Pilgrimages with a Small “p” – Europe

"I appreciate the relief of wine and pizza over frugal shelters, and being pissed off instead of pretending to be enlightened." – Justin Ballis, St James pilgrim. I wish I could claim the credit for saying this, but either way, it puts into context anything I am about to write on the subject of becoming a pilgrim junkie.

The word "pilgrimage" inevitably carries a large amount of spiritually earnest baggage. As a terminally damaged Catholic convent girl (though not crude and lurid), my reaction to formal religion has always been, at its most positive, dismissive. So what happened to change my view? In short, early retirement and the question – what next?

A mid-life crisis shared with my partner culminated in our decision to ride two horses along 1,600 kilometers of the St. James Way from France to Spain. Paul had never ridden before, we had no horses, no experience and no money. So there you have it, the beginning, but certainly not the end, because we soon discovered that the world and its dog had "done" the St James Way and written about it in quantities best measured in terms of rain forests (alright, so there is a tree-space with our name on it too).

As for the quality, well that is an entirely personal viewpoint, strongly depends on one's attitude to crystals and books about psychic phenomena. If either of these is on your shelves, stop reading right now. If not, read on. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Mark Twain can always be relied on for a pithy, pertinent quote for just about any occasion; certainly applicable in relation to pilgrimages.

Like any other kind of travelling experience (other than five-star compound cocoons), pilgrimages throw its participants on the mercy of both the people they are travelling with, and the country they are travelling through – an education in itself. Furthermore, they push individuals to the edges of physical and mental boundaries they probably didn’t even know existed, with varying outcomes. A significant number of pilgrims (great writers included) indulge in post-pilgrimage language/behaviour that in any other situation would be given a Latin name with a long diagnosis. While others prefer to list areas of prowess only pilgrims can appreciate – fastest walker, loudest snorer, longest day-er, smallest payer. In the end it is all about the proverbial "each" to their proverbial "own".

For Paul and I, our journeys along the St. James Way and latterly the much less well known, via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, have been life-changing experiences simply because we and our horses survived, met some unforgettable people and had an amazing time on the way. So much so that we are currently planning our next journey – Rome to Jerusalem, 2009. Confirmed pilgrim junkies, possibly without the big P. If you are a small pilgrimage-er, or would like to be, here are some excerpts from our own experiences that could either inspire you or make that over-priced time-share deal in Marbella suddenly appear much more attractive.

Extracts: Riding the Milky Way – our first pilgrimage with two horses and a dog, 1,600 kilometres from le Puy en Valléé, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Apart from, “Where did you start?” probably the next, most frequently asked pilgrim question is, “Have you booked ahead?” How you answer depends on where and who you are. In the early stages of our walk, we did not book ahead, but now the Chemin is filling visibly and we are beginning to think we should. Yes we could camp, but we also have the horses to consider, well that’s our excuse anyway. The truth is that I still haven’t come to grips with this thing that the tough called bivvying, which for me means no shower and sleeping on stone.

So, as a means of opening the conversation, we ask Phillipe (a sensible-looking Swiss with his equally sensible girlfriend) if he has booked ahead. He returns a serene smile. "We just rely on the angels." I do a double-take, but his expression does not change in the interim. Is he serious? The silence that follows is painful. "Angels," Paul repeats with a slow nod that can be taken to mean anything.

"That’s interesting," I add. "We just rely on the mobile." I was trying to be funny. We start out with the intention of doing a short day, because Gwen’s back is worrying and both horses are showing signs of being tired. First we must stop in Estella to find Pablo and hopefully, some oats. The directions are imprecise; experience has taught me that Paul will reach his goal, no matter how high the odds against him. We ride up to a church on the edge of the town; I let the horses graze while he searches for a house that is supposed to be nearby. Five minutes later he is back, a broad grin all over his face.

"You’ve got to come and see this." He points to a large door covered in horse shoes and a variety of other decorations on the equine theme. Then, through a small grill, we see beyond to a stable yard piled high with the tack and equipment used by picadors. Whoever Pablo is, we are in no doubt that he loves horses, and either was or still is strongly connected with los toreros. A fleeting moral dilemma makes me pause for all of a nanosecond. I detest bullfights, but in terms of what we are looking for – food for our horses – the chances are definitely improving. Our spirits lift only briefly though, because after another five minutes and a great deal of knocking on wood, Paul has only been able to raise someone we presume to be either Pablo’s wife or mother.

