Hilaire Belloc’s Grateful “Enchanted Pilgrimage”: Memorable Characters Whom He Met in The Path to Rome (1902)

Dr. Robert Hickson

       19 March 2019

Saint Joseph, “Virgo Pater Jesu



“I found a kind of path, sideways on the face of the mountain [a part of the steep Jura-Range of Ridges], and I followed it till I came to a platform with a hut perched thereon, and men building. Here a good woman told me just how to go [on the steep descent to the river Doubs]. I was not to attempt the road to Brune-Farine—that is, “Whole Meal-Farm”–as I had first intended, foolishly trusting a map, but to take a gully she would show me, and follow it till I reached the river [in “the steep gorge of the Doubs” (132)]. She came out [of her hut], and led me steeply across a hanging pasture; all the while she had knitting in her hands, and I noticed that on the levels she went on with her knitting. Then, when we got to the gully, she said I had but to follow it. I thanked her, and she climbed [back] up to her home.

“This gully was the precipitous bed of a stream; I clanked down it—thousands of feet– warily; I reached the valley, and at last, very gladly,…I approached a town of village. It was St. Ursanne [in the Canton of Jura, Switzerland].” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902, 1936), pages 134 and 132 —my emphasis added)


“I saw suddenly the wide lake of Bolsena all below [in the early twilight]. It is a great sheet like a sea; but as one knows one is on a high plateau, and as there is but a short dip down to it; and as it is round and has all about it a rim of low even hills, therefore one knows it for an old and gigantic crater now full of pure water; and there are islands in it and palaces on the islands. Indeed it was an impression of silence and recollection….

“I sat on the coping of a wall, drank a little of my wine, ate a little bread and sausage; but still song demanded some outlet in the cool evening, and companionship was more of an appetite in me than landscape. Please God, I had become southern and took [such] beauty for granted.

“Anyhow, seeing a little two-wheeled cart come through the gate, harnessed to a ramshackle little pony, bony and hard, and driven by a little, brown, smiling, and contented old fellow with black hair, I made a sign to him and he stopped.

“This time there was no temptation of the devil; if anything the advance was from my side. I was determined to ride, and I sprang up beside the driver. We raced down the hill, clattering and banging like a piece of [artillery] ordnance, and he, my brother, unasked began to sing. I sang in turn. He sang of Italy, I of four countries: America, France, England, and Ireland. I could not understand his songs nor he mine, but there was wine in common between us and salami and a merry heart, bread which is the bond of all mankind, and that prime solution [dissolvent] of ill-ease—I mean the forgetfulness of money. That was a good drive, an honest drive, a human aspiring drive, a drive of Christians, a glorifying and uplifted drive, a drive worthy of remembrance for ever. The moon has shone on but few [rides] like it though she is old; the lake of Bolsena has glittered beneath none [no such ride] like it since the Etruscans here unbended after the solemnities of a triumph. It [the downhill ride] broke my vow to pieces; there was not a shadow of excuse for this use of wheels: it was done openly and wantonly in the face of the wide sky for pleasure. And what is there else but pleasure, and to what else does beauty move on?” (Hilaire Belloc, (The Path to Rome, pages 419-421 —my emphasis added)


“It is the custom of many, when they get over a ridge, to begin singing. Nor did I fail, early as was the hour, to sing in passing this the second of my Apennine summits [in the north Italian chain of mountains]. I sang easily with an open throat everything I could remember in praise of joy; and I did not spare the choruses of my songs, being even at pains to imitate (when they were double) the various voices of either part….

“The oldest of my companions said he would put me on the way [to the mountain village of Collagna]. We went together in the half light by the lane that followed the crest of the hill, and we passed a charming thing, a little white sculpture in relief, set up for a shrine and representing the Annunciation….Then in a few hundred yards we passed another that was the Visitation, and they were gracious and beautiful…, and I saw that they stood for the five joyful mysteries….

