Day 25: Les Archots to Champlitte (25 km)
At 7 am I knocked on the door of my host in Les Archots for breakfast. I immediately spied a well-laid table with two baguettes fresh from the bakery (yes, he had gone early to the bakery just for my breakfast), six types of homemade jams, a large jug of piping hot milk and orange juice. It had taken me a while to get used the French breakfast of bread and jam, missing my toast, but that morning as I cut into the lovely crusty baguette and spread on the apricot jam I realised I had adapted very well. I was quite anxious to get back into an area with mobile phone reception, so I quickly enjoyed my breakfast, received the pilgrim stamp in my credentials and was on my way out of the hollow of Les Archots, walking back to the modern age where I could contact Catherine on my mobile phone. I was afraid she had messaged me the previous evening with some last minute questions. As I got back onto the Via Francigena I received a message from Catherine – all was well!
I only had 25 km to walk that day to Champlitte where Catherine would arrive by taxi. I would arrive well before her and be contactable in case of any travel problems. It was still early morning and there was a lovely freshness in the air that made the first 10km pass quickly. The sun was quick to rise however, and by 11 am I was applying more sunscreen and putting on my sunhat. I passed early on in the day a farm with a medieval stone building that was once a refuge for pilgrims. The walk was all on road surrounded by fields with few houses and fortunately little traffic. As I walked, I periodically received messages from Catherine updating me on the progress of her travel. At about 12pm the dreaded news arrived that there were delays on the trains in Paris. A delay on the first train could mean Catherine would miss her further connections, and with few trains coming to Langres this could prove a big problem. I pressed on, looking forward to checking in to the hotel and having access to the wifi to research alternative options in case this were to happen.
Champlitte is architecturally a lovely town, with beautiful old stone buildings and windy medieval streets. Unfortunately however, the main road through the town, although quite narrow, has become the route of trucks which hurl noisily and incessantly through the small town. As soon as I checked in to the hotel and freshened up I got out my laptop and started looking at the situation with the trains. I had booked the taxi for the time Catherine was originally due to arrive, but it became clear that the train would certainly be late. I cancelled the taxi and waited to hear from Catherine. I was surprised to receive a text from Catherine not long after that she was in a taxi on her way to Champlitte – she would be there in 30 minutes. I took the time to get some preparations done for the next day and then went outside the hotel to look out for the taxi.
I had just received a text from Catherine that she was driving through the town, so was looking at my phone when I heard my name. There she was! My first Via Francigena companion! Catherine was all smiles and after a hug and a quick recount of the anxieties of her journey we went up to the room to get her settled. It was now 5.30pm and neither of us had had any lunch, so we didn’t spend much time in the room. We went out onto the dusty main road to investigate our food options. I saw a sign for a Carrefour and suggest to Catherine that we get some supplies for the road before dinner as the supermarket was likely to close at 6pm. As we turned the corner to the walk the 20 metres to the supermarket I spotted a rucksack and some very red arms and realised it was Brian sitting on a stone bench on the side of the road. I called out a greeting and was quite distressed to see the state he was in. The last time I had seen Brian was five days before when he had stayed in Bar-sur-Aube to rest his shoulder. He had caught up with me despite taking a rest, and had done so by walking 40 km that day, Langres to Champlitte. It had been another hot day and he was clearly tired out and very sunburnt. Again Brian said that perhaps the Via Francigena wasn’t for him. Summoning a last bout of energy he picked up his rucksack and went off to look for some accommodation. As he walked away I wondered what he would do. Some of the most difficult terrain was still to come and the heat of Tuscany was going to be much more challenging to walk in than what we had experienced so far in France.
In the supermarket I told Catherine how important is was to always have food supplies with you, as there was never any guarantee that you would find another shop on the way. Restocked with biscuits, fruit and nuts as well as some bread and cheese for tomorrow’s lunch we were ready to find a restaurant for a well-needed meal.
Like most towns in France, we didn’t find a lot of signs of life in the town. A few cafés were already closed and one bar which served food only had two customers in it, one of which turned out to be the chef who looked less than pleased when he was told to cook up two omelettes. It was 7.30pm by the time Catherine and I were enjoying our mushroom omelettes with potato wedges and salad. We both felt better for a good meal and had a chance to really catch up.
