Week eleven is over and it’s getting mentally tough. So far I’m spending a lot more money in France than I can afford. To make things worse I’m struggling with basic motivation problems. Hiking with a heavy pack and in summer temperatures in the sun is much more like work than pleasure. But I’m almost halfway there: the¨m¨is nearly finished und with it I will have completed the first 2000 kilometers. So it really would be a shame to give up now.
Instead, I’m looking for new strategies to get more of what still makes this trip an experience that I don’t want miss and would like to savor to the last kilometer. Random encounters.
Day 71 – in Saverne
I spend my Sunday in Saverne relaxing at the hostel. Promptly at eight I’m at breakfast (which is only open until nine). It is not exactly generous: cornflakes, muesli, baguette, a type of cold cut, cream cheese and toast cheese, one jam flavor, honey, a pitcher of orange juice, which is constantly empty. But we are in France. Therefore, there is a button on the coffee machine for ¨café longue¨. It fills the cereal bowl by two-thirds, so you can top up the remaining third with milk. In the breakfast room, the French are easy to discover: While everyone else fills their small cups (and fills them again and again), the French elegantly sip from their bowl of milk coffee.
I’m watching the bustle around me sipping with them. This is how much I have already assimilated.
The room is full: a girls’ football team from Germany, a biker group from Germany, two English brothers (by bike) and a long table full of French cyclists. Again, no walkers or hikers. Especially not at my age.
After breakfast I take a shower in peace, and then sit down in my small corner room in the castle to finish my weekly review.
For lunch I nibble a granola bar.
For dinner, I heat the can of ravioli, which had cost me so much nerves the day before. The sauce is awful. Not even the apple for dessert helps to mask the taste.
Day 72 – to Strasbourg
Strasbourg is 37 km away. In the city’s suburbs I would like to visit the Decathlon store to finally resolve the tiresome hat issue. Therefore, I take my shower before breakfast today, don’t take quite as much time for breakfast and am back on the road at half past nine.
The morning is already incredibly hot and it only gets worse, as I move from the highway onto dirt roads at eleven. I’ve noticed that so far forest in France almost exclusively grow on hills and slopes (except for the small communal forests). The landscape is dominated by seemingly endless fields. Only now and then a few trees offer some shade.
One advantage, however, does the lack of forests have: instead of getting lost in them, I can clearly see when Google Maps is once again leading me astray. Where wheat grows densely, there can be no path.
Some of the few trees I pass are to my great joy full of delicious ripe cherries. First, I’m a little skeptical because they are significantly smaller than the ones I know from Germany. Also the color is partially rather bright. But the leaves are unmistakable for me. So I indulge at every opportunity in the sweet fruit.
Shortly after two something happens that has never before happened on the trip: My one-liter water bottle is emptied to the last drop.
And I’m thirsty!
I’m sitting right in the center of Kuttolsheim at the bus stop. Across the street the Boulangerie looks closed. I can’t discover a well anywhere. But the door to the courtyard of the large farmhouse right next to the bakery is wide open. Through the shutters, I hear noises.
Two or three times I ring the bell.
Maybe they did not hear me?
I knocked loudly on the door.
Now I hear movement. An elderly man opens the door and after my request for water immediately points into the house.
Inside, he calls for his wife. Both are obviously pleased to see me.
But my bottle remains empty on the sink.
Instead, I get offered glass after glass of cold, refreshing tap water. Then a lunch of sliced tomatos, tuna and bread, complete with wine. Homemade wine.
The conversation changes pretty quickly into German. Georgette and Gerard grew up in the Alsace and with the Alsatian language. They decide that I can’t continue walking in the heat, and promise to take me to Strasbourg, as soon as I know where I meet Rabea. The thermometer shows 36 degrees. So I don’t object.
To place a call we have to take Gerard’s WWII U.S. Army Jeep to the edge of the village, because there is no reception in or around the house. Then we stop for a drink at the neighbors’ who have lived in Berlin for eleven years.
