Day 19: Le Meix-Tiercelin to Brienne le Chateau (33 km)
I woke up with the sun the next day as I had fallen asleep not long after 8 pm. I took my time getting ready and put my rucksack on at 7am to go down for breakfast. Greeted with a chorus of ‘bonjour’ as I entered the dining room I helped myself to some bread and jam, a hot chocolate and some orange juice (my standard breakfast on the VF) and sat down to eat. My knee thankfully seemed better after the rest. So after a filling breakfast I was ready to start my day. Another chorus of ‘bonjour’ and I was walking up the hall, out the front door and down the drive back onto the Via Agrippa. It was 6.5 km to the next village where I stopped to sit on a picnic bench outside of the church. After 10 minutes I was ready to set off again when a figure came around the corner and started walking towards me. It was Brian! It turns out he had also stayed in the home in Le Meix-Tiercelin but had arrived too late for dinner and hadn’t known about breakfast so we hadn’t seen each other. Brian had had a worse experience on the 40 km stage than I had. He had made a late start from Chalons-en-Champagne, so hadn’t arrived in Le Meix-Tiercelin until 8pm. We had not passed any shops and he did not have any food with him, so he had gone the whole day on a packet of biscuits. Now again with no shops in sight, he was faced with a long walk on an empty stomach. He soldiered on however, and we covered good ground until 1pm when disaster struck. We had taken the wrong ‘track’ as described in our guide book. This meant we were walking at the wrong angle, getting further away from the next village on our route each step we took. Thanks to Google Maps I was able to put us back on course by following a series of farm tracks, but the next hour’s walk was quite gruelling as we were both tired at this point, and I could only imagine how Brian was feeling after not having eaten for so long. As we got onto a road we looked for the next village but only saw it when we were 100 m away as it was hiding just over a hill. It was on what looked to be quite a major road with lots of trucks travelling on it, which perhaps explains why we found a café that was actually open – quite a rare thing so far on the Via Francigena. It was lovely to sit outside and have a cold drink. These rests do wonders for restoring your energy. We were still making good time despite the detour, so we indulged in an hour’s rest before walking the last 10km to Chateau-le-Brienne.
Since I had arrived in France the landscape had been quite consistently fields, either completely flat or with some rolling hills, but nothing too challenging to walk up. As we left the café we both noticed the landscape start to change. You could start to see hills and forests in the distance. As we made the final approach to Chateau-le-Brienne we could see the Chateau sitting up on a hill over-looking the town. From a distance it didn’t look very impressive. It reminded us both of a hotel, something built recently to look old and stately. As we walked into the centre of the town however, the Chateau made a better impression as you could start to make out the finer details.
Our destination was the tourist office where we would be able to pick up the key for the town’s pilgrim accommodation. For 10 euro each we were handed the keys to the pilgrim ‘gite’ by a friendly lady at the tourist office. The gite was just behind the Chateau which meant a 1 km walk up hill. Summoning a last bit of energy we walked up the hill and opened the gate to what must have once been the hunting lodge of the Chateau. It had a nice big garden and when we went inside we discovered three bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom. There was clear potential for this cottage when pilgrim numbers on the Via Francigena increase, but I thought it was a shame that it had clearly been left for months without a proper clean. I took one of the bedrooms and Brian another, and opened the windows to air the place out. After a very quick shower I was ready to go into the town to find something to eat and to sit in a café to write. The town was quite nice and had a few cafés to choose from. With a half a pint of beer of the table I opened my laptop and started to write. I expect I was quite dehydrated, because as soon as I started drinking the beer I became very sleepy and had difficulty concentrating. As it neared 8pm I could see the café was about to close so put away my laptop and walked back out onto the street. The town was quite dead at this point but I was in no hurry to go back to the pilgrim gite. Across the street was a pizzeria with just two patrons inside but it had a nice woodfire oven and I decided to treat myself to a good dinner. Within ten minutes my pizza with lots of vegetable toppings was placed in front of me. It was quite a bland pizza but I have found that since living in Italy I will never be happy with a pizza in another country. I am now a self-proclaimed pizza snob. Here I was again, thinking wistfully of the food that I would have once I was in Italy. I really was enjoying my experience in France, but sub-consciously I was calculating when I would be able to enjoy my first Italian meal on the trip. It was now dark outside with barely a soul to be seen. I walked once more up the hill, hoping I would fall asleep quickly, looking forward to moving on the next day to more comfortable accommodation.
