Via Gebennensis

Via Gebennensis
Via Gebennensis

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Day 18. June 3, 2018. Saint-Julien-Chapteuil to Le Puy-en-Velay. 18 kms

Two lengths of concrete stretched across the stream

To form a kind of bridge. Electric poles they were

That served to light the way for humble folk

In times gone by. But now, cast out, had found

Another use: To bear the randonneur 

Across the stream. But who would chance his life

Upon this bridge? One pole was firm and flat,

The other, all askew; and like as not,

If once upon its slippery slope I stepped,

Tumble would I into the rushing brook,

Weighed down with heavy pack and leather boots,

Like Clementine to drown, or Hamlet’s lass,

Alas, my garments heavy with their drink,

My iPhone looking up with sightless eye

Its texts unsent, its messages unread,

Its emails all unopened, for I’d be dead.


‘Twas quite enough to make a mortal quake.

I paused at length. Was it to end like this

In shame, in ignominious retreat?

No, my goodness, no. Cry ultreia!

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. 

And so into the woods I went to find

A stick, a branch, to brace myself against

A fall into the muddy brook. At last

A sturdy staff retrieved, return did I

To where I’d face my fortune, by and by.


I paused, and took a breath, and then at last

I screwed my courage to the sticking place,

And took a step, one foot upon the pole,

The other still upon the terra firm.

But now I had to chance the pole which angled 

Down to bottomless perdit-ion.

I paused, I stepped, I almost slipped, and then,

My staff embedded in the stream below

Another step I took and reached the Rubicon.

A moment’s pause, a sudden fear, a start,

And then, all caution to the wind, I leapt

And landed firm upon the other side.

My venture won, my trusty staff I threw

With careless arm into the air. It flew

And splashed into the stream, its duty done.

And then, all cock a hoop, I hurried on.





I set out early this morning, 7:45, in fact, after a couple of croissants from the bakery and a coffee at the bar next door. Along the highway and off on a dirt road, down the valley towards a stream. And there I crossed another bridge made of discarded electric light poles, this time, four in number and firmly embedded in concrete at either end. This was how it should be done. I revisited my earlier crossing, and this occupied me for most of the morning.





I climbed steadily along the side of the valley which eventually opened out into a large plain, dotted with little villages and lined in the distance with low hills


Once I had to stop and wait as a family moved their cows across my path from one field to another. Most would follow the others, the big animals lumbering across, the little ones putting on a bit of a gallop. But not all. A few recalcitrants in the corner of the field refused to budge and a farmer had to go and move them along.


A little further on I arrived at Saint-Germain-Laprade. On one side of the valley was the town, the older buildings clustered around the church, with more modern housing on the outskirts. Further along was the petro-chemical industry: storage tanks, long, low factories, a chimney emitting steam. No pretty, but it kept the town alive.


The church was interesting so I decided to take a look. The door was closed, but I tried it any way, pushing against it, expecting it to stop against the lock. It sprang open with a clang, startling the parishioners within. It was Sunday mass and the church was full to the back pew. I backed out apologetically.





A few kilometres on, I arrived at Brives Charensac. And a surprise: the Loire. It was not the first time I had crossed it on a walk. Nor was it the first bridge to nowhere I had seen across the river. 


And then I walked along its bank, and that of its tributary, la Borne, to Le Puy-en-Velay. One more hazardous crossing, ignoring the “prohibited when under water” sign. And forgive me, but once again, dear reader, I remind you that such a crossing would not be possible in anything but serious leather boots. My feet were as dry as a bone. But yours, in runners or light hiking boots?




In the past, I have arrived at Le Puy by train and walked past all those hotels with their magnificent towers to the old town, the cathedral, and the nearby pilgrim gîtes. This time, I arrived from below and saw how the old town is dominated by the golden statue of the Madonna and Child, and the amazing Chapelle Saint-Michel surmounted on the rock.




