Camino de Madrid

Camino de Madrid
Camino de Madrid

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Day 44. Larceveau to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. 15 kms

[If you have arrived here at the end of my journey from Paris to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and you would like to follow it, and you don't want to read backwards, you might like to visit my website (See right under Links) where I've posted the entries in chronological order. Just click on "Chemin de Tours"]

To Tom or Dick or Bob,
I may be just a slob,
But to me...

I find the walk into Saint-Jean a bit of an anti-climax. Once you come down from Ostabat and hit the main road, it's pretty much a straight line from there. The GR makes half-hearted attempts to get you off the bitumen, but these are little loops that take you off only to bring you back again, adding unnecessary kilometres, so I just put my head down and made my way along the highway.

The last few kilometres are more interesting. I left the highway to pass through Saint-Jean-le-Vieux and then La Madeleine before arriving at the gate of Saint-Jacques at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It was a three-hour walk.

To me,  Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a place to get into and out of quickly. Other towns offer concessions to pilgrims; not Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Here the cuts of meat or cheese can be paper thin. Even the coffee I had today was suspiciously weak. To the merchants, pilgrims are tourists.

The Pilgrims' Accueil, however, run by les Amis de Saint-Jacques Pyrenees-Atlantiques, the same group that plants the fruit trees, does a sterling job advising pilgrims and keeping statistics. When I visited, six volunteers could hardly keep up with the new arrivals.

I think there is already a competitive jostling among the pilgrims as they get ready for Spain, where they will be racing to get the places in the auberges. If I ever walk the Camino Frances again, it will be very early or very late in the season.

I am now quite fit, not exactly Jack Sprat, but I've certainly lost a few pounds. The trouble is that from now on, it's summer barbecues, beer and wine, and, if I'm not careful, I will be back where I was when I started.

It has been a good walk. I will remember the cold, the rain, the larks, some wonderful towns I passed through, and interesting people whom I met both on the road and at the gites. But it's been a lonely walk, not one for the extrovert. In that respect, it was similar to the Chemin de Vezelay, but more interesting.

I will also remember the hospitality shown by so many little communes in providing gites to pilgrims, at what must have been a financial loss. I thank them.

I met someone on the road this morning who was doing the Chemin du Puy for the second time. I asked him how he found it the second time around. He said he was in better shape physically, but not mentally. I think the latter is more important. 

If you are not fit at the beginning, you soon will be. After all, this is not marathon running; it is something you do every day. But you have to be prepared for the monotony of walking twenty kilometres in a straight line or the misery of walking all day in the rain.

I have touched on some familiar themes in this journal: on religion, on the open-mindedness of Europeans, and on the importance of the state's playing a central role in the lives of its people. I have also been reminded how important it is to have a satisfying job. I worry for future generations. Unemployment is certainly the most serious problem facing Europe today.

And now on a personal note...

Some wives wouldn't let their husbands go away for six weeks at a time. Others would be only too glad to get rid of them. My dear wife, Marcelline, falls into neither of those categories. Certainly, I'm not a model husband, but she's sort of got used to my being around. And yet she lets me go. I love her and I thank her.

That's all, folks.

Day 43. Viellenave sur Bidouze to Larceveau. 29 kms

All we like sheep have gone astray

Isabelle asks her guests to leave by 7:30 because she has to go to work, so I made an early start. 

The hawks were circling as I left, perhaps looking for little animals that had been flushed out of their burrows by the floodwaters. And the cows were lowing, as if anxious to be milked. Had the rain upset the farmers' routine? The night crawlers were out again, eighteen inches long, some of them, bait for a very big fish or lots of little ones. Unfortunately, being creatures of no brain at all, they crawl out on to the middle of the road and get squashed. A short life, but not a merry one.

There were menacing clouds behind me, but I thought the sky was lightening a little, and soon I could see little patches of blue, and little bits of the country spotlighted by the sun as it peeped through.

Evidence of the rain was everywhere. Low lying land was awash and the river had extended its floodplain into neighbouring fields. Soon I came to a sign which said that the road had been cut by flooding, but I followed a car along it and found that it was now passable. A little later, I left the bitumen and followed the coquilles up a rocky path, across some fields, and then down through a plantation of trees to a stream which I had to cross.

But the bridge, or rather, the plank, was down. One end remained on my side of the stream, which today was quite a fierce little torrent, but the other had been swept off the bank and rested in the middle of the stream. What was I to do? I followed the bank further upstream looking for a place to cross, but found none. I returned to the fallen bridge. The two guide rails would not have held my weight. I ventured down the plank to the middle of the river. It was too far to step to the bank, but I was willing to step into the water and then out onto the bank if I could manage it. I hesitated, but then decided that if it were deeper than I thought, and I slipped, then both my pack and I would be in the drink. Not good for my gadgets.

So I climbed up the hill and followed a track until I came to a road. Then I asked for directions and found I was only five kilometres from Saint-Palais by the highway. It could have been a lot worse. I walked briskly into town, bought some croissants, and had a coffee. 

It's a long climb out of Saint-Palais, up and up, and just when you think you've arrived at the top, a little road to the left takes you higher still, and then down into a valley, and then in front of you is a stony road going up forever. I remembered this from last year, a road that goes straight up the cleavage plain of the shale or slate, the natural rock formation providing the surface for the road. 

This is glorious country, wild and high, without heather but very much resembling the English moors, and the natural home for sheep, which were grazing everywhere. I sang to them, and told them that I too had gone astray. They feigned interest, but I could tell that they weren't really listening.

At the top is the Chapelle de Soyarce. Sitting on a bench in front of it were an English couple. He had walked the Chemin du Puy, and was showing his wife some of his favourite spots. On his Camino, he had got as far as a little town on the Meseta just after Burgos. He and his mate were resuming their walk in August. I didn't envy them walking across the plain in that heat. Mind you, who knows what the weather will be like this year. I took their photo, and he took mine.

After that, it was easygoing, downhill to Ostabat. There was no room at the inn where I wanted to stay, and not wanting to face crowds of Le Puyers at the gite, having become accustomed to having the gite to myself, I decided to walk on four kilometres to a hotel at Larceveau where I had stayed eight years ago when I was finishing the Chemin du Puy. It was new then, and is now a little the worse for wear. It is rare indeed to find a wall fitting that will allow a two-handed rather than a one-handed shower.






Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Day 42. Sorde-Abbaye to Viellenave-sur-Bidouze. 20 kms

And the rain, rain, rain came down, down, down

It was raining when I woke up. It was still raining when I was ready to leave. I waited until nine, but it only got heavier, so I headed off.

The rain pattered down on my Tilley hat, running over the brim, some of it somehow finding its way down the inside of my shirt. I splashed through puddles, as little rivulets ran down the tracks in the farm roads. The cows turned in unison to watch me in that stolid bovine stance, wondering perhaps what on earth  I was doing in the rain, not realizing they were standing in it themselves. Water-logged fields shed their water into the ditches, which soon became brown raging torrents, too much for the culverts to handle. In places, the overflow had cut a stream across the dirt road, and  lower parts of the highways were flooded.

Some night crawlers were out on the pavement, the longest I have ever seen, more like intestines than slugs. 