Day 20: Brienne le Chateau to Bar-sur-Aube (28 km)
It was one of those nights on the Via Francigena that I just had to get through. I awoke frequently and before 6am I was up and eager to be on my way. I could hear Brian moving about and sensed he felt the same way. When we met outside the gite he announced that had been his worst night so far. I agreed and we locked the gate and went into the town for some breakfast. Strangely the café had coffee but no pastries, so I had my coffee then walked over to a little boulangerie where I bought a quiche for lunch and a fresh baguette.
As Brian and I walked out of Chateau-le-Brienne we dropped the keys of the gite into the post box of the tourist office. The route was entirely on secondary roads that day so we were unlikely to get lost as we had the day before. Walking through forests and small villages we finally came to a village called Dolancourt which was the unlikely location of an amusement park. As we stopped to rest by the church we could hear waves of screams from those riding the roller-coaster. It was completely silent except for the screams, and I wondered what a strange life it must be to live in that village surrounded by nature with the sound of screams constantly in the air.
As we walked out of Dolancourt we saw our first lavoir – a covered structure by the stream where villagers used to come to wash their clothes. It wasn’t long now until we would reach Bar-sur-Aube so we continued on without a break. I was particularly looking forward to my accommodation that night which was in a pod on a campsite. First of all, I have never stayed in a campsite so I was excited by the novelty of it all. Secondly, I had chosen a structure called a pod which is a wooden semi-circular construction with a little deck on the front. Brian informed me that I was doing what is known as ‘glamping’, which is camping but with all the comforts of a hotel. When we arrived at the campsite there were few people about, but I saw the pods to the right and couldn’t wait to get into mine. When I unlocked the double doors I walked, or rather ducked into my little space for the night that had a comfortable double bed with lots of fluffy pillows. I wanted to get under the covers right then and there after the terrible night’s sleep and the long walk, but I needed to go into town for some essentials. The town, like most we had been through, did not have a lot to offer except some nice bakeries and a small supermarket. I quickly got the few things I needed and then walked back to the campsite to enjoy my picnic dinner on my deck. Getting into bed that night was as satisfying as I had anticipated. I fell into a blissful sleep until about 4am when being in my cosy pod started to feel like being inside a tin can as it started to rain heavily. It wasn’t only the sound of the rain that kept me awake but also the knowledge that if it didn’t stop by 8am I would have to walk in it.
Day 21: Bar-sur-Aube to Chateauvillain (31 km)
After a few more fitful hours of sleep I woke up to the sound of the rain. On a pilgrimage I think it can be a negative thing to have comfortable accommodation, because it makes you less motivated to get going in the morning. That morning I was terrible. Curled up under my duvet the last thing I wanted to do was get on my rain gear and head out to face the elements. The weather report kept saying it would stop, but at 9am it was still raining heavily and I had no choice but to get on the road. Brian had decided to take a rest day as he was having problems with his shoulder. So with my rain jacket, trousers and rucksack cover on, I walked out of the campsite feeling ever so slightly sorry for myself. To make matters even worse the first 4km may have been the most difficult I had walked up to that point. After climbing some steep hills I found myself sheltering in a church trying to work out the directions for the next section. I had to go on some woodland trails, which in that weather made me a little nervous. Fortunately however, as I started to enter the woods the rain tapered off though the tracks were quite muddy at times and my boots became heavy as the mud stuck to the soles and sides. The directions in the guide book were very confusing and Google Maps was difficult to use due to poor reception. I thankfully managed to find my way. As I exited the woods I had to smile when I saw a lovely Via Francigena sign pointing out the direction to Clairvaux. One of those signs would have been very useful while I was near lost in the woods, but this is what I have found with the signage. In France these signs are more of a gesture. They are useful because they let local people know about the route and so help promote it, but for the pilgrim walking it, they are either positioned at points where the way is already easy to follow, or are pointing in a different direction to the guidebooks and so are not followed.
