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On April 28th I will set out from Canterbury Cathedral on a pilgrimage that will see me walking almost 1200 miles to Rome.
I have been hoping to embark on this trip for quite some time, and am both excited and a little daunted at the prospect!
My prime motivation was to take time out to think about life, reflect and pray; to read the bible and explore my Christian faith. Added to that is the simple challenge of spending three months or so plodding up hill and down dale, camping wherever people will have me and carrying everything I need on my back.
This year my father, Robin Protheroe, celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination to the Anglican priesthood. This adds a further sense of meaning to this pilgrimage, during which I will reflect on and give thanks for his lifetime of commitment to the Christian church.
Many people suggested that I should seek sponsorship for the walk, and I realised that I should not miss this opportunity to raise some money for a good cause. That is why I would ask you, if you are able, to generously donate to Practical Action.
Practical Action is a charity that seeks to help disadvantaged people by empowering them individually and as communities to raise their standard of living by means of practical technologies and skills. Please look at their website www.practicalaction.org.uk to find out more - I think you'll find it inspiring.
Donating through this site is simple, fast and totally secure. It is also the most efficient way to sponsor me: Practical Action will receive your money faster and, if you are a UK taxpayer, an extra 28% in tax will be added to your gift at no cost to you.
I will be walking around 1200 miles. You might like to sponsor me 1p per mile, 5p, 10p... You might like to make a smaller or larger donation. I will be very grateful for any donation that is made to Practical Action, no matter how large or small. It will strengthen me as I walk each day to know that I am supported by your generosity.
Many thanks for your support.
28/04/08: I am now on the way! I set out from Canterbury Cathedral after a very warm welcome there and a lovely blessing from the chaplain, Father John. I eased myself in with about thirteen miles in the sunshine from Canterbury to Fryarne Park. The walk was peaceful and uneventful except for a couple of fields with big "Beware of the Bull" signs. I wasn't sure whether I was being a suburban wimp to fear the creatures, so hopped over the stile and cautiously continued along the footpath. The three bulls in the field started looking at me a bit suspiciously though, and I was forced to beat a calm retreat. Much hacked-at undergrowth and several limbos-under-electric-fences-and-between-barbed-wire later, two bull-filled terror-fields had been successfully skirted. Fool that I am, I returned to one of them to try and get a decent photo. Remaining within swift scurrying distance of the stile at all time, I ventured back into the danger zone, camera at the ready. The three bulls looked at me from afar with menace, approaching bit by bit until they were almost close enough to smell (I tell a small lie, of course but they were close enough for a suburban boy's comfort). I thought we were about to make friends as they calmly allowed me to snap away, but when the biggest of them started snorting and pawing at the ground I thought it was perhaps time to back away slowly and continue on the way to Rome, ungored.
29/04/08 Today is filled with heavy rain and hail - not quite so conducive. Having sat out the worst of the weather yesterday (a luxury I shan't be able to afford myself too often in the future, I imagine), I made a fairly late start on the road to Dover. The walk was uneventful, except for a brief moment of excitement/terror when a kindly farmer set his baying dogs on me (I stood my ground like the brave soldier that I am and they seemed to lose interest - no blood was shed on either side). I plodded on through the delightful Kent countryside (somewhat less delightful once the heavens had reopened) for about seven hours. Well, I tell a lie, the last hour or so was spent plodding through Dover - distinctly less delightful, but nonetheless mercifully close to the day's destination of the ferry port. It was to my consternation that I realised (once informed) that foot passengers are not accepted on evening ferries. I was given the option to stow away on a Eurolines bus, but that would not depart until much later, and would not arrive until 2:30am French time - not the best time to be hanging around the port of Calais... Furthermore, I was a little worried that this might constitute a breaking of the "walking only" rules. Wet and cold, it was therefore with gratitude that I was whisked off back to Friarne Park where I spent another warm night. This morning I shall shortly be returned to the ticket office at Dover where I had arrived on foot last night (no cheating!), and will continue on my way... Once again the weather is looking grim. Bring on the sunshine, say I...
30/04 Sailed on 10:55 from Dover. Got a Pride Of Kent stamp in my Pilgrim Record. Started walking around 14:00. Battled intermittent rain rain and a strong headwind all the way to Wissant. About 5.5hrs. Donned full waterproofs but kept big shades on. Unsure if I looked like a special forces ninja or a prize fool. I'll assume the former, for dignity's sake. Walking as ever with two trekking poles. Some young workmen asked me with interest if I was blind. Wrong colour sticks, I replied (ok, I didn't). Passed through Sangatte. No apparent sea of refugees or would-be UK immigrants. Saw two gliders over Cap Blanc Nez. Mesmerising. Found a campsite at Wissant. Pleasant welcome. Pitched tent and went off to a brasserie for potage aux légumes and a steack haché. All very nice.
01/05 Rained all night and most of the morning. I snoozed till shamefully late, but what else to do? The one time my bladder forced me out of the tent I got drenched (with rain). Woke up properly at about 10:30. Looked around me. It was as though I was in the bath. Rain dripping from, tent ceiling where I'd made the error of stroking, head-butting or kicking it in the night (I'm an active sleeper and a bad boy scout). Worse though, when brushing my teeth in the dark I had failed to screw the top properly on my water bottle, so had succeeded in tipping well over a litre of water around my tent inner. Pleased? I was ecstatic. The only dry things were my boots, it seemed. One small mercy. Sleeping bag, sleeping mat, backpack - you name it - at least damp at worst sodden. Who would true idiocy see, let him come hither... So I prayed the prayer my piano teacher and lovely friend taught me (as indeed I have done every day since I begun): "Lord, remind me that nothing is gonna happen today thqt you and I can't handle together". I got on with clearing up and drying up (using almost all of my loo roll in the process) and got underway around 12:30. Hardly catching the worm... I'd settled my bill the night before in case I wanted to leave before 9:30. Ahem...
Appointed day's walk was just 17km so I decided to eat into the following day's 39km monster by ploughing on to Licques. Had a great welcome at the Pommiers campsite there from M. et Mme. Lance. 1-man tent looked truly silly in massive caravan berth. Go, pilgrim! Had a great omelette, my first shower since Dover and a decent night's sleep.
[this French keyboard is killing me - painfully slow. Could have typed up my whole journal in this time on an English one - as it is I'm including not-very-edited bits and bobs, and thereby probably missing out most of anything that is of interest. Apologies, dear reader. I'll go and eat a large quantity of food then have another bash tomorrow.]
[I've just spent over half an hour blogging away, I hit save and was told "please log in to your account". The page had timed out. I have retained my calm. Just. Sorry, here are the basics:]
02/05 Up at 09:30. Ran out of loo roll. Started walking at 11am. Phoned and arranged to stay at Wisques Abbey. Got attacked by dogs. Minor damage to trousers, no bodily wounds. No lion shall him fright! Took just over seven hours to get to the Abbey. Lovely warm welcome from Sister Lucy. Filling supper including Smash mash and boiled eggs. What a combo! Don't try it at home... Some pleasant other guests. A good rest.
03/05 On the road 9hrs, arrived in Amettes with no idea where to sleep. Incredible welcome in local bar. Everyone chatty and friendly. Turns out the local Saint, Benoit-Joseph Labre, had also gone on foot to Rome (and then all round Europe - hmm, giving me ideas...). There was a maison du pelerin with a field in which one may camp. I was told that scouts sometimes use it but no-one there that night. I rocked up to find the place full of tents and crawling with scouts! They were very welcoming and I camped with them.
04/05 Breakfast with scouts. Scout chief takes me to see the church and St Benoit's house. All very interesting; he very knowledgeable. Me a bit concerned about time as mass at 11:15 about half an hour away and tent not packed. Back to pack up; almost finished when another scout leader asks me to give testimony to the scouts. About fifty of them in a circle, I'm handed the mic and waffle on for a few minutes about my trip, the welcome I'd received, the spirit of scouting and the Christian spirit. They gave me a big hand, which was touching. Chief insisted on photo of me with all the scouts. I got one on my camera too. Nice souvenir. I then ran off too mass, just making it in time. Lovely 13th Century church. Good sermon on praying in order to be open to the Holy Spirit. Then I hit the road again, stopping at the bar to say goodbye to my new friends. 13:00 a stupidly late start. Exhausted so cut short my walking to just over 20km. Arrive Rebreuve Ranchicourt and can't be bothered to climb a few km out of my way to where I think there's a campsite. Chance my arm in the cafe of a trout fishing lake and end up being allowed to camp in their car park. Knock and the door...
05/05 Great night's sleep. About 10hrs. Up 9am, potter and pack. Head back into the town to find food. Nothing doing. Monday. Closed. Walk on. Same story in the next town. Ad the next. Arrive Comblain L'Abbé (where I should have got to the day before) at lunchtime. Nothing doing there either but a kind girl in the bar took pity and made me two croque monsieurs. I'd only had an apple and a banana for breakfast so was very grateful! Proceeded slowly to Arras, the day's destination. Checked into a little hotel (such luxury!), had a big shower, put my clothes to soak and headed out for pizza. Bed around 11pm.
06/05 First day off. Sightseeing in Arras. Hoping to receive first visitors briefly later today too. Need to find a campsite for tonight. May be problematic. But I'll work something out. I'm sure there'll be a car park somewhere with a bit of grass! I need the day of rest today. My legs are getting strong but my shoulders are sore. I need to eat a lot to to restore my energies. I'll be glad of a little time without the pack, but it almost feels weird not to have a destination for the day! Relax, pilgrim...
06/05 Day off in Arras turned out well. Visited St John Baptist church. Pleasant enough. Then cathedral. Awesome big 17th century (I guess) structure - all marbly and big and impressive. Spent ages there looking around. Feeling hungry. Ridden with guilt over expensive two-star hotel so no lunch. Disappointed that possible visit from girlfriend didn't materialise owing to the latenes of a P and O ferry - she and her friend couldn't make it down to me in time along with an already packed schedule. Never mind - just keep looking around! Was wandering and stumbled upon Notre Dame Des Ardents - a truly charming church with a fascinating history. Keen verger told me all about it and invited me to a concert in the evening - man and guitar. I accepted, of course. Then the priest turned up and invited me to mass at six thirty and a snack before the concert. I accepted, of course. There goes my quiet pizza, I heathenously thought to myself, but didn't wish to refuse their kindness. Had to dash back to hotel to pick up backpack and get to the Diocesan House in time to check in for the night - seventeen euros - wish i'd found it yesterday! Forced down some stale baguette and a banana then straight back to church. Enjoyed mass. Sermon on the Magnificat. Ate bread and ham and salad wish the priest, a nice italian lady and the evening's singer, Steeve, after. Concert brilliant in the event. Simple songs about the bible and human need and the church and love and stuff. Well written, well sung and with thought-provoking chat in between. Back to Diocesan House around ten. Simple but comfy room. Feel uplifted after the evening.
07/05/08 Up at 8. Breakfast eight fifteen. Eat alone. Nesquik, honey pops and biscuits. Hmmm. Leave around half nine. Steeve singing in church as I pass; I stop awhile to listen. He waved friendlily fro, the stage. Stopped at British war cemetery in Beaurains. Touching. Walked on to Bapaume. No campsite. No parish house as I'd been led to believe. Chatted to a nice chap on roller blades who works in a factory making adult nappies; went to a shop and bought some fresh milk (a treat in UHT-land); left town, knocking the dust off my boots as I went. Pretty plqce, Bapaume. Shame there's not really any pilgrim provision - the lady in the tourist office said that they're trying to sort something out. On to Beaulencourt - the rollerblader said I might be able to camp on the football field there. Ended up waiting an hour for a farmer to come home so I could ask him if it was ok to camp on his land (his wife said it wasn't up to her!). As it turned out they let me camp in their back garden, which was kind. Bread, cheese and fruit for supper in tent, then some Acts, Malachi and Job before a good sleep.
08/05/08 Get up, faff around and pack away. Bank holiday today - ?VE Day. Bands playing in Sailly Saissel by the monument, then lead onlookers away down the street. Lady gestures to me (on the other side of the street) so I cross and follow them. Chat to a few people. Very pleasant. A fez more hours through major heat to Peronne. Stop on outskirts and have a Big Mac meal. Filled with typical post-McDonald's self-loathing, but boy, was it good... Even had a caramel sundae for pudding! On into town and locate municipal campsite. The campsite is run by a very friendly and very inebriated dutchman, who shows me where to set up and kindly agrees to look after my bag while I head into town for a nosey around. Big war museum closed, so I mooch and wander, make a couple of phone calls, take a few pics and head back to campsite. Dutchman excited as an aussie has arrived. He tells me he's told her to pitch next to me as he likes to hear people chatting. Turns out she's on a cycle tour - started in London, heading to Paris then onward. Nice girl. She asks if I've eaten. I hesitated to reveal my guilty secret from earlier on! We both shower and head to town. Nice eatery I'd spied had just closed the kitchen. One option left: kebab. And a truly ropey kebab it was too. Self-loathing reignited with a vengeance. Bad pilgrim! Your body is a temple, yet you defile it with such filth! Didn't even have the redeeming quality of being pleasant in the eating... Bed at half eleven. Big blister on ball of left foot. Fingers crossed...
09/05/08 Alarm 8. Snooze till 9. I need my sleep, ok? Wave off Chantal the Aussie. Mildly jealous of her bike... Divert from prescribed route for the first time by heading for a town called Ham to save a few km. I mean hey, what's not to like about a town called Ham? Made me laugh, anyway... Ham is not unpretty; there are some nice gardens there. The suburbs towards the municipal campsite are, um, quite unpretty. The campsite is by the side of a big industrial plant, and at the end of a stinky-looking pond, which attracted legoins of hungry mozzies. People were fishing there. I don't know what for - if it wasn't supermarket trolleys it was three-headed trout. Office closed. Toilets and showers closed. About four caravans. Permanent fixtures, I suspect. Head into town. Buy some provisions. Get a take-away pizza and head back to campsite. THis is the first time I've felt lonely. Nasty place, nasty campsite, put up tent and eat take-away pizza whilst madmy batting away bloodthirsty insects. Grim. Get into tent and read. Hard to get to sleep. Finally do.
10/05/08 Wake up rested. Pack away and head to gendarmerie over the road to get my pilgrim record stamped. I explained that there wasn't a gardien at the campsite. They looked at me oddly and explained that it's not really a campsite; it's a gypsy site. Oh. Ok! Heading to Tergnier. Divert from Route Nationale through Detroit Bleue - both a pleasant relief to be off a main road (though they are simpler, easier and shorter generally and hence mostly preferable to me with my 18kg pack), and also truly beautiful countryside. Stop and have a good chinwag with a chap who was moving a huge pile of wood in loads with a modified wheelbarrow. A pleasant 40min distraction for both of us. He kindly gave me a reflective vest in case I ever need to walk at night on the roads. How thoughtful and generous. On to Tergnier. If Tergnier were in the Middle East you'd think it was an edgy but exciting little town. It's in Northern France. It's a dusty, messy, noisy and unwelcoming town full of slightly frightening people. Two of its four little hotels were closed. The other two were full (cheap, though!). There is no campsite. Time was ticking on, but I headed East. Passed two big gypsy camps. Decided not to request their hospitality. Finally got to La Fere. For two hours along the way no-one had known of a campsite, then all of a sudden I ask a friendly lady and her daughter and there's one up the road! Blessed relief at almost-nightfall. I'd identified a church I could squat-camp behind, but even that was over a km away by this stage. Lovely campsite in the event. Pitch tent then race to catch pizza restaurant ten minutes away before it closes. Turns out it's run by a guy from Sardinia, and the waiter's from Pisa! They welcome me like a brother and we chatter away happily in Italian together. Back to campsite 23:15 for a much needed and much enjoyed shower. Happy is the clean pilgrim. A few more mosquito bites then bed, glorious bed...