I was wet and cold and somewhat miserable, and I walked non-stop for 20 kilometres, unable to take advantage of the many benches alongside the little groves of fruit trees planted  by the Amis de Saint-Jacques Pyrenees Atlantiques. Carelessly, I had let one of the legs of my rain pants get stuck inside my boot, so one foot was squelching. And so much for the quality of the waterproofing of my Patagonia jacket: my Guidebook, which I keep in my pocket under the jacket, is a sodden mass. And rain is forecast for the next two days. I was hoping the heavens had emptied.

I am staying with Isabelle at La Borde de l'Hopitale at Viellenave sur Bidouze. I arrived at lunchtime, so she invited me to dine with her. She was kind enough to do my washing as well. Isabelle is an excellent hostess with a wry sense of humour. I am very comfortable here. Good tucker.

Occasionally at gites the toilet paper can be in short supply. Not at Isabelle's.

This was the wettest day!



Day 41. Dax to Sorde-Abbaye. 28 kms

Every valley shall be exalted

Another thing that reminds me that I'm in France is the constant whine of the moped or high-revving little motor bikes that the youth like to ride. Give me the throbbing, throaty roar of a 1,000 cc unmuffled Harley Davidson any day. Perhaps I got a good deal on my hotel room because it faced the Main Street. In the evening I was disturbed by the bikes; in the morning I was woken up by the deep rumbling of the transport trucks.

On the way out of town, I had my coffee with Wifi at the very pleasant Bar Magnolia. 

The day started badly and ended badly.

Just out of Dax, I had a choice. One arrow pointed straight ahead, the other to the right. A lady stopped her car and told me to go straight ahead. It's more interesting, she said. It was. A few hundred yards later I passed a sign saying, danger of flooding. But it was very interesting. I walked by a lake and along a stream. Then I came to a ditch with a sluice gate running at right angles to the path, but no way of getting across unless I tried to balance on the metal gate. I backed up, made my way across the steam and then approached the ditch from the other side. This I crossed by means of a fallen tree, scratching myself on the brambles in the process. Then, back on the trail, along a muddy path which led nowhere, then, backing up again, across a field of long grass to a marker I could see in the distance. This led to an abandoned orchard on the flood plain of a river where the undergrowth was so thick I had difficulty getting through. Finally, I climbed up some little-used steps and onto a bridge where I was back on the  road I should have taken.

After that harrowing experience, I stopped for a second coffee at Saint-Pandelon. Only 1€. It's been a while since I bought a coffee at that price.

Then it was a nice stroll along a minor road into Cagnotte, where I resisted the temptation to have the menu du jour at a restaurant. I had quite a long way to go. 

I stopped to visit 11th century Abbaye-Notre-Dame-de-Cagnotte, simple and austere with its Roman arches and small side chapels. Churches have a smell about them - foxed hymn books, oak pews, incense and the stale aftermath of Sunday roast dinners - but this little abbey church simply smelled damp.

Just out of town, I met a man feeding bottles into a glass recycling bin.

I don't think I've mentioned these before. They are large, green and plastic, with one, two, or three holes in which to put the bottles or other recyclables. They often look like green monsters. Today there was a line of Cyclopes. 

These containers for glass have been around a long time in France, long before recycling became fashionable. Back in the eighties, I used to think how enlightened the French were to have these recycling containers for glass, but they probably just needed somewhere to chuck their bottles.

We chatted for a few minutes, and I learned a new word. I asked him when I would get to the beginning of the Pyrenees. He said that I wouldn't get to the contreforts for a couple of days. Now isn't that interesting. A contrefort is a buttress, as in a flying buttress against a church, literally a "strong against". So the French see the little hills as buttresses supporting the mountain. We see them as little hills at the foot of the Mountain. Different images, that's all. But that got me thinking.

Although I am still in the Department des Landes, I have left the landes behind and I'm now walking in hilly country which I much prefer. Now we would call this country "hilly", but the French call it vallonne (with an accent on the "e".) It's the same country: where there are hills there are valleys. We emphasize the hills, they emphasize the valleys. Is this a result of a difference in our temperament? Does the one, with its connotation of steep ascents and craggy outcrops express the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ethic of hard work and austere living, and the other, with its connotations of fertile valleys and food and wine, reveal the French taste for the good life? Just a thought.

I haven't been using my guide, because the way has been so well marked. So when I reached Peyrehorade, five kilometres before my destination, I just kept on following the coquilles, over the River Gave, across the plain and up the hill. Turned out, this was the route to follow if you didn't stop at my gite. I had to backtrack, and I had walked three or four unnecessary kilometres. 

The gite where I'm staying is only a month old and quite high tech. The stove is so advanced that I couldn't use it. The controls are symbols on a screen that you press, but I couldn't work out what they meant. Words I can understand, but I have trouble with symbols. That's why I sometimes walk into the ladies' loo. The rooms have individual temperature controls and the bathroom has an electric towel-drying rack which I'm using to dry my clothes.

The abbey church at Sorde-Abbaye is as grand as the church at Cagnotte is humble. Unfortunately, after my wanderings in the wrong direction, I arrived too late for a serious visit.



Sunday, 16 June 2013

Day 40. Taller to Dax. 25 kms

We shall all be saved, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.

Sunday can be a problem on the road. Bars and restaurants open later if at all. Mairies and shops are closed. I ran into some of these problems today.

The proprietors of bars come in all shapes and sizes and temperaments. They are always polite, and sometimes  extremely friendly and anxious to offer advice. Sometimes not. The woman running the bar in Taller was not terribly friendly, and I think I know why. Next to the bar she has a little grocery section. She also sells bread. The bakery, butcher's shop, grocery store have all left the town. In a small way, she has taken over these functions. So she's over-worked.

She's also trapped. She probably can't sell her business. Who would buy it? In her little grocery section, she can't compete with the bigger supermarkets, and only one or two people dropped in for a coffee or a beer while I was there. So she isn't making any money. I suspect it's the same story all over rural France.

She opened at eight this morning and I was able to buy a coffee and croissants.

I walked out of town to a chorus of doves, stopped at the bridge to look at the geraniums, then turned off the road and on to the forest tracks. Not the same winding path of a couple of days ago, but one of those serious, straight limestone roads used by the foresters to cut down the trees, clear out the undergrowth so the larger trees can grow, and turn over the logged areas in preparation for the next planting. I also passed a very large field which had been given over to wheat.

And then In the middle of the wilderness, I came to a series of eight huts in a row with hundreds of half-grown chickens running around in the surrounding field. No one was looking after them, and they weren't fenced in. Each hut had its own automatic water supply, although many of the chickens were drinking water from the ditch. At night they would go back to their roost. What freedom!

No cages. No force-feeding. These chooks were for the chop, of course, but until then, they were living life as they should, clucking, ruffling sand through their feathers, scratching in the ground for grubs, having fun.

I am staying at the Hotel du Centre (30€) overlooking the cathedral. As I type this, the bells are sounding a cacophony calling the faithful to mass. Why don't the churches in France have peals of bells as in England? Why aren't the bells rung instead of chimed?

I have been reading that the Pope gave a controversial sermon hinting that all of us may be saved. Not just Catholics, not just Christians, not just monotheists, but even agnostics and atheists, if they do good according  to their own lights. If so, how things have changed!

