Besançon to the Swiss border, and beyond

Rivers, and mountains, and cheese…oh my!

132kms – 7 days

The Via Francigena, the medieval pilgrimage route that I’m following to Rome, has taken me to countless places that I’ve never heard of before. I’ve discovered charming villages and fascinating cities, visited off the beaten track places that I would previously struggle to pin point on a map. But the jewel in the crown of the Via Francigena’s magical mystery tour has to be the Jura Mountains, which stretch across the French-Swiss border. My days walking through this unknown land were pure joy. Its natural beauty, picturesque villages, delicious cheeses, and warm hospitality pulled at my heart strings and had me never wanting to leave.

A misty morning high up in the Jura Mountains

The road out of Besançon was like a cruel wake up call leading me up an impossibly steep hill that took me high into the clouds, looking down on the Citadelle de Besançon which itself towers over the city. The flat plains and undulating hills that I’d spent the last week walking through were far behind me. Everything was starting to feel alpine – the air, the evergreens, the cow bells, the wooden chalets. It was one of those moments where you have to pinch yourself. Had I really walked here from my house in London?

Beautiful Ornans, which sits at the base of the Vallée de la Loue

The stunning town of Ornans took me somewhat by surprise. I’d spotted it on the map and thought of it only as a well positioned lunch stop. But as I walked to the base of the Vallée de la Loue and turned a corner to see Ornans’ houses reflecting in the river below, I wished I was staying for a week. The town was the birthplace of the nineteenth century French realist painter Gustave Courbet. And it not only has a beautiful museum in which his and others’ works are displayed, but has attracted other artists and creatives whose wares are on sale in the town’s gallery lined streets.

I watched kayakers amble downstream as I picnicked by the River Loue, enjoying some of the region’s famous Comté cheese. It’s nutty and mature, travels well in a hot backpack, and goes perfectly with a fresh baguette.

Ornans houses reflected in the River Loue
The Vallée de la Loue

Edging further along the Vallée de la Loue, its limestone walls seemed to get higher and its forests thicker. I ventured deep into the fir trees in search of what turned out to be one of my favourite overnight stays since leaving London. A few years ago a wonderfully friendly and refreshing French-Swedish couple turned their backs on town life and bought a plot of land in the countryside, creating an off grid haven that instantly transported me to some of my favourite backpacker haunts in Nepal, Thailand, and Patagonia.

They wanted to share their world with others, so created an association (a non-profit organisation) that transformed their home into a bar where friends can drink, a venue for pétanque tournaments, the site of a music festival, and the force behind community ski trips higher up in the mountains. I stayed in a log cabin in the woods, which they reserve for pilgrims, swam in the freezing cold river that runs through their property, and enjoyed an evening of home cooked home grown food, interesting conversation, and much laughter. And I was introduced to another local cheese, cancoillotte. It looks more like double cream than cheese, and is spooned on to bread, potatoes, or anything you like to give it the taste of gooey cheesy goodness.

Taking an ice cold dip in the river

Moving south I continued to climb higher, surrounded by lush greenery and the sound of the River Loue running down the valley. I passed baby donkeys, the odd cyclist, and the lovely village of Lods.

The lovely village of Lods
Walking through lush forests

Thunderstorms brought an end to the run of glorious weather. But what I lost in clear blue skies I gained in a thundering river and dramatic waterfalls. Mist filled the air and dew covered the forest floor. With the heavy rainfall “bonus” waterfalls appeared everywhere, and fallen trees created obstacles that I had to navigate over. At the head of the valley I reached the source of the River Loue, which springs out from the base of a huge limestone rock. Its power is harnessed by a hydroelectric plant, which powers 16,000 homes in the area.

Discovering dramatic waterfalls
The source of the River Loue

As I closed in on the Swiss border, past hilltop chateaux and along disused railway lines, I started to reflect on my time in France. I’d spent five and a half weeks walking through the country, a country that aside from some trips to Paris, some family holidays as a child, and some ski trips to the Alps, I didn’t know very well. I didn’t feel I knew French culture very well either, nor did I feel like I understood it.

