On the morning of Tuesday 11th April 2023, Community of the Passion member Lya Vollering set off from Canterbury to begin walking the 1,800km pilgrimage trail known as the Via Francigena, which has Rome as its destination.
Walking an ancient path to the future, Lya does so as an act of ecological witness in the midst of our climate crisis, to call attention to the urgent need to heal and care for the earth, our common home.
Here we share her sixth week of reflections on the journey.
Tuesday 16th May: Opening the heart and filling the belly
One of the Qigong movements which I did with Astrid and Albrecht is about opening your heart. I thought of it when I walked, once again, through the forest. That is what it does to me – it opens up my heart, my soul and my entire being. As long as it involves woodland that hasn’t been interfered with too much by human beings.
I also noticed that it requires walking on a dirt road. It is then that I feel connected with the trees, the plants and the earth. A tarmac road creates a sort of barrier. It reminds me of when I was allowed to drive a telescopic handler at Minsteracres. This was a big machine which could lift heavy loads with the flick of a finger. Quite ‘cool’! I realised, however, that as soon I was driving this machine I lost contact and connection with the earth. Now I understand that the ones who are driving those massive machines in the opencast coal mining industry don’t realise what they are doing to the earth. They are completely disconnected.
The joy of connection. I can’t describe it. I feel more alive. It is wonderful. Literally. I came across other wild wonders. This is one of them (see image) Does anyone know the name of this beauty?
This too makes my heart sing:
Today was cool and dry and ideal for walking. I so longed to go camping again that I walked the extra mile to get to a site. It was worth the effort. It is such a quirky, beautiful, creative little campsite. They even had vegan food on the menu. My heart and tummy are very content today!
Wednesday 17th May: Barley & Bed
Today was a very different day. At the campsite I had met a Dutch woman who had started the Via Francigena in Langres. We walked together today. The walk to Rome is quite popular with the Dutch, because of a well known pilgrim who wrote a Dutch language guide. The route in that guidebook is often a little different and is very helpful at recommending short cuts! So we followed the ‘Dutch route’ today. It took us mostly over tarmac roads and through fields. During the last couple of days I have noticed that their is less crop cultivation in this area and more meadows. It’s such a joy to see so many of them with wildflowers. The grass and flowers have grown high and resplendent. The spring season is passing too quickly for me, because I am walking Southwards. The rapeseed which I saw as tiny plants early in the season, soon flowered and is now in seed. It’s the same with the barley. I am even starting to appreciate a field of monoculture. There is something very beautiful about how a full grown barley field ripples and stirs with the wind. The barley ear is very attractive with its long straight ‘hair’.
Apart from this, I was less attentive to my surroundings as I spent time talking with and listening to my new companion on the road.
We arrived in Dampierre-sur-Salon. The Dutch pilgrim had booked a bed and breakfast and I the council accommodation. It is right in the centre of town and has large windows without blinds or curtains. This is quite unusual because blinds are very popular in France. The host informed me that two more pilgrims will soon arrive to share the place. Yet, so far, nobody else has shown up. This is my bed for the night (see image). Maybe it could be an art object like Tracey Emin’s famous bed.
I went for a stroll this evening to enjoy the last of the sun’s warmth. I spotted a couple of mallards in the river. I have noticed them so many times now. They are often males and I hardly ever see female ones and ducklings even less so. What is happening to them?
Thursday 18th May: Tarmac & Encounters
It’s time for a rest! I left my precious soap box in the last gîte and I lost one of my favourite socks (It was hanging out of my rucksack to dry but I hadn’t bothered to use one of my handy clips because they were already packed away). And on top of that, on a far too lengthy walk, I stopped at one point to put on my less favourite sock but didn’t do it properly. I should have know better! Now I have a blister on my foot!
I have also been ranting about tarmac. Yesterday’s (Thursday 18th May) walk was mainly on tarmac, in my attempt to shorten the 34km distance. It involved some shortcuts, which meant more tarmac and less pleasant surrounds. Tarmac is bad for my feet, my knees, my soul, my mood; in short for my whole wellbeing!
Out of curiosity, I looked up the history of tarmac and I found this in Wikipedia: 1901, Edgar Purnell Hooley was walking in Denby, Derbyshire, when he noticed a smooth stretch of road close to an ironworks. He was informed that a barrel of tar had fallen onto the road and someone poured waste slag from the nearby furnaces to cover up the mess. Hooley noticed this unintentional resurfacing had solidified the road, and there was no rutting and no dust. Hooley’s 1902 patent for tarmac involved mechanically mixing tar and aggregate before lay-down and then compacting the mixture with a steamroller. The tar was modified by adding small amounts of Portland cement, resin and pitch. Nottingham’s Radcliffe Road became the first tarmac road in the world. In 1903, Hooley formed Tar Macadam Syndicate Ltd and registered tarmac as a trademark.
Interesting that Hooley was walking when he made his discovery. I don’t think that too many hikers are pleased with his invention. Car drivers might be, as it was when cars arrived on the scene that tarmac took off.
However even on this walk there were some beautiful views. At one stage, I crossed a bridge over the river Saône. House martins were making nests under the bridge. I stopped to watch these beautiful flyers from above, the first time I had viewed them from this angle. At another stage, I took a wrong turn and ended up at the opposite side of the canal that I wanted to be. The side without tarmac which had long grass instead. The grass reached to my shoulders. It was wonderful to be so emerged in it. I heard the crickets close by. They stopped chirping when I came too close and continued when I had moved on a bit. I saw a whole field with poppies. It is a long time since I saw them in such abundance. I had the most welcome nap at the edge of a field.
