But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
William Butler Yeats – When You Are Old
The day didn’t get off to the best of starts. I’d decided on an early 8am departure from the Diocesenal House in Besançon as it was 37km to Ornans which I was keen to reach by 4pm. Dropping in on a bakery in the centre of town, I decided to push the boat out and have 3 rather than just 2 pain au chocolat for breakfast.
The chap behind the counter looked at me with the same degree of incredulity as the ex England test cricketer Ian Botham faced in a cereal advert in the 1980s when he asked for not two but THREE Shredded Wheat for breakfast!
Clearly my request fell on deaf ears because all I ended up with was a solitary pain au chocolat and an espresso coffee!
Shortly after leaving the centre of Besançon along a path by the river, I was faced with the second challenge of the day – a lung busting climb up the side of a near vertical hillside behind the Citadel which I had visited the previous day. The path soon petered out into a narrow trail, below which was a vertiginous drop to the valley below. Checking my bearings I discovered I had taken a wrong turning so I gingerly retraced my steps, ensuring I didn’t slip over the edge of the path in my gaffer taped boots and plunge headlong into the valley below!
As the road continued to climb out of Besançon towards the Chapelle des Buis, I couldn’t help but notice a series of crosses dotted around the hillside at the side of the road. Closer inspection seemed to indicate that they marked the stations of the Cross towards Calvary, but why were they placed in such an unlikely setting I wondered to myself.
Shortly later I was standing beside a huge stone statue of the Madonna and Child gazing over the urban sprawl of Besançon in the distance. This was the Monument of Liberation, erected shortly after the end of the last war to commemorate the 5,500 civil and military victims of war from the Haute Saone region. It was a strangely moving experience to stand alone and survey the panoramic landscape on the plains below and remember the thousands of locals who had lost their lives during the last war.
The fact that Halloween was just around the corner was brought home to me as I descended from Montfaucon and came across a wizened old man selling pumpkins on a roadside verge. The pumpkins were arrayed on a trestle table along with jars of pickled vegetables. I was sorely tempted to purchase a jar to make up for my missing pain au chocolat but eventually sanity prevailed. Trying to eat a jar of pickled onions while navigating with a mobile phone and wielding a thumb stick was inviting trouble, particularly when wearing a pair of gaffer taped boots!
I passed an isolated chapel on a hillside on the path down to Foucherans. An information board outside, suggested that it was dedicated to Saint Maximin. Wasn’t he the Saint who had been martyred for trying to convert his fellow legionaries to Christianity I mused? The chapel was locked. Who worshipped there nowadays in such an isolated spot I wondered as I glanced back at it perched in lofty splendour on the ridge above.
I made good progress after reaching Foucherans around lunchtime. There was a spring in my stride and for a while it looked certain that I would reach Ornans by 3.30pm. I was beginning to congratulate myself for setting such a cracking pace and avoiding any wrong turnings when I emerged into a tree lined valley that had a distinctly Alpine feel about it. In the distance I could distinctly hear the jangle of cow bells, while all around me were hillsides covered in trees that were just beginning to show their autumn colours.
The landscape after Besançon had completely changed from gentle pastures to jagged rocky outcrops and tree lined hillsides. I now felt that I was very much on the final leg of this year’s walk to the Swiss/Italian border. The immediate issue though was to get to Ornans in good time to be able to visit the Gustav Courbet Museum which shut at 5pm.
Without any phone signal to check my bearings, I presumed that if I followed the footpath signposted to Ornans, as well as the red and white GR trail markers I would get there before the Courbet museum closed. Some 45 minutes later, I was less sure, as I struggled up a narrow path which zigzagged up the side of wooded mountainside on an alarmingly steep gradient that left me gasping for breath.
Eventually when I did reach the ridge line and checked my bearings, I realised that I has veered some way off the Via Francigena path and that I had erroneously been following the GR signs for the GR595! Thankfully the error didn’t prove too costly and I eventually made it to Ornans about 45 minutes behind schedule but still with a bit of time to spare to visit the Courbet Museum before it closed.
As I entered the main square in Ornans and passed a cafe, somebody waved at me and exclaimed “It’s Jonathan isn’t it?”. I turned in astonishment at my name being called and who did I see sitting at one of the cafe tables in the square but Arianna.