11/05/08 Alarm 9am, up aeound 9:30. Leave site around 10:50 after another big shower and some blister photography and surgery. A bit grim but kinda fun, if you know what I mean. Long phonecall to the lady, so a late start on the road. Got directions from a magician/illusionist who told me all sorts of places to visit - almost all off my route - then on to Laon. Uneventful walk. Chomped through 22km to Laon in about 4.5hrs - 5km/hr faster than I've previously managed. Probably faster than I'll manage again too, unless I fall down a mountain in Switzerland! The italians at the restaurant had kindly sent me away with some loaves of pizza bread, which provided breakfast and lunch. Laon visible from afar - a medieval town on a hill, approached by a very straight road. Passed signs to campsite as I entered the town, but headed on towards the hill to aim for 18/30 mass in the cathedral. Not obvious how to get to the top, but a little boy explained. What a climb! Steep and not short. Got to the top drenched in sweat, dehydrated and overheated. Ducked into a boulangerie and got a cold can of Fanta - possibly the sweetest I've ever tasted! On to the cathedral. No evening mass. Wandered around. It was interesting enough. Facade very impressive. Like a smaller Notre Dame de Paris, to my untrained eye. Came out of cathedral and was taking some pics of the West facade; saw two guys having a beer ona terrace by me, so asked for directions to the campsite. We fell to chatting and they offered to drive me there. I declined, as I want to stay on foot. They offered me a drink. I accepted (an orangina - I'm on the wagon during this trip). After a while one of them said do you have to stay in a campsite - is that part of the deal? I said no, and he offered me to stay at his house. How kind! I accepted straight away. Turns out both guys - Yanis and Jean-Baptiste live in flats in the same incredible mediaeval town house 100m from the cathedral. J-B went to get kebabs while Yanis showed me up to his flat. Yanis is a soldier in the French army, about to start officer traiing after 15 years service. J-B is a restorer of historic buildings and monuments. They share a passion for antiquity. The hospitality could not have been kinder. I was fed, given everything I needed to wash, my clothes were laundered, I was taken out to meet other friends and given a comfy bed and substantial breakfast. Such incredible kindness. I see that Yanis has even sponsored me - entirely unnecessary and very touching.
12/05/08 Vaguely stirred when Yanis left the flat. Awoke around 9:30 when he returned with croissants, pains au chocolat, fruit and juice. What a man! J-B joined us for breakfast, as did Marcel, the guy who'd converted the building. Left about 12:30. Yanis and J-B accompanied me out of the old town, all the way down the hill and put me on the road to Reims - talk about going the extra mile! What brilliant blokes. Huge long stretch of straight road, then some uphill. Start to flag. Around 16:15 my left foot starts to really hurt so I stop and sit down. Took off shoes and socks. Nothing very untoward, just healing blisters and one resurgent blister on outside of left heel. Sat for about 15mins and for the first time thought 'what am I doing?!'. Pulled myself together, put my boots on and walked on. I am gratified by my own ability to push on even when I've been disheartened. It is a positive thing - not just in terms of this pilgrimage - to know that I have these reserves of strength; although I am sure I will need to draw much deeper on them before I reach Rome. I had hoped to make it to Berry-Au-Bac, but realised before I reached the day's prescribed destination of Corbeny that I would make it no further. After a late night last night and yesterday's (possibly excessive) exertions, I am drained. Decide to treat myself to hotel - listed in my info as 32 euros. Hotel appears closed and costs 55 euros - far too much. Recce football pitch and decide on that. Wait till restaurant opens at 7pm and head in. Indulge myself with a big juicy steak and rhubarb tart. There's a gendarme in there too, so I ask him about a campsite. He says there's one 10km to the West. Haha. No. I gently prod him about possible places to camp in the town and he eventually suggests the football pitch. Result! Thank you, I say; and he promises to inform his colleagues, in case anyone phones up to report a squatter on the pitch. Set up my tent behind the goalmouth around nine thirty and hit the sack at ten, exhausted but happy.
13/05/08 Alarm eight thirty. Hit snooze but awoken five mins later by voices. Yank trousers on and stick my head out. No-one that wants to bother me, just some guys unloading tables into the salle polyvalente. We exchange bonjours. I pack away at a leisurely pace, spend time carefully seeing to my feet with three different types of plaster, phone the lady from the call box, breakfast by the church - croissant and two nectarines - then head to the gendarmerie to get my pilgrim record stamped. It was the same gendarme that I'd met last night. He was a bit mystified by my request, but after I'd explined he found a fairly cool stamp and did the deed, and I was on my way again. After yesterday's tribulations I made myself no promises. I thought if necessary I could stop and sleep at Berry-Au-Bac - about 10km further on. Circumstances have sadly prevented the lady's planned visit to Reims, so I don't have a deadline to get there. As it turns out, I arrive in Berry-Au-Bac feeling ok and decide to plough on. 28/30km is a long way on any day. I really take it as a stroll. Good stop at outdoor tank corps memorial/exhibition just outside Berry. Good stop too at national war cemetery at Cormicy. When I saw it I couldn't believe my eyes. I did a quick calculation and reckoned there must be 10,000 buried there, but that seemed impossible. Row upon row of neat crosses probably a bit less that 3 foot high, peppered with a very few round-headed stones emblazoned with a muslim emblem. Turns out there are almost 14,500 war dead buried there. It was a lot to take in. Loss of life on such a vast scale - this is one of so many such cemeteries. To one of my age the first war seems just so long ago, but this really brought the reality of it home to me. Arrived outskirts of Reims about 18:30. A lady pulled over and said are you a pilgrim? Turns out she's part of a pilgrim association. She kindly offered me hospitality but lives 10km out of town and I preferred not to get in the car so politely refused. She helpfully gave me a town map and directed me to the diocesan house. Interminable suburbs, my fatigue and a long queue in the supermarket to buy a yoghurt drink combine to leave me taking two hours to reach my destination. Mercifully the diocesan house is still open and I am given a friendly welcome. I book myself in for two nights and am shown to my room. Lovely. A bed, a small desk, a sink and a little wooden cross on the wall. Simple but perfect. Dump my bag, rinse my face and head out to eat. Find a little Italian place near the diocesan house. I want the menu at twelve euros ninety but don't fancy the options much. A la carte expensive. Waiter kindly basically lets me have what I want for the menu price - very kind. Big vegetable salad, big bowl of pasta with tomato sauce, big plate of cheese for pudding. I'm stuffed and exhausted. Bed. Finish Romans, start Ephesians then sleep around midnight.
14/05/08 Alarm 8:30. Up 8:45. I'd asked to breakfast at nine, which was met with incredulity - normally pilgrims are up and out by eight, apparently. Good for them, I say. A 9am breakfast feels pretty keen on my day off! Shower after, then lie down to read for a bit. At 10:30feel sleepy so set the alarm for 11am. End up snoozing till 12:30 - I must really hqve been exhausted! Felt like I could sleep all day, but didn't want to miss sightseeing. Went to cathedral - impressive but somehow didn't inspire me (although the Chagall windows are rtuly magnificent). Then chanced upon church of St Jacques - a gem of a church. Lovely building, stunning glass, a moving wooden sculpture of the crucified Christ, a fine statue of the Virgin and Child, and interesting shrine to ND de Fatima. The only thing that was soundly beaten by the cathedral was the statue of St Anthony (no, I know it's not a competition, but when you see all these churches you get kinda picky, ok?!). Ran around town seeing Hotel de Ville, Place du Forum, Place Royal, the park, the canal and shopping area. What a pretty and impressive city. Like Paris in miniature, I very much thought. To cathedral for mass at 7pm. A really lovely intimate Eucharist right at the East end below the Chagall windows. About 35 people in a smallish chapel. Brilliant sermon. Possibly less than a minute long. Following NT lesson from Acts, where they draw lots to see who gets what role, the priest said that of course they weren't simply drawing lots, they were asking God to show His will. He said that we all effectively draw lots in our decision-making all the time, so we should make sure that we pray a lot before we make decisions. That was it. Simple, memorable, sensible. Made a couple of phone calls from a cabine then headed to cybercafé to blog. Rushed off to Italian restaurant before it closed for more of that delicious food. Was introduced by the nice waiter to the proprietress, who'd clearly been told about me. She a Neapolitan lady, been here since the 70s. I think she was grateful for the chance to chat in Italian, and we spoke for quite a while. Another great meal - same as last night but with panna cotta instead of cheese for dessert. Phone the GF. I'm pleased as she's definitely going to visit next week and I can't wait to see her. So exhausted. Had intended to return to cybercafé and finish bringing blog up to date but had to go to bed.
15/05/08 Wake up so tired I'm not sure I'll be able to leave Reims. Think I may have to stay another day. Breakfast at 8:30. Have a big shower after; medicate feet and sort out belongings. Starting to wake up a bit. Leave diocesan house around ten to finish blog. It's now after 11:30 and I have to go back and pick up my bag and head to Trepail or thereabouts, my waysyation on the path to Chalons. A later start than I'd hoped, but the number of people who have kindly expressed an interest in my bloggery has led me to diligently complete it! It's frustrating because I am only typing a proportion of what is in my journal. I'm doing it as quickly as possible so hope that the bits I'm including may be of some interest and will not be too riddled with grammatical and spelling errors!
I don't know when next I'll be able to blog - soon, I hope. In the meantime let me say thank you once again to all those who have made donations to Practical Action. Every single donation is a real boost to my motivation. Thank you too to those who have taken an interest in this blog - it's lovely to know that people care about my progress and experiences. Love to all of you.
15/05/08 By the time I'd laboriously tried to send some photos to people I left the cybercafé around 13:15. Stressing about late start. Head back to Maison Diocesaine, pick up my backpack, pay and leave. Hit the road proper around two, and as soon as I do it starts raining. On goes the waterproof and the backpack cover. End up walking about ten kilometres by a dual carriageway. Every lorry that went past - and there were lots - whoooooooshkersplaassshhh, all over me. Nice. Breakfast had been basic and I had no food in my pack. Foolish pilgrim. See a sign to frites et boissons 1km. Great. Cross over to food van and ask what a sandwich americain is. Meat and chips, like that bloke's eating. That bloke is a fat trucker who's just polishing off a reasonably appetising-looking sandwich. That'll do. It was only as this great work of sandwich art was being prepared that I saw how the guy got such an impressive gut. Three burgers and a good half-kilo of chips all flowing out of about fourteen inches of broad baguette. I manfully ploughed through about two thirds of it and wrapped the rest up saying 'i'll save that for the road'. Yeah right, save it for the bin more like... Now after 17:30 and I feel like I've got nowhere. Walking through wet grass in the rain ain't all that fast... Decide to head for Les Petites Loges and hope for the best there. Get there about 19:30. As the truck-stop had warned me, there wasn't much to see. Still annoyed with late start and have strength in my legs so decide to aim for Les Grandes Loges. That'll be bigger, right? Maybe; it'll certainly be another 9km further down the track... Get to LGL around 21:30. Try to find camping spot. There isn't much, and it's almost dark. Knock on one door to ask about some land but "i don't know; we're new here, try up the road". I try up the road, but they look at me through the window then turn the lights off and ignore me. Cheers. If you're gonna be like that then I'm gonna camp right by your water tower behind your recycling bins, I said to myself. And that's what I did. And what did I have for supper? You guessed it - cold burger 'n' chips sandwich. Such a delight... In the tent at ten thirty; slept at midnight. Happy days.
16/05/08 Set alarm for 8am, fearing disturbance. As it was snoozed on in exhausted bliss till 9:45. Did me a power of good. Tent sodden from ground below and tree above general dew and no morning sun (beggars can't be choosers...). Took time organising wet things from yesterday. Cheerily greeted a passing farmer. Accosted an old boy who'd brought his bottles to the bottle bank re Mairie or Gendarmerie where I could get my pilgrim stamp. No gendarmerie. No-one at Mairie till tomorrow. Great. Serve me right for camping without permission. He tells me where the deputy mayor lives. I go there -no reply (turns out later I was at the wrong house anyway). Go back along the road and ask an old lady and a lady in a post van where I can go. The old lady says she has a senior circle stamp with LGG on it. I say that'll do me. Then another old girl swings by and says the shutters are open at the Mairie - the secretary must be there. These places are incredible - sneeze and before you know it the whole place knows what colour hankies you use. I take Mme Guichon's address to send her a postcard and head to the mairie. The secretary of the Mairie - Mme Remy - greets me warmly and we chat awhile. I tell her I'm heading to Chalons and she kindly invited me to supper and to stay the night - that's where she lives with her husband. Apparently I remind her of her son, and he's off travelling around Oz. I accept gladly. I leave town around 11:45 - I'd gone so wild yesterday I'd only left 13km to cover. Walk mainly on tractor track to the side of dual carriageway - far pleasanter. Boots slowly dry as I go. They're gonna stink (even worse...). No food or water. Fool. There wasn't a shop in LGG but I should have filled my bottle at the Mairie. Stop in La Veuve. Seems wuite big. There must be a shop. Wander around a bit then see a lady by her house and ask re a boulangerie. Nope. Is there one between here and Chalons? Nope. She asks if I have anything at all. Nope. She invites me into the house and gives me a third of the baguette she's just bought. How kind! I fill up my bottle and set off. How kind indeed. Get to outskirts of Chalons around four after a leisurely stroll. Buy and eat two nectarines an apple and a banana and a yoghourt drink. Worried about sugar in Yop. Gotta get my calcium somehow though and it sure ain't gonna be from room-temperature UHT filth. Wander into town. Looks good. GF has said there's a strong chance she might be able to visit tomorrow, so I go to the station to ask about trains from Paris. The station is a schlepp away! Never mind. Get the info and by that time it's time to head south to the kind hospitality of the Remys. Get there at six, noticing on the way that there's plenty to see in Chalons. Kind hospitality it's been, too. A nice chat, a lovely shower, a great meal - various salad and veg to start (needed that), a veal rib in tasty sauce with home-made mash followed by a delicious redcurrant tart. Happy is the well-fed pilgrim! And now I'll finish this and go and be sociable. The lady has confirmed that she'll visit tomorrow till Wednesday morning. That's more days off than I'd planned but I can't wait to see her and want to make the most of it. I hope the weather holds for plenty of romantic canalside walks. Lucky I've been keeping up my English by writing this - I certainly haven't been speaking much over here! Love to all.
17/05/08 Up at 8:30. Shower and dress. Great brekker - croissant, hot chocolate, juice, bread, cheese, two oranges. Spend a pleasant morning with the Remys. Pack up the stuff that Mme has kindly washed, pack the tent that Monsieur has kindly laid over chairs to dry in the sun; head out around 13:15. Leave pack at Remys' house. Wander up to to see the town's big gardens. Happen across a 'fete de nautisme' - canoe tours of the town for three euros - one day only! It finishes at 18:00 and the GF arrives 18:07. Shame. I head off around town to look into accommodation etc and then return. As I'm alone one of the boat club people comes with me to paddle the other side, and off we go. Lovely 40min tour of the town; my companion kindly serving as guide. There is a sort of canal that runs in a loop around the town centre, going under the town in two places (mercifully illuminated). A fun trip. Head back to the Remys', getting lost in the process; pick up my stuff and leave for the station. Their hospitality has been exemplary. What kind people. Realise on the way that I will be late for the train, so end up running for 15mins. Running in hot sunshine with 18kg on your back is quite a thing. It's a testimony to my increasing fitness that I managed it at all. APeople looked at me as though I was mad! Fair enough. Arrived at station just as GF was calling me to ask where I'd got to! Unbelievably sweat-drenched and barely able to speak, but at least I was barely late. Headed to Hotel Moritz, the only not-to-dear hotel in town that had rooms. Not amazing but ok. Headed out for supper - very pleasant and lovely Bresse cheese. Then to hotel and bed.
