Via Podiensis: The first week is for the body

I read in the book, Paris to the Pyrenees, that it is said the first week of a long walk is for the body, the second, the mind and rest for the spirit. Well I have spent the first week of my walk sacrificing my body to the mountains of Saone-et-Loire, Loire and Rhine regions of France.

What I thought would be rolling hills, turned out to be high grade hiking trails but not nearly so well maintained. I’ve scaled a 1,000m mountain and counted more passes than I care to list. I’ve walked too many kilometres each day (35kms one day) and at the wrong times (leaving in the afternoon and arriving at 7pm or on one occasion 9pm). I’ve not drunk enough water. I’ve stubbornly followed GR waymarkers that clearly weren’t mine to follow. I have been hopelessly lost, wailing to the creatures of the forest in despair.

So what have I learned from all this?

Don’t begin in the middle

I mistakenly thought that I knew what the deal was with this walking thing. I’d finished the 800 km Via Tolosana in 2015, how different could it be? I had some recommended itineraries, and decided to compact the first 3 days of walking into 2 – meaning very long days of walking. Maybe this would have worked in the middle of my trip when I was over jet lag, and my body was accustomed to the road, but not in the first days.

You rarely remember the first parts of a long walk, the aching muscles, the blisters, the results of acclimatising to daily long walks with a backpack. Instead you remember he exhilaration and sense of accomplishment of getting so far and not quitting then the feeling that you could walk on forever.

It is important to start from where you’re at with the terrain that presents itself – for me on the GR765, this should’ve seen me do no more than 15km days for at least the first three days and get up to 20kms gradually.

Always begin at the beginning, as a novice and be gentle with yourself and relax expectations.

Being lost is frustrating, but mostly because at some point you were wrong.

It is deeply humbling to realise that the reason you are lost is because you weren’t paying attention, didn’t see the signs, or didn’t check your map – maybe all three. Even more frustrating is when there are multiple routes indicated by the same signs, and you’re following blindly for many kilometres and assuming they are pointing you in the right direction, but they’re not. If something feels like the wrong way, check! The route straight up for a kilometre out of a town that is not described in your guide book, is probably the wrong one. And girls on horses shouldn’t be trusted! They might not know the way you need to go. Putting your trust in signs is important, but keeping a healthy skepticism is vital. The route between Cluny and Le Puy has multiple GR routes crossing. Pay attention always.

From lost moments come unexpected surprises

After getting hopelessly lost in the forest on one day, I reasoned that I should just keep walking as eventually I’d find a main road from which to get my bearings. The unhelpful voice in my head continued, “What if you’ve walked all this way in the opposite direction to where you need to go and have wasted all this time?” (We were now talking hours of the wrong route). This was a possibility but when I did finally reach a main road, I found to my great surprise, that I’d cut off several small towns and was further along the day’s journey than expected. How amazing. It was confirmation that no effort is wasted.

These lessons all came at a toll on my body. A nasty blister on my left foot; two un-trimmed toenails digging into their neighbour toes; stretched ligaments on the side and back of my right knee; and a swollen right leg. But maybe they are just symptoms of the combination of the physical terrain and one’s state of mind. Once the body has been sacrificed, as the saying goes, maybe I’m now set to lose my mind!

Via Tolosana: The longwalker’s packing list

I have been practice-packing for months. It can only mean one thing – my next long walk in France is long overdue.  I’ve booked it and July approaches. In preparation I have reviewed my Via Tolosana packing list, and have come up with a list of items I’m happy with for today. It might change tomorrow, and my inclination always seems to be to add more, rather than subtract. The just-in-case syndrome.

I’ve read somewhere, that you can walk with only one spare change of clothes, and that all the small things, first aid kits etc and things you don’t absolutely use every day, can be bought if you need them. I agree with this for clothes, but for first aid, I think it is handy to have it with you. I attempt to keep my packing to what for me are (mostly) the bare essentials. Whilst this is a long list, many things don’t take up much room.

Ideally, you don’t want anything in your pack that you’re not using every day. But on the other hand, if you’re walking for 60 days, you may want to go out to dinner in a dress one night instead of your daggy walking clothes. So I compromise with finding the lightest/most compact version of anything I won’t use every day ie. an umbrella.

If you find you have to take everything out to re-pack every morning, it is actually a good thing, because it means you’re using everything in your pack.

Pack/Accessories

  • Backpack – North Face Terra 30 litre (purchased in 2008)
  • Pack cover (came with the pack)
  • St Jacques shell
  • Walking sticks (I didn’t use these, however the going is easier with them – other people loaned me theirs to try out)
  • Aluminium clips
  • Plastic bags (or pack liner or large zip-lock bags – for the 2-3 days you may walk in heavy rain, plastic bags are plenty – especially if you have a pack cover – which I’d highly recommend)
  • Waterproof bags (for technology/passport/phone) – Kathmandu
  • Water bottles (Take a drink bottle plus buy 1.5 litre plastic one when you’re there)
  • Swiss Army knife (make sure you pack it in the bag that gets put under the plane otherwise it will be confiscated)
  • Money belt (It can come in handy on planes and trains and where you feel security is not great, but mostly I didn’t need it along the way)
  • Compass (didn’t use it but it may be useful one day)
  • Compact umbrella (IsoToner make tiny ones that weigh only 250g)

Although my pack is heavy (even without anything in it), I really like it for its compact design and comfort. All straps are adjustable, and there are great outside zipped and open pockets to store things for easy access.  I love the top ‘lid’ which was great for carrying the day’s quiche or flat peach and it has a zipped section inside, so I could keep my pocket-knife and small things like salt/pepper and the compass in case. You won’t walk using an umbrella, but I found when looking around towns at the end of a day of walking, it is very uncomfortable walking around in the rain – handy to have a tiny umbrella.

Shoes

  • Hiking boots – Salamon
  • After hours light sandals (I couldn’t successfully walk on cobblestones in flip-flops) – Teva
  • Flip-flops (for shower) – Havianas

Clothes

  • 1 waterproof jacket – Kathmandu
  • 1 inner jacket shell/lightweight polo fleece – Kathmandu
  • 2 t shirts – Bonds
  • 2 long sleeve t-shirts – Bonds
  • 2 pairs long pants/shorts (depending what you are comfortable in) – Kathmandu
  • 3 bras
  • 3 pairs underpants
  • 2 pairs socks (thick Wool/synthetic blend hiking socks)
  • 1 dress (light-weight and compact for evenings)
  • 1 pair leggings
  • Pyjamas
  • Hat
  • Lightweight shawl
  • Bathers/swimmers/togs – whatever you call ’em. Yes there are some swimming pools.
Washing/Sleeping
  • Sleeping sheet
  • Quick dry towel
  • Stretchy clothes line
  • 5 pegs
  • Eye/sleep mask
  • Ear plugs (if you need them)

If you stay mostly in pilgrim accommodation – gites or Chambre d’hotes, pillows and blankets are mostly provided, so I found carrying a sleeping bag was unnecessary, and it freed up a lot of space when I posted it home.

Paper/Technology
  • Journal
  • Morning pages (A4 notebooks if you’re a writer)
  • Miam miam dodo (Food and Accommodation guide)
  • Phone (and charger & extra battery)
  • Electrical adapter
  • Pencil case – small round-blade scissors, small glue stick, pens for journalling
  • Purse
  • Passport/plane ticket
  • Pilgrim credential
  • French phrasebook

Being a writer, I pack paper, and it weighs a lot. But this is the price I pay for being able to write about my trip in great detail while I’m going, and I’m not about to give it up. Same goes for scissors and glue stick. I stick all my tickets etc into my journal as I go, and also prepare town maps and information about the route before I leave and stick it into my journal as I get to each place. It makes a beautiful record of the trip and I figure I’ll be wanting to remember my trips when I’m 90 and in a nursing home.

Encouraged by Alissa Duke and her gorgeous sketches, this time I’m going to try water-colour sketching – more to carry, but more memories!

Toiletries/First Aid

The other area I don’t economise on is toiletries.  I like carrying lotions and potions in the smallest sizes available, because at the end of long day of walking, after I’ve showered, I like to have a little tube of peppermint foot balm at my disposal or some arnica creme to massage my legs. OK, I might only use the paw-paw ointment once or twice, but I’d rather have it than not. A little block of ‘friction block’ instead of lots of bandaids for feet is a must that was loaned to me by my friend Isabel. I only used it once, but it worked by stopping a blister coming, and I was so glad I had it.

