Via Gebennensis

Via Gebennensis
Via Gebennensis

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

[If you happened to come here by chance and you feel inclined to read about the walk which ends below, then rather than read backwards, as it were, you might prefer to click on the link to my website at the right, go to Chemin de Vezelay, and begin, as the King said to the Rabbit, at the beginning. You will find other walks there as well.]


7 July 2012

In the street the pilgrims come and go
Talking of Santiago


Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is the pilgrims' base camp. They assemble here from all over the world, ready to make their ascent of the Pyrenees.

As I walked through the old gate yesterday, into the historic centre of town, the main street was thick with pilgrims, walking up the hill with their backpacks to the Accueil Pelerin or congregating outside, or sitting at tables at bars and restaurants. And the town was ready for them. Accueil Pelerin, Accueil Jacquaire, Boutique du Pelerin, Auberge du Pelerin, Refuge du Pelerin, Gite du Pelerin, Menu du Pelerin, etc. No trouble finding accommodation. And many will be off already to gites along the way to Roncevalles.

They come in every size and shape and colour, of every age from young kids to older couples.

The younger people seemed to be already forming in groups as they are wont to do. I met one threesome, a Quebecoise, an American, and an Italian. Others, I fear, may be forming into groups of their own kind. They may be doing the Camino to find themselves, but they are more likely to do this if they walk with people who are different from them.

But early this morning, before the arrival of the first train, it was strangely quiet. It was a great day for crossing the mountains, sunny and clear. When I crossed in April 2003, it was cold and foggy. I will never forget the relief of coming down out of the mist and seeing Roncevalles below. But today I would be in no hurry to get down.

I had breakfast with a Dutch woman who was about to begin a two-week stint as a hospitalier at Orison, a gite half-way between Saint-Jean and Roncevalles, a popular stop for pilgrims who want to cross the Pyrenees in two steps. We talked about the education system in Holland.

That is what I have missed on this walk: meeting people from different cultures and talking about what makes us different and what makes us the same. This, I think, is the greatest benefit of walking the Camino. So I will not walk the Chemin de Tours next year. Too few people to meet.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Day 38. Ostabat a Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (21 kms)

6 July, 2012

When it's good, it's very, very good,
And when it's bad, it's horrid.


I walked into Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port non-stop. It was easy walking, along a valley without the ups and downs of the last few days. I decided to keep going until I found a bar that was open for coffee. There wasn't one until Saint-Jean.

I really enjoy my coffee in France. My normal practice, unless I've had breakfast at the gite, is to go to a bakery, buy a couple of croissants, take them to a bar, and order a grand cafe noir, or what we would call in Canada, a double espresso.

And then, after a couple of hours, I'm ready for another one.

Arriving at the first village in the morning is a moment of anticipation and hope. Will there be a bar open where I can get a coffee?

I wasn't always a coffee drinker. In Australia, when I was growing up, we had only instant coffee. Even today, you may still be served Nescafé. Percolators came into fashion in the sixties, and then espressos and cappuccino in the seventies, at coffee shops, that is. Now you can order from the whole range of European style coffees, but with unique Aussie names like flat white and long black. They sound like wines, and I have to stop myself from ordering a long flat white.

I think I had my first really good cup of coffee on an Air Canada flight from London to Toronto in 1970. It was really quite exceptional. Like everything else on the airline, it's no longer what it used to be. Since then, I've been drinking North American filter coffee.

The trouble is, it varies so much. Sometimes it's awful, and even if it's very good, you can't be sure that the next time you go back to the same place, you'll get the same cup of coffee. Even when I make my own, I can't be sure it will taste as good the next day. But the coffee in France is always good!

Enough of coffee. I have discovered a friendly animal, the donkey. Dogs bark at me, horses are indifferent, cows ruminate, but donkeys trot towards me when I approach. They put their nose over the fence to be rubbed. Perhaps they recognise a kindred spirit.

After being alone for almost a week, and eating alone for longer than that, it was a pleasure to have company at dinner last night at Ostabad. There were a couple of German cyclists, a pair of French women, and an older French couple walking for two or three days with their grandchildren. The women and the Germans were interesting, but the grandfather was one of those Frenchmen who take charge of a conversation and give the final ruling on every point. Not that these pedagogues are limited to France.

It was a Basque establishment, and the host regaled us with information about the uniqueness of the language and culture. The food was good and the wine was excellent.

It was honest fare, good value for money, or as the French say, correct. By contrast, I had lunch here in Saint-Jean at a restaurant where the goal was to rip off the tourists by serving meat so thin you could see through it, with a bit of tired old lettuce pretending to be a salad, and a load of chips to fill you up.

I'm surprised that frites ever became part of French cuisine. They are so very English.

To avoid a repetition of my experience at lunch, I went off the beaten track and found a little Basque restaurant where the food was much better. Sitting across the room from me was a man who I think was a South Korean. Apparently, the South Koreans are doing the Camino in huge numbers, more even than Americans. Strange.

On arriving, I called in at the Acceuil Pelerin to get my credential stamped. They keep records of the pilgrims passing through. I was interested in the relative numbers walking on the four routes in France. One of the hospitaliers claimed that last year that 15,000 arrived from Le Puy, 1,000 from Arles, 1,000 from Vezelay, and 100 from Tours. Many more from Arles would have crossed at the Col de Somport as I did, but I was surprised at how few had come from Tours. I think I met about half a dozen fellow travellers on the road from Vezelay. I would meet even fewer on the Chemin de Tours.

So will I do this again? I don't know.



Thursday, 5 July 2012

Day 37. Sauveterre-de-Bearn a Ostabat (26 kms)

5 July, 2012

I'm cold and wet
And I drip with sweat
And I've more than a mile to climb,
And the weight of my pack
Is killing my back
And I'm covered in mud and slime.


It was cold and wet as I set out this morning, and I had to put on my clammies. As I walked through the once idyllic woods, I slid on the slippery slopes and sank in the mud. And my boots leaked and my feet squelched in my soggy socks. And no birds sang.

I took a wrong turning and climbed an unnecessary kilometre up a hill and then came down again. I plodded on, and eventually arrived at Saint-Palais, the half-way point. I resisted the temptation to have le plat du jour at a bar, and had a coffee instead.

I followed the highway out of town, up and down, and then out along a minor road into the country. I looked ahead. I could see a stony path climbing up forever and disappearing over the brow of a mountain. I hope that's not where I'm going, I thought. It was. It was an old road that a followed a natural pavement of metamorphic rocks up the hill. And it went on forever.

Half way up, the sky lightened a little and I took the photo below. I passed a shepherd and his dog and his flock. I kept climbing. The mist set in again, and I was reminded of the fog on Cross Fell on the Pennine Way. I kept climbing. At the summit, I reached a little chapel with a place set aside for pilgrims. I started down the other side.

Somehow I missed the place where three roads meet, where the ways from Le Puy, Vezelay, and Tours join. But suddenly I noticed I was on the GR 65, the Chemin du Puy. And the muddy path was thick with footprints.

Although I have left les Landes for the Pyrenees Atlantique, the country that I walked through today was reminiscent of English moors. Lots of bracken, high open places, and sheep. In fact there is sheep crap everywhere: on the chemin, of course, because every minor road and track is a way of getting the sheep from one grazing place to another, but also in the town of Ostabat where I've now arrived. One consequence of this is the flies, which are everywhere, and not your Aussie bush flies which are light and quick and go after the salt on your skin, but heavy sluggish flies which are already well fed, and crawl all over your hands and lodge in your hair. I had half a dozen on me as I drank a coffee inside a bar.

I went into the church. A few pilgrims were engaged in serious prayer. There were no flies there. I suspect that they don't like holy places. I sat for a while. I love the stillness of churches and I can imagine the presence of past parishioners. Then the silence was shattered by a couple of old ladies, probably two of the handful that make up the present congregation, fumbling with the old latch which opened the church door.

I have taken a room next to a bar in the centre of town. The landlady wanted to put me in with two ladies, but when I demurred, she found me a room of my own. There aren't that many pilgrims arriving that she would have to save it for someone else.

In fact, Ostabat is very well supplied with rooms and gites, all competing for the pilgrim trade. This has kept the prices down. I am paying 34 euros for demi-pension. The walls of my room are at least three feet thick, and the floor boards, which have probably been down since the eighteenth century, are hollowed and smooth and twelve inches wide. It's a room with character. I've turned my wet towel into a fly swat, and I'm on the hunt.

Tomorrow I arrive at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Day 36. Orthez a Sauveterre-de-Bearn (24 kms)

4 July, 2012

Half way up the stairs is a stair where I sit,
There isn't any other stair quite like it.


