Champagne and Hospitality

Day 14: Corbeny to St. Thierry

The smell of a promising breakfast welcomed me as I opened the door to my room at Le Chemin des Dames in Corbeny.  Walking into the breakfast room downstairs I was not disappointed as a basket filled with not only a croissant but a pain au chocolat and bread fresh from the bakery was sitting on my table.  I indulged in a pain au chocolat and whisked some of the lovely bread into my bag for my lunch.  I was on my way to wishes of ‘bonne route’ from the hotel owners and other guests by 8am, and went out into the crisp morning air.  I had walked about 2 km when I saw a figure in the distance walking out of the woods.  It was Brian, my fellow pilgrim!  He had spent the night in the hammock he had brought with him as a more comfortable alternative to a tent.  He was seeking out some breakfast, and the next town was supposed to have a bakery (according to our guidebook).  We quickly covered the 6km to the next town and Brian was able to buy some fresh croissants and a baguette.  The route to St. Thierry, our destination that day, partly followed the Canal Latéral de l’Aisne and we had just reached the towpath when Brian realized he had left his guidebook in the bakery.  He wouldn’t hear of me waiting for him as he went back to retrieve it, so I started off on the wet grassy right bank of the canal on my own.  I was still wearing my trainers rather than my heavy boots due to the problem with my right knee. In the wet grass I could feel my trainers starting to soak through.  After the first bridge my guidebook informed me that the towpath became impassable and I was advised to walk alongside the fields to my right.  I’m not entirely sure what crop was growing in that field, but there was little room to walk alongside it, and in the morning dew my trainers become utterly soaked and my trousers filthy.  I was cursing under by breath as I looked at the perfectly passable towpath below, now unreachable through the thick undergrowth, wondering why I was walking in a field.  Finally I was able to start walking on a proper track, curious if the path had ever become ‘impassable’ as the guidebook had said.  My shoes squelched as I walked up the hill to the next village.  On the steps of the church I changed my shoes and socks and had a bite to eat to replenish my energy from the strenuous walk in the fields.  I was also looking out for Brian from my vantage point on top of the hill but did not spot him.  I was worried that he had not found his guidebook. What he would do with no other resource to fall back on?

I was only walking 20km that day and so I did not push particularly hard.  Each village lay 3 to 4 km from one another and I was sure to take a break in each, relishing not having to hurry.  When I was only 6km from St. Thierry I came across a lovely quiet spot off the track with picnic tables and a water garden.  It was so tranquil and the day so beautiful I thought this a perfect opportunity for a camino nap.  Taking a nap on a sunny day when you’re tired out from the morning’s exertions is incredibly satisfying.  I awoke half an hour later, slowly becoming aware of the song of the birds and the sun shining through the trees.  Now feeling very refreshed I walked a few hundred metres from my resting place to find myself in the centre of a village in the Champagne region.  If I hadn’t discovered that I was in the Champagne region from a sign, I would have realized quickly enough from the sudden transition to a landscape of rows upon rows of crops to vineyards as far as the eye could see.  There were also frequent signs directing me to champagne cellars where I could sample or buy the product.  I was very tempted to stop off and try a glass but I knew if I did I wouldn’t take another step.  With great discipline I continued to St. Thierry and within an hour I had arrived in the picturesque village where the buildings and extensive grounds of the Benedictine monastery were a substantial presence.   

I entered the impressive entrance and knocked on the door of the Accueil (information desk).  Inside I was greeted by a nun who must have been in her nineties.  I explained I was a pilgrim and with great efficiency she picked up the phone to announce my arrival to Soeur Thérèse who would show me to my room.  Sister Thérèse greeted me warmly and told me that I was not the only pilgrim to stay at the monastery that night.    Brian had somehow got there before me, though our paths had not crossed.  After leading me through a brightly painted room where I could help myself to breakfast the next morning, Sister Thérèse took me upstairs to my clean and well-appointed room.  As I opened the window to let in some of the warm afternoon breeze I saw Brian below hanging out his washing.  He told me he had arrived hours before and to explain my apparent tardiness, I told him about my relaxed walk and nap. 

Dinner would be served at 7pm.  That gave me two hours to do some washing, have a shower, and relax. I learned that evening that life in a monastery is organised through the ringing of bells.  At 5.30pm the bells rang and nuns appeared from around the grounds to gather in the chapel for vespers.  Again, at 7pm the bells rang calling all to the evening meal.  I was this time amongst those hurrying across the grass, making my way to the dining room.

