Saturday 13 September.
Last night when I wrote out today's route in my little note book part of the section between Bievres and Bouconville-Vauclair didn't make sense. We were to look out for the GR12 red and white route markings at the top of a long hill out of Bievres but it didn't tell us what to do, go left or right or ignore them and carry straight on. Moira had a look at the text and couldn't understand it either, we decided to wait until we got there and hopefully it would be obvious. Unfortunately during the night about 4am I woke and started worrying about this part of the route and that we might get lost, I couldn't get back to sleep again. I was still worried right up till we left from Bievres. The description was OK, over the River Bievres, up the hill past the Ferme d'Everaigne to a mini quarry. I didn't know what a mini quarry was and it turned out to be a large hole at the side of the road. There was a large wide track going off to the left and further up the road, looking back we could see the GR waymarks pointing a turning along this track. All the confused instructions became clear, the GR route came down the hill and turned along the track that was why we had to be careful and look out for them. The worrying route was now a pleasant walk across the fields on one side and woodland on the other. It was along a ridge with good views of the valleys below. If the book had only said at the mini quarry turn left along a wide track for a joyful off-road walk I would have been looking forward to it rather than losing sleep.
It was an early start again at 7:30am. We had orange juice for breakfast with our yoghurt and jammed bread in order to conserve what little Gaz we had left. Instead of walking all the way back into Laon to pick up the route we carried on along the main road outside the hotel for 3km to pick up the D516 which went directly to Bruyeres-et-Montberault another 5km, where rejoined the Cicerone route. The first part was on a busy road but luckily there was a wide grassy section at the side where we could safely walk; once on the D516 it was a lot quieter. At Bruyeres we stopped for a rest. They were setting up the market stalls in the town square where there were seats as well. We had a break, some orange juice and watched the market activity.
It was only 2km to the next village of Cheret but we thought we deserved another break. The guide book said there were seats at the church but we couldn't find them, instead we sat on the steps at the front door. From Cheret it was supposed to be 5 km to Bievres but after a steep climb of just over a kilometre we crossed a major road and the signpost said 'Bievres 2km'. So a couple of kilometres somehow getting us to the worrying section sooner than expected. We sat on seats in front of the Mairie where I made a cup of coffee. There was still some Gaz left. We weren't the only ones worried about route finding on this area, two cars stopped and asked for directions but they asked the wrong people!
As described my worries were misplaced and a lovely walk over a ridge through the fields took us out at a huge Chateau, La Bove. We could only get a glimpse of this magnificent house through the trees and at the gate there was a warming about guard dogs if we tried to get any closer. It was then an easy walk downhill to Bouconville-Vauclair where we again found seats in the village square for lunch. It was 5km to go to the finish so we were no hurry and relaxed for an hour in the pleasant sunshine reading the newspaper we downloaded before leaving this morning.
After our break, now fully refreshed we covered the remaining distance in just over an hour. It was a quiet road through the woods with a gentle steady climb to reach the village of Corbeny. Just before reaching our hotel there was a boulongerie and we looked in the window but it was closed. We were going to carry on when a man came out the gate next door and asked if we wanted bread. 'Yes' and he gave us three baguettes, 'gratuit'- free. They must have been left over in the shop and would just go hard. The hotel, Chemin des Dames, was next door. We went into the bar by mistake and the barman was clueless but he eventually tracked down the woman in charge and we were soon in our room. It was all right but a bit overpriced at €60 for the night. There was a bath but no shower cubicle so we both soaked our aches and pains and stiffness in hot tub. It worked and we felt totally refreshed afterwards.
The name of the hotel, Chemin des Dames, refers to the area nearby which was a key battlefield in WW1. In particular it is remembered for the Second Battle of Ainse on April 1917 when 270,000 French soldiers lost their lives. The area around the road, Chemin des Dames is completely flat and you could visualise the trenches of each side where they had dug in and artillery blasting shells from one side to the other.
We thought about eating in the hotel restaurant but the prices were extortionate. Fortunately there was a little general store in the village and Moira got some stuff for another picnic meal in the room. There was WiFi downstairs but not on the room, but that signal was poor as well. We settled to lying in bed after eating and reading until time for a well deserved sleep.
Sunday 14 September.
The route took us along 3km of the Canal Lateral de l'Aisne between Pontavet and Gernicourt. It was overgrown first with grass then with nettles. We had to put on our waterproof trousers to continue without being stung. Eventually we scrambled up a steep slope into a field and made better progress there even though it was hard going along ruts made by the tractors. This is the third canal where the towpath has been neglected and allowed to deteriorate. This is surprising as the canals themselves are clean and well maintained, though we haven't seen any sailing craft using them. There was another section along the Canal Lateral de l'Ainse going into Reims. I imagined it would be much the same but was pleasantly surprised to find a tarred path all the way. People were out using it for walking, jogging and cycling. Also the canal was being used by a number of barges taking materials to and from warehouses and factories along the opposite canal bank.
