DAY 53 Bar-sur-Aube to Clairvaux

It felt wonderful to be back on the trail again today. Was it a feeling of guilt, we wondered – resting at home rather than moving on with the pilgrimage? Or was it the lovely countryside we were back enjoying?

Hotel le Pomme d’Or in Bar-sur-Aube – sadly, no longer with a restaurant

We tried to make an early start, but by the time we’d breakfasted, found a boulanger for lunchtime bagettes and somewhere to get some oranges it was 0830 when we crossed the bridge back over the Aube and onto the Via Francigena once more.

The path took us quite steeply up onto the ridge above Bar, through deciduous woodland. After a climb of some 200m we arrived at a plateau with stunning views across Bar and the Aube valley. On the way up we passed a sloe worm waking itself up in the dappled sunshine.

And a few wild strawberries already ripe enough to eat. Delicious but tantalizingly tiny!

Once the woodland opened up we became aware of just how strong the sun was even at this stage of the morning. After a climb of about 200m we arrived at a plateau with stunning views and a designated taking off point for paragliders. There were far-reaching views eastwards across Bar and the vineyards beyond, which have all greened up since we left in late April.

Plunging back into the woods we quickly joined a dirt road taking us back out into full sunshine and a field of spring wheat with a few poppies. A rural police car slid by us but didn’t stop so we assumed we weren’t looking too suspicious today!

Soon after we were grateful to be back into the cool of dappled woodland shade, our path taking us further southwards along the ridge we had joined above Bar-sur-Aube.

Eventually we came out above the extensive vineyards above Baroville – just after Tom had commented that he thought we had come to the end of the vineyards at Bar-sur-Aube. Au contraire! As well as greening up since late April, we noted that the grapes are setting already, weeks ahead of our vines at home.

Baroville has its fair share of champagne houses and, when we went to get our pilgrim passports stamped, the mayor was keen to tell us about a champagne festival being held there in late July.

The C12th Eglise Sainte-Etienne de Baroville

As we were walking past it anyway we tried the church – and it was open! There was the usual war memorial with multiple family names outside, surrounded by a cemetery of immaculate family tombs. There are regulations requiring people to maintain their family graves, and this seems to ensure they are well tended. Perhaps we need similar regulations at home?

Inside, the church was cool and simple in style, though quite large for such a small village. It is currently undergoing a major restoration, starting outside with re-roofing the apse and chancel, before moving on to work inside. Compared with many of the churches we have seen further north it looked to be in a reasonable state, but on the other hand Baroville looks more prosperous than many of the rural villages north of the champagne area so maybe there are higher expectations.

Although we had had breakfast at 7am we decided that 11.30 was too early for lunch so we carried on up the hill through more vineyards and on towards another stretch of woodland atop a ridge. The next convenient shady patch happened to be at a ditch and bank just before entering the woods, so there we dined, watching the marbled white butterflies serenaded by a blackbird in the tree behind.

Unfortunately the alignment of our track and wide cleared margins gave us almost no shade at all, and very little wind penetrated the trees so there was no respite from the heat as we tackled a sequence of rising undulations until eventually coming out onto a tarmac road not far from Clairvaux. We did see several pretty wild orchids. We know there are very many types of wild orchid, but have no idea whether these were the same as ones seen previously, or not. Any orchid experts reading this?

At Clairvaux we skirted the boundary wall of the former Cistercian abbey, passing a cloud of lovely butterflies which wouldn’t stay still long enough to identify but looked like some kind of fritillary, and found our hotel. We need to find out what they are. Dave Rumble from the Rivers Trust mentioned some special butterflies we might see. We must check his email message. As planned, we were in good time to have showers and get changed before going on a tour of the abbey.

On entering you think you’re going to see restored medieval buildings used by an internationally important monastic community from 1135 until the French revolution….but, in fact, you see mostly the repurposed prison buildings used from Napoleonic times until 1971, when the male prisoners were moved into adjacent buildings with single cells and the women were moved to prisons elsewhere in France.

Ticket with plan of buildings visited

Because there is an active prison next door, we were required to leave a piece of ID at the reception desk – not that anyone in their right mind would have wanted to stay overnight! – and we were not allowed to take any photographs. Unless you’re an elderly Frenchman, in which case you ignore the rules and take pictures on your phone regardless!

Suffice to say that the cells for 30 prisoners with one hole for all of them to ‘slop out’ and the alternative ‘hen coops’ two cubic metres in size where the unruly were locked up alone were pretty shocking, especially when you realise these facilities were all in use until 1971, well within our lifetimes. Not surprisingly, the death rate was also very high – from cold, malnutrition, and disease.

More positively, the restored medieval building used by the converts, or working class lay brothers who couldn’t read and write but did all the manual work of the abbey, were very impressive with massive bays of simple stone vaulted ceilings and plain rendered walls, consistent with the Cistercian approach to monastery life.

Unfortunately the abbey’s church was quarried to make other buildings and is no longer. The buildings used for milling, tanning, etc will be a major restoration project for the future as they have not been maintained by the Ministry of Justice. There is talk of some being converted into an hotel…

Entry to Clairvaux prison under the clock tower – perhaps not as daunting a first impression as our Victorian prisons?

For a speculative side trip, taking a tour of the abbey was fascinating. We felt it was a good use of an hour and a half before supper, and it was the cultural highlight of the day.

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