I shunned the pilgrims’ quarters around the cathedral, thinking that I had earned myself a night in a hotel. I am staying at the Ibis, opposite the station, and have enjoyed a shower, both hands free, without having to press my back against the tap to keep the water flowing, and with water warm enough to enjoy a prolonged experience.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Day 17. June 2, 2018. Saint-Jeures to Saint-Julien-Chapteuil. 20 kms.

They always get the best positions





I wonder how long the railway strike will last. The few people I have spoken to believe the government will win. Certainly, many people are being hurt. Martine, for example, who runs the gite, says that her business has really been affected. The walkers aren’t passing through in the numbers that they used to. 


On the advice of Martine I was following the shells, not the red and white markings. She said that former route was shorter and more beautiful. It turned out that the routes coincided for most of the way but at the end they differed considerably.


I set out on a farm road around the edge of the valley climbing slightly towards Araules. To my right were the volcanic plugs. I tried to imagine them millions of years ago, thrusting up through the older rock spitting fire and spewing forth lava.


A little way out of town  I passed some young cows in a pen in the corner of a field. They were restless, shifting about nervously in their pen displaying not the typical bovine curiosity, but fear and I anxiety. These poor animals! I think they knew their days were numbered. Sure enough, some farmers arrived in a tractor pulling a large wagon. They were off to market.


I believe that the world’s cattle contribute one tenth of the worlds pollution. Not as much as oil, though.


I read a disturbing article this morning which maintains that for the the government’s gamble in buying the Kinder Morgan pipeline to pay off, its own proposals to prevent climate change will have to fail. For if the world succeeds in existing on other forms of energy then there won’t be a demand for Canada’s heavy oil at all.


I should explain that the pipeline in question, an addition to an existing pipeline, is necessary to get Alberta’s tar sands oil to the coast. It is supported by most Albertans, and many British Columbians, but opposed by the BC government under extreme pressure from the Green Party, which keeps them in power. To avoid a serious rift in Canada the federal government has supported Alberta and the pipeline, even against its own environmental principles. That’s an oversimplification of the most serious issue to face Canada in years.


I walked through Aroules, up along a wide bitumen road into the forest, and along a narrow path towards the highest crossing on this Camino. But it was nothing compared to previous brutal climbs, because I have been climbing steadily since crossing the Rhone. Today’s gain in elevation was only  six hundred feet.


I passed an old rugged cross, well, no longer rugged, but weathered, still standing but much eroded, rather like the Church itself.





I went to a Billy Graham Crusade once, in my Presbyterian youth. What I enjoyed most, I remember, was the singing of George Beverly Shea. I didn’t go forward, but many did. Yes, they were gullible, but nothing compared to the congregations of today who contribute towards their pastor’s new jet because he tells them that Jesus said he had to have one to be closer to God.


Up to the summit and then down the other side towards the spectacular village of Queyrières. Some villages form in the valleys where there is water: others on a hill for defence. Half way in between, Queyrières seems to have huddled around a great monolith for comfort.






I walked along the road through the hamlet of Monedeyres and down a valley between two plugs, one of them exposing a steep basalt wall, perhaps a challenge for rock climbers.


Arriving at a forest, the path split, the GR heading left up towards one of the mountains, the Chemin de Saint-Jacques following the river down to the Moulin Guérin, a mill on the river still in use, apparently. The path followed the river down to the village of Saint-Julien-Chapteuil, where I am spending the night in the gîte. At the edge of the town, I noticed a particularly nice bed of iris.




Installed in my private room at the gîte, once again I was the only one there, I decided to visit the church, a restored eglise Romane. To get there was a Camino in itself. A walk to the top of the town, a climb up a stony path, and then another climb up some steep steps. How did the faithful infirm get to mass?


After church, I had a choice of nearby eating places: the Restaurant Vidal where the entrees started at €25 and the mains at €40, or the Snack Bar du Meygal, Chez Mich. I chose the latter. On arriving at the door, the hostess said, I’m doing pizza tonight. I said, I’ll have a pizza.


