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Brian's Diary
Life in Geneva and other places
The program continues to be gentle often with time for some walks in the afternoon. Here are a couple of scenes from my long walk along the sea shore towards Greystones. The recent storm that prevented my early arrival in Ireland has obviously caused some alarming damage to the coastline as one of the photos demonstrates.

I met a local who expressed concern about what was happening, and who pointed out that if it continues the nearby railway line will be in danger of being undermined. I suspect the well documented rising sea-levels are contributing to the problem.

On Saturday, St Patrick's Day, a group of us wandered down to the main street to observe the St Patricks Day parade. It was a very informal and delightful community celebration with most community groups marching. It seemed that half of the town was taking part with the other half looking on!

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Arrived here in Wicklow last weekend. My initial flight which was scheduled for the preceding Thursday was cancelled due the extreme weather conditions. That was fortunate as had I made it to Dublin I would probably have been stuck at the airport for one or two nights as all bus, train, taxi services were suspended. Fortunately I was able to re-book my flight to Sunday by which time the buses were running to Wicklow.

An Tairseach, Ecological Centre in Wicklow, my 'home' for the next 10 weeks

The first week followed a very gentle program, getting to know my fellow (22) participants and providing an orientation to the centre and the program. The midday meal is provided but we are responsible for organising our own breakfast and evening meal, together with meals on weekends.

The program began in earnest today and I look forward to exploring the big questions that were introduced in the sessions led by Mark McDonnell:-
- Who and what are we?
- Where did we come from?
- Where are we going?
- Why are we here?
- What ultimately matters?
- How are we to live?
- What happens when we die?
- How should we relate to the Earth
- Who is our God?
- What does our God do for us?
- Is there a God here at all?
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Not much to report these past two months, simply because the weather has not been good enough to undertake any trips away, and of course any cycling into the countryside has been too risky.

In addition, my shoulder was still not fully recovered despite the ongoing visits to a massage therapist and then a physiotherapist. I will continue to perform the exercises I have been given and hope that the gradual improvement I have noticed will continue.

I have also been busy making preparations for my sabbatical program which is scheduled to be from early March to mid-June. The program involves a 12 week course in Wicklow, Ireland followed by placements at asylum seeker and refugee support centres in Manchester and Liverpool in England. I will also undertake a few days retreat in Ireland and a few days travel for tourism in June before I return to Geneva. In between commitments I will also take a few days to visit friends in Ireland and will also attend the annual meeting of the ERI team and Board in Dublin in May.

I had planned to leave for Ireland yesterday and spend some days in Cork before making my way to Wicklow. Those plans were thrown into disarray due to the severe weather, with my flight to Dublin cancelled. I was able to book another flight for this coming Sunday when hopefully the weather will have improved enough for flights to resume, and for the bus service to operate from the airport to Wicklow.
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Sunday, the last day of 2017, in contrast to recent days was forecast to be sunny and a relatively balmy 11C. And so it proved to be. Tino and I (Kevin was feeling unwell) decided to make the journey to Solothurn, reputedly 'the finest Baroque town in Switzerland, where Italian grandeur is combined with French charm and German practicality'. The drive took a little over 2 hours.


The town also which also gives its name to the surrounding canton remained Catholic in the aftermath of the Reformation and throughout the religious conflicts that divided Switzerland in the centuries that followed. For this reason from the 16th to the 18th centuries, it was the residence of the French king’s ambassador. The town contains many Baroque and Renaissance buildings, including several renowned religious buildings especially St.Urs Cathedral and the nearby Jesuit church.

St Urs cathedral

Interior of the cathedral

Interior of Jesuit church

We wandered through the medieval part of the town. Main sights included a couple of the original town gates and sections of the original town walls, the 13th century clock tower, the many fountains, each with its distinctive statue, the town hall (Rathaus) and the promenade along the Aare river.

