Via Gebennensis

Via Gebennensis
Via Gebennensis

Monday, 9 May 2011

Why I walk the Camino. Part 3

There are many reasons why people walk the Camino: religious, spiritual, personal, sportive, cultural, "natural", etc.

For some, one particular reason may be all important. A few days ago I met a woman who was astonished that I wasn't going to make a detour to see "le Christ qui sourit". She had the manner of a stern Mother Superior. And I have met people whose aim was to do the Camino as quickly as possible, walking up to 50 kilometres a day. For them it is a race.

But I think that most of us walk for all of these reasons, in our own order of priority.

Mainly, I walk the Camino for the pleasures of the moment.

There are the moments of architectural beauty - the octagonal church at Eunate, the cathedral at Auch, the abbey at Conques, the cloister at Moissac, the eglise Romane at Triacastella, and so on.

And I enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside. The yellow buttercups and the broom and gorse, the blue iris and bluebells and fogetmenots, the red poppies, the pink mallow and foxgloves and herb Roberts. And the birdcalls and the rushing of the river as I walk up a valley, and even the curious sound of the turbines in the wind. And the whiff of smoke from a wood fire and the scent of wild herbs. And the loneliness of high places.

Above all, there is the fellowship and camaraderie of the road, the stuff of picaresque novels which I have always enjoyed: the pleasure of meeting and re-meeting old friends, the interesting characters one meets, and the little adventures along the way.

Included in these social pleasures are the biting tang of a cold beer at the end of the day, the gastronomic delights of a good meal, and the enduring taste of a good red. All of these are intensified on the road because we have earned them.

Walking the Camino is living a life within a life. Is it an escape? Probably.

But I am done with Camino walking now.

I grow old, I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

The End

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Day 38. From Eunate to Puente la Reina (5.3 kms)

8 May, 2011

It is time to declare a winner in the Footwear Stakes. I had thought that Tilley would win, hands down, but in fact, both pairs of socks are almost through just above the heel. In the end, though, I declare Tilley Endurables the winner, by a nose.

This morning we quickly covered the last few kilometres into Puente la Reina. Suddenly, there were pilgrims everywhere. They were ahead of us and behind us, and spilling out of the gites and bars. Without realising it, we had passed the junction where the two roads become one.

We had a last coffee and I said good-bye to Miek and Patrick. It was a sad moment. That evening, I raised my glass to them, as I'm sure they did to me.

I caught a bus into Pamplona where I am spending the night. Tomorrow, I will catch a train for Barcelona.

It is time to bid farewell to my good companions: to ebullient Miek, whose company I enjoyed so much during the last week of my walk; to Elisabeth, with her lovely English handwriting and disposition to match; to marvellous Marte, with the inbuilt antenna that could zero in on a wifi hotspot in any town, and who kindly taught me things I didn't know about my iPod; to Anna Maria, the warm and witty Icelander, who shared her thoughts about the Camino; and to Patrick, Master of Occitan and Connoisseur of Calf Balls, whose enthusiasm infected us all. And also to Jean Francois and Genevieve whom I'm sure I owe a few beers; and to all the other pilgrims I met along the chemin. Buen Camino!

If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then, this parting was well made.

Day 37. Monreal to Eunate (25.8 kms)

7 May, 2011

Blisters are the least of your problems on the Camino. They usually appear and disappear within the first week or so. More serious are the problems of muscles and tendons and joints. Pilgrims are always rubbing various gels into their limbs and filling the gite with pungent aromas. At the gite last night was a French woman with every conceivable problem with her legs. She had begun at Saint-Guilhem many weeks ago and was now able to manage only the bare minimum each day. She would limp from one gite to the next, but she wasn't going to give up.

We stopped for lunch at Tiebas and were forced to drink a litre of red because the bottle was cheaper than three glasses.

When we left it started to pour down, so, fortified with wine, we walked 13 kilometres in record time to reach our destination.

We spent the night at an alberge next to the church at Eunate. The gite was formerly a barn, built in the 13th century. It was worth staying there for the opportunity of visiting the unusual and unique octagonal Romanesque church which was formerly a funeral chapel for pilgrims. What a contrast with the church at Arres! Instead of garish painting and statutary there was simple, cold, unadorned stone. A large Roman arch rose above the abside, and around the octagon, eight columns supported the vaulting which met at the top of the cupola. The narrow windows were of translucent marble.

Later, we participated in a simple pilgrims' service, each reading a prayer in our own language.

Day 36. Sanguesa to Monreal (31.1 kms)

6 May, 2010

I left the gite early and crossed the Aragon river as the church bells struck seven.

The same wind that wafted the odours from the paper mill and the sewage treatment plant towards me was furiously turning the blades of the turbines high above me. It's an ill wind...

Later in the day, after a long climb, I found myself on the other side of those wind turbines. I counted 116 of them before they disappeared out of sight at each end of the ridge. Lots of electricity! But one was crook. It stood idle and forlorn while all the others turned.

I had decided to break the last two steps of more than 30 kms into three, but changed my mind when today's 31 kms turned out to be less than that. And the last part was downhill. So tomorrow is my last day, but I may stop short of Puente la Reina to avoid the crowd arriving on the Camino Frances.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Day 25. Ruesta to Sanguesa (22.4 kms)

5 May, 2011

The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

No birds were singing as I left the gite this morning, perhaps because I was walking in a pine forest. It was unusual not to hear them. And it's so dry here that the sedge has probably withered from the lake as well.

But as I walked up a wide forest road where deciduous trees lined the edges, the birds returned, and I stopped to record some of their calls.

After climbing for two and a half hours, I came out of the forest onto a plateau, some of it cultivated with wheat, the rest, moorland really, with heather, gorse, and lots of blue-eyed grass. A tractor was working in a field.

It was on a day like this, almost ten years ago, on the high path out of Triacastella, one of my favourite parts of the Camino, that I saw two oxen ploughing a field, probably the last of their kind.

On the distant hills, I could see a hundred or more wind turbines standing like bleached tree trunks of an ancient forest.

I walked on and climbed up to Undues de Lerda, another little village on a hill. For the last 100 feet or so, I walked on a Roman road, the stones perfectly aligned to direct the rainwater to the sides. I ordered a coffee at the bar.

Leaving the village, I walked down a dirt road and would have missed a path leading off to one side but for a cairn that marked the spot.

All along the camino you see piles of stones. Sometimes they are markers like this one, but more often they are simply symbolic of the Camino. Wherever there are loose stones, they have been piled up. Mileposts and other markers have little piles of stones on top. Crosses and calvares (shrines) have piles of stones around the bottom. Yesterday, I passed a dry riverbed where the stones had been arranged into hundreds of piles, often quite artistically.

All of these piles of stones anticipate the cross of iron before Pontferrada where stones have been piled many yards high around the cross. This is a symbolic moment on the Camino where you deposit a stone you have bought from your home country.

I made another recording of a bird song during the afternoon. Ever since I first read the famous poem by Keats, I have been searching for the elusive song of the nightingale. This is the time of the year to hear them. I had always assumed that they sing only at night, but I have learned that they sing during the day as well.

I have been hearing songs with a characteristic sound like a dog whine in the middle of the sequence, and I wonder whether I have been listening to the nightingale all along without realising it.

Once when I was walking the Cotswold Way, I asked the hostess of the B&B where I was staying if she heard nightingales in her garden. She did, and she told me a sad story. Normally they (the males) stop singing in mid-May, when they find a mate. That year, however, one had continued to sing much later than usual because he hadn't found anyone.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird.

So I have recorded several bird songs to see whether I have been listening to a nightingale during the day.

A word about what gadgets to bring.

Bring a camera, of course, with a large enough memory chip up last the distance.

Almost everyone carries a cell phone. In France, these are necessary to make reservations, but in Spain you can't reserve ahead.

Obviously, an iPod Touch is useful for picking up and sending email. Wifi can be found almost everywhere. I was glad to be able to follow the Canadian election results, bad and good. And, of course, you can record birdsongs.

I used to bring a little flashlight, but I find that there's usually enough light coming from outside or from the emergency lights within. Otherwise, at a pinch, you can make your way around in the dark with the light from the screen of any one of your digital gadgets.