Catherine and I had met in 2013 when we both registered for a master’s programme at the University of Kent. Our programmes were quite unique as in the spring term we studied in Rome, based at the American University of Rome. I had chosen the programme in Roman history and archaeology at the University of Kent specifically because it allowed me to study in Rome. I had been living in Rome for the four previous years and had seen little sense in leaving the city in order to study its history. It was the first year Kent was running programmes in Rome, and it turned out that there were only two students – myself and Catherine. Having to work so closely with only one other person could have been a recipe for disaster, but Catherine and I shared a wonderful experience in Rome and in that time we had formed a strong friendship. Catherine had immediately begun a PhD at Kent, and now that I would be starting my PhD in September we had much to talk about. The programmes in Rome are part of the University of Kent European Centres (Kent has centres in Brussels, Paris, Athens and now Rome). In support of my initiative on the Via Francigena the European Centres had agreed to fund other students and alumni of the centres to join me. Catherine was therefore able to participate in this section of the Via Francigena thanks this support from the University of Kent.
Returning to our room at about 8.30pm Catherine was shocked to see me get straight into bed. She had travelled from the UK so for her it was only 7.30pm, but I explained to her that after 25km on the road I was worn out and warned her she would know how I felt the next day. We both got into bed and chatted for another hour before turning out the lights.
Day 26: Champlitte to Choye (40 km)
I had warned Catherine that this section of the Via Francigena is one of those unfortunate parts that has little on offer for accommodation. I felt terrible that her first day she would have to walk 40 km but it was true that her rucksack was much lighter than mine and we both held on to the belief that for a person who had walked the Himalayas and the Andes, a 40 km walk in France, particularly as it was mostly flat, would not be too challenging. We started off at a brisk pace and made good time in the morning. We stopped every hour and a half for a break and took advantage of the shade of the beautiful lavoirs we saw in each town. My guidebook for this section did not have any options for accommodation on the route, so I had had to alter our route so that we would have somewhere to sleep that night. As we were not following the guidebook I had to rely on the notes I had taken the day before using Google Maps. We were supposed to be about 10km away from the accommodation when we arrived at a very busy road that I had thought we could walk on. I quickly saw that it was impossible as there was no shoulder on the road and the traffic was going too fast for it to be attempted. I got out my phone to check Google Maps and was disheartened to find that there were only very circuitous small roads that would allow as to avoid the main road. I could see that Catherine was already exhausted and it was getting near 4pm. We started on this new route and within an hour had arrived at a village. From here I checked the directions of Google Maps to see how far we had to walk. I was shocked to see 12km! Catherine asked me how many kilometres and I couldn’t bear to tell her. If I had been by myself I know that pigheadedly I would have continued on, probably arriving at the accommodation at 7.30pm, but I couldn’t do that to Catherine. I got out my phone and called the gite we would be staying at that night. A lady answered the phone and I explained that I was still on the road and that it was not possible for us to walk any further. I asked if she could give me the number for a local taxi. Without a moment’s hesitation she asked where we were, stating her husband would come and pick us up. Feeling a swell of gratitude for this stranger who was so ready to rush to our aid, I told her the name of the village and agreed to meet her husband at the church. I passed the good news on to Catherine who looked relieved but then worried that she had caused me to break the rules of my walk. I assured her that we were off the route and had been forced to walk further than we would have on the Via Francigena. This walk is not about pushing myself to extremes. An important part of my experience is discovering the difficulties that pilgrims face. If this route is to become more popular, accommodation in sections like this will have to be available to pilgrims.
Sitting on a bench by the church we eagerly looked out for our knight in shining armour. Within twenty minutes Jean-Noel and Samia both pulled up in front of the church and got out to greet us. Expressing our gratitude we put our rucksacks into the boot of the car and climbed in. What a sense of relief to know that we were safe and on our way to a comfortable room. As we sped along the road that we had been too afraid to walk on I watched the scenery fly by thinking how agonising it would have been if we had had to walk it. We soon pulled into the courtyard Jean-Noel and Samia’s farmhouse and were ushered into a beautiful room with a huge stone fireplace and a patio door leading out onto a large lawn.
