Day 8: Arras to Guedecourt (31 km)
My day off in Arras had spoiled me a bit. The prospect of walking 31 km the day after seemed quite daunting when I woke up at 7am. Even the knowledge that I would be staying at a lovely farmhouse gite didn’t motivate me. I wasn’t in the rhythm of moving on every day yet, and having stayed in one place for two nights meant a natural resistance to change had set in. I knew once I was on the road I would be fine, but my lack of motivation resulted in a late start. By the time I got ready, packed and had picked up some things at the supermarket it was 10 am, which is a worrying time to start a 31 km journey. The morning was damp and drizzling which also didn’t help. As expected however, once I had walked the first few kilometres I was happy to be back on the road and going at a good pace.
That day I walked through the 12 km gained by the Allies during the Battle of Arras which I had learned about the day before in the Wellington Quarry Museum. Coming out of Arras there were several small cemeteries, representing some of the 4,000 men a day who were killed over the two-month battle in 1917. I noticed that nothing in the villages I passed had been built before 1926. Destroyed in the war, these villages now lacked any real character, and one was much the same as the other. Seeing few people, and passing through several small villages I was unprepared for what I would find in a village about 5 km from Bapaume. Four men dressed as soldiers, not from the First World War, but an earlier period I couldn’t identify, were chatting on a street corner. I was curious, but tried not to stare as I passed. Apart from the way they were dressed there was nothing particularly remarkable about them. As I continued through the village I noticed that they had started, I could say ‘marching’ but it was more like strolling, in the same direction as me. I was looking out for a path to my left when I was stopped by a man at a farm who asked me if I was walking the Via Francigena. I answered affirmatively, surprised he knew anything about it. He was smiling widely and started to ask me where I had started, how long I had been walking, and where I was going that day. While I was engaged in conversation the ‘soldiers’ had caught up to me and the man I was speaking to called out to them that I was a pilgrim on my way to Rome. I took this opportunity to ask what they were doing, and one answered in English that they were dressed as soldiers from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, ‘our First World War’, he said. I then asked where they were going, and was told they were just walking to the next village. Perhaps to them the reason for this was obvious, so I didn’t press for more information, but I was quite confused by their nonchalant manner as they continued to amble along, rifles slung over shoulders, or swinging in one hand. The gentleman I was speaking to confirmed the path I needed to take and waved enthusiastically goodbye.
I started off down the muddy track, getting a little worried about how late it was. I was quite near Bapaume, but as all the accommodation there was full I had booked a gite another 7 km on the road. I stopped to write an email to the gite letting them know where I was, and estimated it would take about an hour and a half to arrive. It was already 5.30pm. In Bapaume I stopped quickly at a Carrefour supermarket to pick up some food for the next day, as it would be Easter Sunday and I knew all the shops would be closed. This took a bit more precious time. I hurried on my way, concerned at how quickly the sun was setting. That last 7 km after Bapaume I pushed hard, focused on my destination.
At one point I noticed at the side of the fields a small pile of rusty metal cylinders. I didn’t stop to inspect them, but my first instinct was that they belonged to another period of time. I had just passed into the Somme region, and although well aware of the battles that had taken place here, surrounded by the quiet and cultivated landscape I couldn’t believe that anything was left of those violent times. I wished later I had stopped to take a picture, because after a quick internet search I learned that what I had seen was part of what is now known as the Iron Harvest. Each year, in the farms that cover the once battlefields of WWI, huge quantities of metal objects are brought to the surface from ploughing and are then deposited by farmers on the side of the roads to be picked up by a division of the municipal governments to be disposed of safely. These objects include unexploded bombs, barbed wire, trench supports and even unexploded gas canisters. Since the end of the war hundreds of people have been killed by these still dangerous remains. Again, I was astounded by how much these areas I was walking through were still dealing with a war that had finished just under a hundred years ago.
