Standing on the platform of Gare de Sermizelles-Vézelay, I was a mere couple of days away from heading back to London and that was gonna be it. The big IT; the end of my 10 weeks adventure in Europe. I couldn’t remember anymore why I chose Burgundy as my last stop. Perhaps cos it’s less than a couple of hours away from Paris, where I was supposed to take the Eurostar to London eventually; or perhaps cos I wanted the wines to drown my misery away. Who cares what the reason was anyway?
It was my last Sunday in the European continent, and of all the activities that I could have chosen, I chose to visit the Basilica of St Magdelene in Vézelay where the relics of Mary Magdelene were kept. Vézelay is a tiny village up on the hill and the trains don’t stop there. Instead, guidebooks told travelers to alight at Gare de Sermizelles-Vézelay and take a cab from there to Vézelay, which is approximately 10km away. Unfortunately, the guidebooks forgot to advise travelers against traveling there on a Sunday, unless if you drive your own vehicle.
I waited by the main road outside Gare de Sermizelles-Vézelay for nearly 30 minutes and there wasn’t a single cab. The train station office was closed on a Sunday, so there was no one around for me to ask. Since my guidebook did indicate a contact number for taxi service to Vézelay, I braved the payphone and dialed the number. As I had feared, the person who answered the phone couldn’t speak English at all and my rudimentary French failed me at the last-minute.
There was a tiny village right behind the station and I thought I should ask for help. But as I walked along the only road I could find, all the doors and windows of the houses were firmly shut. Even the door to the village church was locked. I couldn’t see a single person around. It reminded me of a scene out of a cowboy movie whenever a fugitive passes by a small town 😛 So, what now? Go back to Auxerre? Look for a new destination?
As I walked back to the main road, I saw a turning to the right with a road sign indicating “Vézelay 10 km”. On impulse, I took the turning and followed the road sign. With my walking speed, I thought I could have covered 10 km in 2 hours and I was really tempted to try that. Since it was such a clear day, why not?
And thus, I ended up walking the full 10 km to reach Vézelay. It took me 2.5 hours instead of 2, since the last 2 km was an uphill climb. The 10 km walk stretched along pleasant countryside filled with golden crops and herds of cattle, vineyards and the occasional dense forest. Plenty of cars passed me by and many times I nearly stuck my thumb out to ask for a ride. But each time I did, images of a single female traveler being kidnapped while hitchhiking filled my head. This ritual of nearly sticking my thumb out and pulling back at the last-minute kept occurring at every half kilometer or so, until I reached the last one kilometer and thought there was no point in hitchhiking anymore. Looking back, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at how silly I must have looked back then 😛
Eager to rest my weary feet, I had lunch at a cafe as soon as I arrived. The locals there told me that there was usually a shuttle bus service running from Avallon train station to Vézelay on weekdays. Since it was a Sunday, they said they could help me book a cab, but it was going to cost me around 30 euros for a ride back to the train station because the cab driver would have to come all the way from his village to pick me up (apparently they said you could easily find a cab loitering around the town on weekdays; so all the more reason why you should avoid going there on Sundays). This option would have been fine if there were other travelers to share the cost with. Again, that day being a Sunday, I couldn’t find any travelers or backpackers around. That had left me with two options; to hitchhike or to walk 10 km back to the station. The locals assured me that hitchhiking was perfectly safe there, and that it was very common for drivers to pick up travelers along the way, especially during high season.
Armed with that information, I completed my visit to the basilica and got ready to head back in the late afternoon. This time, with the assurance from the locals I thought I should be more confident to stick my thumb out.
Apparently, that was not the case. The first car passed me by and I failed to stick out my thumb. It was quickly followed by the second, third, fourth, and fifth car until I eventually lost count. Each time, I kept agonizing over whether to stick or not to stick out my thumb and I always ended up deciding not to. I was so mad at myself for not having the courage to do something as simple as that. I couldn’t even tell what my excuse was. Perhaps I was a coward. Or perhaps I was just too much of a hikikomori that asking a complete stranger for a ride wasn’t part of my dictionary. Whatever the excuse was, I broke my own walking record and went home with a pair of blistery feet that day. FYI, I couldn’t stop beating myself up over this for a very long time afterwards!
My 20 km walk to and from Vézelay was officially the last activity in my Eurotrip, that is if you exclude a day spent bingeing on Burgundy wines the next day 😉 Back when I just embarked on the trip, I genuinely thought that this was going to be one heck of a life-changing journey that would result in some sort of earth-shattering epiphany for me. Looking back, I might have been putting too much pressure on myself. The earth didn’t exactly shatter, and nor was I completely changed. But things did happen, subtly. Small steps were taken, albeit obliviously. And I did gain experiences that changed some parts of myself, even without me realizing.
Just several days prior to Vézelay, I boarded my supposedly direct EC train from Amsterdam to Brussels. As I dumped my luggage on the overhead rack and began to sit down, the conductor announced over the PA system all of a sudden that we had to change to another train on a different platform as the train we just boarded wouldn’t be going to Brussels after all. When we boarded that other train, we were told that the train would only go to Roosendal, a town on the border between Netherlands and Belgium. From Roosendal, travelers heading to Brussels would have to find a train to Antwerp and then change to Brussels. What the heck?! No explanation whatsoever was given as to why the train route changed suddenly. Had something like this happened during my earlier days in Europe, I would have had a nervous breakdown rushing from one platform to another trying to catch my connections while clutching my bag in paranoia. However, I was unbelievably composed that day; carefully perusing the list of departures in each station where I had to change train, listening to the announcements and calmly walking to the designated platforms. Without me realizing, the past 2 months had honed me into a seasoned traveler. I had learned to overcome my fear of traveling alone, of being in a train station after dark waiting for my night train, of missing my train connection, of having to change my plan, of having to approach a complete stranger and ask questions, of reading a map and getting lost, of conversing in broken foreign languages, and many more.
Though at the end of the day I was still the same old person, I came home without regrets. I embraced the subtle ways in which I changed as something I should take away from this wonderful experience. Given the opportunity, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again. Letting go of my old and boring, yet stable, life to do something that most people advised against doing was completely worth every struggle and every penny. After all, they say the only leap of faith you will ever regret is the one you don’t take.