Friday, 1 June 2018

Day 16. June 1, 2018. Montfaucon-en-Velay to Saint-Jeures. 20 kms

Broom is busting out all over






A fine gîte, the municipal Gîte Saint-Regis. Typical of many municipal gîtes, it was a modern facility in an old building that housed other communal programs as well. These villages are not short of old buildings. This one may once have been associated with the Chapelle Notre Dame next door, where instead of stations of the cross were twelve Flemish paintings (Abel Grimmer 1592), depicting the months of the year and each representing a Biblical scene. January reminded me a little of Bruegel. 


After supper last night, I had a very pleasant beer with Jean-Francois, a camerade du chemin I had met seven years ago on the Chemin d’Arles. He was driving from Geneva to Gaillac and made a detour to say hello.


It was all blue sky when I looked out the window this morning, but as I set out, heavy rain clouds were building up, always menacing, but they never came to anything. It was easy going at first, fairly flat along minor roads and farm lanes. And then, I came over a rise, and could see the volcanic plugs (les puys) in the distance which had given Le Puy its name. Eventually I arrived at Tence (below).






In the sun, when it shone, the broom was spectacular. It seems to have bloomed all at once. After borrowing the line from Carousel, I had Rogers and Hammerstein songs in my head all morning. I doubt if the musicals are performed much anymore, especially with songs like “Poor Judd is Dead”.


These are sensitive times. Gilbert and Sullivan’s great comic opera, The Mikado, will be performed this year in Victoria with a special prelude, probably explaining that the performers aren’t really making fun of the Japanese. Not that they ever were. But these are sensitive times.


Especially in Canada. A church not far from the Penny Farthing, the pub that serves Fat Tug beer, has had the Men’s and Women’s signs removed from the doors of the toilets, lest they offend anyone who doesn’t identify as either a man or a woman. The vast majority of us who do, have to interpret the new artistic symbols on the doors, representing urinals and sit-down toilets. Usually I choose the door with two of the former and one of the latter.


These are debatable issues. Not so, in my opinion, was something I observed in Tence this morning when I entered Le Grand Cafe for a petit cafe. It was a posh restaurant where they were getting ready for the noon customers. At the entrance to the dining area was a life-size model of a young man with a deferential smile, holding a waiter’s tray. He was black. He should have been cast into the bin of discarded racist artifacts on top of the golliwogs.


I grew up with golliwogs and racist rhymes like the earlier version of “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”, and swarthy villains in the Enid Blyton books. We didn’t realize they were racist, of course, but I’m sure they had a subtle effect on us.


Tence is a busy bustling town. I could hardly find a break in the traffic to cross the street. I came out of the town and walked along the bank of the river for a while. Then I started to climb, nothing brutal, but in the undulating afternoon, there were more ups than downs. 


I came over a rise, and looked up towards the village of Saint-Jeures. Towards the right was the church steeple. On the left was the first of the volcanic plugs in the region. Tonight, I am staying at Gîte le Fougal.





Thursday, 31 May 2018

Day 15. May 31, 2018. Les Setoux to Montfaucon-en-Velay. 17 kms.

...every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain




About six o’clock in the evening a little girl appeared at the gîte to tell me that her mother would be arriving to prepare supper. And a superb supper it was: charcuterie de la region, and then a mountain of beans with great slabs of beef from the hospitalier’s farm, and then cheese with a particularly nice blue, also from her farm, and then cherries for desert. At my request she turned on the heat, so I draped my washing over the radiators to dry.


During the afternoon, as I sat about in pensive mood, I was startled by a large crack, as if something had snapped or a coin had dropped on the floor, only much louder. A couple of hours later, it happened again, and I noticed on the far table a kind of radiator with two blue fluorescent bars: it was a fly zapper. Now the flies are bad here, as they are wherever there are cattle. In the gîte they were on the table and in my hair.  But here’s the point of my story. With a fly swat I could have killed a dozen in a few minutes whereas in the ten or so daylight hours I spent in the gîte there were only three zaps. So don’t waste your money on a fly zapper!