Sometimes things turn out better than expected. I woke up only once last night to the sound of the snorer. And then a strange thing happened. Someone started whistling, long notes at the same high pitch. It seemed to calm him and he stopped. Perhaps it was one of his mates who had discovered this effective technique.

At Sanguesa, we were delighted to meet up with Patrick who had taken a day off to recover from a bout of tendenitus.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Day 34. Arres to Ruesta (27 kms)

4 May, 2011

The alberge last night was just as I remember them in Spain. Four double bunks crowded into a small room. Nowhere to put your stuff. One small window. No emergency light, so you needed a torch to get out in the night. Otherwise, nice ambience and quite good food. Voluntary contribution.

As I left the gite, I walked down a path, and onto a track that led to a farm. A pack of dogs forced me to take a short cut across a field. Then I walked due west for miles along a gravel road, my shadow stretched out in front of me. A hawk hovered overhead, waiting for something to move in the field below.

Tonight we are staying in the ruined village of Ruesta, abandoned in 1959 because of a hydro-electric project. I'm not sure why, because it isn't flooded. The whole village, including a castle and church, are in ruins, except for the alberge and a bar which have been restored. This is another village which must somehow survive on the pilgrim trade.

The Spanish snorer from Jaca is with us tonight. He likes his food and wine, and carries a lot of weight. He arrived after me, sat down to lunch with a bottle of red, and is now sleeping it off in the dorm. The room is rocking.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Day 33. Jaca to Arres (24 kms)

3 May, 2011

Now I am heading west. After leaving Jaca, I walked along the left side of a broad river valley. The last of the snow-capped Pyrenees were behind me.

For a while, the camino followed a dirt track alongside the highway. Then it took a turn up a hill and around the contours. Old stone mileposts marked the distances. This was probably the old pilgrim track.

The medieval pilgrims would have followed the highways of the time. These would have developed into modern roads when they led directly from town to town, and the path today would avoid them. But when they twisted and turned and climbed steeply, the modern road would take a faster route, and the old camino would survive for us.

The river valley opened out into a broad plain. I walked beside fields of barley. The trees and bushes were stunted as the countryside became more arid.

I stopped for lunch in a park in the little town of Santa-Cilia-de-Jaca. Five old men sat on a single bench. A sixth arrived, but there was nowhere for him to sit.

The path continued to follow the river for a while, and then, for the last three kilometres, climbed over a hill and dropped down to the gite at the little village of Arres.

A message from the Norwegians warned us of a bar to avoid tonight. They ate there and got food poisoning. I drank the beer but avoided the tapas.


After my chores, I stroll around the hamlet. The gite is one of a score of stone buildings on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the valley. The others include a church and a bar. Cats and dogs laze in the sun. Once, farmers would have lived up here in the village for protection and gone down to the valley to work their fields during the day. Now, I suspect, rather like O Cebrero on the Camino Frances, the village survives on the pilgrim trade.

A few kilometres to the north are the foothills and then the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees. To the south is another range of hills yellow with gorse. Down in the valley the barley waves in the wind. Trees run along the banks of the Aragon River.

We end the day with a visit to the little church, much celebrated, I believe. The others seem impressed, but it's not to my taste. There is a simple beauty in carved wood, but here it is all painted in garish colours. Nothing is left unadorned. The patron saint of the village is holding her severed breasts on a platter. How could the Church stray so far from the simple teachings of a Jewish prophet?

Monday, 2 May 2011

Day 32. Jaca

2 May, 2011

Last night at the gite we had a classic snorer with a wide range of almost musical notes and animal noises. The brassy trombone would modulate into the spluttering tuba. The regular grunting and growling of a bear would become the braying of a donkey and the snorting of a pig, and build up to a sudden cataclysmic release of pressure. And then merciful silence, until it began again.

We also had a cougher. These are to be feared in the stuffy confines of a gite where they can spread their contagion.

I remember that we encountered one on the Camino Frances. We called him the Spanish Cougher. He seemed to be suffering from more than a cold and we expected him to expire at any moment. What was he doing out of hospital? We did everything we could to avoid him, even choosing the most out-of-the-way gite. But to no avail. He was always there. Then suddenly he disappeared. We never saw him again.

The Company is breaking up. Elisabeth and Marte left yesterday; Anna Maria and Patrick this morning.
Only Miek and I remain in Jaca. I'm nursing a shin, she a knee.

I spent the day wandering around the old town and sitting in the sun. Tomorrow I'm back on the road.

Day 31. Somport to Jaca (30.9 kms)

1 May, 2011

We spent the night in a dungeon of a dormitory. It was uneventful, but for a Spaniard suffering a serous attack of vertigo in the top bunk.

Getting to Jaka was hard yakka. I limped from town to town, fortifying myself with coffee at each stop.

I left the gite to follow the bright yellow arrows down the rocky path. Big dollops of yellow were splashed every few yards. They must have got a good deal on the paint.

To my surprise, the red and white balises reappeared as well. What were they doing there? Especially after deserting us yesterday. On the Camino Frances, the GR markings continue only to the border.

Sometimes the yellow arrows and the red and white balises wrestled for space on the rock. Who was running the show? Spanish or French? The Spanish, I hoped. They want to get you straight to heaven via Santiago, whereas the French like to get you off the straight and narrow.

We met a serious Camino freak at Castiello de Jaca. She had walked from England to Santiago in the eighties, and since then was walking them all backwards. She was heading for Arles. She talked rapidly, probably because everyone she met was going the other way, and she only had a few minutes to say what she had to say.

When we walked into Jaca at 6:30, who should we find at a bar by the cathedral, but Patrick and Jean Francois.

The best part of the day was the evening meal. On Patrick's recommendation, we went to a tapas bar, the best in town. Quite a small place with marvellous ambience. Only a few tables with people crowding around the bar.

We acquired a table. I think Patrick had charmed the server by speaking Occitan to her Catalan. He ordered.

We began with snails. We attacked these with toothpicks. Soon a huge pile of shells accumulated in the middle of the table, but not Anna Maria's - she was building a castle wall with hers.

Then some enormous breaded shrimp. And some calamari, I think, or some kind of squid, in heart-shaped pieces. Delicious.

And then the piece de resistance, a plate of crumbly tasty meat. If you can guess what this is," said Patrick. "I'll pay for the whole meal!" "Testicles," I guessed, thinking of the most outlandish possibility. Right," he said. "Riz de veau," the euphemistic term for calf's balls.

I didn't hold him to his promise. It was a memorable meal with memorable company!

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Day 30. Etsaut to Col du Somport (17 kms)

30 April, 2011

Much ado about nothing!

The Federation of Grandes Randonnees has declassified most of the last section of the Chemin d'Arles in France, from Bedous to Somport, and recommended that walkers take a bus to avoid walking along a dangerous section of the highway.

The French take this warning very seriously. They paint a picture of trucks whizzing by every second, spewing out diesel fumes. I heard about crazy Spanish drivers "who take a siesta and then weave back and forth across the road half asleep".

It may be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. I stll remember the French driver in Caen who backed up along the autoroute when he missed his turnoff.

As it turned out, walking along the highway was quite feasible. There were some narrow sections where there was little space between the white line and the barrier or a cliff, and there was one place where a nice grassy field would have offered an escape from a truck hurtling towards me but for the electric fence which kept me out. Be squashed or be fried! But for the most part, it was easy going, and today, only one truck passed by.


As we climb steadily, the temperature drops. New vistas open to snow-capped mountains. On the peaks above, the rock strata twist and turn. The road hugs the cliff on one side of the valley, while high above, the old railway, an engineering marvel, is supported on its embankment by tall Roman arches. Farms dot the hills on the other side, and cattle laze and graze on the steep slopes. Perhaps they develop one leg longer than the other.

The road winds around a huge cliff which juts down into the valley. The railway tunnels straight through.

Now we leave the highway to take the old road into Spain. Here, we are certainly treading where the pilgrims trod. We climb steadily up the leafy trail. Clumps of gentians cluster around the rocks. Waterfalls carve creek beds across the ancient road. Below are the moss-covered rusty rails of the old line. Far below is the highway.

At last, we cross the frontier into Spain. Fortunately, I have an extensive Spanish vocabulary which should serve me well. It comprises "cafe con lecce", "vino tinto", and "cerveza". I just used the last, and it worked.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Day 29. Sarrance to Etsaut (23 kms)

29 April, 2011

Still no fleas (nor bedbugs) in the high Pyrenees. Nor the ting, tong, tang of the guitar.

