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….

Read more



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…..

Read more

Palermo Part 1

After 5 weeks of travelling in Southern Italy, I ended my trip in Palermo, Sicily, where I was due to get on a flight to Rotterdam. On arriving there, I wandered from the bus station down a busy road, looking for a place to stay the night. Most of the hotels were booked out. I finally found a small hotel in a narrow side lane off the main road.

I didn´t know anything about Palermo and it didn´t matter; it was a stop on the way to the airport. But Palermo turned out to be far more than that.

It was memorable experience – and a quintessential Italian experience. 

And it all happened within 24 hours………..

  Read more

Palermo Part 2


He started on it not me.

Organised crime.  

It caught my attention alright. I had an interest in the subject but had assumed that I would never meet an Italian with whom I could discuss it.

Now on my last hours in Italy there he was before me.

A stranger sitting at the same table as me one morning in the dining room of a small hotel near the centre of Palermo.

And as we made small talk and I found out that he spoke such good English because he was born in the U.S. – and furthermore, was an accountant, I knew then that this was the opportunity I’d been waiting for ……

  Read more