Camino de Madrid

Camino de Madrid
Camino de Madrid

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


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


Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world


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...


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.

Day 13. Gargilesse a Crozant (19 kms)

11 June, 2012

But there's nothing so lonesome, morbid or drear...

Just after nine this morning, I was standing, not in, but outside, a bar in the little village of Cuzion, 5 kms on from Gargilesse. I had left early, without having eaten, and was desperate for a coffee and perhaps a croissant or two. I was chatting with one of the inhabitants, who was waiting for his bread.

"En principe, c'est ouvert," he said. But it wasn't. At the entrance to the village, a sign had advertised "Multi Services". But there weren't. There was only one. And it wasn't open. He explained that 20 years ago there were five bars around the spot where we stood. There used to be 200 people in the village, now there were 30. There was a bakerery, butcher's, grocery store, lawyer's office, and so on. Now there was just the one bar. And it wasn't open. Such is the fate of many villages all over France.

He pointed to the epicerie he used to own. It was all boarded up. His children were scattered all over France. His wife had died. "So now you're alone," I said. "No," he replied. "J'ai une amie. But I'm 81." Such is life.

Then the woman arrived and opened the bar. I ordered a coffee and some croissants. She didn't have any. A baguette? No, all the bread was spoken for. But she made me some toast for breakfast. Fortified, I pressed on.

At Eguzon, the next town, I bought a baguette and two croissants, and had a second coffee. I also bought some more compedes for my blisters.

Then I pressed on to Crozant. Thus was my day divided into three parts.

Crozant is a bigger village, with a restaurant and shops. I'm staying in a room above the restaurant. The village's main attraction is the ruins of a fortified castle which controlled the crossing of the Creuse in the middle ages.

Again, a good part of the day was off the road. The weather continues to be cool with showery spells.

The photo du jour is for my old mate in Victoria who has a penchant, not for sheep, but for cows. I have called the picture "La vache qui sourit".

Saturday, 9 June 2012

.Day 12. Argenton a Gargilesse (13 kms)

10 June, 2012

Just a singing in the rain,
Getting soaking wet

It started gently enough as I left Argenton, but got steadily heavier during the morning, and continued all day. The distance was only 13 kms. I told myself I had to walk once around Elk and Beaver lakes with a detour to Bear Hill. I arrived at Gargilesse before noon, soaking wet like a drowned rat, and was thankful to find that the gite had been left unlocked.

And what do I sing as I walk? Everything from Beethoven to G&S and beyond, as long as it has a marching rhythm.

Yesterday I found myself singing "Onward Christian Soldiers", and as I listened to the words, I remembered why it isn't on the United Church of Canada's regular roster of hymns. I bet it's right at the bottom of their heritage list where they hope no one will ever find it.

Forward into battle! Slay the infidel!

The other night I dreamt that I met an adherent of the Uniting Church of Australia, the equivalent denomination down under formed by the amalgamation of Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists. I asked her, "Why is your church founded, not on a rock, but a present participle?" (The name sounds so odd to my ear.)

I have eaten lunch (stale bread and very ripe Camembert) and I'm sitting in the gite waiting for the rain to stop. Out the window I can see a pipe protruding at 45 degrees from the wall of a tower, issuing forth water in a steady stream like a man having a pee. He certainly doesn't have a prostate problem. I wish he'd stop.

The walk today was a real hike. For most of the way the route followed a Sentier de Randonnee, marked not with the horizontal red and white stripes of the grande randonnee but with the red and orange bands which indicate a local or petite randonnee. I walked along a discontinued railway line, followed a very wet grassy track along the bank of the Creuse, and then for the first time, climbed up a very rugged trail that wouldn't have been out of place in the Mantario or Goldstream parks. It was slippery, muddy and treacherous. The rain was running down the path in rivulets. And I took heed of Henry Fast's warning not to step on wet roots.

The steady stream has become a trickle so I'm venturing outside.