Now sure of my way I walked the 3km along a secondary road to the village of Clairvaux and through the gates of the Cistercian Abbey. I stopped off at the information centre to get my credentials stamped and noticed at the entrance a sign for the Via Francigena and a poster showing Clairvaux on the route. In the bookshop I quickly leafed through some of the books on the Abbey and the prison at Clairvaux and gathered that the prison had quite an ugly past.
It is possible to spend the night here as a pilgrim, but I wanted to cover more ground that day, so after a brief lunch break I walked out of the Abbey grounds back onto the road. As I walked out of the village I looked back to see the vast complex of the Clairvaux prison behind the Abbey. It was a sad sight to see the two places side by side, representing such different purposes.
After my difficult morning of rain, mud and the woodland maze the last 10km along roads went by quickly and painlessly. I approached Chateauvillain through an idyllic hamlet with its own small lavoir on the banks of a bubbling stream. The town of Chateauvillain was a very pleasant surprise. I had thought it would be much bigger, but it had no outskirts, just lush green fields giving way to historic farms and homes built of a pale stone. It is very much a medieval town with its maze of small streets and the remains of 20 parapets from the 12th century fortifications, 3 gates and the largest dovecote in France which has room for 3000 birds. I was soon ringing the bell to my bed and breakfast run by English couple Steve and Maggie Tait. Maggie answered the door and ushered me into the lovely decorated interior and up the stairs to my room. Steve and Maggie also run La Belle Epoque restaurant next door and I told Maggie I would be down for dinner as soon as I had freshened up.
It was Friday night, but as I had noticed while walking through France, the towns are always quiet, even the larger ones. Chateauvillain was no exception and I was sadly the only one in the restaurant despite a delicious selection on the menu. Maggie explained that they were the only restaurant to open in the town in the evenings. Most restaurants survive by serving lunch to workers and professionals. I looked at the menu and as all the fish had sold out at lunch I asked Maggie if she could make something vegetarian. She offered a vegetable pasta which sounded perfect. I sipped a glass of red wine and snacked on fresh bread dipped into hazelnut oil while I waited for Maggie to prepare my special dish. I was soon presented with an extremely generous portion pasta with a homemade tomato sauce with peppers and zucchini. I tucked in suddenly ravenous, savouring the fresh vegetables. I thanked Maggie for making me such a delicious dinner and returned to my room to do some writing before bed.
Day 22: Chateauvillain to Mormant (20 km)
The sun was out again when I woke up the next day and with only 20 km to walk I was looking forward to a relaxing walk to Mormant. I went down for breakfast at the restaurant and had a chance to speak to Steve who explained that he and Maggie had moved to France six years earlier. He told me about other pilgrims who had stayed there, including those who travel using the agency The Camino Ways. I had come across this company on searches for the Via Francigena and had noticed their expensive price tag of £10,000 for the entire trip Canterbury to Rome. They are based in Ireland and Brian had told me that they were doing very well and even had their own shop where you could buy everything you needed for the Camino. There really is no wrong way to do a pilgrimage, and for some this is the only way they would feel comfortable doing it.