Where I was growing up, it wasn't exactly Northern Ireland, but Catholics and Protestants certainly didn't see eye to eye. Protestants regarded Catholics as idolatrous with their worship of saints and the Virgin Mary, and Catholics thought that Protestants were heretics. I remember Catholics who wouldn't set foot in a Protestant church, even for a marriage or a funeral. It seems so silly now. I gather that the Pope was implying that the Where and When and What and How of worship don't really matter any more.

Actually, what interests me is the Why. Why do people worship?

I can understand those Christians who follow a set of teachings, pray for guidance, and give thanks for the good things in life, who have a partnership with their God, if you like.

I can understand those Christians who might turn to God in times of despair, who get off the train here at Dax, and take the branch line for Lourdes, hoping for a miracle. They seek a bargain with their God.

But I don't understand those who worship God so that they might be saved and go to heaven while the rest of us go to the other place. These people have a feudal relationship with their God.

Some of you will have recognized the quotation at the top, and may well have heard, in your mind, the trumpet solo that followed. There are some things that by themselves make life worth living, and one of them is singing and listening to the Messiah. Some purists would omit the article in front of the title, but to me it's warranted, because it's an institution, it's a tradition, it's a celebration of who we are: it's the Messiah. People all over the world take part in the Messiah at Christmas time and stand for the Hallelujah Chorus.

Just as the Ancient Greeks would go to the theatre to hear their stories, to recognize their heritage,  and worship their gods, so do we go to the Messiah. It's a kind of secular act of worship. It's like a Greek tragedy. We may not believe  the story any more, but it's part of who we are. It's a part of me, anyway.

At times I think I see a divinity in Nature. I also hear it occasionally in great pieces of music. And the Amen Chorus from the Messiah is one of those moments. It's the music of the spheres. When we tenors don't mess it up, of course, as we have been known to do.

It was hot today, probably around 30 degrees. For supper, I sat in one of those large outdoor areas in front of the brasserie. Two things reminded me I was in France. A threesome came and sat in the chairs at the table next to me, an older couple and their dog, who was a little miffed when he didn't get to share the crudities. And then the proprietor, unable to fit a plug for his outdoor lights into an octopus of sockets dangling from the metal frame work under which we were all sitting, disappeared, returned with a pair of pliers, and cut off the offending ground prong. Then it fitted.



Saturday, 15 June 2013

Day 39. Onesse et Laharie to Taller. 26 kms

Sic transit gloria mundi

As I walked out of town, a couple of old ladies cycled by on their way to Santiago, their bikes laden with bright red side packs. They greeted me cheerfully. I say "old", but they were probably younger than I am. I watched them ride into the distance.

Then I had a choice, to continue along the road and save a couple of kilometres, or venture into the bush. Normally, I take the short cut, but my foot wasn't hurting, and the weather was fine, so I followed the track. 

I have had a persistent blister or sore spot on the heel of my left foot for a week or two. I had the same problem last year, and it is perhaps the result of a grass seed getting down the back of my boot and puncturing my heel at the base. I had been protecting it with moleskin, but yesterday I bought and applied a large Compede or second skin, and put the moleskin over that. It worked, so I was quite willing to walk a little further if the going was pleasant.

It was, and I'm glad I did. Today, I didn't amble and I didn't plod; I simply floated along without paying any attention to the guide, and both in the morning and the afternoon, I arrived at my destination unexpectedly. This time it was not a dirt road but a track, and it wandered a little, and that made all the difference. The breeze was blowing lightly, the birds were singing slightly, and the sand was soft under my feet. I fell into a reverie. I thought about my schooldays at Scotch College in Perth.

In what would have been the equivalent of grade 6, I was sent to a private school, or what was termed, in the English fashion,  a public school. I hadn't wanted to go. I was quite happy at my state school, and it must have been quite a sacrifice on my parents' part. I remember seeing the bill once, in 1953 or 1954. It was £33, quite a sum at the time. I never thanked them for it. As I look back now, it was the right decision, for it led to university.

I have already mentioned the headmaster. I think he is the only person I have met, before or since, who reduced his first name to an initial and gave prominence to his middle name, in the manner of J. Alfred Prufrock. This was briefly fashionable in America at one time. His polite nickname was Buncher, less complimentary was Greaser, but most of the time, he was known as the Boss.

Many of us had nicknames in those days. There was Tubby Martin and Banger Bentley and Sticks Brayshaw, and Tommo and Jacko and Mazza and Halc, and a score of others I've forgotten. I think I was Cheese or Moo-cow for a while, but fortunately, these didn't stick.

And the masters and mistresses. There was "Stein" Jenkinson, and "Jazz" Dancer. There was "Drut" and there was "Dang". We were somewhat discreet. Spell the one backwards, and replace the vowel in the other, and you'll see what I mean.

Dang Gardiner was a former state cricketer, and had once hit a six out of the WACA, the West Australian Cricket Ground. The WACA was well attended at State and Test cricket matches, and this gave rise to the expression, which may still be current,

It stinks like the dunny at the WACA at half time.

What do I remember from Dang's class? The square of 24. He told a little story about four Arabs eating their camels.

And there was "Lemon Head", a young, bald master. One day, after school, in a moment of madness, and to impress a friend, I called him by his nickname, and hid. He found me, took me back to his room, and gave me the cuts, six across the bum. I deserved it, and bore him no grudge. We got on well after that.

I also remember getting the cuts from a young Pommy lady teacher, six across the hands. I can't remember what for, and I can't remember what we learned in her class. It has been observed that I don't have an accent as broad as that of some of my fellow countrymen, and in fact, to my embarrassment, I am sometimes taken for a Pom. It certainly wasn't deliberate on my part, and I don't know how it happened, but perhaps she spent the year giving us elocution lessons.

This was a time when Australia was still very British. We sang "Land of Hope and Glory" and "I vow to thee, my country", and we stood at the Pictures for "God Save the Queen". At the time, in polite society it was not considered desirable to have a broad Australian accent, and in society, some Australians would put on the plum. Even today, you will still occasionally hear older people putting on a plummy accent, as if they were British. It doesn't work, of course, they sound like Australians putting on a plummy accent. Think of Edna Everidge.
 
There was another master who was a muscular Christian. If you swore, he would wash out your mouth with soap. He didn't have a nickname. And there was Beady Eye Thomas. I always thought that this was rather unfair, and it was some years before II learned that his initials were BDI. He was a brilliant caricaturist.

And there were others whom I have totally forgotten. Is it better to be remembered unkindly than not to be remembered at all?

What else do I remember? Once, we took all the screws out of the classroom door and awaited the arrival of our history teacher. He opened the door and it fell out of his hand and crashed on the floor in front of him. He was a Pom with a double-barrelled name and an M.A.

And in the same classroom, one of the boys, Kershaw was his name, shouted an insult at a painter working outside. The painter came in through the window to get him. The rest of us must have been laughing or shouting, for Kershaw was about to be beaten up. He was saved by the timely arrival of Jumbo, the Latin teacher. I can see him now, quite vividly, standing in the doorway, holding them apart.

