Walking silently down the Tiber at dawn, with the Castel Sant' Angelo glimpsed in the distance through the pines and only the put-put of early morning Lambrettas to break the spell, is part of a lost magic in this age of airport transfers and tourist hotels.
Twenty three days it took for our party of walkers to reach St. Peter's Square. In medieval days such a journey--commenced in Canterbury on horse, on mule, or on foot--would have taken two months, maybe more, on ill-marked and rutted roads. But we were on a special trip to celebrate the millennium. Our modern party of twelve, constrained by jobs, holiday entitlements and overall levels of fitness, could walk only the scenic and historic sections of this ancient pilgrim route.
Italians call it the via Francigena, the road through France. An early archbishop of Canterbury, called Sigeric, writing in Latin, described the itinerary when he traveled to Rome in the ninth century to collect from the Pope his insignia of office — the palium. We followed his route, modern traffic patterns and town development allowing, walking an average of some twelve miles a day.
The members of the group had a variety of reasons for joining the walk. For some it was to mark the millennium; for others it was to enjoy the exercise and fresh air. For us it was the inspiration for a new book. Geoffrey Chaucer had died in London exactly six hundred years previously. What if, we thought, we could continue Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with a modern cast of characters, who would travel on from Canterbury to Rome, each telling his or her own tale? As we walked we planned the book--its characters, its sometimes quirky reflections on modern life, and its descriptions of the journey.
Any adventurous person with energy and sufficient time on his hands can walk to Rome. What is more difficult is to eliminate those dull and featureless stretches of countryside that yield only thirst and blisters. Our walk was planned and reconnoitered by a major British walking group. They supplied an experienced and knowledgeable guide and an efficient tour manager, responsible for arranging accommodation, conveying our luggage and organising food and drink.
We congregated in the Falstaff Inn in Canterbury and, like the pilgrims of old, received a blessing from the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, before setting forth on foot to Dover. It was a bright and blustery day. Equipped with back-packs, stout walking boots, and Tilley hats, we strode out over the gentle English downland, innocent of the hard work we faced in the wild and untamed Jura and Appenine mountains, or in the still heat of Tuscany and Latium. Now was the moment for introductions and polite probing. What did we have in common? Where does he live? How does she make a living? Later, relaxed and confident, the group members explored more challenging and intimate subjects, or simply walked in silence, enjoying the wild flowers, the views, or the birdsongs.
Julius Caesar launched the first Roman invasion of Britain from the port of Wissant, long ago silted up. Wissant is now an obscure village in the Pas de Calais. But before it became dune-bound it was the starting point for many medieval pilgrims, who could gaze back across the choppy Channel to the Dover cliffs.
Wissant was our start-point, too. Picardy is excellent walking country, rolling and rural, with small copses and simple farmhouses dotted across the open fields. We proceeded in a southerly direction, taking to the van when the going got dull, and walking where tracks were marked. On one occasion we walked for hours through unspoiled French woodland until we arrived at a Roman castrum, now a great field surrounded by massive earthworks and ditches; in Caesar's day this camp dominated the area between the Channel and what is now Paris.
One of the great features of such expeditions on foot is the picnic lunch. After a hard morning's walk one emerges into a clearing, in this case a Roman camp, to be greeted by tables groaning with imaginative salads, fresh fruit, local cheeses, and wines. The tour manager on each occasion introduces the meal, explaining the ingredients and their provenance, and how they are dressed. The lunches are colourful, plentiful, delicious and unhurried. So successful are they that the company has published a popular salad book, contributed to by tour managers across Europe.
The walking route took us east of Paris, through the serene cathedral town of Laon, to the champagne country, where we walked through vineyards and enjoyed a tasting session in the open air above the town of Epernay. Most of us bought cases of champagne, spirited home for us in due course by obliging staff.
On a walking trip a four star hotel is rare and unnecessary. We stayed in simple family hotels, sometimes in towns, but more typically in villages, which we would enter on foot one evening and walk out of the following morning. For this type of holiday all that is needed is a good shower and a reasonably comfortable bed. Such inns can be found in even the smallest villages and can be relied on for cleanliness, if not for the English style of multi-sprung divan beds.
