Via Francigena - Arras to Reims
Monday 10 Sept 2018 We travelled by Eurostar direct to Lille and caught a “commuter” train to Arras. Our accommodation was a simple Air b&b appartment very close to the railway station. In the evening we walked into town. I had a burger at the corner of the attractive Place de Heroes and we shared the huge portion of chips which came with it.
Tues 11 September 2018
Arras to Bapaume (23km) We left at about 08.45 and spent about an hour walking out through the suburbs. We finally got into the countryside and after a few kilometers came to our first World War I cemetery - the Sunken Road Cemetery which was very striking with the white gravestones shining in the sunlight. A little further on we turned right and came to an unexpected VF sign pointing off left into the woods.
This far, we had been following the “book” which we carried on our iphone and ipad. I started along the new path but Gilly called me back and we consulted the map and book before agreeing to follow the sign, which apparently followed the GR145. It was pleasant walking through the woods, but we soon found it was leading us in the wrong direction over towards a village on the wrong road. We emerged from the woods briefly and met a parallel track. We consulted our Pocket Earth map. By striking off along the track, we could rejoin the book route at the village of Hamelincourt. Gillian was a bit annoyed that we had been led astray, and set off at a fast pace leaving me trailing in her wake. It took us about 1.5 Km to reach a road and then another Km into the village. In the heat, I was lagging behind.
We sat on the village green and took a break, It was 12.30. We had done 10km and there was another 12km which was set out in the book as three 4km stages. We did the first of these to Gomiecourt in about 75 minutes and took a long break outside the small municipal buildings. It was very hot by now. A few km later we found a different route via the GR145 which led us directly into Bapaume. But, by now, my legs were not working properly. and it took a long time to reach our hotel especially since we seemed to do a complete circuit of the town first. We finished walking at 17.00 after doing about 24km. I was extremely tired. The Hotel de Paix was a nice modern establishment with a helpful receptionist who also acted as bar person and waiter. There were two other parties of British guests who were doing a “battlefield and graves” tour of northern France. The evening was still sunny. We sat outside and had a beer: then visited a nearby supermarket for picnic food before having an good meal at the hotel.
Wednesday 12 September
Bapaume to Peronne (26km) The day started grey and misty and we were on the road by 08.15. We had a bit of main-road walking until we crossed a motorway bridge and turned right on to a minor road through cabbage fields. This took us through a succession of quiet villages. So quiet, that Gillian used the word “forlorn” to describe one of them.
We were walking across the battlefield of the Somme and the flat empty countryside evoked thoughts of all those who had died100 years before. At the village of Sailly-Saillisel we had a break at some benches near what the book said was a children’s play area. This was a lucky delay because a few km further on we found a posh hotel called the Priory and it was 12noon just the time that they were opening for business. We ordered two cold coca colas and drank them in the plush surroundings of the hotel lounge. Later, we reached the French National Miltary Cemetery with its many lines of crosses and stopped to visit the chapel and to read the information boards. After a bit more road walking We came to a small village with a big name of Bouchavesnes-Bergen. We sat on the grass beside the rather sad and unloved church which had a hundred or more pigeons roosting on its roof. Every few moments another feather drifted down to us. We climbed away from the village on a earth track and continued down the other side of the hill to cross the Canal Du Nord and reach the village of Allaines. Here we had a debate about the best route into Peronne and chose the wrong option- the route suggested by the book - which followed the very busy main road up the hill. (We should have used a back road identified by Gillian, which turned out to be the GR145.) With no footway, and a difficult unsighted bend, cars whizzed past, their drivers wondering why two lone figures were doing such an unpleasant thing. Finally we entered the suburbs and walked slowly into the centre.