I have a very early memory of Jumbo in my first year, teaching introductory Latin, bouncing a tennis ball up and down on the desk, and singing "Come into the garden, Maud". I don't think his heart was in it.

I remember Shakespeare.

Once more unto the breech, once more,
Or lay up the wall with our English dead.

I loved Henry V, but I tried to teach it once, and it bombed.

I remember the English teacher saying peevishly, "You boys let off at either end whenever you feel like it."

I remember getting into the Chem lab at lunchtime and making laughing gas. We found the afternoon classes quite hilarious.

I remember Art. The Art room was a separate building on sloping ground away from the rest of the school. One by one, we would jump out the window, quite a drop, and nonchalantly come back in by the door. The master didn't seem to notice.

I remember having to learn the 23rd Psalm and the Beatitudes in Scripture class. And I remember being kicked out of Junior School Choir by Ma Wyndham. To this day, I wish she had given me a second chance.

Once a boy a rosebud fair
Spied among the heather...

It is ironic that we remember incidents like these from our schooldays, but not what we were sent to school to learn.

We are all reduced to fragments of memory, and these too will pass.

In no time I arrived at the half-way village of Lesperon and sat on a patio overlooking the church, drinking my coffee.

In the afternoon, I set out along the road. I came upon a flattened hedgehog, cut down in the prime of life by those "dicing timesters". I paid my respects.

Ode to a Hedgehog

Hale to thee, unhappy Hedgehog,
Cut down before thy time.
Hadst thou but stayed among the sedge, Hog,
I'd not have penned this rhyme.

Thou must have spied a tasty snack
And ventured on the road,
But then there came a mighty whack,
By Fate on thee bestowed.

Hadst thou but crawled into the ditch
To find thyself a bite,
Then life would not be such a Bitch,
And things would be all right.

There is a moral to this tale
From which we all can learn:
We well may seek the Holy Grail,
But end up in an Urn.

I passed a machine like a backhoe, with a grapple and a saw in place of the hoe, cutting down trees, and sawing them into lengths. No lumberjacks here. And I saw some more foxgloves.

I arrived at Taller, called at the bar to pick up the combination for the lock at the gite, and settled in. Again I am alone. I had to get my own dinner, so instead of my usual sausages and lentils in a can, I tried beef and beans in a can. It tasted the same.


Friday, 14 June 2013

Day 38. Labouheyre to Onesse et Laharie. 18 kms

I've walked fifty flamin' miles
To a pub with no beer.

There are many different kinds of gites. At the municipal gites, you pick up the key, find your way to your lodging, and then you're on your own. Some of the private gites are very casual; others are quite formal, with lots of rules. The gite last night was run with Germanic, or should I say, Germaniac, efficiency.

There were rules for everything, posted everywhere. There were rules for the bed, rules for the sheets, rules for the washing up, rules for the rubbish, rules for the shutters, and rules for coming and going. My boots, rain gear, and pack cover had to remain in a lobby. I entered by one door, but had to leave by another. At 8:28 this morning, Jacques arrived to remind me that the gite closed at 8:30.

Don't get me wrong. I recommend this gite highly. Jacques et Jacqueline are excellent hosts, and extremely friendly. But you have to follow the rules. And I left a plug behind, because I was whisked out so quickly.

The walk this morning was essentially along two straight lines: ten kilometres beside the motorway, and then another ten through the forest. I headed out of town.

My old mate John from Perth has asked me about my favourite piece of music. Last year he set me off by asking a similar question about poetry. This time I won't go on at such length, because when it comes to music, I'm very much an amateur in both the English and French senses of the word. I lack the knowledge and understanding to appreciate the subtleties, so my criterion is pretty basic: the music simply has to carry me away. A piece immediately comes to mind: from the opera by Bizet, the Pearl Fishers duet sung by Jussi Boerling and Robert Merrill. This is one of those pieces which rises above the level of the rest of the opera. Great music is great all the way through. Other music has moments of sublimity where the composer achieves greatness in morsels. The Pearl Fishers duet is simply sublime.

Another example of this is in the opera L'Elisir d'Amore by Donizetti. The opera is moving along, and then suddenly, out of the blue, comes this absolutely magnificent aria, "Una furtiva lacrima", far superior to anything before or after. How could these composers ascend to such heights on those single occasions? Why did the muse so inspire them and then part?

I remember that the Pearl Fishers duet was ranked number three on a list of all-time favourites in a survey carried out by the ABC or BBC or CBC, I forget which.

And speaking of the CBC, I hear that the government is cutting funding again.

Some things I just don't understand. 

Why doesn't the government want to fund an institution that is mandated to promote Canadian unity? 

And the CBC did bring the country together. Great radio personalities like Bob Kerr, Clyde Gilmore, Max Ferguson, Peter Gzowski, and Sheila Rogers became national institutions. It wasn't just the music they played. It was the stories that went with it, that were shared from coast to coast. Or as they say now, from coast to coast to coast.

But what about us on the south coast of Vancouver Island? Shouldn't it be coast to coast to coast to coast?

I was certainly one of the people whose musical taste was broadened by listening to the ABC. I remember listening to a program in the mornings as I drove to school. It was called the Hospital Half Hour, no euphemism there, and was hosted by another one of those announcers who had become part of everybody's life. And they do: the great ones become part of the family. On that show, you would everything from Peter Dawson's "Road to Mandalay" to Kenneth McKellar's "The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen" to John Charles Thomas's "The Bluebird of Happiness".

Or this gem by Gracie Fields:

Poor little Willy, he's deaf and he's dumb, 
Poor little Willy's insane,
His eyes is all goggled and gloomy and glum,
What a shame, what a shame, what a shame!

I don't think they'd play that one on the radio today, but I can hear her singing it now.

Eventually I arrived at the sleepy little town of Onesse and Laharie, and checked in at the gite which is part of the hotel. I took advantage of the sun and the wind to do my washing and put it out to dry. Then I went to the hotel, to buy a nice cold beer.

But the bloody pub had no beer!

Now I'm not really a beer drinker. But on a hot day at the end of a long walk, there is nothing to compare with a nice cold beer. And it's good for your health, restoring those essential body salts that you lose when you sweat.

But the pub had no beer!

"He's supposed to be here by now," said the landlady with Gallic frustration. I'm thirsty," I said. "Would you like a coca cola?" she asked. "Bloody hell!" I thought. "Or you can buy a bottle of beer at the shop."  That would be bringing coals to Newcastle! But I wanted a draught beer.

A few weeks ago, I was introduced to Leffe, a very fine Belgium beer, and I drink it when it's on tap. Then I was invited to try another Belgian beer, a Rouge, and I ordered it, thinking it would be dark. It wasn't. It was sweet and quite horrible, a beer, perhaps, for people who don't drink beer, a beer, without meaning to be sexist, for the ladies.

I pottered around, and eventually the beer truck arrived, unloaded a couple of kegs, and all was well. The word must have got around quickly because people started appearing  from all directions. This was the only pub in town.

In contrast to last night, this is a casual gite. I was taken to my room and told to show up at 7:30 for a casse-croute, he said, a snack. It was more than that. It was roast duck and lots of veggies. 