Certainly these people [in the hill-hamlet of Ceregio, “blessed and secluded” (360)] have a benediction upon them, granted them for their simple lives and their justice. Their eyes are fearless and kindly. They are courteous, straight, and all have in them laughter and sadness. They are full of songs, of memories, of the stories of their native place; and their worship is conformable to the world that God made. May they possess their own land, and may their influence come again from Italy to save from jar, and boasting, and ineptitude the foolish, valourless cities, and the garish crowds of shouting men…And let us especially pray that the revival of the Faith may do something for our poor old universities.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome, pages 344-345, 360-362—my emphasis added)


Just after Hilaire Belloc entered on foot into Switzerland in June of 1901 on his direct path to Rome on a pilgrimage that had started in Toul, France, he gratefully and graciously expressed a portion of his varied and inspiring experiences, and then hinted at some of his robust characterizations of that manifold (and sometimes perilous) adventure up until 29 June 1901, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul:

This book [The Path to Rome (1902)]1 will never end if I were to attempt to write down so much as the names of a quarter of the extraordinary things I saw and heard on my enchanted pilgrimage, but let me at least [now] mention the Commercial Traveller from Marseilles [who is to be known henceforth by an historic and allusive Greek name, “the Phocean”]. (120-121—my emphasis added)

In honor of Hilaire Belloc, let us now select and savor some of his eloquently (often rumbustiously) expressed experiences in, or near, inns. And we shall start with “the Phocean” and consider the hospitable atmosphere of the inn where he was temporarily, but recurrently, lodged.

Belloc introduces us to this memorable and festive companionship and to his own perceptive description of that meeting which had occurred soon after he had crossed the Swiss frontier from near the border town of Delle in northeast France:

When I guessed that I had covered this mile [afoot from Delle] I saw a light in the windows on my left, a trellis and the marble tables of a café. I put my head in the door and said–

“Am I in Switzerland?”

A German-looking girl, a large heavy man, a Bavarian commercial traveller, and a colleague of his from Marseilles all said together in varying accents: “Yes.”

“Why, then,” I said, “I will come in and drink.” (120)

Thus it was that Belloc hospitably met and came to describe the “Phocean” from Marseilles:

He talked with extreme rapidity for two hours. He had seen all the cities in the world and he remembered their minutest details. He was extremely accurate, his taste was abominable, his patriotism large, his vitality marvellous, his wit crude but continual, and to his German friend, to the host of the inn, and to the blonde serving-girl, he was a familiar god. He came, it seems, once a year, and for a day he would pour out the torrent of his travels like a waterfall of guide-books (for he gloried in dates, dimensions, and the points of a compass in his descriptions), then he disappeared for another year, and left them to feast on the memory of such a revelation. (121—my emphasis added)

Belloc includes in his discerning perceptions a description of his own depletion and lameness:

For my part, I sat silent, crippled with fatigue, trying to forget my wounded feet, drinking stoup after stoup of beer and watching the Phocean. He was of the old race [from the earlier Greek colony of Marseilles] you see on [Greek] vases in red and black. Slight, very wiry, with a sharp, eager, but well-set face, a small, black, pointed beard, brilliant eyes like those of lizards, rapid gestures and a vivacity that played all over his features as sheet lightning does over the glow of midnight in June.

That delta of the Rhone [River] is something quite separate from the rest of France. It is a wedge of Greece and of the East thrust into the Gauls. It came north a hundred years ago and killed the monarchy [in the French Revolution of 1789]. It caught the value in, and created, the great [inordinately bloody] war song of the Republic.

I watched the Phocean. I thought of a man of his ancestry three thousand years ago sitting here at the gates of these mountains talking of his travels to dull, patient, and admiring northerners, and traveling for gain up to the Germanies, and I felt the changeless form of Europe under me like a rock.

When he heard I was walking to Rome, this man of information [,in order to help me,] turned off his flood into another channel, as a miller will send the racing water into a side sluice. (121-122—my emphasis added)

Our own vivacious English pilgrim will now give us a sense of the Phocean’s flowing observations and generously benevolent advice:

And he [the Phocean] poured out some such torrent as this:–

Do not omit to notice the famous view SE. [Southeast] from the Villa So and So; visit such and such a garden, and hear Mass in such and such a church. Note the curious illusion produced on the piazza of St. Peter’s by the interior measurements of the trapezium, which are so many yards and so many yards, ….” &c., and so forth…exactly like a mill.

I meanwhile sat on still silent, still drinking beer and watching the Phocean; gradually suffering the fascination that had captured the villagers and the German [Bavarian] friend. He was a very wonderful man.