The supermarket identified on the internet for our evening food and picnic for tomorrow was firmly closed-down. But we found a boulangerie and a small foreign owned supermarket to buy what we needed. Gillian had a blister and spent 30 minutes of very slow service in a pharmacy buying a plaster. However the plaster proved very effective over the next few days. While we were still doing our shopping, Gillian got an upsetting phone call to say the hotel where we were staying in three days time at Corbeny had been flooded and they were cancelling our booking. They suggested an alternative about 7km further on. Gillan consulted the train timetables and said we could use the suggested hotel in a village called Pontavert by using a train from Laon to shorten the day. So she booked it. We walked out of the centre of Peronne and located our self catering apartment which was very large with an outside seating area. We had frankfurters with new potatoes from a tin and baked beans as the sun set across the countryside.
Thursday 13 September
Peronne to St Quentin (25km) Today we were going off route because of accommodation problems. So we were aiming to do 25km to St Quentin. The morning was grey with rain in the air. We started out in raincoats but soon took them off and never used them again. Gillian had identified a disused railway line and we walked along this green corridor for the first three kms. We had a break in a rather dismal village and then we were out in the country walking between bare fields. Fields in this part of France had no fences and few hedgerows. So the track was the only separation between stubble or cabbages or fields being prepared for their next sowing. Tractors churned along in the mid distance. We went up and down but mostly along the flat. The scenery was a bit tedious in the dull overcast conditions.
Route Nationale - not recommended
We reached a village where there was the possibility of a bus into St Quentin but Gillian pooh poohed my idea of waiting the two and a half hours for it. Instead, we walked on to reach the busy Route Nationale. We had agreed that to save some time, we would walk along it for 4.5 km, but it was intimidating with lots of traffic and HGVs. We got started on the right hand verge which was safe but not easy walking. I got slower and slower and my back started to hurt. Traffic whizzed by. Gillian helped me to adjust the straps on my sack. We had a break sitting on the verge and then we climbed an unpleasant hill with more lorries lumbering past. We reached a flat section where we could see our exit village (Vermand) on the very far horizon.
When we finally got there at about 13.45 and left the main road, I was adamant that I needed to get a bus. My back was really hurting and walking had become very painful. We found a stop and somebody said there might be a bus along soon but we waited for 30 minutes with no luck. I said I would walk on. We descended through the village and out the other side on to an old Roman road track which led towards some distant woods. I was hurting and got slower. My back muscles near the left hip were very painful and this affected my ability to walk. I stopped and put on my orthapaedic belt ( which I always carried at the bottom of my sack) and this helped a bit. Gillian was very kind and insisted I took a long rest at the entrance to the woods. It was a pity that I was struggling so much because this was the nicest section of the walk especially after the horrible 4.5 km on the route nationale. We even met a group of horse riders. After a couple of km we came out of the woods into the town of Honlon a suburb of St Quentin. I could walk no more. So we sat at a traffic light junction and ordered a taxi. It arrived in 20 minutes and soon we were being dropped in the centre of St Quentin having a cold beer. Our pre-booked hotel was on the outskirts on our ”way out” for tomorrow but this made no sense as I believed I would be unable to walk for a full day. We stood at the No 6 bus stop and debated what to do. Gillian challenged me to find a town centre hotel before the bus came in a few minutes. My iphone told me there was an IBIS 40 yds away. Surely not, where was it? I looked up and realised we were standing outside the entrance! I rushed in and the receptionist with a super bobbbed haircut told me that, yes, therewas a room available for 95 Euros. Gilly reduced this slightly by using her Accor Hotels discount. 5 minutes later we were in our large room relaxing. We had a huge bathroom and it was clearly a facility used for disabled guests. After it got dark, we went out and had a meal in the very French “Le Grand Café” in the main square. Gillian had a large beer with a portion of inedible chips (which the waiter took off the bill). I had 25cl of Sancerre (NB must drink more Sancerre) plus chicken supreme. It had been a good decision to stay in the center of St Quentin.