There was another odd noise as well, a low moaning which developed into a muffled roar like Balrog stirring in the bowels of the mountain. I put it down to the hot water tank or some other aspect of the plumbing.


Raindrops were splattering in the puddles as I ventured out of the gîte this morning, but despite the rain I was expecting an easy day. After all, my path stretched out across the plain into the distance and there weren’t any mountains ahead. However, on two occasions I could have come to serious grief.


After several easy kilometres along the road, it was a day of ups and downs, through the forest and up to a ridge and then down the valley on the other side. These were pine plantations again, with stripped trees stacked along the side of the road, and once I came upon a monster caterpillar tractor hauling logs and turning the road into a mud slide.





It was on one of the descents to the bottom of a valley that I encountered my first difficulty. I had arrived at a bridge crossing a stream when I found that the stepping stones across a little tributary were underwater and I couldn’t reach the bridge. A little upstream I managed to jump across the little feeder stream to reach the bridge, cross over, and continue on my way. Not so simple. The track doubled back to cross the stream once more, returning to the bank from which I started. But this time there was no bridge, but the most perilous crossing I have ever seen. No way would I risk crossing on those slippery concrete poles! One of them was flat, but the other at a treacherous angle.






Ah. I would retrace  my steps, cross the bridge, and continue on the other bank. But there was no path on the other side, just a vast expanse of stinging nettles. No way could I pass through there. I returned to the concrete crossing and considered my options. Take off my boots and wade across? No, too deep with slippery rocks. I needed a pole. I searched in the woods, found a long branch, dug it deep in the bed of the stream and took my first steps. When I reached the middle, I took one long step and leapt to the other side. Lucky! It could have been disastrous. I thought of Bluebottle, or was it Eccles, who would have said, “He’s fallen in the water.”


After that, it was up a steep rocky path Into to the forest again. As I’ve said many times, I could not have managed this walk without serious leather boots. So much of the path has been rocky, and I’ve been up to my ankles in water.


Eventually, I came out of the forest onto the fields where I could see Montfaucon in the distance. It was here that I had my second brush with danger. Along the lane ahead of me was a petrol can.





Looks innocent enough, doesn’t it? I occasionally see them by the road, left by a farmer after refuelling his machinery. Strange place to leave it though, in the middle of the lane. I was about to pass it, and then, just in time, I saw why it was there. A farmer had stretched his electric fence across the road, and left the can as a warning. No ribbons hanging on the wire. Not very effective. I almost got zapped.


I walked into Montfaucon and found a place at the municipal gîte. It is clean, warm and comfortable.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Day 14. May 30, 2018. Saint-Saveur-en-Rue to Les Setoux. 10 kms

Get thee up into the high mountain 






I enjoyed my time in my shack/chalet. I was cosy and comfortable. I felt a couple of creatures crawl over me in the night, but they may have been imaginary. The hut was one of several reserved for pilgrims, but I was alone.


The campsite was run by a pleasant couple, but there was a sadness about them. His friendliness seemed almost forced. She seemed rather worn down. When I asked why there was no paper in the toilets, she said that the people take them. 


“The pilgrims?” I asked, knowing that the wise pilgrim keeps an emergency roll in his back pocket. 


“No,” she said, “the campers.” 


It must be hard to make a living running a campsite. Lots of work keeping it in good shape and huge expenses keeping facilities and cabins heated. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen people staying last night to cover these expenses, let alone make a profit.


Leaving the campground in the morning under a sullen sky, I walked 600 metres up the road to pass under the old railway line. Unfortunately, the GR continued up the hill, while the line took an easy gradient to the right. I suspected that we would end up in the same place and that the GR was perversely taking me on a detour into high places.