A shower and an early dinner later, with a bottle of the house wine and a bottle of brandy in my bag, they really take me the remaining 20 km to Strasbourg.
Rabea receives me in her apartment. My hosts for the afternoon insist on waiting outside the house until I have stored my luggage and confirm that everything is fine.
Rabea and I go down to the canal that surrounds the Old Town of Strasbourg, and empty the bottle of wine. It’s good to once again be around a person I know and who knows me.
At the end of the day I’m just a little sad that I did not have a chance to go to Decathlon. Because this means, that tomorrow I will have little time for sightseeing. But Rabea knows to cheer me up:¨Today is a holiday. So the stores have all been closed anyway.¨
There it is again. The invisible hand, which somehow always makes sure that everything turns out just right.
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Day 73 – in Strasbourg
The night was hot. Even the wide open windows brought little cooling. The day promises little improvement.
I walk through the old town to take a bus or tram in the direction of the shopping area on the outskirts.
At the Decathlon, I find my hat.
At the Intersport not far from there I think for the first time that a tent would actually not be a bad idea. The stay in France has so far been much more expensive than planned in my budget. Even if I instead of counting 10 € a day count 10 € per 20 kilometers I’m after these few days already 100 € behind budget. That has never happened when I was walking in Germany. With a tent I would be more independent and could easily sleep outside in an emergency situation. Eric warned me that the center of France will be significantly emptier than I have experienced between Worms and Trier. But I would have a better argument against skeptical fellows: The threshold to have a woman set up camp in the garden is significantly lower than inviting her into the house. On the other hand, even the lightest tent will be an additional burden on my already battered shoulders. And I probably would have to carry additional supplies if I want to spend the night bushcamping in order to not go to bed hungry.
I leave the decision for a later date, and return to the old town. In the cathedral I enjoy the coolness for a few minutes.
In the late afternoon I can stand the heat no more and withdraw to the apartment.
Rabea returns from work after eight. We go for a sundowner – beer and a plate of cheese – to the restaurant boats on the canal.
Day 74 – to Metz
I knew it was coming, but simply did not want to face the situation: Rabea can only accommodate me for two nights. She has to leave for a business meeting in Berlin at noon today. I could move into the hostel, try to spontaneously find a couch surfer or turn back towards Metz. That I must do anyways to complete my ¨m¨.
It’s hot. The day before there was a severe thunderstorm on the German side of the Rhine, which could now come here, too. And I don’t feel like walking. On the other hand, 26 € for the hostel seem too expensive at the moment.
I google ¨Strasbourg Metz¨ and find a page that suggests to me to book a seat in a car on the car sharing portal BlaBlaCar for 18 €. I like the idea.
Later it will turn out that I was very lucky: trains, flights and taxis in France are on strike today, so I would probably not have been able to leave the city without the ride.
Rabea and I go to the station together, although my car leaves only four hours later. I hope to be able to lock my backpack for one or two euro in the station lockers, but am disappointed. Lockers can only be booked in 24-hour intervalls and in the size of my backpack cost 7,50 €. Too much.
So I go only briefly back to the old town until I find one of the public water dispensers, where I fill my bottle to the brim.
On the way back I pass an Intersport store and another outdoor store. As for the tent, I haven’t come to any decision, but I need to replace the rubber attachments on my walking sticks after having completed more than 1500 kilometers with them.
At half past one I go back to the station and try to get some free internet there.
I find Romuald at a quarter to four, as agreed in front of the Mercure hotel at the station. Soon after we are joined by Cyril and John. Since John, an Australian, only speaks English, I leave the front seats to the French. From my position in the back I try to keep a conversation in English and French with all three men going. Cyril falls asleep. But Romuald is fortunately not put off by my poor knowledge of his native language.
