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 20: His yoke is easy, his burthen is light: Choosing easy world.

Dourgne to Revel: 17.2kms

What a majestic and tranquil place this En Calcat is.  I was a little slower out of bed this morning, but was well into my pages by 7.24am. All the ennui of the past day makes sense: I’ve got my period.

I wrote about my night’s experiences. Sometimes it can’t go into my journal and I have to process it through my pages.  When I first went into the cathedral, tears streamed from my eyes. I was so moved by the Vesper bells at night, the beautiful sung psalms by male voices. It was quite simply, divine.  I had felt lost – emotionally and mentally drained yesterday. Even though it was an easy walk, I found it difficult -surprisingly so. I was certainly ripe for an epiphany. Maybe it is just that I’m in week 3 of my walk.  There is a quote that I found before I started walking: it goes something like this – the first week is for your body, the second is for your mind and the third is for your spirit.  I’m certainly getting that!

I wrote about how it would be nice to meet someone to talk to in the communal gite tonight. I considered the experiences that the way brings to you, the different hurdles, the rocky paths, the steep ascents and descents. As I found yesterday, the flat, hard paths provide their own issues, if you make it so.  I wrote about a new acceptance about anything that comes my way.

I also wrote about going along with things. I have always prided myself in my ability to ‘get along’, ‘go along with’ and ‘fit in’ with other people.  I don’t want to fit in any more.  I want to have a life which is my own. When I think about it, I have never ‘fit in’. I’ve always had whacky ideas about things, and interesting takes on things that others take for granted or never question. I have always had my opinions on things, and haven’t been backward in giving them, but as for walking the way I want to walk, that hasn’t happened.  I have always felt the pressure to make others feel more comfortable, or to do things their way. Fitting in and conforming is how society wants it. It is not necessarily a natural way. It makes it convenient for society, and maybe more comfortable for other people to relate to, but it doesn’t necessarily suit me.

After finishing my pages, I find I don’t want to exchange this stillness for the wet, overcast day. How could I take the stillness with me? I was physically OK: I was kitted out with Kathmandu, head to toe, well nearly, courtesy of my stylist and technical consultant, Bettina. I delayed putting my boots on.  My washing had dried overnight, no problem, thanks to the numerous heating pipes in the laundry.    I finished packing and said goodbye to my lovely room. It was true, it was overcast, but it seemed to be dry outside.  I went upstairs to fill my water bottle at a deep sink, and was ready to go.

The woman who had talked all through the ‘silent’ dinner was passing to go to chapel and struck up a conversation with me – as much as a conversation can be with me in French.  She lived near Nimes, and I told her that I had departed from Arles.  I think I understood that her retreat will finish today at midday, then she’ll drive the 5 hours home. Anyway she wished me bon route and I wished her a bon retreat.

Out I walked. I doubled back to go and take a photo of l’eglise – it is unusually well kept, but I suppose that comes from hosting numerous pilgrims and retreaters. It is just as Sonja said, absolutely beautiful and tranquil.  It was definitely a good choice.

I set off intent to walk with the same calm: gentle on myself and gently on the earth. With humility. I think it made my day better.  I was curious about Saint Scholastique, so I walked into their carpark and smelt the freshly cut grass around the fruit trees that were laden with summer fruits. Another place to stay next time. Mr Mister’s Take these broken wings playing in my head. Take these broken wings, And learn to fly again learn to live so free, When we hear the voices sing, The book of love will open up and let us in.  My mind is a bottomless pit of 80s pop.

There were so many ideas coming to me today after the pause in that tranquil place.

Writing is like performing. Discuss.

I need a muse. To amuse. To a muse.

I walked into Dourgne, visited the public WC again – it still had toilet paper. I tried my luck at the Artisan Boulangerie, but then remembered, Lundi – ferme (Monday closed). The Artisan Boulanger Day of rest – after all there is no art to being open every day! I clocked up another beagle sighting, the Dourgne beagle for Anita and with utmost faith in the weather, I put away my hat and jacket and left. On the way out of town, I spotted not one, not two, but 6 La Poste vans at the post office and buoyed, I walked on to find the GR markers again.

Easy like a Sunday morning.

We call diseases aggressive. The disease is not aggressive, we are.  Yield.  I concentrated on yielding to my left shoulder/neck injury. Yield it, yield it! Ease …

The way seemed easier with the different approach. I had decided not to fight the road or oppose it, or judge it for being hard, but yield to it, soften myself. It is not the road that is hard, but me that is hard. I could address the hardness in myself to find an easy way.  Reminds me of a book – Choosing Easy World.  And the sun came out!

Today there was a lot of chemin de terre (dirt road) and the way follows the mountain range, the Black Mountains.   My shoes quickly started to get wet again, so I hoped my blister was not growing inside my sock.

A man driving a La poste van passed by and said Bon Courage – it made me smile.

I decided that whatever made the way easier, was OK, so where I had previously resisted playing music, today I had Alison McGillvray playing Geminiani Cello Sonatas for several kilometres, then Angela Hewitt playing Bach. During my studies I had the privilege of playing Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri. There is something particularly gorgeous about his music and you can see how he influenced J.S. Bach who walked 400 kilometres to spend time learning from him.  It made me think, now that would be an interesting walk – Arnstadt to Lübeck. Another walk idea – Bach to Buxtehude!

La poste back again. We again smiled at each other – you again!  A woman and her dog pass – Bon Chemin!  Merci beaucoup! His yoke is easy, burthen is light! comes to mind for some reason.

A bird above the road caught my eye, combining the aerodynamics of its being with the prevailing wind and managing to suspend itself, as if frozen. Poetry in motion. My view wandered back to the black mountains.  The mountains on this trip are not for the faint-hearted or is that feigned hearted?  Lucky for me, I would neatly skirt this range.

Then Bruce Cockburn helped me out for a while. Vagabondagetout jour en route!  That’s right, every day on the road. Lord of the Starfields (or the cornfields) were all relevant to me as I walked.  A jogger passed me – random.

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A woman can’t live by blackberries alone, but she’ll give it a good try.

Blackberries were all along the route again today, as was the presence of the post. The third time my lovely La Poste driver approached, he gave me warning, I saw him coming down the little road a minute before he arrived and I had time to take my phone out to snap him . We were so amused to see each other, it nearly felt like we should do coffee.

Later I saw another la poste van turn into a very long driveway, then out again the other way. It stopped to make another delivery but was gone before I got there – never a 4th time. A woman was driving so I had crossed into the postal region of a different town.

