Saturday, 21 June 2008

Assisi Diary Post 6: 21/06/2008, Chateauvillian

Assisi Post 6 - 21/06/2008, Chateauvillian, 1650 kms to go.

Well this has been quite a different week in all sorts of ways. For a start I have had the novel experience of walking without pain - except for the odd twinge and what a difference that has made! In my previous pilgrimages, generally I could walk for about 2 - 2.5 hrs. before the pain in the balls of my feet got so bad I had to stop. Thereafter I could keep going for about 1 - 1.5 hrs before needing to stop again. This happened every day and meant I had to take frequent stops thus making the day even longer. But this time I have not had such severe pain, and for the last 8 - 10 days have hardly had pain at all, a few twinges now and then. This means I can keep going much longer and need fewer rests. Still walk at the same slowish speed though!

I put this down to a number of things. Firstly the fact that I did manage to lose weight before starting the walk (many thanks to Paul B for his advice and encouragement and to Carl for being a sort of 'diet partner'). The next thing was the judicious application of anti-inflammatory cream (ibuprofen) and the wonder plant, plantain. This (the plantain) was a tip given to me last year on the Tro Breiz (again thanks are due to Marie-Therese) as an effective remedy for blisters. I don't know whether it acts as a painkiller or anti-inflammatory or what but the difference it makes is incredible. It's a weed that grows in shaded places - see below for a picture.

You just pick a leaf large enough to cover the blister or in my case the ball of the foot, and place it over the spot. I just kept it it place with my sock.

So I could not help but concur with the sentiments expressed on the way marker below!

After the 2 days spent on the National Route N44 to reach Reims, the next few days were an absolute joy. Initially in woods and along gravel tracks between rows and rows of champagne vines,

then along a dead straight Roman road,

and in case I should get bored with long and straight, the walk to Clairvaux was fairly hilly (though absolutely nothing compared to the Camino del Norte!)

One of the days I took it into my head to try and walk all night. ¨Why?¨ you might ask! Well before I started this walk I had been reading 'The path to Rome' by Hilair Belloc, in which he occasionally walks all night. It struck me as a fun, adventurous thing to do. So one day I had a go. Alas I was not successful. By about 23:00 I was getting quite tired and the guide instructions let me down again (though to be fair it was now dark) and the only way I could continue would be by an unlit road and I could hear quite a lot of traffic. Reluctantly I abandoned the idea and started looking for a place to camp. This is not so easy in the dark, and the ground was pretty damp as it had been raining the previous day and grass etc. had not yet dried out. Wandering around in the long wet grass my trousers were now wet up to above my knees and I was beginning to feel rather uncomfortable, and was getting cold. Then I spied a greenhouse - the large tunnel shaped things covered with plastic. I approached, half expecting to trip an alarm and have half the local gendarmes turn up any minute. As I got closer I realised the door was open. I went in. It was perfect. There were no plants in there, in fact it was being used by a local Boules Club. It was warm and dry and very comfortable. By midnight I was settled for the night - see picture below!

Another more pleasant aspect to this week has been that there have been more Churches open than of late. Admittedly I have been passing through larger towns. A selection of them is below (and I can hear Graham H say ¨Not another Church!¨)

1 Notre Dame de Vaux at Chalons-en-Champagne

This Church was started in early 12th c and replaced a previous Church which collapsed. It is a UNESCO World heritage site. There are stained glass windows from the early 16th c including a depiction of Santiago Matamoros at the battle of Clavijo.

2 Church of St Peter & St Paul at Brienne-le-Château.

The oldest part of this Church dates from the 12th c. It has seen much turbulence over the years - the French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars and of course the wars of the 20th c. In fact the Church completely collapsed. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1965.

3. St Peter's at Bar-sur-Aube

This dates from the 2nd half of the 12th c and was once a small Benedictine monastery. The wooden gallery is an unusual feature. I was told by the Sisters with whom I stayed at Clairvaux that because Bar was on the Via Francigena, Italian cloth traders passed through en route to England, and used the gallery to protect their wares on market days.

On the subject of Bar-sur-Aube I found it a lovely little town with lots of attractive wood timbered houses and a very grand Hotel de Ville. It is worth more than one visit. see pictures below

Accommodation has taken on a distinct ' pilgrim' feel as well. In fact I have not stayed in a hotel or chambre d'hote since last Sunday. I have been very fortunate and stayed with a family, in a lovely municipal gite - with hotplate so was able to cook a hot meal, in a Presbytery where the Priest gave me food when I arrived, and shared his breakfast with me the next morning, and with two lovely, kind, generous Religious (Sisters) who shared their food with me also. Tomorrow I stay at a Convent. Having said I was able to cook a hot meal, that same day I could not resist a big sticky bun from the boulangerie when I was getting my baguette!