I had walked as fast as I could from Bapaume, but it was 7.30 pm by the time I arrived at my gite. A rather worried looking lady, owner Sylvie, came out of the house to welcome me. I apologised for worrying her and was touched by her concern for a complete stranger. She was very kind, and showed me to my lovely room where I longed to shower and relax. Dinner however was in twenty minutes, so I just had enough time to change and make myself a little more presentable before making my way to the dining room. I dined family-style that evening with Sylvie and her husband Robert, an English couple who were in the region to follow the Trail of Remembrance, and a young couple from Paris who were escaping the noise of the city for a long quiet Easter weekend in the countryside. It was a lovely meal with wine flowing freely and conversation switching between English and French. By 10.30 I had to excuse myself to get ready for the next day. I didn’t get to bed until near midnight but as I had walked further along the route that day I was consequently 7km closer to Peronne, the next day’s destination.
Day 8: Guedecourt to Peronne (19km)
At 8am I was on a country road on my way to Peronne, eager to arrive in time to do some sight-seeing. Peronne sits at a strategic point on the Somme River, and was therefore, heavily involved in the fighting of WWI. Like most towns and villages, Peronne was bombed to ruins, but one distinctive building did survive – the Chateau de Peronne which now houses a WWI museum. It was Easter Sunday and the sun had finally come out. By 12pm it was getting quite warm and as I passed through a village about 6 km from Peronne I stopped on for a break on a sunny bank of a small stream to enjoy the welcomed warmth after more than a week of strong winds and damp weather. On the outskirts of Peronne I passed Mont St. Quentin, what looks like a gentle hill of fields, but in the war was an important stronghold of the Germans who had taken the higher ground. At this site the Australians had won a vital victory, taking control of the hill that overlooks Peronne. In memory of this victory, there is a memorial to the Australians who died here.
Just as I passed the memorial I saw a large group of people, obviously family and friends coming together to celebrate Easter. The sight made me think of my own family, and with a bit of a pang I started to walk by the group. A woman walked over to me and asked me if I was walking to Rome. I am constantly surprised by this question, as so few people are even aware of the Via Francigena. I said I was and she became very enthusiastic asking me lots of questions and finally inviting me over to her car so she could give me an Easter chocolate. ‘Think of me when you enter Rome’, she said. I continued on my way, much cheered by the encounter with this sweet lady.
The approach to Peronne was via a commercial strip that would normally have been teeming with traffic but as it was a holiday everything was shut, so it was a peaceful walk into the city centre. The WWI Museum is very distinctive as it’s in the fortress-like structure of the Chateau de Peronne. It was only 2pm so I had lots of time to explore the museum. I was allowed to leave by rucksack in the cloakroom, and thus unhindered I entered the museum.
Just a quick update at my physical condition at this point. I mentioned in the last post that I had injured my right knee the first day from Canterbury to Rome. Well, on the way to Arras I had finally stopped at a pharmacy to get measured for a knee brace. I had changed my heavy boots for my lighter trainers, and was using my poles to take as much weight off my knee as possible. These measures had allowed me to keep going, but there was certainly something very wrong with the joint and even after a rest day in Arras it was still giving me problems. My ankles were also starting to ache by the end of the day and the pain actually made it difficult to sleep. On this day at Peronne, walking slowly around the exhibits that were quite interesting for the thousands of objects from the period, I took every opportunity to sit down to relieve the pain in my knee and ankles. Finally at 4pm I had to admit defeat and make my way to my hotel.
Finding accommodation in the centre over this holiday weekend had been difficulty and so I had to walk 2km out of my way to the outskirts of the city. A glorious thing awaiting me at the hotel however – a bath tub! My first on the trip. After a long soak my knee and ankles felt much better. I indulged in a documentary of the Battle of the Somme on youtube that evening, which filled in many of the gaps from the museum visit. As a final surprise, just before I went to bed I got a message on my Via Francigena Facebook page. It was from a Brian Connely who wrote that the Canterbury Cathedral had told him that I had left Canterbury the day before him and that he was in Peronne. I couldn’t believe there was another pilgrim in Peronne! I messaged him back and wondered if our paths would cross the next day.
