Via Tolosana Day 26: Back to the future

Carcassonne to Toulouse

I awoke at 6am, but didn’t get up until just before 7am.  I wrote my pages in record time today and went down to breakfast, even managing to write a bit of journal before people came and conversation was required.  I had rested well overnight and awoke knowing that to return to Toulouse was the right thing to do today.

Michelle came a little while later as did two other pelerin, one we never said hello to and the other, Peter, English, but living in California for the past 28 years.  We had a very interesting breakfast time chat ranging over topics far and wide. We talked American foreign policy: economic, military, pharmaceutical and agribusiness. The modern ways the US dominates the world – eliminating threats by any means. It was a very animated discussion. Michelle has done interesting research on the ethics and laws around giving people placebos in research. It would not be any surprise to anyone, but the populations of prisons, and other people society chooses to forget, like prostitutes, are ripe for drug testing by pharmaceutical companies.

Michelle would have to be a second angel for me on my trip. Her quiet and gentle ways were very re-assuring. To have such a kind presence during my time in Carcassonne was nothing short of a bolt out of the blue.  She told me she moves slowly, in all senses, and finds that this ends up being a test for those she spends time with.  She can tell whether she is accepted by those around her if they tolerate her leisurely pace.  She likened herself to Marilyn Monroe, who was likewise always ‘plus tard‘ – slower or late. I like to think of it as going avec lentement or the opposite to ‘with haste’.  I think this kind of time-taking is different to the kind I used to experience – where I could tell the things I was reluctant to do, by how quickly (or not), I got ready for them and whether I was on time for them. Hers seemed more a permanent consideration of time, not feeling rushed by the expectations of others.  My second angel reinforcing the benefits of going my own way in my own time.

After a long breakfast, we made our way back upstairs and packed up.  Michelle brought me a little pice of paper she’d made – a practice piece for the little book she’s making with La Vie des fleurs (the life of flowers) printed on it in calligraphic script.  We both said goodbye to Peter (who’s room was coincidentally just near mine).  All packed, I went downstairs.  They had trouble with refunding my money, and Michelle said she would try while she was still there to see if she could get my money back.  I didn’t like her chances. Still no wifi, I realised I would need to return to the Office of Tourisme to retrieve my emails.  I also realised I had been walking for nearly 4 weeks and I was halfway through my trip.

Crossing the bridge back to the new town, I spy a woman photographing a big stork in the river. The name Pont Vieux is apt even though it means old bridge, it had the most stunning views of the river in both directions. I found more wall art facing the river and then a Bar Brasserie Florian for Flo.

At the Office de Tourisme I sourced the information about touring the Cathar region by deux chevaux  – now you’re talking! Next time. I found this great little pamphlet about a company that hires out these old gems for tours of the surrounding areas.  Their depot was in another town, so this would need to be another charming activity saved for next time.  I thought of Antoine in Melbourne, and took an extra pamphlet for him. For now, it became apparent to me that I just needed to get back on the road.

A neptune fountain and surprisingly beautiful slate floor of the square led me down one of the small streets on the way to the gare (station) where I bought a mini sandwich (actually a baguette with saucisson et beure) a perfect snack for later. Near the gare, I spotted me in my former life, carrying a cello case to the train. The line for a ticket was very long, and a guy had a complicated enquiry which meant we were all waiting about half an hour. There were  other walkers waiting from England but I didn’t feel like striking up a conversation as they seemed intent on bagging the service. I didn’t want to get into a discussion about it. I booked a ticket on the 12 midday train back to Toulouse.  About 5 minutes out, I took the underpass to the platform in the middle of several tracks.  On the way back I sat next to a guy completing his Baccalaureate and just about to start philosophy teaching studies philosophy.  Wow, how many 18 year old Australian men are just starting to learn to teach philosophy. The answer … not enough!!  I might be biased, but he was absolutely gorgeous – it was his mind I was completely taken with, of course. He was a scout, and had just been on a camping expedition and had stayed in a monastery.  We talked about my trip and his studies and the Cathares. He’d like to do the Camino with his brother, but is yet to convince him. His brother is 30, so quite a bit older than him. It seemed that my young philosopher friend had an intrinsic reason for wanting to walk, he was Catholic. But his brother wasn’t.  I said he might need to find some other motivating force – girls for instance.  He was amused by my idea.  I can’t remember his name, maybe Mikhail, perhaps with a Polish background.

