At Chateauvillain, anxiety isn’t just in the air, it’s in the numerous cars of Gendarmerie that patrol day and night, it’s in the ambivalence of the populace, both shuttered and beckoning.
A little way out of town, the traveller encampment has grown to some 3000 strong and this week-end is the giant fair at which hunters from all over France gather to trade weapons and gear before the start of the new season.
The history of the town is bound up with hunting, its one-time chateau, the hunting lodge of Burgundian dukes. The chemist shop window has a cuddly display of all the different creatures it’s possible to hunt and everywhere there are manifestations of the ultimate prize, the wild boar.
It’s a town with enough businesses surely to make the case to be thriving but somehow it’s difficult to access. Beckoning and shuttered. I walk the length of the place before I can buy lunch for the following day, and that eventually, is at the supermarket just outside of town on the local arterial, another such leeching the life out of the heart of the town it serves.
Steve and Maggie, an English couple, are models of hard work and enterprise. They offer the town’s hotel and gîte and restaurant and bar. The restaurant is La Belle Époque and the period detailing continues in the bedrooms. The menu is changed frequently and is exotically French but cooked in an inescapably British manner. We are the only customers in the both the hotel and the restaurant that night.
Beneath the professionalism and the desire to deliver service, Maggie can’t quite disguise her resentment at the struggle involved and unhelpful groups become stereotypically condemned. Steve, who works the bar, goes the other way and tries hard to understand everyone’s point of view, not just the travellers but the farmers and townsfolk who resist the bid for national park status that would not only lift Steve’s business but offer a lifeline to the area. Ambivalence. Steve thinks everyone has a point; Maggie bolts the gate to the car park in case ‘they’ come into town.
The French Gendarmerie work to a different model to the British Police. At this time of tension, the numerous patrol cars are loaded three up – they can still arrest two for questioning. It seems crazy budgeting but it wins hearts and minds. In the same way, it appears the French Air Force are under instruction to criss-cross the nation with low flying, super sonic fighter jets, to remind everyone of the fantastic kit they’ve got up there. (Meanwhile, a young man with a back pack gets off a train at the Gare du Nord.)
We set off next day. The guide book is ever helpful: ‘The woods are popular with hunters and home to deer and wild boar. Hunting may take place on any day. It is advisable not to deviate from the tracks and if possible wear something bright.’ Presumably no renditions of ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm’ either. Steve assures us it’s out of season but suggests walking in the morning: it’s after the usually heavy lunch that the shooting gets intense.
As usual, accommodation is problematic; at the end of the day, we walk six kilometres off route but are rewarded with a delightful auberge in Villiers-sur-Suize. The next day involves a long walk finishing with a punishing climb up into another hilltop French town, Langres.
Here, Ange leaves me to return to England. Or rather, I set off in the early morning without her and she leaves for home by a later train.
She has walked in excess of 500 kilometres with me, the final week or so in a heat wave with temperatures in (at least) the high thirties. Her blisters have burst or she has burst them more than once. On a steep slope in a forest she stumbled and fell forwards, surprised into thumping face down in the path by the sudden gravity of her pack swinging up behind her head. She struggled with all the accommodation issues on our behalf.
I look down or look ahead; she looks around, delighting in what’s there, not just the big views but flowers by the track, birds everywhere. Every joy and triumph, challenge and despair has been shared.
I talk to her all the next day, even though she’s not there.