Via Tolosana Day 46: As before, so after: a Marcel Pagnol ribbon.

Canfranc Estación back to France: a 56km bus ride via Col du Somport and tunnel

I wouldn’t normally have counted this day as part of my trip, but something so extraordinary occurred, that it has to be included for the fantastical day it was.

The 3 amigos were up around 7am and there was lots of faffing around, generating a lot of noise.  They left around 7:30am and I wished them “buen camino”. I got out of bed after that and packed slowly. I went downstairs and ate my pear and what I thought was going to be yoghurt, but just turned out to be set milk I think – room temperature as it had been in my room all night. I used the wifi for a bit and then set off.

img_5762

It was really cold outside in the shadow of the mountain. I walked past the restaurant I’d sat in the night before and realised they too had a pilgrim menu. The Office of Tourism was open today and I checked how the bus to Oloron-Sainte-Marie worked, and whether I could take the bus up to the Col du Somport as I had planned, or whether it wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t have wanted to stay here much longer without walking, as it was frigid.

I walked across the road to have a closer look at the Estación Internacional de Canfranc.  What a grand building! Amazingly huge. Amazingly neglected. I took some photos and was then trying to decide where to park myself to wait for the 11:18am bus to Col du Somport.

img_5767

img_5771

I found a bar/restaurant that looked good for petit dejeuner. I walked in and straight away saw a pilgrim face – I don’t know how it is that one can tell, but after 46 days you just can. I went to put my things down at a neighbouring table, but she kept looking my way and smiling, so I said,

“Êtes-vous un pèlerin?” (who knows how I knew she’d speak French)
“Oui”, she said.
“Parlez-vous français?” I asked.
Oui je suis française” she replied.
“Je suis australien. Enchanté!”

And I sat down with my new friend and we chatted until 11.00am about our experiences on the way.  Marie-Helene had walked from her home on the same route as I had, but had continued down the valley, through Jaca and on to Saragossa. There she’d felt it time to come home, so she came back to Canfranc to return to France under the mountain on the bus – as I was doing also.  We’d had many shared experiences. She’d walked the Camino Frances before. We spoke broken English/French while I consumed freshly squeezed OJ, a snail (the baked kind, not the garden variety) and a cup of coffee. Perfect!  She was feeling lonely without the company of pilgrims on the way, so she was extremely happy to meet with me and chat – it continued her chemin experience. Serendipity, or providence?

She asked where I would stay for the night, and I said I’d go back to the gite in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, where I’d stayed just a few days ago. I was wanting to see the church I’d missed (it is a good one apparently) and I also wanted another chance to see Matthieu again. She offered to have me stay at her house! WOW!  The amazing things keep happening. Trust. Ask and it shall be given … in the most unexpected ways.  Marie’s son was going be picking her up from the bus station and driving her back to her house. I said I’d love to stay with her, but where on the chemin did she live? She took my Miam Miam Dodo and turned to the La Commande page.  That beautiful village with the chanting in l’eglise, the stèle discoïdale in the church yard and the photography exhibit where I had my most enchanting visit is her town, and much to my amazement I would get to visit it again!

At 11.00am, I explained that I wanted to take the bus up to the Col, as I believed it would come back down and be the same one that would then go on to Oloron-Sainte-Marie.  She thought that was a good idea and decided to join me, so we trotted off to the bus stop together.  Eventually it did turn out to be the same bus she would’ve caught – the 11:51am.

Taking the bus up to Col du Somport, the road seemed a much more major one than I’d walked past the day before.  We passed a huge fortified building set up high on one of the hills , Coll de Ladrones Fort (Thieves Pass Fort) on the way up. The day was so clear, compared to the fogginess of the two previous days. I was glad I’d decided to take this risk of getting this bus to see the pass again.  The bus stopped up there for 10 minutes, and I dashed in to say hello/goodbye again to Nieves, at Albergue Aysa, Marie and I posed for photos with the mountains in the background and then we were back on the bus ready for our return to France.  How lovely to be up in the crisp air on top of the Somport Pass again.  That was a lovely idea to come back up. The bus moves so quickly compared to my legs. It was interesting to see where I’d walked the day before.  M-H had walked different paths down this valley, but I think we all walk a different path off the mountain.  We encountered the sheep again, this time crossing in front of the bus – it must have been about the same time as I’d got to this point yesterday. Herds of sheep crossing – you could set your watch to them.

