We were on a path we had never walked before, in a dense, unfamiliar forest, on a warm but very windy day. As the path veered left, we walked hand-in-hand under a canopy of multi-shade green. The soft grass underfoot cushioned our footfalls, and the wind hissed loudly through the branches above.
Suddenly, we felt, more than heard, a deep “whoomp,” and then watched, mouths agape, as a giant owl, his wings spanning at least five feet, launched himself from the high branches of a tree right in front of us and fought for purchase in the warm air. This most reclusive of animals clearly hadn’t heard us approaching until we were directly beneath his perch, and he thus was leaving in something of a panic. Before I could even think about raising my camera, the giant bird was gone. It lasted all of two seconds, but it was one of the most thrilling wildlife moments either Paula or I had ever experienced.
It also gave us a name for our new route: the Owl Walk. When we told our story to our friend Jean-Rodolphe, he was envious. He has always wanted to see one of these giant owls on his own long walks through the forests surrounding our village. But it hasn’t happened for him yet. It underscored for us how lucky we were.
Our home in Flavigny is a bit of a hiker’s paradise. The fortress village sits perched upon a high promontory, with one portion of our circular ramparts attached to a plateau that is as high as the village itself. In every direction, there are fields and forests, valleys and streams. There are almost endless opportunities for walks of varying distances, and involving varying degrees of ascending and descending. So when we want to go on our daily promenade, it helps to have a shorthand from which to work.
Shall we take the Cross Walk or the Bee Walk? The Forest Walk or the Lavoire Walk? The Lap or the Loop?
When we retired and moved to the countryside in France, I did not know what to expect. But I most certainly didn’t expect to fall in love with walking, one of the most fundamentally human of all activities. To be sure, the health benefits of a brisk daily walk have been well documented. It does everything from protecting aging joints to keeping the brain sharp, avoiding diabetes, promoting mental health and even staving off cancer. What’s not to love?
But none of the health studies explain why I fell in love with walks in the Bourgogne countryside. For me, it’s about listening to the earth. Being in nature. And having the chance to truly practice presence and mindfulness, not in the way that new age magazine articles talk about, but in a way that is meaningful and deep and unforgettable.
Because we walk in nature nearly every day, in every season, we continue to disconnect from the urban rhythms that ruled our workaday life, and we are increasingly plugged into the earth. Changes are incremental, but constant. And life begins to take on the shape of the seasons themselves.
In spring, we are full of plans and new-found energy, laying out a scheme for the coming year. Summer is a time of tremendous growth and activity, and there is work to be done. With autumn comes reflection, and a slow winding down of summer’s frantic pace. And then winter arrives, and we rest and regain our energy. I think it’s why so many people here work hard in their gardens, because it is a true window on the seasonal rhythms of life.
When one lives as far north as we do – roughly at the same latitude as New Brunswick, Canada – light plays a role in how we live. We are up early and to bed late in the summer, when the sun doesn’t set until 10:30, and twilight extends to midnight. By winter, we sometimes don’t get up until after 10. And we’re trying to keep sleep at bay a scant 13 hours later.
But always, we walk. One of our most frequent walks is the Cross Walk. It’s not named after a street crossing, but rather after a large iron waypoint cross mounted in stone. These ancient crosses, made of stone, iron or concrete, exist across France, and indeed across Europe, as markers for pilgrims on the Camino, walking their way to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
Walking the Camino is still an important, spiritual journey for thousands of people across the world each year, and many of them spend a night in Flavigny along the way. On more than a few occasions during pilgrim season, we’ll spy a backpack-laden solo hiker, making her way up the steep hill to Flavigny, and offer a ride into the village, which is usually gratefully accepted, a momentary respite from summer heat and sore feet.
The Cross Walk (8 km/5 miles round-trip) is also a favorite of the mostly cloistered monks who live in the Abbaye St. Joseph de Clairval monastery in the village. The monks have Thursday afternoons off, and can leave the monastery for a few hours, as long as they’re back before evening prayers. We sometimes pass them, strolling pensively in their black woolen hooded robes. The Cross Walk has the advantage of being accessible without descending from the plateau. Most of it bisects agricultural fields laid across rolling hills, and there are some ups and downs, but nothing too strenuous.
The Forest Walk takes us through the woods that are owned by our town. The Flavigny forest stretches across the top of a broad hill that can be reached by passing the cemetery, then descending about halfway down to the valley floor before climbing up to the hilltop entrance of the forest. A rough gravel road runs down the center along the full length of the Flavigny forest, but we always take a right turn halfway through and exit back out onto the plateau before looping back home. It’s one of our favorite walks in summer, when we are shaded by the dense forest foliage.
There’s a variation of the Forest Walk, called the Long Forest Walk, that takes us out of the ancient Poterne Gate – the one where Juliette Binoche exited town in the film “Chocolat” to go visit Johnny Depp on his barge parked on the beautiful, broad river that doesn’t actually exist near our town. That was a bit of Hollywood magic, descending from the Poterne gate in Flavigny and arriving at a river in Wiltshire, England.
