23rd June 1901: Sillano and After

I don’t know for sure that Belloc stopped in Borgo a Mozzano but it is on the direct line to Rome so seems a fair bet that he ended the day there.

The transition between yesterday’s ‘entry’ in The Path to Rome and today’s is very vague. For the first time since the start of his pilgrimage, Belloc neither says ‘I went to sleep’, nor, ‘I woke up’.

Instead, he ends yesterday’s ‘entry’ with the quotation that I tagged on to the end of yesterday’s post, and opens today’s with a flight of fancy about the soul being able, in ‘very early youth’ (Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.374), to remember its heavenly origin.

From whence comes such an unorthodox thought? It’s because Belloc sensed something of heaven in the sight and smells of the Sillano valley last night. As might be expected, they made a deep impression on him. Belloc describes the feeling as ‘the blessing of Sillano’ (Ibid), and says that ‘here was perhaps the highest moment of those seven hundred miles – or more’ (The Path to Rome, pp.3734-5).

Unfortunately, this great moment has a negative consequence for the reader – Belloc now loses patience with the story of his pilgrimage; he apologises if he now ‘press[es] on much more hurriedly to Rome, for the goal is almost between my hands, and the chief moment has been enjoyed, until I shall see the City.’ (The Path to Rome, p.375).

Belloc laments that he has to tell the story of the ‘next sixty miles of way… as of a real journey in this very repetitive and sui-similar* world’ (Ibid) rather than being able to ‘wander forth at leisure through the air and visit the regions where everything is as the soul chooses’ (Ibid).

That would certainly have been preferable. Perhaps, then, he might have decided to come back to his book and told us about some of the friends he made during that time, and friendships that were created. As it is, today’s ‘entry’ contains no mention at all of either.

For the record, Belloc spent the day walking in punishing heat. He passed through a town called Castel-Nuovo (possibly Castelnuovo di Garfagnana) where he found numerous bridges before arriving in a town called Borgo (the second of this name that he has come across on this pilgrimage, though he avoided entering the first). By the time he got there, it was evening, and he decided to stay the night.

*I have never seen this word before. As ‘sui’ is Latin for ‘of itself’, I assume that Belloc is emphasising the sameness of the countryside that he passed through

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.

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

15th June 1901: Money Matters

Belloc arrived in Italy with ‘eight francs and forty centimes for my viaticum and temporary provision wherewith the accomplish the good work of my pilgrimage’ (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.257).

This quotation is typical of Belloc in The Path to Rome, being both serious – he had far too little money to get him to Milan nearly ninety miles away – and humorous – talk of the ‘good work of my pilgrimage’ makes Belloc sound amusingly pompous given that this pilgrimage thus far has been a rather earthy affair.

The reason Belloc needed to reach Milan is that before the pilgrimage he had posted money to himself there. In the days before cash machines, it was the best way to avoid having to carry too much, with all the dangers that that brought. To make sure he got to the city before his money ran out, Belloc decided to walk by forced march, covering the distance in two days and nights, and finishing on the third day, spending only so much as he went.

The best laid plans, though… and not for the first time, Belloc says he will do one thing and starts doing another. Thus, he was soon spending more than he meant on food and drink along the way.

Still, he found companionship as he walked, even if only of a limited kind.

There… were a gentleman and a lady in a carriage who wondered where I was going, and I told them (in French) “to Rome”.

The Path to Rome, p.264

In Bellinzona, Belloc ‘sank down upon a bench before the curtained door of a drinking booth’ (The Path to Rome, p.267). Perhaps unwisely given his financial situation, he ordered a vermouth, but then he went and ordered drinks for the inn keeper’s husband and another man who had been watching him sketch!

Belloc ended up eating with this little party, and it would have been nice to report that they treated him kindly after he treated them to a drink, but alas, after he had finished eating, he simply went on his way with just ‘four francs and eighty centimes’ (The Path to Rome, p.268) in his pocket.

Belloc had another problem,

… my map was a bad one, and on a very small scale, and the road from Bellinzona to Lugano has a crook in it, and it was essential to find a short cut.

The Path to Rome, p.269

This lead to a very singular encounter with a stationer. Belloc told him that he was ‘”too poor to buy a map’ (The Path to Rome, p.269) but ‘”If you will let me look at one for a few moments, I will pay you what you think fit.”‘ (Ibid) The stationer did not like this at all and railed against Belloc for it. Nevertheless, he let him look at the maps all the same.