I am on my own again. My companions are taking the bus to avoid a difficult section along the highway.

As the GR now makes detours with some steep climbs, I am sticking to the roads. It is easier on my shin.

I walked the seven kilometres into Bedous. As the trucks passed, they tried to whip my Tilley off my head, so I fastened it securely with my chinstrap.

A word about my Tilley. The Tilley Hat is a Canadian institution, like the Globe and Mail and the CBC, but less likely to make grammatical mistakes. If you encounter a Tilley, there is likely to be a Canadian underneath it. The Tilley Hat has a lifetime guarantee.

I acquired my first Tilley about 25 years ago. I wore it on school trips in the Rockies, on long walks in England, and on the Camino Frances and the Chemin du Puy. It finally wore out after 20 years. I took into a store and they replaced it without question.

I am now about five years into my second Tilley. Will I outlive it?

As I entered Bedous, I passed a memorial to les Passeurs, the members of the Resistance who smuggled the allied airmen out of France into Spain. This was one of the routes they took. I was moved by the simple truth of the dedication:

Aux Passeurs
Qui les guiderent
Au peril de leur vie

I looked up at the hills. The Germans would have easily controlled the valley road I was walking along. The Passeurs must have taken the airmen along secret paths high in the mountains.

The woman at the Office de Tourisme told me of a nice easy road to the village of Accous where the rest of the Company of Pilgrims were catching the bus to Somport.

It was a glorious day. I walked along a valley with steep hills on either side, rather like the Lake District in England. I could see some patches of snow on the tops.

I was marvelling at the beauty of nature, the bluebells and forget-me-nots and fox gloves, the song birds, the mountains rising on either side up to the sky, the sun shining through the waterfalls, and all the while, the sound of the rushing of the river down the valley.

"Earth hath not anything to show more fair," I thought.

And then I wondered why I hadn't reached the village. I checked my compass. I was heading in the wrong direction. I stopped a car. Yes, I had taken a wrong turning. Again.

For once, I wasn't too annoyed with myself. It had been a delightful detour. On the way back down the hill, a dog barked a warning. A shepherd was approaching with a flock of sheep. I let them pass by.

I finally reached the village of Accous. The others were there, except Miek, who was walking after all. I decided to walk another 10 kms to join her at Etsaut. Patrick, gentil as always, took responsibility for this splinter group and booked our places at the gite.

Staying with us at the gite are two friendly donkeys, who say from time to time, "Eeyore! Eeyore!"

Day 28. Oloron Sainte-Marie to Sarrance

As I left town today, the grand old bloody Duke of York took a hand in things again, sending me up a long flight of stairs to the top of a hill and then down the other side, all the while ignoring a road around the side. Later, a woman in a village told me to ignore the GR where it took a pointless loop. I followed her advice.

Patrick, on the other hand, made the mistake that I made on the Stevenson, following a GR towards Saint-Jean Pied de Port. He arrived last at our gite. Usually, he arrives first.

Normally, cowbells are cracked and tinny, but this morning I heard one with a clear ring that sounded like the school bell that used to bring the kids in from playtime.

For the past couple of days I have been walking through boggy stretches. Normally, you can negotiate a dry path around the edges, but not today. I had to squelch my way right through the middle, up to the top of my boots. Once again, I was glad to be wearing my clunkers.

With the pain in my calf, tendinitis, I'm told it is, I'm suffering as the pilgrims of old must have suffered, but they didn't have the benefit of little red pills to ease the pain.

Until Oloron, we had been travelling west. Now we take a turn to the south - for Spain. We are walking up a valley which I think will lead to the pass at Somport. The hills are high and steep on either side.

We are staying at an abbey with a small but interesting cloister. The church is baroque in the Spanish style Not to my taste, it is dark and gloomy with lots of ornamentation and paintings in relief, including one of some poor soul enduring the torments of hell. Saints seem to have replaced the stations of the cross. It was just the sort of place to give a young Catholic nightmares.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Why I walk the Camino. Part 2

So I don't walk the Camino for religious reasons. Why do I walk it?

My mate George asked me if I was on some kind of heroic quest. Well, yes, I suppose I am. Every journey is a kind of spiritual journey.

But I am not a hero. For me, it was Marmeladov who said it best: "A man must have somewhere to go."

0f our company of pilgrims, all are doing it for some kind of personal, and some would say, spiritual, reasons.

One of us has reached his mid-fifties after a successful business and political life. He is wondering what to do with the rest of his life.

Another began walking the Camino after a serous loss in her life and found that she experienced a profound change. She continues to walk.

Another told how her brother carried a stone in memory of their brother to place on the cross of iron. She too be imbued with the spirit of the Camino.

Others are walking the Camino because it gives them time to think.

For everyone, the Camino is a kind of quest in the sense that one has all the time in the world to think and perhaps to put those thoughts in order.

As I walk, I find that thoughts tumble in, and tumble about in, my head. Sometimes I can walk for miles, lost in my thoughts. Perhaps, the rhythm of my walking aids my thinking.

Perhaps my quest is to put my thoughts in order and to find meaning in them.

Day 27. Lescar to Oloron Sainte-Marie (32 kms)

27 April, 2011

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills
From whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from... Jean
Who maketh us a cup of coffee.

We are in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Just after climbing the first hill, a man beckoned us into his garden and offered us coffee and cake. We sat there on his terrace overlooking the mountains and took a welcome break. It was an extraordinary gesture of hospitality! His name was Jean.

We passed a huge stockpile of wood that was being watered by large sprinklers. Apparently it had fallen during a storm in 2009 and had to be kept moist until it could be milled. So much wood had fallen during that storm that it hasn't yet been used up.

We ate lunch at the little village of Lecommande, so named because it was once a centre for the Knights Hospitalier.

At noon, the clock struck twelve, not once but several times, and then launched into a strange tintinnabulation of chimes that lasted for several minutes. It was a strange musical accompaniment to our lunch.

It was a long, long day, up and down through oak, beech and pine forests.

How do I keep going when I'm absolutely buggered?

If I'm climbing, I find myself counting in twenties, up to a hundred, and then another, and another if I can, until I have to stop to catch my breath and let my heart slow down. I'm then a little closer to the top.

If it's getting towards the end of the day, and I'm buggered, and there's still a way to go, I compare it to a distance I know at home.

I used to say to myself, Once more around Wolseley and Welly Crescent. Now I say, Once more around bloody Elk and Beaver Lake!

The French cooked us a superb meal tonight - duck and ratatouille. Quite magnificent! We are not eating simple pilgrims' meals.

Day 26. Morlaas to Lescar (20 km)

26 April, 2012
It was raining as we left the gite. I had to don all my rain gear, jacket, pants, and pack cover, but a little later it stopped, so I had to take it all off again.

It was misty then overcast this morning, and the mournful cooing of the cuckoos and doves seemed to overwhelm the more cheerful sounds of the songbirds.

The call of the dove, coo coo, coo, a three-note call, is the call that I remember from childhood in Perth. I think that we have doves in Victoria, but not with the same call.

We passed a very serious pilgrim going in the other direction - to Rome. He had more than 2,200 kms and two months to walk. He was just starting out.

In the afternoon it lightened up, and we walked through a forest, around the outskirts of Pau, along a river into Lescar, and and then climbed up to the cathedral to find our gite.

The cathedral is magnificent. Romanesque, it sits firmly on the ground in its light brown stone, broad and solid.

In the cathedral, I noticed that 53 soldiers from this town had died in the First World War. In every village, we pass the Monument aux Morts. Even the smallest hamlet gave up a large proportion of its young men.

I left my American-European adapter at the last gite. So that I could continue to charge my phone and receive calls from my loving wife, I walked two or three kilometres out of town to the big box stores and bought another adapter.

A man dropped by our gite wondering if he could help us in any way. He kindly took my new adapter and cut off the top with his saw so it could receive my phone plug. He also found us a restaurant and drove us there, making two trips in his car. It was another generous act!

We ate in a huge barn of a place. It was a cider house, and we drank cider instead of wine as it was included in the price. The meal sat heavily in my stomach.