Pilgrims do not eat with the nuns but with other guests at the monastery.  We were six at the table that evening.  Myself and Brian, two students in their last year of high school who were there preparing for the dreaded Bac exam, and two ladies staying at the monastery for reasons of contemplation. One of these ladies, Ann-Marie, spoke English fluently and was therefore a great asset at a table where only limited conversation was possible due to language barriers.  Ann-Marie was very interested in Brian’s and my pilgrimage to Rome, as in her youth she had walked to Santiago twice, once to Rome and remarkably, also to Jerusalem.  She had made all but one of the journey’s to Santiago on her own – an extraordinary lady.  

It had been such a relaxing walk followed by a serene evening. The promise of 10 km to Reims tomorrow and then the rest of the day off was a relief not only to  my body, including my knee which was slowly recovering from the injury of the first day, but also the mind, which was quite tired from the continuous need to think and plan ahead for the next day.  After dinner no more bells rang in the monastery.  The silence of the place and the warmth of the evening induced a sleepiness that I could not resist.  It was the best night’s sleep I had yet had on the Via Francigena. 

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Day 15: St. Thierry to Reims

The morning was a little grey, but after a good breakfast and farewells to Ann-Marie and the Sisters I was on my way with Brian as a companion for the 10 km walk to Reims.  The way was mostly along a canal. Clearly it had once been an industrial area, but had now given way to recreation. On a Saturday morning there were lots of runners and cyclists on the towpath and kayaks and rowboats on the canal.  It was wonderful arriving at Reims before 11am.  By 11.30 I had checked in to my hostel and was walking into the city centre in the direction of the Cathedral.  I had an appointment in the square at 12pm to meet Roger Vache, the president of the Association of the Vie Francigene in France.  I didn’t have my rucksack with me and wondered if he would recognise me from pictures on Facebook.  I had just taken position in front of the Cathedral when I heard my name.   Turning around I saw a gentleman and two ladies walking towards me.  The gentleman was Roger Vache and he was accompanied by Thérèse Delesalle and Sylvie Colegrave of the Twinning Association.  I hadn’t in fact realised that Reims and Canterbury were twin cities but I was quickly informed by Thérèse, who didn’t hesitate to tell me she hoped I would help in creating strong ties between the two cities.  It was an unexpected proposition, but I was intrigued to learn more.

After a little chat and some photos in front of the Cathedral Thérèse asked me if I would like a tour later in the afternoon of the Basilica of Saint Remi.  It was a very kind offer and I was not about to refuse a private tour by a local, so it was agreed I would meet her at 3pm.  As there were a few hours to wait Thérèse asked Sylvie if she would entertain me until then with a tour of the city and lunch.  Sylvie very kindly agreed and with much gratitude for this unexpected special attention I said goodbye to M. Vache and Thérèse and entered the Cathedral with Sylvie.  Sylvie had become my tour guide without any warning but nonetheless, related insightful information regarding the Cathedral, particularly the history of its reconstruction after WWI.  At this point I should perhaps no longer be surprised by the vast destruction that took place in France, but looking at this beautiful building I just couldn’t believe that it had been the target of hundreds of shells, some of which had managed to destroy the façade and to start a fire which resulted in the collapse of the roof.  For me the most impressive sight in the Cathedral were the stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall and installed in 1974.  Outside the Cathedral I was most taken with the statue of the Smiling Angel of Reims, which I saw in a photograph had been decapitated during an explosion in WWI.  It had been restored, but the mark around the neck was still visible.  Her expression is so serene you almost can’t help smiling in return.  I came across this poem which so eloquently tells the story of this statue and what she represents. 

           THE SMILE OF REIMS

 “The smile,” they called her,—”La Sourire”; and fair—
   A sculptured angel on the northern door
   Of the Cathedral’s west façade—she wore
Through the long centuries of toil and care
That smile, mysteriously wrought and rare,
   As if she saw brave visions evermore—
   Kings, and an armored Maid who lilies bore,
And all the glories that had once been there.

How like to thee, her undefeated Land!
   Wounded by bursting shells, a little space
      Broken she lay beneath her ancient portal;
But lifted from the earth with trembling hand,
   Victorious, still glowed upon her face
      Thy smile, heroic France, love-given and immortal!

Florence Earle Coates.

While at the Cathedral I was able to get my pilgrim credentials stamped at an official pilgrim table.  I was asked to fill in the information of where I was travelling to and the means (à pied).  I saw at least 15 people had filled in their information that day, but they were all going to Santiago. A route to Santiago goes through Reims, but at a distance of 2400 km, there are few who make the journey.  I was surprised to see in one day however that 15 people were on the route. 