Biel gate

13th century clock tower - the oldest building in Solothurn

Typical statue atop one of the many fountains found throughout the old town

Rathaus (Town hall)

After a lunch, (a kebab and drink), we returned to the car and drove to the carpark on the outskirts of the town from where we could walk to the Hermitage which is situated in the Verena gorge. The hermitage is named after the 3rd-century St. Verena, a Coptic Christian who was born in Egypt but is believed to have joined the Theban Legion’s mission to the Roman province of Rhaetia (partly located in modern-day Switzerland) and eventually came to live in a cave near the site of the hermitage, helping fellow young girls in the area. This mystical gorge and romantic streamside hermitage continues to be maintained by a real live hermit who was hired by the town in 2016 and whom Tino spoke with briefly!

Walking path to the Hermitage

It was a pleasant 20 min walk following a winding path through the forest alongside a gushing stream. It was obviously a very popular walk to judge by the number of young families and elderly 'pilgrims' whom we encountered along the way.

The Hermitage

Time did not permit a visit to one of the several museums or galleries. It may be worth a return visit - perhaps in the summer with the bicycles when we could explore the neighbouring countryside and villages as well.
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The break between Christmas and the New Year provides an opportunity to do a little more sightseeing - subject to the limitations of weather and limited hours of daylight of course!

The forecast for the week was not particularly promising however, except for Boxing Day which was predicted to be fine after some early rain. The forecast proved accurate. We left Gaillard at 8:30am in steady rain which persisted as we drove through the mountains past Bellegarde and Nantua, but which began to clear as we descended and entered the Dombes region, between the Rhone and Saone rivers, north of Lyon.

Our first destination was the village of Ars-sur-Formans. This was an obscure, remote village of 320 people in 1818 when John Vianney was assigned to the village as its priest (Curé). Born to a peasant family in Dardilly near Lyon in 1786, he aspired to be a priest. However his lack of education, due in large part to the disruptions of the French Revolution and its aftermath, proved to be a serious obstacle to his acceptance into a seminary. He persevered and was accepted, but his studies were interrupted when he was conscripted into the army. Instead he joined a group of deserters and remained hidden in a remote village for 14 months until an amnesty granted to all deserters allowed him to resume his studies. No great scholar, Vianney's piety was great enough to compensate for his ignorance and persuaded the bishop to ordain him in 1815.

Assigned to Ars, he became lost trying to find the town and had to be pointed in the right direction by a shepherd boy, Antoine Givre. A statue commemorating this meeting is to be found on the outskirts of the town. One of the inscriptions on the base of statue is an alleged quote from the curé: "You have shown me the way to Ars, I will show you the way to heaven".

Statue of the meeting of the Curé d'Ars and the shepherd Antoine Givre

The statue also records that Antoine died 5 days after the curé on 9th August 1859, and an additional plaque records a gathering of his descendants at the spot on the 150th anniversary of his death on 9th August 2009.

As parish priest, Vianney realized that the Revolution's aftermath had resulted in religious ignorance and indifference, due to the devastation wrought on the Catholic Church in France. At the time, Sundays in rural areas were spent working in the fields, or dancing and drinking in taverns. Over time he brought about a radical spiritual transformation of the community and its surroundings through his saintly life, mortification, his persevering ministry in the sacrament of confession, and his ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Vianney came to be known internationally, and people from distant places began traveling to consult him as early as 1827. By 1855, the number of pilgrims had reached 20,000 a year. During the last ten years of his life, he spent 16 to 18 hours a day in the confessional.

He died in 1859, and in 1925 John Mary Vianney was canonized by Pope Pius XI who in 1929 named him as patron saint of parish priests. His body is preserved in the basilica that erected after his death. The building incorporates the structure of the original parish church. Adjacent to the church is the house where the Curé d'Ars lived which displays its original furnishings and personal objects associated with him.