There was enough Gaz still left for a cup of coffee to go with our bread and jam before we left at 7:30 am again. It was a bit overcast this morning so we didn't have a nice sunrise to thrill us as we started out. It was 3 km to get down the side of a triangle to get back by another the road to the D19 from Bouconville-Vauclair that we had left yesterday to get to our overnight stop of Corbeny, from there it was a further 3km on a quite road into the village of Portavert. Before entering the village we found a shrine and at seat by the roadside mentioned in our guide and had a rest for 5 minutes. This has been the routine we have adopted, when we reach a village or town it is rewarded by a short rest.
From Portavert the route crossed the river L'Ainse before reaching the canal where we struggled through the undergrowth. It had been slow going on the towpath and field and when eventually reaching Gernicourt were 30 minutes behind the schedule I had set myself. We still had our rest there before plodding on. After that the route was trouble free through a number of small villages and towns, Cormicy, Cauroy, Villers, Frauqueux, Thil and Saint Thierry on minor roads and good tracks off-road through fields. The agriculture varied as we went along, there was still lots of maize growing and still to be harvested, then we saw a field of potatoes with the machine digging up the potatoes, screening them and conveying them into a tractor with a trailer running alongside. Later there were mounds of sugar beat already harvested in the corners of fields that a tractor with a bucket was lifting scoopfuls and dumping into trucks. These trucks were shuttling the crop to a mill that we could see in the distance. Finally we arrived in around Thil and Saint Thierry the start of the Champagne region. The fields were now row upon row of vines which were different from what we had seen in Spain and Portugal. The vines were much smaller and the rows were much closer together. Beside each wine estate was the outlet where you could go and taste the wine and purchase your favourite. Champagne is too expensive for us, we will stick to the red plonk at €2 a bottle.
After Saint Thierry there was a long trek over the fields on a good firm track to a bridge over the motorway. Once across we knew our hotel wasn't far away but weren't sure how to get there. Moira consulted a satnav on her phone and I wrote down the instructions which were extremely complicated, a zig zag of twists and turns through back streets. We decided to follow its route anyway which coincided withe the Cicerone for the first 1.5 km then we couldn't find one of the roads but the Canal Lateral d'Ainse was ahead as per Cicerone. We changed plan and took the towpath to get nearer Reims our hotel being on the outskirts. It was a lovely walk on this tarred towpath and there were benches at intervals for a rest. When we came to the first bridge across the canal we consulted our instruments but could find it on the satnav but not the iPad. I asked two walkers for help, they scratched their heads then more got involved that were passing. It turned out as usual with the French a big discussion and arms waving about but no result. Another man came along and indicated to follow him he knew where we wanted to go. We followed but found out he was clueless as well, at the next bridge over the canal he said it was still 3 km to go whereas we knew it was close by. We came off at that bridge and the satnav showed the route which was now practically a direct route and we reached the hotel in about 10 minutes.
The Hotel Stars was another box-like affair and quite shabby on the outside. Inside it was quite plush for a Formula 1 type place, the room was small but OK with a big double bed. It was now 5 pm and we were very tired, it had been a long day and we had walked at least 30 km. Moira had booked us in here for another night to go sightseeing in Reims tomorrow but an easy day will also be welcomed. We showered in lovely hot water and put on fresh clothes to go find something to eat. The woman at reception spoke no English but with my limited French managed to get directions for a Carrefour supermarket and shopping mall where I assumed would be a restaurant. Just outside an English guy asked if we were looking for a place to eat and said there was nothing, the one at the supermarket was closed it being Sunday and also nobody spoke English, he complained. We went anyway and my French couldn't be too bad as I found it with the directions from the woman. There were a couple of cars in the huge car park but otherwise it was dead then I spotted the 'M' sign for 'MacDonald's', well at least we would eat. It turned out all right, we both had the 'petit menu', a cheese burger, fries and a cool drink. Afterwards we treated ourselves to a strawberry sundae iced cream. We both felt much better after that.
We walked through the car park back and found another restaurant open 'Munch'. It looked more upmarket and we might try that tomorrow. Back at the hotel we saw the Englishman again, he said he knew about 'MacDonald's' but didn't consider it a place to eat! When your starving even a Big Mac is gourmet food.
The WiFi was only available at the reception area and Moira had downloaded the newspaper earlier while I showered. We now got to bed and caught up with the news. I tried the crossword but my eyes were closing. It was only about 8:30 pm when we turned out the lights.