Thursday, April 28, 2011

anna-marie on the via de la plata

Hey peregrinos!

I've been too busy working and looking for a new place of residence to get my next Via Francigena installment out of the oven. But may I direct you in the meantime to Anna-Marie Krahn's website, Pilgrim Roads, where you will find the continuing chronicle of her epic walk to Santiago, first along the Via de la Plata from Sevilla, then deviating by way of treacherous goat-tracks and routes known only to contrabandistas to enter the city of the Apostle by the side door. Or this is what I gathered from my first all-too-brief non-virtual encounter with Pilgrim Anna-Marie in Toronto last month.

Right now she's about two weeks in, just gatehring momentum, so it's a good time to pick up the thread. The blog is well-written, entertaining and full of personality - and that's from somebody who hates blogs.

Peek back in here after a week or so and you should find some further adventures of Sigeric. But meantime, hie thee hence!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

the french language in aosta (via francigena vi)

The Alps are the great watershed of Europe. On the north face rise the Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube; on the south, the Po. Whether a drop of rain that falls in the Alps ends up in the North Sea or the Black or the Adriatic all comes down to gravity. But languages are carried by human beings and human feet can defy gravity, meaning mountains aren’t always an effective linguistic watershed.
1561, the date I tried to spell out to Sigeric, was the year in which French replaced Latin as the language of official business in the Val d’Aosta. This did not represent the imposition of a foreign language but rather a recognition of the fact that Aosta’s closest ties were - and had always been - not to the neighbouring Italian Po Valley culture, but to the French-speaking world over the mountains. That the de facto first language of this part of Italia was French.
The language decree was handed down by Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, who went by the genial soubriquet of Testa di Ferro, “Ironhead.” Old Ironhead himself was a French speaker by birth, but he had no bias against Italian. Indeed, he made it the official language of Aosta’s neighbouring province of Piemonte and its capital Torino, as well as Nizza – or as we call it today, Nice.
Of course, to complicate matters (and when are matters ever not complicated?), what is meant by “French” is ambiguous in the Val d’Aosta context. The French mandated by Ironhead for use in education, government and law, was Parisian French, while the French of the Valdaostans was the patois known as Franco-Provençal, a little language of its own, distinct from both northern French and Occitane, the French of the south, a spoken tongue replete with quaint medieval remnants. So in a certain sense, French was an imposed language in Val d‘Aosta.
For three centuries after Duke Emanuel Philibert, the Valley of Aosta, this snowy little cul-de-sac, continued tranquilly on its unique cultural path, its identity protected by membership in the bilingual realm of Savoy. But the fortunes of the House of Savoy had risen during those centuries, along with their pretensions. The head of the household no longer styled himself Duke but King - of Piedmont, Savoy and Sardinia. In 1861, King Victor Emanuel II raised the house one notch further, becoming the first King of the united Italian nation.
Prior to the unification of Italy, French was the mother language of one-eighth of Savoy’s subjects. The royal house itself used Italian and French indifferently, while Count Cavour, the prime minister who more than anyone forged the new nation, was far more comfortable in French. But to uphold his claim to the crown of Italy, Victor Emanuel needed the support of France, and France’s price was steep: the handing over of all Savoyan lands on the French side of the Alps. With this, the French-speaking population of the new Italy was reduced to fewer than 100,000, most of them living in the Val d’Aosta.
All of a sudden, Aosta found herself trying to swim in the minestrone of Italian politics. No longer was she left to go about her own business. Now she was an aberration, a throwback, an irritant. Successive nationalist-minded governments made legislation to disestablish the French language in Val d’Aosta., replacing French education with Italian. But the real struggle began with the ascension to power of Mussolini. In 1923, Aosta sent a deputation to Rome to chat with the new dictator about the future of French in Italy. Whether this move was an act of naive optimism or a desperate attempt to circumvent disaster, it only seemed to focus Mussolini’s attention on the French question. The immediate response was the closing of 180 rural schools where French was still the language of instruction. The next year brought a prohibition against French signage. The local Fascist commissariat was assigned to change all French street names to Italian, even as French newspapers were shut down. The wolf in sheep’s clothing was the designation of Aosta as a provincia. The apparent elevation in status was counteracted by lumping the entirely Italian city of Ivrea into the province, thus diluting the French presence.
The new Fascist headquarters were erected at the western gate of old Aosta. In the Piazza della Repubblica stood a tall column topped by statues of Romulus and Remus suckling at their wolf-mother’s teat. For the second time in its long history, Aosta found itself occupied by Rome. The new Italian conquest was more devious than the first, however. Val d’Aosta’s leading employer was the Cogne iron mines, an interest that dates back to Roman times (and may well have been a factor in making the land of the Salassis irresistible to the Empire). Mussolini now instructed the mines to bring in Italian-speaking workers from outside Val d’Aosta.
Italy’s declaration of war against France in 1939 was the crisis point. The Italian author Curzio Malaparte recalls Alpine troops crying and jeering as they stood at attention to hear Il Duce’s speech. The flames of Gallophobia were fanned, as all writing in French was prohibited and a witch-hunt was instigated against priests who continued to preach and teach in French. Ironically, the War interrupted a fascist programme already underway to “Italianize” 20,000 French family names. A 1940 editorial in the local Fascist organ proclaimed: “Let us no longer dirty our mouths calling an Italian by a foreign name.”
But the Aostans, like the Salassi before them, showed their independent streak. The first organized opposition to the Italian state came with the formation of the Ligue Valdotaine, dedicated to the preservation of the French language and Valdostan traditions. The Ligue was succeeded in 1925 by the Jeune Vallée d’Aoste, co-founded by Emilio Chanoux, an Aosta notary, and Abbot Trèves, a politicized priest of the sort the valley seemed to breed. Chanoux, born in 1906, was an ardent federalist who foresaw a post-war European federation reordered on regional and ethnic bases. By 1941, he was leading the Valdaostan partisan movement, Comité de Libération. On May 18, 1944, he was arrested and tortured to death by the SS.
Post-war, the movement for Aosta to secede from Italy led to massive demonstrations. Many believe that if a plebiscite had ever been permitted, Aosta would be French today. Instead, the new Italian government offered Val d’Aosta special status and substantial autonomy. By the laws of 1948, French was guaranteed equal footing with Italian, with school hours divided between the languages.
Statistics indicate that over the long run Italian has taken its place as the principal language of the valley and the clear favourite for work and school. As of 2001, 70% of Valdaostans aged twelve to eighteen reported using Italian as their principal language at school or work, compared to 32% in the sixty-three to seventy bracket.
Today, the square at the centre of Aosta is, depending which sign you read or which map you look at, Place Émile Chanoux or Piazza Emilio Chanoux.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

