Vevey to St. Maurice

The next place I arranged to stay was a suggestion from the book: L’Abbaye St. Maurice. I wrote an email to them in French, and they seemed to understand it, and I understood their response: get there before 4:45 pm. it was 40 km from Vevey- a nearly impossible walk with the hills. The walk would have me pass through Montreaux, famous for its Jazz Festival. Having lived in new Orleans, famous for its jazz, I wasn interested to see it, but the Montreaux festival is in July.
It is at this point that I’m getting a good lesson in the tactical realities of walking. I felt pressured for time, and ignorant of the resources available to me. Because I couldn’t lug around many guidebooks- and it would’ve taken specialized books for the villages through which I was passing- and didn’t speak the language well enough to chat with people, I had to use some combination of long and short planning and immediate responses. I can’t underestimate how helpful it was to have Joanne doing some internet research at home, Stateside, with my reconnoitering and reckoning.
All this is to say, I took a 12 minute train ride to save me 6 hours of walking. It is amazing how slow walking is. Early in the trip I admired beautiful French snails and likened my travels to their travails across the earth, and slugging my sack along alpine trails made me very much appreciate this short train ride. The train was from Vevey to Villeneuve. At Villeneuve I broke my fast at a bar, where there were quite a few men taking their morning beers and smokes. Pretty and courteous barmaid. If there had been some Rock and Roll playing- maybe some Rolling Stones or Howlin Wolf- I’d’ve started drinking too. But no, it’s a walking day.
The trail was very well marked and even included the distance and time. Being a slow walker, it was difficult for me to keep up with the time. It was a good way for me to pace myself. I came to the end of the lake and walked through various villages, each smaller than the previous. Cows appeared. Swiss cows have these huge pewter bells that are engraved, and are loud and pretty. When I arrived in Zurich there was a family- a mother and two boys- and the boys each had a big cow bell. It was incredibly cute, as the bells were about as long as their arms. Now I understood the reference.
I had yogurt in my pack and at one point passed a young man who spoke with an accent I couldn’t understand at all. He kept telling me something about my sack, and something blanc- white. He had a big white dog with him, so I thought maybe the dog wanted something in my sack? Dunno. Walking through the valley was easy, flat, green, cool. Walking along a dirt road with birch trees on my left, a towering mountain behind them, and mountains further away on my right.
Came upon two elderly women with two dogs and two children. They were very curious about what I was doing, and when I said I was walking from Ronchamp to Rome, one of them exclaimed that she was from Ronchamp. I could understand her French, and explained to me that my yogurt was all spilled down my sack. So I sat down right there and scraped it off, eating it. They must’ve thought I was crazy.
Moving on, the road is long and straight, now I’m in a birch forest. interspersed with fields of cows and poppies. I passed a hunky muscle man walking his little shar-pei. He had lived in California for 5 years and was a snowboarder, preferred wintertime. He directed me to turn right in the woods and take the trail to the river Rhone. Sure enough there was a trail and then there was the river- a much better walk. The river was silty, fast, quiet. Cows and wheat on either side. Passing villages on the left, then right. The Swiss have a wonderful way to get across rivers wiouth a bridge: they’ll use a line to span the river and hang it about 6 feet above the water. A flat-bottomed boat with a rudder is attached to the line. When you push the rudder right, the boat glides across the line, pushed by the force of the river as directed by the rudder.
The abbey at St Maurice was founded in the 4th century. There was a perpetual psalmody- psalm-singing 24 hours a day- there for about 400 years. link:’s_Abbey
Walking into and around the place, the church seems to always be there. Maybe because the village buildings are built in the same style and stones as the church. Or because the valley seems to be tight there, and the mountains are always looming overhead, the town seems to be an interior space surrounded by wilds and lorded over by the church. I stayed in a little apartment in a an old building attached to the church and its compund. I could hear women (nuns perhaps?) but see no one. I had skeleton keys and a long dark corridor that led to a little bright room. The World Cup was being played and the only cafe showing it was across the square from my window, so I had cheers and boos take me to sleep.
There continues to be beautiful chanting inside the church, and the next morning it was relaxing and rejuvinating to sit there and hear the music. While I was there it was also very human: the organist was practicing, and had to replay one part about 5 times before moving on.