For enthusiasts of Roman history, the discovery of Roman roads hidden in the French countryside was a pleasure. Most are now covered with asphalt and driven over by hundreds of vehicles an hour. But others--with their chunky, weathered slabs of granite--became by-ways and farm tracks over the centuries and were frequented by our medieval pilgrim ancestors.
There are many popular areas of France, some known for their atmosphere and beauty, others for their ruggedness and spectacular scenery. The Jura mountains bordering France and Switzerland are beautiful and unsung. In comparison to the French Alps the Jura are junior partners, and less frequented, with their forests and more gentle inclines. Nonetheless, it can be hard work for the walker, moving from valley to valley across rocky terrain. Our companions, knowledgeable about wild flowers, spotted a lexicon of alpine summer flowers as we walked the footpaths and byways, coming at last to the watershed where, below us, was Lake Neuchatel, the neat and organised countryside of Switzerland against a backdrop of the Alps.
Switzerland has been a major draw to English visitors for generations, with focus generally on the Alps both for winter and summer holidays. Public footpaths in the lower-lying areas are less common than elsewhere, and the roads are not suitable for walking on. But higher up we walked freely over the hillsides and alongside the vigorous mountains streams. Here we saw eagles, hawks and deer, and ate the customary lunches before spectacular scenery. If the evening meals were Germanic and un-tempting, the clear mountain air and the alpine flowers of early June more than compensated.
After what seemed an endless climb through thinning forest and intervening boulders, we emerged, chilly and breathless, into high altitude scrub to see the famous Saint Bernard monastery, sitting amid summer snows, astride its eponymous pass. Monks have been venturing forth in all weather to rescue snow-bound travelers for centuries, with or without brandy. St. Bernard dogs there certainly are, and the passing tourist can see the kennels where the puppies are born and raised, some bound for foreign parts, others trained for local guide work.
Imagine the sense of achievement we felt at arriving in this cold and beautiful spot, and the gathering warmth and changing flora we observed as we descended into the spectacular Aosta Valley, with its unspoiled villages and alpine torrents. We had passed the half way mark, a psychological as well as a physical barrier.
Our journey took us across the flat Po valley, up into the still-wild Appenines on the other side, and into Tuscany. For us, recording particular beauty spots and discussing possible characters for our book (details below), this was familiar territory: Carrara, Lucca, San Gimignano. Our guide led us through the gentle, warm, historic countryside, pausing to discuss the history of this walled town here, or that church with the priceless Francesco della Piera there. Progress slowed as we lingered in a monastery or a duomo, or sipped cappuchinos in outdoor cafés, observing the locals going about their business. We ate evening meals in simple restaurants and sampled local wines, usually rejecting the wild boar beloved of Tuscan restaurateurs, in favour of pasta and salad.
After nearly three weeks together the twelve walkers, individualists all, had melded into a close and friendly group. Gone was the caution and restraint. Now, more relaxed, came the jokes, the puns and the gentle teasing. It is of course impossible to truly know someone in three weeks, even if you have regularly drunk too much together, discussed your children and bandaged his ankle, but the atmosphere had mellowed and the conversations had touched on intimacy, although those desperate to know the innermost secrets of their companions were left with partial insights.
Pieve del Castello is a small ninth century monastery, owned for a thousand years by the church. It has been bought and restored as a cultural centre, with the help of an environmental fund. Here you can listen to music, learn Italian cooking, and improve your Italian language skills. We stayed at Pieve and ate a fourteenth century pilgrim's meal; not leftovers from the time, but dishes using the ingredients available in Chaucer's day and wines from vineyards with documented histories stretching back to late medieval days.
Tired and dusty, but extraordinarily fit, we entered St. Peters, Rome. If the indispensable task of the middle-aged is to assemble memories, we had material to store in the bank. We had developed a better understanding of the challenges and discomforts that must have faced medieval pilgrims — and we had done the journey gently, without the threat of brigands, wild animals and other unexpected terrors. Most importantly, we had experienced the companionship that maybe only shared adventure, hard work, and group proximity can bring. An exciting and rewarding background for the imaginary characters who, in our book, Telling Tales, follow the pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome.