An army marches on it’s stomach
I was amazed that more pilgrims hadn’t stayed with Jean-Philippe and Blandine Mignot over the last few years. Their hospitality was most generous and the church was well worth a visit. Ah well, their loss was my gain.
Jean-Philippe had suggested that I might encounter a mobile bakery on my walk to Brienne Le Chateau. Sure enough I hadn’t ventured more than a few kilometres when I came across one of these mobile croissant vendors doing his rounds. Tempted though I was to enquire whether there was a pain au chocolat or two going begging, I decided to plough on towards Brienne le Chateau.
As I entered the little hamlet of Chalette-y-Voire, I saw a?man diligently picking apples in his garden, yet another reminder that autumn was on the way.
As I exited the village I came across a team of people who were busy electrocuting, stunning and removing the fish from the river. I got chatting to a bystander on the bridge. Her name was Agnes. She was from Nîmes in the south of France visiting relatives in the area. When I mentioned that I was on a pilgrimage to Rome to raise money for my church, her eyes lit up. She was also a churchwarden for her church and had been on a pilgrimage to Compostella many years ago. I gave her my blog details as she seemed keen to make a donation to the ‘Raise the Roof Appeal’. Strangers in this part of France are so kind.
As I entered the village of Precy St Martin, I came across an airplane in somebody’s front garden!
Don’t ask me why or how it got there! I’ve seen quite a few bangers in farm yards and roadside verges, but an airplane was a new one for me! Yet again I was reminded of one of those Tintin books my mother used to give me on those long flights from Ceylon all those years ago!
I reached Brienne le Chateau at lunchtime. Jean-Philippe had told me there was a pilgrim hostel opposite the church in Brienne le Chateau. He’d given me the name of the local priest, but I hadn’t bothered to call him. Imagine then my surprise on reaching the centre of Brienne le Chateau, when a lady appeared from a house opposite the church and asked if I was Georges. I replied that I wasn’t but that I was a pilgrim en route to Rome and that I would be very interested in a room for the night.
Anne welcomed me in to the diocesenal accommodation and made me feel at home. Another pilgrim called Georges had phoned and was expected imminently. I gave Anne my details and looked through the visitors’ book – I was the first English pilgrim they’d had for over three years!
After about thirty minutes the front door bell rang – it was Georges, a French pilgrim from Saint Etienne en route to Langres on the Via Francigena. Surprisingly he seemed to know who I was even before we’d exchanged pleasantries! The reason soon became apparent – he’d met Baptiste en route who had assured him that a meeting with myself was imminent. And so it had proved! Perhaps Baptiste had powers of divination or perhaps, as Georges commented, the pilgrim world is a small one!
Anne then relayed some good news and some less good news. The good news was that a lay minister was scheduled to drop around to give us a benediction. The less good news was that it was Monday and thus the Napoleon museum was closed. This was a shame since I’d selected Brienne as a morning walk so I could visit the museum on the afternoon. You take the rough with the smooth on a pilgrimage, so I accepted fate, and convinced myself that a benediction was the more authentic pilgrim experience.
I am acutely aware at this juncture, that despite having been in France for nigh on a month there is one person ( who is perhaps more responsible for the state of modern France than any other) whose name has yet to pass my lips. I am talking of course of Napoleon Bonaparte.
So why is Napoleon something of a cult hero in Brienne le Chateau? The answer is not hard to find and commences with the military academy which sits on a small hill overlooking the town?
Napoleon had a strong connection to Brienne le Chateau and the reasons are fairly elemental.
Napoleon first came to Brienne when he was just nine years old. Mocked for his thick uncouth Corsican accent, Napoleon spent the next 5 years from 1779 – 1784, at the military academy at Brienne le Chateau.
Napoleon revisited Brienne in 1805 when he was en route to Milan to be crowned King of Italy. On the 29 January 1814, at the Battle of Brienne, he led the French army against the army of the Prussian General Blűcher and won one of his last important victories.
Napoleon spoke about Brienne thus: “Brienne est ma patrie, c’est là que je ressenti les premières impressions de l’homme. Je me sens plus Champenois que Corse”, c’est très symbolique comme phrase”
So Brienne le Chateau and Napoleon’s stories are inextricably entwined. But Brienne’s history goes a lot further back that the tale of the Corsican upstart!
Born in 1165 AD, John or Brienne, the youngest son of the Duke of Brienne, carved outcasts career for himself by signing up for the 4th and 5th Crusades. He ended up becoming King of Jerusalem from 1210 to 1225 and Latin Emperor of Constantinople from 1229 to 1237! No small feat for the boy from Brienne!
And with that happy thought in my mind, it was off to take care of more mundane responsibilities, namely laundry duties!
Before supper I took part in a simple but moving benediction service. Without great ceremony, a local lay minister gave myself a d Georges a simple benediction and prayed for our safe passage to our ultimate destination.
After the benediction, I sat down for supper with Georges. We spent the next couple of hours shooting the breeze about the joy of travelling and unexpected encounters with strangers, the mystery of Brexit, and the best places to stay on the Via Francigena between Brienne le Chateau and the Great Saint Bernard Pass.
As we headed for bed I reflected that it was sad that the Napoleon museum had been closed but that life was as much about sharing thoughts and emotions with the living in the here and now rather than reminiscing about the past.
As Olivia reminded me today: Carpe Diem – the greatest regret in life is to have lived it as if it were a dress rehearsal. Live and let live!