An hour later we had showered and changed and were eating our dinner on a picnic table out in the garden. It’s amazing how the tiredness of road can be quickly forgotten after a shower and a little rest. I hoped Catherine was feeling the same relief. She seemed in high spirits, though as I had warned the day before, she was ready for bed at 9.30pm. I reminded her of how she had picked on me for wanting to go to bed so early the night before and she laughed apologetically. We had another long day ahead of us – 33km to Besancon. We were still off the route of the guidebook, so I spent a good hour planning out our route, hoping to avoid the problems we had faced on our way to Choye. Using Google Maps street view I could see if the roads were suitable to walk on. It was hard work, particularly as I was quite tired, but I went to bed satisfied that our walk to Besancon would be a pleasant one.
Day 27: Choye to Besancon (33 km)
We woke the next morning to beautiful sunshine streaming in through the patio doors of our room. We were dressed and packed by 7.30am and walked across the farmyard to the main house for our breakfast. Samia was waiting for us and presented our breakfast table of croissants, pain au chocolat, bread, jam, orange juice and hot chocolate. I encouraged Catherine to dig in to get some energy for the day. After breakfast Samia took a picture of us – the result of which shows us looking quite tired. Then with many thank yous, Catherine and I walked out of the courtyard and onto the Grande Rue, a small lane leading out of Choye, and we were on our way!
I was pleasantly surprised by how lovely the route I had planned for the day turned out to be. For the first 10 km we walked along well-paved tracks through woods and along fields. The next 10 km was on a minor road that was part of the Voie Romain (Roman road). I was pleased that Catherine had the chance to walk on part of a Roman road. Pictures were taken by the sign and then, just as we continued, Catherine quietly made a sound of pain. I asked her what the matter was and she replied that a blister had broken. She made as if to keep on walking but I told her to sit down on a grassy bank so we could inspect the damage. On the second day of walking in the heat Catherine’s feet had started to develop a number of blisters. Catherine was surprised to see the state of her feet, but this is the way with blisters – you often don’t notice them until they are a problem. I got out my blister kit and got to work. After the eight blisters were treated we were on the road, Catherine still suffering a bit from the one blister that had already broken.
It was now past midday and getting very hot. We were on the last stretch of the journey to Besancon, but were thankfully still able to walk on country roads. The terrain had become increasingly hillier throughout the day and the up and downs made for more of a challenge. As we climbed the last hill before Besancon Catherine started to get quiet as she struggled with blisters, tiredness and the heat. There was some relief however, when we reached the top of the hill and saw the city below us. Unfortunately, even when you see a city it can still take some time to walk to your accommodation. Once we were walking in the city the strength of the sun and the heat radiating from the concrete sapped our energy. We sat in the shade for a few minutes then summoned a last bit of energy to reach the hotel which was near the banks of the Doubs River.
Besancaon is a city with a unique location. It sits within a horseshoe loop of the river and behind it stands a sheer rock face of a hill. This very defensible position was discovered first by the Sequani tribe who had a settlement here. These natural defences however, were not sufficient to stop Julius Caesar from taking the city. The Roman remains in Vesontio (Roman name of Besancon) are few but enough to give an impression of the significance of the Roman presence. The most impressive Roman monument is the Porte Noir, named ‘the Black Gate’ after a nearby fire had blackened it with smoke in the Medieval period. This arch was built in honour of emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus in the 2nd century and the main road of the city ran through it down to a bridge and perhaps up the hill to a temple. Near the arch are the remains of an archaeological dig of the late 19th century. The building found here has never been clearly identified, but is believed to be a nymphaum. An underground aqueduct, bringing water from the Acier Springs 10.6 km away, entered the city here. The channel of the aqueduct was cut into the Doubs Valley hillside and at the final point, is five metres in width and has the remains of 5 lead pipes that distributed water to different parts of the city. What would have also been another striking reminder of Roman construction in Vesontio is the bridge across the river which survived up until 1953 but was destroyed to widen the road, which ironically now has little traffic using it as the city has been largely pedestrianised.
