Acquapendente to La Storta

Walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, and edging in on Rome

180 kms – 8 days

I’d been walking in Lazio for less than two days, and the rolling, golden hills of Tuscany already felt like a lifetime ago. Lazio was lush and green, the slopes of its once-upon-a-time volcanoes covered in dense forest. The tourists of Tuscany where nowhere to be seen, and were replaced with farmers on aged tractors. Farmers not unlike my ancestors, who hailed from this corner of Italy. Over the coming days I would stray from the Via Francigena and venture to their hometowns, walking the paths they once used to walk. My entire journey through Italy has felt like a sort of homecoming. But my real homecoming was here, in Lazio.

Olives ready to be picked

My first detour took me through clouds and farmers’ fields as I climbed high and crossed in to Umbria, heading in the direction of a small town called Castel Viscardo where my late Nonna, Dina, was born. Cars stopped me as I walked, their drivers puzzled by my presence. They asking where I was going, and if I’d lost the path of the Via Francigena. They asked if I wanted a ride, but when I explained why I was walking to Castel Viscardo they understood. They nodded, shouted “Complmenti!” and drove off into the rain.

Arriving in Castel Viscardo, Nonna’s birthplace

I last visited Castel Viscardo in 2016 with Nonna, when we were holidaying in the area and decided to take an afternoon drive and a trip down memory lane. This time around I spent some time visiting the church where she was baptised, and the Commune (town hall) to explain that I had walked from London and was after a stamp for my pilgrim’s passport.

Castel Viscardo is a very typical Italian town

Heading back towards the Via Francigena I snaked through dense forests where gun shots filled the air. It was hunting season, and every man in Lazio seemed to be on the look out for cinghiale, wild boar. Italians take their hunting seriously, dressed head to toe in camouflage and some also driving camouflage trucks. Showing off the fruits of your labour is taken pretty seriously too. I was sat in a bar in a small town, refuelling on pastries before walking the rest of the day’s kilometres, when a man parked up outside. Everyone in the bar flocked to the street as he pulled dead animals from his boot and passenger seat, proudly displaying them on the tarmac.

Walking past farms in this part of the world can be a hazardous business. Sheep and property are guarded by Maremmani, Maremma sheepdogs. I remember some years ago visiting my Mum’s uncle, Serafino, and thinking that his big, white, oversized Retriever was adorable. But the working Maremmani are far from friendly. I’ve been chased and barked at when my path skirted the land they are protecting. But my heart was well and truly in my mouth when, spotting a pack of seven Maremmani in the distance, one raced after me and followed me down the road, barking and snapping at the air around my ankles. A passing Fiat Multipla, of all things, came to my rescue, tooting it’s horn and giving the dog something else to bark at.

Lago Di Bolsena

Taking a steep and muddy path through the trees, I got my first glimpse of Lago di Bolsena. Its glistening water and familiar outline brought tears to my eyes. I’ve been coming to the lake since I was a babe in arms, and have many happy memories of times spent there from my childhood through to a holiday earlier this summer. It is, for me, a place that feels like home. And it felt utterly surreal to know that I had walked there from my other home in the UK.

Lago di Bolsena is the largest volcanic lake in Europe and reaches depths of over 150 metres. It’s two islands, Isola Bisentina and Isola Martana, have been inhabited since Etruscan and Roman times, have passed through the hands of royalty, noble families, and popes, and are now privately owned.

The view from Bolsena’s castle
A quiet street in Bolsena’s old town

Although I’ve been coming to the lake my whole life, I’m not particularly familiar with its northern shore. The Via Francigena took me to the town of Bolsena, which is famous for a miracle that occurred in the 13th century. I wandered around Bolsena’s churches, explored the nooks and crannies of its old town, and took in the lake views from its imposing castle. And I sat on the lake shore, too cold to take a dip but warm enough to eat a gelato, and looked across to the town of Capodimonte which I escape to every summer.

Sunset on Lago di Bolsena

I set off on another detour from the Via Francigena, towards the place my Mum, Luciana, and my late Nonno, Marino, were born. I cut across farms and wandered down dirt tracks. During WWII Nonna was walking this route with one of her brothers, Dario. They were fired at by a British plane, but neither of them were harmed. However their father, who heard the gunfire from their family farm, had an anxious wait to see if they would both return home.

In the middle of nowhere an old lady appeared, surrounded by a harem of dogs. She told me that I was going the wrong way, and directed me towards a path that cut between some olive groves. I took her advice and went off on my way, but sadly after a few hundred metres the path was totally overgrown – I’m not sure she had walked it in recent years.

Eventually I arrived in the town of Bagnoregio, where my Mum was born. I visited the Cattedrale dei Santi Nicola, Donato e Bonaventura, when Nonna and Nonna were married and my Mum baptised.

Inside Bagnoregio’s Cattedrale dei Santi Nicola, Donato e Bonaventura
Stunning Civita di Bagnoregio

A short walk outside the town is one of Italy’s truly remarkable sights, a place that I’m fortunate to have a personal connection to as its where Nonno was born. Civita di Bagnoregio is an island village, seemingly stranded in the Calanchi Valley and accessible only by footbridge. Once connected to neighbouring Bagnoregio by land, earthquakes and erosion have led to its current isolation. But there is an upside to isolation, as a visit to the village has the feel of going back in time.

I’ve visited this special place many times, but I’ve never stayed the night. It was one of the biggest treats of my walk to Rome to have the place to myself after the day trippers had gone, to wander the streets and for it to be so quiet that I could hear a woodpecker working away on a tree in the valley below, and to see a sky full of stars when the village turned in for the night.

Civita di Bagnoregio’s San Donato church, where Nonno was baptised
All is quiet after the day tripper have gone

Crossing the footbridge back to the mainland, I meandered along country roads back to the Via Francigena. Farmers were busy picking grapes, and there was a smell of wine in the air. In the distance I could see the hilltop town of Montefiascone, famous for once being the summer residence of popes and for its Est! Est!! Est!!! wine.

Montefiascone’s Basilica Santa Margherita, looking out over the volcanic hills

The dome of Basilica Santa Margherita, one of the largest in Italy, dominates the town’s skyline. Nonna never set foot in the Basilica her whole life, being somewhat afraid of how it towers over you when standing at street level. In recent years she expressed an interest in visiting it, but we didn’t manage to take her before she passed away. So on arriving in Montefiascone I headed straight for the Basilica, and took a moment to enjoy it’s beautiful frescoes and huge dome for Nonna.

The dome of Basilica Santa Margherita

Being so close to Rome, there is a temptation to wish the time and kilometres away. There is an eagerness to get there now. And there is the temptation to see the final stretch as a chore, something that just needs to get done. But my days walking through Lazio have been full of adventure.

The historic city of Viterbo was full of medieval houses and bell towers, and its surrounding countryside dotted with hot springs that helped to soothe my aching bones. I felt like Indiana Jones as I walked through the Cava di Sant’Antonio, an Etruscan road carved out of volcanic tuff, with walls rising up to 10 metres high. The forest floors were covered in a blanket of lilac cyclamen, and I stumbled upon countless people searching for porcini mushrooms.

Viterbo’s old town
Visiting the hot springs outside Viterbo
Walking through the Cava di Sant’Antonio

I walked through endless olive groves, flourishing in the black, volcanic, sandy soil. For days I got lost meandering through huge plantations of hazelnut trees. Squirrel like I collected fallen hazelnuts and walnuts from the ground, and munched on them as I continued my journey south.

A Roman road leads the way through olive groves
Hazelnuts!
Harvest time

With less than 100 kilometres to go, the Via Francigena still had some gems up its sleeves. The towns of Capranica and Sutri, perched high on volcanic tuffs, were full of narrow, cobbled streets and weatherworn doors, lavish churches and busy piazzas, a Roman amphitheatre, and cave churches and tombs.

A quiet street in Capranica
Sutri’s Roman amphitheatre
One of Sutri’s busy piazzas

Rome is now within spitting distance. Less than 20 kilometres away. Tomorrow I will walk into the Eternal City, and the Basilica di San Pietro and the Coliseum will tower over me. I don’t know how I will feel. No doubt I’ll be a mixed bag of emotions – elated to have arrived in Rome, in disbelief that I walked every step of the way from London, and saddened that my journey is over. But today I feel excited. Tremendously excited.

Throughout Lazio cyclamen create a lilac blanket on the forest floors

I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity, Mind. Last week I featured in the Metro’s “Strong Women” column. You can read the article, and my thoughts on mental health awareness, here. If you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site. Thank you.

Avenza to Acquapendente

A journey through the heart of Tuscany

295kms – 15 days

Refreshed and revived after my jaunt to the Ligurian coast, I spent two weeks walking my way through the heart of Tuscany. My days were full of stunning cities and jaw dropping hill top towns, delicious regional cuisine, plenty of up and down, and, at times, hoards of tourists. Tuscany really is as beautiful as everybody says. But for me the gems were to be found in the lesser known places, where the locals still outnumber the tourists and where daily life isn’t disturbed by coach loads of day trippers. This “real” Tuscany is where the region’s beauty really lies.

Making my way south from Tuscany’s quiet northern frontier, I snaked through hills that were sandwiched between the Apuan Alps and the Mediterranean Sea. The mountains were topped with white peaks that could have been mistaken for snow, but it was, in fact, marble.

The marble facade of Massa’s Cattedrale dei Santi Pietro e Francesco

Since the days of Ancient Rome, Carrara marble has been used in countless sculptures and buildings around the world. It’s been carved into Rome’s Pantheon and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, Michelangelo’s David, London’s Marble Arch, Washington D.C.’s Peace Monument, and Abu Dhabi’s Sheik Zayed Mosque. The quarries that I walked past have produced more marble than anywhere else in the world.

