Via Tolosana Day 42: Meaning of life day

Sarrance

I awoke at 4:30am and felt absolutely sick in my stomach.  This hadn’t happened on my journey so far. Other types of pain, but never sickly dread. That’s what it felt like.  It was still raining, and it had been all night.  I got up to do morning pages, not convinced that I would be walking at all today.

I have observed for myself and many others I’ve know over the years, that there certainly is some truth to what was identified perhaps tongue-in-cheek by Douglas Adams, and that is that the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything is truly 42. It is not surprising that it was Deep Thought that discovered it. My 42nd year was one of big changes, and I have called it my ‘meaning of life’ year ever since, so it was when I noticed that this was day 42, I was expecting something big!

I realised that I am nearing the end of my journey.  This meant I would be leaving France soon.  I never like leaving France. If only I could find a way to stay. It is turning into a big effort dragging myself up this final mountain, but it is dragging myself metaphorically through the idea that I will be leaving and ending this amazingly insightful time that is the real dead weight. I wrote a quote this morning from Pierre Gerrin, “ce n’est pas tont to qui marche sur le chemin, c’est plutôt le chemin qui marche en toi“.  You don’t walk on the way, the way walks you.  Maybe I don’t want to leave the walk just yet.  It is such a tempting way of life. Reiner has lived like this for 8 years.  I’ve met many people who return every year to follow a new version of the way.  What does it bring them to?  A great simplicity perhaps, or access to great generosity and a way of living that is deeply personal and functional?  For some it is the next step from abandoning all your possessions, putting faith in a higher place, that you will have everything you need if you just walk.  It is a very interesting thing to do, and will be so much an ongoing part of your life if you do it, even just once. It is alchemical as Guillaume said. It is real and purposeful.

Reflecting on these things, I began to re-visit my intentions for this trip.  What have I learnt about forgiveness, discipline and purpose?  I have practiced discipline and purpose, the walking and the writing have been clear reflections of this.  But I found myself wanting in the forgiveness department.  How do I do that, I asked?   Accept what has happened to you, and that each person has played an important and vital role in your life up until now.  Each character has played their correct part according to the script for you life. Accept this.  This is the purpose of your life. Just to accept that all is for a reason, and that reason is to bring you to know yourself and know God. Don’t doubt that this is true. Reiner said as much. You chose your life. Your body will continue to show you the way.  It is feeling again.  Watch it, listen to it.  It operates to keep you safe. It has turned the corner. The switch is set back to ‘on’. You have been re-started. Trust your body. Trust yourself. Trust God. You will never know such love as you have now.  You are the light that God has sent to the earth. Claim that light and shine it on everyone your meet. This is a cause for celebration, not trepidation.

Funny how things turn out.  At breakfast Marion tried to gee me up – “everything will turn out OK”. I started asking the hosts about taking a morning bus.  I found out what time it passed by and where it stopped.  It is the first day of spring in Australia, and Anita’s birthday.  Gradually, everyone left, the couple who were starting out on their journey together (in more way than one), then Marion and Sylvia.  Out into the rain they all went, but it wasn’t the rain that was keeping me.

I stayed, packing my bag up, planning my bus activities.  I spoke to Karine about it. She was a volunteer who had been helping out providing welcome to pilgrims for a little while in this place.  She was leaving today and so was the other hospitaliere, she’d left already.  I explained to her what had been happening for me. The distractions with my house in Australia, and having to constantly check whether there were bookings was taking a big toll.  We had a long chat, with a cup of tea.  She told me to be still, take my time to decide where to go next. She told me of the little walks I could do around the village – the shrine down by the river to the place where a fisherman and a shepherd on separate occasions had seen an Apparition of the Virgin Mary, the chapel of Mary Magdalene up at the back of the property.  Find solace in those peaceful places. Do what you need to do to be strong. She suggested if I could do without the money, why not take my house of the website, and cut email ties with Australia.  I decided to take my home off Airbnb, and just trust that things would be OK when I return.  In the morning the wifi wasn’t working, but it meant that I had time to contemplate what to do.  There is nothing I ‘have’ to do.  Not even go all the way to Col du Somport.

Calm. Silence. Trust. Confidence that all would be well. Go your own way. Take time to be still. It is all clear.

Karine said goodbye after we exchanged email addresses. She said I could have lunch with the community, she would tell Piere that I needed to stay tonight as well.

I took Karine’s advice and walked slowly around the town, to the Boucherie to see what they had, to the Virgin’s statue, then to Mary Magdalene’s chapel where I stayed for an hour.  As I walked back along the pruned plane tree path that curved around the hill, the ground felt softer.  I got back at 12:30 and suspected I was missing lunch, however I felt that I needed to connect to block out my Airbnb and tell my flatmate that I wouldn’t be contacting again until I was back in Australia.  I realised that some people like drama, and want to draw you into theirs, no matter where in the world you are.  This is their way, but it doesn’t have to be mine.  I have never warmed to it, and it has taken this episode for me to realise that some people are so completely wound up in themselves that they don’t give anyone else’s needs a second thought.  I don’t have any space for this deep anxiety in my life. Everything will work out for the best.  Yes, thy will be done, indeed.

There is no meaningless parroting for me any more. I want to live like this. I don’t want to have goals, I want the best life for myself, and I know that it will come with complete surrender. I will be asking so much more now, asking my body when it signals to me, asking myself when I am faced with a choice. There really are strong forces here to protect me. I know it. I no longer feel afraid in trepid situations, with cars and guns.  I know that I am safe.  What relief.

Lunch was pasta and roquefort cheese, I’m glad I stayed!  After lunch I lounged for a little minute and then heard the bells.  I thought I’d make myself scarce in case there were new arrivals at 2pm. I slept until 3pm and heard two new people. Then I ventured downstairs to the toilet and was surprised to find the green-eyed Benjamin in the welcome area.  He had stayed in Oloron for another night. I went upstairs again and back to bed.

Another pilgrim arrived and was shown my room. Her name is Diane. It is nice to have some people to share the space with.  A new energy.  I wrote my journal for over an hour.

I went down to the dining room for dinner, and there was confusion, part language and part beligerance about whether I’d paid for dinner. After getting to a more calm place, I was frustrated that I was again being drawn into a drama, that was probably my own creation.  I thought that Karine had said that what I paid covered me, but I ended up having a discussion with the guy who took over from Karine as hospitaliere. I got upset, as I really thought I had settled everything, and I was running out of money.  In the end I was in tears, and said that I wouldn’t stay for dinner if it was such a problem.  I walked back out into the cloister, through the welcome room and upstairs to my room where they new hospitaliere came to tell me I should come to dinner.  I wasn’t to be convinced, and stayed crying in the bedroom. This day that was meant to be a chance to collect myself, was turning into something different altogether. I went downstairs eventually and Benjamin kindly shared some noodles with me. He seemed sympathetic to my plight.  He is a happy fellow, who is always singing or whistling. Tonight it was Take 5 – the first tune so far that I’d recognised.

Let’s hope I feel OK to walk tomorrow, I don’t think I could manage to stay another day. I felt my welcome had well and truly worn out.

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Via Tolosana Day 41: Thy will be done

Oloron-Sainte-Marie to Sarrance – 19kms

I didn’t sleep very well. I tossed and turned and my knees hurt. It was not great.  I got up for pages. After breakfast, Anne, putting on a brave face, told me she wasn’t continuing. It made me sad for her that she wouldn’t be going any further.  After my interesting chat yesterday, today I made a commitment.  Thy will be done. Along with walking today for Anne, this was my mantra.

It took a while to leave this morning.  I went to the park to try for wifi, but it didn’t happen. I ended up leaving by the route which took me past the Post Office, just as the Dutch couple who’d been en velo and staying at the gite, rode past.  I saw them again when I found my way to a boulangerie that was open so I could find my lunch. It was good, and decorated in some very appropriate bread art.

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I crossed the river after descending the stairs to find the public toilet – nearly at river level. I started up Rue d’Aspe and found myself thinking of the Bible or Shakespeare, ancient books that speak of aspes. I hoped this wouldn’t mean I’d see any.

I was again sweating profusely by the time I’d scaled the hill, past a huge sculpture of a woman in front of another church, L’église Sainte-Croix. It was a Monument Historique, but not the one I thought it might be – I saw a diagram showing the main Oloron-Sainte-Marie cathedrale, and this wasn’t it.  Maybe on my way back to Pau I’d get to see it.  Inside the little chapel it was dim and musty, but I was drawn to the front where there was a coffin with a glass front with what looked like a small child inside – yes, a real, small, dead child.  It was supposedly the relics of St Clement, but I can’t find any reference to it. To be honest, it was quite eerie.  I didn’t stay long.

I walked out into the street, leaving this ancient, and creepy place, and found myself in the midst of renaissance buildings, the moon still in the sky.  The road ahead was long and straight  and I thought to myself, I’m leaving Matthieu’s town.

A gaggle of geese and ducks eyed me from a raised vacant block next to an old house, and despite the fact they could’ve flown at me at any time, they were content to survey me walking along the road below.

By the time I got out of Oloron, I’d reached the next little village, Soeix, and had views of the Pyrenees – now up really, really close.  It really did now feel like I was walking into them. Looking at them, and soon in them. It was warm but a little overcast, promising to rain in the afternoon, so I wanted to keep walking. I had many kilometres ahead of me – 20 or so, I think.

All through the Foret Communal- Oloron-St-Marie I caught webs again. The sweet smell of budleias, on a perfect, not sunny day for walking.  Big slugs were on the path again as were big bales of hay plonked right in the way of probably wheeled transport rather than pilgrims.  “No quarry in the forest”. The universal green movement.  I passed a school with bright coloured buildings and walked through little towns, by very big pumpkins, very ladensome apple trees and barbed wire to keep wheeled things out.

I found a nearly impassable fork where the dirt track left the road, but there was a huge tree down over the track.  I made my way carefully up the embankment, trying to go around the tree which had fallen on a power line (well what looked like a power line). I tried a few times to scale the steep, grassy incline and eventually made it up.  A little hairy though, trying to balance and avoid touching the tree.

In all my days of walking – now over forty, I came to my first gate. It had me thinking I had come the wrong way. I was a little taken aback, and confused, but the trail continued.  I carefully opened, then closed it after walking through. There would be two more before the day was out. Matthieu’s promise of some more corn continued, although I suspect today to be the last day of it.

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There was a long walk along a very straight road to St Christau, next to the river L’ourtau. I recorded the water as I walked.

A little further on and I came across a very Fawlty Towers-like spa/sauna retreat and quaint chapel across the road. It was a huge property which had clearly seen better days.  The eerie feeling returned: a strange place and quite deserted.  I asked whether there were any hot baths (thermes) of a woman who was leaving in a car, but she said they’d closed 2-3 years ago. Pity.  She said there was one in the Ossau valley but it seemed quite difficult to get to from the end of my route.  A hot spring would do wonders for my body!  I continued up to a large junction with a main road, and saw the sign for the resort. It even looked like the Fawlty Towers one. I chuckled to myself. I constantly amuse myself.

A short walk along the really busy road, D918, with a few large trucks passing, and then I was off the road again and walking along a grassy track that looked like it just disappeared up into the fields. It eventually turned into a steep and really cool and rocky little back track (that made my knees hurt again) down into the next town, Lurbe.  Interesting name.  There was an opportunity to stop where the road passed over a little, but rushing river, but I kept walking, visiting the church which was locked. I found little offerings on the way for pilgrims, out the front of someone’s house in the next town – walnuts and apples.  Next time I’ll bring my nutcracker with me.