Sure enough her outsized backpack was leaning against the table. Next to her was sitting a swarthy bearded man who Arianna introduced as her boyfriend – an Italian physiotherapist who also worked in Hamburg. Having exchanged pleasantries I promised I would return later to have a chat and catch up with them. But first I an important visit to make to the Gustave Courbet Museum.
Ornans boasts not one, not two, but three famous sons: Pierre Vernier, the 16th century inventor of the Vernier gauge, a precision measuring device; Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle who was instrumental in the repression of the Protestant Reformation in the Netherlands, under Charles V during the 16th century. However, the title of Ornans most famous son belongs without doubt to Gustave Courbet, the 19th century realist painter whose works include ‘A Burial at Ornans’, ‘The Stone Breakers’ and ‘The Desperate Man’.
Born in Ornans in 1819, Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet was a French painter who led the Realism movement in 19th-century French painting. Committed to painting only what he could see, he rejected academic convention and the Romanticism of the previous generation of visual artists.
Entirely self taught, the influence of Caravaggio is clear in many of his works, nowhere more so than ‘The Desperate Man’ which Courbet painted in 1844.
Courbet used Ornans as a backdrop for many of his paintings, depicting scenes of impoverished rural life. ‘The Stone Breakers’ which Courbet painted in 1849.
It is perhaps no great surprise that Courbet should have become a close friend in Paris of Charles Baudelaire, the archetypal angry young man of French poetry of the mid 19th century whose most famous work ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, scandalised French society with its bleakly nihilistic view of life. They became neighbours on Paris on the 1840s, and Courbet painted his friend in 1847/8 during the run up to the turbulence of the 1848 revolution which overwhelmed Paris and much of Europe.
It’s tempting to think that Courbet may have been the inspiration for some of Baudelaire’s best poetry yet deeply ironic that the pretty town of Ornans may have unwittingly played its part in some of Baudelaire’s bleakest verse! Having visited Ornans and made the Courbet connection, I’ll certainly reread Baudelaire’s poetry with renewed interest!
“Many a flower casts away It’s sweetly secret fragrance on The wastes of deepest solitude”
Le Guignon or “The Jinx” from ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ by Charles Baudelaire
Returning to the square having looked around the Courbet museum, I located Arianna and her boyfriend and joined them for a coffee. Since I had last seen Arianna at Dampierre-sur-Salon she had been joined by her boyfriend from Hamburg and they now planned to walk together for the next 10 days. And as for the oversized backpack? Well Arianna had made the sensible decision to upgrade to a backpack that was half the size of her original one which her boyfriend would take with him back to Hamburg. Arianna didn’t reveal the fate of her electric hair dryer, but I hoped that it was also destined for a swift return with her boyfriend to Hamburg!
Having said our farewells and promised to try and rendezvous the next day in Pontharlier, I headed off to my accommodation for the night on the outskirts of Ornans called the gite ‘au Sanglier qui Fume’. It had sounded like a fun place to spend the night when I had chosen to book it and so indeed it proved!
Run by Laurent and his Swedish wife, Karina, the au Sanglier qui Fume is quite an iconic place for pilgrims to spend the night.
Buried deep in a valley some 2km outside Ornans, the gite has a distinctly Scandinavian feel about it! The Swedish flag fluttering in the garden and the wooden chalet with the log burners and the lack of mains electricity where I spent the night, both added to the sense of Scandinavian mystique.
Over supper of sausages and spuds laced with lashings of local cream cheese, Laurent and Karina told me the story of the Smoking Wild Boar. They had first met in Sweden when Laurent was stationed there during his national service. A whirlwind romance had been followed by marriage and a Bohemian existence which had seen Laurent and Karina backpack around Africa.
Their travels had taken them to the beaches and bars of a myriad of French former colonies and protectorates on the African subcontinent including one in a small village outside Marrakech in Morocco that rejoiced in the un
likely name of the ‘Au Sanglier qui Fume’ bar. Laurent and Karina had spent many a happy evening in the bar with other members of the international expat community in the early 90s.
After they had returned from their travels and settled down in Ornans they had decided that the Smoking Wild Boar (au Sanglier qui Fume) would be the ideal name for their gite! As I sat outside on their terrace enjoying a glass of pastis after arriving, I noticed the head of a wild boar with a pipe in its mouth looking quizzically at the Swedish flag fluttering in the courtyard outside. It was another of those evenings that will live long in the memory well after I have finished my walk to Rome!