On this Ascension Day, it seemed appropriate to have my stops near graveyards. At the first, I had my pain au chocolate break, unfortunately without the coffee. At the second, I had my lunch break and was able to fill up my water bottle. At the third, I had hoped to fill my water bottle again, but unfortunately there was no tap available. It was then that I noticed nearly all the graves had plastic flowers on…
There were only 5km left of the day’s journey and I would manage without the water. A little further on, I met two ladies out walking. We greeted one another and they stopped to ask where I was heading. ‘Aujourd’hui ?´, I asked. ‘Oui’ . I Struggled to remember the name: Bucey-les-Gy. You are going the wrong way, I was told. Come with us. So I did. One of them spoke a little English and with my little French we were able to communicate. They told me that I walked too fast and my legs were too long. It’s the milk the Dutch drink, I responded. We laughed. They invited me in for a drink. I expressed a preference for a cold drink, not wishing to cover their place in coffee! I was offered a selection of soft drinks. One of them told me about her grandchildren, adding that now I was her child and she offered me a large selection of biscuits too! They ladies clapped when they heard I had been walking from Canterbury. There were more claps when I told them that I intended to walk to Rome. I was given a bar of chocolate as I set off again, which seemed to make the last few kilometres a lot easier.
At the gîte, I met Pauline, my walking companion from yesterday. We exchanged stories. It is interesting to hear how differently a similar route on the same day can be experienced. We shared food too and a small amount of wine which we found in the fridge. So, it was a very happy ending to what had been a challenging day.
In these parts, it is already harvesting time. Large machinery and tractors were busy harvesting the barley. When I passed a field which had already been cleared, it reminded me of a haircut – a bad haircut, uneven and ugly and exposing the ‘skin’.
The French love statistics. I don’t know how many times I have filled in my age, nationality, where I started from, where I am heading and the reason for making this pilgrimage. The options are: cultural/ historic, sport/exercise, religious/ spiritual and other.
At first I ticked all three. Now, however, I tick spiritual/religious and other. This is because I hope to gain some clarity about where the universal God/Creator would like me to be at this stage of my life. Another reason is that I want to see, feel and reflect on what is happening to our beautiful earth.
Sunday 21st May: Pilgrims & Shoes
He was tall and carrying a big rucksack. I saw his sleeping bag sticking out of it. I passed him on the busy shopping street here in Besançon. He certainly was a pilgrim (aren’t we all?). He wasn’t, however, walking the Via Francigena. I think he belonged to the community of homeless people of whom there are many in Besançon. They gather in little groups on the street.
As I watched him, I reflected on what we have in common and where the differences lie. I feel that sometimes I look like a ‘tramp’. I remember the time when I was passing through a village and was asked by a man who was cutting his lawn, if I wanted him to fill up my water bottle. His wife came out of the house. She took my bottle but between thumb and index finger as if it was something dirty. At least they were willing to fill it. Like the man in the street, I carry my things on my back. There are differences between the quality of my stuff and his, the biggest being that I carry a bank card and passport. I like camping but I know I can always get myself a place to sleep. More importantly, I know I have friends and family that would help out if needed.
Despite this divide, I feel an affinity with the man and his companions on the street. I am aware that life can take each one of us in that direction. I am also aware of the other ‘walkers’ and travellers, people on the move with their few belongings in search of a safe place. They don’t get a clap when they have walked enormous distances and are unlikely to be given a warm welcome. This makes me think of the rhetoric of those politicians who talk about illegal immigrants. Since when can a human being be illegal? Richard Rohr writes about systemic evil and how it is found in corporations, institutions and political systems. We must call it out, whenever we come across it.
On Friday, I arrived in Besançon. I ‘cheated’ a little! For the last 10km, Pauline and I took the train. The main reason was that we were tired. All these weeks of walking through France I have found the villages and towns so empty, so lifeless (‘dead’ sounds too strong). The TGV station was very modern and looked like a smaller version of St Pancras Station. It was Friday afternoon when we arrived there, and the place was empty. The ticket machine didn’t work and there was no conductor around, so we had a free ride.
We walked to the Diocesan centre where I had booked to stay for three nights. I am waiting for my sister to arrive on Monday. She will join me for a week. It gives me an opportunity to have a good rest and sleep for three nights in the same bed – what a luxury! Besançon is a beautiful old city and the Diocesan Centre lies at its heart. This large building oozes peace. It has a beautiful inner courtyard with benches and a lawn strewn with daisies. I had hoped for greener space but at least there was grass, and it wasn’t all paved over. Its corridors are wide and spacious. The rooms are simple but comfortable. Again, however, there seemed to be so few people around. The ones that are present are mostly elderly, with some of them in wheelchairs or supported by rollators or accompanied by carers. The largest part of the complex seems to be a care home.
As I was resting in a comfortable chair, I heard them again with their distinctive ‘ieee’ sound. And there they were: the swifts, making their home in another high city. It is comforting to have their company. Today, (Sunday 21st May) I walked with Pauline to the outskirts of the city as she is carrying on with her journey. There, I saw a beautiful verge with tall wildflowers: poppies, borage, margaritas and one of my favourites: phacelia.
Yesterday I bought another pair of walking shoes. I blame the tarmac for the rapid wear of the soles. The first pair (my barefoot ones and the most airy and flexible ones) didn’t give enough protection from the hard tarmac surfaces. The second pair I bought were very comfortable, but the soles were getting thin and I could feel the stones through them. The most recent pair I bought (I don’t like shopping!) will have to do, even if I’m not sure they are the right ones.
My good friend John suggested that I keep the old shoes for an exhibition. I like that idea. I’m imagining what such an exhibition would look like.
You can follow Lya’s weekly updates here.
Lya Vollering shares eight concluding lessons from ninety-six days spent walking the Via Francigena.
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