I want the data: how many people actually do this walk? I keep hearing there are a lot this year – this being for Catholics the Jubilee of Mercy, the 27th such holy year in church history, with an additional exhortation to embark on pilgrimage. But how many people is that?
If this was just the Via Francigena, the man wouldn’t be sat there at a desk in the heart of Reims Cathedral but Le Chemin de Saint-Jacques passes through here and the difference in numbers is striking. In excess of a quarter of a million people received the official Compostela in Santiago last year and the year-on-year increase will add 5,000 on the numbers for this July alone.
In addition to stamping passports and chatting, the man from the Confraternity of Saint James collects data. I ask to see the sheets and pore over them. From what I can see (fallible) and from what this particular data collection point indicates (limited), a dozen or so pilgrims left Canterbury on foot in July. Other than myself and Ange, one other was British (Bon Camino, Nicholas!).
In the period since 1 May, three or four British people started the Via Francigena from Canterbury. Right now, Loic, Maurizio and Catherina are the only people who started from England that we are likely to see. Obviously, the numbers pick up en route and the VF is well established and well travelled down through Italy. Clearly though, these numbers are going to have little economic impact and make no real contribution to an infrastructure that would make the journey more manageable.
Peace in Europe
Shortly after checking through the data, Ange and I stop to sit awhile in the Square of the Victims of the Gestapo (at the site of the building where victims were ‘interrogated’). It does what the cemeteries do and it makes us confront the death of individuals amidst all the statistics. Peace at the end of World War Two was also signed here in Reims and it was in Reims in 1962 that de Gaulle and Adenauer marked the reconciliation between France and Germany.
Leaders who devised unified structures for Europe back then had this recent history in mind. In the Brexit debate, it was hardly mentioned. Our focus was on immediate interests and it was deemed a campaign irrelevance to present the virtue of peace in Europe. Yet Europe has for ever been the bloodiest, most war-torn land on the planet and the instigator of the greatest atrocities in all of human history – and these in living memory. This is the dark heart of the Europe I am travelling through.
But enough of war and politics. Bring on the champagne!
Bringing on the Champagne
Accommodation continues to ‘fail to materialise’, this time around the champagne village of Verzenay. So, we walk all the way out of Reims, turn round and walk all the way back, to stay yet another night in Reims, before starting early the next morning in the heart of the champagne vineyards.
We have been caught out by Sunday and the surprise (to us) Férie Monday and have nothing to eat till breakfast at the accommodation next morning. Thus, the planned evening meal involves peanuts (thanks, Cathy) and lunch is a third of a packet of BN biscuits, much loved by us when in France with our small children – chocolate but not messy. I see from the packet that Prof BN is giving advice about a healthy breakfast, which is a yoghurt, a piece of fruit and two BN biscuits. I’m no nutritionist, Prof, but I say why not skip the yoghurt and the fruit and get straight on with the biscuits?
We get to our pilgrims’ accommodation in Condé-sur-Marne, hot and tired, to be greeted delightfully with coffee and orange juice from our host. As we take our shoes off by the door, we recognise the other two pairs; we have caught up again with Maurizio and Catherina. That night they have been able to cobble together a feast of surprises, not the least of which, a bottle of champagne, for €11, bottled by our host’s father.
No Swinging Botafumeiro
The next morning we walk together into Châlons-en-Champagne along the canal, our companions to the youth hostel while we head for the out of town campsite. We meet in town for dinner that evening. This is the last night of their pilgrimage; tomorrow they catch a train into Paris for a few nights. There have been a few disappointments and this conclusion is no swinging botafumeiro in the cathedral at Santiago with thousands of headily inspired pilgrims. It’s not even the end of the pilgrimage, just a faintly disappointing meal in a slightly disappointing town.
We aren’t able to provide much in the way of compensation but they are a relentlessly positive couple with a keen eye for the comedic and they’ll get over it, in Maurizio’s case, with the offer of accompanying me over the Appenines near his home town, busy work schedule permitting.
The Via Agrippa
That evening, despite a pharmacy temperature reading of 32.5, I insist on taking the the ‘shortcut’, involving two 30-40km stages along the straight Roman Via Agrippa (which runs from Milan to Boulogne) and into deep agricultural France, described in ‘the book’ as ‘the middle of nowhere’.
The Angel of Coole
In relentless sunshine, on a track through vast open fields (and despite the alarm going off at 5.30am), we are struggling by midday. Fontaine-sur-Coole needs a trade descriptions investigation. Coole itself is not looking any better prior to the intervention of the Angel of Coole. I am hurrying ahead trying to find shade when Monique stops her car, catches up with Ange and takes her to the church, which promises deep shade and a tap in the corner of the churchyard.
Monique’s husband is a farmer. The crop isn’t good and they are relieved to be retiring this year. She isn’t even that optimistic for the giant farming operations that are just about the only thing left in the French countryside. On her advice, we sleep for over two hours in the shade till about 4.30 and set off again.
In the Middle of the Middle of Nowhere
Just as we reach some woods on the hills, up above the only road, things go wrong for Ange. The day of sun is getting to her and then her largest blister bursts. We have 10km to go to our accommodation. The prospect of continuing is bleak. We are stuck in the middle of the middle of nowhere.
Ange phones the accommodation to explain we will be late and they offer to come and get us. I jog half an hour down to the nearest village and meet Frank and we go back to pick Ange up from the end of the track.
ESAT Les Antes
We are staying that night in the ESAT Les Antes in Le Meix-Tiercelin, a brilliant place which gives dignity and purpose to vulnerable and disabled adults through work in a whole variety of contexts. Frank, a director or doctor, walks about the place with an arm round someone here or one of those great quick French handshakes, dispensing reassurance in a pleasing, casual manner. We eat with them, sleep in our tent on the lawn and breakfast with them again in the morning for €10 a piece.
After breakfast, Ange still isn’t quite right, with the effects of the sun and pain in her feet, and Corinne in the office works through the options. In the end, the gardener, because he can’t mow the lawns in the teeming rain, offers to give us a lift into Brienne le Chateau, which he does, with one of the residents doing the driving. We happily leave a donation to support their work.
Our own Hunting Lodge
Once she heard we were pilgrims, the woman in the tourist information produces a key for the hunting lodge behind the chateau, which is where we are now, at €10 each, enjoying a kitchen and fresh food from the supermarket.
Twice, when profusely thanking Frank and Corinne, we heard the same French expression: ‘c’est normal’, their way of saying ‘it was nothing’ but somehow the phrase has been in my head ever since.