Michael wrote for us in August 2014 and shared his story of walking the road ‘El Camino de Santiago’. Since then Michael has walked from Portugal to Santiago (the Camino Portuguese) with his grandson but none have been as challenging as his most recent. His story is told in three parts and I am sure everyone will be as enthralled as I have been. I can only describe Michael’s epic journey as heroic. Accompanying Michael was his son Andrew, his friend Geoff and his wife Anjo who travelled by any means to be with her husband and offer support.
The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric the Serious, made a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome and back in 998. He had a journal kept of his journey. It is largely this route which is now called the Via Francigena, the Road from France, and is one of the most significant pilgrim’s journeys in Europe. The distance is 1900 – 2000 kilometres depending on the guide book used and the signs followed.
This year my son Andrew and I walked the route together. We left Canterbury on 10th July and arrived at St Peter’s Square, Rome, on 9th October, taking exactly three calendar months or 92 days. Neither Andrew nor I are religious people and both of us walked for the adventure. Because Fifty Five Plus is age related I shall divulge that Andrew is 51 and I am 76. Andrew’s mother, my wife, Anjo, also travelled along the route by bus, train, sometimes taxi, and ferry, leap frogging us, arranging accommodation and evening meals for the three of us. Sometimes she could not travel to the next town or next few towns by public transport so she would wait ahead until we caught up. A friend of mine, Geoff, started off with us from Canterbury and planned to leave us in Reims to head home to Sydney.
The distance from Canterbury to Dover is 30 kilometres. Now the guide book I purchased, in two pocket sized volumes, was useful but as it gradually dawned on us, had some shortcomings. I thought we should walk to Dover on Day 1. It was a warm summer’s day. We came to the corner of a field and climbed over the stile. The guide book said then to walk along the edge of the field. But which edge? We picked the wrong one and the 30 kilometres turned to 38 and as it turned out the second longest day of the entire adventure. We took the ferry to Calais on Day 2.
We walked through the towns of Licques, Helfaut, Amettes, Olhain, Arras and the northern rolling countryside of France over the next days, often alongside canals into the Somme Valley and past the cemeteries of the Great War. The temperatures were high and the bitumen in the road pavements bubbled. In places there was no public transport for Anjo but when she appeared by the side of the road with her pack on her back, looking forlorn, strangers would stop for her and drive her, sometimes miles out of their way. On Bastille Day she arrived early at our gite in Amettes. The hosts took her with them to the ceremony at the town hall and she joined in the party, complete with champagne!
We stayed in the Abbaye de Notre Dame in Wisques and were well cared for by the nuns, especially Sister Juli. We had the very large visitors’ house to ourselves. After Amettes Anjo travelled onto Arras while we walked halfway there to Divion. It was les Vacances in France at that time and when all of France goes on summer holidays together. Accommodation was scarce and we set up a hutchie at the Divion camping ground, our only night on the walk under canvas. These days were hot and long: after the 38 kilometres to Dover, 28, 32, 36, 28, 28 kilometres. We stayed in Arras for two nights and had the company on the first night of a young French woman, Audre, a judge, who took her vacation walking from Calais to Arras.
From Arras to Bapaume and Geoff went lame with shin splints. I telephoned our B&B hostess for that evening if she could arrange a taxi to carry Geoff. No, she said (all in French), I shall come! We sat outside a church in the shade of some large cherry trees and waited for her. The cherries were ripe and plentiful and dangled above our heads as we took our ease on the grass lawn. A lady from a nearby house came with water for us. Madame arrived and Geoff climbed in the car. Andrew and I put our packs in the back and walked, unladen, for the 10 kilometres to our beds.
From Bapaume to Peronne, Anjo and Geoff travelling by taxi and Andrew and I walking. And from Peronne to Trefcon and here we stayed in a gite. Our hosts were Hubert and Andrealla and we dined with them that night. The next day Anjo and Geoff travelled by taxi and then train to Laon where Anjo stayed to wait for us. Geoff continued onto Reims and from there to London. Andrew and I had another three days to Laon, staying overnight in camping grounds, the first at Seracourt-Le-Grand on the banks of the Somme River.
We met up with Anjo at Laon. She travelled to Reims the next day and we walked to Corbeny and overnighted in an hotel then the next day to Reims. We stayed there for two days as Andrew was struck down by some virus but he was feeling well on the third day and we set off once more. We were in the province of Champagne and walking through the vineyards we met an Italian couple, Lucian and Helena, both dentists from near Venice. They were walking to the Italian Alps then home. Next year they will resume their walk to Rome. Their two dentist sons were looking after the practice – filling in I suppose. We would meet Lucian and Helena often over the next weeks. That day we walked on to Conde-sur-Marne. Our chambres d’hôte was full when we arrived (they had over booked) so they took us to Grandma’s house, just up the road. We had walked an extra four kilometres to buy provisions for dinner – pasta, bacon, onion, and wine. Grandma gave us some butter beans and green beans to add to our meal. After dinner we wandered over to the main chambres d’hote to chat with an Australian couple, Peter and Christine, who were walking to Rome at a very gentle and sensible pace. Later they were to give invaluable help to Anjo after she banged her ribs and went to stay with friends in the south-east of France for three weeks.