I traversed several little hamlets again to reach Soreze by midi (midday). Monday is obviously washing day – I saw a bit of it out today. I hadn’t set out until 9.15am, so I was running a little late.

Soreze is a beautiful town, I could tell when I saw it had a medieval part on a sign some kilometres away. I climbed the church steps, over the rose petals from yesterday’s weddings, entered, paused and rested in the l’eglise for a few minutes with my eyes shut.  A mother brought her daughter in to look around, and I decided to check the town map across the road outside.  I noticed a Protestant eglise and several notable ancient sites: an abbey l’ecole looking like an interesting one. I’ve not really been reading up on the Protestant history as I’ve been walking. I think that would be another walk again.

My phone konked out just as I wanted to take a photo of a cute letterbox with two turtles on it – perfect to sum up my preferred route pace. So I wandered a little more before finding that the Office of Tourisme is co-located with Public WC – in a very tasteful inside/outside arrangement … with an accessible powerpoint. So I charged my phone for a while.  After about 15 minutes of reading their literature – stored in the area in boxes, I decided I needed to eat lunch.  The office would open at 2pm, and I saw that the l’ecole musee housed a collection of tapestries … just say the word tapestries, and I’m there.  Add in that they were designed by a monk who lived at En Calcat where I’d just stayed the night, and you couldn’t keep me away.  So out I went to find a supermarche/epicerie that was open to get some lunch.  An Irish woman directed me to the exit end of town where I’d later walk towards Revel. The supermarket was fantastic.  I got german bread with my favourite canned tuna and mayo, 2 abricot and a decadent pain au chocolat. When in France …

I walked back the short distance to the office steps and ate my banquet there.  When you’re eating on the steps of the tourist office everyone wishes you bon appetit as they pass! It makes me smile. A man on a scooter comes back to ask what I’m doing and wishes me Bon Courage when I tell him.  After 2pm I went inside and asked about the communal gite in Revel.  They don’t accept reservations, but the kind assistant offered to phone for me.  I thought if I went to see the museum exhibit, I might not make it in time to get a bed. (Little did I know I would be the only one staying there that night!).  She also helped me with Les Casses – and booked me there.  The way is made much easier with the assistance of the Office of Tourisme. Fantastic service.  Next I went to see Dom Robert’s work.

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A wall at the Abbaye ecole de Soreze

The Musée Dom Robert is co-housed with the Abbaye-école de Sorèze, and I had a brief wander around the abbey-school, but wanted to cut straight to the interesting bit: the tapestries.  The Dom Robert museum is beautifully housed in a brand new renovation of an ancient building. You start out taking the old wooden staircase, then a metal flight has been added to bring you to the museum entrance .  The museum looks at tapestries throughout the ages – antique, medieval, renaissance, modern and contemporary and weaves together the great themes of nature, spirituality and metaphor through the exhibition of Dom Robert’s work and one renaissance tapestry.

Like the Lady and the Unicorn, and other superb mille fleur (thousand flowers) designs, Dom Robert’s works display a great awe of nature. Some designs also use a similar ovoid shape as a mat for the main action, so his works truly rest on those that were done so long ago.  I couldn’t take photos, so I have to go by memory and the notes I took.

One tapestry, The Garden Party, after a line from a la Fontaine fable, the man with a hundred eyes, contained an Irish wolfhound in it and peacocks with the hundred eyes. His inspiration, Persian miniatures and 16th Century Tapestries are plainly obvious. The colours were so vivid, and the vibrancy of his oeuvre reminded me very much of Kaffe Facet’s fabrics, and the stylised shapes of plants were reminiscent of Matisse’s cutouts. Oak leaves of the Oak Man, borage flowers in Les Oiseaux rares. Children of the Light and the Magnificat – the visitation.  Dom Robert spent time in Buckfast Abbey in England and there is a lovely drawing of monks playing cricket there.  He was friends with Jacques Maritain & Jean Cocteau, Maxime Jacob.

Dom Robert was a watchful observer of the everyday life around him.The representation of trees, flowers and animals spoke so strongly of a homage to nature: everything I had been seeing and experiencing on my journey.  It was so breathtaking, I nearly cried.  His work so idiomatic of the beautifully pastoral French countryside.  Maybe the love he showed through his creations was connecting with my love for this country.  He lived to 90 years old, a good innings by anyone’s assessment.    I was sad I couldn’t buy a book about him and his lovely designs, as my legs wouldn’t stand it, and Post Offices are never open in the afternoon for me to be able to post it the same day. I did find a DVD about him and there is a great website about Dom Robert also.

I swear I walked faster and more confidently to Revel because I saw this.  Beauty does something physical to me, makes my cylinders fire differently or something. I reflect on all the surprises I have been met with each day.  So many things I could not have anticipated, so many of them bringing joy and reassurance.   What started out as a dreary day, ended up with a multitude of colour.

It was sunny in the afternoon as I set out from Soreze, but not uncomfortable, and I didn’t build up the sweat I would usually.  The forebodingly named Chemin des Moulin du Purgatory made me think I was in for something. I so wanted to spend some time in purgatory,  but all I saw was an airbrushed naked woman and a pterodactyl on a cement-carrying semi at the cement works.  Hell-fire and brimstone indeed. I passed more corn, irrigated this time, and zig-zagged my way towards Revel. I saw roof-tilers out working, they don’t take Mondays off. A little further along, and after days of teasing fig aromas, I found my first edible figs near La Garrigole. Tre magnifique!  Oozing sap like pine sap from the little stem, they make your lips stick together if you eat them whole. I debated the fig eating technique. Do you eat the skin, or not? Yes!

On the outskirts, there were many rebels without a cause in Revel – I saw 5 different groups of young men with motorbikes or scooters somehow involved, burnouts, hanging near the school, walking a motorbike home (too bad), two trail bikes going off!  Then as I got closer to the centre, there were lots of kids in groups.  Anyone would think it was school holidays.  In fact I pointed out to the group at the school, that it was funny there was no school on, but they were still hanging close.  I think the humour was lost on them 1. because I’m the age of their mothers, 2. no-one laughs at a strangers jokes and 3.  I was speaking my brand of incomprehensible French.