After breakfast I did some more writing to a few hours and then packed up my bag to start on my way to Mormant. To leave Chateauvillain I had to go through one of the medieval gates, the Porte Dame, into the Park aux Daims, a walled deer park from the 18th century. Sadly this park is now being developed into an amusement park. Construction had already started and much of the forest had been cleared and parts of the walls destroyed. The guide book instructed me to continue through the park and exit at the Porte des Bonshommes, but when I got to the gate I found my way blocked by a tall fence. With a little help from two teenage girls who were at the equestrian centre on the other side of the fence I managed to find a way in through a horse paddock. Wondering if I had taken a wrong turn or if the fence was put up after the guidebook was written it took me a few minutes to get my bearings. I was soon back on track however, starting my way down a straight track known as the Chemin des Bonshommes through the forest. I didn’t see a single person for over two hours. I came onto a small country road and then further up crossed over to continue through another forest. I had been walking through forest for about 4 hours now and was surprised I hadn’t seen any wildlife. I was only 1 km from the end of the forest path when without warning eight deer crossed the path right in front of me. They were so quiet and well-camouflaged I couldn’t make out where they had gone once I reached the point where they had crossed. I walked the last kilometre, coming at last the road that would lead me the last part of my journey to Mormant Once out of the forest and walking on the road surrounded by fields I became aware of how incredibly windy it was. I hadn’t felt a breath of wind in the forest but out in the open I was blasted on the left side. I had to take my hat off, afraid I would lose it, and at one point sheltered behind the bank on the right side of the road just for a few minutes relief from the constant wind. I only had a kilometre to go however, and then was walking past the Abbaye Mormont, a 12th century complex which once had a hospital, no doubt used by pilgrims walking to and from Rome. Just off the road the lower level is completely open and I was startled to find inside a low vaulted ceiling propped up by numerous supports. The unstable condition was frighteningly clear. It looked like a terrible accident ready to happen, not just for the historic building, but also for anyone unfortunate to be inside when it collapsed. I continued walking further into the hamelt noticing the walls of the old Abbey gardens and other buildings further off the road. The hamlet consisted of about 10 houses, so I had no problem locating my accommodation that night.
Mormant is about half-way between Chateauvillain and Langres which at 45km was too far to do in one stage. The accommodation I had booked was described as a place where families who are visiting prisoners at the local prison can stay. The price was very reasonable so I was not expecting anything above very basic facilities. I was therefore quite shocked to find my accommodation was a lovely house with a kitchen and sitting room on the lower level and three bedrooms upstairs. My room had its own ensuite bathroom. The owner Annick was extremely friendly. She had already anticipated that I would need some dinner so had made arrangements, and offered to call the pilgrim accommodation in Langres to make sure there would be someone there to let me in when I arrived the next day. She had to call four times to get everything sorted out and I was so grateful to her, as I wasn’t sure my level of French would have been up to the challenge. She left me to get organised and said dinner would be at 7pm. At 7pm she had already started to set the table and put out the first course which was a beetroot salad and a carrot salad with lovely crusty bread. She notified me proudly that all of my dinner had come from her own garden. I couldn’t believe the trouble she had gone to as she placed the second course and then the dessert of plum pudding on the table. I told her it was the best meal I had yet had on the Via Francigena and I was not just being polite. Staying with Annick was like being at home. It was a wonderful feeling with friends and family so far away and knowing that I would not be home for several months. I knew this night would be a fond memory for me to carry with me from this trip.