The art of walking is to enjoy the pleasures of the moment, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the curiosities along the way, and not to look at the map or the guide to find out how far to go. Or if there aren't any pleasures because you're walking along the road, then to lose yourself in your thoughts and let the miles roll by.

So I resolved to follow the signs and not the guide. In any case, I had been told there were no bars to look forward to.

Happily, I slept in this morning. Otherwise, I would have been caught in the rain. Instead, the storm struck while I was still at a cafe having breakfast. But the thunder continued to rumble as I left town.

I am now walking over familiar hilly terrain. The villages are on the rivers in the valleys. Every time I pass through a village like l'Hopital d'Orion, for example, I come down from the hills and then have to climb out again.

In the electronic version of the Globe, I read of the discovery of the so-called "god particle", whatever that means. It won't answer the question I was reflecting on today as I walked.

When and why did we arrive at self awareness? At what point did some Neanderthal suddenly think, I am me. And then, I want this, you can't have it. And then, I want more.

What a strange and unique evolutionary quirk unlike any other! No wonder some theologians postulated a divine intervention.

And what purpose did this self-awareness, this individuality, serve in the evolutionary scheme of things? It led to greed, to competitiveness, to materialism, to the exploitation of other species and the planet itself, and quite possibly to total annihilation. All this seems contrary to the life principle itself under which other species seem to work together to ensure their own survival.

Of course, this human self awareness also led to Shakespeare and the other great works of art.

But what a cruel irony if we have been given, or have acquired by some stroke of evolutionary fortune or misfortune, the capacity to create the most noble works of art, the highest forms of human expression, only to destroy them like the Taliban and the Buddhist statues!

I prefer to hope that everything that is an expression of our individual self awareness will survive, and our species and our planet as well.

After these muddled thoughts, I was ready for a beer when I arrived at Sauveterre-de-Bearn. I also had a ham, egg and cheese galette Bretonne, and sat under a magnificent plane tree which had been trained to give shade to customers sitting in front of the bar. No other tree provides such deep shade. (See picture below.)

I have also posted a picture, just received, of the group at the refuge at Sorges. It comprises a Brazilian, the Dutch father and son, the German classics student, the hospitalier, and me. Perhaps you can identify us.

I have two days to go. I am ready to stop.

Day 35. Hagetmau a Orthez

3 July, 2012

I will lift up my eyes unto the hills

Institutions ensure their own survival

If my dog Daisy won't be there, I'm not going (to heaven)

The prodigal son returneth


Hagetmau has a very effective way of controlling the speed of the traffic on its streets. The curbs, and even the lanes, are lined with hemispheres of concrete, rather like canon balls. I saw one that had been uprooted. It must have done fearful damage to the car that hit it. These gunstones also prevent the cars from parking on the footpath.

Two other things impressed me as well today.

Along a busy stretch of highway where pilgrims pass, a wooden rail had been put up to protect them from the traffic. In all my walking along highways I had not seen this before.

And along a couple of stretches of the path by fields of corn, the Amis de Saint-Jacques had planted ancient varieties of fruit trees to bear fruit for pilgrims if they happened to be passing by at the right time.

I walked over a broad plain of corn this morning, and then I climbed out of the valley. By the end of the day, I must have been up and down Mount Doug several times. At the little village of Argelos, I noticed I was walking in the right direction, along the Route de Pyrenees. By then I could then see the mountains in the distance.

Then I had lunch in the churchyard at Sault-de-Navailles. On the way out of town I found a bar and had a coffee. O how I longed for a beer! It was hot.

In the afternoon I passed by the little hamlet of Sallespisse. I won't speculate on the origin of that name.

Apart from the church steeples which pop up over the horizon every couple of hours, I am reminded that I am walking in what was once Christendom by the scores of crosses and shrines that I pass by every day. Of iron, wood and stone, I see them in squares, at the edge of town, at intersections, and in lonely places. What happened here to prompt this devotion, I wonder.

I find it interesting, and ironic, that the decline of religion was hastened, not by the masses who were always quite comfortable in their beliefs, but by the university-educated clergy who had studied the origins of the Bible and the early Church. The very theological study which was supposed to deepen their faith eventually weakened it.

In nineteenth century England, Church of England clergymen were Oxford or Cambridge graduates, educated men who would have studied the history of the early church and the scriptures in the original tongues. The would have begun to have doubts about the traditional teachings of the Church, but kept them to themselves and from their congregations. Then in the twentieth century they began to speak out. I think it was an Archbishop of York who was the first to say that he didn't believe in the Virgin birth. Others followed. The Church of England has always been able to accommodate a range of beliefs in its clergy.

I am convinced that in the Catholic Church as well, there are men of education with all the known research at their disposal, and the unknown as well in the Vatican Library, who no longer believe in the basic tenets of the Church - the divinity of Christ, the Virgin birth, the Resurrection - let alone those other matters without any Biblical basis at all - the celibacy of the clergy, the infallibility of the Pope, the refusal to ordain women, etc. Of this I am certain. How could it be otherwise? The very top Catholic scholars must end up at the Vatican.

But how can the Church admit it was wrong? Where would this leave the faithful who still venerate the shrines I pass every day. (See picture below)

An interview on the CBC program Tapestry revealed that even among fundamentalist Protestants there are pastors who have lost their faith and have kept this hidden from their flock.

And what is hidden away in the Vatican vaults? I suspect there may be evidence about the early doings of the Church. Perhaps there are surviving writings about the other, non-Paulian factions of Christianity. Perhaps there are other gospels.

That is something that fascinates me. What happened in the beginning? How did the Church expropriate a simple man who made no claim to be divine?

So the great age of Christianity has passed. But it left behind the greatest art and music and architecture the world has ever known.

The prodigal son has returned. The errant GR no longer follows the primrose path of dalliance. It indicates the straight and narrow, and the Coquille has given its imprimatur. (See picture below.) I am relieved. The GRs are very well marked and easy to follow.

Tonight I am alone in my castle, a 13th century fortified building. (See picture below.)

Incidentally, it was a Bishop of Edinburg who wasn't going to Heaven without his dog. I'm with him.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Day 34. Saint-Sever a Hagetmau (17 kms)

2 July, 2012

Lord what fools these mortals be

The gite was very modern, clean and comfortable. And quiet, for nine and a half minutes at a time. Then, somewhere in the building, some kind of machine would run for about 30 seconds. Perhaps it was a water pressure pump, or the boiler bringing the water back to its regular temperature, but it wasn't your usual fridge-rumbling kind of noise: it was more like a CP locomotive outside your window. But eventually I slept.

The cost for the gite was eight euros. It is certainly much cheaper to walk the Camino in France than it used to be. Almost all towns have a gite run either by the municipality or the pilgrims' association, and the cost is never more than ten euros for the night. Add to that the cost of meals and the occasional beer and you are well within the oft-quoted 50 euros a day. And if you cook your own meals at the gite, as the Dutch pair do, you will spend less than 30, even 25, euros a day. In fact you can do it on a shoe string. Some of the gites call for a donation, and I've seen people put in just a few coins.

It was a very easy day. In no time at all, I arrived at the little village of Audignon. Unfortunately for me, but not for the building, the eglise Romane was closed for repairs.

After that, I walked for a while beside an abandoned railway line which once served towns such as Saint-Sever and Hagetmau that I am walking through now. The rails were still intact and in much better shape than those of our late lamented E&N.

At Horsarrieu, my next stop, a young fellow opened a bar for me and sent me out to the patio to sit with his grandmother. She told me that she remembered the passenger trains from her childhood. The last goods train passed through about five years ago, she thought.

I walked through fields of corn most of the day. They are irrigated either by single rotating sprinklers which send out a huge arc of spray every second, or by lines of joined overhead piping which stretch right across a field. I was puzzled by long, open stretches of dirt until I realised that they were for the wheels of these gigantic contraptions. The system of pumping and piping for these sprinklers is elaborate.

I arrived at Hagetmau and picked up the key to the gite. This time it was five and a half euros. Again I am alone.

In the afternoon I visited the Crypte de Saint-Girons to see its 12th C. carved capitals on the columns supporting what was once part of the abbey above. I was amazed by the detail of the carvings until I read that they had been restored in the early 20th century. The ruins of the abbey were razed, but the crypt was saved and the carvings redone. It doesn't seen authentic to me. Wouldn't it have made more sense to restore the ruins somewhat and leave the capitals alone?

Unfortunately, the stillness of this wonderful place was marred by some artists setting up an exposition of ugly modern copper sculpture. Of all the places to put modern art! In a small medieval crypt.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Day 33. Mont-de-Marsan a Saint-Sever (21.4 kms)

1 July, 2012

Who would true valour see
Let him come hither


I have been thinking about the pilgrims in whose footsteps I'm following. What were they like? Were they pious ascetics hoping for fewer days in purgatory, or were they a rag-tag bunch, a regular cross section of humanity with its rogues and hypocrites, some along for adventure and others for profit of some kind. I suspect there were some of the latter, if Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is anything to go by.