Friday 14 September 2018
St Quentin to Laon (13km to La Fere) Because of my bad back, we had decided to reduce today’s walking. There was no way I could do the 30km planned. We spent the morning sightseeing in St Quentin. The Cathedral was particularly impressive. It had been restored – virtually rebuilt - after World War I and was a thing of great beauty with a labyrinth inscribed on the floor of the nave. This made us think of Lisal our labyrinthologist landlady who we had met on the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier in the year. The town square looked beautiful in the sunshine and we took several photos. ST Quentin was a good place to be. At noon we walked down to the bus station which was next to the railway station. There was absolutely no information on bus times or destinations and we had to hope that the bus which Gillian had found on the internet was actually running. It was; and after twenty minutes it dropped us in the village of Moy de L’Aisne near the Canal de Sambre et Oise. We had lunch beside the towpath before starting out to walk about 13 Km to La Fere where we could catch a train to Laon. The canal was mostly long and straight with a well maintained track beside it and we did a good distance in the first hour. After this, our progress was slower as we stopped to watch a boat (called “My Way”) - carrying aggregate from a quarry – as it progressed through locks and bridges. It accompanied us almost all the way to our exit point. In La Fere we were hoping for a choice of cafes and bars but they were in short supply and I ended up drinking a bottle of cold Orangina bought from a bakers whilst perched on a flower tub at a street corner. One thing that was good about La Fere was the lovely displays of flowers. They were everywhere and done with great imagination and style. We made our way to the railway station and got a train around 16.45 to Laon. I was really pleased that I had been able to carry my rucksack without problem. In Laon our Hotel Tramway (where we were booked for 2 nights) was very near to the station. Laon was sharply divided between the lower town at station-level and the higher city with the cathedral on the hill 150 meters above us. The two parts were connected by a steep set of steps which we decided not to tackle until the next day. We were a bit disappointed that our room didn’t have the refrigerator and cooking facilities that Booking.com had promised but there were plently of cafes around and a lovely aroma of roast chicken led us to a café where we each had half a chicken plus frittes and 50cl of local wine with ice. We also had a dessert and, feeling cheerful, I had an extra glass of wine
Saturday 15 September
Laon Another nice sunny day. Gillian suggested that we should fill in part of the route which we would have walked from St Quentin. So we got a taxi out to the village of Cessieres and walked back. She had insisted that I should have a day off from rucksack carrying which felt a bit strange. Half of the walk was very pleasant through woods and countryside but the second half was a long open road back towards the hilltop city of Laon. Nearing the edge of the suburbs, after passing a noisy stock-car racing site, we saw a sign to a German war cemetery where we ate our picnic lunch. It was quite different from the Allied cemetries we had seen. The sombre iron crosses, many with multiple names were quietly impressive and I posted a photo on Facebook suggesting we should all remember Oberleutnant Paul Schulz who died in 1914, “as much a victim of senseless carnage as any allied soldier”. Strangely the ground was covered with millions of wasps. The whole site had become occupied by ground nesting wasps. Back at Hotel Tramway, we had a break, then at about 15.30, we set out to climb the steps to the city above. I counted them later and there were 292 of them. Laon was a nice place with shops, bars, restaurants and many tourists and day trippers. In the cathedral (typically) we could find no one to sign our credentials. So, we took them to the tourist information instead. We sat and had a leisurely beer with a lovely view of the front of the cathedral. Then we took a walk around the ramparts with nice views over the surrounding countryside. Back at the cathedral square, a modern dance performance was happening. This carried us through until the crepe restaurant, which we had spotted earlier, opened its doors. We had a nice meal, a walk, and then went back to the cathedral for a “light and sound’ performance which had been advertised on posters. We didn’t like it very much and left after 20 minutes and descended the steps to our hotel.
