La Commande – Pau – Toulouse – Paris – 896 kms in a BlaBlaCar
“Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply” Leonard Cohen
A restless sleep, but I did dream. I wrote morning pages in bed this morning, because I could. I was up and going at 8am and M-H had laid out breakfast for us. We ate while watching the Portuguese pilgrim depart, and M-H commented that this is how she usually spends her mornings: watching a stream of walkers exiting the little town. It was so beautiful I was getting teary watching him disappear down the road. I feel so lucky coming back to such a lovely place to ease out of the way. I thought while having a bath the day before, you do need time for the way to leave you, just as you need time to leave the way. I was transitioning back into the road of my usual life. The terrain takes a turn for the more familiar, and then before you know it, you’re back on home soil. It is how it is meant to be.
The pilgrim in Oloron-Sainte-Marie park, Reiner, inspired and challenged me to always ask. To always be open. To always say yes. Marie-Helene thanked me for being open and saying yes to her offer. She said she admired my courage in saying yes. I assured her, it wasn’t a hard decision to make when she said she was living in La Commande. I loved this place. It was such a gorgeous spot to come back to.
It was a slow morning, and at just past 11:00am, we left for Pau where I was to meet my ride back to Paris via Bla-Bla-Car. Marie-H drove out of the town a different way to the one I’d walked in on, and I realised the little houses continued out quite a way along the road on this side, making the community seem bigger than I thought it had been. We arrived in the small carpark in front of la Gare only about 20 minutes after leaving. I was still so impressed by M-H’s generosity in driving me. There was the funicular I love so much and the sound of the rushing river.
I met up with my ride, and it was a pretty uneventful return – a long 8 hour drive in a car back to Paris with a deux chevaux (Citroën 2CV) sighting.
Getting to my hotel room, what greets me in the bathroom, but the universal bathroom decor of scallop shell to bring my pilgrimage to a close.
The next day I took a bus through he ‘chunnel’ (Channel Tunnel) to London for a Huguenot Conference, also sighting another deux chevaux. My legs continued to feel for the road, they were tired and sore but I think they would have preferred to continue walking.
Viola wrote to me – “I’m in Bilbao now, I’m travelling inside myself, it is hard and wonderful.” I knew exactly what she meant. Travelling inside yourself is hard and wonderful, but as all the great philosophers agree, there is great wisdom in knowing thyself. What better way to have the time and the mental space to gather this wisdom than go for a very long walk.
After a week in London, I shot back over the channel to Semur-en-Auxios and Granville to visit two friends for another 10 days or so, before heading back to Paris to take a flight back to Australia.
On the last night of my epic via Tolosana sojourn, sitting in my room in the Hotel George Sand, yes there is one (and it is great), about to repack my bags ready for the evening flight the next day, I was taking advantage of the super convenient wifi in my room (as opposed to the super inconvenient wifi I’d experienced along my walk), and what pops into my inbox:
Subject: Between Marciac and Maubourguet.
Yes, it was an email from Matthieu.
Even back in the streets of Fitzroy, Melbourne, way- markers are not far away
Monlezon (Chez Nicole et Michel) to Maubourguet – 22.7kms
I awoke at 6 am. I wrote. I ate breakfast from the most delicious looking and tasting spread just before 7am, and for a short time with Paul. Yoghurt, cake, hot toast and coffee. Everything you could want. Amazing. I tried checking emails after asking for the password. Paul left soon after, and I went upstairs to clean my teeth. I filled my water bottles and took the figs that Nicole had kindly saved for me and left about 8am.
I left from the farmhouse and yard, walked past paddocks of crops, up a small road towards the town on the hill, Monlezon. It was raining but there were no clouds. I realised I was being sprayed by sprinklers, the light reflecting in the jet streams as a beautiful rainbow. What is the promise that I’ll witness today? Or maybe it will be my pot of gold.
I didn’t walk up to see the church, but walked past the old ruined castle and sung Moon over Ruined Castle, a staple in the Suzuki cello repertoire.
I met a young Italian man and stopped for a brief chat about what his route was. He was walking ‘backwards’ from Santiago to Rome, so I had met two people in the same 24 hours who were both going to Italy. As would become another feature of the day, he was walking home. It reminded me of the beautiful Ram Dass quote,
“We’re all just walking each other home.”
An email from my home in Australia had told me that the friend who had said they would stay in my place while I was away, had decided to move out. I walked consumed by thoughts about the situation and worries about how I would pay my rent when I returned, considering I no longer had a job. I was engrossed all the way to Marciac, five kilometres.
A little further on and I saw the most bountiful fig tree so far, the figs looking really ripe. Then there was a medlar tree. I congratulated myself on knowing what that was. I wonder how many other people could identify a medlar tree? It seems like an old fashioned fruit tree to me, a little like the pomegranate used to be before the current trendy craze in Australian cooking. Maybe it is just me that’s old fashioned.
