La Storta to Rome

Setting foot in the Eternal City

12 kms – 1 day

Not everything in life goes to plan. As I made my way towards La Storta, my final stopping place before Rome, I had visions of a peaceful night in one of the town’s monasteries, reflecting on the 2,172 kilometres and 102 days that were behind me, and preparing myself for the 18 kilometres that lay ahead the following day. But when I knocked on the monastery door I was turned away. There was no room at the inn.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, I was meant to stay in a monastery in La Storta. With no other pilgrim accommodation between where I stood and downtown Rome, and only overpriced hotels with vacancies, I was lost as to what to do. Walk the extra kilometres, having already walked a full day, and arrive in Rome as day turned to night? It was a beautiful evening, and I was tempted. I sat on the steps outside the monastery door, trying to slow down my thoughts. This wasn’t how I imagined my arrival in Rome, something that I’d pictured in my head day in and day out for the last few months, and daydreamed about for the last three years.

Walking towards the rising sun in Rome’s Riserva Naturale di Monte Mario

I looked at my route for the next day, and searched for anywhere along it that would provide a bed without breaking my bank balance. Five kilometres down the road there was a B&B which was happy to take me in, until I arrived (having pre-paid) and they also turned me away. I started to feel like I was being tested, that someone somewhere was pushing me at a moment when I was broken and exhausted to see if I would crack. But my walk had taught me many things, one of which was that I wasn’t going to be beaten. I walked a couple of kilometres closer to the heart of the city, and third time lucky I found a bed for the night.

I had a terrible sleep. My head was all over the place, my emotions keeping any kind of rest at bay. It was one of those nights when you see the morning light creep through the curtains and you know you’ve only had an hour or so of sleep. Exhausted but excited I put on my walking boots and packed up my backpack for the last time. I tried to move slowly, telling myself that there was no rush. I had all day to reach Rome. And this day would only come once in a lifetime.

I walked along one of the main arteries leading into the city, joining the cars and Vespas, the commuters and school children. Everyone around me was going about their everyday life, and it was a strange feeling to join them but know that, for me, the day was far from ordinary. The Via Francigena led me away from the traffic and into dense parkland atop Rome’s highest hill. I climbed my way through what felt like the Hampstead Heath of Rome, a wilderness of Stone Pines, knowing that at any moment I would turn a corner and get my first view of the Eternal City’s rooftops.

Getting my first view of Rome, and St. Peter’s Basilica, from Monte Mario

And then the moment came. Between the trees I glimpsed the hazy morning light falling dream like on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, and the Colosseum. Tears filled my eyes as I stood and drunk in the view.

Rome. So much history. So much beauty. So many steps to get there. So many days that had passed since closing my front door in London. So much time, time to question and time to dream, time to grieve and time to heal. So many mornings when I just wanted an extra hour in bed. So much laughter. So many tears. So many warm welcomes. So much joy. So much heartache. I sat on a bench and tried to process it all, what lay in front of me and the innumerable emotions in my head. I stayed there for the best part of an hour, and when I finally stood up to leave and make my way into the heart of the city I still couldn’t quite believe my tear filled eyes.

The final Via Francigena sign before pilgrims set foot inside St. Peter’s Square

I was soon sweeping along with city’s streets with the tide of tourists making their way towards the Vatican. With my hiking boots and backpack I stuck out from the crowd, and I felt different too. For much of my walk to Rome I’ve been loathe to call myself a pilgrim, unsure of whether it’s religion and faith that make you a pilgrim as opposed to a walker, a wayfarer. But this journey to Rome has been about more than walking. It’s been a journey of reflection and introspection, a journey that has helped me to figure out my place in the world, and that has asked as many questions as it has answered. So as I made my way through the stunning colonnade that wraps its arms around St. Peter’s Square, and set eyes on the magnificence that is St. Peter’s Basillica, I did so as a pilgrim.

Arriving in St. Peter’s Square
The colonnade of St. Peter’s Square topped with statues of the saints

People from all over the world crowded the square and queued for hours to set foot inside the basilica. Many of them were pilgrims who had arrived by plane and train, on their own special journey. Some had come to witness the canonisation of five new saints at a ceremony that would take place in a few days’ time. Others had come to visit the tomb of St. Peter. Whatever their purpose, I was humbled by their presence. I watched with respect and admiration as they queued to pass the statue of St. Peter Enthroned and touch his feet in a demonstration of faith and devotion, a tradition that pilgrims have carried out for centuries. As I looked around me it started to sink in that where I was, where I had walked to, was of such great importance to vast numbers of people around the globe. It felt like a privilege to have walked there, to have done what so many people can only dream of doing.