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I also carried a little portion of Salvital last time, and I was so glad I did on the hot days.

  • Soap (in a mesh bag you can peg to the washing line to dry overnight. Wash yourself and your clothes with it)
  • Shampoo
  • Toothbrush/paste
  • Baume de St Bernard (muscle liniment)
  • PawPaw creme (these come in mini red containers)
  • Jojoba oil (JoJoba make mini travel sized bottles)
  • moisturiser/aloe vera (mini version)
  • Sunscreen (Avene make a cute-sized tube)
  • Nivea Lip balm
  • First aid kit (small)
  • Bandaid – or any other ‘friction block’ blister stopper – excellent (so much better than any sticking plasters and it really works, but difficult to find in Australia)
  • Large safety pins
  • Small amount of real wool – excellent for shoving between your toes to prevent blisters
  • Salvital
  • Tampons/pads – can’t quite bring myself to go on the pill just to walk, but it would certainly make it easier from a packing perspective
  • Toilet paper – wind your own without the cardboard tube

What not to take

  • Sleeping bag (I found I didn’t use it on the Via Tolosana – may yet be proved wrong this time)
  • SLR camera (still deciding on this) and charger
  • Heavy sandals – don’t take Keens unless you’re walking in them (they’re too heavy to carry for after hours wear)
  • iPad (next time I won’t try to blog while on the trip)

Other useful notes

Space for food

  • Leave enough space in your backpack to pack the food you need each day. Sometimes you might have to stock up for over 24 hours worth on the Via Tolosana as there are not always epiceries/boulangeries in the smaller towns. Ask about the provisions of food in the towns ahead from Office de Tourisme/hostelliers you stay with.  Other pilgrims are a also a good source of info about this. Miam Miam Dodo is a good resource, but may not be up-to-date or accurate.

Use space on the outside of your pack

  • Use large safety pins to dry your socks on the outside of your pack if they don’t dry overnight.
  • Buy aluminium clips to clip drink bottles and other extras to the outside of your pack
  • I carried two posters in a post-pack carton strapped on the outside of my pack for the last 6 days – not recommended, but it is possible for those must-have souvenirs.
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After the rain

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Pack cover

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All the necessary – chocolate, coquille shell and Miam Miam Dodo guide

 

 

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St Jacques coquille shell. Pin socks to pack if they don’t dry overnight. Drink bottle attached with clip

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Beech walking stick, hat and post-pack tube with plastic bag

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Swiss army knife

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Rest break

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Acoustic Motorbikes or Le Tour de France

As you know, I will venture to France again for more walking soon, and while I’m at it, another marathon effort will be undertaken by lots of crazy cyclists in the feat known as the Tour de France.

Someone asked me this week whether my route will take me anywhere near the race, so I checked. It doesn’t, thankfully.  Finding accommodation would be mission impossible if the Tour went even close to my route.  Instead, I’ll just be competing with thousands of holidaying French walkers.

It was such a treat to be able to see again the lush, yet brutal, Triplets of Belleville, at the Adelaide Festival in March 2018, with Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville conducted by Benoît Charest live on stage. I’m hoping this year’s tour entrants don’t have the same kind of family background, training regime or become the victims of gangster kidnappers. It seems this is as close to the T de F as I’ll get for 2018.

However, the route goes to several places I have visited on my many travels, and I thought it might be nice to re-visit my diaries and provide some guidance to Tour entrants about the must-see things to do (after their brief and completely non-exhausting daily rides – ha ha)!

Stage 3, July 9: Cholet – Cholet (TTT), 35km

Should there be any tour entrants with Huguenot ancestry, I can thoroughly recommend the Le Musée de La France Protestante De L’Ouest, in the middle of nowhere (like Cholet, incidentally and near to it).  I can also highly recommend the train and two buses it takes to get there from Angers. My friend Seb called it ‘deep France’. The connections will be perfect – a train, bus then if you’re lucky like me, you’ll also get a lift from a helpful stranger, when you thought you were going to walk to the chateau. While in nearby Angers, make sure you visit the beautiful Apocalypse tapestry.

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Stage 7, July 13: Fougères – Chartres, 231km

Chartres cathedral has to be visited because it holds the ancient labyrinth, on which the Sydney Labyrinth in Centennial Park is modelled and which I wrote about here on my way to my last walk.  So if the riders are still able to walk, and the design is not covered by chairs (which it sometimes may be if you visit at the wrong time), then a lap through it would probably put competitive minds at ease or make them dizzy, depending. Or it could be considered a warm-down. Devotees used to do it on their knees – that’s also an option after an invigorating ride of 231kms.

 

Stage 8, July 14: Dreux – Amiens Métropole, 181km

Whilst I’ve been to Amiens, I have not visited the notable cathedral there (gothic and UNESCO listed), but just saw it in transit on my way to visit Villers-Brettoneux to visit the ancestors commemorated in the famous Australian memorial park there.  The Richards brothers both got their names on that list for lives they gave for God, King and country.  The memorial is a big drawcard for Australian WW1 tourists these days and ANZAC day services are held there and our armed forces bands play. My advice, don’t go in April.

Rest day, July 16: Annecy

One year, I did French lessons at Alliance Francaise, and one night we spent the whole lesson learning about directions in a little town called Annecy.  They always like to make the exercises practical, so by the end, we all pretty much knew our way around this cute town in the mountains near the Swiss border.

One of the wonderful benefits I had of hosting many Couchsurfers, was making friends who I have visited on my French trips.  One such lovely visitor was Celine, and I was thrilled when I was going to meet a person who came from that charming town. I visited her at Christmas time and she put me up for a few days and introduced me to the wonders of this pristine town.  We drove up to get the view of the lake from above, where snow had fallen – only one of the few times I’ve seen snow.  The swans on the lake, the museum/chateau and a traditional fondue dinner in wooden-chalet-type restaurant are all lovely memories.  It is great the riders get to rest in Annecy – it is worth soaking up.

 

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Rest day, July 23: Carcassonne

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Carcassonne – a place I had built up so many idealised versions of, only to find when I got there on my 2015 trip, that it made me feel a little sick.  I don’t know whether it was the commercialisation, the difficult accommodation experience I had, being there on THE busiest national monument day of the year, Assumption, or a past life as a Cathar nun, but it disturbed me.  The ancient (but heavily re-built) medieval cite is spectacular and would look right at home in the Game of Thrones, but playing the boardgame is as close as I want to get until I walk the GR78 Voie du Piémont.  I don’t know how much rest the pedallers will get, I just found the whole thing unsettling.

 

Stage 18, July 26: Trie-sur-Baïse – Pau, 172km

Pau is a most interesting city.  With a balustraded promenade that overlooks the Pyrenees, which on a humid day, look hazy in the distance. There is a tangle of subterranean roadways that make you feel like you’re in an Escher  picture. It is full of history – being the place Henry IV was born. I didn’t get to see it, but would have liked to visit the Chateau. What I did see was one of my favourite things on wheels, a funicular – very short, very steep, and straight to the point – breakfast. It is a a great entrance to the next town on the list, just a short trip away by train. I passed through Pau three times on my Via Tolosana adventure – here, here and here. Jemais deux sans trois. Never two without three.

 

Stage 19, July 27: Lourdes – Laruns, 200km

I wonder whether any contestants will take the healing waters in St Bernadette’s town? Maybe there will be masses in their honour.  There will certainly be a premium on accommodation – it is difficult enough when there are just pilgrims, but add in the entourage of en velo support crews, and the deep peace of the place will likely be thrown into chaos. Lourdes is second in tourist popularity only to Paris, quite a Mecca – excuse the mixed religious metaphor. I also wrote about Lourdes during my Via Tolosana adventure and reviewed the film here.

 

Stage 21, July 29: Houilles – Paris Champs Elysées, 115km

I’m a bit of a strange Paris tourist – I’ve not spent any time at the Arc de Triomphe or much on the Champs Elysees, although I have walked along parts thereof once or twice. Probably the closest I’ve got to the feeling of being on it was singing Joe Dessin’s version at French classes at Le Café Flo. Does that count? Probably not.

So I’ll leave you with a sound-track for your consumption of le Tour de Fromage, the best arm-chair drone/helicopter tourism you will ever experience courtesy of Luka BloomThe Acoustic Motorbike.

Pedal on.

And I’ve never known why they’re called pelotons, not velotons. Maybe someone can enlighten me.

Enjoy the trip!

