Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome

Lesley Joseph

The whole journey, the whole experience was so unlike anything I think any of us had ever done before and ever will do again.Lesley Joseph
Date: 05.04.2019     Last updated: 05.04.2019 at 16.55
Category: BBC Two; Factual

Why did you decide to join the pilgrimage?

To be absolutely honest, because I'd never been to Rome and because I just thought to walk into Rome on an old pilgrim’s route would be amazing. I love history and to strip back the centuries and walk through the countryside that the pilgrims would have walked through - and some of it was really, really ancient forest land - and then to walk to the Vatican through Rome, just excited me beyond belief. It wasn't so much a religious thing, it was more that I wanted to walk the pilgrimage route to Rome and see Rome the way they would've seen it whenever. When they first asked me to take part, I couldn't sleep for two nights. I literally couldn't go to sleep. I was just imagining what it would be like to walk to Rome - it was a really exciting prospect for me. I was beyond excited.

Had you heard of that route before?

I had heard of the Santiago de Compostela, but I hadn't heard of the Via Francigena. It's a less known route, but it is one of the main routes, and I think they're trying to regenerate it now to get people interested in doing it again. And actually, if you'd said to me, which would you rather do, this would be the one, firstly because you're walking into Rome, and secondly because you see less people on it. The experience of getting away from modern life and your phone and just walking an ancient route, meeting hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims along the way along way, in the middle of nowhere, was amazing. I think this series will generate a lot of interest for the Via Francigena.

Have you ever done anything like this before?

I've not done a pilgrimage but I love walking. I've never slept in a different bed for 16 nights. I've never met the Pope. It was sort of a load of firsts really. When you're in your 70s, the idea of sleeping in bunk beds, in sleeping bags every night is not the sort of ideal combination but it was a great experience. It was wonderful.

How would you sum up the whole experience?


Did you prepare in advance for the pilgrimage?

I did train for quite a few weeks beforehand, walking and carrying things on my back. The most important thing was to buy good walking boots. I got the best of everything, including great Nordic walking poles that folded up. I got brilliant boots and then I tried to walk five miles a day to train. I bought a Fitbit so I knew how many steps and kilometres I had done. I didn't just suddenly go and think, oh, I'll be fine. I can walk to Rome. I did go out and actually try very hard to make sure I got as fit as I could be.

What's the farthest you walked in one day ?

I think we did 16, 17, 18 miles in one day. I had certainly never walked that much before.

It sounds like you are really fit

Well, I think I am. I had just come out Young Frankenstein, the Mel Brookes play, which was a completely different experience, but I used to walk to the West End and home again. I did as much walking as I could. Plus the adrenalin pushes you on, especially when you're with a group of people, sharing an experience. It was fine.

Were you in agony after each day.

No, not at all. It was great. Katy, bless her, had problems with her blisters, but my legs were great - we stretched a lot and I was fit as a flea.

Did you find it challenging or fun?

It was challenging, it was fun, it was thought provoking, it was interesting. It was so many things. It was challenging because we didn’t really get a brilliant night's sleep the whole time we were there. It was thought provoking because a lot of people spoke about religion or about their spirituality or had discussions about life. You're outside your comfort zone, but on the other hand you find a new comfort zone and it was good doing it with people who got on incredibly well. It just sort of ticked so many life boxes, especially when we were told we would be having an audience with the Pope. It was a complete mixed bag as far as religion was concerned but you're talking about this huge leader of the Catholic church.

Tell me about your meeting with the Pope

We had half an hour with him and I made him laugh and I blessed him. We were all crying by the end. It was extraordinary. The whole journey, the whole experience was so unlike anything I think any of us had ever done before and ever will do again. It’s carved on my heart now as being one of those experiences that I will tell people for the rest of my life.

What would you say the highlight of your Pilgrimage was?

I think one of the highlights was walking through ancient forests where very few people walked, where you couldn't get cars or cameras into. Trees fell and just lay where they fell and to get over streams, you had to walk over logs. That that was a complete highlight and we would just look around and say: “Oh my God, I just can't believe how beautiful this is.” And then the other highlights were spending half an hour in the Vatican and also receiving our testimonials in Latin, to say that we'd walked the last hundred kilometres into Rome, passing the Swiss Guard. Going 'backstage' at the Vatican was an extraordinary experience for us all, regardless of our thoughts on religion, whatever our religion was, whatever our feelings were about the Pope.

What do you think was the hardest part?

I think probably the sleep was the hardest part as we really had to get a good night's sleep to make sure that we could walk but it was all too exciting just to go to bed every night at nine o'clock. There were some days where I was so tired, I thought: "Oh my God, can I do this?" And, and of course once I started walking, it was fine because energy creates energy. Brendan and Greg were wonderful because if anybody was ever limping at the back, they would be there helping them up and pushing them along. They were obviously the two fittest people - Brendon being a dancer and Greg an athlete and we got a lot of good advice from them about what to eat and when to eat and what protein we needed and how to eat to give ourselves energy. Greg especially was really useful, telling us how to stretch, how to warm up, whether to warm up or not. He took us through the physicality of it all, being an Olympic champion. They were absolutely fantastic to be with.

Are you a practicing Jew?

