Via Tolosana: The longwalker’s packing list

I have been practice-packing for months. It can only mean one thing – my next long walk in France is long overdue.  I’ve booked it and July approaches. In preparation I have reviewed my Via Tolosana packing list, and have come up with a list of items I’m happy with for today. It might change tomorrow, and my inclination always seems to be to add more, rather than subtract. The just-in-case syndrome.

I’ve read somewhere, that you can walk with only one spare change of clothes, and that all the small things, first aid kits etc and things you don’t absolutely use every day, can be bought if you need them. I agree with this for clothes, but for first aid, I think it is handy to have it with you. I attempt to keep my packing to what for me are (mostly) the bare essentials. Whilst this is a long list, many things don’t take up much room.

Ideally, you don’t want anything in your pack that you’re not using every day. But on the other hand, if you’re walking for 60 days, you may want to go out to dinner in a dress one night instead of your daggy walking clothes. So I compromise with finding the lightest/most compact version of anything I won’t use every day ie. an umbrella.

If you find you have to take everything out to re-pack every morning, it is actually a good thing, because it means you’re using everything in your pack.

Pack/Accessories

  • Backpack – North Face Terra 30 litre (purchased in 2008)
  • Pack cover (came with the pack)
  • St Jacques shell
  • Walking sticks (I didn’t use these, however the going is easier with them – other people loaned me theirs to try out)
  • Aluminium clips
  • Plastic bags (or pack liner or large zip-lock bags – for the 2-3 days you may walk in heavy rain, plastic bags are plenty – especially if you have a pack cover – which I’d highly recommend)
  • Waterproof bags (for technology/passport/phone) – Kathmandu
  • Water bottles (Take a drink bottle plus buy 1.5 litre plastic one when you’re there)
  • Swiss Army knife (make sure you pack it in the bag that gets put under the plane otherwise it will be confiscated)
  • Money belt (It can come in handy on planes and trains and where you feel security is not great, but mostly I didn’t need it along the way)
  • Compass (didn’t use it but it may be useful one day)
  • Compact umbrella (IsoToner make tiny ones that weigh only 250g)

Although my pack is heavy (even without anything in it), I really like it for its compact design and comfort. All straps are adjustable, and there are great outside zipped and open pockets to store things for easy access.  I love the top ‘lid’ which was great for carrying the day’s quiche or flat peach and it has a zipped section inside, so I could keep my pocket-knife and small things like salt/pepper and the compass in case. You won’t walk using an umbrella, but I found when looking around towns at the end of a day of walking, it is very uncomfortable walking around in the rain – handy to have a tiny umbrella.

Shoes

  • Hiking boots – Salamon
  • After hours light sandals (I couldn’t successfully walk on cobblestones in flip-flops) – Teva
  • Flip-flops (for shower) – Havianas

Clothes

  • 1 waterproof jacket – Kathmandu
  • 1 inner jacket shell/lightweight polo fleece – Kathmandu
  • 2 t shirts – Bonds
  • 2 long sleeve t-shirts – Bonds
  • 2 pairs long pants/shorts (depending what you are comfortable in) – Kathmandu
  • 3 bras
  • 3 pairs underpants
  • 2 pairs socks (thick Wool/synthetic blend hiking socks)
  • 1 dress (light-weight and compact for evenings)
  • 1 pair leggings
  • Pyjamas
  • Hat
  • Lightweight shawl
  • Bathers/swimmers/togs – whatever you call ’em. Yes there are some swimming pools.
Washing/Sleeping
  • Sleeping sheet
  • Quick dry towel
  • Stretchy clothes line
  • 5 pegs
  • Eye/sleep mask
  • Ear plugs (if you need them)

If you stay mostly in pilgrim accommodation – gites or Chambre d’hotes, pillows and blankets are mostly provided, so I found carrying a sleeping bag was unnecessary, and it freed up a lot of space when I posted it home.

Paper/Technology
  • Journal
  • Morning pages (A4 notebooks if you’re a writer)
  • Miam miam dodo (Food and Accommodation guide)
  • Phone (and charger & extra battery)
  • Electrical adapter
  • Pencil case – small round-blade scissors, small glue stick, pens for journalling
  • Purse
  • Passport/plane ticket
  • Pilgrim credential
  • French phrasebook

Being a writer, I pack paper, and it weighs a lot. But this is the price I pay for being able to write about my trip in great detail while I’m going, and I’m not about to give it up. Same goes for scissors and glue stick. I stick all my tickets etc into my journal as I go, and also prepare town maps and information about the route before I leave and stick it into my journal as I get to each place. It makes a beautiful record of the trip and I figure I’ll be wanting to remember my trips when I’m 90 and in a nursing home.

Encouraged by Alissa Duke and her gorgeous sketches, this time I’m going to try water-colour sketching – more to carry, but more memories!

Toiletries/First Aid

The other area I don’t economise on is toiletries.  I like carrying lotions and potions in the smallest sizes available, because at the end of long day of walking, after I’ve showered, I like to have a little tube of peppermint foot balm at my disposal or some arnica creme to massage my legs. OK, I might only use the paw-paw ointment once or twice, but I’d rather have it than not. A little block of ‘friction block’ instead of lots of bandaids for feet is a must that was loaned to me by my friend Isabel. I only used it once, but it worked by stopping a blister coming, and I was so glad I had it.

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I also carried a little portion of Salvital last time, and I was so glad I did on the hot days.

  • Soap (in a mesh bag you can peg to the washing line to dry overnight. Wash yourself and your clothes with it)
  • Shampoo
  • Toothbrush/paste
  • Baume de St Bernard (muscle liniment)
  • PawPaw creme (these come in mini red containers)
  • Jojoba oil (JoJoba make mini travel sized bottles)
  • moisturiser/aloe vera (mini version)
  • Sunscreen (Avene make a cute-sized tube)
  • Nivea Lip balm
  • First aid kit (small)
  • Bandaid – or any other ‘friction block’ blister stopper – excellent (so much better than any sticking plasters and it really works, but difficult to find in Australia)
  • Large safety pins
  • Small amount of real wool – excellent for shoving between your toes to prevent blisters
  • Salvital
  • Tampons/pads – can’t quite bring myself to go on the pill just to walk, but it would certainly make it easier from a packing perspective
  • Toilet paper – wind your own without the cardboard tube

What not to take

  • Sleeping bag (I found I didn’t use it on the Via Tolosana – may yet be proved wrong this time)
  • SLR camera (still deciding on this) and charger
  • Heavy sandals – don’t take Keens unless you’re walking in them (they’re too heavy to carry for after hours wear)
  • iPad (next time I won’t try to blog while on the trip)

Other useful notes

Space for food

  • Leave enough space in your backpack to pack the food you need each day. Sometimes you might have to stock up for over 24 hours worth on the Via Tolosana as there are not always epiceries/boulangeries in the smaller towns. Ask about the provisions of food in the towns ahead from Office de Tourisme/hostelliers you stay with.  Other pilgrims are a also a good source of info about this. Miam Miam Dodo is a good resource, but may not be up-to-date or accurate.

Use space on the outside of your pack

  • Use large safety pins to dry your socks on the outside of your pack if they don’t dry overnight.
  • Buy aluminium clips to clip drink bottles and other extras to the outside of your pack
  • I carried two posters in a post-pack carton strapped on the outside of my pack for the last 6 days – not recommended, but it is possible for those must-have souvenirs.
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After the rain

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Pack cover

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All the necessary – chocolate, coquille shell and Miam Miam Dodo guide

 

 

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St Jacques coquille shell. Pin socks to pack if they don’t dry overnight. Drink bottle attached with clip

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Beech walking stick, hat and post-pack tube with plastic bag

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Swiss army knife

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Rest break

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Via Tolosana Day 44: The Dweller on the Threshold

Borce to Col du Somport – 17kms

I didn’t want to get up this morning, it was 6:23 before I left the bed. I don’t want to climb the mountain, and I don’t want this thing to end.

I gathered my belongings and went downstairs. Packs and shoes stayed downstairs at this gite. It was an OK place to stay, but it just felt a little grotty and uncared for, a little cold, albeit a big place, quite deserted of humans, maybe that was it.  I helped myself to muesli from the vast store of things that had been left by other pilgrims, and a coffee while writing my pages.

This way becomes a way of life.  It is easy in its knowns and unknowns. It is a fascinating thing. Every day you wake up and you don’t know the terrain you will cover or what it will look like. Who would’ve thought that yesterday Bedous, Accous and Borce were going to be so beautiful, or that the mountains would unfailingly take my breath away.  The reassuring constancy of the river in all it’s hues and characters. Walking far above it and then right down, up close and personal with it.  It has been a magical last few days of countryside. New situations, new terrain, new views. Many angels and many demons.  And yet it is known, in that you wake up each morning, write, eat, walk, eat, walk, arrive, shower, wash your clothes, explore your town, eat, write and sleep. It is so simple and predictable.

My knees feel good today, they are pretending that they didn’t walk 24kms straight uphill yesterday. They are being very noble. What a great idea – noble knees. I don’t know what I feel about today, it will be the final ascent to the summit, the pass, the frontier, the threshold.  All I know is that I will sleep in tomorrow. This trek upwards would be different for me if it was merely the gateway to Spain and on to Santiago, but it is the end, all over. Col du Somport then Canfranc, then Oloron. Oloron – Pau – Paris – London.  As soon as I’m finished I will whisk myself away from this place, this journey, and I think this is the hardest thing for me, contemplating this last stage, the end.  It reminded me that Virginie had said, toutes les bonnes choses ont une fin (all good things come to an end).