Gargilesse nestles in a hollow in the hills, overlooked on all sides by trees which climb the steep slopes. It was much beloved by George Sand for its romantic charm. Like Conques or Saint-Guilhem-Le-Desert it is pretty much the way it was in the middle ages. There is an important church, a chateau, and narrow winding streets. Today, because of the weather, it is very quiet. I've seen one or two tourists, two Dutch pilgrims, Daniel and Carl, a cyclist, and a handful of locals. Still, I found a bar and had a beer.

The church is famous for the sculptures on the capitals of the columns, and the 12th century frescos in the crypt. Here is the painting above the altar.

Day 11. Velles a Argenton-sur-Creuse (21.2 kms)

9 June, 2012

Thou hast put me on the rack

Sometimes I have a bounce in my feet, but not today. Yesterday in the woods I felt like jogging, but today, it was a steady plod. Perhaps because I missed out on my morning coffee.

I set out early, just after seven, picked up a couple of croissants for breakfast, and hoped to get a coffee at a little town ten clicks on. But when I arrived there, I found that the town was 1.7 kms off the path. Was it worth trudging an extra three kilometres for a cup of coffee? I decided not, and plodded on.

I walked mainly along minor roads today. The terrain is becoming more hilly, and smaller paddocks are replacing the huge fields of grain. I am seeing cows again. I heard my first cuckoo, and a donkey. I passed several chateaux including one, le Chateau de Mazieres, with a 12th century donjon (tower).

My spirits revived when I reached the little town of Saint-Marcel, just short of Argenton. I had a grand cafe noir at a bar in the main square.

Then I visited the church. It's dedicated to the saint who was tortured by the Romans in 260 AD in the town of Argentomagus, which later became Argenton. I was impressed by le tresor de Saint Marcel, a collection of religious relics (not body parts of the saint, fortunately, but crosses and statues) which had been hidden by the villagers to survive plundering during the Revolution.

If the Romans were clever enough to keep their people happy with bread and circuses, why didn't they realise that making martyrs of the Christians who refused to renounce their faith would be counter-productive? As indeed it was.

Argenton-sur-Creuse is a delightful town. It has been called the Venice of Berry (the Departement) but that's stretching it a bit. The town straddles the river and houses line the banks. No gondolas, but I did see a little rowing boat. It may be in the photo.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Day 10. Deols a Velles (20.2 kms)

8 June, 2012

There's a prodigious stench in here

I slept like the proverbial log, got up, ate a couple of croissants, packed up, and then dropped the keys to the gite in the letter box at the tourist bureau.

I have sung the praises of the Offices de Tourisme before. They really go out of their way to be helpful. They find and book accommodation for you at no cost, and at Bourges, they copied 120 pages of my guide for Patrick for the nominal cost of two euros.

In England, however, the tourist bureau would find me a bed and breakfast, charge me 10% of the cost, and I would then pay the balance to the host. The tourist bureau had to have its cut, even if its role was to serve the tourist and support local business.

Similarly, in England you pay an obligatory voluntary donation to enter a cathedral whereas in France you enter freely because the state maintains the churches as part of its heritage.

You can see where I'm going with this. There are two philosophies here. One says: we are going to tax you more and provide you with services; you are paying for them so get out and use them. The other says: we are going to tax you less; if you use the services you can pay for them. The one promotes community; the other, individuality.

Just after I left the Office de Tourisme, I passed the Lycee Jean Giradoux. Outside was a sign: "The regional council is building a gym for your lycee." It seemed to confirm what I was thinking.

I am having my morning coffee on a busy street leading in to Chateauroux. Two mechanised street-cleaners rumble by, the first removing debris, the second depositing them. I kid you not. Well, perhaps I'm stretching it a bit. Strings of school kids cross the road, shepherded by their teachers. A couple of municipal policemen stroll by, greeting the citizens. Ah, there goes another street sweeper on the opposite side of the road. Very noisy place this. And smelly. Cigarette smoke wafts over from the neighbouring table, and I'm assailed by the stench of perfume from the women who go in and out of the bar. There goes a fourth street-sweeper. This isn't getting me to Velles. I had better move on.

And speaking of stench, back in the gite, after his shower, one of the pilgrims applied some kind of nauseating body lotion which pervaded every part of the gite and especially the toilet. I am relieved that he is going further on today, but I'm sure I will know during the days ahead if he has gone before me. (He won't be reading this.)

