Well I managed it in the end! Barring a day on the train and the odd bus ride across town, I walked the entire length of the ancient Roman road, the Via Francigena, connecting Britain to the heart of the ancient empire, Rome. My journey began in Canterbury, now the official starting point and ended in the Vatican Square, outside of St Peter’s basilica.
The official route suggests its 1800kms but I suspect I walked well over 2000kms; when taking into account the number of times I got lost, walking to and from accommodation and food sources, and detours to explore local places of interest.
I had set myself a couple of tasks. Obviously and unstated, I hoped to finish and not need to be hospitalised! The first, was to reflect upon my late parents, Franco and Maria; the second, was to consider the nature of God or god. How did I do? But first, a very brief summary of the more memorable elements of my journey across Europe.
Friendships made en route albeit necessarily temporal but meaningful nonetheless and far too many to mention;
Historic places, towns, and ruins. The entire route is full of them;
Beautiful places of prayer such as churches, chapels, convents, and monasteries;
Restful accommodation eg St Loup’s Tyburn convent; and at Brigitte’s home;
Kindness of strangers eg Enric in Chamblain d’Abbe helping me to rescue my phone;
Food in Italy eg pinci pasta; Italian cream doughnuts and croissants;
Equipment taken with me eg silk liner instead of a sleeping bag;
Follow up meetings eg Cristina in London, and Fabbrizio in Rome;
The two weeks rest before returning home;
Ichnusa beer in Italy;
Seeing both sides of my family in the days afterwards;
Cresting the Alps at Col Grand San Bernard;
Less good things
Getting lost so many times;
The painful walk through bamboo hedging in the Po Valley;
Falling down a hill in Val D’Osta and hurting my left hip;
Bad water in France;
Lack of food, signage, or free water across France;
Eye problems in France;
Pain throughout most of the journey esp hips, knees and feet;
Heel splits and blisters;
Getting caught short a few times;
Unbearable heat some weeks in France and Italy;
Overly heavy rucksack;
Intentional misdirection en route up to Radicofani;
Various tourist information staff esp Lausanne and Champlitte;
Collapse of energy upon arrival in Rome;
The sarcophagus of Santa Rosa in Viterbo, Italy;
Toilet/shower arrangement in the Franciscan hostel in Chatillon, Italy;
Small dog licking the back of my neck in the village of Marador, France;
Farcical toilet incidence en route up to Radicofani, Italy with Fabbrizio;
Buying ingredients in a supermarket with a total stranger, Angela, Langres, France;
What could I have done better?
Loaded the VF software onto my phone before departure;
Should have started off with much less weight in the large rucksack;
Trained harder beforehand ie carried a heavier rucksack and walked further;
Bought better sunglasses for the journey;
Read Beloc’s excellent book on his VF journey before my departure;
Bought a European plug to USB adapter rather than carrying a UK plug and adapter;
Taken a tube of savalon;
The fundraising for Hostage UK has been disappointing, not even reached 15% of my target!
Franco and Maria
My objective here was to be able to talk about my late parents without being disabled by emotion; to this end, I had thought that allowing myself the time and space to consider them as people; to develop a more balanced view of them; and reflect upon what they actually did for me, the extended family and our local community, I would find a place to locate them in my memories and develop a form of words that would allow me to talk about them more freely.
To some extent I have achieved this. I feel a huge burden of debt to them, in that, they provided my sister and I with a stable, loving home. We ate good food but in the conetxt of very limited material wealth, such as books and toys. We may well have been the last family on the street to own a car; not on environmental grounds but due to our financial limitations. Oddly, my parents set high standards of where they wanted to see me as an adult, eg they felt I should become a doctor or a lawyer, after all they thought I was bright enough, as a child, and they had sacrificed much since their arrival in the UK as migrant workers in the early 1950s. What they didn’t know, therefore couldn’t share with me, was how I supposed to achieve this objective. I certainly had no idea, and ending up in an awful secondary modern school, I was given little or no encouragement to study or to think beyond traditional forms of employment such as industrial apprenticeships.
My father is without doubt the source of physical abilities, what little I have that is, and these are consistent with many of the Laurenzi males, however, I didn’t get all the genes, in that, I’m the only bald one! My father was an emotionally literate character and a tremendously good host, warm and welcoming, however, he was stubborn, irrationally biased against all sorts of things, in way we would, today, consider it, bigoted. He liked the idea of being a sort of community leader but couldn’t really deliver on this task, and much was left to my mother and I to sort; whereas he got the credit. Yet he never made any pretence when it was just we four at home; it was just a show for the Italian public of Leighton Buzzard.