Another long walk in France

You may remember last time I walked in France, I eventually blogged my 46 days. Well this time, I’m only going to hold myself to 100 words a day plus a photo … on Instagram. If you want to walk with me – head on over.

bronwhy2018 on Instagram

I’ve had several conversations with people in the last few weeks about being outside, and what draws me to this type of walking. There is a beautiful freedom and ironically, a sense of security in being outdoors, and I think Rebecca Solnit captures it with her words:

“Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors…disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

This idea also dovetails well with some material our philosophy group is working through at the moment,

“The whole world is pervaded by me yet my form is not seen”

It is worth pondering where our limits lie, and to also acknowledge that the whole world lives in us. William Blake’s words are brought to mind,

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

I’ve added to my original post – it just keeps getting longer … where do your limits lie?

Beyond Borders in Blois

A child of the city of churches, I grew up visiting Adelaide’s pre-eminent ‘Sunnyside Mall’ at first with my mother in our school holiday Myer excursions, then later of my own volition.

I remember the buzz and excitement (from some) when the multinational Borders Bookstore graced the Rundle Mall with its presence. Riding the tidal wave of coffee popularity, the business traded on the promise of being able to browse books whilst sipping on coffee, which, amongst other things, for some years made it a successful business. Its enormity for Adelaide could be measured by the fact that this bookshop had several levels and internal escalators. Up until then only large, long established retailers boasted this. Then ebooks and the internet seemed to make it impossible for such behemoth businesses to continue and as soon as it came, it was bought up by bigger (or more secure fish), then eventually disappeared.

When I say some were excited, I like to excuse myself, because I’m cynical about the perfect storm of a US multinational in a small local market with many rival booksellers, and I worried for the future of the small bookstores in Adelaide.

So you can imagine the pure joy, when on my 2013 trip to Blois, France, while pursuing the long line of my Chartier ancestors,  I happened across the answer to the coffee/book browsing dilemma in the form of Liber.Thés, a clever, quintessentially French play on words for a librairie/salon de thé (bookstore/tea salon).

The less intrepid tourist might not find this little gem, sited on the rive gauche (left bank) of the Loire, and away from the popular attractions like the Royal Château de Blois and for me the Archives départementales de la Sarthe.  But once on the other side, it is difficult to walk past it, as the atmosphere is both bookish and artistic – an altogether bohémien little nook. In weighing up whether to go in, I was reassured by 1. lots of customers, 2. lots of books and 3. a très cool look.

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I was searching for a feed, but I took the opportunity to search the shelves as well, and providently found a book which mentioned my ancestor’s name. (I had been shown this book earlier at the Château Royal de Blois when speaking to their collections manager about my ancestor).  It was a limited edition book, 16/155 – Deville, Les Horologers Blésois – a bargain (not), at €180. There are many other second-hand treasures here.

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I seated myself in the the room with all the books, and took the opportunity to have a flip through the large volume. I was accompanied by the industrious bibliophile/barista who whipped up gorgeous pumpkin soup with croutons and a salmon and avocado tartine.

Are two martinis too much? Well, I had them too – not usually a martini drinker, but then also not usually in Blois! Abstract art covers the walls, a very french mosaic the floor and the bar is covered with a mosaic even Giulio Cesare (the reputed founder of Blois in 100-44BC) would be proud of.

If I was ever interested in the multinational bookshop, I’m certainly beyond Borders now, and much happier sitting in a local icon, catering to antiquarian book-hunters and which will most likely be here forever.

 

liber.thes@free.fr – 21 avenue du Président Wilson 41100 Blois 0254781478

Via Tolosana: Epilogue – Know Thyself

La Commande – Pau – Toulouse – Paris – 896 kms in a BlaBlaCar 

“Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply”  Leonard Cohen

A restless sleep, but I did dream. I wrote morning pages in bed this morning, because I could. I was up and going at 8am and M-H had laid out breakfast for us.  We ate while watching the Portuguese pilgrim depart, and M-H commented that this is how she usually spends her mornings: watching a stream of walkers exiting the little town.  It was so beautiful I was getting teary watching him disappear down the road. I feel so lucky coming back to such a lovely place to ease out of the way. I thought while having a bath the day before, you do need time for the way to leave you, just as you need time to leave the way. I was transitioning back into the road of my usual life. The terrain takes a turn for the more familiar, and then before you know it, you’re back on home soil. It is how it is meant to be.

The pilgrim in Oloron-Sainte-Marie park, Reiner, inspired and challenged me to always ask. To always be open. To always say yes. Marie-Helene thanked me for being open and saying yes to her offer.  She said she admired my courage in saying yes.  I assured her, it wasn’t a hard decision to make when she said she was living in La Commande.  I loved this place. It was such a gorgeous spot to come back to.

It was a slow morning, and at just past 11:00am, we left for Pau where I was to meet my ride back to Paris via Bla-Bla-Car.  Marie-H drove out of the town a different way to the one I’d walked in on, and I realised the little houses continued out quite a way along the road on this side, making the community seem bigger than I thought it had been.  We arrived in the small carpark in front of la Gare only about 20 minutes after leaving. I was still so impressed by M-H’s generosity in driving me. There was the funicular I love so much and the sound of the rushing river.

I met up with my ride, and it was a pretty uneventful return – a long 8 hour drive in a car back to Paris with a deux chevaux (Citroën 2CV) sighting.

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Getting to my hotel room, what greets me in the bathroom, but the universal bathroom decor of scallop shell to bring my pilgrimage to a close.

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The next day I took a bus through he ‘chunnel’ (Channel Tunnel) to London for a Huguenot Conference, also sighting another deux chevaux. My legs continued to feel for the road, they were tired and sore but I think they would have preferred to continue walking.

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Viola wrote to me – “I’m in Bilbao now, I’m travelling inside myself, it is hard and wonderful.” I knew exactly what she meant.  Travelling inside yourself is hard and wonderful, but as all the great philosophers agree, there is great wisdom in knowing thyself. What better way to have the time and the mental space to gather this wisdom than go for a very long walk.

After a week in London, I shot back over the channel to Semur-en-Auxios and Granville to visit two friends for another 10 days or so, before heading back to Paris to take a flight back to Australia.

On the last night of my epic via Tolosana sojourn, sitting in my room in the Hotel George Sand,  yes there is one (and it is great), about to repack my bags ready for the evening flight the next day, I was taking advantage of the super convenient wifi in my room (as opposed to the super inconvenient wifi I’d experienced along my walk), and what pops into my inbox:

Subject: Between Marciac and Maubourguet.

Yes, it was an email from Matthieu.

The End.

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Even back in the streets of Fitzroy, Melbourne, way- markers are not far away

Via Tolosana Day 46: As before, so after: a Marcel Pagnol ribbon.

Canfranc Estación back to France: a 56km bus ride via Col du Somport and tunnel

I wouldn’t normally have counted this day as part of my trip, but something so extraordinary occurred, that it has to be included for the fantastical day it was.

The 3 amigos were up around 7am and there was lots of faffing around, generating a lot of noise.  They left around 7:30am and I wished them “buen camino”. I got out of bed after that and packed slowly. I went downstairs and ate my pear and what I thought was going to be yoghurt, but just turned out to be set milk I think – room temperature as it had been in my room all night. I used the wifi for a bit and then set off.

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It was really cold outside in the shadow of the mountain. I walked past the restaurant I’d sat in the night before and realised they too had a pilgrim menu. The Office of Tourism was open today and I checked how the bus to Oloron-Sainte-Marie worked, and whether I could take the bus up to the Col du Somport as I had planned, or whether it wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t have wanted to stay here much longer without walking, as it was frigid.

I walked across the road to have a closer look at the Estación Internacional de Canfranc.  What a grand building! Amazingly huge. Amazingly neglected. I took some photos and was then trying to decide where to park myself to wait for the 11:18am bus to Col du Somport.

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I found a bar/restaurant that looked good for petit dejeuner. I walked in and straight away saw a pilgrim face – I don’t know how it is that one can tell, but after 46 days you just can. I went to put my things down at a neighbouring table, but she kept looking my way and smiling, so I said,

“Êtes-vous un pèlerin?” (who knows how I knew she’d speak French)
“Oui”, she said.
“Parlez-vous français?” I asked.
Oui je suis française” she replied.
“Je suis australien. Enchanté!”

