Just a few miles more

The only good reason I found myself in this straggling and unprepossessing village south of the Marne in Champagne-Ardenne was that by the time I got there the evening before it was late, I was tired, and to my surprise a sign outside an exceedingly modest-looking establishment said HOTEL. Modest it looked and modest it was but they had a room. After cold ham, salad and chips and a Kronenbourg for supper I went early to bed

I was still tired in the morning and decided to idle  a while where I was. Soon, I regretted the decision. There was nothing offensive about the place, but to say that it was lacking in character would have been generous. So far as I knew it was a normal weekday, but at mid-morning one might have thought the population to have fled or to be in the grip of a plague. Then I met the Berriers.

Disconsolately exploring, I had come to the church; 12th– or 13th-century, I thought, and strangely large for so small a community, but locked. Back at the hotel I was asking if they knew who kept the key when at that very moment a white-haired lady came in from the street. “Gentleman wants the key to the church”, said the woman of the hotel.  Looking me over, the newcomer asked who I was. I told her. Cautiously, not to say suspiciously, she weighed the information, then identified herself as “Madame Berrier” and said that the key was in her house, “Juste en face”.

In a front parlour across the street an elderly Monsieur Berrier was slumped in the corner of a sofa.  “Always mislaying his hearing aid”, his wife said impatiently when at first she received no reply from him in response to her explanation of my presence.  Eventually, with the missing device found and installed, Monsieur Berrier struggled to his feet, assisted by a stout walking stick. “Five operations”, Madame said apologetically. “First one hip, then the other, then……”

But it was Monsieur Berrier who hobbled with me to the 12th-century church, still beautiful in decay, where stucco was flaking from the massive stone columns, the pulpit lay broken, the altar was missing and birds, entering through broken windows, had extensively fouled the chancel. In a cupboard vestments were filmed with dust. “No priests”, said Monsieur Berrier. “People haven’t any time for religion these days”. A curious desolation came over me as we locked the ancient door again, and left.

By contrast, Monsieur Berrier  —a long-retired farmer who remembered the mighty Percheron horses that preceded tractors— had become more animated. He showed me the arched entrance to the underground passage that used to lead into the grounds of the nearby château, and  —his step seeming to grow more lively as we went— took me on a tour of the village, telling proudly how well served it was for pure water from several springs. Back in her front room, Madame Berrier had fetched out a hoard of the parish magazine with articles about the seigneurs of the village and the Hundred Years War, and the peste  (England’s Black Death), and the treatment of lepers. Now, she served me cold beer and told me where I could walk in the great woods above the valley and telephoned the owners of the ruined château to ask if I might pay a visit that evening. If I was having trouble with the weight of my rucksack she would chauffeur me to my next port of call: I would have all the more time for walking when I got there, she said.

Thus I discovered Sézanne, where there used to be more than 40 water mills and the busy chef-patron of the admirable Hotel Croix d’Or took time off from his kitchen to help me with computer troubles. During two days I explored the mediaeval back streets and walked  in the neighbouring 7,000-acre forest of Traconne and among the vines that overlook the appealing little town, and had laundry done and bought a pair of shorts and a new Opinel knife  (which no traveller should be without) to replace the one I had carelessly left behind after my last picnic. There too I perused my maps and saw that no long-distance footpath nor any irresistible walking country appeared to be on my way south, so early next day took a bus for the thirty miles that lay between me and one of the most captivating cities in France.

‘Troyes, préfecture of the Aube, with an old centre of considerable charm and character’, says my copy of the Blue Guide to France. ‘Much work has been done in recent years to restore its many mediaeval half-timbered houses, while of unusual interest is the newly established Museum of Implements’. For ‘considerable’ read enormous, immense, prodigious, tremendous. It would not be easy to exaggerate the achievements of the craftsmen who have made Troyes a city that must be seen to be believed. During two days I walked the inner city in a near trance.




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