In Metz Eric has thankfully spontaneously agreed to let me stay another two nights on his couch. We watch American crime series in their original language before I fall asleep.
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Day 75 – in Metz
Eric recommends that I head to the outskirts of the city to visit outdoor outfitter Chullanka, to look for a tent. Because public transport in France is amazingly cheap, I buy for 4 € a day ticket to cover the 6 km there (and back).
I fight with me for five minutes and finally choke up 350 € minus 10% for a demonstration model of a Mountain Hardwear ¨Super Mega Ultra Light¨ tent. In the great scale of things this is less than ten nights in a chambre d’hôte.
In the supermarket I buy a cart, much like old ladies would use to wheel their shopping home.
I meet Eric in the city for the evening. We walk along the water for a while, eat a not so great sandwich and back at his place watch the World Cup opening game. After a controversial penalty Brasil beats Croatia 3-1 (as I had previously tipped).
Day 76 – to Dommartin la Chaussee
I mount backpack and tent on the trolley and march out of Eric’s apartment just after half past nine. After five kilometers, I have barely left Metz, the backpack tilts the cart again and again. So I change the strategy and load half of my luggage in the trolley bag and leave the other half in the bagpack, which I now carry on my back again.
But pulling the cart that is barely waist high behind me, eventually hurts my shoulders and hands.
In the early afternoon, just as I fight my way along a particularly bad dirt track, I have an epiphany: I carry carabiners and cords with me. So why not affix the trolley to the backpack? A few adjustments to the string length later I’m really starting to like the idea with the little cart.
While resting at the edge of the woods I play Dr. Doolittle: first enters a fox the path two meters in front of me. After a few moments he thinks, however, better of it and turns around. Meanwhile two butterflies are orbiting me full of excitement and finally settle down for minutes on my shoes and bags.
Behind Chambley I join at a roundabout a biker at a picnic table. We have a little chat. Well, this is perhaps somewhat exaggerated: Lionel speaks, I listen and try to express that I have understood through meaningful objections and questions.
It’s half past six or so and I’m trying to ascertain whether it would be possible to find shelter at the nearby airpor. After all I have a tent now. Lionel objects. A girl? Alone? Not a good idea!
He offers a better one: he would live only a few kilometers away and I could – if his wife agrees – camp in their garden.
I agree and let him describe the route: Go straight up to another roundabout and then right. Lionel promises to park his motorcycle and start walking towards me.
So we both hit the road again.
The few kilometers seem to me longer than expected. Even my host is surprised when we finally find out how far it is.
At seven I have set up my tent for the first time, Lionel’s wife Christine is preparing a simple dinner. We drink wine and talk like Lionel and I had done before at the picnic table. I’m shocked when I see that it is suddenly already eleven, and head straight to bed.
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Day 77 – to Saint Mihiel
Granted: A night in a tent is not really what I would call “comfortable”. At least my cot protects me from stones poking in my back, but is also only 60 centimeters wide. I only sleep a few hours and listen to the birds, especially in the fruit trees around me.
My hosts are touchingly endeavored to pick out the best route for me on the way to Val-d’Ornain. Finally, Christine offers to drive me near Lac de Madine, where I could either spend the night at the campsite or move on towards Saint Mihiel on the D901.
On the last five kilometers to the lake, a rather large number of classic cars passes by me. I find them again at Lac de Madine on the “Meuse Retro Car” show. I sit down for an early lunch at the lake, stroll through the ranks of old cars and decide to move on.
For the next two hours a large temple on a mountain to my left accompanies me. That incident shows me once again the limits of hiking: to see something in the distance for hours and not be able simply go there to explore what I see. Only shortly before the temple disappears behind trees, I’m lucky and see a sign: The temple is the “Butte de Montsec” .
About seven kilometers from Saint Mihiel a sign by the road points to a wide forest road: “Un lit au pré¨ it says, next to the writing I identify a stylized house under a tree. Above this wooden sign hangs another one made of metal. On the latter two horses standing on their hind legs frame the name of the Priester family.
