The Anglo-French writer, Hilaire Belloc, a belligerent and restless spirit is perhaps best known today for his cautionary tales for children, but was also a devout Catholic and wrote much about the act of pilgrimage and walking with purpose. Keeping it wonderfully broad he defines pilgrimage as
“an expedition to some venerated place to which a vivid memory of sacred things experienced, or a long and wonderful history of human experience in divine matters, or a personal attraction affecting the soul impels one. This is, I say, its essence.”
In his book The Path to Rome, Belloc sets off alone on foot, with nothing more than a staff and a note book, to walk from the Moselle valley, to Rome. Written in 1902, the text remains wonderfully fresh and as we turn the pages, soon find ourselves walking alongside the author through the valleys and mountains of southern France and into Switzerland as he gets into his stride.
Belloc provides a detailed account of the trials of sleeping rough, fording a freezing river on the back of a poor miller, and running out of funds along the way. More than a simple travelogue, he describes his immediate emotions, bringing the reader into the physical moments of his journey: his fear of being drowned, or falling from an icy ridge in the alps and his terror of being stabbed by a group of Italian men who accuse him of being a Venetian.
“I saluted the company and walking up to the counter was about to call for wine. They had all become silent, when one man asked me a question in Italian. [To] this day I do not know what it meant. [At] any rate one very dark-haired man put his face close up to mine, un-lipping his teeth and began a great noise of cursing and threatening.” The situation in the bar escalates before eventually playing out with no harm done but Belloc decides on balance that “in this parish it was safer to sleep outdoors”. As female pilgrims travelling along the Vie Francigena, we did not frequent bars nor face the snarl of un-lipped teeth, but, like Belloc and Chaucer’s pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, we did encounter a miller.
Belloc is critical of millers, calling them cheats, adding that an honest miller in his home county of Sussex can be recognised by “the large tuft of hair growing in the palm of his hand”. Clearly a view of millers he shared with Chaucer, whose Reeve’s Tale recounts how the miller tries to swindle two poor students. On our own journey, we were grateful to the mill owner at Pont d’Arbia who not only gave us a bed for the night, after a long walk from Sienna, but provided us with a robust bowl of pasta and good cheer that set up us for the road ahead. The conversation over supper focussed entirely on the Italian banking crisis and ultimately, on the bank where he worked. Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded in 1472 and still in business, despite the vagaries of the modern Italian economy. (Our dialogue was conducted through that mysterious language which allows Italians to magically communicate with non-Italian speakers.)
As with our own pilgrim-journey, Belloc’s Path to Rome is not all picaresque peasants and beautiful scenery: he also shares with us the tedium of a long hike, skipping over whole sections of the journey on the basis that nothing of interest is seen or occurs here. He describes the pain in his feet and his knees and also touches on the psychology of endurance “It would take too long to describe the dodges that weary men and stiff have recourse to when they are at the close of a difficult task: how they divide it up into lengths in their minds, how they count numbers, how they begin to solve problems in mental arithmetic: I tried them all.” Anyone who has worked in a boring or repetitive job, or indeed made a pilgrimage on foot will recognise the mental tactics Belloc describes.
His judicious pruning of uneventful episodes of the walk saves the reader from the tedium he endures, but Belloc also excludes us from the very heart of his spiritual journey, not just by side-stepping any serious reference to God, but by bidding the reader adieu as he finally arrives at the gates of Rome and passes into the city to complete his pilgrimage. “And so carissimi, multitudes, all of you, good-bye; the day has long dawned on the Via Cassia, this dense mist has risen, the city is before me, and I am on the threshold of a great experience; I would rather be alone. Good-bye my readers; good-bye the world.”
‘The Path to Rome”, by published by Classic Reprint, 6 Aug 2012