Day 23: Mormant to Langres (25 km)
At 8am Annick was in the kitchen laying out a wonderful breakfast. Piping hot milk for hot chocolate, orange juice, a selection of homemade jams and a soft bread, almost like cake, fresh from the oven. It was the perfect start to the day. By 9am I was walking out of the door with a fond farewell from Annick and her directions fresh in my mind for a shortcut through the woods. There was still a brisk wind, but nothing like that of the day before. The sun was shining brightly and the first part of the walk I was mostly sheltered by the woods. After 15km I came to village that overlooked a small lake formed by a dam. At this point the directions in the guide were so confusing that I sat on a bench for a few minutes with a view of the valley and lake below to work out which road to take on Google Maps. As I had feared, I would need to walk into the valley only to have to climb up the other side. It was just 10 more kilometres to Langres however, so with determination I started on the windy road down the steep hill and then up through a country lane past an historic-looking farm which proudly displayed a sign stating it was one of the best run farms in the region. While passing this farm I first experienced some strange behaviour by a field full of cows. I had of course passed countless farms at this point on the route and so was almost oblivious to five young cows in a field to my left. I became worriedly aware of them however when I heard the sound of them charging towards me at an alarming pace. I turned quickly to see their expectant faces a few feet away from me on the other side of the fence. I wondered what they thought I was going to do for them and was sorry to have to disappoint them as I continued walking by. It was a hot day and I had been spoiled by relatively flat terrain up until this point so I walked slowly up the hill to climb out of the valley. Once I reached the top it levelled out and within a kilometre I caught my first sight of Langres, sitting high on a plateau the two towers of the Cathédrale Saint-Mammès de Langres.
Now I had sight of my destination I felt my step get lighter. The approach to the city was lovely as it was all farmland and small villages right up to the city walls. The last kilometre was a steep incline and with my very large backpack I must have made a pitying sight, because I got a lot of sympathetic looks and wishes of ‘bonne chance’ from those I passed. At the city walls I climbed some stairs and entered through a small archway. Once inside I felt I had passed into another world and time. All the buildings were built before the 20th century and walking through the streets trying to find my way to the cathedral that had now disappeared from view, I didn’t hear a single human sound. Granted it was a Sunday, and from my experience in France Sundays are incredibly quiet as everything is closed, but as I continued to walk street after street I couldn’t help thinking about similar scenes in post-apocalyptic films. Turning a corner by the museum however, I found the centre of the city and a moderate amount of activity mostly from tourists who were visiting the cathedral or sitting in the Place Diderot enjoying the sunshine and a coffee at one of the cafés.
I couldn’t go to the pilgrim accommodation until 4pm and it was only 2.30 so, still laden with my rucksack, I went into the cathedral. It was built of a yellow stone which gives off a feeling of warmth that was very comforting in comparison to cold grey stones some of the cathedrals I have seen on the Via Francigena, such as the Basilica of Saint Quentin. I was particularly intrigued by some epigraphy in Greek in one of the chapels that looked to be of ancient origin, and also of the statue of Joan of Arc that was sculpted in 1920, the year she was made a saint. I asked at the cathedral for a stamp for my credentials, but they did not have one, so I made my way to tourist office at the other end of the central street. I had another reason to go to the tourist office, as my first companion on the trip, Catherine Hoggarth a PhD student at the University of Kent, was coming to join me in two days’ time. I found out from the tourist office that there are no bus services between Langres and the surrounding towns, so the only way Catherine could join me in Champlitte, a small town where I would be in two days, was by taxi.
It was still a little early, but I decided to make my way to the Presbytère and wait until my appointment at 4pm. The entrance into the courtyard was open so I sat down on some steps and was reading through a pamphlet on the Roman remains in Langres I had picked up at the tourist office when a gentleman entered the courtyard. He didn’t seem surprised to see me sitting there and greeted me as he walked over. Welcoming me to the Presbytère he walked me over to the pilgrim apartment which includes one bedroom, bathroom and small kitchen. I had the place to myself as I was the only pilgrim and couldn’t get over the wonderful views of the cathedral from the two large windows. Inviting me to make myself comfortable and warning me that the gates closed at 8.30pm he was out the door with a quick ‘bonne route’ before it closed. It was still quite early so after I had showered and changed I still had time to visit the museum and the Roman remains in its collection.