And I sat down with my new friend and we chatted until 11.00am about our experiences on the way.  Marie-Helene had walked from her home on the same route as I had, but had continued down the valley, through Jaca and on to Saragossa. There she’d felt it time to come home, so she came back to Canfranc to return to France under the mountain on the bus – as I was doing also.  We’d had many shared experiences. She’d walked the Camino Frances before. We spoke broken English/French while I consumed freshly squeezed OJ, a snail (the baked kind, not the garden variety) and a cup of coffee. Perfect!  She was feeling lonely without the company of pilgrims on the way, so she was extremely happy to meet with me and chat – it continued her chemin experience. Serendipity, or providence?

She asked where I would stay for the night, and I said I’d go back to the gite in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, where I’d stayed just a few days ago. I was wanting to see the church I’d missed (it is a good one apparently) and I also wanted another chance to see Matthieu again. She offered to have me stay at her house! WOW!  The amazing things keep happening. Trust. Ask and it shall be given … in the most unexpected ways.  Marie’s son was going be picking her up from the bus station and driving her back to her house. I said I’d love to stay with her, but where on the chemin did she live? She took my Miam Miam Dodo and turned to the La Commande page.  That beautiful village with the chanting in l’eglise, the stèle discoïdale in the church yard and the photography exhibit where I had my most enchanting visit is her town, and much to my amazement I would get to visit it again!

At 11.00am, I explained that I wanted to take the bus up to the Col, as I believed it would come back down and be the same one that would then go on to Oloron-Sainte-Marie.  She thought that was a good idea and decided to join me, so we trotted off to the bus stop together.  Eventually it did turn out to be the same bus she would’ve caught – the 11:51am.

Taking the bus up to Col du Somport, the road seemed a much more major one than I’d walked past the day before.  We passed a huge fortified building set up high on one of the hills , Coll de Ladrones Fort (Thieves Pass Fort) on the way up. The day was so clear, compared to the fogginess of the two previous days. I was glad I’d decided to take this risk of getting this bus to see the pass again.  The bus stopped up there for 10 minutes, and I dashed in to say hello/goodbye again to Nieves, at Albergue Aysa, Marie and I posed for photos with the mountains in the background and then we were back on the bus ready for our return to France.  How lovely to be up in the crisp air on top of the Somport Pass again.  That was a lovely idea to come back up. The bus moves so quickly compared to my legs. It was interesting to see where I’d walked the day before.  M-H had walked different paths down this valley, but I think we all walk a different path off the mountain.  We encountered the sheep again, this time crossing in front of the bus – it must have been about the same time as I’d got to this point yesterday. Herds of sheep crossing – you could set your watch to them.

Back down to Canfranc again and the day had got a lot brighter. Maybe I’d have to revise my first impressions of this town.   A wedding seemed to be taking place, it was Saturday after all, and there were people walking the streets dressed up in their Sunday best. I was seeing a different side to this town now.

Travelling out the other side of the town, it wasn’t long before we were on the ramp for the tunnel.  Yes, the Somport Tunnel was right there, just behind the albergue where I’d slept last night. I didn’t realise it was so very close.   It was a quick subterranean shuttle. Before we knew it we were in Urdos, then Borce, then Accous, Bedous and Sarrance … and back in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. It was strange and puzzling at the same time trying to picture where I walked from the window of the bus. The hills we travelled past looked familiar, but the track is well-camouflaged. M-H had walked here a lot in her life. She had always lived close to the mountains.

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The familiar train station greeted me when we got to Oloron-Sainte-Marie and we waited a short while for her son to collect us. He and his girlfriend drove us home. They had a coffee when we arrived, but left soon afterwards.

M-H encouraged me to take a long bath.  It took no convincing. A bath is really a fantastic way to let the road slowly leave you. I had a long soak and washed my hair. How special to be hosted by someone who understands exactly what you are going through (at the same time they are going through it), and lovingly provides a home in which to relax. I felt extremely blessed and grateful.

She asked me later in the day, after we’d washed, done washing and eaten, whether I’d ever thought I might be back here.  I said to her that nothing I could have dreamed would have suggested I’d come back here on this trip. Although I did explain to her that I’d taken a photo of the house in the fields and also the restaurant with a wistful thought I could live here.  After all, you can see the Pyrenees from here.

M-H’s house is literally across the intersection from the first turn the route takes out of the little hamlet. She knows the woman who opens/closes the church and is in charge of the beautiful music playing there – she minded her cat while she was away.  Her neighbours across the way greeted her with eggs and massive tomatoes. Their daughter lives in Bordeaux and was visiting.  The husband is still farming, in his 90s. Absolutely amazing to see him drive back to the house on his tractor while we were talking outside at one stage.

When M-H had dinner on the boil, we went to spend some time in the church. Choirs singing Hallelujah greeted us in the church as we sat still, the sun streaming through the circular window at the back. We went next door to see if there were any pilgrims and to say hello and found four guys – three French and one Portugese.  They looked to be having a cool time but with a different mood to when Anne, Marion and I were there – one guy had walked all the way from Kiev – that’s serious: extreme pilgrimage.

We walked to Josette, the cat minder’s house to say hello and thank her.  Her sister had died in the week while M-H was away, which was really sad. It was clear from our short visit that she was a dynamo  – a great older woman.  We retrieved some of the peaches that had fallen from her tree and did the circuit route back to M-H’s place, past the Vendre Restaurant/Hotel.  For Sale for a number of years apparently.

M-H had gathered a few things from the garden and it was yum.  Rice, tomato and capsicum. Perfect. Peaches for dessert.  I booked a Bla-Bla Car after signing up for this cool scheme (that Francois had mentioned back in Morlaas).  We chatted for ages about the road, the way, life. What lessons we’d taken:

Live in the now (not the past or the future).

Go your own way.

Be still.

Ask always.

Love … just love.  Love is the answer to all your questions.

After retiring upstairs to my bedroom, I noticed a small stack of books on the shelf above my bed.  They were familiarly bound books as only the French do – with plain white covers. Classic.  And there, to my wonder, I saw the two I’d referred to in Day 6, La Gloire de mon père (My Father’s Glory) and Le Château de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle) sitting atop many others. They are very beautiful stories and very familiar to me (I have the DVDs at home on my shelf), and it felt like the gift of this day was tied with a Marcel Pagnol ribbon, bringing me full circle from all those days ago, climbing out of Montpelier with Jacques. History really does double back on itself, to show you just how far you have come.

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Climbing into a real bed at 9:30pm, snuggling under a fluffy doona in the country house of a warm and generous French pilgrim, I decided I was as close to home as I could be.

Via Tolosana Day 45: The Purple Patch

Col du Somport to Canfranc-Estación – 6.7kms

Today was the first day for several weeks that I’ve slept in. My sleep was unsettled again during the night, but I rested a little. Actually I was cold, and that never bodes well for a good sleep.  I got up, dressed, went upstairs for brekky at 7:30am – maybe not what some may call a sleep in! Benjamin, Jose and the other guy weren’t far behind me.  Nieves was up and doing her English homework which I had a look at, but decided it was far too hard for me, and told her she was doing extremely well to even be tackling it.

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After breakfast, one by one the pilgrims said goodbye. Jose, then Benjamin and the other guy.  I wanted to do some more writing of my journal and then leave. At about 10am, the dogs were howling with a huge thunderstorm outside and I was delayed.  I felt relatively safe in staying as it was only a short downhill walk today to Canfranc.  I caught up with emails, and chatted on the internet with friends. It was actually a perfect start to the day.  The rain eased gradually, and then the fog lifted and I realised I needed to leave. It took me only a few minutes to pack – I’d already left my mostly full pack upstairs in the entrance hall.

Nieves gave me a gorgeous pin as a souvenir. I left, jacket on, and walked out into the fog. The path was all purple today and once again, wet.  The marker said 858kms to Santiago, but I was glad I was only going 6kms.  Before long I left Aysa to disappear into the fog and I was walking over purple rocks with iridescent green moss – it was beautiful.  In-between fir trees it felt like classic Europe.  Still little crocuses appeared on the ground as they had yesterday, but it definitely felt like a different environment to the valley I’d walked up.  I couldn’t hear it from the chalet, but in the valley below was the raging river, Rio Aragón. It gives it’s name to the next stage of this walk to Puente La Reina.  There was a big area that looked like the product of a landslide – but maybe it had been constructed to make a good ski run.

It was a very narrow path down to the Hôpital de Sainte Christine.  I spent a little time reading the information boards and then left and emerged onto the roadway which was flanked by snow sticks to mark where the edge was when it was covered with snow I presumed.