aosta (via francigena v)

Aostas library, like everything else in the city, is built on Roman foundations. You peer over the landing to the lower floors and see the great, pale stones that once formed part of the Porta Decumanus. It gives a whole new meaning to exposed brick. An event is in progress down there and refreshments are being served but I overcome my curiosity and head for the second floor where the special collection on the Val d'Aosta is housed in a wing of its own. According to the notice on the desk I need a library card for access but the librarian waves me in without raising an eye from her computer screen.
Ah, Italia.
I gather an armful of useful-looking history books from the stacks and colonize a table by the window in the reading room. I have the place to myself. The first volume I crack open is a hefty brute entitled Storia della valle dAosta by Andrea Zanotto. I do my best to skim through the Roman and church foundation history, the medieval saints and miracles and battles. But its too soon after lunch for this. (Did I mention lunch? A heaping plate of polenta concia - polenta swimming in globs of melted Fontina cheese - helped down by a generous quarter litre of red.) By the time I get to the Renaissance and Count Emmanuel Philibert de Savoie the words are strating to blur, I hear voices.
And then a familiar musty aroma meets my nose and the voices become a voice.
And what vulgar tongue might this be?
Hes leaning over my shoulder, eyeing the text with a scowl.
Sigeric! I mean, Archbishop! Where did you get to last night?
He ignores my question, still fixed on the text. I can make out the semblance of a word here and there, but if they call this Latin Oh, the world has sadly fallen. The end draws near.
This language is Italian, Archbishop.
Italian. And what is Italian?
It is a…” I dont want to use words like vulgar or corruption for the language of amore. Its a Romance language. A descendent of Latin.
A bastard descendent if you ask me. Italian! Next it will be Hispanic and Lusitanian and Gallic’…”
Well, yes actually. We call those Spanish, Portuguese and French…”
Enough, boy! Gog and Magog, thats what I call it! He snorts and leans closer. That smell again, of old books and damp stone. It is no easy matter to read this hand. The form of the letters is peculiar. Cant say that I recognize them all. Yet they have to them a great regularity. This is the work of a skilled scribe.
Its called printing, Archbishop. Its done by a machine.
A machine that writes? What a wondrous notion. But how then do the monks fill their time with no manuscripts to inscribe?
I would guess they have more leisure than in your day.
The Devil finds work for idle hands. He pokes at the page with a thick, yellowed fingernail. What manner of letters are these? And again here. They seem not letters at all but some barbarous script.
He is pointing at a table of dates accompanied by population figures.
Theyre numbers.
I see no numbers.
Well this is an eight, and this is a four, and this is a zero…”
My pen is lying on the table. Sigeric seizes it with a sigh of impatience, closes his fist around it awkwardly, like someone using chopsticks for the first time, and scrawls in my open notebook VIII.
This is an eight. he pronounces.
And this is a four. IV
And what was this other number you named?
Good Lord. Arabic numerals. Hes never seen one. He doesnt even know zero. Must be another gift of the Arabs. I have no idea when Europe adopted these innovations, but it was certainly after Sigerics time.
Well, lets take a look, my tutoring instincts kick in and I pick a date at random. Do you recognize this figure?
Its a one, yes. I see that, at least.
Good. Now this figure is a five, and this is a six and here is another one. You see? Fifteen-sixty-one. The year, that is.
He looks absolutely stumped. I see this will take time. Okay, lets go through them all, starting with one. We spend a few minutes on the integers, Sigeric grumbling and shaking his head all the while. But he seems to be picking them up. Then he wants to write them. I position the pen a little better in his hand and he essays the curves and spikes of 2s and 5s and 9s. Zero seems to give him misgivings. He declines to write it.
Thats sufficient, lad. Somehow I have fallen out of the practice of applying my mind. We shall do more tomorrow. He takes the book in both hands and riffles through the pages. The parchment seems not very sturdy. But it is passing light. A great convenience to the peripatetic. Im tempted to tell him about e-books, but decide that can wait.
I have a bit of a dilemma. Id like to get on with my research, but Im afraid of losing Sigeric. A solution strikes me.
How about if I read this out to you? You wont understand much, Im afraid the Latin is much transformed, but at least you can get used to the letters and their pronunciation.
His thin lips spread in a smile. And so I begin. Now and then he slows me down or asks me to repeat a word, but for the most part he listens intently, watching my finger follow the train of words. And so we spend the afternoon.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

