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 3: Stone fruit, courgettes and faux pas

St Gilles to Vauvert 17.8km

It was quite hot and stifling in our underground room over night, so I didn’t get much sleep. Jacques and I had agreed to leave just before 7am, so I got up at 5:45am to write first. I got a page written around breakfast and packing. Viola was really tired, so had breakfast with us then went back to bed. For some reason it was a bit of a struggle fitting everything back in, but maybe it was because I was packing with an audience and a feeling like I didn’t want to hold Jacques up from starting walking. I made a cheese and avocado baguette for the road with an apricot and peach for snacks. It felt much better to have food to eat for the day.

Jacques and I set out just as the church bells struck 7 and we joked about wanting to leave just before 7am. It was a warm morning, but a beautiful one nevertheless. A taste of what was to come and of course entree into another song – Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. Once we had left the town, we crossed a disused railway line and then wove our way through orchards of apricots and peaches. Olive groves and vineyards appeared along the small farming roads complete with the odd tractor. The sun was not yet high enough to worry us and without really realising it, we’d walked for nearly an hour and a half. Jacques was very kindly (and patiently) assisting me to speak with him in French, and because it was the morning, my brain was fresh, and it wasn’t too hard and it made the time pass quicker.

St Gilles dogs – a beagle for Anita

We paused on the wall outside Chateau Lamargue, a big winery, and my friends from yesterday passed again. They were nearing the end of their walk and so were planning to walk a long way today. He was still keen on the walking, but she was saying that she might not do it again.

Resuming, we soon met the Canal d’Irrigation du Bas-Rhone Languedoc which we walked next to for several kilometres on an at times difficult dirt road. The stones were smooth like river stones, and came in all sizes making it important to choose your steps carefully so as to avoid a twisted ankle. Just before leaving the canal, we decided to have a break in the nearest thing to the Belle-vue on the signpost that we could manage. In reality there was no good place to stop, it was very dry and dusty, so we made do under pencil pines with the associated insect species – you know the ones I’m talking about!

Canal d’Irrigation du Bas-Rhone Languedoc

After this point we were to cross the bridge and double back for a short distance (probably to avoid the more direct route on private property). We then found ourselves walking next to a field of courgettes. Did I say I was in France? Zucchini doesn’t have the same ring does it? Turning again, the sun ripening the apricots, several varieties of peach and nectarine (including my favourite nectarine variety), was now fully on our backs. Most of varieties were perhaps a week away from my kind of ripe, but there was a fallen branch and I found a peach to my liking to feast upon. The track passed into a more shaded area and we passed some pigs – we could smell them and hear them rather than seeing them as they were behind a hedge. It took me back to days at the Royal Adelaide Show.

Peach tree

We ate lunch under a large tree in the shade near an old stone building. Bees buzzed overhead in the branches instead of cigales. For the afternoon, we passed bigger, more open farm land and then crossed a road and descended into an unusual cutting made into the clay. It made a trench of varying heights lined with varying sized stones again. Once again the way was found by picking your steps carefully. The smell of pine was heady and there were pine needles along the way also. In the stretches that were not shaded, the sun burnt my skin more each step. We emerged from that little diversion onto a plateau of vines, and we could smell sulphur. In the morning I had explained to Jacques how I had worked for pocket money in Renmark in the summertime as a teenager at first cutting apricots and then picking grapes. I explained how we’d cut the apricots in half and set them out on wooden trays that would stack up to 6 high before being piled maybe 50 high and sulphured overnight. The trays would then be spread during the day for drying. Those were the days, when Australia produced it’s own dried apricots and Turkish apricots saw out their lives in Turkey. Those were lovely summers with Aunty Carolyn and Uncle Don, and my cousins. They are very precious memories, and the reason I know the smell of sulphur a mile off.

Looking back for pigs

Interesting diversion

When I’m writing about this walking, it might sound like I skip along the road effortlessly. Jacques could attest that is not what I look like when I have walked 17 kilometres. Walking into Vauvert could be better described on my part at least, as shuffling – Cliff Young style. He at least was jogging, and he had an excuse for shuffling, he was 76. The other reason for me shuffling was that the copious amounts of stone fruit were taking their toll on my innards, and I’d been needing a toilet for a number of hours. I’m sensitive about number twos in the wild (there’s one for you Jo)! I might need to get over that before 6 weeks is done.

Humbling things happen though when you reach a town. One man had a water bottle, and offered to top mine up. Another woman who Jacques had asked about directions to Coleurs du Sud (our Chambre d’hotes) took our bottles inside to get ‘fresh’ water as Jacques put it – fresh for it’s temperature rather than the opposite of water from a stagnant pond. Her husband came out with a laptop to help with the orientation.