I have developed a case of shin splints in one leg. The same thing happened in Spain after the same number of days of walking. I think I just walked it off, and I hope I can do the same with this bout.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Day 25. Anoye to Morlaas (15.2 kms)

25 April, 2011

We stayed last night at a gite run by a commune which could not possibly have benefitted financially from our presence. There were no shops where we could spend our money. Eight of us paid ten euros each, but this would barely have covered the utility costs of this newly renovated building. One possible benefit to the commune was putting an old building to good use.

We have stayed in hotels, gites and chambres d'hotes.

Hotels are hotels, but sometimes the demi-pension rate is cheap enough to attract us (around 40 euros).

Chambres d'hotes are bed and breakfasts. They supply towels and sheets. They provide individual rooms and sometimes dormitories. They often offer demi-pension.

Gites provide beds in a dormitory or separate rooms, without towels and sheets. Sometimes they offer demi-pension. They may be run by the church, the commune, or private individuals. Sometimes they are set up specifically for pilgrims.

We have stayed on farms, in former presbyteries, in mairies, in old houses in the centre of town, and In newer houses on the outskirts.

The food has always been good, ranging from a five-course meal with aperatif, to simple farm fare. With one exception, the wine has been excellent as well.

Today was the shortest step I have taken. In fact, we have been spoiled with a series of short walks which end tomorrow. Then will follow a series of long days as we climb into the Pyrenees.

We are still walking across fairly flat agricultural land, through fields of wheat, maize, and canola. Occasionally we pass through wooded country, and we always go through a hamlet or small village during the day.

Usually, first stop on arriving is at the bar where we toss back a cold beer. Today was the Easter Monday holiday and everything was closed down. We scoured the town to find a bar that was open, but to no avail. Finally, we entered a hotel and begged for a beer.

Nor were the restaurants open, nor stores to buy food, so we pooled our resources and managed an apple salad, sardine oil pasta, some cheese, and some cake, all washed down with a nice desert wine.

Day 24. Maubourget to Anoye (21.6 kms)

24 April 2011

The unbearable heaviness of pack.

Sometimes when I set out, my pack feels so light that I wonder if I have forgotten something. Not today!

Everything is closed tonight at the village where we are staying, so we had to carry our supper and tomorrow's breakfast with us. That included five bottles of wine that I am aware of. There may be more. By the end of the day I was carrying leaden bricks.

Patrick led us astray today, but said it was meant to happen because when looking for directions he ran into someone who spoke Occitan. He is passionate about his language, and says as we go to sleep, "Bona neit e totas las piusas dins ton leit," thereby wishing fleas upon us rather than bedbugs from us.

We passed some pigs which were running free in a field. Happy pigs!

I've seen all the farm animals I would expect to see: horses and cows, sheep and goats, ducks and geese and chooks. And donkeys.

I've seen some more exotic animals as well. A llama, black swans and two kangaroos.

The kangaroos were protected by an electric fence, not to keep the animals in but the humans out.

Electric fences are everywhere in France. You have to be very careful. This morning i was leaning over a fence to pat a horse and almost touched the wire. Quite often the fences are enclosing only an empty field, and are obviously intended to keep people out.

The strangest animal I have seen was a curious snake-like creature that was stretched across the road in front of me in the forest. But it was too long and too thin to be a snake. It was a chenille processenaire, a procession of caterpillars crawling head to toe, appearing as one, across the road. They may be part of the same cycle as the wasp-nest-like cocoon that I've noticed in the pine trees.

As I arrived in town, I passed a sign which said, "Pas de Pub". And there wasn't. And I was desperate for a cold beer. Fortunately, there were some in the fridge at the gite.

The gite in Anoye, like others, has helpful translations for foreign guests.

Throw in the toilet only what they have to contain.

If you want to do a laundry, ask the dip pots of washing at the grocery store.

The grocery store of breakdow will be open around 18h.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Day 23. Marciac to Maubourguet (17.6 kms)

23 April, 2011

O for a muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention.

(Today is Shakespeare's birthday.)

What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?

We are all crawling between earth and heaven on the Camino. Some are closer to heaven. I am more down to earth.

The German couple has left us to go to Lourdes. They are probably closer to heaven.

We are now six: Patrick, who has taken on the role of booking the accommodation each night, for which we are most grateful; Elisabeth and Marte, the Norwegian ladies whom I mentioned earlier; Anna Maria, the Icelander; Miek, the Dutch lady; and I. A most excellent company of pilgrims!

We walk with another couple as well, Jean-Francois and Genevieve, who often arrive first at the bar at the end of the day, and make sure that our beers are on the table.

We are all closer to earth than heaven, walking the Camino for our own personal reasons.

We had a spot of rain last night, and this morning the sky was overcast with the sun struggling to appear.

We walked separately, but met up for lunch at a hamlet with a church too big for the little village, and a tower and steeple too big for the church. A few drops of rain drove us to seek shelter.

If rained gently for the rest of the afternoon as we walked into town.

Last night the couscous was excellent. Tonight we are all in a dormitory on demi pension.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Day 22. Montesquiou to Marciac (23.6 kms)

22 April, 2011

I set out this morning to the song of a black bird.

I think that if I were a believer I would be a pantheist. I have elusive bits of Wordsworth floating around in my head about "jocund company" and the plants and animals enjoying the air they breathe.

Certainly, this blackbird was enjoying life. And I have seen young lambs and goats cavorting around and having such fun. And a swan clucking contentedly with her little cygnets.

I have never understood why the fundamentalists have such a problem with evolution. There is surely a life force operating here which they can see as the manifestation of God.

I came to a bridge which a man was repairing. I tried to make a joke about his being the guardian of the bridge and asked if I had his permission to pass?

I just work here, he said.

That reminded me of my daughter Rachel's story about trying to busk outside a liquor commission, and being told by a couple of panhandlers to move on because they were working there.

As I thought about the meaning of life, I lost my way. A farmer stopped to give me directions, and we chatted about the weather. We hoped for rain for him but not for me.

After an easy walk, we arrived at the gite. We are having couscous for dinner. Had we arrived yesterday, we would have had couscous. If we arrived tomorrow, we would have couscous. Couscous is served 365 days a year and 366 in a leap year. Don't ask me why.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Day 21. Auch to Montesquiou (31.7 kms)

21 April, 2011
I visited the magnificent Gothic cathedral at Auch. I sat in absolute silence. Two pigeons fluttered around in the vault like lost souls trying to find the light.

There is nothing to compare with the beauty of shape and form of the great cathedrals of Europe. And there is a presence here, human, if not divine, of the workers who spent more than a hundred years building this place, and left their mark in the gargoyles and sometimes in crude carvings, and of the people who worshipped here in times of war and pestilence over the centuries.

The Choir is a marvel with114 carved wooden misericords.

Today there was still no rain, but the weather is changing. We are now at least ten on the road: Patrick and I, the Norwegian ladies, a Dutch girl, an Icelander, and two French couples.

We walk separately for the most part, but find each other from time to time, at a bar or by the side of the road. This is one of the pleasures of the Camino.

This is foie gras country. As we reached our destination, we passed a field of ducks whose days were numbered, and we discussed whether killing baby seals with a club was crueller than force-feeding birds to make their livers fat.

As it turned out, the farm where seven of us are staying produces foie gras in the traditional way, with grain and corn rather than artificial proteins, but the poor birds are still force-fed. The French maintain they are force-fed in gentle manner.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Day 20. L'Isle-Arne to Auch (23.6 kms)

20 April, 2011

I walked with Patrick today, a former train driver and mayor of his commune, now retired and still in his fifties.

Once again the weather was fine, with a strong wind that drove us along, and the walking was easy, along dirt roads through deciduous woods.

Wainwright complained about the pine plantations that were springing up in the north. He preferred the natural English (or European) woods. So do I.

Patrick and I talked of many things, of la langue d'Oc, etymology, the old question of tutoyer versus vousvoyer, and of course, trains.

It is always a pleasure to talk about words. Apparently, Occitan, the langue d'Oc, is still spoken and is taught in the schools. Patrick told me about words in Occitan which were very similar to those in English, for example, esquirol for squirrel.

As we walked, the broom was in flower, and I explained the link between the French word (genet) and the Plantagenet kings of England. He said that in Occitan the word was "bruch" like " broom" or "brush", and in fact, the local people would use the broom for that purpose. And I suppose that is the origin of the word in Emglish as well. The strands of the bush can be bound together to make a simple broom.

