I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Via Francigena

The Via Francigena is a 1900 km pilgrim trail from Canterbury to Rome. It takes you across the English Channel, through north-eastern France and Switzerland, over the Alps by the Great St Bernard Pass, then down through northern Italy to the 'Eternal City'. Recently I walked 42 km along this historic route.

Canterbury Cathedral, start of the Via Francigena. Here the cathedral's Welcome Office stamped my pilgrim 'passport'.

So is this where elderly pilgrims end up? Rather a depressing thought.

Pilgrim ways pass through unsightly areas as well as picturesque ones. You have to take the rough with the smooth.

From Canterbury to Dover the Via Francigena follows the course of the North Downs Way.

In Kent many oast houses (buildings for drying hops as part of the brewing process) have been turned into private dwellings.

The Way cut straight as a die through corn fields and poppy fields, though the roar of cars on the parallel-running A2 was annoyingly persistent. That first night I pitched my tent right by the path on a piece of turf surrounded by inquisitive hens and geese. The smallholder had kindly allowed me to camp there. Leaving the village of Sherperdswell the next morning, it was only a further 10 km to Dover. 

The white cliffs of Dover en route to the ferry.

On the other side of the Channel I found Calais a bit of a dump. The food was mediocre, and even the wine was poor. Was my love affair with France coming to an end? This photo shows the back view of Rodin's 'The Burghers of Calais'. 

The theatre at Calais — closed for renovation.

Calais' Hôtel de Ville — not my favourite building in the world but, apart from the theatre, the only building of any distinction in Calais. I stayed at the youth hostel near the sea front. No one had changed the sheets, and I slept on thousands of grains of sand.

On the third day I made for Guînes along the Canal de Calais à Guînes. Hot sunshine had hit northern Europe, but I found the intense heat debilitating and strength-sapping. With its extra contents of tent, stove, sleeping bag and sleeping mat, my backpack was punishingly heavy. I camped that night at La Bien Assise, an excellent campsite at Guînes. It was free to pilgrims.

In the morning, after an uncomfortable night in my cramped tent, I examined my wounds: one blister, two blackened toenails, a strained muscle in my lower back, a general feeling of exhaustion, lethargy and loneliness. I'd also gone completely deaf in one ear — a problem to which I'm prone due to a build-up of cerumen. And I was developing a cold.

I'd intended walking for perhaps a week or two, but knew I could not go on. I also had problems at home which I'd escaped and not resolved. After a few days and nights in Belgium, in the fine cities of Bruges and Ghent, which I reached by train, I headed back home...

18 comments:

Arija said...

I feel for you, leaving unresolved problems is not conducive to the calm mind needed for a pilgrimage.
Lovely poppy field that was worth the walk and privation.

Ruth said...

A well crafted post, in spite of the problems you had. Every photo and description is of interest. The Burghers of Calais speak volumes with their turned backs and slumped shoulders. Even the poppies belie the sounds of the road we can't hear.

There is something about those brick oast buildings being repurposed into homes that is reassuring. I'm guessing a person could find a dry bed without sand in there.

Hold fast, pilgrim. May the path be clear soon.

jan said...

Interesting post. Thank you for taking us along. I would love to walk some of this route. Sorry for your blisters, sandy sheets(eww) and back. However maybe something was working to send you back home to sort things out. I agree with the poster above, that poppy field(and the walking time you had) must have been worth it.

Hilary said...

Several years ago, my daughters, an English cousin and I took the ferry in Dover to Calais.
I agree, the food was mediocre, it was not a friendly place. It poured the whole time, and we were glad to get back to Kent.
I did LOVE Canterbury cathedral though. And it was special because I loved Chaucer from high school days.
I love following you around.

Hilary said...

Oh, it's me again....my daughter painted a picture of the poppy fields in Kent.....I can't wait to show her your shot of it.
You took me back.

George said...

This is a very exciting post, Robert. I've always wanted to walk the Via Francigena, and your notes allowed me to enjoy the first stages vicariously. I salute your adventurous spirit and know that, in time, you will return to the path. Sometimes we need to turn back; sometimes we need to go further than planned. At all times, however, we simply need to follow our hearts, even when they are pulling us in directions we had not anticipated.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your comment, Arija.