Catherine and I had been dedicated Roman scholars after a long day of walking and certainly deserved a little treat. Not far from the Porte Noir I saw a sign for a crêperie and was astounded by the variety on the menu. It was a mild evening so we ate savoury and dessert crêpes al fresco. As we walked slowly back to the hotel, Catherine still stiff and tired from two taxing days on the road, we both noted what a beautiful city Besancon was. For me it was certainly the loveliest city so far on the trip. Apart from its natural setting within the river, recent city planning had clearly prioritised quality of life for its inhabitants. Quiet trams ran through the streets rather than noisy buses, and with few cars most people were walking or cycling. The streets were incredibly clean and the water of the river looked as if it flowed directly from the mountains, unspoilt by its contact with the city.
Day 28: Besancon to Ornans (24 km)
Walking out of Besancon the next morning Catherine and I were able to further appreciated the natural beauty of the city. The path led along the river bank alongside the city walls. The area had been turned into a park and had well-manicured lawns right to the water’s edge and clear paths. We followed the sheer cliffs that we would soon have to climb over using a path with a series of stairs. At the top of the path was the Chapelle des Buis, once a pilgrim stop, which overlooks the valley below. The climb was continuous and took about an hour and a half to complete. When we reached the chapel we had a wonderful view of the citadel of Besancon which was surprisingly quite far below us as it had seemed so high up when we were standing in the valley. It showed how far we had climbed. This climb out of Besancon was a shock after four weeks of almost completely flat terrain. It was of course just the beginning of the elevation changes to come on the route. I was only 5 days from Switzerland and the landscape started to vary considerably each day from that point on.
Our destination was Ornans, a town on the river Loue, best known as the birthplace of painter Gustave Courbet. The last part of the walk to Ornans was on a busy road that wound along the side of the hills for about 6 km. By 12pm it was again a very hot day but luckily, although we had to deal with the traffic, there was plenty of shade and the route was continuously downhill as we were walking to the valley of the river Loue. As we entered Ornans I was not expecting the town to be particularly picturesque as the approach was through a commercial district with streams of traffic on the road. As we turned into the small streets of the town however, I was pleasantly surprised by how quiet it suddenly became. The streets were full of locals and tourists enjoying drinks in the town squares. The river was hidden by buildings but when a bridge appeared I detoured onto it to get a view. The river was very shallow, and the water crystal clear. The buildings lining the banks jutted out over the water supported by stilts. It was so tranquil and cool to stand over the water. The hotel was just a bit further up river so we continued on and were soon collapsed on our beds. It was about 4pm so we relaxed in the room for a few hours, then ventured back into the town for some dinner. We both looked out for a restaurant with a view over the river and settled on a pizzeria which advertised a covered terrace on the water. The river captured both of our attention as we sat a small table with a lovely view sipping wine. The wine and view combined had a wonderfully relaxing effect. I think the knowledge that we only had to walk 12.5 km the next day helped as well. For Catherine it meant that the challenge of the last few days was almost over and now she could just enjoy the rewards of this experience. Ornans was an unlikely place to ever visit. It only had a local tourist industry and the only context I had ever heard of it was in a visit to the Museé D’Orsay in Paris where I had attended a lecture of The Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet. Many of his paintings depict the scenery of Ornans, and I had immediately recognised the distinctive cliffs from his painting. As you look at the towering cliffs you see a strip of paler stone wrapping vertically at a consistent height all along the valley. The town clearly celebrated their most famous citizen as there was a Gustave Courbet museum, and throughout the city were plaques for the house of birth and other places he had lived. Even our hotel was called Table de Gustave.
Now perfectly relaxed Catherine and I walked slowly back to the hotel looking forward to a good night’s sleep and a bit of a lie in the next day. I looked up the route before going to bed and saw that the way was all on paths and minor roads following the river Loue up the valley to Mouthier-Haute-Pierre.