18/05/08-21-05/08 Three lovely days in Chalons with my delectable lady friend. We did little of great consequence. Transferred to Hotel Pasteur - less expensive and far nicer. Visited Notre Dame - a UNESCO world heritage church. Stunning. Went on a tour in a little motor boat - similar to what I'd done in the canoe. Fun. Picnicked more than once by the river. A delight. Went to mass in Chapelle St Joseph - ok but hardly inspiring. Hired Segways to tour the town (I hope I haven't violated my foot-only policy to badly). If you ever get a chance to go on a Segway, do it. Brilliant fun. Loved it. I also did a bit of unicycling with some guys in front of the Hotel De Ville. Very nice to see the lady. Very nice to chill out together. Did me good to take the time off from walking too; Gave my feet a chance to recover and my muscles too.
21/05/08 Sorry to have to put my sweetheart on the train at 12:14. All alone again! Back to hotel to pick up backpack, via boulangerie for provisions. Then back out of town towards Compertrix (great name - like Asterix's accountant or something!) and on to find the old Roman path. All a bit unclear; Ended up wandering round the back of an aerodrome and chancing upon the path - using my imagination rather more than the (in this instance unreliable) map to work out where it might be. I really thought this was going to be the first time I got lost, but mercifully no. Watched a couple of gliders being launched. Brilliant! And on in the footsteps of our Roman forebears. The path was by and large very clear - white and straight. In a few places farmers or roadbuilders have decided to mess things around a bit; and a couple of times I thought 'right, that's it, I'm really lost now', but I made it on to Vesigneul. Not the 'official' destination for the day, but that was 40km away. Yeah, right. Arrived Vesigneul about 20:30. Unsure what to do. No-one about. Scouted round the back of the church and found a bit of grass there. Saw a chap outside a house opposite so said 'reckon I could sleep there?' He said that shouldn't be a problem, so I called my folks from the call box then set up camp. Felt really happy. a good days walk, my little tent, pens of geese and chickens nearby, a pond with fish splashing, a hot cup of soup and all is well with the world. Good day's walking. Felt strong and wloved being in the countryside. Well, in the countryside as before but away from main roads. The Roman way is as good as deserted, and there are just miles of fields on either side. Birdsong all over the shop and a wealth of little insects to observe. Bed at half eleven with an owl hooting overhead.
22/05/08 Alarm 8:30. Wake 09:20. Up 9:30. Chilled pilgrim. Make mint tea. Lovely. Leave churchyard 11am. Never know how I spend 90mins like that - happily though! Spend time trying to locate the mayor then the deput y mayor then the deputy deputy mayor (and this in a town of 200 souls) to get my pilgrim record stamped then chance upon a doctor's surgery. The doctor eyes me with suspicion, stamps my pilgrim record then gets me oput of the door with no apparent interest in my journey - I guess I've become accustomed to barrages of questions! Left town 11:30. Feel relaxed in body and spirit. I started out with quite a lot of stress in my mind. I feel that over these first few weeks I've cleaned out my mental closet a lot; and that, combined with a change of scenery to the tranquillity of quiet country roads and paths, leaves me feeling ready to open up a fresher mind and spirit to whatever thoughts and inspirations may choose to present themselves. Arrive in Coole about 12:45 (cool!). No proper meal yesterday so stop at a routiers restaurant and have a massive fill-belly - lots of bread and pate, grated carrot, boiled egg, big plate of boiled chicken and chips. Stuffed. Sit awhile to digest and then chat wit hthe proprietor, Ludo, before heading off again. Back on Roman road to Humbauville. Church doors open - unusually, but a metal grille in place. At least God can breathe in Humbauville! On to Meix Tiercelin, yesterday's destination, supposedly. I'd never have made it! Old boy pulls over in his car and we chat. Turns out he used to be the mayor. He recognised me as a pilgrim. On out of town and into the fields. Another old boy pulls over in his minivan and we chat for about half an hour about the french being lazy with their 35hr week (he said it, not me - I loved my 35hr week when I lived here!); the queen and her palaces; the princes; Lady Di; currency strengths; the price of petrol; international politics; surveillance cameras; my pilgrimage etc; - just a pilgrim and a paysan shooting the breeze. 4km to Corbeil. Onward... Pass some smelly pig farmsd and arrive about 20:15. Head towrds the church (not hard in a small village). There's a chap closing sole garage doors. He says 'you're looking for a place to sleep, aren't you?'. I say yes, I have a tent. He said there was once a bloke who slept in teh schoolroom, should he call the mayoress? I said I don't want to make a fuss. Five minutes later he re-emerged saying get yourself set up in tgeh little schoolroom and the mayoress will come and see you later. In I go! The chap, M. LeRichon, gave me a bottle of water and let me call my ma from his home phone - how kind. I got set up and wrote my journal then the mayoress came at 21:50. She was very nice and offered to bring me coffe in the morning! I refused and she said she'd bring orange juice. I feel warmed by such kindness. Sleep 23:00.
23/05/08Alarm 8am. Up at 8:30. Pretty much sorted when mayoress arrived 9:15 bearing a bottle of juice, half a frozen baguette, three chocolate mini-brioches an appale and a banana! So kind. She asks if I have meat and says she should have brought some ham. I say really that's enough. Get my passport stamped in Mairie, meet secretary, former mayor and another chap. They giev me a postcard with an aerial view of Corbeil and on I go. Leave at 10. 40mins later M Lerichon pulls up on the Roman road on his tractor - he'd spotted me from afar and followed me. We chatted and then each went his own way. Passed a farmhouse. Massive German Shepherd and another decent size mongrel come haring out, barking and snarling madly. A girl came out and called them off as they got to me. Thanks. Set the dogs on the pilgrim first, ask questions later! Funnily enough my heartbeat didn't even rise. I thought about this and realised that if they're going to bite me they'll bite me and there's nothing I can do about it, so why worry? Is this some new super-chilled philosophy I'm developing towards life? Let's not get ahead of ourselves... Spent 25mins singing, praying and photographing in the church at Donnement - dilapidated but pretty. On to Braux, a very pretty village. Couldn't work out where footpath I wanted was, so took the only one I could see, figuring that as long as I was going South it couldn't be too bad - Rome's somewhere down there. Ended up in Betignicourt. The prettiest village I've seen yet. Lots of really old farm buildings. Everyone seemingly working wood. Church closed but I climbed up into the roof anyway. Decided not to explore too far for fear of landing up on the altar, but it was a bit of fun anyway. Through St Christophe Dodinicourt to Lassicourt. Lady invited me in for a cold drink. Had some strawberry sirop and chatted with her and her husband for half an hour. He had one of the biggest beards I've ever seen. She was quite tipsy. Lovely folk. Really welcoming and she was so happy that I was there - kept saying what a good thing it was that she'd stopped me. 6km to Brienne le Chateau. Pretty town. No prizes for guessing how it got it's name when you arrive - fairly standard town with a great big chateau on a hill. Went to supermarket to get provisions - fruit, bread and fresh milk - my favourite!! Had a look round town, chatted to some old boys then headed up the chateau drive to have a look. impressive. On through Brienne la Vieille - also pretty - to Dienville. Another 6km. Arrive 21:00. Ask drietcions in a litle restaurant to campsite. Say I'll go back to eat after. First campsite sixteen euros and no-one at reception. No way!! Second campsite (like buses!) six euros forty no-one at reception. Call the night number and say I'm an English pilgrim, I'll set up my tent and see them in the morning; Head to shower. Get undressed. No water... I haven't showered for three days!! Back to restaurant for pleasant meal. Meet owners - Jerome and Laure, their son Jules and the waitress Marie. Really lovely friendly people. Jerome invites me to use their computer in the morning (here I am!). end up chatting till late and don't set up camp till well after midnight. Good evening though, and needed to wind down after such a long day. on the road for 11hrs, which is very long despite breaks. Sleep about 1am.
24/05/08 Alarm 9am. For the first time axoke befor alarm - 8am! Slept on until almost nine. Still up before alarm - rested pilgrims. Have a mahoosive long shower then pack away and leave site around 10:30. Go to reception and tstraight away the guy says are you the pilgrim that left me a message last night? I said yes. He said you did the right thing to call, was your night ok? I said yes thanks. He said I won't make you pay, it's a present. I am touched by his kindness. I head to Jerome and Laure's house, arriving around 10:45. They kindly give me tea and a pain au chocolat and let me write all this rubbish. They've invited me for lunch too. I should hit the road but they are kind people and friendly too, so I would like to lunch with them. I shall just walk late into the evening I guess. Plus ça change...! Love to all.
...and what a lunch it was! Jerome and I each had a delicious entrecote with a pile of green beans (pilgrim needs vegetables). I followed with a delicious crepe covered in melted chocolate. Jerome and I properly set the world to rights, discussing vegetarianism, British comedy, the problem of debt, world travel, British films, the roles of men and women, alternative energy and much more besides. he is an intelligent man with a bright imagination and a keen sense of metaphor. A long lunch, then we retire upstairs to look at weather forecasts, make paper aeroplanes (at Jules's instigation - not just for our own boyish pleasure -honest!) and generally hang out. It is with a measure of sadness that I prise myself away at 16:45. Pilgrim gotta walk! Laure hqs made me four crepes, individually wrapped and packed for me - what a sweetheart. A lovely family. Call ma and pa and hit the road at 17:15. Shocking! Pass through Uniencourt then a village called L'Autre Monde (The Other World). Brilliant. I want to live there. Where do you live? The Other World. Then I get a few spots of rain. Stick on waterproofs and pack-cover just in case. Here's a joke for you: What happens when a pilgrim walks through torrential rain for several hours? He gets wet. Not funny? It wasn't. Well, it was for a bit. I actually laughed out loud at my own ridiculous state (I say waterproofs, i kinda failed to put waterproof trousers on...). Then my boots got sodden and turned to lead, the lightning kicked off and it all became rather less amusing. Took shelter in a clapped-out caravan full of tyres by a junkyard to transfer mobile, wallet etc to somewhere dry. Realised that baguette strapped to pack is now mush. Abandon it in a bush. Great, bye-bye supper. Press on to Jessains where I shelter briefly in a tractor shed and munch on a crepe. So good! And then onward through briefly lighter rain before a further downpour. 5km later i arrive in Dolancourt, my chosen destination for the day, at 9pm, like adrowned rat. No obvious place to camp except on the green right in the middle of the village. Bad plan. Seek advice in a smart hotel; they suggest a field by the railway, helpfully reminding me that wild camping in France is illegal - yep, I knew that. I check out the field and it's full of long grass - impossible to move without getting soaked further. Head back out of town to find a phone box. It doesn't work. Contemplate pressing on to Bar-Sur -Aube despit ethe fact it's now 22:00 and dark. I'm starting to chill fast though so head to some wood I have espied and set up camp on the East edge. Top tip for budding campers: always check your compass and ensure that you are not shadowed in the East - morning sun wakes you gently and dries your tent! A couple of bits of fruit, half a pack of cherry tomatoes and a crepe for tea. Lovely. But not much! Bed.
25/05/08 Alarm. 8am. Didn't know whose land I was on so wanted to assess the situation. No one had disturbed me though so I snoozed till 9:45. Put clothes out to dry and boots in the sun. No-one about so I merrily wandered around wearing nothing but flip-flops. Naturist pilgrim. 1.5 crepes, two bananas and half a pack of cherry toms for breakfast. Thank goodness I had those crepes! Two cups of mint tea and several postcards later my clothes are passably dry, so I strap on my sodden boots and wet socks and head off at 9:45, via the posh hotel for a (somewhat ironic) stamp in my pilgrim record. Hit the road proper at 13:00 wit htwo apples and about half a litre of water to my name. get to Bar-Sur-Aube around 3pm - there's a boulangerie open on a Sunday afternoon - YES!! Two baguettes. Do you consider an unlubricated baguette to be a tasty treat? I never used to... Half of one of them slipped straight down. I got my bottle filled, exchanged pleasantries with a one-handed old boy then ploughed on. Only 12/13km down, and want to fulfill my 25km quota after yesterday's poor show. Pass a bar in Forges St Bernard some km later and duck in as it's just started raining again. Hoping for useful advice. Get none, except an indication of an abandoned building I could sleep in. Press on, fully togged with waterproofs. the building is blocked with Cytex or similar and I didn't much want those folk knowing where I was sleeping anyway, so pushed on to Longchamp. Heavens opened, and I got drenched. Just what you want at the end of the day when your boots are just starting to dry. Arrive about 21:30. Immediately start scouting for campsites (as it were). Hot favourite for a while was the cemetery - some nice flat well-mown grass in there. Then came to the church. Oh yes, that'll do nicely. Asked a lady passer-by if she though that'd be alright. She said yes, so up went the tent. I don't know what possessed my to try the door of the church at that ungodly hour (no pun intended), but try it I did, and the latch lifted. The door gave a bit, but I thought it must be locked. Gave it a good shove and "KLOOOMMMM" it opened. Quite made me jump. On went the head torch and in I went. Turns out it wasn't the church proper but a narthex - a biggish square high-ceilinged room right under the bell-tower, with a massive life-size crucifix over the door into the main body of the church. Oh yes, this'll do just nicely! Hauled my pack in from the tent, set out my wet things to dry and laid out my bed. Shame I'd put the tent up - it's now busy getting soaked - buit at least I'll be dry. Supper of a whole baguette and a whole pot of paté (courtesy of the mayoress of Corbeil, and greatly appreciated!). It's funny: I don't tend to get all that hungry most of the time, but when I eat it just doesn't touch the sides. That baguette and paté slipped straight down without me even noticing. Anybody on a diet? I've got a top tip: walk 25km per day - with at least a quarter of your own body weight in a pack on your back - for three months. Drink no alcohol. Eat whatever you like! I'm not wasting away (although my girlfriend rather thought so), but I'm certainly not getting any fatter. I think I have yet to reach my fighting weight, and then I'll probably plateau. i don't mind anyway - the less flab, the less weight I have to cart to Rome! Write my journal, then read my bible lying on my back with the crucifix high on the wall in front of me - rather comforting. Turn out the head-torch just before midnight. Head the clock strike overhead - "CLUNK, DOOIIINNNGGGGG; CLUNK, DOOIIINNNGGGG etc.". Wonder if it'll wake me every hour all night. No way! Pilgrim sleeps like a log.
