Camino Postcard 13: Burgos to Hornillos

23.4.19. A wet day, but a better one than the last two – well, just about.

We saw numerous statues on the way out of Burgos. I don’t know who this one commemorates but it was good to see a disabled person remembered in this way

Ellena’s knee was improving but continued to hurt. My right leg ached as as per usual and Carolin started feeling unwell. Ellena and I were able to keep walking but while Carolin could walk, she felt so bad she was not able to carry her backpack. Ellena took it for her, and now wore one on her front, and her own on her back. She looked like a backpack sandwich, and it is a matter of great regret to me that I never took a photograph of her! (If I never write another blog post, you’ll know that she killed me after reading this! Entschuldigung, Ellena!).

Given her situation, it was a heroic effort. She never once complained and carried both backpacks for sixteen kilometres.

In our haste to leave Burgos, we did not stop for breakfast there. Instead, we waited until we reached the little town of Tardajos. There, we took cover in a small tent outside a café, amongst other pilgrims, and ate chocolate croissants.

Given our previous experience, and the fact that 23rd April was a public holiday in Spain, not eating in Burgos was a bit of a risk. We could easily have ended up with nothing like we did between Redecilla and Belorado. I think my advice to future pilgrims would have to be Always eat when you can or at least, Take food with you in case you don’t find any open cafés.

Not long after leaving Tardajos, we passed a small town named Rabé de las Calzadas. In doing so, we entered the Meseta. This section of the Camino Francés is just over two hundred kilometres in length and consists of fields, fields and more fields, and paths that go on forever.

What is a true pilgrim? One who looks after another

I have read that many pilgrims take transport rather than walk across the Meseta, and I can understand why. There is no cover from the elements.

  • If you walk across the Meseta in the summer, put on sun tan lotion and wear a hat/sunglasses! Make sure, too, that you have as much water as you can carry with you.
  • If you walk across it in winter, make sure you are wearing a rain proof coat! These things are of critical importance – not just to get across the Meseta comfortably but to do so safely.

With all that said, let me not make the Meseta sound like a danger zone. It can punish the unwary, but the truth is, if Ellena, Carolin and I could walk the entire length of it in our depleted state, anyone can. Just make sure that you prepare as well as you can.

On the 23rd, the rain stopped and started all day. Fortunately, our day ended at around lunchtime. Just over twenty kilometres after leaving Burgos, we arrived in another small town – Hornillos del Camino – where we decided enough was enough. And because the day had not been an easy one, we also decided to treat ourselves: rather than go to the municipal albergue, we opted to stay at a private one instead.

It was a very homely house (the last one?) and cost €15 rather than €5 but was worth every penny. The living room was very cozy, the other pilgrims were some nice Americans, and we were given a room with two bunks, so had to share with just one other person – who turned out to be our friend Lillian: a perfect circle!

The hospitalero did not provide food so we had to eat out in the evening. Until then there was a convenience store right across the road. When I made the epic three second journey across the road to buy some food, the store owner gave me a scallop shell free of charge, which was rather kind of him.

In the afternoon, Ellena and Carolin rested. I worked on the Fixxbook while the Americans chatted to one another about the origin of the St. James in Spain legend. Later on, I discovered that one of the Americans was a fan of Bruce Springsteen. He told me that there really is an E Street in The Boss’ hometown, which was great knowledge.

The private albergue we stayed at in Hornillos also looked after members of The Way production! This poster is signed by Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez

That night, I slept well.

22nd June 1901: Calm Went With Me

Belloc started the day some miles north north-west of Collagna and ended it in Sillano (though for the first time he doesn’t specifically say where he stopped for the night)

Today appears to have been a largely solitary day for Belloc, he records few friendly encounters, or indeed, encounters of any kind with other people.

We left him yesterday heading towards Collagna. As a result of a misunderstanding, he thought it was close by when it was actually still several miles away. As a result, he never reached it until the morning.

At around, or just after, midnight, however, he came across one of the few people he records meeting today.

