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.

Belloc Leaves Toul

On the evening of 4th June 1901, Catholic journalist Hilaire Belloc set off from Toul, France on pilgrimage to Rome. He intended to arrive in the Italian capital on 29th June, the feast of SS Peter and Paul and after many adventures did just that. In 1905, he published his account of his journey in a book titled The Path to Rome.

For the last few years, I have read The Path to Rome between 4th and 29th June. The book isn’t divided up into chapters but with one or two exceptions, Belloc is very clear about when the days start and end so I have been able to read that day’s entry on the anniversary of it happening and arrive in Rome with him on the 29th.

Previously, I have followed his journey on Twitter; this time round, however, I will do so on the blog. As previously, I’ll use Google Earth to show (roughly) his location. This time round, I’d like to give the posts a little focus by noting the times that Belloc made friends or found friendship. So, without further ado, let’s begin.

After leaving Toul, Belloc’s pilgrimage got off to a quiet start. For that reason, we find him pausing when he should be walking and reminiscing about his time in the French army. As he does so, he recalls ‘the best companions in the world’ (Belloc The Path to Rome, p.17 (Ignatius edition 2003). Who deserved such a great title? No man, as it turns out, but 156 battery guns!

I wonder where you all are now? I suppose I shall not see you again; but you were the best companions in the world, my friends.

Ibid

As Belloc walked, he passed a flock of sheep and their shepherd,

… who gave me a good-night.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.23 (Ignatius edition 2003)

This friendly act, as brief as it was, helped induce in Belloc ‘the pleasant mood in which all books are conceived (but none written) (Ibid)!

It was twilight when Belloc passed through a village which he knew as St. Peter of the Quarries. There, the

… peasants sat outside their houses in the twilight accepting the cool air; every one spoke to me as I marched through, and I answered them all, nor was there in any of their salutations the omission of good fellowship or of the name of God.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.24 (Ignatius edition 2003)

One man, ‘a sergeant of artillery on leave’ (Ibid) invited Belloc to join him over a drink but Belloc declined – as the days were very hot, he intended to make his pilgrimage in the evening and overnight, so he had to keep moving.

As he left St. Pierre, though, Belloc admits that he ‘was not secure from loneliness’ (The Path to Rome, p.25). The night began to ‘oppress’ him. How much was Belloc affected by his loneliness? It’s hard to say but despite coming across to me through his books, and in books about him, as a strong man, there are one or two hints in The Path to Rome that mentally he did suffer as much as many of us do from a certain fragility. I take comfort from that.

That night, Belloc lit his pipe and began singing. Suddenly,

… I… heard, to my inexpressible joy, some way down the road, the sound of other voices. They were singing that old song of the French infantry which dates from Louis XIV., and is called “Auprès de ma blonde.” I answered their chorus, so that, by the time we met under the wood, we were already acquainted.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.28 (Ignatius edition 2003)

I love Belloc’s choice of words here. He wasn’t just happy to hear the soldiers’ singing, but felt an ‘inexpressible joy’. If this is how happy he could be at the sound of strangers singing, no wonder he could feel loneliness as well.

In the past, I have held the end of Belloc’s day to be midnight. I will try and keep to that in these blog posts, whether or not he is still walking. If he does keep walking, I’ll note it in the next day’s post.

The singing soldiers were the last people Belloc encountered at all, let alone under friendly circumstances, before midnight on 4th June 1901 so I will end this post here.