Best Foot Forward: A 500-Mile Walk Through Hidden France
by Susie Kelly
January – Message posted to Internet:
‘Free use of French farm house in Poitou-Charentes in return for caring for animals (horses, dogs, cat, parrots, geese, fish) for six weeks while owner walks across France.’
Reply: ‘You must be joking!’
Reply: ‘My wife and I are prepared to care for your animals. Please give your exact location in Provence, details of local sights, shopping facilities, festivals, and whether transport is provided.’
Reply: ‘There is no mention of how much you are prepared to pay. I couldn’t do it for nothing.’
Reply: ‘Hi. I saw your message. I am a 16-year-old student studying French, and would like to spend some time in France during the summer to improve the language. I like all animals. Would I be able to bring some friends who also like animals and want to improve their French?’
Reply: ‘I am very sorry. Please disregard my earlier response. You are not in Provence, and my wife doesn’t want to do it anyway. Good luck.’
Reply: ‘I would be ready to look after up to three dogs, but definitely no cats as I am allergic. What is the local nightlife like?’
Reply: ‘I am interested in your ad. I am an American lady from San Antonio, Texas, have kept horses and bred dogs and would very much like to visit France. Hope to hear from you. Jennifer.’
‘Hi Jennifer. Thanks for your reply. I am an English woman, living in France, who is going to walk from La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast of France to Lake Geneva, just across the French/Swiss border. I anticipate that this will take 6 weeks; however, it could be longer. My start date is 1st May. My house is undergoing renovation, and is primitive but fairly comfortable. To be honest, I think making this kind of arrangement with someone as far away as Texas, USA, would be rather difficult. I anticipated it would be someone from England, who is already familiar with France. But if you are still interested, let us talk some more.’
Reply: ‘Ticket booked. Arriving Paris 10.00am Thursday 23rd April. Jennifer.’
La Rochelle to St Cristophe
In an attempt to withstand the relentlessly penetrating cold of a French January, I had taken to marching briskly around the wintry lanes and byways in my locality for several hours each day. This tended to be marginally warmer than staying in the house. But when you have started from and arrived at the same point for about the thirtieth time, you begin to feel that there may be more to life than going round in loops, and it was this that led me to decide to walk, instead, from one place to a completely different one. So I thought I would walk round the whole perimeter of the country, but once I looked at the map I could see it would take me a year. On the other hand the nearest coastal point west of home was La Rochelle, which, if you drew a straight line eastwards, lined up handily with Lake Geneva, only about four hundred miles away, a journey which I estimated should take about six weeks. It was not a project to undertake rashly, so I thought about it very carefully for twenty minutes before going to visit my friend and neighbour Gloria, to announce my intentions.
‘Guess what, I’m going to walk across France.’
Gloria liked to get straight to the point. ‘When?’ she asked.
‘1st May. The weather will be just right then.’
‘Good for you,’ she replied.
And that was it, really. I started planning. It couldn’t require anything more than a bit of commonsense, I thought.
There were a few potential snags–I’d never hiked anywhere further than a three-mile radius from my house before, nor pitched a tent; I didn’t and never would understand how to use a compass; and my level of physical fitness was somewhere on a par with Mother Theresa and the Pope. However, by far the largest obstacle to the venture were the animals: two elderly mares, six dogs, a cat, two parrots, some fish and a pair of killer geese, who were going to need someone to take care of them while I was away. My husband Terry couldn’t possibly leave his business unattended in England for several weeks; and, well, as a matter of fact, I hadn’t actually mentioned the project to him. I knew perfectly well that if he learned about it in the early planning stages, it was absolutely certain that he would have succeeded in talking me out of going, as he is a great deal more sensible than I am, and so all the arrangements had to be concreted before I told him what I was doing. Unless I could find someone crazy enough to come and caretake the menagerie, the whole project was not going to happen; so I posted a message to an Internet board and, to my astonishment, netted Jennifer. There was nothing to stop me now.
Over the next four months I rambled around with a backpack laden with dictionaries and encyclopaedias masquerading as clothes and a tent. I tried to put in between twelve and twenty miles a day of walking at a steady three miles an hour, and during daylight it all seemed simple. The boots and socks I had carefully chosen were supremely comfortable and I could walk effortlessly for several hours. But at night, in the dark, my sleepless mind wandered over all the potential problems ahead, and a little voice kept saying: ‘You can’t possibly do this thing, you silly woman. Swallow your pride and admit it,’ while another voice assured me: ‘There’s nothing to it, just a question of putting one foot in front of the other. You said you were going to, now get on and do it.’
When I went to the station to collect Jennifer, the fact that she didn’t arrive as scheduled came as no surprise. Seriously expecting a total stranger to travel from Texas into the French unknown was being rather optimistic, and I didn’t know whether I was pleased to be off the hook, or disappointed. Another train was due in from Paris in a couple of hours, so I hung around for that, just in case. As the passengers disembarked I skinned my eyes for a lanky cowgirl, but there wasn’t one. The human straggle tapered out into an emptiness, and as I turned with a resigned shrug to leave the platform the rattle of little wheels and some gasping drew my attention to the bottom of the stairs. The noises emanated from a short, wide figure clad in jeans and checked shirt, topped by a huge Stetson, with a backpack over her shoulders and dragging a wheeled suitcase behind her. I waved. Her anxious expression converted itself into a brilliant ear-to-ear grin; she plucked off the Stetson and jammed it on my head.
‘Oh brother, am I glad to see you! I was real worried when I missed the train in Paris – the flight from the States was late getting in. And then when I didn’t see a lady in a bay-ray waiting on the platform, I thought I’d made a terrible mistake coming here!’
I’d forgotten that I’d promised to wear a beret.
Over a couple of beers Jennifer took in the local scenery, and we started getting to know each other a little. You cannot meet this lady and not instantly adore her. She is necessarily built on generous lines, because she has an enormous heart that embraces every person, beast or plant. Two devilishly blue eyes sparkle from an unlined face that gives no hint that she is a grandmother, nor that she has survived numerous major health problems, including cancer involving radical surgery. She married at fifteen, and raised her three children single-handed. Amongst various jobs she had taken to earn her living, she had driven a giant bulldozer in a uranium mine. She radiates warmth and kindness, merriment and dependability. I was quite certain that my menagerie couldn’t be in better hands than hers.
I introduced her to Tinkerbelle, my twenty-year-old Citroën 2CV, whose bodywork was mostly held together by patches of corrosion. Jennifer chuckled ‘Oh my, what a cute little car!’ laughing as we bumped and lurched along the roads towards home.
When we reached our slightly less than half-restored farmhouse, I held my breath. Although I had written to give a good idea of the state of the property, I wondered whether she would be prepared for the reality, and most particularly the archaic electrical supply, which was composed of numbers of extension leads plugged into each other and snaking their way from room to room, all emanating from a single ancient socket in one wall.
‘Oh gee!’ Jennifer breathed, gazing at the crumbly stone and flint walls with pieces missing, and the sagging floors. ‘Just look at this. This is real history. We think the Alamo is old, but this is really something else.’
She constantly delighted in everything French – the countryside, the kindness of the people, the food, and the buildings. Everything thrilled her.
We’d agreed to spend a week together before my departure, to give her plenty of time to learn her way around the neighbourhood and the little eccentricities of Tinkerbelle, our animals and neighbours. We visited the local stores and introduced her to English neighbours and friends, so that she wouldn’t find herself completely alone once I’d left.
The animals, with the possible exception of the geese, fell instantly under the spell of her soft American voice and gentle, firm approach, and I had no qualms about entrusting them to her care. Bill, my next door neighbour ran a business moving furniture for people between England and Spain, and his home here was a convenient half-way point for stopping off. However, he was currently in a French prison because a substantial haul of cannabis had been found on a vehicle belonging to him. I wasn’t at all sure how Jennifer would react when I told her, but she was quite unruffled, and had soon added Bill’s wife, Gloria, to the large brood already under her expansive wing.
What made her decision to come to France particularly valiant was the fact that only a few weeks before her departure from the United States, her father had become seriously ill. Following much heart-searching, and with the unreserved encouragement of her family, she had decided to go ahead with the venture, and to stay here for as long as it took for me to cross the country to Lake Geneva. Her arrival in a country she knew nothing of, with a language she could not speak, undertaking to spend several weeks in primitive conditions taking responsibility for twenty assorted animals was breathtakingly heroic.
Once she was comfortably and confidently established, I told Terry about the project, and despite his initial expostulations, once he had met Jennifer he conceded graciously to my mad whim, whilst telling me I was absolutely crazy and that he would be worried out of his mind while I was away.
‘Don’t be silly,’ I said breezily, ‘I’ve planned this quite meticulously and know exactly what I’m doing. Nothing can possibly go wrong.’
