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.