Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the time and opportunity to get away from it all for a few weeks and travel along a historic route, dating back well over a thousand years, through the glorious Swiss Alps and beautiful Northern and Central Italy, in blessed peace and quiet? OK, OK, I’d end up whingeing about the heat, the insects and the lack of proper sanitation, not to mention any walking uphill, but I still love the idea of it. Like last year’s series about the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, this is following a group of minor celebs, with different backgrounds and beliefs, along a traditional pilgrimage route, this time the Via Francigena (“French/Frankish Way” – it doesn’t sound nearly as good in English!) from Martigny (near Verbier) to the Vatican City. Featuring St Bernard dogs, thermal baths and wine.
The Via Francigena actually starts from Canterbury, but I suppose that would have taken too long! They’re using various modes of transport, but the last 100 km (just over 60 miles), from Viterbo to Rome is being done on foot. And the “pilgrims” involved are Stephen K Amos, Mehreen Baig, Katy Brand, Brendan Cole, Les Dennis, Lesley Joseph, Greg Rutherford and Dana Scallon.
I’ve been to various pilgrimage sites – as a holidaymaking historian, not as a pilgrim (although I think I get some sort of medieval pilgrimage gold star for having been to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela)! – relating to various different religions/denominations, but, due to being a wage slave, it’s only ever been for the day. I love the idea of being able to take a couple of weeks, or more, and walk the historic routes – having time out to think and to take in the experience and to see the different places along the way.
I’m not sure that I’d go for the Vatican City, though. It’s an incredible place to visit, but there’s too much else going on there. It’s so grand and so full of incredible artwork, and also so much an administrative centre, and it’s surrounded by Rome, the Eternal City, in all its ancient and modern glory … and it’s all just too much to feel really spiritual. OK, all pilgrimage sites are busy and touristy, and you’d probably feel a lot more spiritual if you weren’t stood in a horrendous queue to see whatever you’d come to see, looking at your watch to see how long you’ve got before you need to be back at the coach, hoping fervently that you’ll have time to get something to eat and drink and that there won’t be a long queue for the toilets. But I think that places that exist purely or mainly as religious sites – and it can be any religion or denomination; you don’t have to “belong” to that religion or denomination yourself to appreciate the place – maybe work better as “spiritual” places. Having said which, the Vatican is great, and our eight celebs got to meet the Pope at the end of their journey (which will be shown in the final episode, on Good Friday)!
It’s actually the journey that’s the most interesting bit, though, more than the destination. We don’t hear that much about pilgrimage routes – although I think that the National Trust are going to try to start promoting some of the old routes within the UK – but they are very much a “thing”. I was quite surprised to see how many pilgrims were heading into Santiago de Compostela when I went there. It’s not necessarily a religious thing – it’s that taking time out. It could be, say, the Inca Trail. Or, nearer to home and with rather fewer altitude sickness issues, the Pennine Way. Along the Via Francigena, our pilgrims – although they were using apps and Google maps! – found pilgrimage signposts, and “donativo” refreshment places and hostels primarily serving people travelling the route, and had their pilgrimage passports stamped at each stop.
And it seemed so quiet, for all that it’s a “thing”! OK, maybe other people were just politely asked to move whilst the BBC were filming, but you often see TV programmes filmed amidst hordes of people, so I doubt it. Peace and quiet are so, so hard to find! Even when you’re in your own home, even if you’re not answering the phone, there are often dogs barking, kids yelling, cars and motorbikes revving their engines, or someone mowing the lawn or playing music loudly. And there’s usually a nagging feeling that you really ought to be doing one of the seventy billion things on your To Do List (capital T, capital D, capital L!).
That seemed to be how the “pilgrims” were looking at it too – I don’t think St Peter was mentioned once, and even Rome itself was only mentioned in terms of going the right way, but there was a lot of talk about peace and “mental space” and time out. There was some general talk about faith and religion, though. In Viterbo, it’s traditional to go into a Catholic church and receive a pilgrims’ blessing. Some of the group – with Lesley, who’s Jewish, and Mehreen, who’s Muslim, amongst the most enthusiastic – chose to do this, but others said they didn’t feel comfortable about it.
There was more talk on the subject at other points of the journey, as well. Dana, a practising Catholic and the most religious member of the group, said that religion is very important to her, but alluded to the “difficult time” in the Catholic church at the moment – i.e. with the child sex abuse scandals. Stephen said that, as a gay man, he doesn’t feel that any religion welcomes him. Les spoke about how his mother had once been very religious, but had lost her faith after being shunned by her church when she had a child outside marriage. Brendan Cole summed it all up very well by saying that the problems are not with particular formal/organised religious, but with some of the people in them.
It was great to see people discussing sensitive issues – faith and religion are awkward topics to discuss, because people can be very sensitive about them – without arguing and shouting each other down. I’m so, so sick of seeing social media posts in which people use the word “stupid” (or worse) to describe anyone whose views on a political issue differ from theirs. Some people will be abusive towards anyone who disagrees with them over a sports event, a film, a TV series, a book … anything! This was just nice. It was nice TV. And it’d be a nice thing to do. Just given the time …