The road to Rome

Hi gang

This blog is about two people walking the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. It's an amazing journey of some 2100kms (1300 miles) across five countries (England, France, Switzerland, Italy and The Vatican).

The blog covers the history, culture and culinary delights of the walk as well as the highs and lows of our particular trip.

I'll also be linking to some of the important websites, finding stuff of interest and generally enjoying meself.

I walked it with my partner (now soon to be my wife) Pauline (aka Polly).

We're not heroes, or superhuman or loonies; just a coupla people seeking a bit of adventure away from the humdrum.

We set off from Canterbury on Monday 2 August 2010 and arrived in Rome, smelling like tramps, on Wednesday 3 November 2010.

Stay tuned,'s a great adventure!

Stage 10 : And so into Switzerland

It was pouring with rain as we stepped out the next morning. Thankfully, Polly had a spring her step and was thrilled with her new purchases. On the main street we were stopped by someone who told us he was a local journalist. Were we walking to Rome? Could he take our photographs? Thrilled and a bit embarrassed about being local celebrities, we were snapped along with our pilgrim passports. What fun! I wonder if they were ever published.

Our route to us out of town and soon started to climb steeply. We had a rather misty view of the Chateau du Joux and a brief cliff edge walk. Then it was uphill again to our first 1000 metre mark. We descended all the way back to the road, slithering and sliding all the way as the rain poured down heavily. It really was a dangerous descent. I was much relieved when we got back to road level unscathed. Wait a minute...we've been here before. We turned up past that discount store...Hang about...So we've walked all the way uphill and all the way down it and for what??? A murky view of the chateau?

Spirits were a bit low. We trudged on along the N57; the rain bucketing down on us. Eventually, we came to a bar. We were too late for lunch, but decided to stop for a drink and get out of the rain. By this stage we only had about 5k to walk to our overnight stop in Les Fourges but we decided to sit tight and see and if the rain would ease off. It didn't. We started talking the some locals and they were fascinated by our story. They wanted to know where we were heading for tonight. When we told them, one of them (the big one who looked a bit like Obelix, Asterix's chum) volunteered to take us there in his car. We looked at each didn't take us long to agree and thank him for his kind offer. We clambered into the car; sharing it with tools, broken bits of furniture, bottles, bags and half eaten sandwiches. We didn't really care. Our new chum, Obelix, somehow managed to get in the car, even tough he seemed bigger than it, and off we went at breakneck speed. We were there in three minutes. It would have taken us about an hour and a half to walk it in these conditions. We were very, very grateful. I ricked my back pulling my rucksack out of the car.

Les Forges sits on a little plateau, looking for all the world like a Swiss town. I bet they had some wild winters round here. After a shower and a siesta to ease my back, the rain had stopped so we went out for a stroll round town to check out where we could have supper. There were only two likely places. One was closed and didn't look like it would be opening anytime soon. The other was a very quiet bar/tabac type of place. We weren't too optimistic. There was no menu but the (land)lady said she could get us something. It didn't seem promising. We had an excellent charcuterie plate to start with and followed this with turkey, cauliflower and the ubiquitous chips. It was simple but superb. Polly notes in her diary that 'we have been shown such kindness.' Another great example of the generosity we have been shown in France.

After a very disturbed night, (the wind howled a gale (at least it might have been blowing the rain away) and my back was agony) we awoke to a wild sky, black and forbidding, with a shady of weak sunlight at the edges. We hoped for the sun but feared the clouds.

We were at the Swiss border in no time. It seemed to be unstaffed. We wondered if we should make ourselves known...but there was no-one around. Surreal. It felt weird as we walked out of France. We'd been walking for over a month and had such a marvellous time. I was going to miss France. Ahead lied Switzerland, a new adventure.

Yet we were both tired. My back was hurting and Polly had developed a very sore foot. We were feeling down and getting irritable and argumentative.

We were beginning to wonder whether we could carry on.

