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Nantes to Lucon 120kms (76m)

Chateau in Nantes

After a long day yesterday, today had to be shorter, and I could tell I was incubating a headcold (probably picked up in the Youth Hostel at Jordans…..the likely culprit prepared the salad for the BBQ).

Landscape. It was changing as I forged south. Brittany was what would be termed in the cycling world as “lumpy”. Now into the Loire et Atlantique, followed by a traverse of the Vendee, the contours were much gentler, fresian cows were much in evidence, and now I am cycling through extensive vineyards, the buds of the new growth just beginning to show, heralding the autumn al harvest.

Spanish chapel

Auberge de Jeunesse, Nantes. When I proffered by membership card to the lady warden, her eyebrows lifted and she said in that beautiful gallic way: “You must be a very important person”. When I enquired why, she said “Because you ‘ave a gold card”. So I expected to be presented with a bottle of the best champagne, but didn’t want to burst the ‘bubble’ of her surprise by telling her that becoming a life-member of the YHA back in the 80’s only cost me 25 pounds!

As I was settling down to sleep last night, two late check-ins came to disturb my early slumbers, followed by a din of ‘teenage-hood’. I recognised the sounds of sweet merriment of teenage girls on a school trip abroad! Their German leader was profusely apologetic, but I told him over breakfast he

Twinned with Galicia

had nothing to worry about, they had settled very quickly and I wasn’t phased by teenagers on holiday. “Been there, done that, but didn’t have the tee-shirt with me to prove it”! We shared a lot of chat about things educational and international, and he bemoaned the gradual demise of French in German education (everyone wants to learn English) and was mildly astonished at the growth of Spanish (yes, I said to myself!)

Nantes. The cathedral had a side altar dedicated to the forthcoming World Youth Day, to be held in Madrid in the

Tarte au fraises, my favourite!

summer. And I noticed the logo of Santiago had been inserted into the publicity. The altar was brightly decorated with the Spanish flag and colours. But a question that’s been nagging me as I approached Nantes, and it’s still unresolved. If Nantes and its surrounds are in the Loire

Cemetry filling station!

region, why do so many towns and villages have  “….en Bretagne” as part of their name. And why do many places have their names written in Breton as well.  Perhaps some expert can post me a reply.

A word about cemeteries. My several visits to cemeteries along the way have not been for morbid reasons. Any long distance traveller across France should know that cemeteries are a reliable source of fresh water and, carefully calculated, you should never need to buy the bottled stuff.

To be a pilgrim. What is to be a pilgrim. This thought has been occupying my thinking for years. If the authorites

Do I really look like one of these?

Roadside orchids

in Santiago and Rome are to be heeded, walking, cycling or horse-riding the distance are the only qualifying criteria. But the debate amongst Confraternities of Pilgrims is still an unresolved one. In the modern age, travelling under our own steam is a refreshing, invigorating escape from modern means of transport. For medieval people, it was their only means of transport, and if they could have found an easier way of getting to their destination, they would have used it. Unlike today, they didn’t walk for the sheer pleasure and the freedom of the countryside. If Ryanair had existed then, they would have bought their cheap tickets and gone. So, why should we make such an issue of methods of transportation today.

I’ll remember that question the next time I arrive at a pilgrim bunkhouse and find its filled with car-transported “pilgrims”.

Postscript 3: last day in Rome

The Testimonium again! Have you ever been frustrated by bureaucracy? Well, the Vatican has plenty of it, and lots to spare! I arrived at St Peter’s at 9am, made my way to the pilgrim office, and Don Bruno Vercesi took me (along with Mario, a Fr Canadian pilgrim) to an inner office, questioned us about our journeys, filled in a big book with our details (I am pilgrim no. 2006 to be registered), got us to write summaries of our experiences, then asked us to return at 11.15am. We did, only to be joined by 5 Italians and three young Germans, then we were given a lecture tour of parts of the crypt that tourists don’t get to see, followed by a short service in an Irish chapel……………. At 12.30 we came out brandishing our testimonia! Three and a half hours later! In ten years time, what if a hundred pilgrims turn up daily at the office? What then?

The long wait gave Mario and me the opportunity to climb the 500+ steps to the top of the cupola of the Basilica, and admire the exquisite symmetry of the entire Vatican. The climb is arduous but worth it (or you can pay a few euros more and take a lift part-way). The Vatican was built to demonstrate the power of the church, at a time when popes enjoyed extensive political, as well as religious, influence. That demonstration of power still attracts millions of visitors every year.

Curiously, during the concluding service of prayers and readings, two of the German lads confessed they weren’t Christians. Well, that got Don Bruno’s missionary spirit into overdrive, but I could see that his ministrations were falling on deaf ears, but the lads smiled generously and thanked him for his advice.

Lunch with the Marists. My brother, Gerard, is a Marist in the UK, so he provided me with an introduction and I was kindly invited to lunch at their General Curia by their Fr General, John Hannon. Having been held up by the bureaucracy that morning, I had to walk smartly to an unfamiliar part of the city, and find where the house was. Lunch was excellent, and it gave me the opportunity to meet members of the order from other parts of the world.

A stroll through the city. Rather than head straight back to base, I decided to walk across the city and take in

many of the well-known sights on this my last day. Rome at any time of the year is busy with tourists, but late

summer is an especially busy time. Large groups are marched along by their leaders, all plugged into their audio

systems, listening to their guides as they walk along. You don’t hear any guides shouting to be heard by their

groups, and this is particularly pleasant to other passers-by who don’t want to hear their commentaries.

