To be honest I had never heard of this town in northern France until a few months ago when I opened my new (used) Michelin map of Pas-de-Calais.
Renata and I were eagerly planning the next leg of our staged pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (‘taking the long way home’) and St. Pol presented itself as a logical point to turn south toward Paris rather than continue roughly following the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route leading southeast to Rome. We briefly considered pushing on to Arras to pay our respects at the Canadian memorial in Vimy, but that would have added two days to our journey and we were already on a tight schedule. Another time. For now we had a plan: follow the Via Francigena to the vicinity of St. Pol; then southbound, making our own path.
Renata in the Forêt de Guînes
Now here we were in St. Pol, five days out from Canterbury where the priest was kind enough to give us an Easter morning blessing as we stood, together with another departing pilgrim, in front of the Cathedral’s oldest altar at the easternmost corner of the darkened crypt. And we were giving up, in spite of our well-made plans and hopeful aspirations, or the merits of a priestly blessing.
Or rather, I was giving up.
My right Achilles tendon started hurting a couple of days before and, increasing doses of ibuprofen notwithstanding, was now to the point where every step was painful and I was sure that going any farther would be irresponsible. Both of us feeling glum, we made our way to a mostly unhelpful tourist office to inquire about transportation options, then to the train station where we caught a bus to the coast (a replacement service on account of rail strikes). By bedtime we were back in a hotel in Calais, from where we would be walk-ons for the P&O ferry the next morning.
The challenge of any journey that involves companionship – a marriage, a business venture, a day out walking – is that it increases some risks even as it mitigates others. And when a plan falls apart clearly on the account of one of the partners, relationships are tested. The hours it took for us to return to Calais gave Renata ample opportunity to ponder and explore my motivational robustness and for me to identify and protest her refined skills of second-guessing me and, finally, our shared resilience in dealing with disappointment and finding perspective. After nearly 35 years of marriage we have gotten pretty good at the bounce-back, but the emotions can still flow fast and turbulent in parts.
Life is a journey; together.
En fin, we had a mostly wonderful five-day walk from Canterbury to St. Pol, enjoying some of France’s fabled cuisine and wines, meeting interesting people, exploring again how pilgrimage is a metaphor for life, and making new discoveries along the way (chickens and dogs at almost every house we passed!). We will remember the restauranteur in Guînes who opened just for us on Easter Monday, the elderly man leaning out his front window in Laires who kindly agreed to refresh our water even though each bottle meant a laborious hobble to his kitchen at the back, and the little boys on the ferry who really, really, wanted to have walking sticks like ours.
I’ve made an appointment with the doctor to have a look at my Achilles and in the meantime done some reading that seems to indicate I’ve not been walking correctly. Or is this weakness a permanent feature of my health, another casualty of a severely twisted ankle acquired while playing kick-the-can at the age of twelve? Time will tell.
Oh, and that rail strike? Our ‘non-refundable’ Eurostar tickets from Paris to London, which we forfeited by returning early, were unexpectedly reimbursed. I’ve never before been so happy with French industrial strife!