August 2016

From Poitiers up to the ocean

This year the traditional walking expedition exploring medieval monuments started in the French city of Poitiers where it symbolically followed up on the end of the last expedition. In contrast to the four previous expeditions this one took a completely new direction, though. It followed the ancient pilgrim route called Via Turonensis crossing the city of Tours after which it was named. This northern branch of St. Jacob’s pilgrim trail leading from Paris as far as Santiago de Compostela goes through a few interesting regions of central and western France. As we had not enough time (no more than sixteen days) to cover the whole of this route, it was decided that we should not set off directly from Paris, where most of the participants arrived in early morning hours by bus from Prague, but that all of us should meet a bit further away in Poitiers. Thus, our journey led only via two current regions, through Poitou-Charentes and further southwards to the coastal region of Aquitaine.

There were only eight participants, which made the second smallest number just after the first march four years ago, setting off for a walking expedition leading through vast rural regions decorated with huge dark forests, fertile fields and green meadows alternating with smaller or bigger villages and towns. This year the traditional participants, Ivan and Karolína Foletti, were joined by experienced pilgrims – Sabina, Favorit, Pavla and Tereza and two pilgrim beginners too – Leoš and Katarína, the only representative of Slovakia since the pilgrim “veteran“ Schallo did not take part in the journey this year.

Not even did the scorching heat, which often reached nearly tropical temperatures, nor did the long laps walked on hot asphalt spoil the excitement of the whole expedition. Despite all kinds of bruises, blisters and sunburn we got up very early in the morning every day and walked forward at a brisk pace over the horizons towards church or abbey towers and fronts being seen from great distances already, and looking forward to new discoveries, unknown medieval monuments and the local gastronomy too. This made our everyday tiring journey agreeable by way of exclusively local products, both ripe and fresh sheep and goat milk cheeses, smoked foods, tapenade, vegetables, bread, patés, ratatouille and wines or croissants and pain au chocolat for breakfast.

After a sightseeing visit to the local medieval cathedral and church, we made our way from Poitiers, our starting point, to another prominent stop on  Via Turonensis, a small town of Lusignan where we arrived the following afternoon. This is a place where an ancient French family of Lusignan, whose members had even participated in the first crusade, came from. After having a rest in the lovely shade of the local park, having a refreshing drink from the nearby water well and sightseeing the local church we continued our way towards Melle where we arrived partly on foot and partly by hitchhiking late on the following day. The temperatures were reaching astronomical values on those days, and so it was far more wholesome to wait them out in tree and church shades and walk towards evening.

Outside the centre of the town of Melle we visited St Hilaire church built between 11th and 12th centuries. Our interest was primarily captured by the decorated portals and capitals which have been partially preserved despite the fact that they had been badly destroyed and subsequently restored in 19th century. We were also interested in the disposition and location of the whole building in view of the pilgrim trail passing by. We had a chat with a very nice old lady there – the local sextoness who not only refilled our water bottles, but also offered us a shelter to sleep in her garden. Unfortunately, we had to turn down that tempting offer because we needed to cover a few more kilometres before going to bed. Refreshed by the break and and by new pieces of knowledge we made our way along forest paths and through a dark tunnel by the river to the outskirts of the town where we stayed the night on a meadow admiring the beautiful night sky. After walking another day and a half we stopped at the town of Aulnay where we rested outside the centre in the shade of an ancient cemetery full of symbolical sarcophagi close to the church of Saint-Pierre d’Aulnay. This building is interesting not only due to its huge dimensions, rich decorations and a monumental front with three decorated portals, but also due being consecrated to St. Peter which implies a possible inspiration by Rome. Last but not least, it is the south portal and the inner sculptural decoration of the capitals that are also worth mentioning. It includes a wide biblical and also profane narration and lots of both human and monstrous figures from bestiaries. We said good-bye to this local dominant building in late evening hours and set off across plains and past fields full of sunflowers to the town of Saintes whose towers appeared in the morning sun before our very eyes after two and a half days‘ walk. We immediately visited the yard of Eden adjoining Sainte Pierre Cathedral, rebuilt for the most part in 15th century, where we had a rest. While waiting for the group who left to get lunch, we were addressed by passing-by visitors who immediately invited us to stay overnight in their place. Unfortunately, they lived completely out of our route. It is not pointless to say that we did not stand out very much since a little bit later we were locked in the yard by mistake. In Saintes we did not miss investigating a convent with Sainte-Marie Church with a very remarkable division of the interior and a front decorated with three portals containing bizarre iconography. However, it was the crypt that was most interesting. The location of a half-underground church under Saint-Eutrope Basilica where only a few capitals in the upper church survived a major reconstruction in 19th century. Anyway, as for the quality these capitals exceeded many others we had seen so far.