As per usual SNCF style, we pulled into Toulouse station right on schedule. I made my way to the Capitole square, past the Donjon – I’d never stopped to think it really does sound like dungeon when you pay attention.  I wandered for a bit, past gorgeous buildings – turned into McDonalds with a gold sign – does it make it better?  I had spent several valuable minutes wandering in and out of exhibition spaces like the Musee-Théâtre du Capitole, over it’s creaking wooden floorboards reminiscent of many ancient French chateaus like Versailles, trying unsuccessfully to find a toilet – even opening my suspicious looking backpack for the inquisitive gendarme at the gate. The amusement of seeing a Toulouse hipster in the museum possibly made the toilet stop seem more urgent. The public ones behind the Office de Tourisme and dungeon were out of order.  Restaurants have toilets.  I decided to sit in a restaurant and eat lunch, as expensive as the pee stop would be.

Often the toilet justifies a more expensive meal than one really has the budget for.  At Le Paradis du fruit, under the colonnades opposite the Capitole building, I caught up on my journal while admiring the glass light fittings that reminded me of Chihuly’s. This restaurant was a bit of a cross between a Boost Juice chain store and Spats – all my Adelaide friends would know what I mean.  Incredible combinations of fruit juices with cocktail decorations, extremely fastidiously decorated desserts – beautiful.  The piddle-tax was high this day – 15.50 Euro for lunch.  It reminded me of my time working at a public service organisation in Adelaide where one of my colleagues was a long-serving member of the Adelaide City Council.  He was famous for opposing charges for toilets – the piddle tax. There aren’t many places in Australia where you are asked to pay to piddle, but it is quite common-place in Europe. The meal was worth it though. First a little board of dips and breads, then café gourmand with fantastic shot glass of caramel ice-cream with banana and strawberries and a coffee.

In the middle of the Place du Capitole, there is a zodiac with a symbol at every point of the Occitan cross.  Clever, or maybe that’s what that cross is all about.

Fully refreshed and free of liquid balast, I made my way to see St Sernin. After emerging from lunch en face the Capitole Square and building, above my head under the cloisters the ceiling was painted. Magnificent!  As I was about to walk to the Basilique Saint-Sernin, I noticed the Place was cordoned off and there was what looked like a drone flying above.  I saw the same people again a little later in front of the Eglise Notre-Dame du Taur and again after I came out of the Basilique.  They were making a commercial for UEFA in 2016, filming in every city that would be hosting the event.  I just missed the Cinema En Plein Air. Bummer. That would have been good.  The streets of Toulouse are fantastic.

I hadn’t yet decided on the place I would stay, and made the mistake I made in Arles, thinking that an accueil (welcome) in a church means they will arrange a bed for you. I had a lovely little tete-a-tete with a kind man in the basilica for several minutes before realising that all he was going to provide me was assistance.  Eventually I said I would stay at the same place as I stayed on the Friday night – the Jeune Travailleurs, and he kindly phoned them and booked me in. Perfect.  He was happy for me to leave my heavy backpack in the room he worked from at the back of the basilica while I took a tour of the crypt and the rest of the cavernous space.  There it sat being guarded by him and St Roch. I’d realised from talking with Philippe that the saint I saw at Villelongue was not St Jacques, but St Roch.  Funnily enough today was his fete day – 16th August.  He is always depicted with his dog, and has a wound on his leg – the two things that distinguish him from St Jacques as they share the coquille shell decoration.