An essential factor to the enjoyment and successful outcome of my journey was the weather, which had to be not too cold, because I hate the cold, and equally important not too hot because I keel over at anything much above 70° Fahrenheit. Having estimated the journey would take six weeks, by departing on 1st May when the weather would, I believed, have settled to a pleasant dry mildness, I would, I believed too, reach Lake Geneva before the blistering heat of summer.
And so it came to pass that I stood damp and shivering on the cobblestoned quayside of La Rochelle in the bay of Biscay, in a shroud of persistent drizzle driven by an Arctic wind, weighed down with a backpack I could hardly lift and looking at a journey of more than four hundred miles across terrain I knew almost nothing about, wishing that I was somewhere else, almost anywhere else. I wished too that I had kept my mouth closed back on that cold January day, and that someone would dissuade me, at this late stage, from my self-imposed madness; I would resist at first, protest a little, but gradually allow commonsense to prevail, and with an outward reluctance hiding an internal whoop of relief, would heft the backpack into the car and go home.
Nobody would be surprised – I knew that most people didn’t believe I could or would do what I had said. And that was the main factor that drove me onwards – that, and the fact nobody made any effort to talk me out of it.
There weren’t many people in La Rochelle that morning of 1st May, a public holiday marking the ancient pagan celebration of the start of summer, and the modern day recognition of the struggle for working class rights. It is traditional in France, on this day, to offer friends posies of lily of the valley, and the flower vendors hunched over their loaded handcarts on the chilled street corners. The narrow lanes were bordered by splendid mansions, embellished with outlandish gargoyles of dolphins, lions and griffins, and the 15th century timbered houses that were once the homes of wealthy merchants. La Rochelle had grown from a small fishing village in the 11th century to become one of the premier ports on the Atlantic coast. It was a rebellious and independent town that minted its own coins and raised its own army, and when Protestantism was born in the early 16th century, the people of La Rochelle embraced the new religion, which promoted a freedom of thought and deed quite different from the strict demands of the Roman Catholic Church. The town became a haven for the Huguenot Protestants, and an ally of France’s great enemy, England. In the 17th century La Rochelle’s power and independence was a thorn in the malevolent flesh of Catherine de Medici, regent of France, and the town had to be brought to heel. Besieged by land and sea by Cardinal Richelieu and cut off from any outside aid, over a period of several months 23,000 of the original 28,000 inhabitants starved to death. The survivors surrendered.
A blend of history and high-tech, today La Rochelle is the Atlantic home of the super-yachts, with a harbour depth that can accommodate a draught of up to sixteen feet and hosts major national and international nautical events throughout the year. The town has pioneered the use of electric vehicles; distinctive little yellow cars, and scooters, are available for daily hire; the urban dustcarts and ferries are electrically driven. The fishing industry thrives, as does heavy industry manufacturing amongst other things the high-speed TGV trains. It is one of France’s largest tourist destinations and with its dozens of theatres and music festivals, a cultural centre par excellence. Restaurants abound in the streets of the old town and around the harbour. There are several museums, a magnificent aquarium, and one of the sunniest climates in the country.
From this harbour, protected for more than six centuries by the great towers of La Chaine and St Nicolas, pirates and merchants had sailed away. Explorers ancient and modern had left from here to find Asia, Africa and the New World in their quests for adventure, wealth and knowledge. The seamen of La Rochelle were famed for their bravery and expertise: ‘They brave the seas, control the storms and, despite all the anger that the winds can muster, they sail beyond the Sun’ (Gaufreteau). Every one of them differed from me in one respect. They had all headed west. But then they had ships. If you don’t, you’ve got to go east or drown, especially carrying a backpack and wearing heavy boots.
A few soggy tourists were braving the unspeakable weather in a spirited attempt to enjoy themselves, and behind a muffled loudhailer groups of chanting trades unionists, Communists and miscellaneous protesters trudged damply, half-heartedly waving droopy flags. Terry, Jennifer and Gloria had come to see me off, and my friend Carole, who planned on meeting up with me five weeks later so we could cross the Jura mountain range together. They all transparently thought I was quite mad, but after two hours of drinking coffee none of them had tried to change my mind and I knew there was no way out. We walked past the yachts that swayed and clinked amongst a flotilla of mysteriously dead fish, and I didn’t push either of Carole’s frightful little boys in. I’d have quite liked to; I was allergic to them–they made my hands itch every time I saw them. Now they were becoming increasingly, unhappily vocal. It was a good moment to leave. You just cannot imagine what these kids were capable of when they were upset.