All this reminds me of the Welshman with whom I stayed in residence at the University of Leicester many years ago. I'll call him Taffy. He was accustomed to having a weekly bath in the kitchen at home in the Valleys. He continued this weekly practice at the residence, and made up for missing daily ablutions by applying some kind of foul-smelling talcum powder. The stench grew as the week progressed. How we longed for Sundays!

I'm sure I stink too, but it's an honest pong, unalloyed by sweetly-sick body powder.

Now I am 12 kilometers further on, sitting on a bench having lunch in the forest of Beauregard. Didier told me that there is more forest in France than anywhere else in Europe. I am eating a ficelle and a rather ripe Camembert which will be even riper tomorrow. The sun is shining and the wind is soughing in the trees. The birds are chattering faintly. (I left my hearing aids in Canada.) All is right with the world.

A mosquito bites me. As I get up I realise the bench was damp. I have a wet bum. That's life.

I reached the little town of Velles just after two o'clock. It was a delightful walk, most of it in the woods. I am all alone in a huge gite with room for 30 people.

Last night I cut my alcohol consumption by 50%. I think that's why I slept so well. I'll try and do the same tonight.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Day 9. Issoudun a Deols (32 kms)

7 June, 2012

Have thunder and lightning their fury forgotten

I got caught in a storm today. As the rain came down and the thunder rolled around, I remembered learning at school that sound travels at 1100 feet per second and for every five seconds between the the flash and the crack the lightning is a mile away. Fortunately, today it was further than that, and I passed through without incident. It wasn't much fun being the tallest object in a flat field during a storm!

I would love to sing the St. Matthew Passion again in English, but it's not likely to happen. These days, choir conductors are purists, and don't realise that the English translation might sometimes be as good as the original, especially when the choristers don't understand the original. In the Passion much of the text comes from the Bible anyway, and it doesn't get any better than the King James. And as for the rest, well, lines such as

The Christian soul bewails the frailty of mankind

have a nice ring to them. I would love to sing them again.

Last night I stayed in a garret at the St. Catherine's Hotel in Issoudun. 23 euros. It was a good deal, but to reach my room I had to climb one of those circular staircases with long, narrow, triangular steps which come to a point at the axis. I was on the second floor, and the second series of steps was even more treacherous than the first. I had to cling to the rail and keep to the outside. Evidently, the price of the room went down as the steps went up. Had there been a third floor, the price would have been 13 euros.

I ate breakfast in the bar at seven o'clock. Various regulars appeared, shook hands with each other, shook hands with me, and chatted about the day's events.

I set out. As I sat on a bench in front of the little church at Thizay, another pilgrim appeared, a Dutchman, Rinie, who had set out from Holland in mid-April. He is only the second walker I have seen since Vezelay. We walked together for a while, parted company, and then met up later at the gite.

In the afternoon, I walked into a fierce wind. It tugged at my Tilley, and twisted my map holder into a frenzy until it had me by the neck in a stranglehold. I escaped, and from then on, held it in my hand, reciting my mnemonic to myself every time I stopped, to make sure that I wouldn't leave my map behind. "Please, God. Where am I? Help a lonely traveller."

In the late afternoon I walked along an interminable highway, and through a military complex that stretched for at least a mile on both sides of the road. I noticed a building dated 1939. They must have built it for the Germans.

Finally, I reached Deols. We are staying at a municipal gite - very comfortable and only five euros. I am absolutely buggered. Today was the hardest day.

As I walk through fields and fields of grain, I am struck by the simple beauty of the red poppies, blue cornflower, and white daisies along the verge. Here's a cluster against the barley.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Day 8. Villeneuve-sur-Cher a Issoudun (23 kms)

6 June, 2012

it's an ill wind...

I slept well and set out early at a brisk pace. I had applied compedes to the heel of each foot, a huge version with a tail that goes under the heel and wings that wrap around the ankle. So I was walking more briskly than yesterday.