An eglise spire rose well above the surrounding countryside and confirmed I was heading in the right direction.
Objects rising from paddocks are closer than they appear.
Sprinklers were a theme today, I turned right around a big lateral move one – it seems they accompany crop farming everywhere in the world. Paul had warned me at a certain point in the next day or so, I would have to take care not to get wet between sprinklers, but this one at least lay resting. The way was very open to the elements today – mostly wind.
I stopped to have a brief look at a ruined church just before the town with an old oak tree that had seen better days. As I approached the centre of the town, and was checking my maps, Nicole drove up next to me. It was nice to say hello/goodbye to her again. I didn’t know whether to go into the town or to turn left and leave. Despite the multitude of signs, there was no clarity in my mind.
But I’m glad I decided to stay and look around the town, Marciac – the home of a big annual jazz festival (Diana Krall and Wynton Marsalis this year, no less). It would be nice to return to see it sometime. I had a brief look in Chapelle Notre Dame de la Croix – it was light, calm and beautiful.
I walked past the sculpted heads of horses over doorways, along the corner of the plaza then continued out of town on my walk. It was windy.
After a short walk along pretty flat road, there was a steep climb up out of the town. I decided that I’d rest at the top of the hill before Le Château and eat my waffle from yesterday. After 20 minutes or so, at the top, I once again struggled to find a good place to stop. I was walking in a ‘run’ between paddocks, bordered by low fences and partly covered by low hedges, so although it was secluded, it was still exposed to there walkers if I wanted to pee. In these parts, it is of course common not to see a soul, so I squatted comfortably next to the fence line. Then a little further along I chose a seat looking into the next valley, and got out my waffle. A little hard, but unmistakably Belgian. The best waffles are made with special sugar – beet sugar I think. I was once in a Permaculture group with Luc, a Belgian who made the most fantastic waffles on a machine he had made himself and used to take to fetes and fairs. He was kind enough to make them for garden openings my partner and I had for the Open Garden Scheme in Colonel Light Gardens in the 1990s. The waffles were a real hit. Warm and fresh, they are just heaven. Cold, not so much, but I have my memory and imagination.
Next I decided to examine my credentials, well actually just one: my little passport to pilgrim accommodation. The little ink stamps are part of the physical souvenirs one accumulates as one walks, and they are highly individual, each bringing back the memories from the place they were purchased. I didn’t quite have 33, but not far off. The money collection by the host/ess in exchange for a stamp is one of the daily rituals of the way, but you can also get them from Office de Tourisme, and Mairie. You could easily accumulate many more than the allocated boxes on the small concertinaed piece of card. It is I suppose like a dance card in some ways. I was finding it equally romantic, this traipse through the countryside – with agony and ecstasy in equal quantities.
As I was pondering how far I’d come, I noted a young buck in a beret approaching. He looked sporty, although I noted he was also sporting a coquille shell, a pilgrim. All his clothes were proper walking clothes, with the strange addition of a beret – I mean, not strange for a French man, but strange for a long walker. I was intrigued, and very smiley. He looked young, maybe not in his twenties, but not much older. He shook my hand and held on for much longer than I thought he needed to, smiling as well and I wondered what was going on (in a good way). Enchanté Mattheiu! I was enchanted, although it just means pleased to meet you.
I tried at first to speak French, but felt quite ridiculous in my attempts, and it seemed he spoke very good English, so we continued in that. I invited him to sit down, trying my hardest not to seem too enthusiastic, and he did and explained that he already knew who I was. (Great! My crazy reputation had preceded me). He said he’d heard I was doing four blogs, and so I corrected him to say, I’m only doing one, but that I had only written about four days. He explained he had met Sophie and Virginie last night, and they had told him about an Australien pilgrim who was blogging.
We exchanged details of what we were doing. He was walking an interesting way in his holidays. He had walked three days from his home in Oloron, south to Col du Somport and Canfranc Estación, and had then returned home for a party. Then he’d gone home to his parents house and had joined the route at St Christaud, stayed the night at Marciac, but left later than he expected because he wanted to have a coffee with a friend. It seemed he was on a pretty fast schedule, so I urged him to go on, as I felt I would slow such a sporty and athletic fellow. I would have loved to walk with him, but my fears about my pace and the ‘go your own way, any other way is straying‘ bells rang loudly in my head. It disappointed me, but after a few more niceties, off he went. Easy come, easy go they say.
