I read in the book, Paris to the Pyrenees, that it is said the first week of a long walk is for the body, the second, the mind and rest for the spirit. Well I have spent the first week of my walk sacrificing my body to the mountains of Saone-et-Loire, Loire and Rhine regions of France.
What I thought would be rolling hills, turned out to be high grade hiking trails but not nearly so well maintained. I’ve scaled a 1,000m mountain and counted more passes than I care to list. I’ve walked too many kilometres each day (35kms one day) and at the wrong times (leaving in the afternoon and arriving at 7pm or on one occasion 9pm). I’ve not drunk enough water. I’ve stubbornly followed GR waymarkers that clearly weren’t mine to follow. I have been hopelessly lost, wailing to the creatures of the forest in despair.
So what have I learned from all this?
Don’t begin in the middle
I mistakenly thought that I knew what the deal was with this walking thing. I’d finished the 800 km Via Tolosana in 2015, how different could it be? I had some recommended itineraries, and decided to compact the first 3 days of walking into 2 – meaning very long days of walking. Maybe this would have worked in the middle of my trip when I was over jet lag, and my body was accustomed to the road, but not in the first days.
You rarely remember the first parts of a long walk, the aching muscles, the blisters, the results of acclimatising to daily long walks with a backpack. Instead you remember he exhilaration and sense of accomplishment of getting so far and not quitting then the feeling that you could walk on forever.
It is important to start from where you’re at with the terrain that presents itself – for me on the GR765, this should’ve seen me do no more than 15km days for at least the first three days and get up to 20kms gradually.
Always begin at the beginning, as a novice and be gentle with yourself and relax expectations.
Being lost is frustrating, but mostly because at some point you were wrong.
It is deeply humbling to realise that the reason you are lost is because you weren’t paying attention, didn’t see the signs, or didn’t check your map – maybe all three. Even more frustrating is when there are multiple routes indicated by the same signs, and you’re following blindly for many kilometres and assuming they are pointing you in the right direction, but they’re not. If something feels like the wrong way, check! The route straight up for a kilometre out of a town that is not described in your guide book, is probably the wrong one. And girls on horses shouldn’t be trusted! They might not know the way you need to go. Putting your trust in signs is important, but keeping a healthy skepticism is vital. The route between Cluny and Le Puy has multiple GR routes crossing. Pay attention always.
From lost moments come unexpected surprises
After getting hopelessly lost in the forest on one day, I reasoned that I should just keep walking as eventually I’d find a main road from which to get my bearings. The unhelpful voice in my head continued, “What if you’ve walked all this way in the opposite direction to where you need to go and have wasted all this time?” (We were now talking hours of the wrong route). This was a possibility but when I did finally reach a main road, I found to my great surprise, that I’d cut off several small towns and was further along the day’s journey than expected. How amazing. It was confirmation that no effort is wasted.
These lessons all came at a toll on my body. A nasty blister on my left foot; two un-trimmed toenails digging into their neighbour toes; stretched ligaments on the side and back of my right knee; and a swollen right leg. But maybe they are just symptoms of the combination of the physical terrain and one’s state of mind. Once the body has been sacrificed, as the saying goes, maybe I’m now set to lose my mind!
I have been practice-packing for months. It can only mean one thing – my next long walk in France is long overdue. I’ve booked it and July approaches. In preparation I have reviewed my Via Tolosana packing list, and have come up with a list of items I’m happy with for today. It might change tomorrow, and my inclination always seems to be to add more, rather than subtract. The just-in-case syndrome.
I’ve read somewhere, that you can walk with only one spare change of clothes, and that all the small things, first aid kits etc and things you don’t absolutely use every day, can be bought if you need them. I agree with this for clothes, but for first aid, I think it is handy to have it with you. I attempt to keep my packing to what for me are (mostly) the bare essentials. Whilst this is a long list, many things don’t take up much room.
Ideally, you don’t want anything in your pack that you’re not using every day. But on the other hand, if you’re walking for 60 days, you may want to go out to dinner in a dress one night instead of your daggy walking clothes. So I compromise with finding the lightest/most compact version of anything I won’t use every day ie. an umbrella.