Stage 9 : Moulthier to Pontarlier

It's probably no exaggeration to say that the interior of our overnight accommodation in Moulthier was less impressive than the location. Gulp. The elderly lady who answered the door was eccentrically dressed and she seemed to sporting someone else's false teeth. When she spoke they danced around her mouth looking for, yet failing to find, a place to fit.

We were shown around. The kitchen was large and very dated. It had a large table in the centre of the room where we could prepare our food. We hadn't got a lot of it to be honest. And we were nowhere near a shop to buy more.

Our room looked like it hadn't been decorated since the fifties. The 1750s. The bed had a counterpane but no other bedding apart from an extremely soiled bolster.

I decided to have a shower to get rid of the cobwebs. Not the best idea I've ever had. The shower was in the kitchen, behind a filthy curtain at the back of the table. It was horrible. I think it was the only time I've ever come out of a shower dirtier than I went in. I advised Polly not to bother with the shower.

We ate our supper on the kitchen table (which had a very greasy tablecloth) without much enthusiasm. The cutlery had a life of its own too. The knife handles having a separate existence to the blades. They'd probably been in the family for centuries. The handles and the blades only being changed every decade or so.

We adjourned to bed, into our sleeping bags, hoping we didn't get bitten by anything in the night. Neither of us slept much, the night was interminable. In my nightmares still now, I believe I'm there, tossing and turning and hoping the night will end.

Eventually, light dawned. The sun did not penetrate into the valley but we could see it high above us shining on the cliffs and trees. We had nothing for breakfast, so were keen to get moving. Our hostess assured us we could walk straight down the river to our destination, saving us walking back up the mountain to rejoin the route we left late yesterday. It would knock several kilometres off our day's walk which we were both keen to do. It was the best news we'd heard in a while. Yes, she said, there was no need to clamber back up the mountain. Polly was cheered but I was not too optimistic. "You should be more trusting," she noted. "Harumpf,"' I replied.

We walked along the river for a while, the sun trying to peep into the valley. We soon came to a divide in the fork went left, the other went right and seemed to follow the river, but it was not a very clear path. Should we go left or right? After a more than usually heated debate, the left-hand route got the vote. On we went...the route went uphill...hang on a minute...aren't we supposed to be going along rather than up??? Do we go back down again? Our own guidebooks and maps didn't help. I saw a road just up ahead so on we went to try and get our bearings from there. The path eventually reached a small road which we followed, in the direction of the river,  until we came to a huge hydro-electric generating plant. It sprawled the edge of the river and, after trying to circumnavigate it for what seemed like an age, we came to the conclusion that there was no way round it! We had no idea what to do. The river route was definitely not the right option. Had we walked along the path to the right we'd have ended up here anyway, unable to pass the hydro-electric plant. We had to laugh about the very notion of walking along the river...who's idea was that? Oh, wait a minute, perhaps she hadn't been out of the house since the end of WWII. It was the only explanation we could think of.

So, what do we do now? Our route lay some way off, over the top of the mountain. We couldn't go round it, which by my reckoning meant we had to go over it. Oh what joy. By now the sun was beginning to come through and we faced the prospect of walking up a mountain to try to rejoin our, much longed-for and greatly missed, original path.

We went up and up and around the hairpin bends for at least two hours. The sun shone. We were getting hotter and hotter and sweating profusely.  Every step of the way we regretted, more and more, staying at Moulthier. Eventually, we reached the outskirts of Ouhans. We arrived at a restaurant just in time for lunch! I wanted to crack on but Polly wanted to have a break and lunch. I guess it was a no-brainer, really. We hadn't eaten properly for a couple of days and there wasn't likely to be much else open today, as it was Sunday. In the end, we decided to splash out on a meal. Well, we hadn't eaten properly recently and we felt like celebrating finding our route again. The restaurant was quite full, but there were spaces for two. Instead we were shown to small room at the back of the restaurant at a table on our own. We realised that we must have smelled just like pilgrims. Nevertheless, we had a great time and managed to laugh about our situation. Just because we didn't want to walk for 30k in one day, how could we have ended up so far off the beaten track? You had to smile.

