Via Tolosana Day 7: Surprise! Ou est le desert?

Montarnaud to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert 23kms

One benefit of having the Miam Miam Dodo, is that it has none of the useful information that other guides do, about the various sites to see along the way. I say that this is useful, because this means that I get amazing surprises on most days. This day was the most spectacular so far and I had no idea what would await us at lunch time around a dusty bend in the road. Jacques certainly didn’t let on if he knew, even though he had a more descriptive guide.

I neglected to mention when we were sitting exasperated on the church steps the afternoon before, another pilgrim marching with sticks walked past us a little way off. He ended up at the same gite and his name was Jacques. This morning we set out ahead of Jacques, but would meet him again during the day.

It felt like waking up at home on a Tuesday, as the garbage trucks rolled past. Jacques said he set the alarm for 5.30am, but it was actually 5.00am … so we could leave ‘a little before 6am’. I like his sense of humour, but I’m not sure about these early starts. The still morning and the pre-dawn sky made for a magical departure – over an hour earlier than usual. What a difference it made to the ease of walking. When we again found our trusty red and white signs leading us towards the 12th Century church I started singing I saw the sign, which I did for most of the rest of the day when I saw the little waymarks. I haven’t been so quick to explore the churches on the way – maybe when I get to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert this will change.

Montarnaud accueil

We walked to the edge of town and the way rose steadily past houses and another gite we might have stayed in. The bitumen turned to dirt and not long after we turned a corner and facing us was a deeply eroded dirt track that ascended steeply for maybe 150 metres. “What?” We did have to scale a steep hill, but wound around about on an alternative rocky track which eventually met it. We stopped a number of times on the way up for sunrise pictures. Oh what a beautiful morning, again.

Left luggage

Rocky Road

5

Sunset for mum

We rested briefly at the summit under a croix (cross) keeping a discarded walking boot company. Crossing the D11 we again hit dirt that quite soon turned into the most beautifully shaded track and paralleled the road for several hundred metres until we crossed back into another shaded track of sandy soil shaded by oak trees. Today we had our first experience of cement stoby poles with little piles of left pilgrim rocks. Like left luggage, only natural. It was strangely silent – no cigales this morning.

Soft under foot

On the outskirts of La Boissière, vineyards and turnesol (sunflowers – turn to the sun) greeted us along with a beagle for Anita. I again explained the pronunciation of vineyards for Jacques. A stencil on a hut had me singing Camille songs again, this time Hola. I can’t find the song, when I find it, I’ll link to it. I can’t remember what in our conversation prompted it, but then I was singing Kylie’s I should be so lucky.

Hola!

It seemed that every day one has a dog experience of some kind. Mostly they are just barking from behind fences, but today two dogs from the village were loose. One walked with us, just ahead, sniffing around for such a long way out of the settlement, that I was getting worried he would not find his way home. When I told him finally to ‘retourner‘ (return again) he looked really miserable, put his head down and indeed turned around to head back home. I wonder if he eats Royal Canin.

Beagle for Anita

Our second major terrain change for the morning was onto what looked like a planned but disused railway cutting. It was rocky and uncomfortable, but shady at first. It slowly turned to red dust as we began to see the hills that we would soon walk in. We were following the Ruisseau Grigoulet and passed by a little lake. Still not yet 9am we encountered railway lines and bridges and a strange converted bus which looked like it housed … someone?

Two crosses

Railway detail

‘These are the vistas’

We were on this route for about three kilometres and then joined the D27 for the short walk into Aniane after pausing on a brick wall next to a turn out area and collecting lots off pine sap on my pants. Looking over the cement fence, the collection of all kinds of rubbish was disgusting. It looked like someone had discarded an old pool liner there and associated plastic pipes – another Clean Up France Day perhaps.