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Lac Leman Pictures

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Pontarlier-Laussanne- Vevey

The vista coming in to Pontarlier is long. I walked out of the woods, past a little chapel to Mary (which intrigued me- Mary-worship– but which I have come to have a glimpse at understanding). The Mary chapel was built in 1860, as the U.S.A. was heading straight for civil war. The road suddenly bursts out of the woods to reveal a valley, in which Pontarlier sits. The walk down through that velley took me through the industrial part of town, and a light drizzle started. Eventually I put on my blue poncho, whereupon the sun came out; I took it off and the drizzle resumed. My right ankle started cramping terribly and I could hardly move the right leg past the left. The going was slow and painful, wet and hot, surrounded by big trucks and fast cars. I had my first traffic circle crossing– a harrowing dash for life.
When I arrived in Pontarlier there was an inexpensive hostel that I couldn’t get in until later in the afternoon. I found the cathedral in town and did my favorite thing to do: listen to the quiet. It had really started raining, so the quiet was often broken by the rush of wind and rain.
I put my poncho on again as I went outside and a group of freshly dressed teenaged boys saw me coming down the street- like a big blue blob floating along- and just cracked up laughing. Reminded me of a time I was climbing a mountain near Todos Santos, Guatemala and as I was walking up an Indian was walking down with his horse tethered. He was wearing a big oiled canvas to protect himself from the rain; I had on some bright red athletic rain gear. We stopped a looked at one another for a minute, and both started laughing. He had a few teeth, a friendly wrinkled face with red-brown skin, his face and body dwarfed by the oilcloth. And that horse towering above us needed to keep moving so off we went, on our separate ways.
Back in Eastern France I decided to take the next day off. I was worried about time and I decided to shave 3 days off by taking a 1-hour train ride. In hindsight I regret not walking that bit, but in my cramped-leg mindset, I can still understand why I did it. I took the train to Laussane, Switzerland the next morning.
Laussane was a beautiful town. It is amazing how the Swiss have adapted to living in the hills. Tunnels are everywhere, as are dams and waterfalls. Switzerland is the only country in Europe that has never been invaded; every man does 2 years in the army when he is 18, then 6 weeks per year until he is 40. They all have rifles in their closets; every single day I was there I heard gunshots. Walking through the hills of Switzerland there are signs of defenses everywhere. It is clean, efficient, beautiful, and expensive.
As it turned out, my “day off,” though it did involve a train ride, involved a lot of walking. I estimated about 18 km. In the evening I went downtown and heard the stories that american girls were telling one another about the adventures of their french language classes. I drank beer and watched the lake get dark.
The walk from Laussanne to Vevey was a highlight of the trip. I walked along the northern shore of Lac Leman, which face South. The Romans figured out that there is a little mediteranian microclimate there, good for growing wine grapes. They started the cultivation of those slopes that conitues today. I walked along a road, just wide enough for one car, that twisted and turned along the mountain side about 500 feet above the water line. All along the way there were teams of people maintaining the grapes- tying them to wires that directed their growth to maximum sun. And it was hot. The other side of the lake still had snow on the ground, but on this side it was probably 95 degrees plus the strong sun. Every 2 hours or so of walking I’d pass through a village and started drinking from the fountains again. The water was refreshing and cold, tasted like minerals. I’d dunk my head (it was already wet from sweat) and it took my breath away.
The final descent into Vevey was longer than I’d’ve liked- the hill just kept going down and down and down. I saw an interesting Le Corbusier building- The Nestle headquarters. That building seemed to use the orientation toward the lake and the topography well. It also showed a mastery of materials and detailing that I didn’t know he had. It was very clean, Miesian almost. I didn’t get to go in because there was a bunch of suits having their picture made, and I, with my wet shirt and big dirty backpack, didn’t think it was appropriate and didn’t want to worry about it. On the next trip to study buildings I’ll go there.
I stayed the night in a pleasant B&B. It was the first time I stayed in one- it was just someone’s house and they let their extra room.

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Back to walking

After my little break in Paris I took the train to Besancon to resume my walking trek where I left off. I stayed the night at the hostel there. The hostel seemed to be a house for young workers, a lot of whom seemed to be immigrants from Eastern Europe. Seems like a great tool for economic development– providing employers with interested, eager, ambitious young folks and giving said young folks opportunites to learn skilled trades and save money. I had my first of many Kebab dinners.
Started off into the country side the next day. Had a wonderful trek through and across fields. Even farm roads in France have a different take on their relationship to public lands (the road): They’re right on it. Twice I was sure I was walking through someone’s barn and the farmer came around the corner with a nod and a “bon promenade!” The really do wear berets and rubber boots and smoke pipes through thick moustaches.