Day 29: Ornans to Mouthier-Haute-Pierre (12.5 km)
The next morning we woke to find there was drizzling rain and thick cloud cover. The good news was that the unusual heat of April had finally broken. We left our bags in the room and went to get some breakfast in town before starting off. We stopped first at the bakery where we bought croissants and a quiches for lunch. Although a little cool out, we sat down outside at a café on the square and ordered two hot chocolates and indulged in our pastries. The rain was starting to taper off when we returned to the hotel for our things and when we crossed the bridge to walk on the other side of the river it had stopped completely. Enjoying the fresh morning we walked alongside the river, cliffs towering over us on both sides of the valley. Going through some woods and later pastures the first part of the walk went very quickly. When we came to the first town we joined the road for a short time and then climbed partly up the left hand side of the valley up into rows of Chardonnay vines. We were just passing two ladies who were coming down the path when we all heard a tremendous cry from the brush and some rustling. I thought at first two animals were fighting but then we realised that a small deer and become trapped between us and a chain-link fence. Desperate to get away from us, it was charging at the fence to escape but of course was unable to. With the dense undergrowth we thought at first that it was stuck to the fence but then understood that we just need to get out of the way so the poor creature would calm down and find a way around the fence. As soon as we walked away the sounds died down and with relief we continued along the vines until we came to a wooden fence leading to a woodland path. The last 5 km to Mouthier-Haute-Pierre was along the road but it was very quiet and had lovely views of the river. Just before Mouthier we walked through Lods which proudly displayed a sign at the entrance to the town that it was one of the prettiest villages in France. The river rushed over rocks and through the centre of the village where the houses again jutted out over the water. We stopped by one of the bridges to eat our quiches before walking the last 2.5km to Mouthier.
Mouthier had limited accommodation so I had booked us into The Cascade, a prominent hotel at the entrance to the village that was built on the side of the hill over-looking the valley and river below. Once we had checked in and freshened up we went into the village to see what our options were for that evening for dinner. My guidebook had informed me that there was a shop and I thought we could have a picnic on the terrace of our room. Although it was only 3pm on a Saturday the shop was closed and there were few people about. We walked up to the church following signs to a brasserie and when we arrived at the church we found what must have been the entire population of the village there celebrating a wedding. The brasserie looked like it had been closed for some time, and in just 10 minutes we had seen all there was to see in the village. With little else to do we walked back to the hotel. The hotel had a restaurant and as we had no way of buying any food this was our only option if we wanted to eat that evening. The menu was quite a bit more expensive than a pilgrim would like but there was nothing for it. They started serving dinner at 7.15 pm so with more than three hours to wait we went back to our room where I sat out on the terrace and worked out some of my accommodation for the coming days and did some writing.
By 7.15 pm I was absolutely ravenous so we didn’t waste a minute getting to the dining room. We were seated by the window where we could enjoy the view and watch the mists wisp around the hilltops. We spoiled ourselves with the set evening three-course menu and a glass of wine. It was Catherine’s last evening on the Via Francigena and we spoke about her impressions of the route and I explained more about the history of the route and what I would be walking though in the coming days. I had wondered how my experience would differ walking with someone else and although it may seem very lonely walking on your own, I found that it really is just a different experience. Walking with Catherine was wonderful because of the memories we created together. Trying to remember the landscapes and impressions of those four days we had walked together I realised that they are not as vivid as the days I had walked on my own. When I walk on my own my mind is so open and I seem to take in so much. Walking with another person your attention becomes more grounded and consequently you take in less of what’s around you. Both experiences have great value and I could not say I prefer one over the other. I appreciate however, that I’ve had the opportunity to have such a varied experience on the Via Francigena. Thank you Catherine for those lovely memories which I carry with me for the rest of my journey to Rome.
Contribution by Catherine Hoggarth
Early morning start – still looking a little sleepy
I met Julia when we both enrolled on the inaugural University of Kent MA with a term in Rome programme. As the first students on the programme we spent a great deal of time together and found that we shared a love of walking (gelato and prosecco were quite high on the list as well); which was just as well as we did some pretty intense days walking around Rome and along ancient routes such as the Via Appia. So when Julia suggested joining her for a walk, I said ‘of course, just like old times’ then she ‘erm a little bit further than that, Canterbury to Rome on the Via Francigena’ of course I thought she was joking, but knowing Julia, once she has made her mind up there is no going back. This why I found myself boarding the Eurostar at Ebbsfleet on my way north-east France to meet Julia and accompany her for a very small part of her trek.