Sap Collection Area

We turned into a small farming road and passed paddocks accompanied by jets doing exercises again – they go so fast, you have to look ahead of where you think the sound is coming from, hence their ‘invisible’ status on Day 1. Aniane was an interesting little town where even the Mairie building was unusual and it seemed there was some domestic dispute going on. Yet Je suis Charlie was a thing, even here.

I saw the sign

Aniane Mairie

Je suis Charlie

Heading north for a couple of kilometres, we then turned left to follow the foothills towards Saint-Jean-de-Fos. At only 11.40am, the sun was wickedly strong and burning my left arm. We passed over canals, saw piles of rocks with our red and white signs and surveyed the valley full of vines. Jacques caught us up on the way up the hill when we stopped to admire the panorama. We passed him again minutes later where he had stopped for lunch with a lovely view of the vineyards and hills in the distance. We continued, struck pine trees and guess what else?

I saw the signs?

Vineyard vista

We were glad we waited to stop for lunch because we ended up perched atop a cliff looking down on the most amazing international summer playground. Even from our high vantage point, we could not see all of what was ‘going down’. That had to wait until we commenced our walk after lunch. From our vantage point I could see a spider sculpture similar to that in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. Accompanying our pancetta and rockmelon were the distant squeals of delighted children, booming adult voices and a cigalle in the tree above us. Leftover gnocchi with plums for dessert made a great picnic.

The day before Jacques had told me the Jean de La Fontaine story of La Cigale et la Fourmi (The Cicada and the Ant). The cicada sings all summer and goes to the ant in winter asking for food.  What did you do all summer?  I sang.  Well, now that’s nice, so now dance, says the ant.  Maybe this is the beginning of the Protestant work ethic – they were big in the Languedoc in the C15th-C16th until they were made into the first modern refugees by Louis XIV and left in hundreds of thousands … in boats. Sounding familiar? Back to the story, I can’t help thinking about the effort it must take to rub one’s wings together to make such a shrill noise, surely it classifies as work. Jacques, as always, tried to find where the sound was coming from, but it seems as futile as looking for a supersonic jet.

Playground vista

Arachnophobia

When we left our lookout area, we came across a UNESCO site, the Pont du Diable (Devil’s Bridge), and despite the no jumping sign, that’s exactly what the young men were doing. At another rocky outcrop a small group of boys huddled like shags on the white rock plucking up the courage to dive the four storeys or so into the aquamarine water below. All accompanied by the latest ‘young people’s music’. It was quite an atmosphere of the summer initiation of youth although the rock formations, and even the bridge were ancient. We watched for a while, but it continued to get hotter and we still had several more kilometres to climb steadily.

more vistas

Pont du Diable

The road followed the river which had cut deep into the cliff, and continued to provide the perfect situation for kayakers and swimmers alike. We passed the Grotte de Clamouse which was clearly popular because the car park was full, as were both sides of the road with cars it turned out, from all over Europe – Belgian, French, German and Netherlanders all flocking to soak up the southern sun. Speaking of sun, I was already really burnt, and we tried to choose the shady side of the road, but at one point it was impossible because of the platform that awaited our attention below. As if lunch perched above a watery playground weren’t enough, the words ‘but wait … there’s more’ sprung to mind. And spring was certainly what it did. Out of the mountain it flows to collect on a rock shelf above the river and cascades down providing a natural shower to swimmers and sunbathers below. The sight took my breath away.

That plan is shelved!

