Last summer, I started a major walk; the Via Francegina, from Canterbury to Rome. It follows the path of Sigeric the Serious, the Archbishop of Canterbury who made the trek to be appointed Cardinal.
His return trip was documented; he finished the return trip of some 2000 kilometres in 79 days. He was obviously a hardy soul, the journey crosses the Swiss Alps and a few other minor inconveniences.
There have been a few changes to the landscape but there are signposts showing a path across France, Switzerland and Italy for those of us willing to follow in his footsteps.
It’s not the actual walk that requires a strong sense of purpose, it’s the tedium, boredom and hard work of the six months of getting ready that requires motivation and commitment a sense of purpose provides.
Most of my pilgrim walks have been solo affairs. I have liked the solitude. Last year I made an exception. Kristen joined me for a week; it was such a positive experience that I decided to try it again.
This year’s walk began where I finished last year, in Reims. I have a new travel companion, John will walk with me for two weeks. We meet in Paris, catch a train to Reims and find our hotel. While we suffer from jet lag and a slight disorientation we recognize today is an important day – France is playing the final of the World Cup in Moscow so we scurry down to a pub to catch a meal and the action. We win! The city celebrates under our window till dawn – loudly!
Our first day starts late; we need photos, SIM cards and other essentials before we leave the city. The day is long, hard and hot. Whether it be jet lag or the late start, dehydration and fatigue set in.
The walk is beautiful, through Champagne wine country, down a long arrow-straight Roman road that is still functional as a farm track, through a major forest and finally out into open country. We manage to replenish our water, hitch a bit of a ride and arrive at our first lodging.
As we recover, we decide to tweak our plans; in the heat we may not be able to safely cover the 25 or so kilometres between each night’s stop. We form a rules committee which will meet nightly to decide how much walking we will undertake the next day. We seek out alternate means of travel, asking politely of our hotelier for a ride, hiring a taxi, whatever is necessary to shuttle us to an appropriate start point.
We are mindful that the test is not whether we can make our destination today but whether we are able to make a whole series of destinations. Blisters, chafing, dehydration, fatigue and just plain-old enjoyability weigh on the minds of the rules committee.
We have hosts who bless us with a ride down the road. We learn to pace ourselves, finding the occasional tree to rest under. And we consume rivers of water, before, during and after every walk.
The rules committee also decides that we should allow a certain amount of cultural enlightenment to occur, under appropriate circumstances. We happen upon a museum in a town where Napoleon attended Military School, surely a cultural event cannot be missed even if it requires a cab later in the day to achieve our destination.
A few days later, at a scheduled rest day John, who has a bit of a magpie memory – he gathers up bright and shiny factoids for later use – recalls that we are near a museum honouring Charles deGaulle in nearby Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises.
It is delightful; if I was in a car or in a hurry, I would have gone right past it without blinking. We are invigorated and enlightened and I have seen a new dimension added to all my future walks.
The two weeks remain obstinately hot; we are averaging 15-18 kms a day, respectable given the circumstances. we develop and set our routine; we rise as early as socially acceptable, we caffeinnate and eat whatever is set in front of us, we load up on water and our packs and set off. Since every kilometre is new, we enjoy the walk, stopping occasionally if we find some shade. We arrive at our destination, gratefully accept our lodgings (some require more acceptance than others), forage for food, wash up, nap and find a decent meal for supper. The rules committee meets to sort out the next day’s schedule and we retire. It is a full day.
Everything every day is, by definition, a surprise, most are pleasant. We stay one night with the Mongy family; they offer free dinner/lodging/breakfast to pilgrims in an area where no other alternatives exist. they are famous along the VIA for their hospitality. the next day they drive us out to our start point. They even send us off with a sandwich for lunch.
John is an ideal companion; he is flexible and gets the everything-is-a-surprise concept quickly. He is happy with a simple hotel; neither of us complain much, we settle for what we receive and move on. We concentrate on the small kindnesses extended to us. The kindness comes, the tender mercies abound and accumulate.
We have removed ourselves from the toxicity of the 24 hour news cycle; it helps our detox and our disposition.
Our last night is spent in the village of Gy; our hosts out-do themselves – lodging, dinner prepared for us, breakfast and the all important ride to John’s train station. We are dropped at the TGV station; say our goodbyes and I head into town while John heads for the bright lights of Paris and then home.
I am sorry to see him go; I’m coming to see that a walking partner offers some serious benefits. It’s like working with a net. If any number of events happen while solo – say losing a wallet or having a credit card cancelled – it is a catastrophe; when traveling with someone else it is a minor inconvenience.
We’ve covered some 350 kilometres; my best guess is we’ve walked 250 of that. We have walked in temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius, usually on tarmac with little shade with no access to water along the route. We’ve had fun, we’ve seen some sights, we’ve met some truly kind people and have benefited from their simple acts of kindness. We’ve regained our faith in humanity and our optimism about the human condition.
Not bad for a walkabout.