Via Tolosana Day 38: Skipping the boring bits

Lourdes to Lescar – by train, funicular and bus

I was up early for pages, and left my room about 7:15am after packing. I had decided I needed petit déjeuner, after deciding the night before not to have it.  I think the yoghurt helps.  All you can eat breakfast buffet. That helps too.  I did some more writing with the benefit of wifi and now I’m up to Day 7 of the journey. I had realised many days ago that the plan to walk and blog, really wasn’t ever going to be achievable. It was strange that I persisted with trying to do it. It diverted my attention somewhat, and left me anxious that I was so behind with it.

I left the hotel just after 8am, glimpsing  the castle on the hill, Château fort de Lourdes and allocating a tour of that to next time.

It took 15 minutes to follow the little blue Bernadette balisage which is printed along the footpaths to the gare where I found elephant-skin asphalt.  Maybe it gets really hot here, so hot that the pavement melts.  It is again a hazy day in the mountains. The gift shops were all blessedly shut and it is as if the Bernadette magnet had been turned off. It was still tranquil and calm, but now with no tourists, until I got to the gare, where there was a pilgrim buzz next to two coaches.

I waited 15 minutes after ‘compostelling‘ my ticket and the train arrived, once again, promptly.  Goodbye deep peace.

On the way back to Pau, after leaving the mountains, cornfields stretched to the horizon.   I went back for a fresh OJ at La Boulevard and joked with the guy who I’d met yesterday that I only love him for his OJ … and wifi.  I should also have added and the great toilet they have with automatic sensor lights. For a female pilgrim, it is all about the toilet!

I had decided not to go backwards to Morlaas, I wanted to continue going forwards.  This would mean I would be skipping the boring bits.  Even the most resolute pilgrim can be swayed it seemed.  A bus driver had directed me to La Bosquet to catch the bus, and so I walked there via La Poste (the immovable kind) to send brochures and postcards home.  But the terminus wasn’t where I thought it was. I asked another bus driver and he kindly delivered me via #7 to a bus stop where I could switch to the #6 at 10:42 to Lescar College. I waited for quite some time, asking again at a little beautician’s for a toilet, only to be told no, then went around to a little takeaway/cafe where they agreed I could use one, I sensed it was still reluctantly.

On the bus, I spoke to an older woman as we passed through the outskirts, then the back-blocks, Lons, where little plots of corn and farm roofs full of solar cells presented themselves through the bus window.  I saw La Poste 4 times this morning, once on the bus leaving Pau – en velo (on bike).

In Lons and Lescar today is hedge trimming day – I saw it a number of times. Sunflowers return.  I walked the short distance from the bus to the Office de Tourisme and the woman I found, Marie-Pierre, was very helpful.  The office was beautiful, in a small modern building opposite the back of Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption de Lescar.  It had some great gifts – beautiful berets in various colours, and some really cute mini ones, the size of a drinks coaster. Do I need to buy a beret?  No.  I found two gorgeous posters of walking in the Pyrénées – one of an open window out to the mountains, and the other a vagabond composed of flowers with a walking stick, and decided I’d come back to look at them with a view to purchasing later. The life of a vagabond.

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I got the code for the gite from the office and after meeting an American pilgrim, Catherine who is starting her walk today from here, I left to find it.  I didn’t really understand the directions, but near some roadworks took a photo of a cute collection of ships on tiles at a house, then asked the man who happened to walk out of the house for directions to Rue Lacaussade. He walked me all the way there. He is married to a Portugese woman and they go every year for holidays to Portugal.  He is retired now, but used to work in the Mairie. He seemed to know everyone who drove past  – he was born in this town.

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The communal gite is simple of course, but painted beautiful sunflower yellow inside and has sunflower tiles in the kitchen. Flowers on the dining table, lots of information, a library, a washing machine and dryer and nice kitchen, pilgrim heaven!  Wow!  I was, at this stage the only one there, and I showered and washed my clothes. I didn’t need the dryer as it was really hot outside, and I could peg everything on a little clothes frame. They’ll be dry before dinner.

I wrote a little, then Anne, another pilgrim came. She’d stayed at Morlaas last night and had walked ‘the boring bits’, my words, not hers. She said Julie was still there staying in the camping.  She settled in, and I took my diary and iPad to do some writing at the O de T.  The gite is quite a way from the centre of the town. First, I checked out the supermarket and then the Museum – they had a mosaic there from Roman times and a tile nearly 2000 years old – with the stamp of the workshop on it.  This amazes me completely.  This town is an archaeologist’s dream. In fact, the mosaic that is now in the museum was found when someone was preparing their block to build a house on, just on one of the streets leading out of the town.

There is also a very famous mosaic in the church , and I went to have a look at that too. After finding two women in the beautiful, tranquil, gorgeous church arranging flowers for a wedding and baptism the next day, I struck up a conversation with them saying I have an aunty who does flower arranging and they reminded me of her. I said that people really appreciate the flowers in a church at a celebrations. It was such a homey thing.  I found the famous mosaic, of a dark-faced soldier sporting a crutch for a leg, which doesn’t seem to be holding him back from his military duties. The mosaics date from the 12th Century when the cathedral was started and this guy was a Moor. There were also similar carved choir pews to the ones in Auch.

I went back to see Marie-Pierre at the Office de Tourisme again. She conducts tours of the museum and chapel for tourists.  I logged on and wrote my 7th day of blog for a while outside on a small metal outdoor cafe table, taking full advantage of the free wifi. I nearly finished the words. Next, day 8.   Marie-Pierre closed up at 6pm and so I had to leave, but not before I bought the posters.  She gave me a tube to protect them, but I would really be adding extra fuss to my pack, and another thing to worry about keeping dry, but they summed up my trip so well, that I thought they were a very appropriate souvenir. In any case, I couldn’t have bought the beret – it had been sold. I walked to the small supermarket and bought lunch/dinner for the next few days. Actually for Sunday I don’t need lunch, I’ll have it in Oloron-Sainte-Marie.

I went back to the gite and continued working typing in my days without wifi. I made a knock-up dinner. It was dusk, so I decided to again head back to the O de T. I could sit just outside the gate and still get wifi.  After checking emails, I walked around as the sun was setting to capture an extremely pink and beautiful sunset and the sky against some old buildings. The side of the cathedral was already pink, and the dusk light made it even more beautiful.  Pink sky in the night, shepherd’s delight!

Via Tolosana Day 33: Jesus Christ, the apple tree

L’Isle de Noe (Chez Edna) to Monlezun (Chez Nicole et Michel) – 20kms

I woke at 6:00am and wrote pages until 7am. In the sink in my bedroom there was the most massive spider, so I didn’t want to disturb it. They say that spiders symbolise change, well there’s a big change coming with this one! I brushed my teeth before breakfast so I could pack everything and take my pack down to breakfast without taking it with me. I also didn’t want to climb the stairs needlessly, I’m always sore.

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Edna was preparing a great brekky – bread, brioche, juice, fried eggs and tomato! Cup of coffee? No, pot of coffee – ab fab.  She had already put my clothes in the dryer as they hadn’t dried overnight. There had been precipitation, and even though I had them under cover, it was damp.  What a lovely hostess.  Such wonderful attention and care.  It was sad to leave because I had been relaxing into the little English-speaking oasis in my ‘desert of French’.  That sounds a little unfair. Don’t get me wrong, I love the opportunity to speak French, but after 32 days it had become quite tiring.

Edna said today would be a good walking day with lots of forest tracks. She was right.  I said farewell and walked out the door and over the bridge.  I first said hello to four horses and passed some sheep with tails intact – how humane!  Then ascended up a paved road that soon turned to forest track. Cows accompanied the sunrise. ‘Just smile’ said the sign.

I thought about yesterday. After ‘Flog It’ on the TV last night there was another documentary program about letter boxing.  I’d never heard of the sport, which appears to be a cross between orienteering, surveying and code-breaking and has people clambering all over the countryside in search of buried treasure.  The things people do.  I was still also a little bemused by this English woman who lives in her little French town watching Eastenders and Coronation Street via satellite TV from England’s green and pleasant land while entertaining a passing parade of internationals also partaking in our own version of spiritual orienteering.  It takes all kinds.

It was overcast and threatening to rain but not quite. I felt a little protected in the forest track and true to reputation, the way was soft and springy – a lovely relief for tired knees. Gossamer spider webs greeted me as perhaps I was the first to pass this morning.  Once again I found more sunflowers, then a little further along, the track looked like it was leading right to a house, but on the way there were several apple trees and a pear tree – all laying down their fruit for the passing pilgrim.  I saw the biggest apple I think I’ve ever seen – as big as the front of my foot.

Some paths were really muddy. Corn or maize made its debut today.  There were so many more pommes des arbres today that I found myself singing Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.  The original poem has a couple of extra verses.

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

I passed grape vines and in parts the path is muddy clay. There are lots of options for accommodation and it seems all of them are making the most of en route advertising.   In and out of the forest, with the cloud cover, it sometimes got very dark in parts. March flies joined again, buzzing about me, threatening to land and bite.

It had escaped my consciousness that any town with the beginning ‘mont’, will be on a hill/mountain. It is likely you’ll need to ‘monter’ (climb) to get to it. This was the case for my approach to Montesquieu. This cute little town kind of snuck up on me, out of the countryside covered in free range ducks and geese and balisage avec fungi (alluding to the dampness of the day and the area).  Coquilles joined farm equipment and the chemin de terre paths were gorgeous under foot.