I ate my meal in the bar under difficult conditions. The barman was shirtless, exposing a big gut and small breasts. A workman, who had been mixing concrete out the back, was now repairing some tiles on the floor. A third man spoke in a language I didn't recognize, but it must have been French. The three conversed in short, sharp bursts of sound. 

Then they looked at me as they spoke. I wasn't sure whether they were talking about me or to me. I picked up Bon appetit. Then the third man asked me a question. I asked him to repeat it, but I still didn't understand. "Anglais?" said the workman translating for him. He was asking me where I was from. "Canada," I said. He followed up with staccato burst which I guessed to be about the fine weather for the next few days. I agreed.

At the end of the meal, the workman came over and apologized for disturbing me. The landlady, who'd been popping in and out to serve me, said, "You don't sound Canadian, your accent is English."

As I've mentioned before, Canada to many French is Quebec, and I suspect that some don't even know that there is an English Canada. I am something of a puzzle to them. I come from Quebec, but I'm obviously not a francophone. It seems to help when I say that I'm from Australia.



Thursday, 13 June 2013

Day 37. Saugnac to Labouheyre. 26 kms

The child is father of the man

As I said, it takes all sorts. We have all encountered people who talk too much, who ask you a question only to pick up on something you say in order to turn the conversation back to themselves. Last night at supper, I was sitting with a lady who made all the previous excessive talkers seem like introverts. I told her I was from Canada, the English part, but she insisted that I was from Quebec, and I gave up correcting her after the second or third time. 

She was a cyclist and had been to Santiago, and recounted her experiences in a very loud voice, not really looking at me, but turning her head from side to side as if to include the empty air in her audience. I was reminded of a wooden clown at the Royal Show. We would put a ball its mouth as it moved back and forth in the hope it would roll down into the right slot and win a prize. She kept on going, even when I stopped listening, and later, when I escaped, she cornered a couple of teachers and went through it all again.

I don't mean to be unkind, and I wouldn't be writing this if there were the slightest possibility that she'd be reading it, but I got up very early to avoid her at breakfast. I like my peace and quiet.

Perhaps because I was anxious to get away, I set off in the wrong direction, but quickly realizing my mistake, returned to the village, and since the sky was menacing, I stopped at the war memorial to put on my rain pants. She appeared on her bike, and told me how important it was to read the directions carefully. I think she was probably a kindly soul and meant well, but I was relieved when she rode off, wishing me well.

I have met a few people like that in my life. One was a 73-year-old Australian woman in Spain. She said that her children had sent her on the Camino. We knew why.

It was a pleasant walk on a minor road to the next village. Just before Moustey, I almost stepped on an adder. It was curled up at the side of the road, right where I was walking. And it certainly wasn't a bright day. Fortunately, I was not talking to an imaginary comrade, or looking up to heaven, but walking along with my eyes fixed in front of me. After that, I popped into a bar for a coffee.

I was startled by a high-pitched squeal, like a wheel on an axle in need of grease, or the scream of the children last night at supper, and I turned around to see that I was being watched by a parrot in a cage. Occasionally, the squeal would turn into a warble. I was fearing even for my deaf ears, when the proprietor must have seen I was suffering and put it outside.

I was planning to take a short cut along the highway to Pissos rather than the boucle proposed by the guide. The lady at the bar had another suggestion. "Too many trucks on the highway," she said. "Turn right at the grocery, then walk for so many kilometres, then right at the thingamajig, and left at the whatsasname, then across a field and through a forest, and you're there." I knew that if I took this route I'd never be seen again, so I set out along the highway.

Now it was raining, and as the trucks whizzed by they sent up a cloud of spray into my face, and one of them whipped off my Tilley hat, so I fastened it on with my good old Aussie chinstrap. I should mention that having lost my old hat I had to buy a new one, so I chose the Tilley Outback, which in size and shape and colour is rather like a slouch hat.

I was half way along the five kilometres to Pissos, when a fellow on a bike haled me in English and stopped to chat. "You're from Quebec," he said. "I've heard of you. I met this lady with a very loud voice." Mike was from Texas, and had walked from Paris to Tours, but had then bought a bike to continue en velo. It was a pleasant little interlude. We chatted for about ten minutes, and then he was on his way. We won't see each other again, but we'll probably remember each other because of the lady with the loud voice.

At Pissos, I rejoined the Chemin, and after lunch, I set out in almost a straight line for my destination, Labouheyre. For more than half the distance I walked on a limestone track, and experienced the moors in all their variety. First the forest, and then newly logged land that had been ploughed over ready for replanting, and then a huge tract that had been cleared for corn, and then a vast area that had been abandoned and had reverted to marshland. No romantic place this! Cathy and Heathcliff wouldn't be romping over these moors.

I should point out that this was the region most dreaded by the medieval pilgrims. Long distances without habitation, no beckoning steeple every few miles, and always the possibility of bandits. It is a testing ground for the modern pilgrim as well. Walking, like learning, is much easier in manageable chunks: down a lane, across a field, through the woods, into a village. But 15 kilometres across les landes is something you have to be mentally prepared for. It is a time for reflection.

I thought about the children I had seen last night at dinner. Already their characters were being formed. I watched three girls run off together. The one in the middle grabbed the hand of each in turn and pulled the others along. She would be a leader, I thought, and generous in her friendship. I watched a couple of boys chasing each other around the yard, first one, then the other, taking the lead. They would be good mates. Then I watched another, sitting with others, but in a world of his own. It was me, sixty-five years ago.

Later, this tendency to daydream would get me into trouble. "Moody, get that sullen expression off your face!" 

Not,

He is a dreamer, let him pass

but,

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

I have often wondered what sort of expression I could have had on my face that raised the ire of authority, for it happened twice, and both times I was simply lost in my thoughts. It still rankles, though. It was a thoughtless remark, soon forgotten, and I realize that in my career as a teacher I must have inadvertently said or done things that wounded the recipient. I am sorry for that. We are all such fragile creatures.

I have but a few memories of my early school days, when I was the age of the children I was watching.

I can see now the  classroom in First Bubs when the boy across the aisle had an accident, and the girls all chimed: "Miss, Tommy's wet his pants!" I'll bet Tommy remembers that incident as well.

I remember the toilets out in the schoolyard. We used to pee up against a big concrete urinal wall to see who could reach the highest. No one made it over the top, fortunately, as the girls must have been on the other side.

I remember finding sixpence in the schoolyard on my seventh birthday, and from then on, seven was my lucky number.

I remember playing with plasticine. How I wish I could recapture that smell! That would be a Proustian moment indeed.

I remember singing a song from Annie Get Your Gun in a school concert, and now as I think about it, I find that intriguing. There was no music in my home, no singing, and yet something must have encouraged me to get up and perform. It was a good school, I think, the East Claremont Practising School, or Prac, as we called it.

Before that, I went to some kind of nursery up on Mary Street. It was run by nuns, but my mother took me out soon after I started. Something to do with a bottle of milk, I think. Or it may have been a case of Paddy-wack the drumstick, or Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about. The nuns were strict in those days. And then I went to another in a Baptist Church on Waratah Avenue. I didn't stay long there either. I may have been non-compliant. It was a Baptist Church with a board outside which displayed slogans such as "The end is nigh" and "Repent and ye shall be saved". Perhaps that had something to do with it.

