For me, preparing for a pilgrimage involves all sorts of interesting study. It’s like writing a term paper in a non-major subject - just learning for the sake of understanding. In the weeks before I set out on the Via Francigena, I immersed myself in historical periods the road coursed through: Julius Caesar commanding the road to be built to facilitate his invasion of the British Isles; the road’s various uses by soldiers, scholars, merchants and clergy throughout the Dark Ages, the lamentable tale of Sigeric, the 10th-century monk-bishop who recorded his four-year journey to Canterbury from Rome along the road, only to die shortly after arriving… Countless little tidbits of history grabbed my attention in preparing for my long walk and countless more sprang up during it, stories of saints and sinners, relics of Etruscan artwork, all sorts of fascinating topics.
History came alive again for me during my pilgrimage from Aachen, Charlemagne’s former home and perpetual tomb, to Santiago de Compostela, site of Apostle St James’ tomb. In reflection, I was quite a tomb-hopper on that walk. Tombs, after all, are monuments to history, and usually also to art, from various time periods and are definitive legacies of real-live people who had struggles and emotions like all of us, and who generally persevered in a manner worthy of remembrance. I strode beside St Fiacre in St Fiacre, St Eutrope in Saintes, St Martin in Tours, St Hillaire in Poitiers; all the kings and queens of France at St Denis, the multitude of fallen soldiers in the scattered necropoli of the two World Wars in Belgium and eastern France, even Leonardo da Vinci at Chateau d’Amboise in the Loire Valley… dozens of others too numerous to list.
If I hadn’t set out on the path of the Apostle St Andrew from Kyiv to his tomb in Patras, I likely would never have immersed myself in the history of those regions, or have become familiar with their geography, languages or gastronomy, or certainly have become familiar with the rituals of the Orthodox and Muslim religions and the settings of the famous tales of Greek Mythology. These facets captivate me and I greatly prefer engaging in conversations on these subjects rather than on how I managed to – ho-hum – walk these long distances, alone, and in bad weather. It’s not terribly important that I walked in the misty shadows of Samothraki, Greece, on a bitter cold wet day but more interesting that from that island, Poseidon watched the sea battles of the Trojan War, as legend has it. Wow.
So now I’m studying up on the history of the various Native American tribes, the days of the Spanish conquistadors, the attempts at their colonization, the missionary work of the Franciscans and Jesuits, the Mexican Independence and revolution, and the geography of the mountains and deserts between Denver and Mexico City. Much fun – doh! – muchas diverisións.