An elderly lady crosses the yard in slippers, slowly. This does not look hopeful. I try to smile as she hands a plastic bag to Paul before he has even begin to embark on his explanation of who we are and why we are here. "Go to Santiago for me," she tells him, curtly waving her hand in a refusal of payment. Paul and I draw breath to protest, but she has already shut the door in our faces. We can only accept her generosity as yet another reminder that walking the Camino is a great deal more than just another hike. With oats inside our horses, the ride goes well; we cover a good distance before the sun has risen high enough to shrivel us.

We come to something that not many pilgrims, however zealous, can pass by without a pause – a fountain of wine, free and gushing from a tap in the wall. It’s those angels again. How the Bodegas de Irache manages to cover the cost of thousands of thirsty pilgrims like us drinking its produce, I don’t know. After three glasses we don’t care, even at ten o’clock in the morning. Our last day in Santiago de Compostela dawns and it is sunny; for once I wish it wasn’t. We stuff socks and sleeping bags into our rucksacks for the last time, not caring about the shampoo that is bound to leak or the T-shirt I’ve probably left under the bed. It doesn’t matter any more, does it?

We drive over to the cattle market where we will load our horses into the trailer and finally go home. Un-pilgrims, just ordinary people like everyone else. The overflowing car park is a sign that something could be amiss, as is the cattle truck parked in front of our trailer. We turn the corner and are greeted by the hot waft of cow dung. The whole hall is full of livestock. It’s Friday. It’s Market Day and our horses have turned into bulls with rings through their noses. What now? Then we spot them, Lubie and Gwen jammed into a stall, with cows on one side and a group of pathetic ponies on another. Gwen’s face says it all.

"This is the thanks we get for all our hard work."

It’s so sad, it’s funny. When a big, beefy farmer asks me how much I want for her, I laugh in his face.

"She’s got 1,600 kilometres on the clock. Are you sure you want to buy her?"

As the word gets around, the interest goes up. Soon we have a crowd blocking our way out, almost too much for Lubie and Gwen to take, but not quite. They walk out calmly as if they were nearly sold at cattle markets every day, and climb up the ramp of the trailer like the old hands they really are. Our wonderful horses and our amazing dog. Three Camino pilgrims, with two old idiots in tow.

It takes us only two days to drive home, travelling along the hated N120, in full view of the pilgrims who are seeing us now as we saw those cars only a few days before. Worlds apart. Did we really do that? In this heat? Beep the horn Paul and I’ll give them a wave. They won’t know why, but we do.

Extracts: Riding the Roman Way – our second pilgrimage with two horses and a dog, 1,500 kilometres from our home in northern France to Rome. After hours of truly exquisite riding through the Forêt d’Ecouves, a dense mix of spruce, pine, oak beech and masses of wild mushrooms, we find the perfect campsite at the base of a secluded valley. Unusually, I am looking forward to this night under the stars. I am just about to dunk myself into a crystal clear, babbling brook, when Paul shouts over from where he is grazing the "girls". His precise words pass me by, only because they are drowned by the cacophony of fleeing hooves.

The horses have done a runner; I am standing knee-deep and naked in a stream. My nightmares come in all shapes, colours and versions; none of them compare with the horror of this reality. Our horses gone, their hoof prints intermittently visible and confused by the hoof prints of other horses, we know nothing. Instinct tells me they will stick to the paths; probably simply heading back the way they have come: the closest approximation of going home they can manage in this unfamiliar environment, but there are main roads to cross on the way.

In my despair, I tell Paul that when we have found them, I want to quit. I stomp off to get some clothes while he is left to keep on searching and shouting. The horses retrace their steps with confidence and a good thing too, because I have only the vaguest idea of where we are and the light is failing. On leaving the road, we are plunged into dense woods on tiny paths. Gwendolyn, never terribly stable on her gangly legs, stumbles but remains calm. Paul, on Lubie, a.k.a the mountain goat, copes like a pro. As we weave through drooping branches and slither along patches of muddy marsh, I can’t decide whether we are supremely stupid or impressively brave. When we reach our campsite at ten thirty and in pitch dark, I am so relieved. With the help of torches, we tie a tether line and secure them for the night, then I finish my interrupted wash while Paul turns his attention to our food: one packet of cashew nuts and a melon.

Meanwhile, lightening has been flickering overhead and there has been some vague rumbling in the distance, but when it still has not materialised into anything storm-like an hour later, we go to bed and settle in for a much-needed sleep. The heavens were just waiting for our sleeping bags to get warm. After all, what’s the fun in dumping on people when they know what’s coming? First, we get the laser-bright burst of light, then the ear-crashing clap of thunder and finally the rods of rain with eyes for every dodgy seam. We are soaked within seconds, an unpleasant sensation, infinitely less unpleasant than the drenching dashes we have to make every ten minutes to calm our poor horses who are tethered outside.

