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.

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.