The compede is a peculiarly French, or perhaps European, plaster that one applies to blisters. I've tried them before. More effective than moleskin, they do have a downside. They are somewhat gooey and can turn themselves inside out and leave a gummy residue on your socks. I hope to escape that fate this time. In the meantime, my feet are feeling better.

Speaking of French peculiarities, we discussed at breakfast the anti-radar measures taken by motorists. Didier, the French cyclist, belongs to a League against Violence on the Roads. Understandable, since he's a cyclist, but I wondered if he'd been touched by some personal tragedy as well. He spoke vehemently against the absurdity of the road signs that warn motorists that they are approaching the radar that is supposed to catch them speeding, and the legality of the anti-radar device that many motorists use for the same reason.

My friend Paul in Lyon has one of these. "Slow down, radar ahead," it says. And then, "OK, now you can speed again." Well, not really, but the effect is the same. Why have a law and then permit a device which nullifies the effect of that law?

It's a bit like the water-saving taps that waste more water than a regular tap. They're supposed to save water by turning themselves off, but you press them to turn them on and then you can't turn them off, and they run for five minutes after you've finished. I just washed my hands in a French toilet, and the tap was still running as I left. A French peculiarity!

Mind you, all peoples have their peculiarities. I suppose that ours is our tendency to apologise when the other person is in the wrong. I remember a Canadian in Caen who said "Excuse me" after being almost knocked down by a car.

I walked all day into a strong wind, and I thought of Didier who must have been having a difficult time of it. The wind turbines were making the best of it, though, except for the usual three or four which were standing idle. Together in the wind they make a low growling sound; individually, they sigh in short spasms, rather like a jet taking off far away.

Why do the dogs always bark at me in France? As I walk past, they come tearing out into their yard, longing to leap over their fence and take a piece out me, whereas in Canada, they wag their tails politely and say "Excuse me" when I intrude into their space.

Today, as I walked past a farm, a huge, black brute leapt out of a barn, fangs bared, lunging towards me until it was stopped short in mid-air by its chain. It swung to the left, fell to the ground, and then retreated, ready to begin again. It repeated this manoeuvre several times as I approached the narrow opening between the wall and the end of its chain. I knew, and it knew, that one day the chain would break, and the pilgrim would be a tasty morsel. Fortunately, it wasn't today. I got through safely and walked on into Issodun.

I am now drinking a beer at a bar on a square planted with plain trees that remind me that I am heading south. The church bells are sounding, a deep, resonant ring. I can hear the "ng" in the ring. "Ding" and "dong" are such perfect onomatopoeic words while the "din" and "don" of "Frere Jacques" are poor comparisons. The sun is shining. Didier said that the Loire tends to form the boundary between good weather and bad in France. I hope he's right.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Day 7. Bourges a Villeneuve-sur-Cher

5 May, 2012

And on the seventh day, thou shalt rest

Well, that was my intention, to rest my weary body and blistering foot by spending an extra day in Bourges. Patrick has gone on and will make good progress on his own. His pace is faster than mine and I think he was holding back to keep me company.

Farewell, Patrick. You have been a good companion. Bon chemin!

With a maniacal sense of humour, Patrick is as extroverted as I am introverted, a man of strong opinions and not reluctant to express them. But his views are balanced: for example, he is contemptuous of wishy-washy left-wing government policies that allow minorities to take advantage of tolerant laws, but abhors the right-wing extremist parties that capitalise on the public dissatisfaction that results.

Speaking four or five languages, he is in many ways a typical European, not an academic but an intelligent man with a keen interest in culture and history. He thinks of himself not as Belgian or Flemish, but European, or perhaps "Antwerpian". I refrained from asking if that meant he was a Twerp.

I have included a photo of one of our last meals together. The lady looking after the gite had cooked a meal for us and we ate it outside. She kept detailed statistics of the pilgrims who passed through. I was pleased to notice that I was not the oldest.

I had planned to take today off, but then decided to leave later in the morning and walk a shorter distance. I visited the cathedral again, had a coffee, picked up a few things at the pharmacy, went to the post office, and then set out for the little village of Villeneuve-sur-Chere, 16 clicks away, and 10 clicks short of the next recommended stop. I will make up the distance tomorrow.