Extreme fatigue made it impossible, as I thought, to proceed farther, when I saw a light in a window, and went to it quickly and stood beneath it. A woman from the window called me Caro mio, which was gracious, but she would not let me sleep even in the straw of the barn.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003), p.362

There is a moral in this story: always mean what our words say, especially if we speak kind ones; it is a sad thing – and quite wrong – to lift someone’s heart only to purposefully let go of it again. To lift it implies that we support it; to let go of it, therefore, makes a hypocrite of us.

After a difficult night – Belloc tells us that ‘my loneliness oppressed me like a misfortune and… my feet, going painfully and slowly, yet gave a little balance and rhythm to the movement of my mind.’ (The Path to Rome, p.365) – day broke.

… colours came back to things; the trees recovered their shape, life, and trembling; here and there, on the face of the mountain opposite, the mists by their movement took part in the new life, and I thought I heard for the first time the tumbling water far below me in the ravine.

The Path to Rome, p.366

Now Belloc lay himself down to take a well deserved and long overdue rest. He awoke when the morning was still young and entered Collagna. He doesn’t mention it, but presumably he ate there and hopefully met some kind people as well. After leaving the town, he settled down again to rest and remained in situ until later in the afternoon.

Upon rising, he climbed to the top of the valley.

After its laborious hundreds of feet, when the forest that crowned it evenly was reached, the Apennines were conquered, the last great range was passed, and there stood no barrier between this high crest and Rome.

The Path to Rome, p.369

Later, Belloc went through a Pass. He says,

… I went between the chestnut trees, and calm went with me for a companion.

The Path to Rome, p.372

Here is another good lesson: we can find friendship in more than just other people. Yes, it is better to have a human friend but we need not regard the things of nature as wholly a stranger to us.

Presently, Belloc arrived in the village of Sillano. There, he was ‘courteously received’ (The Path to Rome, p.372) in the local inn. He spoke to a priest in Latin and watched the ‘one star of the west [call] out his silent companions in their order’ (The Path to Rome, p.373) before retiring for the night.

The fire-flies darted in the depths of vineyards and of trees below; then the noise of the grasshoppers brought back suddenly the gardens of home, and whatever benediction surrounds our childhood. Some promise of eternal pleasures and of rest deserved haunted the village of Sillano.

The Path to Rome, pp.373-4

21st June 1901: The Best of Men

By the end of today, Belloc will be several miles north-north west of Collagna (note also Tizzano Val Parma where he tried to overpay for some wine)

Today was a good day for Hilaire Belloc. It didn’t rain, and he was helped along the way by several kind people.

Early in the morning, he met a peasant who walked with him for awhile.

… we walked along together, pointing out to each other the glories of the world before us and exulting in the morning. It was his business to show me things and their names… He also would tell me the name in Italian of the things to hand – my boots, my staff, my hat: and I told him their names in French, all of which he was eager to learn.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003), pp.345-6

But perhaps the kindest thing that the peasant did was to not laugh at Belloc when he came round the corner singing his heart out. Belloc was so shy of being heard that he describes himself as being ‘ashamed’ (The Path to Rome, p.345) when suddenly seeing the peasant ahead of him. He did not yet realise, however, that the peasant, too, liked to sing.

When they parted, Belloc gave the peasant a token of his friendship. In return, the peasant gave Belloc a word – molinar – that would soon become very helpful.

It meant miller, he being the man who would help Belloc cross an otherwise impassable river. Thanks to the kindness of an old country woman, Belloc soon found the miller.

… I saw a great, slow mill-wheel against a house, and a sad man standing looking at it as though it were the Procession of God’s providence. He was thinking of many things. I tapped him on the shoulder (whereat he started) and spoke the great word of that valley, “molinar.” It opened all the gates of his soul. He smiled at me like a man grown young again, and, beckoning me to follow, led radiantly up the sluice to where it drew from the river.

The Path to Rome, pp.347-8

For the second day running, Belloc mounted his guide on the back and they set off over the river. This time, however, they did not go alone. There had been three men at the mill-house. One of the others was ‘a young man with stilts in his hands’ (The Path to Rome, p.348). He now walked on the stilts ahead of Belloc and his guide, so as to make sure that the river was still fordable.

Belloc paid the two men for their troubles. His fifty centesimo payment to the young man was deemed so generous that the latter took him to Tizzano. There, Belloc accidentally gave the impression of being mister moneybags by trying to overpay for a bottle of wine. I guess that makes a change from him being overcharged. But not only did the innkeeper not overcharge him, he accepted only a peppercorn amount for the wine.