I have to say I was pretty confident; I have trekked in both the Andes and the Himalayas, both impressive walking credentials, how hard could a stroll in France be? It was fantastic to see Julia looking so well and to hear firsthand the story of her first few weeks. Brimming with confidence we set off at 7am on the first day to beautiful sunshine, green pastures and picturesque bridges (something for which I have a bit of affection; see t-shirt). Half way I was beginning to think it was possibly a little warm and rather lacking in shade in some sections, later on in the afternoon I had started to worry that my feet were melting into sections where we walked on roads. By 4pm I had turned into Donkey from Shrek repeating ‘are we nearly there yet’, by 5pm I was done; walking nearly 40km in 72 degree heat with all your worldly goods was really tough.
Needless to say by the end of day three, my feet had packed their bags and stormed off in a huff, leaving the rest of my body to wonder what an earth was happening. The variety of terrain from hot tarmac to stony paths, steep uphill climbs and downhill descents had proved too much for my feet and both were suffering very badly. Thankfully since day two Julia had been imparting her masterful blister experience and was managed to keep me going all the way to the end of day four; Andes and the Himalayas = no blisters, France = total blister disaster zone. Moral of the story, never underestimate the extent of the challenge ahead and hats off to Julia who is making it look easy.
Feet aside, walking through what was by the end of the first century BC Gallia Belgica, gave me a chance to contemplate what travelling across this land may have been like during the Roman period. In this day and age we are often divorced from the land around us as we travel by car or bus, rushing from one place to the next and covering vast distances with ease. Walking in the tracks of the Roman soldiers engenders a whole new level of respect; the French countryside is vast, one moment you may be on a hill with a panoramic view, the next surrounded by hills in a valley or alongside dark and dense woods. Daily concerns would be the heat and cold and the tough terrain (in sandals no less) with which I can now empathise, the fear of an attack by the Celtic tribes fighting for their homes (for us the French people could not have been kinder, but those woods!!), and food (I suspect they did not have a ready packet of BM or Pims biscuits that kept Julia and I going). As Caesar recounts:
‘The river Doubs forms an almost complete and perfect circle round it (Besanҫon); the gap left unprotected is little more than five hundred yards wide, and is blocked by a high hill so completely that the spurs at its base run right down to the river bank on either side. This hill was girt by a wall which gave it the strength of a citadel and joined it with the town. Caesar hastened there by forced marches continued day and night, occupied the town, and placed a garrison in it.’ (Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, 1.38, Penguin Classics, 1982
When we arrived at Besanҫon (Vesontio the ancient name as documented by Julius Caesar) I was attempting to imagine what a continuous march would be like, but was far too tired. I was however, very glad I did not have to build my own fort or fight for control of the town before I got to change into a more comfortable pair of shoes. The Roman influence can still be felt in the town, which still has the remains of an amphitheatre and the Porte Noire, a triumphal arch erected to celebrate the success of Marcus Aurelius over the Germanic tribes during the second century AD. The town is still imposing today with its 17th century citadel perched on the hilltop, but it is a beautiful place and one well worth a visit. We had a lovely relaxing hobble (me not Julia who still looked like she could have walked a few more miles) round the town and a drink in the square.
We walked through many villages and towns during my four days, up quite a few hills and back down the other sides, along rivers and across fields. It was a extraordinary experience and one I am very glad to have shared with Julia who has my eternal thanks for getting me there, making it fun and saving my feet. She has my admiration for the challenge she is undertaking (keep walking, the pasta and gelato is not too far away) and her determined approach. It is thanks to the support of both SECL and the European centres of the University of Kent that Julia has been able to undertake this challenge and that I was able to accompany her; a huge thank you to them for making this experience possible. A huge thank you to Prof. Ray Laurence for his unwavering support and encouragement, and for inspiring us throughout our MAs and into our PhDs.