Walking to Chalons-en-Champagne we came to a canal with a tow path. We turned right onto the tow path and after five kilometres we realised we should have turned left. To backtrack would turn a 20 kilometre day into a 30 kilometre day. So we continued on for another 12 kilometres, caught a train back to Reims and then another to Chalons.
Walking by the Marne I recall the painting by Cezanne, Sur les Banques de la Marne, and which hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It cost us $16.5 million. We met up with Anjo who hurt herself, slipping in the bath and banging her ribs. She trained across France and waited in Bordeaux for our friends to come home from a trip away. She had X-rays at the hospital in Bordeaux and was told there is nothing broken and was given some pain killers. When she came home to Australia our GP sent her for more X-rays which showed she has seven cracked ribs!
Now we walked through flat farmland and through towns: Vitry-Le-Francois, St Remy-en-Bouzemont, Brenne-Le-Chateau (where we met up with Lucian and Helena). And it was hot with days of 37 degrees. Our best overnight stay so far was in the home of Laurent de Bott. He barbecued steaks with salad for dinner. His daughter, 15 year old Louison, made a chocolate cake for desert. Andrew was going to buy some brandy for my empty flask. No, says Laurent. He had brandy with which he filled my flask for the road ahead.
We were to overnight in Chalindrey but in my telephone conversation with the hotel owner I missed the phrase ‘pas plus’ – ‘no more’. They didn’t do accommodation any more. When she said d’accord I thought all was OK, but no, she was saying ‘pas plus, d’accord?’ No more, OK, you got it? We found a B&B in Cumont, a few kilometres off our line of march. On our way there we came upon this most grand house – three stories with wonderful from stairs, manicured lawns, and topiary trees. We stood looking through the steel bars of the gates when a man appeared from behind the house accompanied by a very big Irish wolfhound. He walked up to the gates and we had a short conversation in French. We said we were admiring his beautiful home. Somehow he twigged we weren’t French and asked in English if we were walking in the forests nearby. No, we said, we were walking to Rome. Rome! That is a long way! Where are you from? Australia, we replied. He studied us for a moment and then asked if we would like to come in for a beer? Oh yes! Indeed we would! He called his wife. His name was Alexander and his wife was Alexandra. We sat in the shade and chatted for about an hour.
We thanked our kind hosts and walked the short distance to our B&B and Madame, whose name was Edith, showed us to our room. We had only just taken our boots off when she appeared with two icy cold bottles of beer! We sat with Edith and her husband, Jean-Claude, and other guests at dinner that night. Jean-Claude smacked a few flies with the side of his dinner knife with unerring accuracy and flicked them aside. Then with his knife he cut the onion tart into slices for our entree!
From Cumont to Champlitte then to Dampierre-au-Salon. The Marne was left behind us now and we walked beside la Salon for a time. Then we walked to Fretigney. There was a fierce storm but we took shelter in a bus shelter and sat out the heavy rain. We walked the line of a Roman road but while it appeared on the map as a track it became wilder and wilder. We were up to our knees in blackberries and clambering through bog holes. The last people to use the road were the Legions. Of course we found our way out of there and arrived in Fretigney in good time. In Fretigney we stayed in a very good chambres d’hote boasting a large garden with a fish stocked pond and two peacocks. The gates were wide open. One of the peacocks discovered he could walk through the village and someone would feed him. Now he walks up the road about twice a day looking for his free lunch then returns home. He walks in the middle of the road and the traffic queues behind him.
Onto Cussey-sur-l’Ognon and then to Bescancon where we met with Anjo again. We collected her at the station in the evening and went to the old part of the city for dinner together. Bescancon is an old city on the banks of the Doubs Rivière and is beautiful. It is the beginning of our walk through the Jura. We took a rest day there. When we set out from Bescancon we climbed steeply. It was raining lightly. We had gone perhaps an hour when we passed a lady standing outside her house. She spoke to us in French and asked where we were walking to. A Rome. Rome! How wonderful! Where were we from? Australie. Australie! She stared at us for a moment then cried, Attendez! Attendez! And ran back inside her house.
We waited, looking at one another. Then she appeared at her front door and beckoned to us. I said to Andrew that if she asks us to take our wet clothes off and she she will dry them by the fire, then run Andrew! Run for your life! But we sat in her kitchen and she made coffee for us. Her husband joined us and we chatted for a while and finished our coffee. We left and they wished us Bon Courage!
Michael’s Story will be continued when we return on 4th March.