I got there around 9:45am and left again an hour later. The houses and old land marks were beautiful and today being Sunday, there was a marche in the town square. It was so small that it felt like it was being staged just for me.  Indeed, it seemed that I was the only one buying anything.  There was a little bar at the corner, and so after looking around the stalls (and buying a fresh Belgian waffle), I stopped in for a little coffee – a mouth-shaper for the waffle. Edna had said the coffee was cheap – only 1 Euro. Emerging back into the square, the guitarist outside was just starting his set and played while I chatted in Frenglish to the stall holders.

One was selling her hand-made soaps. I bought one that I thought looked like cross between a madeleine and a St Jacques shell, and I suggested this might be a good marketing ploy.  It was beautiful smelling soap. One she found was especially for washing clothes, and she then gave it to me – gorgeous peppermint smell.  How generous was that!  I said I’d advertise her on my blog, so here goes: Sabine Henon.

Another stall-holder was selling wines, and we had a lovely conversation about the Camino. He’d ridden it on his bike.  He only spoke French and yet I understood most of what he was saying.  His winery is near Maubourguet, so I took a flyer.

Another guy was an artist, Gerard Quak, whose coloured pencil drawings of the local animals and plants were just beautiful.  I bought some of his postcards and he pointed out some small figures on the town buildings nearby and replicated in the pictures.  I wanted to buy one tomato for lunch, but the vegetable sellers only sold them in bunches. I walked past the waffles again and decided I needed one for morning tea tomorrow too.  I bought cheese and tomato at the epicerie and bread at another stall. Fantastic to have lunch organised. The jazz played and it was yet another place that was difficult to leave.

When I finally felt like I needed to go, I walked out an arched gate and down a wide green path, then across the road to descend straight down a non-descript and overgrown path.  Apples and blackberries accosted me, a rabbit hopped across the path, bamboo grew, a rat lay still and stiff and the bells started again after I’d walked for several minutes down grassy paths on the low side of the hill.  I couldn’t decide whether to put the pack cover on or not. It was lightly sprinkling with rain, but I ended up leaving it off for another 5 kms or so.  I passed a whole field of Queen Anne’s lace and perhaps sorghum – I still don’t know what that crop is. I rang ahead to the Chambre d’hote for the night.  A jumper stuck in the blackberries, some poor pilgrim or farmer had lost the shirt off their back.

Sundays are very tranquil. There is a different feeling to them. Not the usual buzz.  I continued along farm tracks between paddocks of freshly planted crops with small seedlings framed by gentle rolling hills.  The seedlings in one field looked like broccoli.  I paused to put my pack cover and jacket on under a cherry tree, and realised though I had walked about 20 minutes, I could still see Montesquiou in the distance between the raindrops and fog. As with most days, I didn’t see any other walkers. The Via Tolosana is definitely the road less travelled.

In my next life I will own a pelerin gite in France. I’ll have two spaniels, Monte and Carlo (who will eat Royal Canin, of course) and after we’re done setting things straight in the gite of a morning, we’ll go for a walk in a forest. I’ll write books and be happy!

Approaching Pouylebon, I passed little apples and little plums, a Chinese lantern bush and a quince tree. Apples, apples and apples. Oak leaves. And I even saw a unicorn (licorne). I was going to try to make it to La Baraque for lunch, but when a bench presents itself, you take it.  It was clear again, so I took off my jacket. I went around the back of the building next door – it looked like the Mairie, and underneath found a convenient place to squat. It is not pleasant eating with a full bladder. I wrote yesterday’s diary and it was mostly peaceful until the tractor guy drove past. Evidently some people work on a Sunday. A female cyclist passes one way and then a male the other way – and they looked identically kitted out!

After a nice break, I checked out the beautiful old l’eglise and then left the town between some houses following a little path that led into the forest. I caught up two other walkers, out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. They were walking fairly slowly, so I did too, not wanting to disturb them.  It was a steep descent, through trees and at the bottom there was a clearing which I crossed. Here I caught up with the couple, and we found signs to say the forest was being logged. I thought it was elm and oak, but now I know what I do, it was more likely beech.  The woman said usually you’d need to go around, but because it was Sunday, it was unlikely there would be any loggers there today, but be careful.  I found a whole family of funghi. There were lots in the forests today.  Blackberries, cow paddocks and corn. Orange slugs.

A man in a red car drove past me in the forest. A bit strange being in there in a car – the track was boggy in parts.  Another couple on a stroll passed me going the other way.  I emerged from Le Grand Bois and came to La Baraque (passing the gite I was considering staying in before my change in plans), then shortly afterwards Saint-Christaud.  The church here was architecturally really interesting.  So many sunflowers.  I walked quite a way on a track but then getting closer to my destination, I joined small back roadways through Lagardere and Saint-Antoine, just little hamlets of a couple of houses.  Getting close to Monlezun, I crossed a small, really fast flowing river and imagined playing pooh sticks on the bridge (I was far too tired to actually go searching for sticks, or dash from one side of the bridge to the other).

On reaching the large road, D3, I turned right and would only need to go a five hundred metres before getting to Chez Nicole et Michel.  It was hairy on the main road.  It was really busy with cars going really fast. In the long grass near the ditch of water next to the road I saw a large dead mammal. I think it was a badger or maybe an otter – something I’d never seen alive, let alone dead. There had been lots of dead animals in the last couple of days.

Approaching what looked like a beautiful farm house, I realised Nicole happened to be outside looking at the road. She’d obviously seen me coming and was there to reassure me I’d found the right place.  I went inside with her to her kitchen, the large TV presenting a program about the wild horses of the Basque region. It was wonderful to see those huge creatures galloping through the mountains, the quintessential image of freedom. I was treated to menthe, my favourite, and we struggled along with small talk in my terrible, terrible French. It is at moments like these that I wish I made more of an effort when in Australia!  Nicole was lovely. The home is beautiful, and she showed me to my upstairs bedroom. She said Paul, an American had already arrived, and had the other room.  It was such a luxury to again have my own bed WITH SHEETS!  I showered in a beautiful bathroom, then washed my clothes. She then showed me where the line was – out behind the farm sheds facing South – a perfect place for washing under the eaves of the shed.  She gave me a tour around the back past several fig trees, and around through the back yard where they had an inviting outdoor table under a gazebo with huge wooden beams, where we would eat our dinner. I had a brief lie down back in my room, which was a nice thing.

I brought my diary down to do some writing but wasn’t there long before Paul came and we sat there with our aperitifs catching up on where we’d come from.  Paul was an American of independent means who liked walking. His family were at home in America and he had been to Santiago, and was now walking ‘backwards’ Puenta-la-Riena to Rome.  We sat up to the table when Nicole was ready, and ate the most beautiful meal. Three courses of extremely good food all brought out one by one from the house.  We repeatedly asked if she wanted any help, but she insisted we just sit – which was quite a relief.

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At the end of dinner, which consisted of a long conversation about most of the world’s issues, and a run down of Paul’s blogging experiences, and advice both ways about what was ahead of us, I went back to my room via the washing line, only to find that Nicole had kindly taken our washing down for us.  It was a nice chance to see a beautiful moon though directly over the hill town of Monlezun.

Back upstairs, and I wrote my journal for a while, and then fell to sleep in the beautiful, soft bed.

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Via Tolosana Day 22: Cathar country

Les Casses to Montferrand – 16kms, if that!
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Road from Les Casses to La Rigole

I woke at 4:30am and went to the toilet then slept again until Bernadette’s alarm went off. I got up, took my little plastic essentials tub downstairs and got dressed in the toilet. I like the way the packs are all in the one place, with only the essentials going up to your room. My essentials include a whole lot of technical equipment. It is funny, considering I’m a ‘technophobe’.  I went and wrote in the laundry area until Leonard and Oscar needed it to prepare their brekkie. The rest of us, Jean-Paul, Bernadette and Philippe were going to have breakfast in the dining room with Christiane (also part of the demi-pension). Leonard and Oscar are camping basically, so this overnight was unusual for them. They were also walking fast – doing around double the number of kilometres I was each day, and would often stop and sleep ‘wild’, or outside.

I went back upstairs to the bedroom to finish off my pages, coincidentally there was a desk there.  An old schoolhouse desk, with a bench attached to the desk – there may have even been an inkwell. It reminded me of the old yellow desk/bench I used to have at my grandparents house. I don’t remember doing homework at it, I was probably too young, however I do remember keeping track of my budget in my little lined notebook whilst sitting at it.  Perfect!  And maybe I’m working out I can write and be with people as well.  It takes a lot of composure to separate oneself to write.

It is a bleeding day.  My uterus feels like it is going to fall through the floor, deleting this month’s build up – there’s lots to let go of!  I am glad I will only be walking a short distance.

When I finished my pages I went down to breakfast. Beautiful white/brown bread, fresh jams, cheese and meat, yoghurt and coffee – loads of coffee. It was a magnificent spread. Christiane had us fill in little evaluation forms which go to the local Chemin St Jacques organisation that is in charge of checking the quality of the local gites. I take it membership is not obligatory, however I suppose it is a good network to be in, if you want to build your reputation as a good host.  I finished posting my second post – the youtube upload worked well at the breakfast table. It felt like another faux pas, but I’m just Australian, what would I know.

At first I thought that Christiane was going to walk with us as there looked like an extra pack, but it was Bernadette’s that was left there in the laundry.  We ended up leaving at around 7.30am with Christiane and Ania, her gorgeous dog, accompanying us to the main road where we could see the tree-lined La Rigole in the valley and could say goodbye.  I gave her a purple butterfly bush flower, its sweet honey smell one of my favourites.

