Tuesday 2 April 2019

We got the 12.35 Eurostar to Paris and walked from Gare de Nord to Gare de L’Est to catch a TGV to Reims. Outside Reims railway station we caught a No 9 bus to the outskirts of the city and found our Companile hotel on a small industrial estate at Taissy very close the A4 motorway.  We had been here once before on a French driving holiday. Companiles are comforting budget hotels with rooms in two storey blocks and a separate building containing reception and a small restaurant serving buffet-style evening meals and breakfast.

 

Wed 3 April 2019

Reims to Ambonnay 27Km  We left our accommodation at 09.00 and walked through the nearby village of St Leonard to reach the Canal De l’Aisne et Marne.  As we arrived at the canal side there was a large party of French pensioners setting off for a walk.  Because the canal was very straight, we were aware of them following us down the towpath for several kilometers.  After 4km at a place called Sillery, the canal broadened out with many boats moored. Here we left the canal and struck out east towards the Montagnes de Reims which we could see clearly ahead.  These are not so much mountains as low hills where grapes are grown.  After a section of road walking we turned left on a side road and entered the extensive vineyards of champagne. Along the way there were lots of proprietorial signs for well known brands. At the village of Verzenay there was a small bar where we were served coffee by a friendly owner. When we compared ages, she turned out to be the oldest of us all at 75 (two years older than me.)  At the next village (Verzey) we joined a track through the woods which contoured round the hillsides and continued for many kilometers towards an ever-signposted village called Trepail. But the route was a bit longer than we expected.  I was recording the distance on my phone app and it was 22km when (at a rest-stop) Gillian suggested that I should conserve the battery for life-saving music. After another 500m we reached a road and still Trepail was shown as another 2.5Km.   Actually it didn’t seem that far to the outskirts on the main road. More like 1.5km.  However, Ambonnay our destination was another 3km further on. We had been planning to go off-route to visit a supermarket at Bouzey, an extra 6kms there and back, but that was clearly beyond our stamina level.  Our accommodation was not going to provide us with an evening meal but luckily there was a small bakers shop in Ambonnay and we were able to buy some large sausage rolls and cakes and some cans of fizzy drink.  When we got to our lodgings we discovered that the ouhouses included a champagne-making business and we were able to buy a bottle of Grand-Cru for 18 Euros from our host which complemented nicely the food we had bought.. 

 

Thursday 4 April

Ambonnay to Chalons En Champagne (24 km)  It was a grey misty morning and we were grateful for some grassy tracks beside the road which made the first 4km of road-walking a bit safer. Although it was not a major road lorries still loomed out of the mirk and cars whizzed past. At Conde sur Marne, another pretty but deserted village, the mist cleared and we joined the Canal Lateral a la Marne which was to be our companion for most of the next 3 days.  As we prgressed along the towpath my back became stressed and painful. By the outskirts of Chalons, I was crawling along and when we stopped for a beer in the town centre I was hardly able to get up from the table. (This was all very worrying because my problem was similar to what I had experience the previous September.) It was school coming-out time and the centre of Chalons was full of very boistrous teenagers. We had booked an air B&B and this meant a visit to a supermarket to buy food and drink.  We found our accommodation about 1km from the centre. It was quite spaciousand also had a bath and I soaked myself to ease my painful back but I was quite worried about not being able to walk the next day. Gillian had problems as well. She had a painful knee and was suffering from blisters.

 

Friday 5 April

Chalons En Champagne to La ChausséeSur Marne (18km) It was a sunny morning andI said that I would walk down to the canal to see how I felt. I had packed my rucksack with the weight (especially my water bottles)  towards the opposite side from my stoop (i,e, towards the right) but I was still half-expecting to abandon the whole enterprise. On the way through the town we bought a pack of playing cards. – a missing component of our evening entertainment.  When we reached the canal I decided to try walking on and to my surprise with regular rest-breaks I was able to continue all the way to our destination.  I concluded optimistically, that I had found the solution to my back problem (no such luck) It certainly felt much

better than the night before. Our Logis de France hotel “Clos de Mutigny”(in La Chaussé Sur Marne) had lost Gillian’s booking but they still gave us a nice room.  They subsequently discovered that it had not been transferred to their booking diary for 2019.  As we sat outside on the terrace in the sunshine drinking large glasses of Lef beer, lo and behold, another VF pilgrim turned up asking for his water bottle to be filled.  He was Shin Nakayama from Japan, the first pilgrim we had met since crossing the Channel.  We had a long chat, bought him a beer and gave him some of our energy bars.  He was camping out and suffering from the very cold night-time temperatures.  He was walking 40km a day and planned to get to Rome by the end of May. However, he wasn’t aware that the Grand St Bernard Pass was usually closed by snow until June. Gilly encouraged him not to take any risks and to seek advice when he reached Martigny. He was a really nice person and we gave him our email address in case he was ever in London. That evening we had a good dinner in the hotel.