I then continued walking what seemed like ages before I found a pile of rocks to sit on, next to a wall, under a walnut tree to have my saucisson and cheese sesame seed roll. I also ate a peach and picked some figs. I was right next to a small single-laned road, but not one car passed while I stopped for the half hour for lunch.  My lunch town had many ‘compostelle’ signs and a couple of gites according to my Miam Miam Dodo, but they weren’t in my price range.

Getting up from lunch, I put on my pack again, and started toward large hills – the last wide valley before I’d be walking in the deep river-cut valley.  As I walked, I could hear rumbling.  It grew louder and louder as I walked towards the malaise, or cliff which appeared to be being open cut right in front of me.  The sound was like a waterfall, but more industrial. It was a strange mix that sounded like a big monster crushing rocks, but eventually I did see a processing shed across the river.  I also saw there was another cutting below the level of the road I was on. I passed several groups of abandoned machinery, still in their lunchtime idleness and I later found a map showing a new light rail they were cutting – Oloron – Bedous.  God I love the French. Still building railroads!!  As I walked on, jumping over little streams that crossed the path, through paddocks and next to houses, it became obvious from the old bridges, that there had always been a railway line, and that this one was being re-claimed.

The Police came to me, We are spirits in the material world for some reason.

My great walking weather continued, budleias smelled in my general direction and there was more corn. After more building works and a slight feeling of uneasiness, I come across Sylvia lying on a random park bench, appropriately put in the middle of nowhere. She was siesta-ing and I said hello but declined to stop – I wanted to keep walking so as not to get wet.

In the little hillside town of Escot, I asked a man loading his truck where a fountain might be, and he directed me onwards. Sylvia caught me up where I was collecting water from an ancient water fountain while taking photos of La Fontaine cut outs – yes really!  Things do always happen in threes. I’d now had three La Fontaine experiences on this trip.  All through the town, there were wooden cutout characters of the various stories.  I tried to find a La Fontaine connection to this town, but I don’t think there is one, just some enthusiastic local(s).  Some characters were looking a little worse for wear, but it was an impressive display.  I missed the L’Ane veto de la Peau du Lion, number 5, but I snapped all the others.

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L’Ours et les deux Compagnons

Le Lièvre et la Tortue

Le Loup et la Cigogne

Le Corbeau et le Renard

L’Aigle, la Laie, et la Chatte

Le Loup et la chien

I saw La Poste. The little chapel looked cool – a white building with grey slate roof. I explained to Sylvia that I wouldn’t be able to talk today, as I get really tired from trying to talk in French after walking a whole day. My mood was descending fast into an abyss.

Just out of Escot we crossed the major road. It must be like Russian roulette in pilgrim high season, and then we were onto a little tiny track – a goat track that followed the river along the cliff above for the first 2.7 kilometres to Sarrance.  It seemed like many more steps than that.

The road wasn’t far away, and passing cars imposed on the rush of the river every now and again.

At first the track was wide, then under the beautiful old train bridge it narrowed to being a goat track, at some points close to the river, at others far away.  Some of the time it felt like I was walking on top of the river, several hundred trees and ancient rocks being the only thing suspending me above it. The path always sloped toward the river, so it felt precarious and with a little rain could be quite slippery and dangerous.  Then a gate, the second in 41 days, a compostelle and a sign on the gate saying the cows thanked you for closing it.  It was such a majestic environment.  The river was rushing, the cliffs imposing and the path shady: once again like a scene from a fantasy book – complete with ancient ruined buildings along the way – presumably from a time when this was the road into the mountains.

At one point I could see high above me to the greened cliffs, and I watched as a dozen eagles played in the jet streams. It reminded me of a sport I’ve seen, a kind of base jumping, where the jumper scales tall peaks then catches all the jet streams down wearing a suit with bat-like webbed wings.

There were starting to be autumn leaves on the track in some sections – my old favourite trees again, lots of them.  Finally, the track took me to a junction with the road again and the final gate for the day.  A brief walk along the busy major road and then Sarrance, not that I was making it a brief road. The hills during the day ascended 200 metres, then the up and down of the last goat track exhausted me completely. It certainly seemed like the longest 3 kms of the trip. I was doing the Cliff Young Shuffle again.

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Sarrance is beautiful.  It is nestled in an elbow of the river, and there were rock piles and nice sentiments greeting my ‘tre fatigue‘ disposition. Sylvia had just arrived also and was asking of the site – the acciuel for pelerins.  It was just near the church.  Sonnet et entier, sound the bell and enter.  On the edge of the square in front of the entrance, is a large love rounded stone love heart made from carefully laid river stones, but I was too tired and emotional to notice it until the next day when I did go into chapel.

We were led around a cloister containing a garden complete with coquille decoration and more carefully-laid stone. I later met Nicholas who was putting a similar stone border around the herb garden near the washing lines.  Great black ones with white streaks through them. I was exhausted and in the foulest of moods when I took off my boots, leaving my backpack in the small ‘wood room’, then up a couple of stairs, through a big door, into a biggish hall with big beams and a 16th century look and a sign which did not match my disposition – joie.

I opened the door and there was Marion – who came to give me a big hug. She sensed how difficult the day had been. She asked about Anne, and I said it was sad, but she had to retire.  I sat for a long time, drinking menthe syrop, barely able to walk.  A couple had come to start their walk, they’d just got married, and would be setting out in the morning. I eventually showered and washed my clothes. They were on the line for only minutes before the showers that had been promising themselves all day, finally arrived.  I made a quick grab for them and replaced them in the small shed holding the heating unit for the place. It was toasty and the clothes would dry quickly in there. The thunder lasted an hour, then the rain lasted until mid-morning the next day.

Blessing of blessings, there is wifi.  I accessed it, I had expected a booking for my home in Australia, but nothing came of it. September 1st tomorrow. Reminded myself to text Anita a Happy Birthday. Sat on the couch and chatted with Marion for a while – was going to go to chapel, but then decided not to.

I had a nap from 6 – 7:30pm, when Marion called me for dinner. She was self-catering, so  I walked with Sylvia to try and find the dining room.  We could smell it, but not see it and wandered around the cloister for a few minutes, trying to work it out.  Soup, fish, cheese & bonbonierie from the happy couple. Everyone helped with the washing up.  It seems like a little community of religious and non-religious make up this little establishment, and it reminded me a little of the meal I’d had at En Calcat as it had a musical accompaniment.  Maybe monks is the common theme there.  There is a tingly energy in this place. It is dim and musty, but rustic and homely in some way. All the participants helped with clearing the table and washing the dishes.

Via Tolosana Day 40: Ask and it shall be given

Lacommande to Oloron-Sainte-Marie – 16kms

Up again at 6am for morning pages in the kitchen.  During the night Marion had to move under the verandah to get out of the light misty rain, so I found her there when I went to the kitchen to do my pages. It was humid and my clothes didn’t dry. That was a pity.  I hope they do tonight.  I might be in the unusual situation where I have both pairs of pants on the line drying!

Marion is my third angel.

I had miso soup from the little sachets I had carried from the beginning, but hadn’t used.  I packed up and left by 7:15am despite the late rising.  We had to lock the kitchen and leave the key in an allocated place before departure.

Marion and I left together, and walked out of the town, then upwards, as we would not once, not twice, but three times today.  Jamais deux sans trois (never two without three). An interesting observation.  But today it was three climbs plus lots of little hills as well, and a long stretch into Oloron.  We passed banana palms. What?

As we mounted the first hill, thankfully it was in my favourite forest again, the sweat was pouring.  Climbing up through the forest, we talked conspiracies, as one does, when one’s talking with me.  Marion spoke of some interesting writers, Lise Borbeau,  and Jacques Martel (who seem to be European equivalents of Louise Hay) who have written about the lessons our bodies teach us daily about our health.

We’d left with grey skies but at the top of the first hill, blue skies were smiling at us.  I take strong steps.  It continued to be uncomfortably humid.  I started to think about the last few days of my walk, and that perhaps the Pareto Principle was at play here – the last 20%, taking 80% of my energy. Despite this, my legs started to feel stronger today.  My knees carried me OK, even with the downhill stretches.  I pondered flexibility in my life, my decisions and the way I’m heading, my direction.

On one part of the path, Marion assisted me with fungi identification, but pointing out a little collection – “Why not take a photo of this one?”, she urged, pointing at a little pink one.  I said, “No, I’d prefer a photo of this”, as I noticed just ahead an amazing oyster like fungi in the path.  Walking a little further, “or this one”, and again “or this one” or “maybe this one”. INCROYABLE!   This massive profusion of fungus appeared on the track, and we were both smiling.

We could hear the not-so-distant barking of dogs in the forest, and thought that there must be hunting going on.  I was alert, but not alarmed you might say.  We walked right into a group of hunters with their dogs, guns slung over their shoulders.  This is either curing my gun-phobia or adding to it! It seemed that at every entrance we passed to the forest for the next few kilometres, there were men in high-viz fluoro outfits readying themselves to hunt.  Although one place I passed, it was 3 men having a cup of coffee, so I don’t know how much hunting was going on! And hopefully it was just coffee in their cups.

At Estialescq after the hills, Marion had a rest where we found a picnic table and I elected to continue.  I thought I might like to live at the The Tranquil Retirement Avenue.  There were many balisages today, and no chance of getting lost. The smallest little balisage even.  More cows.  Marion caught me up pretty quickly again, because I got distracted by donkeys.

We continued on together, overtaking each other when we took our different rest breaks.  Rounding a bend in the road, I was really impressed with the garden in front of a lovely house, and I stopped at the picnic table they’d set up for pilgrims under several large oak trees alongside a considerate water tap.  Surrounded by chickens, I thought 10:50am was a pretty good time for lunch, so I had my baguette with tuna, mayo and tomato. Marion caught me up and stopped with me when she got there, and had her sandwich. I had the last of my chocolate from Anoye.

I stayed when Marion continued, and as she was leaving the woman of the house returned with armfuls of baguettes. She came over to say hello with her wooden walking stick. She doesn’t do the Compostelle, but goes walking with her friends weekly on Sundays. She was keen to know where I’d come from and where I was going to. She told me about a place on the GR78 PiemontL’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise and suggested I would like it. It was actually just another days walk away from where I would be tonight. I’d put that on the list for when I walk the GR78.

She then suggested I might like a cafe!  Again – twice in two days.  I couldn’t believe it.  So off she went inside to get coffee.  Several minutes later, and she emerged from the house (which was probably 30-50 metres away, on the other side of the small dirt road, carrying a tray loaded with beverages and beurre biscuits. If this is Pyrenees hospitality, I’m in!

Then once I’d finished, and nearly as quickly as she appeared, she packed up, said “Aller! Aller!” and disppeared towards the house.  So I suppose I keep walking then! “One more hill to Oloron”, she said.

It was a rocky farm track winding around the hill past white cows and with the distant squeals of bathing children, I looked back to see a big waterslide on the other side of the valley. It seemed strangely superimposed on this pastoral landscape, but it must draw the crowds to continue operating. It seemed quite a big deal, especially on a warm day like today.  Rounding the hill, I had great views of the little hamlets I’d just passed through in the valley and could hear the bells of grazing sheep … or was it hunting dogs or cows? I decided to leave my small ‘cello’ water bottle empty today, so it jangled like a cow bell as I jerkily descended the steep bits. A man was shouting at his 4 dogs, out walking as I walked through a shady part before climbing another hill. He passed me going up the hill, the 4 dogs of different breeds and sizes all piled in the small car now, slobering all over the windows. I wondered what fate had befallen the person who was remembered on the side of the track. Was it a pilgrim, or a local?