aosta (via francigena part iv)

In the morning 
I look out my window. Across the way there are mountains where last night there was only mist and miasma. It’s overcast but the clouds look benign. A good day for a walk around town. My pizzeria Hilton lies outside the city walls, so I make my way to the burly parallel triple-arched entryways of the eastern Porta Praetoria. It’s something to savour, entering a Roman city. You know you’ve arrived.
The Forum lies just north of the decumanus; its now the Cathedral square. Beneath the square and open to the public lies the arched, echoing underground horseshoe of the cryptoporticus, an immaculately executed and invisible construction that served no more profound purpose, apparently, than to level the ground under the forum. Behind the forum, against an Alpine backdrop, is the theatre. Aosta’s, like many Roman theatres, is used in summer for concerts.
I follow the length of the decumanus - through its transformations from Via Porta Praetoria to Piazza Chanoux to Via de Tillier to Via E. Aubert - to the Piazza della Repubblica, outside the old Porta Decumana, then make a circuit of the town to see the massy walls from the outside. The stones lodged in mortar look like hard, crunchy candy set in nougat. It’s a long walk. The walls still enclose the better part of city, though at an average height of about fifteen feet, they look highly pregnable. They were higher once, but the materials were dislodged and carted away over the centuries to be reemployed as feudal strongholds.
Twenty centuries have passed since the foundation of Aosta, yet it is still a Roman city. Like its name, worn from Augusta down to Aosta, the city’s other vestiges of Romanity, though eroded by time, have never been erased.
I admire the Arch of Augustus, erected in 25 BC, as soon as the Salassi had been defeated. The view through the arch has not been improved by the introduction of a cross. Past the Arch stands a postcard-perfect Roman bridge, which - according to the plaque - has arched gracefully over nothing in particular since the eleventh century, when a violent storm changed the course of the river Buthier.
The eleventh century! Then Sigeric would have seen the river running in its old bed. And no doubt he crossed over this very bridge as he left Aosta. Yes, Sigeric would have seen many of these things - the theatres, the walls, the gates and arches, the lay of the streets. And already they were ancient when he saw them, already they were in ruins.
One thing I do not find in my travels is any indication that I am on the Via Francigena. Not a way marker, not an arrow, no sign of pilgrim lodgings. The bookstores have an item or two, but nothing related specifically to pilgrimage in the Val d’Aosta. I ask the chatty proprietor in Bar Franca if she ever sees pilgrims passing through. She has no idea what I’m talking about. Neither does the professorial gentleman at the bar who, she assures me, knows “everything” about Aosta. He leads me out into the Via Croce di Città and directs me to the Roman amphitheatre, but the words “Francigena” “pellegrini” stir no flicker of recognition.
Then I seem to strike gold - in the shape of a restaurant. Le Pelerin Gourmand, “The Pilgrim Gourmet,” sports a gaudy scallop shell over its door and a “pilgrim menu.” Surely this is where I will meet the doyen of the local pilgrim scene, a proprietor/chef who has walked to Santiago as well as Rome, a fount of information and stories, a welcome mat to the foot-sore traveller, in short, a pilgrimage freak. It is a little suspicious that the pilgrim menu is priced far beyond the means of your average grimy mendicant. But that’s fine, pilgrims come in all income brackets. As it turns out, alas, the owners of Le Pelerin Gourmand haven’t taken a pilgrim step in their lives. They chose the “theme” for their restaurant based on the fact that it stands on the site of a former pilgrim hospice.

