Solitude, liberating, self reliant, mindful, poetry is how Laura Rust describes Via Francigena, the journey of 1100km from Zurich to Rome on foot.
For Mellon’s Bay resident Laura and her partner Stephen who accompanied her for the first 250km of the journey, it was an exercise in endurance, desperation and gratitude coupled with the intimacy of being with oneself.
Laura doesn’t think much of the bleeding feet, blisters and the times she got hopelessly lost- and thought she would be a bag of bones if she didn’t find her way out.
In medieval times, Via Francigena was an important pilgrimage route through England, France, Switzerland and Italy for those wishing to see the Holy See and the tombs of the apostles of Peter and Paul.
Laura, who works with Totara Hospice, resigned from her job to take the 46-day epic journey.
The route she followed on foot started at Lausanne and mapped its way through Aosta, Vercelli, Piacenza, Lucca, Siena, Viterbo and ended in Rome.
It involved covering a mountains pass, endless fields, beaches, cathedrals, towns and cities on foot.
Last year, she did the 800km Camino Santiago pilgrimage.
“Though I have been baptised, I am not a religious person. However, there is something deeply spiritual about slow travel and just using your legs and your mind to walk through countries,” says the 54-year-old.
Not the kind of person who holidays-by-the-pool, Laura has done the cycle trails of New Zealand as well as the Tongariro Crossing and the Te Araroa trail from Cape Reinga in the North to Bluff in the South.
In comparison to Camino that offers a lot of accommodation and food options, she says that Via Francigena is rougher.
“It’s authentic as it challenges you physically and spiritually. Metaphorically speaking, it’s like looking for your daily bread.”
On a more contemplative note, she says, “I believe that suffering truly unites humanity and you can connect with people at a deeper level. There was no pretence as we are stripped off our layers.”
Sharing stories with fellow pilgrims was part of the challenging journey.
“All of us have been damaged in some way. Some people come to recover, some of them are searching for God, which sounds a bit cliché,” she laughs.
“There was a 60-year-old man who was grieving for his elderly parents and there was this young man who didn’t feel he met the definition of a pilgrim.”
A former nurse who worked in the intensive care unit, Laura says that death and dying were a great motivation to be truly alive and healthy.
“I work with the dying and one of the people at Hospice told me to pray for him along the way, and I did,”
The road is rough and you don’t always see things that please you, she says. There was a lot of rubbish and sick animals in Italy.
“It’s like seeing behind the fence. And that propels me to contribute to the world.
“Greater the misery, greater the victory,” she smiles.
Walking around 25km a day with 12kg on her back she paced herself well, though there were days when the temperature hit 40 degrees.
So how does she feel like now that she has completed an epic pilgrimage?
“Your pilgrimage never ends,” she says. “For some people it starts when you return to normality. You start applying the changes you need to make.”
In the meanwhile she is reading up on Via Egnatia that runs though Albania, Macedonia to Istanbul and could end in Jerusalem.