From the coast to the capital of Pas-de-Calais
146kms – 5 days
When most of us think of Calais, we think of P&O ferry rides, booze cruises, and the beginning or the end of a long drive to the South of France. It’s safe to say that Calais and the Pas-de-Calais department that it sits in are largely overlooked by tourists, who only pass through or at most make an overnight stop before an early morning ferry ride. Unlike them I would be travelling slowly, as fast as my feet could carry me. And slow travel would allow me to get acquainted with this lesser-known corner of France.
Weaving my way between Calais’ towers and lighthouses, through its parks and colossal churches, I made my way to the imposing Hôtel de Ville. I couldn’t help but liken it to a space station crossed with Big Ben, ready to launch into the sky. In reality, it’s like some sort of watchtower from which the people of Calais keep tabs on intruders from the south. Because beyond the Hôtel de Ville there’s nothing. The city came to an abrupt halt, and I was soon working my way along canals that felt like they were in the middle of nowhere.
Outside the town of Guînes the canals morphed in to dense forest, the site where Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American Dr. John Jeffries landed the first successful balloon crossing of the English Channel in 1785. The forest canopy provided a welcome relief from the burning sun, but it’s bugs had firm plans to drive me back out into the light of day. My picnic lunch under the shade of a tree had to be relocated to a farm track in an open field, underneath an electricity pylon – the glamour of long distance walking!
Emerging from the forest the scenery quickly turned to golden wheat fields, which were to be the backdrop for much of my journey south to Arras. One never ending wheat field, or so it seemed, punctuated only by a flash of red poppies here and there and the scars left by a tractor’s twists and turns.
Days were broken up by what became a familiar routine…scanning the horizon for a church. Some were huge, like cargo ships sailing across the fields, and others were on the petit side with pointy spires topped with an iconic, proud, cockerel. Whether large or small, a church always meant shade, water, a town, and perhaps even the hope of a pain au chocolat. And they were, without fail, always empty, with no real signs of life on the streets surrounding them either. I began to wonder whether it’s not just tourists who neglect Pas-de-Calais, but the French too.
Signs of religion were everywhere, not just in the village churches. Roadsides were adorned with chapels and crosses. I even passed holy springs, and the birthplace of Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre, a patron saint of pilgrims. Perhaps a fortuitous sign.
Passing through tiny French town after tiny French town, I soon became acquainted with their look and feel. The pretty, crumbling Mairie (town hall and mayor’s office), the boulangerie, the absence of any green space on which to sit and take off my boots, the sleepy Tabac with next to no customers and where I guzzled down cold Orangina, and the tiled old road signs that I have developed a slight thing for.
I walked through these villages with a huge amount of house envy. Beautiful rustic farm houses were kept from view behind thick courtyard walls and enormous wooden doors. Being bold and stepping over the threshold revealed colourful shutters and geraniums, sloping tiled roofs, old farm machinery and a world from years gone by. Snooping on chateaux wasn’t anywhere near as challenging, as their showy-offy nature meant they were visible from the road. I ogled at them in wonder – their different shapes and sizes, their towers, their countless windows.
The kindness of locals meant that I was lucky enough to stay in a traditional farm house in the beautiful village of Amettes and a chateau in equally stunning Villers-Châtel. And I stayed in them for next to nothing. People say that “the camino provides”, that one way or another pilgrims are taken care of as they journey from place to place. But the generosity and kindness of those I met in Pas-de-Calais was overwhelming. People wouldn’t let me set off in the morning without the hand drawn map they had prepared for me, and wouldn’t let me put my feet up at night unless I had a glass of wine in hand. I’m quickly learning that it’s a very special and humbling thing, to walk across unfamiliar parts of Europe and be treated like one of the family.
But the most memorable night’s stay (the 1970s caravan coming a close second) would have to be in Abbaye Notre-Dame, which is home to an order of Benedictine nuns. I was looked after by Sister Lucie, who showed me to my room in a beautiful former hunting lodge within the abbey’s grounds. I was invited to listen to the nuns sing their nightly prayers under the enormous vaulted ceiling of their church, to eat a wholesome evening meal cooked using vegetables they had grown, and to enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep that was broken only by the sound of church bells in the morning. Some places have an air about them, an aura that’s hard to explain. The abbey had just that, and the nuns living there exuded a sense of calm and contentedness that was infectious.
Wheat fields gave way to open cast mines, which marked the landscape with huge mountains of earth that looked quite out of place in the otherwise gently rolling hills. Run down mining towns were spruced up by a grand Hôtel de Ville with a bell tower that would sing a merry song every hour.
Arras’ spires soon came in to view, and signs for McDonalds and Subway replaced my friend the yellow knap-sack carrying pilgrim and signs for the Via Francigena. As I approached the city I wasn’t sure how I felt about returning to urban life. The sleepiness of the countryside had lured me in, and the hum of traffic felt alien and suffocating. But as I walked through Arras’ quiet back streets I realised that there was no need to panic. Arras is about as sleepy as cities come.