Unlike today, there would have been a stream of pilgrims coming in the opposite direction, returning home. They would have spoken to the people heading south, telling them about the adventures to come and the places to stay.

And the hospitality? Was it Christian charity or self interest? Probably a bit of both. Certainly, there were many hospitals along the way that looked after the sick, and churches that offered shelter to those who couldn't afford to pay. But the hospitals probably received generous donations from the wealthy pilgrims they cured, and the churches would have sold relics to the credulous. Many gentry, with their servants, would have paid their way at the inns. Others - farmers, yeomen with little money - might have worked for their keep.

All this is mere speculation. I will try to find out what it was really like.

It was cool today when I set out, with heavy clouds which didn't deliver on their promise of rain. Eighteen degrees was the maximum temperature for the day.

One of the advantages, I suppose, of leaving a big town, is that by the time you reach the open country you have covered several kilometres, almost without realising it, and in no time I had reached the village of Benquet. The bar was closed, but I sat outside anyway, and a few minutes later, the patron was kind enough to open up for me.

Then I set a rattling pace for the remaining 13 kilometres to Saint-Sever. I would forgo my soggy cheese and stale baguette for le plat du jour et un quart de rouge. And indeed, I found a restaurant and had a steak and salad. I had earned it. The town is on a hill, and the last kilometre was a punishing climb. I was glad to stop, and thought of the Dutch who would have had another 19 kilometres to go.

The town of Saint-Sever is centred around its huge Romanesque abbey church. Various town buildings abut against one side, and a cloister now occupied by the mairie, the other. The interior is massive, and again I'm overwhelmed by the contrast between the beauty of the place and its emptiness. The church would hold a thousand people, and yet only a handful would attend its services today. And this contradiction is repeated all over Europe, I suppose. In the new world, the pious fill up the ugly glass temples on the outskirts of town, and in the old world, these great works of art stand empty in the centre.

Tonight I'm by myself in the municipal gite, a very comfortable place with ten beds. I suspect I am now alone on this section of the walk, so I shouldn't have any problem finding a place in future.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Day 32. Roquefort a Mont-de-Marsan (31 kms)

30 June, 2012

And may there be no moaning of the bar

I left the gite at seven-fifteen and took the key back to the Cafe de la Paix. A cat was sitting on the bar sipping milk and a parrot was emitting ear-piercing shrieks. I had a coffee and asked for some croissants. "Il s'en fout," said the woman behind the bar. "Il s'en fout?" I replied. "Non," she said. "Ils sont dans le four." They're in the oven. I often have exchanges like that. Then the croissants arrived and I ate them with my coffee. Half a dozen other customers were bantering with the woman as I left. I had a long way to go.

Tennyson was the rock of Victorian faith and optimism. "Crossing the Bar" would have been heard at funerals as often as "Ulysses" at school graduations. In fact, it isn't quite forgotten yet. I saw it myself in the order of service at a funeral as recently as ten years ago. There is no greater affirmation of faith than that poem:

I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I put out to sea


But it also lends itself to parody.

As I left town I faced a typical dilemma: the path or the highway? I yielded unto temptation. Then I redeemed myself. And then I was tempted again.

A road sign said: Mont-de-Marsan 21 kms. I would save up to ten kilometres by walking along the road. Walking along the road is soul-destroying. But ten is a lot of kilometres! I took off along the road. Zoom, zoom, zoom, went the cars. About a kilometre further on, the path rejoined the road. I had a chance to change my mind. I did. I followed the path into the woods. (See picture below.)

I stopped at the little hamlet of Corbleu and sat on a bench on the common. Doves were cooing. It was so peaceful and still I could have stayed there forever. But I had only covered six kilometres. I pressed on.

And then a jarring note. A man was spraying the ditch outside his property with insecticide. Rather than have a weed in his ditch, he was drenching the soil with cancer-causing chemicals. I tried not to breathe in the noxious fumes as I went past.

Then I passed a dog sign even more threatening than those I had seen before, which ranged in intensity from
"Attention au chien" to "Chien mechant" to "Attention chien de guarde". This one showed a fierce dog above the inscription:

Je veille pour mon maitre. Entrez a vos risques et perils

I stopped for a coffee at the pleasant little village of GailIeres. I asked the barman how far it was to my destination. Eighteen, he said, by the path. Thirteen, by the highway, but very dangerous. Lots of trucks. After a little hesitation, I took the long but safe route.

For the last two days I have been walking in the Departement of Les Landes (the Moors). The aren't rocky and rugged like the English moors, but they are covered with bracken and heather. And pine trees. The only terrain I have seen in France that reminds me of the Yorkshire moors is around Aubrac on the Chemin du Puy.

It was a very long day. I arrived at Mont-de-Marsan late in the afternoon and found the gite. Daniel had kindly saved a bed for me. Anxious to get to Spain, the Dutch are doing a double step tomorrow. They have been good company and I wish them well.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Tips for walkers in France

Here are some tips for prospective walkers in France. You probably won't find them in your guide book. Some of them may seem a little basic, but they are all based on personal, even painful, experience.

1. If you are using a Eurail Pass, book well in advance to make sure that you get one of the limited number of Eurail seats allocated to that train.

2. When you've finished charging your North American phone or device, make sure that the adapter hasn't stuck in the socket when you've pulled the rest of it out.

3. Make sure that there is somewhere to eat or somewhere to buy food at the town where you are staying the night. If there isn't, you will have to buy it in the morning before you go, or the night before and take it with you.

4. Make allowances for weekends, holidays and jours de fermeture when you are planning your accommodation and your provisions. The place where you would normally pick up the key - the mairie or the Office de Tourisme, for example - may be closed when you arrive.

5. Walk on the left side of the road. It's better to see the cars in front, than not to hear them behind you.

6. Stop to get the stones or seeds out of your shoe. These can cause nasty blisters.

7. If you are following the signs, and get lost, go back to where you last saw one. This is hard to do, but it's safer and shorter in the long run.

8. If you are following the GR, remember that there is more than one of them, and that they cross from time to time. So make sure that you are on the right one.

9. Pee in the bush before you arrive in town rather than have a coffee you don't want, just to use the toilet, or be caught short when you can't find one.

10. Always carry backup toilet paper. You never know when you'll need it.

11. If you're on the loo, note the location of the light switch. It may be timed, in which case it will switch off when you're in medias res and leave you in the dark. You will have to find it to turn it back on. Or it may be motion sensitive, and you'll have to wave your arms around to activate it.

12. Eat prunishly. I don't want to go into details here, but if you're not careful, with all the bread you're eating - how can I put this delicately - it will be like the Biblical camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle, with very painful consequences.

13. Have a beer when you arrive at your destination. Not only is it one of the great pleasures of the day, but I have found that it settles an uneasy stomach that may result from walking in the heat. Perhaps it restores the electrolytes that you lose through sweating.

14. Take lots of moleskin with you. The Compedes, which you buy in France, are very good at healing blisters even if they gum up your socks, but moleskin will form an extra layer and protect you if you have a hot spot.

15. Go at your own pace. You can meet up with someone who is faster or slower than you at coffee, lunch, or the end of the day. But when the climb is interminable, or there's forever to go, that, in my opinion, is the time to draw on reserves and go like the clappers. Otherwise, you can fall into the pit of despair.

16. Watch out for electric fences. They are intended to keep humans out as well as animals in.

17. Create some kind of mnemonic or checklist for remembering your vital possessions.

Day 31. Le Billion a Roquefort (27 kms)

29 June, 2012

Lady in carriage: Sir, you smell.
Dr. Johnson: Madame, you smell. I stink.


The gite last night wasn't exactly a "Gite de France", as one of the French put it. Neither the plumbing nor the wiring would have passed an inspection. The lights dimmed whenever you plugged in an appliance. And there was a lingering odour from the septic field. We were all bitten by mosquitos. One of the French ladies was stung by nettles and pulled off a couple of ticks.

It was run by a very old woman, who, bent double, fussed around, dealing out her supplies very carefully. She was a shrewd businesswoman doing very well out of the pilgrim trade at 20 euros apiece. "Who hasn't paid," she said, after counting her money.

But we made the most of it. The French were kind enough to invite me to dine with them. We ate outside, ham, pasta, fruit salad, a la bonne franquette.

This morning we left just after seven, and made very good time along a sandy track. The only jarring note was the thundering sound of the French air force flying overhead. Apparently we were near a base. I was lucky enough to find a coffee at Bourriot-Bergonce. Thence, it was a steady slog into Roquefort, which, I was disappointed to learn, has nothing to do with the cheese.