26/05/08 Didn't hear the clock till 7am. Then slept till alarm at 8. Up at 8:30. Packed up my stuff and wandered down to the Mairie, where I got my stamp. Told the secretary where I'd slept. She didn't seem bothered. As I said to her - what more appropriate place for a pilgrim to take refuge? She used to see lots of pilgrims when she was secretary in Bar-Sur-Aube, but in three years in Longchamp she hasn't seen one. Until me. Either the Compostella route has now diverged from the Via Francigena, or my flagrant disregard for the "official" daily stages is leading me to camp in previously unpilgrimmed territories. Once agian I'm out of food so am glad to learn that there's an epicerie in the village 4km further on. Get there and buy bread, fruit, water and a camembert. Four nectarines for breakfast on the church steps. I love nectarines. Onward. Direction Chateauvillain and beyond. Stop at a picnic spot on the way. Have a bit of bread and cheese. Camembert too ripe for my liking and overly reminiscent of my damp boots. Not sure I'll be finishing it. Yeuch. Gotta eat though! Carry on. Obviously it starts raining; then pouring. I arrive at Chateauvillain about 14:30, drenched. Take shelter under the porch of the chapelle de la sainte trinité; looks like a fascinating little church, but like so many of its kind it's sadly closed. By the time I've eaten some bread, made a couple of calls from the phone box, been to the supermarket and greedily demolished a pain au chocolat, a litre of milk and a litre of water on the grass out front it's after 17:00. How did that happen?! Get to my feet and realise that 2l of liquid is quite a lot to have sloshing around inside you as you walk. Never mind! Want to take the forest path but not sure where it starts, so get buzzed into the gendarmerie to seek advice. "Oh no, you can't go in the forest." "Why not?" "We'll be sending a helicopter for you in the morning". "But it looks easy on the map". "Oh no, everyone thinks that. They go looking for mushrooms then call us saying I can't find my car, i'm lost. There are so many little tracks everywhere it's impossible to tell where you're going". I thank the lady gendarme and say I'll stick to the main road.
What happened next? Find out after I've had a proper sit-down meal - my first for over four days...
Sorry to leave you on the edge of your seats, folks. The prison-like hostel i was staying in wouldn't let me get back online. I now have just brief access, so suffice it to say that I did go through the woods and survive the robbers, wild boar and gingerbread house. I've been copiously rained on, slept in a tractor shed with an injured cow for company, assisted in the rescuing of a large carp, almost saved a whole village from death by flooding and had all sorts of other adventures besides (not that I'm exaggerating any of this. Much). In Besancon in two days; hope to fully update there. Then on to Pontarlier and Switzerland! Just had a lovely welcome in Seveux from an English chap and his German wife - great people. And so back to walk...
Today is the celebration of my father's ordination jubilee - fifty years of priesthood! I'm gutted not to be in Bristol with all the family on this occasion, but will be celebrating as best I can over here. Please spare a thought for my pa and offer up a little prayer of thanks if you're that way inclined - it truly is a wonderful achievement, and I for one am tremendously proud of him.
The lady Gendarme then started saying oh, we need a proper map of the forest. They couldn't find one, so she explained that I could go through the wood, but had to go straight through, on the road then on the track that went East after that. I said that I wanted to head South in the middle "oh no, we'll be sending out a helicopter in the morning. Then she said "don' t sleep in the woods, the wild boar will attack your food". Ok. Then "do you have any money with you?" "Yes" - she tutted mysteriously. Who am I going to run into - Robin Hood and his merry men?! Off I went. Got into the woods about 17.45; reckon I need to get out before 20.30 to avoid the marauding wild boar. Turns out the path is like a transatlantic aircraft runway. I get to the abandoned farm where I wanted to head South and there was clearly a road there. I remembered my mother telling me that I should always do what a policeman tells me to do, then took it anyway. Turns out this road could certainly have served a small prop plane, and so I started looking around for the gingerbread house or wild boar nest that the gendarme hadn't wanted to tell me about. Sure enough there was no such thing, and by 20.00 I was out of the woods. Head to Arc-En-Barrois and arrive in about an hour. Find campsite - facilities open but no-one to take my money. Go in search of food. Everything shut on Monday. Great. I set up tent and it starts raining again. Huddle in my tent with a cup-a-soup and some bread as the heavens proceed to open. Feels more like a survival exercise than a pilgrimage. I go to bed and the storm starts. I briefly wonder whether I'm to close to or too far from the trees, lightning-wise, but can't be bothered to move anyway. Even with my eyes shut and my arm over them I can still see the lightning. The storm is clearly near! Fall asleep. Takes more than a bit of thunder to stop me sleeping at the mo...
27.05.08 Despite a few false alarms where the rain stops briefly, I end up hiding in the tent all morning - I just can't pack and leave while it's bucketing down. Action stations at 1pm when there's enough of a break for me to actually get the tent a bit dry and pack up. Off I go. Starts raining as I hit the road. Great. Cover about 18km in four hours and arrive at Beauchemin around 19:50 - I'd had to wait in A-E-B for the shops to open before I could leave. Everything closes here between half twelve and 3pm!! Manage to locate deputy mayor in Beauchelin in his cow yard. He says I can pitch behind the Salle des Fetes. I ask re a tap, and he shows me the hose in his cow yard. Another cup-a-soup and bread feast - oh, the luxury. Managed to get water ok for cup-a-soup. By the time the bedtime cup of mint tea came round though I was out of my boots and in flip-flops. Top tip: don't ever go in a cow yard wearing flip-flops, especially when it's been raining. I slithered around in the country pancakes and almost went headlong into a pile of pre-digested grass. Ended up cheerfully hosing down my feet and flip-flops before using the same hose to fill my mug for tea. The glamour is unending...
28.06.08 Alarm 8.10. Snooze till 9.20. Leave at 10.40. How does it always take so long? Well, I sleep like a log and when I wake i spend an hour sitting or wandering like a zombie till my brain finally locates a useable gear! Go and fill water bottle in the yard and chat to the farmer about bull genetics - a fascinating subject, i tell you. Hit the road at 11. the sun is shining and the tent was dry. A treat! Lovely walk through Saint Ciergues and across the barrage at one end of the Lac de La Mouche. How do they build them? It's like magic to me. What do they do wit hthe lake while they build the dyke? Or does the lake come after... Hmmm... Hada good picnic at th water's edge. And on towards Langres... Short day (basically did one day's walk in two after yesterday's rain). Arrive 2pm at city limits, then have to schlepp up the hill to the old walled town. Go to the tourist office then check in to the Hostel for Young Workers - basically a prison. Looks like a prison, landings like a prison, cells like a prison. Delightful. Get in the shower fully clothed witha bundle of other filthy clothes in my hands, then strip off and get myself clean before having a go at my filthy clothes. Get a massive and expensive (by pilgrim standards) meal in the evening. Massive. Ate most of a duck I think. And big starter. And dessert. Stuffed. Back to prison...
29.05.08 Have to take a day off. Don't want to, but need physical rest. Had hoped to get to mass at 9am. Fat chance - get up at 10:45! Dull day, but at least not too much rain. Visited cathedral - quite interesting. Museum - great modern building, good exhibition on fables; standard bronze age iron age crap; some interesting Roman and Egyptian stuff and quite a few nice pieces of fine art. A good visit, but a bit lonely. Then rushed to catch the 'renaissance house'. Underwhelmed. I'm probably just a philistine... Another good meal - trout this time. Garlic carrots - more garlic than carrots - lucky I don't have to be in any way sociable! And back to prison where I read the book of Esther. Ready to get my pack back on tomorrow...
30.05.08 Up at 8:30 for mass at 9 in St Martin's church. Lovely church, lovely mass, annoyingly drifted off during sermon so have no idea what it was about. Forgot to get my pilgrim record stamped when I left the prison, i realise 7km later. Really cross with myself. Rome won't mind, but I wanted to have a stamp in every place that I started a day's walking. Never mind - get it stamped in Chalindrey Mairie. Eat lunch, rain starts - again - on I go. Plough on and on to Grenant - tonight's stop. I've decided to deviate from the 'official' route and get to Besancon in 4 days instead of 6. We'll see how I get on... Get to Grenant at about 19.00. There's a massive black storm cloud visible not far off, so I hasten to ask whee I can pitch my tent. Knock on a door and am offered an island in the river or the farmer's tractor shed. Off I potter, and another guy comes after me saying 'no, sleep in my tractor shed - there's more room'. Ok! Turns out he's the first guy's son. I get set up in there and then he comes and invites me to have a shower and some supper. I gladly accept. Him and his wife and two lovely children - 7 and 4. Good supper of smoked salmon, an omelette, bread and ice cream. They put on Sky News after so I could hear a bit of English - thoughtful. The storm hit while we were eating - a truly incredible downpour. the family said they'd never seen anything like it. Thank goodness I'm not in the tent tonight! The rain abated and then grandpa came to the kitchen window and said "we've got to open the locks or the village will flood". Up the men jumped (Jerome, me and another guy Mickael who'd turned up). We all headed down to the river. They opened the lock gates while I obviously just stood around and took photos. There sure was a lot of water coming down! As we came back over the bridge we spoted a massive carp stuck on it's side on the weir. Mickael said he'd go and rescue it, and down he went, paddling in the shallows to this carp, which he picked up by the gills and carried upstream of the weir. It was too injured or stupid or both to head off upriver, so he ended up putting it back downstream in deeper water to follow the current. Good luck Mr Carp... Off to the tractor shed around 11 to sleep. I have a cow with an injured hoof in there with me. Apparently she doesn't like being on her own so may make some noise. Great! Mercifully she's in a pen so won't come cuddling up to me in the night...
31.05.08 The cow didn't make much noise before I slept around midnight. At 6.30am however, it started mooing incessantly, barely taking a breath! It must have shut up at some point as I went back to sleep for an hour or so, before waking around 7:45. I was up and busying myself by the time Jerome came in about 8 to invite me to breakfast. A good breakfast of croissants, pain au chocolat, ot chocolate (milk from the cow this morning!) and juice. Jerome headed off to the cows, I stayed a while with Mme and the kids, going out to see the next door neighbours stripping the reed crop and putting it out to dry (good luck!). This is the two-week period in which they do this. It's a basket-weaving village, apparently. Interesting. Headed off about 9:30. Through Larret and on to Vaite. Rain stopping and starting all the time, waterproofs on and off, on and off. Photograph some lambs just after Vaite; farmer comes out and says are you taking photos? I suspect I might be about to get in trouble, but it turns out he wants to show me his goat kids whom, after some considerable coaxing and bribery, he gets to hop down the sheer slope from the field above. He picks them up in turn and caresses them saying "we're not going to kill you, we couldn't, you're too pretty". Aaahhh.... Walk on to Seveux and get there about 18:50 - just in time to get some provisions - fruit, water etc. Recce church - there's some grass there - then find someone to ask about where I might find the mayor or church warden. End up getting directed to an Irishman down the road who has a B and B - apparently he might have some grass I could put my tent on. Turns out he's English (but plays the bagpipes) and has a German wife. They are very friendly and welcoming people. They let me put my tent up in their back garden and invite me to supper. Good supper of bread, cheese and soup. Good company - the guy's brother, his wife and another friend are visiting from the UK. All very companionable. They can't believe that I'm not drinking for three months, and proceed to enjoy a number of bottles of wine between them - I can't pretend I'm not a little envious! I'm invited for breakfast at 8, but don't end up sleeping till well after midnight. Cripes!!
01/05/08 Alarm 7.30. Up 7.55. Get to table 8.02 - everyone already there! Tisane, croissant, bread, boiled egg, jam, yogurt, juice. Nice. Chat to the proprietor, Ted, whom I heard playing his accordion as I brushed my teeth. He told me some good anecdotes about performing in various places and we were then joined by his wife who joined in. They're big into folk music and weend up watching a Bruce Springsteen 'making of' DVD - the Seeger Sessions, a folk effort. A good watch, but I must hit the road! Thank Ted and Charlotte for their incredible hospitality and head off just before midday. Go the the boulangerie to get a baguette and a pain au chocolat. End up chatting a bit about my trip, and the lady says to the boy "give him a cake or something. What would you like?" I choose a small strawberry tart. "There, you'll think of us as you have dessert." How kind! Head up to the church, which is open but empty. Today is dad's jubilee celebration and I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm not in Bristol with all the rest of the family. I had hoped to at least get to mass, but there isn't one for miles around (apparently the priest that's in charge of this parish has fifteen parishes on rotation!). I sing a number of hymns in the church and say many prayers of thanksgiving for the blessings of dad's ministry - both those which he has received and those that he has brought to others; and also giving thanks for everything that he has brought to my life over the years - a huge amount. I pray aloud - there's no-one there to be disturbed, and it makes it more like a little service - the best I can do on this important day. After I leave the church I send dad a text to let him know I'm thinking of him, and can't hold back a couple of little tears - I'd love to be there to clap him on the back and congratulate him and tell him how proud I am of him. At least I know that I am there in spirit and have not myself been forgotten - mum and dad have both kindly texted to say that they have me in mind. Mum said that she would carry me with her to church in her heart; which was so lovely. Start walk proper around 13:15 - one road all the way to Oiselay. Manage to speak to dad in the afternoon - sounds like it was a great day. Really pleased. Trying to sort out another girlfriend visit. It's proving problematic because of clashing schedules. Fingers crossed... Day going slowly. Have some food in Etrelles, then 6km on to Oiselay. Sleep on football pitch - no official permission but it's a pretty discreet place. Had fancied a derelict chapel by the cemetery, but the tent's wet so need airing. Another cup-a-soup supper. Joy!
02/06/08 Wake up before 9am alarm. Attempt to get tent dry, have leisurely if modest breakfast and pack and head to town. Get record stamped in primary school - kinda cool. Ask re boulangerie/epicerie. I'd just missed the bread van and nothing for 8km. Great. Walk on... Get to Cussey at 2pm. Epicerie shut. Restaurant shut. Epicerie reopens at 3pm - that's if it opens at all on a monday. No-one around to ask. Sit in the sun and write a postcard and contemplate life in general. 3pm comes. I decide to wait a bit. It starts to drizzle. I get togged up. Shop opens at 3:15; i get ripped off for bread, fruit, cheese, ham etc. Picnic by the church. Ham is foul, fruit isn't great; I'm grumpy and time is ticking on. As I leave town the heavens open. It just gets better... Tramp on to Auxon-Dessus. Call Franciscan Friary in Besancon to ask if I can stay. They sound sort of surprised or hesitant, but say yes. What time will I arrive? I say I reckon around 7. I'll cut a long story short here, but suffice it to say that I arrived about 10pm, having been stopped by the police (who ended up kindly offering me a lift that I declined), and having climbed a couple of truly massive hills. Having already covered about 30km, much of it in the rain, this was not exactly ideal. I'd called the friars to say that I'd be a bit late, but I think they had started to worry... I was shown to my quarters - a lovely kind of converted barn building - rough but delightful. Made some soup (Knorr this time - a better class of instant soup) and headed to bed exhausted. Read a great book of Catholic cartoons but couldn't keep my eyes open.
03.06.08 Up at 7.18 for mass at 07.30 in Notre Dame des Buis. 4 brothers and 6 others. Lovely chapel; lovely mass; intercessions aloud by all; chalice and ciborium handed round in a circle - all very spiritual and dignified and meaningful. Breakfast with the brothers after (turns out it was three brothers of 5 that live there, and one would-be friar who's doing convent visits). Companionable breakfast. I have maintained terrible prejudices about members of religious orders, I am ashamed to confess - that they probably have something to hide from or can't quite cope in 'normal' society. Well, there we were, five normal blokes sitting around the table chattering away about anything and everything, and I just though "wow, here are some guys that are perfectly normal and chilled out, but have decided to devote their lives to God and to others - what an amazing thing!". After breakfast I had a more meaningful one-to-one with Frère Battite. It was a lovely exchange. Then I went for a walk with Pierre-Alexandre; the would-be friar. He's about my age or a couple of years younger. We had a good chat. I asked him how he felt about a vow of celibacy. He said "I've had girlfriends, and I've known life in a couple; and I know that women can be great [said with a real glint in his eye!], but I've decided to sacrfice all that so that I can give my time to everyone, not just to one person. So that I can meet people like you now, for example." What a courageous young man. I look forward to hearing whether he is accepted into the order and how things progress for him. I really wish him all the best. Hit the road around 11am. Another long story short: I have to get down off the hill and up and down a few more hills; through a forest in which I rely on my compass mainly and end up at a mining plant. The lady at the site office said "how did you get here?" "through the woods", I replied. She nodded, mystified. Turns out I wasn't far from where I'd hoped - Tarcenay. Got there and had a half-hour chat with a delightfully eccentric lady - a mental health nurse - who used to live in Switzerland. She'd just been supermarket shopping and basically offered me all of her goods - she was so generous and kind. I ended up with some grape juice and three apples, with which I was very pleased. She recommended various routes through Switzerland, and even gave me money to visit a particular museum of art in Martigny - she said "I don't want you to say no, and I don't want you to thank me". I couldn't help myselmf but thank her. How thoughtful and generous! Made a couple of phone calls to folks and GF. Time ticked on. Still can't work out GF visit. Still a long way to go. Getting worried. Get to boulangerie and carry on to Ornans. It soon starts raining and I get soaked. Put up tent in the rain just before dark in Orninans campsite - at least i had the delight of a truly magnificent Eastern sky at sunset. Soaked. Cup-a-soup. I haven't eaten enough all day and am starving and not particularly happy. Decide with GF that we should delay her visit. I'm desperate to see her, but also very keen to get to the halfway stage. I've been plugging away at this for ages yet still feel very much like I'm on the uphill stretch - metaphorically as well as physically! I could just do with some sunshine and some good food and a dry tent from time to time and a shower and oh I'll stop moaning on...