I like this asking thing. I don’t do enough of it. Maybe when I’m full of concerns or think that it is a reflection on my capabilities I find it hard to allow myself to ask. Maybe I just haven’t been very interested in connecting with people. Maybe this is a symptom of burnout. In the past I’ve preferred to work things out for myself and maybe there is conceit involved in this because very often I believe I will have the answer and may doubt if others could provide further value.  Or is it just that I trust my own judgement. Coming to a town, I’d be more likely to just follow my nose until I found what I was looking for, rather than ask. Certainly I think that the language issue has been bigger on previous visits. Now I’m much more likely to ask when something opens or closes, or where to find water for instance. Sometimes I think it is more about the pride I feel when I know I have worked it out for myself. It will be interesting to observe what happens over this trip – whether I use my opportunities to ask.

I had the fortunate experience of travelling around Australia some years ago with an opera company, Co-Opera from South Australia. I helped out with the driving for thousands of kilometres in addition to playing 40 regional versions of Puccini’s La Boheme. One of the things that made the trip a little more interesting for me, was keeping a look out every day for some form of Australia Post van or truck. Most days I wasn’t disappointed, and at random moments the red messengers would cross our path. I expect on this trip, the jaune (yellow) La Poste vans will serve the same purpose. They, because the French have more taste, and maybe more loyalty to their state institutions, do not yet have … “powering online shopping” written on them! I’m not always quick enough to snap them, unless they’re stationary (excuse the pun), but once again, I expect to see them most days.

La Poste – Vauvert

We arrived around 1.00pm at our accommodation and our hostess, Marie-Claude had us decant from our backpacks the bare essentials we would need for sleeping. Our backpacks were then stored in garbage bags next to our boots in the entry hall. Apparently this is a precaution many hosts take in order not to get outbreaks of bed-bugs. I haven’t heard of any bed bugs so far, so it seems like a bit of a rigmarole for nothing, but being a hostess myself, I understand the caution.

It was a nice room overlooking the street with two camp beds and a double. I was happy with the camp bed. Marie-Claude was keen to let me know that the bed is for sleeping in. I wasn’t to sit on it, read in it or in anyway be in it apart from reclined. There had obviously been previous guests who had come a cropper. The bathroom was down a small passage – sans door … racy! I’d just have to trust that Jacques wouldn’t walk in on me.

Traditional costume of the Camargue

Downstairs, they have converted their garage into a beautiful outdoor enclosed kitchen and dining area next to an enclosed patio with high brick walls and it was here that we were treated to anise syrup cordial. We’d later have our beautifully prepared supper there and petit dejeuner the next morning. Jacques and Marie-Claude discussed her work as a maternity nurse. I listened, but didn’t understand much. When the conversation moved to pets I pricked up my ears when Royal Canin was mentioned. You may remember I took a trip to Shanghai with a guy I was knocking around with a few years ago when I lived in Sydney. He was going for a job with this company, so I knew what it was about. When he told me that the job might involve several trips to France each year I said, that would be great. He’d never been to France, so I said don’t take my word for it being fantastic, he might hate France. M-C was enthusiastically telling us about how it is pet food specialised for the age and dietary needs of the dog. This fact sits amongst all the trivia I know that is usually of limited use to me. It might have got me extra credibility with Jacques and M-C on this occasion. What I didn’t know was their factory and the associated kennels were right around the corner from here. Who knew?

After we’d showered and washed our clothes, we were sitting around, letting our muscles repair and M-C offered to show us the pride of the Camargue … bull-fighting. Clip after clip on YouTube showing the bulls pursuing lithe young men who often ended up needing to escape by jumping Ninja-style over two fences. The bull in pursuit at times jumps one fence, ploughing into it with its legs. My sensitivities to these kinds of ‘sports’ which the animal apparently ‘loves’, not my words, have grown over the years. Apart from the fact I could barely stand still from the walk as my feet and legs were aching, I could also barely stand to watch it. I did out of politeness to my host, and for a few beautiful Carmague scenery films, but this was not the highlight of my Via Tolosana adventure.

It was a mutual pushing of buttons I think, because not long after I had felt obliged to stand up for 15 minutes in the same spot, I needed to sit down, and unfortunately literally put my feet up. The outdoor dining area contained outdoor chairs and M-C not being there to ask, I put my feet on one of the cushions. M-C returned to find my feet on the seat and I was in no uncertain terms told that this was not done in France and I was ushered to the chaise lounge outside. Oops. Even pilgrim’s feet don’t deserve a seat when they’re tired, not even for medical reasons.