I feel melancholic that this is the last time I will be packing up for a big walk up an even bigger mountain. This is it. But I also kind of like it.  I’m walking on – it will complete my journey, but this last day walks me on into the rest of my trip and the rest of my life.  The trip will end, but I don’t think I’ve really come to any conclusions, only that I have a new trust in myself, my body, my ability to persist at things, to get through days that are very difficult.  My socks are not dry again. I try to decide whether I should walk with my SLR camera out today, and decide not.

The church bells, very close, strike the hour twice, as many along my walk have. I’ve never worked out why. That’s a question for a French person.  The clocktower at Sarrance rose above the little chapel behind the main one.  The mechanism was behind a door I think, so you could clearly hear the click of the timepiece while sitting in the tiny chapel that the monks used.

I saw Benjamin before I left but he wasn’t quite ready to set out. He’d catch me up in no time.

It was really overcast and foggy but not raining when I left.  The GR markers disappeared for the morning. Marion thought it was because they didn’t want to be associated with dangerous passages on the roads.  The walk along the road leaving Borce was really narrow and in the Miam Miam Dodo it even recommends taking the bus from the town across the river (Etsaut) for about 10kms up the valley, but I wasn’t too fond of that idea. It was fortunate, that because I walked early and got to Urdos by 9am, I think most of the heavy trucks were coming down the hill.  I made an exception to the walk towards oncoming traffic rule today. I figured the trucks coming up the hill and on the right side of the road would be travelling much slower next to me.  There actually weren’t that many trucks that passed me.  But the guide book was right, there was only 3 foot road shoulder and cliff, very precarious walking.  Maybe I was foolhardy, but regardless, I got to see some great sights.

Fort du Portalet was an absolutely amazing thing to behold, and had me thinking about the setting of The Name of the Rose.  I had lots of time to observe it, and I even snuck quite a few pictures despite the traffic.  There were corridors and windows cut into solid rock. Apparently it had been a prison during the war, and I had thought it was millennia old, but apparently it had its origins in the 1800s.

Coming into Urdos, I wasn’t convinced that taking the bus was any more safe than walking along the stretch I’d just taken as I heard behind me part of a bus collide with a truck. It would be too much to ask for anyone to slow down of course. The trucks pelt along the roads like there is no tomorrow, stopping for no-one. It was spitting as I stopped to ask a mower man about the huge abandoned building he was next to which turned out to be an old electricity plant, and I found some signs giving information about the geology of the area, and the incredible rock formations that I’d just witnessed. I was amused by a place called St Pee. I also passed a beautiful train station. It was not hard to imagine the train line being further extended up to this point.

There was a gite in Urdos, upstairs from the little epicerie. I spoke to the woman who ran it in the little supermarket.  She was lovely, and very interested in my journey. We had quite a long conversation while I was selecting my lunch and snacks for the day.  Then a customer asked about my bag, a petite, dark-haired woman who said ‘bonjour madam‘ to me.  The epicerie woman told her I was a pilgrim and when I was paying for my groceries, she gave me 5 Euro.  I was flabbergasted.  The other woman said she does it for pilgrims all the time!

I felt like I was back at the beginning of my journey walking through the Camargue as bullrushes once again graced the side of the road. I walked up and out of the town and marvelled at a house who’s corner was right on the road.  As I looked back, a guy who was up a ladder shouted something about the frontier.  It was certainly the frontier I was pushing, and probably the envelope at the same time.

Leaving Urdos, there was a ‘deviation’ announced for the GR (the way markers had re-appeared just before the town). The route should usually bypass Urdos just beforehand, cross the river and travel along the other side of the valley.  This deviation though left me again walking on the right side of the road for even longer than I think the Miam Miam Dodo knows about.  You wonder about these deviations, but then you have to accept they are probably for very good reasons – 3 of which I would find out later in the morning.  I had just been walking along the road, thinking the fall down would be long if a car went over the edge, and that these edges and walls must need constant checking and maintenance, when I see a car turn in ahead, park and two men get out and start inspecting the fairly new stone wall.  I tried to explain to them that I had just been wondering who inspected these walls, but I don’t think it quite worked – the complication of French tenses is completely lost on me, and what I was trying to say completely lost on them. They were friendly regardless.  I walked on.

Just as I got used to being on the road, the familiar right hand balisage appeared directing me downwards along a small bitumen track towards the river.  From that sign to the bottom, there were no other balisages, and I doubled back because I didn’t trust I was going the right way – it said it was a chemin privé, (a private road) – I hadn’t been directed along any of those before. I tried to raise someone in a house near the road to no avail.  I’d just have to keep walking.  In the end it continued, crossed the river and switched back up the hill again.  I stopped at a junction for a standup rest, having nowhere to sit as everything was wet from the rain the night before.    I had a pear that I’d bought from the kind woman in Urdos, had a pee (very exposed, but what can you do?) and I was back on my way.  I spied what I thought might be my last blackberries for the walk and feasted on them.  I wondered how I could somehow indicate to Benjamin that they were there.  I thought he’d just have to find them himself.  I rounded the next bend up the hill and what do I hear?  Hola!  He’d caught me.  Yesterday he’d said he’d taken a 2 hour pitstop in Bedous and hadn’t seen him all day and so I was surprised when he got to the gite in Borce after me.  I teased him about a similar stop today. I walked back around to show him the blackberries.  I don’t think he’s as into them as I am.  They have a really aromatic flavour in the mountains – they are gorgeous.

Yesterday and today my left ear kept blocking, probably with the ‘altitude’.  Despite this, I could still hear cowbells across the valley. We continued together, I explained I walked slowly and he should feel free to go ahead.  Not much further along and we came across the most beautiful collection of things – a brightly painted bin, two seats, and a bin full of tea-making things, a tampon (stamp for our credentials) and a full thermos. A petite pause. We stopped for a cuppa!  It was tre mignon (very cute) and offered to us anonymously by two pilgrims outside their home.  What a lovely act of devotion to leave a full thermos outside every morning for pilgrims.  We were very impressed.

There were lots of mushrooms on the track now, because of all the rain, pushing up layers and layers of leaf litter – the extraordinary energy of survival. Leaving here, Benjamin and I walked together and quickly came across an avalanche site, but after scaling that like mountain goats, I fell behind because we climbed steeply and I needed frequent breaks.  It was wet, really wet under foot today. There were so many little creeks crossing the path, or just really wet paths, and at some points channelled rock gutters that had been built in.  Thankfully, my knees and feet were really going well. I saw 12:00pm. I saw two more huge piles of rocks, avalanches.  I was alone again with my thoughts, my constant stops for breath, water and photos or to just listen when I came across a beautiful waterfall.

Today I opened and closed numerous gates again including two really heavy barbed wire ones.  Thinking about reaching a summit, you realise all the times you have written Col du Somport in a book, every time you have thought about it, you have been building a picture. When you finally come to do it, you start to realise that picture. It becomes real.  Today I was also getting an inkling that everything will be different afterwards. But at the same time, this is just another day of not knowing what the road will bring – just like every other of the 43 days.

I left the waterfall behind, but the path continued to be waterlogged. The mushrooms bloomed and the hum of intermittent cars sounded in the distance. 5 gates.  I have neglected to mention stinging nettle – it has been present for many days now in the mountains, and I’ve been stung a few times on my legs and hands.  The path had travelled at a constant level for a little while, but now it took a plunge through rocky patches where I was especially careful with my steps.  I turned a corner, came to a fountain and then walked down a grassy route towards a farm settlement. The route indicated to go around the perimeter of the stone wall, then I turned the corner and there was Benjamin eating lunch.  It felt a little like the hare and the tortoise.  He at first offered to walk and eat, but I said I wanted to stop – I had a pain au chocolat to enjoy.  We sat for probably an hour just chatting.  It was a little windy, and cloudy but it was actually sunny with blue skies overhead.  We sat overlooking the valley where the river was and where the road carried all the trucks and cars towards the  Tunnel du Somport.

I asked him what is ‘dry-stone wall’ in French, mur en pierre seche.  There were a few of them around. Even through the clouds the sun was warm on our faces as we continued to survey the distant main road and the path we would take to go up once we’d crossed it.  We wouldn’t stop going up from that point we decided.  Leaving, I was trying to explain Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, by Elton John. I didn’t quite realise just how relevant the lyrics were to my journey.  He likes the Beatles, so in the morning he was humming what he said was Blue Sky, what he says was Paul McCartney but I’ve found is actually the best McCartney song that he never wrote, ELO did.  So I sang Willie Nelson, Blue Skies, again.  His singing and whistling continues. It is a very endearing trait, and he is a real sweetie.

After descending to the river, crossing with a bridge, and reaching the road again, we joined it on the right hand side. At one point we took a big sweeping bend – it had no rail, no wall, nothing, just a sheer stone wall dropping down to the river. I wondered what happened with this non-existent shoulder! Scary! Imagine driving up it!  One mis-judgement and you’d be over the edge easily.  Crossing the road to follow the GR signs, we walked under a really low telephone line (he assured me it wasn’t electricity), up a stepped path and we started our final ascent of the mountain.