Having failed to turn up any pilgrim footprints, I direct my attention to a question that's been teasing me. Just how French is Aosta? And how did it come to pass that this satellite of the Classical Empire, this little Rome away from Rome, should have become the French-Italian heartland?
It's not that youd ever mistake Aosta for a French city. Yet there is something, something fleeting, like a breeze from the other side of the Alps - a snatch of an overheard conversation, a bookstore or restaurant with a French name, a street sign or plaque in French... There are items on the local menu that you won’t find elsewhere: that melty cheese dish they call fonduta, known on the other side of the Alps as fondue; and cresperelle, those superfine rolled-up pancakes that are nothing other than crêpes. There's always something that distinguishes this place from Italy
I go looking for clues at the Tourist Information Office, located at the side of the magnificent Hotel de Ville (or should I say, Municipio?) in the central piazza (or should I say, place?).
Can you tell me about the status of French in Aosta?
Aosta is bilingual. At school, we study in French and Italian equally.
“But does anyone still speak French as a first language?”
“Probably not in the city. But in the mountains, I know people who speak French with their families.”
And whats the history behind all that?
The woman behind the desk opens and closes her mouth a couple of times, goldfish-style. Clearly this is not a question that can be answered in a sentence or two.
Here is a map of the city. Let me show you how to find the library.

Monday, March 14, 2011

aosta (via francigena part iii)

Aosta is the first important town on the Italian side of the Alps, a place whose destiny, from its very inception, has been inextricably tied to that of Rome.

I retrieve my pack from beneath the bus, pull my hood up tight and get ready to dash into the pelting rain. Then I hear Sigerics mocking voice again. You call yourself a pilgrim? He’s right. A real pilgrim would have been walking all day through snow and rain to get here. I should feel grateful, grateful, that I’ve flown over the mountain pass and down the other side in the comfort of a bus. I yank my hood back boldly. Bring on the rain! Its just a bit of weather, get over it!
Of course it helps that Im only walking two blocks. Just before we reached the bus station, I spotted the two stars of a hotel twinkling by the roadway. Maybe not a pilgrims cheapest option, but certainly the handiest.
No it isnt. Even before I make the hotel, I pass a pizzeria with a sign advertising rooms. The desk man takes me through the clamorous dining area and up a flight of stairs. Its low season, so hes going to let me have the matrimonial suite. I understand this is a privilege, though it’s not clear exactly why. The wallpaper is yellowed, the bed has done service as a trampoline. The place has something of the air of a - whats the word in Italian? - oh yes, a bordello. But for 25 euros I should complain?
The rain is still splatting away at my window as I step out of the (hot) shower, dry myself with the (only slightly dingy) towel and stretch out on the (crisp, apparently vermin-free) sheets. Again, I hear Sigeric’s tsk tsk. I wonder where he's staying tonight. Its an absurd question, of course. Sigeric doesnt exist. He is a daydream, a hallucination, a musty exhalation of my subconscious.
But where is he staying tonight? Where did he stay a thousand years ago when he passed through Aosta? Some place without a radiator, thats for sure. And without glass windows. Without a tv or a bedside lamp. Without anything like privacy. And without a pizzeria downstairs.
I wonder what Sigeric would take on his pizza.

Parents give their children grand names at their peril. It’s usually not long before Theodosius becomes little Teddy and Almudena plain old Al. The same holds for names of cities. Let Augusta Praetoria Salassorum roll around in people’s lazy mouths for a few centuries and you end up with Aosta.
Augusta. Aosta. It’s a natural progression, a sign of a name well lived-in. As for the Praetoria Salassorum part - roughly, “fortified camp of the Salassi people - it was a bit of a misnomer from the beginning if you consider that an essential pre-condition of building Augusta etc etc. was, precisely, the extermination of the Salassi people.
The Salassi were a handful, a Celtic tribe who inhabited and controlled the high Alpine passes. Rome’s initial attempt, in 143 BC, to put these pesky mountain-dwellers in their place resulted in 10,000 deceased Roman legionaries. Plainly, the enemy had been misunderestimated. The Romans regrouped and came back for a second try in 140 BC. This time the result was reversed, and a century of relative peace ensued. But the Salassi never showed the Romans appropriate deference. The Romans wanted free passage through the mountains. The Salassi harassed them, dismantling their bridges, busting up their roads.
Of course nothing is better calculated to get under an ancient Romans skin than messing with his bridges and roads. New hostilities erupted in 35 BC and carried on sporadically for the next decade till the Romans were well fed up. After two years of determined warfare, of the Salassi who had not been killed in battle, some 28,000 were sold into slavery while another 8000 were pressed into the legions. Yet there is evidence that the Salassi were not entirely routed from their mountains, that a few thousand were granted Roman citizenship and permitted to settle in the new city. Perhaps their stubborn spirit of resistance was grafted into the Aostan bloodline.
The Romans, when they had done with slaughtering, enslaving and bullying the former residents into submission, set to doing what they did so well - building stuff. Kill and build, kill and build - the life of an ancient Roman! They laid out their new city on the usual grid pattern, with a central east-west road, the decumanus, bisected by a north-south street, the cardus. (In Aosta, these main streets were the roads from the Little Saint Bernard Pass to the west and the Great Saint Bernard to the north). They encircled the long rectangle of the town with a tall and sturdy wall, perforated with grand gates at the four cardinal points. They erected a handsome theatre, an amphitheatre, a forum with temple and baths and, outside the east gate, the colossal arc of Augustus we saw from the bus.
And one might wonder, why so much fuss over a military camp stranded in the farthest, snowiest, godforsaken north of Italy? But that only shows how the concept of “nation” has fractured our view of the big picture, for Italys extremities are Europes veins and arteries, the land links between the south of Europe and the north. And in times like Sigerics, when the sea roads were commanded by Vikings and Corsairs, land links were the only links.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

over the alps to aosta (via francigena part ii)

Last week, I commenced my Via Francigena journey by bus from Martigny in Switzerland. This week, the journey resumes on the Italian side with a strange encounter...