There’s been no better way to get to know France than to travel through it slowly, to places that are largely untouched by tourists. To places where people have welcomed me into their homes, invited me to eat dinner with them and observe the rituals of aperitifs and cheese boards. Where people have had huge amounts of patience with my pigeon French, but haven’t let that stop us from talking, and laughing, and from them displaying acts of kindness that I will forever be grateful for. At times it left like my walk through France was never ending, yet as the end drew near I didn’t want it to.

Waving au revoir to France

Formalities at the Swiss border were nonexistent, and I felt the urge to run through the fields singing “The Sound of Music” if only to mark the fact that I was in a new country. But I didn’t need a customs official or to have my passport checked to evidence that walking through a small gap in a hedge had taken me to a different world.

The air on the Swiss side of the border felt different somehow, like it held the key to long life. And I drank in lungfuls of it. The roads were sealed with fresh tarmac, and their twists and turns were a playground for shiny straight-out-of-the-showroom Audi’s, 4x4s, Porches, and Ferraris. Everything seemed to ooze wealth, not least the enormous Grand Designs chalets that dotted the mountainsides.

I quickly learned that the Swiss are a proud nation. Towns and houses are decorated with bunting and Chinese lanterns that carry the red and white of the Swiss Cross. Flags are everywhere – national flags, canton flags, and town flags. Were it not for the fast cars and high spec houses, it wouldn’t have felt out of place for medieval knights to ride past on horses.

Just some of the Swiss flags on display in the town of Orbe
The colourful streets of Orbe

Walking through forests and colourful towns I got my first view of the Alps. It was a perfectly clear day and in the far distance Mount Blanc reared its head. I was overcome with emotion, standing and looking at the mountains knowing that I’d arrived at them on foot. I couldn’t quite believe it, it felt surreal. And for the first time I really felt like I was doing this, I was really walking to Rome.

The Alps crept closer as I continued south towards Lausanne, until I stood on the shore of Lake Geneva and they towered over the water. All I could do was stop and stare, completely dumbstruck by the whole experience.

Admiring the Alps from Lake Geneva

Lausanne is a city that effortlessly blends the old and the new. Its old town, with its cathedral and narrow streets, tumbles downhill into a regenerated industrial area that oozes all things hip and cool. There’s a South of France feel in the air, and the grand Belle Époque hotels lining the shore of Lake Geneva recall a time when Europe’s middle classes travelled to Lausanne to take to its waters and enjoy the mountain air (and they still do).

The view from the bell tower of Lausanne’s Cathédrale de Notre Dame
Lausanne’s old town
The headquarters of the International Olympic Committee

Lausanne is the home of the International Olympic Committee, and it felt as though the Olympic Games were taking place in the city on a daily basis. As I strolled around on a day off, trying to be as inactive as possible, I saw archery, high board diving, beach volleyball, rowing, basketball, sailing, and everything in between. Everyone exuded a healthy, youthful glow. There was an energy about the city, and everywhere I looked it was alive. I began to wonder whether Swiss air really does hold the key to long life after all.

Relaxing on the shore of Lake Geneva

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. Thank you.

Brienne-le-Château to Besançon

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.

Rivotte Gate in Besançon, which whilst welcoming visitors today was for many years a means of keeping them out

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.

A statue of a young Napoleon Bonaparte outside Brienne-le-Château’s Hôtel de Ville

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).

Bar-sur-Aube’s faded grandeur
One of many derelict buildings in Bar-sur-Aube

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.

Protesting sunflowers

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.

The pretty bunting lined streets of Châteauvillain
An open Tabac comes to the rescue with a cold Orangina

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.

The view from Langres’ city walls

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!

A statue of Denis Diderot in Place Diderot, Langres
The view of Cathédrale Saint-Mammès de Langres from my kitchen window
A quiet street in Langres

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.

Setting off early on a long 38km day

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!

The pretty lavoir in Seveux

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.

Sunlight breaking through the Forêt de Gy en route to Besançon

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.

Just a small part of the formidable Citadelle de Besançon
Palace Granvelle which showcases Besançon’s unique mottled stone

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.

The stunning 18th century Pharmacie Jacques
The wide variety of cheese on sale in Besançon’s Marché des Beaux Artes

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.

Evening revelry in Besançon along the driver Doubs

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.

