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.