Pilgrims touching the feet of a statue of St. Peter Enthroned, holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo’s dome and Bernini’s baldacchino

With a flash of my pilgrim’s passport I was saluted by the Swiss Guards and permitted behind the scenes into the labyrinthine world of the Vatican. After security checks and surrendering my passport I was taken to an imposing building where I got my pilgrim’s passport stamped, and was issued with a testimonium, a certificate evidencing my pilgrimage from London to Rome.

My testimonium, issued by the Vatican, evidencing my pilgrimage to Rome

I loitered in St. Peter’s Square for what felt like hours. I wanted to ask someone to take a photo of me, but with every person that walked past I told myself, “I’ll ask the next one.” I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth, couldn’t make a move towards someone and gesture with my camera. Not because I was shy or afraid to ask. But because once the photo was taken I knew that I would feel the need to get moving, For the last few months my body, and my mind, had grown accustomed to moving. It’s what they knew and what I’d conditioned them to do. And I wasn’t ready to move on just yet.

When I first decided to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome I decided, however, that it wouldn’t end at the Vatican. As a historian, Ancient Rome has long been a place of fascination that fires my imagination. So my pilgrimage was to end at the Colosseum, and I made my way across the city towards it. Familiar with the area from past visits, I knew when it was getting near. And tears once again filled my eyes as the Colosseum came in to view. They were tears of joy that I was seeing this incredible monument having walked every step of the way from my home in London, and tears of sadness that my journey was over. What I had set out to do, I had now done.

The magnificent Colosseum, completed in AD 80

I made my way to a pilgrim hostel housed in a monastery in a quiet corner of Rome’s hip and trendy Trastevere neighbourhood. I spent a final evening with fellow pilgrims and we shared stories about our journeys with the hostel volunteers. And I has greatly humbled when the volunteers washed my feet, a ritual they carry out every night as an act of humility and service for pilgrims arriving in Rome.

Leaving the hostel the next morning, closing the heavy monastery door behind me, I felt like I was leaving the pilgrim world. With my journey now over and no destination to walk towards, it felt as though it was a world I no longer had a right to access. I stood on the street outside the monastery as an ordinary person, a tourist. An identity that felt strangely unfamiliar.

A colourful Vespa in one of Rome’s piazzas
The roof, and oculus, of the Pantheon which dates from AD 125

I spent the next few days soaking up the sights of Rome, a city that never ceases to amaze me with its history, it’s art and architecture, and it’s lively neighbourhoods. I visited places that I’ve been to many times before but saw them with new eyes, and explored places that were unfamiliar and marvelled at the endless treasures the city holds. I walked everywhere, reluctant to take transport as I didn’t want the world to speed up to a pace that now seemed alien. Because I knew that once the world sped up, it wouldn’t slow back down.

My parents joined me and we celebrated with Prosecco and Aperol Spritz, with delicious pasta and as much gelato as I could stomach before it was time to return to the UK. I caught up on stories from home and shared memories from my days on the road.

Trinità dei Monti, which sits at the top of the Spanish Steps
The Tiber at night
One of Rome’s colourful streets

I also took some time to myself to revisit the Vatican and the Colosseum, to reflect on the thoughts and emotions that overwhelmed me when I set eyes on them a few days earlier. It already felt like a lifetime ago, like a dream that I wasn’t entirely sure had played out into reality. I watched as people from all over the world marvelled at their size, their history, their beauty. And realised that from now on I would marvel at them for another reason. I would look at them and marvel that, once upon a time, I walked to them from my home in London.

Looking down on the Roman Forum
Exploring the Roman Forum
The Arch of Constantine, completed in AD 135

It’s now been three weeks since I walked to Rome. And it’s something I’m still trying to get my head around. For months, years even, I lived with a real, tangible, destination, moving myself towards it every day with first of all my dreams and preparations, and then with every step I took. Then one day I woke up and I was there. I didn’t have a destination any more because I’d arrived. I didn’t need to wake up and put one foot in front of the other, because there was nowhere that I needed to walk towards. A sense of accomplishment and a sudden lack of purpose collided in a melting pot of emotions that continues to bubble away. I may have arrived at my destination, but is my journey over?

