The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes. MARCEL PROUST

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Day 26: Champlitte To Sainte-Reine

It was goodbye to Champlitte . . .

. . . as I crossed the Salon once more.

I had now entered Franche-Comté, and these dome-shaped bell towers (called clochers comtois), roofed with enamelled tiles, are typical of the region.

A stripped-down landscape of earth and sky . . .

Another clocher comtois . . .

. . . and another lavoir, either in Delain or Dampierre, I'm not sure which . . .

I turn right to Savoyeux — no chance of gong wrong here. And just look at that sky!

Woodland in the valley of the Saône.

Passing through an extensively wooded area not far from the river Saône, I began to seek out a suitable place for a wild camp, as I knew there would be no accommodation until Besançon, and that was 50 km distant. I was in a good mood and had had an enjoyable day. This felt like the very heart of quiet, rural France. The Saône valley had been very green and pastoral, with many wild flowers — stitchwort, scabious, campion, spurge — and lots of cattle. I grew used to their behaviour. Young bullocks tended to stand completely motionless, sizing you up with great curiosity. Then, when you'd almost gone by, they'd charge boisterously. Luckily a fence or gate always intervened. Walking through the woods, it occurred to me how nice, how properly wood-like these woods were, with their spaced-out trees, and gaps and glades, and plants growing among the leaf litter — unlike the closely-packed forests earlier on the route, where the light never seemed to penetrate.

Anyhow, just before the small hamlet of Saint-Reine, I found a narrow path leading off left from the road on the edge of the forest. I followed it for a short while to a clearing, and soon found a suitable camping spot on soft ground. Perfect! As the evening sun went down, I put up my tent, made something to eat and wrote in my journal. I was very content. A bite from an insect which had managed to get down my trousers didn't put me off. And even a visit from an enormous, orange slug — which had decided to explore my food bag — failed to dampen my spirits. I pushed it some distance away from my tent with my walking pole.

Towards dusk the shadows lengthened, the wood grew darker and, well, not scary exactly, just more mysterious. I snuggled down in my sleeping bag and zipped up the tent door. Then the noises began. The barking dogs from a nearby farm were fine and homely — as were the snorts and grunts of cattle in the field beyond the woodland boundary. There were some incredibly loud cracking and crashing sounds as pigeons flew back to roost, settling themselves down in the trees above my tent. After that, as proper darkness fell, everything went silent for a while. I strained my ears. Soon I heard rustlings and scufflings in the undergrowth — probably foraging mice and other small woodland creatures. Every now and then there was the soft tread of a larger animal, perhaps a fox or a deer. Then the heavier, measured footfall of something even bigger. Surely those weren't human feet I could hear? Occasionally there was a strange, skittering noise which seemed to come from just outside the tent. What on earth was that? I figured that all sounds are amplified when you're lying on the ground in a night-time forest, ears alert. Perhaps even the nocturnal ramblings of slugs and other invertebrates resound like the deafening howls of African mammals at this time of night?

Then the bellowing started. From deep within the forest came an unearthly moan, which began softly, rumbling and grumbling for a few seconds, then swiftly developed into a full-throated, thunderous roar. What alien creature was this? Was a bear coming my way? Should I have hung my food bag from the branch of a tree instead of leaving it in the tent porch? I had a sudden, irrational fear that bears had a special predilection for pilgrim baguettes and mouldy French cheese. The roaring began again in earnest, booming and echoing from the heart of the wood. I kept very still in my sleeping bag. I could feel my heart pounding. My nerves stretched to breaking point and all my senses were in overdrive. Suddenly I remembered a radio programme I'd heard on rutting stags and the hair-raising calls they make. Yes, that was it — this was a stag practising for the autumn mating season! Of course . . . (Later I wondered if it might have been a wild boar.)

I went to sleep eventually, but, as usual when camping, I kept waking up every few hours to adjust my position. In the morning I noted that the slug had returned with a partner — both were stuck to the side wall of my inner tent. At dawn I packed up and left, taking care not to leave any trace of my presence. It had been an interesting night. In the hamlet of Sainte-Reine, just beyond my campsite, I disturbed two dogs lying in the road. They got up and came rushing towards me, barking. A farmer's wife appeared in an open dressing gown to control them. She was so astonished to see me that her mouth fell open, and she had to quickly adjust her wardrobe . . .     

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Day 25: Langres To Champlitte

I won't say I'm paranoid, but, whenever I pass a green field, I feel as if I'm being watched . . .

In Balesmes, the Marne . . .

. . . is hardly a river at all.

But I'm happy to report that the Salon in Grenant is a true river. For what use is a river without water?

"Rotten' driving school? I will not be going for driving lessons in Chalindrey . . .

. . . nor will I be ordering a beer here. Like many French village bars and cafés, this one had closed down. There's something ironic and sad in that name — the 'Brasserie de la Renaissance' . . .  