It was a particularly beautiful morning, slightly misty as we walked down the hill. The saturated colours of the morning light could have been those of twilight. We turned right when we came to the river and walked at our own pace. I had a brief discussion with Bernadette and then we separated. Philippe was already on up ahead.  At the junction of what looked like the D58, I said goodbye to Bernadette and said I’d see her tomorrow night, as we’d be staying at the same place – Baziege. I’d probably see them out walking. I had elected to stay in Montferrand, once again a very short etape (stage).

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Track along La Rigole

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Champignon

The only drawback in not being on the route, is there are no markers. It was a pretty clear route and as a back-up alternate route was marked in my guide book – Variante par Les Pages. I think all up I think it will only be 16-17kms today.

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More sunflowers

It is strange the things that come to me as I’m walking – “sometimes it takes a long time to understand no one is trying to hurt you”. Certainly when you’re walking, you are at your most vulnerable.  I’m not consciously scared, but sometimes there are uneasy feelings.  But this idea comes not from this road, but from others, in other places.  The idea percolates as I continue walking.

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A shadow of my former self?

Last night confirmed why I hadn’t seen many other pilgrims.  The walkers that go 30kms/day often skip sections and follow different paths, so they won’t necessarily overtake slower walkers.  Ones that do the route, often also just go further than me. It is an interesting thing that we really all do go at our own pace, and in our own time.

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I continued along the back-roads for the subsequent 6 kms or so.  It was easy to see where to go.  I decided I wanted to stop for morning tea, although as was also the case yesterday, I couldn’t find anywhere suitable.  Eventually, after several hundred metres of singing “I’ve been to paradise but I’ve never been to me” and at a road junction, I found a good spot to rest, back to the sun to eat the pear from Christiane’s tree. Just as I was putting my pack down, I could see a peloton followed by 4 or 5 cars in the distance. I thought of my friend Ros, the keenest Tour enthusiast I know.  Why is it called a peloton, not a veloton?  Maybe I should campaign for a name change. They would be coming past in a minute.

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Christiane’s beautiful pear

So they went past and I threw down another butterfly bush flower I’d found. It was me being dramatic – its not every day you think you’ve seen the Tour de France! Or the closest thing you’ll get to it … and snap them for posterity.  I sat and ate my juicy pear with a view of the wind turbines.  It was only a couple more kilometres into town.

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Approaching Montferrand

I took a little climb up road towards the old part of town, and the Mairie. I was super early, and couldn’t check in, so I decided to hang around at the plaza opposite. There was a good info hut about Montferrand – I read it all.  I took the opportunity to use the toilet at the Mairie – thank God for public assets hey!  I sat on the park bench and wrote some postcards and my journal. Later on, the La Poste van came to collect the mail.  I told the woman that I look out for them every day, and she kindly waited while I finished my last postcard. I thought I might even do a blog post. I think I’ve worked out a technique – just keep doing the blog posts on iPad notes and transfer when I have wifi – it seems to work and it was quite quick yesterday. I lay in the sun on the grass for a while, just enjoying being in the warm sun, with the gentle breeze. What a perfect afternoon.  I ate my pre-prepared, bio-dynamic meal. There didn’t look to be any shops in this little hill-top town.

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Sitting on the park bench, a little skink/lizard came along the back, then went onto my journal. I wasn’t quick enough to get in the photo of it before it jumped down to the ground – then went under my shoe. It turned it’s head as if it were listening to me when I said it could come back up if it wanted to. It then scurried off across the plaza – expertly camouflaged like the plane tree seed pods that littered the pavement.

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Friendly skink

So I waited till after 1pm, then I went and circled the hill to the top by the small roads as Christiane had instructed. There was mostly just bushes on the way up, and as I got to the top, there were a few large houses with scattered cars.

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The fortified gate

I found my goal. It was nestled behind a tall, ancient gate, and the surrounds were beautiful – like she said. There was a small driveway, and a fenced off gravel garden with a picnic table.  Across the driveway there was a little bench outside the place where I would stay, so after briefly exploring the small compound, I sat and waited.  It wasn’t long before a car drove up, and out poured three men.  I explained that I knew I was really early, and I was happy to wait, but Rene-Claude greeted me and welcomed me, saying I might as well come in.

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The fortified gate

Rene-Claude made me a lovely cup of tea and told me about the centre. It is run by Caritas Christi. It has been an accueil (welcome) for pelerins for 18 years and was one of the original ones, but they also take guests on retreat, mostly religious. I told Rene-Claude that I’m interested in things Catholique, and he asked if I’d like to go to a mass in the parish at 6pm.  I said yes.

He showed me up the two floors to my room after I’d taken my boots off, then later he took the pack up to my room in a clear plastic bucket. My room is at the top floor under two massive beams of wood. I showered then washed my clothes over at their laundry in another building.  I typed a little using the wifi outside, had a little lie down, and at about 5.30pm went with Patrick -the other brother, to another town to get the chant sheet, then to a little church in the valley. It was a lowly service – with chanting again – a little different to En Calcat, but nice.

I spoke to Patrick on the way about the history of the Cathars. He said some interesting things.  From his perspective, he said there were three aspects – political, religious and the role of women. Very interesting. St Dominic set up the first female order in an Abbaye close by here in 1206. I’ve since researched and this is the Monastery of Prouilhe.  Barbara Beaumont has written an interesting paper about this – Cathars and Cathar Beliefs in the LanguedocDocuments: The Coming of the Preachers – Paper on Saint Dominic.

After church, which was officiated by a visiting priest from Togo, Patrick drove us back to the gite.  I sat outside until dinner, doing more writing, and we had dinner together at 8.00pm.  Another friend Jean-Charles was visiting from Denfert-Rochereau, Paris. Patrick had prepared a beautiful meal, salad of tomato, onion and leaves, stir-fry chicken with rice, followed by cheeses, bread and red wine.  Lovely conversation about France, Australia, travel and learning French. It was a convivial night.

I wasn’t long out of bed, and I climbed the couple of flights of stairs in this 300 year old building.  The church and associated buildings were constructed in the 14th Century, so I was in the young wing.  It was beautiful, elegantly decorated and luxurious.  I had my own little en suite and my room became very dark when the light was out and I snuggled under the doona (!!!) It bode well for a better sleep!

Via Tolosana Day 17: Reflections

Anglès to Boissezon 20.8kms

This is getting boring reporting that once again I didn’t sleep too well.  Morning pages done, I’m on a roll. Packed and breakfasted – is that a word?   Manfred said he’d take the key back when he left.  He reminded me a little of my grandpa, and my friend Robert in Adelaide.  I have found it quite often in my travels, that there may be new people, but they always seem to have something familiar about them, so I seem to replicate the same group of friends wherever I go.  We are all connected, aren’t we.

Just outside, in the doorway to the gite d’etape communal, there was an opportunity to take a stick.  It was really heavy – Manfred said it would be a good opportunity to build my arm muscles.  It just felt like hard work to me, so I left it.  I said goodbye. Manfred would be leapfrogging my path that day, by walking all the way to Castres (36.5kms).  I think I’d be grovelling along on my stomach by 35 kms; that distance doesn’t bear thinking about.

I left. There were no signs, but I found my way to the edge of the town, and the markers re-appeared.  An Anglès beagle wanted to follow me but obediently stopped when I tried my ‘arret, chez maison‘ (back, your house) trick.  Most of the way today was dirt – thankfully. After the initial dip off the main road, the track went upwards, past a gite where you can go fishing. I assume it is trout fishing in the little lake.

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Angles beagle

I walked on a little path which was separated from the fields by a barbed-wire fence.  Not far from town, a deer bounded away from the fence, and then I noticed peacocks.  I pondered the meaning of scratchy tickets on the way, and debated whether to pick them up and check them. I figured if they’d been discarded, they’re not likely winners.

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Peacocks

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Scratchies

I also pondered why, when you can see the map shows your path traversing around 3 sides of a rectangular-ish field, you choose to take this long route, rather than just go straight ahead to meet your destination in a 1/3 of the time, but this is the way. If I wanted to go quickly, I’d be walking on asphalt the whole way, and taking trains and buses (and we know I’m not into that).  I’ve found rewards in these long ways. This time it was seeing the deer again.  Continuing through forest, I could hear I was approaching a stream. It is a beautiful sound, of fresh movement of water.   There are motorbike tracks again, and the cold and hot patches of air make this morning feel a little freaky.

A black fluffy possum-like creature crossed my path up ahead. Day of big fauna.  The track turned more into creek bed in parts and took me through more forests. A beautiful house met me at the junction I would have got to quicker if I’d not followed the markers, and went the quickest way indicated on my map.

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Deer

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Poison ivy, or overactive imagination?

There are these ground cover plants that creep out towards the track and they’ve collected a little frost overnight. I’d love to touch them, but for some reason I suspect they might be in the poison-ivy family, so I resist. I pass more hay bales.

For a step which is meant to descend several hundred metres, there are sure a lot of uphill sections. I stop for a wee while at an interesting plaque about a parachutist landing in Saussonieres and an information board about the liberation of Castres in 1944 on the 20th August.  It is very close to the anniversary.

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American parachutist

Walking on I come across a pond reflection which is spectacular.  The water comes right up to the fence next to the vehicle-sized track, and is thick with blackberries. It looks like the pond just descends to great depths, just under the blackberries.  I’m transfixed by the reflection which because it is a light day, is absolutely clear and vivid and comes nearly all the way towards up to my feet.  I almost feel like I have vertigo and am going to fall into the sky. Great photo opportunities.