He was also kindly, I found afterwards that he had arranged with the host to give me up his bed, seeing my weariness. For this, most unluckily, I was never able to thank him, since the next morning I was off before he or anyone else was awake, and I left on the table such money as I thought would very likely satisfy the inn keeper. It was broad daylight but not yet sunrise….(122-123—my emphasis added)

A little later in his book, Belloc shows another kind of reception at an inn, especially because of the hostess:

So before that last effort [to ascend and to cross the formidable mountain named the “Weissenstein”] which should lead me over those thousands of feet, and to nourish Instinct (which would be of use to me when I got into that impassible wood), I turned into the inn for wine.

A very old woman having the appearance of a witch sat at a dark table by the little criss-cross window of the dark room. She was crooning to herself, and I made the sign of the evil eye and asked her in French for wine; but French she did not understand….and [yet] she brought up a glass of exceedingly good red wine which I drank in silence, she watching me uncannily.

Then I paid her,…and she gave me a quantity of small change rapidly, which, as I counted it, I found to contain one [trifling] Greek piece of fifty lepta very manifestly of lead. This I held up angrily before her, and (not without courage, for it is hard to deal with the darker powers) I recited to her slowly [in ancient Greek] that familiar verse which the well-known Satyricus Empiricus was forever using in his now classical attacks…and…I intoned to her [that satirical line given in the written Greek script about money!]…and so left her astounded to repentance or to shame.

Then I went out into the sunlight, and crossing over running water put myself out of her power. (174-176—my emphasis added)

Earlier in The Path to Rome, Belloc had already presented us another awkward and provocative situation in an inn, in part dealing here with “rude peasants” and “the ox-man.” Such a vignette will remind us of other forms of less hospitable conduct that were shown to him, offsetting in part so many of the good adventures in inns that Pilgrim Belloc so gratefully encountered:

So I entered the “Sun” inn and saw there a woman sewing, a great dull-faced man like an ox, and a youth writing down figures in a little book. I said–

“Good morning, madam and sirs, and the company. Could you give me a little red wine?”

Not a head moved.

True I was very dirty and tired, and they may have thought me a beggar, to whom, like good sensible Christians who had no nonsense about them, they would rather have given a handsome kick than a cup of cold water. However, I think it was not only my poverty but a native churlishness which bound their bovine souls in that valley.

I sat down at a very clean table….I sat down at it, and said again, still gently–

“It is, indeed, a fine country this of yours. Could you give me a little red wine?”

Then the ox-faced man who had his back turned to me, and was the worst of the lot, said sulkily, not to me, but to the woman–

“He wants wine.”

The woman as sulkily said to me, not looking me in the eyes

“How much will you pay?”

I said, “Bring the wine. Set it here. See me drink it. Charge me your due.” (150-151—my emphasis added)

Based on these preparatory acts and facts, Belloc will now share with us—in some rather coarse language, but also humorous—how one must conduct oneself with such terse and viscous dolts:

I found that this brutal way of speaking was just what was needed for the kine and cattle of this pen. She skipped off to a cupboard and set wine before me, and a glass. I drank quite quietly till I had had enough, and asked what there was to pay. She said “threepence,” and I said “too much,” as I paid it. At this the ox-faced man grunted and frowned, and I was afraid; but hiding my fear I walked out boldly and slowly, and made a noise with my stick [my walking-staff] upon the floor of the hall without. Neither did I bid them farewell. But I made a sign at the house as I left it. Whether it suffered from this as did the house at Dorchester which the man in the boat caused to wither in one night, is more than I can tell. (151—my emphasis added)

Just before this drolly ironic passage with “the ox-man,” Belloc had had his own lengthy discourse (146-150) “On Benedictions” and on a “Theory of Blessings”! Here we may now also recall his condign earlier mention of a fitting “ferial malediction”!

Belloc’s later approach to, and presentation of the welcoming inn in “the dear village of Sillano” (372) will, for sure, restore us once again to a fuller thankfulness and reception of a deep benediction (371-375):

It was as though these high walls of Carrara [with its veins of marble], the western boundary of the valley [of Sillano itself], had been been shaped expressly for man, in order to exalt him with unexpected…shapes, and to expand his dull life with a permanent surprise. For a long time I gazed at these hills.

Then, more silent in the mind through their influence, I went down past the speech and companionship of the springs of the Serchio [River], and the chestnut trees were redolent of evening all around….Down still more gently through the narrow upper valley [of the Apennines] I went between the chestnut trees, and calm was my companion; and the love of men and the expectation of good seemed natural to all that had been made in this blessed place…..I passed by a wider path through the groves, and entered the dear village of Sillano, which looks right into the pure west. And the peaks [of the Apennines] are guardians all about it: the elder brothers of this remote and secluded valley.

