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Monday 30 May: at last, Besançon, where 50 (yes, 50) years ago I spent the summer doing a course at the university. The city seems to have spread enormously since then, and I walked through the vast commercial outskirts in wind and rain.
But to backtrack a week or so. I was sad to leave Châlons,
where I had encountered nothing but kindness. The David Tennant lookalike physio went to Paris, and handed me over to his colleague, Eric the Brutal. Eric was kind if sadistic and we laughed and had coffee together as he manipulated my knee till I cried out. “This will hurt a lot for two or three days,” he said cheerfully as he inflicted more pain. I asked him if he thought I’d get to Rome. “I hope so”, he said, “But I don’t think so.”
But a combination of his ministrations, much prayer and many good wishes have worked the miracle, and I have walked on with not too much discomfort for more than a week now.
So Saturday 21 May saw me whizz over the 100km that I needed to make up in a little under two hours (including a change of train). Those who like me travel on the Norwich to London line will find the idea of a punctual, clean, and uncrowded train something of a novelty. The train took me to the pretty town of Bar sur Aube, with its half-timbered houses. I stayed with Josette Bonnevie, who welcomes pilgrims to her house, and who fed me the healthiest meal so far.
Alas, she said, “Je m’appelle Bonnevie, mais ma vie n’est pas bonne”.
She was recently widowed, and we talked of how difficult Sundays are when you live alone – and everyone else seems to be with family.
That Sunday my first day’s walk was a short stage in pouring rain along muddy rutted forest tracks to Clairvaux, where St Bernard founded his abbey in 1115. I had imagined a pretty valley with graceful remains of the 12th-century abbey buildings (think Rievaulx), even though I knew the abbey was now a high-security prison. I decided to take the tour that afternoon. It was a dismal prospect in the pitiless rain. Having surrendered my passport (security), I and about 20 others were escorted round the dilapidated 18th-century (nothing remains of the 12th-century) edifices, with crumbling masonry and broken windows. It was cold. It was uninviting. It was grim.
The guide was an expert on all things Cistercian, and a 75-minute tour doubled in length. As his enthusiasm mounted my blood sugar level descended. I wasn’t quite sure I’d survive the Cistercian word avalanche.
Back to the two lovely old nuns who offer hospitality to pilgrims and to those visiting prisoners. They soon brought my blood sugar level up with an enormous supper, and opened a bottle of Bordeaux just for me.
Next morning Soeur Pierrette, who had spent her life in Africa in leprosy missions, gave me a sprig of lily of the valley. “By the time this fades,” she said, “You’ll already be far away.” I cried again.
The region round Clairvaux is rapidly becoming an employment desert: industries and shops are closing, villages are dying, and the threatened closure of the prison will remove 250 local jobs. All through the following week I walked through dead villages and towns, where shops and businesses are for sale. I did indeed feel a “pilgrim in this barren land”.
The next day the rain forecast for mid morning held off till I arrived at Châteauvillain. As I walked, the cold wind riffling through the fields of barley made them look like newly unplaited hair. One of my favourite smells is the incense of young barley after rain. Châteauvillain would have been worth a good look, with its towers, fortifications, narrow alleys, and its ancient lavoir, but the sky turned black and the rain streamed through the streets. I stayed with an English couple who run a bar, restaurant and B and B. The cooking was good, but I was the sole occupant. These towns are suffering, possibly terminally.
Oh the interminable dripping forests of the next day! Dark, forbidding, evoking atavistic fears…on and on they stretched, the imagination giving rise to all sorts of evils. I lost my way, of course. If a guidebook says “Fork left on the third grassy track after the T-junction of tracks” there is some room for error. With error comes terror. Not a soul does one see, the only living beings the magnificently-antlered stags which occasionally cross one’s path. But…the guardian angel appeared on cue: a forester with two dogs, who accompanied me the kilometer or so back to where I should have been. And no-one else did I see all day.
After that a veritable crowd of pilgrims in one evening – two! Edith a Parisienne of 73, going to Lausanne, and Edward (74) a taciturn and monoglot Scot on his third Via Francigena. At 69 I am a mere babe.
On to Langres, perched high on its hill, with a monumental and icy cold cathedral. Langres is the birthplace of Diderot, the great figure of the French Enlightenment. Here I stayed in the presbytery, in a little flat for pilgrims with a shower and basic cooking facilities. By now the weather had turned very hot (there seems to be no in between). As I sat the next day in the shade of a church eating my crust a lady going to the cemetery asked me in for fruit juice and coffee. We talked at length about the economic depression of this area – and of the difficulties of widowhood, a theme which seems common to many of my exchanges.
The next day, heading to Champlitte (also on a hill, of course),
the weather became even hotter and more humid, with the promise of storms. I asked some people sitting eating a leisurely lunch outside their house for some water. I was made to sit down until I was cooler, given coffee as well. People seem surprised that anyone should think of going to Rome on foot, yet so many do. Again, the kindness gives me heart. That night I was lodged in a building belonging to a vigneron, in fact in the kitchen used by his two student workers. The shower was over the road in a garage – note to self: take clothes with you next time.
There was a storm that night. The next day humidity and temperature rose higher.
I walked along the banks of the broad and tranquil Saône to my lodging. This was the only time in all my walks that I felt it prudent to put a chair against my door. Why? Just a feeling that the owner of the gîte was slightly….weird. There was thunder and rain, and the weather broke.
And so, by easy stages via Gy and Cussey sur l’Ognon to Besançon, where I shall take it easy before the vertical challenges of the Jura and the Alps. Here the rain falls in torrents from a black sky, its swathes obscuring the surrounding mountains. There are other pilgrims around: Chris Jackson from Derbyshire crippled temporarily by blisters; Geoff Collier from Connecticut. Paths cross, briefly intertwine, separate again.
Who knows what will become of us, where we shall get to. I am aware of the tremendous support I am receiving from everyone. So far so good with the knee, and one day at a time. The next post will, as usual, depend on the availability of wifi. From where I cannot say.