110 kilometers from Soissons to Senlis
between the rivers l'Aisne and l'Oise
crossing the forests of Compiège et Chantilly.
Last year the Beijing Olympic Summer Games consumed all my holy-days, however this Summer I was able to complete my walking project from Brussels to Paris following the SGR-12 ("Sentier de Grande Randonnée" or European long distance trails) in 4 legs, spanning 2005 (from Brussels to Landelies near Charleroi in Belgium, 2006 (from Landelies in Belgium to Rocroi in France), 2007 (from Rocroi to Soissons in France) and finally this year from Soissons to the train station of Orry-la-Ville south of Senlis, where the RER ("Réseau Express Régional") shipped me and Keanu - my dog and travel companion - through the banlieux (suburbs) to Gare du Nord in the heart of Paris.
Day 1 - Saturday 27th June 2009 - 10 km
Start in Leury (North of Soissons) to Cuisy-en-Almont
Professional IT project priorities were pushing my scheduled holiday further and further backwards into Spring, but finally I decided to drop whatever was not yet finished, and asked Shanshan - my wife - to drive me down to Soisson, and dump me, Keanu and my backpack of 22 kilograms at 2 kilometres west of Leury, about the same region of Crouy, where I ended leg 3 in 2007. Vaguely I had the plan to walk from Soisson to Senlis via the G12, continue to Lavilletertre via the GR11, and - in order to avoid Paris city itself - turn northwards to Magny-en-Véxin on the GR125 to Saint Valéry-sur-Somme. With more then 200 kilometres it was very doubtful that this could be achieved in a week, but it somehow determined our course. Since it was quite late when we started at 6 o'clock in the evening, there was not so much time to reach very far, so we raised our tent in a pretty rough field just after Cuisy-en-Almont. Anyhow it was already extremely peaceful and quiet, which gave us the satisfied feeling that we finally had hit the trail once again.
On the Green-way / little chapelle Sainte-Geneviève
Day 2 - Sunday 28th June 2009 - 15 km
Cuisy-en-Almont to Berny-Rivière (besides the river Aisne)
Unfortunately near Tartiers I twisted my right foot right away following a really stupid move on a relatively easy dry but stony path, but notwithstanding the pain I decided not to abandon prematurely. Guess a doctor would strongly advise against continuing to walk with such a heavy load under this predicament, but amazingly enough it sort of cured itself after 3 days without any further medical intervention. What turned out to become the best weather this Summer, transformed the fields into an baking oven during/after-noon, so I could make great use of a water bladder annex drinking tube tightly fitted between the backpack and its top lid - which I added to my equipment, allowing my to carry 4.5 litres in total together with my aluminium Sigg bottle. Even then me and Keanu must have been drinking in excess of 6 litres per day. Though we usually don't travel that close to the tourist season, we didn't met a single hiker during our entire voyage. To prove my point, families of hedgehogs were snoozing the morning away all along and atop the untrodden path. Past the village Nouvron-Vingré we passed the "Croix Brisée" on top of the plateau de Confrécourt, which indicated 10 days of fierce and mortal battle with German forces, once the French troups were able to cross the Marne in September 1914. At that time a quarry nearby harboured over 400 wounded soldiers. During the end of W.O. I in June 1918 the French army was again able to ward off the German offensive, which inspired the Paul Moreau-Vauthier to the classic inscription "Ici fut repoussé l'envahisseur" meaning "Here the invaders were stoped once and for all". Down the valley I decided to seek the comforts of four star camping "La Croix du Vieux Pont" in Berny-Rivière. The receptionist was so sympathetic to our cause, that he drove me and Keanu at the back of golfcart out and accross a bridge to a pittoresque place alone between the willows on an island next to the river. Next morning I learned that this whim had only cost me 5 euro, though it proved to be difficult to convince my dog to leave his very own private parc.
Our very own island in Berny-Rivière
Day 3 - Monday 29th June 2009 - 15 km
Berny-Rivière to Chelles
Once I crossed the river at Vic-sur-Aisne, we have been sleeping most of the day due the scorching heat. During my siesta at la Vallée West of Montigny-Legrain I had a nice chat with a bunch of aged hippies, working on antique motorcycles and a flower-power driven Citroen 2 chevaux. Learned very little else this day, apart from the fact that my wristwatch seemed in perfect tune with all the church bells whichever French village we catched some Z's. Being so incredibly lazy, instead of taking advantage of the coolness of the evening, we camped in the middle of Chelles, on an elevated town square in the shadow of its beautiful 12th century church. Pimping my bag over the years has lead to optimal equipment, however next time I should not forget tea & sugar for the evenings and far less food, unless I really intend to stay 2 week into the wilderness. Europe really remains the easiest continent to travel.