I don't think my mother wanted me out of the house. She probably thought that I should be playing with other kids. I wish now that I could ask about these things.

You may have gathered from all this that the Camino is a time to think. It is. Deep introspective thought. "Know thyself," said the Greeks.

As I approached Labouheyre, and came off the marshland, I heard the larks again, and looked up to see them beating their wings frantically to stay aloft. Then I saw my first foxgloves, a sign of summer.

Tonight, I am staying at a very comfortable gite, with lots of rules, but a few extras like a towel so that I don't have to get mine wet. "And we disinfect against bedbugs every day," said Jacques.

I have mentioned before the practice in Spain and the south of France of grafting together the branches of plane trees to form an arch of shade. In Labouheyre they have succeeded in creating a complete panoply across all the square.

You will have noticed that I don't give my cumulative mileage any more. That is because I no longer trust the GPS on my watch. I was sitting down, I won't say where, idly watching the screen which showed the distance travelled and the average speed. And then the distanced changed. In the course of that stationary experience, I travelled 50 metres. So that's the second Garmin device I'll be taking back to Mountain Equipment Co-op. 



Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Day 36. Barp to Saugnac. 30 kms

There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face

One meets all kinds on the Camino. The Italian girls, who are very pleasant, are pot-smoking Buddhists. They were meant to go to that gite, they said. From some of the paraphernalia around the house, they recognized Elisa as a fellow traveller, and asked me to write something to that effect in the Livre d'Or. 

I was surprised to learn that Elisa was a Buddhist. To me she had the physiognomy of a reader of Tarot cards, but perhaps the two are compatible.

I don't know whether it was Buddhist austerity or practical husbandry, but breakfast, which I had to prepare myself, was four thin slices of bread and instant coffee. I left the latter and had my coffee at the bar in town.

When I arrived yesterday, and complained about the monotony of the long, straight road, Elisa said that the road without distractions was more conducive to meditation. Perhaps, but yesterday, I was in no frame of mind to meditate. Today, the sky was blue, my aches and pains were gone, and as I strode along, I thought about something the girls had asked me to write in the book. "Say that we believe in the harmony of man and nature," they had asked. 

It seemed to me a perfectly reasonable principle to which we could all agree. After all, there is evidence all around us of harmony, and even joy, in nature.  I see it and hear it every day in the hens that scratch around in the farm yard, the cows that ruminate in the pasture, the lambs that gambol in the field, the swine that roll about "as happy as pigs in muck", the horses that come up to the rail to be patted, and the dogs that wait for me at the entrance to a village, walk with me, and then return to wait for the next person. Surely we are part of this harmony.

And speaking of dogs, I was walking along the dirt road this morning when a lady drove up and asked me to look out for her dog, a whippet, that she was searching for. I was fearing the worst, for there were miles and miles of forest tracks, but later she drove back with the dog on the back seat. Relief all round!

But then I arrived at the outskirts of Belin-Beliet, where the trees had been razed to make way for a housing development. And I recalled that economic progress in the United Stated is measured out in housing starts. And a couple of days ago, I had to walk very quickly past the vines so that I didn't get caught downwind of a tractor that was spraying the grapes with a foul pesticide. And then there's the tar sands.

Rather foolishly perhaps, I had a full meal in town, and then, on the advice of the postie, who said I would save a few kilometres, set out along the highway. It was hot, but the quart de rouge seemed to fortify me, for I made it to the gite well before the six o'clock deadline.

I crossed into the Departement des Landes, and as confirmation that I was on les landes (the moors), I saw some heather in bloom. Heather is the only thing that les landes have in common with English moors. The heather is ground cover in between the pine trees that are now the natural vegetation of the region. I was told at supper tonight that the whole region used to be a swamp, but Napoleon Bonaparte planted pine trees to absorb all the water. 

I am staying at a gite that caters to large parties but also takes individuals. There is a group of very young school kids here at the moment, probably first or second graders. They are very, very excited. They were eating outside with their teachers, one of whom who would tell them every so often to be quiet, even on one occasion appealing to their good manners by drawing their attention to us, two individuals, who were sitting at the next table, deafened. It didn't work, of course. They were absolutely silent for a moment, and then the noise would rise quite literally to a scream. But it is a good place for them to be. This is also an ecological camp, and perhaps they are learning to live in harmony with nature.


Day 35. Bradignan to Barp. 27 kms

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.

Today was a trudgery, a long walk along straight roads with receding horizons. It was a day when a bend in the road was the next best thing to a beer. 

No, it wasn't my finest hour. Perhaps because I didn't have a coffee this morning, or perhaps because it was overcast and drizzling as I left the gite, I found the day heavy going.

Bradignan is on the the outskirts of Bordeaux, and has little satellite settlements of its own, so it took me a while to reach the open countryside. Then it was road walking through pine forests or fields of corn. I plodded along.

No, I didn't plod. Plodding suggests a certain rhythm to the step, a certain determination, a certain optimism. You can hear the soft, steady thumping of the foot on the road. 

I trudged. Words have magical connotations and connections because of their sounds. You trudge  like a drudge. Trudging has a touch of shuffling and suffering about it. Trudging can become stumbling and tumbling. You trudge across a muddy plain. You trudge through sludge. You trudge along a dirt road with the light grey colour of the soil matching your mood. You trudge in a straight line to get where you want to go. I trudged.

There were several minor diversions. 

In the forest, I stood for a while and watched two men working in a wood lot. One was using a front-end loader to drop logs onto a set of rollers where a second  was feeding them into a saw. The chopped wood would then fall onto a conveyor which carried them up and into a truck. The wood was then used for fuel.

As I passed through the corn fields, I noticed that the crops were irrigated by those huge, arched machines that move across the field in tracks. But how do they move? It would take at least three tractors, one on each of the huge wheels. And that would destroy the crop.

And then I came upon a perfectly flat field that looked like a suburban lawn the size of several city blocks. It was, or it would be. Further down the road, a large truck was being loaded with strips of turf. What a waste of agricultural land! How vain we are! Let's cast a few seeds about instead. So what if we don't have the best lawn on the block!

And there was a dead tree that was now the resting place of many birds.

In Barp, there are two gites: one run by the municipality, the other, private. I decided on the latter, because it offered demi-pension, but it turned out that she was not cooking tonight. So I walked into town to have a meal at the local brasserie. They kindly offered an English translation to the menu. I settled for the "crudeness plate", but decided not to have "the pavement of kangaroo". That delicacy must have been especially imported road kill from down under.
 
On the way back from the restaurant, I ran into a couple of young Italian girls who had stayed at the gite in Bradignan. They were just arriving, five or six hours after me. I took them back to my gite where the hostess Elisa was kind enough to take them in at a reduced rate. Delighted with their room which had roses growing around it, they said it was like a fairy house. "I am a fairy," said Elisa. I don't think she was joking.

The world according to Barp is stunted forest, waterlogged ditches, marshy swamps and mosquitos. Does one burp in Barp or barf in Barp? One must not carp in Barp.