04/06/08 Wake up hungry and exhausted. Wait for tent to dry. It doesn't. I have a shower and pack slowly. Get to town just after shops shut for lunch so have a truly fould pizza. Walk for an hour then sit in a bus stop. exhausted. Feel a bit ill. Hot flush and slight nausea. It starts raining. I tog up and walk on. Had hoped to smash 34km to POntarlier today but realise this is impossible. I'll go to Mouthier-Haute-Pierre. Short walk, but takes quite a while. Rains most of the afternoon. Pass lots of tempting campsites. Buy big bar of chocolate and a pain au chocolat and a can of orangina. First bar of chocolate I've bought since being away. It picks me up quite a lot. Take a Grande Randonnee route for 3km up past a massive vineyard - nice. Pass through Lods "L'Un Des Plus Beaux Villages De France", apparently. It is indeed very picturesque. Pass a couple of closed campsites about 1.5km before M-H-P, where I buy some fruit and yogurts and recce the church for camping. There's some good grass behind it. I track down the mayor at his house, and he sends me packing ack down to the closed campsite, 15mins walk down a steepish hill - that'll be fun in the morning! I confess that I cursed him all the way down. Put the tent up in the rain by the river near a weir; had bread, cheese, fruit and yogurt huddled in tent then got down to bible and sleep.
Greetings all, sorry I must be very brief. I have been lost in the woods, comprehensively soaked, really quite lonely and fed up. Then I got to Switzerland, at which point the weather got better, the scenery more interesting and I have received some lovely hospitality.
05/06/08 Wake up to a wet tent. Eat all i have - determined not to get so malnourished again. Put my pack under shelter while i pull the tent to pieces ans pack it so at least the inner should stay dry. And back up the hill to Mouthier Haute Pierre... Get some provisions and directions, get out of the shop and the rain starts again. Great. Oh, joy. Take shelter by a water trough and some delightful public toilets and put on my rain gear. After a despondent while a lady calls out from an upper window across the street - would you like a coffee out of the rain? She didn't need to ask twice. Turns out she's the home help of a 99 year old lady with whom i spent a happy our drinking ice tea and chatting about allsorts. A bit deaf, a bit forgetful but a sharp cookie with a lot of insight - I guess that's what a century of living does for you! Great stuff. As I left she said "je te dis merde!". I needed an explanation from the home help that that meant good luck. As I departed the lady - Noella - shouted after me down the stairs "Merde! merde! merde! merde!" while the HH tried to calm her down. Love it! I ploughed on through the rain. Path took me right back down to the river and right back up again, which naturally thrilled me no end. The signposting was pretty rubbish so I ended up walking along the road, which was incredible. Opened around 1850, but if Iìd been told it was opened last year I'd still have marvelled - an incredible feat of engineering - a road carved out of the rock face of the gorge. The views down were impressive, and on a clear day would be breathtaking. A road high above a broad wooded gorge. Found a path to the source of the Loue, so took it. A delightful pathway through the woods. Stopped under a big rock overhang for lunch. Felt like a hermit. Lonely pilgrim chomping on bread and cheese - as ever - in his cave. Ironically it stopped raining for about ten minutes while I ate lunch. That was the last time it stopped all day... You know how annoying it is when it's raining. You have to stay at home. Or you have to run across the street from the office to get your sandwich at lunchtime. You can't open the car windows when you drive. Ok, when was the last time you were outside in the rain for eight hours or more? How annoying would that be? Quite. The source of the Loue, obviously a massive descent, was interesting. Water flowing out of a big cave in a humongous rockface. Then I found out it's actually fed by two other rivers, which made me feel rather cheated. On for a steep ascent to a little chapel surrounded by barbed wire in a cow field. So tired I lay down for 20 mins on the stone floor. Down to village - Ouhans - got directions to cut through to main road to Pontarlier. Seemed a bit of a dog-leg so ignored them. Had a Grande Randonnee path at my diposal but was so annoyed by the one earlier in the day that I ignored that too, and chose a forestry track "sans issue" (ie doesn't go anywhere). Yes, it went somewhere. Up up and up again into the woods, where finally it became a mud track, which split into three tracks with ankle-deep mud, then a variety of other tracks with varying depths of mud. Needless to say the further you doggedly plough on under such circumstances, and the more often you see your compass needle pointing in a variety of new and startling directions, the greater becomes the inkling that you might just be a little bit lost. Then comes the full realisation taht you have no idea where you are, in a thick forest, in the clouds, in thick mud. And it'll soon be dark. Try it some time - it's a magical feeling. Being a good boy scout I took a look at the map, decided to head East, and followed the compass. This involved hacking through undergrowth, sliding down muddy slopes and generally being an irresponsible orienteer, but in only twenty or so minutes I heard the sound of roaring traffic, and soon after emerged like a drowned prairie dog on the main road to Pontarlier. It was now after 7pm. Tired. Wet. Cold. And 9km from Pontarlier. Oh, the unbridled joy. Donned my hi-viz vest and got to marching. Funnily enough by now I'm so fit that the km aren't the problem, just the boredom of a stright main road, and the discomfort of being soaked through for the Nth time, and being repeatedly sprayed by drivers who look at me like I must be mad. Oh, hang on... Get to Pontarlier around 9pm, thoroughly fed up. Have a lovely chat (read: a good old moan) to my pa who is very sympathetic and makes me feel rather better. It's all a bit crap though. I know it was my choice to do it and it's a great experience etc etc, but being constantly rained on and tired and never knowing where you're going to sleep and permanently lugging around the weight of a healthy 5-year-old boy can sometimes just get a bit much. Head into town and get food (doner kebab - food? The only option). Campsite a couple of km away. More joy. Meet a man on the way who's done a runner from the hospital where he's being treated for chronic alcoholism. We talk for quite some time. I feel deeply sorry for him and profoundly grateful for all my own blessings. I think just maybe I brought a little bit of something positive into his evening. I hope so. Pitched tent in the rain. Hid from the rain. Fell asleep with the sound of the rain. Rain rain rain.
06/06/08 Up about 10:45. Dismantle sodden tent. Pay fifteen euros for campsite. Robbery. i hadn't even taken a shower! what's the point? I'm sick of being wet. Phone ma and have a nice chat. Go into town and buy chocolate and crisps and biscuits and all the things I normally don't allow myself. Head out of town to the Ibis hotel and check in at 2pm. It's raining. You wouldn't believe my joy when I got into that room. A bed, a bathroom, a telly, a hair-dryer for my boots! Set about eating snack food, flipping between the tennis and Harry Potter, having a shower, washing my clothes in teh bath, hanging my tent all over the place, airing my sleeping bag and generally making the place look like a neglected squat. Bliss. Didn't leave hotel for 22hrs. Had dinner there - a steak - and generally made use of the facilities and comforts which I rarely enjoy. Happy days.
07/06/08 Up at 9:20. Breakfast at 9:40. i was the only guest there, so put myself in Dyson mode and set about hoovering up the buffet. Croissant, bread, cake, fruit, cheese, yogurt, milk, hot chocolate, juice, cereal - nothing was safe. Arrange a late check-out and set about my boots with the hair-dryer again. Leave around midday. Still raining. Went into town, drank some milk and wrote some postcards in a bus shelter. Glamorous. The rain is now light. Leave town, do a few km then take the turning for Les Fourgs, and commence the ascent. It's a long pull up to skiing altitudes, but I manage ok and arrive at the Swiss border around 18:00, just as the rain stops. The Swiss border! An achievement! Joy! Get my pilgirm record stamped - Douane Auberson - and walk on to Ste Croix, 6km further on, arriving around 19:40. Meet a young guy who takes me to the Youth Hostel that has closed, then up above the town to a hill where I can't camp (nowhere flat!), then to his mates' place, where he reckons I can stay. Turns out I could. i was welcomed by four other guys in a place that looked like a bohemian squat (it wasn't), and in which I witnessed the most incredibly enthusiastic and copious consumption of marijuana. The welcome was very warm; I was given a big meal, a good chat and a sofa to sleep on. Really good guys.
08/06/06 My host kindly woke me at 9:50 for church. Turns out there wasn't a mass. I had a good breakfast, during which two of the guys started once again smoking vast quantities of dope. At ten in the morning - how do these people function?! Two guys accompanied me to the station to get a stamp, then out of town to show me the path they recommended - via the Gorges de Covetannaz. It took them quite out of their way. They were kind to take me there, and sent me off with many good wishes. The gorges were lovely. I walked on to Orbe, the day's destination. Got there at 5pm, so decided to walk a bit more. And a bit more. I ended up at 10pm unable to find a place to camp, so walked on till 11:20 when I got to Chessel - just 5km or so from Lausanne - tomorrow's destination! - where I failed to gain ingress to a McDonald's restaurant, but succeeded in camping next to the football pitch of FC Chessel (for whom, I later learned, Michael Schumacher plays). I've walked a long way!
09/09/08 Alarm 9am. Woken at 8:45 by banging on the tent. Blearily pull on my trousers and stick my head out. Silhouetted against the morning sun are two MASSIVE police officers. Hello! I say. What are you doingh here? I was sleeping, officer. Who are you? I'm an English pilgrim etc etc. Ok, have a nice day. Cool! Groundsman comes over and says would I like a shower - he'll open up the dressing rooms. Brilliant. Left with an FC Chessel pennant for my bag and an FC Chessel T-shirt! Straight to McD's. Then straight to a cashpoint - Swiss Francs now! Then straight back to McD's for a sumptuous ìBig Tasty' with bacon; large fries; Sprite and sundae - the breakfast of champions. Got to Lausanne about 13:00. Met a lovely old boy who was picking flowers, gave me directions and some time later went round town looking for me, founf me and gave me a map that he'd gone and fetched for me. So kind. Bought a harmonica, a walking map and a Bill Bryson book (a bit of light relief now necessary - then back to the Good Book). Meandered around for a bit feeling daunted by the city, annoyed by my backpack and unsure what to do. Phoned M&D. Campsite out of town so decided to take pack to cathedral, visit then go camp. Cathedral was good. Climbed bell-tower )leaving pack at the bottom!) and got a good view of the city, which allowed me to think right, I've 'done' Lausanne now. Headed to campsite, literally miles away and on the wrong side of town for tomorrow, via the only backpacker hostel which only had dormitory rooms available (couldn't face it). On the way to the campsite met a group of Protection Civile men. They are guys who don't want to do militarty service so instead preserve public order, in this case because of possible crowds going to watch Euro 2008 matched on the big screen by the lake. There were no crowds, so I spent an hour chatting to the guys, dressing up in one of their uniforms for photos and generally messing about. Went to campsite, ate a good pizza and went to bed to the sound of dutch adolescents making an unnecessary amount of noise. Got to sleep around 1am, to the sound of dutch adolescents making an unnecessary amount of noise. No rain all day!
10/06/08 Wake up at 7:30am to the sound of dutch adolescents making an unnecessary amount of noise. Namely a ghetto blaster right by my tent. Doze till 9:30. Hang around in the sunshine reading Bryson till about half eleven then leave. Follow lake all day, sometimes taking paths up through vineyards. Sunny and brilliant and amazing and wonderful. Switzerland is great. The lake is beautiful, as are the mountains (even though they keep looking at me funny and syaing "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough"). People are playing volleyball and football and rollerblading and walking their dogs and sitting having coffee and chatting on terraces and swimming and sunbathing and generally looking attractive and healthy and happy and affluent. There are so many benches to sit on, fountains to drink from, floral displays to look at and public toilets to, well, do whatever you need to, that it's a wonder I made any progress at all! This is a country that takes care of itself. Just after 8pm I meet three friends - two ladies and a gent - all 60ish - on a vineyard path. We have a really delightful chat - they are interesting and interested, charming people. they recommend a campsite 4km further on and we part ways after around 40 mins. I march on, arriving above the campsite on the road around 21:30. I hear "coucou! Benedict!" - it's the three from before, now awaiting me at the little restaurant by the campsite! I was so thrilled to see them I can't tell you. I'd just been thanking God for such lovely folk and there they were again. They took me for a good and companionable supper of merguez and frites, at which the campsite owner - a friend - was also present. It was a good evening. The campsite guy said pitch wherever you want. The campsite was like a little island jutting out into the lake, and I pitched within five yards of the lakeshore, going to sleep with the sound of the water lapping against the rocks. It was amazing.
11/06/08 Hot sunny morning. Leisurely start, leisurely stroll round lake. Stop to chat to young English couple with baby - they run a ski chalet in Verbiers in the winter and "try not to spend too much money" in the summer. They offer me to stay at the flat they rent out if I want .- for a week's rest if I feel I need it! They'll be away for a few days but they'll leave it open for me. Imagine! It's a bit off my route, but if the storms return then boy I might be glad of it. A generous offer. Carry on round to Montreux, marvelling at the benches, flowers, drinking fountains and public loos, and stop to seek provisions in a supermarket there. The three from last night are all from Montreux, but it's a biggish place so I doubted I'd see them. Who did I bump into the checkout but one of the lovely ladies from last night! what a lovely surprise. And she insisted on buying my groceries for me, which was very kind. I was glad to see her again, and be introduced to another of her friends, who had clearly already heard tell of the pilgrim. Walked on, left the lake, walked an hour with a ladies' trekking club, ended up camping by the local football pitch in ?Chesiel (I can't read my own writing...).
12/06/08 Phone dead. No alarm. Woke 5:15. Passing tractors or full bladder or combination of the two. The latter was easy enough to take care of but the former were mildly bothersome as I snoozed on. Quite cold. Zipped myself right up and awoke at 8:45 drenched in sweat - sun's up! Walk on past Aigle, yesterday's supposed destination. Happen across World Cycling Centre, where I marvelled at the velodrome and had a good lunch. Walked for three hours in the company of a man I met outside who was passing by on his bike. I wish I had the time to describe those three hours in full detail. He explained a full theory about the end of the world; an impressive knowledge of the Scriptures, trains, factories, bridges and the mental health system. He took me for a drink in the bistro of a shooting range. i never found out his name. We never talked about why he was walking with me: We both knew without discussing it when it was time to part company. I walked on past today's destination - St Maurice - and on towards Evionnaz. Met a nice guy - a buff runner - with whom I chatted and who offered me to stay at his place. Sadly it was 4km back so I declined. Ended up pitching after dark right by a huge waterfall called "PIssevache" - Pisscow - in Mieville. Took me half an hour to work out how to get across to the only bit of possibly flat ground, and half an hour to successfuly pitch my tent there, being sprayed by the falls all the while. The roar was huge. When had first approached the falls my heart was thumping with the thrill of it. I wondered if I'd ever be able to sleep. But sleep I did, though I woke up temporarily partially deaf and after some extraordinarily odd dreams...