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Falling into the sky

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Track next to reflection

Just up ahead, I walk through the outskirts of a town, Bouisset, and I glimpsed La Poste. Then two cyclists, then another and it was starting to feel like Groundhog Day.  A composted menhir?  A La Poste box.  The most beautiful wedge of wildflowers.  I tried to help one of the many little black beetles I found upturned on the path, with a gorgeous blue/black colour on it’s underside, but as soon as I flipped it, it flipped itself back.  Perhaps there’s really is no helping some beings. Maybe they know when their time is up.  Maybe it is time for all the pretty beetles to die.  I left the bitumen road to again follow a dirt track, this time bordered with pine trees. I put my pack down on a high mound next to a large pine tree and got my water and a peach out for morning tea.

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Small meadow of flowers

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These are the vistas

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Stoby pole installation

After a brief rest and listen to my iTunes, I walked on through more forest. This one made me sing the Grizzly Adams song, “we are staying here forever in the beauty of this place … living free in harmony and majesty”. Yet the woods were a little spooky again today . Pine forest is a little uncomfortable for some reason.

I saw more horses in the distance, then what could have been a dog, or a wolf or a fox.  Just after this, my gaze was met by a black 4WD making its way towards me along the track I was on. I wave bonjour to the middle aged guy hoping he won’t stop. There is something about pine forests, or maybe the people in them, that really freaks me out.  I walked on adrenaline for a while – it helped me go quicker!  I saw 11:11 on my phone today. The track emerged on the other side – big, wide, cleared lands – once were forests again, though this time, even more cleared lands and new plantings. I came to a T-junction and there was a pilgrim letterbox – weird!  Crosses woven into the cyclone fence nearby made this a strange little site. I continued following the markers, and traversed the top of a hill for a while, until I descended sharply along a deeply rutted dirt track. It took a big bend, almost doubling back the way I’d come, and then the markers led me into a wooded area again.

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Pilgrim post box

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Crosses

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More vistas

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A day of reflection

Not far through this wood, I decided it was lunch time. I sat on a little wooden seat and ate my leftover rice/celery salad just after I saw my second lot of smaller puddle reflections in the track for the day.  I was in full sun, but it wasn’t too hot yet, and a nice place to stop.  As I was getting ready to go, Manfred walked along. He’d stop in half an hour for lunch he said. I said for him to go on, as he was obviously much faster than I was.  He’d had a terrible morning as he has poor vision, and could not see the markers. He wasted a lot of time when he thought he could see them, only to get closer to find they weren’t markers at all.  I told him that I thought many were missing as there had been so much logging, and probably many of the trees had been cut down.  I said I imagine seeing markers all day when I’m lost!

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Pleasant day for a walk

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Dreaming a sky

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Feet fall on the road

Before it got tiring for my knees, the way was a gorgeous, if steep descent into Boissezons. The path was really rocky then normal, then purple.  I received yet another text from Jacques: “We leave Castres for Dourgne (monastery). Then Revel and Les Casses”.  They are two days ahead.

More piles of wood. My ears even popped it was such an altitude drop. I found an apple on the road which I decided to eat, then threw away because it wasn’t very nice.  I passed Manfred who was sitting enjoying the view.  I walked around a corner and saw a man and woman enjoying lunch in their picnic chairs, half on the road, half off it.

It was here that I met Salome and Lolita with their French Canadian companions.  I didn’t quite understand the route they were doing, but I think it was Le puy, Lectoure,  Toulouse and back to Le puy via St Guilhem le Desert. So their plans had me reflecting on how far I’d come. I was also trying to envisage climbing all those hills with two donkeys. It would certainly be ‘a thing’!  They were walking ‘backwards’ so had just been in Castres. Their next stop was the trout fishing farm I passed in the morning.  I could imagine two donkeys there.

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Salome

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Lolita

After asking their permission to immortalise the two girls, I snapped my pictures. Apparently donkeys with their ears up, are not particularly comfortable, and a happy donkey has it’s ears down – I think that’s what they said.

The approach to Boissezon is from above, so the first thing you see are terracotta roofs. I pass a pretty-smelling bush I’m not familiar with.  Coming into the town, I realise this place is a little obsessed with mosaics – all over walls, as street markings, in shop windows, and eventually in my very kitchen. It seems like an arty little place.  There is a fabulous representation of the Via Tolosana in mosaic – Arles to Santiago.  A beautiful strong flowing river provides the ever-present background music. Actually the town is on the junction of two rivers, La Durencuse and La Durenque.

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Boissezon skyline

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Mosaic Via Tolosana: Arles – Santiago de Compostella avec pizza box

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Le St Jacques

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St Jacques Coquille

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Annie Amirault Peinture

I walk down the steep laneway, half-way down to find Annie’s place.  By chance, she is in her small patio garden.  I introduce myself and say I have a reservation for the evening. She does not speak much English, but I try to explain that I booked at the Office of Tourisme in Salvetat.  She said she didn’t receive any booking. I’m a little flabbergasted as I think that English speaking young man didn’t actually book me in at all. Either that or she has forgotten.  In any case, there was no-one booked, so I could stay.

The guesthouse is tiny, and it inspired me with how little one actually needs in a dwelling. It was built into the cliff, so at many places where there would be walls, there is just cliff face.  But in around the cliff is a kitchen/dining/bathroom area downstairs, and a suspended floor up a steep wooden ladder.  The beds (sleeping up to 5) are low to the ground and there are skylights and a window.  On the ground floor is the most organic and free-flowing mosaic I have ever seen.  Tiles just dribbling out across the cement floor vaguely, but very artistically.  It reminds me a little of a Hobbit house in it’s earthiness and sweetness.

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Guesthouse kitchen

I shower, do my washing, hoping that it will dry in the warm air, although it looks to be getting overcast and I fear it will rain.  I lay down for a rest. When I get up, I am still treading gingerly, but decide to go out to look for food and around the town.  My thongs are really not suitable as the roads are really steep, but I have no choice. I go slowly.  I find the epicerie which will open later.  There is a nice restaurant – Deux Mousquetaires in whose window I see my reflection and that of the houses across the road. Jamais deux sans trois!  (Things always happen in threes). I pass another gorgeous mosaic of another maker and their atelier (workshop).

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L’Auberge les deux Moustiqueires

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Another mosaic artist

After dinner I decide to go up to the top of the hill to the church. It is 8pm and the church is closed. But just below the church is a little street of artisans, and there sounds to be an art-opening party going on. They sound the same the world over it seems.

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Open Garden Scheme?

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Town cats

There are cats everywhere, this is a cat town.  After I passed an old man, also slowly going for his evening walk, I called in at the Mairie where I found a lovely terracotta plaque of the town. More town cats, that looked really mangy.  I also found a holly tree and the cross symbol of the area. A fruitful little wander.

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Boissezon Mairie

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Town square sculpture

On returning to my little abode, I sat and worked out a rough plan for my remaining days, to see if I have enough days left to actually get to Col du Somport. I am pleased when I see that I can fit in a couple of days in Carcassonne and Lourdes also.  I could even stay for two nights in Castres if I want to, although I’m getting the idea that I must keep moving.

I love it when a plan comes together!  Have I quoted the A-Team already?

Via Tolosana Day 11: Go your own way! Any other way is straying.

Lunas to Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare – over 30 kilometres!

Many years ago, when I lived in Sydney, my wonderful friend, Emily, visited her grandfather for a number of months and I got to spend time with her too. As I didn’t have many friends in Sydney at the time, it was a great time of hanging around, seeing Sydney and going dancing. We have one of those relationships where no matter how long it has been since we last met or spoke, we always just pick up where we left off, often diving in to deep philosophical conversations about the meaning of life, or love or whatever. She has inspired me with her travels all through Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the US/Canada.  She has always been a kindred spirit who would share her latest book discovery with me.  One book she shared in around 2006, was Gitta Mallasz’s Talking with Angels.  This book was the first account I had ever read about channelled souls and it resonated with me at a deep level, opening my eyes to the layers of consciousness that might exist beyond what we see as ‘real’ life.  Ever since I read that book, the prophetic words, “Go your own way! Any other way is straying.” have never been far from my mind, and I have re-called them often, and shared them with many people.  It is a curious characteristic of the Camino, that the concepts you have always known, are made absolutely concrete for you while you are walking.  Re-reading this passage from the book now, I realise the whole page reflects the lesson I was about to learn in a very real and deep way on this day.

The bed was so comfortable that I even had vivid dreams last night of cool boys from high school. Up again at 5am for yet another huge walk. There had been a spectacular thunderstorm overnight which began when we were eating dinner out under the shed roof upstairs next to our wet washing.

Jacques and I again set out together after a small breakfast. We arrived about an hour later at La Bousquet d’Orb after walking along a level road which roughly followed the river, past the smallest tractor I’ve ever seen and horses who were accompanied by a backdrop of pink. Pink sky in the morning … shepherd’s warning again?

Horse in a paddock with pink sky sunrise

Pink sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning

River d'Orb

River d’Orb

We crossed the river d’Orb and started an upwards ascent past L’église de Saint-Martin where the bells struck seven on cue. We saw more signs to chambre d’hotes options in the little settlement of La Seguinerie.

L'église de Saint-Martin

L’église de Saint-Martin

Continuing onward through little streets at the edge of town, it was still threatening to rain and I was quite a lot more than discouraged when a red (warning) marker said that it was 29 kms to our destination today.

