Finding forts and walking city walls
217kms – 11 days
After days of walking in a straight line along a Roman road, there was a certain joy to be had in the twists and turns that took me into the next stage of the Via Francigena. My walk through the Champagne wine region felt like a lifetime ago, when in reality it had been less than a few days. I had traded vines for fortified towns dating back to the Middle Ages, and cellar doors for towers which I spotted everywhere – guarding towns and villages, protecting churches. As I walked through this quiet corner of Eastern France, sleepy save for the odd pilgrim and Dutch family on a camping holiday, it was hard to imagine a time when it was under siege.
The cafes, cars, and people pottering the streets of Brienne-le-Château left me somewhat speechless, which is some feat for a town with less than 3,000 inhabitants – it felt surreal to be somewhere urban after spending the last few days in the middle of nowhere. Brienne-le-Château was home to Napoleon Bonaparte in his youth, when he studied at the town’s military academy. Today his name lives on in pharmacies, restaurants, and hotels. And it felt fitting that I would spend the night in a former hunting lodge complete with stag horns either side of the door. An opportunity to channel my inner Napoleon, and be grateful that I didn’t meet my Waterloo on the Roman road.
Forests increasingly crept their way into my route, and I skirted round them and along the River Aube until I reached my next mini-metropolis, Bar-sur-Aube. In the Middle Ages the town hosted an annual fair, a crossroads and meeting point at which merchants from Flanders and Italy traded spices and silk for textiles with merchants from Northern Europe. But the town’s glory days seem to be behind it, and it showed signs of what is often the reality in modern day rural France. Businesses have closed down, buildings are derelict, and half of the town’s population seems to have moved on. But my tourist-tinted glasses still see the charm in towns like Bar-sur-Aube, and I could wander its streets all afternoon taking photos of its faded grandeur (and I did).
Fields of sunflowers brought a welcome change to the landscape. Although they seemed, in typical French style, to be on strike. The sun was beating down and yet they were all looking in the other direction. A protest, perhaps, against the European heat wave that had scorched the fields dry the week before.
Sleepy Châteuvillain was my next port of call, resembling something of a period drama film set. The town is on the petite side of things, yet it has no less than 20 towers protecting it (and it used to have 60!). Bunting lined streets were dotted with colourful window boxes and shutters painted lavender and sage. Yet I seemed to be the only tourist admiring these sites, indeed the only person walking its streets. It was August, and the town’s businesses had closed down and the townspeople had disappeared on their summer holidays. Luckily the owners of the Tabac were holidaying late this year, so I was still able to guzzle down a cold Orangina when the day got too hot.
With every day that I journeyed through the departments of Aube and Haute-Marne, the walls encircling the towns that I passed through seemed to become more and more robust. Langres took things to new heights (quite literally, as it’s perched on the top of a rocky promontory). Its city walls stretch for 3.5 kilometres, housing countless towers and look out points from which to survey the countryside below.
I took a day off to explore its quiet alleyways, and to tot up the streets, squares, and businesses named after the city’s most famous resident, the philosopher and co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the 18th century Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot. And of course to walk the city’s walls. But no visit would be complete without sampling the locally produced Langres cheese – half Camemberty, half goats cheesy, incredibly pungent, and absolutely delicious!
As I continued south, the France I’d come to know like the back of my hand was starting to change. Hills were popping up left, right, and centre, calling for more frequent visits to boulangeries to power up on croissants and pain au chocolats. Church steeples no longer pointed high into the sky, but were domed and covered in beautiful tiles that glinted in the sun like sequins.
But one of my favourite things that crept its way into the landscape was the region’s lavoirs, public wash houses that were once a place where people gathered to wash clothes and catch up on the local gossip. They came in all manner of shapes and sizes. Some dated from as far back as the 10th century, and others from the 20th. Some were beautifully preserved and decorated with baskets of colourful geraniums, whilst others were graffitied and the play den of the town’s delinquents. They provided me with shelter during storms, and shade from the burning sun. And I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one enamoured with them – someone has documented France’s lavoirs on a dedicated website!
One afternoon, in the middle of nowhere, I passed some workmen who were working on the side of the road. They asked if I was doing something “sportif”, so I explained that I was walking from London to Rome. They were flabbergasted, and I had to repeat myself 5 times (and I’m sure it wasn’t due to my poor French) before they would believe that I had travelled so far on foot. As I carried on my journey, after thanking them for their well wishes, they whooped and hollered as though they had just met a celebrity. When you spend each day living the Via Francigena, meeting other pilgrims or those who provide shelter to them, you sometimes forget the magnitude of it. And sometimes you do so on purpose, as to wake up every day and think about walking 2,000 kilometres weighs heavy on your mind, and body. But those men working on the roadside made me remember that this isn’t an everyday walk in the park. And that whether I make it all the way to Rome or not, everything that I’ve experienced so far has been truly once in a lifetime.
I continued south to Besançon, home to the jewel in the crown of the region’s fortifications. The seemingly impenetrable 17th century Citadelle de Besançon sits 100 metres above the old town, a location, tucked into a bend in the River Doubs, that even caught the eye of Julius Caesar in 58 BC. It’s one of the finest examples of French military architecture with walls up to 20 metres high and 6 metres thick. It’s intimidating just to look at.
Besançon has more to it than its military fort, and I took a day to be a tourist and explore its streets. They’re lined with buildings made from a locally quarried stone that has a distinctive mottled chalk, blue and beige colouration. And behind these multicoloured walls are elegant palaces, the birthplace of Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a stunning 18th century traditional pharmacy, and workshops that continue Besançon’s tradition of making some of the finest watches and clocks in the world.
Getting lost in Besançon’s labyrinthine streets I discovered Roman ruins, a wonderful indoor food market selling inconceivable varieties of cheese, and nightlife! Besançon was the first place I’d passed though that didn’t seem to pull the shutters down at 6pm and head home to bed. The streets were full of people drinking, French families holidaying, and people eating in the most eclectic mix of restaurants I’d seen to date. The life of a long distance walker isn’t, sadly, well suited to heavy nights on the town. So after my pizza and carafe of rosé I called it a night (not much after 6pm!). For tomorrow was a big day…the Jura Mountains and the Swiss border were calling, and to them I must go.
I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity Mind, You can read more here, and if you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site.