Cheered, well fed and watered we were back on track and only a short hop and skip to Goux les Ousiers. I looked at the guide book for the address of our overnight hotel. And then I realised we weren't actually staying in Goux...we were booked in to a place nearby called 'La Vrine' which must be around here somewhere. So we asked a friendly looking local. He shook his head and pointed to the mountain. "It's just over there," he explained, "maybe six kilometres." We looked at each other. Our hearts sank. There was no alternative. We had to march on. Our route took us up and up and around more hairpin bends for another couple of hours. Eventually, we reached the top of the plateau and we could see the hotel way off in the distance. It took us an age to get there. We seemed to walk for an hour and not get anywhere. The hotel was still a tiny dot in the distance. It was located on a main road (the N57)

When we eventually got there we were delighted to find that they had just opened. We had a cold, cold beer and adjourned to our room. A clean room! And a fab shower! What a pleasure, what a treasure. We retired to bed early without any dinner, feeling clean and tired. We slept the sleep of the just...just like pilgrims.

We woke early and decided to try our luck with the hotel breakfast. We arrived just after a coach party had left. The room looked like it had fought a losing battle with a plague of locusts. Our hosts managed to rustle something up for us and we settled on a route to Pontarlier which did not involve walking down the N57.

We had one of our best walking days. We went over meadow and farmland, spotting buzzards and sparrowhawks and thousands of swallows gathering in their masses on phone-lines for the journey south. It was a great day to be out walking.

Too soon we were on the outskirts of Pontarlier. We found a street map and began examining it, wondering whether our accommodation was on this side of town or the far side. A cyclist rode up to us and asked us in French if we were walking the Via Francigena. "Ah oui," in my best French. "Parlez vous anglais?" asked our new chum. We told him we were English and we had a hale fellows, well met moment. It turned out that he was cycling the VF and had set off from St Neots only a week ago. It had taken us slightly more than a month to get there.

We were exchanging contact details with our new chum, Frank, and professing our delight at meeting another pilgrim on the way, when along came another. Amazingly, she was walking in the opposite direction, from Rome to Canterbury.

What great fun. We hadn't met a soul and then, like London buses, two turn up at once! We said our cheery goodbyes and headed off into town.

A fellow pilgrim!

Two fellow pilgrims!!

It was time for a kit inspection. Polly's boots were falling to bits. The sole was flapping off one of them. We'd been ministering them for some time, but now it did look like we'd have to find her a new pair. We understood that rain was forecast for the following it was definitely the right time to be doing it. Her rain coat was also beyond redemption. Pontarlier has a great walking shop. It was the first one we'd seen since Rheims. We ummed and ahhed about whether we should spend so much money. Eventually, we saw sense and shelled out a pretty penny or several for new kit. Just in case she needed it, we agreed.

We went to bed early and were woken several times by the sound of a serious thunderstorm.

Stage 8: Besancon to Moulthier

Hot, hot, was a long slog into Saone and Mamirolle. We had a drink in a bar and wished we hadn't. Mine host was a bit of a misery. We felt we were intruding. And it seemed like the loos hadn't been cleaned since the early 1970s. So, after a brief stop we were headed back into the sun. It was with a bit of relief that we entered the dappled shelter of the woods. We walked for two hours through the forest and had a magical moment, seeing a young fawn with its mother; they spotted us and, after a brief moment when they were weighing up whether or not we were a threat, they crashed out of sight.

We arrived at a farm, heralded by a distinctly unmusical cacophony of tinkling bells. We wondered where the noise was coming from but soon realised that it was being made by a herd of cows with bells round their necks. They looked up at us. Polly looked back at them. Cows have an innate curiosity about the world around them, but not the slightest idea what to with the information they receive. It's as if they're saying, "Look! Humans!" munch, munch, "Ooh look! Humans!" munch, munch, "What was I saying, "Oh yes, Look! Humans!" We reached the farmyard and Polly attracted more interest from a bunch of assorted critters; ducks, hens, a sheepdog, guinea fowl and very friendly turkey. They followed Polly. She stopped. They stopped. She moved on. So did they. It was like a scene from Dr Dolittle.

