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One road leads to Rome for former guards

On their way to change into more suitable marching clothes swissinfo.ch

A group of former Swiss Vatican Guards is marching from Switzerland to Rome to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the founding of the corps.

This content was published on April 7, 2006 - 19:02

The 70 men, from 25 to 76 years of age, are following the same arduous 720-kilometre route the first Swiss mercenaries took when they heeded the call of Pope Julius II.

"Long live the Pope, long live the Swiss Guards!" Following this cheer, and much pomp and pageantry, the 70-odd former guards changed into more comfortable clothing and set off from the main castle in the southern Swiss town of Bellinzona.

They are re-enacting the legendary trek undertaken by about twice as many mercenaries 500 years ago, in response to an invitation from Pope Julius II, who sought his own private security force.

It will take the former members of the world's smallest army 28 days to reach Rome on foot, and even though they are largely following the same route, they have the advantage of high-tech hiking gear, and are being accompanied by two doctors and an ambulance, as well as vehicles transporting their supplies and provisions.

Mercedes-Benz, the Swiss tourist office and Adidas are among the main sponsors, and the organisers were able to bring Toblerone and cereal maker, bio-familia, on board to ensure the ageing troops get their daily ration of Swiss chocolate and muesli.

Hardships

Little is known about the hardships faced by the first Swiss guards during their trek to Rome in the dead of winter half a millennium ago, but their 21st century counterparts will be confronted with modern plagues such as air pollution.

Following the ceremony, the group completed a 16km walk from Bellinzona to Lake Maggiore where they boarded a boat to continue their journey to Ispra in Italy.

"We're taking the boat to spare our lungs from the polluted air coming up from the Lombardy region," said ex-guard and president of the organising committee, Eugenio Rüegger.

Still, the marchers will enjoy only one full day of rest between now and May 2 when they are scheduled to enter Rome.

Robert Clement, a 41-year-old former guard and officer with the Swiss federal police, agreed that getting to the end of the first 350km stretch would be the hardest part.

"It's long and it's not Tuscany with its nice landscapes," Clement told swissinfo. "I'll be happy when we arrive in Lucca where Tuscany begins."

Achieve goals

A Swiss guard from 1984-1986, Clement said he wanted to commemorate what his predecessors had accomplished 500 years ago, and was doing it for his children and Swiss youth in general, to show them that anyone can achieve their goals if they work hard enough.

"It's about comradeship, but it will be physically demanding," said Pius Segmüller, who was Swiss Guard commander from 1998 to 2002.

"We'll have to push ourselves to the limit and there will be pain, but with good comradeship and the right spirit, we'll make it," he added.

"There are different reasons I'm doing it," explained 62-year-old Bruno Letter. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to take part in such an event, and it's a challenge," said Letter, who, like most of the former guards, served a two-year stint - in his case, from 1964-66 under Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI.

"I'm impressed that so many older former guards are taking part," said one of the youngest marchers, Stefan Dousse, nearly 40 years Letter's junior.

The short period spent as one of the Pope's trusted bodyguards was a formative period for many of the participants, who also believe the guards, dressed in their Renaissance costumes and holding halberds at their side, are more than just an antiquated tourist attraction.

"We never use the weapons that you see us carry," Segmüller said, speaking as if he was still on active duty. "But we are armed and experienced body guards, even if you never see us standing beside the Pope with a machine gun."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Bellinzona

Key facts

Around 70 former Swiss Guards are marching 720km in 28 days from Bellinzona in southern Switzerland to Rome.
They are following a pilgrimage route and are scheduled to arrive in Rome on May 2 but will not enter the gates of the Vatican until two days later.
They will be welcomed by a delegation of Vatican officials, the Italian armed forces and this year's Swiss president, Moritz Leuenberger.

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In brief

Mercenaries were one of Switzerland's most important exports from the late Middle Ages up until the 19th century.

It is estimated that as many as two million Swiss men swore their loyalty to foreign heads of state between 1250 and 1850.

There are currently 110 Swiss Guards on duty at the Vatican, where they must serve at least two years.

Guard recruits must be Roman Catholic Swiss nationals, between 19 and 30 years of age, single, high school graduates and at least 174cm tall. They must have also completed Swiss military service.

Guards on duty carry lances and either a halberd or lance, but are also armed with pepper spray, tear gas and – depending on the situation – automatic weapons.

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