Red and white cement marker 29kms to St Gervais sur Mare

Only 29kms to go!

That would mean we would walk over 34 kilometres. I was psyching myself up for this when we were led by all manner of helpful community signs and balisages, through tiny streets bedecked with little shrines to pilgrims. This community display was happily cheering bonne route to all who passed.  The only thing missing were gnomes.

Pilgrim sign

Sweet pilgrim with his undies around his ankles?

European Union Coquille and violas

Les chemins de Compostelle

 

Pot plants and painted rocks with coquille shell

Pilgrim shrine

Path disappears around the corner

The Chemin St Jacques disappears

We would find out just 10 minutes later that this little bon courage (take heart) from the locals was for a very particular reason. The path was so steep, so covered with ferns, blackberries and rocks, rocks and more rocks that it was almost unbelievable, and extremely tiring to climb.

Rocky path and GR653 sign

Rocky road

 

Rocky path and mossy dry stone wall

Really rocky road

I was continuing in a dejected mood, made worse by march flies – one drew blood! They were sticky and insisted on going in my direction. Go away!

I knew it wouldn’t be like this all day, but it seemed endless. I rested several times for water, because it was impossible and because I was in a foul mood. About a third of the way up, Jacques II caught us. We more or less stayed together for the rest of the day. Completing the picture we were walking through fog, so it made it feel like we had already climbed high on the mountain. Le Bousquet d’Orb was at around 430m altitude but we were to climb to 932m at our highest today, and back down. 

Together we reached a large rock we had to scale, making it more like rock-climbing than walking and of course my heavy pack was particularly difficult with this incline. Standing on the rock, looking back over the thick forest of trees, we could see the Southern end of town that we’d just walked through.

Distant view of Le Bousquet d'Orb, forest in foreground

Looking back to Le Bousquet d’Orb

Signs continued to confirm we were on the right track.  Today yellow and blue ones. All the stars on blue background made it feel like a European Union exercise. At the top of the hardest path in the world, only made partially better because it started in a Fairy Glen and made me feel like I was in a Lord of the Rings set, we joined a larger forest track and the landscape changed completely.

Dirt track and forest at the top of the hardest path in the world

At the top of the hardest path in the world

At the first the smells were thick in the air like a rainforest. A Nutri-Metics honey and almond scrub smell was the one I could identify, though what it was doing in deep France, I don’t know. I noticed that when you go from a flat path to an uphill one, you physically change gears. Jacques said, yes, like a cadence. It reminded me of Emma Ayres book, Cadence in which she refers to the pedalling rate of a bicycle. This concept was previously unfamiliar to me apart from in the musical sense, and it made it real to me when I observed the change in my body’s rhythm.

Pile of rocks

Rock sculpture

Patterns made by pine needles

Washed out pine needles

Small pinecones and pine needles washed into ridges by the previous night’s rain provided a source for the fresh pine smells. It continued to be overcast. The forest tracks continued all day, sometimes ascending, sometimes descending. They were wide, mostly comfortable, although there were a few rocky patches. Lovely pink-flowered bushes adorned our way, and the views kept getting more and more majestic. With them, the height of the trees grew too and it felt like a Highland Cathedral, and reminded me of my favourite bagpipe song. The sky cleared to a certain extent and we walked part-time in sun, but it was a gentle morning sun.

Distant view of mountains, sky with pine trees in foreground

Highland Cathedral

Being a forest trail, there was ample provision of picnic tables. Jacques II had gone ahead, so Jacques I and I stopped and sat at one for a snack of our lunch baguette and I had the last of some yoghurt. It was still, although the pine needles rustled. It was a hard morning for me. While I was willing to walk with the two Jacques, I still felt restricted. I also realised I was experiencing boredom. Is that possible? This was the first time in 11 days I had thought that. It is hard to imagine that this kind of activity could be boring, but I was grateful that it came to my attention. While we had stopped on the park bench, not half an hour after I’d realised I might be bored, a beautiful, tall, slim woman named Sonia appeared out of nowhere and happened across our little picnic. She was a messenger. She was an angel.

Pine cones and trees on the Way of St James

Pine cones on the Chemin St Jacques

Sonia was between jobs, but unlike me, she had a new one to go back to. She told me that she had walked at the end of a difficult job too, the year before, so she understood the position I was in and the courage it took to undertake such a journey at such a time.  I appreciated her kindness and understanding. I said to her, that she would not stay with me long as I could feel I was way slower in the short time we chatted and walked (uphill)! She said she felt energised to walk this time, and was doing over 30kms each day.  She didn’t like to think of it as fast, and certainly wasn’t trying to get there quicker for its own sake, just that this was her most comfortable pace. She said it was very important to go your own way and at your own pace. This is your journey.  While we chatted we covered much common ground about the spiritual and emotional reasons for walking. This brought out a stark contrast with the conversations I’d been having with my current companions. After our conversation in English, she had a conversation with Jacques I in German, then ahead with Jacques II in French. Then she was gone as quickly as she arrived.

It wasn’t until later, as I fell behind and started revelling and maybe rebelling in being alone, that the truth sunk in. I really did need to rest, and I needed to go on at my own pace, by myself.  Jacques I kindly waited for me at one point, but I tearfully said to him that I wanted to walk alone. This seemed like a brave admission to make for someone who had hoped so much for someone to share the journey with. Be careful what you ask for. I’d had my reminder, so I continued walking alone for most of the rest of the day to get my head straight.

Pine trees with bracken tutus

Pine trees with tutus

Phallic pine sculpture

Pine sculpture

Walking boot with forest leaves on the path

Leaves on the forest floor

Road turns to the left, pine trees on embankment

Pine embankment

Trees featured today.  Pine trees with tutus on. Phallic pine carvings and giants with moss-covered bases.  At one point where the track took a wide bend, with views out over the valleys beyond, I wanted to lie in the grass and watch the clouds, but I felt I couldn’t because people would worry about me.

Distant view of mountains

More views

As it turned out, I did catch the two Jacques having a break at yet another picnic table. I said I would have lunch, the rest of my lunch baguette, and they said they’d stop there too. Another walker passed going the other way, towards St Gilles – there are many ways to take! Two extra walkers today, more than we’d seen on any other day. Descending into Mecle later we saw yet another. After a break, we were back into it again, On the Road Again.

Jacques II teased me mercilessly without even being able to speak English. At first, it was the little wooden platform structures at the edge of the track that he told me were for hunting pilgrims. And then it was a giant car skid mark on a gravel turn out. He told me to pay attention, and I caught his drift and said UFOs and aliens? Right! He was funny, and I think trying to cheer me up.  I am reminded of something that came up in conversation in Lodeve, he recalled Napoleon’s words, “‘Impossible’ n’est pas français” (‘impossible’ is not a French word). And it left me feeling a little disappointed that due to the language barrier, I couldn’t communicate with him, as he was clearly a very witty and well-read man.

A bush of fine yellow flowers

Yellow flowers

Back down in altitude, the track turned into an open one and we could see a good way ahead. An alternative gite, Les gives de Servies, beckoned to me after Col du Liourel but I persevered to the Col du Layrac, another 5.8kms by the Dodo. We were at an altitude of 765m. Beautiful pink grasses and yellow flowers met us.

Distant mountains with a glimpse of the road, two crosses in the foreground

Not quite Calvary

A little further along the track met a road Hit the Road Jacques! Jacques II was really interested in the marker between departments, and I was thinking the track went straight across, because I didn’t see a sign to the right, and I didn’t have a detailed map, and so we all just went across. We’d all fallen asleep. We climbed an exposed track and were descending into what was like heather, along a track bejewelled with stunning green beetles, when I got the feeling we weren’t going the right way. No confirmation signs usually means a wrong turn. We consulted the three maps we had between us and confirmed our wrong turn.

Green beetle

Green beetle

Distant mountains and dry grass in the foreground

Dry grass and mountains

Re-tracing our steps we turned left and followed the road for a hundred metres, Jacques II walking through the verge which was native mint, leaving a cloud of perfume behind him. We turned left into a track which then descended through a forest, the track smaller, marked by the disassembled, prickly, fuzzy coatings of chestnuts. Jacques told me that this department of Aveyron was previously poor and the soil not ideal for cropping, so people lived off chestnuts. There were certainly plenty of them, more than 27 – that hoary old chestnut.  I momentarily thought, wow, he knows so much stuff about this area for not being from here. But thinking back now, I bet it was his guide-book!

GR653 Via Tolosana in chestnut grove

Chestnut grove

Pilgrim PR - signs advertising gites

Pilgrim Marketing

Signs advertising gites

Pilgrim Marketing

There were still march flies and I’d trained myself to react quickly now to shoo them away. Ignore them at your peril. At the final descent to Mecle, the number of signs vying for our custom was quite comical. Pilgrim marketing. The track was very hard, and my knees were not managing. Carrying a heavy pack for 20 kms is one thing, carrying it for over 30 kms is a completely different matter! Thankfully no feet problems today. It has been happy days for feet, just tired and achy muscles, which I suppose is to be expected. At Mecle we met another pilgrim, already at his gite, Les Amoureaux du Chemin, soaking up the afternoon sun on the verandah. I was jealous! Not of the sunbathing, but of the sitting still, already at his destination. It was now really hot in the sun.