As I was walking through the forest, a little sweat track, complete with exercise equipment presents itself. Let’s Get Physical. A woodpecker in the trees. When I finally emerged from the forest, and could see Oloron in the distance, there was a stripey red and white gate.  I suppose if you were super energetic, you could time yourself from start to finish. I’m close to civilisation now.
I was thinking a lot about Matthieu today. I was walking to his town. I wondered if I’d see him. I hoped I would.  I wonder how his mini-Camino had gone. I could hear fast cars travelling on the large main road, but when there, they had all deserted. Weary pilgrim emerges from the forest. Again I arrive taking a road next to water – a little creek, but no sooner do I join it, than I leave it again. There was water at the cemetery which I availed myself of.  I saw a beautiful 1762 house.  And walking on the large road into town, I cross the railway line, and my eyes follow it towards the mountains. Now there’s a winning combination! I spot a cool letterbox.  An eglise that I still can’t find the name of.
Hot and bothered at Oloron-Sainte-Marie.  I found the gite, and across the square a bar I could wait in.  I ordered my Diablo Menthe. I sat outside, readying myself for a little writing, but smokers came and sat right next door, I got up to leave, and I knocked the drink over. Shit.  I moved inside where I spied Anne, who seemed busy with her own things.  I ordered another drink and offered to pay for the other, but they insisted I not – that was nice of them – especially since I was in a foul mood and pissed off my seat in the shade outside was invaded by smoke. I sat inside, tried not to fume (‘scuse the pun) and wrote. There were quite a few others in the restaurant for their Sunday lunch.  The gite didn’t open until 3pm, just after the bar closed, so I went over at about 2.50pm and Anne and I were let in.
It was a lovely welcome, quite officious, but the gite is absolutely fantastic.  It had a washing machine – that’s always a good thing.  I asked about wifi, and my hosts said there may be some in the public park across the river.  I’ll investigate when my washing is finished. I was shown to my room, again we were to take our boots off and put them downstairs, so I walked around on the slippery tiled floor in my thick, sweaty socks. I took the chance of getting my two pairs of pants dried overnight and hung my washing out in the sun-burnt, gravel-filled courtyard at the back of the gite.  It is a tight ship at this place, run by a group of volunteers.  Before venturing for wifi, I found a small African epicerie just down the road and around the corner. No-one would know that the spotty pants I had on were my pyjamas!
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Carrying my groceries, and walking over the river, I did find wifi in the park along with a bric-a-brac/fete just in the last minutes of its Sunday existence. I had another potential booking for Airbnb. Another email from my errant flatmate.  After an hour, I walked to the Gare to check tickets back to Paris, half hoping that I might also see an errant Matthieu.  At Anoye, I’d mentioned to Cloudine that I was sad I hadn’t got to walk longer with him. She said I should look him up in Oloron, and that she remembered he lived near a hat shop.  I found no hat shops, despite asking my very helpful hosts at the gite.  I tried. I walked along next to the river and saw what looked like a library across the water. It looked really cool.  I walked back through the park to check whether Carrefour was open, it wasn’t, but I walked back through the park, and noticed an older guy with a shell on his backpack. Another pilgrim!
I introduced myself and spoke to him, Reiner, a German who had left all he had (wife, children and home) and literally put his full trust and life in the hands of God.  Walking wherever he is led by Jesus, I was fascinated, and more than a bit envious. We talked of saying ‘yes’ and forgiveness. He spoke wisely, and although his words were those of a born-again Christian, there were other suggestions that he lived this life authentically and deeply and wore this label understanding it’s subtlety.  One thing he explained to me, that he had come to know, stayed with me and I mulled it over. I recognised it, as it has been my understanding also of various faith-traditions. Though nominally Christian, he spoke of the small number of adherents in all religions that share the deep understanding of there being many paths.  These wise ones, in their diverse experiences of God, are connected together, all united in one way, each expressing their own variation. These are the people who would never dream of criticising or vilifying another for their faith, because they understand … we are all one. It threw into stark contrast the current climate of our times (and possibly all times before) that people and states think nothing of advocating war purely on the basis of a different religions.  He mentioned a person I’d not heard of, Jakob Lorber, a mystic who had dictated the Great Gospel of John.  It was such a beautiful exchange.  He was a passionate man, and very generous in sharing his discoveries.  At 8pm, the light escaping, we had to stop. He said we would continue forever if we didn’t. He was right. I still had to cook dinner, so I walked gingerly back across the river to the gite.
It was a hive of activity when I got back. My clothes had dried, so I removed them from the line, and said hello to a young pilgrim, Benjamin, who was writing his journal in the back courtyard.  I cooked a basic bean, rice and tomato sauce meal and ended up sharing with another pilgrim, Sylvia, as there was too much for me to eat, and cooked food is hard to take on the road, unless you have a little container.  A Dutch cyclist couple had also come in.  I retired after dinner to the shared room upstairs where Anne had already gone to bed. The beds were comfortable, but there was a lot of light coming in the windows from the street-lights outside. Warm air circulated through the room, and I wondered whether I might see Matthieu in the morning.

Via Tolosana Day 39: As above, so below

Lescar to Lacommande – 13.6kms

With a rock concert going on in the next town, I didn’t go to sleep easily or quickly.  My legs were restless again. Nevertheless I was up again at 6am writing pages.  It is definitely my new biro that is making it faster.  I had blueberry fraiche for breakfast, packed and then left at 7.10am, just after Anne. She was explaining that she has also had knee trouble, although hers sounded more serious than my twinges.

I said goodbye to the sweet little gite, just across from what looks like the equivalent of the RSL – or a local militia of some kind. I should learn not to check emails on the way out of town, as I did so at the Office de Tourisme, and more news about my housemate moving just had me cogitating again for the morning.  It was a bit of a maze of streets leading me out of Lescar, and quite a steep descent from the town gate, but I was interrupted from my mind-work walking along Rue du Biale when a woman opened her big wooden shutters from her kitchen and we exchanged bon jours!  She asked if I wanted a cafe, and who doesn’t at 7.20am in the morning in France?  So I said yes, and then she offered me petit déjeuner as well. She ushered me in through the gate, to the house and it became apparent that she had already entertained a whole army already at the dining room table.  As it turns out, she had 4 pilgrims staying the night before (and is one of the chambre d’hotes in my Miam Miam Dodo). Jackie was lovely. She gave me coffee, a couple of pieces of brioche and some figs to go.  I was finding it hard to keep from weeping with humility at such thoughtfulness, my eyes were tearing up and I was annoyed with myself that I had spent time dwelling on the difficulties at home. Life does look after me.  Everything will be OK.  I only stayed a short time, although long enough for her to ask whether I was religious.  (Do I look religious?). And for me to answer not really. The other pilgrims were leaving in a cab for some reason: I didn’t quite understand what their journey involved.

Buoyed from this blessing, I said goodbye to her and kept walking out of Lescar.  There were some quaint GR street signs which mentioned votre prudence (your prudence). I think they wanted me to be careful crossing the very main road up ahead.  I love a language that still uses concepts such as prudence, on street signs no less.  It reminds me of the Wheeler Centre’s current Adopt a Word drive – pay some money for a word that is in danger of disappearing. I’ll have prudence thanks – it is a word and concept that seems to have escaped the 21st Century English language and custom.

A bit further on, and I could see what the sign was about. I was negotiating quite large roads. When I crossed, I looked back and saw a flotilla of a different kind to what I usually encountered in forests.  I could hear distant sirens, and see the beautiful upside-down fig-shape of balloons out for their Saturday float.  In Melbourne, I was in the habit of riding to work along St Georges road.  I have always found it fascinating that at the same time that figs are ready to eat, there float giant upside-down figs across the cityscape of Melbourne. It is only on the gorgeous still mornings in March and April but often four or five float across the skyline at once. Today’s spectacle seemed further away, but just as enchanting.

I walked past out-of-the-way houses, and then along a path bordered by tall-growing budleias. The smell was heady.  A runner passed me, and I hadn’t heard him coming so he startled me. Then, up ahead man was wheeling a bike with what looked like a rifle over his shoulder.  Given my extreme fear of guns, I was more than a little concerned. By the time I reached where I’d seen him, my heart was beating fast, but I was so relieved because he had turned off on a small track that led down and opened onto the river bank.  He’d left his bike just off the track, but had taken himself and the gun down there. He looked to be well on the way probably (hopefully but unfortunately), to duck shooting.  It was now shooting season.  I walked quicker regardless. I find it difficult to contemplate being close to a gun.

I walked quickly up and over the bridge and crossed the river by the D509 to the other side to find even more budleias with their reassuring sweet smell. I wondered where they were native to.  The path was sealed, and followed the river.  My feet felt hot this morning. In the evening the night before I had attempted reclined Vipassana to see if I could bring some joy to my sore knees. I think it calmed me, but it would probably be more helpful if I just got up earlier each morning to meditate.

I  walked past the French equivalent of the The Beachcombers, although they were watering their piled up wood in the yard with overhead sprinklers, throwing rainbows everywhere. That Canadian series theme song wormed it’s way into my head.

I walked under a tunnel for a road, across an oval, and I was soon in Artiguelouve, a small suburban town full of wandering cats and stocky horses.  Through to the other side, I took a left at a way marker and started ascending a bitumen road.  Past a Chateau du Vin, Domaine du Cinquau, (which when I checked the website, looked like a pretty posh place for a wedding!!). I rested looking back across the plain where I’d seen the balloons.  It was a lucky spot as there were many scratchy tickets in the grass.

After the rest, I climbed quite a steep track, for quite a long way, past beehives. I again joined a bitumen road and walked along the top of the ridge, turning right where I smelt the strong smell of almond essence.  Weeds and moss grow in the roads here. And the most overwhelming fungi in trees! For every ascent there must be a descent, and today was no exception.  I took it very slowly through various forest trees until I got the familiar feeling again – there were my favourite trees again.  There is a freshness about walking under them that I love.  It fills me with calm.

I descended back down to cornland again.  Coming out of the forest I beheld a beautiful old run-down barn and house.  That’s the one!  Imagine living here. Right next to the route, right next to my favourite type of forest. There in the sky was the buzz of a motorised hang-glider popping over the forest like a flying lawn-mower.

I continued along the small road past an old mill that had been beautifully renovated – looking exactly how the other one could look, with its large old millstone displayed at the corner of the property. I stopped and looked in the direction of shouts – Aller! Aller! Aller! It looked like shepherds herding sheep or goats with lots of bells ringing. Along at the end of the road there were a number of men hanging out near their cars. I later realised that this might have been a hunt. La Poste went past – yes mail gets delivered on a Saturday, by van to the most out of the way places.

I kept walking along the valley on a small road, only about a car’s width between paddocks.  I walked past a little Compostelle shrine containing more gnomes (including a pilgrim gnome) than was comfortable, perhaps pushing the owner into the ‘slightly crazy’ category. Although I didn’t let this stop me filling in the little guest book they had on the fence.  It was very sweet.

It was only about 20 more minutes before I came to La Commande and saw La Poste again. On my left was a For Sale sign – another old place for sale, not with a tenth of the charm of the old farm house I’ve seen.

It was a small town kind of nestled on the side of a gentle sloping hill in a flat valley. There were many trees, so you couldn’t see very far, however it had no epicerie and this is why I’d had to stock up in Lescar.  The sun was now getting really hot and I called at the Mairie to see about a key for the gite.  The woman took a long time trying to find the key, so I said I’d just go there to sit down – the communal gite was just behind the Mairie and the church. I walked out the back along very manicure hedges only to find yet more of the little stelle discoïdale.  Curious that they accompany the end of my trip as they did the beginning.  There is a feeling of coming full circle.  A Circle of Presence perhaps.