The day had turned colder than expected, and I shivered in the draughty Cathedral. Sylvie noticed and hurriedly took me off to a nearby restaurant for lunch to warm up.  Steps from the Cathedral we walked into a bustling restaurant decorated in Art Deco style.  The menu was small but each dish sounded delicious.  I decided on the tagliatelle in a cream sauce with smoked salmon and white mushrooms.  I had been dreaming of the food I will eat when I cross into Italy, and this dish completely satisfied my pasta fantasies.  We ordered coffees to finish the meal and I was introduced to a truly wonderful concept – the café gourmand.  This consists of an espresso coffee and three miniature desserts. On the menu that day was chocolate mousse, rose biscuit ice cream (the rose biscuit is a Reims’ speciality), and almond cake.  What a wonderful meal!  I was now full and warm and ready for my tour of the town.

I had told Sylvie over lunch about my interest in the Roman remains of Reims so she took me to the ancient forum, which is now a city square, and then on to the Porte de Mars.  Dorocortorum (ancient Reims) was first a stronghold of the Remi tribe, one of the Belgae tribes loyal to Rome.  An inscription found in the city records the construction of a monument built by the Remi in dedication to the ‘princes of youth’, the adopted sons of Caesar Augustus, Gaius and  Lucius, in proof of their loyalty.  This monument has disappeared as has much of the later Roman constructions in Reims.  Fragments of the walls remain, as does the underground area of the forum which created a flat area for the basilica, temple and portico of the forum to be built on.  The only impressive monument still standing is the Porte de Mars, a triple arch built in the 3rd century and at 32m wide was one of the largest in the Empire.  It has had a long history and the scars of time are clearly visible.  It was first incorporated in the defensive walls of late antiquity, then buried to form the base of castle in the 12th century, and was only rediscovered in the 17th century when the castle burned down.  Today the scale of the arch is still impressive, but the reliefs have mostly vanished. I did make out the wolf of Rome suckling Romulus and Remus under one of the arches but little else.  Sylvie told me that once you could see the ruts made by carts in the pavement under the middle arch, but sadly it has been covered over so I couldn’t see it.  Standing at a point where one of the Roman roads entered the city from the direction of Laon I thought back to my own journey over the past three days.  I had walked 60 km from Laon to Reims but could have easily covered that ground in two days, as would have most in the Roman period.  Through the positioning of the arch and the connecting road it was clear that there was a strong network between these two Roman towns. As there had been between Laon and Saint Quentin before that, Saint Quentin and Arras, and Arras and Therouanne.  The network of the Roman Empire along this ancient route to Rome was starting to map out in my mind. 

It was getting near to 3pm and my appointed meeting with Thérèse to see the Chapel of Saint Remi.  Thérèse’s car soon pulled up and Sylvie rode with us a far as the Cathedral to pick up her bicycle and then we were on our way to Saint Remi, which is perhaps a kilometre from the Cathedral.  Thérèse said she preferred the Chapel of Saint Remi to the Cathedral because of its wonderfully intimate atmosphere.  I could understand what she meant.  There was something very personable about the interior.  The Cathedral had been so cold and draughty, with the towering heights of its ceiling looming above you, but Saint Remi was a place you wanted to spend a lot of time in.  Saint Remi was the Archbishop of Reims who baptised Clovis the first king of France in a small church on this site, Christmas Day, 496.    

After my two wonderful tours by Thérèse and Sylvie it was time to take advantage of being in a city to get a very important item – a sun hat!  Over the past two weeks I had been exposed to far more sun than was good for me. Even with 50 SPF sunscreen I was still getting sunburnt and with the weather forecast predicting temperatures in the 20’s (C) I knew it was time to get proactive.  A good find at Monoprix and some food supplies purchased for the next day and I was ready to walk back to the hostel to get some serious work done on my blog.   By the time I went to bed I had a post written, but the wifi at the hostel was not great, so I had to leave my pictures to upload overnight.  I got up a little extra early to finish it off and with satisfaction pressed the ‘post’ button before packing up my things and heading down for some breakfast. 