After I’d had enough of a break, I got up, and descended the track, turning right around the edge of the paddock, and making an equally steep descent down the hill. My knees hurt. I could see Mathieu in the distance, but I didn’t think I’d see him again. I then settled into my rhythm, walking through lots of corn fields. My sister texted me, and it felt comforting to have contact from Australia here in the middle of the countryside. I walked up a rise where on a raised bank, a small chapel sat, Eglise de Samazan. I’d found the little settlement, Le Château. As I walked past it, I realised Matthieu had gone to check it out, and was just coming out. I kept walking as I knew he would catch me up. Not much further along the road, and we were walking together. I was right about his pace, he was fast: a gazelle. We walked down the Côte du Pelerin.
It was probably another hour and we could see another church in the distance.
Our conversation had ranged widely and I told him he was one of only three pilgrims I’d met. There had been hardly any ‘real’ pilgrims. We talked about his work, something he said he preferred not to ask of other pilgrims while walking. I found this interesting, as leaving work was one of the things that had flung me into this adventure. He had walked to Santiago before and had been very moved by the experience. He stops at all churches to go inside if possible, much as I had been doing. It was nice to talk about the spiritual aspect of walking, and it surprised me that I had not really been able to talk about this with anyone other than Sonia previously. Most walkers I’d met, lovely as they were, seemed to enjoy the challenge of a long walk for it’s tourist and exercise benefits rather than any answers it might bring. We talked about families, I told him I loved France and have always wanted to live there. He thought that maybe it had just never been the right time. He had come this way on bike some time before, and he was interested that everything seemed to be different when you walk rather than ride, including that everything seemed to take a whole lot longer and in that way can be unfamiliar. It was nice not to have to think about whether we were going in the right direction, he’d been this way before. About an hour on and we stopped at Auriébat after finding a picnic table to sit at for lunch. We’d been searching for a place, and were going to go into the church but seemed to be too busy thinking of our lunch, and we missed it.
We sat opposite each other and joked and smiled lots. He gave me some of his family’s home-made saucisson cut with his French knife, and I shared my pear with him, cut with my Swiss-army knife. It was all rather cute, although now I realise, slightly euphemistic. I could get used to this! After we finished eating, he completely surprised me by wanting to take my photo. I thought this was very unfair if I wasn’t also allowed to take his, so I did. But just like dentists can’t reveal their faces on television, his smile remains my secret.
I liked him already – it was easy to when his ways reminded me of my own. He had ridden another route, he pats dogs, he says hello to horses. We found blackberries along the road, and stopped to pick them. I shared with him my secret for finding the really ripe ones and I picked some for him. They weren’t as abundant as they’d been in past weeks, and the ground seemed drier, possibly never producing as many here as in some parts I’d walked through. We delicately shared our pickings until he finally said we’d better leave some for other pilgrims. J’adore!
We continued on through the back-blocks, through Auricane where he stopped to look at a beautiful old farm house. We speculated about whether anyone lived there. He seemed to think it would be a nice place to live. Could I find anyone more like me a million miles from home? I told him about my cocker spaniels Monte and Carlo.
A few hundred metres on, we skirted a property that reminded me a little of the town called Spectre in Big Fish, except instead of sneakers hanging from power lines, it was the little coquilles St.Jacques shells nailed to every tree around the perimeter. I get that it is helpful for pilgrims to see these little signs of encouragement, however it was slightly spooky.
It was windy in the afternoon, but despite the headwind we continued at a blistering pace. I managed to keep up, but only just. I suppose I could’ve just asked him to slow down, but that thought never crossed my mind.
Getting nearer to Maubourguet he picked up some rubbish from the road (another thing I do), and decided he’d walk with it until he found a bin. The only problem was that it had grease on it, which he only realised after some time, and it went everywhere. He had mentioned a few times that he was trying to decide whether to continue to Lahitte-Toupiere.
On the close outskirts of town we found an open water course which accompanied us nearly all the way and where it ended we stopped so Matthieu could wash his hands. I noticed when he was crouching that he was wearing Salomon shoes. I said “You have Salamon shoes, so do I”. “Yes, I saw”, he said. I asked him cheekily, “So have you been checking out my shoes?” and he laughed and said “Always”.
We walked the last little stretch into town, having to take a slight detour because there were some fences being put up for the town fete. We searched for the Office de Tourisme after passing the sideshows being set up in the afternoon sun. La Poste. At the office he asked about the boulangerie, and I asked about the caravan park. We walked back outside again, and he wanted to go and eat something and get supplies. I started to go with him, but considering I was really worn out, my feet and legs were sore, and I’d said I wouldn’t be going on, I said that I’d go to the camping to wash and get settled.
He said, “À bientôt!” and we kissed goodbye.