Berry-au-Bac to Brienne-le-Château

Discovering that there’s more to Champagne than fizz

152kms – 8 days

Champagne…it calls to mind the finer things in life, elegance, sophistication. Walking through this world famous wine region, I realised it exhibits many of the characteristics of it’s bubbly namesake. But moving at a slower pace, at times well off the beaten track (or the Route Touristique de Champagne as it’s known), allowed me to see that it’s home to much more than grand crus and cuvées. Beyond the vineyards it’s a land of jaw dropping cathedrals, industrious villages, fascinating history, and unfathomably straight Roman roads.

Vineyards surrounding the village of Verzenay

Sometimes when you cross a border from one country to another you notice an instant change – you’re in a new place, things are different there. As I crossed into a new administrative department, Marne, it was as though I’d entered a new world. The villages of Cormincy and Hermonville, with buildings made of golden stone and prize worthy window boxes, were reminiscent of the picture perfect Cotswolds. And they felt just as bourgeois.

Picture perfect Hermonville

Traces of the region’s wine industry were everywhere. It didn’t seem possible for so many champagne houses to line the streets of a small village. They could be easily spotted – wrought iron signs hung over their doors illustrating the picking and pressing of grapes, and old barrels enjoying a second life as flower pots were positioned on street corners like signposts. Occasionally you just needed to follow your nose, the waft of champagne taking you straight to the cellar door!

A wrought iron sign outside a champagne house in Pouillon

Nestled in between the grand cru vines (think the best of the best when it comes to champagne producing grapes) of the village of Saint-Thierry is the Monastèrie des Bénédictines. It’s a world of simplicity and quietness, not too dissimilar to the small independent champagne houses I’d been walking past. And it’s home to cheerful nuns who ensured I was well fed and well rested in their stunning home. That their abbey is surrounded by vineyards owned by world famous champagne houses neither excites nor phases them. It’s just champagne, and in this neck of the woods it’s nothing particularly special.

The enormous door to the Monastère des Bénédictines in Saint-Thierry
The monastery’s former coach house, now used as accommodation for pilgrims

Arriving into a city on foot is a fairly underwhelming experience. The novelty of eating a lunch that isn’t a baguette with cheese, and of parking up in a cafe to people watch and pretend you’re a regular tourist is crushed by the reality of sprawling suburbs and grotty dumping grounds. My journey into Reims, following the Canal de l’Aisne à Marne, was no different. But there was a kind of charm to Reims’ industrial dark side…or maybe those wafts of champagne had gone to my head.

Seeing the charming side of the Canal de l’Aisne à Marne

I’ve become a pilgrim creature of habit – on arrival in a city my first port of call is the cathedral. Reaching the cathedral is a mini-celebration in its own right, marking the end of a stage of the Via Francigena and of a gruelling few days’ walking. They are a place to stop and reflect on how far I’ve come, to sit still and cool down, and to get my pilgrim’s passport stamped.

The stunning facade of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims

Before I ventured inside Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims I sat opposite its gothic facade for some time, gazing in wonder. Hundreds of figures adorn its twin towers, which soar 80 metres into the sky. You can’t help but wonder, “How did they build that?”, a question you ask yourself again when you venture inside. What hits you first is the cool air. And then you gaze up, and along the 140 odd metres of the nave, and imagine that this must be what it feels like to be swallowed by an enormous whale. And then your eye catches the stunning stained glass windows, both the traditional rose windows and those designed by Marc Chagall in the 1970s. History books could be written about the cathedral – its been rebuilt countless times after fires and war damage, it was the site of 33 coronations of French kings, and it was the location of Franco-German reconciliation after World War II. Certain man made structures have an ability to stop you in your tracks and to take your breath away. This is one of them.

The jaw dropping inside of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims
Stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall

A heatwave was sweeping across Europe, so a rest day was in order. And what better way to dodge the soaring temperatures than to head underground into the cellars of one of the world’s most famous champagne houses, Veuve Clicquot. Their cellars, or crayéres, which started life as chalk quarries, stretch for 24kms underneath Reims. In those tunnels I expected to be told how champagne is made, but I didn’t expect to be so engaged and inspired by the history of Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, the widow (veuve means widow) turned businesswoman who was known as the “Grande Dame of Champagne”. Her strength of character and tenacity were remarkable, and her innovative spirit quite staggering. She created the first vintage champagne when others believed it couldn’t be done, invented the riddling table which continues to be used in production today, and created the first rosé champagne using a method that’s been employed by countless competitors. The next time you have a bottle of Veuve Clicquot don’t be too quick to thrown away the metal casing that holds the cork in place. On it you’ll see the one and only portrait of Barbe, a woman who did so much more than just make champagne.