If you find you have to take everything out to re-pack every morning, it is actually a good thing, because it means you’re using everything in your pack.
- Backpack – North Face Terra 30 litre (purchased in 2008)
- Pack cover (came with the pack)
- St Jacques shell
- Walking sticks (I didn’t use these, however the going is easier with them – other people loaned me theirs to try out)
- Aluminium clips
- Plastic bags (or pack liner or large zip-lock bags – for the 2-3 days you may walk in heavy rain, plastic bags are plenty – especially if you have a pack cover – which I’d highly recommend)
- Waterproof bags (for technology/passport/phone) – Kathmandu
- Water bottles (Take a drink bottle plus buy 1.5 litre plastic one when you’re there)
- Swiss Army knife (make sure you pack it in the bag that gets put under the plane otherwise it will be confiscated)
- Money belt (It can come in handy on planes and trains and where you feel security is not great, but mostly I didn’t need it along the way)
- Compass (didn’t use it but it may be useful one day)
- Compact umbrella (IsoToner make tiny ones that weigh only 250g)
Although my pack is heavy (even without anything in it), I really like it for its compact design and comfort. All straps are adjustable, and there are great outside zipped and open pockets to store things for easy access. I love the top ‘lid’ which was great for carrying the day’s quiche or flat peach and it has a zipped section inside, so I could keep my pocket-knife and small things like salt/pepper and the compass in case. You won’t walk using an umbrella, but I found when looking around towns at the end of a day of walking, it is very uncomfortable walking around in the rain – handy to have a tiny umbrella.
- Hiking boots – Salamon
- After hours light sandals (I couldn’t successfully walk on cobblestones in flip-flops) – Teva
- Flip-flops (for shower) – Havianas
- 1 waterproof jacket – Kathmandu
- 1 inner jacket shell/lightweight polo fleece – Kathmandu
- 2 t shirts – Bonds
- 2 long sleeve t-shirts – Bonds
- 2 pairs long pants/shorts (depending what you are comfortable in) – Kathmandu
- 3 bras
- 3 pairs underpants
- 2 pairs socks (thick Wool/synthetic blend hiking socks)
- 1 dress (light-weight and compact for evenings)
- 1 pair leggings
- Lightweight shawl
- Bathers/swimmers/togs – whatever you call ’em. Yes there are some swimming pools.
- Sleeping sheet
- Quick dry towel
- Stretchy clothes line
- 5 pegs
- Eye/sleep mask
- Ear plugs (if you need them)
If you stay mostly in pilgrim accommodation – gites or Chambre d’hotes, pillows and blankets are mostly provided, so I found carrying a sleeping bag was unnecessary, and it freed up a lot of space when I posted it home.
- Morning pages (A4 notebooks if you’re a writer)
- Miam miam dodo (Food and Accommodation guide)
- Phone (and charger & extra battery)
- Electrical adapter
- Pencil case – small round-blade scissors, small glue stick, pens for journalling
- Passport/plane ticket
- Pilgrim credential
- French phrasebook
Being a writer, I pack paper, and it weighs a lot. But this is the price I pay for being able to write about my trip in great detail while I’m going, and I’m not about to give it up. Same goes for scissors and glue stick. I stick all my tickets etc into my journal as I go, and also prepare town maps and information about the route before I leave and stick it into my journal as I get to each place. It makes a beautiful record of the trip and I figure I’ll be wanting to remember my trips when I’m 90 and in a nursing home.
Encouraged by Alissa Duke and her gorgeous sketches, this time I’m going to try water-colour sketching – more to carry, but more memories!
The other area I don’t economise on is toiletries. I like carrying lotions and potions in the smallest sizes available, because at the end of long day of walking, after I’ve showered, I like to have a little tube of peppermint foot balm at my disposal or some arnica creme to massage my legs. OK, I might only use the paw-paw ointment once or twice, but I’d rather have it than not. A little block of ‘friction block’ instead of lots of bandaids for feet is a must that was loaned to me by my friend Isabel. I only used it once, but it worked by stopping a blister coming, and I was so glad I had it.
I also carried a little portion of Salvital last time, and I was so glad I did on the hot days.