The only sounds were the snarling of a chainsaw and the mournful howling of a dog in the distance. No birds sang. A wide rocky path led into the depths of a dark pine forest. 


I climbed in long zigzags up a forest track to a shelter and then around the contour of the valley.


It started to rain so I made preparations to don my poncho. This is a difficult business if you are by yourself. You have to orient it so that when it’s on you’re looking out of, and not into, the hood, and then you fling the whole thing up into the air and over your head, hoping that it comes down behind you with the back flap settling over your pack.This is an impossible process in the wind, but today it was calm, and I succeeded rather well.


I came upon a couple of friendly foresters who made a predictable comment:


Ce n’est pas le beau temps.


One of them offered me a chunk of the bread he was eating, but I declined. Kind of him though. I took off again up a rocky slope until the track levelled out around another contour. I arrived at a place where four roads met, and where two GRs crossed. A fellow emerged from the bushes with a big, brown paper bag. “Les cèpes,” he said. Wild mushrooms.


I continued up and up through dark, silent woods, no undergrowth, just a bed of dead pine needles on one side, and some younger trees pushing up among their elders on the other. Finally the path levelled out at 1280 metres, and I began to descend.


Emerging from the forest, I looked out on a vast plateau, a low range of hills in the distance. This was the beginning of the Massif Central. In the foreground was the hamlet of Les Setoux where I knew there was a gîte. It was open with a message on the door inviting walkers to come in and make themselves at home.


It was really too early to stop, for it was barely noon, but a couple of telephone calls revealed that there was no accommodation further on, so I have settled in at the gîte, done my washing although I can’t hang it outside to dry, buttered a few crusts of bread left over from someone’s breakfast, and I’m hoping that the hospitalier will arrive to cook me supper. Otherwise it will be stale bread for breakfast, dinner and tea.


The wind has been increasing all afternoon, making waves in the grass and tossing about the Queen Anne’s lace, or it is yarrow? The big trees shake about violently, the younger ones bend over. Mist rises from a valley over the ridge. A herd of cows huddle together for warmth, looking absolutely miserable. Only a few chooks scratch about in their yard; the rest have headed for shelter. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Day 13.May 29, 2018. Saint-Julien-Molin-Molette to Saint-Saveur-en-Rue. 16 kms

His yoke is easy and his burden is light






It was an easy day today, and my pack felt so light that I wondered what I had left behind. The town was more alive this morning and less depressing in the sunlight. To be fair, Monday was closing day, but I had expected that at least one bar would be open. 


Last night’s was a patrician family. The father was a law prof., the son about to become the same, the daughter in first year medicine, and an older daughter, who had passed through an École Supérieur, was studying in Boston.


At supper they asked me polite questions about Trudeau and what Canadians thought about Macron, but really their attention was elsewhere, busy with their own affairs. The meal was nothing special, but they served very a nice Shiraz, no plonk from the bowser for this family,  and when I arrived, the customary welcoming beer was a Leffe. But I don’t think they were really ready for guests and they took me in because I was somewhat stuck.


But I luxuriated in the large bedroom in this modern house.


And the bathroom? Well, it wasn’t a pokey little room with a one-handed shower in the bathtub and a loo under the staircase where to pee standing up you had to lean over backwards with your face against the underside of the stairs, this playing havoc with your aim, and toilet paper emerging from the bowels of a grotesque cartoon character whom I did not recognize. No, it was  a large en-suite bathroom just a few steps from my bed.


Leaving the town around 8:30, I walked up the side of the hill and over into the next valley where I had a coffee at Bourg-Argental. Then it was a gentle climb along the side of a hill and through a pass heading towards Les Setoux.


Eventually, I reached a discontinued railway line, always a happy encounter because the grade is easy. The path became a road, still following the old railway, but occasionally making a detour when the line went through a tunnel. I arrived at the old Gare Saint-Saveur-en-Rue and had to decide whether to continue another ten kilometres over the mountain to Les Setoux or to make for the village of Saint-Saveur. There were thunder clouds over the mountain so I headed for the village. 


