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Modern pilgrimage

The purpose of travel differs from person to person. In medieval times, the greatest travellers were usually pilgrims, who would set off on foot from their own front door in the direction of a distant holy place. They had to endure not only the hardships of the journey itself, but also the ever present dangers of disease, hunger and highway robbers. Many died en route. Those that arrived at their destinations could not rely on Ryanair to take them home again. The only way home was back the way they had come, on foot. This is what we would call ‘travel with a purpose’.

Modern pilgrimage is a much more clinical experience, though not without its stresses and dangers. With the invention of the bicycle, another mode of transport is added to the duo of walking and horseback. On both the routes to Santiago de Compostela and to Rome, the pilgrim must demonstrate they have travelled ‘under their own steam’ in order to qualify for the ‘Compostela’ or the ‘testimonium’. To do this, they have to carry a credential or passport, have it officially stamped along the route, and present it at journey’s end at the appropriate office.

The fascination of the ‘pilgrim’s progress’  is to travel in the footsteps/hoof prints of tens of thousands of others, along the very same route whose history stretches back 1000 or more years. In the case of the Via Francigena, its history goes back 1400 years to the year 598 when St Augustine trekked to Rome to receive the pallium from the Pope. His return journey would have taken a minimum of 6 months, probably more.

Our knowledge of the route has been informed by recent research into the archives, where the travel notes of Archbishop Sigeric, who travelled to Rome in 990, have been re-discovered and studied in depth. Although some place names have changed, and many of the traversable routes have been reconfigured, it is now possible to trace the exact same route as St Augustine in 598. Unlike the Camino de Santiago, which is now a well established and popular route of modern pilgrimage, the Via Francigena is still largely unknown, but beckons the modern pilgrim to pack his rucksack or pannier, and venture forth.

My plan is to do just that ;0)