Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert to Saint-Jean-de-la-Blaquière 26kms
I noticed when I was in Paris this time, that they are now including an English and German translation in the Metro when the Attention a la marche! (watch your step!) announcement is given. As with many things French/English there are mirror images on the other side of the channel. In the Tube, the same announcement is Mind the gap! Sometimes despite all our best efforts, our attention is taken and before we know it we are lost. Sometimes we haven’t been listening to our own needs and our focus is on someone else. Sometimes it is simply fatigue and sleep deprivation. Whatever the cause, when our focus returns, or we awake from our slumber we find ourselves in uncomfortable territory.
Jacques and I were able to get up really early to undertake the biggest day so far – probably well over 26 kms. I saw 5:55 on my phone as we were leaving. It was another beautiful morning as we ascended what I will refer to as ‘El Capitan’, because of its resemblance to the one in Yosemite. The sun rose colouring the sheer cliffs and trees with a gentle orange-pink. The path was steep, straight up following switchbacks for the first hour and a half. I was scared by the drop away from the path in some places. When you see the shale rocks spilling down the hill, it doesn’t fill one with confidence. ‘El Capitan’ or Roc de la Bissone was in our sights from many angles and it looked so high that we would never reach it. In the end, we walked right on top of it. The vegetation varied also. A thick covering in some place, and none in others – leaving you to tumble down the hill if you lost your footing. I found myself savouring the small trees and vegetation and walking quickly past the exposed parts, with that slight feeling of panic never far away.
Looking back to where we’d come from, there was a beautiful view of the ruined castle we could see from St Guilhem and a subtle sunrise. The path was rocky, but consistent.
When we reached the top, we crossed the saddle of the mountain over to the other side of the range and would stay there for the rest of the day. Just before we reached this point, we were shocked to meet two mountain bikers. There were no other routes but the one we’d just come up. The path was good, but prone to rock slides and I wondered how long it will last when it becomes frequented by wheels.
Looking forward into the next valley we could see all of the little towns we had walked through for the last day or so. Pine trees and cones on the path appeared again, and so by 10-11am, the cigales were back too. The track opened up and changed from red to white dirt.
High on the mountain range, the views were spectacular. After a short break for ‘hotdogs’, we were off along the track, which had widened to fire track size. We followed it for some time. Jacques sang the Chanson de Pelerins – Ultreia and patiently repeated it while I tried to learn it. Later I had my head down, watching my step down a steep, rough track and for some reason we were both singing Frère Jacques. In a round. Dormez-vous? Do you sleep? We were both asleep. We realised we hadn’t seen a way marker in a while, and this was unusual, as the track had been well-marked up until then. We tried turning right, but so no confirmation of the way, so we doubled back and continued downwards, but something was telling me we were heading in the wrong direction. We’re on a road to nowhere. We turned around and climbed back up the slippery rocks back to the fork in the road, and continued roughly west. After following this for a few minutes we came across Jacques II as he was joining our track from the right. We had missed our turn to the right, oblivious. The moral: the signs are great, if you pay attention to them.
Our second morning tea was at Enclos Neolithic. We found Jacques II there and had a brief discussion about how old Neolithic was. None of us was sure.
After our break, we continued along the track and could see La Berry in the distance and a ruined castle, before Montpeyroux. Voices told us there were people walking around it, and we saw them in the distance. To find the way down would be our second challenge. Following a marker, we left the dirt track for knee-high vegetation, but the track was lost after a time, and our way again became unclear. Despite no way markers, Jacques pressed on. We ended up in a gully in the midst of thick prickly trees that there seemed no way out of. We got lost for 2nd time. There is a saying in French, Jamais deux sans trois. It is the same as in English, never two without three – things always happen in threes.
Fortunately we didn’t get lost a third time, however Jacques had instead tripped three times that day. We got out of the ‘thicket’ and up to the base of the castle walls, however there still was no obvious way down. The sun was really burning already, and it was only 11am. I was getting frustrated at being hot, still out in the sun and lost a second time, and Jacques’s continued insistence to continue bush-bashing rather than finding a track. So I went my own way. The track we had left for the ‘thicket’ ended up winding around the back of the castle, so I joined it, and encouraged Jacques to come with me. We followed it down, past some decrepit stations of the cross. The castle is off-limits to visitors as apparently bits fall off of it, I can understand concerns for the safety of walls over 800 years old.
