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