Marble was on show everywhere in Massa, especially on the Municipio (town hall) building

I passed huge blocks of white marble, sitting in factory forecourts like giant icebergs, ready to be shipped to their new homes in far away lands. But the Italians have also kept plenty of marble for themselves. In the towns of Avenza and Massa everything from cathedrals to park benches, statues to staircases, glistened a brilliant white.

The colourful and arty streets of Pietrasanta

This corner of Tuscany doesn’t just produce fine marble, it also has a long tradition of producing world class artists, particularly sculptors. For centuries the town of Pietrasanta has been a magnet attracting artists from all over the world, earning it the nickname “Little Athens”. Michelangelo came here to learn from the local artisans and to select the finest marble for his sculptures. And more recently the Colombian artist Fernando Botero and the late Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj have called Pietrasanta home.

Today Pietrasanta is an open air art gallery, with streets lined with permanent and temporary sculpture exhibitions that are sandwiched between traditional churches, palazzos, and bell towers. Countless studios and foundaries also dot the town, and are where artisanal trades continue to be passed down from generation to generation.

One of the many sculptures lining Pietrasanta’s streets

I walked through bamboo forests and climbed to the top of steep hills before following the River Serchio towards the walled city of Lucca. I’ve been wanting to visit Lucca for the best part of 10 years, and the Via Francigena took me right into the heart of the city.

With origins that date back to the Etruscans, Lucca oozes history, style, and tourists. It’s perfectly preserved medieval walls keep the bulk of the city’s traffic out, leaving pedestrians and cyclists to meander the tiny streets and alleyways. Traffic jams are, however, commonplace. And it’s all down to the shops which are ridiculously beautiful, the delicatessens which lure you in with their wafts of fresh truffle, and the gelaterias which are irresistibly enticing.

Bicycle traffic on one of Lucca’s streets
One of Lucca’s many gelaterias pulling in quite a crowd

Lucca’s piazzas were some of my favourite to date, lined with the stunning marble facades of Cattedrale di San Martino and San Michele in Foro, the townhouse where the great opera composer Giacomo Puccini was born, and countless bars housing weary tourists.

The intricate facade of Cattedrale di San Marino
San Michele in Foro

I spent my birthday walking in rain and thunder storms of biblical proportions. The soft red soil of the forest tracks that I slipped and slid along gathered on the soles of my boots, adding inches to my height. As the rain continued to come down, I took shelter in every village bar I could using my birthday as an excuse to indulge in pastry after pastry. And, after deciding to power on through the storm and arriving at my destination, Aperol Spritz after Aperol Spritz.

A misty morning in San Miniato
Dewy spiderwebs in the morning light

Mist and cloud swirled its way around the hilltop town of San Miniato, and hundreds of dewy spiderwebs lined my path through the Tuscan hills, twinkling in the morning light. I walked through olive groves and vineyards, and in the distance I got my first glimpse of the infamous skyline of San Gimignano’s medieval towers.

The medieval towers of San Gimignano

San Gimignano is an immaculately preserved hilltop town, with 14 of its 70 medieval towers still rising into the sky. By day it’s flooded with day trippers, whose accents drown out everything that is Italian about the town. By night it returns to its Italian roots, its piazzas gently humming with life and its streets a place where locals and tourists take a leisurely passeggiata. But my favourite time of day in San Gimignano was the early morning, when its streets were so quiet that you could say “Buongiorno” to every local that you passed.

Long days walking were rewarded with plates full of mouthwatering food. Linguine with tartufo (truffle), pappardelle with cinghiale (wild boar), the local pici pasta (which is like a thick spaghetti) with cacio e pepe (sheep’s cheese and pepper), pizza topped with fresh buffalo mozzarella, strong and tangy pecorino cheese and stale focaccia drizzled with olive oil. And, of course, plenty of gelato. I was getting tempted to keep walking beyond Rome so that I could keep eating. There surely can’t be a better country in which your daily activity requires you to hoover up calories.

Sunrise over a Tuscan vineyard

I started to pass through parts of Tuscany that were unfamiliar, parts which don’t steal the spotlight. Colle di Val d’Elsa took me by surprise with its beautiful medieval old town, with streets lined with world famous crystal glass workshops. And the seemingly fairytale setting of Monteriggioni, a tiny village surrounded by medieval walls and sitting high on a hill, was yet another delight.

The picturesque walled village of Monteriggioni

The place that totally stole my heart, though, was Siena. Within a few minutes of walking through the city’s gates it had claimed the title of my favourite city on the Via Francigena. Maybe even my favourite city in Italy. Sure, it has its fair share of tourists, but unlike much of Tuscany it still feels real. Siena has soul, a distinctly Italian soul.

A bird’s eye view of Siena

Siena is rich in history and tradition, architecture and art. Its iconic main square, Il Campo, overlooked by the Torre del Mangia, is the beating heart of the city, drawing people to it like a magnet at all times of the day and night. It’s the location of the annual Palio horse races, where the city’s 17 contrade, or wards, battle it out for the pride and the glory.

The Torre del Mangia, which rises above Siena’s Il Campo
Flags of Siena’s contrade fly proudly in the street

The streets are beautiful, tracing the rise and fall of the city’s hills, and are full of character, charm, and flags and plaques to remind you which contrada you are passing through. The Duomo di Siena is a masterpiece, it’s black and white marble stripes a patriotic nod to the colours of the city’s flag. The mosaics that line its floor are utterly remarkable, and only on display during the summer months. They took over 40 artists more than two centuries to complete, and are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And the pilgrim hall in the beautiful Santa Maria della Scala, where I would’ve been welcomed had I been a pilgrim in the Middle Ages, was equally as breathtaking.

The facade of the Duomo di Siena
Inside the Duomo di Siena
The pilgrim hall in Santa María della Scala

I reluctantly put on my walking boots and left Siena, hopeful that I would return to spend more time there in the future. My spirits were soon lifted, though, by the scenery and authentic towns of the Val d’Orcia, which stretches south from Siena towards Lazio. The landscape is truly breathtaking, and it’s easy to see why it’s been chosen as the location for countless films, including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. This is quintessential Tuscany.

There’s something about the way the light falls here, something truly magical. There is depth and detail, light and shadow. My mornings walking through this part of Italy were my favourite since leaving London. Every climb to the top of a hill seemed to take me to a place of beauty, with a foreground of vines and olive groves set against a background of Tuscany’s iconic cypress trees and lone farmhouses.

An early morning in the Val d’Orcia
Tuscany’s iconic cypress trees

I passed through utterly stunning towns and villages, none of which I’d ever heard of before and all of which lacked the hoards of tourists that I’d encountered further north. San Quirico d’Orcia had charming streets and a quirky sculpture park, and Buonconvento’s old town was like a place where time stood still.

A quiet street in San Quirico d’Orcia
An old townhouse in San Quirico d’Orcia

Vignoni Alto was little more than a hamlet, but it offered the most stunning views across the Val d’Orcia. And the hot springs of Bagno Vignoni, renowned for their therapeutic properties since Etruscan and Roman times, couldn’t have been more picturesque.

The view from Vignoni Alto
The 16th century bathhouse in Bagno Vignoni
Bagno Vignoni’s hot springs cascading down the valley wall

Tuscany is characterised by its hilltop towns, so it was fitting that a long day of climbing up and up, and further up and up, took me to my last stopping point before I entered Lazio.

Lazio, the home of Rome. Which meant that I was getting close. With somewhere in the region of 2,000 kilometres behind me and around 200 kilometres to go, a very surreal feeling was starting to sink in.

Leaving Tuscany and entering Lazio

As I crossed in to Lazio things started to feel familiar. The place names on road signs, the crumbling facades of buildings. The gritty reality of a world that isn’t picture perfect Tuscany. I’ve been coming to northern Lazio my whole life, as it’s where my Mum and her parents hail from. So although I was excited to be within spitting distance of Rome, I was just as excited to be walking through the land of my ancestors. And in the coming days I was to go on my own personal pilgrimage, away from the Via Francigena, to the places where they were born, where they were baptised and married, where they lived and worked the land. It was going to be an emotional journey, and I could feel the emotions starting to build.

A mural of a farmer, the lifestyle of my Italian ancestors, in Acquapendente

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. Thank you.

Pavia to the Mediterranean

Castellos and culinary delights en route to Tuscany

310kms – 12 days

Leaving the Vercelli rice fields and their mosquitos behind, I continued south through the fertile plains of the Po Valley, an area of approximately 46,000 kilometres that stretches from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea. From Lombardy I crossed into Emilia Romagna, nicknamed the “bread basket” of Italy and regarded by many as its gastronomic heart. Parma ham, Parmesan, and balsamic vinegar all hail from this region. And as I worked my way from one medieval town to the next, my reward at the end of each day came in a plate of delicious regional cuisine. It was the perfect way to refuel before crossing the Apennine Mountains and entering Tuscany.

A misty morning at Villa Litta in the town of Orio Litta

Medieval castellos dotted the landscape of fields growing tomatoes, corn, and everything in between. Some were crumbling and derelict, home only to squatting pigeons and swallows. And others were immaculately preserved and enjoying a second life as a museum. One had even been reincarnated as a law firm, quite unlike the law firm that I worked in once upon a time. But they all had something in common – they were huge, and surrounded by sprawling gardens.