Almost at Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, we rewarded ourselves with an Agrum bought from a kayak hire shop. We sat there while customers were shown the ropes. I felt like the shag on the rock now sitting on giant plastic chairs, but apparently this is what pilgrims do. We joked about how having kayaks in the desert seems a little strange. We took the road route around the village which when we walked the pedestrian route later, reminded me of the touristique streets spiralling around Mont St Michel, sans spirals. There were people everywhere eager to soak up the history of this village nestled in the valley between towering mountains. Jacques, always intrepid, opens a tall gate to a private residence, boldly venturing where no stranger has dared before, or will again, only to disturb a woman with a dog, Both are extremely surprised to see him. We get pointed in the right direction of our accueil with the sisters of St Joseph. Supposedly they don’t open until 4pm, so we skirt the biggest and perhaps oldest plane tree I’ve ever witnessed in the town square to visit the second UNESCO site for the day, L’Ancienne Abbey de Gellone. A quick trip through the dark church and out under the light cloisters does it, and we then wander up a small street lined with ancient houses. A sister, we find out later on holidays from Africa, asked us where we were going – quite apart from the coquille shell, I certainly have the hot and bothered, burnt and smelly pilgrim look down pat – anyone even vaguely religious would get it.

Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert

I say supposedly, because when we were eventually ‘processed’ we find that Jacques, I’ll call him Jacques II has already installed himself in the upstairs dormitory. I am getting ahead of myself. We patiently sat (Jacques far more patient than me) for at least twenty minutes while credentials were stamped, money paid, and more pèlerins arrived. Jacques found a La Fontaine book in the reception area and as we waited pointed out the La Cigale et la Fourmi. He also recommended Le Loup et le Chien (The Wolf and the Dog) and Le laboureur et ses enfants (The farmer and his sons).

Our packs once again were to be relieved of the bare necessities for sleeping, and stayed downstairs in a long gothic hall keeping the wi-fi company. It would be too much to ask for wi-fi to be available in the kitchen where there was a table and chairs.  I remind myself that the blog is dispensable, and the life of a pilgrim necessitates simplicity.  I did attempt to write after all walkers except the youthful new pilgrim, Hugo, had gone to bed, but gave up in the end.  I was extremely tired, and we had decided to again get up well before ‘a sparrow’s … ‘, as the lovely Foxy would like to say.

Shag on a rock

The little town of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is absolutely gorgeous and there is great history to it. Something about a monk friend of Charlemagne, Guilhem, establishing the monastery in the 9th century, but I didn’t get to work that out. Perched high above the town on one mountain you can see the tower remains of an ancient abbey which I would love to explore next time I come. In the town itself there were apparently 18 wells at the time when the chemin St Jacques was developing, we’re talking 1100s here. That doesn’t seem to fit with the concept of a desert. There was one fountain still running just outside of our gite, so we took the opportunity to fill up on the ‘fresh’ water.

Long after I’d showered, hung my clothes to dry and then gone shopping for quiche Lorraine for dinner and the equivalent of a hotdog in brioche for the next day’s lunch (despite the multitude of tourist shops, epiceries had deserted us), I got to explore the streets by myself. The moon watched while I surfed gingerly around the cobblestones in my yellow thongs, trying to capture the medieval buildings on film in the fading light. Thankfully at 9pm the town becomes deserted of the tourists, and I could amble around in peace.

Thong surfing over spiral

St Jacques

Giant old plane tree

L’ancienne abbaye de Gellone

Eau potable cocquille

‘Room with a view’

After dinner I had the biggest giggle I’d had for a long time when Jacques again talked about the possible need to get up during the night to attend to technical problems, something up until then he’d only referred to during the day. It reminded me of a boyfriend of a similar age who whenever he’d swear, he’d pause briefly to say “that’s a technical term” with a cheeky look on his face. I shared a few colloquial English words, as one does when travelling, for going to the toilet. Taking a piss/leak, having a slash etc. He liked those. I also told him about breaks in transmission where the test pattern used to appear on TV and how this discussion was shedding a new light for me on “We apologise for this break in transmission due to technical difficulties”. Maybe all along the TV operators were just taking a piss!

With that, I said I’m going to write some blog and then “hit the sack”.

2 thoughts on “Via Tolosana Day 7: Surprise! Ou est le desert?

  1. Bronwen, I think you went off line for about a week, and I was wondering what was happening. I am very much enjoying your travels vicariously, and it makes me want to visit the areas that you describe. xxHelen

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