Late this afternoon, Belloc found four peasants sitting at the side of the road. Their day’s work was done, they were having a rest before returning home. He asked for directions to Collagna and misunderstood what they told him. As a result, what he thought would be a short journey, ending this evening, would go on into morrow. The men, though, were friendly. ‘They drank my wine,’ Belloc tells us, ‘[and] I ate their bread’ (The Path to Rome, p.359). A simple but profound act of friendship, as will be known by anyone with ears to hear.

Belloc arrived in a tiny hamlet named Ceregio. The inn was the antithesis of the inonen he had visited two days ago.

… several men driving oxen took me to a house that was perhaps the inn, though there was no sign; and there in a twilight room we all sat down together like Christians in perfect harmony, and the woman of the house served us.

The Path to Rome, p.360

After they had eaten, one of the men, the oldest, offered to put Belloc on the right path to Collagna. When the time came for them to part, Belloc gave him the gift of his best pipe; in return, the man gave Belloc ‘a hedge-rose which he had plucked’ (The Path to Rome, p.361)

Here is Belloc’s judgement on the people he met today,

Certainly these people have a benediction upon them, granted them for their simple lives and their justice. Their eyes are fearless and kindly. They are courteous, straight and all have in them laughter and sadness. They are full of songs, of memories, of the stories of their native race; and their worship is conformable to the world that God made.

The Path to Rome, p.361

It was a pleasure to read Belloc’s account of today’s walk; a relief, too, that after several days of suffering, he is happy again. Bravo those Italians who helped him.

20th June 1901: Water Carry On

Belloc didn’t hang around to watch the sun rise. As day began to break, he stepped out of the shed and went on his way. Of course, this was as much to ensure that the shed’s owner didn’t catch him as out of fear of meeting anyone from the inn, though I am sure it was in Belloc’s mind that one of them could be the owner.

Upon reaching Medesano, Belloc heard Mass and drank coffee in a local inn. Using such Italian as he could muster, he asked locals how he might cross the Taro river to get to Fornovo. Their response was not encouraging: it couldn’t be done.

But what was impossible to men was possible to a boy, and so it was that a young lad told Belloc about a man who would be able to carry him across the river.

They went in search of the fellow, walking alongside the Taro as they did so. Belloc saw that it ran in seven streams, none of which seemed very strong. Is a guide really necessary? he wondered. On the far side, Fornovo shone in the sunlight.

The boy’s act of kindness was replicated by the guide.

They bought him at last down from his hut among the hills. He came with great strides, a kindly-looking man, extremely tall and thin, and with very pale eyes. He smiled.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.331

A price for the crossing was agreed and Belloc mounted the man’s back for the first stream. It ran in a torrent; now Belloc understood why the villagers had said that the Taro could not be crossed. Thank goodness he had taken a guide. Although, disaster still nearly struck…

The second stream was too strong to be forwarded where Belloc and his guide now stood. To get across it, they had to walk a mile up river to find a suitable crossing point.

Midway across, however, the loose stones on the river bed caused the guide to lose his footing. Belloc plunged into the water. Such was its power that he could have drowned. Fortunately, the guide managed to regain his balance and pull Belloc to safety.

The third to sixth stream provided no drama. The seventh, however, ran hard; Belloc waded it alone and threw the guide’s payment back to him so that he would not have to risk the journey. A kind gesture for a kind man.

Belloc found a peasant resting on the far bank.

He rose and walked with me to Fornovo. He knew the guide.
“He is a good man,” he said to me of this friend, “He is as good as a little piece of bread.”
“E vero,” I answered; “e San Christophero.”
This pleased the peasant; and indeed it was true. For the guide’s business was exactly that of St. Christopher, except that the Saint took no money, and lived, I suppose, on air.

The Path to Rome, p.334

I really like Belloc’s aside there. It puts some of his more ultramontane statements into perspective.

Belloc arrived in Calestano in the evening. He had had a good day but now that came to a sudden end. The kindness of the boy and guide was replaced by the ill will of the locals and two police officers. Perhaps Belloc didn’t help himself by shouting ‘at the ill natured hostess’ (The Path to Rome, p.340) of the inn where he had gone to eat but when he asked where he might find a bed for the night – and having been told ‘sullenly’ (Ibid) that none were available – two police officers approached and arrested him. Just like that.