The Irish Connection - just a by the way bit of interest, I discovered that there had been an Irish Capuchin Convent at Bar-sur-Aube, then found out the following day that the Irish Saint, St Malachy is buried near St Bernard at Clairvaux Abbey. In addition the Sisters with whom I stayed gave me a short piece of off-road route for the journey between Clairvaux and a small village, and this took me past the Fountain of St Malachy.

And one final thing. In case you think I have had an absolutely idyllic week, you are partially right, but to keep my feet on the ground, fate had a couple of things up her sleeve!

The first is demonstrated by the picture of the flower below

There I was, striding along making great progress. Had decided to camp wild that evening (again) and had covered a good 26/27 kms - a pretty reasonable distance for me - and I was now approaching the area of trees that I thought I would find a suitable spot. I was looking forward to stopping and getting my boots off. I saw a lovely group of wild flowers and stopped to photo it. Opening my bag I looked in - no phone. My heart nearly stopped. My phone is central to my journey, my lifeline, my camera, my sound recorder (and yes I have recorded the sounds of birds singing as I picniced), my emailer, my diary. I knew where it was, or rather where I had left it. I had stopped at a little village Church with a cemetery and refilled my water container. As it happened this Church was open, someone had been cleaning it. Anyway I rested there for a bit and had used the phone to check for an email response from a Tourist Office and foolishly had put the phone down, but not beside my bag. I had walked off and left it there.

Well I was almost in despair. The village was more than 2 kms back, which meant by the time I got back there, it would be nearly an hour since I had left my phone there. Surely it would not still be there (and don't call me Shirley - old joke from the film Airplane!). I started to retrace my steps telling myself it could be worse. I might have got to the woods, pitched the tent and THEN discovered the lack of phone. I decided this was an emergency and I was not too proud to hitch-hike back, anything to get back quickly before someone else found the phone. I asked God to send me a car. Obligingly he sent me 3. None of them stopped despite my imploring gestures. ¨I must be more precise in my prayers next time¨ I thought to myself.

In between cars I continued marching back, all the time saying the mantra ¨Please let it be there, please let it be there¨. I suppose you are now thinking ¨What a fuss over a phone¨. In many ways I agree. It is foolish to put so much value into an inanimate object.

Anyway eventually I saw the village and reached the Church. The phone was still there! The Church was still open so I re-entered and said a very heartfelt prayer of thanks!

Again I trudged down the road, reached the trees but there was not a suitable spot. I continued through the next village and still could not find somewhere. I was starting to get uneasy. It was not late, but I was getting close to a large town and knew it would be difficult to find somewhere there. In the end I found another group of trees but had to tramp my way through nettles and briars to find a grassy spot. I started to erect the tent and immediately I was surrounded not just by biting mosquito type things but also flies of all sorts of sizes. I have camped wild before on several occasions in France and Italy but never encountered flies. Also the number of biting insects was enormous! I had to get the tent up as quick as I could, then chuck everything into it as well as myself to escape the insects.

So it has not all been sweetness and light! Though mostly it has. And to all those people who have been in contact with me through email/txt etc., thank you. I might be physically alone, but your messages mean I am not actually alone.

And what of Fred and Vanda? Vanda and I keep in touch every few days. They are now 3 days ahead of me.

Take care all

Friday, 13 June 2008

Assisi Diary Post 5: 13/06/2008, Reims

Assisi Post 5 - 13/06/2008, Reims, 1838 kms left

Have broken the 2000 km barrier!

Well it has been an eventful few days! Weather has been very mixed. But I forgot to say that at Amettes as well as a very welcoming B&B, we received our first Via Francigena stamp - see below!

I have at long last tasted my first French Guinness (and Joe, I didn't have 5 pints this time!).

This was at Arras, a lovely town with a good variety of eating places including a Polish restaurant and a Japanese restaurant. This is somewhere I would recommend a rest day particularly as the Youth Hostel is very central unlike many which tend to be on the outskirts of towns, probably due to property prices. The downside though of the YHA was that it did not open til 17:00.

Most of the route into Arras was on the main road and just the last stretch off-road. I decided to stick to the main highway so imagine the look of surprise on Fred & Vanda's faces when they entered the main square to find me already installed supping a Guinness in the afternoon sun! (Tortoise & hare springs to mind.)

