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.