La Storta to Rome

Setting foot in the Eternal City

12 kms – 1 day

Not everything in life goes to plan. As I made my way towards La Storta, my final stopping place before Rome, I had visions of a peaceful night in one of the town’s monasteries, reflecting on the 2,172 kilometres and 102 days that were behind me, and preparing myself for the 18 kilometres that lay ahead the following day. But when I knocked on the monastery door I was turned away. There was no room at the inn.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, I was meant to stay in a monastery in La Storta. With no other pilgrim accommodation between where I stood and downtown Rome, and only overpriced hotels with vacancies, I was lost as to what to do. Walk the extra kilometres, having already walked a full day, and arrive in Rome as day turned to night? It was a beautiful evening, and I was tempted. I sat on the steps outside the monastery door, trying to slow down my thoughts. This wasn’t how I imagined my arrival in Rome, something that I’d pictured in my head day in and day out for the last few months, and daydreamed about for the last three years.

Walking towards the rising sun in Rome’s Riserva Naturale di Monte Mario

I looked at my route for the next day, and searched for anywhere along it that would provide a bed without breaking my bank balance. Five kilometres down the road there was a B&B which was happy to take me in, until I arrived (having pre-paid) and they also turned me away. I started to feel like I was being tested, that someone somewhere was pushing me at a moment when I was broken and exhausted to see if I would crack. But my walk had taught me many things, one of which was that I wasn’t going to be beaten. I walked a couple of kilometres closer to the heart of the city, and third time lucky I found a bed for the night.

I had a terrible sleep. My head was all over the place, my emotions keeping any kind of rest at bay. It was one of those nights when you see the morning light creep through the curtains and you know you’ve only had an hour or so of sleep. Exhausted but excited I put on my walking boots and packed up my backpack for the last time. I tried to move slowly, telling myself that there was no rush. I had all day to reach Rome. And this day would only come once in a lifetime.

I walked along one of the main arteries leading into the city, joining the cars and Vespas, the commuters and school children. Everyone around me was going about their everyday life, and it was a strange feeling to join them but know that, for me, the day was far from ordinary. The Via Francigena led me away from the traffic and into dense parkland atop Rome’s highest hill. I climbed my way through what felt like the Hampstead Heath of Rome, a wilderness of Stone Pines, knowing that at any moment I would turn a corner and get my first view of the Eternal City’s rooftops.

Getting my first view of Rome, and St. Peter’s Basilica, from Monte Mario

And then the moment came. Between the trees I glimpsed the hazy morning light falling dream like on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, and the Colosseum. Tears filled my eyes as I stood and drunk in the view.

Rome. So much history. So much beauty. So many steps to get there. So many days that had passed since closing my front door in London. So much time, time to question and time to dream, time to grieve and time to heal. So many mornings when I just wanted an extra hour in bed. So much laughter. So many tears. So many warm welcomes. So much joy. So much heartache. I sat on a bench and tried to process it all, what lay in front of me and the innumerable emotions in my head. I stayed there for the best part of an hour, and when I finally stood up to leave and make my way into the heart of the city I still couldn’t quite believe my tear filled eyes.

The final Via Francigena sign before pilgrims set foot inside St. Peter’s Square

I was soon sweeping along with city’s streets with the tide of tourists making their way towards the Vatican. With my hiking boots and backpack I stuck out from the crowd, and I felt different too. For much of my walk to Rome I’ve been loathe to call myself a pilgrim, unsure of whether it’s religion and faith that make you a pilgrim as opposed to a walker, a wayfarer. But this journey to Rome has been about more than walking. It’s been a journey of reflection and introspection, a journey that has helped me to figure out my place in the world, and that has asked as many questions as it has answered. So as I made my way through the stunning colonnade that wraps its arms around St. Peter’s Square, and set eyes on the magnificence that is St. Peter’s Basillica, I did so as a pilgrim.

Arriving in St. Peter’s Square
The colonnade of St. Peter’s Square topped with statues of the saints

People from all over the world crowded the square and queued for hours to set foot inside the basilica. Many of them were pilgrims who had arrived by plane and train, on their own special journey. Some had come to witness the canonisation of five new saints at a ceremony that would take place in a few days’ time. Others had come to visit the tomb of St. Peter. Whatever their purpose, I was humbled by their presence. I watched with respect and admiration as they queued to pass the statue of St. Peter Enthroned and touch his feet in a demonstration of faith and devotion, a tradition that pilgrims have carried out for centuries. As I looked around me it started to sink in that where I was, where I had walked to, was of such great importance to vast numbers of people around the globe. It felt like a privilege to have walked there, to have done what so many people can only dream of doing.