No, not really. I am Jewish and I do feel Jewish and identify with being Jewish. Most people would say that unless you live a Jewish life then you're not a real Jew. My mother was Jewish, so I'm Jewish. However, I don't live a Jewish life except on the day of Atonement, when I always try and go to synagogue and fast. I love that day. 

What is it you love about that day?

I love it because it's a day when Jews all over the world are spending the day fasting and thinking about life and asking apologies for their sins and to try and live a better life. It's a very holy day and I like spending it in a synagogue with people of a similar faith - I've always done that since I was a child. So that's the tradition I do like to keep but I get a bit upset if I can't do it because I feel like I’ve missed something huge if I miss that day.

Did the experience on the pilgrimage change or add to your faith?

No. I didn’t get to the end and suddenly think I want to become a Catholic, or I want to be Church of England or I'm giving up Judaism. It was just interesting. We did meet a few people along the way who talked about religion immediately which was a strange experience as well because you tend not to have those conversations.

Does it make you think differently about religion at all?

It made me quite proud to be Jewish when I got to the end, not because of any other reason, but that I am Jewish and I feel Jewish and I felt Jewish. I would go in to a church, which is a holy place, and light a candle to remember my mother who died at 103 and spend a few minutes thinking of my parents. It was two minutes contemplation in a quiet place where you get away from the madness of the world. And I think that was the thing that I felt more than anything on this pilgrimage - it took us out of the day to day things that we always do, away from people we knew, from our families and we created another family for the length of that pilgrimage. It was all consuming and incredibly heart-warming, to have built a multifaith family from all of us. When we got to the end, everybody who was, mixed faith, had become a sort of pilgrimage family. 

Was it was a bonding experience for all of you?

Completely and utterly. We were eight people, all ages, all faiths, all stages of careers, most of whom I knew before we went. We spent 16 days in each other's company and were closer at the end than we were at the beginning. To have walked every day, be on the top of mountains, sleep in different beds every night, meeting people along the way and then to walk into Rome and have an audience with the Pope - all of that was unlike anything I've ever experienced anywhere and will ever experience again. Everyone looked out for everybody else. And if somebody was suffering, we were all there for each other and that was wonderful actually. We still feel that.

Did you find that you were talking mostly about religion?

We had completely in depth conversations and they would go on to the early hours of the morning. I can't remember what we talked about - a lot of wine was consumed but we didn't have frivolous conversations at all. They were quite deep conversations. I went to bed earlier than a lot of them obviously because I'm much older than most of them but conversations went on all day, every day.

Do you think the experience has changed you as a person in any way?

Yes. I do. Sleeping in a sleeping bag on a not very comfortable mattress in a dormitory is not my idea of where I particularly want to be spending the night. But I really enjoyed it. I think what I learned was that you have to embrace every new experience and out of it you'll learn you might not like it. You might absolutely love it. It might be one of the best experiences of your life. And if you don't open your arms and put your heart in it, you're not going to really get the benefit out of it. I think that's what everybody did on this. They just went through it. They just said fantastic, we're here, we're a family. We supported each other to get from here to Rome, and we did it together.  What I learned was not to fear things but to embrace new experiences.

Do you really think that everybody embraced it as much as you did?

Yeah, I do. Maybe they would say not, but I actually think so. I don't think there was anybody that thought: "I wish I hadn't done this," or: "I didn't like half the people on it." We were incredibly lucky. Everybody bonded really well. There were no arguments or falling out. It wasn't like going into the Big Brother house where one person is pitted against another. It was none of that. It was just about walking to Rome.

Can you just describe to me what it was like to meet the Pope?

We never knew we were having an audience with the Pope and it was the most unique experience of my life. We were told by the British ambassador to the Vatican to introduce ourselves to The Pope and to just say our names. I was the second person who the Pope came to and for some reason my voice got incredibly low and I went incredibly actressy and I sort of said: “Oh, hello, your holiness. My name is Lesley, Lesley Joseph. I'm 72 and I'm an actress and I just walked a hundred kilometres on the Via Francigena and I feel incredibly rejuvenated, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.” At which point he laughed and he said: “You don't look 72.” Then he went on, Greg Rutherford was next to me and he thought, oh, God, how do I follow that monologue. So he said: “Hello Greg Rutherford, Olympic champion.” So we went round and then we had half an hour talking to him. And then at the end, he came round and he hugged us, he kissed us, he gave us each a medal, from the 2,000 he had printed to celebrate six years in the papacy. When he got to me, he hugged me, kissed me, he gave me the medal and then he laughed again and said: “You still don't look 72.” At which point I said: “Oh, bless you.” And then I suddenly realised I'd blessed the Pope! Honestly, I swear to God, you couldn't make it up. It was quite an extraordinary meeting.

Did you feel starstruck?

It was extraordinary. I think whatever your religion, whatever your feelings about the Pope or what Catholicism stands for or doesn't, you are still meeting somebody who is probably the leader of billions of people all over the world. And to have that one to one - to actually hug him and kiss him and make him laugh was just extraordinary. It's certainly something I would never forget.

Would you do another pilgrimage?

I'd love to get a group of friends together for another pilgrimage as a way of walking and getting away from modern life, as an antidote to modern life because it's wonderful. You don't have a phone signal, you don't have comfortable hotels, you don't have luxury. You don't have little cafes you can stop in, although you do pass through some towns but it's not the life that you've come from, so I would do it again.