When troubles come, they come not single spies but in battalions
Hamlet Act IV Scene V- William Shakespeare
Sometimes in life things go pear shaped. Today was one of those days. I should have been alerted when I passed a street sign saying ‘ Ruelle des Grandes Ouches’. It turned out to be a day of mega ouches!
I passed an interesting house on the outskirts of Brienne. It looked deserted but had two massive stags heads mounted on its outside walls which gave it a certain sort of elevated proportionality! Was there a Napoleonic connection I wondered?
As I left Brienne le Chateau I looked back down an impressive tree lined avenue to the military academy which had formed Napoleon’s military genius. It was a sobering thought to think that he had probably walked or ridden down this same path some two hundred years earlier.
Georges had left the pilgrim a hostel a little earlier than me. He was heading for Bar sur Aube, around 40km away. We agreed to meet up that evening. It would be good to have some company after a long day on the road.
There was an eco-museum at Brienne -la- vieille that looked interesting. Of course it was closed (it was still before 9am) but would have been worth a visit. One of the frustrations of keeping to a tight schedule is that there isn’t always the time to visit every place of interest en route.
The board outside the museum gave some interesting insights into the pattern of rural life in these parts.
One thing that has struck me as I have walked the VF in France for the last month, is how much woodland there is. Most if it is broad leaf woodland rather than the monoculture of pine trees that you tend to find in the UK. Yesterday I saw a small wild boar rootlping around in the woods. It looked far from fearsome as it happily trotted around in full sight of me.
Another feature of the woods are the immaculately stacked wood piles you constantly pass. There is something infinitely aesthetically pleasing about them, like the stripes on a lawn setting off the herbaceous borders I thought to myself with a chuckle!
According to my guidebook much of the day would be spent walking through woodland which formed part of the Foret L’Orient. The pretty town of Dienville provided a welcome break to the first hour’ which had been spent walking through muddy woodland trails with precious little to see.
It was a morning of interesting road signs. First the alley of the toads ( Ruelle des Crapauds) then the alley of the Big Ouches ( which sounded ominous) and finally a place sign called ‘The other world’ (L’Autre Monde). It sounded vaguely apocalyptic and in many ways it was!
Shortly after reaching the small hamlet of Amances I followed the GR654 sign which pointed to the Hut of the Goats (La Loge aux Chèvres) which was 10.5km away. Quite why I did this is still a bit of a mystery. Since leaving Reims, the GR145 ( Via Francigena) and the GR654 ( Chemin de Santiago de Compostella) have followed the same route. For some crazy reason I assumed more of the same and followed the distinctive red and white GR signs into the forest.
For the next hour and a half I doggedly followed the GR signs through the forest. The walking was pretty monotonous and there was no phone signal to check my bearings on the Via Francigena app, so I just carried on walking, following those GR signs and hoping for the life of me that I didn’t get lost. The woods were eerily silent and I didn’t pass a soul.
I frequently stopped to listen for the sound of traffic noise but it was as quiet as the grave. I felt very much like the pilgrim at the start of Dante’s Commedia Divina which begins with perhaps the most famous lines in Renaissance Italian literature:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura “
“In the middle of the path of our life
I found myself in a dark forest”
Eventually I saw the trees thinning in the distance and heard what sounded like road traffic. Hooray, an opportunity to check my bearings and see how much further to Bar sur Aube. I had made good progress through the woods. Perhaps there was only another couple of hours walking to go and I would get there by 4pm I thought to myself cheerfully as I extracted my map from my backpack.
And then the awful truth emerged. I was indeed close to the ‘hut of the goats’ but I was miles away from Bar sur Aube – probably 25 km away. In fact I had been walking in completely the wrong direction for the last hour and a half! Yes I had been following the GR signs, but the problem was that the GR654 ( which I had been following doggedly) and the GR145 ( the Via Francigena) had diverged at Amances. Like a prize idiot I hadn’t bothered to check my map or my guidebook to ensure that I was heading in the right direction. ‘Blistering blue barnacles’ as Captain Haddock would have exclaimed in my situation. I’m afraid I let out a stream of more colourful expletives at this point as I pondered the next steps to take.
Retracing my steps through the forest to rejoin the GR145 at Amances wasn’t really an option. I didn’t fancy another night under canvas. The only viable plan was to cut across country to Bar sur Aube using small back roads. The downside of this strategy was that there was no direct route to Bar sur Aube and most of the walking would be on tarmac. My feet were going to take a pounding and the situation wasn’t helped by the fact that my feet were sopping wet from all the few that I had trudged through in the morning.
I won’t bore you with what happened during the next four and a half hours. I basically put my head down and put in a shift. I passed through a number of small villages and hamlets which I blithely ignored. My soul focus was in reaching Bar sur Aube before nightfall.
Passing the time by singing verses of English folk songs including ‘Boney was a Warrior’ and ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ I made good progress. Thankfully I didn’t pass too many people en route. They would doubtless have dismissed me as some sort of hapless loon!
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity of tarmac pounding including a 4km stretch down a Roman road, I rejoined the Via Francigena sone 5km outside Bar sur Aube. It felt like meeting your lover after a prolonged argument!
The final 5km into Bar sur Aube were a bit of a struggle. One if my feet was giving me gip. Perhaps it was finally feeling the strain of all the miles on the Via Francigena over the last 6 weeks
There was no more welcome site than when Bar sur Aube finally came into view. I could appreciate how Xenophon felt when he finally reached the sea and exclaimed ‘Thalassa, thalassa’ ( the sea, the sea!)
I eventually made it to the diocesan house in Bar sur Aube where the Jean Muchel the caretaker met me and showed me to my room. Georges had already arrived – he had prudently taken the direct route (39 km) to Bar sur Aube.
When I sat down with my map I worked out that I had covered 55km during the day! My feet were in a bit of a mess, but hopefully the damage wasn’t terminal and a good night’s rest would sort them out.
And then it dawned on me – my 55km detour meant that I had now walked over 1,000km since I started off from Winterbourne Stoke all those weeks ago. It wasn’t yet half way to Rome, but it felt like an achievement of sorts after a day of Ouches!