I got to Revel at about 4.45, which is a late arrival time for me, but still absolutely within the bounds of acceptable. After the seemingly-long approach to the town along the lines of a well thought-out grid of streets, I found my second surprise for the day.  La Halle medievale.  The usual covered market place, however in this town, it is massive, and takes up the whole of the town-centre, and was built originally in the 1300s.  It was spectacular and quite a sight for this tired pilgrim.  I looked around the confined perimeter for the Office de Tourisme, only to realise when I walked underneath the giant wooden canopy, that there it was right in the centre.  The best location for the Office of Tourism. Ever.  The woman directed me back the way I came, premier rue dans la gauche, dixhuit (first street on the left, 18) to the communal gite.  I didn’t realise I had passed it, so I momentarily explored another street, before realising my error and returning the way I came.

I rang the doorbell and was greeted by Patrick.  He asked me to deposit my shoes downstairs, next to the mini washing machine and then took my pack upstairs and deposited it in a big plastic bucket which he put near my bed (one of six in the room – none of them looking occupied for the time being).  It was quite a large room with two windows facing out into a void, which at the bottom had gravel in it, and looked to be the place where I would hang my washing.

I unpacked a little, and went to the kitchen table for introductions to Bernadette (his wife).  We chatted and they made me a fresh coffee and served it with those delectable Breton butter cookies. Mmmm!  I explained my route, and they said they could help me with accommodation in Montferrand. I was most impressed by this fabulous welcome.  This is the characteristic of a couple of the gites along this route.  They are community run, and staffed by volunteers who choose to spend some of their holidays being hoteliers for pilgrims.  Often they have walked themselves, although not always.  Often they are also retired.  Bernadette and Patrick were staying for one week to mind the gite. What a wonderful thing to do.  It’s no luxury holiday though. They wash all of the linen, often provide a very personal welcome, and then sleep in bunks themselves, in a tiny room that they showed me later – only as long as the bed. Talk about matyrs.  It is one thing to put up with snoring and shared bedrooms when you think you might get some spiritual use from the experience, but to spend your holidays this way seems a big ask.  They do get to spend time looking around the area/town in the mornings, and talking to many pilgrims from all around the world when they arrive. Spreading kindness is its own kind of ‘worthwhile’.

After I’d showered, Bernadette helped me do the washing with the washing machine – (Wow! Again!). Luxury, my washing smells like soap. Even at home I use the eco-detergent, so it never smells ‘OMO-clean’.  I wouldn’t usually bother with a washing machine, but my t-shirts and undies are starting to get decidedly manky, so they can do with all the artificial perfume they can get.  This day has been so great!  Maybe I’ll even get my blog for Day 2 ready to upload!

Bernadette and Patrick continued their amazing hospitality by insisting I eat dinner with them. They made pasta, and I contributed a can of tuna.  We chatted for a long time, before I decided to go out and look around the town centre again and get some photos.  Jacques wrote to me again “Gite in Les Casses is very good 26E with good supper & breakfast. Wifi”.  I would be there in several days, as after reaching Toulouse, I would detour to Carcassonne for a couple of days.

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View from La Halle Medievale

Via Tolosana Day 16 … and a partridge in a pear tree

Salvetat sur Agout – Anglès 18.7kms … or possibly 20kms, who knows!

That was another difficult night’s sleep. I couldn’t settle.  Maybe it was the people outside, not knowing whether I felt hot or cold, food, legs, bed, bed-clothes or all of the above – it was a challenge.  The alarm went at 6am and I dutifully, half asleep, got up and changed the morning ritual to partly pack first. I followed with writing. It is going consistently well now I’m on my own. The church bell chimes for 6.30am, twice.  I haven’t worked out why that is, but it happens for most bells I hear.

My socks didn’t dry, the nights are warm, but a dew kicks in during the early hours, leaving thicker items like my woollen socks damp.  It felt cool now, and overcast. I don’t know how this day will turn out. I packed up, checked I hadn’t left anything and went down to the grubby kitchen to eat my packet rice pudding and to retrieve lunch from the fridge.

Descending into the dark lobby, through the damp smell again, I unlocked then locked the big old wooden door. This musty smell is so French for me, I’d love to bottle it, but I fear the production of such a smell would take several hundred years to get it just right.  Writing about it now reminds me of that book, Perfume. Seventy-five steps around the corner and I deposited the key and the Office de Tourisme and checked my emails. Gas bills, Facebook messages and a morning/evening conversation with my ex-colleague. It felt strange to be a) not present in my old workplace and b) be talking to a work colleague from the other side of the world.  How close the ethernet enables us to feel.

Walking down toward the river end of town, I partially re-traced my trail of the night before. I followed the GR markers down stairs, across a bridge and along a major road with a steady upward climb. The road size diminished as I walked further away from the town, asphalt at first for 20 minutes up hill, then a single lane paved road, then dirt. The town outskirts gave way to more cows, farmland and the way eventually took me into the forest again.

On the big main road a jogger passed me. I wonder if he was smelling the fresh smells. It may have even rained overnight, no wonder my socks didn’t dry.  There were apples on the path today. Fresh silence. The sky seems to have cleared and wispy clouds are present now.

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Ever smaller roads

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Ever smaller roads

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Ever smaller roads

The tracks turned into dark ones, and commenced a stony descent into thicker forest. I walked resolutely. I’m not scared.  Pine trees on one side and thick green bushes with large leaves on the other.  I turned a corner then crossed a creek. I walked for what seemed like ages before seeing a marker, and I was getting worried that I was lost or had missed one. Rounding the next corner I saw the familiar red and white and said “Thank God” out loud, I was so relieved.  Firmly trekking in forest country today, I started to notice many small birds.  I also hear this banging sound in the distance. It is coming closer, weird.  I emerge into a cleared forest area and at the same time notice a small 4WD-like a Lada coming towards me, with a small trailer banging behind it.  Obviously here to collect firewood. He asked if I was hot and I told him yes, I’d walked from Salvetat.  He asked if I was heading to Angles and I said yes.  Angles is the last high town, then it is down hill to Boissezon,  Castres, and flatish for the rest of the walk until I climb to Somport.

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Ever smaller roads – in the shade

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St Jacques champignon

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Wet track

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Where once stood a majestic tree

A little later, I stopped on a tree stump to eat my peach.  Three women on mountain bikes rode past. After starting to walk again, I heard a chainsaw.  I walked through more of what I thought were elm forest (later found to be beech). They really are my favourite, calm and serene. In this one there were many that had been chopped down and it disappointed me somewhat, they are such elegant trees. Three creek crossings today. After the second one it got warmer all of a sudden. A four-wheeler raced along a track across from me, the young rider probably not even noticing me, he was going fast.  Then onto a logging road and met an old man with two sticks, out walking.  Back onto a smaller track and after a while I come across a middle-aged couple all dressed in white mushrooming by the looks.