Day 9: Peronne to Saint Quentin (35 km)
Another long day ahead but brilliant sunshine awaited me when I left the hotel and made by way back into the centre of Peronne. The first challenge of the day was to try and get some food for the road. Everything had been closed for the holiday on Sunday and it was now Easter Monday and I wondered what the chances were that I would find something open. As I walked on the main street of the town I instantly spotted a distinctive sight. I man with a large rucksack, trainers swinging on the back, walking up the street looking in all honesty a little lost. It had to Brian who had written to me the night before. Not in an effort to be unfriendly, but in a wish to address the most pressing issue, I crossed the street to see if the Monoprix was open. Thankfully it was, so I ran in to grab a few things. I was perusing the cheese selection when I heard my name. Turns out I’m just as obviously a pilgrim as Brian, because he had guessed I was the infamous Julia who had left Canterbury on the 28 March.
Brian, like me, was a Camino veteran. He in fact had walked it twice, both the Frances and the Norte. Looking for something different he had decided to try the Francigena, but unlike my many months of preparations he was just taking it as it came. He was travelling with a hammock that allowed him to sleep in campsites or in the open as needs required. This gave him a lot of flexibility on a route that does not have reliable accommodation. I envied him for his freedom, but had never considered camping an option due to safety concerns and the weight of a tent. Brian and I walked most of the day together, comparing our methods of navigation. He was only using the guide of Alison Raju and said it was working very well for him. We finally had to go our separate ways at about 5pm as I had a hotel booked in Saint Quentin and he was looking out for a campsite. It had made a nice change to walk with someone that day, and I felt the spirit of the Camino de Santiago kindling slightly on the Via Francigena – a promise of what will one day exist on this wonderful route.
Saint Quentin is found in the accommodation lists for the Via Francigena, but I hadn’t realised that it’s actually not on the official route. This meant that the 7 kilometres to Saint Quentin were not in the guide book so it was lucky I was not relying on it completely. The approach to Saint Quentin was quite pleasant as the city had landscaped the area where all the major roads converge into a recreational park. There were well-laid paths and large areas of grass rather than the usual masses of asphalt found outside of cities where the assumption is that only traffic will be there and not pedestrians. I got in to the hotel again quite late but it was right in the city centre near the main square with its beautiful town hall and the basilica and therefore would be easy to see the sights on way out the next day. I requested breakfast for the next morning as dinner that night was another picnic and I was starting to be in good need of some proper food.
Day 10: Saint Quentin to Nouvion et Catillon (24 km)
It was not going to be a long day, but I wanted to get to my accommodation early to enjoy a relaxing evening. I was therefore, down at breakfast by 7am and was grateful for the buffet selection of cereals, pastries, toast and hot and cold drinks. I spent a while lingering over big cups of coffee, enjoying being able to take my time over a meal. Even after a relaxed breakfast I was still on the way by 8.30am. My first stop was in the square to see the town hall and the basilica. The basilica was wonderful with magnificent stained-glass windows that shone brilliantly on that sunny day. It was unfortunately, completely deserted and in great need of some repairs. Taking a road from the basilica I walked straight out of the city and was back in country villages and small roads within half an hour and well on my way to a the hamlet Nouvion et Catillon. It was again completely off the route in my guide book, but a gite there had been recommended in the accommodation booklet of the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome and there were very few other options. I designed my own route that day using google maps which for the most part worked out very well. The last 10 km in particular were very enjoyable taking me along farm tracks where I soaked in the spring sun and watched rabbits playing on the path ahead. In this way I came up the hill to the hamlet – not from the road, but from the fields. Mme Carette was expecting me at her lovely home perched up on the hill with an amazing view of the towers of the Laon Cathedral in the distance. She brought me upstairs and opened the door to reveal a very comfortably furnished room and huge en-suite. It didn’t take me long to get settled in and I was soon sipping a cup of tea in an armchair looking out onto the farm and the view in the distance. It was this night that I found some time to start writing the account of my first week on the Via Francigena. On this 10th day on the Via Francigena I felt I myself settling into the Camino routine. My legs were feeling stronger, although there were still twinges in my knee and ankles, and the distances of the following days were no longer filling me with the same sense of apprehension. I knew that, in mind and body, I would be able to overcome whatever obstacles were to come my way on this trip.