As I mentioned earlier the weather has been pretty variable and a few days later the walk into Peronne was the most grotty, miserable, wet day I have ever walked. In all the kms I have clocked up, I have never experienced a day like it. It was raining when we set off and it did not stop, (and I mean it did not stop!) all day long. It could have been worse - it could have been windy as well, the rain could have been heavier. It was just a persistent, insistent rain. To make matters worse, the distance we expected to walk was only about 18.5 kms so I had set off a little later. However the actual distance by the direct main road was at least 21 kms so the off-road route would have been longer. Mistakes in the directions had caused me to go wrong and I ended up walking in the wrong direction back towards the previous night'.s stay. In the end I stuck to the main road again, plodding along trying to avoid as best I could the spray from the lorries. Fortunately at about the halfway stage I found an open bar/tabac and was able to get some warming coffee and a sandwich. My waterproof gear was OK. I now have the raincoat popular with those who walk the Camino in Spain which has a bump on the back for the rucksack. I look like Quasimodo! One does get a bit wet inside on a day like that where there is no let-up in the rain, but this is I think from sweat as I wore it the following day which was overcast but not actually wet, and still the sleeves were damp inside. The mac kept my rucksack drier than a normal 'sack cover. Vanda discovered the following morning that her rucksack had not been fully protected by the rucksack cover and her tent was damp. She carries all her other stuff in those waterproof bags you can buy in camp shops so didn't realise about the tent.

Anyway the people at the hotel we were staying at were very friendly and warm. I was starting to get a little weary as I had now been walking quite a time without a rest day and the rain had not helped. There was an Irish pub in Peronne and although it did eventually stop raining later in the evening, I didn't feel like going out again. So I missed a chance for a second drop of the black stuff!

The following day saw no rain though it was overcast all day. Fortunately it was quite a short walk but the next few stages were going to be problematic. Because of availability of accommodation, distances were 36.5 kms, 36.5 kms & 29 kms. The three of us talked about it and I said I would not be capable of walking those distances day after day especially as I was starting to feel in need of a break. I looked at the map and worked out a different route that would get us to Laon in 3 days instead of 2, but we did not have any information as to the availability of accommodation on the middle day. I suggested if the worst came to the worst we camp wild. The other two both felt able to cover the longer distances and in addition, Vanda had to reach Rome by a specific date as she was meeting people there. We could not be sure that a problem like this would not arise again as we were not familiar enough with the guide and route. Sadly the following morning we went our separate ways. I took the route via St Quentin, they the 2 day route via Tergnier. The route I chose worked out OK and there was accommodation available but I decided to have a rest day at Laon.

Apart from the lack of company the most obvious drawback is the sharp increase in my accommodation costs so I have to economise where I can. To this end I had a very simple meal at St Quentin consisting of cold corned beef and tinned mixed veg. Naturally the key to open the corned beef broke and I had to hack the tin open with my penknife - see below

Cold corned beef hash!

Never mind though, the Cotes de Rhone made up for it all!

The walking has been on roads through cultivated farmland. Many of the fields have what looks to my untrained eye lettuce growing, other crops include potatoes and corn. The past few days have mainly been flat apart from the ascent into the old quarters of Laon. I had intended to arrive at the Cathedral there on foot as pilgrims of old, however I'm afraid the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak, and I took the cable car thingy called the 'Poma'.

The beautiful Cathedral of Laon

And before I forget, 2 photos taken as I left St Quentin - interesting sculptures atop the disused casino and a painted metal shutter. Its such an attractive way to camouflage a dull boring shutter. I have seen many like this in Camden town and one or two in Barcelona.

Bear with me - I am stil experimenting with the capabilities of my phone and its ability to put captions on photos!

This one was slightly better!

I reached Reims from Laon by way of the N44 - not for the faint-hearted - and amazingly have covered the distance from Laon to Reims in 2 days instead of the guide's 3 days. (Chris L you would have been proud of me!). The day out of Laon it rained all morning and there were a lot more lorries (& spray) on the road than I would have wished! A very kind chap even stopped and offered me a lift. He wondered if I was en route to Santiago. He had walked there from Holland & it had taken over 4 months. I explained where I was off to and (reluctantly) declined his gracious offer. Still, not too much later the rain stopped & I dried out enough not to be dripping all over the friterie I encountered at about the halfway point where I was able to get some very good chips. Arriving at Corbeny I found the familiar (from my 2006 journey) AIVF logo displayed in the window of the hotel. They gave a pilgrim discount for which I was very grateful. It was a lovely hotel with a very welcoming chap in the attached bar/tabac.

I knew I had a longish walk the following day so I was on the road by 07:00. It was a bit overcast and chilly but not raining. In fact the day went well, sun came out once or twice but in the main it was good cool walking weather.

As I said, I am now in Reims and yet again as he did in my 2006 pilgrimage, St James has come to my rescue re accommodation. I was a little concerned as there is a festival in reims this weekend and I felt the town might be full. The first thing that happened was that I was stopped as I walked into the town and offered accommodation if I was unsuccessful at the Tourist Office! Happily I did not need to take her up on the offer as St James helped me yet again!

Detail from one of the doors of Reims Cathedral.