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Shaggy tree

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Nothing better than a forest like this

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More wood piles

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Early lunch picnic spot

I crossed a road and found a little reserve/car park where they had parked their car, with a picnic table and benches with the bonus of a water tap.  I decided to st0p here to have my pizza with added avocado and tomato on top. Yum!  I filled up my water bottles and had a good pause.  The couple got into their matching white car and drove off, not before she stripped down to her bra to change her top, right there in front of me. But, unlike most everyone else I met, they didn’t acknowledge or greet me at all.  An older, slightly dishevelled guy on a scooter was filling up his bottles from the continuous fountain at the far end of the clearing and looked like he was a bin-checker. Not a vagrant, but someone working for the council.  Then I walked past him a little further on, chatting to a woman in a little village, and he seemed to be collecting leftover food from her, so he probably was a bin checker, not employed by the council. Social security is very personal here it seems.

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Wide open road

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A husband and wife passed on their mountain bikes, then two women in matching fluro pink and yellow gear rode past, then I passed a family of four adults, 2 kids and dogs. It was starting to feel like a day from the Twelve days of Christmas. Either that or Noah and the Ark.  I saw La Poste in Caussillols and then in Angles, two more cyclists and yet another cyclist. It is only a Thursday – have I missed a public holiday or something?

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More wide open road

On approach to Anglès it looked like a well-off town, but the buildings look neither old nor new.  I rested a couple of times during the walk. Once for a little bit in a meadow that sloped gently away from the road. I was admiring the diversity of different flowers and grasses when a man and two women, and two Shetland dogs wandered past. I always call them Collies, because that’s what they look like, but smaller versions. The other time on a park bench, well-placed next to an oversized pond just outside of the town.  It was a hard day of roads today, probably at least 10kms on asphalt. It takes a toll on my feet.

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Not this way – go back!

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Oversized pond

Thankfully it was a gentle downhill into town.  Strange little centre of town. I checked out the church, and the Mairie for the key – that’s easy. I climbed the stairs and a woman greeted me at the top, then got her small daughter or grand-daughter to escort me the short distance to the gite. I noted on the way past that the epicerie opens at 3.30pm.

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Angles

Stopping in at the bar for a Diablo Menthe and an ice-cream that I regretted was as much as anything a bid to sit in shade, but still outside. Why is it an ice-cream is never as good as it promises.  Note to self – stick to iceblocks.

After showering and hanging my clothes in the sun outside, I went to buy supplies for the evening meal and tomorrow. I bought up big.

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Vintage bikes

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Nice knocker

The only drawback about this town is that the Office of Tourisme is back out of town about 500 metres. It is cute though. A little wooden chalet-type hut with a wooden decking out front.  It sits in the triangular grassed area between two roads that meet at a roundabout. It has a shady tree outside which suited me perfectly for a place to sit under and attempt to blog.  I tried booking for Castres, but had no luck.  I’ll try again tomorrow with my host, or maybe I’ll just wait.

I got day one of my trip posted – at last! Into Great Silence.  I was just getting ready to pack up from my sunny deck spot, as I’d decided to call it a night, when I saw a guy walking down the road. He had the requisite shell so I called out to him and asked if he was a pilgrim.  He said yes, but that his French wasn’t so good. He didn’t seem to notice mine wasn’t either.  We continued in English. He was German.

It was 6.45pm, so the Mairie was long closed, and he asked me whether I could let him stay in the gite. I said I didn’t feel comfortable with that, because it wasn’t my decision to make, but that we should go and see what could be done.  We went to the Bar Chez Marie-Jo et David as this was where the key resided on weekends.  They were kind enough to take his money and stamp his credential.

I was going to write to Bettina in the morning that it would be nice if there were some company in the gites at night, then Manfred appeared.  Some of my wishes seem to get answered quickly.  He thinks he was lucky to meet me. I agreed.  I think I am lucky to meet another pilgrim, given I’d been walking for several days alone now.

Back at the gite I cooked dinner, made left overs for the next day’s lunch and wrote my journal. We chatted a little.  Manfred is an Occupational Therapist and it was interesting to compare notes about provision of supports for people with disabilities. A big day, but a good one.  It felt good sitting on the deck blogging. Copying and pasting seemed to work well.

Via Tolosana Day 13: One day I walk

Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare – Fagairolles 17 kms

My favourite singer/guitarist/poet, seems to have amazing insight into what it is to walk in this life.  I have many of his albums and several of his beautiful songs speak of travelling, walking and getting home.  It is a profound realisation, that we only ever walk alone in this world, no matter how many other beings surround us.  I realise on this day, that I was choosing to walk home, in a way, to myself.

One Day I Walk – Bruce Cockburn

Oh I have been a beggar
And shall be one again
And few the ones with help to lend
Within the world of men
One day I walk in flowers
one day I walk on stones
Today I walk in hours
One day I shall be home
I have sat on the street corner
And watched the boot heels shine
And cried out glad and cried out sad
With every voice but mine
One day I walk in flowers
one day I walk on stones
Today I walk in hours
One day I shall be home
One day I shall be home

I awoke early, but wasn’t in any hurry to get up quickly because I needed to go to the La Poste to post my extras back to Paris before I could walk anywhere. I said goodbye to Florian, closed the door after him and once again felt like the keeper of the house. I wrote morning pages, my journal and had breakfast, all before 8am.

I was all packed, and I didn’t feel like waiting around, so I left, depositing the key in the post box next to the door. I felt so free walking from the gite my plastic bag of postage swinging by my side. As it was still way before La Poste opening time, I checked my emails at the Office de Tourisme (the nifty thing is I could still use the wi-fi even though it was closed).  I wasn’t the only one.  Another woman came with her black laptop to check hers too. My money had still not cleared so I had to hope that sending a package to Paris wasn’t going to be too expensive.

La Poste wasn’t open when I walked there. I waited for a couple of minutes, but it was obviously going to open late, and so instead I left to use the public toilet under the town square down next to the river. By the time I returned to the office, there was a line, so I ended up waiting for about 15 minutes to get served. I didn’t leave until 9.45am having sent my sleeping bag and my heavy sandals, umbrella and assorted power cords back to Jerome in Paris. It all fit perfectly in a ready-made box for 13 euros. Even though my money hadn’t cleared I didn’t feel worried. It will all be OK. I’m sure in Murat I will be able to sort it all out. I’ll take my time and write.