As the bus coasts to lower altitudes, snow turns to driving rain. I grow pensive. I will be arriving at night in a strange city in the middle of a rainstorm without a map or the faintest notion of where to stay. Oh yes, and carrying a large backpack. It wouldn’t be a party without the backpack.
I always tell people I love to travel. I’m trying to recall why. And that’s when I hear the voice.
“You snivelling little sod.”
There’s no one on the bus but me and the driver and the lady with the walker. I’m sure of that. Yet the voice comes from behind, so close that its cool breath of contempt tickles my earlobe.
“And you call yourself a pilgrim? Pathetic.”
I twist my neck to look back. In the unlit bus, I can make out only the dim impression of a face, long and whitefish-pale in the darkness. The man it belongs to - did he get on when I was dozing? - leans arms-crossed against the back of my seat in the familiar fashion of an old travelling companion.
“Great lamb of God, how you drone on,” he says in tone that is amused, yet not without a certain truculence. “‘Oooohhhh, I’ll have to walk in the nasty rain. What if it seeps through my Gooooooretex? It may be five or ten minutes before I find a warm hotel with a comfy bed. I’ll get a wee bit chilly.’”
The accent I’m sure is British, yet not quite like any British accent I’ve ever heard. Gnarlier, craggier, aged in some way I can’t put my finger on. There is also about him - I’m sorry to say it - but an odour. A distinctive odour. Not necessarily unpleasant, but antique. I instinctively draw back.
“I was three days crossing these wretched mountains, rain and wind every step of the way. And did I complain? Never a word. I thanked God He did not send hail or snow to try us.”
I’m about to ask who he is when suddenly I know.
Archbishop Sigeric to you lad,” he replies. “Sigeric the Serious.”
“So they really did call you that?” I extend my hand and this time it’s his turn to draw back. Evidently he is not familiar with the gesture. I withdraw my hand, substituting an awkward seated bow.
“This is an honour, Archbishop. I’m following in your footsteps, you know.”
“Rolling all over them is more like it. If you were following my footsteps you’d be out there plodding.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to complain. I recognize that…”
“I’m not blaming you! If we’d had these bus contraptions back in the nine-hundreds, this is certainly how I’d have travelled. Ninety days it took me from Canterbury to Rome. Ninety there, ninety back. And I, an archbishop! It’s not like I’ve nothing better to do with my time than gallivant about the continent. I’ve got a flock to lead, all the business of a cathedral to conduct. I’ve got that spineless monarch banging on my door day and night, ‘The Vikings this, the Vikings that, what am I to do about the Vikings?’”
As Sigeric warms to the subject of tenth-century politics, the bus fills up. At each French-named village, and often in the middle of what looks like nowhere, one or two or three are waiting at the stop, young women mostly. “Buona sera,” they call to all and sundry as they board, then shake the water off their coats and take seats up at the front where they can chat together and tease the driver - entirely in Italian, I observe.
Sigeric pays the newcomers no mind. He goes on, speaking of a thousand years past as if it were yesterday. I have the feeling he hasn’t talked to anyone in a very long time. At last his fretful talk of ancient Britain winds down. He returns to the present.
“Come to think of it, I don’t know that I’d even bother with the bus. What I’d like is to take a ride in one of those… what do ye call them? Ryan Air and so forth?”
“An airplane?”
“Airplane,” he savours the word. “That‘s the ticket. I’d fly to Rome. Three hours from Heathrow to Leonardo da Vinci, gate to gate, God be praised. Saw it on the telly. I could pop out right after matins and be back in Canterbury in time for vespers. Can you tell me, son, who is this Leonardo da Vinci?”
The question takes me aback. “Leonardo?” I stammer. “Well, he was the original Renaissance man, you know? No, you don’t. You don’t know about the Renaissance. All right, after the Middle Ages, which is when you were around, or that’s we call that time now…”
“Middle? What were they between?”
“Between - before and now. I suppose. Anyway, in the Renaissance, in Florence… Did you ever get to Florence?”
His answer is lost in the squeal of brakes as we pull up to a red light. There are electric lights outside the windows now, and buildings and traffic. They catch Sigeric’s attention and he stares out, mesmerized. I study his face in the shifting, rain-tormented light. It is wizened and lean. Tight lips, drawn-in cheeks, hair shorn close to the skull setting off moderately protruding ears and the face’s defining feature: the twin dense white shocks of his eyebrows.
The bus navigates a knot of one-way suburban streets, then comes to a stop. The ladies up front rise en masse, gather their bags.
“Is this the centre?” I ask one.
“Not yet. This is the hospital.”
So that explains it. The other passengers must be the night shift. They bid the driver Ciao and head out into the rainy night. Only the lady with the walker remains on the bus.
“Sit tight, Archbishop,” I say. “We’re almost there.”
“I know,” he says.
Then we’re driving again, wheeling around a massive Roman arc - “The Arc of Augustus,” mutters Sigeric approvingly - skirting the old city walls with the train yards on our left, pulling into the bus station.
“Aosta!” calls the driver.
The signora pulls herself upright and turns to ask me for help with her walker. Too slow, the bus driver is already looking after it. She thanks me abundantly nonetheless in a rainbow of languages: “Tante grazie giovanotto, Merci beaucoup, bonne continuation. Danke, danke schön.
“You’re welcome,” I reply. “De rien, niente, nada.” I flash a grin back at Sigeric.
But Sigeric is gone.