Day 11: Nouvion et Catillon to Laon
Mme Carette had set out a wonderful breakfast for me the next morning and while I was eating came in to encourage me to take something for the road. As I helped myself to some bread and cheese for a sandwich she handed me fruit, yogurt and Easter chocolates. Shortly after breakfast I was ready to go. I stopped on the way out of the say goodbye and to pay for the night’s stay, for which I had been quoted 35€, the special pilgrim price. As I handed the cash to Mme Carette she quickly returned 5€. I protested but she said, ‘you will think of me when you go to Rome’. Of course I would remember her kindness. With a blessing for my safety she saw me off. I walked past the fields of sheep and chickens, down the hill in the direction of the view of Laon that lay hidden in the morning mists.
The 25 km to Laon was through sleepy villages and across farm tracks. It was only as I was near to the base of the hill on which the old city sits did I have difficulty in navigating. The western side, to which I was approaching is cut off from the city by a series of railway tracks. In order to find a bridge across them I was forced to walk to the north of the city through what was quite a depressed area. Even when I started climbing the hill which reaches hundred metres above the plain, I felt I was not really in a kind of place where I wanted to be this conspicuous. This is the worst part about the accoutrements of a pilgrim, you are going to stand out. It was only when I reached the very top of the hill by the cathedral that I started to feel comfortable. The old city is absolutely beautiful and the Cathedral made a great impression on me. The large doors were wide open allowing the brilliant sunshine to flood into the nave. It felt so light and airy inside giving it a very welcoming atmosphere. The exterior was even more impressive. The two towers were covered with carved animals, leaning out into the air as if they were looking out over the plains lying below the hill. I went to the tourist office next door to get my pilgrim stamp and then found a quaint tea room where I could sit outside and enjoy the view of the cathedral with a pot of tea and piece of fruit tart. I was dreading going back to the lower part of the city. Naturally all the accommodation in the old city had been quite expensive, so I had booked something simple in the new part of the city. I had no idea that there was such an economic difference between the old and new. I couldn’t put it off forever however, so I treated myself to a ride on the funicular known as the POMA, which would quickly bring me down from the hill and save my knees. My accommodation was even worse than I had expected, but these things happen and it was just one night. The benefits of moving on!
Day 12: Laon to Corbeny (29 km)
The next morning I couldn’t wait to get out of Laon. Just as getting into the city had been difficult however, so was the walk out. The eastern side was blocked by a motorway which forced me to walk the full length of hill to cross the motorway on the south side. This did however, put me back on the route as described by Alison Raju which I had leaf three days before. Thinking of Brian and how well he was navigating with the guide book I tried to follow his example, and so I put my phone away (it was also true that Google Maps was not working properly for some reason that morning). ‘Cross small river (L’Ardon) then 100m after that, by sharp righthand bend, turn left by barn, veering right towards woods ahead. Enter woods and then turn third left on the other side of the ditch. (This section can be very muddy, even in summer, but improves as you go along).’ These instructions did not fill me with a great deal of confidence, as I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to find this ‘ditch’ or the ‘muddy section’. I did however, go right towards the woods and was walking along wondering where the ditch was when I realised I had done something wrong. I had no idea what, but I was not on the path described. Google Maps thankfully worked long enough for me to see where I was and to find another path which was not muddy at all and took me directly to the next town. Thankfully the rest of the day was mostly on secondary roads, so the opportunity to misunderstand the instructions was less likely. It started to get hilly that day, and I found the extra energy needed to climb quite exhausting. I arrived at Corbeny just before 7pm surprised that I hadn’t walked more than 29 km. It had been very hot that day however, and in combination with the inclines on the route it had made the day quite a bit more challenging than previous days of that distance. I was booked in at Le Chemin des Dames Hotel which offers a significant pilgrim discount which includes dinner in their restaurant. I was looking forward to a proper dinner so hurriedly showered and walked down the road to their restaurant. The food was not terrific, but it was satisfying. The temperature, although warm in the day, still dropped to just above freezing at night. I shivered as I walked back to the hotel, the cold stiffening my tired muscles. Back in my warm room I looked briefly at the route for the next before drifting off into a very deep sleep.