There was a cute baby in the post office who was more than a little frustrated that my enquiry was taking so long, so I assisted his mother to amuse him with peek-a-boos and my baby French. Actually talking to young children is the best. They repeat things over and over, and don’t get frustrated when you don’t understand.  But he was just a baby and wasn’t going to help teach me French.

St Gervais beagle for Anita

St Gervais beagle for Anita

My pack felt so much lighter as I walked toward the Boulangerie to get lunch, a quiche, and morning tea, an escargot.  I felt lighter too. It all feels right. At the little epicerie next door I found a perfect 1 litre bottle that fits into my pack pocket easily.  Crossing back over the river, I passed my new baby friend and his mother. That was sweet.

Narrow lanes exiting St Gervais

St Gervais maze

St Jacques shells in shape of arrow with message from St Gervais residents

I think I go … this way! Via tolosane … Les amis du vieux St Gervais vous souhaitent bon chemin.

Small mini car reminder of a googomobil

Goggomobil

The way out of St Gervais was a maze of small walled laneways which eventually turned into a forest track, not before I discovered the resting place of the Goggomobil (it wasn’t actually a Goggomobil, but it was a micro car. It needed to be, a normal car wouldn’t have made it up the tiny lane). I’d seen it the day before zipping around the town, crossing paths with the town band. I was telling Florian about the Yellow Pages advertisement all those years ago on Australian television after I saw the little 3-wheeler again when we were eating dinner. Tommy Dysart’s adorable Scottish accent G-O-G-G-O has proven to be unforgettable to me and probably millions of Australians – no wonder the ad won awards.

I kept walking up the steep track which didn’t look like the right way but it was. It became a wider fire track before long. I had received a text from Sonia the day before to remind me to pay attention to the markers. She had gone so far out-of-the-way, that she had lost several hours. Jacques I had also texted, “I was lost twice, Jacques once … Viola is here.” So that’s where Viola is! It was so nice to get news of her. The signs were a little confusing and I nearly went the wrong way once, but managed to stay on course. Once off the fire track again it was a really shady tramp through chestnut groves until Castanet-le-Haut. Thank goodness for small mercies as it was already warm. Today felt like an 80s Michael Praed, Robin Hood set. The landscape seems more lush somehow, maybe catching up with the rain we got some days ago.

Forest trees

Robin Hood country

Distant views of mountains

Distant views

Giant chestnut tree?

Giant chestnut?

Large trunk with huge hollow knots

A beech tree perhaps

As I continued I could hear the not too distant sound of a tree being chainsawed. I hoped I wasn’t walking into a falling tree. I had views of the mountains on the other side of the river valley between huge chestnut trees and many dry stone walls. Different pine trees with elongated cones joined the path and then I came upon the most massive chestnut tree I’d seen, covered with moss. I had to touch it, and talk to it, it was so magnificent.

The little town of Andabre appeared out of nowhere, at the end of a fast and short descent and I got up close and personal with someone’s back door as the way traced two edges of the house down to the road. Passing through the town quickly, past the local gnomes and sighting the flamingo I didn’t see in the Camargue, the path followed the creek for a little time. I was still getting used to the idea that it was just me. I was now fully responsible for my direction and speed.

Gnome holding a nautical telescope

Andabre nautical gnome

Flamingo statue

Andabre flamingo

Just before I came to the D22E12, I saw a sign pointing to Ancien Chapelle Notre Dame de St Eutrope up on the mountain and I remember Florian told me it had a dolmen. I’ll see it next time – when I have the energy to go up 700 metres in altitude and back down.  Just across the main road, next to the La Mare (the same river that runs through St Gervais) I stopped at the site of an ancient mill,  Ancien Moulin du Nougayrol. I put my pack down at a nearby picnic bench and checked it out, and could see the giant holding pond (like a good-sized circular swimming pool) that the water channelled into. On the outside of it, large flat stones were set into the stone wall as steps up to the top.  Back at the bench, I took my time. I wrote again (!!!) despite being bothered by wasps as I was eating my snail.  I filled up on water, as I’d already built up the usual sweat. A motorcycle touring couple pull up. They were completely kitted out with panniers, full leathers. He speaks German quietly, she speaks really loudly, they decide on a direction and leave again then double back.  A child is playing near the river, I can hear their voice.  A dog barks, and the sound gets closer, and it barks more, probably as it realises I’m sitting close by on the park bench. It’s owner is trying to pacify it.  I can’t see anything though as the trees mask the river – they must be on the other bank.  It might be time to move on.

Dry stone wall and trees with Visigoth sign

Visigoth site

Across the road again from this picnic spot I walk past an embankment and a sign that indicates a Visigoth (Vestiges wisighotiques) site which I couldn’t see an entrance to. Mostly these sites seem to be huge sites of mossy rocks, and there is not a great deal of explanation unless they are in the midst of another cared-for property.  I continued on the road for a while until I got to Castenet-le-Haut. La Poste drives past and sweeps up the peppermint smell for me from the shoulder strip.  My shoe starts to squeak. It also comes to mind that when you’re walking through a town, you need to find a ‘proper’ place to go to the toilet.  It is easier in the forest. I keep walking.

Roof tops and tiles in Castanet-le-Haut

Castanet-le-Haut skyline

Walls, balisage, cross and slate roof

GR653 sign and cross

Slate wall fixed with metal pins

Ingenious slate wall

Paved path out of Castanet-le-Haut

Exit to the mountains

I cross the bridge and walk into the town past the most interesting type of shingles on the outside of houses that I’ve never seen before.  Large rectangles of slate held in place by metal pins.  Other medieval architecture, and a new kind of paved path took me out of this dear little place. Crossing back over the river, which is more like a creek now, I join a wider track under pine trees.

