The important thing in life is not to triumph but to compete.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin – founder of the Olympic Movement
Today was an epic day! Fantastic scenery around the shores of Lake Geneva, a blog post all nicely worked out and then a radical reworking of my planned itinerary and a hugely uplifting meeting with a complete stranger that encapsulates for me what going on a pilgrimage is all about!
Leaving the youth hostel in Lausanne I was immediately in the midst of the old Roman port of Lousonna. The Roman museum in Lausanne is literally next door to the Youth Hostel!
Tempting though it is to launch into a lengthy monograph about Lausanne in Roman times, I’m going to post the relevant details from the informative notice board instead!
Shortly afterwards I was face to face with Lausanne’s most famous son – Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games.
Pierre de Coubertin is widely credited with being the founder of the modern Olympic movement. You can’t really step foot in Lausanne without being reminded of this fact. But there is a compelling case to be made for somebody else as the originator of the modern Olympic Games. His name was William Penny Brooke’s and he inaugurated his version of the Olympic Games in the unlikely setting of Much Wenlock in 1866, some 30 years before the Olympuc Games were revived in Athens on 1896.
Much Wenlock is home to the Wenlock Olympian Games. These famous games and Dr. William Penny Brookes, the founder, are thought to have inspired the modern Olympic Games that began in 1896, only 6 years after Baron Pierre de Coubertin (the founder of the International Olympic Committee) visited the Games.
In 1850, Dr. William Penny Brookes (pictured above, image by kind permission of the Wenlock Olympian Society) founded the Wenlock Olympian Class (later called the Wenlock Olympian Society). It held its first games in the same year. The games included a mixture of traditional games such as football and cricket, athletics, and an event to entertain the spectators – this once included an Old Women’s Race and a Blindfolded Wheelbarrow Race!. A band-led procession led officials, competitors and flag bearers down the streets of Much Wenlock to the field where the games would be held.
The games went from strength to strength attracting many competitors from all around England. Brookes insisted that the games would not exclude any able-bodied man from the games. This caused many to criticise the games – and Brookes – saying that rioting and unacceptable behaviour would occur. Instead the games were a huge success!
In 1859, Brookes heard that the first Athens modern Olympian Games were to take place and sent £10 on behalf of the Wenlock Olympic Society and the Wenlock Prize was awarded to the winner of the “long” or “sevenfold” race.
The Wenlock Olympian Games became very popular, and in 1861 the Shropshire Olympian Games were founded. The games were held in different towns each year and it is from the Shropshire Olympian Games that the modern Olympics are thought to have taken the idea of host towns (or cities and countries in modern days) to take responsibility for the financing of the games.
Brookes, John Hulley of Liverpool and Ernst Ravenstein of the German Gymnasium in London set about founding the National Olympian Association. It held its first festival in 1866 at the Crystal Palace. The festival was a huge success and attracted 10,000 spectators and competitors, including W.G Grace who won the 440 yard hurdles.
So there you have it, the modern Olympic Games owes as much to Much Wenlock as it does to Lausanne and Baron Pierre de Coubertin!
Lake Geneva is an enchanting place. As I left Lausanne in the shimmering early morning sunlight, it wasn’t difficult to understand why such luminaries as Robert Byron, TS Eliot and Edward Gibbon had made a bee line for these shores.
For most of the day’s walk, Lake Geneva provided the enchanting backdrop. Neither the walking nor the navigation were particularly challenging. It was a stark contrast to the previous 8 week’s walking!
I saw families bathing in the chilly waters of Lake Geneva and somebody assiduously training her spaniel on the beach!
There were a couple of enchanting moments that caught my eye en route to Vevey. An elderly couple, hand in hand, walking slowly along the path in front of me. A flock of starlings that appeared miraculously in front of me, just as I was wrestling with the logistics of possibly finishing this year’s walk at the Grand Saint Bernard Abbey rather than Martigny.
When I did eventually reach Vevey, I wasn’t disappointed. The town had an ageless elegance about it. Even the post modern sculptures struck an unlikely cord with me!
Charlie Chaplin lived in Vevey for a number of years and is commemorated with a statue. Just as I was looking for somebody to take my photo next to Charlie, but who should appear but Margaret (originally from London) and her Swiss husband, Otto who kindly agreed to take my photo and ( if I so wished) give me a lift to the Grand Saint Bernard Pass!
Vevey had the feeling of an upmarket resort on the French Riviera. Flâneurs were out in abundance enjoying the autumnal sunshine. I was sorely tempted to take an hour off for lunch and indulge in a Cornetto!
I’d originally booked to stay the night at the YHA at Montreux but when I arrived there was something tawdry and unappealing about the place. It could have been the whiff of money that surround the casinos and luxury hotels that dominate the town. I decided to press on to Villeneuve and enjoy a final night under canvas.
En route to Villeneuve I passed the castle of Chillon, immortalised by Turner who painted it in 1802. In the far distance can be seen the ‘Dents du Midi’ the seven pronged mountain peaks that are said to resemble the teeth of a saw.
When I arrived in Villeneuve, the decision to shun the bright lights of Montreux in favour of a night under canvas at Villeneuve, seemed like an inspired choice. Another opportunity for me to savour the joys of sleeping mats and one season sleeping bags. I just prayed that we weren’t in store for another sharp ground frost!
I was originally going to devote a lengthy section of today’s blog to my relationship with my father when I was growing up. But then Patrick appeared over supper and kiboshed those plans. ‘A Voyage Around my Father’ will have to wait for tomorrow!
As I was preparing supper (two spaghetti carbonara portions in the campsite microwave oven) a rather lugubrious figure entered the communal eating area and proceeded to watch an episode of ‘Dragon’s Den’ on his mobile phone.
As I ate my spaghetti carbonara, we struck up conversation, initially about the origin of religion and subsequently about my and his journey to Villeneuve. In a way it epitomised all the best aspects about going on a pilgrimage.
Patrick was a carpenter from a small village in the south of the Netherlands. Suffering from depression, he had decided to take a sabbatical to travel around Switzerland and rediscover his Zeitgeist.
Patrick was no normal guy. For starters he was 1.98m tall, which made me look like a midget. He was also remarkably open about his own struggles with depression and self esteem. Rather than wallowing in self misery he had decided to take his future in his own hands, quitting his job as a carpenter, learning how to become a software programmer and going on a 4 week road trip around Switzerland.
Villeneuve had been the place in Switzerland where he had received the warmest welcome and the least adverse judgement about his state of mind. He confessed that he’d been so impressed by some of the people he’d met in Villeneuve, that he’d spent some considerable time helping out on the local grape harvest. His back had suffered but his mind had prospered.
We must have chatted away for a couple of hours, swapping travellers’ tales and talking about our own childhood experiences of depression. It was such an uplifting and unexpected evening and in so many ways encapsulated the joy of random uplifting encounters on pilgrimage with complete strangers.
As I said goodbye to Patrick, told him to believe in himself, and wished him the best for the future, I reflected that it had been a good decision to avoid the sterile isolation of a night in the Montreux Youth Hostel in favour of an evening at ‘Les Horizons Bleus’ campsite at Villeneuve in the company of a Dutch carpenter called Patrick.