It’s hard to imagine them beneath eight-lane autobahns, above 10-mile tunnels, plying their way through industrial and commercial centers. But there they are, the pilgrims’ paths of yore. So often they are buried by asphalt, obscured by housing developments, or even lost in plain sight amongst the sensory jungle that constantly assaults our eyes and ears and noses. Thousands, even millions, retrace their steps daily. They are going to work, to school, to a meeting, hauling merchandise and equipment. They go in cars and trucks and trains and buses. Some hearty few go on bicycles, under their own power. Some fewer still go on foot. We consider it a privilege to be among their number.
All we have to reconstruct the paths of the earliest pilgrims are diaries, logbooks of those pioneers who sought to connect the physical space of their homes with the bodily incarnation of Jesus in Jerusalem or with the tomb of one of his disciples. These books are sometimes little more than lists of towns or church names, solid links in that chain between origin and goal. Some of these places we instantly recognize (St. Bernardo, Milano, Viterbo). Others can be deduced with some study, or a flexible imagination (Placentia = Piacenza, Seocine = Siena, etc.). Others are completely lost, wooden hamlets decayed by time, forgotten by changed or extinct languages.
But those totally forgotten places are less common than one would think. Unlike us romantics, who seek relief from our industrious society’s unrelenting clock, premodern people, especially those like pilgrims who could afford it, stuck to well-trodden paths and well-fortified cities. By the High Middle Ages, centers of worship, leadership, and commerce had formed along the once-paved roads left behind by the Roman armies. The vast interior, frightening in its blankness and menace, was thankfully avoided. If the modern pilgrim’s motto has become “The Journey is the Destination,” the medieval pilgrim had a stronger desire to arrive at her destination safely and quickly.
Which is why Luther took the most direct route that weather would permit to get from Erfurt to Rome. We, on the other hand, are constrained by our own aesthetic sensibilities and cement-intolerance to take another, longer way.
We will take our place, then, amongst the modern pilgrims. In the past 30 years these ancient paths have begun to be revitalized as major tourist destinations. The most famous of these are various Ways of St. James to Compostela, Spain, where lies the tomb of the apostle James (son of Zebedee). We’ll be following three distinct sections of the Via Compostella on our trek, most of the distance from Erfurt to Bregenz, Austria. Between there and Pavia (just south of Milan), we’ll be piecing together a route through the Alps over the Septimer (aka Sempter) pass, trying to stick to walking paths. From Pavia to Rome, we’ll be mostly on the Via Francigena (first logged by Sigeric the Serious in the 10th century), with a detour to Florence, where Luther is thought to have traveled on his southbound journey.
So we’ll pay for avoiding the direct route with a couple of hundred extra kilometers. A small price to pay, we think, for a well-mapped, well-supplied, and (mostly) cement-free journey.