August 2015

In August 2015 we we took part in the fourth expedition of our center already. This form of a summer excursion allowing to experience an important view of a medieval pilgrim is gradually becoming an inseparable part and also a way of finishing the school year. The route of this year’s expedition focused on France again, it was shifted a little bit northwards and connected the Burgundy town of Autun with Poitiers.

In mid August the members of our expedition, sweet-smelling and clean as a pin for the time being, came together in Prague main train station. It was agreed on that the temporarily incomplete group of ten pilgrims would be joined by another two members in the town of Nevers in a few days. Half of the total number of the twelve participants were experienced pilgrim veterans: Foletti family (the leader Ivan & Karolínka), Sabina, Daniela, Monika and Schallo. A record number of beginners came in addition: Anička, Amálka, Pavla, Janka, Martin and Filip.

After taking a night fast train to Basel, two trains to Dijon and another two trains along with a bus we arrived in Autun – the starting point of our expedition. We were just in time there to have lunch in the shade of Saint Lazarus Cathedral of Autun. Our lunch consisting for the most part of food imported from home was not the main subject of our attention, though. We spent much more time exploring the church with its unique west portal reminding of the changing perception of a moving spectator – a pilgrim. After the tour of the local museum housing fragments of the ruined Saint Lazarus temple and the north portal of the cathedral we travelled the first few kilometres of our route by the evening. There were storm clouds and flashes of lightning drawing near keeping us company when we were trying to put up a shelter for the night. Along with a strong wind we were confronted with a cold night and no less wet morning. As we got to know later on this year’s summer was extraordinarily dry and warm in that part of France.

There was an amazingly green and moreover a gorgeous national park Morvan extending between us and our next stop. In the absence of valuable works of art our art history excursion naturally changes into a gastronomic one. The last “home“ food supplies were quickly replaced with fresh vegetables and bakery products, exceptional cheese, pâtés and wine as well.

Apart from sore feet caused by constant going up and down Daniela’s knee gave out. As a result of it our group had to split up. Accordingly a small “advance guard“ (Daniela and Filip) hitchhiked to get to Vézelay as quickly as possible. They were supposed to be waiting for the arrival of the main group there. However, they did not arrive until the following day due to getting a little bit lost during their hitchhike. Unfortunately, this fact resulted in all of us being deprived of the pilgrim’s experience in accessing the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine for a longer time. The more we enjoyed the time we spent in the narthex with its unique portals which directed out attention to the importance of this space and the way how it had been used not only by pilgrims.

On the following day we experienced a fantastic meeting. Whereas at one moment we suffered from lack of water and food, a few moments later on we were lucky enough to meet an exceptional person, what’s more a winegrower. After a sightseeing tour of the wine cellars of the town of Tannay he invited us to his place and took us in. In the morning we had to hurry up to be on time in Nevers, and so we skipped that leg of the tour by hitchhiking. There we were joined by another two members of the expedition: Monika and Amálka who had just walked the Spanish pilgrims‘ path to Santiago de Compostela. Being complete in the line-up of twelve pilgrims we visited the Nevers cathedral of Saint-Cyr-et-Sainte-Julitte whose pair of opposite apses refers to a rather complicated construction process in two big stages. The nearby Saint-Étienne church introduced itself as an excellent example of Burgundy architecture having the aura of the rich Cluny Abbey. Moreover, it allowed us to make an adventurous search for the remains of the floor mosaics.

The complete team had to split up very quickly again, the obstinate knee made Daniela form almost a self-governing group with an alternating second member using hitchhiking to move from one place to another parallel to the main “walking group“. The rest of the community made their way to the north, and getting sunburnt, too, we arrived at Charité-sur-Loire where we aimed to see the magnificent Notre-Dame church. In its heyday it was the second biggest French temple after Cluny.

Before we reached the town of Bourges in the morning, we were welcomed by the worst possible thunderstorm. While the previous evening offered a beautiful view of the cathedral, we were woken up by a heavy downpour before sunrise. Subsequently, we literally ran towards the town having to make an unpleasant detour of about two kilometres due to a modern enemy of pilgrims – a new motorway. Drying up the wet clothes and sleeping bags cut the time we could spend in Saint-Étienne cathedral short, moreover, there was a strong wind blowing making the situation less pleasant. Anyway, in the interior we found a refuge adorned with unique stained glass windows. It was an annunciation convent with a beautiful restful garden, a warm dinner and a soft bed that we spent the following night in.

In order to reduce the following route to our nearest destination lasting several days, we partly got a hitchhike to Saint-Savin. The Abbey Church in Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe along with an extensive cycle of Old Testament frescoes made us be aware of the fact that we were entering the historic region of Poitou. The nature of the decorations and the building standing out of traditional pilgrims‘ trails represented an interesting impulse to discuss the mutual relationship between the centre and the periphery.

The French way of marking tourist trails renowned for its quality made us hitchhike the last few kilometres to Poitiers again. “Barn“, as Saint-Pierre cathedral is being called, thrilled us with its stunning stained glass interiors which are traditionally ranked among the oldest ones in Western Europe. In the nearby Saint-Jean baptistery from 4th century we were able to quench our enthusiasm for baptismal architecture being made remarkable by unconventional frescoes added later on. Thus, there was the last item of our excursion left on the programme, Notre-Dame la Grande church with its fascinating west front. Thanks to the nearby marketplace we found an ideal place for dinner there too. The picturesque space between the supporting columns of the cathedral became our refuge for the night. We slept peacefully in blissful ignorance of the fact that it was a favourite night shelter for the homeless people from whole neighbourhoods of Poitiers...

There was the way back left, our company split up into groups of two or three each getting a hitchhike back to Dijon trying to win the competition for the earliest arriving group there. Before leaving for Basel by a TGV train, we went to see the Well of Moses in the courtyard of Champmol Carthusian monastery which became our farewell to French art.

This year’s expedition was not only the longest one, but also the largest one as for the number of participants, the coldest one referring to weather conditions and on top of that, the most rainy one. All the way through we were lucky enough to be meeting generous people willing to help. Our journey would have become much more strenuous and incomparably less pleasant without them. Those meetings, sunburn, the ups and downs of the weather and viewing distant objects drawing near slowly created nearly an authentic experience of pilgrimage. There is the last question left ahead of us to be answered – which route should be chosen for the future expedition?

Filip Kyrc