Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Day 4: Farther than the Day is Long

Brisk is a useful applicable word for the weather, very nice for walking.  I´ve only managed a measly 117 km since walking out of Estonian`s capital Sunday afternoon - the days are short and the nights particularly dark.  There`s a cute and logical obligation here that everyone who ventures out in the darkness must dangle a reflective badge at the level of the right knee so they can be seen by drivers.  Kind folks have given me a handful, including one shaped like an angel.  The sky brightens to a gray drab around 8:30 and dims into the drab clouds around 3.  Time enough to scurry along... through the countryside blanketed beneath a thin coverlet of lumpy snow, packed powder on the sides of the icy pavement and on the bike trails near the larger towns,..  I`m enjoying the discovery of another culture.

The young Italian priest at the Catholic Cathedral in Helsinki was surprised but accommodating in signing and stamping my credenziale and offered the parish hall for me to sleep.  We shared dinner with Italian missionaries who largely serve a foreign congregation.  When I shared my intention of simply asking the ferry company for passage across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia, the priest gave me the fare to save me the effort of finding someone to ask.

In Tallinn, the Italian missionary priest at the Catholic Cathedral there similarly accommodated the request for a stamp in my credenziale and a place to sleep - in the crypt beneath the old church of Sts Peter and Paul - but could offer little in terms of negotiating my way through the country on foot.  With a wish of good luck and a hearty slap on the back, I was sent off.  How does it work for a pilgrim in the countryside of Estonia?  As in most places with a noticable dearth of churches, the municipal office is the place to seek advice.  No problems - there`s always a place for a pilgrim to comfortably stay - hot shower, mattrass, heat, food... everything else is luxury.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Heading for Helsinki

Winter's again nigh.  I'm well-rested... it's time to start walking.  The world is incomprehensibly immense when you travel by foot; there are so many enticing places to visit.  My cumulative pilgrim distance in the past 7 years is equivalent to one paltry lap around the earth... and with an infinite number of paths out there, people to meet, cuisines to savor, wildlife to discover... time's a-wasting!

I've learned more than a few things along the way, not the least of which are that 3 months of daily marathon walks is too short of a duration, 11 a bit long; I don't care to walk in heat - northern climes suit me fine; I like the cultural history of walking to shrines, stopping in at any UNESCO World Heritage Sites I might pass.  I'll turn my head for interesting art and architecture, heritage and nature, and wine and cheese, or for whatever the local tastes provide.

Having turned away from the material world, my method of pilgrimage is as a mendicant pilgrim - so as not to temp anyone to covet my possessions, I carry nothing of value, just a small backpack with a change of clothes, a small blanket and sheet, sandals, toiletries, and rain gear.  My traditional pilgrim credenziale - worthless to anyone else - guarantees the authenticity of my pilgrimage.  Of course, in order to appreciate nature, I'll cover the distance of the pilgrim way by foot, walking every day generally from dawn to dusk.

This winter, I'm inspired to return to Eastern Europe.  Having perused a few old maps, my eye is attracted to the jagged boundary the Danube River presented for many civilizations - south of the east-flowing river were the ancient Greeks, then Romans, who both pretty much declared hic sunt dracones after a few too many barbarian tribes resisted the southern invaders' versions of civility.  Notwithstanding the dragons being there or not, successive transgressions across the Danube by those northern tribes pushed the Roman Empire to ruins and left us with a colorful history indeed.

An intriguing footnote is that the fifth century barbarian clans were generally Arian Christians - not accepting of the Trinity - if I look closely enough as I walk by will evidence of this be hidden in the oldest art and architecture, or has history sidelined this fact to the books?  As a pilgrim in western Europe, for example, I've many times stumbled upon a triangle of three ancient oak trees in poplar or pine forests. These off 'Trinity Oaks' reflect popular Christian devotions and pull a subtle remnant of northern paganism through the ages... what will I see in forests on the far side of the Danube, I wonder...

Rome, being the veritable belly-button of European cultural and western religious history, is hard to beat as a worthy pilgrim destination.  With the set idea of ending the pilgrimage at St Peter's tomb, I was hoping to allegorically bookend the route by beginning it at Saint Petersburg; alas, visa restrictions prevent me from walking freely in Russia. Pity. A small shift to the left puts me comfortably in Estonia, but with remarkably inexpensive flights from the US to Finland, Helsinki wins the honor!  The Gulf of Finland won't likely be frozen over, so the first day out, my walking will be limited to the upper deck of a ferry before reaching terra firma.  Because this part of Europe had such a different religious history than the western countries, what pilgrim culture they had developed much later... western pilgrims were heading to Rome from the 4th century and to Santiago de Compostela from the 9th century. The crusades to the Holy Land opened things up for pilgrims in the 12th and 13th centuries, but the by then, Christianity was just being introduced to the Baltics, right in time for the wars of religion to deter nearly all pilgrims. I'm not sure I'll see many keys or scallop shells carved into old city gates.

Ticket in hand for November 20th, I'm still working on the route, which consists of finding some interesting points along the way - monasteries, abbeys, churches, UNESCO sites, interesting monuments, etc - and then connecting the dots.  At the start, I can expect about 8 hours of daylight for walking, just enough for my standard marathon distance, and as winter passes and I make my way southward, the days will get longer.

We who travel on an American passport are challenged by the condition not to exceed 90 days in a rolling 180 in the EU.  This means I'll keep a quick pace through EU countries and can relax in the non-EU countries.  I want to arrive in Rome for Holy Week, be among the hordes to glimpse pilgrim-friendly Pope Francis, and finish out the balance of my 90 days volunteering at a pilgrim house in Tuscany.

Map to follow, but here's the general idea (non-EU countries in blue):
Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania-Poland-Ukraine-Hungary-Serbia-Kosovo-Macedonia- Albania-Montenegro-Bosnia and Herzegovina-Croatia-Slovenia-Italy

Fifteen countries in 20 weeks and >chin-drooping sigh< 15 different languages.  Brushing up on my very dusty German, French, and Italian, and recovering the pilgrim-vocabulary I learned in Russian and Ukrainian from pilgrimage number three, I'll muddle through amid lighthearted giggles.  I'm looking forward to it, a winter of borscht.  As has become my habit, I'll try to update this blog every week to 10 days.