Via Tolosana Day 2: Les Trois Ponts

Bouchaud to St Gilles 18kms

My juggling friend and I left Bouchaud together setting out for St Gilles in the cool hours around 8am. There was even a light breeze. I navigated as I had the map, back to Gimeaux and the GR653. Viola prefers to ask directions rather than have a map – I like that but it scares me somewhat having to speak in French to strangers. I explained how to read the little balisages (red and white arrows and crosses). It was only the first day, but from what I could see, there were plenty of way-markers. On the way we passed hacienda-style compounds guarded by plaster dogs and porcelain cigales. There was not much traffic all day as the roads were minor farming roads. There was more traffic in the sky – invisible, speed of sound jets, then the French version of the Roulettes did a fly past for us. The French have considerable military muscle to flex – I wondered where the air show was.

Guard animals

Viola had a very big pack, and she was worried about her broken buckle not coping with the strain. She chose to stop for a rest after about an hour near Mas des Bernacles. I really wanted wifi and food so kept going. We said our goodbyes, and said we’d meet in St Gilles. In the distance behind us were a couple I later met, a French woman and her German partner. I found out when they caught me in a little town on the outskirts of St Gilles that their way was from Grenoble to Montpellier and they’d already walked for three weeks.

Viola

Me and my backpack

Way markers – mine are the white and red GR

I was alone in terms of human contact, but as I made my way along the Camargue canals and small roads, I was joined by dragonflies of all shapes and sizes – big blue, small red and blue then some beautiful swans. I was hoping for some flamingoes because believe it or not, they are native. Sadly, they didn’t join me. Instead I just kept singing the song Pretty Flamingo.

Not far from where I’d left Viola, I came across a guy fishing next to a bridge. Blackberries, bullrushes, canals petite and grand, rice paddies and vineyards. Every so often the road took a bend. The uncertainty of not seeing the road a long way ahead was kind of nice in that it broke up the journey and gave some novelty to the road. Funny that the same road can look different when it turns a corner.

Camargue fields

Blackberries

Triple security Camargue style

As I would find many times in the coming weeks, the way is not always direct. The GR653 people not only have the route following old Roman roads, Compostelle ways, but also along paths to take you away from busy roads, past water, and chapels. All of the things a pilgrim needs. I couldn’t work out which one the route into and then out of Saliers was for, but it was an interesting diversion. I saw two beautifully thatched buildings that looked like churches, found water, and eventually sat down for a break under a shady tree. Two boys killing time in front of the town church were kind enough to allow me to interrupt their bon vacance to direct me to the little village’s water supply. France’s future is in safe hands with such polite young people.
In a book I started reading recently, David Downie’s, Paris to the Pyrenees, he included a photo of a fire hydrant. For anyone who has not walked (including myself at the time) the rationale for using a non-descript fire hydrant in one’s collection of pertinent photos of a trip kind of escapes. Now I understand perfectly. On long days, where there are few towns, all you want is a source of eau portable – drinking water. You eye off every fire hydrant enviously, realising they have everything you need, but with no way of making it available to you.

Bridge over the Rhone

Another compostelle way marker

Regional symbol of the Camargue

I crossed the impressive bridge over the Canal du Rhone, but then there was another diversion to bring me into the eastern end of St Gilles and to take me off the busy, semi-trailer filled N572. It involved a lot of faffing around and nearly killed me, but I was quite concerned to ‘go the right way’, so I followed, feet barely leaving the ground as I sauntered along white metal roads, over disused train tracks, next to farms with three exuberant and friendly dogs, two of whom jumped up on me, in what seemed like ridiculous heat.

As if one large bridge wasn’t enough, I came to the petite bridge over the Petite Rhone. Then following signs that looked like they led to nowhere, I found yes, after two lovely horses, another cute little bridge. I crossed a field by chemin de terre, and lo and behold, yes, another little bridge. This one had steps to climb. I was doubting whether after 16 kilometres I’d be able to lift my feet to climb steps, but I surprised myself. Les Trois Ponts, (the three bridges) things always come in threes.

