Day 39: Bar sur Aube to Châteauvillain (41 km) Going ‘extreme pilgrim’ with Georges.

You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason he is to be loved.

Bernard of Clairvaux

After yesterday I was looking forward to a relaxing day on the road. An amble over to Clairvaux to visit the medieval Abbey followed by a gentle afternoon stroll over to Chateauvillain. What could be simpler?

Georges had booked the communal gite at Châteauvillain through the mayor’s office. We just had to get there before the mayor’s office closed to pick up the keys. Quick calculations suggested that we had sufficient time to fit in a guided tour of Clairvaux Abbey, provided we reached Clairvaux by 10.30, when one of the three daily guided tours took place.

We grabbed a pain au chocolat from a bakery in Bar sur Aube and set off on our merry way.

First a few words about my fellow pilgrim, Georges. As the day progressed, it quickly became apparent that Georges is not your average 67 year old pilgrim. Married and living in St Etienne, Georges is a veteran pilgrim/long distance Walker. From what I gathered (we spoke entirely in French), there aren’t many long distance footpaths in Europe that Georges hasn’t walked.


Georges is about 5ft 6 inches tall and as lean as a whippet. He seems to survive on virtually nothing – he bought a single pain au chocolat in the bakery with some reluctance, while the thought of eating lunch, later that day, didn’t seem to cross his mind! For supper he normally has a bowl of soup and a bit of bread. Georges is what I would describe as an ‘Extreme Pilgrim’.

In addition to walking Georges enjoys sports. He revealed that his daily routine includes at least one game of tennis, a rigorous work out in the pool. He enjoys rollerblading and football. In winter he likes to turn his hand to skiing ( both cross country and down hill) and he also enjoys skating! Oh yes- Georges is also a teetotaller!

George’s leads the way

Georges also has a fair turn of speed when he walks, something that became apparent during the course of the day. I have given Georges a nickname- HGV. Homme À Grand Vitesse. George’s is the human equivalent of a TGV ( Train À Grand Vitesse)!

The route through the forest to Clairvaux was impassable the hostel caretaker had told us. Logging vehicles had churned up the path making it impassable for walkers, so we took a detour to Clairvaux via Fontane.

We eventually made it to Clairvaux by 9.45am such was the speed at which Georges was walking. The pretty village of Baroville came and went in a flash.


At this juncture it’s probably worth saying a few words about Clairvaux and its founder Bernard, who was subsequently canonized.

Bernard of Clairvaux

It’s hard to know how to characterize Bernard of Clairvaux, medieval church reformer and mystic. On the one hand, he is called the “honey-tongued doctor” for his eloquent writings on the love of God. On the other hand, he rallied soldiers to kill Muslims. He wrote eloquently on humility; then again, he loved being close to the seat of power and was an adviser to five popes.

What is clear is this: 400 years after his death, he was still widely quoted by Catholics and Protestants, both of whom claimed his support. John Calvin considered him the major witness to truth between Gregory the Great and the 1500s. And today his writings still guide spiritual lives not only of the order he made famous, the Cistercians, but by men and women in all walks of life.

Cistercian monks

Bernard was born on the outskirts of Dijon in Burgundy to a family of lower nobility. Both his parents were models of virtue, but it was his mother who exerted the most influence on him (some speculate only second to what Monica had done for Augustine of Hippo). Her death, in 1107, marked for Bernard the beginning of his “long path to complete conversion.”

Bernard sought the counsel of the abbot of Citeaux, Stephen Harding, and decided to enter his struggling, small, new community called the Cistercians. The order had been established in 1098 to restore Benedictine monasticism to a more primitive and austere state. Bernard was so taken with the order, he persuaded not only his brothers but some 25 others to join him at Citeaux in 1112.

Here he began practicing lifelong ascetic disciplines (strict fasting, sleep deprivation, etc.), which severely impaired his health—he was plagued by anemia, migraines, gastritis, hypertension, and an atrophied sense of taste his whole life.

Within three years of joining the order, he was appointed abbot of the third Cistercian monastery, at Clairvaux. There Bernard showed little patience with monks who wanted him to relax his standards. Mocking other monasteries’ eating habits, he wrote, “The cooks prepare everything with such skill and cunning that the four or five dishes already consumed are no hindrance to what is to follow, and the appetite is not checked by satiety.”

Bernard of Clairvaux

At the same time, he showed his growing spiritual wisdom. Regarding the danger of spiritual pride, he said, “There are people who go clad in tunics and have nothing to do with furs, who nevertheless are lacking in humility. Surely humility in furs is better than pride in tunics.”

Clairvaux Abbey

Despite the objection of some monks, the monastery under his leadership prospered. By 1118 Clairvaux was able to found its first daughter house—the first of some 70 Cistercian monasteries Bernard founded (which in turn founded another 100 monasteries in Bernard’s lifetime).

As the order grew, so did Bernard’s influence and responsibilities. Though he longed to return to a life of solitude (he had been a hermit for a time), he was thrust into the world for many of his remaining years.

Bernard had warm relationships with other reforming orders of his day, like the Carthusians and the Premonstratensians. He also wrote the Rule for the new order known as the Knights Templar, an order of men who took monastic vows and swore to defend the Holy Land militarily.

