Gr1458 _ Via Francigena ©Alice ChaputGr1458 _ Via Francigena ©Alice Chaput
©GR145, la Via Francigena|Alice Chaput

A Meditative Walk on the Via Francigena

A medieval route that will raise your spirits

There are certain routes so rich in history in each and every twist and turn that walking them transports you elsewhere and to another time, making you feel more connected both with yourself and with the universe as a whole. They also encourage you into a sort of communion with other walkers.

The Via Francigena is one such route. This ‘route that comes from France’ as its name translates actually starts in the UK, in Canterbury, and can bring you all the way to Rome. It can also bring you to a new personal ecology – one in which you feel more alive and more connected to the world.

Walking to Rome along the GR145

There’s a sort of gentleness and balance to this walk: you can do it for a long time and cover a great distance without ever feeling tired. After a certain time, putting one foot in front of the other becomes a sort of mantra, a bodily ‘Om’ bringing your awareness back to the present moment and reconnecting you with your five senses.

The Via Francigena came into being in 990, when Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury set out on a pilgrimage to the holy city to receive the pallium from the hands of Pope Jean XV. ‘All roads lead to Rome’ proclaimed monk Alain de Lille in he 12th century, stressing the number of possible routes.

Today we’re folllowing the main one, the GR145 – specifically the section between Saint-Quentin and Laon, which runs parallel to the A26 motorway towards Reims. This is a two-day walk starting off in front of the Basilica of Saint-Quentin and following in the footsteps of those bound for Rome in days gone by.

Just past the Gothic Hôtel de Ville, you’ll join the banks of a canal that runs parallel to the Seine for almost 10km. It’s an easy, relaxed walk along a calm stretch of water – one that will warm up your muscles for the rest of the journey. And one that will start to loosen your spirit too, with a simple soundtrack of leaves fluttering in the breeze over the water.

Meditation is a way of rediscovering an original way of feeling that we’ve lost touch with through our mental routines – one in which everything is seen in a new light and appears full of possibility to us. In other words: walking makes us optimistic!

There’s no need to talk, and, if there are two or more of you, you’ll feel closer to one another than ever before. Indeed, this is a great way of strengthening your bond with your Juliette or your Romeo – the latter a very apposite name, by the way, for this is what Italians call those who who take the famous Via Francigena as far as Rome.

At the end of the canal, near Saint-Quentin, Séraucourt-le-Grand and its little church with its wooden spire was one of the 79 stages of the journey taken by Sigéric, known as the Martin-waeð stage. After passing small lakes that feed the Somme, a vast plain reveals itself to us. This wide panorama lightens our spirits, liberates our neurones and dispels any worries we’re carrying with us.

‘It seems to me that our greatest duty is to keep hold of the miraculous.’

Fields stretch as far as the eye can see, forming a kind of desert in which the spirit can find rest and peace. With dusty feet, we fall back into step with life, with sounds, with colours… It’s pure aesthetic, sensory emotion. Past Tergnier with its Art Deco monuments , the horizon becomes dark green, denoting the Forêt de Saint-Gobain. The route begins to ascend and our steps slow down. Thickets become dense woods that swallow us up for a time. We draw near to the Saint-Gobain glass factory, a producer of pieces for the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Be-fore leaving the forest, we can stop and meditate near the ruins of the Abbaye Saint-Nicolas-aux-Bois with its towers and watchtowers engulfed by thick vegetation.

Then it’s back to the plain and a distant view of Laon perched up on its hilltop and crowned by its cathedral – resplendent in its timeless majesty.

We arrive in this ancient ‘perched’ town in a lighthearted mood, the two days of walking hav-ing cleansed our spirts and filled us with simple joy. And en route we have also rediscovered a talent: our capacity for discernment, allowing us to keep our worries in perspective.

Local's tip

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The abbeys trail in Saint-Gobain forest

This majestic forest is right next door [20km from Laon and from the exit of the A26], so it’s a shame not to take advantage and enjoy a leafy walk there. I particularly recommend the ab-beys trail. It’s 15km long, so you have the choice between a proper walk, if you really like to stretch your legs, or a lovely outing by car or bike if you’re looking for something calmer and less strenuous… Along the way you’ll discover the Roches de l’Ermitage, the Abbaye Saint-Nicolas-aux-Bois and the Prieuré du Tortoir, which has pride of place in the middle of the for-est. You’ll no doubt be peckish on the way back, so do stop at the bakery in Coucy-le-Château for its speciality, rissoles – meat patties wrapped in pastry, wonderful with salad.

Christelle Clément, an advisor on family nature and heritage outings in the Aisne

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