After he had done so, Belloc, somewhat drily, said to the stationer,

“Sir, I shall always hold in remembrance the day on which you did me this signal kindness; nor shall I forget your courtesy and goodwill.”

The Path to Rome, p.270

Whereupon, rather than take offence at Belloc’s sarcasm, or at least perceive his words to be sarcastic, the stationer ‘burst into twenty smiles, and bowed, and seemed beatified’ (The Path to Rome, p.270). and became Belloc’s friend, inviting him to look at his other maps.

On the way to Lugano, Belloc ate with an old man who became the latest to overcharge him. He tried to do so by three times the value of the meal but Belloc managed to ‘beat him down to double’ (The Path to Rome, p.276).

Belloc fell asleep by Lake Lugano. Later that night, he woke up and was spotted by the searchlight of an Italian torpedo-boat. The border police took him for a smuggler…

14th June 1901: Failed Ascent

At three o’clock this morning, the man woke Belloc up. After a quick breakfast of coffee and bread, they set out.

To get to the Nufenen and Gries Passes they had to cross a ravine. There, they trod carefully as they ploughed through avalanche snow. The need to be careful was emphasised not long later when they saw a cross – planted in memory of a man who had fallen and died there just a couple of months earlier.

The walk did not easier.

We noticed… many disquieting things. First, all that bowl or cup below the passes was a carpet of snow, save where patches of black water showed, and all the passes and mountains, from top to bottom, were covered with very thick snow; the deep surface of it soft and fresh fallen. Secondly, the rain had turned into snow. It was falling thickly all around. Nowhere have I more perceived the immediate presence of great Death. Thirdly, it was far colder, and we felt the beginning of a wind. Fourthly, the clouds had come down.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.241

The guide knew what the snow, coldness and wind, and low clouds meant – the passes would be closed, and told Belloc this, but he wanted and needed to advance on his pilgrimage and insisted they continue. Alas, Belloc was not as kind to this stranger as he and his wife had been to him, and it almost cost him his life.

The Nufenen Pass was clearly blocked so they made for the Gries Pass.

Neither of us spoke, but occasionally he looked back to make sure I had not dropped out.

The Path to Rome, p.242

The weather deteriorated – ‘the snow began to fall more thickly’ (The Path to Rome, p.242) and the wind grew in strength; Belloc thought the guide would protest but for now he kept his peace. A ‘sheer steep of snow’ (The Path to Rome, p.243) terrified Belloc as he was no climber. The guide promised him that it could be negotiated safely, and even if he fell, one might only die if one struck rocks.

They began climbing. Less than half an hour later, the wind was at gale force and the snow ‘whirring furiously past out ears’ (The Path to Rome, p.244). They took refuge under a great rock. Here, the guide told Belloc – shouted at him to make himself heard – that they could not continue. In his desperation, Belloc betrayed the man’s kindness and offered him such money as he had in his pocket to continue.

… it was folly in me, because if I had had enough to tempt him and if he had yielded we should both have died. Luckily it was but a little sum. He shook his head. He would not go on, he broke out, for all the money there was in the world.

The Path to Rome, p.245

The evil of our disordered hearts. It makes us do the most foolish things.

The guide told Belloc that they had to turn back. He did not disagree for by now the cold was starting to numb him. They made their way back to the inn; it was not an easy journey, being in its way almost as perilous as the climb. Belloc felt humiliated. Worse, he could not afford to wait at the inn for the weather to improve. He would have to make his way into Italy on the same route as all the dreadful tourists.

So, he did by going ‘over the Furka; exactly as easy a thing as going up St. James’ Street and down Piccadilly’ (The Path to Rome, p.249). He tells us that he stopped at ‘all the inns’ (Ibid) along the way – I wonder how much he drunk – and told whoever would listen about his failed attempt to cross the Gries Pass. But,

… they took me for a liar… I became silent even within my own mind.

The Path to Rome, p.250

In the evening, Belloc reached Airolo. He rejoiced to hear Italian being spoken – ‘the speech of civilised men’ (The Path to Rome, p.251). His lack of money, though, still weighed heavy on his heart. Boy, do I know that feeling. The first few days of my Camino involved plenty of worry over how much money I had and was spending. I never truly got over it.

Needing to get on, Belloc left the Airolians behind. That night, two hours out of Airolo, he left the Ticino valley behind and entered Faido where he slept.