The Saint

On a Sunday in the summer of 2010, on a bike trip in the south east of Belgium, Anya and I stopped for the night in the city of Diest. Late in the afternoon we went for a walk around it’s beautiful old centre dating from the early Middle Ages.

Everything was closed and the streets deserted except for one place: a small shrine cum museum. It was over 400 years old and dedicated to a young man who in the early 17th century had walked to Rome on a pilgrimage. It was a hard journey; on the way he was attacked by a bear and badly injured; he had kept going, only to be robbed and beaten by thieves. Recovered, though badly injured, he had continued the journey until he reached The Holy City, where he had died shortly afterwards.

His name was Jan Berchmans (pronounced ‘yan bergmanz’) and he would have been forgotten, slipped into the mists of history, had not been for his being canonized by the Pope. This changed everything. For centuries afterwards, Diest became the destination of pilgrims from all over Belgium. Saint Jan Berchmans was worshipped en masse with ceremonies led by the local Bishops.

In recent times however, Saint Jan Berchmans had been relegated to obscurity.

The caretaker of the shrine was probably fairly typical of the prevailing attitudes:  

‘Why he was made a saint? He hadn’t performed any miracles. All  he did was walk to Rome. These days you can drive to Rome in a day! The Vatican would probably like to annul his sainthood, but it can’t really, it would set a bit of precedent….’

The memory of visiting the shrine of Saint Jan slipped into the past, lost amongst a welter of other travel experiences, until October this year when it suddenly surfaced again, this time in a very different area of Europe….

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The Two Cities Called ‘Riga’ Part 1

In May this year, when Anya and I flew to Riga, the capital of Latvia, it was to experience a part of the world where we had never been before.

Due to the unprecedented number of people travelling this year in Europe, flights o Riga were heavily booked. After a fair bit of cross checking, Anya was able to find two return flights to Riga on the Dutch airline Transavia, but there was no choice in determining the duration of our stay: just over two weeks. In the time we had, we were limited in how much of Latvia we would be able to see, given that the country was one and a half times bigger than The Netherlands and, that we travelled slowly.   

After the collapse of Russian communism in 1990, when the Baltic states gained their freedom after 45 years of Russian occupation, Riga became a popular party/drinking/sex tourism destination for groups of British men. Cheap booze, grub and women: Mecca for the lads. Over the years, their illustrious ranks were joined by other groups of ‘lads’ from various other countries. In 2023, their ranks were joined by a surge of post Covid package tourists most of them on cruise ships (‘From Riga Passenger Port it’s a 15-minute walk to Riga’s Old Town with its main tourist attractions!’).

Our walks around town revealed a really quite charming area with a surfeit of historic architecture, open squares and cobblestone streets. However the fascination one might normally experience in a city like was replaced by a stealing of glimpses, this whilst manoeuvring amongst the thronging masses. So too, the groups of men, drunk and noisy, hardly made for a conducive atmosphere.

When we left Riga, it was with a sigh of relief. I was glad to see the last of the place.

Never could I have imagined then that two weeks later I might view it with different eyes….that there were two cities which went by the same name….…..

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Culture Shock!

After months of travelling in Egypt followed by India, Anya and I flew from Mumbai to Adelaide.

Arriving at Adelaide International Airport early on a Sunday morning, we caught the bus into the city centre and then got on a train from Adelaide central station to Seaford, a suburb on the coast 35 kilometres south of the city.

The trip took an hour – it stopped at every station on the way.

The train was new, high tech. The entire rail system had been recently rebuilt and electrified. In the inner city areas, the old English stations, constructed at the same time as the Raj were constructing similar railway stations all over India, had been renovated or entirely rebuilt.

Inside the train, everything was so clean, so modern. The seats were covered in modern fabric. Most of them were empty. There were only a few people in our carriage probably recovering from a long night of drinking (and marihuana or meth).

I found myself was wrestling with culture shock…..but this was my country wasn’t it? Leastways the country I’d been born in and where I’d spent most of childhood and youth….yet I found myself in a place which now seemed like a foreign land…………..

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Patagonian Journey

It was raining when we got on the local bus leaving Puerto Monte (population 200,000) for the small town of Hornopiren (pop 1, 200). It had been raining for  four days and there seemed no end to it.  

Puerto Monte marks the northernmost point of Patagonia – Cape Horn at the end of Tierra Del Fuego – the southernmost.

The bus ascended into mist enshrouded mountains. A section of the mountain road had been buried under a landslide and whilst workers had cleared the road, our bus moved at a crawl.

The four hour trip to Hornopiren – with a ferry trip on the way – took longer.

Darkness was descending as we arrived…..

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As an atheist, I do not believe in God.

However, as a traveller, I’m interested in God. 

It is important to me to know something about the major forces which define people’s lives in the countries I visit: the politics and economics for example – as well as what they believe in. After all, most human beings on our planet believe in God – or at least, some kind of existence after death.

Travelling for me then is a way of learning as well as reflecting on what I’ve seen. Mulling over the why’s and wherefores of the lot of our human species in all its breathtaking variations. 

In April this year Anya and I flew to Perugia in the province of Umbria in Italy, with the plan of walking and visiting historic towns. We began and ended our Umbrian journey in Assisi.

It was during our time in this well-known historic town that I acquainted myself with the famous Catholic Saint Francis born in Assisi in the 12th century and founder of the Franciscan order – and which led to Assisi becoming a major pilgrimage destination not only for Italians, but also Christians from all over Europe.

Today though, there was not a pilgrim to be seen. Only tourists. What had happened? Why had the Christian religion lost its hold in a country that was home to the Vatican and the Papacy?

And following up that story, a basic realisation occurred to me: religion, in whatever incarnation, is rarely an immutable ideology.

How it is worshipped and what it means for its followers changes in time, no better example than the rise and fall of Saint Francis and the Fransican Order…..

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