e-book published March 2011
8 Chapters 9 Maps 223 Pages
One summer evening in 1901, the poet and writer Hilaire Belloc, strode off down the wooded valley of the Moselle from the small garrison town of Toul with a quart of wine, a large piece of bread, half a pound of smoked ham, two newspapers and a sketchbook. It was to begin (in his words) ‘a kind of pilgrimage’ across Europe ‘on foot where one is a man like any other man, with the sky above one, and the road beneath, and the world on every side and time to see all’.
His journey of 800 miles was to be in (more or less) a straight line to Rome and through an eastern France, Switzerland and an Italy glimpsed between the fading nineteenth century and the first explosions of the twentieth century. It was a long – and frequently arduous – walk described by a convivial man in his early 30’s whose upbringing and education had steeped him in Europe’s long history, its rich culture and, above all, in the enduring beauty of its varied landscape. His account of it became the classic ‘Path to Rome’.
I had always wanted to walk the Path to Rome and - one summer day in June 2008 – I also set out from Toul to walk to Rome. For two weeks, the journey up the Moselle valley and across the wooded Vosges was shared with Elaine - my wife; for the next four and a half weeks the climb over the high Alps and the long, hot passage halfway down the length of Italy was done alone. Or was it alone? For much of the time it seemed as if I was walking with Mr Belloc who paced just ahead, just out of view.
Of course, a lot had changed. The wounds of war had healed across eastern France and northern and central Italy and these countries now lay once more at peace and enveloped in the European Union. In Switzerland, that high mountain country which HB had struggled across had been touched by a winter tourism bringing prosperity to even the smallest Alpine village. The late twentieth century had suburbanised the countryside around the main towns and cities that Belloc strode through and yet his straight-line journey from Toul to Rome still passed across a scenery that continued, in 2008, to be strikingly beautiful. The peasants had gone and the car was everywhere; busy highways now carved their way across the landscape. But many of the small inns and the hostelries that he would have known still continued to refresh or accommodate the weary traveler, farms and fields that he would have looked at are still carefully tended, forest and mountain paths that he trudged over continue to be used.
The Path to Rome is a long one – even with the lightweight walking equipment of the twenty-first century replacing that ‘quart of wine, a large piece of bread, half a pound of smoked ham, two newspapers and a sketchbook’. The vagaries of the weather could not be replaced: rain, snow, heat, and dust. Nor the occasional failings of the will; something which Belloc’s alter ego frequently reprimanded him about. On occasion, where the journey grew too tiresome and unpleasant, I took the train as well. The ghost of HB’s alter ego took a dim view of that: Mr Belloc and I were supposed to be walking to Rome – not riding there on public transport.
Walking with Mr Belloc might follow in his footsteps but never in his literary or cultural shadow. His Edwardian world had faded away. In the Path to Rome of 2008 there is no Latin, no classical allusions, no closeness with the Catholic faith, no snatches of verse, no tales of the Devil nor of stout Victorian fellows.
You might say what is left! What new Path to Rome could be written one hundred years after an original which is still in print, still read and still enjoyed? Well, for the most part, it’s as delightful a journey in these times as it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But no two journeys are the same.
That is what is left. The journey is the thing. Mr Belloc knew that.
One of literature’s best-loved long-distance walks – Hilaire Belloc’s Path to Rome. France: canal locks and still waters/ ‘Nuthin Wong’/ bodyguard of Popov/ Relais of Rupt/ head of the Moselle river/ farm on the Ballon/ rain forest near Belfort. Switzerland: the Deux Clefs/ Mount Terrible/ cloud forest of the Jura/ HB hits ‘the Wall’/ nights on the Emme/ making hay/ the yawning void/ the Bernese Oberland/ the corporeal selves/ Reichenbach Fall a whiff of the Grimsel/ desolation road/ lake of the dead in the Swiss Alps/ roses of Ticino/ the midnight bell/ Spanish Ladies/ Ghiringhelli faces/ demons or masons?/ from Switzerland to Italy. Italy: Via Emilia/ Partigiani/ the Ham Sheds/ journey around Maltilda of Canossa/ ‘Ferro’ and ‘Fusio’/ the ancient ladies/ Italian Jobs/ the sad sunflowers/ despair at cemetery gate/ rain in Ronciglione/ the Path to Rome/ Mr Belloc/ Days, dates, distances, deadweight – backpacking equipment.