It was a meeting of minds.

We made slow progress in the afternoon sun. Agreeing we could go no further without a short break, we took off our packs and sat down under a tree. A farmer drove up to us on his tractor. He warned us that his dog was loose and might attack us. Bravely, I told him we weren't afraid of dogs...but did he know an alternative route, just in case? Non, there was no alternative route. We eyed each other without speaking, wondering what we should next. Dogs are a nuisance on most long distance walks. They can be lovely but you learn to keep your distance. Eventually, it was the farmer who broke. He went home, tied up the dog and made the route safe for two grateful, yet very hot and weary, pilgrims to pass.

Not long after this we plodded into Etalan, our overnight stay. It was a bar/tabac/hotel/restaurant of the type we'd stayed in several times before. It did a good line in cold beer. We had a simple but very tasty meal (a beef daube with couscous and harissa) and then it was time for an early night underneath a very loud candlewick bedspread. 

The next morning was one of most athletic on the whole route. A local farmer had taken it upon himself to block off the route so could fence in his cattle. We had to take off our packs and crawl on our bellies under five different electric fences. And yes, the fences were live. And did I say cattle? Mind the cow pats! Bugger...

In the afternoon, we walked through a beautiful forest up and the top of the valley with green meadows above the fir trees. Polly said it was "Sound Of Music" country but, luckily, I dissuaded her from singing!

We walked through another farm and were joined by an enormous black dog. Given yesterday's excitement we didn't know if was going to be friendly or not. I needn't have worried on that score. It was probably the friendliest dog in Christendom. He wanted to play. He walked with us for about a kilometre, nudging into me and nuzzling my fingers. It was great fun. At first. After a while we tried to get rid of him. But he wasn't leaving us. I shouted and pointed the way home. He thought I was playing. We decided to ignore him in the hope that he'd just wander off. He didn't. And then I had a masterstroke, let's sit down and ignore him...he thought that was the best thing ever. 

He walked up to me, licked the back of my head from neck to crown and knocked my hat off. See the can tell I'm impressed. I eventually, of course, had to walk him home. Two kilometres there and back on a baking hot day. I was cheered by the fact that we didn't have too far to go to our overnight stop. We'd planned a short day so we could get our do our laundry and a kit inspection. 

Oops. I'd got the distances wrong. I thought I'd booked in to a room in a nearby village...turned out that the village was further away than it appearing in the guide book. The village we were staying in was six kilometres further on...up and over a mountain. The road took us up and up and round and round hairpin bends.  Then we went down and down and round and round again. When we reached the village we learned that it was right in the very bottom of the valley. So we kept going. The final part of our trek that day was a steep, downhill, grassy path. The last thing our weary feet needed. At last we reached our stopping place. A wonderful location on the river in what had obviously been the house of the watermill.

Stage 7 : Gy to Besancon

We stayed in the Hotel Pinnochio in Gy. A hotel dedicated to the lovable wooden puppet/boy. Who knew there'd be such a thing? No fibbing at the back, you know what happens if you tell fibs. After breakfast, (the local boulangerie was closed for the holidays!) we set off up the hill towards the chateau. Actually, I set off up the hill twice. We left our phone charger in the hotel and I had to go back for it. Grrr. I didn't mind to be honest, I actually love walking uphill. (Walking downhill is quite another matter, no doubt we'll come back to that issue later.)

The route from Gy is quite a pull. A good way of getting going first thin in the morning. Round past the chateau and up and up for 3k. The sun eventually came out as we entered the forest, the Grands Bois de Gy. It was another magical walk.

 The route through the forest was about 10.5k of scenery like this...gorgeous.

There was evidence all around of woodland management. We never saw anyone, of course, but we saw, kilometre after kilometre, a vast quantity of logs seasoning in the sun, ready for winter. And we passed a woman who was looking for mushrooms, she'd obviously had a good day too because her bag was full to overflowing.