Sign at gite written in French

Sign at gite

Tiled picture of the town of Merle

Tiles of Mecle

Balisage GR653 and Compostelle and grapevines

Balisages and grape vines

The little town was cute, there were pilgrim signs, a beautiful tiled representation of the village and amazing old buildings. Sometimes the situation of the GR sign overtakes the sign as I found with a grapevine with a GR mark and compostelle. A big frog sitting stood sentinel, guarding the house behind it, watching as we left. It didn’t look much more alive than the dead frog I’d seen between Lunas and Le Bousquet d’Orb that morning. More stone walls.

Frog sculpture on stone wall in front of door

Sentinel frog

After a drink from the ‘fresh’ fountain in town, we left for another uphill, dry track towards St Gervais sur Mare. Jacques II forgot his walking sticks, so Jacques I and I went on slowly without him while he retrieved them. The previous sightings of other pilgrims had only been an entrée into the banquet of humans we were to see in this supposedly 3km stretch before St Gervais (it seemed like 6kms in the heat of the afternoon). First a sporty couple in lycra looking for a ruined castle walked towards us (and away from the castle). Then we came across more tourists climbing to the ruined castle. In the end it was only about 15, but today was beaucoup de gens (many people) day! We see no-one for days, and then this. This many people out walking was somewhat overwhelming. Why today? Maybe I was just in the mood to be overwhelmed!

Le Clocher de Neyran

Le Clocher de Neyran

I was over it by the time we took yet another wrong turn and ended up with the beaucoup tourists at the ruined castle, I’d probably walked 34 kms. No excuses are required for bad behaviour under these circumstances. I was, yet again, absolutely exhausted. “It’s OK, the path (steep, rocky, slippery way through bushes) meets up with the other” Jacques says bush bashing again. It was hot – 3.30pm and the sun was broiling us in our skins. And once again, after I retraced my steps back to the junction of the path and took my own, safe way down, he is right, our path’s meet, and another really steep path carries us downwards and we pass more tourists.

Ruins at Le Clocher de Neyran

Ruins at Le Clocher de Neyran

To top it off, whoever thought that laying a large river stone path (end on end) for the last 100 metres of a downhill track was a good idea. It certainly was contributing to my bad day!

Path made with river stones

Riverstone path

Across La Mare via an ancient bridge, I could barely walk another step and was again getting teary and tired. I sauntered into town, personifying probably 10 Cliff Youngs and I followed the two Jacques, at a distance, to the Office of Tourisme, which I ended up finding for them.

Our gite was a bargain 13 Euro a night, but it was back through the town nearly to the bridge where we’d come from. I think much to Jacques I’s surprise and my own, I asked the young man at the desk whether I could stay an extra night. This is not usually allowed, as pilgrims are meant to move on each day, however in extreme circumstances, the rules can be bent. The sweet university student holding the fort wasn’t sure of how to handle this, but after assurances by Jacques II that no, I couldn’t walk tomorrow, it was all settled and I paid for two nights. Jacques I paid for two nights too. Sonia came in, but I was so out of it, that I was grumpy, even with her, my angel. Quite a case of shooting the messenger. The Jacques went shopping, and I followed them like a ghost. I couldn’t think of anything, least of all shopping. I just wanted to lie down. I walked back to the gite behind them like a turtle. Jacques had said earlier that I looked miserable, and I wasn’t going to disagree with him. When we got to the gite, we found out there was only one key, and Sonia had it. We waited for a long time before Jacques I went back to the office to get it. He still didn’t have it when he returned, and two more women had turned up. Now he was getting toey too! When the women walked toward the door, Jacques I pulled a swift manoeuvre most likely learnt on the Camino Frances. It will be an abiding image, and one of the reasons I am not keen on walking the Camino Frances. He went and put his back right next to the door to somehow indicate that he was first in line. This gite, it is true, did only have 15 places. It was doubtful we’d reach half capacity, but it is important to get what you want. I, on the other hand had no time, or energy for such nonsense.  In the end someone carried my pack in for me.  It seems I wasn’t the only one behaving badly. As it turned out, us 6 walkers were spread across 3 rooms. It is better to be safe than sorry.

When we were alone, Jacques was suggesting walking options for me to get my money to pay him back, and it dawned on me, that he wasn’t actually concerned for my welfare, he just wanted his money back. As I realised this was going to be a big issue for him, I suggested I take a loan from Jacques II, as he’d originally offered, and was happy for me to pay him back when I got back to Paris. Later that night we did the switch. I insisted on paying Jacques I for his bed, so that he could walk on, and I’d see about a refund the next day. I hoped my money would come through on Monday, but if not, I still had enough with extra Jacques II had offered, to keep walking. I decided I would post some stuff back to Paris to lighten my load, and this thought filled me with relief.

After showering I went to buy my own groceries to make my own dinner. Welcome to going it alone. When I returned there was a sadness between the two Jacques and I. My dinner took a long time to cook, and I went outside to sit with Jacques II. Dinner conversation is harder without Jacques I to interpret. Sonia was sitting not far away at the other picnic table, and I apologised for not being in a good frame of mind when I saw her at the Office de Tourisme. I explained to her a little of the situation and thanked her for her wise words in the morning. When Jacques I came out, he didn’t appear to have any dinner. Sonia and I continued talking about Airbnb and compared our experiences of Bouchaud monastery. She said they made bio rice, but that no-one in France bought it. A German woman buys everything they have for her and supplies the German whole food market. Sonia also said that some of the monks have disabilities which is something I didn’t notice.

I was emotional and miserable. I think my body was nearly in shutdown, and despite being excited and energised by the prospect of going on alone, saying goodbye to a person who had been like a safety blanket was proving to be extremely difficult. I now understand that someone can care very much for you, but also completely stifle you without realising and not have your best interests at heart. I just cried and cried.  When I spoke to other people, I cried, when Jacques tried to talk to me I cried, and when I went to sleep I cried.  It was strange that I knew I had made the right decision for me, but that I couldn’t stop crying. This emotion was coming from a much deeper place. I recognised this from my childhood.  When I re-read the words surrounding ‘Talking with Angels’ quote it made a lot more sense …

Via Tolosana Day 10: A stitch in time saves nine

Lodeve to Lunas 22 kms

Last night I think I got sleep. I can’t really tell.

We were up at 5.00am to get ready to walk another big day as we were intending to get to Joncels. Jacques I and I left at 6am. It was cool and a good time to start. We ate a sunrise for breakfast. Pink sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning, as it turns out, was correct.

Sunrise through blackened trees

Sunrise

Sunrise - yellow clouds above blackened landscape

Sunrise

We first left by road, and wound our way up to meet the chemin (our gite was on an alternate, parallel route out to the west of Lodeve) so we needed to turn left to find the GR653 again. We left the road to the right and followed a fire track circling slowly upwards around a hill for about an hour an a half.

Pines aglow with morning sun next to dirt track

Pines aglow

Balisage - white and red GR653 marker on pile of stones

Balisage

Once again we had gorgeous views; a patchwork of cropped fields, forests and even the large lake we could see yesterday from the table d’orientation.  We continue to cover so much ground.

Patched Grandeur - distant view of mountains, lake and fields and forests

Patched grandeur

The chemin Via Tolosana, dirt track and blue sky

The chemin

Which way? Hay bale behind signpost pointing in many directions

Which way?

At the top of one section large rounds of hay confronted us and we turned right.  Heading towards the summit Jacques commented on how he thought I was strong to carry such a heavy backpack. I knew it was heavier than it needed to be, but was not thinking I could get rid of very much. Plus we were never in a town at the right time to post anything. We left well before 9am, and never reached a town with La Poste before 12pm and they rarely opened in the afternoons.  He hadn’t suggested we stop for a day so I could post my excess. I wasn’t using my sleeping bag, and my Keen sandals were far too heavy for this exercise. I also took the comment metaphorically and I told him, I’ve had to be strong in my life as I was taken advantage of as a young child. I said I’m only just becoming comfortable with letting down my guard and showing my sensitive and vulnerable side. I’m learning how to use something different to sheer brute strength to keep myself strong, and sane. Reflecting on this conversation I am realising that it also takes constant attention and skill working out who to safely surround myself with, in order that I don’t experience overload. Working this out now, gives me more power and strength than anything else.  Sometimes however, it takes a while to sink in, 10 days perhaps.

When I was leaving the monastery at Bouchard, one of the sweet, yet simple monks who had showed me the little chapel the day before when I was wandering around the grounds returned to the breakfast dining room and brought me a small heart locket on a leather cord.  I was very touched, and in addition to the little pendant I have worn every day from my friend Jo, I put it on and had worn it religiously.  In Gallargues I nearly lost it – I left it hanging in the shower, but remembered it in time.  Today I found myself without my heart-shaped locket and I knew now I was really lost.  I still had the leather cord, so I might replace the locket when I get back, but I realised now, something really had to change.

False friends - berries that look like blueberries

False friends – not blueberries

Just like an Australian walk, the familiar fronds of bracken appeared. Blue berries that looked edible, but apparently are not started clumping along the grassy track. Achy foot arches and achy right knee, my ACL knee (drat).

Grassy track

Grassy track

Don't go there donkey! Rocks with GR653 'wrong way' marker

Don’t go there donkey!

Rocks and grass and GR653 marker

Rocks and grass

Distant view of hills with road winding looking like the seam on a pair of jeans

Like the seam on a pair of jeans

As I was walking up the side of the bitumen road, I thought about the speed of walking as opposed to riding. As I’d found when riding the Vezelay route, the dashed lines along the side of the road are actually joined by a very fine white line, just like you make when you’re patching squares together en masse and you don’t break the cotton (for my quilting relatives).  You can only see it when you’re riding or walking. Car drivers wouldn’t be let into the secret, that line markers all know, there is one continuous line, even for dashes.