The French are taking a taxi tonight to the station to get a train home. Next year they will take up where they left off and walk for another week. They are in no hurry to get to Santiago. More important is the pleasure they take in each other's company and the experiences along the way. I wish them well.

Tonight, together with the Dutch lads, I am in a gite run by the pilgrims' association. No meal provided, but there's a bar up the street offering a pilgrim's menu.

I was unable to see inside the Romanesque chapel at Ligaut, which, I read, has some magnificent frescoes.(See picture below.)

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Day 30. Bazas au Billon (28 kms)

28 June, 2012

Berryman and Baxter,
Prettiboy and Penn,
And old Farmer Middleton
Are five big men.
And all of them were after
The Little Black Hen.


Yesterday, I visited the cathedral at Bazas. On the outside, it is rather unappealing. A tower on one side throws it off balance. But inside it is magnificent. It is not in the form of the Latin cross, but a simple basilica, the nave leading to the altar and ending in chapels around the chevet. Some cathedrals move me, others don't. I sat in solemn stillness for half an hour and marvelled at its simple beauty - the columns, the stained glass, the vaulting. How could I be alone in this great work of art for such a long time? Could one do this in front of the Mona Lisa?

I spent the night with a very religious couple, and I think they expected a very religious pilgrim. Patrick the Belge had given me their number without telling me this. Catholic mags were stacked on the desk in my room. I could have read them till kingdom come. And they were in the loo as well. At dinner I felt like Holden Caulfield when Catholics would ask him about mass to find out if he was a Catholic. "Are they mainly Protestants in British Columbia?" they asked me.

They lived out of town and were very surprised when I asked to be taken back to the cathedral where they had picked me up. Was I sure?" they asked at least three times. And I was surprised to find that this was unusual. I mean, how can you say to yourself, "I walked to Santiago except for the three kilometres where I rode in a car?"

After leaving Bazas by a main road, I walked for many miles along a discontinued railway line. France had its Beeching too.

As I walked over the buried sleepers and lengths of rail, and kicked the rusty old plates and bolts, I imagined a steam train chugging towards me. I remembered that great film with a sooty Burt Lancaster switching a train onto a different track to save the art treasures the Germans had stolen from the Louvre. One to watch again when I get home.

Then I came upon some chooks scratching happily in the sand. They had wandered over from a neighbouring farm yard, and were scratching for grubs in the dirt.

Ode to a Chook

O happy, happy chook!
Thou peckest, thou scratchest, thou diggest, thou cluckest
In full contentment:
Pook-erk, pook, pook, pook, pook.
Bliss it is to be a chook in the sun in the sand.


Chooks in sand are as happy as pigs in muck. And chooks, like pigs, should enjoy this freedom until it's time for the chop. It is evil to keep them in cages.

I met the French group at lunchtime at Captieux. They were sitting at a bar, having a beer, and about to eat lunch. I asked if they had visited the church. First things first, they said. I said I had met very few people on this route. Ah, they said, but the people you have met "sont les gens de qualite".

We still had about nine kilometres to go in the afternoon sun before we reached our gite. There was no way I would eat a heavy lunch with that ahead of me. But the French are French. First things first.

Tonight the seven of us are at a gite quite literally in the middle of nowhere.

In the picture below, the disrespectful gent in the back row of the cathedral who has not removed his hat is not me. My Tilley is perched on top of my sack.

Day 29. La Reole a Bazas (25 kms)

27 June, 2012

The lady doth protest too much, methinks

There's a bird perched on Rod's pole

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines


I crossed the Garonne at eight o'clock this morning. My hostess came with me to me to send me off in the right direction. That's her thumb in the top right corner of the picture below. That's me on the left.

She was a garrulous soul who hadn't accepted the inevitability of change. As she watched the news on television, she would launch into a tirade at every item - against les arabes, les anglais, les jeunes, les sans-emplois, les manifestants, les politiciens, le President - and then wait for me to agree with her. Eh? Then she would mutter and mumble until provoked by the next irritant. But she was kind and generous, did my washing, fed me well, and gave me a comfortable bed.

Gone are the vineyards. I walked across the plain between fields of corn and barley. I passed a sign warning me of low-flying aircraft. What was I supposed to do? Dodge them? I passed a fisherman on the bank of a canal. He had four rods propped up doing the fishing for him while he rested in a deck chair.

I had lunch at Auros in the shade of a tree. It was 33 degrees.

I walked the remaining ten kilometres along the road into Bazas. It was hot, but with a clear sky, it was a bit like Aussie heat, eased a little with a "sea breeze". It's a heat we don't experience in Canada, searing in the sun, and in the shade, enervating in an almost pleasant way, as if the energy is draining out of you and with it the cares of the world.

I rested in the shade, not of an old gum tree, but a grove of poplars. And the breeze blew against me, cooling like a Coolgardie safe. Then it was time to face the sun again.

An air-conditioned coach whizzed by. I imagined the passengers looking out the window and saying, "You silly bugger!" Or in a Peter Sellers French accent, "Vous stupide bougeur!"

At three-fifteen I arrived at la Place de la Cathedrale in Balzas. I sat down and had a beer.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Day 28. Saint-Ferme a La Reole (20 kms)

26 June, 2012

I am too much in the sun

Until now, it has been cool in the mornings when I set out, but today it was overcast and muggy as I left the gite, and it got hotter as the day advanced. It was a comparative short step, but as I walked the last few kilometres along the road into La Reole, the heat was coming up through the ever-thinner soles of my Keens.

Last night the hospitalier produced a superb vin de pays. When I asked where he'd got it, he tapped his nose and said he had a source. Later, the French agreed it was a very fine petit vin. I asked them whether it was a vin de or a vin du pays, and they became very excited and launched into a lengthy discussion about the nuances of the language. In short, it was both.

They are moving slowly from their home in Charente to Santiago, one week at a time. As usual, there are the connections: one has a nephew in Perth; another, a friend in Nelson, BC. Today, at lunchtime, they made a detour to a chateau for a wine tasting. They invited me to go with them, but I declined. I knew that I wouldn't want to continue afterwards. They arrived in town about five-thirty, so they must have had a good day.

This morning, I saw someone on a tractor clipping off the tops of his vines so that more of the growth goes into the grapes. I didn't want to mention it yesterday while I was waxing poetic about the vines, but I noticed that a farmer was spraying with some sort of pesticide that I tried to avoid breathing. I remember Patrick, the former mayor of a commune near Toulouse, telling me last year that we would be horrified if we knew what noxious chemicals went into the making of wine.

On the way out of the little village of Coutures, I passed the ruins of the 12th century castle of Caze. (See picture below.)

Tonight, I'm in La Reole, a town on the bank of the Garonne, which is, after the Loire and the Dordogne, the third of the great rivers to cross.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Day 27. Port-Sainte-Foy a Saint-Ferme (25 kms)

25 June, 2012

Some work of noble note may yet be done.

All day long I walked through vineyards. At times, they stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see. I saw vines of every age and size, from fresh, young shoots to the old and gnarled.

As I walked beside the old vines, I was struck by the contrast between the twisted, withered old stumps and the flourish of green above, with grapes already forming on the stems. Young heads on old shoulders! A few of the veterans stood forlorn, bereft of foliage. Others had fallen, to be replaced by new recruits, reaching up to the supporting wires, there to join their venerable elders. All to produce our daily plonk!

At Les Leves I passed a winery, more like a refinery really, with 40 or 50 cylindrical tanks for processing and storing the wine. I recalled the time, 25 years ago in France, when we took our empty containers to be filled with wine by a petrol bowser.

A party of sIx arrived at the gite last night, straight from the train. They could pose a problem for individuals like me, for they fill up the gites, and they've booked ahead all the way. But they are very pleasant company.

Consequently, the gite tonight, with six beds, was full, but the Dutchmen and I had been promised mattresses on the floor. However, they decided to stay at Pellegrue, five kilometres before Saint-Ferme. I pressed on to find that I'm sleeping on a camp stretcher in a storage room, a private room, in fact. This is a gite run by the pilgrims' association, the third I've stayed in: the food is good, and at 20 euros, the price is very reasonable. I didn't want to miss it.

In the picture below, you can see the abbey church of Saint-Ferme in the background.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Day 26. Mussidan a Port-Sainte-Foy

24 June, 2012

My heart leaps up when I behold a church spire in the sky

Most meals at a restaurant are quite formal. The waiter appears at appropriate moments, takes your order, and brings your dishes.

Last night's was quite the opposite. When I arrived, the patron put a basket of bread and a bottle of red on my table. Not your finest Bordeau, mind you, but quite drinkable. The bottles, unlabelled and uncorked, were lined up behind the bar, and as the diners arrived, the bottles appeared.