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Reims angel

 Day 16: Reims to Conde-sur-Marne (33 km)

When I got to the reception area of the hostel I saw Thérèse, who had asked to meet me before I left Reims to take a picture of me in my ‘pilgrim’ attire for the local newspaper.  After a hurried breakfast I went outside for my photoshoot.  Thérèse also asked me about the difficulties I was finding on this section of route. I explained to her the difficulty of finding accommodation at manageable distances.  For example, in two days I would be forced to walk 40 km in one day to get to the next stop on the route where accommodation was available.  She didn’t want to keep me from getting started on my 33km walk to Conde-sur-Marne so with a friendly farewell I was off on my way.  The first 10km was on the same canal I had entered Reims along.  With a clear mind and refreshed by the crisp morning air I started off at a good pace.  I had only been walking on the canal for about half an hour however, when I spotted Thérèse further up on the path with her camera.  I tried to look ‘natural’ as I continued to walk towards here and joked as I passed that I felt like I was being hounded by the paparazzi.  She laughed and waved as I passed and I continued on.  Along this section I was asked several times if I was walking to Santiago.  Typically, my answer that I was walking to Rome was met with surprise.  Passing a sign along the canal that explained that this route was on the Way of Saint James and the Via Francigena I again reflected that of the two pilgrimages I had actually chosen the shorter of the two.  I only had about 1500 km more to go, whereas those on this route to Santiago had to walk 2400 km. 

The day was sunny but with enough of a breeze that it didn’t feel too hot.  At the end of the 10km on the canal the route was then back in the Champagne vineyards.  It was Sunday, so although I was walking in a rural area, it was buzzing with outdoor activities.  There were cyclists, motorcyclists in large groups, quad bikes and most surprisingly, powered parachutes!  After passing through a town I was in for a bit of a hike uphill until I reached a National Park where a trail cut through the forest to just 6km from  my destination.  In the park I saw more of my own kind – walkers that is.  We were all enjoying the bright greens of the spring foliage coming through in the forest.  Going quite far into the forest I left the recreational walkers behind me and was surrounded by the peaceful sound of the birds.  I startled a beautiful deer who quickly ran into the undergrowth.  Coming out of the forest I pushed myself to cover the last 6km on a secondary road, finally arriving at my gite just before 4pm. 

I was quickly told by the gite owner that there was another pilgrim staying there.  Could it be Brian?  I had last seen him in Reims the day before as he had gone off to find his own accommodation.  It was not Brian, but Adrian, a Dutch man who was walking to Santiago.  It was just the two of us at the gite, and as it was Sunday, we both wondered what we could do about dinner.  We were informed that the only café in the town was closed, and of course there was no chance of a supermarket being open.  Sensing my panic the owner of the gite very kindly offered to make us dinner – ‘as we were pilgrims’, he said.  Much relieved by this news I went up to freshen up and have a rest.  At 7pm I came down to dinner to find Adrian already sitting at the table.  While we ate we predictably shared camino stories and tips.  He told me something I didn’t know – if you cannot find accommodation while you are on a pilgrimage then you can go to the Mairie and they have to find you something for the night.  A friend of his who had walked from Holland to Santiago had taken advantage of this on several occasions and had always been provided with something.  Perhaps it was just a school building, but at least shelter was guaranteed.  I had planned so thoroughly that I didn’t anticipate needing to take advantage of this, but it was nonetheless comforting to know.  It was a terrifying thought that I just wouldn’t be able to make it one day.  I had thought the only solution in that situation would be to call a taxi (and hope they would come and get you).

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Day 17: Conde-sur-Marne to Chalons-en-Champagne (20 km)

It was only 20 km to Chalons-en-Champagne so I decided to have a relaxing morning at the gite in Conde-sur-Marne.  It was wonderful to have a chance to catch up on some writing and to reply to emails.  By 10.30 am I was getting restless so decided to make a move.  It was another beautiful sunny day with clear blue skies, and the directions to Chalons-en-Champagne couldn’t have been any simpler.  From Conde-sur-Marne I could follow the towpath on the Canal Latéral à la Marne straight into Chalons-en-Champagne.  Without having to think when to turn left or right I could set a steady pace and let my mind wander and take in the beautiful surroundings.  My reverie was only interrupted once when I saw a man with a rucksack walking towards me.  As he neared me he suddenly said, ‘hey Julia, it’s me!  Your old friend Cooper.’  I obviously looked a bit taken aback so he quickly explained that he had seen Brian on the route about an hour before, and Brian had told him about me.  Cooper was from Texas and after having walked the Camino de Santiago several times, as well as parts of England and Scandinavia, he had decided to walk the Via Francigena.  He had started in January, and thus was walking in the direction Rome to Canterbury to get the best weather.  He was very upbeat about his experience so far and it we spoke for a few minutes letting each other know what to expect on the route over the next few days.  Wishing each other ‘buen camino’ we parted ways.