Our journeys are never truly over. The destinations we work towards are but way markers, stopping points. They don’t provide us with the unforgettable hospitality, the kindness of strangers, the stories told by the people we meet, the lessons we learn, and the questions we ask ourselves. I no longer have a destination, and I walk without my backpack and with my array of walker’s tan lines covered up by jeans and jumpers. But I am still a pilgrim, and I am still on a journey. Where I will go next, I don’t yet know. But I know that the journey of life will take me somewhere.

I walked (I can say that now!) from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity, Mind. You can read more here. A huge thank you to everyone who has donated and helped me to raise over £15,000, a truly staggering amount. If you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site. Thank you.

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Arras to Berry-au-Bac

Walking in the footsteps of war

173kms – 7 days

If my first week walking through France was characterised by sleepy farming villages, my second was characterised by history. I passed through towns and cities with their origins in the Iron Age and Roman periods. Places that, given their geographic location, have been the scene of battles for thousands of years. Yet it’s the battles of World War I, and their scars, that draw most visitors to this part of France.

The unassuming city of Arras, the historic centre of the Artois region, was the perfect place to recuperate after a busy few weeks on the road. But it’s a challenge to avoid clocking up extra kilometres when your rest day is in a city that’s so charming and interesting.

Baroque gabled houses on Arras’ Grand’Place

Arras has a decidedly Flemish feel to it, a stark contrast to the rustic French villages that I’ve been walked through to date. Baroque gabled houses line the enormous Grand’Place and Place des Héroes, squares where people drink goblets of beer and devour bowls of frites. But there’s more to the city than it’s similarities with Brussels – the gothic Hôtel de Ville and Belfry, the Renaissance-style Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint Vaast, the 18th century town house that was home to Maximilian Robespierre, extravagant Parisian style mansions, and Art Deco apartments.

Arras’ Hôtel de Ville and Belfry on Place des Héroes
Inside Arras’ Renaissance-style Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint Vaast, rebuilt after the First World War
The colourful Parisian style Hôtel de Guînes

Arras has a unique architectural mix, which tells the story of its long and turbulent past. Being only 10 kilometres from the Front Line during World War I much of the city has destroyed, in fact 80% of it had to be rebuilt. Yet efforts were made to preserve each building’s architectural heritage so that the city’s history wasn’t lost.

On the outskirts of Arras I passed a museum and memorial to the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, a military unit made up largely of experienced miners who brought a strategic advantage to the Allied war effort in 1916. Arras sits on top of a labyrinth of underground tunnels, dating from Roman times and used throughout history to mine chalk and store grain. The New Zealand Tunnelling Company expanded the tunnels, taking them closer to the Front Line and enabling 24,000 soldiers to launch a surprise attack on the German forces in the 1917 Battle of Arras.

A memorial to the New Zealand Tunnelling Company at Wellington Quarry

As I continued my journey south into the Somme, reminders of World War I were everywhere I turned. I had, somewhat naively, imagined huge out of town cemeteries and memorials that necessitate a dedicated visit by car. But I discovered that these cemeteries and memorials, both large and small, are scattered throughout the landscape – at the side of a busy road in the middle of a town, annexed to a village cemetery in the shadow of a local church, in the middle of a wheat field. And the war can also be seen in buildings that have been scarred by shrapnel, or partially rebuilt in styles and materials inconsistent with those of their origins. In this part of France no corner escaped the war. And it felt important that my journey, slow and on foot, enabled me to realise that.

The grave of an unknown soldier in Gomiécourt South Commonwealth War Cemetery

But then there are the huge out of town cemeteries and memorials, with never ending fields of crosses that are the resting places of an incomprehensible number of soldiers. Every reminder of the war causes you to stop and to contemplate. But places such as Rancourt, with its German, French and Commonwealth war cemeteries that together hold over 20,000 soldiers, completely stop you in your tracks.

Gomiécourt South Commonwealth War Cemetery
Sapignies German War Cemetery
Rancourt French War Cemetery

I spent a morning in Péronne at the fantastic Museum of the Great War, an outstanding quadralingual (English, French, German, Dutch) museum that revealed sombre facts and interesting insights. As I walked through the exhibition halls, looking at the outdated and impractical uniforms that many soldiers fought and died in, and reading about the battles that resulted in gains of mere metres and losses of millions of lives, I couldn’t help but be dumbfounded by it all.