My mother on the other hand, gave me my character, values, and a deep sense of responsibility for others. It is hard to imagine a kinder, more loving woman but she had a terrible temper, much like my father. But unlike him, she enjoyed me sharing ideas, concepts, and things I’d learned, mostly from books. Often on Sundays, whilst my father was at work, we three would talk for ages about things, that is, as long as they didn’t conflict with Catholic teachings! I remember one such lunch where I used a torch and two balls to explain why the moon changes shape; my mother was speechless but I’m not entirely convinced she believed me.
I am more able to talk about them without resorting to blubbering. Interestingly, whilst I can do this in English, I struggle talking about them in Italian. Not because I don’t have the same lexicon, but, it being their language, the language of our home, just makes it all the more poignant.
I am left with a strong sense of my childhood and family plus a deep feeling of gratitude. It reinforces my belief that money is not everything and it certainly can’t buy you love!
The big conceptual task I set myself was to consider the nature of god. In the blog intro I mentioned that I had given up on the concept about the age of 14 or 15. I had been comfortable in my atheism for decades, indeed brought up my two boys, in that tradition. I believed that one could have a strong moral framework without reference to god or an established religion. I still believe this. I have worn my atheism like a safety blanket and when things didn’t fit I just put them on a shelf, intellectually speaking. The problem for me was the shelf was getting over crowded and ran the risk of collapse.
It has been suggested that my encroaching age produces an urgent sense of one’s own mortality; I’m sure this true, maybe even for me. After all, I feel some urgency about getting things sorted, such as my will but I have no sense, whatever, that my life is about to be over any time soon. I am still strong, fit and healthy, especially for my age. The urgency is driven by frustration, about how, as a species we organise ourselves, the harm we do to each other and the planet, and wanting to see my sons leading meaningful, independent lives. And, oh yes, I really want to be a grandfather, many times over!
The review for me began at two starting points. First, why do we seem predisposed to want to have a god, in almost every culture, and every era, people have felt the need to refer to god/gods. Ignorance must play its part, but not every culture or every point in history can be said to suffer from such ignorance. The second, is based on whether there exists anything independent of us, as corporeal and sentient beings, if so, what on earth could it be?
The ignorance point was easier to deal with for me, in that, it runs against common sense, to assume we are either biologically programmed or predisposed towards easy answers, a form of intellectual laziness; or maybe, a desire to blame something other than oneself or one’s own community or tribe, when things go wrong. I simply don’t buy this argument, if we are programmed for god, where is this function located; which are the genes responsible; and why have so many bright people come out in support of the idea of God. Ignorance doesn’t stack up for me.
So, if there exists something separate from us, as humans, what is it and what is the relationship between us and them/it? I continue to be skeptical about the god of the main religions, founded in the middle east: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They present an understanding of a god that seems both redundant and impossible. A rigid idea born out of its time in the middle east and since then we continue accepting too few serious revisions. I know virtually nothing of the other major religions, such as, Hinduism, so there has been no consideration of this or other religions or philosophies on this trip.
My sense today, is that something sentient exists, separate from us, but its too early for me to say what, let alone why. It could be something like Jung’s collective unconsciousness; a sentient energy operating much like cloud computing; or another dimension we have yet to properly understand. I am sorry to those of you that wanted something more tangible or definitive, but for me, its still a work in progress.
Whilst walking, I wanted to look at the items I had put on the shelf. I won’t bore you with all the details but will pick two. The first, is there have been so many times, when I faced death, from infancy to recent adulthood, and yet each time, I was either unscathed or ended up with little damage. The second, is more complex and perhaps also easier to dismiss. I feel able to do some things that I’ve never been shown or learnt. It could, in fact, just be a degree of intelligence, rational thinking, unconsciously having learned a thing, or even genetic memory. But what if I’ve been given a helping hand? It, of course, begs questions such as by whom and why? I have no answers to these. I shared these things liberally and openly with fellow walkers and pilgrims, as one does, but I did not always like their answers. I am unhappy with suggestions of being special or chosen. Too many bad things have arisen when one group considers itself either special or chosen! I certainly don’t feel either.