Non-descript path

GR marker

I know where I’ve been

I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid. I find the heat exhausting and it often gives me a migraine. So, to salve this possibility, I brought my own supply of Salvital with me, the thing that always helps me in Australia. I stopped and sat down to drink it in and take a break before sauntering off, only to be dealt a cruel blow. In the near distance, the road rose steeply. I could see for miles before St Gilles that it was on a hill, so I don’t know why I was surprised. Halfway up the hill, and wait, there’s more … steps! At the top, what a vista – the large bridge I’d crossed first, and the surrounding hills. Self-discipline, just keep walking, just keep walking. I followed the little markers, now on street sign posts and house walls, all the way to the Mairie (city hall), with enough French and European Union flags flying to make Tony Abbott jealous. The little red and white signs led me down steep narrow streets towards the centre ville and voila, the Abbey. Magnificent.

Abbaye St Gilles

The two options for accommodation were en face the abbey, the Maison des Pelerin and the Gite La Pause du Pelerin. I sat relieved on the steps of the first, taking a breath while deciding what to do. I decided first to go into the abbey and was met there by a a lovely woman who was happy to fill up my water bottle, tell me about where a cash machine was, and about the very impressive crypt that existed below our feet. You can also have your Credential stamped at churches, and she offered to do this. It reminds me of collecting autographs when I was younger. I have Peter Garrett’s when he was just the cool frontman of Midnight Oil, if that counts for anything now? The crypt closed at 5.00pm, so I decided to make an effort to get to see it.

After this I also gave the Office de Tourisme a try. Philippe recommended the municipal gite as it was cheaper, and I would find free wifi in the bars in the town. I went to get a Diablo Menthe (mint syrup and lemonade) at a bar before making my way back to the gite. It was funny because Paul, the host at the gite, offered the same as cordial when I arrived. I could have saved my money. Jacques, a retired Belgian was booking in also. So if Viola made it, it would mean there would be three pelerins – company on the road!

The way it usually works when you ‘get in’ to a town, if you don’t have a reservation, is to visit the Office de Tourisme. Not only can they help with information and bookings for current and upcoming towns, but they can be mined for megabytes with their free wifi. When you get to your chosen accommodation, you spend the first few minutes booking in and getting your credential stamped, yes with a tampon, (yes I smile to myself everytime I have to say it) and paying your money. If there is a host/ess, you spend time talking to them about what’s on offer. Here it was a donation towards petit dejeuner (breakfast) and a cost of 12 euros for the bed. After this, you choose your bed, shower, then wash your walking clothes, so that you give them the maximum time to dry before leaving the next morning. Nine out of ten times, my socks don’t dry fully overnight – that’s why you see them pinned to the back of my backpack. After this, you survey the available food outlets and choose your food for dinner and breakfast, if none is supplied. What is included in the price varies on the type of accommodation you choose. It is great to stay in these little municipal establishments because they provide all cooking utensils, microwave/stove and often tea/coffee and jams for breakfast. If you don’t mind sharing with other people, and the night soundtrack this sometimes entails, then it is perfect.

Maison des Pelerins

I was on my way to the supermarche when who walked up the narrow car-width street? Voila, Viola! She’d made it. I showed her where the Gite was and went to sit in the bar reading emails under the guise of drinking a coffee. I found out I had a phone interview for a cello teaching job at 12.45am Monday morning. That will be interesting and may require a separate room. I made a quick trip to the Crypt of the church and it’s guardians were right, it is cool, damp and magnificent. Apparently it is also one of the largest in France. On my way out I again bumped into the couple I saw during the day. They were headed on a big 30km walk tomorrow.

Back at the Gite, Paul, the host, had rung ahead, and found that the two cheapest places in Vauvert had both closed. He found another, Coleurs du Sud, and Jacques was seeking takers to stay there with him. They had one room for four people. I was happy to agree, as I had no other plans. Though the 30 euro was a bit expensive, there was nothing cheaper. My bed for tomorrow night was settled. Viola thought she would make her own way, possibly camping. I Ioved the walk today. It wasn’t lonely, just solitary, but it seems tomorrow there will be company. The pain in my hip has transferred down my legs to my calves and my feet are aching. I could feel a dull ache in my coccyx by the end of the walk today. Nothing a night’s sleep won’t fix, I hope.

Viola had found out the locations where the locals gathered thanks again to the Office of Tourism and wanted to go busking. I wanted to check out the old town trail to soak up the old building atmosphere – one of my favourite things to do. So after a dinner eaten together with Paul and Jacques, Viola got dressed up and took her balloons to perform. At the end of my trailing, I met Viola down by the river and wrote my journal for a while as the light faded.
Well if this is the life of a pelerin, then I’m for it. There is not much more to worry about than getting up in the morning, walking, eating and sleeping. Back to basics really.

Viola ready for performing