Pine forest trail

Pine forest trail

Rocky track up hill

Rocky road

I come across the couple from the Office of Tourisme again having a break.  I find out they are from Valence near Grenoble.  They had walked from there and were very much in agreement in the ‘go your own way, at your own speed’ philosophy. I walked on ahead of them with their advice ‘take it easy’ ringing in my ears. From here it was a constant, sometimes steep ascent (especially the part where Sonia was warning me of a turn) up around the edge of the mountain, along a narrow and rocky path, which became really exposed. Climb every mountain wasn’t even enough to make this an easier climb. I got really hot, and for the first time my heart beat really fast with the exertion. I realise that sometimes if you knew how hard things were going to be, you would never start. This climb was one of them. The views however, got better and better.  I rested half-way up in the shade – under pines and chestnuts and noticed I’d done so under a little red and white sign.  I’ve noticed this, just from a couple of hours walking alone.  I tend to look up just at the right moment to see a sign confirming my way. I walked through beautiful avenues of tall trees.

Track disappearing into trees with fence posts and distant structure

Beautiful farm land

Track disappearing into trees with fence posts and farm land in foreground

Elysian Fields?

At Sayret, reaching the crest of a hill, more open farmland greeted me.  The view from the top was amazing, and I’d got there quicker than I expected.  The characteristic hay bales started to dot the landscape.  I chose a beautiful lunch spot on a track overlooking open paddocks.  The French couple passed me after I’d finished my quiche. At some point an eagle circled overhead, and for some reason the tune of Borodin’s Polotzvian Dances came to mind. I googled the words … here are some of them …

Fly on the wings of the wind
To our native land, dear song of ours,
There, where we have sung you at liberty,
Where we felt so free in singing you.
There, under the hot sky,
The air is full of bliss,
There to the sound of the sea
The mountains doze in the clouds;
There the sun shines so brightly,
Bathing the native mountains in light,
Splendid roses blossom in the valleys,
And nightingales sing in the green forests.
And sweet grapes grow.
You are free there, song,
Fly home …

Mountain views, flowers in foreground

Mountain views

Cottage herbs/flowers next to track

Just like a country garden

Shaded forest track

Shaded forest track

When I got going again, it was not long before I joined an even more used vehicle track and came quite quickly to a 4 way corner just outside Ginestet. Here I had to make a choice.  There was a sign indicating the GR71, and it descended gradually down a hill via a grassy track.  It was on my Dodo mud map so knew that this would link with another road that would take me to Fagairolles, but I didn’t know whether it was a good route to take. Alternatively, I could stay on the bitumen and follow the D53 which would take me straight to my end goal in full sun.  I didn’t fancy walking by road for two kilometres, as my feet were already tired. The GR offered shade. I put off my decision.

“Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend” Jimmy Buffet (and Bruce Cockburn)

I had used up all my water before lunch, so I walked the short few hundred metres into the little settlement and a kind resident obliged me by filling my large bottle.  I made my way back out to the 5 way corner.  I chose grass and shade.

Grassy track, GR71

Chemin de terre GR71

A metal filigree cross

Filigree cross

It was a track fenced off from farmland. It was clear from the droppings, that people also rode horses along it.  I descended, then turned a wide-angled corner only to find my way obstructed by a massive tree.  I thought, how am I going to get around this?  As I got closer, my question was answered. There was a clear track up over the huge root ball. So I climbed over it as others had done before me.  It must have fallen a few weeks before.

Brown cows

Just like Brown’s cows

I was passing cows in the paddocks to both sides, but at one point it looked like the cows were on my side of the fence. I paused briefly to plot how I’d negotiate around 5 cows on a path only 3 metres wide, but realised when I came upon them, that it was just an interesting optical illusion. My path was clear and fenced.  I said hello to the brown cows on the other side, as I usually do to the animals I pass, and went on my way.  I’m a taurean, so I feel a special affinity for these animals.

I kept walking, noticing black and white feathers and small apples on the path. Gorgeous bushes of holly formed the hedgerow.  More cows, this time Friesians – bos taurus.  I did choose well, the shade continued.  More round hay bales.  I saw a man and his son splitting wood in his yard, and I confirmed with him that I was on the right track to Fagairolles.

Prickly holly leaves

The holly … and the ivy?

Hedgerow tunnel

Hedgerow tunnel

The track met the D922 and I crossed to join a small one lane road into the town.  It was a tiny place, a hameau or hamlet nestled in a hill. It might have to take the award for tiniest town I stayed in on the trip.  There were many cars parked, but deserted of people, and it seems to be the site for Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage, which I didn’t realise was Hunting and Wildlife.  Tiny town, and a little creepy also, now I think about it.  Fagairolles is not on the chemin, but I didn’t think that the first day after my rest I could do another big walk.  This was a compromise. I recognised the Gites of France sign and proceeded to ring the numbers on the front door. The sign said something about ‘relais de ouveture a 17:00’, so I wasn’t too fussed if I had to wait. There was a nice picnic table there.  After about 45 minutes my hostess arrived and let me in.  She signed my credentiale, drew me a little picture of the St Eutrope Chapel that I missed and took my 12 euros.  I had the place to myself.

I had arrived at 3.45pm and walked about 17 kms.  Taking off 45 minutes for lunch and breaks, that makes 5 hours of walking, pretty good. Just over 3 kms per hour.  The gite was really comfy if a little cavernous with just me in it. The bathroom was really clean and the kitchen well-appointed, with a lovely long table for big groups. There were two rooms each with several beds downstairs, then there were more upstairs on a mezzanine. So it felt a little cathedral-like. I rattled around in it by myself. There was a big window facing west that the sun shone in as it descended. I chose a room with two bunk beds.  I think there was more accommodation next door which was closed off from my part.

I showered, washed my clothes and put them outside on the washing rack.  Claudine gave me a packet of risotto yesterday, so I’m thinking of her as I watch it heat up. There will be enough for breakfast too – lucky, there’s certainly no boulangerie or epicerie in this little place.

After dinner, and still walking gingerly, I went to have a look at the ancient bread-making site le four à pain de Fagairolles – the apparent highlight of this place. I wasn’t long out of bed on my return and as I was trying to get to sleep, lightning penetrated even my closed eyelids. I rushed out to save my clothes from the rain.

Via Tolosana Day 9: Attention a la marche: glisser!

Saint-Jean-de-la-Blaquière to Lodève 15kms

Sitting in the garden of a château with a driveway lined with chestnut trees, it is hard to believe the highs and the lows I have been through today. And I’m not talking about altitude.

I didn’t sleep, I didn’t feel rested, and was exhausted. I didn’t have a headache during the night as I usually do when I am dehydrated, but instead a temperature and I woke with my nose blocked up. Uh oh. I’m confused. In addition to this, when I first walked into the little gite, it smelled of piss and a strange damp smell.

