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)
Many years awheel exploring the world, I am now addressing the most ancient of routes in Europe: the Via Francigena. First walked by St Augustine in 598 when he went to Rome to receive the pallium (his seal of office as the first Archbishop of Canterbury), it has recently been re-established using the travel notes of Archbishop Sigeric in 990 (one of the early bloggers!). Although I will have the benefit of a pair of wheels for my journey, carrying my pilgrim’s credential (passport) I will qualify for the official ‘testimonium’ given to pilgrims when they arrive at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Following ancient routes, especially routes of religious and historical significance, has always been a passionate interest of mine. My forthcoming journey along the Via Francigena comes in the wake of several other long journeys, including the ancient Camino de Santiago de Compostela. So why am I doing it? Is it just for the sheer pleasure of completing it? Well, partly, but also read below:
January 12th saw Haiti (the poorest country in the west) suffer its most devastating earthquake. 230,000 died, along with 300,000 injured. The 6 month anniversary of the quake has reminded us of the continued desperation of the situation.
For many years, we have supported the humanitarian efforts of the Claretian Missionaries in Belize. But on this one occasion, our attention deservedly shifts to the people of Haiti in their time of need. The Claretians in Haiti have spent several years building the infrastructure of their future work, which included an elementary school, which was completely destroyed. The money we raise through this venture will go directly to helping to rebuild this school.
Cycle pilgrimage: Kimbolton-Canterbury-Rome (1300 miles)
I will be setting off on August 29th, and hope to arrive in Rome about 18 days later. Much more than a cycle ride, this will be a genuine attempt to follow the route established 1400 years ago. I will be passing through places of historical connection, seeking to have my ‘credential’ (pilgrim’s passport) stamped and signed along the way, in order to qualify for the testimonium at journey’s end.
(I can now report that, at the end of all the fund-raising, we have been able to send £6,500 to help rebuild the Claretian Elementary School in Port-au-Prince. If you contributed to that amount, a sincere ‘thank you’ for your support)