When influential and controversial Paris theologian, Peter Abelard, wrote, “It is by doubting that we come to inquire and by inquiring that we reach truth,” and suggested that Christ died not to pay a penalty but merely to demonstrate God’s love, Bernard was scandalized. In 1139, he wrote a lengthy letter to the pope refuting Abelard. He called the Parisian a “son of perdition” who “disdains and scoffs” the death of Christ: “I was made a sinner by deriving my being from Adam; I am made just by being washed in the blood of Christ and not by Christ’s ‘words and example.'”

Because of Bernard’s letter and political influence (Pope Innocent III owed his position, in part, to Bernard’s public support), Abelard’s teaching was condemned, and he was forced to retire to a monastery.

Bernard’s informal political influence was further enhanced with the election of Pope Eugenius III, one of Bernard’s former pupils. Bernard had a high view of the papacy, and he called the pope “the unique vicar of Christ who presides over not a single people but over all.” At the same time, he warned Eugenius, “You have been entrusted with stewardship over the world, not given possession of it. … There is no poison more dangerous for you, no sword more deadly, than the passion to rule.” All in all, he wielded such influence with Eugenius III that Eugenius once complained to Bernard, “They say that it is you who are pope and not I.”

When Eugenius called for the Second Crusade, he enlisted Bernard as the crusade’s chief promoter. Bernard traveled over Europe calling upon men to enlist in “the cause of Christ.” In one sermon he pleaded, “I ask you and advise you not to want to put your own business before the business of Christ.”

The Second Crusade

Because of bickering and ineffective leadership, though, the crusade was a disaster, ending in an embarrassing retreat, and Bernard’s reputation suffered the last four years of his life. Still, just a little over 20 years after his death, he was esteemed enough to be canonized.

What Bernard is remembered for today, more than his reforming zeal and crusade preaching, is his mystical writings. His best known work is On Loving God, in which he states his purpose at the beginning: “You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason he is to be loved.”

Today not much remains of the medieval abbey that Bernard founded in 1115 apart from a few ruins which we didn’t get to see!

Clairvaux Abbey.

By the middle of the 18th century, the Abbey had become so rich and powerful ( the abbey received financial support from the French monarchy) that they decided to demolish the medieval Abbey and replace it with more opulent buildings. What does remain of the medieval Abbey includes the vaults where wine was stored. The arches give some idea of the elegant simplicity of the Cistercian monastery which studiously avoided any form of unnecessary adornment which Bernard believed would divert the monks from contemplating and comprehending the divine essence of Christ.

Medieval wine vaults

After the French Revolution in 1789, the Abbey was closed and converted into a prison by Napoleon who used it as the template for other prisons he established across France.

Clairvaux prison

At one point, the prison at Clairvaux held 20,000 prisoners, lodged in fairly inhumane conditions. Today, the prison holds just 50 inmates – mostly young offenders. But there are still watch towers dotted around the place which give the Abbey a distinctly Stalagluft ambience.

Clairvaux Abbey

The tour of the Abbey was fascinating but took somewhat longer than we had anticipated- 2 hours. This meant that we were running slightly behind schedule if we were to reach Châteauvillain before the Mayor’s Office closed and avoid having to sleep on the streets ( there was no other pilgrim accommodation in Châteauvillain!)

The next 5 hours were spent ‘speed walking’ through slippery forest tracks and tarmac roads with Georges leading the way. The man was on a mission, and lunch wasn’t part of that mission. Midway through the afternoon I spotted a roadside apple tree and managed to dislodge an apple with my staff. It tasted pretty bitter, but I was so hungry by this stage, that I worked it down.

As we neared Châteauvillain, it rapidly became apparent that it would be a tight run thing if we were to reach the town by 5pm ( when we presumed the Mayor’s Office would shut). During the final hour’s walk, Georges got a second wind and applied the after burners. I trailed along in his wake, determined to adopt a more healthy lifestyle when I returned home to Wiltshire, do more roller balding, downhill skiing and kick boxing!

We made it to Châteauvillain on the stroke of 5pm. However, our hearts sank when we saw that the imposing building in the centre of town ( which we assumed to be the Mayor’s Office) was firmly closed. ‘Merde’, Georges exclaimed vehemently. ‘If we’d only arrived 5 minutes earlier we would have been ok. Now we are completely stuffed’.

At this point a local resident appeared. We promptly collared her and asked her when the mayor’s office closed. She suggested ringing the Gendarmerie for more information, which we did. The response, wasn’t very helpful. Had a crime been committed? No? Then why were we contacting them?

At this point I was certain I could see steam emerging from the top of Georges’ sherpa trekking head support. The lady we had been talking to, then calmly informed us that the Mayor’s Office was a hundred yards further down the street. Merde! Why hadn’t she told us this vital piece of information 10 minutes earlier?

We logged it down the street and found, to our unconstrained delight, that the Mayor’s Office was still open – they close at 5.30pm. It was 5.25pm and we had made it, by the skin of our teeth!

Armed with the entry code, we made our way to the municipal hostel and eventually managed to gain access. It was basic but had everything we needed for a welcome night’s sleep and a hearty meal after what had been a gruelling day. We had ended up ‘speed walking’ 41km which brought my total over the last 2 days to almost 100km! So much for the gentle day’s amble, I had turned into an ‘extreme pilgrim’ I thought to myself as I turned out the lights and hit the sack!

The communal hostel at Châteauvillain

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