It was perfect weather. Cool, humid, a little sun and guess what?  My favourite forest, Benjamin identified it as birch, but I find out later it is beech. I love beech forests.  And I had discarded my other uncomfortable stick for just continuing with the beautiful one I’d found – much more comfy.  I mused that from mundane cornfields, I’d ascended to sublime beech forests.  We crossed stream after stream trickling across the path.  My socks were already wet inside my shoes, and I remembered my socks in my pack were not dry either and I’d had to pack them wet inside my pack.  3rd avalanche in the beech forest – a huge slip.

As we climb higher, I stop more and Benjamin moves further ahead.  He stops to look at things also, but not as much as me.  I don’t mind going slow here. I savour this walk along the softest of paths, beneath wise old beech queens. It is not surprising when I researched after I’d got to London, that these trees were long considered the queens of the forest, and the gnarly old oak, the king.  Beech trees impart wisdom and knowledge and were the wood that made the first paper for books.  It is little wonder I feel so at home here. As I have said before, the peace and serenity of these forests is palpable, not to be confused with pulpable!

As I get really high, I came across two guys out surveying, have two openings in the forest where I can see the pines on the other side of the valley, and realise with the fog crossing the path, that I won’t see the full glory of the Pass of Somport.  Many huge, hairy old beech trees. I haven’t found anything more reassuring in my whole trip. The moss which seems to cover them, holds a lot of water, I tested it.

Even higher up, I’m walking through fog drifting over my path now.  I see 1:11 and 2:22pm on my phone.  For a time I could also see the road below through the trees, the major road route had already been lost in the tunnel, so this was a small alternate/old road.  Even high in the mountains I can hear cow bells/sheep bells.

My iPhone carked it.  I came to a bit of a saddle of sorts – an ancient ruin which stretched over the whole site and a vista that I recognised from the picture I’d had at my desk since January, and which was now stuck in my journal.  It looked like a very ancient settlement, however I’ve looked to try to find what it might have been, but cannot find a reference to it on the internet.  The stones directed the path all the way up to a rock wall at the main road.  I thought I was only a couple of hundred metres from the Col, but something didn’t look quite right.  It was very, very foggy, visability was only several metres, but I could hear people at a big building down the road, 3 minutes away.  I decided to try to confirm where I was, because I didn’t want to get more lost in this fog, and if I lost the markers, I’d then understand where I was.  This was a new experience.  A helpful man was retrieved by the workers from inside the building, and confirmed my position – still 2 kilometres from the summit.  The sign said I still had 45minutes to go.  It must still be straight up then!

I followed the signs along the road, then turned left, and then past a few farm houses and beyond them into what would’ve been a beautiful meadow cut through by a creek in the sun, but in the fog it was just a challenge to see the squat little track markers, set low for optimal walker visibility.  The path was pocked with cow pats, so fresh that I fully expected to bump into a cow on the way up. I was also blessed with what I think were edelweiss flowers – they did look happy to see me. I was certainly happy to see them for the first time in my life. I stopped at a point on the creek where I could fill my water bottle – elixir of the gods from 1500m.  It took a while, but I came across yet another valley of ancient stone structures.  Maybe the two were connected – maybe they were part of the Candachu Hospitalet.

I then emerged at a giant carpark and the balisage said walk straight through the middle, next two motor homes parked there.  Up ahead on the hill a shepherd (yes there are still shepherds) accompanied by his dog, is herding balls of wool on legs, their bells chiming like an orchestra.  I had no iPhone to capture the moment, so I stopped just past the camper to get my camera out.  A man opened the door and asked if I wanted a coffee – the third time complete strangers have asked if I’ve wanted a coffee. A lovely moment.

We chatted for 20 minutes or so, my summit-reaching delayed even further, and the balls of wool on legs fast disappearing, not to be digitally captured.  It was a retired couple who were having a little sojourn from 30 kilometres outside of La Rochelle. They have a vege garden back at home, so can only venture for a week at a time and they were travelling with his brother in the other camper.  He went to the other camper, so I continued talking about gardening to his wife while having my coffee (impressing myself that I was communicating totally in French).  When her husband returned, it was obvious they were going to be off. And they left just like that! Another fast French goodbye. I was left there alone in the carpark to repack my backpack, by which time, every last of the several hundred sheep had disappeared.  It was funny but as I mounted the grassy hill, feet soaked, they appeared again, so I recorded (or thought I did) with my camera.  I lost it though.  I walked past the France/Spain checkpoint, deserted, saw the sign Somport – 1640 metres and went across the road to the Albergue Aysa, my introduction to Spain.

It is a classic ski location and it felt decidedly off-season. I could see Benjamin already inside.  We greeted each other like long-lost relatives, such is the impact and relief of a very steep climb!  I tried to communicate at first in French, then just gave over to English.  Checked in for 14 Euros bed with 6 Euro breakfast.  I took my stuff down to the group room, then went out to catch the sheep and St Jacques who was standing sentinel looking across to the mountains, albeit not able to see too far because the fog had well and truly set in.  It was cold, only 8 degrees outside. I had a shower and washed my clothes – and hung them on the exposed hot water pipes in the passageway. Hopefully they’d be dry by morning.  (It worked for everything except my socks). I went back upstairs.

Journalling with a moscato and a packet of chips is always a civilised idea.  The journalling didn’t last long.  I had dinner with Benjamin and another guy who came in late – a pilgrim from Valencia, Jose.  Later we found another French walker (Lille) who took the bunk above mine.  He was doing a circuit somewhere else.

Today I’d climbed from 637m to 1640m – I make that over 1000 metres in a single day.  I reflected on the amazing diversity of the walk. There were so many different mushrooms, mosses and lichens.  I trod over rocks of all colours, purple, yellow, grey and white and I passed through beaucoup gates. Lunch had been at 1000m so from there I walked up 600 metres, the last 6 kms being the slowest. It was one of the only days my socks and shoes were wet through.

I had done it.  I couldn’t quite believe I had accomplished what I had set out to do. I had walked some 800 kilometres in 44 days.  I sat atop the mountain, encircled with a very subtle feeling of pride, satisfaction and contentment.
Our hostess, Nieves at Aysa is lovely. She is Spanish, however speaks fluent French, and believe it or not, travels quite a few kilometres each week especially to go to English classes, so she didn’t mind at all that I didn’t speak Spanish, or struggled in French. She told me that she had homework, and I said I’d be happy to help with it.  She and her husband have owned the albergue for many years, and they have two resident dogs – Lola and I forget the other one’s name.
It wasn’t until I came home, that I realised how relevant the words of that famous Van Morrison song was to this journey and to this day in particular.  Standing on the top of a mountain, having walked near the water, having climbed higher and higher and with a fog closing in could not have been more apt. At the threshold of a new life, with all that the path had illuminated to me, I was the Dweller on the Threshold.

Via Tolosana Day 41: Thy will be done

Oloron-Sainte-Marie to Sarrance – 19kms

I didn’t sleep very well. I tossed and turned and my knees hurt. It was not great.  I got up for pages. After breakfast, Anne, putting on a brave face, told me she wasn’t continuing. It made me sad for her that she wouldn’t be going any further.  After my interesting chat yesterday, today I made a commitment.  Thy will be done. Along with walking today for Anne, this was my mantra.

It took a while to leave this morning.  I went to the park to try for wifi, but it didn’t happen. I ended up leaving by the route which took me past the Post Office, just as the Dutch couple who’d been en velo and staying at the gite, rode past.  I saw them again when I found my way to a boulangerie that was open so I could find my lunch. It was good, and decorated in some very appropriate bread art.

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I crossed the river after descending the stairs to find the public toilet – nearly at river level. I started up Rue d’Aspe and found myself thinking of the Bible or Shakespeare, ancient books that speak of aspes. I hoped this wouldn’t mean I’d see any.

I was again sweating profusely by the time I’d scaled the hill, past a huge sculpture of a woman in front of another church, L’église Sainte-Croix. It was a Monument Historique, but not the one I thought it might be – I saw a diagram showing the main Oloron-Sainte-Marie cathedrale, and this wasn’t it.  Maybe on my way back to Pau I’d get to see it.  Inside the little chapel it was dim and musty, but I was drawn to the front where there was a coffin with a glass front with what looked like a small child inside – yes, a real, small, dead child.  It was supposedly the relics of St Clement, but I can’t find any reference to it. To be honest, it was quite eerie.  I didn’t stay long.

I walked out into the street, leaving this ancient, and creepy place, and found myself in the midst of renaissance buildings, the moon still in the sky.  The road ahead was long and straight  and I thought to myself, I’m leaving Matthieu’s town.

A gaggle of geese and ducks eyed me from a raised vacant block next to an old house, and despite the fact they could’ve flown at me at any time, they were content to survey me walking along the road below.

By the time I got out of Oloron, I’d reached the next little village, Soeix, and had views of the Pyrenees – now up really, really close.  It really did now feel like I was walking into them. Looking at them, and soon in them. It was warm but a little overcast, promising to rain in the afternoon, so I wanted to keep walking. I had many kilometres ahead of me – 20 or so, I think.