An inn received me: a great kitchen full of men and women talking, a supper preparing, a great fire, meat smoking and drying in the ingle-nook, a vast timbered roof going up into darkness: there I was courteously received, but no one understood my language. Seeing there a young priest [“Presbytur sum” (373)], I said to him [in four lines of Belloc’s clear Latin—“Pater, habeo linguam latinam, sed non habeo linguam Italicam….” and about Belloc’s admitted need for a translator]. To this he replied “Libenter” [“Gladly”], and the people revered us both. (371-372—my emphasis added)

The immediately following and closely related presentation of “The Transfigured Valley” and “On Youth” (373-375)—which are to this writer both especially beautiful, as well as profound—may also remind us of an earlier passage (130-131) in The Path to Rome: on “The Erroneous Anarchist,” which also shows us the deep and sympathetic heart of Belloc the man. He will prepare and introduce the reader to the exiled anarchist with some comments and appreciations of wine:

As it was I entered Porrentruy soberly….I began to think of food and wine. I went to find the very first small guest-house I could find, and asked if they could serve me food….They could give me nothing but bread, yesterday’s meat, and wine….I paid before I ate….I say I paid. And had I had to pay twenty or twenty-three times as much it would have been worth it for the wine.

I am hurrying on to Rome, and I have no time to write a [Virgilian] georgic. But, oh! my little friends of the north;…do you know what is meant by the god [Bacchus]? Bacchus is everywhere, but if he has special sites to be ringed in and kept sacred, I say let there be Brulé, and the silent vineyard that lies under the square wood by Tournus…and this town of Porrentruy.

What a wine!

I was assured that it [the Porrentruy wine] would not travel. “Nevertheless, “ said I, “give me a good quart bottle of it, for I have to go far, and I see there is a providence for pilgrims.”…And I took my bottle of this wonderful stuff, sweet, strong, sufficient, part of the earth, desirable, and went up on my way to Rome.

Could this book be infinite, as my voyage was infinite, I would tell you about the shifty priest whom I met on the platform where a cliff overhands the valley, and of the Anarchist whom I met when [with my good wine] I recovered the highroad. (128-130—my emphasis added)

Then Belloc compassionately proceeds to tell us about this very same Anarchist:

He was a sad, good man, who had committed some sudden crime and so had left France, and his hankering for France all those years had soured his temper, and he said he wished there were no property, no armies, and no governments.

But I said we live as parts of a nation, and that there was no fate so wretched as to be without a country of one’s own—what else was exile which so many noble men have thought worse than death, and which all have feared? I also told him that armies fighting in a just cause were the happiest places for living, and that a good battle for justice was the beginning of all great songs; and a man on his own land was the nearest to God.

He therefore not convinced, and I loving and pitying him, we separated; I had no time to preach my full doctrine, but gave him instead a deep and misty glass of cool beer, and pledged him brotherhood, freedom, and an equal law. Then I went on my way, praying God that all these rending quarrels might be appeased. For they would certainly be appeased if we once again had a united doctrine in Europe, since economics are but the expression of the mind and do not (as the poor blind slaves of the great cities think) mould [mold] the mind….I will pray for all poor men when I get to St. Peter’s in Rome. (130-131—my emphasis added)

Then Belloc adds a searching insight about the Seven Capital Sins, the Seven Deadly Sins: “What is more, nothing makes property run into a few hands [organized, oligarchic hands] but the worst of the capital sins….(131) We think at once of pride, envy, avarice, sloth, lust, gluttony, and wrath.

We may also be refreshed by Hilaire Belloc’s words about “The Morning Mass” (46-48) and its fitting place on his Pilgrimage: “For what is a pilgrimage in which a man cannot hear a Mass every morning?” (46)

Our beloved Belloc immediately added:

Of all the things I have read about St. Louis [King Louis IX] which make me wish I had known him to speak to, nothing seems to me more delightful than his habit of getting Mass daily whenever he marched south [as on the Crusades, or nearby]. (46)


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a 1936 replica of the first edition of 1902, but now with a retrospective, new 1936 preface by Belloc himself). All references will henceforth be to this 1936 edition, and the page references will be placed in parentheses above in the body of this essay.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s