Walking to Rome: Via Francigena Day 16 Redux


This is the last walking day of our first stage of the Via Francigena. If the photos seem familiar, it is because we completed this day’s walk on September 24. I wanted to report the successful completion on that day even though I had only posted days 1 to 11 by that time. The missing days 12 to 15, along with a few rest days, have now been completed and posted. I’m now up-to-date. 

To bring some closure, here is my earlier, slightly edited Day 16 post:

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Walking to Rome: Via Francigena Day 15


Péronne. A lovely town richly endowed with post-war Art Deco architecture. And, set within the walls of the town’s 13 C. castle, is the modern Historial of the Great War, designed by architect Henri-Edouard Ciriani. 

Thankfully, our walking day to nearby Trefcon would be a short one, leaving us the morning to explore this museum which examines, with unflinching candor, the making of a war, its horrors and its aftermath. Among the artifacts and state-of-the-art presentations is Der Krieg (The War), artist Otto Dix’ collection of fifty unsettling etchings depicting the war as he experienced it from the trenches.

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Walking to Rome: Via Francigena Day 14



Beaulencourt British Commonwealth Cemetery

Thilloy Road Commonwealth Cemetery

Manchester Commonwealth Cemetery

Église Saint-Pierre, Villers au Flos

Église catholique Notre-Dame de Rocquigny, architect Jean-Louis Sourdeau, 1929-32

Necropole Nationale, Moislains

Église Paroissiale, Moislains, architect Louis Faille, 1928-32

Canal du Nord

Australian Remembrance Trail of the Battle of Mont-Saint-Quentin

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Walking to Rome: Via Francigena Day 13


The Via Francigena may have originated as a religious pilgrimage dating back to the 900s (if not earlier). But here, today, as Gail and I walk through the rolling farmland of northern France, we are reminded over and over again that the line we follow is as much informed by the Great War as it is by religion.

Yes, there are the small villages dominated by tall-spired churches. But even these carry the weight of war.  Continue reading

Walking to Rome: Via Francigena Day 11


It’s November, 2019. Gail and I have been back in Winnipeg for six weeks. I’ve been occupied with a book project, just now completed. So it’s time to get back to our Via Francigena pilgrimage, starting where you last saw us. 

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Walking the Camino de Santiago: Day 12

The 26-kilometre path to Burgos crosses a vast swath of human history.

It starts with a midday traverse of Atapuerca. Here, in limestone caves below the Atapuerca Massif, archaeologists uncovered (in 1994) a cache of human remains stretching across a pre-Christian era of 127,000 to 1,000,000 years ago. These are the oldest human remains in all of Europe and, by far, the largest repository of those remains. The caves are off-limits to mere living descendants but we can ponder our pagan past as we mount the massif. Continue reading

Walking the Camino de Santiago: Days 10 and 11

The 23-kilometre trek from Santo Domingo to Belorado contrasted two worlds.

To one side ran the slick, modern national highway N-120. Its twin ribbons of factory-fresh asphalt crossed the flat, brown landscape, requiring costly overpasses to lead pilgrims from one side to the other. Cars fly through this flat land, missing the details of an agricultural economy struggling to stay afloat. I can’t claim to be an economist, but the visual evidence of small villages pockmarked with ruined buildings is everywhere. It’s not that the urban decay suddenly started after Santo Domingo. It has gradually seeped into our consciousness over the past days of walking. But here, against the monied optimism of super highways connecting city super-centres, the collapse of small rural economies is all the more apparent.

The day suitably ends in Belorado, a charming town with a matter-of-fact rural attitude.

Leaving Belorado the next morning, we pass by more ruined buildings. The trail now parts way with the highway and begins its slow climb to San Juan de Ortega, 24 kilometres away, a pleasant day of walking through fields. At least for us.

Fortunately, we had looked at our Brierley guide soon after arriving in Belorado, the night before. San Juan, our next-day’s destination, had a meagre population of 30! And there was only one albergue and one pension! On the phone, we managed to secure what was (we later found out) the last room at San Juan’s sole pension, La Henera.

San Juan de Ortega was indeed a tiny hamlet with the Camino being its sole means of support. Pilgrims poured into town that afternoon, most forced to bunk in the dormitory-style albergue, nestled in the ruins of the stone monastery. Sound romantic? It proved less than wonderful at the practical level, as fellow pilgrims later reported there was a master snorer in their midst!. By contrast, our private room in the brand new pension (within eyeshot of the albergue), was embarrassingly palatial. Dining at the one small restaurant in town was a further challenge. Its few tables were in high demand by famished walkers.

San Juan de Ortega was established in the early 1100’s with the sole purpose of assisting pilgrims on the Camino. We can thank Juan Velásquez, a local man of humble background, who set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1109, got shipwrecked on his way home and prayed to San Nicolás de Barí that, if saved, he would devote the rest of his life to helping pilgrims. It worked and Juan followed through on his promise. San Juan became his hospice in the woods and, although it garnered early patronage and grew to include a church and monastery, the hamlet constantly struggled to survive.

The Church of San Juan de Ortega was likely built by Juan in the 12th century and then added-to repeatedly through the 15th century. This is the still-functioning core of the hamlet. About it are the massive walls of the deserted monastery. We walked around the perimeter walls with their uniformly distributed punched openings, once windows looking out from a thriving hospice. And then through the few quiet streets of the hamlet with their occasional ruined home.

Juan’s promise lives on as a vulnerable counterpoint to the modern world.

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Walking the Camino de Santiago: Day 9

Today’s 24-kilometre walk would lead us to three unique religious experiences.

We left Nájera at first light on another beautiful blue-sky day, the sun rising over our shoulders, casting its long shadows towards our destination, Santo Domingo de la Calzada. We soon arrived at the 500-person hamlet of Azofra and made the proper decision to wander off the Camino path to the Cistercian Abbey of Santa María de Cañas. It would add a few kilometres to our day’s walk but John Brierley’s guidebook, the bible of all English-speaking pilgrims, suggested it was a well-spent journey. Continue reading