What does exist is a steep, grassy path all the way down to the valley, then a well-shaded trail that winds along a small creek before climbing steeply up to the Flavigny forest. The Long Forest Walk is for days that aren’t too warm, in which we’re feeling particularly energetic. It’s difficult in the summer, because the trail down to the valley becomes overgrown and nearly impassable, with vines grabbing at your ankles and trying to bring you down.
Some days we take the Bee Walk, which takes us in a different direction across the plateau, across fields and farms, before it ends in a small, circular terrace surrounded by stones. What this terrace is, or where it came from, is not noted anywhere. To the right of the terrace, at a distance of about 30 meters, there is (or at least used to be) multiple bee hives or honey boxes sitting on the edge of the forest.
On the way back from the Bee Walk, we usually veer left and take the last part of the Lavoire Walk, descending a steep hill next to a large cattle farm until we end up in a beautiful hollow below the village ramparts where Flavigny’s medieval lavoire, or laundry house, sits in the forest. The stone lavoire is always quiet, always cool, always tranquil. The only sound besides your own breath is the water trickling from an underground spring on the hill just above and flowing gently through the cool, dark lavoire pool.
If it’s evening, and we wish to enjoy the dusk, we take the Lap, a relatively short 20-minute stroll circumnavigating the village, much of it overlooking the ramparts into the deep, bucolic valleys that nearly surround us. The Lap is important to us historically, because it’s the walk we took each night when we first visited Flavigny, the one where we saw so many houses for sale. Then we decided to look at some of them. Just for fun. Then we fell in love with one. Then, 36 hours later we bought it, and changed the course of our lives.
The defining quality of the Lap is tranquility. It’s almost always undertaken at sunset, and so the sky is often beautiful, and the vistas across the valleys to the hills surrounding us are breathtaking in the golden light. And you can hear the sheep bleat and the horses whinny from miles away. I can almost feel my heart rate slowing and my blood pressure dropping on The Lap.
One of the most beautiful walks from Flavigny is the Resistance Walk, so-named because it ends on a cliff where there is a monument to the French Resistance fighters of the Cote d’Or. The monument takes the form of a large Croix de Lorraine, or cross of Lorrraine, with double horizontal lines, perched on the cliff where the Resistance had a lookout post from which they monitored and harassed German troops in the valley below. The Resistance Walk is a hard right turn and about a mile downhill from the waypoint cross that ends the Cross Walk.
If we have three hours to spend walking, we take something we call the Loop, of which the Cross Walk makes up about the first one-third. If you keep going down the path from the waypoint cross, it skirts the edges of the plateau below and then curves around until it’s just above the valley town of La Roche-Vanneau. It continues on until it turns again and climbs back toward Flavigny. All told, the Loop runs about 14 kilometers (about 8.5 miles). There are ancient half-underground stone houses in the forest just off the Loop, and we always recall how the first time we explored them, Paula hit her head so hard on the doorway to one cave-like structure that she nearly knocked herself unconscious.
These are our own personal names for the walks around Flavigny. I’m sure other people have other names. But each walk has its own character, its own fractions of sunlight and shade, wind and protection. And we have a history with each. Already, memories accrete to the edges of each journey.
The other day, we took the Owl Walk again, hoping that history would repeat itself. Alas, it did not. The wind was calm, and I’m sure any of the grand birds would have heard us bumbling through the forest well in advance.
As we returned toward the village, we suddenly spied motion to our left, and caught a red fox dead in the center of a farmer’s field, trying to cross from one hedge line to the other. She stopped abruptly and tried to assess our level of threat. But she figured out pretty quickly that we were too far off to be much of a problem, and continued casually across the field. There was much to do still before winter comes.
This is lovely. Thank you and it really makes me admire your decision still more. Hoping NC house sells. It is under contract but … If that happens I am coming at you! That has been my restraint for 3 years.
Anyway, my first trip to South Africa on my first night game drive…my first wildlife viewing was of an owl taking flight directly above us. That wingspan! That grace! 20 years later I can still feel it’s presence.
When will you return for a visit and kidnap me? Love to you both
James, you paint with words images as beautiful as those you capture with a camera. But even better. Because you give the reader not only the images, but also your thoughts, reactions, motivations, and wisdom. Thanks just for bring in this world, with Paula, and enriching our lives.
Well written and done….that is such a coincidence about the owl. Elena and I were hiking a few weeks ago on one of our many neighborhood trails bordering Cabin John creek and we heard a loud swooping noise above us we looked up and at first thought it was a very large hawk or possibly an eagle…Upon further inspection it was a great horned owl…he or she turned and we got a great view of this incredible bird’s profile….only the 3rd one I’d seen in my life….and I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods (especially on trout streams)….You did a great job of describing the incredible wonderous and beautiful things to be seen if you spend enough time outdoors….
BTW…you probably know this but owls are able to consume their prey whole and digest only the bits that are desired, they are then able to “discharge” a rolled up mash of bones and skin/fur…if you look around the woods enough you will see one of these droppings…..