Although it is only half past four, I see this sign as a sign to turn onto the forest road. I translate ¨Un lit au pré¨ as¨A bed nearby¨. Fifteen minutes later, the forest gives view on two pastures. Two other wooden signs point to the right to Parking and to the left to Entrée . I turn to the left inbetween the two pastures. I recognize the horses by their black color and the longer fur on the feet as Frisians.
Before the house a man is working with his young son on a golf cart. When I approach him in French he responds after a few words with wide eyes: ¨Do you speak English?¨ I happily switch to the language that is more familiar to me and he sends me around the corner to find the farm owner.
A pack of large dogs at the door brings me to her attention. She greets me friendly and leads me into the courtyard of the house. Her husband and numerous teenagers are sitting at a long table and surf on the internet with their laptops and tablets. Family Priester comes from the Netherlands and is – as most Dutch people – perfectly fluent in English. That makes the conversation a lot easier.
I tell them what has brought me here.
The lady of the house listens intently and immediately answers all my questions: ¨’Un lit au pré’ means camping on a meadow. However, with a kind of safari tent for up to six people. For a single person that would be too expensive, I think.¨
I don’t want to give up without at least one more try: ¨I have a tent … ¨
But she doesn’t react. Instead, she offers me a coffee. Of course I don’t say no.
Over the course of the next hour I learn that the family has bought the old monastery dating from the 8th century ten years ago and renovated it largely by themselves. I learn that they breed Frisian horses and that some of the teens at the table are in fact interns who come here for two or three months from the Netherlands to work with the horses. The idea for the¨meadow bed¨(the literal translation of ¨Un lit au pré¨) was derived by a Dutch company that has successfully established the concept in scenic areas in Holland, Germany and the UK, but in France has so far not been able to find local farmers, breeders or castle owners willing to implement it. Saint Christophe is only in its first season.
When one of the daughters drives up with a car full of shopping, things get hectic. Her younger sister is given the task to give me a tour of the stables, and then to show me the old monks’ path to Saint Mihiel. She apologizes when we say goodbye:¨We constantly have the house full of visitors. So we have no more space for guests.”
Sometimes that’s just how it is …
The monks’ path leads me back on the paved road.
Three kilometers from Saint Mihiel I see a large farm and a sign ¨Gîte Domaine Marsoupe” . It’s already past five. But I’m curious.
An elderly couple sits in deck chairs at a picnic table. Next to them, a car with Dutch license plates. So I approach them in English.
The two are paying guests of the gîte and point to the left wing of the two-story building: ¨They have a lot of space here. So you could certainly get a room. ¨
Carefully, I ask the price and refer to my pilgrim status and my tent. ¨I’m sure you could also camp. ¨
The husband leads me through the house to find the manager. But we are only greeted by three dogs. Aside from the three of us there is nobody here.
I want to wait. But at some point I have to continue to Saint Mihiel. Otherwise it will be too late. The couple comes to my aid: If the manager doesn’t show up, so they offer, they would take me into the city to the campsite. That of course makes waiting a while lot less nerve wrecking.
While we wait I greedily devour the two sandwiches that the husband tosses me across the table.
Half an hour later we get in the car. Both agree that the campsite in Saint Mihiel is very good. And the Dutch supposedly know a thing or two about camping …
They take me to the reception. I say goodbye and before I enter look at the table with the prices in the window: 3 € for a tent is not much. But 13,50 € for a room is ridiculously low. In disbelief I ask the receptionist. He confirms the price with a smile and offers to show me one of the rooms: It’s about 12 m² with a bunk bed and a king size double, a wardrobe and a desk. Everything is clean and tidy.
I reason with me: Without tent I would never have gone to the campground. And it would be almost negligent not to accept this super offer. So I spend Saturday night in my 13,50 € room in a cozy bed.
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