A derelict castello that has seen better days

I walked my way to the River Po, which marks a huge milestone in a pilgrim’s journey to Rome. It’s a big deal because it involves trading two feet for another form of transport, a speedboat. For several decades Danilo Parisi, a legend of the Via Francigena, has recreated the role played by medieval ferrymen by helping pilgrims cross from one side to the River Po to the other. Danilo is larger than life, full of stories and jokes, and a guardian of the Via Francigena’s history. And he, of course, had the biggest pilgrim’s passport stamp that I’ve seen. I would put money on it being bigger than the one the Vatican will use for my final stamp when I arrive in Rome.

An early morning crossing the River Po
The ferryman Danilo Parisi stamping my pilgrim’s passport

Piacenza, which is overshadowed by Bologna and Parma as far as Emilia Romagna’s cities are concerned, made a colourful pit stop en route to the Apennine Mountains. Its piazzas were dominated by medieval palazzos, and a food and wine festival showcasing the region’s finest. Its churches had huge facades, octagonal towers, and quiet cloisters. And its streets were busy with fruit and vegetable sellers, classy boutiques, and stylish Italians who could’ve all been dressed by Piacenza local Giorgio Armani.

The facade of Piacenza’s Duomo
Fruit and vegetables for sale in Piacenza
The octagonal tower of Piacenza’s Basilica di Sant’Antonino

Days of torrential rain made for tough walking. Stepping stones that are normally straightforward became something more like an extreme sport. I hid out in village bars and drank cups of thick Italian hot chocolate, and took shelter in roadside shrines to eat my paninis stuffed with locally produced provolone piccante.

My route was dominated by towns beginning with “F” – Fiorenzuola d’Arda, Fidenza, Fornovo di Taro. Each had a local church with a pilgrim house, or ostello, in an unrivalled town centre location. I shared these ostellos with other pilgrims from all over the world, travelling on foot and by bike, each with a different starting point but most heading in the direction of Rome. And my room always seemed to be directly under the church bell tower, which ensured I was up early and hitting the road south.

The Municipo (town hall) in Fiorenzuola d’Arda
A Via Francigena mural in Medesano
A delicatessen selling locally produced Parmesan

Leaving the agricultural plains of the Po Valley behind I started my ascent into the Apennine Mountains, a range that stretches roughly 1,200 kilometres along the length of Peninsular Italy. The misty mornings and hazy sunlight gave the landscape the look and feel of a fine art painting. The mountain tracks were quiet, save for the odd peacock that crept up on me, and the villages full of old nonnos (grandfathers) and nonnas (grandmothers) sweeping their patios and tending to their window boxes.

Hazy morning sunshine in the Apennine Mountains

A rocky path took me up and down, up and down, through forests and tiny mountain communities, until I reached the quirky village of Cassio. I rewarded myself with a pizza topped with aged Parma ham and Parmesan, two of the region’s superstar produce, and enjoyed the mountain views from the comfort of a hammock.

An upcycled plastic bottle in Cassio

I went higher into the mountains, to the top of Monte Marino (989m) which was of special significance to me as my nonno was called Marino. From the summit of Monte Valoria (1,229m) the mountains stretched out to the north and the south, and I posed for a photo with three Italians who couldn’t quite believe they had met an English lady who had walked all the way from London.

At the summit of Monte Marino
Sweeping views from the summit of Monte Valoria

The road led me to the Cisa Pass (1,041m), where I marvelled at stained glass windows and sporting memorabilia from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and A.C. Milan sharing wall space inside the Madonna della Guardia chapel.

The view from the Cisa Pass
Reaching the gateway to Tuscany

Crossing the Cisa Pass I entered the Italy of everyone’s dreams, Tuscany. I would spend the next few weeks walking through this region that draws tourists from around the world, a land that I’m not particularly familiar with given that my Mum is hugely proud to hail from neighbouring Lazio. I was excited to visit Lucca and Siena, and the world famous Tuscan hilltop towns in between. But I was just as eager to discover the Tuscany that everyone else forgets about, the historic territory of Lunigiana which covers much of the region’s mountainous north. And what treasures I found there.

The stunning town of Pontremoli

Pontremoli, a stunning little town with a history dating back to 1,000 BC, is nestled in a fork in the River Magra and overlooked by its medieval castle. Its streets are lined with arty boutiques, wood panelled grocery stores, and bars that could be mistaken for churches thanks to their beautiful ceiling frescoes.

By day I sat in bars and watched people flow in and out of the town’s piazzas. And by night I sampled testaroli, a flat baked pasta that’s served with pesto. Not only is testaroli unique to Pontremoli but it is widely thought to be the first type of pasta, dating back to the Etruscan civilisation.

The colourful streets of Pontremoli
One of Pontremoli’s beautiful bars
The Baroque interior of Pontremoli’s Duomo

As I journeyed further south in to Tuscany I discovered countless other gems, some of which caught me by surprise having not noticed them on the map. This was the Tuscany that you don’t hear about – tiny hamlets with no tourists, distant colourful towns perched precariously on hilltops, and the dramatic outline of the Apuan Alps.

The tiny hamlet of Virgoletta
Virgoletta’s somewhat dated electrical repair shop
The hilltop town of Bibola
A misty morning in the shadow of the Apuan Alps

Walking through a dusty pine forest, the air started to feel fresh. I turned a corner, and there on the horizon was the Mediterranean Sea. It caught me off guard, and brought tears to my eyes and an enormous smile to my face. I had walked to the Mediterranean Sea! It edged closer and closer as the day went on, going from a distant horizon to the water lapping around my tired ankles.

Reaching the Mediterranean Sea

For years I’ve been saying that I want to visit the Ligurian coast. And there it was, just a stone’s throw away from where I stood. So I walked to a train station, which I would return to in a few days’ time to continue my journey to Rome. I headed a stop or two north, marvelling at how quickly I covered the distance that I’d spent much of the day walking.

I’d been warned about the crowds in Cinque Terre, a UNESCO world heritage site that is undoubtedly beautiful and deserving of the millions of people that flock to it each year. After spending weeks in quiet towns and sleepy villages, I wasn’t ready to be surrounded by tourists. So I made my way to a place that I’d come across by chance when reading an article online. A place that’s managed to escape mass tourism and retain its authenticity. And it ended up being one of my favourite places of anywhere in the world.

Tellaro is a picture perfect village in the Golfo dei Poeti (the “Gulf of Poets”), so-called because it used to be the stomping ground of Lord Byron, P.B. Shelley and countless other literary greats. Colourful houses tumble down the forest covered hills, sinking into the crystal clear azures of the Mediterranean Sea.

Jaw dropping Tellaro
The crystal clear waters of the Golfo dei Poeti

I swam in the irresistible water, indulged in multiple gelatos and delicious seafood, and strolled around the warren like streets in search of references to the giant octopus that, legend has it, once saved the town from pirates by climbing out of the water and raising the alarm by ringing the church bell. And I enjoyed a front row seat at some world class Mediterranean sunsets.

Tellaro’s warren like streets
An octopus door handle, a nod to the village’s legend that an octopus saved it from pirates
Boats stored in one of Tellaro’s cobbled alleyways
Aquatic street art

I think I could’ve stayed in Tellaro forever, living in a colourful house with even more colourful shutters that open out on to the sea. But my feet were getting itchy and the pilgrimage trail was calling. And after a short train ride I was back where I had left off, and I was once again walking my way to Rome.

Sunset in the Golfo dei Poeti

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. Thank you.

The Grand Saint Bernard Pass to Pavia

Making tracks in la Bella Italia

272kms – 13 days

La Bella Italia…the land of Roman amphitheatres and medieval castles, the Alps and the Dolomites, the Tuscan hills and the mighty Vesuvius. The home of the Ferrari and the Vespa, of Giorgio Armani and Prada. The country that brought us pasta, pizza, Parmesan, and Prosecco. And gelato, let’s not forget the gelato. The home of Venice, Milan, Florence, and of course, Rome, the eternal city. Being half Italian I’ve spent many a holiday in this wonderful country. But never have I been so excited to see the green, white, and red of il Tricolore.

Perfect weather to cross the border to Italy

I was woken from a deep sleep in the atmospheric Grand Saint Bernard Hospice by a sort of Gregorian chant, which was played into the bedrooms to summon pilgrims down to breakfast. I pulled back the curtain to reveal a cloudless sky. Perfect weather to cross the border to Italy.

Stepping over the border felt momentous. Like a homecoming, but also like the beginning of a journey of discovery. Italy is so familiar to me, it’s my second home and a huge part of my heritage. Yet my journey to Rome would take me through unfamiliar territory, and would test my shameful language skills. I was excited – for the history, the culture, the landscape, for it all. And the food. I was ridiculously excited about the food.

Crossing the border
The rocky slopes of the Italian Alps

Leaving the rocky slopes of the Grand Saint Bernard Pass behind I descended into the Valle d’Aosta, an autonomous region where both Italian and French are official languages. I was soon snaking through forests and along the Ru Neuf. I kept turning around to check that the mountains were still there. I was torn – I didn’t want to leave them, but I was also eager to explore everything that waited for me on the road ahead.

Less than a few hours from the Swiss border, I felt like I was in a different world. The shiny Porches and 4x4s had been replaced with Fiat Pandas and Fiat Puntos, and occasionally an old school Fiat Cinquecento. Wooden chalets decked out with Swiss flags had been replaced by stone chalets with roofs made of slate tiles the size of tombstones.

Walking along the Ru Neuf
The charming village of Etroubles full of stone chalets with slate roofs

Italy is an assault on the senses. The houses and their perfectly manicured gardens ooze colour. The ortos (vegetable gardens) are pungent with the smells of tomatoes, figs, peaches, and kiwis, and they send your taste buds into overdrive. Italians don’t talk, they sing. And when they don’t sing, they shout. Whether it’s a seemingly abrupt “Pronto” when answering the phone, or a conversation that looks and feels more like an argument, Italy is loud.

