move afoot by various grassroots and governmental agencies in Italy to make the via francigena like the camino frances in the regard of painting giant white arrows everywhere and establishing a ‘right’ trail to stay on. I think this is a shame, really, because it diminishes a part of the experience I enjoy. But for the masses, if the goal is to extend the via francigena to the more than 150 000 people per year like the camino frances now hosts, then there is some logic to it. For now, the 1 000 or so pilgrims to Rome every year can still enjoy a little taste of the newness of the pilgrim craze there.

The other trails in Spain to get to Santiago, most notably the camino del norte, I understand aren’t so ‘Pilgrimland-y’. The pilgrim houses are fewer and farther between and accommodate a more reasonable 6 to 8 pilgrims rather than the 300 to 3,000 pilgrims the houses on the camino frances hold. I would enjoy giving that a try some day.

A preference for freeform or Pilgrimland, or transitional like the last 200 kilometers of the via francigena are the biggest determinants for choosing which of these two pilgrim trails to take… it’s an individual decision.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Best Piece of Equipment – Hiking Sticks

Carrying less than 7 kilos in my pack, I had to be selective in my equipment. Right away, walking without a guidebook freed up a good amount of weight, ditto eliminating a tent, sleeping bag, bedroll, and cooking equipment. I’m off communing with culture, not nature, so I’m not interested in roughing it.

Metric is convenient while traveling in Europe. The 7 kilos is roughly 16 pounds, pack and all, but it’s easier to think grams and kilograms. The food I carry as part of this is actually significant portion of the weight – a standard 200-gram chocolate bar with nuts, a 100-gram package of raisins, sometimes a 200-gram package of almonds or cashews, and at most a half-liter of water, which weighs 500 grams full. That all adds up to a kilo

I carry watercolor paper and small kit, and then the finished paintings afterward, weighing in at nearly a kilo in total. On the next trip, I intend to revisit the watercolor stuff and figure I can lighten the load by about a half kilo.

An extra pair of shoes – specifically goofy-looking but practical Teva sandals – is something I won’t part with, but at a half kilo, it’s also significant. Assorted papers, three small change purses of the various currencies (sterling, euros, dollars), and minor electronics (US/UK/German mobile phones, rechargers) add up, too. Toiletries, including contact lens solutions, and first aid items vary in weight with consumption, but all in all make up another kilo.

The flashlight, compass, and time piece, as small attachments on my pack, I count as part of the base weight. The raincover-cape I fabricated to avoid the need for a second jacket weighs next to nothing – literally less than 100 grams, and is integrated into the pack, too. In all the empty pack weighs a scant kilo.

All my clothes – basically two sets of outerwear and 3 sets of innerwear with a few extras for ultra-cold weather – make up the balance at less than 2 kilos. There’s just no need for much else, and not only do I not want to carry the weight, I don’t want it to take up more space.

Every piece of equipment is thoughtfully considered with the voice of experience echoing in my little pack. I never feel like I’m sacrificing too much for the sake of weight or space. I’m comfortable with my gear and my selected clothing, though I did weary a bit at the sight of the same pea-green zip-neck high-wicking shirt that I wore every day and washed every night.

I’m not a fanatic about the weight – I don’t snip off my toothbrush, for example, or other tricks that ultra-light purists might consider. The 7 kilos fit my frame well enough that when it varies higher or lower by even a kilo, I’m content with it. While one might considered paring down even more, I’m done futzing with it.

And the winner is… the hiking sticks – at a half kilo. I picked up a pair of REI Peak Ultralight Poles because I liked the weight, the size, the ‘feel’, the length when collapsed, and they were on sale when I was out shopping. I can bring them on the plane as carry-on, and they’re not much taller than my pack when I lash them on the exterior walking through cities, for example, when it’s not cool to be swinging them on a crowded sidewalk.

Using walking sticks is more commonly done in the Alps than anywhere else I’ve been. It’s often referred to in English as ‘Nordic Walking’. I was skeptical at first – I don’t have a physical ailment demanding them, so why bother? Once I used them, borrowed from a fellow pilgrim for a kilometer or so when I went on my first mini-pilgrimage, I enjoyed their benefit immediately.