Château de Vic-sur-Aisne / Crossing the l'Aisne river
View from my camping site in Chelles / Decommissioned "lavoir"
Day 4 - Tuesday 30st June 2009 - 20 km
Chelles to "Carrefour des Eluas" les Grands Monts in Forêt de Compiégne
Excellent early start at 8 o'clock in sharp contrast with the day before. Michael Jackson - the self-proclaimed "King of Pop" - left his Los Angeles mansion for his final trip into space before I returned to France, however none of this world news was able to stir the French country-side. This day the major event leaving a lasting impression would be the magnificent and impressive castle of Pierrefonds, unique in its kind in France and probably the world. A couple of ladies dressed up all medieval for a filmset - including long cone felt hats with veils attached to the top - cutely blushed and looked away, but I am not quite sure whether they were rehursing their act, I looked like a knight, or we all looked incredibly outlandish. After Pierrefonds I completely lost the GR12 - at one point even turning West again - but I was too stubborn to backtrack, so I must have walked at least 10 kilometers extra. Anyhow I managed to target St. Nicolas de Courson a couple of kilometres South of St-Jean-aux-Boix as the "GR Topoguide de Picardie" intended (otherwise an amazing navigational reference). Apart from abbey, St-Jean-aux-Boix - totally enclosed by the Forêt de Compiégne - also harboured the "Auberge à la Bonne Idée" at 3 rue des Meuniers, which is definitely a must-go next time I wish to explore this grandiose forest with my wife Shanshan. Unlike others which I crossed during my trip, this forest encompassing 35.051 acres is made up of low stem beech and oak. This and the "monts" (mounts) with multiple roads connecting on top, turn this former royal domain of Louis XIV in a very romantic den indeed. Luckily I was able to top-up my water bladder in Vaudrampont - a collection of 4 or 5 houses - because there was no more home ground for the next 8 kilometers, and the forest is relatively dry. My micro-tent went up with only its mosquito net without the outer cover - allowing to gaze at the stars at night - atop the mount at the "Carrefour des Eluas". While I savoured my hot Knorr pasta & quattro formaggi (great dried packets for camping), nothing seemed though or wild in the outdoor on a Summer evening. Quoting Henry's crazy aunt August in Graham Greene's book which I was reading: "If you stay in one place, the holiday passes like a flash, but if you go to three places, the holiday seems to last at least three times as long". While contemplating the darkening silent skies, an enormous beetle the size of moonlander, and a dragonfly like a slider plane mocked gravity, like the airplane many miles further high, descending on Charles De Gaulle airport of the Paris metropolis.
Impressive castle of Pierrefonds
My artistic pencil impression
Charming abbey of St-Jean-aux-Boix
Compiègne roadsign / Keanu scouting
"Welcome to the jungle / Reflexion at "Carrefour des Eluas"
Home sweet Home
Day 5 - Wednesday 1st July 2009 - 15 km
Forêt de Compiégne to Rhuis (near E19 and l'Oisne)
Around 11 o'clock we got into Béthisy-St-Pierre without having crossed a living soul. Hélas at St-Vast-de-Longmont passed Vaucelle memories of the cool forest quickly evaporated in the grilling heat of the wheat fields. From 4 to 7 o'clock we both recuperated in the portal of l'église de Saint-Vaas-de-Longmont in Verberie crafted in the 12th century (they must been awefully busy that century erecting holy structures). The next 5 kilometers passing the l'Oise are a bit industrial, with the viaduct of the TGV ("Train à Grande Vitesse") overhead reminding us that it only takes 1 hour and a half by high-speed train from Brussels to Paris, as opposed to 24 days zig-zagging 500 kilometers by foot, when adding up all 4 legs of my entire trip. Another spiritual thing I learned on this trip - probably better known to people depending on horses, camels and dunkeys for transport - is that you should not constantly shout to domesticated animals because you will stress them out. Previous years - under much more unfavourable weather conditions - I kept Keanu - my dog - going by firing him up. On multiple occasions he just went into strike and let me carry his backpack instead, adding six more kilo's of his food on top of my load. Thanks to positive motivation, this year he has dutifully been bearing his share. Tip for anyone intending to travel longer distances with their dog, is to use a harness for both dog and human company, and to keep a short leader lead, avoiding tripping over or getting stuck in the bushes. This lead always can be extended with a long piece of rope when des/as-cending or at rest. In addition never forget that a dog's muzzle is compulsory whenever using public transport in France. At this note, we landed in the high grass of a field just outside Rhuis, within hearing distance of the E19 European highway.