Preparation was slow this morning. It had rained a little overnight and was cool outside. I decided my toenails needed cutting or I might have more sources of pain by the end of the day. Knowing the walk would be in the sun the previous day, I’d exchanged my short-sleeved t-shirt for a long-sleeved one, but I thought given the overcast start today, that I’d be safe with short sleeves. It wasn’t raining heavily, but enough to get the pack wet, so the yellow cover went on.

Seeing a gorgeous blue 2CV put me in a slightly better mood as we left the little town with the tongue-twister name and I walked ahead for the first part of the morning.  I glimpsed a La Poste scooter and I found a Domaine de Flo.

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Domaine de Flo

Wet dry stone wall

Watery path

The path was completely covered with water early on, but we took a way around it. The smells of wet grass and pine were gorgeous in the rain and mostly it continued to sprinkle lightly. The way was again well-marked, but in parts rocky – perhaps a reflection of my state of mind. I was angry with Jacques, but of course, mostly with myself, for once again ‘fitting in’ with someone else, and going their way. I had stopped listening to myself. I had stopped writing. I felt like I had compromised my ‘way’ to fit in with his, and lost myself in the process. I had expected to walk for 6 weeks by myself, and sadly, I resented the intrusion into my trip. At first it had been fun. Now it just felt like hard work walking with this invisible expectation that I would keep up and have the same way. Getting to Montpelier, I had been prepared to walk the ‘boring’ bits. I could have stopped to listen to myself, but didn’t. I’d done it again, like I often do, compromise my way to fit in with someone else. I found myself feeling sorry for myself.  Where is that companion who will want to walk with me at my pace? When will someone compromise their trip for me? 

Roman road?

We were walking to Lodeve today, a smaller étape (stage), and I had decided that once there I would take the opportunity to rest and let Jacques I and II go on without me. I felt like the only option I had was to stay to do my writing and get myself together again, alone.  Best laid plans.

Usclas-du-Bosc

We passed through Usclas-du-Bosc and it was still spitting. Jacques, with his random door-opening habit opened the big green iron door to the cemetery. There were stèles discoïdales there – ancient tomb stones from the 1600s and earlier. I was impressed as I thought Jacques had just found them by luck but I realise now they were probably in his guide-book. I needed to find a toilet however, and went off to the Mairie. The toilet was behind the building, but locked. I went in to the Mairie and asked the woman for the key, dumped my pack and was relieved – just in time. Afterwards I went back to take more photos of the cemetery.

stèle discoïdales

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Dry stone wall

The cigales were absent all day – they obviously don’t like getting wet. Small bushes were sending their herbal fragrances out to all and sundry, making the air smell aromatic and providing good competition for my own pungency (usually well before 10am I’m drowning in sweat).  Today was a day of dry-stone walls, made wet with the rain. They gave way to shale paths and then a long track upwards to an intersection had us turn onto a cushioned pine forest path. Pilgrims had gone wild and creative with their rock piles, even on large dolmen-like rocks. Pine trees whispered as I walked, sounding like the ocean. The air was fresh through my sweaty clothes.

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Soft pine path

rock sculpture

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Dolmen rock art

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Grandmont horses

If yesterday’s theme was Attention à la marche, today’s was attention à la marche – glisser (slippery). After the pine forest, we walked along large flat slippery rocks for many minutes before coming upon a pine avenue bordered with a stone wall next to a horse paddock leading to le prieuré Saint-Michel de Grandmont. According to the sign board outside, in addition to cloisters, there is Le dolmen de Coste-Rouge (an ancient megalith), old stone wells and woods surrounding the priory. It looked deserted, and as I didn’t want to hold Jacques up, I didn’t pursue researches to see if it was open. Once again I missed out. For the next week or so, I kept meeting pilgrims who raved about this place. It would have been a couple of minute wait for it to open, but I kept walking. Doing some research later, thanks Wiki, I found that the Grandmontine order was basically one of austere hermits, who wore no shoes, and spent their whole lives in silence, eating no meat and fasting regularly.  Sounds like medieval Vipassana. Sounds like just the kind of place I would’ve enjoyed seeing! No joke.

the path

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Attention glisser!

The whole landscape today, with what could well have been Roman built walls, dripped with history and geological significance. After the priory it was full on and the rocks were slippery as. After stepping up and down as the track passed over rocks for a little while, we came out on the top a massive rock plateau. When I took a leak, I could see down a crevice to another level below where we were. Cave men and women lived here. It was just like Korg: 70,000 BC. Jacques walked on ahead.

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Rock shelf

This rock shelf lasted for several hundred metres and is appropriately known as ‘La Roch’, although I can’t confirm, as it doesn’t appear on any maps. On the final stretch of it, enthusiastic visitors had built a labyrinth marked by small stones, so of course I walked it remembering my trip to the park with Jo in Sydney, and my friend Maureen’s love of all things labyrinthine. Walking carefully so as not to slip, I entered with an intention of composing myself and exiting into a new way, my way. Take companionship from people who would support me to walk my way. Remain true to myself.

Labyrinth

Further along the track, deep grooves in the rock, about 30cms wide and the same deep, had me wondering whether these were prehistoric rainwater collecting mechanisms. I had a momentary panic when I thought I had lost him, but eventually I caught Jacques up.  This annoyed me, not because I’d lost him, but that it mattered that I’d lost him, as I was trying so very hard to feel independent. I said I would stop for some morning tea in a highly wooded path adjoining one last large flat-topped rock shelf. We ate pain aux raisins that we’d bought at the Boulangerie that morning.  We briefly talked about La Fontaine again, who Jacques describes as a ‘fabulist’, which always sounds like ‘fabulous’ when he says it, and it takes a moment to work out what he’s talking about. It seems that the language confusion worked both ways for us.  French speakers have trouble with my name. It is completely un-French so usually people I meet have never heard it before. So, I get all sorts of pronunciations. Jacques thought my name was Bronwell. He thought this was curious because in Dutch, ‘bron’ means ‘source’. To have a name: ‘wellwell’ was amusing to him. Until I corrected him, and said, no, it’s Bronwen. I have found as soon as I spell it, people seem to understand how to say it. I keep meaning to write a card with ‘Bron-wen’ on it. This would make my name absolutely clear.

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Prehistoric rainwater collection

the pack

My pack felt heavy, but thankfully with a night’s healing sleep, my chaffed legs were not bothering me as they had the day before.  There was generous provision of water fountains and picnic spots on the first day so far in which we neither felt like drinking so much, or needed to sit down so desperately. View-worthy locations were the most popular. We bypassed the little town of Saumont, but not the table d’orientation just outside with it’s lovely old cross.