Day 34. Le Bouscat to Gradignan. 17 kms

Drinking the blude red wine

As I walked from Le Bouscat to Gradignan, I was really spending a second day in Bordeaux, passing through the centre from one side to the other. I went by many of the places I had seen yesterday, not sorry to pay them a second visit. I must say that of all the big cities I have walked through, this was the most the most pleasant to get in and out of. Montpellier was the worst, difficult on both sides; Toulouse was was pleasant to walk into, along the canal, but very industrial on the other side.

I was delighted to pass by the Palais Gallien again, a misnomer, because it was never a palace, but wrongly identified as such centuries ago, and the name has stuck. Even what remains is a wondrous sight. Hidden away in the middle of a rather bon quartier, the equivalent of what my old Aussie mate George would call a leafy suburb, behind the stone houses sits in silence this magnificent ruin, once loud with the clash of armour, the roar of lions, and the cries of Christians. The whole structure remained until the 18th century, when most of it was demolished to make way for the expansion of the town.
 
For lunch, I bypassed the many bars and brasseries around the squares and found a humble little restaurant in an old stone building on the way out of town. I ordered le plat du jour, a couple of kebabs with salad and chips, and my usual quart de rouge. This aways comes in a little jug , but there is room for stinginess or generosity on the part of the establishment. One can fill it up to the neck or up to the lip of the jug. I pay great attention to this. When the wine arrived, I could tell I was in Bordeaux for the. wine was a deep red, and the level was closer to the lip than the neck. I was content. It was a very pleasant meal.

After that, it was an easy walk along a major road into Bradignan. I am staying at a gite in a former Hopital de Pelerins attached to a 12th century priory, which is in the process of being repaired. Tomorrow, I am back in the country.



Sunday, 9 June 2013

Day 33. Bordeaux

Oh for a draught of vintage

Today, I visited visited various sites associated with the medieval pilgrimage. I was given a personal tour by my old friend Marie Jo whom I met on the Camino Frances a decade ago. We visited the Basilique Saint-Seurin, the Cathedrale Saint-Andre, and the Basilique Saint-Michel, timing our visits around the mass in each church. In this way we were able to get into these city churches while they were open.

I was rather surprised to find that all three services were well attended. The churches were by no means full, but there were perhaps a couple of hundred in each, and some young people among them.

In the photo of the carving above the door at Saint Seurin, Saint James is on the left, holding the staff.

Bordeaux is situated on a bend in the Garonne River. The name has evolved from the original Gallic Burdigala, which meant "half moon". Around this half moon, stretch several kilometres of magnificent buildings connected with the wine trade and all the nautical affairs associated with it. Undoubtedly, some of them were involved in a trade for which Bordeaux is less well known, and less inclined to boast about, the traffic in slaves. Bordeaux is the Liverpool of France.

Like Paris, Bordeaux is essentially a well planned 18th century town with grand avenues linking the different quarters. Of the middle ages, only the churches, various gates which once allowed entry through the city walls, and little winding streets away from the main thoroughfares, remain.

In the afternoon we visited a wine museum and saw everything involved in the making of wine from bungs to barrels to bottles. I learned that the Bordeaux wine region comprises five separate regions, each producing a different wine because of the different soils. Apparently, the wine from the poorest soil can be kept the longest, whereas that from the richest has to be drunk within five years or so. When I get home, I had better get stuck into those bottles that have been sitting in our garage for a while.

Apparently a young wine should be decanted; an old wine, never.

Included in the price was a tasting, and I was looking forward to this. We began with a white, which I sipped and then discarded. It was a tasting, not a drinking, said our guide, but I was saving myself for the reds. We tasted a rather light red, and I was just settling in for what was to follow, when that was it. Only two glasses! A far cry from those great tastings where strangers become friends and everybody ends up singing.

Until modern times, Britain was the major market for wines from Bordeaux. I remember reading that the English produced their own wines until they tasted wine from Bordeaux. Perhaps that is why the city remained one of the last parts of France to be occupied. I was told that the Bordelaise have a reputation for keeping themselves to themselves, and that they attribute this introvertedness to their English connection. 

To my mind, the most magnificent monument is the remains of a Gallo-Roman arena. As I stood there, I realized that I was at the end of the great Roman road I had walked along on the way to Poitiers.

It was a great day, and I probably walked as much around the town as I would have done on the road.






Saturday, 8 June 2013

Day 32. Saint-Martin-Lacaussade to Le Bouscat (45 kms)

Rejoice, we conquer

I may not have been as fast as Pheidippides, but it was a marathon nonetheless. I was forced to go right into Bordeaux, because an earlier gite was full.

Saint-Martin-Lacaussade is three kilometres from the port at Blaye, where the first boat was scheduled to leave at 7:30. I had to get up at crackers, to make sure I didn't miss it. But when I arrived at 7:15, I wondered if perhaps the first crossing was not until later. The boat was coughing and spluttering, but there was no way of getting on board, and there was no one to take tickets. Then at 7:25, a ramp was lowered at the side of the boat and I was beckoned on. A few cars arrived as well, driving onto the boat from the side, and then parking rather haphazardly towards the stern. It was all very casual. Not like BC Ferries at all. Then we were off, taking 20 minutes for the crossing.

I was worried that I wouldn't be able to get any breakfast, but as I got off the boat on the other side, there was a bar du port catering to the boat passengers and others. Alain, a Basque, served me coffee and croissants. He was an eccentric fellow, talking to himself in different languages and bursting into song every so often. Then he came over to me. He had done the Camino and started talking about his experiences. He wouldn't accept any money for the breakfast.

I had picked up a little booklet put out by the local association outlining a shorter and calmer route into Bordeaux. This was the route I was following. In fact it was so well marked, that I didn't use the description at all; I just followed the signs. At first it took me across the mud flats on limestone tracks and muddy trails. I was reminded of mangrove swamps in Queensland. There were even mosquitos, not quite up to the quality of our Manitoba variety, but a nuisance not the less. Far more worrying to me was the possibility of midges, tiny little insects which bite but don't bother you right away, and then the next day you itch like buggery. Didn't seem to be any. Later I walked along forest trails. It was all very pleasant until it started to rain.

It was light at first, and then it pelted down. I was drenched. Two people stopped me and asked if I'd like something hot to drink, but I had to decline, for I had so far to go.

Tonight, and tomorrow night, for I'm spending an extra night in Bordeaux, I'm staying in a gite which is actually on the site of the cemetery and used to be the quarters of the gatekeeper. It is quiet! The outdoor patio has a special ambience.


Friday, 7 June 2013

Day 31. Saint-Aubin-de-Blaye to Saint-Martin-Lacaussade. 21 kms (726)

Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. 


People have often observed that one lives a life in miniature on the Camino, in which everything rushes by very quickly. One meets people, has a meal with them or walks with them for a few days, and then leaves them, people with whom one might have been friends in real life. Experiences are brief, but perhaps more intense.

Yesterday, I had a meal with a cyclist, Sebastian, a policeman, who was going to Santiago. We were the only diners in a huge restaurant, with perhaps 40 tables set up, waiting for customers. A cat bounced across the tables. Perhaps that was why we were alone. 

Sebastian had walked on other chemins in France, but had suffered a serious illness, and was now unable to walk long distances. So he was riding his bike. It would take him about ten days to get to Santiago. It was a memorable meal, and I wish him well.

I left Saint-Aubin just after eight, and headed for Etauliers, the first village, six kilometres on.