Anne was already installed, and Laura, the hostess was minding the exhibition in the ancient hospital building just next door.  I decided to eat my lunch before unpacking and washing, so I did so outside on the soft green grass looking towards the public swimming pool, the source of many happy shrieking youngsters. Turning to my right, I could sit and see the Pyrénées.  Is this heaven?  I then went inside and slept for a few hours before showering and washing my clothes at 2pm.

I walked around to the door of the little church and as I approached I heard singing.  It was a relief to be inside, as it was cool.  The chapel had a stone floor, and the caps of columns just like Lescar.  They were quite short, so I could take close-up pictures of them.  It was heavenly here certainly.  The choral voices lulled me again into melancholy and I sat on the pew in contemplation, having yet another weep.

I looked down at my feet, and saw a coin.  I stayed for many songs, they were just beautiful. And what a lovely thing to have going in a church for visitors.  It was certainly a stunning building, with an unusual wooden ceiling, but the singing just provided an extra layer to the divine atmosphere.

I retrieved and wrote my diary back in the kitchen, and then Laura kindly came to see whether I wanted to see the exhibition. The photographer was there and was giving a talk about it.

I gingerly went next door, the round stones paved into the walkways difficult to negotiate with my sore feet and legs. During the talk I mostly tried to sit down to rest my legs. Guillaume Langla was showing his collection of exquisite black and white photographs of different routes of the Camino – Compostelle – le marche céleste (the heavenly walk). He spoke only French, and I didn’t really catch much of it, but my ears pricked up at some of the words I recognised and I got the idea I would like to talk to him in English later, to ask more about what he’d said.

He felt the chemin is alchemical. It transforms a person. It seemed he was saying the road has the potential to initiate people in mystical ways, delivering them into a knowledge that few people ever grasp. His work contains esoteric elements and meanings you might not have gleaned without his explanation. Although maybe the images work at a deep level, capturing some of the transformative elements of a long walk for viewers. His photos show a wide variety of landscapes and people in poses that belie the movement inherent in a long journey.  My favourite, a young Czech woman in traditional dress stands still, holding her walking stick in front of her. During the talk, Guillaume points out the composition of the photo is a perfect unison of the male and female symbols, a triangle pointed up, and one pointed down. In alchemy the four elements are also represented by triangles – F feu, O eau, R air, T terre.  He spoke of the bird language, langue verte or green languagea perfect language, key to perfect knowledge, and it took me back to the day I heard the turtledoves.  It seems that not only is great wisdom indicated by an ability to understand bird language, but that in speaking in languages, there are hidden double meanings that once again, only those initiated may understand. He gave me an example – now here or nowhere. He was thrilled to have this beautiful ancient space to exhibit in, and had felt it perfect because he was able to mount twenty photos upstairs, and twenty down – ce qui est en haut est en bas – as above, so below. When we spoke, I said it was a lovely coincidence that I had come here on this day, and he said it was providence. He was right, I’ve never believed in coincidences and I don’t know why I said it.

“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul”

Hermes Trismegistus

I liked the way he thought about things. I’m drawn to gnostic and mystical accounts of this life.  But I think one thing I have been convinced of in the walking, has been that it is possible to blur the boundaries of self and nature, to really see it deeply for the miracle it is, to patiently observe it, and yourself while in it.  It is this seeing, tasting, smelling, touching and hearing – the development of the senses, which is key to the transformation and might I be so bold, liberation.  I feel sorrow for the world that never gets to see and be in nature, and in my daily life at home, I am in pain to see the mistreatment of our environment because we are just so very disconnected from the rich life it gives us at a primal level.

Back from the arcane into the mundane, I was in the kitchen writing my journal, and another pilgrim, Marion arrives.  She is French and speaks great English and we are soon getting on like a house on fire.  We chatted for a while about our journeys.  She is walking all the way to Santiago and is wild-camping mostly. She said she would sleep outdoors tonight. What was most intriguing though was after having the alchemical experience in the afternoon, I got to spend time talking to someone who could talk to me about my aches and pains in a way that I would do at home, but didn’t have my reference books to do it. Marion reminded me that my knees reminded me of the need to yield and be flexible especially in relationships. My feet reminding me to find the good way forward – my direction in life.  Prudence certainly brought me providence in spades today.  I am humbly grateful for meeting exactly who I needed to at the right time. More angels.

Via Tolosana Day 38: Skipping the boring bits

Lourdes to Lescar – by train, funicular and bus

I was up early for pages, and left my room about 7:15am after packing. I had decided I needed petit déjeuner, after deciding the night before not to have it.  I think the yoghurt helps.  All you can eat breakfast buffet. That helps too.  I did some more writing with the benefit of wifi and now I’m up to Day 7 of the journey. I had realised many days ago that the plan to walk and blog, really wasn’t ever going to be achievable. It was strange that I persisted with trying to do it. It diverted my attention somewhat, and left me anxious that I was so behind with it.

I left the hotel just after 8am, glimpsing  the castle on the hill, Château fort de Lourdes and allocating a tour of that to next time.

It took 15 minutes to follow the little blue Bernadette balisage which is printed along the footpaths to the gare where I found elephant-skin asphalt.  Maybe it gets really hot here, so hot that the pavement melts.  It is again a hazy day in the mountains. The gift shops were all blessedly shut and it is as if the Bernadette magnet had been turned off. It was still tranquil and calm, but now with no tourists, until I got to the gare, where there was a pilgrim buzz next to two coaches.

I waited 15 minutes after ‘compostelling‘ my ticket and the train arrived, once again, promptly.  Goodbye deep peace.

On the way back to Pau, after leaving the mountains, cornfields stretched to the horizon.   I went back for a fresh OJ at La Boulevard and joked with the guy who I’d met yesterday that I only love him for his OJ … and wifi.  I should also have added and the great toilet they have with automatic sensor lights. For a female pilgrim, it is all about the toilet!

I had decided not to go backwards to Morlaas, I wanted to continue going forwards.  This would mean I would be skipping the boring bits.  Even the most resolute pilgrim can be swayed it seemed.  A bus driver had directed me to La Bosquet to catch the bus, and so I walked there via La Poste (the immovable kind) to send brochures and postcards home.  But the terminus wasn’t where I thought it was. I asked another bus driver and he kindly delivered me via #7 to a bus stop where I could switch to the #6 at 10:42 to Lescar College. I waited for quite some time, asking again at a little beautician’s for a toilet, only to be told no, then went around to a little takeaway/cafe where they agreed I could use one, I sensed it was still reluctantly.

On the bus, I spoke to an older woman as we passed through the outskirts, then the back-blocks, Lons, where little plots of corn and farm roofs full of solar cells presented themselves through the bus window.  I saw La Poste 4 times this morning, once on the bus leaving Pau – en velo (on bike).

In Lons and Lescar today is hedge trimming day – I saw it a number of times. Sunflowers return.  I walked the short distance from the bus to the Office de Tourisme and the woman I found, Marie-Pierre, was very helpful.  The office was beautiful, in a small modern building opposite the back of Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption de Lescar.  It had some great gifts – beautiful berets in various colours, and some really cute mini ones, the size of a drinks coaster. Do I need to buy a beret?  No.  I found two gorgeous posters of walking in the Pyrénées – one of an open window out to the mountains, and the other a vagabond composed of flowers with a walking stick, and decided I’d come back to look at them with a view to purchasing later. The life of a vagabond.

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I got the code for the gite from the office and after meeting an American pilgrim, Catherine who is starting her walk today from here, I left to find it.  I didn’t really understand the directions, but near some roadworks took a photo of a cute collection of ships on tiles at a house, then asked the man who happened to walk out of the house for directions to Rue Lacaussade. He walked me all the way there. He is married to a Portugese woman and they go every year for holidays to Portugal.  He is retired now, but used to work in the Mairie. He seemed to know everyone who drove past  – he was born in this town.

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The communal gite is simple of course, but painted beautiful sunflower yellow inside and has sunflower tiles in the kitchen. Flowers on the dining table, lots of information, a library, a washing machine and dryer and nice kitchen, pilgrim heaven!  Wow!  I was, at this stage the only one there, and I showered and washed my clothes. I didn’t need the dryer as it was really hot outside, and I could peg everything on a little clothes frame. They’ll be dry before dinner.

I wrote a little, then Anne, another pilgrim came. She’d stayed at Morlaas last night and had walked ‘the boring bits’, my words, not hers. She said Julie was still there staying in the camping.  She settled in, and I took my diary and iPad to do some writing at the O de T.  The gite is quite a way from the centre of the town. First, I checked out the supermarket and then the Museum – they had a mosaic there from Roman times and a tile nearly 2000 years old – with the stamp of the workshop on it.  This amazes me completely.  This town is an archaeologist’s dream. In fact, the mosaic that is now in the museum was found when someone was preparing their block to build a house on, just on one of the streets leading out of the town.

There is also a very famous mosaic in the church , and I went to have a look at that too. After finding two women in the beautiful, tranquil, gorgeous church arranging flowers for a wedding and baptism the next day, I struck up a conversation with them saying I have an aunty who does flower arranging and they reminded me of her. I said that people really appreciate the flowers in a church at a celebrations. It was such a homey thing.  I found the famous mosaic, of a dark-faced soldier sporting a crutch for a leg, which doesn’t seem to be holding him back from his military duties. The mosaics date from the 12th Century when the cathedral was started and this guy was a Moor. There were also similar carved choir pews to the ones in Auch.

I went back to see Marie-Pierre at the Office de Tourisme again. She conducts tours of the museum and chapel for tourists.  I logged on and wrote my 7th day of blog for a while outside on a small metal outdoor cafe table, taking full advantage of the free wifi. I nearly finished the words. Next, day 8.   Marie-Pierre closed up at 6pm and so I had to leave, but not before I bought the posters.  She gave me a tube to protect them, but I would really be adding extra fuss to my pack, and another thing to worry about keeping dry, but they summed up my trip so well, that I thought they were a very appropriate souvenir. In any case, I couldn’t have bought the beret – it had been sold. I walked to the small supermarket and bought lunch/dinner for the next few days. Actually for Sunday I don’t need lunch, I’ll have it in Oloron-Sainte-Marie.

I went back to the gite and continued working typing in my days without wifi. I made a knock-up dinner. It was dusk, so I decided to again head back to the O de T. I could sit just outside the gate and still get wifi.  After checking emails, I walked around as the sun was setting to capture an extremely pink and beautiful sunset and the sky against some old buildings. The side of the cathedral was already pink, and the dusk light made it even more beautiful.  Pink sky in the night, shepherd’s delight!

Via Tolosana Day 37: Detour to deep peace

Morlaas to Lourdes – a immeasurable journey to another world

I woke at 6:00am. No pages this morning, just a quick pack and breakfast, then out for the bus. Francois and Cloudine were up early too. They’ll walk to Pau and then take a BlaBlaCar tomorrow to Toulouse and fly home.  What a lovely thing it is to meet them again.  They had been my companions in the evenings for 8 out of 10 nights. I tell them it has been a great way to walk at our own pace but sharing meal times in the evening. But the dissolution of the posse is complete, or so I believe. We all go back to our other lives, our other ways.

There was a slight anxiety about getting out to the bus-stop on time for the bus, as I really wanted to be in Pau early to give me the maximum options for trains to Lourdes. And even though there is a bus stop out front of the pool, the bus does an interesting route around the town, and I had to make sure I waited on the right side of the road. Everything was fine, I was out waiting just after 7:00am I got on it at 7:15am, right on time and I was off and away.