By 2pm I had reached the outskirts of Chalons.  I couldn’t believe what good time I had made.  I had reserved a room in the city on Air B & B, my first experience using it.  I wasn’t able to check in until 6pm, and therefore had over three hours to kill.  I hadn’t stopped for lunch on the route, so my first mission was to find a nice café and get something to eat. 

Chalons-en-Champagne outwardly looks quite nice but both of the main churches were closed without any explanation and as I walked through the centre I encountered a few unsavoury characters, so was relieved when I found a café I could duck into.  Once I had finished lunch I moved two doors down to a cosy bar, ordered a cider and took out my laptop to write.  Before I knew it, it was 5.45pm and time to go and check in to my Air B & B accommodation.  The house was conveniently located along the route for the next day.  When I arrived the owner Tatiana welcomed me warmly and introduced me to her four-year-old daughter and their very large dog Eiffel.  While Eiffel was distracted with a new bone, I was given a tour of the house by the little girl.  I had my long 40 km walk the next day, so I asked for breakfast at 6.30 am.  My knee had been mostly fine for the last 2 days, but I wasn’t looking forward to having to push myself.  Leaving early would ensure I had some time for a rest during the long walk. 

After a shower I went down to prepare some dinner in the kitchen and have a chat with Tatiana and her husband.  Based on my first experience with Air B & B I would highly recommend trying it.  There was a hostel in Chalons, but the advantage of Air B & B is that you have the opportunity to meet local people and for me this meant learning more about the city and having the chance to practice my French.  Thinking of my early start in the morning, I bid Tatiana and her husband goodnight and went up to bed. 

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Day 18: Chalons-en-Champagne to Le Meix-Tiercelin (40 km)

I was down to breakfast by 6.30am and out the door as planned at 7am.  I was walked to the gate by Eiffel and turned before I left to wave goodbye to Tatiana and her family.  At that time there was quite a bit of traffic on the road but after 6 km I was off the roads and onto the Via Agrippa, the ancient Roman road that was constructed under rule of Caesar in the 1st century BC .  The road started in Milan (Mediolanium), went over the Alps, ending at Boulogne-Sur-Mer (Gesoriacum-Bononia) at the principal port from which the Roman Empire was connected to Britain.  The landscape was all fields, with few trees and I only passed through three villages all day.  I had been warned that this area can be very windy and the many windmills were clearly not misplaced.  Luckily however, I did not have the wind to contend with, but by 1pm, the sun had become very strong.  As the road was so clear and straight I had been walking at quite a fast pace so I think from a combination of tiredness and the heat, at 2pm I first felt my right knee spasm and start to give way.  The pain was quick but intense and I got very worried as I still had 12 km to go.  I tried stretching it out and putting more weight on my poles.  It continued to spasm.  After struggling for 2 km or more I started trying to stretch it out in different ways and found that the spasms were caused by my muscles tightening.  By bending and stretching frequently the tension was relieved and I did manage to finish the last 12 km.  At 5 pm however, I was rather dragging my right leg as I walked up the steps to check-in to my accommodation.

The only accommodation on this section of the Via Francigena is offered by a state home for disabled adults.  They have some spare rooms and very kindly make those rooms available to pilgrims.  I didn’t know quite what to expect, but had read positive comments on past pilgrims’ experiences here, and was just so relieved to have finally arrived.  I was picked up at reception by a gentleman who showed me to my room and gave me a quick tour of the facility, including the dining room and bar.  As he walked me through I got quite a bit of attention from the residents who were very curious to know if I was a pilgrim.  After the tour I returned to my room to shower and change and was alarmed that my knee was continuing to spasm.  I had another long day tomorrow of 33 km, but tried not to think about it as I closed my eyes for a quick nap before dinner.  At 7pm I went down to the dining room where I was served a healthy meal of vegetables and pulses which was much appreciated as a change to all the bread I had been surviving on over the past two weeks.  I was greeted enthusiastically by the residents and several came over to speak to me throughout the course of the meal.  The facility had a great atmosphere and it was obvious the residents were enjoying a high quality of life with companionship and care by the friendly staff.  As I sat at dinner I reflected on the hospitality I had received since walking into the Champagne region; from the Benedictine Monastery at St. Thierry, to the attention of Roger, Sylvie and Thérèse in Reims, the kindness of the gite in Conde-sur-Marne where I had been offered dinner when none was to be found, Tatiana and her family in Chalons-en-Champagne, and finally, this unexpected inclusion into the way of life at this large home on the Via Francigena. 

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1 Response to Champagne and Hospitality

  1. Brian Mooney says:

    Wonderful narrative – walking every step with you. Best wishes, Brian

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