They have only 15 days to tackle 1,000km, so start their pilgrimage in the Alps, just before the Swiss-Italian border. But will this journey of a lifetime change the way they think about themselves and their beliefs?
Actors Les Dennis and Lesley Joseph, professional dancer Brendan Cole, comedians Stephen K Amos and Katy Brand, Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford, Irish Eurovision Song contest winner Dana and television presenter Mehreen Baig will live as modern-day pilgrims. They’ll stay in basic hostels, sleep in shared dorms, and follow a largely untrodden route, which is currently in the throes of revival.
With just over two weeks to complete their pilgrimage, the eight pilgrims will walk sections of the Via, and travel some of the route by minibus. When they reach the final 100km, they will have to walk every step of the way.
In this first episode, the intrepid eight arrive in Martigny, Switzerland and find out for the first time who will be sharing their pilgrim adventure. They make their way by mountain train to the start of their pilgrimage in Orsieres, high up in the Swiss Alps. The Via is based on a journey taken to Rome in 990AD by Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury, which crosses the Alps at 2500m and goes over the Great St Bernard Pass. Like Napoleon, his 40,000 strong army, and the pilgrims before them, the group also have to make their way up the challenging mountain path.
Despite Greg’s help, the unfit and inexperienced members of the group – Dana (a practicing catholic), Lesley (Jewish, but doesn’t strictly follow her faith) and Katy (who was an evangelical Christian in her teens) – are defeated by the severity of the climb. Those who make it to the top can only admire how pilgrims before them battled their way through Death Valley, especially in the winter months when the pass is covered by 15 metres of snow. Lesley, Dana and Katy meet the famous St Bernard dogs which for centuries helped monks, who lived in the monastery at the pass, to rescue stranded and dying pilgrims.
Late that afternoon, they cross into Italy and reach their hostel. It’s very basic accommodation and the pilgrims have to make the best of it – even Mehreen (a committed Muslim) who has never even used a sleeping bag before. In the morning, Greg (a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness) comes to realize that his decision to sleep outdoors at altitude, in a plastic igloo, wasn’t such a good idea. At the hostel, the group are given their pilgrim passports, which need to be stamped wherever they stop along the way, before they pack up and start moving south.
On the road, Lesley, Greg, Mehreen and Stephen, who hopes this journey will be one of discovery, approach the small town of Tromello. They’re greeted by 80 year-old Carlo, who takes it upon himself to cycle the fields, searching out passing pilgrims. At the pilgrim office they learn of his passion about history and the Via, before he shows them the local church dedicated to San Rocco, the patron saint of pilgrims. There he unveils his extraordinary find – a medieval fresco, hidden away in the cleaning cupboard.
The group stay that night in Orio Litta, a popular stop for pilgims. Les, who’s not clear what he thinks about faith, and atheist Brendan, meet a fellow British pilgrim, Tom. He’s a young doctor from London, and is walking the entire route from Canterbury. While Tom talks of the benefits of spending time alone and away from the fast track of life, Brendan mulls over how difficult he finds solitude.
The following day they walk to the nearby river to find Danilo, the ferryman. He’s also passionate about the Via and its revival, and takes the pilgrims across the River Po by boat, to his home. In the courtyard Dana spots a shrine to Mary, and speaks for the first time in front of the group about being a practicing Catholic. Les asks whether her faith has ever been shaken, as the pilgrimage is beginning to make him think about his own mother, who lost her Catholic faith when she was rejected by the church.
Pictured above are Les Dennis and Lesley Joseph at Martigny train station.