Written on a packed, noisy ferry to Albania!
The routes we have been walking are the remains of the practical highways and economic arteries of early Rome and subsequent cultures. The Appia Antica is occasionally obscured, often reused in modern highways but throughout the south remains the name synonymous with roman imperial power, the spread of Christianity to Rome and then centuries of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The later Appia Trajana changes the route after Benevento to an eastern costal one. For those of us who had the privilege to walk and cycle the three ancient pilgrimage routes – Santiago, Rome, and Jerusalem – it does not escape one’s notice that south of Rome there are few walkers, almost no pilgrims and no sympathetic routes for either which would be familiar in other parts of Europe.
Does it matter that throughout the south of Italy there is no culture of trekking and the idea of pilgrimage on foot to the major shrines of Christendom is extinct? Many Italians make the journey to Santiago from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Pamplona and Burgos but a considered examination indicates that the impetus for rejuvenated ancient and pilgrimage routes comes from the north. Or at least so I thought. An indigenous rebirth of long distance routes and the intention of pilgrimage is indeed happening in the south.
On our recent perambulation of the ancient Via Appia we have continued the work of Giovanni Caselli and others. Giovanni’s work led to the reestablishment of what is now called the Via Francigena, between Canterbury and Rome. (properly the name indicates a route to France, not to Rome)
This resuscitation of the Roman and Medieval Pilgrimage routes is something very novel indeed in the South – even to the official “Pro Locos” – the semi-official tourist development organisations to be found in most Italian towns (if you ever find one open).
We can recall the enthusiasm of three young pro-loco staff, in Apollosa. Although vaguely aware of the Via Appia, they had neither heard of the Camino de Santiago, or indeed of long distance pilgrimage on foot – or by bike,train or plane! A brief explanation of the history, and of the route to Santiago soon changed that – and for them the potential for that quiet highland area was clear. Indeed, they quickly linked it to a two day Pilgrimage to a local shrine, in the hills above the town. The penny most definitely dropped. In that enthusiasm though, lay the understanding that for most Southerners, walking , where a car, motorbike or scooter can be used, is almost demeaning, and over hundreds of kilometres, a matter for humour! This is a fact that must be faced.
So if we are to take seriously the renewal of these ancient routes, who exactly would they be for? For the few North Europeans making their journeys of faith and personal exploration? For North Italians, wishing to extend their reach and ideas South and even towards Jerusalem? There is certainly a walking culture in the North of Italy, and in the Nations beyond the Alps.
There is a current impulse to have and develop a “Via Francigena del Sud”. Maybe this speaks eloquently of the difficulties. The Via Francigena is seen as a “brand”, to be extended into the South. No uniqueness is to be attributed to the South, and the primary role of the Via Appia and Appia Trajana are ignored. (there is not even, in marketing terms, a unique selling point!)
In fact, the Via Appia is not a copy of anything, but the first of the roads of Rome- a jewel of the Classical World . Admittedly in creation it was a colonising effort – extending with the reach of Roman power, even into the Levant – but it was the first, and even archetypical route. The Empire would build many more roads in the one known world, but there would never be another Appia.
The history of the South may explain these difficulties. The Greeks, Romans, Longobards, Normans, Swabians, Saracens, Spanish, and French have come here to seek land, dominion and power. The unification of Italy is recent – and the social history not always one of wealth and social development. This extraordinary history and it’s resulting structures are something I do not claim to understand in any depth. But I do believe that the history can be seen to give the South a unique place – being perhaps more of a mix of the European (and other) peoples than elsewhere.
My own view is that the Via Appia is one of those historical accidents which is unifying and important for the South, for Europe and indeed the Levant. It should be unique and locally led. It should not be called the Via Francigena del Sud or the Camino South East! The Appia is something for the South even if much of the new road is “paved and ridden” by colleagues from elsewhere. If it is not thus embraced, I do not believe it will succeed.
We had the great privilege to meet the group centred around the University of Lecce, and led by Professor Anna Trono.
The group is a great one – Geographers, Archaeologists, Medieval Art Historians, and of course Pilgrims. One has walked the routes to Santiago twelve times!
During a lightning tour of Lecce, Otranto etc. there were many surprises. A wonderful Norman Church in Otranto – with a wondrous tessera pavement floor, some Islamic embellishment around the door, and the rest. That pavement – a tree of life. Norman Society laid out with its links far from the cold of Northern France and England. The Seasons, and the Zodiac! King Arthur as Norman motif!
In a local Romanico (Romanesque) Church there is a pilgrim holding a staff, in the form of a tau. Some of the work is apparently identical enough to the English Romanesque Church at Kilpeck. The artist travelled far to do that work as had his sponsors – all of these forms inspired by the sights and scenes of the Crusades – whatever we may now think of those events.
Here and with these people we can find the birth of the new routes in the South – for walker and Pilgrim.