After walking for so long, there is a kind of relief that comes from sitting in a bus, knowing the huge number of steps you are covering so swiftly. My knees feel better already! But the leaving seems too quick somehow. We speedily ascend a small hill out of Morlaas and turn right into a road that directs our gaze to the Pyrenees … again! The site still impresses and captivates me – more so the closer I get. To my left the sun is half peeking over the horizon, bathing the little valley with a subdued orange haze. As soon as I see it we have left Morlaas behind.

I arrive in Pau half an hour later, but am worried about which stop to get off at.  In the end I stay on the bus right to the train station.  I am immediately impressed by this city, and am glad I came here on the way to Lourdes. I get off the bus to get my train ticket at the gare, right across the road from another river – be like water, be near water.

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I have a bit of time before the train at 13:14pm. It sounds like a strange departure time, but it will depart on the dot. French trains are fantastically prompt I’ve found, as are the regional buses.

My next surprise for the day is a funicular. I love them. In fact, I love anything on tracks.  How perfect.  I have been on a couple before. There is a great one in Hong Kong that takes you up to Victoria Peak, Hong Kong, and there is the steepest one in the world in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia that takes your through lush forest undergrowth. Pau’s is petite, tres mignon – short and sweet, and a bit of a thrill, because if you look over the edge, the drop is sheer. I take the little tramcar to the top of the cliff on which much of the town sits, and find a cafe for 2nd breakfast with a course of wifi. There are a series of touristy cafes that look across a balustraded cliff-top straight towards the many peaks of the Pyrenees. The haze surprises me, but it is so very beautiful. What a great place to sit for a while.

It looks like I’ll be lugging around my pack, but I reckon that’s OK because I’m not walking very far today. It is a relief already.   Perhaps I will catch up on my blog. In the cafe, they’re playing Air, Sexy Boy. What a blast from my 1990s past that is. I love that album, Moon Safari. It too is on my playlist.

After hanging out on wifi for a while in the cafe, I decided to don my pack, and take a little look around.  I walked out, away from the mountains and found a large square.  After a little more walking I found, quite by accident, the L’église Saint-Jacques and took a photo of the stained glass.  Patricia was on duty at the time, wandering around the church, and she asked me if I wanted a tampon in my credential.  We had a nice chat. She is retired and planning to walk. I asked what her work was, and she said she was a professor of theology at university.  I told her about my detour to Lourdes, and she suggested we could pray for each other. I agreed, after all, she’d given me a tampon!

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Back out in the hazy day, the church says goodbye with it’s bells.

I took a quick loop back around to the west, past the Chateau but without time to go into it, and was fascinated by a network of streets underneath the level of the town I was on. I wondered how I’d get there because they didn’t seem to show on the map.  A secret city! Back around to the Boulevard des Pyrénées for more sunny vistas of those mountains, then down the funiculaire to the station.  I got a saucisson and pickle baguette, but my stomach didn’t agree I should’ve eaten it.

I’m sitting in the hall waiting, and three pilgrims walk in – I can’t quite understand what they’re doing, but we chat for a little bit.

A child starts playing the public piano labelled ‘A Vous De Jouer’, (It’s your turn – I presume, to play) over in the other corner of the hall and not long after, who should I see? Sophie and Virginie! Jamais deux sans trois! Things always happen in threes. This goodbye has now stretched for several days.  They greeted me with the same teases as always, then we sat together on the train. They were going through Lourdes all the way to Toulouse.

The mountains meet you first. Then as you approach in the train, you travel down a valley, and get an amazing view of the Basilique de l’Immaculée Conception in the valley. Sophie spotted it first.  It is beautiful.  I have always loved travelling through mountains on the train – maybe it was growing up on the Belair line where the train line cut through hills for the later half of the trip from Adelaide to Blackwood. I remember travelling from Paris, south to Florence through the mountains and being captivated. I tried to put off the thoughts that it was now only a week before I would walk into them to the end of my journey. My knees don’t want to go there, and my heart doesn’t want to leave the way.  I was getting nervous about my stop, and Virginie was telling me ‘Don’t worry, be happy’!  We said goodbye, this time for the last time, and promised to stay in touch. As the train drew away, we waved and carried on – an exuberant end to a wonderful 10 days with these two fantastic women.

Lourdes – I was excited.  Walking out of the station, I had no idea where my hotel would be, so I just walked in the direction of the huge basilica I’d seen from the train. Virginie had said that there was the gare, then the town, then the basilique, then the grotto. She was right.  I was quite surprised by just how many hotels there were, confirming what I already knew of the millions of pilgrims who visit here each year. Reading later, Lourdes’ number of beds is only second to Paris.  A dog and cat were on an awning on one hotel.  Gorgeous painted on windows of a trompe-l’œil.  Next, as I walked even closer to the epicentre, I was just stunned by how many shops there were selling religious paraphernalia. The Cathars would have a field day!

La poste was a harbinger of useful information because I stopped to take a photo of a phamacy with a van and the Virgin, and across the road I happened across a shop-front for Centre D’information Jacquaire.  I, of course went in.  They had lots of books about the various routes of the way, St Roch, St Jacques and information about hébergement (accommodation).  There actually turned out to be two pilgrim places in Lourdes, and if I wasn’t such a conscientious person, I could just have not shown at the hotel, and gone to one of them. It certainly would have saved some money.  The shopfront had only been open a matter of weeks, hence there was no information about them along the Arles route, but I’m sure they’ll get that organised soon enough.  Sylvia assisted me with finding my hotel, which was recommended by Bernadette and Patrick in Revel.

I walked down the tiny street, which looked tinier draped with so many crosses and icons, and found my street, which descended past Bernadette’s birthplace in the mill, and found my hotel. I installed myself there.  There was wifi, but I worked out it didn’t extend to my 4th floor room.  I left my pack, and decided not to shower because I’d just need another one after walking around all afternoon.

It was hot in the sun, and although there were many people about visiting the holy sanctuary, the basilica and grotte, it was strangely peaceful and calm.  I could feel it as soon as I got off the train.  We don’t yet have a measure for the energy that millions of people over a hundred and fifty years might bring to a place through their prayerful meditations, but you don’t have to be a sensitive soul to feel it in this place.

Deep Peace or more Deep peace

The commercial exploitation assaulting my senses like resounding gongs and clanging cymbals, wasn’t successful in lessening the impact of this sacred place.  I’m not Catholic, and I’m not particularly religious, but when you can feel the spirit of peace in a place and offer up your own prayers and thoughtful contemplations, it is an experience to be treasured.  Lourdes is a haven and sanctuary for pilgrims of all types.  Religious, sick (I saw one pilgrim on a hospital bed and many more in wheelchairs) or just devoted, many flock here seeking grace. It was a very moving experience and when you can bodily feel the calmness, it is hard to deny it’s potential for healing.

At any time, in this vast complex, there are probably several masses going on in the mass of venues, but I went inside downstairs first, Basilique Notre-Dame du Rosaire. It has gorgeous mosaics outside at the gateways and over the doors, and then also on the inside. Despite being subterranean, there is a muted lightness about it.  There was a mass being held, conducted by a priest in a purple hat – from Ireland from the sounds of it.  Behind him was the most beautiful mosaic of a woman who reminded me of a cross between Cate Blanchett and a friend’s little niece, who by all accounts could be another incarnation of St Bernadette herself. He was delivering the homily, and it was an interesting account of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant, which takes me back to Soreze and Dom Robert’s amazing tapestry of the Annunciation. Everything is connected, isn’t it.

I stayed for the offering, in which a whole band of singers and musicians played a very Celtic-feeling group of songs accompanying my sniffling tears, and prayers of the faithful. I left before communion.  I said prayers for Yvonne, Patricia and my Parker family who have recently lost a cousin/nephew in a farming accident.

I ventured out into the sunlight and down the path to go behind to the grotto. I joined the line, as it didn’t look too long. For a few minutes the kids behind me were prattling on, however after a while the ‘silence in the grotto’ signs were heeded and we all patiently and silently stood in line.  It was just like the film, Lourdes.  People snake around under the overhanging walls, running their hands along them. So many hands, it has become smooth and is wet in parts where the moisture comes to the surface. I was hoping to catch a drip to the head, but alas it wasn’t to be. The spring itself is covered by a perspex cover, but as you walk around there are also drips from the ceiling, a continuous birth of water into the sunlight.  It is a very reverential and prayerful route and all respect the silence.  I was reminded of the Oriah Mountain Dreamer talk I listened to the day before on my walk – that there is the greatest intimacy in shared silence. That’s certainly how it felt, and that’s certainly a very good observation.

How often I just speak for the sake of filling in the space, with nothing really important to say.  It is worth pondering more.  After you have been along that wall, you emerge at the other end of it, and if you continue to walk away from the town, you pass through what is like a sideshow of burning candles.  Once past this, there are baths that you can go through as well. I was nearly going to, but it didn’t seem like the right time to go for me.  Instead I walked to get some ‘holy water’.

After this, I ascended the very long left (it was partly in shade), arm that reaches out to get to the top basilique, Basilique de l’Immaculée Conception. I was coming closer and closer to the huge gold crown that stops the dome of the first basilica I went in below. It isn’t as beautiful as the one below, but it was interesting because it was the original one. It was dark and ancient. I don’t know what that says about immaculate conception. The whole complex has grown like topsy, because more and more people come every year and this one tiny chapel wasn’t enough (by tiny, I mean it only seats 500 people).

After this I thought I’d wander back to say hello again to Sylvia, but got lured by the singing I could hear coming from the subterranean chapel, built to increase the congregational capacity yet again.  Reminiscent of concrete brutalism the Basilique Saint Pius X juxtaposes hung pictures of many saints around the edges of the space. It is enormous, and the giant angular struts supporting the ceiling make you feel like you’re walking around underneath a giant spider. Big change indicated here, well potentially anyway. It suits the purpose – seating vast amounts of people for mass masses.  Around the outside there is a ramp which descends to the mid-point of the oval shape were the chapel is at it’s narrowest. Then the ramp ascends again toward either end of the oval. If you look across the auditorium as you are walking you see there are even more posters in the central arena of the space, so no matter where you are, you will be in eye-shot of at least a couple of saints, apostles or martyrs. As I got towards the bottom, I don’t think my eyes failed me, but there across the cavern was our own Australian, Mary Mackillop.  I can’t remember whether she is a saint or just called Blessed.  That’s terrible, having worked at a Catholic university for a decade. I shouldn’t be admitting my total ignorance.  I kept walking and was more interested in Hildegard of Bingen, St Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena , Theresa of Avila and St Dominic, avowed converter of Cathars.

After finishing with the apostles, saints and matyrs I was outside again and it seemed that even the Air Force pay respect to St Bernadette. The crack of a super-fast jet doesn’t seem to dent the vibe though. I walked back up the little street to the St Jacques information shop to ask Sylvia whether she knew of any restaurants selling crepes sarrasin. She didn’t know, but I found the restaurant next door, a funny little place, had sel (salty – savoury) crepes on its menu, and so I ordered a salmon, creme fruit and basil one with frites.  The decor was intriguing – red walls, and statues of Mary next to Dali’s Tarot universal.  A bet each way perhaps?  It was a good enough meal with a little kir. A bit of a splurge in Lourdes.

I left with a full stomach and dropped in to Mary’s pharmacy for some Baume St Bernard – which Francois had encouraged me to use the night before.  It is basically like deep heat, and helps with any aches from the walk.  I found it did sooth to a certain extent, so I’ve added it to my armoury of lotions and oils.  I have Aveda Foot Relief – pepperminty goodness for my feet, Weleda Arnica Massage oil for my muscles and now St Bernard. Oh, and Aveda Blue Oil Balancing Concentrate for my nostrils.  My feet, knees and mind are well cared for.