I am staying in a chalet (aspen shack) at the local campgrounds. There are a few creepy crawlies about, but I will be on my guard. The rain did not come to pass, and my washing is drying nicely in the sun.





Monday, 28 May 2018

Day 12. May 28, 2018. Chavanay to Saint-Julien-Molin-Molette. 20.5 kms

I have fallen into good fortune





It was not a very happy evening Chez Ghislaine. The three-storey house was something of a menagerie. She had two cats of her own, and her daughter who was staying with her had brought along two dogs and several cats as well. During the afternoon I heard a tremendous commotion and much squealing. I thought that perhaps one of the dogs had gone for a cat, but no, one of the dogs, frightened by thunder, had attacked the other and bitten off part of its ear.


The aggressor had formerly been a fighting dog, before the daughter had rescued it, and in its panic, had reverted to what it had been trained to do. Surely it would have to be put down, but really, it is the men who train animals to fight, against their nature, who deserve that fate.


Ghislaine was understandably upset, and she couldn’t devote her full attention to the preparation of the meal, but did my washing, gave me a snack for the day, and was not at all expensive.


There are certain hazards on the Camino. You might fall in the water as you’re stepping from stone to stone as you cross a stream or you might take a tumble as you’re going down a stony path. But the exterior hazards are nothing compared to those in the old buildings we stay in. There is the circular staircase which descends around a central axis, with no width to the step on the inside. And there are unexpected rises or falls from one level to another as you move from room to room. In the night, if you’re not careful, you stub your toe or step out into space. At Ghislaine’s there was a treacherous staircase without a railing but a thick nautical rope instead.


I left the gîte, crossed the bridge, walked for a few yards along the road and then climbed up the rocky path to the 17th century chapel. Abandoned in 1892 and restored a century later, it is quite beautiful inside with simple drawings of pilgrims on the wall, nothing  excessive. 





Thinking about the Church and its excesses, I recalled that abortion will now be legal in Ireland. Personally, I agree with the Church that life begins at conception, but I think the decision whether or not to end it, is the woman’s. Anyway, I gather the result was decisive. The Irish may have been persuaded by a slogan carried by one of the advocates for abortion:


Keep your rosaries off our ovaries.


A brilliant slogan that, and I was challenged to think up similar ones for future protests against the Church’s excesses.


Keep your beeds away from our seeds


Self-expression, not intercession


Profligacy, not celibacy


To no avail. It kept me occupied for several kilometres, but I could not come near the brilliance of the Irish slogan.


By then I had walked into a new valley,  along streams, through cherry orchards and plum trees, past a farm with bleating goats, and through fields of grain sprinkled with poppies and corn flowers


When I first started walking in France almost fifteen years ago the grandes randonnées were marked by red and white horizontal stripes painted on poles or stones or walls or trees. Often these had faded over time, eroded by the sun and the wind and the rain, or  the trees had protested against this offence to their person and had simply grown through the paint. Sometimes as well there were red and yellow markings indicating not a grande but a petite randonnée, a local circuit. But that was all you would see.


Today some of these old markings remain but most have been replaced by plastic. And they have been joined by markers in different designs and colours for other local and regional walks, sometimes stretching for several feet up the pole. I suspect that it won’t be long before the guardians of these trails recognize that this use of plastic runs contrary to their environment principles.


Eventually, I left the valley and started to climb, up and up and through a pass into the next valley. I had gained 1600 feet since leaving Chavanay this morning. A few kilometres further on I reached Saint-Julien. I had booked a place at a gite, but found myself alone in a depressing building with no shops or restaurants open where I could eat or buy food, so I left and moved to a chambre d’hôtes Chez Frank Pennet. I was lucky. Just as I arrived, the rain which had been threatening all day set in for good.