(If WordPress misbehaves again and publishes this unfinished or without pictures, please – those who receive this via email – look at the website where the full post will eventually be visible).
Tuesday 7 June, Lausanne
A week ago I posted from Besançon where I spent my rest day renewing acquaintance with the Cathedral
and the Faculté des Lettres where I spent the summer of ’66. But days off are for practical concerns as well – a tram ride to Decathlon to get wax for my boots, so they might better withstand the deluges, and getting antihistamines and eye drops as – despite the wet – the hay fever season is upon me. The Besançon trams are marvellous, as is the whole smart, joined-up transport system.
And then, and then, about the wettest day I have ever known as I climbed the steep kilometres out of Besançon.
Water cascaded down the hills, the paths were once more deep mud. I emerged from a wood to find no signs, no way of identifying where I was. The guardian angel appeared on cue – an old man barrowing a bale of hay across the road. Is this the right way to the next village? No, it’s in the opposite direction. He saw my face, and said immediately he was getting his car out to take me. And he took me a further ten km, to a direct road to Ornans, embraced me and wished me good luck.
Alas it was a busy road, with heavy trucks thundering past dousing me with sheets of water. But I made it to Ornans, where I visited the Gustave Courbet museum. I had a sharp intake of breath when I saw Courbet’s portrait of his maternal grandfather:
add some whiter hair and some stubble and it could have been my angel of the morning.
I was picked up from Ornans by Francis Geere, famous in the world of the Via Francigena. Francis looks after the route between north of Besançon and the Swiss border. He also accommodates pilgrims, picks them up from that day’s destination and drops them back the next morning. I stayed three nights with him, and thus could walk two days without carrying my heavy pack.
Even packless I was unable to manage the tricky path up the Gorges de Nouailles where the river Loue springs from the rock and plunges down the narrow gorge. The constant rain (yes, it was still raining) turned the rocks into waterfalls so deep and powerful I knew my unreliable knee would not cope. One slip and…. one sees no one else on these paths. Prudence won (how unlike me), and I turned back. Next morning Francis showed me a path on the other side of the gorge which, although vertiginous (I didn’t look down) was less problematic.
That night at Francis’s I met more VF “royalty” – Paul and Babette Chinn, the creators of the four volumes of LightFoot guides covering the route from Canterbury to Rome. The couple took two horses and a dog along the entire VF ten years ago, and have retraced and revised the path constantly since.
So to Pontarlier (famous for the distilling of absinthe) and on towards the Swiss border. It was still raining. I plodded alongside a little tourist train track, feet bruised by stones. Along came a little steam train with two blue and gold-liveried restaurant coaches full of French at their Sunday lunchtime trough.
I felt unkindly resentful as they cheerfully waved at the drenched and forlorn figure by the track. In order to find accommodation for that night I had been obliged to walk far further into Switzerland than I had wanted. Just before the border the rain became a diluvian torrent. Soaked to the skin I found the porch of a house with a chair in it, and there, dear reader, I sat down and wept for the second time on this pilgrimage. I wept from self-pity, from the dispiriting downpours, from the pain referred from my knee up my thigh into my haunch and back. I shouted at the rain, “I want a miracle!”.
There was no blinding flash of light, so I plodded on, crossing the border on a small path. Swiss rain is very much like French rain, and but accompanied by the constant tintinnabulation of cowbells.
But I didn’t have to wait long: a host of angels came to my rescue. The family where I was to stay welcomed me with such warmth, with one if the best meals I’ve had in weeks, with a glorious hot shower, and (to my surprise) a jacuzzi. I slept well. As I had walked so far that day I had only 12 or so km the next day. Philippe, my host, had a day off and offered to take me to the nearby
Cluniac abbey of Romainmôthier.
That visit added to my sense of blessing, of benediction. As we arrived someone was playing an alphorn the other side of the valley. In the church I felt utter peace and restoration. After the church we drank tea in the prior’s house. There was more blessing and healing to come. Philippe said “I cannot let you go in pain like this”. For what I have not told you is that he is a chiropractor and masseur. He took me back home and worked with hot oil on my aches. “It will come back,” he said, “But it will get you a few days further “.
And life changed colour. On cue, the sun came out. With enormous gratitude in my heart I walked on southwards along another beautiful gorge, the path dappled by warm sunlight. Swiss paths are beautifully way marked.
And so on down to Lausanne, where I am now. The snowy Alps are visible across Lake Geneva (Léman), reminding me of the challenge to come over the next week. And there is cloud and the threat of thunderstorms for the next few days. Tomorrow I emulate Archbishop Sigeric and will take the boat to Villeneuve on the other side of the lake.
The way goes on, through grace and the kindness of many. Maybe the next post will be from Italy, DV.