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Tractor seat picnic spot

Table d’orientation

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Saumont

It never ceases to amaze me how many terrains we pass through each day. When we started the ground was purple, but we ended up with rocks and large saltbush-like bushes with long thing spiky foliage. Just after Saumont, we sat on one of the many park benches of the day for a break. Minutes later and we were joined by Jacques II. Then another 5 minutes passed and there was Hugo. He’d brought a thermos with him for coffee, and he shared his boisson chaud (hot drink) with us – how fantastic. Jacques phoned ahead only to find that the Gite de la Megisserie was closed permanently. We would need to visit the Office de Tourisme for more assistance with finding a bed for the night. Hugo disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared and I never met him on the chemin again. For the rest of the way to Lodeve, we more or less traversed with Jacques II. I hung back, I was still exhausted and preferred to walk alone-ish.

I dropped my phone on day 7, and the sound had stopped working. I had missed the little camera shutter sound when I took photos. But today as I was crossing a grassy field, and took a photo of the Jacques ahead, I realised the sound had returned. But just because I’m paying attention and doing my best to listen, but it doesn’t necessarily mean things get instantly easier.

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Red rocks

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Rocky wood pile

Right next to the path outside Lodeve, there was a tiny hut. We joked that this was our gite for the night. Next to it, there was a rock pile that resembled the woodpiles I’d seen in Lithuania – a beautiful piece of handiwork.

walls

Le Lergue

Mary watches over all

Lodeve is a large-ish town spread along the valley of the Le Lergue river. Walking towards the centre we passed Mary looking down protectively over us. At the tourist office, the woman was very helpful and found the three of us accommodation for 15 euros each. I was missing my wi-fi and really wanted to read emails. I had left my Airbnb rooms open back in Australia, but I hadn’t had wi-fi to be able to check for any bookings. There was wi-fi in the office, but I just had to charge my phone first. After having decided I wanted to walk on my own, and stay in Lodeve for two nights, having a booking for a gite with the two Jacques didn’t feel like I was asserting my new independence. I left my pack at the office, and went to find some food for dinner at Monoprix – a cheap eat of carbonara for 2 euro 38 centimes. That’s a bargain.

I went back to the Office de Tourisme having tried to get money from three ATMs with my VISA and AMEX. I would have topped up in Montpelier, but had been too distracted to remember. Now I had 15 euros cash, and no cash until Tuesday when my master card topped up.  I was in a bind. I could go on with the two Jacques and pay my 15 euros for the night and not have anything for the next three days, or I could find a hotel to stay in that took AMEX. I got back to the tourist office just as Jacques II was picking up his backpack, and I asked him to tell Jacques I that I wouldn’t be staying tonight. I explained my situation, and he said he would wait while I tried one last possibility at the Post Office. This didn’t work. I spent 30 minutes on the phone to VISA and they had difficulty dealing with my request for a new card, said they’d put me through to somewhere else who didn’t have any idea why I’d been put through to them, and were likewise extremely unhelpful given I had no money, and a VISA card that didn’t work.

I went back to find Jacques II patiently waiting and he offered to lend me money. I was really tearful and humbled that someone who had known me only a couple of days would offer to help like this. I had just decided to go my own way, and now I had no means. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to rely on others, but it seemed this was the only option. I left to go to the gite with Jacques II but part way there I was getting the strong feeling not to go on. I tried to explain in my limited French, why I was upset, but actually I didn’t really know. I said for him to go on, and I would go back to the Office de Tourisme. I’d been there several times now, and they probably thought, oh no, not the crying Australian again. The woman checked for me whether there were any hotels that took Amex with a room available for two nights. Complet (full)! I needed more time to think. I checked my Airbnb account. I had missed two bookings, they had expired. This affects my response rate, so I decided to block out August bookings because the stress of having to find wi-fi to keep up with them, was taking its toll. With space to feel, I realised that my only option was to continue with the two Jacques. Jack High! I would take up Jacques II on his offer, and continue walking until my money cleared. I needed a break desperately, but I didn’t have the means to have one.

The woman gave me the directions to the gite. I was hoping it was a nice one, but was thinking it could be awful given the day I’d just had. At a roundabout I tried to take in the peaceful offering a gorgeous olive tree was extending.  Maybe it was reminding me of grace, or maybe charity. I felt relieved at having made a decision, but I was realising the consequences of the last 8 days. I wasn’t feeling much peace about becoming distracted enough not to look after myself financially. Stupid Bronwen.

For two kilometres I followed the avenue of plane trees out-of-town, walking on the left-hand side of the road facing the traffic, stepping aside into the grass if a car passed. I checked the house numbers, but they didn’t follow a sequence. I kept walking and there it was, #762, and no I wasn’t imagining it – it was a château, with a coach house no less. Another avenue of tall trees took a right from the road and I followed them and found Jacques I. Jacques II had told him I wouldn’t be coming, so he was surprised to see me. I went upstairs to see the madame of the house and glimpsed where she lived with her husband. She received me in a little room with bay doors leading into a sitting room. Conservatively upholstered chairs, carpet and a mirror above a fireplace welcomed personal visitors, but I sat down next to the pilgrim stamp at the beautiful table in the lobby. She only spoke French, but it was not a complicated exchange when I was just paying for a bed and getting my credentiale stamped. She did mention however that some of her family had travelled to Australia, and we had a brief discussion about this.

There are only 3 beds in this gite, and it seems that it is not generally listed, a place of last resort perhaps. A small kitchen, a long bed chamber with three beds, and a bathroom/toilet in which the small internal window opens up into the garage under the house. In addition to the musty bathroom smell, you get a hint of mechanics when you’re drying yourself after your shower. We ate dinner together, and surprisingly I was genuinely happy to be back. I showered and did my washing, but as it was already after 6pm, there was not much hope of it drying over night. Jacques I asked what I would do about money, and I told him Jacques II had offered to lend some. Jacques I offered too, so having known him just a little longer I took a loan.

château

Yesterday I honed some tips for discouraged pilgrims:

Methods for walking up long, rocky paths:
1. Little old lady, bent double method (self-explanatory)
2. Standing erect, butt cheeks clenched technique
3. Holding onto backpack straps method
4. Hands on hips technique

Vary as each one becomes ineffective.

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.