Coming into Etalans I was walking along a ridge, with wheat fields on either side.  The wheat is a beautiful rich blue-green.  There is a storm rolling in, the wind is strong and there are billowing thunder clouds just beyond the fields.  As the first drop sprinkle sporadically, the sun breaks out from the west and rays tuck under the blanket of rainclouds, washing the wheat in gold.  Then the rain comes, hard and heavy.  All I can do is put one foot in front of the other.
This was sunday. My guide book said there were 2 hotels in Etalans. Even though I couldn’t reach any by phone, I thought its a small town; surely I’ll be able to find them and secure a place to stay. Well, there was only one hotel and it was closed. I knocked- nothing. Checked the door and it was unlocked. On entering, the hotel was fine, with unmade beds and all the doors open wide. I thought about staying there– europeans don’t carry guns, and I could probably expain it away…. Hm. No I stayed in the comfortable bus stop across the street. I was covered, had two walls, and there was a big bus on the third side, so it was OK.
The next morning I woke early (because I hadn’t really slept) and went to hotel bar for breakfast.
Breakfast in France, in Europe in general, is not the Continental affair like at the Holiday Inn. It consists of a half cup of coffee and equal parts bread and butter, about 3 slices each. And a couple cigarettes. Not so good for a big hungry american, especially one who will walk 30 klicks today.
Well, I was off to an early start at least. I quickly lost the trail that petered out into a cow field. I discovered a prickly plant that is similar to poison ivy, except it begins to itch immediately, and only lasts about a day. I also discovered the currency of eastern France: cow shit. Man they pile that stuff up high, and right next to their houses. They have machines that pilie it high, mixing it with hay. The bigger the house, the bigger the pile. I had to walk around mountains of shit. In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain observed the same phenomenon in the late 19th century.
In Aubonne I stopped for water at the local well (in front of the church) and two men came out of a house, smiling, and said, “ah c’est leau est bonne.” And then an old lady came out of another house and said “Non non, c’est pas bonne” and they commenced to argue for 10 minutes about the bonne-ness of the water. Finally they all decided it was best if they fill the water from an inside tap. It was fun, and I was happy to have the known good water.

I was able to sit in a church for about 30 minutes and listen to the quiet.

After church the track passed through thick fir tree forest, with its padded, needle-covered ground.  It too was quiet, and quite dark.

Ouhans was a fine village and the hotel restaurant there served a good fish buried in cream.  It is near the source of the river Loue, where the river bursts from a gorge.   The three km walk was just too many extra for me to see it.

At this point I’m beginning to realize that the elegance of this walk is in how lean my movements become.  The economy is in my steps that beg the discipline of moving in one direction only.


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Besancon to Pontarlier

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Baume Les Dames, Besancon, Paris pictures

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Baume Les Dames to Besancon

Leaving Baume Les Dames was difficult. There was breakfast, which was fine and good; then there was packing- no problem. But then, there was that grocery store on the edge of town, which was not on the way out of town. Eventually I am on my wway in earnest, but I’ve probably walked 4 km (I’m counting every step now) and its almost 11! I couldn’t find a hotel for the night, so I figured I’d call when I stopped for lunch.
I followed the veloroute path all day and it was charming. The river was pleasant enough, the weather cool, the land flat. There are a few villages along the way, and in some places there are bluffs along the river. By about 4 pm though, I was dead tired. Looking at the map it appeared as though I could leave the riverbank and bypass Chalezeule. When I tried to take the road I had to bushwack to get there and how treacherous it was once I arrived! Though it was nice and straight, the road was fast, somehow it seemed to get dark and misty! So, I circled back, to stay at the only place I could find in Chalezeule, L’Hotel de Trois Iles.
My room was on the third floor and I honestly didn’t know if I’d make it up. I opted for dinner in the restaurant. Though I knew it’d be pricey, it meant I only had to contend with the three flights of stairs, and no more walking. Dinner was quite good, but the most notable part was the cheese plate for desert. I could take as much as I wanted- then the waitress took it to another table for the other folks to take what they wanted. Then back to me for another nibble. Strange and wonderful cheeses to be had in the Doubs.
The next day I was to take a train to Paris to stay with my college roomate, Schechin Lau, aka Crazy Joe. You can’t imagine how wonderful it is to sit in an air conditioned car and watch the wheat fields pass by. After 3 days of moving so slowly, it was exhilerating to be moving so quickly. Anyway, Joseph and his wife and young son were living in a little apartment in the 18th arrondissment, and they were very kind to host me for a couple days. Parisian apartments are small. Their kitchen was a triangle whose legs were 3, 4, and 5 feet. They made all of their family meals in a little toaster oven and a 2-burner cooktop. That is efficient living.
Joseph took me swimming in the mornings (I bought a swimsuit from a vending machine)and then we’d walk Tien around and around in the “trolley” (stroller). He’d nap if we kept walking. When he woke, we’d sit at a cafe and the triangle of sidewalk in front of it became his playground, and those pretty parisian warmed right up for him. He’s a charmer.
At one point we were able to walk through a little urban garden that had at one point been a subway maybe. Anyway, there were people tending to roses and taking the sun. There was someone making honey. And oh, they were chatty to our hostess, Joseph’s wife, the endlessly charming Barbara Lau.
We had a little party the night before I resumed walking. I was seriously considering buying a bicycle. Barbara was really the one who talked me out of it. She told me the story of the birth of wniter. Somehow that solidified my resolve: to walk.

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