For most of the day I walked along the road. The agglomeration of Bourges extended to the village of La-Chapelle-Saint-Ursin where I had lunch.

Side by side were three of the institutions central to the life of the village and supported by the state: l'eglise, la poste, and la mairie.

As I left town, a kind old lady thrust some lollies into my hand. "They'll do you good," she said.

I continued along the road past an industrial zone. Only for the last four kilometres of the day did the path leave the road to enter the woods and take me into Villeneuve.

I am staying at a camp site. Like last night at the youth hostel, I am sleeping on a mattress on a floor in a common room. My companion is a retired maths teacher on a bicycle tour. Fortunately for me, for the restaurant in the village was closed, he had a camp stove and heated up a can of ravioli that Patrick had left me. We ate together and chatted. I learned that there is no Nobel prize for mathematics because Nobel detested mathematicians. His wife was unfaithful with one. Or so the story goes.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Day 6. Baugy a Bourges (29 kms)

4 June 2012

Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag,
And smile, smile, smile

We have fallen into a routine. We get up, buy a baguette, have breakfast, pack up, start walking, have lunch, arrive at a gite, have a shower, wash our stuff, find somewhere to eat, go to bed, get up, have breakfast, pack up...

Patrick is always launching into "It's a long way to Tipperary" without warning. Apparently, his parents had a record of Vera Lyn singing old war songs.

We set out this morning into a cold wind. The wild oats along the side of the road were bending almost horizontally towards us. The wind kept spinning the map that hangs around my neck into a hundred twists until it strangled and tangled with the cords of my glasses and Tilly hat. As always, when we arrived at the first village, we hoped for a bar open. No luck. At the second, yes, but the coffee was lousy. Then we had lunch in a bus shelter. Sixteen kilometres to go. It rained a little, on and off. On with the pack cover and rain jacket and off again. We trudged on.

We arrived in Bourges at five o'clock, our longest day yet. We ended up in a youth hostel a few hours later. It's often harder to find a place to sleep in a big town than a small village.

The cathedral at Bourges is the largest I have ever seen.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Day 5. La Charite a Baugy (28 kms)

3 June, 2012

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

It was a dark and stormy night, and still raining a gentle drizzle this morning as we left the town of La Charite. We walked along the road for most of the day rather than push through wet, long grass.

I first came upon the line from The Merchant of Venice in my mum's old poetry book, The Harp of Youth, which she had used at Miss Parnell's School for Girls almost a hundred years ago. I still have it and read it. All the great speeches are there.

The quality of mercy is not strained

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players

To be or not to be, that is the question

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears

Once more unto the breech, dear friends, once more

And as I walked along the road this morning, I found myself marching to the rhythm of other great, rolling iambic lines from The Harp of Youth.

Now Hector braced his dazzling armour on

And all day long the noise of battle rolled

When I consider how my life is spent

The world is too much with us, late and soon

Now my mother didn't thrust this anthology upon me; I just picked it up for something to read. But I attribute my love of poetry, or poetry in which the beauty is in the sound of the words, to that book.

As the old order changeth, I rail against many things, but none so much as the folly of an education establishment which no longer believes in exposing children to Shakespeare and the other great works of poetry which may give meaning and pleasure in later life.

The rain was probably a blessing, for our bodies had taken a beating from the sun during the past four days.. Thus, I was now "twice blessed".

We stopped for lunch in a playground shelter in the little village of Couy, and again I thought of my mum who would shout "Cooee" across the back fence to summon her friend Thelma.

In the afternoon, I took a picture of a bicycle wedged into a hedge, with a flower basket mounted on its carrier. (See below.) That's an old bike put to good use, I thought. "Good thing the Germans didn't come along here," said Patrick. It seems that in Belgium during the war the Germans stole many bicycles, and even today, when a Belgian is going to Germany, someone will say, "Bring back your bike!"

Later, a feeble ray of sunlight struggled down between the clouds, so we decided to leave the road and follow the trail into the fields. The woods are behind us now, and we are walking through gently undulating fields of grain - canola, oats, barley, and, of course, dwarf wheat.