Road to Arras
From Calais, the Via Francigena first makes a detour to the village of Wissant by the coast, approximately 30 kilometers south-west. The second part of this trail features some of the most gorgeous scenery I have encountered in Europe, as the path traverses the steep cliffs by the sea. England is indeed visible from this point of France; it seemed as if I could make out the cliffs of Dover themselves.
The first stage of my journey ends in Arras, a hanze city. Before arriving there, I first have to go through the villages of Guines, Licques, Tournehem-sur-la-Hem, Wisques, Delettes, Amettes, Bruay La Brussiere, and Ablain Saint Nazaire. If you plot these villages on a map, you should notice that the trail is incredibly inefficient. Apparently medieval pilgrims were not in a hurry.
In Wisques I stayed at the Abbaye de Notre Dame, which offered a comfortable stay for pilgrims. Getting up early in the morning, I continued my journey to Amettes. By know, I was really looking forward to a couple of resting days in Arras, which motivated me to the extreme.
In the small village of Saint-Hillaire Cottes I was offered a stay by a very kind French family. I had been knocking on doors, asking for fresh water and possibly a couple of eggs, and I suppose they took pity on the mismanagement of my food supply. The father was an avid hunter and showed me his considerable collection of hunting trophies. That morning we had a traditional farmers breakfast. Fresh baguette, different jams and a bowl of coffee to dip the bread in. As a pheasant landed in his front garden, the father suddenly got up and dashed to his cellar, returning with a silenced hunting rifle. He ran to the front window, muttering “Merde, il est partir”. No doubt he would’ve attempted to catch dinner for that night had the bird remained. Promising a short prayer for the families’ health once I arrived in Rome, I departed for another day of hiking.
The only real difficulty I encountered in the first week, aside from my knee and the cold nights, was resupplying. My pack was 16.5kg without water, 18.5kg with a filled Camelbak. A day worth of food weights approximately 500g to a kilo, especially with the number of calories I was burning. Thus I tried to limit the food I carried to 1.5 days maximum. Most villages, however, do not have any shops nor cafés, and the ones that do have corner-stores or a boulangerie, close between 12:00 and 16:00. Maybe once the Via Francigena has more pilgrims will we see the same amount of development as with the Camino. There is a charm in these sleepy villages though, even if I go hungry from time to time.
I was simply too exhausted to properly do some sightseeing in Arras; instead, I went to the cathedral to get my stamp and took hot showers approximately once every two hours. I will definitely be returning, to visit the family and spent some time in Arras. I am currently reaching the peak of physical discomfort. No real blisters have formed yet, but just about every single muscle, tendon and joint in my legs hurt. The terrain itself is quite easy, but the constant walking in combination with sleeping in a tent does take its toll. I’ve heard what week two should be the worst, and after that, it gets easier and easier.