Who doesn’t like to look around while walking? Who hasn’t stumbled while doing that? The poles do a lot. They help one walk faster and more steadily on flat and straight sections because they set a rhythm. They help with balance on uneven terrain. I use them often to leap across small brooks and large puddles. Extended, I feel much more comfortable crossing a stream on a log or slippery stones. They’re great through the snow and ice. And a wonderful bonus – using them regularly, swinging them effortlessly, boy, nothing can beat them for taking care of those flabby bits on the undersides of upper arms.

I have already minimized superfluous equipment, and already keep things simple and uncomplicated with regard to the equipment I do carry. Take away my Tevas, my map, my compass, even, my tiny silk sleep sack, if it must be so, take away even my entire backpack, but the walking sticks will be the last piece of equipment I part with on my long walks across Europe.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Best Tomb – Leonardo da Vinci

One walks, one sees things. I don’t carry a guidebook, in part because of the weight and volume, in part because a guidebook can’t possible have all the information I might want to know, in part because I don’t want to be guided by someone else’s experience. In this day and age, it’s possible to carry a tiny microcomputer that has pretty much all of the knowledge of the universe as long as there’s a wifi signal, but I don’t want to spend my time attached to such a device, or distracted by it, or reliant on it, or isolated by it. I read ahead of time, rely on the collective knowledge from previous travels through Europe, and talk with locals along the way. Often I’m surprised by what I encounter even though I could have read about it in a guidebook or if I had asked the right person the right question. It’s fun.

When I was walking along the Loire River from Orléans toward Tours, the weather was exceptionally cold and the famed vineyards shrouded in low frozen fog. The multitude of castles loomed in the grayness of the sky, very prettily. I enjoyed the landscape and the villages, and witnessed why the Loire Valley is a UNESCO cultural heritage region. Not bad walking, even in the cold lock of winter.

I got to the town of Amboise early enough in the day to allow me to take a tour of its famous chateau – uncommon for me, but the pilgrim house has no heat, so I was looking for something constructive to do for the rest of the afternoon. I got a good-hearted pilgrim discount on the entrance fee for the asking. It was cold outside, and like most medieval castles, the thick stone walls hardly made it cozy inside. I would have been warm had I spent the balance of the afternoon in one of the may touristic pubs, but that gets old. Inside the gleaming white chateau, after ascending the stone ramp that thousands of knights on horseback used in the past, I made a watercolor of the interior of the Guard’s Hall just because I could stand in front of a roaring fire while I painted. I stood a while longer and read about the history of the castle from the pamphlet. More than the standard cool stuff – lots of kings of France did their thing here, influential battles, fine wine, powerful women - Catherine de Medici called this place home for a while and even raised Mary Queen of Scots here – who knew?

On the grounds is an ornate little chapel named for Saint Hubert, the patron of hunters. Consequently, the animal and forest motif is strongly carved in the white stone. I studied the exterior a bit and read that it’s King Charles VIII and his wife, Anne of Bretagne, carved in worship over the entrance. I did a painting of King Chuck because I noticed that he sports a string of scallop shells around his collar – a sign that he at least supported, if not actually made, a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Rock on, 15th-century dude.

The exceptional cold sent me inside the chapel. Frozen water makes watercolor painting challenging. A grand surprise was seeing the unassuming tomb of none other than Leonardo da Vinci. I didn’t read ahead in the little site plan of the chateau grounds. What luck. In all my travels to Florence and other places where Leo did his thing, I never picked up on where he spent his final days. Here at Amboise, it turns out. In a fine chapel. Behind the chateau, his accommodation as a paid guest of the King, contains scores of his design inventions and writings. It explained why Mona Lisa ended up in France.

I saw a lot of tombs – the whole of the Basilica of Saint Denis north of Paris is a giant graveyard of all the kings and queens of France except Charlemagne. The Church of Saint Eutrope is similarly something of a giant tomb of the Saint, and San Juan de Ortega has a pretty whooey resting place, and all happy surprises to guidebook-less me. If I were to pick a favorite, it would be Leonardo’s, that fellow engineer.