It was idyllic. We emerged from the forest into a big complex of farm buildings. The main house was very grand but in need of some TLC. There were several associated buildings that would have made excellent gites. It was all for sale and it was stunning! We said our "if onlys" and continued on to Geziers for lunch. We found a lovely spot by the roadside under a tree, but I had to swat the whole area with my walking pole just in case there were any lurking snakes.

An hour or so further down the road we were in Cussey sur l'Ognon, our stopping place for the night and one of Sigeric's stops too. Our hotel was difficult to find, being at the very top of a hill on the way out of town. Our starter at dinner that night was mushrooms! A fab 'salade forestiere', followed by fritura mixta of local, little river fish. It was an amazing meal. We had company with our dinner too, for the first time in ages. Two women were having dinner at the same time as us and were very interested in what we doing and where we were going. It was a lovely evening. Nevertheless, we were in bed by 9pm.

We awoke to a blue, blue sky and the nagging feeling that no matter how hard we tried, we couldn't get our clothes properly clean by handwashing them. I was getting a bit concerned that, by the end of each day, we were beginning to smell just like pilgrims. We needed to find a launderette and so had agreed that we'd have a rest day in Besancon, our next stop.

We breakfasted in the bar and were told that the local boulangerie had closed. It was becoming a familiar story. The barman told us about a short cut to the next village. We thanked him and walked off in a different direction. We thought long and hard about following his directions but agreed that we'd stick to the directions in the guidebook from now on.

Our route took us through the village, out into fields and through a wood.

The walk through the wood was a bit like an obstacle course. Fallen trees and deep holes prevented us from making rapid progress. In the next village we were able to buy bread in the local wine shop. We were soon at a busy main road, our guidebook sent us along it for 300 yards, down an underpass and back along the other side of the road for 300 yards. We could have simply walked across the road and been at the same place! That's what you get for slavishly following the directions in the guidebook, I guess.

There was a huge farm shop on the road and we bought some local ham and cheese for lunch. After climbing a steep hill, we passed a sign saying "Besancon 6k" and were pleased we were nearly there. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the 6k took us nearly three hours to walk. We found a little residential park for lunch. When we came out a bus passed us - we thought about catching it (if only we had!) because the torturous route took us forever; through industrial estate after out of town shopping centres. It was horrible. We'd been out in the countryside for so long, that cities made us feel depressed and irritable. The lo-o-o-ong road in to the centre was interminable. Eventually, thank blummin goodness, we were there...and after our shower and siesta we set off to discover the town.

Anyone who's been to Besancon will appreciate how spread out this pretty, little city is...nonetheless, it has a wealthy, cosmopolitan feel. We enjoyed a beer and had a yummy home-made burger from a restaurant in one of the trendy, little squares. We headed off back to our hotel as darkness fell. It felt a bit naughty to be out so late.

We had an excellent breakfast the following morning, which was a bit of a rarity; cereal and boiled eggs - what a luxury! The first job was to do our laundry then it was off to the town to buy provisions and do a spot of sight-seeing. The cathedral was a bit austere, so we walked (and walked!) very steeply uphill to the citadel. It felt a little like a busman's holiday. Our treat was a beer in the square.

We'd come to a significant moment in our journey - the end of the first guidebook!

Distance from Canterbury: 767k
Distance to Rome:             1316k

Stage 6: Langres to Gy

Langres is another one of those beautiful walled, medieval towns. We arrived, looking forward to trying the local cheese; a particular favourite of Polly's. It's magnificently gooey and stinky especially, we discovered, when left in your rucksack overnight in the middle of August.

We walked the city walls with an audio guide; the views were amazing. We marvelled at the city's defences and the age of the walls - one bit was Roman and dated to 20BC! There were also Renaissance houses galore, another lovely city.

Our last port of call was the tourist information office to get accommodation for the next leg of our walk. Then, it was an dinner in our room and an early night.