Friday, February 25, 2011

crossing the alps from switzerland to the val d'aosta (via francigena part i)

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I spent some time last year exploring the Via Francigena by bus and train. This meant not getting the full-on pilgrim experience (that will come this year, I hope) but it freed me up to find out more about the places I visited than one usually does when in pilgrim mode, arriving late and hungry and curious mostly to know where one will be sleeping.
The Via Francigena passes through some remarkable places and for the next few weeks I'll be sharing some of what I learned about them on this blog - starting today with the Val d'Aosta.

It's drizzling in Martigny.
It’s drizzling and it’s miserable and the bus is not where it’s supposed to be. The train got me here with five minutes to spare, as promised, but the bus that is to convey me over the Alps to Italy is nowhere to be seen. The ticket booth is unstaffed. Who can I ask? I spot the conductor from my train. Yes, yes, he assures me. The bus should be here now. It isn’t. Well it should be. He frowns. This is all very un-Swiss.
A stocky, elderly woman with a walker accosts me. She’s asking me something in a species of French I've never encountered. I’m sorry, could you repeat that? She does - in German. I tell her in French that I don’t speak German. Could she ask me in Italian?
“Allora, Lei è Italiano?
No, I’m not Italian. I’m Canadian,
“Alors, vous parlez français.”
We determine - in three or four languages - that she too is looking for the bus to Italy. That's a relief. If I’m stuck here tonight, maybe we can split a hotel room.
The lady laments some more. She has decided that I speak German, whether I do or not. Or maybe German is just the language she prefers to lament in. A different language for every purpose, like the Emperor who spoke to men in French, God in Spanish, and… I forget the rest.
A railway worker joins our little party. He wonders where the bus is too. He jollies the elderly woman in French. It feels like they’ve done this before. The bus rolls in fifteen minutes late. “Neve!” shouts the driver by way of explanation. There’s a sack of snow falling on the pass. Let’s go while we can.
He cranks the pop music and accelerates into the climbing hairpin turns with grim abandon. There is a digital clock at the front of the bus. It reads 10:37. I check my watch. It’s 5:19. I feel like I’m in Italy already.

Travel brochures of Switzerland are full of spectacular mountain shots. We go to see the mountains, and climb and ski and take choo-choo trains over them. We love the mountains. Medieval travel brochures, if there had been such a thing, would not have made such a selling point of mountains. Mountains were where you got lost and froze to death.
Here we are, mid-October on the Grand St Bernard Pass, and the first blizzard of the season is up and wailing. Can’t see a thing out the window. Typically, the pass is only snowless from mid-June, which doesn’t leave much of a window for a comfortable crossing on foot. Of course, on foot is how I would prefer to cross the Alps, like a pilgrim of old. But there are  many things I would prefer: to look like Marcello Mastroianni, to write like Garcia Marquez, to have been born in a country where you can sit outside in a light jacket on a November evening drinking wine from the vineyard across the way... Over time I have grown practiced at discerning what’s going to happen and what ain’t, and a foot crossing of the Alps this year ain’t.
The bus climbs and climbs, and one by one the other passengers disembark, trotting into the teeth of the storm to their half-visible vertical villages, till the only ones left are the signora with the walker and I. We enter a tunnel (there is a sign showing a smiling Saint Bernard dog below the title: “Saint Bernard: le Tunnel,” as if it were some sort of attraction), sweep through la Dogana - Italian customs - with a smile and a wave, and we are officially, legally, formally in Italia.
But where we really are is in a tunnel, thundering into the heart of the mountain, like descending in a plane at night through clouds, waiting to see the lights on the ground.
I move up to occupy the seat behind the signora. “Dove va?”
She is going to Aosta to stay with her sister, her soeur, her sorella. She’s still not sure what language to use with me. Now she lives in Basel, but she comes down to visit when she can. Is Aosta her hometown? Not the city itself, she tells me, but the Val d’Aoste, the region, the Valley of Aosta. And what language, may I ask, does she speak to her sister?
“Français!” She sounds shocked that I need to ask.
We emerge on the south side of the Alps. But if I was expecting sunshine, vino, cucina, amore, I’m going to have to wait. The blizzard is blowing over here too. In fact, if I was expecting Italy I’m going to have to wait. The first town we hit is Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses. The building where the bus pauses is a centre multifonctionnel, which counts brasserie and épicerie among its fonctions. Along the way we pass the Hôtel des Alpes, La Vieille Cloche...
Is this really Italy?
Yes and no. This is the autonomous region of Valle d’Aosta / Vallée d’Aoste, the only part of Italy that is bilingual in Italian and French.