Two gendarmes arrived. They demanded Belloc’s passport, which he could not produce, and conducted an impromptu interrogation. Matters were not helped by Belloc’s inability to make himself understood. He asked to speak to a priest – he, at least, might know Latin.

This was a fine touch. They winced, and parried it by saying that the Sindaco [Mayor] knew French.

The Path to Rome, p.342

Belloc was imprisoned in the local barracks while the sindaco was informed of what had happened. He ordered Belloc to be brought to him. When the two men met, however, it became apparent that the mayor did not know any French at all. This might have been very unpromising for Belloc’s prospects but the mayor had no desire to see this matter continued; he resolved it by coming back to a familiar word that Belloc had used: ‘”Tourist-e?” he said.’ (The Path to Rome, p.343) Belloc nodded. It was enough. The mayor had him released. Belloc returned to the inn in triumph.

What a contrast was there between the hour when I had gone out of the café a prisoner and that when I returned rejoicing with a crowd about me… The landlady smiled and bowed… The men at the tables made me a god! Nor did I think them worse for this. Why should I? A man unknown, unkempt, unshaven, in tatters, covered with weeks of travel and mud, and in a suit that originally cost not ten shillings…

The Path to Rome, p.343

I take Belloc’s point, but I still think he is stretching the limit of generosity here. He had been treated meanly, and all the more so because he looked like a tramp. That aside, let’s talk about how ironic it is that Belloc was saved by being taken (whether genuinely or just to get him about of the mayor’s hair) for that thing he really despised: a tourist.

Full of forgiveness, Belloc stayed the night at the inn.

The Glorious Mysteries: Assumption and Coronation of Our Lady

For Catholics, every day is a day to say the Rosary, and each day is given over to a different Mystery. Today it was the turn of the Glorious Mysteries, the fourth of which is the Assumption of Our Lady, and the fifth her coronation (and the glory of the saints). These are both very powerful decades for they are filled with hope; specifically, the hope that if we stay close to God, He will bring us to His heavenly kingdom.

Actually, given how I am sometimes — often — okay, generally a model of disobedience I suppose the fourth and fifth Glorious Mysteries ought to be decades of condemnation but because I try, albeit badly, to stay close to the Lord even in my failures, I look at Mary’s assumption and coronation in a more positive way: look at the power of His grace! Look at what it can do!

Mary was taken to heaven in the way that God meant for her; if I stay as close as I can to Him, and dare to stay a bit closer, his mercy might just take me to heaven in the way that He means for me. And that is a great encouragement.

Camino Postcard 12: Belorado to Burgos

22.4.19. At breakfast this morning we returned to the question of what to do next: Walking was out of the question as Ellena’s knee remained swollen. Shall we take a taxi? No, that will be too expensive. That leaves coaches, then.

But where would we take it? We settled upon Burgos, a large city at the end of the next Brierley stage after this one, fifty kilometres ahead. Going to Burgos would put us ahead of schedule in terms of our Camino journey and also save us between two and four days worth of money (anything between €60-90)

I looked up coach prices on-line and found, to my pleasant surprise, that we could get to Burgos for €3-5. The debate was over. Ellena felt bad for making us take the coach but as I wrote in my journal, the Camino should be a life affirming experience, not life destroying, and if we had walked she would have risked doing further damage to her knee.

We saw bigfoot

Taking the coach was absolutely the right thing to do and if anyone is ever silly enough to challenge me on this point, I will call them small minded stick-in-the-muds who put ideology ahead of love and challenge them to a duel to preserve the honour of all pilgrims who have ever been forced to take transport.

At the bus stop we met a pilgrim who was about to return to Los Arcos – he had received a call from the Spanish police: the mobile phones stolen at the albergue there had been recovered, could he come and collect his.

Despite the cheapness of the ticket, the coach was a very modern one with wi-fi and all. Unfortunately, it still made Ellena and Carolin a bit sick, so we were all glad to alight when we arrived in Burgos an hour or so later.

