Via Tolosana: Epilogue – Know Thyself

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_5824

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

img_5832

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

img_5833

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

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

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

Subject: Between Marciac and Maubourguet.

Yes, it was an email from Matthieu.

The End.

img_6099

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

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

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

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

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

img_5762

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

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

img_5767

img_5771

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_5806

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go your own way.

Be still.

Ask always.

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

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

img_5816

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

Via Tolosana Day 45: The Purple Patch

Col du Somport to Canfranc-Estación – 6.7kms

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

img_5602

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_5761

my albergue

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

Via Tolosana Day 44: The Dweller on the Threshold

Borce to Col du Somport – 17kms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarrance to Borce – 24kms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For all your questions, the answer is: LOVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 img_5149

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.

IMG_4946

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.

img_5025

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.

img_5074

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.

3:33

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!
IMG_4936
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.