I ascend in the small lift back up to my room, which has a window into a tiny atrium, but no view. The carpet is so buckled in the corridor, that this route has to go down in my book as rivalling the chemin. I wonder how many drunk and disoreintated tourists have tripped on it. Attention a la marche!

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I had a shower and washed my clothes, which I wring in the towels that are supplied. If you lay down wet clothes into a spread towel, then roll it up, then wring the little sausage, your clothes turn out nearly dry.  I have only a postage-stamp sized towel that I use to dry myself with, so it is not enough to do this to my clothes each night, but Francois and Cloudine had those great synthetic towels that they did a little washing-wringing ritual each night. This goes on the list for next time –  a proper towel. The reception were affronted by my question about whether they had a laundry, but maybe it was just my bad French.  I utilised all the hangers in the wardrobe and the curtain rod to hang my clothes overnight in the open window.  I did some writing, then decided to go downstairs to use the wifi. I successfully posted Day 6.  Yay!

Addendum: Centre D’information Jacquaire – Lourdes

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When I have asked at some pilgrim gites on the way, whether there are St Jacques pilgrim gites in Lourdes, people haven’t known.  I assumed that everyone is a pilgrim in Lourdes – to see the place where humble youngster, Bernadette saw her vision, and to taste and bathe in the waters of the natural spring there.  So when I arrived in Lourdes, and was wandering the streets looking for my hotel, I was surprised to see a shopfront titled Centre D’Information Jacquaire and the blue and yellow symbol of my way.

They had only been open for one month and they provide accueil (reception/welcome) for St Jacques pilgrims on the many routes through Lourdes.  What this means is that they can refer pilgrims to hébergement  in Lourdes and along the routes. The major ones that go through Lourdes are the Voie du Piemont GR78 and the GR101 which I crossed just outside of Maubourguet.  But it means also that pilgrims like me who have a credential, and are doing a way, but make a side trip, can also find accommodation that is cheaper than in the many hostels and religious hotels.

I spoke to Sylvia, a volunteer who had walked the Camino Frances in two parts in previous years.  She showed me the contacts for two places that take St Jacques pilgrims.  The office is well equipped with maps of Lourdes and many books about the various ways, and about Lourdes.  I was really impressed.  And they also stamp your credential.

Gite La Ruche – 21 rue de Pau (open 1st April – 30th October) with 9 places at 15 Euros per night.

Centre Assomption – 21 avenue Antone Beguere. I’m unsure the cost of this one.  Minimum stay of two nights, but that is sometimes common, and means that a pilgrim can rest in Lourdes without having to worry about the usual need to move on every day.

Via Tolosana Day 36: Guardian of solitude

Anoye to Morlaas – 16kms

It was going to be a hot day, so after waking, I wrote pages and left by 7.20am. I’m so glad I did, because it has put me in the swing of things again.  It was good to do, and meant I would arrive early at Morlaas.  Jacques had written to me “Are you following? Am in Borce. Are you well?”

I left the lovely gite and doubled-back to where I’d noted a fig and peach tree on the same street, and ate second breakfast.  I was thinking about the bath mat at Anoye and that the options for home decorating are immense with the coquille shell design.  There were beautiful old homes in Anoye, and they seemed to be well looked after. I walked up and out of the town,  climbing out of the cool air, the rising sun on my back casting it’s orange light everywhere.  I began to sense pockets of warm air, a portent of what would come later in the day.  Francois was right, it would be hot.

Grape vines. The Pyrenees peeking above the trees. Orange slugs – on the road now.  A dedicated group of volunteers is strong in Anoye as the gite had a great feeling and there were many details to make the pilgrim feel welcome. Chocolate being a prime one! Drinks in the fridge, potato crisps all purchased on the honour system. The volunteers who plant the trees also made their presence felt today – there were many more fruit trees planted by the road, but I noted that they were Amis de Chemin from St Jean Pied de Port.  I suppose I am getting close to there now (even though my route won’t pass through there – it is the gateway to the Pyrenees for the three other routes in France).

Aire de Compostelle provided a lovely picnic spot, but I didn’t need a break.

The architecture of the area seems to reflect the landscape. More horses.

I decided on a Cosmo Cosmolino soundtrack today, the Streetsweeper album. I was feeling cosmic, and cosmopolitan all at the same time.  I don’t know why I needed a sound track today, but I did.  I saw chestnuts again, buddleias and heard church bells.  Cows stared at me – what an easy life they have compared to their provoked brothers/sisters.  More running water.  Sarah McLachlanAnswer.  A warm wind blew.  Another river. The sweet smell of honeysuckle.  Fresh air (the temperature type not clean type).  I saw a pheasant today, crossing a road – that was a surprise. It was a busy road too, the D7.  It begs a ‘why did the pheasant cross the road’ joke, but I only have one joke in my repertoire, and everyone I know has heard it already.  “What’s brown and sticky?”… “A stick”.

I stopped for morning tea by a big fresh and clean river. It was a beautiful place.

Be near water. Be like water.

After my stop, I walked over the beautiful river I’d been observing (I ended up crossing six water courses by Morlaas), and then off on a road to the left to skirt another town, Raguet.

I started listening to Oriah Mountain Dreamer.  I am glad she is on my playlist.  Her talks, “Choosing a joyful dance” and “Dance of shared silence” spoke to me, not least because in the second one she mentioned Meister Eckhardt, who Matthieu had spoken about two days before.  She re-authors his great quote:

“There is nothing so much like God in all the universe as shared silence”

and called to my attention a beautiful idea from Rainer Marie Rilke

“… a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust.”

The Waterboys continued to buoy me with Preparing to Fly.  I saw a snake by the road, there was a rock on a pole and funghi accompanying a balisage on a tree.  It was once again a day of walking between many more cornfields and a little on bitumen roads. It was a happy day!

The battery to my phone went flat, and I was faced with listening to the growing sounds of Morlaas civilisation as I approached.  Something’s burning. Acorns appeared on the beautifully soft path and in the distance the views of the Pyrenees grew more and more stunning.  There are so many pots of gold, so much treasure to see and feel.  The sounds of big roads and even airports came into my consciousness with the whirring engines of light planes approaching from behind me.  Bullet casings again littered the path.

I crossed a busy highway, and began walking through the outskirts for longer than was comfortable, with the sun burning in the near-midday sky. I saw signs of public transport, bus-stops, and was contemplating taking a bus straight to Pau, but decided against it and kept walking.   The way had the feeling of approaching Castres, but Morlaas is much smaller than that, and Castres is more like the size of Pau.  Pau city centre is not actually on the route, though I was to find out it was really worth seeing. After visiting Lourdes, I thought I’d return to Morlaas and walk on to Lescar. Morlaas to Lescar actually borders the northern-most part of the outer suburbs of Pau (previously referred to as ‘the boring bits’).  In my experience though nothing is boring to a pilgrim.

I arrived around 11:30am to Morlaas – perfect timing.  I got a quiche at the boulangerie, along with a pain au chocolate with almonds and a soft drink as it would probably soon close for lunch. I went to the Office de Tourisme on the square facing the back of the church.  They couldn’t help me with a booking for Lourdes, but gave me the number of a place that could.  The office contained a number of interesting relics of centuries past, including a carved stone canard (duck), a carved musician and a great relief map of the Pyrenees.  It was a nice little collection along with the pilgrim’s staff.

It was really hot already and I was exhausted even though I’d only walked 16 kms. It was a slow saunter to the camping municipal (camp ground), which was right next to the public swimming pool and behind the park office. I booked my accommodation for tomorrow night and it was 45 Euro. A bit steep, but I wanted to see the place and it is always worth it.   I also decided that I would take the bus into Pau early the next morning, then the train to Lourdes.

At the gite behind the office, I met Julie, another pilgrim.  We had a nice chat about the way, and the insights and challenges it brings.  She was resting up, nursing a foot that she thought might be broken, but had been walking on it for some time.  She was also a ‘wild-camper’, and had her tent and tarp out drying on the washing line as she was doing a giant pack clean out.  She was also busy binding her St Jacques coquille shell to her staff – not an easy feat.  She was a real sweetie and we had a long chat about Australian history. She noticed that I felt very strongly about indigenous issues and that maybe I could move in that direction with my work when I got back.  Later Francios and Cloudine arrived.

I went off in the afternoon to get some cash, buy a new pen (my kilometrico had died and I had been working though my felt tip pens in my pencil case and other biros, but none were satisfactory.  It was a few days later that I realised the new pen was a Cristal M.  I don’t know what that says about me, but at least I wasn’t injecting the ink. I’d have to wait to get home to write again with a kilometrico).  I also took a walk through the beautiful, cool church. The stained glass windows threw bold colours onto the floor, walls and vaulted ceiling. It was beautiful.  And the portal  door is absolutely gorgeous.

On returning to the site, I found that Francois and Cloudine were going to go for a swim as we’d been told by the woman from the office that we could get in for free, so I decided to go too.  My first summer swim. Next time I’ll swim more, it is so nice after a day of walking.

I also went around to see whether there might be wifi somewhere and my walk took me to a bar.  I saw Virginie and Sophie there, they were staying somewhere else in probably a little more luxury than the campsite, although our accommodation was very clean and adequate.  They were going to walk to Pau to go home to Lyon/Marseilles the next day.

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There was a big supermarket on the other side of the fence from the caravan park and I went there to replenish supplies with once again, too much food, but it meant I ate well that night.   I ate dinner with everyone outside, and later still another walker, Bernard, arrived.  He sat separately to us though, which was a bit curious.  My dinner was a melange of rice, tuna, celery salad from the supermarket (which I really love), tomato and with a panacotta chaser. Nice work!

The warmth continued well after the sun went down and we all weren’t long out of bed. Back inside the common room, which was another large room the same size as the room with several bunk beds in it (but with no kitchen – that was outside in the same block as the toilets and showers), we realised that some budding young artists had helped with the decorations.  They were beautiful and I couldn’t help capturing them all.

Via Tolosana Day 35: Donkey Kong dodging sprinklers

Maubourguet to Anoye – 22 kms

I awoke to Christian’s alarm.  I didn’t get up until about 6:30am though.  I half packed and took my pack out on the tiny verandah and wrote my pages from 7am – 7:45am. I said goodbye to Christian when he left.  I found this intriguing.  He arrived before the others the day before, and he left before the others.  I admired this independence. I wonder whether men can tolerate it of each other more than women can.  Maybe I will evolve into someone who will really be at ease with ‘going my own way’, because I certainly can’t feel it quite yet. If I had come on a long ride with my friends, I would feel that invisible pressure to go with them, not go my own way.  Is this how we are socialised as women and men, or is there something more primal about the difference between testosterone and oestrogen and it’s effects on our relating?

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I got my pages finished and then Patrice appeared, and later still Laurent.  Patrice rode to find out whether Casino (supermarket) was open, and it was.  So I gathered up the final few things into my pack and said goodbye to the guys.  It had been a great night. Off I went with my pack, after taking a photo of them in front of our cute chalet.  Seeing people on bikes took me back to my Vezelay route ride.  It is still a taxing way to travel, but riding another 5 kilometres to find a place to stay at night is less arduous than walking it.  I envied their mobility.