The gîte in Champlitte . . .

. . . belongs to the winegrower, Pascal Henriot. All his wines are completely organic — produced without the use of weed killers, insecticides or chemical fertilisers. He invited me to a tasting in his cellar and poured me a glass of last year's Chardonnay. It was quite lovely — unoaked and mineral dry, with a surprisingly strong, flowery bouquet. Also staying in the gîte was Sylvie, who was visiting her elderly mother in a nearby nursing home. She was a big traveller and a Himalayan trekker. When I went down to the kitchen the next morning, she had sweetly prepared my breakfast from her own food store: bread, jam, eggs, fruit, orange juice and coffee. 

Pascal Henriot (picture taken from his website).

Fountain and Rue du Bourg, Champlitte.

Religious detail on a wall in Champlitte.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Day 24: Saint-Loup-Sur-Aujon To Langres

The next day I crossed this motorway . . .

. . . and was glad that my road was a lot quieter. In fact I hardly saw a car for hours. 

I had been on my own for the last few days. Peter and my other companions had gone on ahead during my rest day in Troyes. But I relished the unaccustomed solitude, and realised I had been missing the deeper, reflective, meditative aspects of pilgrimage. I have found you can only really touch this spiritual core when you are alone — a solitary figure moving through a landscape. Enjoyable as companionship is for while, and necessary, it is also valuable to throw yourself back onto complete self-reliance, to test fully your own personal responses and resources. You notice more by yourself, your senses are sharper, and you enter a more receptive, more primeval, more animal-like state.

It was a bright, sunny Sunday morning, and all seemed right with the world. As usual, flowers crowded the roadside verges — thistle, teasel, wild carrot, willowherb — and wayside crosses marked the route. These crosses — constructed of rough, local stone — were much more elegant than previous ones along the path. My feet were not too bad — though the blister was still there — and I delighted in eating nature's free bounty: there were some tart, early blackberries, and I also feasted on sweet, wild mirabelle plums and larger, purple plums from the overhanging branches of orchard trees. The villages were neater in this area, and there were more renovated houses — for instance at St-Ciergues, where I passed some some impressive vegetable gardens.

The Église Notre-Dame de Brévoines just before Langres. This church, which dates from the 12th century, was restored in 2003. It's both simple and beautiful. Just look at those roof beams! It is dedicated to St Renobert, patron saint of domestic animals.

I arrive in Langres in the Haute-Marne department of the Champagne-Ardenne region. Often it's the little details which are more telling than the whole picture.

Langres Cathedral.

The Raising of Lazarus, a polychromatic group in Langres Cathedral.

Langres is built on a limestone promontory, and here's the view north from the town walls — revealing the flattish area of woods, lakes and farmland I'd just walked across. 

Place Diderot in Langres. Diderot (1713-1784), who was born here, and whose bronze statue dominates the square, was a major figure of the French Enlightenment, and a big friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who is one of my own literary and philosophical heroes (the title of this blog was inspired by Rousseau's work in exile, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker). Diderot's monumental opus was his Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (Encyclopaedia, or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts), published in France between 1751 and 1772.

The prospect from the gîte where I stayed in Langres. Not bad, eh?  Father Touvet, a tall, rather handsome priest with a flashing smile, had rushed out of the cathedral, where he'd been organising an organ concert, to greet me. He'd shown me the simple pilgrim accommodation next to the presbytery where he lived. It was adequate, but very basic, with two mattresses and no fridge, and, what's more, I couldn't get the coffee machine to work (which is a big crisis in Solitary Walker World). However, I did manage to put together a meal from stuff I found in the cupboards — pasta, a can of beans, a tin of tomato paste, a stock cube, two eggs — plus some bread and olives I had in my backpack, and half a bottle of wine a previous pilgrim had left. Later I went to the organ recital in the cathedral. I'm not normally a big fan of the organ, but the sound was just fantastic. Buxterhude, Bach and César Franck reverberated from pillar to pew, from font to flying buttress, from choir to clerestory; at one point I felt as if the cathedral were a huge, medieval spaceship about to take off (probably the effect of the two-day-old wine).

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Day 23: Châteauvillain To Saint-Loup-Sur-Aujon (2)

The craft brewery, Brasserie de Vauclair, halfway between Arc-en-Barrois and Giey-sur-Aujon. I stopped here for a rest at 2 o'clock and drank a beer. On tap were —in order of strength — Choue Blonde, Choue Brune and Choue Rousse. I chose the Choue Brune. It was excellent — malty and chocolatey and spicy. I'm really enthused about this microbrewery. The French are very proud of their regional, artisan food and drink, and this beer shows why.

Inside the brewhouse.

Stainless steel beer vats.

Choue — an award-winning beer.

I love these blue shutters.