The Arch of Augustus, built in 35 BC

My alpine crossing felt like a distant memory as I walked into Aosta, a city with history that dates back to the Roman times, with ruins of towers, gates, theatres, and arches to prove it. But the mountains were never far away. Aosta is surrounded by peaks, ski slopes that descend into vineyards the closer they get to the valley floor. They provide the backdrop to every colourful, crumbling street no matter which direction you turn. And the streets are full of life. People shopping in the artisan boutiques, people queuing outside delis to buy the locally produced Fontina and Fromadzo cheeses, and people sitting in piazzas drinking Aperol Spritz.

The walk out of the Valle d’Aosta provided some of the most challenging days of my journey so far. Climbing and descending over 2,300 metres in two days, yet always staying between 400 and 700 metres above sea level. Days were spent going up to come down, going up again only to come come down again. And the blistering heat made things worse. But my efforts were rewarded with spectacular mountain views, and at the end of every climb there was always a photo to be taken and a chance to catch my breath.

The glorious Valle d’Aosta. Can you spot the hot air balloon?

Just as I was thinking that the only way to truly appreciate the valley’s beauty is from above, a hot air balloon effortlessly flew past. What I would’ve given to be floating down the valley in that balloon. But then I realised that while you may get amazing views, you don’t get to see how people in the valley live. You don’t get to see the one seater Piaggio pick up trucks weaving their way along the twists and turns of the valley’s roads. Or the vines growing on pergolas built on top of stone pillars called pilun, which absorb the sun’s heat during the day and release it at night, creating a mild microclimate amongst the vines.

At times the steep, forest covered cliffs of the valley transported me to the jungles of Brazil and Vietnam. But then I’d spot one of the many medieval forts and castles perched on hilltops either side of the Dora Baltea River. They were the strongholds of Italy’s noble families, who tussled for control over this important alpine crossing and collected tolls from those traversing it. Some were in ruins, and the path would take me through the rubble of their remains. But others were as imposing as they would’ve been in their hay day. Such as the Forte di Bard, which completely dominates the valley floor. It has the feel of being both impassable and impenetrable. And it almost was – it took two weeks for Napoleon and his army of 40,000 to push past the fort when invading Italy in 1800, following which he ordered its destruction (the fort that stands today was rebuilt in the 1830s).

The imposing Forte di Bard
Pont Saint Martin, dating back to the first century BC

Following Roman roads and crossing Roman bridges dating back to the first century BC, I continued making my way south to the city of Ivrea, home of the chef Antonio Carluccio, Olivetti the manufacturers of typewriters and computers, and a world class canoe slalom course. The valley started to broaden, and its walls began to sink into the ground until they disappeared. The plains of the Po Valley stretched out in front of me. I gave a nostalgic look over my shoulder, and said goodbye to the mountains. I couldn’t quite believe that I had crossed the Alps.

Arrivederci Alps!

Rice was to dominate the next week of my walk, as I made my way through the Vercelli rice fields. Italy is Europe’s largest producer of rice, an agricultural practice that dates back thousands of years. With rice comes stagnant water, and with stagnant water come mosquitos. The rice fields were full of them, and they had their fill of me.

Rice, rice, and more rice
Early mornings walking through the Vercelli rice fields

Early starts made for beautiful sunrises, but the sun was soon scorching everything in sight and I raced from the shade of one tree or derelict farmhouse to the next. When the sun wasn’t shining thunderstorms filled the air, which gave some respite from the mosquitos until the skies cleared and they returned with a vengeance.

The bell towers of village churches were beacons in a sea of rice, drawing me in to a place of shelter from the sun and the storm. Some were tiny chapels, big enough for a congregation of twelve people. And others were unexpected masterpieces that wouldn’t be out of place in the Vatican. After visiting the village churches I would procrastinate in the bars, which were full of people from morning until night. I joined them watching Formula 1 and Serie A football, was questioned about my thoughts on Brexit and Boris Johnson, and refuelled on gelato.

An unexpected find, the stunning inside of Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo in Cavaglià
A much needed gelato stop

The monotony of the landscape was starting to get to me. Maybe it was the heat, or maybe the fumes from my insect repellant, but a sort of delirium set in. My mind wandered and I imagined myself walking through the backwaters of Kerala, half expecting a houseboat to float by at any moment.

Despite the mosquitos, the heat, and the storms, there is a certain kind of beauty in the rice fields. They create a landscape of vivid gold and green, and are full of birdlife – great egrets, herons, and sacred ibis to name but a few. And every few days my journey was, mercifully, broken up with a momentary change of scene. Afternoons strolling along the shore of Lago di Viverone and exploring the churches and cloisters of Vercelli, and sampling the city’s traditional bicciolani biscuits in gelato form, helped to save my sanity.

Sunset on Lago di Viverone
Abbazia di Sant’Andrea in Vercelli

Something else that helped me to keep going through the rice fields, together with a good luck message that I received from Stephen Fry, was the attitude of the local Italians. They embrace the Via Francigena like it’s a part of their family. Indeed it feels like Italy is the spiritual home of the Via Francigena – it means so much to the people here, and they are proud to be a part of it.

Children had tied “Buon viaggio” signs to lampposts, and there were tables outside houses with drinks and snacks for pilgrims. Cars stopped to ask me where I was going, and a man on a bicycle shook my hand as he pedalled alongside me. As I walked down the street I was met with shouts of “Brava!”, and as I passed some elderly people sat in rocking chairs they whooped and hollered “A Roma! A Roma!”. I’ve had requests to say a prayer for someone when I get to Rome, and to say hello to Papa Francesco, Pope Francis, from others.

A sign made by children wishing pilgrims a good journey

As I walked through the small town of Tromello, I stopped in a bar to have a drink and a snack. Before I’d even had time to sit down, an elderly man on a bicycle painted green, white, and red approached me and asked if I was a pilgrim. He asked if I wanted my pilgrim’s passport stamped, and told me that he’d be back shortly. He returned together with a certificate and pin badge. We had a brief chat about where I’d been and where I was going, and after a “Mamma Mia!” and a throwing of hands in the air, he cycled off on his way.

The certificate and pin badge I received in Tromello

Finally there was a light at the end of the rice fields. And that light was the university city of Pavia. Having walked for 18 days without a rest, I was exhausted and in need of a pit stop. But rest days are never zero step count days, as there’s always so much to explore.

Pavia’s is one of the oldest universities in Europe and I seemed to have timed my visit with students arriving for the start of a new term. I dodged the canoodling teenagers on the Ponte Coperto (covered bridge), and explored the city’s countless churches, marvelling at their melodious bell ringing. Once called the “City of 100 Towers” only five of Pavia’s medieval towers still rise up into the sky. The towers were a symbol of a family’s power, and the taller the tower the more powerful the family. A fresco in the Chiesa di San Teodoro helped me to imagine what the city looked like in the 1300s, a medieval Manhattan.

Two of Pavia’s remaining Medieval towers
A fresco in Chiesa di San Teodoro depicting Pavia in the 1300s
Exploring Pavia’s colourful streets

In an attempt to feel like everyone else in the city I shunned my hiking clothes, and instead of walking 30 odd kilometres I did as they did. I strolled the city’s cobbled streets and sat in a piazza watching the world go by. But as I watched the world go by, I realised there’s no way of hiding my pilgrim credentials. Everyone else was beautifully turned out, women in high heels and dresses and men in pressed shirts and blazers. I was in a scruffy dress that hadn’t been washed for weeks. Everyone else had flawless deep olive tans that they’d been working on all summer. I had tan lines that made it look like I was wearing socks and shorts even when I wasn’t.

It dawned on me that although you take a day of rest from your pilgrimage, you don’t stop being a pilgrim. The tell tale signs are all there, and your pilgrim mindset is too. You’re always wanting to say hello to everyone you pass in the street, until you remember that in cities that’s not what people do. You’re always noticing the little things that everyone else, rushing about in their daily lives, is too busy to observe. And you’re always looking out for the Via Francigena signs pointing in the direction of Rome.

Sunset over Pavia’s Ponte Coperto and Duomo

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. Thank you.

Lausanne to the Grand Saint Bernard Pass

Walking across the roof of Europe

125kms – 6 days

There’s a certain apprehension within the pilgrim community about walking through Switzerland. Some people are worried about the mountains and the challenging ascents they pose. Many are worried about the strength of the Swiss Franc and the dent that will be made to their wallets. But walking from the shores of Lake Geneva to the Grand Saint Bernard Pass, Switzerland’s frontier with Italy, I learned that everything you commit in breathless uphill steps and extra pennies (or, more accurately, pounds!) has its rewards.

Clear blue skies and perfect mountain views on Lake Geneva

I was spoilt with brilliant blue skies and sunshine as I walked my way around Lake Geneva, which were a delight in themselves but the perfect mountain views that came along with them were the real treat. I just couldn’t get enough of the Alps, I was mesmerised by them. And I was glad that the joggers, cyclists, and roller bladers I shared the promenade with were able to dodge me when, eyes focussed on the peaks instead of the path, I got in their way.

Leaving Lausanne behind, I followed the promontories and inlets of the shoreline. At every turn the water became more inviting, and I was taunted by picturesque off-shore diving platforms and stand up paddle boarders gliding into the distance. The countdown was on to getting the day’s walking done and going for a dip.

