France: Cycling Along The Via Campaniensis

Route: Marcienne-Au-Pont – Reims – Sézanne – Troyes – Chablis – Vézelay

Some trips start riding away from home, some with a flight and this time with a train ride. I didn’t fancy riding through the built up northern part of Belgium again where it is so hard to find a wild camping spot. So, a train ride to Marcienne-Au-Pont it was. I never heard of the place before, but it happens to be the last train station before the city of Charleroi. A not very appealing city with all the problems of a place in decline. The suburb of Marcienne-Au-Pont did not escape it’s destiny.
A place to leave a.s.a.p.

Route Via Campaniensis
Map of the route I followed in this post from Marcienne-Au-Pont to Vézelay.
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Marchienne-Au-Pont, a grubby suburb of Charleroi, Belgium. A place as good as any to start a new adventure.

It was only a kilometer or so the Samber River and the bicycle path alongside it. Some works at the electricity plant forced me of the track and on the first hill after a few kilometer. Much sooner as expected. Months of sedentary life off the bike and in front of a laptop have taken their toll, resulting not only in eleven kg I gained, but also in my condition that has disappeared completely. It’ll take a few months to solve that again.

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Bike path along the Samber river.

Descending back to the Samber river, the next hours were easy riding along the bike path and later on the Ravel (old railway lines turned to bike paths). I passed Chimay, where the abbey is famous for making beer and cheese. I read somewhere it can’t be visited, and anyway, on my first day out, I didn’t have ‘time’ for that. The Ravel ends just outside Lompret. I have to tackle some typical steep Ardennes climb before arriving in Couvin where I stop to eat my last Belgian fries for a while. Upon leaving Couvin, a very steep climb leads into the ‘Bois de Petigny’, a forest where I planned to camp. 97 km on day one after that train ride in the morning. Tired, but happy I reached the place.

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The bike as it looks loaded up for this trip. No front panniers to allow easier access to narrow trails.
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Almost reaching the hills of the Ardennes.

There is a track going right south through the ‘Bois de Petigny’ towards the French border, but it’s private property. I have to descend towards Oignies-En-Thiérache, where I pick up the last part of the ‘Via Monastica’, a hiking trail in the network of Santiago-de-Compostella routes. The track climbes back into the forest, first sandy, than muddy due to the recent rains.

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This region was the scenery of heavy fighting in WWII. Even Hitler himself stayed in a bunker near hear for a while. This is an information board about the allied forces. I wonder how they would feel now, knowing they gave their today, for politicians and other complete imbeciles messing up the region, the world a good half century later.
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Still in Belgium, along the Via Monastica.
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Forest tracks in the Ardennes.

Back on a small asphalt road, I almost missed the non-descript sign marking the Belgian-French border. This is also the end of the ‘Via Monastica’ and the start of the ‘Via Campaniensis’ one of the trails through France towards Santiago-de-Compostella in Spain.

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I am not on my way to Santiago, but in my search for a quiet route through France I stumbled on this one, and why reinvent the hot water ?
Still, I invested a lot of time in researching the route, as it is important to be on dirt roads, away from traffic, but also to avoid the places you can’t pass with a bike.

Rocroi (also written Rocroy) is the first French village on the route. A fortified village in the shape of a star. No more easy Ravels, no more smooth Greenways. From now it’s up and down, just as the terrain goes. I exchanged the Belgian for the French Ardennes. The topography is the same.

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Rocroi fortifications

A few kilometer outside L’échelle, a village with a beautiful church and the ‘mairie’ in the castle, I already leave the Via Campaniensis for a while and pick up the GR654, the old and now lesser used hiking trail. In Signy-L’abbaye both routes join again and I continue on the Campaniensis.

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What a beautiful place name.
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Pleasant wild camping evenings in the French countryside.

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I will see plenty of different styles and architecture in the churches as I’m heading south. Many will be shared here 🙂

The landscape is slowly flattening a bit and the forested hills of the Ardennes make place for huge agricultural fields with sometimes amazing views but where the wind blows hard in the face.

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I’m sure you can imagine what the wind can do to you here, blowing at full force right in your face.
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The hundreds of wind mills I see all around are a proof strong winds must be common throughout the year here.

South of Hauteville follows such a stretch. Beautiful riding over good gravel, but that wind…. Camping places are hard to find here, let alone places that are a bit protected from the wind.

Sunday, quite some rain is predicted and I want to take a rest day, so need a good place for two nights. I find it in a small forest on a hill top just outside L’écaille.
The rest day is spent with resting(-) and reading a Poirot novel, ‘Appointment With Death’.

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You don’t have to go to Kazachstan, Mongolia or Australia for ‘big skies’.

Riding towards Reims, I am also leaving the French Ardennes and enter a new department: Marne.
Reims, a town of 185.000 people is a royal city. In the past, kings used to be crowned here. I cycle passed the first Champagne houses, passed the Porte de Mars, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame with her 2.300 statues. Ten para-commando’s, walking in pairs are guardening the cathedral against those who like to bring terror to our region. I also paid a visit to the Basilique Saint-Remi, with a statue of Clovis who was Christened in Reims (but that happened at the Cathedral, not here).