We hugged and kissed; Terry tightened my bootlaces and hoisted the backpack into place and Jennifer pressed into my hand a small brass box containing her lucky tiger-eye, which I stowed in my fanny pack with the camera and tape recorder. You might think with La Rochelle being such an important departure place for travellers to all corners of the globe that there would have been some indication of where to start looking for Geneva, but there wasn’t. You had to work it out for yourself. There was a small canal pointing in an eastwards direction, so following Terry’s advice I set off alongside it clenching a five-foot long wooden hiking stick in my fist, and a nine-inch folding knife in my pocket so that I could kill someone if I had to. Actually I carried three knives–one with a very sharp stabbing point, one with sharp serrations, and a jungle-camouflaged flick-knife that looked lethal and made a sinister hiss when opened, but was in fact little more than a glorified pen-knife.
After two hundred yards the canal vanished, just disappeared into nowhere. Suddenly, it simply wasn’t there. I should have recognised that this was prophetic. I scrambled down an embankment and up the other side, arriving on a major road, where a bicycle drew alongside and a beaming black man with shoulder-length dreadlocks slowed his pace to mine.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked in French, in a melting chocolate voice.
He wobbled slightly. ‘Geneva where?’
‘Geneva in Switzerland.’
‘All alone? Like that? Walking all the way?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
He shook his head and peeled away with a ‘Bon courage!’ (Good luck – you’re going to need it!) and, rather disconcertingly, I could hear him laughing wildly as he vanished into the distance.
For the next couple of hours I wandered around in the immaculately clean and tidy industrial zone trying to work out where I was, with not a lot of success. It was by luck that eventually I found a place that was marked on the map, a neat residential area not too far off-track from where I was meant to be. There was an unfamiliar niggle on my right little toe that needed to be investigated, so I sat down on a convenient stone bench. Apart from reaching Lake Geneva, my other target was to transform my unsatisfactory physical shape into something more like Elle McPherson, by dint of massive exercise coupled with spartan meals. In the backpack was an assortment of high-energy cereal bars and dried fruit–enough, I had planned, for six nutritious non-fattening breakfasts or mid-day meals. Many of the pre-packaged meals manufactured for hikers were meat-based. There wasn’t a very exciting choice for someone like myself, a vegetarian who eats a little fish. The French still being a predominantly carnivorous race, shopping is never easy for a vegetarian on the move, and normally means bread, cheese, cakes and fruit, with which, in a tent and on a small single-burner stove, you are somewhat limited as to novel ideas.
After I had satisfied a deeply hollow feeling between my neck and my legs, there was just enough left for two meals if I ate sparingly. The niggly toe was bad news–it had a raw red patch with peely skin over it, something it had never done before. Why today, I wondered? Why now? I slapped a plaster on and set off again for my first destination, St Christophe.
Not long afterwards I found myself walking along a busy main road, instead of the quiet footpath which, despite being well marked on the map, didn’t seem to exist. There was a very narrow strip of grass beside the road, and it looked pretty scattered with daisies, 19 buttercups, dandelions already turned to fairy colonies, bluebells and cowslips, cow parsley still green, and purple vetch all struggling not to get onto the tarmac and be crushed. It was just their bad luck that I came along in the gigantic hiking boots, because I am pretty certain that very few people had ever been stupid or misguided enough to walk on the side of this particular road. Fast, heavy holiday traffic driven with what the drivers probably thought of as panache, but which anybody else would regard as homicidal mania, compelled me to leap sideways into the knee-high grass to avoid becoming a road accident every time a vehicle passed. It wasn’t terribly easy leaping about with the load strapped to my back, especially trying at the same time not to jump on the poor flowers. Passing motorists watched me curiously.
Whether there is anything of historical or other importance about St Christophe, I do not know–I hadn’t been able to find a single fact about it in any guidebook or the entire worldwide web. It is a small and well-kept village of approximately nine hundred inhabitants, with a fine campsite that was my reason for being there. It was indeed the only village with a currently open campsite that I could reach within a day’s walk of La Rochelle, although walking was not what I was doing by the time I arrived. Both feet felt as if they had come fresh from a session with the world bastinado champion; the backpack weighed four times what it had when I set off, despite most of the food it had held having been eaten, and my right hip was emitting a rhythmic clicking-grating sound. Walk? I could barely stand. The last four miles had taken nearly three hours to cover, as I limped, clicked, shuffled, sat on tree stumps, and constantly adjusted the backpack straps in a hopeless bid to make it lighter.