I walked away saying to myself “well if he wants to see you again, he will. Just keep walking”. I had mixed feelings. I really wanted to keep walking with him. I really liked him, but I didn’t want to go anyone else’s way, and I knew that today I was already exhausted, and I’d just be walking further for someone else. I’d done that before and wasn’t going to do it again. I continued trying to work out what I should have done. I didn’t feel that I’d done the right thing. Should I have told him I really wanted to walk with him? Would he stay so he could walk with me? What would he do?
I really could not have gone any further, and it was even a struggle getting the three-hundred or so metres to the caravan park. I booked in and paid my 10 Euro fee for a tiny chalet-style cabin with five beds and got my credential stamped. The woman at the office gave me menthe and I enjoyed it very much. When I had finished she took me to the cabin. It was très mignon (very cute) however I only noticed when she’d already gone, that it didn’t have a lock. In fact, the door didn’t even close properly. Now, it is one thing peeing in a toilet without a door, but it is a totally different situation sleeping alone in a caravan park in a town with no lock on your cabin. When I asked, she just said put a chair in front of it. Great!
I tried to half imagine that Matthieu might come, but I think I knew that he wouldn’t. That made me sad and regretful. I was getting used to the idea that I’d be half-sleeping, worried for my safety with no-one else staying the night. I went to inspect the showers/toilets, which were about 50 metres from the cabin. The old push-button shower again, and squat toilets, with no toilet paper. Hmmm. Squatting after a day of walking is a very difficult feat. Every muscle in your thighs screams as you lower yourself from standing to squatting, having to somehow work through the pain as you hover to relieve yourself. You wonder how you can keep from collapsing completely. Out on the road behind a tree, it is not so challenging but when you’re hovering above a squat toilet – you have to aim as well. Then there is getting up again! It would be the one thing I would try and train for if I walked again, not so much the endurance for the long days, but the thigh muscles for squatting. Men have it easy!
There were lovely porcelain sinks for washing clothes though and so after my shower I used them with my new soap, and hung my washing on the back wall facing the river. It was still windy and there was a slight chill to the air, and across the river men en masse were playing a pretty serious petanque competition. I think I got wolf-whistles and leering comments, but I didn’t dare turn around to acknowledge them. I had to sleep all night without a lock on my cabin!
I walked back into town to the Office de Tourisme to see about where to get food. The woman told me that one opened in the morning. The boulangerie would be open as well. She told me that two other men were coming to stay in the cabin, and I said I was relieved because I didn’t want to be there alone. I asked about Matthieu, and she told me he had returned to tell her that he had decided to go to Lahitte-Toupiere today. I shared with her my disappointment. She commiserated saying “he was walking too fast for you”. I thought he would go on, but I was still sad. I thought he was really sweet. But it is about moving on, isn’t it? No attachments. What a surprise to have met the Salamon-wearing, single virgo, who was not as young as he looked.
I decided I’d get lunch in the morning as well as breakfast, as there was nothing at the caravan park apart from coffee, so I made my way back to the cabin after going to the Cyber Cafe to check emails. Biche o ma biche.
On returning I met Christian, a cyclist, who was doing the same route and had come from Toulouse. I had a lie down because I was really tired and while doing so his two other friends, Patrice and Laurent arrived. They sounded like a funny group mucking around outside the cabin. After a quick snooze, I sat up to do my journal and when I’d finished, I introduced myself and we decided we’d check out the town fete. I had said goodbye to one guy, and there were three to take his place. I think you would call this a social life.
We walked into town to get some dinner. It was Christian’s birthday, and I was shouted dinner. Nice! We had couscous at a restaurant that had extended it’s reach onto the square via trestle tables. It was a busy night with many people out and about (probably half the town) and the restaurant was packed. The food was great, lovely Moroccan curry with couscous. Patrice spoke really good English, so he acted as interpreter for us all, but I managed fairly well in French too. We had a great discussion about French and Australian culture and politics. They were wonderful company and we laughed and joked a lot, even if I spent most of the night thinking about the gazelle who had just bounded away.
Later we walked around to laarène (the arena), where a bull fight was happening and where, judging by the noise, the other half of the town was. It was really loud, and I explained that not only was the 13 Euro entrance fee something I didn’t want to pay, but also I didn’t like bull-fighting. Now I understood why part of the town was fenced off. It was a strange thing to see bull-fights appearing again at the other end of my walk and it reminded me of my first few days in Arles and the Camargue. It felt like the taureaux were book-ending my walk. What would be more suitable for a Taurean? It is what makes me sympathise with the poor bulls.
We walked back along the streets, still hosting some revellers. We dropped in to a bar that was still open, packed with drunken young men singing at the top of their voices, listening to a live band outside. We stayed for one drink. It was a late night, but thankfully one that promised a sound sleep with not just one, but three lovely mousquetaire (musketeers) to protect me. What an unbelievably amazing day of surprises. I’d found several pots of gold.