 

Saturday 6 April

La Chaussée Sur Marne to Arzillières Neuville  (26 km) We started off in the morning on a lonely country road which eventually led us back to the canal. Then it was15km along the canal to the town of Vitry en Francoise.  On the way we met up with Manuel from Switzerland who was walking a circuitous route from Lyons, via Paris, to Strasbourg and then by train to Estonia. He was the same age as Shin (28) and was planning to take up a masters course in environmental engineering in Edinburgh later this year.  Gillian and he chatted about university placements etc as the three of us walked together towards the end of the Marne Canal at Vitry.  During this part of the walk (7 or 8 kilometres) my back started to feel bad again and Gillian told me I was stooping badly. I got slower and as we reached the outskirts of Vitry there was a bench where we said goodbye to Manuel and took a long break.  We sorted out the straps of my sack which had become unbalanced.  We walked into the centre of Vitry where we had a coffee and cake in the town square. We also llooked at the impressive church.  As we walked out past the station we set the distance app on my phone and it turned out to be another 9.6km to our destination. Our route involved a long stretch of road walking down the D196 with cars speeding past.  We trundled along at a kilometer every 13 minutes but when we reached the village of Blais-sous-Arzilliere I suddenly felt exhausted. It was sunny afternoon and I could see my shadow ahead of me leaning 15 degrees towards the right.  There was a café which was closed but we took advantage of their tables and chairs to have a good rest in the shade of a wall. I drank most of my remaining water laced with orange juice.  Then it was another 3km to our accommodation in Arzillierres-Nieuville. As we progressed along the fairly quiet country road,  a farmer who was ploughing a roadside field got out of his tractor and came over for a friendly chat about who we were and where where we were going.  This showed us how little the VF is known among locals. Our accommodation (Chambres d'hôtes sur le Chemin du Lac du Der chez Dany ) was one of the most attractive, albeit slightly ramshackle buildings I have ever stayed in.  There was an internal courtyard with barns, swallows and buddhas and a set of wooden steps leading to a balcony and our room.  It was all very charming.  Our host, Dany, supplied us with a welcoming beer which was wonderful after our hot walk.   She also cooked us a lovely dinner of ham and “crique” a local dish like a potato omelette with lots of garlic .  But Dany was a rather sad person who had separated from her husband four years before and was now desperately trying to sell the property so that she could re-locate somewhere else in France. (She blamed the banks for not giving people loans.)  Also, she couldn’t eat most of the delicious food which she presented for us because she had just had her gall bladder removed.  She didn’t speak much English so my communications were restricted to requests for more (or less) food and exclamations about how good it was. Gillian kept the conversation going in good French.

 

Sunday 7 April

Arzillières Neuville  to Villeret (25Km)  As usual we were on the VF by 09.00. Today there was a lot of road walking and, unfirtunately, my back got steadily more stressed. I was OK as far as the village of Drosnay (about 10km) but after that I was obliged to take a long break in a field by the road.  At Ambrecourt we took to some field tracks and every few hundred metres I did some back exercises to keep going,  The field tracks took us to the village of Joncreuil (deserted as usual) and there we faced a dillemma.  The maps showed a path through to our destination which were not on Pocket Earth.  Which source of information should we trust? We decided to believe that the path would really take us all the way and set out towards a distant farmhouse.  To me it seemed that the track might terminate there but fortunately it went on behind the house in the right direction. Gillian lent me her stick and even helped to carry my rucksack but I was still limping along slowly and feeling steadily more incapacitated.   My back was simply feeling twisted out of shape. This was the lowest point of my walking difficulties.  We reached a road junction I just had to lie down on the grass verge. Some cows watched us curiously from a muddy enclosure. We were still three or four kilometers from our end point. Gillian rang our hosts for the evening and they kindly offered to come and pick us up.  After 20 minutes, a little red car approached and soon we were whisked to our accommodation which was in a strange (bur very nice) little portacabin in the village of Villaret. It was tiny but had everything we needed including food for our evening meal and breakfast. Gillian gave me a back massage and declared that I had some badly knotted muscles in my back which she was unable to release.

