Without undue ceremony, the mayor of Jessains opened the door of the changing room where we were to stay the night. It boasted a toilet and shower and, for €6.30, the tent could go anywhere except the pitch itself. Judging by the state of the pitch, it wouldn’t have been a comfortable night anyway!
We found one of our two tent poles broken. This we fixed, after a fashion, with two pairs of tweezers! As a mark of our blessed condition, a complete double rainbow stretched over us.
La Vagabond Cinema, Bar
The next day, accompanied by the ever delightful river, we walked into Bar-sur-Aube. Ever since talking myself out of watching the latest Jason Bourne in Reims, I found myself vaguely obsessed by local French cinemas. Suddenly, they were appearing in all conditions in tiny French towns. The manager of La Vagabond cinema in Bar explained the staff chose the films amongst themselves, a wonderfully eclectic mix of ten, currently.
Having been recommended the documentary l’Ouragan, we proceeded to be perhaps the only two people to have slept through Hurricane Katrina. French culture is a curious thing: solid, unchanging stone of town after town and a penchant for middle aged crooners emoting with singalong angst; all the technical wizardry of capturing the storm and the inevitable personification of Katrina as a mystical weather muse.
Climbing the hills out of Bar, gave some foretaste of future hillier terrain; coming down into the isolated, verdant clearing in the forest that is Clairvaux gave no indication of quite how utterly fascinating the place is.
St. Bernard founded the Abbey in the twelfth century, ideally placed, between Paris and the Holy Roman Empire, Champagne and Burgundy, and close to the Via Agrippa, to become powerful, firstly with farming, then iron. In the years of the Republic, with his zeal for controlling and organising all institutions, Napolean set about reforming the discredited galley prison system. He took over Clairvaux as a prison but his system of committing the prisoners to wealthy industrialists also ended in notoriety: some 700 dying as a result.
Clairvaux had become the maximum security prison it remains to this day. Prisoners, kept thirty to a room, initially welcomed the system of hencoops whereby each man was put in a two metre square cage. Having submitted our passports and switched off phones we were taken in to look. There was some evidence of the original abbey. Naturally, we saw nothing of the modern prison. But we were held in appalled fascination by the ruined original prison, finally abandoned in 1971.
With smashed windows, it looked like an abandoned factory somewhere in northern England. There, beside the collapsing roof, we saw, stored away, the abandoned hencoops. The modernising President, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, finally did away with them in 1971. He did away with the guillotine in 1981, not before overseeing the last execution in 1976, of a prisoner taken from Clairvaux, the very place that provided the prisoner who was to inspire Victor Hugo to create Jean Valjean.
The Fraternité of St Bernard
We stayed that night at the Fraternité of St Bernard opposite the entrance to the abbey prison. The two nuns (normally three) provide accommodation for the wives and children visiting the inmates whose sentences range from ten years to life. Carlos ‘the Jackal’, one time inmate, wrote many letters to the sisters. The Algerian woman and Spanish woman, with her baby, who stayed with us were anxious to remain very private. In fact, for many Muslim women, the possible presence of male pilgrims is making the provision impossible.
The sisters busied themselves bringing out wave upon wave of simple, homely hospitality. Having spent decades in Africa, tending to lepers and the war wounded, they had evolved a faith that was inclusive, they insisted, where salvation was possible for all. They had also a mischievous sense of humour. Of course there are other peoples in the world, not yet reached by God’s salvation, from where else did Cain find the woman who was to become his wife?
Anna and Michael
Two other pilgrims were staying, Anna and Michael. They were German, headed for Santiago de Compostella. Pilgrim passports you get stamped are meant to weed out the vagabonds from the true pilgrims. Michael was going to take two, maybe six, months getting there. With his easy irony and settled confidence, he struck me as something different, a vagabond pilgrim. Anna had walked there before but this year was stopping in a few days, having filled in a missing section. She was a music therapist working to bring old and young closer together through music and song. She played several instruments but put them aside when singing to the dying, to bring her breathing as close as possible to the rhythm of theirs.
Clairvaux, such a beautiful name. The instruments of justice, so savage. So tender and strong, the compassion of women for the bereft and dying.