View of the basilica in Ars which incorporates the original church

Preserved body of John Vianney in a side chapel in the basilica at Ars

After visiting the basilica where we viewed his body, the curés house and the visitor centre and following a stroll around the town, we decided to head for Chatillon-sur-Challarone, a much bigger town about 20 minutes drive away where we planned to have some lunch. (Very little was on offer in Ars nor in Chatillon as it turned out, many businesses were closed for the period between Christmas and new Year). Eventually we found a rather 'up-market' restaurant in a hotel in a converted 14th century building. We ordered the 'plat de jour' (plate of the day) which was reasonably priced. Everything else on the menu seemed very expensive! Following lunch we set off to explore the town.

Chatillon-sur-Challarone has some well preserved medieval buildings, the ruins of a fort on a hill overlooking the town and also has an association with St Vincent de Paul.

Example of a medieval house in Chatillon-sur-Challarone


Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) was a French priest famous for his dedication to serving the poor. He was declared a saint in 1737. After his ordination he continued his studies but was captured and sold as a slave in North Africa in 1605. After two years as a slave he managed to escape and returned to France where he served as a priest first in Clichy, then in Paris where he first became concerned at the plight of the poor.

In 1817 he was assigned to Chatillon and it was here that the need of organization in work for the poor suggested to de Paul the forming of a confraternity among the women of his parish. It was so successful that it spread from the rural districts to Paris, where noble ladies often found it hard to give personal care to the needs of the poor. The confraternity still exists today and I met a couple of representatives at the recent meeting I attended in Rome.

Church of St-Andre in Chatillon-sur-Challarone

In walking the streets we visited the church where Vincent de Paul served as priest and saw the nearby house where he lived as well as the old market and the only surviving gateway to the town.

Vincent later returned to Paris where he founded a separate religious congregation known as the Daughters of Charity. By 1789 France had 426 houses and the sisters numbered about 6000 in Europe. In 2017, 18,000 sisters serve in ninety-four countries, addressing needs of food, water, sanitation and shelter; and through their sustaining works including health care, HIV/AIDS, migrant and refugee assistance, and education.

House in which St Vincent de Paul lived. Now a convent.

Vincent was also zealous in conducting retreats for clergy at a time when there was great laxity, abuse, and ignorance among them. He was a pioneer in clerical training and was instrumental in establishing seminaries.

Around 200 years later, in 1833, Frederic Ozanam founded a global network of charity, inseparable from the ideal of justice and based on Catholic social doctrine. He named his society after St Vincent de Paul and the society has since spread throughout the world continuing its original mission of reaching out to the poor in a spirit of respect and brotherhood.

I also walked up to the ramparts of the ruined castle which dates from the year 1000. Access to the ruins castle itself was restricted so I had to be content with admiring it from its lower ramparts.

Ruins of Castle and fortress at Chatillon-sur-Challarone

Fortunately the weather had remained fine and there was even weak sunshine for much of the day. We began our return journey a little before 4:00pm and reached Gaillard at around 5:15pm. A successful day.
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My return flight to Geneva was not until the evening so in the morning I decided to visit one place i had not visited previously - Castel St Angelo. The building was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. It was later used by the popes as a fortress and castle, and is now a museum. It was once the tallest building in Rome.

The visit took a couple of hours. Urns containing the ashes of Hadrian (d138 AD) and his family and several emperors who succeeded him. The room where the ashes were probably located, deep in the heart of the building, could be visited but the urns and ashes were scattered by Visigoth looters during Alaric's sacking of Rome in 410, and the original decorative bronze and stone statuary were thrown down upon the attacking Goths when they besieged Rome in 537.

The building was converted to a military fortress in 401, with the central mausoleum being surrounded by walls and towers. The popes converted the structure into a castle, beginning in the 14th century; Pope Nicholas III connected the castle to St Peter's Basilica by a covered fortified corridor called the Passetto di Borgo. The fortress was the refuge of Pope Clement VII from the siege of Charles V's Landsknechte during the Sack of Rome (1527). The Papal state also used Sant'Angelo as a prison; Giordano Bruno, for example, was imprisoned there for six years.