We awoke to leaden skies and I went off to buy bread for lunch. (It was good to buy bread on the day we were going to eat it, for a change.) Leaving Langres by the south gate, we were soon out of the traffic and heading for our overnight stop at Grandchamp. It was a bit off-piste but it was the only place we could find in the 40kms between Langres and Champlitte. We had lunch by the church in le Puilly and then set off down a lush, green valley towards Grandchamp.

I'm pleased to report that Polly's log records that the cows and horses were the most beautiful and healthy we'd ever seen. I think, perhaps, she wasn't taking enough water with it. 

She also records that our accommodation in Grandchamp would probably be one of the most sociable on the whole trip. She was absolutely right. There were people from all over Europe drawn to this lovely, little hotel run by a couple of Dutch women. Our meal was very special, probably the best bouef bourginone I've ever had. Our room had a sitting room as well as a bath. The next morning we had a fried egg for breakfast. It felt like the absolute lap of luxury.

As we left the village we saw some wooden figures peering out at us from every conceivable angle from a local house. We were admiring them when the owner/artist drove up, got out of the car and invited us to look at his workshop. It was astounding! It was a shame, though, that we didn't recognise the main characters from a French TV programme that had been lovingly, expertly carved.

What a fun experience! We thanked our new artist friend profusely and set off on our way to Champlitte.

The sun shone on beautiful scenery as we made our way along quiet country roads. Champlitte itself is marked by a very large chateau at the end of the walk with spectacular views across the valley. We have entered a different part of France. The earth is rich and thick, the rivers full and fast, there's lots of forest and everywhere is green and fertile.

As we were leaving town the following morning, the local charcuterie was setting up a cooked chicken battery. I was disappointed to be leaving so early, the smell was gorgeous but perhaps not the best thing for breakfast.

It was another superb walk. Our route took us through some delightful little villages, following the local bread van. Polly spotted some rogue hops in the hedgerow. A great find! We were to find them all the way to Rome. They reminded us of home and were very poignant for Polly as her mum was a hop-picker in Kent. An unexpected treat.

The day's walking in the hot sun took us over ancient bridges and along typically quiet roads.

We stopped at a convenient spot for a toilet break. It was sheltered from the road by a hedge and a large, but slightly shabby looking statue of the Virgin Mary. There was a bench too and I started to take my pack off when the loudest scream I have ever heard assaulted my ears. I turned round as quickly as I could to hear Polly screaming, "SNAKE!!!" and, before I could move, she was 20, 30, 40 yards down the road, still screaming. My eyes were attracted to the movement near the statue and I watched, fascinated as the snake slithered under it. Brilliant. I couldn't be sure, but I think it was a common adder. It was bigger than the ones I've seen in England and...hang on where's Polly? She hadn't stopped running. When I eventually caught up with her, she was still shuddering, all thoughts of a toilet break had disappeared. 

Nope...she's gone
We arrived in Dampiere a little after 3pm and it was hot, hot, hot. Our accommodation was a gorgeous old farmhouse, covered in ivy, on the outskirts of town. Our hosts were obviously expecting us as they'd put a jolly little note (in English) on the door. It read, "Back in half an hour". Unfortunately, they'd neglected to tell us half an hour from when. Hey, what the heck...we found a stone bench, settled down to stroke the cat and waited.

When our hosts returned, I optimistically asked about the possibility of there being a bar nearby. Monsieur went into overdrive...he brought us two very large, cold, cold, cold bottles of Kronenberg. We passed a fun half hour talking in Franglais to our host before adjourning to our room.

It was a great pit-stop. We met a Swiss walker at breakfast, who regaled us with stories of his mountain adventures. He was young, handsome, very able and beautifully turned out. We suddenly felt very inadequate.

Polly's boots were causing her some problems. The soles were coming away from the uppers. A good rainstorm and they'd be letting in water. We hadn't even seen shops in most places, let alone somewhere to buy walking gear. And, of course, our walk today was quite long (25k) and it started to rain... Nevertheless, we enjoyed our day. We promised ourselves an afternoon break, but the rain persisted and we decided to keep going...The clicks flew by. We soon got to Gy.