- Soap (in a mesh bag you can peg to the washing line to dry overnight. Wash yourself and your clothes with it)
- Baume de St Bernard (muscle liniment)
- PawPaw creme (these come in mini red containers)
- Jojoba oil (JoJoba make mini travel sized bottles)
- moisturiser/aloe vera (mini version)
Sunscreen (Avene make a cute-sized tube)
Nivea Lip balm
First aid kit (small)
Bandaid – or any other ‘friction block’ blister stopper – excellent (so much better than any sticking plasters and it really works, but difficult to find in Australia)
Large safety pins
- Small amount of real wool – excellent for shoving between your toes to prevent blisters
- Tampons/pads – can’t quite bring myself to go on the pill just to walk, but it would certainly make it easier from a packing perspective
- Toilet paper – wind your own without the cardboard tube
What not to take
- Sleeping bag (I found I didn’t use it on the Via Tolosana – may yet be proved wrong this time)
- SLR camera (still deciding on this) and charger
- Heavy sandals – don’t take Keens unless you’re walking in them (they’re too heavy to carry for after hours wear)
- iPad (next time I won’t try to blog while on the trip)
Other useful notes
Space for food
- Leave enough space in your backpack to pack the food you need each day. Sometimes you might have to stock up for over 24 hours worth on the Via Tolosana as there are not always epiceries/boulangeries in the smaller towns. Ask about the provisions of food in the towns ahead from Office de Tourisme/hostelliers you stay with. Other pilgrims are a also a good source of info about this. Miam Miam Dodo is a good resource, but may not be up-to-date or accurate.
Use space on the outside of your pack
- Use large safety pins to dry your socks on the outside of your pack if they don’t dry overnight.
- Buy aluminium clips to clip drink bottles and other extras to the outside of your pack
- I carried two posters in a post-pack carton strapped on the outside of my pack for the last 6 days – not recommended, but it is possible for those must-have souvenirs.
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As you know, I will venture to France again for more walking soon, and while I’m at it, another marathon effort will be undertaken by lots of crazy cyclists in the feat known as the Tour de France.
Someone asked me this week whether my route will take me anywhere near the race, so I checked. It doesn’t, thankfully. Finding accommodation would be mission impossible if the Tour went even close to my route. Instead, I’ll just be competing with thousands of holidaying French walkers.
It was such a treat to be able to see again the lush, yet brutal, Triplets of Belleville, at the Adelaide Festival in March 2018, with Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville conducted by Benoît Charest live on stage. I’m hoping this year’s tour entrants don’t have the same kind of family background, training regime or become the victims of gangster kidnappers. It seems this is as close to the T de F as I’ll get for 2018.
However, the route goes to several places I have visited on my many travels, and I thought it might be nice to re-visit my diaries and provide some guidance to Tour entrants about the must-see things to do (after their brief and completely non-exhausting daily rides – ha ha)!
Stage 3, July 9: Cholet – Cholet (TTT), 35km
Should there be any tour entrants with Huguenot ancestry, I can thoroughly recommend the Le Musée de La France Protestante De L’Ouest, in the middle of nowhere (like Cholet, incidentally and near to it). I can also highly recommend the train and two buses it takes to get there from Angers. My friend Seb called it ‘deep France’. The connections will be perfect – a train, bus then if you’re lucky like me, you’ll also get a lift from a helpful stranger, when you thought you were going to walk to the chateau. While in nearby Angers, make sure you visit the beautiful Apocalypse tapestry.
Stage 7, July 13: Fougères – Chartres, 231km
Chartres cathedral has to be visited because it holds the ancient labyrinth, on which the Sydney Labyrinth in Centennial Park is modelled and which I wrote about here on my way to my last walk. So if the riders are still able to walk, and the design is not covered by chairs (which it sometimes may be if you visit at the wrong time), then a lap through it would probably put competitive minds at ease or make them dizzy, depending. Or it could be considered a warm-down. Devotees used to do it on their knees – that’s also an option after an invigorating ride of 231kms.
