Pilgrimage≠Sightseeing

(This post originally written on September 2nd)

I’m sitting in a park above the Dora river in Ivrea, a Roman town founded in 100 BC that once housed horses used to guard against the threat of barbarian invasion from the north.  According to my train ticket, this town is 42km from Chatillon and this is the first place I have visited in the Piedmont region of Italy.

I woke up far too early this morning and was about to fall back asleep when the bells in the convent right over my head started ringing.  It wasn’t the change of an hour or even a half-hour, so I had no idea why they had decided to bang them at a seemingly random time.  I slowly got my things together and as I was dressing, I heard some brief plainsong from the chapel across the way from my room.  I guess the bells are used to wake the monks in the morning so that they can go pray at 7 AM.  I left my “small contribution” on the table in the room and returned the key by putting it in the mail slot of the church office as I was instructed the night before.  I picked up my bags and wandered off to try to find the train station.

Even though it was still fairly dark, I could see the clouds in the air and it looked as if it were going to rain.  I was glad that I had decided to take the train today, as my feet were starting to get sore and there was no way I was going to happily walk 37.9km in even the best conditions.  I walked down to the bottom of the valley and arrived at the deserted looking station.  I looked in through the glass doors but saw only empty rooms that looked as if they were under construction.  Finally, I found a door with a sign on it directing me to where I could buy a ticket.  The first place it listed was on the very street that I had just walked down from, but thankfully the second location listed was the Stazione Buffet/Bar next door.

I went inside and there were two or three men standing alone by the bar drinking coffee or juice.  There was also a pair of women sitting at a small table in the corner having a more substantial breakfast.  I asked the woman behind the counter if she could sell me a ticket and she replied in the affirmative and asked me where I wanted to go.  I was surprised at the cost—only 3.75 euro—much cheaper than what I had been getting a bigger train stations for regional tickets.

There was no schedule of departures or arrivals so I took my best guess as to which of the two tracks my train would arrive on.  Thankfully I was right, and boarded a very comfortable and clean three car train headed to Ivrea.

What would have taken me at least three days to walk, the train did in a little over 30 minutes, a testament to the indirectness and difficulty of the Via Francigena in this region and the wonders of modern transportation.  It has quickly become apparent to me that a medieval pilgrim was not on a sightseeing tour of Europe when making his way to Rome.  First of all, there probably weren’t many “sights” to see—at least not in our modern sense.  At most a pilgrim would be interested in visiting different churches or shrines along the route in order to receive a blessing from local priests and the benefits of relics held in these different places along the way.  The medieval pilgrim may have prayed for a sick relative at home or beseeched a certain saint to intercede on his or another’s behalf when passing through the trials of Purgatory after death.  Beyond that, the pilgrim was interested in finding food and a safe place to stay, as these routes used to be roamed by bandits who would rob any unarmed persons passing their way.

Over the past two days, I have seen a lot while walking, but it’s not at all like the typical touristy trips I’ve taken in the past.  Before, I would arrive at a city and then decide which places I wanted to see, find them on a map, and go see them.  In Aosta, I arrived late and didn’t want to tarry in the morning when I left, and when I got to Nus and Chatillon, I was far too tired to get up and wander around the town to see what was there in the few hours before dark.  Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 10th Century, made the entire journey from Rome back to his home diocese in 90 days, and I’m sure he had horses to carry him and all of his things.  The point is: don’t plan something like this if you’re interested in seeing the sights.  It’s not that I’m not enjoying the pilgrimage, it’s just that I fear I’m having the opposite problem most travelers have—I’m missing the country’s culture, history, and lifestyle for the sake of its scenery.

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~ by pminnig on September 4, 2011.

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