Pilgrimage appeals to many, but the many variants of the Chemin St Jacques are not the only form of long-distance walking you can do. The Grande Randonnée network spreads like crisscrossed stitching on a quilt across France and Europe, and many people do different parts of it each holiday.

Photo of lines marked on bitumen

Sewing those patchwork squares together

Later wind turbines debuted. They are called éoliennes here. Yes Tony Abbott, Europe has loads of them! They are not without their dissenters though. Some locals obviously believe they are messing with the local Royal eagle population. Controversial, wherever you are! I might have thought that eagles would be a little too clever to get caught up in wind turbines, but maybe not, and they are dying in their 100s. Who would know? I’m wondering whether the energy companies would let environmental scientists even close. Maybe I’m just being cynical. When I spoke of them later to Jacques I & II, they said éoliennes are named for the God of Wind, Aeolius. I said in Australia we just call them wind turbines – maybe we prefer to keep the Gods out of it.

(I know of him from the Aeolian mode in music which according to wiki is the natural minor mode of the Bob Dylan song, All Along the Watchtower and the R.E.M. song, Losing my Religion. I spent 6 years “prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper and I was” … none the wiser about those facts! Prizes for anyone who knows who wrote those words).

Not everyone likes éoliennes - La population sit non aux eoliennes sure l'escandorgue

Not everyone likes éoliennes

Hills and wind turbines

éoliennes

Jacques II caught us up where we’d stopped for our second break, just past the Col de la Baraque de Bral corner and the turbine protest. We’d been walking for 45 minutes on bitumen, and a total of four hours already, so my legs were dead. Even the sound of cowbells in the valley was not enough to amuse me and distract from my leg tiredness.

From our resting place we tried ringing to book beds for the night. Somewhere, somehow, someone decided that we should walk further than Joncels, to Lunas.  We were going to pass through Joncels on the way, but then Jacques II thought better of the idea. I think both Jacques were trying to make it easier for me so they suggested we go straight down the valley to Lunas, cutting off several kilometres. Here again we were skipping bits, but I was now resigned to it. I just had to walk at their pace. Both Jacques tried ringing our intended place of abode for the night, but couldn’t seem to get through. We joked that we must indeed be in ‘deep’ France as there was no mobile reception. So we took the most direct route down, continuing straight through the little hamlet of Bernagues instead of veering right. There was only one house there that we could see and a little further down the track a big abandoned house, well maybe half-abandoned. This ended up being a very difficult 5km track down into Lunas and quite hot and exposed in the post midday sun (as usual). We stopped a little way along to eat lunch on the shady side of the hill (thankfully). It was nice because it was the first time all three of us had stopped together. The Jacques continued to try the accommodation to no avail. I just enjoyed the peace of the present location.

Chemin Via Tolosana, GR653 dirt track across paddocks with blue sky

Neverending story

When we were nearly there, Jacques I took a big fall, but luckily only skinned his knees. Tiny blue, orange and yellow butterflies mimicked the colours of the flowers next to the road, and flitted around at our feet. As yesterday, there were sand-coloured crickets which when disturbed, jumped away, revealing their amazingly bright orange underbellies.

I hung back a little again, preferring to walk on my own, keeping my pain to myself.  I’ve worked out a few logistical realities from walking with others. For instance, the pee stop, usually sets one back at least 100 metres from one’s colleagues. Jacques called these stops escales, like the stops a ship takes at different ports.

When we got to the bottom of the hill, it was only 500 metres into Lunas along the jean-seam of a road, but it felt like another 5 kms. The bitumen was a new form of torture for my feet. Passing Roland Garros (I didn’t think it was this far south), I once again hobbled to the finish line and the Office de Tourisme.

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In Lunas at last

Sign above doorway - Roland Garros

For Uncle Geof

Lunas is yet another town made beautiful by the river running through it and people had clearly built to take in the view. A large château/hotel/restaurant was perched right on its banks. It took a gorgeous picture and looked really popular with the lunchtime crowd. It was nearly 2pm, and we camped outside our favourite place until it opened. I was desperate, in a messy way, for the toilet, so took my toilet paper with me around the back of the building. Luckily where there are tourists, there are toilets. My feet were killing me and I couldn’t bear to walk a moment longer. The Jacques were contemplating walking to the next town, Le Bousquet d’Orb, another 3.5kms but I said no way. The woman gave them all the options, in French at first, then Jacques I explained to me an abbreviated form in English. They were struggling to find cheap options. I indicated once again my strong preference for staying in this town, as I really couldn’t go any further physically.

Reflections of the Restaurant du château in a river, Lunas

Reflections of the Restaurant du château

I took the opportunity, while they were exploring options, to have a brief sojourn with Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) in the chapel next door without my pack on. L’église Saint-Pancrace was cool, calm, and literally 10 steps from the office. I am always quite fascinated by Jeanne in chapels. She seems somewhat out-of-place, and I never think of her as a saint, I suppose because she was a martyr first.  I try to forget that if she had lived just two hundred years later, she would have been one of the opponents of my Huguenot ancestors, waging war against protestant English sympathisers. I try not to like her, because clearly she was a violent young woman, but there is something in this portrayal of her: innocent childlike  demeanour (she possibly was only 19 when she was burnt), peasant clothes, and battle garb in such a sacred place that screams of an attitude that women just aren’t meant to have.  You have to admire that! For audacity alone.  The West has certainly had its share of ‘holy warriors’ and now I notice there is even a tactical role-playing Play-Station game named in her honour.  She is clearly breaking down traditional roles of women even in the 21st century, over five hundred years later.

Statue of Jeanne d'Art (Joan of Arc), L'église Saint-Pancrace

Jeanne d’Arc

Tiled roof building with faces sculpted in the lintels

Kitchen lintel sculptures

While I was absent, there was a little to-ing and fro-ing between the two Jacques and the woman at the office, then the unimaginable happened. I still don’t know how. The reason the two Jacques couldn’t get through to the L’Auberge Gourmande where we had wanted to stay, was because the new owners had closed it for renovations. I don’t know whether it was pressure from Jacques I (I’ve noticed he can be very insistent), or just happenstance, but the woman ended up having the owners on the phone, and asked them whether it would be possible to put 3 pilgrims up. They agreed, and they were fantastic. We thanked her for her assistance and went to wait for the owner just across the river on some little benches across the road from the accommodation.  An old man was sitting there and we said our bon jours.  As it often does, the conversation turned quickly to the weather, and he told us that they did have rain earlier in the week, and made us laugh when he said it wasn’t enough to fill a glass.  He was later joined by what looked like all of the old men of the town who only disbanded at the threat of the storm that was forecast.

We stayed in a building site basically (don’t tell anyone!), but there was one room with three beds in it that they hadn’t been working on. They were also living there upstairs, so it was well habitable, and our hosts were quick to point out the hazards (most of which were probably there well before the building work anyway). It was cool and there was lovely coir matting on the floor which gave excellent relief when I rubbed my tired feet on it.  We were given towels (luxury – with shoe box in middle of road accent), bath mats and guest soaps. Plus they allowed us to use their washing machine and makeshift kitchen out back. The Hilton!

As we were settling in to our accommodation, Jacques II had a search through his pack, and realised he had left his medications in Lodeve, so he disappeared to try to ring the madame from the gite. We said we’d organise dinner so he could concentrate on getting his medications back. Madame wasn’t answering her telephone and he came back looking a little dejected. Luckily, I had kept both of her phone numbers on my Lodeve map, and he was able to ring her. Fortuitously, she had cousins who were visiting Lodeve from Lunas that night, and they agreed to deliver his medicines back to him. We shared pizza, tomato/mozzarella salad and crusty bread, and part-way through, our hostess came to tell us the medications had been dropped off. Voila!

Still persevering with my blog attempts, after dinner I sat downstairs in the lounge room and used wi-fi! Yay! Only 53 unread emails.  I didn’t get very far again with the blog, so I snuck upstairs and went to bed.

Moon and clouds in Lunas

Lunar sky after rain in Lunas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Domaine de Flo

Wet dry stone wall

Watery path

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

Roman road?

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

Usclas-du-Bosc

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

stèle discoïdales

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Dry stone wall

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

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Soft pine path

rock sculpture

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Dolmen rock art

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Grandmont horses

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

the path

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Attention glisser!

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

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Rock shelf

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

Labyrinth

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

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Prehistoric rainwater collection

the pack

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

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Tractor seat picnic spot

Table d’orientation

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Saumont

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

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

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Red rocks

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Rocky wood pile

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

walls

Le Lergue

Mary watches over all

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

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

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

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

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

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

château

Yesterday I honed some tips for discouraged pilgrims:

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

Vary as each one becomes ineffective.

Via Tolosana Day 8: Attention a la Marche on that Road to Nowhere

Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert to Saint-Jean-de-la-Blaquière 26kms

I noticed when I was in Paris this time, that they are now including an English and German translation in the Metro when the Attention a la marche! (watch your step!) announcement is given. As with many things French/English there are mirror images on the other side of the channel. In the Tube, the same announcement is Mind the gap!  Sometimes despite all our best efforts, our attention is taken and before we know it we are lost. Sometimes we haven’t been listening to our own needs and our focus is on someone else. Sometimes it is simply fatigue and sleep deprivation. Whatever the cause, when our focus returns, or we awake from our slumber we find ourselves in uncomfortable territory.