The museum was just on the other side of the building so within minutes I had purchased a ticket and was going quickly through the first displays of the pre-historic era making my way to the Roman statues at the end of the first level. Unfortunately, little is known about the Roman settlement of Andemantunnum which lies under Langres. Due to limited urban development few remains have been discovered. In the museum there is an impressive mosaic floor and a number of funerary monuments. The only remains to be seen outside of the museum is The Porte Romaine, one of the two known triumphal arches dated to the mid-2nd century, which was incorporated into the city’s defences in the third century. The arch was the entrance into the city along the road coming from Durocortorum (Reims). Remains of a Roman road have also been found under the central road in front of the cathedral indicating that at least one element of the ancient topography has remained in the modern city.
I walked part of the ramparts to see the Porte Romaine but did not have the energy to make the full circuit around the city. Although it was Sunday, I had noticed that by some miracle one of the supermarkets would be open from 4-7pm and wishing to make use of the small kitchen at the pilgrim apartment I walked again past the cathedral to get a few things before returning the Presbytêre. My plan for that evening was to sit in the kitchen and enjoy the lovely view while catching up on some writing.
Day 24: Langres to Les Archots (17 km)
It was 40km to Champlitte from Langres with few options for accommodation in between. As Catherine was joining me the next day and her train was arriving in Langres, I didn’t want to walk further than Champlitte in order to keep the cost of the taxi down to a minimum. The only place I could stay between Langres and Champlitte was in a gite in the hamlet of Les Archots which was just 17km from Langres. Not wishing to arrive in this secluded gite too early, I staying in the Presbytère in Langres continuing with the account of my trip until almost 11am. It was another beautiful sunny day and I had opened the windows wide to let in the morning breeze.
Walking out of the town I stopped at an inviting bakery for some delicious supplies for lunch and dinner and then continued straight down the once Roman road, exiting through the city gate near the tourist office. The historic buildings and quiet streets immediately transitioned to a modern roundabout with noisy traffic. Slightly disorientated by the change I checked the route on my phone before locating the busy street I need to walk along for the first 2km until I was outside of the city limits. After passing McDonalds and other big box stores I was relieved to find myself turning onto a secondary road which at first had a little traffic and then later, only a tractor or two. I was surprised to pass a sign indicating the source of the Marne River. It seemed so long ago that I had stayed at Conde-sur-Marne when in reality it was only 8 days before. Looking back at this point I had my last view of Langres. Only the historic centre was visible from afar and so my encounter with the modern noisy streets was quickly forgotten and this view settled as my final memory of the city.
The journey was so short that day that there is little else to say except as I veered off the route for 700m onto a small country lane to the gite, I passed a field of sheep. As I had experienced the day before with the cows, the sheep came hurdling towards the fence and stood starring and baaing at me. I was mystified by their behaviour and walked on my way feeling their eyes burning into my back.
The gite was an old farmhouse that sat in a hollow with two other houses. There was nothing else in sight and I quickly discovered that I was in a reception dead zone. The owner of the gite was incredibly friendly and proudly announced that he had just come from visiting his daughter who had just given birth to a little boy making him a grandfather. I asked about the phone reception and he kindly offered to let me use the phone to check in with my friend Becky in the UK who is keeping tabs on me throughout the trip. As I’m travelling on my own this is one of my safety precautions. If I don’t check in with her before 6pm French time then she will contact my accommodation for that night and then take things from there if I have not arrived. I spent a quiet evening reading and got to bed early. I wanted to be in Champlitte by 1pm to get organised for Catherine’s arrival and to be available if she had any travel problems. I had got very used to the solitude on the road. Surprisingly, I never felt lonely. Perhaps it’s all those endorphins from the exercise that have helped me maintain my positivity. Having someone join me was going to make a nice change but I couldn’t help worrying about all of the possible difficulties we may encounter on the four days we would walk together. The most worrying was the distances we had to cover over the first two days to reach accommodation. Catherine however was an experienced walker, having hiked the Andes and the Himalayas. How would the Via Francigena compare to those experiences I wondered.