Camino de Madrid

Camino de Madrid
Camino de Madrid

Saturday, 7 July 2012


[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.