All through the Foret Communal- Oloron-St-Marie I caught webs again. The sweet smell of budleias, on a perfect, not sunny day for walking.  Big slugs were on the path again as were big bales of hay plonked right in the way of probably wheeled transport rather than pilgrims.  “No quarry in the forest”. The universal green movement.  I passed a school with bright coloured buildings and walked through little towns, by very big pumpkins, very ladensome apple trees and barbed wire to keep wheeled things out.

I found a nearly impassable fork where the dirt track left the road, but there was a huge tree down over the track.  I made my way carefully up the embankment, trying to go around the tree which had fallen on a power line (well what looked like a power line). I tried a few times to scale the steep, grassy incline and eventually made it up.  A little hairy though, trying to balance and avoid touching the tree.

In all my days of walking – now over forty, I came to my first gate. It had me thinking I had come the wrong way. I was a little taken aback, and confused, but the trail continued.  I carefully opened, then closed it after walking through. There would be two more before the day was out. Matthieu’s promise of some more corn continued, although I suspect today to be the last day of it.

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There was a long walk along a very straight road to St Christau, next to the river L’ourtau. I recorded the water as I walked.

A little further on and I came across a very Fawlty Towers-like spa/sauna retreat and quaint chapel across the road. It was a huge property which had clearly seen better days.  The eerie feeling returned: a strange place and quite deserted.  I asked whether there were any hot baths (thermes) of a woman who was leaving in a car, but she said they’d closed 2-3 years ago. Pity.  She said there was one in the Ossau valley but it seemed quite difficult to get to from the end of my route.  A hot spring would do wonders for my body!  I continued up to a large junction with a main road, and saw the sign for the resort. It even looked like the Fawlty Towers one. I chuckled to myself. I constantly amuse myself.

A short walk along the really busy road, D918, with a few large trucks passing, and then I was off the road again and walking along a grassy track that looked like it just disappeared up into the fields. It eventually turned into a steep and really cool and rocky little back track (that made my knees hurt again) down into the next town, Lurbe.  Interesting name.  There was an opportunity to stop where the road passed over a little, but rushing river, but I kept walking, visiting the church which was locked. I found little offerings on the way for pilgrims, out the front of someone’s house in the next town – walnuts and apples.  Next time I’ll bring my nutcracker with me.

I then continued walking what seemed like ages before I found a pile of rocks to sit on, next to a wall, under a walnut tree to have my saucisson and cheese sesame seed roll. I also ate a peach and picked some figs. I was right next to a small single-laned road, but not one car passed while I stopped for the half hour for lunch.  My lunch town had many ‘compostelle’ signs and a couple of gites according to my Miam Miam Dodo, but they weren’t in my price range.

Getting up from lunch, I put on my pack again, and started toward large hills – the last wide valley before I’d be walking in the deep river-cut valley.  As I walked, I could hear rumbling.  It grew louder and louder as I walked towards the malaise, or cliff which appeared to be being open cut right in front of me.  The sound was like a waterfall, but more industrial. It was a strange mix that sounded like a big monster crushing rocks, but eventually I did see a processing shed across the river.  I also saw there was another cutting below the level of the road I was on. I passed several groups of abandoned machinery, still in their lunchtime idleness and I later found a map showing a new light rail they were cutting – Oloron – Bedous.  God I love the French. Still building railroads!!  As I walked on, jumping over little streams that crossed the path, through paddocks and next to houses, it became obvious from the old bridges, that there had always been a railway line, and that this one was being re-claimed.

The Police came to me, We are spirits in the material world for some reason.

My great walking weather continued, budleias smelled in my general direction and there was more corn. After more building works and a slight feeling of uneasiness, I come across Sylvia lying on a random park bench, appropriately put in the middle of nowhere. She was siesta-ing and I said hello but declined to stop – I wanted to keep walking so as not to get wet.

In the little hillside town of Escot, I asked a man loading his truck where a fountain might be, and he directed me onwards. Sylvia caught me up where I was collecting water from an ancient water fountain while taking photos of La Fontaine cut outs – yes really!  Things do always happen in threes. I’d now had three La Fontaine experiences on this trip.  All through the town, there were wooden cutout characters of the various stories.  I tried to find a La Fontaine connection to this town, but I don’t think there is one, just some enthusiastic local(s).  Some characters were looking a little worse for wear, but it was an impressive display.  I missed the L’Ane veto de la Peau du Lion, number 5, but I snapped all the others.

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L’Ours et les deux Compagnons

Le Lièvre et la Tortue

Le Loup et la Cigogne

Le Corbeau et le Renard

L’Aigle, la Laie, et la Chatte

Le Loup et la chien

I saw La Poste. The little chapel looked cool – a white building with grey slate roof. I explained to Sylvia that I wouldn’t be able to talk today, as I get really tired from trying to talk in French after walking a whole day. My mood was descending fast into an abyss.

Just out of Escot we crossed the major road. It must be like Russian roulette in pilgrim high season, and then we were onto a little tiny track – a goat track that followed the river along the cliff above for the first 2.7 kilometres to Sarrance.  It seemed like many more steps than that.

The road wasn’t far away, and passing cars imposed on the rush of the river every now and again.

At first the track was wide, then under the beautiful old train bridge it narrowed to being a goat track, at some points close to the river, at others far away.  Some of the time it felt like I was walking on top of the river, several hundred trees and ancient rocks being the only thing suspending me above it. The path always sloped toward the river, so it felt precarious and with a little rain could be quite slippery and dangerous.  Then a gate, the second in 41 days, a compostelle and a sign on the gate saying the cows thanked you for closing it.  It was such a majestic environment.  The river was rushing, the cliffs imposing and the path shady: once again like a scene from a fantasy book – complete with ancient ruined buildings along the way – presumably from a time when this was the road into the mountains.

At one point I could see high above me to the greened cliffs, and I watched as a dozen eagles played in the jet streams. It reminded me of a sport I’ve seen, a kind of base jumping, where the jumper scales tall peaks then catches all the jet streams down wearing a suit with bat-like webbed wings.

There were starting to be autumn leaves on the track in some sections – my old favourite trees again, lots of them.  Finally, the track took me to a junction with the road again and the final gate for the day.  A brief walk along the busy major road and then Sarrance, not that I was making it a brief road. The hills during the day ascended 200 metres, then the up and down of the last goat track exhausted me completely. It certainly seemed like the longest 3 kms of the trip. I was doing the Cliff Young Shuffle again.

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Sarrance is beautiful.  It is nestled in an elbow of the river, and there were rock piles and nice sentiments greeting my ‘tre fatigue‘ disposition. Sylvia had just arrived also and was asking of the site – the acciuel for pelerins.  It was just near the church.  Sonnet et entier, sound the bell and enter.  On the edge of the square in front of the entrance, is a large love rounded stone love heart made from carefully laid river stones, but I was too tired and emotional to notice it until the next day when I did go into chapel.

We were led around a cloister containing a garden complete with coquille decoration and more carefully-laid stone. I later met Nicholas who was putting a similar stone border around the herb garden near the washing lines.  Great black ones with white streaks through them. I was exhausted and in the foulest of moods when I took off my boots, leaving my backpack in the small ‘wood room’, then up a couple of stairs, through a big door, into a biggish hall with big beams and a 16th century look and a sign which did not match my disposition – joie.

I opened the door and there was Marion – who came to give me a big hug. She sensed how difficult the day had been. She asked about Anne, and I said it was sad, but she had to retire.  I sat for a long time, drinking menthe syrop, barely able to walk.  A couple had come to start their walk, they’d just got married, and would be setting out in the morning. I eventually showered and washed my clothes. They were on the line for only minutes before the showers that had been promising themselves all day, finally arrived.  I made a quick grab for them and replaced them in the small shed holding the heating unit for the place. It was toasty and the clothes would dry quickly in there. The thunder lasted an hour, then the rain lasted until mid-morning the next day.

Blessing of blessings, there is wifi.  I accessed it, I had expected a booking for my home in Australia, but nothing came of it. September 1st tomorrow. Reminded myself to text Anita a Happy Birthday. Sat on the couch and chatted with Marion for a while – was going to go to chapel, but then decided not to.

I had a nap from 6 – 7:30pm, when Marion called me for dinner. She was self-catering, so  I walked with Sylvia to try and find the dining room.  We could smell it, but not see it and wandered around the cloister for a few minutes, trying to work it out.  Soup, fish, cheese & bonbonierie from the happy couple. Everyone helped with the washing up.  It seems like a little community of religious and non-religious make up this little establishment, and it reminded me a little of the meal I’d had at En Calcat as it had a musical accompaniment.  Maybe monks is the common theme there.  There is a tingly energy in this place. It is dim and musty, but rustic and homely in some way. All the participants helped with clearing the table and washing the dishes.

Via Tolosana Day 39: As above, so below

Lescar to Lacommande – 13.6kms

With a rock concert going on in the next town, I didn’t go to sleep easily or quickly.  My legs were restless again. Nevertheless I was up again at 6am writing pages.  It is definitely my new biro that is making it faster.  I had blueberry fraiche for breakfast, packed and then left at 7.10am, just after Anne. She was explaining that she has also had knee trouble, although hers sounded more serious than my twinges.

