Bouchaud to St Gilles 18kms
My juggling friend and I left Bouchaud together setting out for St Gilles in the cool hours around 8am. There was even a light breeze. I navigated as I had the map, back to Gimeaux and the GR653. Viola prefers to ask directions rather than have a map – I like that but it scares me somewhat having to speak in French to strangers. I explained how to read the little balisages (red and white arrows and crosses). It was only the first day, but from what I could see, there were plenty of way-markers. On the way we passed hacienda-style compounds guarded by plaster dogs and porcelain cigales. There was not much traffic all day as the roads were minor farming roads. There was more traffic in the sky – invisible, speed of sound jets, then the French version of the Roulettes did a fly past for us. The French have considerable military muscle to flex – I wondered where the air show was.
Viola had a very big pack, and she was worried about her broken buckle not coping with the strain. She chose to stop for a rest after about an hour near Mas des Bernacles. I really wanted wifi and food so kept going. We said our goodbyes, and said we’d meet in St Gilles. In the distance behind us were a couple I later met, a French woman and her German partner. I found out when they caught me in a little town on the outskirts of St Gilles that their way was from Grenoble to Montpellier and they’d already walked for three weeks.
I was alone in terms of human contact, but as I made my way along the Camargue canals and small roads, I was joined by dragonflies of all shapes and sizes – big blue, small red and blue then some beautiful swans. I was hoping for some flamingoes because believe it or not, they are native. Sadly, they didn’t join me. Instead I just kept singing the song Pretty Flamingo.
Not far from where I’d left Viola, I came across a guy fishing next to a bridge. Blackberries, bullrushes, canals petite and grand, rice paddies and vineyards. Every so often the road took a bend. The uncertainty of not seeing the road a long way ahead was kind of nice in that it broke up the journey and gave some novelty to the road. Funny that the same road can look different when it turns a corner.
As I would find many times in the coming weeks, the way is not always direct. The GR653 people not only have the route following old Roman roads, Compostelle ways, but also along paths to take you away from busy roads, past water, and chapels. All of the things a pilgrim needs. I couldn’t work out which one the route into and then out of Saliers was for, but it was an interesting diversion. I saw two beautifully thatched buildings that looked like churches, found water, and eventually sat down for a break under a shady tree. Two boys killing time in front of the town church were kind enough to allow me to interrupt their bon vacance to direct me to the little village’s water supply. France’s future is in safe hands with such polite young people.
In a book I started reading recently, David Downie’s, Paris to the Pyrenees, he included a photo of a fire hydrant. For anyone who has not walked (including myself at the time) the rationale for using a non-descript fire hydrant in one’s collection of pertinent photos of a trip kind of escapes. Now I understand perfectly. On long days, where there are few towns, all you want is a source of eau portable – drinking water. You eye off every fire hydrant enviously, realising they have everything you need, but with no way of making it available to you.
I crossed the impressive bridge over the Canal du Rhone, but then there was another diversion to bring me into the eastern end of St Gilles and to take me off the busy, semi-trailer filled N572. It involved a lot of faffing around and nearly killed me, but I was quite concerned to ‘go the right way’, so I followed, feet barely leaving the ground as I sauntered along white metal roads, over disused train tracks, next to farms with three exuberant and friendly dogs, two of whom jumped up on me, in what seemed like ridiculous heat.
As if one large bridge wasn’t enough, I came to the petite bridge over the Petite Rhone. Then following signs that looked like they led to nowhere, I found yes, after two lovely horses, another cute little bridge. I crossed a field by chemin de terre, and lo and behold, yes, another little bridge. This one had steps to climb. I was doubting whether after 16 kilometres I’d be able to lift my feet to climb steps, but I surprised myself. Les Trois Ponts, (the three bridges) things always come in threes.
I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid. I find the heat exhausting and it often gives me a migraine. So, to salve this possibility, I brought my own supply of Salvital with me, the thing that always helps me in Australia. I stopped and sat down to drink it in and take a break before sauntering off, only to be dealt a cruel blow. In the near distance, the road rose steeply. I could see for miles before St Gilles that it was on a hill, so I don’t know why I was surprised. Halfway up the hill, and wait, there’s more … steps! At the top, what a vista – the large bridge I’d crossed first, and the surrounding hills. Self-discipline, just keep walking, just keep walking. I followed the little markers, now on street sign posts and house walls, all the way to the Mairie (city hall), with enough French and European Union flags flying to make Tony Abbott jealous. The little red and white signs led me down steep narrow streets towards the centre ville and voila, the Abbey. Magnificent.