Pilgrims touching the feet of a statue of St. Peter Enthroned, holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo’s dome and Bernini’s baldacchino

With a flash of my pilgrim’s passport I was saluted by the Swiss Guards and permitted behind the scenes into the labyrinthine world of the Vatican. After security checks and surrendering my passport I was taken to an imposing building where I got my pilgrim’s passport stamped, and was issued with a testimonium, a certificate evidencing my pilgrimage from London to Rome.

My testimonium, issued by the Vatican, evidencing my pilgrimage to Rome

I loitered in St. Peter’s Square for what felt like hours. I wanted to ask someone to take a photo of me, but with every person that walked past I told myself, “I’ll ask the next one.” I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth, couldn’t make a move towards someone and gesture with my camera. Not because I was shy or afraid to ask. But because once the photo was taken I knew that I would feel the need to get moving, For the last few months my body, and my mind, had grown accustomed to moving. It’s what they knew and what I’d conditioned them to do. And I wasn’t ready to move on just yet.

When I first decided to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome I decided, however, that it wouldn’t end at the Vatican. As a historian, Ancient Rome has long been a place of fascination that fires my imagination. So my pilgrimage was to end at the Colosseum, and I made my way across the city towards it. Familiar with the area from past visits, I knew when it was getting near. And tears once again filled my eyes as the Colosseum came in to view. They were tears of joy that I was seeing this incredible monument having walked every step of the way from my home in London, and tears of sadness that my journey was over. What I had set out to do, I had now done.

The magnificent Colosseum, completed in AD 80

I made my way to a pilgrim hostel housed in a monastery in a quiet corner of Rome’s hip and trendy Trastevere neighbourhood. I spent a final evening with fellow pilgrims and we shared stories about our journeys with the hostel volunteers. And I has greatly humbled when the volunteers washed my feet, a ritual they carry out every night as an act of humility and service for pilgrims arriving in Rome.

Leaving the hostel the next morning, closing the heavy monastery door behind me, I felt like I was leaving the pilgrim world. With my journey now over and no destination to walk towards, it felt as though it was a world I no longer had a right to access. I stood on the street outside the monastery as an ordinary person, a tourist. An identity that felt strangely unfamiliar.

A colourful Vespa in one of Rome’s piazzas
The roof, and oculus, of the Pantheon which dates from AD 125

I spent the next few days soaking up the sights of Rome, a city that never ceases to amaze me with its history, it’s art and architecture, and it’s lively neighbourhoods. I visited places that I’ve been to many times before but saw them with new eyes, and explored places that were unfamiliar and marvelled at the endless treasures the city holds. I walked everywhere, reluctant to take transport as I didn’t want the world to speed up to a pace that now seemed alien. Because I knew that once the world sped up, it wouldn’t slow back down.

My parents joined me and we celebrated with Prosecco and Aperol Spritz, with delicious pasta and as much gelato as I could stomach before it was time to return to the UK. I caught up on stories from home and shared memories from my days on the road.

Trinità dei Monti, which sits at the top of the Spanish Steps
The Tiber at night
One of Rome’s colourful streets

I also took some time to myself to revisit the Vatican and the Colosseum, to reflect on the thoughts and emotions that overwhelmed me when I set eyes on them a few days earlier. It already felt like a lifetime ago, like a dream that I wasn’t entirely sure had played out into reality. I watched as people from all over the world marvelled at their size, their history, their beauty. And realised that from now on I would marvel at them for another reason. I would look at them and marvel that, once upon a time, I walked to them from my home in London.

Looking down on the Roman Forum
Exploring the Roman Forum
The Arch of Constantine, completed in AD 135

It’s now been three weeks since I walked to Rome. And it’s something I’m still trying to get my head around. For months, years even, I lived with a real, tangible, destination, moving myself towards it every day with first of all my dreams and preparations, and then with every step I took. Then one day I woke up and I was there. I didn’t have a destination any more because I’d arrived. I didn’t need to wake up and put one foot in front of the other, because there was nowhere that I needed to walk towards. A sense of accomplishment and a sudden lack of purpose collided in a melting pot of emotions that continues to bubble away. I may have arrived at my destination, but is my journey over?

Our journeys are never truly over. The destinations we work towards are but way markers, stopping points. They don’t provide us with the unforgettable hospitality, the kindness of strangers, the stories told by the people we meet, the lessons we learn, and the questions we ask ourselves. I no longer have a destination, and I walk without my backpack and with my array of walker’s tan lines covered up by jeans and jumpers. But I am still a pilgrim, and I am still on a journey. Where I will go next, I don’t yet know. But I know that the journey of life will take me somewhere.

I walked (I can say that now!) from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity, Mind. You can read more here. A huge thank you to everyone who has donated and helped me to raise over £15,000, a truly staggering amount. If you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site. Thank you.

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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.