Next, entry into a small town called Isdes; our first introduction to the plain nasty people. Is it Monsieur le Maire who tells people to be po-faced and mean, or is it just a genetic factor? Some of the villages we have been through are welcoming and easy in every respect. Others, like this one, are plain Klondike. At the only inn, a woman with a moustache takes one look at the horses and tells us that all the rooms are booked, though the Marie Celeste would have been described as crowded in comparison. The only Gite d’Etape is closed and the only Chambre d’hote, room, we can find is run by an old man who is not sure what day of the week it is. In desperation we ask him if we can at least put up our tent and tether the horses on a piece of brambled earth we saw next door. He reluctantly consents, demands we leave it clean, which we can only presume means getting rid of all the beer bottles and condoms discarded by previous visitors.

With no other alternative, we start looking for a suitable and marginally less brambled corner, until Gwendolyn spots an apology for grass on the other side of a significant ditch. Paul and I watch in disbelief as she clears it in her hobbles, and then gets on with the grazing as if nothing had happened. Proof positive she is an attention seeking besom and that in spite of early attacks of equine hysteria, the hobbles have never really worried her. Nevertheless, we are prepared to accept that we have to find something better for our horses, who have worked so hard on our behalf.

We trail the town and eventually track down a man who has a Shetland stallion, a large garden and no time for people who don’t offer wayfarers like ourselves as much assistance as possible. Gwendolyn and Lubie are given the run of his lawn and show their appreciation by fertilising it liberally, while we try to find something similarly comfortable for ourselves. Next, the Wicked Witch of the West, an octogenarian with jet black hair who we are told runs a Chambre d’hote, though the house has no sign and its shuttered windows clearly have not been opened since it was built. When she asks us if we are looking for somewhere to stay, I am suddenly in two minds. Perhaps a night in the brambles would be preferable to being turned into a frog. She is insistent and later we know why. She plans to charge us an extortionate 50 Euros a night, has no visible friends and likes nothing better than the sound of her voice, hour after hour after hour. By the end of the evening, we both agree that a spell and some slimy green skin would have been a positive improvement.

Early on the via Francigena, pilgrims displayed the keys of St. Peter to identify their purpose for travelling, and I am now regretting that we did not do the same. Not because it would have made our lives any easier, but because it would have been symbolic of our experience and the changes we have made as a result. Travelling along the via Francigena was significantly tougher than last year on the St. James Way, also more interesting and rewarding. This is not to say we regret our first journey down the St .James Way. In fact, we are sure that without it, we would not have succeeded this time.

The pilgrimage is a progressive process and we have developed physically and mentally as a result. On the St James Way, we travelled within a pilgrim world, benefiting from meeting people of almost every conceivable nationality, age, background and motivation, for all that, still relatively excluded from the outside world. This year on the via Francigena, a far less well known route, we cut across countries and cultures without any buffers between us and the communities we encountered on the way. This has been a sometimes tough, sometimes humbling experience, during which we learnt more about ourselves and the human race than we could ever have anticipated.

Our overwhelming conclusion being that in spite of government leaders who force nations into stereotypes and often inhuman actions, the integrity of the individual has not been entirely overcome. While travelling, we became fascinated with the concept of the Zahir – an object that has the power to create an obsession in everyone who sees or experiences it, so that the affected person perceives less and less of reality. From here our interest narrowed down to the possible Zahir effect of the pilgrimage on us and in some ways, it is undeniably evident. Yes, we are well and truly hooked, but hopefully not in an unrealistic way.

In keeping with its symbol, the via Francigena has opened our eyes to another mode of existence – a mindset where the individual action must be judged by its effect on, and value for, the rest of the world. This may, initially, sound altogether too esoteric and self indulgent for you to stomach, but hopefully less so when presented in its very practical form. While journeying towards Rome, the vague idea of thoroughly mapping the via Francigena consolidated into a firm plan for the development of not only this, but perhaps even less well known routes.

Now link that plan to our other main priority, the environment and more specifically eco-travel; you have a crystal clear mandate. Since returning from Rome, we have created Pilgrimage Publications, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the identification and mapping of pilgrim routes all over the world, regardless of religion or belief. Our first project will be to cycle the entire via Francigena, noting the detail and challenges for walkers, cyclists and horse riders, with the aim of making it accessible for everyone, not just masochists like us. We hope this will only be the first of many, and the practical expression of our gratitude to the pilgrim experience.