As we collected our backpacks, we met Mike from Alabama. He joined us for second breakfast in a nearby café. Mike had slept in the bunk next to mine in Los Arcos and lost his mobile phone to the thief. I can’t remember if he had been told about their recovery, but either way, after we mentioned it, he had no intention of going back to collect his – after the theft, he simply took a bus to the next town and bought a new one. If I had had my mobile stolen and had the money, I would have done exactly the same. Mike was good company and it would have been lovely to see him again; unfortunately, after today, we never did.

Side view of Burgos cathedral. It was my view while writing about Nicola Fixx

From the café we wondered through the centre of Burgos, round its grand cathedra and towards the municipal albergue, another large one in the manner of Pamplona and Roncesvalles. When we checked in, one of the hospitaleros gave all three of us a fistful of attitude for skipping two stages. I found out later that he did that to everyone so for him it was probably just banter but given our circumstances we did not appreciate it.

The thing is, pilgrims walk, and are expected to walk; the minute you start taking transport, even if you know your cause is just, you have the weight of other people’s expectations on you, and it is always heavy. To banter about this, you have to know your audience so that you know they’ll take your humour in the right way. This is the first rule of humour, and especially of banter, and the hospitalero broke it. As a result, he ended up causing unnecessary anger and distress, rather than getting the laugh he no doubt expected.

We found our beds – annoyingly we all had top bunks; fine for Carolin and me but difficult for Ellena – and rested. After a while, I took my notebook and went for a walk. I wrote some notes for my Nikki Fixx book in the shadow of the cathedral. Ellena and Carolin inspired me to really get on with it during the Camino. I am happy to report that I am still getting on with it now. Who knows, maybe this summer will be the one when I FINALLY finish it…

When I returned to the albergue, I found Ellena and Carolin sitting outside the bar opposite the albergue. I joined them for a while but when they went drinking later on I returned to my bed.


19th June 1901: Inn and Out

Belloc stayed at Firenzuola d’Arda last night and walked to an inn just outside Medesano

Today, it stopped raining. Finally. For the first time since Milan, two days ago. The great event happened just outside Borgo in the morning.

Avoiding Borgo out of ‘distaste’ (Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003), p.321) for Italian towns – the weather may have improved but Belloc’s temper certainly hadn’t – Belloc paused to give thought as to how he might cross the Apennines, which now loomed ahead of him.

For want of a suitable path, he would not be able to cross them directly. Instead, he’d have to follow a path that would take him a little out of his way before rejoining the straight line from Toul to Rome, ‘near a village called Medesano’ (The Path to Rome, p.322).

He started walking. It started raining. Again. But not for long; soon, the skies broke and the sun came out.

… a new warmth began to steal over the air and a sense of summer [began] to appear in the earth about me.

The Path to Rome, p.324

By evening time (? Belloc isn’t entirely clear on this point), Belloc was ‘[q]uite tired and desiring food’ (The Path to Rome, p.324). He stopped at an inn not far from Medesano.

It was a true local’s local: full of noise before the outsider stepped in, then absolute silence afterwards. Belloc walked to the bar.

… one man asked me a question in Italian. I did not understand it, and attempted to say so, when another asked the same question then six or seven – and there was a hubbub. And out of the hubbub I heard a similar sentence rising all the time. To this day I do not know what it meant but I thought (and think) it meant “He is a Venetian,” or “He is the Venetian.” Something in my broken broken language had made them think this, and evidently the Venetians (or a Venetian) were (or was) gravely unpopular here. Why, I cannot tell. Perhaps the Venetians were blacklegs. But evidently a Venetian, or the whole Venetian nation, had recently done them a wrong.

The Path to Rome, p.325

The situation got very hairy and could have got out of control. One of the locals approached Belloc aggressively. Fight or flight. Belloc chose to fight. He vigorously protested his innocence of whatever charge lay against him by shouting at the aggressor in as much Italian as he knew. This could have been the death of him but it worked. Not that the locals became friends: they now started shouting at each other in support or rejection of Belloc’s innocence. The innkeeper took Belloc’s arm and winked in a friendly manner at him, but as Belloc says,

[It] was probably because he was responsible if anything happened… he alone could not fly from the police.