An interesting conversation I had with journalist and author, Timothy Egan, that maybe you don’t have to be special to be chosen. I am uncomfortable with the notion of being chosen at all, not so much out of modesty but fear of what I might be chosen for. What’s if I don’t agree with it; or am totally unsuited for the task; or that I don’t even realise I’ve been given a task! It was put well in the 1970s, in an otherwise rather silly book, by Richard Bach, the reluctant messiah.
I have enjoyed spending time in monasteries, convents, churches and chapels throughout my walk. My journey began at Westminster cathedral and Canterbury and finished at the Vatican and San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome. I found sung vespers a rewarding experience but still do not feel inclined to join in with services, such as mass. The act of structured mediation or prayer, when done my way, it would probably not be considered as praying at all. It is something I missed during my long period of atheism. Maybe it’s just the space for quiet reflection rather than prayer; after all, I don’t repeat anything proscribed nor do I adopt any conventional line of engagement. It’s more of a sense of opening myself up to the ether. I expect no reply, yet often come away with answers, much in the same way, as if it had been considered using a pen and paper. Yet things to do with deep feelings and emotions don’t lend themselves to ordinary forms of calculation, its not like working on a maths formula or planning a recipe. Being still and open, seems to work for me. Maybe its just the process of quietening a busy brain, rather than mediation or prayer; in truth, I don’t really care which it is, it just seems to work for me.
Post walk recovery
I had around three weeks after completing the walk before returning home. I spent it in three phases: Rome, mostly in bed for a couple of days; 10 days in Calabria staying with my sister; and finally about a week back in Rome, before returning to the UK.
The first couple of days, I did, literally spend it laying down in my B&B, Colazione al Vaticano. It was very close, as its name suggests, to the Vatican. Like many Italian B&Bs, they haven’t understood that the second B stands for breakfast; indeed I was only offered breakfast, in one such place in the whole of Italy.
Watched a lot of TV and ate. Having lost 10 kilos and in a good deal of pain, coupled with a terrible headache, probably borne from exhaustion, I really did need peace and quiet, lots of rest, and plenty of food!
I enjoyed my short sojourn to Calabria, where my sister lives, as well as many rellies on my mother’s side, of my large extended family. It was not really restful but it was good seeing everyone once more. I really hope my sister, Emilia, returns back to the UK, we all miss her. 10 days came and went, and I could feel the weight returning to my body. Ice cream from Cesare; coffee granita with panna at Sub-Zero; and gorging myself on frittole with my family; it all helped my waist line to return to pre-VF dimensions!
My handful of days back in Rome were enjoyable but I was ready to return home. It felt odd that whilst I’d been walking the VF, I’d rented out my home for a few weeks. Not sure that it was worth the cost and effort for the rent received! I tried several times to get into St Peter’s but the queues seem never to go down. I visited some old favourites such as the Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and Trajan’s column. I had the time to explore new areas but always walking very slowly, almost gingerly, as the soles of my feet continued to be sore. The new places include, EUR the modernist district set up Mussolini; Circus Maximus; and the beautiful St John in Laterans.
I enjoyed my evening with Don, who lives in Rome, and sits on the board of both Hostage US and Hostage Italia, the latter, I am keen to help get off the ground. My cousin’s daughter, Oriana and her partner, Sal plus his dad and brother in law, and I, had a great day out in Ostia. The ancient port of Rome, with its own, remarkable architectural style, a blend of fascism inspired monumentalism crossed with Hispanic, Santa Fe, sounds contradictory but the description works for me! I had a day trip to Assisi to meet with my cousin, Roberto, who was curating a series of historically themed events for the region. It’s so him! He, despite being busy, kindly introduced me to what I can only describe as a super-pilgrim, Francisco Sancho, who has walked 13000kms over 7 years. His Assisi exhibition was outstanding, it was simple yet deeply moving.
Since returning to London on 5th October, my body has begun to re-adjust back to urban life. My legs ache quite a bit and have asked to have x-rays on my hips; plus a proper look at my eye, but this being the NHS I can’t even get on the waiting list to have my eye looked at! It been enjoyable meeting up with friends – old and new, doing DIY and overseeing an extension to my home, and yet I can’t seem to settle. Unconsciously planning my next walk maybe? I’ll need a new pair of boots, the ones below have quite worn out!