He also said that the word for corkscrew in Occitan was not "tire-bouchon" but "gimblet", which resembles the English "gimlet". He told the story of his friend who was travelling in England and was desperate to find a corkscrew to open his bottle of wine. The man in the store understood the Occitan word because, Patrick maintained, it resembled the English one. Personally, I think it may have been the frantic gestures which got the meaning across.

We talked about the distinction between using the second person singular (tu) for friends and family, and the second person plural (vous) for more formal acquaintances.

I asked him what happens if someone addresses you as "tu" when you're not ready for that level of intimacy. He gave me a couple of sayings to use to get the message across. They translate literally as "We haven't kept the pigs together" and "One doesn't mix the tea towel and the table cloth".

I can understand how they would make someone who was becoming a bit too familiar keep his distance.

We also talked about the tragic train crash which was in the news when we were in France in the eighties. On a single railway line, a station master had sent a passenger train down the track, forgetting that another train was coming in the other direction. Since that time, all French trains have been equipped with radio.

He agreed that the accident would not have happened had the French railways followed the Australian, or English, system for single track lines, whereby a train could only enter a section of line if the driver was carrying a staff. Each station at the end of the section had a machine in which was locked the staff. Only one staff could be released at a time for that section.

I used to be fascinated to watch the engine driver and the station master exchange the staff as a train passed through a station without stopping.

It was a simple but foolproof system to allow only one train on the track at a time.

With conversation like this, the day passed quickly, and we soon arrived in Auch, a cathedral town and prefecture for the Department of Gers.

Tonight we are staying at a presbytery in the centre of town, with a view of the cathedral, all for a donation, "each according to his means".

Day 19. L'Isle-Jordain to L'Isle-Arne (32.8 kms)

19 April, 2011

Les Offices de Tourisme do a terrific job in France. Those at home probably offer good service as well, but as locals we don't benefit from them. Here, as well as telling you the sights to see, and booking ahead for you, they often manage a communiy gite which can range from historic to ultra-modern. Some even have wifi.

This was probably the best community gite I have stayed at. It is very modern with three small bedrooms. I had one to myself and a view of the lake.

I had dinner with a couple of lovely Norwegian ladies who were staying at the gite. We walked around the lake to a restaurant at a hotel called, appropriately, Hotel du Lac.

There was another couple at the gite as well, and two other people staying in the town, so there are now more people on the chemin.

This morning I walked for a while beside a railway line, and a TER whizzed by. I would like to bring the Vancouver Island Railway Commission out here to learn what they could do with the E&N.


I love trains. I like to visit little railway stations to see where the trains are coming from and going to, and I can sit for hours at a junction like Reading listening to the announcements in that tone and volume that are unique to railway stations:

The train arriving at platform five is for Oxford, stopping at Goring-Streatly, Cholsey-Mouldsford and Didcot.

At French railway stations, they precede the announcements with a series of notes that resemble the beginning of Dean Martin's "Love and Marriage". Terrible song!

The smell of coal smoke is a Proustian moment for me, and takes me back to the glorious steam trains of the old WAGR, the Western Australian Government Railways, a narrow gauge system that could proudly boast it had never lost a passenger. The trains travelled so slowly that they didn't pose a threat to anyone.

I would travel up to York with my father to visit my grandfather. He lived in a little weatherboard house beside a railway line. I remember the lighting of the kerosene lamps. I can still taste the fresh green peas which grew around the well where he used to draw his water.

He was deaf, my grandfather. So was my father. And my mother. And so ...

On the train home, I would hang my head out the window and get soot in my eye. I soon learned to look out the window on the windward side.

That was the era of black snot.

Things of beauty they were, those steam locomotives, as they slowly pulled out of Perth Station, huffing and puffing smoke, and hissing steam.

After the first powerful, plain manifesto,
The black statement of pistons...

I remember being excited when they introduced a U class oil-burning steam engine. Little did I know it was the beginning of the end for the steam locos, which were gradually replaced by ugly diesels.


Today was a long but glorious day with a strong wind which heralds a change in the weather.

The wind makes waves in the wheat.

Tonight, I am staying at a farmhouse. As often happens, the loo is downstairs and the dormitory up. Since the communication between the two is by means of what is practically a Jacob's ladder, and since I am wont to pass from one to the other during the night, I will pay an extra five euros for a downstairs room to myself. Better that than a broken neck!

Monday, 18 April 2011

Day 18. Leguevin to L'Isle-Jourdain (15 kms)

18 April, 2011

The French are a proud people. If they know English, they know English, and they wouldn't dream of asking a native English speaker to look over the English translation of their French text before they print it. This accounts for the idiomatic and even grammatical errors one sees in the English versions of texts all over France, even at important historic monuments.

At the gite, the hospitalier, or someone on the committee, had had a go at translating their notices. Here are a couple of examples:

Please do not throw in the toilet.

The house will be closed no later than 22 pm and will released every morning before 9 pm.

My French companions set out very early, before dawn in fact, using a liitle wind-up torch to see the way. So I too was up early and left the gite about 7:20.

In the woods at a fork where I was wondering which way to go, I asked directions of a woman who was walking her dog. She started to explain, and then said, "Excuse my French." She didn't have to apologise to me, I thought.

She was English, the second Brit I had met in the town. When I asked if she knew the first, she said, No, she kept away from them.

Funny bunch, the Poms, they either live in enclaves or avoid each other like the plague.

I reached L'Isle Jourdain well before noon and was intending to move on, but two things happened.

I stopped for a coffee and asked about Wifi. There was none there, but someone overheard and told me to drop by her office and use hers. Very kind. This took some time to set up.

Then I stopped for a sandwich and the patron told me about the things to see in his town. He was not an educated man, but spoke with such enthusiasm about the history, the museum of clocks, and the fresco in the church, that I decided to stay.

I have settled in at the gite and I'm now drinking a beer in the town square, one of those magnificent squares that are at the centre of so many French and Spanish, and I suppose, other European, towns.

The town hall stretches across one side; on another is an ancient red-brick grain exchange, now housing a museum of clocks, which I'm about to see. On the other two sides are shops and houses in red brick and plaster, complementing the two dominant buildings. It is something intangible, but the beauty of these architectural surroundings must lift the spirit of the denizens of this town, even if they don't realise it. It is something we have often forgotten in the new world.

Why I walk the Camino. Part 1

Why do I walk the Camino? I certainly don't do it for religious reasons, although I have the greatest respect for those who do. We all construct our own reality and if theirs includes God, that's fine with me.

To me, the Camino embodies the essence of true Christianity, with its camaraderie, generosity, hospitality, and the openness of priests who welcome believers and non-believers alike to the pilgrims' mass.

I appreciate this Christian element of the chemin.

Once, when I was walking the Chemin du Puy, a group of Christians who were eating their lunch beside the road invited me to join them. When we had finished, one of them took me aside and said, "Can I ask you a personal question?" Oh, no, I thought, here it comes. "In English Canada," he said, "Do they teach French in the schools?"

No one on the Camino has ever probed into my religious beliefs.

So I don't walk the Camino for religious reasons. At least I don't think so. Just after leaving a stone at the cross of iron in Spain, my Aussie mate George and I arrived at the pilgrim's refuge in the wilderness run by the hermit, Thomas, I think his name was.

He was quite famous. The authorities had tried to close him down, because there were no facilities, just the woods out back, but he went on a hunger strike on the steps of Leon Cathedral until they relented.

We didn't need to use the facilities, but thought we'd have a cup of something. As we entered his primitive dwelling I was overwhelmed by the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus. What, I thought. Is this a sign? Is this my moment on the road to Santiago? That I should arrive at this moment in the Messiah!

I listened, and waited for the familiar opening to the next aria. But no, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, it began again. The bugger was playing the Hallelujah Chorus over and over again on a circular tape.

I have drifted on the edge of Christianity all my life, and have probably read as much on the subject as most Christians. Ultimately, it wasn't the atheists Dawkins and Hitchens who convinced me that there is no God, but theologians like Karen Armstrong and Bishop Spong who confirmed for me what really happened in the days of the early Church.

Some Christians say that you have to take a leap of faith, but that's a load of old codswallop. If there is a God, he gave us a mind to think with, not to let "fust in us unused".