Inside Veuve Clicquot’s champagne cellars, or crayéres, which started life as chalk quarries
A step for every year that Veuve Clicquot has produced vintage champagne
Of course I had to do a champagne tasting…I thoroughly recommend the Veuve Clicquot 2008 La Grand Dame Vintage!

Sadly my time underground came to an end, and I was forced back into the 40 degree heat. Air conditioned cafes serving ice cream and cold Orangina, cavernous churches that seemed to be immune to the heat, and the refrigerated sections of supermarkets were the only places to keep cool. When my body temperature had regulated slightly I strolled around Reims’ streets, falling for its Parisian air. Its wide boulevards are lined with grand apartment blocks that display a patchwork of shutters and wrought iron balconies, and statues and fountains take centre stage in its squares. It has some beautiful Art Deco architecture too, owing to the fact that much of the city was destroyed during World War I (much like the towns I walked through in the Somme). Such as the Bibliothéque Carnegie de Reims, a library built in 1927 with money donated by the American-Scottish businessman Andrew Carnegie to replace the city’s libraries which were destroyed during the war.

Grand apartments line the boulevards of Reims
A colourful street in Reims

With the heatwave showing no signs of easing up, and with an itch to get moving again, waking up at dawn became the order of the day (not that it was possible to get much sleep in the heat!). Leaving the city behind, my early starts opened a window on the industrious side of life in Champagne. Drinking a glass of fizz may be a leisurely affair that’s full of glitz and razzmatazz, but the process of making it is more humble and authentic, and requires a constant hive of activity. As I walked I saw machines that looked like Transformers ploughing up and down the vines, lights twinkling in the morning light. Vans whizzed along the white chalk roads that cut through the otherwise green landscape, stopping every once in a while to check the grapes are growing as they should.

Wine growers at work at the break of dawn

My own path through the vineyards was like a champagne walk of fame…on my right the vines of Moët & Chandon, and on my left those of Bollinger, Taittinger, Pommery and Mumm. I felt somewhat starstruck by grapes, and wasn’t sure if the heat had finally gotten to me!

The champagne walk of fame
Early starts have some advantages, like this amazing dawn view outside Trépail

I soon found myself back on the canal towpath which could only mean one thing, that I was approaching another city – Châlons-en-Champagne. The administrative heart of the region, it had quite a different feel to Reims. What it lacked in Parisian chic it made up for in medieval timber frame houses, which have sprouted up in all manner of different angles yet somehow stay standing. Their ground floors are home to boutiques and boulangeries, and innumerable artisanal chocolatiers. It made for a good place to stock up on supplies before the next phase of my walk – a Roman road with no shops and next to no villages.

Early mornings walking along the Canal latéral à la Marne
Timber frame houses that line the streets of Châlons-en-Champagne

Roman roads…they really are straight. Unfathomably straight. 54kms of straight. After the heat came the storm, and my days walking south in a straight line were wet and dreary. The chalk roads seemed to turn into ice, and I found myself slipping and sliding with every few steps. On either side of me there were wheat fields, recently harvested and looking bare. My brain had been trained to scan the horizon for a church, the sign of life in an otherwise uninhabited world. But the only things breaking the horizon were huge wind turbines.

The lack of features in this largely flat landscape sent me into a sort of delirious, hallucinatory state. When I passed deserted agricultural buildings I would imagine them into beautiful farmhouses that I would run as B&Bs. I talked to myself in Spanish as though I was reciting a GCSE oral exam, imagined myself en route to Rome in the film Gladiator, and played out conversations with family and friends. I was brought back to reality by the whistles of birds of prey flying over head, by red squirrels that would dart across the path, and by deer that would dance through the fields in a display that never failed to stop me in my tracks.

Gloomy skies over the Roman road that runs between Châlons-en-Champagne and Brienne-le-Château
Having lunch in an out of place bus stop, the only shelter from the rain for 27kms!