Back down to Canfranc again and the day had got a lot brighter. Maybe I’d have to revise my first impressions of this town.   A wedding seemed to be taking place, it was Saturday after all, and there were people walking the streets dressed up in their Sunday best. I was seeing a different side to this town now.

Travelling out the other side of the town, it wasn’t long before we were on the ramp for the tunnel.  Yes, the Somport Tunnel was right there, just behind the albergue where I’d slept last night. I didn’t realise it was so very close.   It was a quick subterranean shuttle. Before we knew it we were in Urdos, then Borce, then Accous, Bedous and Sarrance … and back in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. It was strange and puzzling at the same time trying to picture where I walked from the window of the bus. The hills we travelled past looked familiar, but the track is well-camouflaged. M-H had walked here a lot in her life. She had always lived close to the mountains.

img_5806

The familiar train station greeted me when we got to Oloron-Sainte-Marie and we waited a short while for her son to collect us. He and his girlfriend drove us home. They had a coffee when we arrived, but left soon afterwards.

M-H encouraged me to take a long bath.  It took no convincing. A bath is really a fantastic way to let the road slowly leave you. I had a long soak and washed my hair. How special to be hosted by someone who understands exactly what you are going through (at the same time they are going through it), and lovingly provides a home in which to relax. I felt extremely blessed and grateful.

She asked me later in the day, after we’d washed, done washing and eaten, whether I’d ever thought I might be back here.  I said to her that nothing I could have dreamed would have suggested I’d come back here on this trip. Although I did explain to her that I’d taken a photo of the house in the fields and also the restaurant with a wistful thought I could live here.  After all, you can see the Pyrenees from here.

M-H’s house is literally across the intersection from the first turn the route takes out of the little hamlet. She knows the woman who opens/closes the church and is in charge of the beautiful music playing there – she minded her cat while she was away.  Her neighbours across the way greeted her with eggs and massive tomatoes. Their daughter lives in Bordeaux and was visiting.  The husband is still farming, in his 90s. Absolutely amazing to see him drive back to the house on his tractor while we were talking outside at one stage.

When M-H had dinner on the boil, we went to spend some time in the church. Choirs singing Hallelujah greeted us in the church as we sat still, the sun streaming through the circular window at the back. We went next door to see if there were any pilgrims and to say hello and found four guys – three French and one Portugese.  They looked to be having a cool time but with a different mood to when Anne, Marion and I were there – one guy had walked all the way from Kiev – that’s serious: extreme pilgrimage.

We walked to Josette, the cat minder’s house to say hello and thank her.  Her sister had died in the week while M-H was away, which was really sad. It was clear from our short visit that she was a dynamo  – a great older woman.  We retrieved some of the peaches that had fallen from her tree and did the circuit route back to M-H’s place, past the Vendre Restaurant/Hotel.  For Sale for a number of years apparently.

M-H had gathered a few things from the garden and it was yum.  Rice, tomato and capsicum. Perfect. Peaches for dessert.  I booked a Bla-Bla Car after signing up for this cool scheme (that Francois had mentioned back in Morlaas).  We chatted for ages about the road, the way, life. What lessons we’d taken:

Live in the now (not the past or the future).

Go your own way.

Be still.

Ask always.

Love … just love.  Love is the answer to all your questions.

After retiring upstairs to my bedroom, I noticed a small stack of books on the shelf above my bed.  They were familiarly bound books as only the French do – with plain white covers. Classic.  And there, to my wonder, I saw the two I’d referred to in Day 6, La Gloire de mon père (My Father’s Glory) and Le Château de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle) sitting atop many others. They are very beautiful stories and very familiar to me (I have the DVDs at home on my shelf), and it felt like the gift of this day was tied with a Marcel Pagnol ribbon, bringing me full circle from all those days ago, climbing out of Montpelier with Jacques. History really does double back on itself, to show you just how far you have come.

img_5816

Climbing into a real bed at 9:30pm, snuggling under a fluffy doona in the country house of a warm and generous French pilgrim, I decided I was as close to home as I could be.

Via Tolosana Day 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.