The two options for accommodation were en face the abbey, the Maison des Pelerin and the Gite La Pause du Pelerin. I sat relieved on the steps of the first, taking a breath while deciding what to do. I decided first to go into the abbey and was met there by a a lovely woman who was happy to fill up my water bottle, tell me about where a cash machine was, and about the very impressive crypt that existed below our feet. You can also have your Credential stamped at churches, and she offered to do this. It reminds me of collecting autographs when I was younger. I have Peter Garrett’s when he was just the cool frontman of Midnight Oil, if that counts for anything now? The crypt closed at 5.00pm, so I decided to make an effort to get to see it.
After this I also gave the Office de Tourisme a try. Philippe recommended the municipal gite as it was cheaper, and I would find free wifi in the bars in the town. I went to get a Diablo Menthe (mint syrup and lemonade) at a bar before making my way back to the gite. It was funny because Paul, the host at the gite, offered the same as cordial when I arrived. I could have saved my money. Jacques, a retired Belgian was booking in also. So if Viola made it, it would mean there would be three pelerins – company on the road!
The way it usually works when you ‘get in’ to a town, if you don’t have a reservation, is to visit the Office de Tourisme. Not only can they help with information and bookings for current and upcoming towns, but they can be mined for megabytes with their free wifi. When you get to your chosen accommodation, you spend the first few minutes booking in and getting your credential stamped, yes with a tampon, (yes I smile to myself everytime I have to say it) and paying your money. If there is a host/ess, you spend time talking to them about what’s on offer. Here it was a donation towards petit dejeuner (breakfast) and a cost of 12 euros for the bed. After this, you choose your bed, shower, then wash your walking clothes, so that you give them the maximum time to dry before leaving the next morning. Nine out of ten times, my socks don’t dry fully overnight – that’s why you see them pinned to the back of my backpack. After this, you survey the available food outlets and choose your food for dinner and breakfast, if none is supplied. What is included in the price varies on the type of accommodation you choose. It is great to stay in these little municipal establishments because they provide all cooking utensils, microwave/stove and often tea/coffee and jams for breakfast. If you don’t mind sharing with other people, and the night soundtrack this sometimes entails, then it is perfect.
I was on my way to the supermarche when who walked up the narrow car-width street? Voila, Viola! She’d made it. I showed her where the Gite was and went to sit in the bar reading emails under the guise of drinking a coffee. I found out I had a phone interview for a cello teaching job at 12.45am Monday morning. That will be interesting and may require a separate room. I made a quick trip to the Crypt of the church and it’s guardians were right, it is cool, damp and magnificent. Apparently it is also one of the largest in France. On my way out I again bumped into the couple I saw during the day. They were headed on a big 30km walk tomorrow.
Back at the Gite, Paul, the host, had rung ahead, and found that the two cheapest places in Vauvert had both closed. He found another, Coleurs du Sud, and Jacques was seeking takers to stay there with him. They had one room for four people. I was happy to agree, as I had no other plans. Though the 30 euro was a bit expensive, there was nothing cheaper. My bed for tomorrow night was settled. Viola thought she would make her own way, possibly camping. I Ioved the walk today. It wasn’t lonely, just solitary, but it seems tomorrow there will be company. The pain in my hip has transferred down my legs to my calves and my feet are aching. I could feel a dull ache in my coccyx by the end of the walk today. Nothing a night’s sleep won’t fix, I hope.
Viola had found out the locations where the locals gathered thanks again to the Office of Tourism and wanted to go busking. I wanted to check out the old town trail to soak up the old building atmosphere – one of my favourite things to do. So after a dinner eaten together with Paul and Jacques, Viola got dressed up and took her balloons to perform. At the end of my trailing, I met Viola down by the river and wrote my journal for a while as the light faded.
Well if this is the life of a pelerin, then I’m for it. There is not much more to worry about than getting up in the morning, walking, eating and sleeping. Back to basics really.