With no shops, bars, or hotels in this area, pilgrims are entirely reliant on the hospitality of strangers who open up their homes and provide board and lodging for the night. I stayed with two wonderful families, without whom walking this stretch of the trail wouldn’t be possible. They welcomed me like a long lost daughter, and both had a way of making me feel like I was in my own home. They understand a pilgrim’s basic needs – shelter, rest, food and water. But they provided so much more, and I am eternally grateful to them both.

As if to symbolise a light at the end of the tunnel, on my last day walking the Roman road the sun was shining. The landscape looked entirely different, or maybe I just had a different mindset now that the end was in sight. Twists and turns started to appear in the road, and church steeples were visible on the horizon. I have a long way to go before I get to Rome, but I felt some sort of small victory…I had survived the Roman road.

Sunshine on the Roman road

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.

Arras to Berry-au-Bac

Walking in the footsteps of war

173kms – 7 days

If my first week walking through France was characterised by sleepy farming villages, my second was characterised by history. I passed through towns and cities with their origins in the Iron Age and Roman periods. Places that, given their geographic location, have been the scene of battles for thousands of years. Yet it’s the battles of World War I, and their scars, that draw most visitors to this part of France.

The unassuming city of Arras, the historic centre of the Artois region, was the perfect place to recuperate after a busy few weeks on the road. But it’s a challenge to avoid clocking up extra kilometres when your rest day is in a city that’s so charming and interesting.

Baroque gabled houses on Arras’ Grand’Place

Arras has a decidedly Flemish feel to it, a stark contrast to the rustic French villages that I’ve been walked through to date. Baroque gabled houses line the enormous Grand’Place and Place des Héroes, squares where people drink goblets of beer and devour bowls of frites. But there’s more to the city than it’s similarities with Brussels – the gothic Hôtel de Ville and Belfry, the Renaissance-style Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint Vaast, the 18th century town house that was home to Maximilian Robespierre, extravagant Parisian style mansions, and Art Deco apartments.

Arras’ Hôtel de Ville and Belfry on Place des Héroes
Inside Arras’ Renaissance-style Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint Vaast, rebuilt after the First World War
The colourful Parisian style Hôtel de Guînes

Arras has a unique architectural mix, which tells the story of its long and turbulent past. Being only 10 kilometres from the Front Line during World War I much of the city has destroyed, in fact 80% of it had to be rebuilt. Yet efforts were made to preserve each building’s architectural heritage so that the city’s history wasn’t lost.

On the outskirts of Arras I passed a museum and memorial to the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, a military unit made up largely of experienced miners who brought a strategic advantage to the Allied war effort in 1916. Arras sits on top of a labyrinth of underground tunnels, dating from Roman times and used throughout history to mine chalk and store grain. The New Zealand Tunnelling Company expanded the tunnels, taking them closer to the Front Line and enabling 24,000 soldiers to launch a surprise attack on the German forces in the 1917 Battle of Arras.

A memorial to the New Zealand Tunnelling Company at Wellington Quarry

As I continued my journey south into the Somme, reminders of World War I were everywhere I turned. I had, somewhat naively, imagined huge out of town cemeteries and memorials that necessitate a dedicated visit by car. But I discovered that these cemeteries and memorials, both large and small, are scattered throughout the landscape – at the side of a busy road in the middle of a town, annexed to a village cemetery in the shadow of a local church, in the middle of a wheat field. And the war can also be seen in buildings that have been scarred by shrapnel, or partially rebuilt in styles and materials inconsistent with those of their origins. In this part of France no corner escaped the war. And it felt important that my journey, slow and on foot, enabled me to realise that.

The grave of an unknown soldier in Gomiécourt South Commonwealth War Cemetery

But then there are the huge out of town cemeteries and memorials, with never ending fields of crosses that are the resting places of an incomprehensible number of soldiers. Every reminder of the war causes you to stop and to contemplate. But places such as Rancourt, with its German, French and Commonwealth war cemeteries that together hold over 20,000 soldiers, completely stop you in your tracks.

