A Pilgrim, Not a Tourist

Half-British, half-French, all-around traveler, scholar, and satirist Hilaire Belloc published Path to Rome in 1902. It chronicles his pilgrimage from France, over the Alps, and into Italy. From the outset, Belloc chose an unusual method for arriving at his destination. He vowed to travel the entire way on foot, “tak[ing] advantage of no wheeled thing,” to sleep outside, and to cover thirty miles a day. This approach caused him some difficulties, as people thought he was a tramp or a beggar when he arrived at inns with his shoe soles flapping.

For Belloc, these inconveniences were worth experiencing Europe as a pilgrim, not a tourist. If he cut through Europe by train, he would miss the early morning dawn from the hilltops; if he stayed in popular tourist towns, he would not have made the acquaintance of villages along the frontiers of civilization. By focusing on the journey instead of devoting all his energies to anticipating the destination, he saved himself from missing the delights and comedies, along with the challenges and obstacles he overcame, that made getting there worthwhile.

Belloc committed to this principle by faithfully relating the mundane details of a traveler’s life in Path to Rome: the terrain he crossed, where he found places to sleep, what he ate every night. He accompanied this prose with illustrations of anything that struck his fancy along the way: an unusually constructed church or the curve of a valley. Since Belloc had no smartphone or camera to speed the process along, each sketch represents the time he devoted to drawing the view by hand. These details remind us that the boring moments of our time abroad deserve our attention.

In fact, Belloc learned one of his journey’s greatest lessons from the everyday task of buying refreshments. Throughout the book, he noted every bottle of wine he purchased, including the seller, color, and price. These details are the frank acknowledgement of how much the life of a traveler revolves around buying food—and how much of our happiness arises from enjoying it.

The lesson comes to a head when Belloc purchases a bottle of his favorite wine before leaving France, reasoning he won’t find another like it. To his horror, the bottle suffers an accident along his walk, somehow slipping from his pack and shattering into pieces on the road. He is so exasperated that he must sit down to collect himself before he can continue.

It’s a relatable moment: that helpless anger over something so small in the grand scheme of things and yet so colossal in our hopes and anticipation. Faced with this disappointment, Belloc has nothing to do but go forward. As he recalls the moment he chose to stand up and continue his journey, he shares a startling insight: he would soon encounter a wine that would put the lost bottle to shame. Thus, the unremarkable act of stocking up food and drink became a message of hope for his readers: “It is always thus with sorrows if one will only wait.”

For a serious undertaking, Belloc doesn’t hesitate to make light of his travels. He readily admits that he broke every one of his vows before the journey ended. He revels in teasing his readers, even carrying on imaginary dialogues with a “lector,” who complains when he wanders off-topic and protests when he skips describing notable landmarks along the way. At the story’s conclusion, he plays his last and greatest trick by ending the book just as he arrives at the gates of Rome.

Why does the book end before Rome? Hidden in the mischief is Belloc’s message for travelers. Whether in 20th century Europe or 21st century Africa, the journey matters more than the destination.

Author: Kittie Helmick

Kittie Helmick studied Comparative Literature and Critical Translation at the University of Oxford, after serving with the Peace Corps in South Africa. Her desire to speak truth in grace led her to found Salt and Iron: Seasoned Writing and its predecessor GoodTrueBeautiful. She has also published critiques of pop culture on The Critic, The Federalist, and Patheos.

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