The exquisite delight of unstrapping the pack, and holding it for a moment longer than necessary, savouring the anticipation of dropping it to the ground, and the supreme joy of unlacing and removing the boots is something which I will remember for the rest of my life. From the lake beside the campsite a couple of dozen men, women and children engaged in a fishing contest watched as I shook the tent from its cocoon. I slid the single telescopic fibreglass pole into the channel designed for the purpose and pushed the six metal pegs through the loops of the tent and into the soft mown lawn of the camping area, as nonchalantly as if it were something I had done for years, and not just once before, on the living room floor. After admiring my new home I hobbled over the grass in my socks to the bar where a trio of three knitting ladies sat clacking and chattering. They asked where I was heading for, and shook their collective heads in puzzlement when I said Lake Geneva.
‘Where is that exactly?’ asked one.
‘It’s in Switzerland,’ I said.
‘Geneva! You mean Geneva?’
‘Oh la la!’ they cried. ‘Oh la la!’ and standing in unison they waved wildly to a large figure across the lake, who detached himself from his fishing line and with a film-star smile of perfect white and gold teeth, and an outstretched hand introduced himself as the mayor of St Christophe. Was the campsite to my liking, he was kind enough to ask. Looking at the velvet lawns, immaculately symmetrical hedges and spotless sanitary block, I couldn’t fault it, other than that it was totally bereft of any other campers. During the planning stages of this safari I had imagined arriving at campsites and finding them full, and had devised contingency plans (bursting into tears, collapsing, throwing myself on the mercy of other campers). He asked about my plans and nodded solemnly as I explained I would be leaving in the morning en route to Geneva.
‘Please enjoy your stay. There is no charge. Let me know if you need anything. My house is just there.’ He pointed to a rooftop. ‘I wish you a pleasant evening and a safe journey.’
I bought a couple of chilled beers from the knitting ladies and crawled into the tent, where I lay for half an hour, listening to the songs of the wild birds, occasional shouts of the fishing contestants, and the despairing wail of a peacock from the grounds of a nearby house. But mostly I was enjoying the relief from the weight of the backpack and the torture of walking, while idly wondering why today had been so unlike all the previous days of training, when the weight hadn’t been a problem and my feet hadn’t hurt.
When I tried to sit up, I found I had developed the flexibility of a railway sleeper. It was like rigor mortis–nothing would bend. I could neither sit, nor kneel, nor roll over. Nothing moved but my hands and eyes, and like a paralysed insect I lay on my back wondering what to do next. Maybe if I shouted loud enough the knitting ladies would hear and come to the rescue? But how damned stupid I would look. Finally, by grasping the legs of my jeans and heaving and writhing frantically, I managed to pull myself upright, and after a series of laborious and intricate manoeuvres, like a metamorphosing pupa I emerged from the cocoon of the tent to take a blissful steamy shower.
Dinner came out of a vacuum-packed aluminium envelope which promised that if you half-filled it with boiling water it would transform itself into a delicious meal of pasta and vegetables. This was only partially true; it did transform itself into something, but delicious it was not. I reached for an open beer bottle and successfully sent it flying over the sleeping bag, floor and my scattered clothes, but by now I was too tired to care, so leaving it to disappear osmotically I slithered into the moist sleeping bag and settled down with a torch and book.
When dusk arrived, the frosted creamy orbs of the campsite lights came on and glowed comfortingly through the night. There was no sound at all. Apart from the weather, my feet, the weight of the backpack and navigational difficulties, for the first day things could have been worse. Not much, though. I wondered how Jennifer was adjusting to her new lifestyle. I found a pay phone, and gave her a call.
‘How are you doing?’ I asked.
‘I’m doing just great. I have to tell you, when we watched you fading into the distance today, we were all thinking the same thing: Are you sure you want to do this?’
‘I still want to do it. Today went really well,’ I lied. ‘Are the animals behaving?’
‘Oh, they played around a bit. I went down the lane to bring the horses home. I had no trouble getting them back to the paddock but when I got there Leila spooked and scared Cindy, and she took off running with her halter and rope still attached. Every time I got close to Cindy, Leila would take off again and Cindy would be right behind her. I did finally get them both in a corner and Cindy stepped on her rope. I had just taken her rope off when the two geese came charging after me.’
‘Well, it sounds as if they’re testing you. I hope they don’t give you too much grief. I’ll call you tomorrow, and see you again in a few days.’
‘Take care now.’