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Porte de Mars, Reims

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Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Reims
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Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Reims
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Basilique Saint-Remi, Reims
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Clovis

After Reims, I started riding through the vineyards that produce the famous champagne. Gradients are steep, 10, 12, 13%.
The village of Hautvillers is very touristic. Car drivers suddenly are aggressive. No time to lose, I guess. There ’s a church with a tomb for Dom Periginon, the man who supposedly fine-tuned the champagne making process. I think the Dom Periginon champagne house is next to it, but it was closed.
I am descending steeply through more vineyards towards the river Marne, and climb just as steep back up. Epernay, the ‘capital’ of the champagne region is to my left. It doesn’t look very inviting from up in the hills, so I don’t visit it. For the first time this trip, I climbed more than a thousand meter in a day, namely 1.001 meter.

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I ride through the outskirts of Sézanne, but don’t really visit the city.
There’s some really nice riding following now, first through a forest, later through endless fields with good views all round. The farmers are hard at work harvesting all the grain. I should have stopped here to camp somewhere. I still had some food, but wanted something nicer, so rode into Anglure where I find the first supermarket since quite a while. Problem is, after Anglure, you soon hit the ‘Canal de la Haute Seine’. Probably the easiest riding I will have in the foreseeable future, but also a bad place to find a spot for the night. One side is the canal, the other side commercial forest with impossible ground to pitch a tent. Eventually I find something next to a corn field. Should ‘ve continued riding a bit longer, because I see better options the next day.
I’m reading Peter Sagans book ‘My World’. I don’t think he really wrote it himself. It has some good bits, but most of it is…. well, just not well written.

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Troyes, the capital of Aube departement, is an old medieval town. Stunning cathédral, and way, way too many tourists in the small streets. I rode around a bit, looking at the sights, face mask and my bandana over it, than left town.

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The Cathedral in Troyes

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Typical houses in Troyes.

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Bang !!
That strong head wind I had the last days is back again as well.
After Laines-aux-Bois the road climbs towards Montaigu. Good views again towards the surroundings. A nice long ride through the forest follows, where I have to negotiate the bike passed or over dozens of fallen trees. Than, as you finally ride out of the forest, again, a nice view to the surrounding land below you.

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Monument aux résistants fusillés, Laines-aux-Bois (Monument to the Resistance fighters shot at Laines-aux-Bois). I passed this statue on the top of a hill, after a steep climb out of the village. The ‘Maquis de Montaigu Monument’ was erected in 1946. This place of memory called “Aux quatre de Montaigu” returns tribute to the Libé-Nord resistance movement during the Second World War.

I make it a short day and stop in the pelgrims gîte of Sommeval. Time to do some more laundry, recharge the things I can’t recharge with my little solar panel (laptop & shaver), make a nice meal and sit in the sun.
I redraw the route for tomorrow a bit. There’s an interesting highlight, a bit away from my original route, that I don’t want to miss.

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Early stop in charming Sommeval, where I would spend my only night along the pilgrims route in a gïte. Really enjoyed the place.
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Trying to keep a healthy diet (from time to time).

Crossing the ‘Canal de Bourgogone’, and a few hundred meters further on the ‘L’Armançon’ river, I not only left the Aube department and entered Yonne department, I also entered the ‘Bourgogne Franche-Compté’ region.

I’m heading towards the largest cistercian abbey in the world, which stands in the village of Pontigny. I found out about this place only a few days before my departure, and thought it worthwhile to make the detour. I left the Via Campaniensis in Ervy-Le-Chatel and rode via quiet country roads to the abbey. It’s a big thing, but not as big as some cathedrals I saw along the way. Definitely go out and have a look around the back for best views of the building. Inside, it is almost empty.

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Look at the little bee just flying into the picture at the right time.

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The Cistercian Abbey in Pontigny, the worlds’ largest.

After my visit to the abbey, I rode towards another famous place to pick up my original route again, Chablis. After the famous Champagne places, I am now in the most famous place of the Bourgogne wines. Vineyards on all hills, as far as the eye can see. Steep hills. Leaving town I have multiple hard stretches, up and down about 15%. It’s hard in what is the hottest day so far on this trip.

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‘Le Serein’ River, just outside the town of Chablis. Ice cold water to refresh yourself on a hot day.
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Steep, very steep climbing and descending through the vineyards.

I camped in the forest a few kilometer after Saint-Cyr-Les-Colons. It opened up to some fields with splendid views the next morning. An initially easy descent, becoming steeper and steeper led me into Cravant, a town that doesn’t seem to like cyclists as virtually every street has a sign specifically warning it s prohibited for bicycles.

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From Cravant I had two options to continue to Vézelay. The hard one, following the Via Campaniensis with, looking at the elevations, some more steep climbing, or an easy one for cyclists along the Canal Du Nivernais. Given the very hard work yesterday out of Chablis, I thought I earned a bit of a relaxed day and chose the latter option. Flat riding, picnic tables, the odd village…. a complete different experience then what I had the last days and a nice change. In Châtel-Censoir I left the canal and climbed over the hill towards Vézelay.

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Easy cycling along the Canal Du Nivernais, with good scenery.

Around the year 1.000, the relics of Saint (Maria) Magdalena were kept in the towns’ basilica to save them from the hands of the Saracens. In the 16th century, the most important relics were burned after all by the Huguenots (= Protestants). There are splendid views to the Morvan region from the park behind the basilica.

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The Sainte Marie-Madeleine Basilica from the 12the century in Roman architecture. It’s already on the list of historical monuments since 1840.

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View to the Morvan Region from Vézelay.

This is the end point of the Via Campanienses. Vézelay is also a start point for many ‘pelgrims’ on their way to Santiago de Compostella. There’s a popular route going via Le Puy-En-Velay, but I’ve been there a couple of years ago, so I go west of the Massif Central, following the ‘Via Lemovicensis.
More about that in the next part.