Symbolic poppies are visible throughout the Somme

France had so far been sleepy and quiet, with little more than tractors and the occasional cyclist crossing my path. But the further I walked into the Somme, the more it seemed to come alive. Pavements and town squares were lined with people dining al fresco and enjoying cold glasses of wine. As I walked down the street people shouted “Bonne Francigena” to me or stopped me to suggest that I visit a particularly beautiful church en route. One lady even gave me a round of applause when I told her I was walking from London all the way to Rome!

And there were more pilgrims on the road too, people from different places travelling at different speeds, and for different reasons. Some you pass like ships in the night – pilgrims on bikes travel much faster than those on foot, but that doesn’t stop you from having an evening of laughter where English, French, Italian, and Spanish are spoken in an effort for everyone to understand and be understood.

Wheat fields continue to dominate the landscape
Cooling off in the shade of a church

Walking cross country can sound incredibly romantic and exciting, but the reality can often be quite different. And this area of France comes with its own special challenges. Towns and villages are few and far between, and those with facilities seem to be even more cruelly distanced. If there’s no room at the inn, you find yourself walking a further 8 kilometres to the next available bed. Food can be surprisingly tricky to get your hands on, as shops and boulangeries can never be relied on to be open (or still in business!). Water fountains are non-existent, making the cemetery tap the life source for passing pilgrims. And the inside of churches provide the only shade and opportunity to cool down.

But the lack of pilgrimage infrastructure also makes life somewhat interesting. In the last week I’ve stayed in a hotel, a youth hostel, on a farm, in a caravan, in a safari tent, on a mattress on the floor of an old school, and in a 17th century house that’s opened up by the eccentrically wonderful Madame Marie-Agnes to pilgrims as a home stay. The scenery in this part of France may, at times, be unchanging, but the weird and wonderful places where I lay my head each evening never fail to keep me on my toes.

Early mornings walking along Canal de Saint-Quentin

Canals and forests began to break up the never ending wheat fields, adding flashes of green to an otherwise blue and gold landscape. Hills seemed to be getting bigger, and more frequent. But some shorter days meant I could spend afternoons relaxing whilst watching carp fishing enthusiasts at work, and swim in some of the lakes that dot this area.

A steep and sweaty climb of 100 vertical metres brought me to the capital of the department of Aisne, Laon. It wasn’t just the journey there that took my breath away – this fortified hilltop city is simply stunning, and the views from its ramparts of the plains below make every step of the climb worthwhile. Laon’s medieval architecture, including its cavernous Cathédrale Notre-Dame, have been wonderfully preserved. Every street tells the story of hundreds of years, yet the tunnels that run below the city tell tales dating back to the Roman times. Everything about the city was charming, tranquil, and low key. And I couldn’t understand why there weren’t more people soaking it all up (or why I’d never heard of Laon before).

The stunning Cathédrale Norte-Dame in Laon
View of the Aisne countryside from Laon’s ramparts
Laon’s medieval streets, lined with boutiques and artisan bakeries

What goes up must come down, and it was with a heavy heart that I descended into the forest surrounding Laon, and continued my journey. But my mood soon lifted. The golden wheat fields were starting to give way to something green, something that brought an orderly geometry to the landscape. I was entering a legendary wine growing region, and was excited to taste its wares. I was walking into the heart of Champagne.

I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity Mind. You can read more here, and if you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site.

Calais to Arras

From the coast to the capital of Pas-de-Calais

146kms – 5 days

When most of us think of Calais, we think of P&O ferry rides, booze cruises, and the beginning or the end of a long drive to the South of France. It’s safe to say that Calais and the Pas-de-Calais department that it sits in are largely overlooked by tourists, who only pass through or at most make an overnight stop before an early morning ferry ride. Unlike them I would be travelling slowly, as fast as my feet could carry me. And slow travel would allow me to get acquainted with this lesser-known corner of France.

Calais’ Hôtel de Ville

Weaving my way between Calais’ towers and lighthouses, through its parks and colossal churches, I made my way to the imposing Hôtel de Ville. I couldn’t help but liken it to a space station crossed with Big Ben, ready to launch into the sky. In reality, it’s like some sort of watchtower from which the people of Calais keep tabs on intruders from the south. Because beyond the Hôtel de Ville there’s nothing. The city came to an abrupt halt, and I was soon working my way along canals that felt like they were in the middle of nowhere.