A big bowl of pea soup was placed on my table, and I helped myself. Then a plate of crudités. Then I had to make a choice: rabbit or beef. Remembering Phyllis's bunny, I thought I'd better choose beef. Then salad, and then a choice of cheeses and choice of deserts from a large plates. All very pleasant and informal .

It was a very long day. At first, I walked across the plains between fields of corn and barley, and then through the woods again, deciduous then pine, and finally up and down the slopes of wine-growing terrain.

My heart lifts up with hope when I behold a church spire. The church is the centre of the village, and beside the church there may be a bar where I can take a break and have a coffee. At the very least, I can sit on the bench or picnic table that can usually be found beside the church, or failing that, I can eat my lunch on the steps with my back against the door.

Today, I stopped at the churches of Saint-Gery, Fraisse, and Montfaucon. These were the markers that divided my day into four parts. I rested beside each of these churches.

The church is still the centre of village life. Not in the way it once was, of course, although many of the villagers are still baptised, married and buried there. At the church of Saint-Gery where I made my first stop this morning, there must have been a wedding the day before. Two small decorated trees had been "planted" on either side of the church door, a carpet of pine leaves had been laid in front of the steps, and confetti and rose petals had obviously been strewn upon the couple.

But the church gives an identity to the secular villagers as well. Everything is defined in relation to the church - the bakery is opposite it, or behind it, or on the street that runs down from it. It gives the villagers a geographical identity. It orients them. They live in the shadow of the church. And they are part of the tradition it embodies, going back for more than a thousand years.

As I came down from the hills I was pointed in the right direction and given food for thought.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Day 25. Saint-Astier a Mussidan (24 kms)

23 June, 2012

An army marches on its stomach

So do pilgrims. That is why for several nights in a row we were eating pasta. The hosts figure that as long as the guests are full, they will be happy. And we don't complain. You usually get what you pay for. But every so often you are lucky enough to encounter a hostess who takes pride in her cooking, and pleasure in seeing her guests enjoy their food.

Such was the case with M. et Mme. Delugin at Saint-Astier. We began with an aperitif, then melon, then pate, then lamb chops, potatoes and mushrooms, then salad, then cheese, and finally, fruit and ice cream with melted chocolate on top. Quite delightful! All accompanied by an excellent vin du pays served by a true host who gauged the consumption of his guests and fetched another bottle at the appropriate moment. Second helpings were pressed upon my Dutch friends who were happy to accept. And so was I.

I learnt another expression for the necessity of cheese with every meal:

Un repas sans fromage est comme une belle sans un oeil

I think I got that right. The host agreed with me that wine tasted better after cheese, and added, that for that reason, cheese is never served at wine tastings.

He was un chasseur, and the pate was made from the spoils of the hunt - deer and wild boar. One of his trophies looked down on us this morning as we ate breakfast.

From time to time, in the woods and in the cafes, I pass women with angular physiognomies that could have come straight out of Madame Bovary. And of course, they have. Or rather, their forbears have.

And our hostess would have been at home in any nineteenth century novel as a jovial farmer's or innkeeper's wife, beaming with pleasure as her guests enjoyed her cooking.

All in all, it was a delightful stay for 32 euros.

I had to walk one and a half kilometres back into town to find the trail. I contemplated taking a short cut across a railway bridge, but decided it was a bit risky. Just as well. Two trains passed soon afterwards.

As I crossed the road bridge into town, I was impressed by the sight of the church and the houses along the river in the early morning sun. (See picture below.)

Then it was a pleasant walk beside the railway line, through the woods, and across the fields to Neuvic Gare where I had a coffee with the home-made muffin our hostess had sent us away with.

After that, I walked along the main road for a while, and then up the limestone escarpment and onto the plateau for a pleasant stroll in the woods. And then down again, and an hour's march along the highway brought me into Mussidan.

Tonight, I am in the municipal gite. For six euros, it's very basic. The Dutch fellows are here as well. The aroma from their pizza is wafting my way, but I am going out to a restaurant.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Day 24. Perigeux a Saint-Astier (26 kms)

22 June, 2012

Under the spreading chestnut tree

As I sing the song, I remember seeing a film clip of King George VI with a troop of boys at a scout camp. He was obviously enjoying himself as he sang the song and did the movements - spreading, chest, nut, tree - a bit like those of YMCA, which I can never manage. He was probably still the Prince of Wales, with little idea of the turmoil that lay ahead. How fate can throw a spanner in the works of life!

For some days, I have been walking through hilly pastoral country, with the occasional field of grain, and lots of chestnut trees, sometimes alone, sometimes in groves, and sometimes in small plantations. No vineyards yet.

Last night I stayed with Madame Fevre, a former phys. ed. teacher who was on the list of individuals welcoming pilgrims. It was a very pleasant stay, rudimentary but correct, as the French would say.

It took some time to get out of the city this morning. At one stage, I had to walk on the road to get around the cars parked on the footpath. That's not uncommon in France. Although a small city, Perigeux has its suburbs which stretch out along the roads leading into town. Then, for want of alternative marking, I found myself following the GR along the river for a while. This was a pleasant diversion, but it added a couple of kms. Then I was in the woods again for the rest of the day.

There is something very, very pleasant about taking a break for lunch in the middle of the day. I always make sure that I've covered more than half the distance before I eat. Food can sit heavily in my stomach during the afternoon. I am sitting by the side of the road, leaning against an oak tree, munching a baguette and the last of my sweaty cheese. For some reason, I think back to sitting beside the highway against a gum tree in Wodonga, Victoria, 50 years ago. There, I would have been listening to crows and magpies and kookaburras, and fighting off the bush flies. Here I am sitting in silence, but for the wind in the trees and the occasional call of a songbird. Midday is a lazy time for the birds as well. And the wind is strong enough to keep away the mosquitos, which are plentiful in the woods. I have the bites to prove it, unless they are from bedbugs.

I stopped for un petit cafe at the pleasant little town of Gravelle, only eight kilometres from my destination.

After Gravelle, I walked beside the river Isle, and then a canal. (See picture below.) It doesn't get much easier than walking beside the water. It's flat!

The main road into town runs beside a steep limestone cliff which has been quarried out into huge caves which are now occupied by the army, the gendarmerie, and various private enterprises.

The monotony of the last three kilometres into town was relieved by a colourful, welcoming floral display. (See picture below.)

I'm staying at a chambre d'hote a couple of kilometres out of town. I have my own room, and for supper we'll be eating lamb chops and freshly gathered mushrooms. It sounds very promising. And who else should be here but the Dutch.

Day 23. Sorges a Perigeux (24 kms)

21 June, 2012

Un repas sans fromage est comme une journee sans soleil.

Thus spake the hospitalier as she served the cheese. And a good selection it was, augmented by Daniel's favourite, Comte, which, we decided, smelled like his father's socks. It was a good meal all round. Salad, chicken and pasta.

We were five around the table, along with the two hospitaliers.

Daniel is Dutch, and spent some time studying in Nanaimo. He is very technologically savvy, and spends much of his evening on his iPad, twittering and blogging and planning next day's route.

Carl, his father, whose real name is Carolus, Is a wiry fellow with a gesticular sense of humour.

Louis from Brazil is doing his fourth or fifth camino and is a little the worse for wear. He's the only fellow who arrives after me, sometimes several hours later. When I first saw him I thought, Ah, here's someone older than I am, but it turns out he's only 65.

And then there's Christian, a young German student, doing classics. I was interested to learn that he's going to be a Latin teacher. I asked whether he would easily find a job. No problem, he said, Latin is considered a very important subject in Germany, not only for historical reasons, but because it encourages critical thinking.

Now isn't that interesting! The English-speaking world has replaced Latin with more relevant and practical subjects, whereas the Germans have kept it up because it trains the minds of the future generation? Are they so far behind us or way ahead of us in their thinking?

I spent most of the day walking in the woods, coming out only at the outskirts of Perigeux. I passed a few ladies looking for mushroooms. It wasn't the season (September, October) but they had found a few after the rain. Then I stopped to chat with a friendly fellow with a friendly dog. I make a point of responding to friendly dogs. They are few and far between. He, the man, not the dog, told me where I was on my map.

The problem is that there are several chemins de Vezelay. First, there is the "historic route", which I am following, with my guide. Then there is the route devised by les Amis de St. Jacques in the Limosin-Perigord region. The markers of these two routes are almost the same with the yellow arrow and the Coquille de St. Jacques, but the routes don't always coincide. Then, of course, there is the GR, which joins us for a while on most days, and then grand-old-Duke-of-Yorks it off into the bush somewhere. Ultimately it doesn't matter which route you follow as long as it's direct and avoids the highway. But I like to know where I am, and that's what the fellow with the dog was telling me.