Jacques and I were able to get up really early to undertake the biggest day so far – probably well over 26 kms. I saw 5:55 on my phone as we were leaving. It was another beautiful morning as we ascended what I will refer to as ‘El Capitan’, because of its resemblance to the one in Yosemite. The sun rose colouring the sheer cliffs and trees with a gentle orange-pink. The path was steep, straight up following switchbacks for the first hour and a half. I was scared by the drop away from the path in some places. When you see the shale rocks spilling down the hill, it doesn’t fill one with confidence. ‘El Capitan’ or Roc de la Bissone was in our sights from many angles and it looked so high that we would never reach it. In the end, we walked right on top of it. The vegetation varied also. A thick covering in some place, and none in others – leaving you to tumble down the hill if you lost your footing.  I found myself savouring the small trees and vegetation and walking quickly past the exposed parts, with that slight feeling of panic never far away.

‘El Capitan’ or Roc de la Bissone

Looking back to where we’d come from, there was a beautiful view of the ruined castle we could see from St Guilhem and a subtle sunrise. The path was rocky, but consistent.

Ruined Visigoth castle

Sunrise for mum

El Capitan

El Capitan

When we reached the top, we crossed the saddle of the mountain over to the other side of the range and would stay there for the rest of the day. Just before we reached this point, we were shocked to meet two mountain bikers. There were no other routes but the one we’d just come up. The path was good, but prone to rock slides and I wondered how long it will last when it becomes frequented by wheels.

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.

Looking forward into the next valley we could see all of the little towns we had walked through for the last day or so. Pine trees and cones on the path appeared again, and so by 10-11am, the cigales were back too. The track opened up and changed from red to white dirt.

Heavy weight way markers

Stunning views avec insect

High on the mountain range, the views were spectacular. After a short break for ‘hotdogs’, we were off along the track, which had widened to fire track size. We followed it for some time. Jacques sang the Chanson de Pelerins – Ultreia and patiently repeated it while I tried to learn it. Later I had my head down, watching my step down a steep, rough track and for some reason we were both singing Frère Jacques. In a round. Dormez-vous? Do you sleep? We were both asleep. We realised we hadn’t seen a way marker in a while, and this was unusual, as the track had been well-marked up until then. We tried turning right, but so no confirmation of the way, so we doubled back and continued downwards, but something was telling me we were heading in the wrong direction. We’re on a road to nowhere.  We turned around and climbed back up the slippery rocks back to the fork in the road, and continued roughly west.  After following this for a few minutes we came across Jacques II as he was joining our track from the right. We had missed our turn to the right, oblivious.  The moral: the signs are great, if you pay attention to them.

Our second morning tea was at Enclos Neolithic. We found Jacques II there and had a brief discussion about how old Neolithic was. None of us was sure.

Enclos Neolithic

After our break, we continued along the track and could see La Berry in the distance and a ruined castle, before Montpeyroux. Voices told us there were people walking around it, and we saw them in the distance. To find the way down would be our second challenge.  Following a marker, we left the dirt track for knee-high vegetation, but the track was lost after a time, and our way again became unclear. Despite no way markers, Jacques pressed on. We ended up in a gully in the midst of thick prickly trees that there seemed no way out of. We got lost for 2nd time. There is a saying in French, Jamais deux sans trois. It is the same as in English, never two without three – things always happen in threes.

Castellas de Montpeyroux

Fortunately we didn’t get lost a third time, however Jacques had instead tripped three times that day. We got out of the ‘thicket’ and up to the base of the castle walls, however there still was no obvious way down. The sun was really burning already, and it was only 11am. I was getting frustrated at being hot, still out in the sun and lost a second time, and Jacques’s continued insistence to continue bush-bashing rather than finding a track. So I went my own way. The track we had left for the ‘thicket’ ended up winding around the back of the castle, so I joined it, and encouraged Jacques to come with me. We followed it down, past some decrepit stations of the cross. The castle is off-limits to visitors as apparently bits fall off of it, I can understand concerns for the safety of walls over 800 years old.

Castellas de Montpeyroux

Our expectations were high at Le Barry because we thought we’d reached Arboras – we wanted our 8 euro pilgrim meal. We again had further to go so followed a really grassy farm track and hit the outskirts of Arboras. A big bridge, then a little bridge, another steep ascent, and we were at our cafe for lunch – with Jacques II and Hugo. Just around the corner we had passed what looked like a mobile wine bottling operation on the back of a semi – a very interesting idea for small wine producers who can’t invest in the bottling and don’t want to transport the wine somewhere else.  We continued up a small, steep road past some houses and a guy tuning his very impressive motorbike. We said bon jour and he asked where we were from. I said Australie, and he smiled knowingly, and said “Ah, Phillip Island“, in his adorable French accent.  I was pleased to be able to claim it, now I’m living in Melbourne.  Some discerning French people know Australia for more than it’s sharks, snakes and spiders obviously.

The big bridge

Cafe Atelier des Hommes d’Argille was a great little arty cafe. We sat across the road shaded by trees and canvas. The atelier was a cartoonist seemingly obsessed with time. His witty observations reminded me of Michael Leunig. I wish I’d had the budget and the space to buy some. There were also lots of public fountains in this town and we all filled our water bottles prior to departure. Some beautiful dogs accompanied us for lunch – ‘La vie en douce’ – take it easy. It was a sweet little town, the cafe being the central feature really. There was a castle with a tower, but it looked to be private.

prendre du bon temps – to have a good time

The Castle

Lunching friend

We thought we were in for a good afternoon, but despite being partially refreshed by a lovely lunch, it was relentless. We followed bitumen out of the town, then turned right and mounted a consistent hill via a wide dirt track to the Rocher des Vierges – the virgins, well their car park anyway. It took ages and ages, up. It was slightly unnerving seeing spent bullet casings along the path for the first time.  After this we thought again we were on the home stretch, and again we went up on a rocky and small track. There were some shady patches under what I thought were elm trees, then we crossed into another valley. We saw distant purple rock formations in the valley. It got drier and drier, and the track ended up like a goat track with many loose rocks but I was very grateful for my (plug) Salomon shoes – they are excellent. Then came red earth and the cigales, many dragonflies at a still pond. The vegetation changed to saltbush. It was 4.00pm and really, really hot now. I was hoping to be out of the sun well before this late hour.  At the signpost to Rocher des Vierges, it had promised 4.75kms.  True to form, this last ‘hour’ was excruciating.

Saltbush

Terrain change

My legs had rubbed together uncomfortably all day with the perspiration, and now I was beside myself with the pain, every step causing more torture between my legs. With the very long walk, being lost twice and scratched in the thicket, I was on my last legs, and broke down eventually, Jacques providing a shoulder to cry on. Maybe he should be called St Jacques? My feet were so tired, my legs were in pain, I was barely walking when we passed the rubbish dump – surely we must be close now? Vertical stone wall, vertical path. What is it about steep descents into towns at the end of the day? We arrived at 4.55pm. Save about an hour an a half of breaks, we had walked all day, and I was absolutely spent.

Poubelle planet

Vertical rock wall

Jacques had phoned ahead and booked a gite, and as we walked toward the town’s epicerie to ask of it, a guy came up to us and said we were staying at his house. The gite wasn’t available, and the woman had said we could stay with her friends, opposite the church. He took us to a self-contained two bedroom unit downstairs from his house. I broke down crying again when his wife came in and kindly provided us with towels and fresh tomatoes from her garden. After I gingerly showered and hobbled, legs apart around the little space, I managed to slowly accompany Jacques shopping. The epicerie was really well set up with lots of mini things that suit pilgrims. Little serves of Roquefort cheese were the ones that caught my eye, but there were also small jars of bonne maman confiture and little pats of butter. Good sized supplies for breakfast. They also had the ready-made meals, so Boeuf Bourgogne was on the menu. We ran into Jacques II and Hugo and they were going to a cafe for dinner. They had got worried that something had happened to us when we didn’t come to their gite, and Jacques II had come looking for us out on the road. I was dead, but I was still walking. Once we’d finished our shopping, we joined them for a drink at the pizzeria. I ordered my favourite – Diablo Menthe.  It helped a little.

Back at the gite, I was feeling dehydrated and burnt, and I had the shivers, which could only mean one thing – heat stroke. It was the most ridiculously long and tiring day, and I was very upset and overwhelmed. Each day up until now had got more difficult. The distances too had got much longer. Whereas I had wanted to do around 20kms a day, with wrong turns and scorching sun, it felt like 30kms. I started to get an idea that walking at this pace was not proving to be the best thing for me. I was angry, sleep-deprived, and I hadn’t written pages for days. This arrangement, whilst good for companionship, was sucking me dry. Out in the hot sun that afternoon, I really could have just sat where I was and not gone any further. I was so wrung out from it. My body and my mind were saying no more.

It is strange that the terrain can look so beautiful, though the way is so hard. The photos don’t say anything about the pain and exhaustion my body was experiencing. And what was so frustrating was that this was meant to be enjoyable!

This wasn’t fun anymore.

I had just woken up.

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”.

Deux Chevaux (Citroën 2CV) de Via Tolosana

In homage to my whole French conversation class at Le Café Flo, here are some French gems.  However I know that Antoine in particular will love this post.  I’ll add to it if I spot any more.  Enjoy!!

 

Gallargues-le-Montueux

 

Saint-Jean-de-la-Blaquière

 

La Salvetat-sur-Agout

 

Canal du Midi, with matching boat

 

Toulouse

 

Aye, aye, sailor!

 

img_5824

Between Toulouse and Paris

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Paris?

img_5982

Semur-en-Auxios

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Korean Airlines in-flight entertainment on my homeward journey