The Forest of Guînes

Outside the town of Guînes the canals morphed in to dense forest, the site where Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American Dr. John Jeffries landed the first successful balloon crossing of the English Channel in 1785. The forest canopy provided a welcome relief from the burning sun, but it’s bugs had firm plans to drive me back out into the light of day. My picnic lunch under the shade of a tree had to be relocated to a farm track in an open field, underneath an electricity pylon – the glamour of long distance walking!

Emerging from the forest the scenery quickly turned to golden wheat fields, which were to be the backdrop for much of my journey south to Arras. One never ending wheat field, or so it seemed, punctuated only by a flash of red poppies here and there and the scars left by a tractor’s twists and turns.

Poppies adding colour to the fields of golden wheat

Days were broken up by what became a familiar routine…scanning the horizon for a church. Some were huge, like cargo ships sailing across the fields, and others were on the petit side with pointy spires topped with an iconic, proud, cockerel. Whether large or small, a church always meant shade, water, a town, and perhaps even the hope of a pain au chocolat. And they were, without fail, always empty, with no real signs of life on the streets surrounding them either. I began to wonder whether it’s not just tourists who neglect Pas-de-Calais, but the French too.

Churches provide a cool refuge from the sun and a place to fill up water bottles

Signs of religion were everywhere, not just in the village churches. Roadsides were adorned with chapels and crosses. I even passed holy springs, and the birthplace of Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre, a patron saint of pilgrims. Perhaps a fortuitous sign.

The 18th century home of Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre

Passing through tiny French town after tiny French town, I soon became acquainted with their look and feel. The pretty, crumbling Mairie (town hall and mayor’s office), the boulangerie, the absence of any green space on which to sit and take off my boots, the sleepy Tabac with next to no customers and where I guzzled down cold Orangina, and the tiled old road signs that I have developed a slight thing for.

The Mairie in Licques
Boulangeries, my new best friends
Old tiled road signs which I can’t resist photographing

I walked through these villages with a huge amount of house envy. Beautiful rustic farm houses were kept from view behind thick courtyard walls and enormous wooden doors. Being bold and stepping over the threshold revealed colourful shutters and geraniums, sloping tiled roofs, old farm machinery and a world from years gone by. Snooping on chateaux wasn’t anywhere near as challenging, as their showy-offy nature meant they were visible from the road. I ogled at them in wonder – their different shapes and sizes, their towers, their countless windows.

The kindness of locals meant that I was lucky enough to stay in a traditional farm house in the beautiful village of Amettes and a chateau in equally stunning Villers-Châtel. And I stayed in them for next to nothing. People say that “the camino provides”, that one way or another pilgrims are taken care of as they journey from place to place. But the generosity and kindness of those I met in Pas-de-Calais was overwhelming. People wouldn’t let me set off in the morning without the hand drawn map they had prepared for me, and wouldn’t let me put my feet up at night unless I had a glass of wine in hand. I’m quickly learning that it’s a very special and humbling thing, to walk across unfamiliar parts of Europe and be treated like one of the family.

The beautiful farm house I stayed in in Amettes
Although it may look like it’s a display, every pot and pan has its use!
The stunning Chateau Villers-Châtel

But the most memorable night’s stay (the 1970s caravan coming a close second) would have to be in Abbaye Notre-Dame, which is home to an order of Benedictine nuns. I was looked after by Sister Lucie, who showed me to my room in a beautiful former hunting lodge within the abbey’s grounds. I was invited to listen to the nuns sing their nightly prayers under the enormous vaulted ceiling of their church, to eat a wholesome evening meal cooked using vegetables they had grown, and to enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep that was broken only by the sound of church bells in the morning. Some places have an air about them, an aura that’s hard to explain. The abbey had just that, and the nuns living there exuded a sense of calm and contentedness that was infectious.

Abbaye Notre-Dame

Wheat fields gave way to open cast mines, which marked the landscape with huge mountains of earth that looked quite out of place in the otherwise gently rolling hills. Run down mining towns were spruced up by a grand Hôtel de Ville with a bell tower that would sing a merry song every hour.

The beautiful Hôtel de Ville of Calonne-Ricouart

Arras’ spires soon came in to view, and signs for McDonalds and Subway replaced my friend the yellow knap-sack carrying pilgrim and signs for the Via Francigena. As I approached the city I wasn’t sure how I felt about returning to urban life. The sleepiness of the countryside had lured me in, and the hum of traffic felt alien and suffocating. But as I walked through Arras’ quiet back streets I realised that there was no need to panic. Arras is about as sleepy as cities come.