I said goodbye to the sweet little gite, just across from what looks like the equivalent of the RSL – or a local militia of some kind. I should learn not to check emails on the way out of town, as I did so at the Office de Tourisme, and more news about my housemate moving just had me cogitating again for the morning.  It was a bit of a maze of streets leading me out of Lescar, and quite a steep descent from the town gate, but I was interrupted from my mind-work walking along Rue du Biale when a woman opened her big wooden shutters from her kitchen and we exchanged bon jours!  She asked if I wanted a cafe, and who doesn’t at 7.20am in the morning in France?  So I said yes, and then she offered me petit déjeuner as well. She ushered me in through the gate, to the house and it became apparent that she had already entertained a whole army already at the dining room table.  As it turns out, she had 4 pilgrims staying the night before (and is one of the chambre d’hotes in my Miam Miam Dodo). Jackie was lovely. She gave me coffee, a couple of pieces of brioche and some figs to go.  I was finding it hard to keep from weeping with humility at such thoughtfulness, my eyes were tearing up and I was annoyed with myself that I had spent time dwelling on the difficulties at home. Life does look after me.  Everything will be OK.  I only stayed a short time, although long enough for her to ask whether I was religious.  (Do I look religious?). And for me to answer not really. The other pilgrims were leaving in a cab for some reason: I didn’t quite understand what their journey involved.

Buoyed from this blessing, I said goodbye to her and kept walking out of Lescar.  There were some quaint GR street signs which mentioned votre prudence (your prudence). I think they wanted me to be careful crossing the very main road up ahead.  I love a language that still uses concepts such as prudence, on street signs no less.  It reminds me of the Wheeler Centre’s current Adopt a Word drive – pay some money for a word that is in danger of disappearing. I’ll have prudence thanks – it is a word and concept that seems to have escaped the 21st Century English language and custom.

A bit further on, and I could see what the sign was about. I was negotiating quite large roads. When I crossed, I looked back and saw a flotilla of a different kind to what I usually encountered in forests.  I could hear distant sirens, and see the beautiful upside-down fig-shape of balloons out for their Saturday float.  In Melbourne, I was in the habit of riding to work along St Georges road.  I have always found it fascinating that at the same time that figs are ready to eat, there float giant upside-down figs across the cityscape of Melbourne. It is only on the gorgeous still mornings in March and April but often four or five float across the skyline at once. Today’s spectacle seemed further away, but just as enchanting.

I walked past out-of-the-way houses, and then along a path bordered by tall-growing budleias. The smell was heady.  A runner passed me, and I hadn’t heard him coming so he startled me. Then, up ahead man was wheeling a bike with what looked like a rifle over his shoulder.  Given my extreme fear of guns, I was more than a little concerned. By the time I reached where I’d seen him, my heart was beating fast, but I was so relieved because he had turned off on a small track that led down and opened onto the river bank.  He’d left his bike just off the track, but had taken himself and the gun down there. He looked to be well on the way probably (hopefully but unfortunately), to duck shooting.  It was now shooting season.  I walked quicker regardless. I find it difficult to contemplate being close to a gun.

I walked quickly up and over the bridge and crossed the river by the D509 to the other side to find even more budleias with their reassuring sweet smell. I wondered where they were native to.  The path was sealed, and followed the river.  My feet felt hot this morning. In the evening the night before I had attempted reclined Vipassana to see if I could bring some joy to my sore knees. I think it calmed me, but it would probably be more helpful if I just got up earlier each morning to meditate.

I  walked past the French equivalent of the The Beachcombers, although they were watering their piled up wood in the yard with overhead sprinklers, throwing rainbows everywhere. That Canadian series theme song wormed it’s way into my head.

I walked under a tunnel for a road, across an oval, and I was soon in Artiguelouve, a small suburban town full of wandering cats and stocky horses.  Through to the other side, I took a left at a way marker and started ascending a bitumen road.  Past a Chateau du Vin, Domaine du Cinquau, (which when I checked the website, looked like a pretty posh place for a wedding!!). I rested looking back across the plain where I’d seen the balloons.  It was a lucky spot as there were many scratchy tickets in the grass.

After the rest, I climbed quite a steep track, for quite a long way, past beehives. I again joined a bitumen road and walked along the top of the ridge, turning right where I smelt the strong smell of almond essence.  Weeds and moss grow in the roads here. And the most overwhelming fungi in trees! For every ascent there must be a descent, and today was no exception.  I took it very slowly through various forest trees until I got the familiar feeling again – there were my favourite trees again.  There is a freshness about walking under them that I love.  It fills me with calm.

I descended back down to cornland again.  Coming out of the forest I beheld a beautiful old run-down barn and house.  That’s the one!  Imagine living here. Right next to the route, right next to my favourite type of forest. There in the sky was the buzz of a motorised hang-glider popping over the forest like a flying lawn-mower.

I continued along the small road past an old mill that had been beautifully renovated – looking exactly how the other one could look, with its large old millstone displayed at the corner of the property. I stopped and looked in the direction of shouts – Aller! Aller! Aller! It looked like shepherds herding sheep or goats with lots of bells ringing. Along at the end of the road there were a number of men hanging out near their cars. I later realised that this might have been a hunt. La Poste went past – yes mail gets delivered on a Saturday, by van to the most out of the way places.

I kept walking along the valley on a small road, only about a car’s width between paddocks.  I walked past a little Compostelle shrine containing more gnomes (including a pilgrim gnome) than was comfortable, perhaps pushing the owner into the ‘slightly crazy’ category. Although I didn’t let this stop me filling in the little guest book they had on the fence.  It was very sweet.

It was only about 20 more minutes before I came to La Commande and saw La Poste again. On my left was a For Sale sign – another old place for sale, not with a tenth of the charm of the old farm house I’ve seen.

It was a small town kind of nestled on the side of a gentle sloping hill in a flat valley. There were many trees, so you couldn’t see very far, however it had no epicerie and this is why I’d had to stock up in Lescar.  The sun was now getting really hot and I called at the Mairie to see about a key for the gite.  The woman took a long time trying to find the key, so I said I’d just go there to sit down – the communal gite was just behind the Mairie and the church. I walked out the back along very manicure hedges only to find yet more of the little stelle discoïdale.  Curious that they accompany the end of my trip as they did the beginning.  There is a feeling of coming full circle.  A Circle of Presence perhaps.

Anne was already installed, and Laura, the hostess was minding the exhibition in the ancient hospital building just next door.  I decided to eat my lunch before unpacking and washing, so I did so outside on the soft green grass looking towards the public swimming pool, the source of many happy shrieking youngsters. Turning to my right, I could sit and see the Pyrénées.  Is this heaven?  I then went inside and slept for a few hours before showering and washing my clothes at 2pm.

I walked around to the door of the little church and as I approached I heard singing.  It was a relief to be inside, as it was cool.  The chapel had a stone floor, and the caps of columns just like Lescar.  They were quite short, so I could take close-up pictures of them.  It was heavenly here certainly.  The choral voices lulled me again into melancholy and I sat on the pew in contemplation, having yet another weep.

I looked down at my feet, and saw a coin.  I stayed for many songs, they were just beautiful. And what a lovely thing to have going in a church for visitors.  It was certainly a stunning building, with an unusual wooden ceiling, but the singing just provided an extra layer to the divine atmosphere.

I retrieved and wrote my diary back in the kitchen, and then Laura kindly came to see whether I wanted to see the exhibition. The photographer was there and was giving a talk about it.

I gingerly went next door, the round stones paved into the walkways difficult to negotiate with my sore feet and legs. During the talk I mostly tried to sit down to rest my legs. Guillaume Langla was showing his collection of exquisite black and white photographs of different routes of the Camino – Compostelle – le marche céleste (the heavenly walk). He spoke only French, and I didn’t really catch much of it, but my ears pricked up at some of the words I recognised and I got the idea I would like to talk to him in English later, to ask more about what he’d said.

He felt the chemin is alchemical. It transforms a person. It seemed he was saying the road has the potential to initiate people in mystical ways, delivering them into a knowledge that few people ever grasp. His work contains esoteric elements and meanings you might not have gleaned without his explanation. Although maybe the images work at a deep level, capturing some of the transformative elements of a long walk for viewers. His photos show a wide variety of landscapes and people in poses that belie the movement inherent in a long journey.  My favourite, a young Czech woman in traditional dress stands still, holding her walking stick in front of her. During the talk, Guillaume points out the composition of the photo is a perfect unison of the male and female symbols, a triangle pointed up, and one pointed down. In alchemy the four elements are also represented by triangles – F feu, O eau, R air, T terre.  He spoke of the bird language, langue verte or green languagea perfect language, key to perfect knowledge, and it took me back to the day I heard the turtledoves.  It seems that not only is great wisdom indicated by an ability to understand bird language, but that in speaking in languages, there are hidden double meanings that once again, only those initiated may understand. He gave me an example – now here or nowhere. He was thrilled to have this beautiful ancient space to exhibit in, and had felt it perfect because he was able to mount twenty photos upstairs, and twenty down – ce qui est en haut est en bas – as above, so below. When we spoke, I said it was a lovely coincidence that I had come here on this day, and he said it was providence. He was right, I’ve never believed in coincidences and I don’t know why I said it.

“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul”

Hermes Trismegistus

I liked the way he thought about things. I’m drawn to gnostic and mystical accounts of this life.  But I think one thing I have been convinced of in the walking, has been that it is possible to blur the boundaries of self and nature, to really see it deeply for the miracle it is, to patiently observe it, and yourself while in it.  It is this seeing, tasting, smelling, touching and hearing – the development of the senses, which is key to the transformation and might I be so bold, liberation.  I feel sorrow for the world that never gets to see and be in nature, and in my daily life at home, I am in pain to see the mistreatment of our environment because we are just so very disconnected from the rich life it gives us at a primal level.