I arrived in Perigeux about two o'clock, visited the cathedral, and then walked out of town to the place where I'm staying. Having stayed here a few nights ago, Patrick had put me on to it.

Today's picture is of a Ukrainian well deep in the heart of Perigord. (Some people have wondered if I were poking fun at Ukrainians. Not at all! Wells like this can be seen in many Ukrainian towns in Manitoba.)

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Day 22. Thiviers a Sorges

20 June, 2012

Swans sing before they die - 'twere no bad thing
Should certain persons die before they sing.


Able was I ere I saw Elba

This morning I climbed the steepest hill so far on my walk: up from the campsite into town. The Hollanders had gone on, and avoided this little detour, but I needed my coffee.

Thiviers is a thriving little town. Even along the winding streets in the centre of the old town, cars are whizzing by, and at eight o'clock, people are out and about. Dogs are taking their masters and mistresses for their morning walk. One banner across the town square announces that the firemen are hosting a grand ball. Another invites people to give blood on Saturday morning. An ensemble d' accordeons is to give a concert in the church and the Choeur d'hommes du Perigord is to perform as well. I look at their photo and see that they are all old blokes like us in the Arion Choir. Where are the young singers?

The sun is shining, and the display on the innovative flashing green cross of the pharmacy tells me that it's 9:10 and 20 degrees. It's time to move on.


After leaving town, I walked along shady lanes and across the fields. In the picture below, you can see alfalfa on the left and barley on the right. An oak stands on the left; a chestnut, on the right. And you can probably see the poppies in the foreground.

For the last part of the day, I walked along la Route Napoleon, presumably the route he followed when he came from exile to meet his Waterloo. I continued on this road into Sorges.

As I did two nights ago, I am staying at a gite run by the pilgrims' association and managed by volunteers. All is included for 20 euros.

By the way, I don't agree with Coleridge. If I did, I'd be dead.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Day 21. La Coquille a Thiviers

19 June, 2012

Interviewer: Elvis, what do you like most about Memphis?
Elvis: Everything!

Fog Worsens. Continent Isolated


I set out early this morning along a minor road which soon became so little used that moss was growing along the centre. Eventually it became a stony track. Queen Anne's lace, fern and foxgloves, and what the English call eggs and bacon (or is it bacon and eggs?) lined the banks. When did someone last pass this way, I wondered. And then a jogger appeared. The loneliness of the long-distance runner, I thought. I crossed a bridge and passed a house in an absolute idyllic setting, complete with babbling brook. Then I noticed the hole in the roof. You could probably buy this place for 500 euros and spend a million fixing it up.

I walked on and sat on a damp log to rest. Absolute tranquility! I walked on, lost in my thoughts.

Then I was lost in the bush. The road came to an end in a field of wheat. No track. I walked right around the field. No way out. At the end of the neighbouring field I could see a line of trees which might have hidden a road or a track. But how to get there? I was barred by a barrier of barbed wire, brambles, and wild roses. I managed to get through with only a few scratches, and pushed on through the long grass to the trees. On the other side was a track which led a line of electricity poles. Ah, a road. Indeed it was. But which way to turn? Left or right?

This was a classic dilemma for me. A bit like the stock market. If I buy something, it goes down. If I sell something it goes up. I have been responsible for major rallies and crashes. I would be wrong whichever way I turned.

I turned left, hoping for a car or tractor to come along so I could ask directions. None. I walked for a couple of kilometres and came to a village. I asked a woman where I was. Saint-Priest-les-Fougeres, she said. I was further from my destination than when I started.

Of course you're wondering why I didn't retrace my steps until I found where I went wrong. You're right. I should have done, and that's the advice I would give to anybody else. But I find it very hard to go back.

All was not lost. It was still morning and I had only 20 kilometres to walk. I plodded on and eventually reached the town of Thiviers where I am staying at the campsite. I am finally going to consume the can of canard confit that I have been carrying around for two weeks. Tomorrow my pack will be lighter.

At the pub yesterday where I had my customary beer on arriving, I was served by an English woman. Another couple arrived to have a cup of tea. They spoke in an incomprehensible, north-country accent. I wondered whether this little congregation of English speakers would keep the locals away. Only one came in while I was there, and he looked as if he wasn't fussy where he had his beer.

I reflected on the ubiquity of the English in France. The other night at dinner, the conversation turned to the number of foreigners living in France. It seemed that I was headed for a region where many Dutch people lived. "And the English, where are they?" I asked. "Everywhere," was the reply. "And they tend to stick together."

The comment was not meant to be unkind. He went on to say that the English, like the French, find it hard to learn another language. But many, of course, don't want to. I remember our friend Anne in Brittany telling us that her new English neighbours in the village weren't very interested in the free French lessons she was offering them.

Some English make a point of integrating. The couple at one gite where I stayed have sent their kid to school, and he is now, for all intent and purposes, French. But I was horrified to learn that some English still have a Wogs-start-at-Calais attitude. He told me about some people he knew that would go into shops and ask for goods in English and expect the shopkeepers to understand them. No way were they going to make the effort to speak a foreign language!

One of the reforms proposed in the new curriculum for primary schools in England is the compulsory learning of a foreign language. Perhaps this will result in a generation of less insular English.

Today's photo is of Limoges Cathedral.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Day 20. Bord a La Coquille (28 kms)

18 June, 2012

Curiouser and curiouser

As I left the gite this morning, I witnessed a couple employing a curious means of locomotion. He was heavily laden like a mule, and she was hitched to a little cart like a donkey. I'm not sure, considering the physics of it, who had the better of it. She would have been propelled down the slopes, but he would have had it easier going uphill. In any case they would have been limited to the roads.

And in the afternoon, I came upon a curious juxtaposition of signs above a gate which held back a pack of barking dogs. The first said: "Attention au chien". The second said: "Defense d'entrer". The third said: "Bienvenue". I was going to take a photo, but a woman appeared and threatened to set the dogs on me.

Then I passed a field of corn prevented from straying by an electric fence.

I walked a long way today and now I've made up lost ground. And I've got a bed at the municipal gite.

Last night I slept in a feather bed, and tonight I'm with the gypsies, O

So to speak. Last night I had a bed with sheets in my own room. Tonight, I have the last lower bunk in a small room with four doubles.

It was cool and overcast as I walked along the highway in the morning, but in the afternoon the sun shone and I strolled along a shady lane with woods on either side. Once again, I was taken by the magical light.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Joy of Poetry

The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen,
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing,
A local habitation and a name.


Is there a better definition of poetry than that?

This is a bonus post. Read on if you are interested, or give it a miss if you're not.

I used to think that bloggers were rather immodest and self-indulgent. I still do, and now I've joined them. But then, what the hell! You don't have to read my posts if you don't want to.

My old mate John in Perth asked me for my favourite poem. I have been walking along the highway a lot lately, so I've been thinking about it. But I can't pin it down to just one poem.

First of all I would include the great speeches which I've mentioned before from Shakespeare's plays. And then the sonnets. I would choose a copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets as my desert island book of poetry.

First among the sonnets is the famous

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.


Surely, those are among the most beautiful lines in our language.

And then there's

That time of year in me thou mayst behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.


At my age, that sonnet is particularly meaningful, and I love the image of the last line.

There are two other sonnets I must mention.

No other poem expresses the vanity of human ambition as well as Shelley's "Ozymandias".

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Everything in that last line conveys the vast emptiness of the desert, and human ambition.

And then there is Wordsworth's sonnet on the evils of materialism:

The world is too much with us. Late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our power,
Little we see in nature that is ours,
We have given our hearts a way, a sordid boon.


I wonder if they teach that sonnet in Fort McMurray.

Keats' Odes have alway been among my favourites, "Ode to a Grecian Urn" a little less than the others. "Ode to a Nightingale" is close to the top of the list of great poems. Lines such as

Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird

and

Now seems it more than ever rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain


rank with Shakespeare. As does all of "To Autumn", apparently the most anthologised poem in the English language. With good reason. Every line is perfect, so I hesitate to quote just one. But I will:

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind

It gives me such pleasure to say that line. And the whole poem is like that.

I like Wordsworth as well, especially "Tintern Abbey" and "Intimations of Immortality", and parts of The Prelude. His lines keep coming to me as I pass through the countryside.

I heard a thousand blended notes
While in a grove I sate reclined...


When it comes to the Victorians, I've been thinking about Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" as I walk by church after magnificent church, once the centre of life in Europe but now devoid of priests and standing empty on Sundays.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full...
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar


Poets of the second league, like composers, sometimes come up with a masterpiece.