to be continued...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

the via francigena

Throughout the Middle Ages, travellers to Rome from Britain and much of France followed a route known as the Via Francigena (Fran-CHEE-jay-na). The Via diverged, for the most part, from the itinerary of the modern traveller to Italy. Scroll down a list of its stopping places and you'll find names like Aosta, Ivrea, Vercelli, Pavia, Pontremoli, Pietrasanta, Viterbo... hardly the top of any tourist's wish list. Yet in their day, they were places of great importance and still now they sport their medieval (not to mention Roman and Etruscan) treasures of art, architecture and urbanism.

Though a constant stream of pilgrims, merchants, conquerors, ecclesiastics, vagrants and migrant workers tromped the Via, only one voyager left behind a record: Sigeric, who visited Saint Peter's seat in 989 to be made Archbishop of Canterbury and took note of the stops on his return trip from Rome. (He did well to make it back to England; one of his predecessors froze to death in the Alps.) It is Sigeric's itinerary that provided the basis for the brand spanking new Via Francigena, launched in 2007. The "new" Via is modeled very much on the Camino de Santiago. It is a project that had been in the works forever (it was supposed to be ready for Rome's 2000 Jubilee), but finally took flight thanks to the personal intervention of ex-Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who had done the Camino by bike and insisted that Italy deserved its own pilgrim way.

It's a stupendous journey - 1900 km to Rome from Canterbury; 900 from the Alps. It crosses geographical, linguistic, cultural and (importantly, for this is Italy) culinary divides. It is a journey through time, through history, a journey of the spirit... The question is, will it fly?

The Camino de Santiago is in many ways an organic growth, the fruit of the unbidden work of countless hands and feet, an event that assembled itself. The Via Francigena, by contrast, bears all the trappings of a "tourism initiative," a pilgrimage by decree, dreamed up and presided over by a classic EU bureaucracy. Do the people on the ground - I mean, the Italian people - have any interest in this thing? Enough to make it work?

It's been a couple of years now that I've been mulling over whether to go for a long walk on the Via Francigena, so I finally went to Italy last fall to take a look. I didn't have time at my disposal for walking, so I scouted instead, following the route as closely as I could by train and bus. I knew that would rob some suspense and surprises from the eventual foot journey. On the other hand, it meant I could gather bags and bags of research material - books, maps and brochures, not to mention a couple nice bottles of red - without worrying about my knees giving way beneath me.

Will I go back? Well, duh. It's only a question of when. In the meantime, I'll be putting up some Via Francigena photos and blogs in the weeks to come, so stay tuned.

For anyone wanting a detailed, up-to-the-moment account of conditions on the Italian pilgrimage front, order yourself a copy of An Italian Odyssey by Neville Tencer and Julie Burk - though it's hard to say whether the book is more likely to lure you onto the Via with its delicious descriptions of cities, landscapes and meals, or scare you off with its portraits of sketchy lodgings, unmarked paths, wrong-pointing signs and places that can't be found even with GPS devices.

Neville and Julie's Via sounds lonely compared to the Camino. They encounter precious few pilgrims along the way, though happily they do meet their fair share of helpful, outgoing Italians. Nonetheless, the story speeds along from episode to episode and is over too soon. The couple take turns with the telling, which offers an often-amusing synoptic view. They have some very useful tips for sleeping and eating (especially eating) and a wonderful description of a visit to a rice farm. There are also lovely photographs and whimsical hand-drawn maps. My only complaint is that Julie and Neville's misfortunes of the road keep prodding them into full-on, gasket-blowing slanging matches. I felt a little like the kid in the back seat listening to Dad and Mom fight (Would you two just pipe down and let me enjoy the ride?) Fortunately, all is sorted out by the magic of Siena, and we get to enjoy Tuscany and Lazio to the fullest.

You'll find more information, including some dynamite photographs, on the Italian Odyssey Facebook page. You can also read an interview with Julie and Neville on Anna-Marie Krahn's website. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

moja droga do santiago...

Which, apparently, means "My Way to Santiago." In Polish.

Of course the Poles are great pilgrims, setting out on foot each year, especially in August, from all parts of the country to visit the monastery of Jasna Gora, home to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, the "Queen of Poland." (In a previous blog, I talked about how this tradition has recently been transplanted to Ontario.)