The Path to Rome, p.326

Whatever the reason, the innkeeper played his part well. He,

… made [the patrons] a speech which, for all I knew may have been to the effect that he had known and loved me from childhood, or may have been that he knew me for one Jacques of Turin, or may have been any other lie. Whatever lie it was, it appeased them. Their anger went down to a murmur, just like soda-water settling into a glass.

The Path to Rome, p.326-7

The anger ‘went down to a murmur’ but was still there, and Belloc knew that at least one of the locals was armed with a knife. Wisely, therefore, he chose not to stay overlong at the inn. Instead, he ate his food and left straight after. Probably to save money but perhaps also because he simply didn’t feel safe being in the company of anyone from around here, he eschewed staying overnight in another inn or hotel but hid himself in a shed.

18th June 1901: Belloc Almost Gives Up His Narrative

Belloc stepped out of the inn and into the rain. It rained all day.

LECTOR. It does not seem to me that this part of your book is very entertaining.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003), p.303

Here is a ‘friendship’ that I don’t think I have mentioned yet – that between AUCTOR and LECTOR. I shall do it now to stop this post being about five lines long: Belloc’s account of this day is dominated by the story of how a ‘Learned Man’ sold his soul to the devil only to outwit him and keep it, and then by Belloc’s musings on the subject of Germany. When these are finished, so is his day.

The AUCTOR (capitals as that is how Belloc writes it) is Belloc himself and the LECTOR supposedly his reader. In reality, of course, LECTOR is a rhetorical ploy that allows Belloc to banter with the us the readers and take the narrative in directions that would otherwise have been closed to it.

I was not quite correct to say that today’s entry ends after his ruminations concerning Germany. Belloc trudged through the rain and mud to Piacenza. There, he ate in a run down palace, now a hotel called the Moor’s Head, before resuming his journey. Let us tarry there a little longer though, for we have the inn keeper of the Moor’s Head to thank for stopping today being a total wash-out in terms of looking at friendships that Belloc made or experienced along the way to Rome. He writes,

He was a good man, the innkeeper of this palace. He warmed me at his fire in his enormous kitchen…

The Path to Rome, p.317

From Piacenza, Belloc walked to Firenzuola where he stayed the night. Tomorrow morning, he will wake up to find the weather ‘still cold, still heartless, and sodden’. The memory of both breaks his patience and he refuses to discuss either Firenzuola or the morning in the book.

17th June 1901: Ambrose on a Wet Day

Somehow, Belloc managed to sleep through the night in the dilapidated bedroom. Not that there was any reconciliation between them: at sunrise, Belloc slipped out of the in and was glad to be outside once more.

He didn’t, however, leave Milan straightaway. First, Belloc went to Milan cathedral to hear Mass in the Ambrosian Rite. It seems he had heard criticism of the 1,200 year old Rite back home in Britain and wanted to see for himself what it was like. Bar one or two minor changes, he found it to be just the same as the then ‘normal’ Mass (i.e. the Mass that we now call the Extraordinary Form).

Once Mass was over, he left the city. In so doing, he began a long trudge into the Lombardy countryside.

Lombardy is an alluvial plain.
That is the pretty way of putting it. The truth is more vivid if you say that Lombardy is as flat as a marsh, and that it is made up of mud.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.297

Mud, mud, and more mud – in the wet conditions that he encountered as he walked south, Belloc would have got to know the mud very well. As with the dilapidated room, however, they never became friends.

He got on no better with the places and natural features that he found along the way. Melegnano was ‘tortuous’ (The Path to Rome, p.300), the Lambro river ‘impossible’ (Ibid), and Lodi Vecchio ‘unkempt… founded upon dirt and living in misery (Ibid).

Belloc stopped at an inn in Lodi Vecchio. As there was no fire to warm him he had to dry his clothes next to ‘a tepid stove in the kitchen’ (The Path to Rome, p.301). The innkeeper and her daughter did not speak English or French and so provided Belloc with little in the way of companionship. Belloc ended up sketching a nearby church, even though he thought it ugly.

After finishing his meal, Belloc hit the road again. He got lost and ended up heading north until a local directed him to the road heading south to Piacenza. Desperate to start heading the right way in the right way, Belloc cut across the fields separating him from the road, getting his boots covered in mud in the process, and joined it adjacent to where he had started.

