Crossing the Channel and contemplating Rome
31kms + a ferry ride – 2 days
Canterbury, the spiritual capital of England, has been synonymous with pilgrimage since the founding of its Cathedral over 1,400 years ago. The murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett inside the Cathedral by King Henry II’s knights in 1170 sparked hundreds of years of pilgrimage to Beckett’s shrine, cementing Canterbury as England’s premier pilgrimage destination.
Geoffrey Chaucer famously turned this pilgrim traffic into the subject of his “The Canterbury Tales” – where knights and nuns, merchants and monks, took part in a story telling contest en route to Beckett’s shrine, vying for the honour of being the best story teller and a free meal at the Tabard Inn on their return to London.
The city remains an epicentre of pilgrimage today. As I wandered around the outskirts of the Cathedral I saw a group of Dutch cyclists smiling and embracing, having their photo taken outside Christ Church Gate, the end point of their Amsterdam to Canterbury bike ride. I wondered how it must feel – to arrive, to be at the end. Their elation, their sense of achievement, brought a smile to my face. And I hoped that those emotions would be my own in a few months’ time.
Canterbury was deserted when I set off on my own pilgrimage. The city was enjoying a lazy Sunday morning while I walked out to the south, met only by the occasional dog walker or runner. Shop lined streets and residential roads soon turned in to country lanes as I followed signs for the Via Francigena – the yellow knapsack carrying pilgrim who would be my companion all the way to Rome.
Wheat fields were interrupted by seas of wildflowers. The church bells of every village I passed through seemed to want to lure me away from my path and in to the Sunday service. But the coast was calling, and soon enough I got that first glimpse of the sun twinkling on the water. I had to stop myself, as I couldn’t quite take it in – I’d walked from my house in London to the sea!
The evening was one of soft powdery light, and I spent it high above the port town of Dover taking in the famous White Cliffs and the setting sun. France was there, in the distance, and beyond France there was Switzerland, and Italy. I started thinking about everything that lay before me, and why I’d chosen to walk in the direction of Rome.
I’m half Italian, my mother and grandparents were born in northern Lazio before they moved to the UK in the late 1940s. Despite never having lived in Italy myself, a huge part of me identifies with my Italian heritage. Maybe it’s my hot-headedness, my gesticulating. It’s certainly not my sense of style, or my cooking.
A year to the day that I sat looking over the White Cliffs and the English Channel, my grandmother, my Nonna, passed away. She was everything you think of when you think of a little old Italian lady – stylish, fiercely strong willed, devout to her faith, at times hard to understand with her incredibly thick accent, and full of love for her family and friends. I miss her tremendously, and without her I sometimes don’t feel very Italian anymore. And that’s why I chose to walk to Rome, as apposed to anywhere else. So that I can re-connect with my heritage and embrace the Italian in me.
I hadn’t taken a ferry to France since going on a school trip, and I naively thought that I would be one of only a handful of passengers setting sail rather than boarding the Eurostar or taking to the sky. But the Strait of Dover remains the busiest shipping lane in the world, and my ferry was busy with school trips, booze cruises, coach trips, caravaners, and motorbike tourers.
On arrival in Calais my friend the yellow knapsack carrying pilgrim guided me out of the port and in to the city, as though he was expecting others aboard the ferry to also be journeying to Rome. But from what I could tell, as the one or two other foot passengers caught buses or jumped in taxis, it was just me.