Just one of Lake Geneva’s many picturesque diving platforms

Steep climbs took me through charming villages into the heart of the Lavaux terraced vineyards. The vines date back to the 11th century when they were first cultivated by Benedictine and Cistercian monks. They are an extraordinary feat of engineering, covering every inch of the impossibly sheer mountainside, no corner of south-facing land being left bare. The landscape is truly stunning – a sea of vibrant green vines that tumble into the dazzling blue of Lake Geneva, before sinking into the depths of the shadows the Alps cast on the water. I found myself pausing to take a photo every five minutes, which also brought some momentary relief from the punishing inclines.

The Lavaux terraced vineyards

I managed to miss the once a generation winemakers festival, the Fête des Vignerons, in the pretty town of Vevey by only a couple of days. Which was probably a good thing. The streets showed the tell tale signs of weeks of heavy partying, which doesn’t tend to pair too well with walking. So instead of revelling I spent my afternoon soaking in Lake Geneva’s tepid waters, admiring Vevey’s “lake art”, marvelling at the shore front houses which appeared to be wearing hats, and bumping into Charlie Chaplin, who lived in the hills above the town for over 20 years. And, of course, I managed to sneak in a glass of the local vin blanc.

“The Fork”, an 8 metre art installation sitting in the waters off Vevey
Characterful houses lining the shore of Lake Geneva
Bumping into Charlie Chaplin in Vevey

Charlie Chaplin was but one of many who made this corner of Switzerland their home. The beautiful Montreux Riviera has been a favourite amongst creatives for centuries – Jean Jacques Rousseau, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Bryon, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, David Bowie, and perhaps most famously, Freddie Mercury. Freddie said, “If you want peace of mind, come to Montreux”. And it was easy to see what he was getting at. The mountain views and quiet swimming coves, the 12th century Château de Chillion with its perfect lakeside setting, the paddle steamboats cruising along the water, and the promenade bursting with colourful flowers, sculptures, and opulent Belle Époque hotels. It’s the kind of place that you never want to leave.

A statue of Freddie Mercury in Montreux
Château de Chillion’s perfect lakeside setting

But leave I must. After spending days looking at the Alps I had edged my way closer to them, and it was time to get in amongst them.

Trading sunshine for thunderstorms, I made my way up the Rhône Valley, which takes its name from the river that thunders through it. The mountains towered over me on both sides, their craggy peaks rising above the mist and cloud, dotted with lone chalets in the most isolated and improbable of places. I found myself rather taken by the Dents du Midi, a massif of seven peaks that dominates the skyline. By day I gazed at them in awe, and by night I Googled them and plotted a return visit where I would hike my way around them.

The River Rhône

The town of Saint Maurice guards the entry to the upper reaches of the Rhône Valley, and is dominated by its abbey which has been a place of worship and perpetual prayer, and a sanctuary for pilgrims, for 1,500 years.

The Abbey of Saint Maurice
A stained glass window in the Abbey of Saint Maurice

Torrential rain made for tricky walking, with slippery paths and land slides, and fallen trees to navigate over. There were days when I was soaked to the bone, and my route cruelly took me past train stations where my destination for the night was but one stop away. A ten minute train ride, or two more hours walking in the rain? Whether it was will power, or stubbornness, or stupidity, I kept walking. The rain may have dampened my spirits somewhat, as well as every item of my clothing, but it also made for some spectacular waterfalls. And my spirits were lifted when I received a good luck video message from the legendary long walker, Levison Wood.

Cascade de la Pissevache

I started to see signs for Verbier, Chamonix, and Mont Blanc. I was climbing higher. And then the signs for the Grand Saint Bernard Pass and Italy started to appear, which felt exciting and bizarre all at once. It was happening, I was crossing the Alps!

As I edged up the Ferret Valley the mountains became steeper and the settlements smaller. The tourists started to thin out, and it felt like it was just me, the vibrant green grass and the cows feeding on it. Swiss flags flew from picture perfect wooden chalets, and you got the impression that people lived here. Really lived here, not just in winter when the ski lifts were open.

Chalets in the Ferret Valley

After steadily gaining elevation over a number of days the time came to make a push for the Grand Saint Bernard Pass, which sits at 2,473 metres. As I climbed up and up the rivers became clearer, the wildflowers more abundant, and the forests thinner until I was above the tree line. I passed one or two isolated farmhouses in the four hour climb, but otherwise it was just me, the odd marmot fattening up before winter, and the views.

Climbing up towards the Grand Saint Bernard Pass
Passing Lac des Toules
Wildflowers brighten the mountainsides

There’s something about being in the mountains. A serenity to be found in them. I stopped often on my way up to the pass, not because the going was tough or the air thin. But because I wanted to savour that serenity.

In 2018 two of my friends took their own lives, Troy and Jenny. They were both, in many ways, mountain people. Troy grew up in Denver, Colorado, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. And Jenny spent many months living in the Alps, combining her talents of skiing and being a chef. I thought of them often as I edged towards the pass. And I was powered on by my resolve to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity Mind. Every time I stopped to admire the peaks and to savour the the serenity I found in them, I took an extra moment for each of Troy and Jenny.

A little windswept, but enjoying the climb
A waterfall on the way up to the Grand Saint Bernard Pass
Looking back towards Switzerland

I climbed higher and higher, until I was looking down on peaks that had only hours before towered over me. Then suddenly the top of the pass came into view, and with a burst of energy I raced towards it. I’d made it! I’d followed in the footsteps of the Celts, of the Romans, of Charlemagne, of Napoleon and his army of 40,000 men, and of countless pilgrims making their way to and from Rome.

Arriving at the top of the Grand Saint Bernard Pass

In 1049 Saint Bernard, the patron saint of the Alps, founded a hospice at the top of the pass which served as a place of refuge for travellers who were frequently set upon by mountain brigands. During the harsh winters, with temperatures of -30 and snowfall 10 meters deep, the monks manning the hospice also took on the role of mountain rescuers. With the help of the Saint Bernard dogs, who they bred and trained, they saved the lives of countless people who got lost in blizzards or caught in bad weather.

Road access to the pass is closed from mid-October to late-May, yet the doors of the hospice are always open to anyone in need of refuge. The monks continue to provide hospitality to travellers, and I was joined by other pilgrims, hikers, and holiday makers spending a night in the historic outpost. The monks also continue to provide rescue services to those in trouble, and when trying to find a place to hang my walking boots and hiking poles I unearthed a cupboard full of skis and rescue sledges.

The Saint Bernard dogs are, however, retired and only patrol the mountainsides in summer to stretch their legs and to keep the tourists happy.

The real stars of the pass, the Saint Bernard dogs
Looking south towards Italy

After the day trippers had left, and the flow of French, Dutch, and English traffic heading home from holidays in Italy had died down, the pass became a quiet and tranquil place. I sat for hours watching the clouds thin until there were none left and the sky turned pink. I marvelled at the mountains around me and the stillness of the lake, and tried to process the fact that I had arrived here on foot from my house in London. And that tomorrow, as I walked my way to the other side of the lake, I would cross into Italy.

Sunset at the Grand Saint Bernard Pass

Italy – the birthplace of my Mum and my maternal grandparents, my second home, and a huge part of my upbringing and heritage. It was a big reason why I had chosen to walk the Via Francigena, rather than any other trail. And, after eight weeks, it was in sight.

Italy calling

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. Thank you.

Guest Blog: The long and lonely road to owning your power by Sara Kassem

Please allow me to introduce my wonderful friend Sara Kassem, who has so very kindly written this guest blog for you all. Its thought provoking, rallying, empowering, and it’s something that many of us, myself included, need to hear.

Sara is a Clinical Therapist and Registered Social Worker in Toronto, Canada. She has a deep reverence and respect for the healing process, and believes the only way to do it justice is by really seeing it, in all its complex glory. She believes we shouldn’t hate or reject our darkness, but take a deep breath and walk into it with our flashlights in hand. We can’t heal a wound if we don’t look at it. We can’t mend an injury we don’t understand. And we can’t just close our eyes and pretend it’s not there. We can’t “good vibes” ourselves out of it. In this spirit, Sara’s goal is to help us hold hands and walk with courage through everything the human experience has to offer.

Over to Sara…

Like Saf, I believe I have a responsiblity to let people know they aren’t alone in facing challenges in life. Because sometimes it can feel like we’re the only ones struggling. Especially in the age of glossy social media, it can seem like everyone else has their shit together but us. We think, “No one else is this lost,” and we fall into a dark hole of isolation and loneliness. 

There’s nothing wrong with darkness, there’s not even anything wrong with hopelessness. And it doesn’t need more shame and judgment. It simply needs illumination, and a light shone on it.  When things go dark we must not hate the darkness, but find a light to turn on and say, “What have we got here?”

I met Saf in a dream-like time of both of our lives, living the beach life in a magical surfing town on the coast of Nicaragua in 2013. We have both since gone on to other journeys. Both happy and painful, short and long. But the greatest, scariest, loneliest, most fulfilling journey any of us will ever go on is the journey to really owning our power.

Owning our power means looking at what we’ve been through, naming the impact, witnessing the pain and taking a stand against the patterns we keep repeating that no longer serve us. It means saying “No” to being treated as an afterthought. It means saying “Yes” to the power of our own voice and hearts. 

Owning our power is critical now, more than ever. I had a client say to me in my therapy practice yesterday, “This is why I chose you as my therapist. Because you’re bold.” And I had the same thought I’ve had many times recently, “We don’t have time!” We don’t have time to not be bold and to play small. We don’t have time to be meek. We don’t have one more minute for one more morsel of unused potential.  