I am not a believer, but I am glad to be part of the great cultural tradition which gave us the magnificent works of art, music and literature, created by Christians inspired by their faith.

Day 17. Toulouse to Leguevin (22.7 kms)

17 April, 2011

I began the day with breakfast at a bar on the Place de Capitole, across from the magnificent Capitolium. This must be one of the finest squares in France.

I was out of the suburbs by noon, and settled in at the gite by three o'clock.

On one occasion I found my way blocked by the Airbus Corporation which occupies a huge area west of Toulouse. Apart from that little detour, I escaped the suburbs without much trouble.

Since Toulouse, I have been following a mixture of European Commission camino markers (a yellow coquille Saint-Jacques on a blue background) and the GR balises. This is confusing at times.

I have fallen in with a couple of French fellows who are walking the Camino a a week at a time. Tonight at the gite, I ate with them: pizza, Belgian beer, pasta, ham, wine, eclairs et les religieuses. We talked about past experiences at places where we had all been. It was one of those delightful Camino moments.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Day 16

16 April, 2011

Once again I was overwhelmed by hospitality at the gite. I was invited to dine with the couple who are managing it for the week. Next week, someone else takes over. All are volunteers.

I decided to follow Le Canal du Midi into Toulouse and avoid the meanderings of the GR. The hospitalier walked with me for a few kilometres to send me in the right direction.

The canal was constructed in the 17th century under Louis 14th to allow passage from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic without going around Spain. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.


I walk peacefully along the bank of the canal. When I can, I go down from the bitumen to the old towpath where the walking is easier. Ducks paddle in the water. Birds chirp. Doves coo. Joggers pass in both directions. A phalanx of cyclists whizzes by.

The mottled colour of the plain trees which line the canal reminds me of the gum trees along Bay Road where I used to walk to school. We would carve our names in the trunks and peel off the bark to make propellers. At a certain time of the year I would wave a branch above my head to ward off the swooping magpies.

Only the distant sounds of traffic from the autoroute and the drone of aircraft going in to land at Toulouse Airport mar the tranquility.

I stop at a little restaurant by a lock to have a coffee. I ask how far to go. Douze a Toulouse, she says. Douze a Toulouse.

I walk on. A tall, lean fellow approaches. Ultreia, he says. Ultreia, I reply, the pilgrims' greeting. He talks about his own experiences on the Camino.

As I walk into the outskirts of the city, the canal continues to provide a little ribbon of calm.


I arrived at the pilgrims' reception at the beautiful Basilique Saint-Sernin, but unable to find a suitable gite, I booked into a hotel.

Later, drawn back to the basilica, I entered the church to the glorious sound of an a capella choir. The conservatory choir was performing Les Reponses de Tenebres by Victoria. What wonderful music! I noticed that like every other choir in the world, they were recruiting tenors. Perhaps they would accept me.

Day 15. Les Casses to Baziege (34 kms)

15 April, 2011

Last night's gite was called La Passeur-Elle, a nice play on words. To enter the gite you crossed a little bridge, une passerelle. The hospitalier, Christiane, explained to me that she, Elle, was the passeur, the passer-by or walker.

"Elle" also suggested the femimine presence in this gite. Everything was scrupulously clean and methodical. Each bunk in the dormitory had its own little bed light and table. And in the loo, along with a neat line of toilet rolls, was a notice in words to this effect:

In the interest of hygiene and the comfort of all, Gentlemen, please remain seated at all times.

Evidently someone's aim wasn't up to scratch.

I am now walking in rolling cerial country, often following tracks through the fields themselves. The broom and gorse of the wilder country have been replaced by roadside flowers: daisies and buttercups, yarrow or Queen Anne's lace, herb Robert, and of course, the ubiquitous stinging nettles.

The nettles can be hazardous to someone in shorts. A narrow path can be overgrown with nettles, or sometimes they can be so close to the road that stepping out of the way of the traffic can mean stepping into the nettles. Hobson's choice!

Tonight I am staying at a gite run by the Church at Baziege.

Day 14. En Calcat to Les Casses (32 kms)

14 April, 2011

Today was uneventful but for the incident of the one-armed man and a glimpse of domestic bliss.

I walked almost all morning on the bitumen. This is very hard on the feet and walkers will do anything to avoid it.

Sometimes you can find a trail of light stones in the centre or along the edges of the road - anything with a bit of give. Gravel is a nice surface to walk on. Twigs, acorns or leaves are even better. Dirt is fine. Grass is all right if it's not too long or spongy.

An important decision to make is whether to stop and take a stone out of your shoe or to keep walking and hope that it will work its way from the ball or heel of your foot.

Even more important is whether to keep going when you haven't seen a marker for a while. Is there no marker because the road is obviously the right one or is there no marker because it's the wrong one?

As I was walking up a hill, a one-armed man came up behind me at twice my pace and disappeared into the distance like the White Rabbit. I thought about the difficulty of walking without both arms to swing. I noticed that he leaned over to compensate for the missing arm.

Thirty minutes later he came back at the same speed. He stopped and we chatted. When we shook hands, I felt that he had the strength of two arms in his one hand.

Then I passed some goats, ducks and hens together in one small yard. The goats were lazing in the sun, the ducks were waddling about, and the hens were scratching the ground and clucking contentedly as chooks do. There is a moral here, I thought.

In the afternoon I walked along a winding trail beside a river. This was my kind of trail! I thought I was walking uphill but the water was flowing in the same direction.

Tonight I'm taking the demi-pension at a gite. The meal was quite a contrast from last night's. We had soup, sausages with veggies and quinoa, and custard. The hostess kept pressing more and more upon me. To refuse would have been impolite.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Day 13. Castre to Abbey of En Calcat (21 kms)

13 April, 2011

There is nothing - absolutely nothing -half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boots.

The day was fine but cool, lovely weather for walking through green fields on country roads.

I am glad to be out of the woods. There was always the potential for disaster. One wrong turning and I would have been wandering forever around a confusion of forest tracks which led only to logging sites.

Everyone is friendly in this part of the country, perhaps because there are relatively few walkers. In other parts of France, my Bonjour has been met with a surly nod, and in England, farmers have been known to leave a bull in the field to discourage walkers from using the public footpath that runs through their land.

I am staying at a Benedictine abbey built around the turn of the last century. Perhaps because the dormitory has been taken over by a larger group, they have put me in the conference centre with my own private room and bath.

The church is huge, neo-Romanesque in light stone, devoid of garish ornamentation. I listened to an organ practice, and then attended Vespers.

Christianity got off on the right foot when the followers started singing.

As I listened to the service, I reflected on the great tradition of church liturgy and music, and its evolution into Good News Bibles, emasculated hymn books, and hermaphroditic prayers.

The meal was simple: garlic soup, green beans, cheese, puréed apple, and biscuits. And another superb vin du pay. The monk responsible for the meal tried to force the rest of the bottle upon me, and insisted I put some biscuits in my pocket for the road.

The garlic soup reminded me of a monk at an abbey just before Leon, who was famous for the garlic soup he would make for the pilgrims. He was getting on in years but still insisted on saying mass. Two other priests would stand on either side and steady him, and prompt him when he forgot the words.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Day 12. Bouisset to Castres (28 kms)

12 April, 2011

I set out this morning into thick fog. As I walked along, I found myself singing,

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither.

It just popped into my head. It must have been the challenge of the cold and damp. I tried to convince myself that it wasn't raining even as the drops pinged on my Tilley hat.

As I passed through the first village, I asked a woman if there was a bar in town where I could get a coffee. It was closed, she said, but would I like to have a coffee at her house? I declined, but was touched by the gesture, one of those " little nameless, unremembered acts of kindness" that one encounters on the chemin. My spirits revived.

The fog lifted, and I took a photo of some cows for a friend of mine who has a cow fetish. In his apartment, pictures of cows vie with books for the available space on the walls.

At the next village I found a posh restaurant and ordered a coffee. I sat at a little table in front of the hostess and watched the clients come in for lunch.

A couple entered, the woman holding a large spaniel who was struggling to get away. He didn't want to dine at this restaurant. Nevertheless, the hostess made a great fuss of him. There is no discrimination against dogs at French establishments. I have seen them sitting on a chair around the table with their master and mistress.