I then turned left up a dirt path, then onto a small bitumen roadway and voilà! I was walking head-on into a sheep orchestra again – it was like a stampede and included one solitary black sheep.  Very cute and very funny they were.

The road into Spain was filled with many amazing views and landslips.  There were a trio of older pilgrims who had called in to Aysa for a Col du Somport tampon just as I was considering leaving. They’d arrived by bus to start walking from there. I think many pilgrims come in for the stamps at Aysa – the beginning of their Santiago trek. I kept following the signs, although many times it felt like I was on the wrong path because I saw the trio on the other road in the distance.   More beautiful views, cute paths and staircases.  New way markers greeted me – big, clumsy yellow ones and the same red and white balisages I’d grown very accustomed to.  I would still not even see a half of the mountains though for the fog cover. I thought about it as I descended. Sometimes we just have to be content knowing that something is there, despite not being able to see it.  I came across a paddock of horses, just past a giant purple landslide. Sometimes the little walking people on the signs didn’t point the right way.

First cattle grid crossed in 45 days. More forests and purple dirt.  Loads of mushrooms under pine trees.  A little hut like a hobbit house. A purple river made from storm water.  Today I found the Camino crosses the middle of paddocks – a foretaste of what is to come perhaps – I think I only crossed one middle of a paddock in France.  Biggest pile of rocks so far.

Near the town, I came upon the 3 amigos on the main-ish road – all paths lead to Canfranc Estación.

After a little more than 1 1/2 hours of ambling, I was approaching the town. The old Somport rail tunnel entrance on the outskirts of town was gorgeous. Mary is once again everywhere – she made it to Spain too, and watches everything here as well.  Plaza Aragón – conjures up my images of medieval times. I was seeing lots of accommodation options, but I thought I’d continue to find the albergue. I passed the station and saw that it really is awesome. Matthieu was right, and I was glad I took his advice to come here.  It is apparently the 3rd largest station building in Europe. I’ll go tomorrow morning and get more photos of it, sans selfie stick!

The town has a slightly weird feeling, maybe even a Twin Peaks feeling.  Like deserted skiing towns everywhere I suppose, deeply tucked between huge mountains, Los Arañones and Las Iserias (I think judging from my map) it is quite dim, especially with foggy cloud cover.  I found a place to eat lunch – they had a pilgrim plat for 8.50Euros. The primo would’ve been sufficient – a whole big plate of pasta.  Then I had to have chips and chicken fillets – very thin, like I’d had for dinner last night.  I couldn’t eat it all and I think they thought I was a bit strange.  The TV was blaring to keep the staff and the customers entertained, although there was just me and another couple still eating lunch. You know you’re in Europe when you’re sitting in a restaurant and the TV ads show a weekly collection of books to buy – about great philosophers! Australia – we wouldn’t want to be bothered by the inconvenient truth that there might be other ways to handle our problems. It felt strange that I couldn’t speak any Spanish, and I think it affected my impressions of the place, as the locals certainly didn’t speak any English. Hmmm.  I really let go of my safety blanket by walking into Spain.  It took me back to my early French experiences where I felt like a bumbling idiot – even more so than I still do.  It made me realise just how far my language comprehension and speaking had come and I was missing being able to at least start a conversation with shop keepers and wait staff. Spanish isn’t on my list at this stage, so it will only be a short foray into this country, as I don’t like travelling to countries where I don’t at least want to learn the basics.  A sad indictment on me I’m sure, but I can’t change what I feel is right at the time. After my meal, I set off to try to find the albergue that was the cheapest on my list.

Continuing to the other end of the town, I asked directions and found the Albergue Juvenil de Canfranc that looked open (there was smoke coming from the chimney), but all shut up.  I asked two women out in the street how I might get in. One of whom turned out to be the librarian, of course! I love librarians :)!  The library was across the road. Silencio, bibliotheca. What greets me on the library door at the top of a flight of stairs, but a gigantic poster of mushroom species. This made me smile. After all this time, I can finally find out the species I’d been seeing for all this time. The library was a cute little one-roomed number and the librarian said I could wait while she phoned the host. They said they’d come and open up shortly.   The holdings amused me – I wondered whether Paula got in Cannibus magazine for her Rockdale library? It was not long before I was able to go across the carpark and get settled.

The albergue is modern with a fireplace/common room/dining room downstairs and a couple of lounge chairs around the edge the room. There was another school group/youth group of people who would be fed dinner, but dinner wasn’t provided for pilgrims on this day. Rooms are on the 2nd floor under the sloping roofline, so I bumped my head on this a few times.  I was exhausted by my ‘mini-walk’ and my big 3pm lunch, so I lay down for a while.  Later I went to access wifi downstairs. Later still, I walked up the road to the little supermarket and got yoghurt and pears for breakfast.  Next door I had the thickest and yummiest hot chocolate I’ve had in my life at the Cafetería Universo while catching up with the day’s journalling. As I sat there, the restaurant got more and more packed. By 9.15pm, when I left, it was really ticking over.

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my albergue

At 9:30 I walked back and to bed. The Spanish trio were in bed already and hopefully I didn’t wake them.

Via Tolosana Day 44: The Dweller on the Threshold

Borce to Col du Somport – 17kms

I didn’t want to get up this morning, it was 6:23 before I left the bed. I don’t want to climb the mountain, and I don’t want this thing to end.

I gathered my belongings and went downstairs. Packs and shoes stayed downstairs at this gite. It was an OK place to stay, but it just felt a little grotty and uncared for, a little cold, albeit a big place, quite deserted of humans, maybe that was it.  I helped myself to muesli from the vast store of things that had been left by other pilgrims, and a coffee while writing my pages.

This way becomes a way of life.  It is easy in its knowns and unknowns. It is a fascinating thing. Every day you wake up and you don’t know the terrain you will cover or what it will look like. Who would’ve thought that yesterday Bedous, Accous and Borce were going to be so beautiful, or that the mountains would unfailingly take my breath away.  The reassuring constancy of the river in all it’s hues and characters. Walking far above it and then right down, up close and personal with it.  It has been a magical last few days of countryside. New situations, new terrain, new views. Many angels and many demons.  And yet it is known, in that you wake up each morning, write, eat, walk, eat, walk, arrive, shower, wash your clothes, explore your town, eat, write and sleep. It is so simple and predictable.

My knees feel good today, they are pretending that they didn’t walk 24kms straight uphill yesterday. They are being very noble. What a great idea – noble knees. I don’t know what I feel about today, it will be the final ascent to the summit, the pass, the frontier, the threshold.  All I know is that I will sleep in tomorrow. This trek upwards would be different for me if it was merely the gateway to Spain and on to Santiago, but it is the end, all over. Col du Somport then Canfranc, then Oloron. Oloron – Pau – Paris – London.  As soon as I’m finished I will whisk myself away from this place, this journey, and I think this is the hardest thing for me, contemplating this last stage, the end.  It reminded me that Virginie had said, toutes les bonnes choses ont une fin (all good things come to an end).

I feel melancholic that this is the last time I will be packing up for a big walk up an even bigger mountain. This is it. But I also kind of like it.  I’m walking on – it will complete my journey, but this last day walks me on into the rest of my trip and the rest of my life.  The trip will end, but I don’t think I’ve really come to any conclusions, only that I have a new trust in myself, my body, my ability to persist at things, to get through days that are very difficult.  My socks are not dry again. I try to decide whether I should walk with my SLR camera out today, and decide not.

The church bells, very close, strike the hour twice, as many along my walk have. I’ve never worked out why. That’s a question for a French person.  The clocktower at Sarrance rose above the little chapel behind the main one.  The mechanism was behind a door I think, so you could clearly hear the click of the timepiece while sitting in the tiny chapel that the monks used.

I saw Benjamin before I left but he wasn’t quite ready to set out. He’d catch me up in no time.

It was really overcast and foggy but not raining when I left.  The GR markers disappeared for the morning. Marion thought it was because they didn’t want to be associated with dangerous passages on the roads.  The walk along the road leaving Borce was really narrow and in the Miam Miam Dodo it even recommends taking the bus from the town across the river (Etsaut) for about 10kms up the valley, but I wasn’t too fond of that idea. It was fortunate, that because I walked early and got to Urdos by 9am, I think most of the heavy trucks were coming down the hill.  I made an exception to the walk towards oncoming traffic rule today. I figured the trucks coming up the hill and on the right side of the road would be travelling much slower next to me.  There actually weren’t that many trucks that passed me.  But the guide book was right, there was only 3 foot road shoulder and cliff, very precarious walking.  Maybe I was foolhardy, but regardless, I got to see some great sights.