The delightful Aujon valley. What country scene could be more tranquil, more archetypal, more perfect than this? Warm sun on green grass, trees casting their shadows, cows grazing in the fields, a lazy winding stream, a red-roofed village half-hidden in the woods . . .  

In the village of Giey-sur-Aujon was one of the prettiest lavoirs I'd seen yet . . .

And, talking of archetypal scenes, doesn't this shout 'France' to you? Or rather, not 'shout', but 'murmur seductively' . . ? 

Nearing Saint-Loup, I came across this sign. Evidently rewilding and the proposed reintroduction of the lynx and the wolf is not a popular idea here; farmers may be worried about the threat to their livestock. 

Despite getting lost in the morning, the day had turned out well, and was to get even better. I'd crossed birch and pine woods, I'd seen comma and white admiral butterflies, I'd watched jays and buzzards. And now I was walking through the lovely valley of the river Aujon in the late afternoon sunlight. The scenery recalled parts of England, with its smaller farms and mixed agriculture — some cereal production, but also grass and hay, and pasture for cattle. Soon I was to enter the convent at Saint-Loup (pictured above), home to the Tyburn nuns, Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre. There are only six nuns based here, plus a Mother Superior, who was in London the night I stayed. An oblate, Evelyne, greeted me, showed me round the garden, explained the history of the convent (which at one time was an orphanage) and took me up to my room — a big double with all mod cons. Later I had dinner with Père Olivier and Mariette, a lady on retreat. After Vespers I talked with Dominica, a sister from the Philippines; Marilla, a mother of Chinese origin from Australia; and Narcissa, a mother from Ecuador (most of the Tyburn nuns are known as 'mothers' not 'sisters'). Narcissa was young, and completely charming, with an intelligent, innocent face, sparkling eyes which looked directly into your own, an infectious smile and a bubbling sense of humour. As I recounted my adventures on the road, her eyes became even larger and her smile even wider. The Benedictine rules on silence are not as rigid here. After all, it's the nuns' duty to welcome strangers, and give hospitality, so you need to talk, don't you? And our conversation was animated and far-ranging. I was wistful when she finally stamped my créanciale, whispered good night and softly closed the chapel door . . .

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Day 23: Châteauvillain To Saint-Loup-Sur-Aujon (1)

Châteauvillain's Porte Madame, one of the town's original 14th-century gateways. At first I thought it was locked, but it was open. I went through and immediately took a wrong turning — completely my own fault, not the guidebook's for a change. I meandered along quite happily for several kilometres. I was walking through a huge deer park called the Parc aux Dames, and every now and then I caught sight of small herds of fallow deer in the distance. I fell into a kind of dream, half expecting to see Oberon, Titania and Puck dancing in one of the woodland glades. This idyll was abruptly shattered when I arrived an exit gate at the far end of the park. It was not, however, the gate I should have reached — the Porte des Bonshommes by the riding school. The gate I'd come to had obviously not been used for years, and was well and truly locked. 

I hate retracing my steps, so I struck out round the perimeter wall, reasoning that it would lead me eventually to the correct gate. After a while I realised, from the position of the sun, I was following the wall in the wrong direction, so I returned and took a clockwise path. What seemed hours went by. The vegetation grew thicker, and trees and bushes barred the way. The ground became more uneven, and there were lots of little gullies to negotiate. Just as I was beginning to doubt my map reading skills, my scouting abilities and, indeed, my very sanity, I emerged from the woods by a stream. There was a bridge. I crossed it. I could see the riding school. But, unfortunately, a tall, green, metal gate lay between me and freedom — and, you've guessed it: it was locked. What to do? I could have continued my trek around the wall in the hope of finding another exit, but I was getting tired and cross. I was beginning to feel like one of those prisoners in the abbey at Clairvaux. There was nothing else for it but to climb the gate — but it looked impossible. It was about 7 or 8 ft high, completely smooth and had no handholds. However, next to the gate was a stone wall — yes, the very wall I'd been shadowing for so long. Again, there seemed at first glance to be few handholds, but when I examined it more closely there were several cracks and weak points, and these I enlarged with my fingers. I held high my backpack and perched it on top of the wall. Then I tried to haul myself up. It's a good thing there's no video of this, else it could have been quite embarrassing — though you would all have had a good laugh. At one stage I swear I was hanging downwards. But in the end, after countless attempts, I managed to lever myself to the top by facing backwards with my feet pushed against the bars of the gate. It sounds impossible, I know, but somehow I did it. Now it was child's play. I edged my backpack along the wall, shuffled my bottom after it, then, with legs dangling, jumped to freedom. I felt exhausted and relieved — and also strangely elated.

Escape! But into yet more woods . . . This is a Maison Forestière.

Crossing of the ways. Which path should I take?

Many towns and villages had displays of flowers at their entrance and exit.

The church in Arc-en-Barrois.

Who's looking at you? The bovine police. Go back to prison immediately!