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Espaliered plane trees

I walked back into town to Casino also for today’s lunch, tonight’s dinner and the next day’s lunch. In some parts of the walk, it really does require that much forward planning, if your next stop is not in a town with an epicerie/boulangerie. You also have to consider that everything you carry is weighty, and after 20 kilometres, it can make a huge difference to how tired you get.  I bought pain at the boulangerie. All set.  It was 9:00am already – a late start. On the way out of town I passed my favourites, the Gendarmerie.  Matthieu said there would be a lot of corn from now on, and there was.  All day, right to the end.  There were also great views again of the Pyrenees, although this time it felt like instead of looking across hills at them, you were starting to look up at them from the plains.  It was a flat walk to start with, then a gentle hill took me upwards towards Lahitte-Toupiere.

The gazelle may have bounded away in the flesh, but I walked with him most of the day, thinking about the things he said and did, carrying some faint hope that I might, by some weird coincidence, catch him again.  Blackberries reminded me of our slim pickings, and his concern for other pilgrims and I said to myself, no, toujours beaucoup (no, always plenty) for everyone when you take only what you need.

I feel like a walking smell. I stink, my pack stinks, my t-shirts are manky and even after washing, they still reek. Yuk!

I came to a big road, the D943, and observed that the GR101 crossed heading south towards Lourdes. It was well-signposted. Perhaps this is where the guy in St Gervais sur Mare was heading. If I’d had more time, maybe this is the way I would have reached Lourdes.  As it was I preferred my detour-by-train plan.

10:10 when I next checked my phone.  Loud helicopters made their presence felt overhead as I was getting to Lahitte-Toupière, where Matthieu was planning to stay the night. The gite advertised yoga. I thought that was a lovely coincidence as he had said he’d like to take it up, and I was encouraging him to, given I had got so much out of yoga at various times in my life.

Just past the gite, thoughts a little diverted by a beret, I neglected to take the right fork in the road, and continued along a road – distracted also by the La Poste van that met me.  So when I got to the main road, I decided instead of just taking it into town, to re-trace my steps so as to walk the marked way.  It rewarded me with the most beautiful little paddock of sheep, some with big bells around their necks which tinkled and clanged in time with their tugging at the grass.  After some minutes recording this and photographing them, one walked up to me. I wondered if they’d also chatted to the gazelle this morning. (I might add, that I hadn’t realised that a possible reason for Matthieu’s sporting of a beret was a very good one. They had been produced in the town in which he lived since 1840 – I only found this out months after the walk.  If I’d noted out loud his unusual head gear, I might have found this out yesterday!).

Another four kilometres on and I rested for a while under the verandah of a church in Vidouze to eat a peach. There was a fantastically signposted water tap also, especially for pilgrims.  Just as I was going to leave, along rode Patrice and Laurent – they hadn’t left Maubourguet until 10am.  We chatted and joked again and then they rode off down the hill that I was to walk down.  What lovely men. What a happy meeting.

I left the road again, and was walking in fields of high corn, with sprinklers just starting up.  I crossed a small creek on a footbridge that had a hidden approach, and then walked onto farm tracks made of orange clay and small rocks.  The tracks were wet, and I realised this was where I play Donkey Kong Junior for real, and dodge sprinklers. I made one attempt, between two circulating pivots, and realised I wouldn’t make it through so I retreated.  Maybe those 24 hours playing these little beeping games high in the skies between Melbourne, Bangkok and Dhaka when I was twelve paid off. Thanks Nintendo 1982, I managed to make it through without getting soaked. Thanks Paul for the heads up about the sprinklers.

I looked down at the path I was walking along after this, and realised the set of tyre tracks differed.  Sometimes there was water pooled on one side, and not the other. Sometimes it was dry and rocky on one side and not the other. Some sides were tricky, and the other you could navigate without watching your step.  I realised that you may be walking in the same direction, on the same track as someone else, but still experience different terrain. Everyone’s path is absolutely unique.  I heard the helicopter overhead again. Out in the open for a while and I came across a large dry paddock of pigs.  They had some mud, and seemed happy in it.

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It was getting on to lunch time, and I had continued on in the cornfields for some time past Dexpers (nice name for a settlement), when up ahead, who do I see but my cheeky friends, Sophie et Virginie sitting down to have lunch on some big wooden crates on the edge of the track. How lovely. I joined them for lunch and for the next few hours of walking.  There were a few big hills to ascend and descend today, but thankfully the destination, Anoye, was in a valley.

In one part that was more dense trees, there were these strange contraptions in the forest.  It looked like there were platforms suspended high up, with ropes and pulleys to bring things up and down.  They were a little more sophisticated than what could be made by children, but it certainly looked like someone liked playing up high.

Today I saw espaliered plane trees, signs that said Arles was 560 kms away (which didn’t seem quite right), more orange slugs and road signs that now say ‘Cami’ rather than ‘Chemin’.  I spotted Chinese lantern plants again and a new occurrence that would last for many kilometres and the final days of my walk, ancient fruit varieties.

Planted by friends of the way, partly I suppose in commemoration of the trail, and partly to feed the pilgrims that traverse it, they were a sweet reminder that the path is cared for by a whole army of unseen caretakers.  It was nice to see these ancient varieties being resurrected, and the signs on the plants gave great information about them.

Just past Lucarré, there is a big lake, and the girls wanted to take their time and stop by it, so I walked back up another hill, on through Momy, stopping to look in the beautiful l’eglise with another rendition of St Roch with his sore leg, chuckling at a place called ‘Samson’s Lion’ and finally getting back on the road down the hill into Anoye.  It was a hot day on the road today, so I wanted to make sure to leave earlier tomorrow. I will have more sleep and less wine!

I arrived in the small town, once again being welcomed by fast-running water and found the communal gite which was a beautiful two story house.  The large front door was open and I went in, left my shoes downstairs and then climbed (with difficulty), the creaking wooden stairs, opened the tight door at the top and got acquainted with the sleeping quarters. Around 15 minutes later so did the girls.  And then who should show up, but Francois and Cloudine.  It is strange isn’t it?  You could hold on to make the good times last longer, clinging and desperately orchestrating your travel to stay with nice people, or you could continue in your own way, never knowing if you might come into contact with your lovely friends again, but in the intervening times, experiencing the lessons that are just for you to learn. The posse was back together again.  The way is a great teacher about letting go and having faith in your own time and pace. And of course, F & C had spent the night in the same place as the gazelle, so it was nice to share my excitement at having met him.

Even though it was upstairs, it was cool, and comfortable. The bunk beds were nice and the bathroom was good, and appropriately decorated with shell motifs.  What none of us realised was that there was also a little epicerie downstairs, that is magically opened when the clock strikes 6pm by local volunteers who look after this communal gite. All kinds of supplies can be purchased. Nice supplies, like chocolate! The kitchen upstairs is small and basic, but well stocked with cooking utensils for preparing food. I needn’t have hung around for Casino and the boulangerie this morning, but who would have known. The table was large, and would easily fit us all around it when we’d prepared our food.

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After showering I tried writing my journal, outside on the picnic bench but couldn’t seem to get into the mood. That and les bothersome moustiques. I went for a small walk around the town: past donkeys that were well on heat (what, is this spring or something??), to the little church – which was shut, and to the fontaine (fountain) – a pure spring, said to have healing qualities, made in 1652 according to the plaque. It was close to the gite, just around the back, luckily for my tired and aching legs. A few of us cooperated and chipped in for the 3Euro washing machine fee and got our clothes washed.  We were really late, so they didn’t quite dry, but that’s what all the spare bunk beds are for – drying washing while you sleep.

I’d bought some nice bio rice with salmon and I heated in the microwave for dinner. We all ate together at the kitchen table.  I finished writing my journal, and went to bed.

Via Tolosana Day 34: … just walking each other home.

Monlezon (Chez Nicole et Michel) to Maubourguet – 22.7kms

I awoke at 6 am. I wrote. I ate breakfast from the most delicious looking and tasting spread just before 7am, and for a short time with Paul. Yoghurt, cake, hot toast and coffee.  Everything you could want. Amazing.  I tried checking emails after asking for the password. Paul left soon after, and I went upstairs to clean my teeth.  I filled my water bottles and took the figs that Nicole had kindly saved for me and left about 8am.

I left from the farmhouse and yard, walked past paddocks of crops, up a small road towards the town on the hill, Monlezon. It was raining but there were no clouds.  I realised I was being sprayed by sprinklers, the light reflecting in the jet streams as a beautiful rainbow. What is the promise that I’ll witness today? Or maybe it will be my pot of gold.

I didn’t walk up to see the church, but walked past the old ruined castle and sung Moon over Ruined Castle, a staple in the Suzuki cello repertoire.

I met a young Italian man and stopped for a brief chat about what his route was.  He was walking ‘backwards’ from Santiago to Rome, so I had met two people in the same 24 hours who were both going to Italy.  As would become another feature of the day, he was walking home. It reminded me of the beautiful Ram Dass quote,

“We’re all just walking each other home.”

An email from my home in Australia had told me that the friend who had said they would stay in my place while I was away, had decided to move out.  I walked consumed by thoughts about the situation and worries about how I would pay my rent when I returned, considering I no longer had a job. I was engrossed all the way to Marciac, five kilometres.

A little further on and I saw the most bountiful fig tree so far, the figs looking really ripe. Then there was a medlar tree.  I congratulated myself on knowing what that was. I wonder how many other people could identify a medlar tree? It seems like an old fashioned fruit tree to me, a little like the pomegranate used to be before the current trendy craze in Australian cooking. Maybe it is just me that’s old fashioned.

An eglise spire rose well above the surrounding countryside and confirmed I was heading in the right direction.

Objects rising from paddocks are closer than they appear.

Sprinklers were a theme today, I turned right around a big lateral move one – it seems they accompany crop farming everywhere in the world. Paul had warned me at a certain point in the next day or so, I would have to take care not to get wet between sprinklers, but this one at least lay resting. The way was very open to the elements today – mostly wind.

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I stopped to have a brief look at a ruined church just before the town with an old oak tree that had seen better days.  As I approached the centre of the town, and was checking my maps, Nicole drove up next to me. It was nice to say hello/goodbye to her again.  I didn’t know whether to go into the town or to turn left and leave. Despite the multitude of signs, there was no clarity in my mind.

But I’m glad I decided to stay and look around the town, Marciac – the home of a big annual jazz festival (Diana Krall and Wynton Marsalis this year, no less). It would be nice to return to see it sometime.  I had a brief look in Chapelle Notre Dame de la Croix – it was light, calm and beautiful.

I walked past the sculpted heads of horses over doorways, along the corner of the plaza then continued out of town on my walk.  It was windy.

After a short walk along pretty flat road, there was a steep climb up out of the town.  I decided that I’d rest at the top of the hill before Le Château and eat my waffle from yesterday.  After 20 minutes or so, at the top, I once again struggled to find a good place to stop.  I was walking in a ‘run’ between paddocks, bordered by low fences and partly covered by low hedges, so although it was secluded, it was still exposed to there walkers if I wanted to pee.  In these parts, it is of course common not to see a soul, so I squatted comfortably next to the fence line.  Then a little further along I chose a seat looking into the next valley, and got out my waffle. A little hard, but unmistakably Belgian.  The best waffles are made with special sugar – beet sugar I think. I was once in a Permaculture group with Luc, a Belgian who made the most fantastic waffles on a machine he had made himself and used to take to fetes and fairs.  He was kind enough to make them for garden openings my partner and I had for the Open Garden Scheme in Colonel Light Gardens in the 1990s.  The waffles were a real hit. Warm and fresh, they are just heaven. Cold, not so much, but I have my memory and imagination.