Inside St Sernin has a very opulent feel – there are carpets covering some of the pillars in the church and it seemed that this may have been how they were decorated in centuries past.  It would have to be one of the most beautiful basilicas I’ve been in. It certainly rivals my favourite in Paris, Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. It has extra arches up top.  But the most amazing thing of all is the crypt below.  I have never seen so many reliquaries together in one place or saints for that matter. St Hilaire, beautiful saints carved from wood, Saint Papoul and statues of St Jacques. I took some photos of just a portion of the reliquaries too.  They remind me of giant versions of the tiny cut crystal memento mori jewellery, small parts of people are hidden behind the glass windows.  A lock of hair, a monogram, some part of a person’s life memorialised forever. These highly decorated containers put places like Howard’s Storage to shame.  These items also made me think of my French Huguenot ancestor, Alexis Pilleau (the elder) who was apparently known for making a gold reliquary for the local Catholic church in Le Mans in the 1600s. I wonder if they looked like these? There were some made in the 1600s, so the style would be right.  The church building reminded me of an Escher picture, and that scene from The Name of the Rose, where the library is burning and they are trying to escape through the labyrinth of staircases.

Once outside the building, my pack back on, it was a challenging matter to try to find the perfect angle to capture as much of the basilica as I could fit in my viewfinder.  And on this day avec drone. (See if you can spot it in my photos).  I wandered right around the place, getting a feel for the large footprint it made, and then back towards Capitole, clicking at every opportunity. The architecture of this city is quite different to any I’d walked through before. But whilst a rose city seems to be quite unusual here in France, for an Australian, not so much. Many of our buildings are these colours.  Every opportunity was taken to mount huge porcelain tiled maps of the ancient city on walls – grand and petite.  As I wandered ‘home’ I loved the way the afternoon blue sky and the orange-red of the bricks were playing.  I found it difficult to stop taking photos.

Back in familiar territory, I was close to the Jeune Travailleurs, and I elicited a bon route from a guy in a car. At the hostel, my host this time was possibly Spanish, and very flirty. He thought it exotic to be hosting an Australien. He gave me a large 3rd floor room that had two single beds in it, but which I’d have to myself. Two large windows looked out to the common courtyard below.  No bathroom in it this time, I’d have to go around the corner for a shower and the toilet along the corridor. Judging by the smell it seemed to be the location of choice for resident smokers.  I showered again with one of the push-button showers that delivers just enough water to get you wet, then stops again, demanding you push again for your next dose.  I did my washing under the shower, as I often did, as it was simpler.  Back in my room, I once again rigged my little stretchy clothes line into an intricate arrangement between a chair, a broken coat hanger and the window handle to dry my washing.  As I only had 6 pegs, I was glad I’d brought my twisted clothes lines that I could squeeze a little corner each item through to secure. It makes a funny sight – a room full of washing.

Not wanting to sit and watch it dry, I took a walk to the Musee and Jardin des Plantes.  I thought, from a map, that there was a labyrinth there, but I couldn’t find it.  Instead, I happened across naked couples canoodling, and the bells of L’église Saint Exupère doing their best impersonation of those at Baziege. Beautiful. The church inside was weird, but the bells were nice and the sweet Mary was a cute find too.


I called in at Casino (supermarket chain) on my way back to the hostel and got a ham and beure sandwich which was in really bad white bread, but there wasn’t much else. Unlike two nights before, there was to be no banquet on a tray provided by the hostel. I passed by many hôtel particuliers then when I got back I took photos of the rooftops from my bedroom.

Downstairs again, I found some more young people who were very interested in what I was doing there. I was attempting to do some iPad blog writing, but instead got chatting to Hugo and then Sebastian until 10pm.  I amused myself showing these two young French men AFL.  They laughed and laughed. I don’t blame them.  The game would look so ridiculous to people only familiar with soccer and rugby.  Hugo was sweet. He’d repeat what I’d say, but with the correct French words. It was very helpful. That’s the way I like it – the patient corrections. He would make a great teacher, but I think he was going to be an accountant.  Sebastian was a computer systems administrator.

I retired to my laundry room, feeling old and illiterate!