Our expectations were high at Le Barry because we thought we’d reached Arboras – we wanted our 8 euro pilgrim meal. We again had further to go so followed a really grassy farm track and hit the outskirts of Arboras. A big bridge, then a little bridge, another steep ascent, and we were at our cafe for lunch – with Jacques II and Hugo. Just around the corner we had passed what looked like a mobile wine bottling operation on the back of a semi – a very interesting idea for small wine producers who can’t invest in the bottling and don’t want to transport the wine somewhere else. We continued up a small, steep road past some houses and a guy tuning his very impressive motorbike. We said bon jour and he asked where we were from. I said Australie, and he smiled knowingly, and said “Ah, Phillip Island“, in his adorable French accent. I was pleased to be able to claim it, now I’m living in Melbourne. Some discerning French people know Australia for more than it’s sharks, snakes and spiders obviously.
Cafe Atelier des Hommes d’Argille was a great little arty cafe. We sat across the road shaded by trees and canvas. The atelier was a cartoonist seemingly obsessed with time. His witty observations reminded me of Michael Leunig. I wish I’d had the budget and the space to buy some. There were also lots of public fountains in this town and we all filled our water bottles prior to departure. Some beautiful dogs accompanied us for lunch – ‘La vie en douce’ – take it easy. It was a sweet little town, the cafe being the central feature really. There was a castle with a tower, but it looked to be private.
We thought we were in for a good afternoon, but despite being partially refreshed by a lovely lunch, it was relentless. We followed bitumen out of the town, then turned right and mounted a consistent hill via a wide dirt track to the Rocher des Vierges – the virgins, well their car park anyway. It took ages and ages, up. It was slightly unnerving seeing spent bullet casings along the path for the first time. After this we thought again we were on the home stretch, and again we went up on a rocky and small track. There were some shady patches under what I thought were elm trees, then we crossed into another valley. We saw distant purple rock formations in the valley. It got drier and drier, and the track ended up like a goat track with many loose rocks but I was very grateful for my (plug) Salomon shoes – they are excellent. Then came red earth and the cigales, many dragonflies at a still pond. The vegetation changed to saltbush. It was 4.00pm and really, really hot now. I was hoping to be out of the sun well before this late hour. At the signpost to Rocher des Vierges, it had promised 4.75kms. True to form, this last ‘hour’ was excruciating.
My legs had rubbed together uncomfortably all day with the perspiration, and now I was beside myself with the pain, every step causing more torture between my legs. With the very long walk, being lost twice and scratched in the thicket, I was on my last legs, and broke down eventually, Jacques providing a shoulder to cry on. Maybe he should be called St Jacques? My feet were so tired, my legs were in pain, I was barely walking when we passed the rubbish dump – surely we must be close now? Vertical stone wall, vertical path. What is it about steep descents into towns at the end of the day? We arrived at 4.55pm. Save about an hour an a half of breaks, we had walked all day, and I was absolutely spent.
Jacques had phoned ahead and booked a gite, and as we walked toward the town’s epicerie to ask of it, a guy came up to us and said we were staying at his house. The gite wasn’t available, and the woman had said we could stay with her friends, opposite the church. He took us to a self-contained two bedroom unit downstairs from his house. I broke down crying again when his wife came in and kindly provided us with towels and fresh tomatoes from her garden. After I gingerly showered and hobbled, legs apart around the little space, I managed to slowly accompany Jacques shopping. The epicerie was really well set up with lots of mini things that suit pilgrims. Little serves of Roquefort cheese were the ones that caught my eye, but there were also small jars of bonne maman confiture and little pats of butter. Good sized supplies for breakfast. They also had the ready-made meals, so Boeuf Bourgogne was on the menu. We ran into Jacques II and Hugo and they were going to a cafe for dinner. They had got worried that something had happened to us when we didn’t come to their gite, and Jacques II had come looking for us out on the road. I was dead, but I was still walking. Once we’d finished our shopping, we joined them for a drink at the pizzeria. I ordered my favourite – Diablo Menthe. It helped a little.
Back at the gite, I was feeling dehydrated and burnt, and I had the shivers, which could only mean one thing – heat stroke. It was the most ridiculously long and tiring day, and I was very upset and overwhelmed. Each day up until now had got more difficult. The distances too had got much longer. Whereas I had wanted to do around 20kms a day, with wrong turns and scorching sun, it felt like 30kms. I started to get an idea that walking at this pace was not proving to be the best thing for me. I was angry, sleep-deprived, and I hadn’t written pages for days. This arrangement, whilst good for companionship, was sucking me dry. Out in the hot sun that afternoon, I really could have just sat where I was and not gone any further. I was so wrung out from it. My body and my mind were saying no more.
It is strange that the terrain can look so beautiful, though the way is so hard. The photos don’t say anything about the pain and exhaustion my body was experiencing. And what was so frustrating was that this was meant to be enjoyable!
This wasn’t fun anymore.
I had just woken up.