It's 9pm and I must eat. Since the Pisscow I have met a lovely couple called Steve and Borah, eaten with them, and eaten and stayed with their charming neighbours Cedric and Raphaelle - and all their various assorted kids and cousins. I have been to the Fondation Giannada in Martigny; almost fallen off a cliff; played at being Indiana Jones in the spectacular Gorges du Durnand; joined in a four-birthday party with a bagpiper in full kilt and regalia; been rained on again; visited a mountain lake; climbed 1300m in one day; got caught in a snowstorm at 2400m - in mid June!; stayed at the Great St Bernard Hospice; crossed the Italian border and arrived in Aosta. Bits of it have been incredibly wonderful; bits have been very hard; at times I've been elated, at times exhausted and lonely. It has been a busy time for this little pilgrim, and I look forward to telling you more about it. In the meantime, love to all.
13/06/08 Woke up a bit deaf by the watefall, got a stamp and lovely pen as a gift from the manager of the hydroelectric plant. walked 2km into Vernayaz, bought some yogurts and headed into the backstreets to find a phone to give the missus a tinkle. Bumped into a guy with a Vespa called Steve. He soon invited me round to his house for a drink. i initially declined, fearing it would be far, but then accepted when he said it was round the corner. A cold drink turned into a great barbecue with Steve, his two kids and his partner Borah, and a neighbour Cedric. All sorts of friends, neighbours and in-laws popped by to gawp at the pilgrim - all good fun. Lunch turned into a great raclette supper at Cedric's house with his partner, kids and extended family, plus Steve's lot. A good time was had by all and I was welcomed very warmly. I'd been invited to stay at Cedric's house and accepted with gladness. Between them, Cedric and Steve's family sent me on my way clean, with clothes washed and dried, a wonderfully full tummy and after a good night's sleep. Only 2km achieved distance-wise, but I sure wasn't complaining!
14/06/08 Overslept. Up at ten. Whoops. That's what a comfy bed does for you! Breakfast with Cedric and Raphaelle. Departed an hour later with a generous bag of provisions. Steve had popped by to say bye, and I popped over to greet Borah. On through the apple orchards to Martigny, 4km or so away, where there was some sort of local fair. I watched a hip-hop dance display for a while - just glad to hear some banging tunes. Great idea to leave ipod etc at home - very pilgrimly - but I sure do miss a good beat. Then on to Fondation Giannada - the lady in France gave me the money to pay the entry, remember? Small but good permanent collection. Special Balthus exhibition not due to open till 16th but it was already on show - my luck! Also classic cars and a fine sculpture garden. Good stuff very well exhibited. A treat. Phoned ma for a good chat then walked on at around 18:30. First real mountain path. Cut out of a hillside. Guide describes it as "difficult for all groups". Too right! Hillside falling away on one side. Occasionally a barrier or rail to hold onto (only where there was a sheer cliff and sometimes not even then. Up and down very steep ascents/descents. Welcome to the Alps! At one point the path just disappeared under a huge rockfall. Nothing to do but clamber... Path to Gorges du Durnand (where Steve had suggested I go) closed, so on to Bovernier. Called lady from there then doglegged back to Les Vallettes. Nowhere to camp so headed up tyhrough growing darkness to Gorges entrance. Was allowed to camp in the bistro car park, had a nice chat with some folk, was offered free entry to the gorges tomorrow and pitched camp around 23:00
[computer keeps cutting me out so if i finish mid-sentence, sorry...]
15/06/08 Eat biscuits in bed then get up and climb the gorges. Incredible walkways bolted to the cliff-face on one side. A viewing bridge right across halfway up, with huge waterfalls on either side. I literally yelped with delight as I scampered onto it! Waterfalls are my new fetish. It was a real thrill. After the gorges was a vicious climb. I was off the official track, doing a Brucie bonus mountain for the sake of the gorges and the lake at the top. Viciously steep. A Golf GTi flew past me as i crossed the road. Ten minutes later I saw it pass me again - this time below me. That's how steep the pedestrian path was and how circuitous the road. I overtook a GTi up a hill! Passed a big party with two spit-roasting pigs. Said hello and was invioted to join in. Two 40ths, a 60th and a 70th. Guy whose 60th it was was Scottish - Willie. Scottish salmon, kilts, bagpipes, the lot. Truly bizarre. Walked on in the strengthening rain. Pretty valley then hefty climb up to the lake at Champex. Lake a disappointment - there's far better in Cumbria. Never mind! All good training for the climb to come. Two days up to the Great St Bernard Pass. Awful horrid steep descent to Orsieres - far worse than the climb. Went dead slow to save my knees. Stayed at the parish house (well, an adjacent building with no shower or loo). Met four brilliant Italians who'd gone there to get their pilgrim records stamped - they were doing 10ish days Pontarlier - Aosta. We had a drink together with the Augustinians who run the place. The Italians said they were leaving at 7:30am to climb to the top in one day. i said I'd join them, but maybe stop halfway. Got to get an early night!
16//06/08 Up before 7 for breakfast. Left at 7:45 with group. Do we know where we're going? Yes. We didn't. Soon got on the right track though and slogged for a couple of hours up an unimaginably steepo hillside path. Horrid horrid horrid. Only light rain. Stayed in t-shirt. We tyook a vote and chose a higher path, thinking it would be quicker. More climbing and an old boy told us we'd been wrong. Dropped down to Bourg St Pierre - my supposed destination for the day. The Italians treated me to a big lunch, very kindly. Changed socks and onward. Climb nowhere near as steepo as earlier in the day, but tough going as temperature dropped and rain became heavier. Togged up in waterproofs and ploughed on. About 1500m vertical to climb in one day - a big ask if you're not used to the mountains and have 18kg on your back! Around 6pm we got to a little mountain refuge. By this time it had just started to snow. We spent 15mins recuperating in the shelter then headed on. I had phoned to book a bed in the Hospice at the tyop 8theguys were in the hotel). Dinner at 19:15. One hour to do 4km with a vertical of 400m. I went on ahead to get up in time for supper. Snowstorm thickens, whipping wind, pushing me up on one zig-zag, hard against me on the next, all the way up. 4m snow-walls on the hill side of the road. Quite a landscape! I was getting increasingly cold in just a t-shirt and waterproof but had to plough on - if i'd stopped I might not have got going again. Teeth gritted I put one foot in front of the other, feeling like a real pilgrimmy pilgrim, and in 55mins 4km and 400m vertical were complete. I virtually fell through the door of the hospice. Four people crowded round me, urging me to take of my bag and wet clothes righ there in the hall. one guy bustled off to get me some tea. I looked like a snowman and felt dizzy from the exertion. I was later told I'd been shaking like a leaf. It was only when I clocked the uncomprhehnding stares that I realised I was rambling to these folks in a tongue they didn't understand. What language am i speaking? i asked. Italian. Oh. had a massive meal. Really good hearty stuff. Met a guy called Walter - 69, Belgian - doing Antwerp to Rome. Joined VF at Besancon. in a dorm with him. Both join Italians at hotel to watch footy.
17/06/08 Walked down to Aosta with Walter and Italians. 2000m drop. Lots of rain. Almost fell in a drainage canal (just dipped one foot in the end). Got electrocuted by a cow fence. Because I'm an idiot. Ca,e down it too fast for my rhythm. Ended up with tired legs. Pizza and footy with Walter. He at religious house. Me at campsite. Italians in hotel - they've finished!
18/06/08 Day off. At campsite till4pm. Back very sore. Everything soaked. Down to town, leaving tent up and backpack with reception, which closes at 11pm. Delicious pizza, couple of phone calls, trip to religious bookshop to get Italian Francigena maps, couple of hours of bloggery. Back to campsite at 23:02. All locked up. No sleeping bag. All I'd left in my tent was my travel towel, baseball cap and tent bags. Cap on head, tent bags on legs and towel over torso. It was a cold night. I was in shorts and t-shirt and flip-flops. Woke up every 15mins shivering. Nice.
19/06/08 Up at 6. Too cold to try to carry on sleeping. 40min hot shower. outside reception at 7 when it opens. It opened at 8. Got bag and went back to tent, laids out bed but couldn't sleep. Packed up and headed off, picnic in town then hit the road. VF signage a joke. Up and down and up and down the hillside. They clearly decided to sign the route, gave three sets of idiots three sets of different signs, told them that all roads lead to Rome, blindfolded them and told them to get on with it. Very hot. Blister on my right little toe. Still exhausted from mountains. Horrible day. Arrived late in Chatillon, had a good pasta meal then camped in a field opposite tyhe cemetery.
20/06/08 Woke early - tent like a sauna. DRipping with sweat. Chilled out for a while reading Grisham (crap - acquired in Aosta, one of three english titles). Went to three differnet offices before getting my pilgrim record stamped (italian bureaucracy) and once again headed off at almost midday. Sunshine!! Horrible awful day. Through St Vincent (yesterday's destination, and weirdly I'd eaten there when sking earlier this year - did a big deja vu then a big double take!), then on a circuitous horrible path along the valley. Long. Boring. Hot horrid. Exhausted. Foot hurts. wonder why I'm doing this. Horrid. Crap. Can't make it to destination. Stop at Arnat. Have a great meal and end up camping in restaurant owner's garden. Perform surgery on three blisters with nail clippers cauterised with a cigarette lighter. High tech. Hygienic. Hmmm.
21/06/08 Great night's sleep. Good rest. Up late, wandser down to restaurant to say thanks. Owner kindly shouts me lunch. More pasta. Can't get enough of it! Walk at 1pm into the heat of the day. No messing around, straight along the main road to Ivrea. It's a long way but I catch up with myself. Now a sore left foot (from compensating for the right). Pizza then camp late in a public park. Dripping with sweat, cover myself in anti-mosquito stuff and tigere balm to ease the bites. Tent like a furnace even at midninght. Just sit there and swelter and drip and stink and then sleep uncovered in my pants. This is glamourous stuff!
22/06/08 Heavy rain in the night. Woken by heat. Tent soaked, park flooded in parts, but heat of the day already rising. Pack up and go to 1130 mass. Have pasta for lunch then walk on. Walk hard along the main road for hour upon hot hour, feet a bit sore, reflecting that it's now just a big act of devotion and penitence. The fun's over and I've just got to grit my teeth and give thanks to God for the wonderful times I've had so far. Pass lake Viverone - many a chavvy lakeside resort. 3km from Caviglia and 11km from destination Santhia when a guy pulls over. He's deputy mayor of Cavaglia' and invites me to their pilgrim hostel. I'm shattered so accept. Walk on, have a dip in his pool then shown to what a previous guest rightly described in the visitor's book as "the hilton of pilgrim hostels". Got a takeaway pizza and rested well.
23/06/08 Slept late left late yomped through the first 8km to Santhia and straight past. Perishing heat, many a mosquito, left foot getting increasingly sore. ended up 7km from Vercelli and unable to go on. Too many mosquitos to camp, so on I went. Limped to the edge of town - I'd honestly have been faster on crutches. Ended up camping by a big out-of-town hardare store in the company of more mosquitoes than I've ever seen. Once again just dripping with sweat and crud in the tent. No supper. Left foot sore at front and back. No surgery.
24/06/08 Woke up definiteively at 8 when heat was too much to continue dozing. Packed up and left at 930am. Went into town via shop for Fanta, milk and chocolate. Feel skinny and weak and drained. Checked into a 35 euro hotel - basic. Single bed, loo and shower in corridor. It'll do me though! Sightseeing. Resting my feet. Eating lots. Fingers crossed for tomorrow! I've really moaned a lot haven't I. The food's great though! Just grab a rucksack, put 12 big bottles of Volvic in it (18kg), then stand in a sauna. Then walk in the sauna. For eight hours. That's the only problem. Oh well, it was never meant to be a holiday!! Love to all.
Sorry must be very brief. Thanks to all for continuing donations to PA , both online and offline - it's fantastic. Thanks to all who send emails and texts of support, encouragement, pride and inspiration - I can't tell you how helpful they are. Apologies if I don't always reply promptly or even at all - it does not at all mean that I do not value your communications - on the contrary! Please keep them coming. Now in Pavia. Hot and sweaty and hot. Physically back to good form though, which is a great relief. Will give more news soon. Big love to all.
25/06/08 Alarm 6:30. Up 9:30. Predictable. leave 10:45. A quick tour of the Duomo that had been closed yesterday then straight onto the road - no breakfast. Had an apple left over in my bag but it had predictably gone bad in the heat - one bite and it got binned. Arrived in Palestro at 13:00 after taking the main road - can't face messing around on badly signed back-roads for a while. Had a good lunch of spicy pasta. Met my mate Joe's doppelganger, which amused me far more than the growing heat of the day. Ploughed on to Robbio, where I sat for ten minutes in the shade near a water fountain. Hydration is so crucial at the moment. Drink and drink and sweat and sweat. If I don't get enough fluids I pretty quickly feel pretty ill. Next stop on the way to Mortara was Nicorvo. I got there at 17:45, bones in my left foot starting to ache a bit. Had a poke around a little chapel then went to a call box to call my delectable lady-friend. I was on the blower to her when a lady appproached me and said are you a pilgrim? I said yes. She said you can sleep here if you want, we've got a room etc. Sorry love, can I call you back, I said to the missus, then the woman explained that the town has a room with a shower and hot water and allsorts and a special pilgrim deal in the local restaurant. All sounded rather too good to pass up, so I said I'd think about it (I'd intended to do another 8km yet) and called GF to finish my sweet nothings. Needless to say, I was straight along to number 16 afterwards to get Francesca to show me to my quarters. Not before we'd gone to meet Giuseppina, the custodian of the chapel; got my pilgrim record stamped, taken various photos of one another etc. All most amusing. The pilgrim quarters were comfortable - the bedroom somewhat in a state of development, but the bathroom as good as you'd expect in a hotel. Happy? As Larry. The restaurant was closed for some reason so Francesca kindly invited me to dine with her, her partner and daughter. I gladly accepted, and enjoyed a very companionable and delicious supper. Turns out they're very keen on the VF, and Francesca has made friends with Monica D'Atti, who's written a major guide to the route. There was therefore much to talk about. Back to the parish house about 22:45 to liberally spray mosquito chemicals kindly provided by Francesca, and then to bed.