Just Like A Pilgrim

Our night in Chalons was a time for reflection. As far as the walking was concerned, we were in good condition. We had no aches and pains and no blisters. (Well, we are experienced walkers!) We were also delighted with our recovery rate. Usually, we went to bed, tired, at 9pm and woke up fresh and ready for action the next morning. Well, ready for action as soon as we'd got our legs moving again. When we first woke up our legs were a bit stiff. We walked a little like robots in an old movie until we'd done a few exercises - but we were in good shape.

France was adorable. We hadn't met many people but those we had met had been generous and warm. We weren't entirely surprised but it was good to bury a few stereotypes.

We still felt incredibly privileged to be able to do this walk, this pilgrimage. All we had to worry about each day was making sure we hadn't forgotten anything, putting on our packs and walking. It was an honour and a joy.

And it was important we held on to those thoughts. We weren't heroes, we weren't superhuman and we certainly weren't loonies. We were just two people walking.

We'd managed to walk 30kms with our packs but, in all honesty, that was probably our limit. We could possibly have walked further but neither of us felt comfortable with the prospect. We new our limits and we weren't gonna push the boundaries too far. We wanted to enjoy ourselves too! We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were on blummin holiday. We didn't have to prove anything to anyone. It was our Via Francigena, our camino.

We'd learned to respect the rhythm of the road. It was a treat to be out in the open, in the landscape.

We'd spent some time discussing previous pilgrims and how they would have fared. There were no real landmarks this deep into France. If the medieval pilgrims came this way, they left little trace.

The infrastructure was still a problem. We were still finding it tough to book accommodation in advance. And this next section was going to be a big problem. There were two very long days of 40k each with no intermediate stopping places.

What could we do? We could try to walk 40k and look for a bus when we were on the outskirts of town. The only problem was, we hadn't yet seen a bus in France. How could we be sure of catching one now? It was a risky strategy.

And we hadn't yet seen any fellow pilgrims which was surprising. We were learning that it wasn't the Camino.
We had to find our own way on this walk. Just like a pilgrim.

After much debate and soul-searching, we thought the best thing to do was by-pass the next two stages altogether and get a train direct to Langres.

It was a toughie but it felt like the right decision.

Stage 5 : Reims to Chalons en Champagne.

We'd had lovely weather throughout our stay in Reims, but the day we were setting off again was cooler and cloudier. It was good to get our packs back on and to set off again deep into the French countryside. The first part of the walk was along the canal towpath for 10.5k. It was a gentle reintroduction to walking again after our lazy days in Reims. We shared the towpath with fellow walkers, runners and cyclists doing their Sunday constitutionals. The temperature picked up a bit. I was walking in a t-shirt and light trousers.
It was all very pleasant.

And then the dark clouds stared to gather. We could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. We marched on a bit quicker, hoping the rain would keep off. The thunder rumbled nearer, the wind got fresher. Instinctively, we stopped and put our wet weather gear on. Within three or four minutes the rain began...a few drops at first then, as the lightning cracked around us, faster and more furiously. I was a bit spooked to tell the truth. The canal was lined with trees and I was a bit scared. The lightning was followed almost immediately by thunder, a sure sign we were in the eye of the storm. But, it was over just as quickly as it had started. We were soon to turn off the canal and, as the clouds cleared and the sun came out, we were amongst the champagne vineyards. Magical.

We ate our lunch by a very famous champagne house amongst mile after mile of vines. It was a glorious sight. We walked along the road, markers every few yards announcing the name of the house to whom the vines belonged. It was a curious mixture of names, from the famous, to the familiar, to the obscure. All told of a rich and vibrant heritage we were delighted to be walking through.