Fort du Portalet was an absolutely amazing thing to behold, and had me thinking about the setting of The Name of the Rose.  I had lots of time to observe it, and I even snuck quite a few pictures despite the traffic.  There were corridors and windows cut into solid rock. Apparently it had been a prison during the war, and I had thought it was millennia old, but apparently it had its origins in the 1800s.

Coming into Urdos, I wasn’t convinced that taking the bus was any more safe than walking along the stretch I’d just taken as I heard behind me part of a bus collide with a truck. It would be too much to ask for anyone to slow down of course. The trucks pelt along the roads like there is no tomorrow, stopping for no-one. It was spitting as I stopped to ask a mower man about the huge abandoned building he was next to which turned out to be an old electricity plant, and I found some signs giving information about the geology of the area, and the incredible rock formations that I’d just witnessed. I was amused by a place called St Pee. I also passed a beautiful train station. It was not hard to imagine the train line being further extended up to this point.

There was a gite in Urdos, upstairs from the little epicerie. I spoke to the woman who ran it in the little supermarket.  She was lovely, and very interested in my journey. We had quite a long conversation while I was selecting my lunch and snacks for the day.  Then a customer asked about my bag, a petite, dark-haired woman who said ‘bonjour madam‘ to me.  The epicerie woman told her I was a pilgrim and when I was paying for my groceries, she gave me 5 Euro.  I was flabbergasted.  The other woman said she does it for pilgrims all the time!

I felt like I was back at the beginning of my journey walking through the Camargue as bullrushes once again graced the side of the road. I walked up and out of the town and marvelled at a house who’s corner was right on the road.  As I looked back, a guy who was up a ladder shouted something about the frontier.  It was certainly the frontier I was pushing, and probably the envelope at the same time.

Leaving Urdos, there was a ‘deviation’ announced for the GR (the way markers had re-appeared just before the town). The route should usually bypass Urdos just beforehand, cross the river and travel along the other side of the valley.  This deviation though left me again walking on the right side of the road for even longer than I think the Miam Miam Dodo knows about.  You wonder about these deviations, but then you have to accept they are probably for very good reasons – 3 of which I would find out later in the morning.  I had just been walking along the road, thinking the fall down would be long if a car went over the edge, and that these edges and walls must need constant checking and maintenance, when I see a car turn in ahead, park and two men get out and start inspecting the fairly new stone wall.  I tried to explain to them that I had just been wondering who inspected these walls, but I don’t think it quite worked – the complication of French tenses is completely lost on me, and what I was trying to say completely lost on them. They were friendly regardless.  I walked on.

Just as I got used to being on the road, the familiar right hand balisage appeared directing me downwards along a small bitumen track towards the river.  From that sign to the bottom, there were no other balisages, and I doubled back because I didn’t trust I was going the right way – it said it was a chemin privé, (a private road) – I hadn’t been directed along any of those before. I tried to raise someone in a house near the road to no avail.  I’d just have to keep walking.  In the end it continued, crossed the river and switched back up the hill again.  I stopped at a junction for a standup rest, having nowhere to sit as everything was wet from the rain the night before.    I had a pear that I’d bought from the kind woman in Urdos, had a pee (very exposed, but what can you do?) and I was back on my way.  I spied what I thought might be my last blackberries for the walk and feasted on them.  I wondered how I could somehow indicate to Benjamin that they were there.  I thought he’d just have to find them himself.  I rounded the next bend up the hill and what do I hear?  Hola!  He’d caught me.  Yesterday he’d said he’d taken a 2 hour pitstop in Bedous and hadn’t seen him all day and so I was surprised when he got to the gite in Borce after me.  I teased him about a similar stop today. I walked back around to show him the blackberries.  I don’t think he’s as into them as I am.  They have a really aromatic flavour in the mountains – they are gorgeous.

Yesterday and today my left ear kept blocking, probably with the ‘altitude’.  Despite this, I could still hear cowbells across the valley. We continued together, I explained I walked slowly and he should feel free to go ahead.  Not much further along and we came across the most beautiful collection of things – a brightly painted bin, two seats, and a bin full of tea-making things, a tampon (stamp for our credentials) and a full thermos. A petite pause. We stopped for a cuppa!  It was tre mignon (very cute) and offered to us anonymously by two pilgrims outside their home.  What a lovely act of devotion to leave a full thermos outside every morning for pilgrims.  We were very impressed.

There were lots of mushrooms on the track now, because of all the rain, pushing up layers and layers of leaf litter – the extraordinary energy of survival. Leaving here, Benjamin and I walked together and quickly came across an avalanche site, but after scaling that like mountain goats, I fell behind because we climbed steeply and I needed frequent breaks.  It was wet, really wet under foot today. There were so many little creeks crossing the path, or just really wet paths, and at some points channelled rock gutters that had been built in.  Thankfully, my knees and feet were really going well. I saw 12:00pm. I saw two more huge piles of rocks, avalanches.  I was alone again with my thoughts, my constant stops for breath, water and photos or to just listen when I came across a beautiful waterfall.

Today I opened and closed numerous gates again including two really heavy barbed wire ones.  Thinking about reaching a summit, you realise all the times you have written Col du Somport in a book, every time you have thought about it, you have been building a picture. When you finally come to do it, you start to realise that picture. It becomes real.  Today I was also getting an inkling that everything will be different afterwards. But at the same time, this is just another day of not knowing what the road will bring – just like every other of the 43 days.

I left the waterfall behind, but the path continued to be waterlogged. The mushrooms bloomed and the hum of intermittent cars sounded in the distance. 5 gates.  I have neglected to mention stinging nettle – it has been present for many days now in the mountains, and I’ve been stung a few times on my legs and hands.  The path had travelled at a constant level for a little while, but now it took a plunge through rocky patches where I was especially careful with my steps.  I turned a corner, came to a fountain and then walked down a grassy route towards a farm settlement. The route indicated to go around the perimeter of the stone wall, then I turned the corner and there was Benjamin eating lunch.  It felt a little like the hare and the tortoise.  He at first offered to walk and eat, but I said I wanted to stop – I had a pain au chocolat to enjoy.  We sat for probably an hour just chatting.  It was a little windy, and cloudy but it was actually sunny with blue skies overhead.  We sat overlooking the valley where the river was and where the road carried all the trucks and cars towards the  Tunnel du Somport.

I asked him what is ‘dry-stone wall’ in French, mur en pierre seche.  There were a few of them around. Even through the clouds the sun was warm on our faces as we continued to survey the distant main road and the path we would take to go up once we’d crossed it.  We wouldn’t stop going up from that point we decided.  Leaving, I was trying to explain Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, by Elton John. I didn’t quite realise just how relevant the lyrics were to my journey.  He likes the Beatles, so in the morning he was humming what he said was Blue Sky, what he says was Paul McCartney but I’ve found is actually the best McCartney song that he never wrote, ELO did.  So I sang Willie Nelson, Blue Skies, again.  His singing and whistling continues. It is a very endearing trait, and he is a real sweetie.

After descending to the river, crossing with a bridge, and reaching the road again, we joined it on the right hand side. At one point we took a big sweeping bend – it had no rail, no wall, nothing, just a sheer stone wall dropping down to the river. I wondered what happened with this non-existent shoulder! Scary! Imagine driving up it!  One mis-judgement and you’d be over the edge easily.  Crossing the road to follow the GR signs, we walked under a really low telephone line (he assured me it wasn’t electricity), up a stepped path and we started our final ascent of the mountain.

It was perfect weather. Cool, humid, a little sun and guess what?  My favourite forest, Benjamin identified it as birch, but I find out later it is beech. I love beech forests.  And I had discarded my other uncomfortable stick for just continuing with the beautiful one I’d found – much more comfy.  I mused that from mundane cornfields, I’d ascended to sublime beech forests.  We crossed stream after stream trickling across the path.  My socks were already wet inside my shoes, and I remembered my socks in my pack were not dry either and I’d had to pack them wet inside my pack.  3rd avalanche in the beech forest – a huge slip.

As we climb higher, I stop more and Benjamin moves further ahead.  He stops to look at things also, but not as much as me.  I don’t mind going slow here. I savour this walk along the softest of paths, beneath wise old beech queens. It is not surprising when I researched after I’d got to London, that these trees were long considered the queens of the forest, and the gnarly old oak, the king.  Beech trees impart wisdom and knowledge and were the wood that made the first paper for books.  It is little wonder I feel so at home here. As I have said before, the peace and serenity of these forests is palpable, not to be confused with pulpable!