Not one to miss an opportunity, I visited the loo. As I sat there, the light went out. Oh, no, I thought, it's happening again. Then, I moved, and it went back on again. An interesting innovation on the timed switch!

I finished my coffee and walked on.

As the sun came out, I sat down with my back against a tree and ate my bread and cheese. The birds sang and the wind sighed in the trees. All was right with the world.

I walked on into the afternoon. My reverie was disturbed only by the mournful call of the cuckoo and the occasional angry snarl of a chainsaw.

Day 11. La Salvetat-sur-Agout to Bouisset (27.7)

11 April, 2011

As I left town this morning, first one clock and then another struck eight. Often there is more than one in town, on the Mairie and the church tower perhaps. And their chimes, always cracked, follow each other from hour to hour. Something to look forward when you can't sleep.

Last night I took a demi-pension at a bar with rooms above. In the halls and stairways, the lights were managed by timed switches. These can be treacherous. They can turn off the light just before you reach your destination. Sometimes they glimmer and you can find them again, and sometimes they don't. These didn't.

Once I was in a toilet on the Camino in Spain and the light suddenly went out and left me in the dark. Obviously, they didn't want you to spend too long doing number twos. Not a glimmer of light and I hadn't noted where the switch was. I had to crawl around the wall with my fingers to find it and get out.

My mnemonic came in handy this morning. Before leaving, I said to myself: Passport, Guide. Water, Appareil, iPod. Hat, Lunettes, Telephone. And I realised that I didn't have my Guide. It was under the blanket.

The mnemonic didn't help with my socks though. I've lost a pair. So now the contest is on. I'm wearing my Tilley Endurables and Smartwool PhDs on alternate days, each with liners. Which pair will last the distance?

Today was another fairly easy stroll through the woodlands. Lots of broom, but only one bush in flower. I reached my destination (Angles) early and decided to go on another eight kilometres to Bouisset. That will reduce tomorrow's distance.

Again I'm the only guest at a chambre d'hotes.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Day 10. Murat-sur-Vebre to La Salvetat-sur-Agout (20.9 km)

10 April, 2011

I set out this morning into a biting wind from the west. I had the option of walking 40 kms, or breaking it into two steps. With a mist threatening to become an English drizzle, I stopped half way. My camerades du chemin have gone on.

Today I am not Plodder, but Strider. Most of the time I was racing along grassy tracks or dirt roads with little climbing. Again I was glad of my leather boots as I forded a couple of raging streams and strode along a boggy stretch.

As I walked along a dirt road, the GR markers suddenly sent me up the embankment, along the top for 50 yards or so, and then back down onto the road. There was no need for this. The road was a perfectly adequate surface to walk on.

It wasn't the first of what seemed to be a quite unnecessary detour.

The other day, the GR sent me up to the top of a hill and then down again when there was a perfectly good path around the side.

Sometimes it seems that the spirits of Albert Wainwright and the grand old Duke of York have possessed the designers of the grandes randonnees.

Day 9. Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare to Murat-sur-Vebre (26.4 km)

9 April, 2011

This morning I insisted that Rene and Jean-Pierre go on ahead. I would plod on behind.

At Fort William in Scotland at the end of the West Highland Way, a group of walkers confided that they had created nicknames for all the walkers on the trail. I was The Plodder.

As I was struggling up the first climb of the day, Marcelline phoned and commented on my heavy breathing. "Are you really enjoying this?" she said. "No, not at this moment," I replied. "My feet are sore, my knees hurt, and my legs are aching.

But then I reached the top, and strode along a forest track as the rising sun lit up the trees. I was filled with a sense of well being.

Misery and joy follow each other.

I began the longest climb of the walk. Up and up along forest tracks to reach the highest point until the Pyrannees. This was the Cap de Faulat at 1081 metres, the site of a range of wind turbines.

One towered over me as I ate lunch. They are quite eerie creatures up close, especially when their shadows sweep down on you as they turn.

Then it was a long downhill ramble to the next gite and a meal of salad, omelette and pasta. The French cooked. I washed up.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Day 8. Lunas to Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare (29 km)

8 April, 2011

Today was hard. A leisurely stroll along a river, and then a brutal 500-metre climb up a stony path, some meandering along forestry roads, another 400 metre climb, a few hours of pleasant walking on the roof of the world, and then a long descent to our next stop.

Renee was kind enough to walk with me. Normally, I can almost keep up with him on the flat, but he bounds ahead on the climbs.

It's becoming a habit. We lost a half hour in getting out of town, and almost retraced our steps along yesterday's path.

It is reassuring to have company in lonely areas where there is no water for 20 kms and you're not likely to meet anyone along the road. When you come to a confusing sign, you can always discuss it.

At noon, we came upon a picnic table, and who should be sitting there but Jean-Pierre, the third man.
So now, after eating a pizza, the three of us are spending the night in the communal gite.

It must have been 30 degrees today. With the heat and 900m of climbing, it has been an absolutely exhausting day. And more of the same tomorrow.

And so to bed.

Never tired pilgrims' limbs affected slumber more.

Day 7. Lodeve to Lunas (27 km)

7 April, 2011

This was another day of ups and downs. I wasted almost an hour trying to get out of town because my guide and the trail markings were at odds. I am paranoid about following the right GR. Finally a kindly householder put me right and told me that lots of pilgrims had tried unsuccessfully to find the nonexistent set of steps mentioned in the Guide.

After that, a long climb, some pleasant rambling on forest roads, a very painful stretch along the highway, and some more striding along grassy paths.

As I walked among the pine trees, I noticed a waspnest-like growth on many of the branches. Is this spruce budworm or something similar?

Somehow I missed a village. I was expecting it at 16.7 kms and when it didn't appear I was worried about how little progress I was making. When I finally arrived at a village it was the next one, five kms on. So how did I miss a village? My friend passed through it. And I didn't lose my way today. Strange things happen on the chemin.

The Chemin d'Arles is certainly a lonely road. I hadn't seen a single walker for the previous two days. But this morning as I paused for a moment I was suddenly taken unawares by a line of lady walkers coming round a bend. I stopped what I was doing in mid-stream and said, innocently, Bonjour.

I've lost a sock. On past walks, I've lost socks, shirts, underpants, glasses and guide books. I've left them behind at gites and on the wayside where I had lunch. Once I walked an extra five miles into a town to buy a pair of reading glasses so I could follow the map.

But how do you make sure you don't leave behind the really important things? You make up a mnemonic and use it every time you take off. Here's mine.

Please, God. Where am I? Help a lonely traveller.

I say it to myself every time I move on. The initials of each word stand for something I can't afford to lose. See if you can work it out. I've had to use the French word for two of the items. I'll give you the answer in a later post.

Tonight we are staying at a hotel, demi-pension. Still no sign of the third man.

Day 6. Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert to Lodeve (37 km)

6 April, 2011

I am hobbling around at the gite, having spent the last three hours walking 15 kms along the highway. I had taken another wrong turn! Of the three of us who set out this morning only two have arrived.

Last night I met a 77-year-old, Didier, who was doing his seventh Camino, always the same one, Arles to Santiago, because it was the one he could remember. He said that this was his last one.

I left Saint-Guilhem by the Rue du bout du monde. How apt as it turned out! The climb was perhaps the most spectacular and most difficult I have ever done. It took me four hours in all. Finally, I arrived at a microwave tower on the highest peak in the area.

I thought to myself that Didier will never make this climb.

At least 20 people die each year on the Camino in Spain, and I imagine some die in France as well. Those of us who complete the journey spend less time in Purgatory, but if you die on the way, you go straight to heaven. I'm sure that is on Didier's mind.

How glad I am to have worn my leather boots! A couple of days ago i walked through a stream, and today, on the stony paths and rocky slopes, they made the rough places plain.

A word about boots. What to wear: heavy leather or lighter boots? For 15 years I wore a pair of Zamberlans and when they finally gave up the ghost, I bought a pair of Meindels.

The guides suggest you give up your clunkers and wear something light.
So for this trip I bought a pair of Keene mid Targas. Very, very comfortable, but they were almost worn out after walking around town for a year. Would they last the Camino? I was tempted to buy another pair or something similar, but at the last minute I decided to go with leather and bought a pair of Asolos. So far they have served me well.