But amidst all this beauty and affluence, the downtrodden will make their way and hope to feed off the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. Though there is a great deal of well-rehearsed drama in the way the poor beg, it is not easy to pass them by and ignore them.

I also popped into  the Pantheon and looked inside to see if I could get myself a burger at McDonald’s. Curiously, I couldn’t find it!

Homeward bound. Tomorrow I have to admit to myself that the journey is really over when I climb on the Ryanair flight back to Stansted. The bike is boxed up in a fashion, more to protect other people’s luggage than to protect the bike. And where is the sense in this? My ticket cost me 9 euros, and the bike has cost 40 euros. The clear message is that people are discountable, but sports equipment isn’t.

See you up the road in the UK!!

Postscript 1 Rome

The Testimonium. It was time to do battle with the crowds in St Peter’s Square and get into the Basilica and find the obscurely located office of Don Bruno Vercesi, the priest in charge of dispensing the official Vatican stamp on your pilgrim’s passport and rewarding you with the Testimonium of completion of the VF. Brandishing my pilgrim’s passport, I dared to ignore all the long queues and rapidly made my way into the heart of the Basilica. I discovered how recondite this office was because several of the security staff were unsure as to its whereabouts. I forged my way into the sacristy, ignoring ‘no entry’ signs until I was stopped by security. I held out my passport to him and his attitude changed immediately. He ushered me into the innermost recess of the sacristy where I was met by the man in charge (but not Don Bruno, who could dispense the Testimonium). I was told that he was only available Monday-Friday, and that I should return on Monday. Of course, I protested, and tried to insist that he could dispense it……but I knew he was going to win. So I got the stamp, but will have to return on Monday.

The road less travelled? The VF, in comparison with the route to Santiago de Compostela, may be the road less travelled, but it is amazing how VF travellers manage to locate each other. The group of four UK cyclists that I first met in Piacenza crossing a piazza, I met several times en route, once we stayed in the same hostel, and once they saw my name in the visitor’s book of a hostel I had just left. Now, amidst the thousands of tourists milling around St Peter’s, apparently they bet each other a beer on who would see me first. I think it was Mike who will be drinking several free beers tonight, paid for by his friends Laurent, Nick and Tim. You can’t see Tim in this photo, because he is outside St Peter’s looking after the bikes!

Did you know? There is a Jacobite monument in St Peter’s dedicated to the Stuarts, who used Rome as their home in exile. The family was honoured with this distinction.

Teaching English to the Italians? Would you recommend that Italians should learn the English spoken by this gentleman? Or is it, now that he has lost his place in the England team, that he’s having to sell his time at 8euros an hour to make ends meet?

Pilgrimage in the modern world. I know what I am about to say may be controversial, but it might get people thinking. In the Catholic world places like Fatima and Lourdes are much visited shrines, and people talk about going ‘on pilgrimage’ to these places. Given that most get there by plane, train or coach, this is not ‘pilgrimage’ really, it should be called ‘paying a visit to’ a shrine. Now, that is not to devalue the experience, but just to correct the use of language.

However, I also want to ‘correct’ our idea of the medieval notion of pilgrimage. Although I am a committed Christian, I do believe that the major religions of this world have ‘hijacked’ the notion of pilgrimage, and made it fit their own purposes for spiritual advancement. In the Christian world, the 13th and 14th centuries were notorious for this promotion and, amongst many things, the sale of indulgences did much to discredit the value of the journey. The basic meaning of the term ‘pilgrim’ is one who ‘wanders, travels or journeys to a destination’, and in medieval times that was an arduous undertaking usually done on foot. People travel the ancient ways for a variety of reasons, and not necessarily religious ones. Pilgrimage should be seen as a journey with a purpose, and that purpose could be anything. I’ve met people trying to resolve personal situations (marriage, family, friendships), celebrating coming through an illness or serious operation, or simply wanting personal time with their own thoughts as they travel along. One Dutch pilgrim I met, on the way to Santiago, had no belief whatsoever in the hereafter, and when I asked him “why to Santiago?” his response was illuminating: “well, any destination will do, it’s the journey that counts”.

And that, for me, is the nature of ‘pilgrimage’. Arriving in Rome was an exciting conclusion, but the journey was the thing that really counted: what I learned about myself, disconnecting from the ordinary things of life, and the things I learned from those I encountered on the journey. The journey is what you make of it yourself. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado included the following lines in a famous poem: “Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, nada más; caminante no hay camino, se hace el camino al andar” (Traveller, the road is made up of your own footprints, nothing else. Traveller, there is no road ahead, you make the road as you go along). And closer to home, in the poem Little Gidding, T.S.Eliot wrote these famous lines: “We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time”.

For me, that is the very essence of ‘pilgrimage’. Neither poet even mentioned the term ‘pilgrimage’, but they understood it. If, after a long journey like a pilgrimage, you begin to see your own everyday life with new eyes, then your journey has been a success. In some small way, your life will be changed forever.

Haiti. Once again, thank you to all who have donated to the re-building of the Claretian school in Port-au-Prince. Fr Anistus is immensely appreciative, and the money is going to an extremely deserving cause.