Back from the arcane into the mundane, I was in the kitchen writing my journal, and another pilgrim, Marion arrives.  She is French and speaks great English and we are soon getting on like a house on fire.  We chatted for a while about our journeys.  She is walking all the way to Santiago and is wild-camping mostly. She said she would sleep outdoors tonight. What was most intriguing though was after having the alchemical experience in the afternoon, I got to spend time talking to someone who could talk to me about my aches and pains in a way that I would do at home, but didn’t have my reference books to do it. Marion reminded me that my knees reminded me of the need to yield and be flexible especially in relationships. My feet reminding me to find the good way forward – my direction in life.  Prudence certainly brought me providence in spades today.  I am humbly grateful for meeting exactly who I needed to at the right time. More angels.

Via Tolosana Day 30: “Ultreia!”

Le Grangé (Giscaro) to Pied à Terre en Gascogne (L’Isle-Arné) – 17 kms

Up early again today. 6:00am.  Pages written, however I seem to have lost my kilometrico (pen of choice). This is a minor disaster, as the Artline pens I write my journal with are not fast enough for morning pages.  Try it. You’ll see. So I now need a new biro. I have also come to the end of my exercise book, so I need to decide what to do about it. I have a fresh one, but do I keep this one or post it home? I’m writing as the sun climbs up at one end of this big building after setting at the other end. Breakfast at 7:00am.

After dinner the night before, Andreas spent quite a bit of time talking to us about the route for the next few days from here. (I also read some of the interesting statistics he had collected about the pilgrims that pass through here. I began in Arles, and a minority start there, only 30%; 20 nationalities are represented – Australian doesn’t even figure; there is a bubble for walkers in their early 20s, and again in their 50s.  So you could say on the via Tolosana, an Australian woman in her mid-40s, who walks from Arles is scarce as hens teeth. It is not surprising I guess, they’re all busy having/raising children. I digress). There were two ways to go. You could follow the chemin de terre, which by-passed the town, or go by road direct through the town.   Before deciding to stay at Le Grangé, I was going to stay at Gimont, but decided against it, and he had helped me phone to the place to cancel the reservation. It is here that I needlessly made this day’s walk longer, and a little more involved.  I decided to ignore the advice to take the direct road into Gimont. I followed my own way with the re-assuring red and white signs. This ended up rewarding me with my first spectacular views of the Pyrenees, however left me with a few worries also.

Bon route! (si on ne revoit pas …. ) et n’oublie pas ton baton!! Good road! (If we do not see you ….) and do not forget your stick !!

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I set off at 8am and made my way down the grass track past the plums. Cloudine told me about some champignons that I missed at the bottom of the row, so I snapped a picture on my way out.

“Ultreia!”  Jacques told me about a pilgrim song with this name on Day 8.  They have thought of everything here, and their care extends to wishing their pilgrims “a good road” in the traditional way.

The distance that le Grange had on it’s sign were:

  • Toulouse – Leguevin – 23kms;
  • Leguevin – L’Isle Jourdain 14 kms;
  • L’Isle Jourdain – Gimont 16kms;
  • Gimont – L’Isle Arne 19kms;
  • L’Isle Arne – Auch 23kms.

Andreas had said there are as many different measures of the distances on this route as there are guide books and people who walk.  Miam Miam Dodo doesn’t provide the best maps, but other walkers have continued to ask to read it to get ideas for accommodation.

Jacques had written overnight: “I think the chemin learn us fraternization, simple way of life, humility, research on oneself, self improvement and more. Marelies and Manfred left yesterday for Lourdes. So I go further with Jacques”.  So it seems that he has been thinking a lot about his walk and the things he is learning.

I walk past concrete/stone cage retaining walls, then 4 dogs greet me up on the fence at a gorgeous chateau. It continues to be really dewy this morning – more than yesterday.

My pack felt lighter this morning for some reason, it made my feet a little more nimble to dodge the evidence of horses on the track. A dam could be seen through the trees. Many men were out busy with their farming.

I thought about my conversation with J-P yesterday. He had tried to teach me the contractions of words yesterday – I failed, but it now made me wonder about language.  Imagine a language that has only the present tense.  I am. We are. It is.

I took a left-hand turn following the markers where the road led into town and this guided me along the saddle of a hill. I happened to look left and saw shadows on the horizon. I was surprised. Jagged, massive, desolate-looking in parts, as if super-imposed on the horizon, like a back-drop curtain being lowered to the stage … the Pyrenees. I have to scale one of those on the last day!

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Now I know the reason for coming this way – perhaps I wouldn’t have seen them if I’d gone direct to Gimont.   Going my own way was not without it’s drawbacks. I stopped for a pee behind a hedge now looking at the Pyrenees. Down in the valley, a way off,  I could see a figure in white wandering along the hedgerow picking blackberries next to what looked like a creek.  As I walked down into the valley veering away from them on the other side of the hill, a ute travelled past them along a track by another creek – which I realised I would swing around and join.  It seems that white vehicles are my new nemesis this week.  A patch of doubt. Trepidation even.   Yesterday I waited for J-P. Today I had no-one. They all chose to go direct to town.  I continued to the bottom of the hill and turned left with the road hugging the creek back towards the van as I expected.  A few hundred metres, and there it was.  Parked off the road. No sign of an occupant. A spade in the tray. Where’s my cloak of invisibility when I need it. Something made me take my phone out and photograph it a little way back. I fussed nervously with the code on my phone, but got it in the end.  I took the photo.  Still no sign of it’s occupant.  I walked past, quickening my steps to get away as soon as possible. Another few hundred metres and I heard the ute start up. It drove up behind me. As it came closer I stepped off the track and walked in the rough earth of the ploughed and freshly sprouting field to let him pass unhindered.  I said “bonjour”. The man smiled and drove on.  There are times you wonder. I had no butterflies, no sick feeling, so of course I was always going to be safe.  It un-nerves me though. I need to call on my angels at times like these.

I continued, past big quince trees and spoke to the woman collecting blackberries.  Beaucoup pour confiture. My version of “many blackberries for jam”.  I met the D160 and walked along it for a while before leaving it again for a small track next to a field. In a few more minutes walking through the back roads near houses on the outskirts of town,  I could see Gimont in the distance, across a valley.

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I could see the path took me right down into the valley and down to the back of the town.  I could have taken the D4 straight in – it would’ve saved time. Oh well. I probably walked an extra km or two by the time I got back into town.

10:10

At the bottom of the town, I took the road back up towards the town square and church. I approached from the side, up really steep streets to the smell of cassoulet.  The name Esplanade des Capucin sounded interesting. It turns out the Capucin’s were an off-shoot of the Franciscans who ordered their life around rules drawn up in 1529.  Maybe the street has been here for a while then.

I wandered around and stopped at a little bar for a short black consumed amongst the smoking men passing their time in the morning – it was too early for lunch. I saw Cloudine and Francois and bought quiche for lunch later. Les Halles (literally translates as ‘the hall’ was the central market of an old town, and in my experience, usually included a big wooden structure). Here in Gimont it still stood, and took up the whole of the small centre of the town (very similar to Revel but much smaller). What’s more, the road went through the middle of it, underneath the large exposed beams. The pharmacy reminded me of the temperature. 27C – seems a bit hot for what it feels like. I needed to get some supplies for lunch tomorrow as it will be demi-pension tonight in another gite nowhere near a town. I purchased peaches and a pear at a little fruit and veg shop.  I can have the packet cassoulet that I bought in L’Isle Jourdain, for lunch tomorrow – then my pack will be a kilogram lighter.  I went to the Boulangerie again to get a coffee eclair. I ate it later when I stopped for lunch – unfortunately it wasn’t that good.

Walking back down the hill, down the main road again, I turned right where I saw further signs, more chemin de terre along the river, then across it (La Gimone) and joined the road just near the eglise – Chapelle de Cahuzac.  A woman was hanging out washing and I saw bull rushes again. They always remind me of Moses.

The church was dark, and the strong smell of Asiatic lilies was augmented by the sun streaming in.  A woman was attending to the flowers on alters.  I asked her where I could get my credential stamped, and she directed me to the hospital next door. Before I left I took some St Jacques and St Roch souvenir pictures. Pushing the big door of the hospital open, it seemed like a hospital anywhere, a real buzz of patients and staff busy with healing.  I got my tampon.  Outside there were some residents enjoying the sun.

Outside the Eglise, and around the back I saw one balisage and I followed the little single-laned road, quite a long way and didn’t see any further balisages.  It was getting hot, and I was already tired, even though I’d not gone far.  I lost faith that I’d find more balisages, and the road looked like it was going nowhere in particular. I thought I’d missed a turn.  I walked back towards the chapel and then left the road to the right along a little track upwards in the direction I was thinking was on track.  Past a Gendarmerie and then a big school-like place.  I just kept going even with no balisages.  I eventually emerged onto a paved road after travelling an overgrown dirt track between paddocks.  None of the road names looked right. Perdue – lost. Again! I thought it had to be further up the road so I kept following it.