Gomiécourt South Commonwealth War Cemetery
Sapignies German War Cemetery
Rancourt French War Cemetery

I spent a morning in Péronne at the fantastic Museum of the Great War, an outstanding quadralingual (English, French, German, Dutch) museum that revealed sombre facts and interesting insights. As I walked through the exhibition halls, looking at the outdated and impractical uniforms that many soldiers fought and died in, and reading about the battles that resulted in gains of mere metres and losses of millions of lives, I couldn’t help but be dumbfounded by it all.

Symbolic poppies are visible throughout the Somme

France had so far been sleepy and quiet, with little more than tractors and the occasional cyclist crossing my path. But the further I walked into the Somme, the more it seemed to come alive. Pavements and town squares were lined with people dining al fresco and enjoying cold glasses of wine. As I walked down the street people shouted “Bonne Francigena” to me or stopped me to suggest that I visit a particularly beautiful church en route. One lady even gave me a round of applause when I told her I was walking from London all the way to Rome!

And there were more pilgrims on the road too, people from different places travelling at different speeds, and for different reasons. Some you pass like ships in the night – pilgrims on bikes travel much faster than those on foot, but that doesn’t stop you from having an evening of laughter where English, French, Italian, and Spanish are spoken in an effort for everyone to understand and be understood.

Wheat fields continue to dominate the landscape
Cooling off in the shade of a church

Walking cross country can sound incredibly romantic and exciting, but the reality can often be quite different. And this area of France comes with its own special challenges. Towns and villages are few and far between, and those with facilities seem to be even more cruelly distanced. If there’s no room at the inn, you find yourself walking a further 8 kilometres to the next available bed. Food can be surprisingly tricky to get your hands on, as shops and boulangeries can never be relied on to be open (or still in business!). Water fountains are non-existent, making the cemetery tap the life source for passing pilgrims. And the inside of churches provide the only shade and opportunity to cool down.

But the lack of pilgrimage infrastructure also makes life somewhat interesting. In the last week I’ve stayed in a hotel, a youth hostel, on a farm, in a caravan, in a safari tent, on a mattress on the floor of an old school, and in a 17th century house that’s opened up by the eccentrically wonderful Madame Marie-Agnes to pilgrims as a home stay. The scenery in this part of France may, at times, be unchanging, but the weird and wonderful places where I lay my head each evening never fail to keep me on my toes.

Early mornings walking along Canal de Saint-Quentin

Canals and forests began to break up the never ending wheat fields, adding flashes of green to an otherwise blue and gold landscape. Hills seemed to be getting bigger, and more frequent. But some shorter days meant I could spend afternoons relaxing whilst watching carp fishing enthusiasts at work, and swim in some of the lakes that dot this area.

A steep and sweaty climb of 100 vertical metres brought me to the capital of the department of Aisne, Laon. It wasn’t just the journey there that took my breath away – this fortified hilltop city is simply stunning, and the views from its ramparts of the plains below make every step of the climb worthwhile. Laon’s medieval architecture, including its cavernous Cathédrale Notre-Dame, have been wonderfully preserved. Every street tells the story of hundreds of years, yet the tunnels that run below the city tell tales dating back to the Roman times. Everything about the city was charming, tranquil, and low key. And I couldn’t understand why there weren’t more people soaking it all up (or why I’d never heard of Laon before).

The stunning Cathédrale Norte-Dame in Laon
View of the Aisne countryside from Laon’s ramparts
Laon’s medieval streets, lined with boutiques and artisan bakeries

What goes up must come down, and it was with a heavy heart that I descended into the forest surrounding Laon, and continued my journey. But my mood soon lifted. The golden wheat fields were starting to give way to something green, something that brought an orderly geometry to the landscape. I was entering a legendary wine growing region, and was excited to taste its wares. I was walking into the heart of Champagne.

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.

Calais to Arras

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.

Calais’ Hôtel de Ville

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.

The Forest of Guînes

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.

Poppies adding colour to the fields of golden wheat

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.

Churches provide a cool refuge from the sun and a place to fill up water bottles

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.

The 18th century home of Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre

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.

The Mairie in Licques
Boulangeries, my new best friends
Old tiled road signs which I can’t resist photographing

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.

The beautiful farm house I stayed in in Amettes
Although it may look like it’s a display, every pot and pan has its use!
The stunning Chateau Villers-Châtel

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.

Abbaye Notre-Dame

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.

The beautiful Hôtel de Ville of Calonne-Ricouart

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.