Tennyson, I think is in the first league. "Ulysses" is one of the great Victorian poems. The last line,

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield

used to be heard in the English-speaking world at school Speech Nights as often as Gilbert and Sullivan medleys at band concerts. In fact, I think it was quoted in 1958 when I graduated. However, I prefer

Some work of noble note may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men who strove with gods


or

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world

or

I will drink life to the lees

Memorable lines with meaning to boot! Tennyson had an ear for the music of the language. "Ulysses" is close to the top of my list. If I were a kid forced to recite a poem under the new curriculum in England, that's the poem I'd choose. Such great-sounding lines!

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy

You can hear the clanging of swords and the clashing of shields.

I like some of his shorter poems as well. Sixty years ago, I came upon this one in "The Harp of Youth". It has stayed with me.

Break, break, break,
On thy cold, grey stones, O sea.
And I would that my tongue could utter,
The thoughts that arise in me.


But for obvious reasons, Tennyson is out of favour today. It's a shame.

Wilfred Owen was a fine poet. I think that "Dulce et Decorum Est" should be on every school curriculum as the definitive anti-war poem.

I like T. S. Elliot's "Preludes" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. For all his complex imagery, Elliot understood the beauty of simplicity:

And then the lighting of the lamps

It reminds me of Shakespeare's

Let us sit down and tell sad stories of the death of kings

What a perfect monosyllabic line that is! The great poets "felt" the language.

I also get great pleasure from reading the poems of Banjo Patterson, Australia's bush poet. The intellectuals scoffed at him at the time for not presenting a realistic view of life in the bush, and my English teacher derided him for only being a story teller, but I like him. "Clancy of the Overflow" is a very fine poem.

Incidentally, Banjo Patterson wrote an early version of Australia's unofficial national anthem, "Waltzing Maltilda". Is it really true that the song is no longer taught in Australian schools because it's about suicide? As the character (played by Jack Hawkins, I think) says in The Bridge on the River Kwai: "Madness, absolute madness!"

Don't be impressed because I have these poems in my head. Many of them I have heard hundred of students recite over the years. Besides, I've had to cheat and Google a couple of times when a phrase eluded me.

These are some of my favourite poems. There are many gaps in my knowledge of literature and, consequently, I'm not very familiar with some poets who might otherwise have been on my list. Yeats, for instance.

These poems are not for the intellectual elite, but for everybody. Almost all of them used to be found on the high school English curriculum and students were richer for it.

Now that I've thought about it, I think that my top four would be "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?", "To Autumn", "Ozymandias" and "Ulysses".

But I'm now experiencing symptoms of Repetitive Stress Syndrome from tapping away on this iPhone, so it's time to stop.

Day 19. Limoges a Bord (22 kms)

17 June, 2012

Creeping like snail unwillingly to... Flavignac

I was sluggish again today and was still in Limoges at nine o'clock. It even crossed my mind to spend an extra day there, but then I thought of my dingy little hotel and decided to move on. The markets were open early so I bought my croissants and had my first coffee. It took me a while to get out of town.

It is interesting how all over the world the local inhabitants enjoy giving directions to strangers. It may even provide more pleasure to the giver than the receiver of directions. People give me detailed instructions, study my map, tell me about their visit to Canada, and even take me where I want to go.

And on the subject of kindness and generosity, at the bar where I stopped for a second coffee, still in Limoges, the patron brought me out a complimentary crepe to go with it. He was Moroccan, and impressed with the fact that I was from Canada. "Morocco, Canada. Like this!" he said with a big thumbs up. Either our present government hasn't totally destroyed our international reputation or he's not quite up with our present policies.

I plodded along the road all day. In the afternoon, the sun came out and I walked along a shady lane past a series of water mills. In some cases the water was still flowing swiftly down the leet and I thought it would be possible to install a turbine and generate electricity.

Towards the end of the day I passed a chateau. You could probably buy it for the cost of a house in Victoria, but then it would cost the same amount each month to maintain it.

So I never made it to Flavignac. I couldn't face the prospect of a rudimentary gite and the can of canard confit which I've been carrying around for ten days now. (I know that if I dump it I will suddenly find myself in a town where I can't get any food.) I'm staying in a B & B at Bord, a hamlet about ten kilometres short of the scheduled stop. So I have a bit to make up.

Once again, the barn which formed part of the same building as the farmhouse, has been converted into quarters for guests. Here's a picture.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Day 18. Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat a Limoges (21.5 kms)

16 July, 2012

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

I woke up early this morning and was having coffee in the square just after seven, with the sounds of preparation for commerce all around me. Vans were unloading and vendors were setting up shop. Next to me was a fruit stall; opposite, oysters and fish. People were leaving the boulangerie with baguettes under their arm.

On leaving Saint-Leonard I walked across a Roman bridge. Roman legions had crossed here almost two thousand years ago. And these bridges can be found all over Europe. They survive when the modern highway bypasses an old village and the bridge is left intact. In something of an understatement this one was called "Le Vieux Pont".

Then I passed a stretch of houses which were almost literally in the river. (See picture below.) Water ran in front and behind. I bet you could buy one for a song.

After that I ambled along, hoping for a cup of coffee at each village I passed. I was out of luck. I arrived in Limoges about two-thirty, and have found a room in a very cheap hotel. I stayed at a hotel like this in Paris once, and I was disturbed by what sounded like a murder in the hotel which abutted onto the one where I was staying. I called the concierge, but he refused to do anything. So far, all is calm here.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Day 17. Les Bilanges a Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat (24 kms)

15 June, 2012

It is the bright day that brings forth the adder

I have met a few more pilgrims. At the gite last night was a Frenchman with his porter, that is, his wife, who was following him with their car and carrying his stuff. They would meet up each evening at a bed and breakfast. I just saw him again inside the church at Saint-Leonard.

And this afternoon I met a French couple who almost stepped on a snake. They didn't know whether it was an adder, but they said it reared up quite threateningly. Since then, I've been on the lookout.

When I was walking the Pennine Way, I was warned to be careful when climbing over dry stone walls. The adders liked to come out and sun themselves. I almost stepped on one on a stone in Cornwall. Shakespeare knew what he was talking about.

For the last ten kilometres yesterday afternoon, and much of today, I have been walking along the main road. To relieve the monotony, I march like an automaton and lose myself in my thoughts. Of course I have to be ready to leap off the road into the nettles or brambles or electric fence if I'm threatened by a car.

I have been thinking about an article in the Guardian sent to me by my friend Juliet in response to my post about the lines from my mother's poetry book. It seems that Michael Grove, the education secretary in the UK, wants to introduce a rigorous new curriculum for primary school students, with greater emphasis on spelling, grammar and phonics. It sounds like the curriculum in place 60 years ago!

What really interested me is that under this new curriculum, children will be expected to learn poetry by heart and recite it. It's an idea, surely, that few will disagree with.

I remember having to recite a poem to the class in Standard Four at East Claremont Practising School, "Prac" as we called it. I chose a poem which must have surprised the teacher even then, just after the war. I say it now with great pleasure.

There's a breathless hush in the close tonight,
Ten to make and the match to win.
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.


With its jingoistic theme and British sentiments, I could never teach it to my own students, but I often quoted part of the second verse as a fine example of alliteration and assonance. Listen to the d's and r's and the repetition of other vowels and consonants.

The sand of the desert is sodden red,
Red with the wreck of the square that broke.
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.


There are many poems which are fun to say aloud. Whether it's

James James Morrison Morrison, Weatherby George Dupree...

or

And the highway man came riding, riding, riding,
Up to the old inn door...


or any of those other great-sounding classics of rhyme, rhythm and repetition, there is something for every age, and most children will enjoy the experience of reciting the poem aloud, and will remember it forever.

Along the way I pass many religious symbols that must have been full of meaning to travellers of yore: crosses, shrines, cairns, and of course the churches, in which every pilgrim would have said a prayer. Today in the woods I passed a curious but spectacular pilgrim's welcome. "Ultreia" is the traditional pilgrim's greeting and encouragement. (See picture below.)

I am now in Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat, an unspoiled medieval town with winding streets, a huge church, and few tourists.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Day 16. Benevent-l'Abbaye aux Bilanges (28 kms)

14 June, 2012

The bliss of solitude

Not a soul on the path today. Only the bleating of the lambs and the lowing of the cows and the song of the birds in the woods.

At last the weather was fine -- cool but sunny. I ambled along, falling into the rhythm of the road and enjoying the pleasure of the moment. I felt no pressure to arrive somewhere to avoid being caught in a shower of rain. What a difference the weather makes!

Again, the gite where I stayed last night was run by a couple of Brits. They offer a demi-pension, tarrif pelerin, but I hadn't given her enough warning for a meal. It's a nice place with a lovely garden with a view of the abbey church. (See picture below.)

