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.

1 comment:

Amawalker said...

I think its even more complicated than that! If you want a truly, medieval pilgrimage, take a walk in "Pilgrim-land". A walk to the tomb of Sant'Iago was never solitary.
There are legends, and urban legends, about the numbers of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in the middle ages. Many are grossly exaggerated but documented numbers of pilgrims, and of hospices built to house them, provide some evidence of the popularity Santiago in the golden age of pilgrimage.
As late as the 17th-c, well into the decline of the pilgrimage, the Roncesvalles hospice was hosting
25,000 pilgrims per year.

A register dating 1594 at the hospice at Villafranca de Montes de Oca recorded 16,767 pilgrims that year, over 200 on some days.

The town with the highest number of hospices was Burgos which in the 15th-c boasted 32 hospices, and even as pilgrimage declined, still supported 25 into the late 1700’s.

If it is a modern 'solitary' pilgrimage you seek, then walk the Via Francigena. In 2006 we met 3 pilgrims between Lac Leman and Roma. No communal meals, pilgrim songs, sharing of blister plasters, bread and wine. Perhaps a return to the 'hey-days' of pilgrimage isn't really a bad thing!