The research for Virgin Trails, my book about the veneration of the Virgin Mary, didn't take me as far afield as Poland, but the Poles were so good as to come and find me. Polish publisher Sic! released the first foreign edition of All the Good Pilgrims last fall: Moja Droga do Santiago: opowiesc pielgrzyma-agnostyka. (The subtitle means "stories of an agnostic pilgrim." Fair enough.) The cover is gorgeous, the publisher has a very cool logo, and the book is available from various online sellers for a mere 39 zloty. (I know! That's pretty hard to beat!) So if there's a special Pole in your life who happens to be between books...

While we're on the topic, even tangentially, of the Virgin of Czestochowa, let me recommend the fascinating and idiosyncratic pilgrimage/quest memoir of American author China Galland, Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna.Galland's search for the feminine face of the divine takes her to some remarkable places, both without and within.

Friday, January 28, 2011

new web albums

Well look who it is, back already. I've got this lovely new blog, might as well use it, eh?

It's beyond my Neanderthal tech skills to add new albums to my website, so lately I've started uploading (downloading? outsourcing? inbreeding? I'm never going to get this computer lingo straight) photos to Picasa web albums. You just have to click here to see them.

Last night I was editing and captioning (in a sparse sort of way) the pictures I took in the fall of 2009, when I walked for eleven days along the camino/chemin from Le Puy to Figeac. For the most part, it's a country ramble through beautiful long stretches of nothing but you and the clouds and the hills and, yes, often the cows. You live on cheese and bread and wine and swear you've never lived better. Between Le Puy and Figeac, there is nothing that even remotely resembles a city, though in every village and hamlet, there is a magnificent little bakery and a charcuterie and even a cheap, clean place to sleep. Not that there was much demand for beds in October. There were three of us who started on the same day from Le Puy (unbeknownst to each other) and made it to Figeac (by which time we knew each other well), plus another eight or ten who were only walking for a week, or a day or two, or who mysteriously vanished between one sleepy hamlet and the next, never to be heard of again... We were definitely at the end of the season.

The part of the trip I remember best was the barren, stone-strewn highlands of Aubrac, where I felt like I could have been in Scotland. But there were pleasant walks through lush river valleys too, and some outrageously tiring climbs, and some real live forests. If I compared it to the Camino Frances in Spain, I'd say it was more natural, more strenuous, more solitary, and more varied in its landscape. The food? Oh, how to choose? The people? They were helpful, courteous, sometimes downright friendly - a living refutation of all those "snarky French" stereotypes. Surprisingly, one place where the Spanish Camino almost holds the edge is in church art and ornamentation. I'm not talking about the quality of the art, I mean that the roiling history of revolutions and wars of religion in this corner of France has left many a church wall stripped bare. Pleasing if you like austerity. A little sad if you were expecting medieval opulence.

Though if medieval opulence is your thing, there's always Conques, which takes your breath away and doesn't give it back. And the two treasure towns at the beginning and end of my little pilgrimage, Le Puy and Figeac, wonderful lively inhabited museums, unspoiled by tourism.

The photos don't begin to do justice to the beauty of these places. But go ahead and check them out anyway. You're welcome to look at my photos of Uruguay, Argentina and Chile too. Not that they have anything to do with my writing, but it's cold outside, why not let your mind travel to warm places?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

a new year, a new look, and a new blog to check out: "Pilgrim Roads"

Yo. Anybody out there?

I venture back into the land of Blog. Last spring, my CRM (centre for random musings) was booted off my server and it's taken me ages to get things sorted out again. The layout of my relocated site was a hash, when I tried to update my home page I got nothing but error messages... I was not a happy blogger.

So imagine my delight when I shambled into the living room this morning, cranked up my computer, and encountered - this. A brave new look. Soothing colours, clean lines. Order. And how did this blogstoration take place? Who got me back on the blogtrack?

May I introduce the new star of web-based Camino writers, Anna-Marie Krahn. Since last fall, Anna-Marie has been producing entertaining and thought-provoking little essays based on her own Camino experiences, along with interviews with other pilgrims and, since the beginning of this year, a sort of Camino/pilgrimage news centre. It's an ambitious project that only shows signs of getting bigger and you'll find it at Pilgrim Roads.

Now, apart from being a fine writer, Anna-Marie has mean computer smarts and true Camino spirit. Cause when she saw what a shambles my blog had turned into, she got out her wrench, pulled on her hip-waders, and had it all patched up in (she claims) five minutes. Apparently all I owe her is a bottle of Rioja. Thanks, Anna-Marie.

And what about me? Any projects for this year? You bet. A walk on Italy's Via Francigena, the medieval road from northern Europe to Rome. I was there last fall for a first look and will have some photos up shortly on a Picasa web album.

What else? My latest short-story/essay appears in the Fall 2010 edition of Queen's Quarterly. It's called "(Charlie's) Angels of the Camino," and it's about one of those odd bounces of the ping-pong ball of history that occur so often on the Camino. If you can't get your hands on QQ, be patient. The story is going to be reprinted this summer in Reader's Digest. As close to Oprah as I ever hope to get.

There's more stuff to tell you about, but for now I thought it would be enough just to affirm that I am still living and hatching writing schemes. Here's to a new year full of strange and wondrous journeys.