He was a civil engineer, and he had plenty of work in the area helping ex-pats overcome their misfortunes arising from foolish or hasty house-buying. He mentioned some clients who had forgotten to drain all the water out of their pipes when they went back to their principal residence in England, and who came back to France in February to find that all their toilets had exploded. Australians were prone to folly as well, he said, buying houses on the Internet at fantastic prices, sight unseen, and arriving to find they were next to the sewage lagoon.

He was from the north country, and had a disconcerting habit of beginning his speech quite loudly and then fading away to nothing. Pardon, I would say, and he would begin again, but soon fade to a whisper, looking at me intensely, his lips moving but saying nothing. Dickens could have made much of him.

The gite itself was an annex which he had refurbished a couple of years ago. Previously, he said, it had been a small leather factory, and there had been places for ten workers. It had been one of the many little industries which supported the town. And, he said, there had once been 60 children living on the street. Now there were none. Sad!

After a short walk through the woods, I arrived at the village of Marsac, and sitting in the sun I drank my morning coffee.

Later, I sat on a bench outside the church in the hamlet of Arrenes. There was no one there, but on the monument aux morts of the Great War were nineteen names, including three sets of brothers, with three lost from one family. The village must have lost almost half its young men in that war. And there were more names on that memorial than inhabitants today.

After a long and vigorous climb up a stony path in the woods, I ate lunch beside another war memorial in front of the squat church of Saint-Goussaud. This was literally the high point of the day. From there it was downhill to Chatelus-le-Marcheix.

Half-way down, at a place where three roads met, a bird shat on me. Just a tiny speck of orange. I took it as a sign to go straight ahead. An aeroplane was flying overhead as well, so I hoped they weren't emptying out the slops.

I had been contemplating bypassing this evening's recommended stop, and taking a short cut along the road to get a start on tomorrow's walk, but now I decided I would join the Hollanders at the gite at Chatelus-le-Marcheix and consume the can of emergency food I had been carrying around for about a week.

I walked down through the woods into Chatelus, only to find that the bottom bunks at the gite were all taken.

Now when I was young and nimble, I found it fun to sleep in the upper bunk, but now that I'm older I try to avoid it. Getting up in the night for a pee, I run the risk of falling off or stepping on a tender part of the person below.

I decided to walk on another ten kilometres to Les Bilanges. And I'm glad I did.

I'm staying in a very comfortable gite in a converted barn at La Besse Haut about a kilometre off the track, just short of Les Bilanges. La proprietaire est gentille, the food is very good, and the pilgrim's rate for demi-pension is 29 euros.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Day 15. La Souterraine a Benevent-l'Abbaye (21 kms)

13 June, 2012

Fear no more the heat of the sun

It was 10 degrees when I woke, and the high today was 16. And it rained on and off. So I'm not suffering from heatstroke.

The meal last night at Maison Número Neuf was excellent. I ate dinner with an affluent British couple. We discussed such topics as how the world today would be so different had Al Gore become president.

Boots. I know that some of you are passionately interested in hiking footwear. What am I wearing on my feet and why? In the weeks leading up to my walk, I agonised over what to wear. I wore my Asolos last year. They are expensive, medium-weight leather boots, and I was mighty pleased with them. They made the rough places plain and they kept out the water. But I did develop shin splints on the 25th day, and I wondered whether lighter, softer-soled boots might lessen the pounding which probably caused the problem. So I bought a pair of light-weight Keen Gypsums. The trouble is that the soles are so soft that they may not last the distance.

I took both pairs to Winnipeg, from whence I was to fly to France, and delayed my decision until the very last moment. About to leave, I noticed that one of the soles of the Asolos was fraying at the edges. I had worn them down quite a bit at the heels last year, but this was something new. So I took the Keens.

Strange, though. My old Zamberlans served me well on all those trails in Britain, and a few Rocky Mountain trips, and the Camino and the Chemin du Puy before they fell apart.

So, I'm wearing my Keens and I'm not too happy with them. I've developed blisters, and the membrane isn't keeping out the water. For the first time in my life I had to put newspaper in my boots last night to dry them. In future it's back to leather boots for me. Enough of boots.

Just before Saint-Priest-la-Feuille this morning, I made a detour to see a dolmen, an ancient set of stones, of the same vintage as Stonehenge. Unlike Stonehenge they stood alone without protective barrier or throngs of gaping tourists. (I was fortunate enough to visit Stonehenge with a party of school kids back in the sixties when it was still possible to clamber over the stones.)

I stood in that lonely spot and imagined the Druids sacrificing an animal, burying their dead, or worshipping the sun. Nobody really knows what the stones were for. A huge hemispherical boulder sat atop five standing stones, three of which were supporting it, the other two having sunk a little into the ground. A sixth stone had long since fallen over. The result was that the boulder was supported only on one side of its circular base, and must have been close to its tipping point. (See picture below.)

I thought about how lucky I was to be standing there at all. So many of my ancestors' peers would have been sacrificed, lanced, clubbed,stabbed, hanged, boiled in oil, drawn and quartered, or fallen prey to the Black Death or some other contagion before they could beget progeny.

At eleven o'clock the rain came down. I stood on one leg, then the other, on a dry spot under a tree at the side of the D10, pulling on my rain gear. At Chamborand, the church was open so I took shelter and had lunch.

After that it was an easy walk into Benevent-l'Abbaye. I arrived at two o'clock.

The Holland-Germany soccer match is on tonight. The Hollanders are watching it on their iPad by wifi from a local bar. When the bar closes, they will sit outside and watch. I hope their team wins.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Day 14. Crozant a La Souterraine (24.5 kms)

12 June, 2012

We cursed through sludge

As I sat in the bar last night, two of the clients were sitting with their laptops. And I was connected to wifi with my iPhone. I worked out how to get from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Cannes by train. How times have changed!

I remember that on my first walk, the Coast to Coast, I had to ask a friend who was visiting Britain before me to find out the times and connections to get a train from Manchester Airport to St. Bee's Head. Now I can do it all on line.

Daniel, one of the pilgrims from Holland, carries an iPad instead of the guide book. He has scanned all the pages in, and studies it carefully the night before. Patrick carried one as well. He used it to take photos, of surprisingly good quality. To anyone seeing him from a distance, he must have looked like a water diviner as he walked about the countryside holding this rectangular object in front of him.

The Dutchmen are looking forward to watching a soccer match between Holland and Germany. When I detected a certain hostility in their tone, I shared Patrick's story about the Germans and the bikes. They said it was one of their sayings as well. I was surprised that these sentiments lasted so long after the war. I doubt that Aussie kids still say, as we did, "You can't say 'Barleys' when the Japs are after you." (You used to say 'Barleys' to invoke a truce in a fight. But since you said it when your opponent was about to twist your arm off or punch your head in, it was a usually a plea for mercy or a cry of surrender.)

Rain was threatening again this morning so I put on my rain pants as well as my jacket. (It was a double clammy!)

Every so often you come upon a stretch of the trail that makes up for all of the road walking. Such was the walk this morning along the river. I left Crozant and followed the trail down into the valley. The sound of rushing water grew louder as I descended. Soon I arrived at the Sedelle which was in full spate after all the rain we'd been having. I walked for a couple of kilometres along the bank. Along the path were enamelled paintings by artists of the "Crozant School" who had been inspired by scenes along the river.

I walked by a mill and its leet (see picture below), and launched into,

Down by the old mill stream,
Where I first met you,
With your eyes of blue,
Dressed in gingham too.


O to be sweet sixteen again!

I stopped at La Chapelle-Baloue for a coffee. I was hesitating, but then the sun came out and I saw a nice inviting table on the patio. The cafe, in a large old house, was run by an English woman. She, too, commiserated about the weather. It turned out that she ran a gite as well and offered meals. It looked a nice place. I wished I'd walked on last night and stayed there. Two more Poms arrived. One of them ran after me when I headed off in the wrong direction.

I arrived at Saint-Germain-Beaupre hoping to find a bakery open. No such luck. I sat down on a bench in front of the church and ate a stale crust from yesterday.

Just before Saint-Agnant-de-Versillat I crossed the Sedelle again. There, it was a little stream.

And then, the rain, which had been holding off all day, came down in buckets, or as the Normans say, comme les vaches qui pissent. I trudged along a narrow, muddy path which was now awash. As I slipped in the sludge, I cursed my Keen boots which were now taking in water. So much for their own type of "Gortex"!

I should have worn my leather boots, my Asolos or my Mendels. They would have kept the water out. The Dutch are both wearing Mendels. But, they said, they didn't ask for their bikes back when they bought them.

I arrived in La Souterraine at three-thirty, cold and wet. I am staying at Maison Numero Neuf, which offers a pilgrim's rate.