 

Monday 8 April

Villeret to La Rothiere (18 km)   I resolved not to try walking first thing in the morning.  Luckily our very kind hosts turned up trumps again.  Agnes, the wife, was going to work in Brienne le Chateau and turned up in her car as we were having breakfast with an offer to give me a lift, which I accepted.  Gillian said she would walk by herself (about 12 km) and we would meet up around lunchtime.  I was soon being dropped off in the centre of Brienne and installed myself in a bar drinking coffee for the first hour.  Small French towns are mind numbingly boring and, after that, all I could find to do was visit the tourist office to enquire about onward transport (buses – what buses - said the lady) Brienne was famous for its connections with Napoleon but the Napoleon museum was closed on Mondays. So I did a short walking tour of the town which included the impressive chateau on a hill (not open to the public) after which the own is named. . After that I found another bar, drank orange juice and ate a quiche from the bakery next door. Gillian arrived just before 13.00 and I was so eager to get away from Brienne that I had no hesitation in saying I would try walking the next 6km to our hotel at La Rothiere. At that point Gillian offered me her walking pole and I was pleased to accept.  I used it for the rest of the holiday and my back problem did not reappear. ( I have used a walking pole ever since on the VF.) Most of the next 6km was along a disused railway line which was very overgrown but passable. We wondered several times whether it would simply cease in the middle of nowhere but we always managed to make progress.  We emerged on the main road within 1Km of our hotel. It was raining by now but not very hard.  We were in our hotel room having a rest by 15.00.  At 17.30 we went down to the bar and bought a bottle of champagne and sat drinking it until dinner was served in the restaurant.  We ordered two courses each. The food was excellent but the portion size was huge and we both struggled to finish.

 

 

Tuesday 9 April

La Rothiere to Bar-sur-Aube (20km)  Grey again for most of the day but fine for walking. We started off on field tracks and rejoined the road network at the village of Trannes. Soon we were on the D46, a minor road which took us all the way to Bar-sur-Aube. Via the village of Dolancourt where we could hear the screams of excitement from the nearby theme park of Nigloland.  We took a number of breaks including one on a stone bench in the deserted village of Ailleville beneath the village notice board. No people visible, just the occasional passing car. The day was probably the easiest of the holiday. We reached  Bar-sur-Aube at about 3.30 and found our hotel.  Our room was the smartest hotel room of the holiday with the biggest bathroom but a broken hair dyer stuck together with duck tape. We went out to explore the town.  Like many other rural French towns and villages it was slightly in decline (with several unused shop units in the high street) but at least there was some life left in it.  There were several restaurants, shops and bars remaining in business.  We found a pleasant bar where we bought ourselves large beers and drank them while Gillian watched pop music videos over my shoulder.  In the evening we went to a pizza restaurant near our hotel and then had an early night.

 

Wednesday 10 April

Bar–sur Aube to Maranville (20km) It was grey and misty when we set out at 09.00. We started with some road walking to the Village of Fontaine and then we were up and down on back-roads and field tracks to Baroville where we took a break on a seat near the church. As we started off again a woman asked us about our destination. Gillian commented that people were definitely friendlier in this part of the country.  Now we started to encounter some serious hills as we made our way out through the wine fields and into the forests. One hill, in particular had a gradient of possibly 1 in 3.  We had been gaining height ever since Bar-sur-Aube.  We puffed our way up and had a break near the top and then descended to a broad forest track which stretched ahead to the horizon.  We followed it for many kilometers until we finally emerged on a road (the D101) near the village of Clairvaux where we were due to have a guided tour of what I thought was an ancient relgious establishment.  (Gillian knew differently) The reality was very different.  It had been a monastery but since Napoleonic times it had also been a prison.  So the tour was a very strange mix of restored religious grandeur and horrible prison buildings in which there had been many deaths from neglect, malnutrition and cold. One floor was particularly shocking,  It contained rows of metal cages where prisoners had been kept without heating right up to 1971. The tour took about an hour and then we were on our way to our destination for the day: a town called Maranville.  As we ascended a hill by way of a field track the sky grew very dark and it started to rain. We descended into the next valley in raincoats and Gillian using an umbrella.  By the time we reached the road it had stopped and the next 3Km was simply on wet tarmac.  At Maranville we discovered that our air b&b was a complete house.  It was stocked with the food we had asked to be provided for dinner and breakfast.  It was comfortabl and warm with a pellet-burning stove.   We, made our dinner, drank yet another bottle of champagne and played cards.

 

Thursday 11 April

Maranville to Chaumont  It was a nice sunny day for a change and our last half day of walking.  Just 8 Km to the village of Orges where we arrived in good time for the 13.20 bus to Chaumont.  After 20 minutes the bus dropped us at the railway station in Chaumont. We found our Air B&B and then went for a coffee in the town centre to await the check-in time.  Later we did a tour of the town including a couple of museums and galleries and then sat drinking beer as the sun got lower. It was nice to have finished walking.  Gillian had identified a good restaurant and we went there for an excellent meal with a bottle of red Nicolas de Bougoyne wine. By the time we left it was absolutely packed with customers.

 

Next day we got the 07.25 train from Chaumont to Paris and changed for Eurostar.  The passport and security at Gare Du Nord was chaotic.  We were home in London by 14.00 and just sat around feeling exhausted.