Feeling nearly deflated, I asked a young guy in a big white van (maybe they’re not so bad after all) for directions.  He seemed to think I was on the right track, in fact when I went around the next bend, he stopped to show me the right place.  Just after this I saw the familiar balisages.  After he’d delivered something he came back my way and I waved a thank you as he sped past.

I stopped  to eat lunch, right by the side of a road that turned out to be a dead end, so there wasn’t ever going to be much traffic. It was after 12:30. Quiche and peaches. I needed a drink.

Balisages were a little infrequent in the afternoon, but it wasn’t too bad as the guide book map was OK.  I had a look where I had gone wrong and it looked like I had turned too soon, and that I should have kept walking further to make a turn to the left along a dirt track. After lunch I began walking inside hedgerows for most of the afternoon, disturbing lots of nesting birds as I went.  It was cooler as there was no direct sunlight.  Next to farms, cows, grapes, sorghum (?), sunflowers, Fresian cows.

1:11

Patient miles.Grapes again.  Figs. I saw an old bell tower that looked hairy from a distance with all the shrubbery growing out of it. Everything gets more hairy with age. Don’t I know it. Farm machinery lay idle. Everyone was at lunch. I passed deep ruts in the track.  I thought of my first ride from Vezelay where one day I mused about the idea of being stuck in a rut after trying to ride through deep ruts that my peddles nearly got stuck in.

It was beautiful farming countryside with a Pyrenees backdrop. Freshly ploughed fields. Sometimes it is exciting when you can’t see what’s coming.  An old cemetery.  Au Chateau d’Arne. I neglected to say that yesterday two more very young French pilgrim stayed overnight. They were new to the trail, and had walked 30kms and arrived close to dark. They were self-catering, so we didn’t see them for dinner, but we chatted over breakfast.  As I neared the gite, I found them sitting in the long grass opposite the chateau. Their feet were blistering really badly, and I think they were concluding that it was not possible to keep walking such long stages. I wished them well – they were of course going further than my measly 17kms.

Not much further along the road, and I see the turn off for my gite avec fig tree driveway. I noted the ripe fruit for retrieval the next morning. It was really warm already, and I was the first there despite thinking I had got waylayed. I have found the gites need bookings, whereas the Communal Gites seem to be first come first served, so I don’t know why I was in such a hurry today. Pied à Terre en Gascogne is an absolutely gorgeous gite run by a similarly georgous couple, Martine and her husband.

A notice somewhere indicated that I could wait for welcome, so I walked into the largest building and sat and wrote for a while in a nook with an arched ceiling that felt Moroccan, possibly because of the colours and the adobe-look of the walls.  Everything felt very earthy and natural.

I noticed there were interesting pictures of foot reflexology, and then that Martine offered foot massages, so I booked one later for 6pm.  I lounged and another pilgrim arrived – travelling the other way avec trailor.  He’d started in Le Puy, walked to Puenta La Riena and was going back to Arles/Toulouse I think. Good idea! He said following the signs backwards is hard (don’t I know, I did it on my bike on the Vezelay route).  Virginie and Sophie arrived next.  I’d already showered and washed. Then Cloudine draped in her light walking scarf and Francois. And another pilgrim. It had turned out really hot and my clothes were dry by bed time.  Now, the nights get dewy, so I always have to take shoes and clothes inside for the night.  Sophie, Virginie and I continued our funny conversations and ventured into day jobs out on a little patio near the clothes line with our beers/lemonades that Martine keeps stocked in the fridge for a small donation.

Martine had organised dinner, and while it was cooking, was going to squeeze the massage time for me. This amazed me, that she was cooking a meal for around 10 people, and still could give me a massage. What a woman!!  I made my way over to her house, where she showed me to a little room on the outside.  Oils were burning, a soft ethereal soundtrack accompanied and she sat me in a big recliner couch and darkened the room.  Within minutes, I was floating on another planet in bliss. I told Martine I’d experienced sensations like this before when doing Vipassana and she knew of this kind of meditation.  She said she could feel the energy rise up to her head. It was amazing. Just amazing. Afterwards she gave me a big hug and I said we must have been friends in a former life. She smiled. The feeling of the whole place was so calm and grounded.

The meal – fabulous.  Puy lentils and duck, bortsh with bread and rilettes and date cake with custard. Red wine. Of Course.

After sitting up for a little writing and listening to Cloudine and Francois planning their next moves, I decided it was time to retire up the ladder to the group room in the attic. My tired, oiled and massaged feet slept very soundly!

 

 

Via Tolosana Day 7: Surprise! Ou est le desert?

Montarnaud to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert 23kms

One benefit of having the Miam Miam Dodo, is that it has none of the useful information that other guides do, about the various sites to see along the way. I say that this is useful, because this means that I get amazing surprises on most days. This day was the most spectacular so far and I had no idea what would await us at lunch time around a dusty bend in the road. Jacques certainly didn’t let on if he knew, even though he had a more descriptive guide.

I neglected to mention when we were sitting exasperated on the church steps the afternoon before, another pilgrim marching with sticks walked past us a little way off. He ended up at the same gite and his name was Jacques. This morning we set out ahead of Jacques, but would meet him again during the day.

It felt like waking up at home on a Tuesday, as the garbage trucks rolled past. Jacques said he set the alarm for 5.30am, but it was actually 5.00am … so we could leave ‘a little before 6am’. I like his sense of humour, but I’m not sure about these early starts. The still morning and the pre-dawn sky made for a magical departure – over an hour earlier than usual. What a difference it made to the ease of walking. When we again found our trusty red and white signs leading us towards the 12th Century church I started singing I saw the sign, which I did for most of the rest of the day when I saw the little waymarks. I haven’t been so quick to explore the churches on the way – maybe when I get to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert this will change.

Montarnaud accueil

We walked to the edge of town and the way rose steadily past houses and another gite we might have stayed in. The bitumen turned to dirt and not long after we turned a corner and facing us was a deeply eroded dirt track that ascended steeply for maybe 150 metres. “What?” We did have to scale a steep hill, but wound around about on an alternative rocky track which eventually met it. We stopped a number of times on the way up for sunrise pictures. Oh what a beautiful morning, again.

Left luggage

Rocky Road

5

Sunset for mum

We rested briefly at the summit under a croix (cross) keeping a discarded walking boot company. Crossing the D11 we again hit dirt that quite soon turned into the most beautifully shaded track and paralleled the road for several hundred metres until we crossed back into another shaded track of sandy soil shaded by oak trees. Today we had our first experience of cement stoby poles with little piles of left pilgrim rocks. Like left luggage, only natural. It was strangely silent – no cigales this morning.

Soft under foot

On the outskirts of La Boissière, vineyards and turnesol (sunflowers – turn to the sun) greeted us along with a beagle for Anita. I again explained the pronunciation of vineyards for Jacques. A stencil on a hut had me singing Camille songs again, this time Hola. I can’t find the song, when I find it, I’ll link to it. I can’t remember what in our conversation prompted it, but then I was singing Kylie’s I should be so lucky.

Hola!

It seemed that every day one has a dog experience of some kind. Mostly they are just barking from behind fences, but today two dogs from the village were loose. One walked with us, just ahead, sniffing around for such a long way out of the settlement, that I was getting worried he would not find his way home. When I told him finally to ‘retourner‘ (return again) he looked really miserable, put his head down and indeed turned around to head back home. I wonder if he eats Royal Canin.

Beagle for Anita

Our second major terrain change for the morning was onto what looked like a planned but disused railway cutting. It was rocky and uncomfortable, but shady at first. It slowly turned to red dust as we began to see the hills that we would soon walk in. We were following the Ruisseau Grigoulet and passed by a little lake. Still not yet 9am we encountered railway lines and bridges and a strange converted bus which looked like it housed … someone?

Two crosses

Railway detail

‘These are the vistas’

We were on this route for about three kilometres and then joined the D27 for the short walk into Aniane after pausing on a brick wall next to a turn out area and collecting lots off pine sap on my pants. Looking over the cement fence, the collection of all kinds of rubbish was disgusting. It looked like someone had discarded an old pool liner there and associated plastic pipes – another Clean Up France Day perhaps.

Sap Collection Area

We turned into a small farming road and passed paddocks accompanied by jets doing exercises again – they go so fast, you have to look ahead of where you think the sound is coming from, hence their ‘invisible’ status on Day 1. Aniane was an interesting little town where even the Mairie building was unusual and it seemed there was some domestic dispute going on. Yet Je suis Charlie was a thing, even here.

I saw the sign

Aniane Mairie

Je suis Charlie

Heading north for a couple of kilometres, we then turned left to follow the foothills towards Saint-Jean-de-Fos. At only 11.40am, the sun was wickedly strong and burning my left arm. We passed over canals, saw piles of rocks with our red and white signs and surveyed the valley full of vines. Jacques caught us up on the way up the hill when we stopped to admire the panorama. We passed him again minutes later where he had stopped for lunch with a lovely view of the vineyards and hills in the distance. We continued, struck pine trees and guess what else?

I saw the signs?

Vineyard vista

We were glad we waited to stop for lunch because we ended up perched atop a cliff looking down on the most amazing international summer playground. Even from our high vantage point, we could not see all of what was ‘going down’. That had to wait until we commenced our walk after lunch. From our vantage point I could see a spider sculpture similar to that in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. Accompanying our pancetta and rockmelon were the distant squeals of delighted children, booming adult voices and a cigalle in the tree above us. Leftover gnocchi with plums for dessert made a great picnic.