As I get really high, I came across two guys out surveying, have two openings in the forest where I can see the pines on the other side of the valley, and realise with the fog crossing the path, that I won’t see the full glory of the Pass of Somport.  Many huge, hairy old beech trees. I haven’t found anything more reassuring in my whole trip. The moss which seems to cover them, holds a lot of water, I tested it.

Even higher up, I’m walking through fog drifting over my path now.  I see 1:11 and 2:22pm on my phone.  For a time I could also see the road below through the trees, the major road route had already been lost in the tunnel, so this was a small alternate/old road.  Even high in the mountains I can hear cow bells/sheep bells.

My iPhone carked it.  I came to a bit of a saddle of sorts – an ancient ruin which stretched over the whole site and a vista that I recognised from the picture I’d had at my desk since January, and which was now stuck in my journal.  It looked like a very ancient settlement, however I’ve looked to try to find what it might have been, but cannot find a reference to it on the internet.  The stones directed the path all the way up to a rock wall at the main road.  I thought I was only a couple of hundred metres from the Col, but something didn’t look quite right.  It was very, very foggy, visability was only several metres, but I could hear people at a big building down the road, 3 minutes away.  I decided to try to confirm where I was, because I didn’t want to get more lost in this fog, and if I lost the markers, I’d then understand where I was.  This was a new experience.  A helpful man was retrieved by the workers from inside the building, and confirmed my position – still 2 kilometres from the summit.  The sign said I still had 45minutes to go.  It must still be straight up then!

I followed the signs along the road, then turned left, and then past a few farm houses and beyond them into what would’ve been a beautiful meadow cut through by a creek in the sun, but in the fog it was just a challenge to see the squat little track markers, set low for optimal walker visibility.  The path was pocked with cow pats, so fresh that I fully expected to bump into a cow on the way up. I was also blessed with what I think were edelweiss flowers – they did look happy to see me. I was certainly happy to see them for the first time in my life. I stopped at a point on the creek where I could fill my water bottle – elixir of the gods from 1500m.  It took a while, but I came across yet another valley of ancient stone structures.  Maybe the two were connected – maybe they were part of the Candachu Hospitalet.

I then emerged at a giant carpark and the balisage said walk straight through the middle, next two motor homes parked there.  Up ahead on the hill a shepherd (yes there are still shepherds) accompanied by his dog, is herding balls of wool on legs, their bells chiming like an orchestra.  I had no iPhone to capture the moment, so I stopped just past the camper to get my camera out.  A man opened the door and asked if I wanted a coffee – the third time complete strangers have asked if I’ve wanted a coffee. A lovely moment.

We chatted for 20 minutes or so, my summit-reaching delayed even further, and the balls of wool on legs fast disappearing, not to be digitally captured.  It was a retired couple who were having a little sojourn from 30 kilometres outside of La Rochelle. They have a vege garden back at home, so can only venture for a week at a time and they were travelling with his brother in the other camper.  He went to the other camper, so I continued talking about gardening to his wife while having my coffee (impressing myself that I was communicating totally in French).  When her husband returned, it was obvious they were going to be off. And they left just like that! Another fast French goodbye. I was left there alone in the carpark to repack my backpack, by which time, every last of the several hundred sheep had disappeared.  It was funny but as I mounted the grassy hill, feet soaked, they appeared again, so I recorded (or thought I did) with my camera.  I lost it though.  I walked past the France/Spain checkpoint, deserted, saw the sign Somport – 1640 metres and went across the road to the Albergue Aysa, my introduction to Spain.

It is a classic ski location and it felt decidedly off-season. I could see Benjamin already inside.  We greeted each other like long-lost relatives, such is the impact and relief of a very steep climb!  I tried to communicate at first in French, then just gave over to English.  Checked in for 14 Euros bed with 6 Euro breakfast.  I took my stuff down to the group room, then went out to catch the sheep and St Jacques who was standing sentinel looking across to the mountains, albeit not able to see too far because the fog had well and truly set in.  It was cold, only 8 degrees outside. I had a shower and washed my clothes – and hung them on the exposed hot water pipes in the passageway. Hopefully they’d be dry by morning.  (It worked for everything except my socks). I went back upstairs.

Journalling with a moscato and a packet of chips is always a civilised idea.  The journalling didn’t last long.  I had dinner with Benjamin and another guy who came in late – a pilgrim from Valencia, Jose.  Later we found another French walker (Lille) who took the bunk above mine.  He was doing a circuit somewhere else.

Today I’d climbed from 637m to 1640m – I make that over 1000 metres in a single day.  I reflected on the amazing diversity of the walk. There were so many different mushrooms, mosses and lichens.  I trod over rocks of all colours, purple, yellow, grey and white and I passed through beaucoup gates. Lunch had been at 1000m so from there I walked up 600 metres, the last 6 kms being the slowest. It was one of the only days my socks and shoes were wet through.

I had done it.  I couldn’t quite believe I had accomplished what I had set out to do. I had walked some 800 kilometres in 44 days.  I sat atop the mountain, encircled with a very subtle feeling of pride, satisfaction and contentment.
Our hostess, Nieves at Aysa is lovely. She is Spanish, however speaks fluent French, and believe it or not, travels quite a few kilometres each week especially to go to English classes, so she didn’t mind at all that I didn’t speak Spanish, or struggled in French. She told me that she had homework, and I said I’d be happy to help with it.  She and her husband have owned the albergue for many years, and they have two resident dogs – Lola and I forget the other one’s name.
It wasn’t until I came home, that I realised how relevant the words of that famous Van Morrison song was to this journey and to this day in particular.  Standing on the top of a mountain, having walked near the water, having climbed higher and higher and with a fog closing in could not have been more apt. At the threshold of a new life, with all that the path had illuminated to me, I was the Dweller on the Threshold.

Via Tolosana Day 43: For all your questions, the answer is: LOVE.

Sarrance to Borce – 24kms

I woke up feeling very unsure about walking today again, I nevertheless got up to do my pages. It feels so good to be doing them so regularly. Breakfast with Diane. The guy I’d had an altercation with yesterday, came in and I said I was sorry. He was less than impressed, but I didn’t blame him, I had been a cow.  We completed our breakfast and Diane got going pretty quickly after leaving her banana. I had the remainder of – that helped to settle my stomach. I asked my knees and they wanted to walk, so I did.

Outside it was, of course, foggy and overcast, but despite a few small drops, there was nothing happening on the rain front.  The first little path was hairy. This was after being on the road for a little while with a steady slope up. Then, the path plunged down off the road to the right ‘you’re joking!’. Right down to river level, then up and down for several kilometres.  The track was still boggy and quite slippery in parts. As I was ascending some muddy steps in the track, my stick got stuck and I dropped it.  The track was so narrow, that while simultaneously stepping up, and also to turning around to descend the step to retrieve my stick, was near on impossible.  I gingerly stepped back down, my heart in my mouth (the hill dropped straight down from the path towards the river), it was muddy and slippery, but I outed the stick, then picked it up carefully, back up the little step again. It was an strange choice for a walking stick and I don’t quite know why I’ve kept it. The part I hold onto is a broken off piece, so it is rough and uncomfortable in my hand. It is also slightly too short, but it does seem to help me walk.

Best to have eaten your Weeties for the route today – I could feel that if my feet/legs had been tired like yesterday, I wouldn’t have coped.  The track for the first stretch is treacherous when wet and boggy and is not to be attempted on an empty stomach.  I crossed back over a bridge, and the track opened to a wider one – enough for a car. Walnuts appeared again. Champignons were many and slugs were black, just for something different.

I came across another gate this morning – metal – easy to open.  Hairy chestnuts had appeared for the last few days. But I now realise this is what Beech nuts look like too, so they could have been Beech nuts. After passing stone sculptures for 42 days, they returned with a vengeance today.  One called out to me to put another on top. I did a good job of it.

Coming up to Osse-en-Aspe I met Diane and we walked into Bedous together. She was going the same way as I was, but was turning off to retreat to another place high in the mountains for a few days, Lescun. We saw many birds flying around near the river as we crossed it – maybe the fish were jumping.  The railway cutting continues all the way to here. There was evidence of a thriving winter sport community.

