The Path to Rome
By Hilaire Belloc. Various editions and Project Gutenberg.
First published in 1902 and continuously in print ever since, Hilaire Belloc’s The Path to Rome chronicles his journey from his birthplace near Toul in France to Rome, “the centre of the world.” An ardent Catholic, Belloc is decidedly on a pilgrimage. But, a canny writer as well—one of the most prolific writers of his era—he has also crafted a secular tale of adventure.
Like any good pilgrim, Belloc starts off with vows: “I will walk all the way and take advantage of no wheeled thing,” he writes. “I will sleep rough and cover thirty miles a day, and I will hear Mass every morning; and I will be present at high Mass in St. Peter’s on the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.” He is also determined to walk by night and sleep by day, when it will be too hot to hike, and to travel in a straight line.
One of the humorous threads running through the book is how, one by one, he breaks each of these vows except for the final attendance of Mass in Rome. Sleeping outdoors, he discovers, is not as pleasant to actually do as to contemplate. Geography—notably the Alps (for which he is badly prepared in his thin summer clothes and ragged shoes)—interferes with that straight line. Exhaustion leads him to accept being pulled along by a wagon—a sly way of avoiding actually riding—and finally, in need to reach funds in Milan, he takes a train, and repeats this en route to Siena. As he says, “When one has once fallen, it is easy to fall again (saving always heavy falls from cliffs and high towers, for after these there is no more falling)…
For the most part, though, Belloc does a great deal of walking, trudging through terrible heat, rain, and snow, fording rivers, philosophizing as he goes on everything from the nature of bakers to the shape of windows. These meditations are highly entertaining as are his encounters with people he meets: he captures personalities in quick strokes and recreates the ambience of various settings vividly. This is a self-consciously playful book, opening with a section called “Praise of This Book” and creating from time to time a dialogue with the putative reader—“lector”—who may comment or disagree or get fed up with what he, “auctor,” is saying. This device serves as a clever way to enliven the text, to break up the monotony of a tedious trek, and to self-mockingly defend his text, though over time I felt it grew somewhat cloying.
Belloc’s Christian viewpoint infuses but doesn’t overwhelm his narrative, which offers an exuberant and fascinating portrait of Europe in another age. Reading The Path to Rome, I kept wondering what a ramble through this territory would be like today, and understood the desire of many writers to follow in the footsteps of travelers who went before.
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The Path to Rome