Not to be the wild, doomsday lady but have you looked at the world lately? We have children in cages. Daily murder sprees. Poisoned water. Missing and murdered indigenous women as a trend. Genocide of indigenous people in general. Naked and blatant White supremacy. Innocent Black folks being shot with impunity. Plastics falling from the sky in snow. Continued rape and violence against women. Sea animals full of party balloons and straws. People dying because they can’t afford medication. This list isn’t even exhaustive. We’ve also got a pathological blend of “every man for himself” and lethal apathy.

I read the most badass quote from Greta Thundberg, the 16 year old climate activist, who said,

“Adults keep saying, ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. And then I want you to act.”

And honestly girl, SAME! I wouldn’t say I want people to panic, but I do want to stress that now is the time to act. Hope and inspiration will not help the world. Healing ourselves so we can give the parts of ourselves that will genuinely help this hurting world is what we must do. 

I sit in empathy with my clients at the beginning of my journey with them, but you better believe that if I get even a whiff that you are ready to level up, I’m calling you off the bench! You better believe that if you have even a molecule of extra light that you are holding back because you’ve been conditioned to please, conform, be small, not make waves, I want to make it crystal clear that we need you! And we don’t have time to not have you!

But making this walk to your power is both scary and unappealing. One of the reasons is that it will disrupt the shit out of your comfortable life. You will lose people you once loved dearly. You will question everything you’ve ever known about everything. You will be in incredible pain. Often. You will upset people. You will shock people. You will appal people. They will accuse you of being extreme. “Isn’t this a bit dramatic?” they might ask you.

We are tribal animals. There’s nothing we love more than the status quo. Both personal and societal. In caveman days, sticking together meant staying alive. We still have these urges and concerns: “Stay together! It’s safe here where you stay quiet and in-line with the group!” So as we are about to embark on our journey to our power, the tribal part of us kicks in. And our voices to ourselves kick in. The Minimizer says, “This thing you stood your ground on isn’t even that important. Saying nothing would have been better. It’s embarrassing that you care,” and then the Catastrophizer says, “This will end in disaster! Do the easier thing.” And then the Fear will say, “Why are you doing this? It’s not worth it!” But it will be worth it. And you can thank those voices for trying to keep you safe, and then politely tell them that you’re doing it anyway.

It will be so, so hard but it will be worth it. Because you will start to understand that your voice has meaning, regardless of how it’s received. You will start to learn that you matter, independent of people’s judgements. You will start to hear your body erupt in cheers when you say “No” to something that compromises you. You will start to notice that pain and discomfort is just pain and discomfort, and if you did it before, you can do it again. 

And you will start to notice that the people who you thought were your allies, are not your allies. You will start to notice that some of the people that you thought accepted and loved you only love and accept one version of you. A diminished, palatable, compartmentalised version of you. And you will have to let them go because you are on a mission. Because we don’t have time! We need your light! But there is no light where there isn’t dark, because you wouldn’t recognise the sunrise if you didn’t have the night. Being comfortable in the darkness will be the greatest gift that comes from this long walk.

But then the allies you need will show up. The mentors you need will show up. Therapists, books, online workshops, community groups, new friends, new gurus, healers of all disciplines. You might never have known them. They might have always been around, but were waiting in the wings for this moment. For your decision to say, “Enough. I accept the call to be the most I can be.” 

Your allies can’t meet you on the path if you don’t lace up your boots and hit the road. It will be arduous. It will test you. You will wonder if you can do it. You will think it should take less time, be easier. But it won’t be. You’ll check your map. Multiple times. You will hate the shit out of your map. But you’ll get there. Stronger physically. Stronger emotionally.

But most importantly, like the monsters under the bed, if you don’t look at what you’re scared of you stay frozen, on your bed, hoping and praying for things to be OK until night turns to day. But if you get out of bed, lift up your bedskirt, you’ll see that…oh, it’s just a bunch of crumpled laundry and boxes that you’re storing, and it certainly doesn’t look neat and pretty but it’s OK that it’s there. And it’s also OK for you to take it out and to have a look. And it’s also OK to put it in the recycling if it takes up space in your life that you don’t have time for. Because, really, we don’t have time to keep the clutter of things that no longer serve us. We just don’t have time.

There is one final note I’d like to make. While I think setting boundaries, saying “No” and distancing ourselves from dysfunction is generally accessible to most, it’s not for all. And the deeper work of healing becomes even less accessible. I wouldn’t really be a Social Worker if I didn’t acknowledge that, for some people, life is far too oppressive, abusive, and precarious to do much beyond hang by the thread they are hanging by. The process of owning our power is not meant to be easy. It is meant to require sacrifice, stretch and reprioritising. However, that’s just an impossibility for some. Which makes our responsibility to our own work that much more important.

It’s like one of those seemingly unscalable walls in obstacle course races. Whoever makes it to the top has to reach down and pull the next person up. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe you got a head start. It doesn’t matter how much hard work or skill or strategy you had to use to get to the top. Just reach down. 

Imagine if you insisted on taking the time to let everyone know how unsure you are about helping them, because of all the things you had to do to get yourself to the top. It would sound ridiculous. Some people start the race a massive distance behind, due to institutional and structural brokenness. Some people don’t. Either way, imagine how preposterous it would be to stop the race to demand an explanation of why others didn’t get to the top as quickly or as gracefully as you. We’ve talked and talked about these things, and now we just need action. 

Life is an obstacle course. Humanity is a team. And we are in a race. Not even for a better world, but a world that survives. So just so we’re clear, the only acceptable thing to do when you get to the top of that wall is to turn around and pull the next person up. Period. 

Sara

Besançon to the Swiss border, and beyond

Rivers, and mountains, and cheese…oh my!

132kms – 7 days

The Via Francigena, the medieval pilgrimage route that I’m following to Rome, has taken me to countless places that I’ve never heard of before. I’ve discovered charming villages and fascinating cities, visited off the beaten track places that I would previously struggle to pin point on a map. But the jewel in the crown of the Via Francigena’s magical mystery tour has to be the Jura Mountains, which stretch across the French-Swiss border. My days walking through this unknown land were pure joy. Its natural beauty, picturesque villages, delicious cheeses, and warm hospitality pulled at my heart strings and had me never wanting to leave.

A misty morning high up in the Jura Mountains

The road out of Besançon was like a cruel wake up call leading me up an impossibly steep hill that took me high into the clouds, looking down on the Citadelle de Besançon which itself towers over the city. The flat plains and undulating hills that I’d spent the last week walking through were far behind me. Everything was starting to feel alpine – the air, the evergreens, the cow bells, the wooden chalets. It was one of those moments where you have to pinch yourself. Had I really walked here from my house in London?

Beautiful Ornans, which sits at the base of the Vallée de la Loue

The stunning town of Ornans took me somewhat by surprise. I’d spotted it on the map and thought of it only as a well positioned lunch stop. But as I walked to the base of the Vallée de la Loue and turned a corner to see Ornans’ houses reflecting in the river below, I wished I was staying for a week. The town was the birthplace of the nineteenth century French realist painter Gustave Courbet. And it not only has a beautiful museum in which his and others’ works are displayed, but has attracted other artists and creatives whose wares are on sale in the town’s gallery lined streets.

I watched kayakers amble downstream as I picnicked by the River Loue, enjoying some of the region’s famous Comté cheese. It’s nutty and mature, travels well in a hot backpack, and goes perfectly with a fresh baguette.

Ornans houses reflected in the River Loue
The Vallée de la Loue

Edging further along the Vallée de la Loue, its limestone walls seemed to get higher and its forests thicker. I ventured deep into the fir trees in search of what turned out to be one of my favourite overnight stays since leaving London. A few years ago a wonderfully friendly and refreshing French-Swedish couple turned their backs on town life and bought a plot of land in the countryside, creating an off grid haven that instantly transported me to some of my favourite backpacker haunts in Nepal, Thailand, and Patagonia.

They wanted to share their world with others, so created an association (a non-profit organisation) that transformed their home into a bar where friends can drink, a venue for pétanque tournaments, the site of a music festival, and the force behind community ski trips higher up in the mountains. I stayed in a log cabin in the woods, which they reserve for pilgrims, swam in the freezing cold river that runs through their property, and enjoyed an evening of home cooked home grown food, interesting conversation, and much laughter. And I was introduced to another local cheese, cancoillotte. It looks more like double cream than cheese, and is spooned on to bread, potatoes, or anything you like to give it the taste of gooey cheesy goodness.

Taking an ice cold dip in the river

Moving south I continued to climb higher, surrounded by lush greenery and the sound of the River Loue running down the valley. I passed baby donkeys, the odd cyclist, and the lovely village of Lods.

The lovely village of Lods
Walking through lush forests

Thunderstorms brought an end to the run of glorious weather. But what I lost in clear blue skies I gained in a thundering river and dramatic waterfalls. Mist filled the air and dew covered the forest floor. With the heavy rainfall “bonus” waterfalls appeared everywhere, and fallen trees created obstacles that I had to navigate over. At the head of the valley I reached the source of the River Loue, which springs out from the base of a huge limestone rock. Its power is harnessed by a hydroelectric plant, which powers 16,000 homes in the area.

Discovering dramatic waterfalls
The source of the River Loue

As I closed in on the Swiss border, past hilltop chateaux and along disused railway lines, I started to reflect on my time in France. I’d spent five and a half weeks walking through the country, a country that aside from some trips to Paris, some family holidays as a child, and some ski trips to the Alps, I didn’t know very well. I didn’t feel I knew French culture very well either, nor did I feel like I understood it.

There’s been no better way to get to know France than to travel through it slowly, to places that are largely untouched by tourists. To places where people have welcomed me into their homes, invited me to eat dinner with them and observe the rituals of aperitifs and cheese boards. Where people have had huge amounts of patience with my pigeon French, but haven’t let that stop us from talking, and laughing, and from them displaying acts of kindness that I will forever be grateful for. At times it left like my walk through France was never ending, yet as the end drew near I didn’t want it to.