Our accommodation was in a b&b run by an ex-pat Englishman who had previously been in the wine trade. We were still keen to drink the local bubbly. We asked him if he could recommend a good half bottle of champagne. To our astonishment he told us that the stuff he'd got was not particularly good, so he wouldn't sell it to us. We couldn't buy any from anywhere else because, he told us, everyone was on holiday. I could scarcely believe my ears. There we were in the centre of the world's champagne industry and we couldn't get any for love nor money. We went to bed early, after a supper of our hostel-cooked food, washed down with a nice glass of ... apple juice.

The next day saw us walking through miles and miles of vineyards, first going steeply uphill then sharp downhill along winding roads. The scenery was gorgeous, it was a great day's walking. We went through champagne village after champagne village; Verzenay, Verzy and Villiers-Marmery. The views across the vines were amazing, but, as was becoming the norm, we saw no-one.

Towards lunchtime, we set off on the lo-ong uphill climb to Trepail. We had lunch on a park bench, the wind by now cool and fierce whipping around us. After lunch we marched rather quickly, to keep ourselves warm, through Ampernay, a lovely little place, surrounded by vineyards.

It had been a memorable day's walking but the weather was deteriorating as we reached our destination. There was a sign on the hotel door which said, "Back at 15:00". We checked the time. It was 15:10.  The rain fell in sharp needles. Our hotelier arrived at 15:30 on the dot. She was about 4 feet nothing in her high heels. She was a human dynamo. She ran the hotel, the bar, cooked the meals and doled out free advice to the locals.

The next morning, on her advice, we set off along the canal towpath. It wasn't the route specified in our guidebook but our hostess assured it would be quicker.

As soon as we set off we had a great debate about which way along the canal we should go. Neither seemed to be the right direction. Eventually, after consulting with a local passer-by, we set off in bright, warm sunshine. It was a beautiful walk. We were making great progress. A canal towpath is a great place to put in lots of clicks quickly. Boats passed us on the canal, we passed them at lock after lock. It was idyllic. But I began to feel a bit of trepidation about the route we were taking. The sun was in the wrong place. We were supposed to be heading south-east but the sun was directly in front of us. We checked the compass. We were heading east. We carried on walking along the canal towpath, but a bit more circumspectly. I started to see, on the locks, place names we'd seen yesterday. I was really worried now. We stopped and took out our OS map. We looked at it in disbelief. Polly was the first to speak. "We've come along the wrong canal!" Neither of us wanted to believe it. But evidently, there were two canals in Conde sur Marne and we were heading east-north-east along the wrong canal.

A few rude words were exchanged. We plotted how we could get back on track. We had to go to Isse, 5kms back down the canal and our destination was still 16k from there. We thought we were only going to walk 18k in the day. I was worried because it was perhaps the hottest day of the walk so far and we probably would run out of water unless we could find a shop or a bar.

By the time we got to Juvigny our water had run out. The sun was scorching in a cloudless, blue sky. As usual, we saw no-one...and there were no shops or bars anywhere. Dispiritedly we looked around the churchyard. And we were just about to move on when Polly saw the door to a courtyard was open across the road. Well, well, well...there was a tap on the wall. Polly turned it on. Cold, cold water gushed out. We filled our bottles and were incredibly grateful for another fabulous pilgrim moment.

We were still some way from our destination, however. We walked into the hot afternoon along a newly built by-pass. We were on our last legs when we reached St Martin. We stopped at a bar to get a drink. The owner was just closing up. She was gracious enough to give us a glass of cold water with our fizzy pop.  I noticed that sweat was pouring off me. We must have smelled like pilgrims. We were on our last legs. I don't know if we could have gone on much further. Unbelievably, wonderfully, beautifully, our host offered to drive us to our destination. It was only about 4k but, at this stage of the day, it would have taken us well over an hour to walk. We were no mood to turn down such generosity. And we will never forget our pilgrim angel. She was a life-saver.

We'd walked about 30k on a hot summer's day. Our dinner that evening was pasta followed by steaks. We felt we deserved it. But we had crucially walked down the wrong section of a canal. We'd have to get smarter from here on.

Distance from Canterbury: 471k
Distance to Rome:                1612k