Stage 8, July 14: Dreux – Amiens Métropole, 181km
Whilst I’ve been to Amiens, I have not visited the notable cathedral there (gothic and UNESCO listed), but just saw it in transit on my way to visit Villers-Brettoneux to visit the ancestors commemorated in the famous Australian memorial park there. The Richards brothers both got their names on that list for lives they gave for God, King and country. The memorial is a big drawcard for Australian WW1 tourists these days and ANZAC day services are held there and our armed forces bands play. My advice, don’t go in April.
Rest day, July 16: Annecy
One year, I did French lessons at Alliance Francaise, and one night we spent the whole lesson learning about directions in a little town called Annecy. They always like to make the exercises practical, so by the end, we all pretty much knew our way around this cute town in the mountains near the Swiss border.
One of the wonderful benefits I had of hosting many Couchsurfers, was making friends who I have visited on my French trips. One such lovely visitor was Celine, and I was thrilled when I was going to meet a person who came from that charming town. I visited her at Christmas time and she put me up for a few days and introduced me to the wonders of this pristine town. We drove up to get the view of the lake from above, where snow had fallen – only one of the few times I’ve seen snow. The swans on the lake, the museum/chateau and a traditional fondue dinner in wooden-chalet-type restaurant are all lovely memories. It is great the riders get to rest in Annecy – it is worth soaking up.
Rest day, July 23: Carcassonne
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Carcassonne – a place I had built up so many idealised versions of, only to find when I got there on my 2015 trip, that it made me feel a little sick. I don’t know whether it was the commercialisation, the difficult accommodation experience I had, being there on THE busiest national monument day of the year, Assumption, or a past life as a Cathar nun, but it disturbed me. The ancient (but heavily re-built) medieval cite is spectacular and would look right at home in the Game of Thrones, but playing the boardgame is as close as I want to get until I walk the GR78 Voie du Piémont. I don’t know how much rest the pedallers will get, I just found the whole thing unsettling.
Stage 18, July 26: Trie-sur-Baïse – Pau, 172km
Pau is a most interesting city. With a balustraded promenade that overlooks the Pyrenees, which on a humid day, look hazy in the distance. There is a tangle of subterranean roadways that make you feel like you’re in an Escher picture. It is full of history – being the place Henry IV was born. I didn’t get to see it, but would have liked to visit the Chateau. What I did see was one of my favourite things on wheels, a funicular – very short, very steep, and straight to the point – breakfast. It is a a great entrance to the next town on the list, just a short trip away by train. I passed through Pau three times on my Via Tolosana adventure – here, here and here. Jemais deux sans trois. Never two without three.
Stage 19, July 27: Lourdes – Laruns, 200km
I wonder whether any contestants will take the healing waters in St Bernadette’s town? Maybe there will be masses in their honour. There will certainly be a premium on accommodation – it is difficult enough when there are just pilgrims, but add in the entourage of en velo support crews, and the deep peace of the place will likely be thrown into chaos. Lourdes is second in tourist popularity only to Paris, quite a Mecca – excuse the mixed religious metaphor. I also wrote about Lourdes during my Via Tolosana adventure and reviewed the film here.
Stage 21, July 29: Houilles – Paris Champs Elysées, 115km
I’m a bit of a strange Paris tourist – I’ve not spent any time at the Arc de Triomphe or much on the Champs Elysees, although I have walked along parts thereof once or twice. Probably the closest I’ve got to the feeling of being on it was singing Joe Dessin’s version at French classes at Le Café Flo. Does that count? Probably not.
And I’ve never known why they’re called pelotons, not velotons. Maybe someone can enlighten me.
Enjoy the trip!
You may remember last time I walked in France, I eventually blogged my 46 days. Well this time, I’m only going to hold myself to 100 words a day plus a photo … on Instagram. If you want to walk with me – head on over.
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I’ve had several conversations with people in the last few weeks about being outside, and what draws me to this type of walking. There is a beautiful freedom and ironically, a sense of security in being outdoors, and I think Rebecca Solnit captures it with her words:
“Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors…disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”
― Rebecca Solnit,
This idea also dovetails well with some material our philosophy group is working through at the moment,
“The whole world is pervaded by me yet my form is not seen”
It is worth pondering where our limits lie, and to also acknowledge that the whole world lives in us. William Blake’s words are brought to mind,
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”
I’ve added to my original post – it just keeps getting longer … where do your limits lie?