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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go your own way.

Be still.

Ask always.

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

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

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

Via Tolosana Day 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.