Luckily photo's don't convey the heat / l'église de Saint-Vaas-de-Longmont in Verberie
Portal & cemetery
Viaduct from the TGV / Entering Rhuis
Day 6 - Thursday 2nd July 2009 - 20 km
Rhuis to Senlis
At Roberval - beneath the monstrous E19 highway - we paid homage to Gilles Personne - mathematician and contemporary of René Descares - who apparently invented the balanced scales, and presented it to the Académie des Sciences on 21st August 1669. Another piece of wisdom I acquired, was that the archaic notation "Sauf ayant droit" on the roadsigns indicate that "only the rightful" have access to certain country roads in this region ("ayant" being the "participe présent" of the verb "avoir"). Subsequenly we entered the forêt domaniale d'Halatte of 10.613 acres, which together with the forêt de Chantilly et d'Ermenonville form the "Massif des Trois Forêts". Certainly "massive" where the fields of fern growing ever denser, which oddly reminded me of Guns N' Rose's lyrics: "Welcome to the jungle, watch it bring you to your shun n,n,n,n, knees, knees … I wanna watch you bleed". My brains must have been cooking, because I hardly recall sleeping on the forest floor, and at the end of the day both Keanu and me were glowing like a coal, in a body condition which must have been a light heat stroke. Then again I got burned top to toe, nothwithstanding my baseball cap and copious quantities of sunscreen. At the end of the day when the shower of my room in Hotel le Grand Cerf spashed cold water, it truly felt as a blessing from heaven, cooling the core of my body back to bearable temperatures. While reading and enjoying good food & wine on the terrace a Senlis brasserie, storm & lightening savaged a village nearby, attracting all firebrigades in the region. Even nightfall, wind and rain couldn't chase people away from under their sunshades, as they could finally enjoy gusts of fresh air after a week-long wave of heat.
Scale of Gilles Personne / Portal at Roberval
Keanu leading the way / Le Chêne à l'Image (of the Holy Mary)
Forêt domaniale d'Halatte / Like a rabbit in a hole under the N330 near Senlis
Senlis & cathedral
Joining the GR-11 / View from hotel le Grand Cerf
Day 7 - Friday 3rd July 2009 - 15 km
Senlis to Orry-la-Ville (and return to Brussels)
Forêt de Chantilly and les Etangs de Commelles
After a bread & jam croissant breakfast and litres of orange juice, we exited Senlis via the South-West at 09:30. A signpost along the N17 just outside the city indicated 44 kilometers to go to the centre of Paris, but there is no point hiking through the banlieux, which are of biblical proportions compared to the outskirts of Brussels. Thanks to the drop in temperature I felt like an air cooled engine, though this would be the last day of our project. We ran like a train through Forêt de Chantilly, though I didn't fail to notice that it must be mekka of equestrianism considering the maze of horse tracks. Probably prompted by the horses, one path even took us through the forest in a single stretch at a compass bearing of 225° in less than one hour. Also at one point the GR12 splitted for the GR11 again, going further Westward to Lavilletertre. At some point we also spotted a viper of about 70 centimeter, utterly non-aggressive reptile all right, but better not having this poisonous snake slipping in your sleeping bag. At 12:30 we already reached "l'étang de la Loge" near the small castle of la "Reine-Blanche" (the white princess). The final track took us a couple of kilometers South, where we finally boarded the train to Paris at the station of Orry-la-Ville. As I was able to transfer immediately to the Thalys when our train stopped in Gare du Nord, I was home in less then 4 hours, casually walking the last miles from Roodebeek underground station to my suburbia of Sint Stevens Woluwe.
Where GR 12 & 11 split again / l'étang de la Loge
Home-coming in Sint-Stevens-Woluwe
In 2009 I walked 110 kilometres in 6 days, i.e. approximately 18 kilometers per day. Grand total distance of 4 trips combined together is almost exactly 500 km in 24 days (3 weeks + 3 days), i.e. average 20.8 km/day (measured on the map with a curvometer). The official total distance of the G12 is 672 kilometres (of which 388,2 kilometres in Belgium), but I choose not to walk between Amsterdam and Brussels, preferring hilly forests for walking, and flat open country for cycling. At the start I weighted 93.5 kilograms, whereas I measured 89.5 kilograms upon my return. My backpack weights 22.1 kilograms "wet" (including 4 litres of water and food for 7 days), and Keanu's dog backpack about 5.3 kilograms, though dogs his size could carry a maximum of 9 kilo's if trained.
This time around I could manage with the Topo-Guide "Les GR de Picardie", complemented with the "Carte De Promenade" number 09 "Paris-Laon" in the series of the IGN (Institut Géographique National). Also a word of thanks to Graham Greene, my favorite British author who mentally accompagnied me along the way.