Via Tolosana Day 14: … gathers no moss

Fagairolles – Murat-sur-Vèbre 10kms

Awoke at 5.38, fresh from a nice dream about a bearded Netherlander.  That was altogether too early to get up, so I went back to sleep until 7.30am.  That’s more like it!  I wrote my pages and ate cold packet risotto because there was no power. Cold was actually quite good.  I need to buy toothpaste.  I tidied my belongings, pinned my still-cold socks to the backpack with my hat and went outside. The niggling irritation on my heel, ripe for a blister, wasn’t going to go away. I applied some of Isabelle’s Bandaid anti-blister magic.  (It seemed to work, because after 11am I noticed my heel was still OK).  I tried texting the woman who had met me yesterday to tell her about the power, but it didn’t work.

Gite in Fagairolles

Leaving Fagairolles

Ominous silver cloudy sky with sun emerging

Clouds leaving Fagairolees

It was a little strange being in a place out of the way from the route – it almost felt like no-one would find me there.  Maybe that’s what I wanted.  Being alone in my Australian life, I’d made solo living an art form.  I felt like I had come away ready to learn about relationships and compromise. It turned out it was more than that.  I’d taken the first offer of companionship that had come along, just to have company but there was so much compromise, I was totally lost in the equation. Again.  I wasn’t making any time for me.  How often does this happen.  I lose control of my life, for others, and then get angry that ‘they’ve taken my liberty away’, when actually I made the choice not to be free.  I had learned so much in the past few days, that I was happy with the solitude – really happy with it. Despite being a little incognito, it was also reassuring to be joining the GR653 again, although I didn’t see any other walkers on my short jaunt to Murat-sur-Vèbre.

I decided to take the road route, D53 back to the carrefour (crossroad) and I was treated with hedgerows along one side of the road, and open paddocks on the other.  More cows. In the distance more wind turbines. Blackberries – how could I resist when the branch was thrust into my path, and general direction? And more holly. Flies. It was still cloudy and I got rained on a little. A little further along the road, there was a small but poignant memorial to those who had lost their lives in a battle on 23rd August, 1944.  Only 14 days from today’s date. It was hard to imagine the surrounding fields being the site of such carnage and bloodshed – du Ponts de la Mouline.  The information board was graphic in its depiction of troop movements. I’m glad I stopped.

Wind turbines on the horizon

Les Éoliens

Blackberries encroaching the road verge

Blackberries poking themselves in my general direction

Information board about du Pont de la Mouline battle, 1944

du Pont de la Mouline battle, 23rd August 1944, last century

Ginestet sign with the Occitan/Cathar cross

Ginestet sign and Occitan cross – also the Cathar cross

Back into Ginestat for the second time and I find that it is another small hamlet, like Fagairolles only with denser, greener trees. With the moisture, comes moss – it was a theme today. This rolling stone might not be gathering any moss, but she’s certainly seeing lots of it. As I walked, I started to hear the sounds of logging, chainsaws up ahead, and behind me at the intersection, two big logging trucks thundering past.  I could smell the chopped pine wood even from several hundred metres up the valley.  As I climbed higher, I left the workers, for denser forest, and less sealed tracks.  As I did, I was hurrying from one piece of shade from rain to the next, a little as I had done the day before with the sun.  I heard lumberjack voices in the distance shouting instructions to each other. Is ‘lumberjack‘ a funny word, or is it just the connotation it has when you know this song?