26/06/08 Alarm 7am. Impossible to wake before 8:30. Leave 9:30, drop off an offering in the church and the keys in Giuseppina's letterbox. Nicorvo's not on any of the pilgrim hospitality lists that I have, I don't think. It should be. Good people. Continuing on off-road route to Mortara, via Madonna del Campo. 8km. Two hours. Easy. Yeah, right. Going through the rice fields. First error was mine - I walked the wrong side of a farm, on through the fields to a dead end. Then I went another way, along various precarious raised pathways (mud heaps) set between the sodden rice fields. Another dead end then a little loop. Ended up almost at point of departure after two hours. Getting VERY frustrated. I'd pretty much laid off swearing for about six weeks. I swear to much, I confess. Often to myself and/or at inanimate objects. I was doing really well, at leats till the mozzies started getting bad. You try to put up a tent after dark in 35+ degree heat with a head torch on and more mozzies than you'd ever seen - you'd need the patience of a saint not to tell the delightful litle creatures just where to go... Anyway, I digress... Suffice it to say that you would have laughed to see me there in those rice fields, waving my arms like a mad man, shouting, ranting, swearing and ever roaring my heat, frustration, disorientation and wrath with it all. It didn't quite end there. On I carried, sure I was on the right path, till I came to a crossroads. Hard to believe, but despite having three sets of (albeit not entirely agreeing) maps, a compass, and the ability to get myself from Canterbury to Nicorvo with barely a navigational glitch, I was utterly stumped as to where to go. I knew the way I'd came was not the way to continue, i was fairly sure I shouldn't go left, but as for straight on or right it could be nothing but a gamble. Try as I might to orientate and reorientate these maps, to make them make sense of one another or even alone, I simply couldn't. Francesca and Gianmario had warned me that path markers might have been removed by farmers. They most certainly had. I just sat down on my rucksack and wondered what to do. On the road for well over two hours and I could still see the Nicorvo bell-tower laughing at me, not nearly far enough away. I considered the possibility of taking out a thirty grand loan so as not to leave PA out of pocket, giving you all your money back and just coming home. I soon realised, however, that either way I was going to have to get out of the rice fields so I might as well have one last stab at it before committing myself to a life of debt and possibly a stint in some form of Dickensian debtors' prison. I went straight ahead. The bearing was approximately right for Rome at least - SSE - soon the crops changed from rice to something far bigger and more interesting. I heard bells ringing (midday!). Could it be, could it possibly be... Madonna del Campo! A relief, but I was nonetheless still pretty full of frustration and rage. I went into the church, had a bit of a sit down, a bit of a sing, cooled off, took some photos, and then set to lighting candles and saying prayers. I left that church a different man. It's amazing how a bit of time spent concentrating on the Lord and one's loved ones can be so much more beneficial thank thinking about one's own petty frustrations. I sure was ready for lunch by the time it came round at 13:20 in Mortara - I'd thought I'd get there for a late breakfast! A good pizza, then over the road to the supermarket for milk and chocolate. Milk. Chocolate. How I have come to love them more than ever. Had to wait for a bit to be able to call the missus about a possible visit. We'd planned for her to come this weekend to Pavia, but she'd forgotten that she was due to be going to Paris with her ma. Then Paris got cancelled so they're going to have supper together instead. Either way it means no visit, so plan B is a trip to Fidenza next weekend, but that's dependent on her getting a day off work on the Friday, and it's the first week of a new job, so I can but cross my fingers... Anyway on I walked at 1545. The main road out of Mortara, for the benefit of any who may follow in my footsteps, was NOT designed for pedestrians. There is almost nothing in the way of a hard shoulder, and in most places not much in the way of a verge to leap onto when an oncoming truck looks like it has failed to notice you (that would be 100% of the time). Before long it got a bit better, and I felt increasingly certain that I would live to see the evening. Three interesting encounters on the road to Garlasco. First a lady pulled over and waited for me to catch up. 'Get in, I'll give you a lift.' 'No thanks, I'm a pilgrim'. 'I know you're a pilgrim, but I'm a doctor and it'll be good for you to rest'. 'No, really...'. She was very pleasant and kind, and gave me some refreshing wipes to refresh myself with, should I need to at any stage (I accept them gladly, knowing that they will be used as a substitute shower, possibly seven days in a row). Then a prostitute waiting for trade on the other side of the road asked me where i was going. I don't think she was looking to pick me up. With the state I'm in I'm sure I'd be charged at least triple if she was. I crossed over and told her about what it is I'm doing and we chatted briefly. She asked me if I'm not scared walking on my own and sleeping in funny places etc. I told her what I tell everyone - if I were that scared I'd stay at home. I have faith in God and in my fellow man, and I just get on with it. I said to her 'I could ask you the same question - aren't you scared standing here?' she made a gesture as if to say 'touché'. I walked on feeling a little bit sad. She was a sweet girl and it seemed unfair that she was in that position. I vaguely wondered if I should have done some kind of witnessing or something, but to be honest I suspect that simply having a conversation with a man that didn't involve the words 'how much?' will probably have been of as much benefit as anything else I could have come up with under the circumstances. Next I met a priest, Don Luca. He'd seen me pass and followed me in his car. He stopped and gestured to me and by the time I crossed he was already throwing crap off the front seat into the back. I explained that I just go on foot and he seemed to understand. We chatted briefly, and then he asked if I was English. I said yes. He said [in English] 'God bless you' and looked all pleased with himself. He then proceeded to give me a blessing in Italian. I walked on full of incredible cheer. I really felt that Don Luca's blessing had been full of meaning and import. I had been turned around from the raging monster of earlier on back to a humble pilgrim vagabond with a bit of peace in his soul. Got to Garlasco at 20:00 - earlier than I'd imagined. Had a pizza (second of the day). It was a takeaway place but they took pity and allowed me to eat it on the premises. Went next door to a bar and had a fanta and watched a bit of football. I'd called the famous sanctuary of Madonna della Bozzola earlier in the day but I couldn't stay there because they were full up with a group of young drug addicts. Fair enough. I planned to just head up there and camp anyway. Tried to call M&D at 21:30. Phone card wouldn't work, frustratingly. Came out of the phone box and met three young guys sitting on a bench. They asked where I'd come from etc and we chatted. They offered me water. Asked if I needed anything. They asked where I was going to sleep and I told them my plan. Sleep here, one said - there's enough room. Immediately he got up and showed me into their house. 'Leave your bag here, take what you need and we'll go and get a coffee, ok?'. I did as I was told. Turns out they're Albanians - two brothers and a cousin - Altino, Albano and Eduardo - all in a one up one down house in Garlasco - a brickie, a plasterer and a decorator. They bought me a coffee, took me home gave me water and a shower, we watched the end of Bruce Almighty (in English with Albanian subtitles - my attempts to read which caused much mirth and merriment), then went to bed - all in one room, the three of them in beds and me in a bunk above. Another cousin was coming to sleep there later, they said, and they fixed up the sofa bed downstairs. It has only just occurred to me that he almost certainly lives there too, but they hadn't told me so that I wouldn't feel bad about taking his bed. Wow, the thought of that has made me feel rather moved... Albanians get a really rough deal from the often rather xenophobic Italians. It would even be understandable if they became somewhat embittered by it all. Yet here were these three young guys, strangers in a strange (and not always welcoming) land, offering a bed to another stranger right off the street. Amazing. Brilliant.
27/06/08 Up at 6:50. Out at 7am. Those guys early to work. Suits me - I've been hoping to adjust my rhythm to avoid some of the heat. Say my thanks and goodbyes then head out of town. Pass church in main square. It was open so in I went. Big church. Priest saying mass, or rather mouthing it, at the altar. I sat down about halfway back, and after a while (when he realised I was there for the duration) he started saying the mass aloud. I could just about follow it and knew some of the correct responses. When it got to 'let us offer one another a sign of peace' I got a bit confused, had a quick look around at the empty pews and wondered whether to just pat myself on the back (but decided against it). I wasn't quite sure at which point the distribution came, but the priest helpfully waved the host in my direction and said 'do you want it?', so up I trotted. It was actually rather a moving eucharist, all in all. The priest prayed with such commitment and devotion, and was clearly doing so all on his tod before I arrived. He gave me a stamp afterwards. Turns out the church is always open that early, but the mass is normally a little later - today was a special youth day out, so the priest needed to hit the road. So did I - via the supermarket for my usual combination of fruit, yogurt, chocolate and milk, then onto the main road to Pavia - no messing about. Made good time and reached the outskirts about 13:00. There was a McD's, so I obviously tucked into a Big Tasty with bacon, 'Vertigo' fries and a Sprite. The luncheon of champions. Pressed on into town, a few km, and stopped to phone a religious hostel to see if they'd have me. Mercifully they would, so on I went to find them. Had to go to a pharmacy on the way. I've developed a nasty stye in my left eye - the almost inevitable result of swetaing copiously, rarely washing and rolling around in my own filth at every possible opportunity. I consulted the pharmacist who recommended an antibiotic cream. I was just getting out my money to pay when a guy behind me said 'are you a pilgrim?'. I said yes. He said 'I'll get that'. I said no you mustn't etc but soon accepted - people seem genuinely glad to help and be generous. the pharmacist seemed a bit put out. He said 'who is this guy?', the man simply replied 'he's a pilgrim. he's on his way to Rome.' The man then gave me five euros and asked me to make an offering for him in Rome. I said I would, and asked him for his name, so that I could pray for him. He was suddenly very embarrassed and said 'my name is Pino, just Pino'. I was very touched by Pino, and grateful to him for his kindness. I went to the Caritas hostel and checked in. Another pilgrim turned up - a 70-year-old German lady called Hermine, who me and the GF had spotted in Chalons weeks and weeks ago! We were put in a room together, which seemed a bit odd, but there you go. Hermine was cool if self-confessedly a little crazy "everyone who walks all the way from Canterbury to Rome is a little crazy" she said, looking at me meaningfully (I'll let you all judge for yourselves). She said she was just happy to have a room and a bed. She was going to have a shower and sleep, so I did a few things and left her to it. I went off at 17:00, had an ice cream to stave off appetite for supper, went to Basilica San Michele, saw the outside of the castle, peered into ?San Giovanni in Cielo (the one with St Augustin's tomb) but didn't go in because there was a service going in. To a bookshop for Picture of Dorian Gray and Portnoy's Complaint, then back to the hostel to ask re a place to eat. Went out for a substantial supper, then to hostel, a bit of internet, shower at ten then bed. Hermine was sound asleep. She'd said I could come back, put music on, sing and shout if I wanted, she'd just be happy to be in bed. Needless to say I tiptoed around and crept into bed to start on Roth. Interestingly, Walter the Belgian is in the hostel too. Saw him briefly earlier.
28/06/08 Two months on the road! Can't quite believe it. Slept all night in just my pants on top of the sheets by an open window. It sure don't get cool, even at night. I vaguely stirred when Hermine left, but couldn't wake properly till 9:30. Showered and left at 10:15. Went back to see St Augustin's tomb. Well worth it - a magnificent church was a superbly fine and moving sculpture of the Sacred Heart. Followed signs to PIacenza, intending to cut a corner on the 'pilgrim route'. Idiot. Don't follow road signs as a pedestrian unless you've seen a map. Got spat out of Pavia in the wrong direction, did a broad circle round it and ended up after 1pm by a sign saying 'Pavia 1km'!! Strangely, this didn't bother me a jot, and I calmly carried on. Ended up on the pilgrim route (as per Pisoni) anyway. It was very pleasant. First walk in the woods for yonks. Decided to skip Santa Cristina and cross the Po early from Spessa. The Po is a serious river - it's w-i-d-e! The bridge was broad and strong, but the pedestrian walkway - raised about two foot from the road behind a barrier on either side, was not convincing. It was a series of rattly metal sheets bolted to I-don't-know-what underneath. The first of the sheets at one end had come clean away, but further on it was unclear how well they were fixed or what lay beneath them. Not a straight drop into the river, I hoped... I could just imagine the planning meeting where some slick contractor was saying to his foreman "right, Gianni, they want a walkway, right? But who's gonna ever walk across the Po on foot? That's, like, five hundred metres from side to side ! No-one's ever going to do that. So you listen to me, take some sheets of tin and spread them nice either side of the road. No-one will know. Make it look pretty, fai bella figura and just don't worry'". Money creamed off the top, job done, pilgrim ends up in the river. Mercifully it was not so. I bounced and rattled to the other side without so much as a wet bootlace. Stopped at Arena Po on the other side (well, a few clicks on) to have a Fanta, intending to get to Castel San Giovanni. Fanta is like a lifeline sometimes. When my body cries and clamours for fast calories I give it Fanta and it is calmed. In the bar I chatted at length to the folk there. One guy, Carmine, bought me my Fanta, went to his car and got a baker's pizza that he got the barmaid to heat up for me. He then phoned the mayor to ask if I could stay at the tennis courts where there's a shower and loo. He went off to turn the hot water on, came back and took me there, by now accompanied by Elya, a large Ukrainian and member of the environmental police force, apparently. Carmine went off to get me shower gel and loo roll - he basically made sure that I had everything I could possibly need. He'd failed to calculate that putting my tent up on a concrete tennis court might prove somewhat problematic, and it took two of us to explain to him why, but I assured him I'd be fine on the floor in the storage room by the showers. To another bar, where I was treated to large sandwich by Maria, the proprietress, also much fizzy mineral water and chatter with her and other locals. Headed to sleep around 11pm. Didn't get to sleep till about 2, annoyingly. Uncharacteristic of me!
29/06/08 So much for early start. Up 9:30 and out at 10 after another shower. The clothes I'd showered in last night weren't quite dry so I spread them out on the tennis court - they still weren't dry when I put them on but they soon will be, or at least the water will evaporate and be replaced by pure eau de mansweat anyway. Got to San Giovanni Castello at 13:00 and went to the Penny Market to get bruncheon. Sat in the shade of a church doorway and ate salami and philadelphia baps - fresh made on the spot - a big pot of pineapple yogurt and half of some gross nougat chocolate. I felt I should eat it but it was pretty foul. A big carton of fresh OJ too - all good for the pilgrim. Remember I'd weighed myself back in Grenant and lost about six kilos? I must have lost at leas ten by now. The t-shirts that I so amply filled now hang off me. The belt that was pretty much an accessory when I started is now vital to the protection of my modesty - I can easily pull down my trousers without undoing even the button. For the first time I know the shape of my hip bones. Even at my slenderest in previous years I've never quite lost my love-handles, and now I wonder where they may have gone. All I am really is slim and fit and in good shape for a man of my build, but the change is pretty noticeable. I'm worried the missus will flip when she sees me. Some weeks ago I sent her a picture of me just wearing a towel, flexing my muscles and trying to look big and hard (I knew she'd been concerned about my weight loss). I must say, I thought the picture had come out pretty well, even if I say so myself. She actually opened the email whilst on the phone to me and said "you're so skinny!", followed by "...and very hairy", and then a somewhat mitigating "...but very handsome". Boy, did I feel sexy after that! Not. I know that she likes a butch man. For ages she had a big keg of whey protein powder in her kitchen cupboard, which I can only imagine was a hint to me to start piling on a bit of beef, as I've never known her to be a body-builder herself, thank heavens. When I asked her what it was doing there she said "it makes great smoothies!" Pure whey protein to make a smoothie? Give me a bunch of bananas and a tub of ice cream any day... Anyways, I'm rather concerned that she may be a little appalled by the half-a-boyfriend that now remains. Combine it with the wild-man beard, increasingly out-of-control (and uncombed for two months) mullet, and the still-not-any-more-attractive stye in my left eye (I look a bit like I've been punched) and I really am the picture of a foul pilgrim. Poor girl. As someone pointed out to me, by the time you get to Rome your rucksack will weigh the same as you. What a thought... Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, a copious lunch and foul chocolate. I did my best to eat as much as possible. I know I need to, but my metabolism seems to have gone into such overdrive that I'm incapable of stuffing enough food into the system. But still I try... Added to which it must be said that the heat doesn't make one too hungry much of the time. But boy, when I get to eating can I sure put away a lot! I can pretty much fold a pizza in two and just slip it down my gullet, before drinking a bowl of spaghetti in one and then zipping through a range of tasty desserts. I feel vaguely satisfied at the end, but hardly overfaced. Anyway, I really went for it by that church, then made the mistake of lying down with my head on my pack. Error. Error. How, when it's 33 degrees, are you ever going to get yourself up from a recumbent position with a full tummy, put 18kg on your back and proceed to walk 20km through burning sunshine? It took a short while, but that's precisely what I did. I stopped around 16:45 to get some water in a pizzeria/bar. Turns out it was run by a big family of Neapolitans who sat me down and gave me coffee and a cake and told me to eat more. They were very friendly and kind. Needless to say it was with considerable regret that after half an hour or so I left the warmth of their company and the cool of their air conditioning to plough on to PIacenza! Got to PIacenza about 20:15 - very good going. Started to scout for a place to camp. Felt a real need to be in the tent after a few days out of it. I don't know why. Maybe something to do with familiarity and a sense of my own space. Moving from place to place every day must be fairly uinsettling on some level. Maybe a desire to justify carrying all my camping equipment for miles and miles every day! Anyways, someone suggested a place by the river, which I sought but couldn't find. Carried on towards town and saw a big building like a sort of car park with brand new cars in it. Looked like grass behind. that'll do, I thought, and headed on for food first. Soon happened across the golden arches. No other obvious trattoria, so before long Big Tasty with bacon was in my hands. Fanta and normal fries (the vertigo fries just hadn't quite cut it). Wandered back to the car place with a strawberry milkshake in my hand. The supper of champions. It wasn't grass behind the place. It was gravel with weeds. There were weird hummocks and hillocks nearby going up towards the railway. Very long grass, treacherous to walk on (hidden dips), eventually found a spot to camp. Pulled out a peg to test the turf. Nothing doing. Oh dear. Basically dark by now and nowhere to camp. It was private land anyway, so inherently dodgy. I walked on. Decided to go to the nearby Holiday Inn and ask if they had a lawn I could camp on, secretly hoping they might take pity on me and offer me a pilgrim rate of 20 euros (which I would gladly have paid for a long shower, a couple of hours of telly and a comfy bed right then!). No need. Before I got there I spied a little park, bordered on one side by a motorway exit road, on the others by a car park, the main road into town and a line of thick trees protecting a row of houses. Game on! Perfect turf, tent nestled close in to the trees, duck tape over the reflective corners (great for finding your tent with a torch in a dark wood, also great for being spotted by the cops when you're camping somewhere that you sort-of-maybe-strictly-speaking-shouldn't near any kind of road, especially a busy one! All pitched and ready to rock at 10pm. Bunked down for an hour of Portnoy before a sound sleep. Mercifully a small amount of breeze, so just bearable in boxers with all flaps open (tent flaps, that is).
