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 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.

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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.

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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.