Mossy huge beech tree, queen of the forest

Ancient beech tree – queen of the forest avec moss

Forest and road

Forest trees and road

I could have put my pack cover on, but couldn’t be bothered. I passed this strange adventure playground that although looked disused, could have been a fantastic team-bonding site if it didn’t look so post-apocalyptic. I kept walking and entered a really dark, sticky and humid forest of what I was later to work out, were beech trees. The air was still, the trees began sparsely and small at first, but gradually thickened and grew in stature.  The darkness contrasted with the iridescence of the light green leaves gave an other-worldly feeling.  Now I really felt like I was in a Robin Hood episode.  Pine branches unlike I’d seen so far also appeared.  I crossed a creek as the path hair-pinned.  As I ascended up the other side of the creek, the sun began to shine brighter into the canopy. A dappled light shone on my path which was made up of months of leaf litter, making my walk the most soft under foot in my 14 days. Mossy rocks and mossy trees were everywhere.  I switched back a number of times before reaching the top of the hill, the light had grown, and there was also a light breeze.  I’d worn short sleeves today, not expecting much sun. The breeze was fresh on my skin.  The sweat continues but now it cools me. Then up and up towards the more light at the end of the tunnel. I was glad at the top to see a sign forbidding wheeled vehicles of any kind.  I was happy this pristine forest would intended for preservation.  This place was magical. I don’t want to walk away from it, there is something extremely special about it.  Not in a thinking way, I can feel it. I feel calm and safe.  Almost like answered prayer, as I leave it on the crest of the hill, I realise in 50 metres, but wait, there’s more! The track plunged into darkness again, and I am in another beech forest.

Beech forest trail

In a scene from Robin Hood – beech forest

Wide fanned pine branches

Unfamiliar pine branches

Dappled light on beech saplings

Sun-shiny day

Ancient stone walls and beech trees

Ancient stone wall and beech

I hear distant planes overhead. Tall trees, then small ones and I breathe in this beautiful, moist, fresh air.  I follow the Routes des Saints as it coincides with the GR643.  Mossy walls appear in this next part of the forest, a remainder of an ancient time. Red/brown leaves under my feet are slippery from all of the rain.  Bellamy – more inappropriate 80s comedy comes to mind.  I notice a leaf pre-empting autumn – even nature has it’s trailblazers.  There are many rock piles today.

'Bellamy' on a large plastic lid handing on a string fence


Nature's trail blazer - an autumn leaf in summer

Outlier – autumn leaf in summer

Mossy rock with stones piled into pyramid

Rock pile and moss rock

Suddenly the forest is behind me and I have rejoined a farming community.  Wide open fields of crops and more cows.  I see wheat for the first time.

Profile of a pile of sawn logs

Log profile

Still it threatens to rain.  More blackberries, this time with spent honey suckle. I can’t pick the little trumpet flowers, pick the little green bud off the end and pull the stamen out to suck the sweet nectar, they’re all spent.  I am reminded that I’m not far from logging as I enter little Les Senausses.  Yet another quiet hamlet with many town folk outside for some reason – like the whole town. They seem to live a very close existence. I pass a magnificent vegetable garden plot of leeks, strawberries, pumpkin which shows what you can have when you devote time to tending the earth.

Large vegetable garden in back yard

Magnificent garden

I say bonjour a number of times to the people I pass and it is a real contrast to Fagairolles where I only met my hostess and a guy out with his boy on his bike in the afternoon. Some folk end up passing me in their cars on their short drive to Murat.  Just outside, there are more cows with bells – I need more cow bell!  A screeching bird. A Kate Bush pigeon coo-ing, and the constant sound of bees buzzing high in the trees.  More blackberries.

The verge of fresh and old bitumen

The verge

Man on bitumen laying truck

The workers of the world

Part way along the road I came across workers patching the road. It is still misty, and it blows over the road. A field of wheat. Small country road. A big pile of shit. Just at the edge of Les Senausses the saint trail turns left. I continue to Murat – now not much further.

A field of wheat stalks


I turn left at the next junction and walk again on the D922, and the right side has a shoulder, so I take it. La Poste passes me, and the road is quite busy with motorbikes, cars and trucks. There are big lavender bushes on the outskirts. I never saw lavender in Provence, so this was a nice change, and the perfume was gorgeous.

Lavender bushes by the side of the road

Provincial lavender

I continue into Murat and find the supermarket. It is 12pm, so I expect everything will be closed soon, but I just make it in to buy a peach.  I then go to the Mairie and pay my 6.50 euros for my bed for the night.  No, not chambre (room), lit(bed) – as it will always just be a bed in a dorm for that price.  I was to walk back out the council office, then to the left, up some stairs, up the hill, then down under a building.  I found it, up near the community camping ground.  Pelerin accommodation: basic and cheap. Perfect.