The castle became a museum in 1901.

Castel St Angelo

View from ramparts Castel St Angelo

View from ramparts Castel St Angelo

Ponte Sant'Angelo. Bridge used by pilgrims visiting St Peters and where they were blessed en route by the Pope who was living in the castle

Papal bedchamber Castel St Angelo

Interior Castel St Angelo

Interior Castel St Angelo

Interior Castel St Angelo
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I have visited Rome a number of times previously and it is one of my favourite cities.
After my attendance at the papal audience I returned to the Brothers residence at Marcantonio Colonna for some lunch before setting off for a walk around Rome.

One of the good things about Rome is that the main sites are within walking distance. I had no set plan but just wandered happy to mingle with the crowds and soak up the atmosphere. Inevitably I ended up visiting some of the key sites all of which I had seen several times before, but it was still enjoyable to revisit them.

Rome - Spanish Steps

Rome - Trevi Fountain

Rome - Victor Emmanuel monument

Rome - Forum

Rome - Colosseum

Rome - Arch of Constantine

Rome - Parthenon

Rome - Piazza Navona
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A couple of days after my return to Geneva I set off again to attend a meeting of Catholic-inspired NGOs in Rome. I stayed with the Brothers community in Rome and walked to and from the conference venue each day. The journey took about 50 mins. The temperature was relatively mild but I was caught in a heavy downpour of rain on one night, still it provided good exercise after being indoors all day. As the conference day concluded with an evening meal at 8pm it was after 9.30pm when I made my way back to where I was staying. My route took me through St Peter's Square which was not particularly crowded at that hour of the night.

St Peter's Square at night showing the nativity scene and Christmas tree

At the conclusion of the two day meeting it was arranged that participants would attend the weekly audience with Pope Francis. Although there were several thousand pilgrims in the audience hall, our group was allocated seats in a session close to the front and close to where the pope made his entrance down a central aisle. I managed to get a close-up view of the pope even if i was unable to shake his hand or greet him personally.

Papal audience

This was about as close as I got to the Pope

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It has been a busy six weeks which has limited my opportunity to post here. Another of our Geneva training courses was scheduled for the first part of November. At the conclusion of the training I tripped and fell in the house damaging the tendons in my shoulder. Having my arm in a sling for three weeks limited my activities somewhat - certainly no cycling was possible.

I was still able to travel to Ireland for a Board meeting in early December and I also took the opportunity to visit friends in Cork for a few days. Here are some photos from that time.

Christmas lights, Oliver Plunkett St, Cork

Enjoying a drink in a Cork pub

Ballycotton cliff walk, Co. Cork

Ballycotton cliff walk, Co. Cork
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I am not sure how long this beautiful autumn weather will last, but with a suuny day in prospect and a forecast temperature of 22C I wasn't going to let the opportunity pass of doing some more cycling - even though it was on my own and had to be cut short due to the need to transport some of the participants in our recently completed training to the bus stop in order to travel to the airport.

I drove 45 mins to Pringy near Annecy, unloaded the bike and set off about 13:00. My route took me through Epagny, Chaumontet, Sillingy, Nonglard and Hauteville-sur-Fier to Vallieres where I sat in a park and ate a late lunch (sandwich and fruit).

View from near Epagny


I continued on through Sion to Saint André where I crossed the Fier river and made my way to Rumilly via Lornay, cycling along the opposite bank of the Fier. From Rumilly I returned to Hauteville-sur-Fier and retraced my original route back to the car at Prigny. A total journey time of just over 4 hours.

View from near Saint-André

River Fier near Hautville sur Fier

River Fier near Rumilly

The ride was enjoyable and scenic but more challenging than expected. It involved much climbing and descending, some of it quite steep. I was certainly tired by the end of it but satisfied nevertheless.
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