Next I decided to examine my credentials, well actually just one: my little passport to pilgrim accommodation.  The little ink stamps are part of the physical souvenirs one accumulates as one walks, and they are highly individual, each bringing back the memories from the place they were purchased. I didn’t quite have 33, but not far off. The money collection by the host/ess in exchange for a stamp is one of the daily rituals of the way, but you can also get them from Office de Tourisme, and Mairie. You could easily accumulate many more than the allocated boxes on the small concertinaed piece of card.  It is I suppose like a dance card in some ways. I was finding it equally romantic, this traipse through the countryside – with agony and ecstasy in equal quantities.

As I was pondering how far I’d come, I noted a young buck in a beret approaching. He looked sporty, although I noted he was also sporting a coquille shell, a pilgrim.  All his clothes were proper walking clothes, with the strange addition of a beret – I mean, not strange for a French man, but strange for a long walker.  I was intrigued, and very smiley.  He looked young, maybe not in his twenties, but not much older. He shook my hand and held on for much longer than I thought he needed to, smiling as well and I wondered what was going on (in a good way). Enchanté Mattheiu! I was enchanted, although it just means pleased to meet you.

I tried at first to speak French, but felt quite ridiculous in my attempts, and it seemed he spoke very good English, so we continued in that.  I invited him to sit down, trying my hardest not to seem too enthusiastic, and he did and explained that he already knew who I was. (Great! My crazy reputation had preceded me).  He said he’d heard I was doing four blogs, and so I corrected him to say, I’m only doing one, but that I had only written about four days.  He explained he had met Sophie and Virginie last night, and they had told him about an Australien pilgrim who was blogging.

We exchanged details of what we were doing.  He was walking an interesting way in his holidays. He had walked three days from his home in Oloron, south to Col du Somport and Canfranc Estación, and had then returned home for a party.  Then he’d gone home to his parents house and had joined the route at St Christaud, stayed the night at Marciac, but left later than he expected because he wanted to have a coffee with a friend. It seemed he was on a pretty fast schedule, so I urged him to go on, as I felt I would slow such a sporty and athletic fellow. I would have loved to walk with him, but my fears about my pace and the ‘go your own way, any other way is straying‘ bells rang loudly in my head.  It disappointed me, but after a few more niceties, off he went.  Easy come, easy go they say.

After I’d had enough of a break, I got up, and descended the track, turning right around the edge of the paddock, and making an equally steep descent down the hill. My knees hurt.  I could see Mathieu in the distance, but I didn’t think I’d see him again.  I then settled into my rhythm, walking through lots of corn fields.  My sister texted me, and it felt comforting to have contact from Australia here in the middle of the countryside. I walked up a rise where on a raised bank, a small chapel sat, Eglise de Samazan. I’d found the little settlement, Le Château.  As I walked past it, I realised Matthieu had gone to check it out, and was just coming out. I kept walking as I knew he would catch me up. Not much further along the road, and we were walking together. I was right about his pace, he was fast: a gazelle.  We walked down the Côte du Pelerin.

It was probably another hour and we could see another church in the distance.

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Our conversation had ranged widely and I told him he was one of only three pilgrims I’d met.  There had been hardly any ‘real’ pilgrims.  We talked about his work, something he said he preferred not to ask of other pilgrims while walking. I found this interesting, as leaving work was one of the things that had flung me into this adventure. He had walked to Santiago before and had been very moved by the experience.  He stops at all churches to go inside if possible, much as I had been doing. It was nice to talk about the spiritual aspect of walking, and it surprised me that I had not really been able to talk about this with anyone other than Sonia previously. Most walkers I’d met, lovely as they were, seemed to enjoy the challenge of a long walk for it’s tourist and exercise benefits rather than any answers it might bring. We talked about families, I told him I loved France and have always wanted to live there. He thought that maybe it had just never been the right time.  He had come this way on bike some time before, and he was interested that everything seemed to be different when you walk rather than ride, including that everything seemed to take a whole lot longer and in that way can be unfamiliar. It was nice not to have to think about whether we were going in the right direction, he’d been this way before.  About an hour on and we stopped at Auriébat after finding a picnic table to sit at for lunch. We’d been searching for a place, and were going to go into the church but seemed to be too busy thinking of our lunch, and we missed it.

We sat opposite each other and joked and smiled lots. He gave me some of his family’s home-made saucisson cut with his French knife, and I shared my pear with him, cut with my Swiss-army knife.  It was all rather cute, although now I realise, slightly euphemistic. I could get used to this!  After we finished eating, he completely surprised me by wanting to take my photo. I thought this was very unfair if I wasn’t also allowed to take his, so I did. But just like dentists can’t reveal their faces on television, his smile remains my secret.

I liked him already – it was easy to when his ways reminded me of my own. He had ridden another route, he pats dogs, he says hello to horses. We found blackberries along the road, and stopped to pick them. I shared with him my secret for finding the really ripe ones and I picked some for him. They weren’t as abundant as they’d been in past weeks, and the ground seemed drier, possibly never producing as many here as in some parts I’d walked through. We delicately shared our pickings until he finally said we’d better leave some for other pilgrims. J’adore!

We continued on through the back-blocks, through Auricane where he stopped to look at a beautiful old farm house. We speculated about whether anyone lived there. He seemed to think it would be a nice place to live. Could I find anyone more like me a million miles from home? I told him about my cocker spaniels Monte and Carlo.

A few hundred metres on, we skirted a property that reminded me a little of the town called Spectre in Big Fish, except instead of sneakers hanging from power lines, it was the little coquilles St.Jacques shells nailed to every tree around the perimeter.  I get that it is helpful for pilgrims to see these little signs of encouragement, however it was slightly spooky.

It was windy in the afternoon, but despite the headwind we continued at a blistering pace. I managed to keep up, but only just.  I suppose I could’ve just asked him to slow down, but that thought never crossed my mind.

Getting nearer to Maubourguet he picked up some rubbish from the road (another thing I do), and decided he’d walk with it until he found a bin. The only problem was that it had grease on it, which he only realised after some time, and it went everywhere.  He had mentioned a few times that he was trying to decide whether to continue to Lahitte-Toupiere.

On the close outskirts of town we found an open water course which accompanied us nearly all the way and where it ended we stopped so Matthieu could wash his hands.  I noticed when he was crouching that he was wearing Salomon shoes.  I said “You have Salamon shoes, so do I”. “Yes, I saw”, he said.  I asked him cheekily, “So have you been checking out my shoes?” and he laughed and said “Always”.

We walked the last little stretch into town, having to take a slight detour because there were some fences being put up for the town fete.  We searched for the Office de Tourisme after passing the sideshows being set up in the afternoon sun. La Poste. At the office he asked about the boulangerie, and I asked about the caravan park. We walked back outside again, and he wanted to go and eat something and get supplies.  I started to go with him, but considering I was really worn out, my feet and legs were sore, and I’d said I wouldn’t be going on, I said that I’d go to the camping to wash and get settled.

He said,  “À bientôt!” and we kissed goodbye.

I walked away saying to myself “well if he wants to see you again, he will. Just keep walking”. I had mixed feelings. I really wanted to keep walking with him. I really liked him, but I didn’t want to go anyone else’s way, and I knew that today I was already exhausted, and I’d just be walking further for someone else.  I’d done that before and wasn’t going to do it again. I continued trying to work out what I should have done. I didn’t feel that I’d done the right thing.  Should I have told him I really wanted to walk with him? Would he stay so he could walk with me? What would he do?

I really could not have gone any further, and it was even a struggle getting the three-hundred or so metres to the caravan park.  I booked in and paid my 10 Euro fee for a tiny chalet-style cabin with five beds and got my credential stamped.  The woman at the office gave me menthe and I enjoyed it very much.  When I had finished she took me to the cabin. It was très mignon (very cute) however I only noticed when she’d already gone, that it didn’t have a lock. In fact, the door didn’t even close properly.  Now, it is one thing peeing in a toilet without a door, but it is a totally different situation sleeping alone in a caravan park in a town with no lock on your cabin.  When I asked, she just said put a chair in front of it. Great!

I tried to half imagine that Matthieu might come, but I think I knew that he wouldn’t. That made me sad and regretful. I was getting used to the idea that I’d be half-sleeping, worried for my safety with no-one else staying the night.  I went to inspect the showers/toilets, which were about 50 metres from the cabin.  The old push-button shower again, and squat toilets, with no toilet paper. Hmmm. Squatting after a day of walking is a very difficult feat. Every muscle in your thighs screams as you lower yourself from standing to squatting, having to somehow work through the pain as you hover to relieve yourself. You wonder how you can keep from collapsing completely. Out on the road behind a tree, it is not so challenging but when you’re hovering above a squat toilet – you have to aim as well. Then there is getting up again!  It would be the one thing I would try and train for if I walked again, not so much the endurance for the long days, but the thigh muscles for squatting. Men have it easy!

There were lovely porcelain sinks for washing clothes though and so after my shower I used them with my new soap, and hung my washing on the back wall facing the river.  It was still windy and there was a slight chill to the air, and across the river men en masse were playing a pretty serious petanque competition. I think I got wolf-whistles and leering comments, but I didn’t dare turn around to acknowledge them. I had to sleep all night without a lock on my cabin!

I walked back into town to the Office de Tourisme to see about where to get food. The woman told me that one opened in the morning. The boulangerie would be open as well. She told me that two other men were coming to stay in the cabin, and I said I was relieved because I didn’t want to be there alone. I asked about Matthieu, and she told me he had returned to tell her that he had decided to go to Lahitte-Toupiere today. I shared with her my disappointment. She commiserated saying “he was walking too fast for you”. I thought he would go on, but I was still sad.  I thought he was really sweet. But it is about moving on, isn’t it? No attachments. What a surprise to have met the Salamon-wearing, single virgo, who was not as young as he looked.

I decided I’d get lunch in the morning as well as breakfast, as there was nothing at the caravan park apart from coffee, so I made my way back to the cabin after going to the Cyber Cafe to check emails.  Biche o ma biche.

On returning I met Christian, a cyclist, who was doing the same route and had come from Toulouse.  I had a lie down because I was really tired and while doing so his two other friends, Patrice and Laurent arrived.  They sounded like a funny group mucking around outside the cabin.  After a quick snooze, I sat up to do my journal and when I’d finished, I introduced myself and we decided we’d check out the town fete.  I had said goodbye to one guy, and there were three to take his place.  I think you would call this a social life.

We walked into town to get some dinner. It was Christian’s birthday, and I was shouted dinner. Nice!  We had couscous at a restaurant that had extended it’s reach onto the square via trestle tables.  It was a busy night with many people out and about (probably half the town) and the restaurant was packed.  The food was great, lovely Moroccan curry with couscous. Patrice spoke really good English, so he acted as interpreter for us all, but I managed fairly well in French too. We had a great discussion about French and Australian culture and politics.  They were wonderful company and we laughed and joked a lot, even if I spent most of the night thinking about the gazelle who had just bounded away.

Later we walked around to la arène (the arena), where a bull fight was happening and where, judging by the noise, the other half of the town was. It was really loud, and I explained that not only was the 13 Euro entrance fee something I didn’t want to pay, but also I didn’t like bull-fighting.  Now I understood why part of the town was fenced off. It was a strange thing to see bull-fights appearing again at the other end of my walk and it reminded me of my first few days in Arles and the Camargue. It felt like the taureaux were book-ending my walk.  What would be more suitable for a Taurean? It is what makes me sympathise with the poor bulls.

We walked back along the streets, still hosting some revellers. We dropped in to a bar that was still open, packed with drunken young men singing at the top of their voices, listening to a live band outside. We stayed for one drink.  It was a late night, but thankfully one that promised a sound sleep with not just one, but three lovely mousquetaire (musketeers) to protect me. What an unbelievably amazing day of surprises.  I’d found several pots of gold.