The subsequent walking on foot, alternative hitchhiking and going by train took us first to Pons where you find among other things an ancient pilgrim centre and Saint-Vivien Church with medieval facade. After spending the night in the field of stubble outside the town we made our way further southwards to the small town of Saint-Émilion surrounded by vineyards on top of a high hill. The town is full of the most expensive wine shops, hotels and tourist delights with prices you can hardly imagine. After having dinner on a viewpoint above the town we stayed the night in a vineyard near the centre and in the morning we visited the cathedral and also an underground “cave“ church in the historic centre, cut in the rock, where we were let in secretly before opening hours by a kind local custodian. On that very day we moved to a faraway former abbey of La Sauve-Majeure. After staying the night behind the monastery walls close to a vineyard and having substantial breakfast in the local sweetshop, we spent the afternoon exploring not only Saint-Pierre Church with preserved frescoes from 13th century but also the whole of the abbey thoroughly, including its tower and all the preserved sculptural decoration and architectural and sculptural relics.

La Sauve also offered us a good starting point for hitchhiking to nearby Bordeaux where we took a train to the remote town of Dax. In early evening hours we admired the sculptural decoration and narrative biblical plaques of the back facade of Saint-Paul de Saint-Paul-lès-Dax Church which date back for the most part to the turn of 12th century. Inside Notre-Dame de Dax Cathedral, where we were allowed to enter by very nice old ladies after its evening closing time, there appeared a huge floodlit portal from the turn of 14th century which was brought here secondarily after the fire at the building boasting rich sculptural decoration referring to the Last Judgement. Since we stayed in Dax till late at night and were too tired to be able to walk a few kilometres to the outskirts of the town and find a place to sleep, the old ladies from the church and the parish priest put us up in one of the classrooms of the church club. After eating a fluffy salted butter croissant we headed for the village of Cagnote with the remains of an abbey from 13th century and rebuilt in 19th century towards the Abbey of La Sorde. There were Pavlína and Leoš waiting for us there, they had to hitchhike to get to the place due to some health troubles. We would have been lucky to find each other for sure if it had not been for the strange marking of the tourist and pilgrim trail. Instead of taking us directly towards the abbey we were diverted through all the neighbouring forests, villages and meadows. Although the countryside was really wonderful and, as a result, we came across a great many marvellous secluded places, the oncoming darkness and our overall tiredness and exhaustion due to walking on overheated asphalt made us call down curses on the head of those who had marked the trail from the bottom of our hearts. We would not even have met up with our hitchhikers if we had not walked through a small village where the local villagers were just celebrating the final of the local pétanque tournament. Not only did they advise us where to go to get to La Sorde, which meant covering another six kilometres, but they also offered us to stay the night on a village meadow. This offer was immediately approved of by the chairman of the village council sitting on the opposite side of the table. The villagers were so very kind that they got a car and brought us our two hitchhikers.

However, the adventure of that evening had not come to an end yet. When all of us finally fell asleep, despite the fact that there was a smoker going there and back around his car not far from us, moreover, some other people who had parked there, too, joined him. As they did not know who we were, they came after a short chat with the smoker to the conclusion that we were refugees from Romania and that they should call the police. The smoker only added that if they would call the police he would leave and disappeared. Since we decided, regardless of that disturbing dialogue, that hardly anyone would be coming, some of us literally got a fright when a police patrol came about an hour later. After two police officers jumped out of the car asking: “Who are you, are you Romanians?“ and our senior lecturer Mr Foletti jumped out of his sleeping bag saying: “No, I am a professor from Switzerland and these are my students,“ the local police went away slamming the door of their car behind them without asking any other questions.

On the following morning we visited the Abbey of Saint-Jean de Sorde from 11th century and then made our way to the last stop of our route, the town of Bayonne. Its centre is situated less than seven kilometres away from the ocean coast. We reached the place after two days‘ walk along the river L’Adour and through the forests surrounding it. We stayed the night where there was a chance of including a garden shelter at a very kind elderly French couple’s place or in a grass-covered quiet place behind the townhall in the small town of Lahonce. We spent the last day of our expedition in the historic centre of Bayonne. There is the river L’Adour flowing through its centre where we went to see the cathedral whose towers dominate the skyline in the town. Unfortunately, its appearance was negatively impacted by the reconstructions in 19th century which made us feel disappointed. After getting sufficient rest in Bayonne, writing picture postcards to families and friends and saying good-bye to husband and wife Foletti, who were returning home on their own, our small community took a TGV train to Paris from where we got home by bus again safe and unharmed.

Tereza Kučerová