The day before Jacques had told me the Jean de La Fontaine story of La Cigale et la Fourmi (The Cicada and the Ant). The cicada sings all summer and goes to the ant in winter asking for food.  What did you do all summer?  I sang.  Well, now that’s nice, so now dance, says the ant.  Maybe this is the beginning of the Protestant work ethic – they were big in the Languedoc in the C15th-C16th until they were made into the first modern refugees by Louis XIV and left in hundreds of thousands … in boats. Sounding familiar? Back to the story, I can’t help thinking about the effort it must take to rub one’s wings together to make such a shrill noise, surely it classifies as work. Jacques, as always, tried to find where the sound was coming from, but it seems as futile as looking for a supersonic jet.

Playground vista

Arachnophobia

When we left our lookout area, we came across a UNESCO site, the Pont du Diable (Devil’s Bridge), and despite the no jumping sign, that’s exactly what the young men were doing. At another rocky outcrop a small group of boys huddled like shags on the white rock plucking up the courage to dive the four storeys or so into the aquamarine water below. All accompanied by the latest ‘young people’s music’. It was quite an atmosphere of the summer initiation of youth although the rock formations, and even the bridge were ancient. We watched for a while, but it continued to get hotter and we still had several more kilometres to climb steadily.

more vistas

Pont du Diable

The road followed the river which had cut deep into the cliff, and continued to provide the perfect situation for kayakers and swimmers alike. We passed the Grotte de Clamouse which was clearly popular because the car park was full, as were both sides of the road with cars it turned out, from all over Europe – Belgian, French, German and Netherlanders all flocking to soak up the southern sun. Speaking of sun, I was already really burnt, and we tried to choose the shady side of the road, but at one point it was impossible because of the platform that awaited our attention below. As if lunch perched above a watery playground weren’t enough, the words ‘but wait … there’s more’ sprung to mind. And spring was certainly what it did. Out of the mountain it flows to collect on a rock shelf above the river and cascades down providing a natural shower to swimmers and sunbathers below. The sight took my breath away.

That plan is shelved!

Almost at Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, we rewarded ourselves with an Agrum bought from a kayak hire shop. We sat there while customers were shown the ropes. I felt like the shag on the rock now sitting on giant plastic chairs, but apparently this is what pilgrims do. We joked about how having kayaks in the desert seems a little strange. We took the road route around the village which when we walked the pedestrian route later, reminded me of the touristique streets spiralling around Mont St Michel, sans spirals. There were people everywhere eager to soak up the history of this village nestled in the valley between towering mountains. Jacques, always intrepid, opens a tall gate to a private residence, boldly venturing where no stranger has dared before, or will again, only to disturb a woman with a dog, Both are extremely surprised to see him. We get pointed in the right direction of our accueil with the sisters of St Joseph. Supposedly they don’t open until 4pm, so we skirt the biggest and perhaps oldest plane tree I’ve ever witnessed in the town square to visit the second UNESCO site for the day, L’Ancienne Abbey de Gellone. A quick trip through the dark church and out under the light cloisters does it, and we then wander up a small street lined with ancient houses. A sister, we find out later on holidays from Africa, asked us where we were going – quite apart from the coquille shell, I certainly have the hot and bothered, burnt and smelly pilgrim look down pat – anyone even vaguely religious would get it.

Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert

I say supposedly, because when we were eventually ‘processed’ we find that Jacques, I’ll call him Jacques II has already installed himself in the upstairs dormitory. I am getting ahead of myself. We patiently sat (Jacques far more patient than me) for at least twenty minutes while credentials were stamped, money paid, and more pèlerins arrived. Jacques found a La Fontaine book in the reception area and as we waited pointed out the La Cigale et la Fourmi. He also recommended Le Loup et le Chien (The Wolf and the Dog) and Le laboureur et ses enfants (The farmer and his sons).

Our packs once again were to be relieved of the bare necessities for sleeping, and stayed downstairs in a long gothic hall keeping the wi-fi company. It would be too much to ask for wi-fi to be available in the kitchen where there was a table and chairs.  I remind myself that the blog is dispensable, and the life of a pilgrim necessitates simplicity.  I did attempt to write after all walkers except the youthful new pilgrim, Hugo, had gone to bed, but gave up in the end.  I was extremely tired, and we had decided to again get up well before ‘a sparrow’s … ‘, as the lovely Foxy would like to say.

Shag on a rock

The little town of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is absolutely gorgeous and there is great history to it. Something about a monk friend of Charlemagne, Guilhem, establishing the monastery in the 9th century, but I didn’t get to work that out. Perched high above the town on one mountain you can see the tower remains of an ancient abbey which I would love to explore next time I come. In the town itself there were apparently 18 wells at the time when the chemin St Jacques was developing, we’re talking 1100s here. That doesn’t seem to fit with the concept of a desert. There was one fountain still running just outside of our gite, so we took the opportunity to fill up on the ‘fresh’ water.

Long after I’d showered, hung my clothes to dry and then gone shopping for quiche Lorraine for dinner and the equivalent of a hotdog in brioche for the next day’s lunch (despite the multitude of tourist shops, epiceries had deserted us), I got to explore the streets by myself. The moon watched while I surfed gingerly around the cobblestones in my yellow thongs, trying to capture the medieval buildings on film in the fading light. Thankfully at 9pm the town becomes deserted of the tourists, and I could amble around in peace.

Thong surfing over spiral

St Jacques

Giant old plane tree

L’ancienne abbaye de Gellone

Eau potable cocquille

‘Room with a view’

After dinner I had the biggest giggle I’d had for a long time when Jacques again talked about the possible need to get up during the night to attend to technical problems, something up until then he’d only referred to during the day. It reminded me of a boyfriend of a similar age who whenever he’d swear, he’d pause briefly to say “that’s a technical term” with a cheeky look on his face. I shared a few colloquial English words, as one does when travelling, for going to the toilet. Taking a piss/leak, having a slash etc. He liked those. I also told him about breaks in transmission where the test pattern used to appear on TV and how this discussion was shedding a new light for me on “We apologise for this break in transmission due to technical difficulties”. Maybe all along the TV operators were just taking a piss!

With that, I said I’m going to write some blog and then “hit the sack”.

Whole lotta Arles

There’s a whole lotta Arles going on outside, but all I want to do is sleep.

Rhino

Rhino

My day started at 4.30am when I decided I wasn’t going to get any more sleep and instead arose to pack my backpack.  My train from Paris left right on the dot of 6.20 (TGV, in my experence are extremely punctual), and I sped south to Avignon, accompanied by a loud Charlie Hebdo reader. Her friends were trying to shut her up, but her repartie with the cameraman across the isle went on regardless.  I wish I understood French better because I think the conversation would have been entertaining. Getting out of the train, the humidity and heat hit me. The next leg from Avignon to Arles was a little quieter, although the soundtrack was selected by a reggae-loving, dreadlocked, Rasta man.  It felt rather more like a FNQ (far north Queensland) backpackers than southern France, but at least the bus was cool.

I usually wander in ever decreasing circles when I first land in a new town.  Unfortunately my navigation abilities were severely hampered by juggling a map, water and a heavy back-pack. That and the fact that Arles has an arena meant I walked far too far for a hot day, and I was fast getting a headache, as I do on days like these.

"But the bull is not killed like in Spain"

“But the bull is not killed like in Spain”

There are so many things to do in this town.  If history is your thing, you can choose from almost dozens of UNESCO listed sites ranging from the Roman to the Medieval, some both. Of course, you could attend a ‘bull fight’ – the thing to do in this region – apparently. You could wander through the streets checking out the annual Pholographic Exhibition or if you prefer paintings, a whole musee devoted to Van Gogh.  Your other option, as I did, was to just amble around, looking lost, with a heavy backpack taking lots of photos of walls.  Sorry Melbourne, you haven’t got a patch on some of these beauties!

Urban shooter

Urban shooter


This and that

This and that

So after getting my credential – the little passport for the Arles Route which entitles the holder to pilgrim-priced accommodation and some cheaper meals cheaper I thought I was set. I consulted Miam Miam Dodo and the Confraternity of St James guide, and started ringing phone numbers. After 4 attempts, with broken French and still no room for the night, I was starting to get desperate. There was the youth hostel, but it was a fair way out of town, and I didn’t fancy dragging myself avec backpack all that way. My last option, which was just next to the arena was La Maison du Pelerin … et du voyageur.  The last bit, ‘et du vogageur’ was the key.  I was surrounded by people just there for the cheap price. Not one pilgrim in sight. It disappointed me a little.

Where are the pelerin?

Where are the pelerin?

My roommates were friendly, two French women there for the photography, and a woman from Shanghai doing general touring.  If I was a normal European, or tourist, at 7pm, I would have been getting ready to go out. Not this little black duck – I had a shower, and was ready to curl up into a headachy cocoon and sleep forever. I felt somewhat torn, as I would’ve loved to spend time doing any of the activities I’ve listed. I almost felt like I should delay starting by another day, but I remembered one of the values I wanted to cultivate – purposefulness, and decided that I would just have to come back for all the rest Arles had to offer.  Where before I would have tried to see everything I could, even with a headache, maybe it’s time to consider a new way.  An unfolding, slower, ambling rather than marching way perhaps.