30/06/08 Woke about 6am feeling chilly enough to pull out the sleeping bag, which was nice. Dozed off till 8:45 then got up and out at 9:30. Headed over for a morning milkshake but McD's not open till 11:30 (the McMuffin clearly not having made an impact on the Italian market). Strolled to a cafe to have a couple of Orzo coffees (unsure what it's made from, but not coffee apparently - caffeine free) and update my journal a bit. GF's first day at new job. Thinking of her and wishing her well. Also waiting to hear about Friday. She'll find out this morning. If she's coming on Friday it'll be to Fidenza so I might as well relax and have a day off here in PIacenza. If it turns out she can't come I'll plough on as per usual. Turns out we've been waiting for an answer all day, so I've stayed in Piacenza kind of in the starting blocks, neither getting rid of my pack, putting on flip-flops and thoroughly relaxing into a (deserved) day off, nor heading on to Fiorenzuola etc and getting a few more km closer to Rome. All a bit frustrating, but it's been an ok day. I've seen a couple of churches, had a wander round, had a good pizza. The afternoon's mission was to track down some 1:100000 maps, such as I had in France and Switzerland. I waited for one bookshop to reopen after lunch - they advertised 1:25000 maps in their door window. Nothing doing there, but the lady kindly called another shop. Yes, they'd be able to help. Off I went. No, actually they had no such maps, though they had two different VF guides, and seemed puzzled when I said I already had one of them. The point is this: the maps on the daily sheets that I have for the VF are not always easy to follow, they are not always to scale and I'm not sure that North is always in the direction that they think it is. Added to which, I would like to feel that I can divert from the prescribed route when I feel like it. Let's face it, they've done a great job of trying to find more picturesque routes than the main roads that plough through almost all of the Italian countryside, but it's not as though they're recording the precise routes of pilgrims past. Often the true and original Via Francigena followed the old Roman roads, they being the most direct route from A to B; however, given that fact, they have also proved to be the best place to put great stinking strips of asphalt for 40-ton trucks and speeding Alfa Romeos to rumble up and down incessantly, night and day. My aim is to walk from Canterbury to Rome. I would like to see as many pretty towns and significant religious buildings, monuments and shrines as I can on the way, but I have no qualms about choosing my own route when I feel like it. Furthermore, since I've been in Italy I've felt a bit like a blindfolded man feeling his way around, bumping into things and tripping because I have no sense of the bigger picture of the route. Remember in Langres when I spread three overlapping maps out on the floor? That was to give myself a medium-term sense of where my route was taking me. To do that, however, you need a decent map/maps. The lady in the second shop said she'd never heard of Italian 1:100000 maps. And bear in mind this was a serious bookshop with seemingly knowledgeable staff. But they must exist, I said. I won't say they don't exist, she said, anything might exist in this world, it's just that I've never seen them. Great. Back on with the blindfold. Yet another contributing factor to the growing sense of mild psychological unease that has beset me these past days. Intense heat, extreme exertion, spending too much time on one's own and an overall sense of unsettled disorientation start to make one feel a teensy little bit nutty. Enough of the confessional - I was talking about maps, wasn't I? Maybe I just need to go and sit in my tent for a while. I know where I am when I'm in my tent. Anyway anyway, the upshot of the day's activities (or lack thereof) is that I'm still in PIacenza, and here I am likely to spend the night, probably hiding from the police among the trees somewhere. I could kinda do with a shower, though. Going more than a day without a shower in this heat isn't really a very pleasant way to behave... We shall see!
Thank you once more to everyone who has shown their support by donating to PA, by following the blog, by being in touch with me or by being in touch with my parents or GF to find out how I'm doing. Much love to all. Pilgrim.
I did spend another night in Piacenza! Was blogging till latish then decided to head back to the same place to camp. Little did I realise that as I meandered across town I had in fact meandered a good 45mins non-stop walk from my point of departure! Oh well, that's 45mins I'll have to do for the third time in the morning... Obviosly back to the Golden Arches for some proper pilgrim nutrition. You know the deal... Big Tasty with bacon, fries, Fanta... When I went up to the counter again for two strawberry milkshakes to enjoy in the tent the inevitable questions started. they ended up with a queue of customers as the entire staff gathered round to quiz me. They were very interested and supportive. One girl also works for the local paper in Piacenza and swore blind that there'd been an article about my pilgrimage about 6 weeks ago. Yes, it was a guy called Benedict, I'm sure - she said. Quite how they might have heard about me I've no idea. I'm not convinced... Anyway, one milkshake later I took the second one across the road to my 'campsite'. It had been raining whilst I was indoors, but had almost stopped. I got the tent up and got inside, leaving the front door open. thenh the rain started again, so I closed up for the night. Thank goodness I did so in time, as very soon came a real deluge! The storm I'd heard in the distance passed pretty much overhead and the rain was hammering on the tent like nothing else. The wind got up and was shaking my little Hilleberg, but little Hilleberg stayed strong (oh, beloved tent). The storm came and went, and the pilgrim slept soundly.
01/07/08 Pinch, punch, first of the month and all that... Time to finally leave PIacenza. Up at 9, out at half past, still a bit dopey but ready for the road. It's amazing how hung over I feel some mornings given that I never touch a drop of booze! Back on the long road into town. Stopped at yesterday's first bookshop to say hi and thanks and no I didn't get any maps. the lady was very nice, said that all she had was a 1:200000 of Tuscany (which makes up the bulk of the rest of the journey). I looked at it. It was very big and not very detailed, but I was thrilled by the idea of having some sense of where I am in the world! The lady could see my eyes light up, I think. She said here, I'll give it to you as a present, as long as you send me a postcard from Rome. Happily! On I trotted into town, stopping at the provincial offices for a stamp, only to be redirected to the Comune. And so to the comune, where I got passed round from place to place till I came across a lady who said "a pilgrim?" i said yes. "A pilgrim?" I said yes, you know, a religious traveller. "Yes, I know what a pilgrim is, I've just not seen one for years and years" Oh, ok then. Finally was passed to someone, Volga, who was pleased to see me and took me to the right office to get a stamp. I was duly quizzed and generally lauded (as seems to be the way here). one lady said "sorry to ask a personal question, but were you that thin when you started?". Er, no. I was sent on my way in good cheer, and went over the road to phone the missus. Still no news about Friday. Apparently we'll know by lunchtime. Fingers still crossed! Headed to the supermarket to get milk, chocolate, bananas, apples, and some rather exciting bread batons with pancetta. Picnic on the steps of a big church then on the road around 11am. Estimates to Fiorenzuola varied between 17km and 29km. Turned out to be 23km. Take an average! Stopped on the way in Cadeo to chat to four folk outside a bar, enjoying much white wine. Sat down with them and had some water and mini aperitif sandwiches. One guy, Adriano, who was liable to fly into sudden mini-rages, asked me how fast I go - 6km/h? I said no, more like 4.5. He said when I was in the army we had to do 6km/h on the flat. We were 6km from Fiorenzuola so I jokingly suggested that he come with me, him carrying my bag, and we'd see if we got there in an hour. He clearly took this a bit seriously, stood up in a rage and said he was going to go home, get a rucksack heavier than mine and then race me to Fiorenzuola. I suddenly had visions of being responsible for the death by cardiac arrest of a 58-year-old man, but fortunately it all calmed down quickly. I was advised to go and see the church, which I had passed by (well, I'd sat down in the courtyard next to it and aired my feet for 15mins!). I duly went back to have a look, and it was quite something. An impressive Madonna painting, concave and with a flat glass covering so hard to see from most angles. Nice architecture, and thousands of offerings in frames on almost all of the walls, it seemed. Sports shirts, medals, motorcycle goggles, shields, you name it, it had been displayed in thanks to the Madonna. Quite a spectacle! Adriano turned up in the church and friendlily showed me a few things. I was glad he hadn't decided to go and get that rucksack afte all! A nun kindly gave me a picture of the Madonna for a souvenir, and on I wet, somewhat delayed. Arrive Fiorenzuola around 8pm, unsure whether I would then carry on to Alseno. Called the GF. She can't get Friday off work, only Friday afternoon. To visit me she would therefore need to get a 7pm flight arriving at Forli at 10:30pm. She'd then need to get in a hire car around 11:30 and drive up to 300km to find me, not speaking a word of Italian ad never having driven in Italy. I am grateful to her for even considering this as a possibility, but had to refuse it as dangerous madness. I know Italian roads and Italian drivers. At night there are fewer vehicles but they are faster and drunker than during the day. Road traffic accident statistics in Italy are shocking. Everyone knows someone who has died or been seriously injured in an accident. I had a friend in Bologna who got maimed. I once passed an accident scene on the other side of a very wide road. Only one lane was open on my side - the inner lane - but even at a good 25m distance the heat of the fire scorched my arm through a closed window. Risk that? Not on my watch! Added to which, arriving at 3am on Saturday morning and departing once more on Sunday morning seems like a very fast turnaround given the nightmare journey. Upshot: it seems unlikely that I'll see the missus before Rome. It's a shame. I'd been looking forward to it in Pavia and now this weekend, but that's the way it goes. This is a solo pilgrimage so I'll just have to fly solo a little longer! After that call I called my ma and had a very good chat. By this time the clock had ticked on and I realised I should probably find somewhere to sleep. A quick scout revealed few possibilities, so I reverted to plan A of walking (in darkness) 6km to Alseno. On the way out of town I spotted some grassland so decided that would in fact do! Headed to a nearby restaurant where I was soon the only customer. Pumpkin pasta - delicious - followed by a variety of meat on sticks. Lots of meat on several sticks. Gave my jaw a good workout... Got to chatting to the restaurant/hotel owber - Matteo - and after coffee he said "stasera sei il mio ospite" - tonight you're my guest. How kind! I told him where I planned to camp and he advised against it. "There's lots of Moroccans around there". I suspect that Italians refer to anyone who is non-white as a Moroccan, and they generally attribute any crime or threat of crime to that unfortunately discriminated-against category. I didn't enter into a debate on racial prejudice, however, but rather took Matteo's advice to camp in some soon-to-be-developed land behind the hotel. I went out, chose a spot between some trees and set myself up. Asleep by half eleven. Full tummy. Magic.
02/07/08 Slept till 9:30. No sleeping bag. Woke up well rested and not too sweaty (good job - when did I last shower..?). Got out at 10. Went to get a stamp from Matteo and say goodbye. he wasn't there, but Giusy was, so I had a fake coffee and a chat. She asked me to make an offering for her in Rome. I'm now writing them down carefully so the right candles get lit and the right prayers for the right people! Trotted to Alseno. Only 31 degrees and a light breeze - what a treat! Went to a pharmacist to ask about my evil eye. She suggested that I go to A&E to see a doctor. Got some milk and yogurts and had a little snack. Boy, do I love milk right now! bashed on along the SS9 to Fidenza - after Alseno it's newly tarmacced but there are no road markings. Italians need road markings. It gives them a concept of which side of the road to drive on and approximately where the hard shoulder might be - the hard shoulder that might contain a pilgrim or two. Oh well, eyes open and maximum alertness! I'm becoming a truck-spotter. It's like a train-spotter except you have a Sigg bottle and trekking poles instead of a thermos and mac. What's happened to Leyland? Scania and Renault don't seem too popular. Mercedes has a decent showing, as does Volvo. Iveco, however... Iveco is king of the road. I know trucks by the breeze they kick up. The Iveco Eurotech Cursor passes with barely a whisper; as indeed do the Iveco Eurotrakker, Eurocargo and Eurosomethingelse. Anything with Euro in the name makes some attempt, I guess, at following European legislation on aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. But what does a real man drive - a real Yorkie-chomping horn-honking two-foot sandwich swallowing trucker king? An Iveco Stralis. The Stralis is a handsome beast, and boy does the wind blow in it's wake! I have come to welcome the Iveco Stralis like a beloved friend. I see one coming and I think great, soon I'll be cool. For three seconds. Ok, I'll stop now. Got to Fidenza just after 2pm and asked for directions to the hospital. Apparently it's now out of town. I was offered a lift, but declined. Someone called a doctor friend who turned up on a bike and was very very weird. He showed up, very badly shaven, his own eyes full of sleepy dust, took one look at me, mumbled something utterly unintelligible and rode off again. Apparently my face was apicture as he left. No-one had understood what he'd said. I was told that he's a good man and a talented doctor, but he has good days and bad days depending on what medicine he's taken. Upshot: a very kind lady called Barbara, there with her daughter Chiara, offered to sort me out. Chiara went on the back of Barbara's bike and I took hers, rucksack and all, to their house. I was given water and biscuits while Barbara called the tourist office who duly called and arranged for me to stay with the Cappuccin friars. I was invited to stay for dinner after the hospital. Wow! I got back on the bike and followed Barbara in her car to the hospital. I waited an hour to be seen and was prescribed oral antibiotics. Doc said it'll either go away or explode in a shower of pus. I look forward to waking up to the latter one fine morning in my tent. Either way just as long as it goes away... I'm sick of the dread of taking off my shades to reveal my foul ocular disfigurement... Managed to find my way back to Barbara's house via a pharmacist (with a few unintentional detours on the way) and here I am, supper being prepared in the kitchen. I really should go and give a helping hand... What kindness - refreshments, supper, a bed for the night and even medical assistance all organised by complete strangers! It's almost impossible to believe. Grateful? I should say...
I'm very hungry, hence all the rambling. I shall endeavour to be more concise next time. Greetings and love to all.
PS Anyone who'd like to see some pics (and hasn't already), just follow these links and click on the album title "Pilgrimage (+date)":