Pilgrim accommodation downstairs

Gite pelerins

I am so early that the cleaner is still there. I drop my pack and eat my peach. I close the windows for her as she asked, the floor still a bit wet from the mop.  The dorm is L-shaped and underground. It has a little chill to it.  You enter through the kitchen with a beige macaron tablecloth on the table, and it seems you have everything you need. The laundry is next door, as are the toilets and showers. Showers are reached by taking the key behind the door to unlock the door next to the toilets.

Tablecloth with macarons printed on it


I go to find lunch, wandering past the ATM – yay, there is instant cash, and it all comes spitting out at me. Thank God!  I found the Office de Tourisme just next door which I’ll return to at 3pm.  I walked up and back along the main street checking lunch options.  I was trying to decide if I’d have a later start the next morning to catch this nice looking Boulangerie, but decided I’d wait.  The owner came along, and even though it had closed for lunch, he asked me if I wanted anything.  How great is that!  I’d been thinking the sandwich, biscuit and boisson option looked good for 4.50 euros, so that’s what I got.  He went in through the garage and got my lunch for me. What a kind man. I must really look like a pilgrim!

I walked back along the main drag to where I’d seen a sign for a public park and descended the steps into it.  I walked right to the back of it where there was a ricketty picnic table under a tall mulberry tree. Bellamy – the real one hopped into the next door paddock. I sat and ate my saucisson baguette and almond biscuit and drank Orangina while writing my journal.  This is truly the life.  I am so grateful to be going my own way.  Any trepidation about this has now passed.  Here’s to a great camino!  The town is quiet: everyone lunches here. I love a society that organises itself around a two hour lunch break. How civilised!

I walked back to the Gite communal, showered with a camping ground shower – ie. one that you push the button which lasts for 10 second, then it goes off, and washed my clothes in one of many big porcelein sinks in the large laundry room.  I thought it would be a good idea to get some Arnica lotion to rub on my muscles, but ended up getting Weleda oil.  After the supermarket opened again I bought food for today and tomorrow. I feel more prepared now.

I went to the Office de Tourisme to book to nights ahead. Jacques I had texted “Paths are easier now. In Angles with Jacques. You have to ring to be at the municipal.” The young woman was Jack (or maybe Jacqueline) of all trades. She doubles as La Poste staffer as well. I remembered I still need toothpaste.  Charlotte was a wonderful help. She booked my next nights for me.  I also asked her about getting to Carcassonne and Lourdes, and whether there were communal gites for St Jacques pilgrims. I knew it was a long shot – everyone is a pilgrim in Lourdes – aren’t they? She was so helpful, and told me a little about the megaliths that were were upstairs in the museum.  I wrote glowing comments on some forms she gave me about her service.  And I used wifi briefly, tried to blog, but it wasn’t cooperating, so I just checked email and instead decided to go upstairs to the museum. At first Charlotte said there were no tickets (I like to collect souvenirs as I go), but she said she had old ones and she’d find one before I came back down.  She explained about the Visigoths who had come from Western Europe prior to the Romans.

The exposed beams of the Tourist Office building

Like a boat

Murat Menhir museum - giant stones in the museum

Menhir museum – Office de Tourisme, Murat

I decided to walk early tomorrow.  I’d also planned out my next week of walking as I’d started to realise if I didn’t plan a little, I might not make it to Somport in time to get back to the conference in London in the second week of September.  I went to buy a baguette and went back to make dinner. I got a pre-packaged meal, but bought extra broccoli which I steamed.  There was jam in the fridge to have on the baguette in the morning, and coffee in the cupboard.  I’m not so practiced at making the drip coffee, but I’ll give it a go. A coffee is a good start to a walking day, so I’d found out.

It was still really light when I went to bed at 8.30pm. I should’ve closed the shutters on the outside of the windows, as the streetlights were bright.  And, I was a little silly, and I’d sent back my eye-patch to Paris.  It would turn out that I needed it more than once, and instead had broken sleep.  I was also a little cold, and had that kind of sleep you have when you are slightly too cold to be comfortable, but never get up to do anything about it!