Waving au revoir to France

Formalities at the Swiss border were nonexistent, and I felt the urge to run through the fields singing “The Sound of Music” if only to mark the fact that I was in a new country. But I didn’t need a customs official or to have my passport checked to evidence that walking through a small gap in a hedge had taken me to a different world.

The air on the Swiss side of the border felt different somehow, like it held the key to long life. And I drank in lungfuls of it. The roads were sealed with fresh tarmac, and their twists and turns were a playground for shiny straight-out-of-the-showroom Audi’s, 4x4s, Porches, and Ferraris. Everything seemed to ooze wealth, not least the enormous Grand Designs chalets that dotted the mountainsides.

I quickly learned that the Swiss are a proud nation. Towns and houses are decorated with bunting and Chinese lanterns that carry the red and white of the Swiss Cross. Flags are everywhere – national flags, canton flags, and town flags. Were it not for the fast cars and high spec houses, it wouldn’t have felt out of place for medieval knights to ride past on horses.

Just some of the Swiss flags on display in the town of Orbe
The colourful streets of Orbe

Walking through forests and colourful towns I got my first view of the Alps. It was a perfectly clear day and in the far distance Mount Blanc reared its head. I was overcome with emotion, standing and looking at the mountains knowing that I’d arrived at them on foot. I couldn’t quite believe it, it felt surreal. And for the first time I really felt like I was doing this, I was really walking to Rome.

The Alps crept closer as I continued south towards Lausanne, until I stood on the shore of Lake Geneva and they towered over the water. All I could do was stop and stare, completely dumbstruck by the whole experience.

Admiring the Alps from Lake Geneva

Lausanne is a city that effortlessly blends the old and the new. Its old town, with its cathedral and narrow streets, tumbles downhill into a regenerated industrial area that oozes all things hip and cool. There’s a South of France feel in the air, and the grand Belle Époque hotels lining the shore of Lake Geneva recall a time when Europe’s middle classes travelled to Lausanne to take to its waters and enjoy the mountain air (and they still do).

The view from the bell tower of Lausanne’s Cathédrale de Notre Dame
Lausanne’s old town
The headquarters of the International Olympic Committee

Lausanne is the home of the International Olympic Committee, and it felt as though the Olympic Games were taking place in the city on a daily basis. As I strolled around on a day off, trying to be as inactive as possible, I saw archery, high board diving, beach volleyball, rowing, basketball, sailing, and everything in between. Everyone exuded a healthy, youthful glow. There was an energy about the city, and everywhere I looked it was alive. I began to wonder whether Swiss air really does hold the key to long life after all.

Relaxing on the shore of Lake Geneva

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. Thank you.

Brienne-le-Château to Besançon

Finding forts and walking city walls

217kms – 11 days

After days of walking in a straight line along a Roman road, there was a certain joy to be had in the twists and turns that took me into the next stage of the Via Francigena. My walk through the Champagne wine region felt like a lifetime ago, when in reality it had been less than a few days. I had traded vines for fortified towns dating back to the Middle Ages, and cellar doors for towers which I spotted everywhere – guarding towns and villages, protecting churches. As I walked through this quiet corner of Eastern France, sleepy save for the odd pilgrim and Dutch family on a camping holiday, it was hard to imagine a time when it was under siege.

Rivotte Gate in Besançon, which whilst welcoming visitors today was for many years a means of keeping them out

The cafes, cars, and people pottering the streets of Brienne-le-Château left me somewhat speechless, which is some feat for a town with less than 3,000 inhabitants – it felt surreal to be somewhere urban after spending the last few days in the middle of nowhere. Brienne-le-Château was home to Napoleon Bonaparte in his youth, when he studied at the town’s military academy. Today his name lives on in pharmacies, restaurants, and hotels. And it felt fitting that I would spend the night in a former hunting lodge complete with stag horns either side of the door. An opportunity to channel my inner Napoleon, and be grateful that I didn’t meet my Waterloo on the Roman road.

A statue of a young Napoleon Bonaparte outside Brienne-le-Château’s Hôtel de Ville

Forests increasingly crept their way into my route, and I skirted round them and along the River Aube until I reached my next mini-metropolis, Bar-sur-Aube. In the Middle Ages the town hosted an annual fair, a crossroads and meeting point at which merchants from Flanders and Italy traded spices and silk for textiles with merchants from Northern Europe. But the town’s glory days seem to be behind it, and it showed signs of what is often the reality in modern day rural France. Businesses have closed down, buildings are derelict, and half of the town’s population seems to have moved on. But my tourist-tinted glasses still see the charm in towns like Bar-sur-Aube, and I could wander its streets all afternoon taking photos of its faded grandeur (and I did).

Bar-sur-Aube’s faded grandeur
One of many derelict buildings in Bar-sur-Aube

Fields of sunflowers brought a welcome change to the landscape. Although they seemed, in typical French style, to be on strike. The sun was beating down and yet they were all looking in the other direction. A protest, perhaps, against the European heat wave that had scorched the fields dry the week before.

Protesting sunflowers

Sleepy Châteuvillain was my next port of call, resembling something of a period drama film set. The town is on the petite side of things, yet it has no less than 20 towers protecting it (and it used to have 60!). Bunting lined streets were dotted with colourful window boxes and shutters painted lavender and sage. Yet I seemed to be the only tourist admiring these sites, indeed the only person walking its streets. It was August, and the town’s businesses had closed down and the townspeople had disappeared on their summer holidays. Luckily the owners of the Tabac were holidaying late this year, so I was still able to guzzle down a cold Orangina when the day got too hot.

The pretty bunting lined streets of Châteauvillain
An open Tabac comes to the rescue with a cold Orangina

With every day that I journeyed through the departments of Aube and Haute-Marne, the walls encircling the towns that I passed through seemed to become more and more robust. Langres took things to new heights (quite literally, as it’s perched on the top of a rocky promontory). Its city walls stretch for 3.5 kilometres, housing countless towers and look out points from which to survey the countryside below.

The view from Langres’ city walls

I took a day off to explore its quiet alleyways, and to tot up the streets, squares, and businesses named after the city’s most famous resident, the philosopher and co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the 18th century Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot. And of course to walk the city’s walls. But no visit would be complete without sampling the locally produced Langres cheese – half Camemberty, half goats cheesy, incredibly pungent, and absolutely delicious!

A statue of Denis Diderot in Place Diderot, Langres
The view of Cathédrale Saint-Mammès de Langres from my kitchen window
A quiet street in Langres

As I continued south, the France I’d come to know like the back of my hand was starting to change. Hills were popping up left, right, and centre, calling for more frequent visits to boulangeries to power up on croissants and pain au chocolats. Church steeples no longer pointed high into the sky, but were domed and covered in beautiful tiles that glinted in the sun like sequins.

Setting off early on a long 38km day

But one of my favourite things that crept its way into the landscape was the region’s lavoirs, public wash houses that were once a place where people gathered to wash clothes and catch up on the local gossip. They came in all manner of shapes and sizes. Some dated from as far back as the 10th century, and others from the 20th. Some were beautifully preserved and decorated with baskets of colourful geraniums, whilst others were graffitied and the play den of the town’s delinquents. They provided me with shelter during storms, and shade from the burning sun. And I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one enamoured with them – someone has documented France’s lavoirs on a dedicated website!

The pretty lavoir in Seveux

One afternoon, in the middle of nowhere, I passed some workmen who were working on the side of the road. They asked if I was doing something “sportif”, so I explained that I was walking from London to Rome. They were flabbergasted, and I had to repeat myself 5 times (and I’m sure it wasn’t due to my poor French) before they would believe that I had travelled so far on foot. As I carried on my journey, after thanking them for their well wishes, they whooped and hollered as though they had just met a celebrity. When you spend each day living the Via Francigena, meeting other pilgrims or those who provide shelter to them, you sometimes forget the magnitude of it. And sometimes you do so on purpose, as to wake up every day and think about walking 2,000 kilometres weighs heavy on your mind, and body. But those men working on the roadside made me remember that this isn’t an everyday walk in the park. And that whether I make it all the way to Rome or not, everything that I’ve experienced so far has been truly once in a lifetime.

Sunlight breaking through the Forêt de Gy en route to Besançon

I continued south to Besançon, home to the jewel in the crown of the region’s fortifications. The seemingly impenetrable 17th century Citadelle de Besançon sits 100 metres above the old town, a location, tucked into a bend in the River Doubs, that even caught the eye of Julius Caesar in 58 BC. It’s one of the finest examples of French military architecture with walls up to 20 metres high and 6 metres thick. It’s intimidating just to look at.

Just a small part of the formidable Citadelle de Besançon
Palace Granvelle which showcases Besançon’s unique mottled stone

Besançon has more to it than its military fort, and I took a day to be a tourist and explore its streets. They’re lined with buildings made from a locally quarried stone that has a distinctive mottled chalk, blue and beige colouration. And behind these multicoloured walls are elegant palaces, the birthplace of Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a stunning 18th century traditional pharmacy, and workshops that continue Besançon’s tradition of making some of the finest watches and clocks in the world.

The stunning 18th century Pharmacie Jacques
The wide variety of cheese on sale in Besançon’s Marché des Beaux Artes

Getting lost in Besançon’s labyrinthine streets I discovered Roman ruins, a wonderful indoor food market selling inconceivable varieties of cheese, and nightlife! Besançon was the first place I’d passed though that didn’t seem to pull the shutters down at 6pm and head home to bed. The streets were full of people drinking, French families holidaying, and people eating in the most eclectic mix of restaurants I’d seen to date. The life of a long distance walker isn’t, sadly, well suited to heavy nights on the town. So after my pizza and carafe of rosé I called it a night (not much after 6pm!). For tomorrow was a big day…the Jura Mountains and the Swiss border were calling, and to them I must go.