Sinday 16 September 2018
Laon to Pontavert In the morning we left our sacks at the hotel and walked up to the higher part of Laon by road rather than by the 292 steps. We strolled around looking at monasteries, shops etc. We got a train at 12.22 to the town of St Erme and set out to walk to Pontavert to the hotel we had been obliged to book because of the “flood” at our first choice in Corbeny. This was a day of 90% road walking. We marched 9Km to Corbeny in good time and passed the (flooded) Chemin Des Dames hotel which looked very closed. Then, we started on another 7Km of tarmac to Pontavert. It was sunny again and the late afternoon sunshine made us feel very warm as we approached our destination. I was slowing down but basically OK otherwise. Our hotel, the Relais de Fleurettes was definitely a step-up in quality compared to the Chemin des Dames in Corbeny. It had a long ranch style building and a “spa” block; also a large garden with a summerhouse containing a billiards table. The staff were slightly snooty but Gillian got an upgrade to one of their nicest rooms. I went down and procured a large beer to drink in the garden in the sunshine. Everything was right with the world. I took off my walking shoes and put my feet up. Gillian joined me with a small beer 30 minutes later. Later, we had a nice dinner with a bottle of the hotel’s own-label champagne.
Monday 17 September 2018
Pontavert to St Thierry We set out at about 09.00 and made our way down to the local canal. We followed the very green towpath for about 500m to the first bridge where the book told us we would probably have to transfer to a path through a field. Ignoring this good advice, we tried continuing by the side of the canal but, the path soon became badly overgrown. After about 250m, we retreated and did exactly as the book suggested. It was hard going walking along the edge of a newly ploughed field but we were rewarded with two good sightings of deer which we disturbed and which then had to run across the open field away from us. After about a kilometer we turned right and cut up across the rough furrows to meet a permitted route shown on our Pocket Earth map. There was then a 2.5 km track across open fields to the hamlet of Gernicourt and, then, another empty section of 4km to the village of Cormicy. The path seemed to go on for ever and I fell behind, Gillian waited for me on the edge of Cormicy. The book said there was a tabac, a boulangerie and a restaurant but it was a Monday and everything was closed. We sat in the shade of a small park and ate our lunchtime picnic food. We decided follow the GR145 for the next part of our journey. We had arrived in champagne country and the route took us pleasantly up through fields of grapes and into the woods. It was another hot day and it was nice to be in the shade. After a climb, the path led us easily along. We were aiming for the town of Hermonville in the hope that a supermarket (promised by the internet) would actually exist and would also be open. We came out of the woods on to an open plateau and started a long descent to reach the town. I was a bit grumpy, convinced that the GR had added several kilometers to our journey – although this may not have been the case. Hurrah ! The supermarket existed and was open!!. Gillian insisted that I bought a cold drink and went outside with it while she bought food for an evening meal. I sat on the shady window sill and when she joined me we both had an ice cream before starting again. Our accommodation was about 6Km distant. We had already done more than 16km in the heat and my rucksack was giving me problems again. My lower back was hurting and I couldn’t seem to maintain an upright stance while walking. Despite this we made good time for 3Km to our first turn off. Then, I really started to suffer and my pace slowed to a crawl. We took a break and then turned right towards the village of St Thierry. We crawled up a long hill and finally entered St Thierry. There was shady sitting area on a corner. I semi-collapsed on to it and told Gillian to go ahead and book into our accommodation. She found it with some difficulty and returned for me, about 25 minutes later, kindly carrying my sack for the last 300m. The “good news” was that we had a bath tub. I lowered myself into the hot water and didn’t move for an hour. I was full of aches and pains. Gilly gave me another back massage which seemed to help. Later we had our food from the supermarket and played cards. I went to bed hoping I would be able to reach Reims in the morning,
Tuesday 18 September 2018
St Thierry to Reims Reims was 10km away and it was only 6km to a bus stop. So I thought I could make it. After 4km across fields we reached the motorway and crossed it by a road bridge. My sack started hurting again and I was painfully slow along a featureless approach road but, soon, we reached a bakery in a retail-park and the coffee and pain au chocolate perked me up enough to reach the bus stop. At Reims cathedral they didn’t “receive pilgrims until 2 o’clock”. (?) So we got our credentials stamped at the tourist information office and then sat and had a drink. Our TGV left at 14.15 and we were in Paris by 15.00. We had two hours before our Eurostar and used it up by sitting in a park and then beside a canal. We were home in Eltham by 21.00.