Ruth — yes, I think the subliminal message has come through loud and clear!

And Jan, I think you're right. What is meant to be, will be.

Thanks for visiting, Hilary. I'm glad my post stirred up some memories for you. This time England just seemed so lovely after returning from northern France...

Hi George! And thanks for your astute comments. The Via Francigena is certainly not a beginner pilgrim's walk, however. The daily distances can be long, and the accommodation limited.

Martin said...

Very sorry to hear you had to cut your hike short, the same happned to me in the Pyrenees last year, very frustrating but I learnt from it and am going again in a few weeks time.

Did you go and ask the smallholder in the UK if you could camp in their field or had you met them before?

George said...

With respect to your comments about the disappointments in Calais, particularly with the food, I recently read that one third of French restaurants now admit that most of their food is prepared in factories and simply heated up, usually by microwave, before serving. The Washington Post article said that most people in the know are convinced that the real number of "factory made food restaurants" is actually closer to fifty percent. Needless to say this has created a great controversy between those who simply want to cash in on France's worldwide reputation for good cuisine and those believe—correctly, I think—that serving factory manufactured food in French restaurants undermines one of the important cornerstones to French culture.

The French government will now require all restaurant menus to disclose when a dish is "house made," versus "factory made." They are also considering the prohibition of factory-made dishes in "restaurants," in contrast with bistros and cafes.

If France follows the American way and continues to put efficiency and profit ahead of art, culture, and tradition, there will undoubtedly be others who will wonder if their love affair with France is coming to an end.

C'est domage. Let us hope that the wiser minds will prevail.

The Solitary Walker said...

Martin — taking camping stuff with you to the Pyrenees is a killer with all those stiff ascents, unless you can manage to go really lightweight, which I didn't seem able to manage on my own trip (I left in rather a hurry for a start — not a good plan!) I hope you have a great trip next time round. Are you staying in the huts and shelters? I love the Pyrenees, and have been there several times.

Re. my own 'semi-wild' camp, I'd been eager to set off from Canterbury in the late afternoon/early evening rather than stay in Canterbury. By 9pm I was pretty desperate to find a spot for my tent (a Hilleberg Akto) as night was coming on. However decent places in the hard chalk of cultivated Kent were hard to find. As I approached the small village of Sherperdswell, I passed a lady feeding her ducks and chickens, and we began conversing. In no time at all she'd offered me a pitch on her land — and near a tap too! Very nice, though I was woken by a cockerel at 4am..!

The Solitary Walker said...

I couldn't agree with you more, George — especially after this last short trip. France is ruining its long and distinguished gastronomic tradition.

Just one example: a so-called 'restaurant' in Calais (though admittedly Calais is not a typical French town, it's somewhat cynical with all the tourist and ferry trade) served chips which were definitely not 'à la maison' (though the beef was good). It also served a half bottle of Côtes du Rhône which was like vinegar. When tasting it, the inexperienced young waiter saw my lip curling — and promptly ran off! And everywhere the salads were poor, the lettuce indescribably better from our own garden which we're picking at the moment.

The Solitary Walker said...

PS You have to go to the remoter, regional areas to be assured of good food prepared from scratch, I think...

Martin said...

I'm walking in the foothills, the Cathar Way to be precise:

http://www.lesentiercathare.com/

So, should be okay, we'll see, check my blog in September to find out : )

dritanje said...

It takes courage to set out on these adventures, sometimes very arduous, but it also takes courage to accept that it simply is not right to go on, and it's time to go back. And to carry a tent is a huge burden. I did it once, when I was young and strong, but nowadays even minimal weight feels too much. I hope your issues are soon resolved, and you can enjoy the unexpectedly good summer days we're having now, in UK. All very best to you, solitary walker.

The Solitary Walker said...

Hey, that looks a great route, Martin! I know the Ariège valley, Foix and Montségur, quite well, having visited twice. Montségur is such an iconic Cathar castle, featured in one of Kate Mosse's books I believe. Looking forward to reading your report!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your sympathetic comment, Dritanje. To be honest, i was fine about turning back — I just knew I couldn't have continued! Most of my long walking trips I've completed; a few I've cut short. Circumstances dictate. And the goal is the way, not the destination!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Oh Robert I felt for you - but glad to hear you headed back home.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for visiting, Pat!