Evening revelry in Besançon along the driver Doubs

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.

Berry-au-Bac to Brienne-le-Château

Discovering that there’s more to Champagne than fizz

152kms – 8 days

Champagne…it calls to mind the finer things in life, elegance, sophistication. Walking through this world famous wine region, I realised it exhibits many of the characteristics of it’s bubbly namesake. But moving at a slower pace, at times well off the beaten track (or the Route Touristique de Champagne as it’s known), allowed me to see that it’s home to much more than grand crus and cuvées. Beyond the vineyards it’s a land of jaw dropping cathedrals, industrious villages, fascinating history, and unfathomably straight Roman roads.

Vineyards surrounding the village of Verzenay

Sometimes when you cross a border from one country to another you notice an instant change – you’re in a new place, things are different there. As I crossed into a new administrative department, Marne, it was as though I’d entered a new world. The villages of Cormincy and Hermonville, with buildings made of golden stone and prize worthy window boxes, were reminiscent of the picture perfect Cotswolds. And they felt just as bourgeois.

Picture perfect Hermonville

Traces of the region’s wine industry were everywhere. It didn’t seem possible for so many champagne houses to line the streets of a small village. They could be easily spotted – wrought iron signs hung over their doors illustrating the picking and pressing of grapes, and old barrels enjoying a second life as flower pots were positioned on street corners like signposts. Occasionally you just needed to follow your nose, the waft of champagne taking you straight to the cellar door!

A wrought iron sign outside a champagne house in Pouillon

Nestled in between the grand cru vines (think the best of the best when it comes to champagne producing grapes) of the village of Saint-Thierry is the Monastèrie des Bénédictines. It’s a world of simplicity and quietness, not too dissimilar to the small independent champagne houses I’d been walking past. And it’s home to cheerful nuns who ensured I was well fed and well rested in their stunning home. That their abbey is surrounded by vineyards owned by world famous champagne houses neither excites nor phases them. It’s just champagne, and in this neck of the woods it’s nothing particularly special.

The enormous door to the Monastère des Bénédictines in Saint-Thierry
The monastery’s former coach house, now used as accommodation for pilgrims

Arriving into a city on foot is a fairly underwhelming experience. The novelty of eating a lunch that isn’t a baguette with cheese, and of parking up in a cafe to people watch and pretend you’re a regular tourist is crushed by the reality of sprawling suburbs and grotty dumping grounds. My journey into Reims, following the Canal de l’Aisne à Marne, was no different. But there was a kind of charm to Reims’ industrial dark side…or maybe those wafts of champagne had gone to my head.

Seeing the charming side of the Canal de l’Aisne à Marne

I’ve become a pilgrim creature of habit – on arrival in a city my first port of call is the cathedral. Reaching the cathedral is a mini-celebration in its own right, marking the end of a stage of the Via Francigena and of a gruelling few days’ walking. They are a place to stop and reflect on how far I’ve come, to sit still and cool down, and to get my pilgrim’s passport stamped.

The stunning facade of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims

Before I ventured inside Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims I sat opposite its gothic facade for some time, gazing in wonder. Hundreds of figures adorn its twin towers, which soar 80 metres into the sky. You can’t help but wonder, “How did they build that?”, a question you ask yourself again when you venture inside. What hits you first is the cool air. And then you gaze up, and along the 140 odd metres of the nave, and imagine that this must be what it feels like to be swallowed by an enormous whale. And then your eye catches the stunning stained glass windows, both the traditional rose windows and those designed by Marc Chagall in the 1970s. History books could be written about the cathedral – its been rebuilt countless times after fires and war damage, it was the site of 33 coronations of French kings, and it was the location of Franco-German reconciliation after World War II. Certain man made structures have an ability to stop you in your tracks and to take your breath away. This is one of them.

The jaw dropping inside of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims
Stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall

A heatwave was sweeping across Europe, so a rest day was in order. And what better way to dodge the soaring temperatures than to head underground into the cellars of one of the world’s most famous champagne houses, Veuve Clicquot. Their cellars, or crayéres, which started life as chalk quarries, stretch for 24kms underneath Reims. In those tunnels I expected to be told how champagne is made, but I didn’t expect to be so engaged and inspired by the history of Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, the widow (veuve means widow) turned businesswoman who was known as the “Grande Dame of Champagne”. Her strength of character and tenacity were remarkable, and her innovative spirit quite staggering. She created the first vintage champagne when others believed it couldn’t be done, invented the riddling table which continues to be used in production today, and created the first rosé champagne using a method that’s been employed by countless competitors. The next time you have a bottle of Veuve Clicquot don’t be too quick to thrown away the metal casing that holds the cork in place. On it you’ll see the one and only portrait of Barbe, a woman who did so much more than just make champagne.

Inside Veuve Clicquot’s champagne cellars, or crayéres, which started life as chalk quarries
A step for every year that Veuve Clicquot has produced vintage champagne
Of course I had to do a champagne tasting…I thoroughly recommend the Veuve Clicquot 2008 La Grand Dame Vintage!

Sadly my time underground came to an end, and I was forced back into the 40 degree heat. Air conditioned cafes serving ice cream and cold Orangina, cavernous churches that seemed to be immune to the heat, and the refrigerated sections of supermarkets were the only places to keep cool. When my body temperature had regulated slightly I strolled around Reims’ streets, falling for its Parisian air. Its wide boulevards are lined with grand apartment blocks that display a patchwork of shutters and wrought iron balconies, and statues and fountains take centre stage in its squares. It has some beautiful Art Deco architecture too, owing to the fact that much of the city was destroyed during World War I (much like the towns I walked through in the Somme). Such as the Bibliothéque Carnegie de Reims, a library built in 1927 with money donated by the American-Scottish businessman Andrew Carnegie to replace the city’s libraries which were destroyed during the war.

Grand apartments line the boulevards of Reims
A colourful street in Reims

With the heatwave showing no signs of easing up, and with an itch to get moving again, waking up at dawn became the order of the day (not that it was possible to get much sleep in the heat!). Leaving the city behind, my early starts opened a window on the industrious side of life in Champagne. Drinking a glass of fizz may be a leisurely affair that’s full of glitz and razzmatazz, but the process of making it is more humble and authentic, and requires a constant hive of activity. As I walked I saw machines that looked like Transformers ploughing up and down the vines, lights twinkling in the morning light. Vans whizzed along the white chalk roads that cut through the otherwise green landscape, stopping every once in a while to check the grapes are growing as they should.

Wine growers at work at the break of dawn

My own path through the vineyards was like a champagne walk of fame…on my right the vines of Moët & Chandon, and on my left those of Bollinger, Taittinger, Pommery and Mumm. I felt somewhat starstruck by grapes, and wasn’t sure if the heat had finally gotten to me!

The champagne walk of fame
Early starts have some advantages, like this amazing dawn view outside Trépail

I soon found myself back on the canal towpath which could only mean one thing, that I was approaching another city – Châlons-en-Champagne. The administrative heart of the region, it had quite a different feel to Reims. What it lacked in Parisian chic it made up for in medieval timber frame houses, which have sprouted up in all manner of different angles yet somehow stay standing. Their ground floors are home to boutiques and boulangeries, and innumerable artisanal chocolatiers. It made for a good place to stock up on supplies before the next phase of my walk – a Roman road with no shops and next to no villages.

Early mornings walking along the Canal latéral à la Marne
Timber frame houses that line the streets of Châlons-en-Champagne

Roman roads…they really are straight. Unfathomably straight. 54kms of straight. After the heat came the storm, and my days walking south in a straight line were wet and dreary. The chalk roads seemed to turn into ice, and I found myself slipping and sliding with every few steps. On either side of me there were wheat fields, recently harvested and looking bare. My brain had been trained to scan the horizon for a church, the sign of life in an otherwise uninhabited world. But the only things breaking the horizon were huge wind turbines.

The lack of features in this largely flat landscape sent me into a sort of delirious, hallucinatory state. When I passed deserted agricultural buildings I would imagine them into beautiful farmhouses that I would run as B&Bs. I talked to myself in Spanish as though I was reciting a GCSE oral exam, imagined myself en route to Rome in the film Gladiator, and played out conversations with family and friends. I was brought back to reality by the whistles of birds of prey flying over head, by red squirrels that would dart across the path, and by deer that would dance through the fields in a display that never failed to stop me in my tracks.

Gloomy skies over the Roman road that runs between Châlons-en-Champagne and Brienne-le-Château
Having lunch in an out of place bus stop, the only shelter from the rain for 27kms!

With no shops, bars, or hotels in this area, pilgrims are entirely reliant on the hospitality of strangers who open up their homes and provide board and lodging for the night. I stayed with two wonderful families, without whom walking this stretch of the trail wouldn’t be possible. They welcomed me like a long lost daughter, and both had a way of making me feel like I was in my own home. They understand a pilgrim’s basic needs – shelter, rest, food and water. But they provided so much more, and I am eternally grateful to them both.

As if to symbolise a light at the end of the tunnel, on my last day walking the Roman road the sun was shining. The landscape looked entirely different, or maybe I just had a different mindset now that the end was in sight. Twists and turns started to appear in the road, and church steeples were visible on the horizon. I have a long way to go before I get to Rome, but I felt some sort of small victory…I had survived the Roman road.

Sunshine on the Roman road

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.

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.