Lighter boots are more comfortable and I'm sure they don't weigh you down at the end of the day as my Asolos do. But I have more support, no blisters, and the assurance that they'll last the distance.

As I downed a beer at a bar in Lodeve after pounding the pavement for 15 kms, one of my companions, Renee, from the night before saw me and was able to direct me to the gite. All's well that ends well! However, his friend has not appeared and has obviously taken the wrong route.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Day 5. Montarnaud to Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert (21 km)

5 April 2011

It was a wise decision to stay at Montarnaud last night, not that it was an interesting town. Today it has taken me six hours to arrive here at Saint-Guilhem. Had I continued yesterday I wouldn't have arrived before 8:30 pm. Not a good idea to be benighted in the middle of nowhere.

I am now sitting in a square drinking a beer, with the abbey church in front, a row of arched religious buildings to one side, and medieval houses and shops completing the square. In the middle is one of the most enormous plane trees I've ever seen, six metres in circumference, planted in 1855 and called Le Roi Platane.

The abbey with its cloister is beautiful in its simplicity, so different from the garish churches in parts of Spain.

This a medieval village that reminds me of le Mont Michel, but is squeezed in a narrow valley rather than confined to an island. And there's hardly anyone here.

This is one of the reasons I walk the Camino: to pass through beautiful places like this where the best way to arrive is on foot as pilgrims did in the past.

Day 4. Montpellier a Montarnaud

4 April, 2011

Last night I slept right through. Until now, I have been waking up at three or four in the morning and listening to the mumbles and rumbles and snores of my companions.

What a nightmare it is to get in and out of Montpellier! It took me three hours to get to the outskirts.

I was looking for an avenue which seemed to have disappeared to make way for a new tramway when I saw a fellow on the other side of the road, the only person in sight who could give me directions. I dashed across the road and accosted him. He was amazed to see me. I was the second Canadian he had met in the very same spot at the very same time in less than a week. He kept going on about it. I told him his role in life was obviously to wait in that same spot at the same time each day to direct Canadians to Santiago. He walked with me for a while and pointed me in the right direction. Then I got lost again. Someone would send me in one direction and then someone else would say, No, it's that way. It took me three hours to walk ten kilometres.

A little later I experienced the joy every walker feels when he's off the road, out of the woods, and in a high place, all alone, with the sun shining, the breeze blowing, and the birds singing.

Then I got lost again. And then I took a tumble. At two-thirty, with 20 kms still to go and a bruised knee and a bruised ego, I decided to do the prudent thing and stop half way. But I'm sorry to have dropped behind my two companions.

Day 3. Gallargues-le-Montuex to Montpellier

3 April, 2011

Today was hard. With all the wrong turns I took, I walked a good 40 kms.
Still overcast, but no rain yet.

For a while I walked along a Roman road, treading where the legions trod.

Walking through a wood, I passed a group of pilgrims, about a dozen or so, men and women, who were making their way slowly towards Santiago. They were camping every weekend and reckoned it would take them four years.

Then I got lost.

A word about signage. In England the trails are marked with their own emblem. The Pennine Way, I think, is marked with an acorn. In France, however, les grandes randonnees (GRs) are all marked the same, with a white horizontal stripe on top of a red one. To indicate a turn, a white inverted L is added below to produce the effect of a 3-striped flag on a pole, with the direction of the flag indicating the turn. And the road not to be taken is marked with a red and white cross.

You still have to be alert. If you are talking to someone or are lost in your thoughts, you can miss the turn and keep on going. Or sometimes sections of the trail are poorly marked. I took a wrong turning several times today, adding three or four kilometres to a very long walk.

Another problem can arise when two GRs cross. On the Chemin de Stevenson, I took the wrong GR and walked 11 kms out of my way in rain and sleet.

Broom is starting to appear. I also noticed some crocuses and more poppies, yellow and orange this time.

Day 2 Saint-Gilles-le-Gard to Gallargues-le-Montuex

2 April, 2011

Apologies to those of you who are receiving these posts by email. I intended merely to send you a link in case you were interested, not to plonk myself in your inbox.

Less bitumen today. I was happy to walk along some minor roads and farm lanes.

Usually les grandes randonnees follow roads and vehicle tracks, whereas in England the national trails follow the public footpaths. No other country seems to have the same ancient pedestrian rights of way joining villages. Not to mention the bridle paths. Why did these not develop in Europe? There are so many words for different kinds of walking in English. Trudging, plodding, staggering, lumbering, ambling, etc. (I do all of these.) Is there a connection between the abundance of public footpaths and the rich vocabulary of walking? Has walking become part of the English character because of these public footpaths? It certainly features in the literature. Mr. Earnshaw walked 50 miles to fetch the baby Heathcliff. Angel Clare and his mates were on a walking tour when he sees Tess for the first time. And Mr Gardiner is happy to take a ten-mile turn around Pemberly. Is there as much walking in French literature?

At a bar in Vauvert I was served coffee in a cup with a hollow underneath which fitted over a mound in the saucer. How effective for shaky hands!

French kissing puzzles me. When greeting or parting. the French will kiss each other once, twice, thrice or four times on the cheeks. Sometimes it depends on the region, but often other factors come into play as well. I watched a woman arrive at the bar and greet her friends or acquaintances. She went around the table giving four kisses to each person. Then she came to the last and gave him only three. What was different about him to merit one kiss less?

In Le Puy two years ago I watched several individuals in turn approach others already seated at the table. The first woman kissed one person twice and then shook hands with the rest of the group. The next woman kissed one person once and the rest three times. The third kissed everyone twice. How does it work?

After Vauvert I was threatened by three dogs. I told them I love dogs but that made them worse. I had to walk backwards for a hundred yards lest they nip me in the calves. I could have done with a couple of walkers' poles. These were not the first aggressive dogs I've encountered in France.

Then I walked by another French phenomenon: the cinder block wall topped with broken glass. Along the top of a stretch of wall 200 yards long, some one had painstakingly embedded in cement about 4,000 pieces of broken bottles, jagged edges up. And what was inside? All I could see were rusty old vehicles.

In contrast, I saw my first poppy today. Just one. And lots of beautiful iris.

Friday, 1 April 2011

From Saint Gilles du Gard

ARLES - SAINT GILLES DU GARD (22 km)

This was a very different first day from that of the Chemin du Puy - very flat and on the bitumen all the way. It was certainly a path less trodden. Usually when a grande randonnee follows a road the walkers have trodden a track alongside, but not today. I passed passed one couple and saw no one else en chemin. At the hostel tonight we are four, and there may be a few more in chambres d'hotes or hotels. So there shouldn't be a problem with accommodation in the days ahead.

On leaving Arles, I passed an amusing bilingual sign. Under "Au revoir. A bientot" was "See you soon. Good-bye".

By the way, if you are reading this blog, you won't be overwhelmed with text. I'm tapping it out on my iPod Touch. I have to be very careful because it anticipates what I'm going to say and often gets it wrong. It had me down as having walked 22mm.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

From Arles

ARLES

I am eating outside at a little restaurant in Vieux Arles. Just ahead of me is the Roman arena, to the left is the amphitheater, and at ten o'clock is a Roman gate with one arch covered in wisteria. Overhead in a great vine, birds are chirping non stop.

Getting here was easy enough: airport to Gare de Lyon, TGV to Avignon, bus to Arles. In case anyone ever needs to get from the airport to Gare de Lyon, it's RER B to Chatelets des Halles, then RER A to Gare de Lyon. Tonight I'm staying at the youth hostel. Like many institutions they've had to relax their membership criteria.

Best wishes to all. I will drink a toast to you all every time that I have a vin rouge.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Packing

Here is a list of what I am taking, to the last item, all to weigh less than 18 lbs.

In the pack:

Underwear
2 underpants, 2 T shirts, 3 Tilley socks

Shorts and Shorts
1 shorts, 2 polo shirts

Outerwear
1 down pullover, 1 light rain jacket, 1 rain pants, 1 Tilley hat, 1 sandals

Electrics
1 iPod, 1 mobile phone with charger, 1 camera with charger, 1 adapter (North American to European),
1 iPod cord with charger

Toiletries
toothbrush, toothpaste, moleskin, deode, scissors, pills

And what I'm wearing:
Long pants, underpants, T shirt, shirt, MEC vest, PhD socks, leather boots, glasses
Passport, Eurail Pass, credit cards