Soon after, he came to a village called Secugnano and there took a room for the night. According to Google Maps, it takes about nine hours to walk from Milan to Secugnano. It was a long day, then, for Belloc; a wet one, and one to forget entirely. I think Belloc would have agreed – his entry in The Path to Rome for today is just 7.5 pages, I think the shortest for any day so far.

16th June 1901: The Candle Calls It

… or maybe for a tramp; I thought that this was the moment when Belloc was arrested but it looks like that comes later. On this occasion, the search light went on its way and so did Belloc.

Thinking about it again, I realise that I am confusing Belloc’s pilgrimage with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s walk across Europe thirty or so years later. Yes, he definitely was arrested by a lake.

Tired and weary, Belloc trudged on. He had three francs in his pocket and thirty-eight miles until Milan. He came to a house, and asked the woman who was looking out of the window for a bed. She told him they had no rooms. A man looked out another window and confirmed this.

The man and woman then started chatting to each other while Belloc did his best to make them change their minds. Presently, a young man opened the front door and let Belloc in. Inside, however, he reiterated that they had no rooms to spare.

Whatever I have in common with these southerners made me understand that I had won, so I smiled at him and nodded; he also smiled, and at once beckoned to me. He led me upstairs, and showed me a charming bed in a clean room, where there was a portrait of the Pope, looking cunning; the charge for that delightful and human place was sixpence, and as I said good-night to the youth, the man and woman from above said good-night also. And this was my first introduction to the most permanent feature in the Italian character. The good people!

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome, p282

I love his comment about the pope – it’s the kind, of course, that only someone who loves Peter’s successor can say without risking being called a bigot. What makes it all the funnier is that in 1901, the pope was Leo XIII, a man who I doubt could have looked cunning if he had scowled while wearing a hat with ‘I am Cunning’ written across it.

Pope Leo XIII, ‘Cunning’

Belloc crossed the border into Italy at Chiasso. From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump to Como. Belloc, however, was tired and the day was hot, so no doubt trudged there.

Beautiful Como, but Belloc found it underwater. Poor men ferried the rich around on carts, and Belloc got himself a much needed meal.

Now, he had to decide what to do next. He was still twenty-five or more miles from Milan. If he walked, the journey would take into the evening, and he would arrive to find the post office shut. But he would need to eat.

I could beg, but there was the risk of being arrested, and that means an indefinite waste of time, perhaps several days; and time, that had defeated me at the Gries, threatened me here again. I had nothing to sell or to pawn, and I had no friends.

The Path to Rome, p.291

Belloc went into Como cathedral to consider his options. There, he saw two votive candles about to go out. He decided that if the candle on the left went out first, he would walk – even if it meant becoming ill for want of food; if the candle on the right went out first, though, he would take the train.

The candle on the right shot up its death flame and it looked for a second like Belloc would be walking, but all of a sudden, the candle on the left died. The train it was.

I have a feeling that Belloc would have found a way to take the train, anyway; I don’t think he had a heart for walking, and he wasn’t stupid – he would not have put himself at such risk (his attempt to cross the Gries Pass notwithstanding).

So, he boarded the train. He had just enough money for a ticket to Milan, and no more. Upon his arrival, he withdrew his money and sat down at a café outside the cathedral. He felt bad for being so dirty and scruffy, so bought an expensive drink for the café owner to keep him onside. The man sat down with him and they talked in French.

Belloc’s feeling of unease on account of his appearance lasted until evening. That night, he ate in another inn before taking a room there (?). It was a squalid place,

The walls were mildewed, the place ramshackle and evil, the rickety bed not clean, the door broken and warped, and that night I was oppressed with the vision of poverty. Dirt and clamour and inhuman conditions surrounded me. Yet the people meant well…

The Path to Rome, p.296

The ellipsis, by the way, is Belloc’s.

Belloc could and should have removed himself from this room but perhaps he stayed because he felt that because he looked like a tramp this is where he deserved to be. This, by the way, was not an attitude the belonged to his pilgrimage – if I recall correctly, Belloc was worried by the spectre of poverty throughout his life; it’s why he wrote so much.

Credit Where It’s Due
Portrait of Pope Leo XIII: Wikipedia