Now that I've left the Departement de Charente Maritime for the Gironde, the concrete bornes with their reassuring little piles of stones on top have been replaced by wooden poles with the coquille, and sometimes the painted yellow arrow that guides you in Spain. Unfortunately, the placing of these markers is not always consistent, so I had to open my guide at times.

As I walked along, a tiny rabbit bounded away and disappeared into a hole by the side of the road. Then I saw his brother or sister, squashed flat on the pavement in front of me, victim of "Crass Casualty". Why did one live and the other die? I thought of that great poem, "Hap", by Thomas Hardy. It is hard to accept that our lives are governed by Chance..

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: "Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!"

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
--Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

After Etauliers, I had a choice: to take a rather circuitous route to visit some pilgrims' graves, or head directly towards my gite along a cycle path which followed the route of an old railway line. I intended no disrespect, but decided to give the pilgrims a miss and take the short cut. 

I was musing on another one of my themes - the enlightened policy in France which spends public money so that the "common people can re-create themselves" - when I noticed a tractor with a huge folding lawnmower attachment coming down the path towards me. It was cutting the long grass on either side of the track. I let him go by, when suddenly he put the great machine into reverse and backed up the trail to catch me up. He had noticed the maple leaf on my backpack, and wanted to chat. He had been twice to Quebec, and travelled all around the province, and wanted to tell me about his experiences. We chatted for fifteen minutes or so. He said he would like to live in Canada. I said I would like to live in France. We agreed that it was good to visit another country and experience a different culture.

It is interesting that there is no distinction made in France between Canada and Quebec. Québécois sont Canadiens.

After that, it was easy walking to my gite at Saint-Martin-Lacaussade. Vines covered every square inch of land: grapes as far as the eye can see, slowly growing for the autumn harvest.

I am three kilometres short of Blaye, where I catch my boat tomorrow to cross the Gironde. After that, it's a long day's walk to Blanquefort on the outskirts of Bordeaux. I have to leave very early in the morning to catch that first boat.

The nearest restaurant is at least a kilometre away, so I've prepared my own meal here at the gite. Pâté, then sausages and lentils from a can, and then cheese, all washed down with a half bottle of Bordeaux.


Thursday, 6 June 2013

Day 30. Saint-Disant le Blois to Saint-Aubin-de-Blaye, 20 kms (705)

Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden... Sing Heav'nly Muse

When I arrived at the farm last night there was no one there, so I wandered around. I was puzzled by one large room, sparsely furnished, with two outside doors, both left ajar. I noticed a swallow's nest on the ceiling. Later, I learned that the farmer and his wife leave that room open for a pair of swallows that come back each year. "We must look after the animals," he said. Apparently swallows are disappearing from the area.

I met an interesting Canadian as well, Boris. He and his assistant were repairing the roof of a nearby church. I don't think I have ever heard anyone speak so passionately about his job. He had an interesting background. Born in Montreal, he had worked in construction in Canada and in Louisiana, before moving to France to study for three years with what seemed to been the equivalent of a medieval guild that taught the restoration of historical monuments. His specialization was roofs, and he is now a foreman in a company that is hired by the state to repair historic buildings. He will never be out of a job. 

At the end of a day's work, he said, he can look at what he has done and feel that he has accomplished something. He showed me pictures of some of the roofs he has restored. He will be working on a church in Dax when I pass through, so perhaps I will see him again.

I walked along the highway into Mirambeau against the traffic. A huge truck whipped off my Tilley hat and pulled it along in the slipstream. For a moment I was afraid it would lodge somewhere on top of the truck and be gone forever, but it finally settled in the ditch.

I popped into a bar for a coffee. I was greeted warmly, and one kind gentleman, Jean, wanted to talk about the Camino and insisted on paying for my coffee.

I headed out of town onto the minor country roads. A green tractor rumbled up a hill towards me, belching forth black smoke. I held my breath as long as I could to avoid breathing in the pungent fumes. Then an old lady and her dog waited for me at a gate. She gave me a red rose and some kind of white flowering onion. I promised I would attach them to my pack.

You will have noticed that I tend to harp on certain themes. One of them is the ripple effect of those Wordsworthian "little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love". Another is religion.

I thought again about the piece I had read a couple of days ago.

This piece alluded to the story of Adam and Eve , which has been interpreted as justifying the oppression of women by holding Eve responsible for the introduction of evil into the world.

According to the orthodox interpretation, which Milton follows in Paradise Lost, Man is cast out of paradise because of Adam and Eve's disobedience in eating the apple of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Message? Obey God, or else! And because it was Eve who instigated it, she bears the blame.

But this is a very strange reading, even for a male priesthood that might want to portray woman as a tempter and reinforce obedience to God, and of course, to God's priests.

First, Adam comes across as such a wimp. "She made me do it," he says. 

Second, Eve appears the stronger character in taking the lead in this pursuit of knowledge of good and evil.

Third, God appears petty and malevolent in punishing man for what he was obviously created to do. Who would want to worship a God who punishes man for exercising his God-given reason?

Fourth, was man expected to live in blissful ignorance forever?

The orthodox interpretation is such a foolish one. How could man be condemned for seeking knowledge? Intellectual inquiry is such an important part of the Jewish and Christian faiths. One of the important aspects of Christianity is the need for man to have the choice between good and evil. Even Milton, that staunch Puritan, insisted that no books should be banned, for the Christian soul must be exposed to evil so that he can make that choice.

Biblical scholars have demonstrated that the Old Testament has been rewritten at least three times, as different waves of priests revised it to reflect their current beliefs and reinforce their authority. Sometimes these revisions didn't completely erase the earlier version, and little inconsistencies remain. If the latest wave of priests had wanted to demonstrate the consequences of doing something bad, for which the punishment would be justified, they shouldn't have left the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the story.

I prefer to see Eve as representing man's intellectual curiosity, insisting on eating the apple of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, because it will "make one wise". And perhaps the serpent who tempts Eve is really a symbol of the Greek principle, Seek Knowledge.

It is strange, though, how the idea persists that ignorance is somehow preferable to knowledge. Perhaps some of you remember some of the sayings we got from our elders. "Curiosity killed the cat" or "What you don't know won't hurt you" or the ungrammatical "Don't ask no questions and you won't get no lies. These belong in the same category as that other classic from a couple of generations ago: "Stop crying, or I'll give you something to cry about!"

My point is, however, that there is nothing sexist in this piece of scripture, just in the interpretation of it by certain men over the ages. In fact, it is a myth which feminists should celebrate, because Woman, not Man, is the superior character. And it's a very important myth, because it reveals the truth that man will seek knowledge for the betterment of mankind and our planet, or our destruction.

Je suis un homme de certain age. That means I have to get up in the night to go to the toilet. Ideally, I will have one in my room, but the facilities in gites are often far from ideal. I am thankful if the loo is on the same floor. However, in some of them the dorm is up top and the toilet down below, accessible only by a narrow, circular staircase. It is even worse when you are in the top bunk. Once I walked ten kilometres to avoid the top bunk. Tonight, at this chambre d'hôtes, the toilet is on the other side of a large house, four doors, two rooms and one corridor away. I will try not to drink too much wine tonight.