Sara Wheeler

Via dolorosa

Hoping to beat his inner demons, Guy Stagg sets out on pilgrimage, taking refuge with strangers or sleeping in convents, monasteries and mosques

Via dolorosa
Text settings

The Crossway

Guy Stagg

Picador, pp. 400, £

Guy Stagg walked 5,500 km from Canterbury to Jerusalem, following medieval pilgrim paths, and he records the expedition in The Crossway. It was a journey from darkness to light, as the author, who suffers from mental illness, looked for redemption. It was also a considerable feat, especially as Stagg proclaims lugubriously at the outset: ‘I’m not much of a walker!’

He stayed in convents, monasteries, in his tent, in disused schools or the homes of strangers, and, later, in mosques. He crossed the Alps in winter in order to make Rome for Easter, and it took him six days to clear the Apennines. On the trail, he reflectsa good deal on what he has been through — a breakdown, suicide attempts, the nature of mental illness. ‘Though I hoped to walk free of my sickness,’ he says, ‘its memories still haunted me.’ Good and bad happens on the way; he gets ill, physically as well as mentally. The narrative of the book follows the modulation of the author’s moods.

An atheist with a deep sense of the spiritual, Stagg several times compares his motives for escaping the world for almost a year with that of the monks and holy men he meets. It is a fertile topic. Direct speech salts many pages and individual stories form a thread that runs throughout the book; it helps that Stagg speaks French and Italian and picks up Turkish en route. Chunks of history are nicely handled, from the Cathars to Bohemian revolutionaries, and, notably, the First Crusade.

Stagg travels through 11 countries, if you include Britain. He sees the Pope appear in Rome and includes a history of pilgrimage to the Eternal City and the meaning of the Stations of the Cross, but gets claustrophobic in the crowds and has to leave town. Later, he has an attack of anxiety in Albania and senses he is threatened. He then heads to Macedonia and Lake Ohrid, once the holiest city in the Balkans, and has another Easter there, this time an Orthodox one. Having battled the cold, heat becomes his enemy.

In Greece, he stays in Florina for a week with an old friend and her family — the only break he has really. An alcoholic episode leads to a lost weekend in Thessaloniki (booze has been a factor in earlier troubles). Sickness strikes in the cliff-top monasteries of Meteora and Stagg leaves the pilgrimage route, a decision he comes to regret. But he enjoys Mount Athos and stays in a different monastery every night. Sometimes he walks 42 km in a day.

The author questions himself constantly, and often fears that the whole idea of his pilgrimage is ‘a misguided act of faith’. In Istanbul, he fears another breakdown and decides to go home — then changes his mind. He gets caught up in the Taksim Square drama and is gassed several times. He meets friends and spends three unplanned weeks there — it gives his feet a rest, but tear gas isn’t relaxation.

Stagg is a fine topographical writer — and a new one: this is his first book. ‘There was no colour in the sky,’ he writes about the glacial winter plains of southern Marne, ‘nor in the bedded fields; nothing but starched sheets of white stretching from track to horizon, shapeless except for the earth’s contour like the mound and fold of a human body.’ Tuscan hills are ‘hatched with cypresses’. He switches skillfully all the way through the book, from a wide-angle to the close-up shot. In a Turkish forest his tread sets off a ‘snickering stream of pine needles’.

Civil war in Syria demanded a change of route. ‘I no longer believed the pilgrimage would heal me,’ he writes at this point, ‘but abandoning the journey would fix nothing.’ The Anatolian plateau turned out to be ‘the loneliest stretch’, but in Turkey he received exceptional hospitality. He walks the width of Cyprus, crossing at 1,000 metres to avoid the heat. The Templars get a good airing here. In Lebanon, his travels are shadowed by the ‘threat of war’; he has to take a plane to Amman, and continues on to Israel, where he walks a chain of footpaths called the Israel National Trail, south through Galilee, west towards the coast, south again to Tel Aviv and finally inland to Jerusalem.

The journey as redemptive recovery is a well-worn trope, but there is no glib ending here. I really enjoyed this book.