Bedous is a beautiful little town, nestled in the mountain.  We both spent some time in the Office de Tourisme, and then I went to the toilet across the plaza. I said goodbye to Diane and wished her well. I saw four La Poste vehicles today, including one bike delivering mail to the Office of Tourisme. I spied Benjamin again, across the town square, but I wasn’t able to talk to him. I found a little organic shop with nice food, and handmade things. Quite the spot. I left passing a nice painting of a friendly dog on a door, by an artist in Navarranx – that place name has attracted me since Guillaume and Reiner mentioned it. Apparently there is a beautiful gite there. It looks like it is one my list for the Le Puy route!

I walked on, putting my footsteps into those of others who had left their muddy imprints not long before – how many have trod through this mud in the last 24 hours?  I stopped for a lovely little talk with a couple who took my photo with a massive mountain in the background – Jouers. They were lovely and he was touting the value of coming back to the Pyrénées to make a real tour of them. I told them I would love to return one day to explore. Next time, the sources thermales would definitely be on my list.  They explained this route only gets you through one valley, but of course there are dozens to see.

Coming into Accous I could hear distant cow bells, complete with screeching birds.  As I walked further around the valley they became clearer.

I walked past a little remote sculpture collection next to the path – the surprises one comes across!

I’m also reminded that in these mountains still reside bears, L’ours, of up to 300kgs, so I keep my eyes peeled.  They are probably dissuaded by all the cow bells, but you never know!  The little town of Accous peeped through the shaded path as I approached from above and the side. When the path turned a corner and I started walking towards the town with the mountainous backdrop, I noticed a para-glider in relief.  The parapents were coming in to land.

I was hoping to stay the night in this town, and walked toward where the gite was.  It looked fairly locked up, and as I was walking away from it, the woman from the gite drove past in her car, rolled her window down and asked me whether I was looking for a place, only to tell me that they were complet (full)!  And from her information, the epicerie (a little way away) closes at 12:00pm. It was 11:50am.  Not particularly helpful.  I realised I would need to go on.  I was feeling like walking more today, so this wasn’t too much of a problem, however I was slightly curious as to why someone stops purely to tell you not to bother.  It is not what I thought though after another 3 hours walking!  Access is a sweet little town. The brightly coloured fittings on houses, the pilgrim signs and continual stream of paragliders, never far from your attention.  As I was leaving towards the landing site, I noticed numerous emergency vehicles heading in that direction at a distance. I hope one jump hadn’t ended in tears …

The rich greys and browns of the stone walls and cliffs contrasted with bright green and white fog and the occasional red and white way marker. The little chemin de terre through fields were gorgeous, as was being dwarfed by loftier and loftier mountains on either side of the valley. Not hot, not cold, a little humid, so slightly uncomfortable for walking, but on I went. The path was wet in parts, creeks were bursting from the stormy weather the valley had experienced for the past two days and there were amazing rock formations all along the path, naturally occurring and person-made.  There was also quite a bit of busy road walking. A see why this valley gets it’s name – a dead aspe.  At one point the walk next to the busy road was so close that I decided to walk on the other side in the grass, on the river side.  Then all of a sudden, there was no path next to the wall, and I had to try and scale the wall again when there wasn’t any traffic.  I had to hoik my backpack up and over the wall, onto the thin shoulder of the road, then clamber over myself. At first I chose a part of the wall that was too high so I back-tracked a little to try somewhere else, grazing my arm on the beautifully set rocks in the wall. On this wall, I found a beautiful, slightly too short, perfectly round tree branch.  It made a lovely low, mellow knocking sound as I walked with it, and I later realised it was a beech branch. So I walked up the valley holding my wise wand. It had soft grey bark which was a huge contrast to the rough stick I held in my other hand.

I came across the tiny settlement of L’Estanguet which consisted of a ladder to nowhere, a big truck-stop restaurant, a view of part of the disused train line bridge and a couple of houses. Leaving the town, I crossed the busy main road, and saw the Pont de Lescun sign near a beautifully painted bus shelter.

I realised this was where Diane was headed.  I hope she made it OK, and more so, I hope she has some clear blue skies so she can appreciate the gorgeous views. They call it The Cirque de Lescun and it is definitely one for next time. The blue-green of the river continues to take my breath away, it is so beautiful. It can only probably be improved on in New Zealand, along the Milford Track. On the other side of the river I come to a hydroelectric plant and while skirting the outside fence I see a Japanese flag flying – interesting.  The piles of rocks continued, as did the familiar red and white stripes. For the observant, there were also answers:

For all your questions, the answer is: LOVE

The red and white even occurred naturally in toadstools. Sadly I didn’t see a complete one, but these (along with woodpeckers) which we are also not blessed with in Australia, continue to amaze me for the way they look exactly like they are portrayed in fairy tales and childrens’ books. Yes, they really are that rich red colour!  I passed trees who had their moss ‘shaved’ off for the balisage to be applied. It made me smile: nature’s version of a tattoo.

The last 5.8kms were really hard, especially the last little climb into Borce was difficult and steep. By this time, I was really exhausted. 24kms I think I trudged, straight up.  That’s heaps of steps. The town of Borce was a lovely stopping place though, and I was glad I had persevered with the long walk today. It’s twin town is Etsaut, which is across the valley, and which you see on the approach to Borce. That is where all the services are, like a supermarket and post office, and another gite. But I had my heart set on Borce, and to get to Etsaut would have meant finding my way across the river again.

I walked up the steep road which turned off from the main road, past chalet-style houses that made me feel like I was in Germany or Switzerland rather than the south of France.  The cute decorations, reminiscent of my first days on the road, some 800 kilometres ago, brought back the familiar French country sweetness. Continuing on through the main street, the beauty of this well-kept medieval town struck me.  There had certainly been some money invested here to ensure that these buildings were looking better than they had all those centuries ago probably. The Mairie is in a tower building – beautiful.

I was welcomed at the Communal epicerie/gite. It is a bar policed lazily by a sweet dog.  I paid my money and got a diablo menthe and a packet of chips. I realised I had not stopped for lunch!  There was no key required for the gite, which was up a set of stairs and behind the bar – it was open, so I let myself in. I found it to be yet another ancient building right next to the church and behind the Mairie.  It was cool, and I appeared to be the only one there.  The glass doors, framed by dark wood, open into a place where packs can be left, and the lounge room. Up a few steps and there is the classic long bench table that leads to the kitchen, which appeared to be randomly supplied with the leftovers of other pilgrims and well stocked with cooking utensils.

Up another set of stairs, and I find the toilets and bathrooms, then a room each for males and females. On the door, the most amusing introduction to a gite so far. It wins the ‘best rules sheet’ hands down – may the Borce be with you! They appear to have lots of problems with bed bugs – the legs of the beds sit in plastic containers containing some dubious powder.  It is super basic, but adequate accommodation though the bathrooms are dated and a little rudimentary, nevertheless I showered and washed my clothes with no problems.

I’d sat for a while in one of the chaise lounges out in the tiny back yard after pegging out my washing. It wasn’t particularly sunny, but it wasn’t quite cold and it was nice to relax outside. I was thinking that the monastery at Sarrance lacked these when I was there, and it was like an answered prayer that two appear at the next gite. Coming back inside, and sitting on my bed, I hear a “Bonjour!!” downstairs, at the front door. I was a little surprised because it was Benjamin. I thought he would’ve been way ahead of me again today. He had stopped in for supplies across the river at Etsaut, so after exchanging hellos I got the town reports and we discussed the contents of the kitchen and the gite generally. Afterwards I went out and back-tracked to the edge of town look at the ancient hospital building I’d seen on my way in and take more photos of the gorgeous buildings.

It turns out this hospital is now an Ecomuseum, holding an interesting and informative display about the  history of the pilgrimage, and a beautiful modern sculptural installation set off by beautiful lighting you can switch on. St Jacques makes an appearance yet again. Checking out the chapel, I find the familiar shell shape on the font set in the wall.  After my fact-finding mission, I returned to the bar to get wifi; there was none in the actual gite. I came back and wrote in my journal for a while.

Later on I cooked some dinner, something basic with food from the little epicerie in the bar, and shared it with Benjamin as there was too much for just me.  I went to bed around 9:25pm.  The room was really light with street lights outside, so I made curtains around my bunk like I’d seen Cloudine do.  Other pilgrims often have the best ideas about how to cope with the little inconveniences of the way.

Gate tally for today – 2 light steel, 2 light green gates, 1 compostelle grand (large) and 1 compostelle petite (small), 1 electric fence gate. Vertical metres covered today: from 370m – 424m – 493m – 524m – 660m.