So if I had not had a rest day in Laon I would have caught up with Fred and Vanda but at the time I had not been planning to walk 50 kms along a rather busy road and partly in the rain. Who knows perhaps I will catch up or even overtake them (tortoise & hare comes to mind again!) as I am not that phased by walking on main roads when it suits though I do prefer a quieter life!

Take care all

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Assisi Diary Post 4: 12/06/2008, Just flowers

Assisi Post 4 - 12/06/2008, Just flowers!

Mostly roses, but some others as well - enjoy

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Assisi Diary Post 3: 02/06/2008, Amettes

Assisi Post 3 - 02/06/2008, Amettes, 2094 kms left

As I had said in the previous post Fred and I met up with Vanda at Canterbury on 26th so on 27th May the three intrepid explorers set off to walk to Rome (and Assisi).

Weather was pleasant and armed with a short cut from our CPR friend Joe, we hoped to reach Calais on the same day. I had arranged to receive a Blessing at Canterbury Cathedral which again was a very special event, and after that we set off. We were accompanied initially by Vanda's husband Paul but all too soon he had to turn back and we waved him goodbye.

We arrived on the outskirts of Dover in good spirits but did not realise how far we still had to travel. Then it started raining! In the end we did not reach the port until about 18:30. We were in time for the last ferry but we would not have reached Calais until around 22:00. Dripping all over the terminal we reluctantly decided that it was too late to do the crossing today and we needed to find somewhere to stay in Dover. In the end we found a pretty cheap hotel not far from the port and with a very convenient Indian take-away. We dined sumptuously on that and Cotes de Rhone!

It was with great excitement that we boarded the ferry and at long last we were off to France! We would not arrive until after midday so had planned a short walk that day and duly arrived in Wissant around 17:00.

Our view of Calais as we disembark

We had phoned ahead and booked the hotel Bellevue. They provided us with a 'family suite' consisting of bathroom, a double-bedded room and another room with 2 single beds. The rooms were very light and airy. The restaurant also was lovely and sunny and bright with windows on all sides. After an exceedingly good meal washed down with lovely cold Rose wine, we went for a stroll into the village and to the seafront.

It was sunset and the sky had wispy clouds coloured by the dying sun. The tide was out and had left little pools of water which now contained reflections of the pink fading sun. And there we could see across the water, the lights of England. Fred had already made reference to something he had read where the author gazed out over the Channel and could see England across the water. Now Fred was experiencing something similar and realised that he also was now in another country and the reality of that on which he had also embarked.

Sunset over the Channel

I suspect this was similar to that which I had experienced in 2003 when I left Plymouth on the 2nd stage of my pilgrimage to Santiago. I sat on the ferry taking me to Roscoff. I had never done anything like this before. Here I was, setting off into a foreign country, never really having walked anywhere before. I felt as though I was jumping off a cliff with my eyes blindfolded, not knowing whether the drop was a few inches, in which case I would probably survive, or whether it was several hundred feet, in which case I might not!

Anyway, Fred and Vanda gazed at the sea, & I decided it would be folly not to have a paddle so off I went. It was somehow satisfying to feel the waves washing over my feet so I took a photo! I seem to be developing a penchant for taking photos of my feet! I have one of my foot on the shell in Obradoiro Square which marks the ' zero' point of the pilgrimage to Santiago, and another of my feet dangling in the Mediterranean sea when I walked down the Italian Riviera from Genoa to Menton recently.

Feet washed by the Channel

So how has it been walking?

We have now walked just over 258 kms. As I said the trip to Dover was not too bad until the latter part when it started to rain. The following day to Wissant was pleasant, sunny but not too hot. Although we stayed more or less together though it was becoming clear that Fred and Vanda both walked at a faster pace than I.

We spent our second night in a Chambre d'Hote at Guines. Again the accommodation was very comfortable and the proprietors even invited us to accompany them to the supermarket so we could get something for our evening meal. We also had had an excellent omelette lunch in the Bar opposite.

The following day we arrived at a charming Chambre d'Hote at Alembon with beautiful, original décor, done by Martine, the proprietress. See picture below.

Fabulous original decor at Guines

The next day was hot and I had coloured up well (though not actually sunburnt!) by the time we arrived at Wisques where we stayed with the very hospitable Benedictine Sisters and I was able to attend Mass the following day (Sunday). After staying at Enquinegatte we had our first seriously rainy day. It started in the morning and continued for some hours. It then stopped and we had just about dried off when it started again. At long last we found an open bar/tabac and I had a most welcome beer! Unfortunately though we were dripping somewhat. Arriving at Amettes we were just in time before our 'lady of the house' went out to work. Again the accommodation was very pretty and more importantly, we had plenty of heaters with which to warm up and dry our clothes.

I hope there are not too many more days like that in store!