Camino de Madrid

Camino de Madrid
Camino de Madrid

Friday, 31 May 2013

Day 24. Saint-Romans-les-Melle to Aulnay. 41 kms (584)

And it came to pass, that a certain man went down from Saint-Roman-les-Melle to Aulnay

Two mishaps, an act of kindness, and three or four strokes of good luck!

I went in for breakfast precisely at seven, and one of the sisters was waiting for me. She was a friendly, gentle soul, and we chatted over breakfast. I had thought that the old house must have been a home for old nuns, but no, they were still very active. I had been feeling sad at the thought that they were all alone in this retirement home without any family to visit them, but no, she assured me that they were still very busy with their garden, their meetings, and their work with the aged, who must have been younger than they were. I left with the impression that they weren't experiencing any regrets at their present predicament. 

Having made a detour to stay with the sisters, I headed east and rejoined the GR. Engrossed in a telephone conversation with my dear wife, I somehow missed a sign, and obliqued in the wrong direction. To cut a long story short, I lost any advantage I had gained the night before by venturing a little way on today's journey. 

Finally, I arrived at Brioux-sur-Bouronne, and had a coffee at a bar with Wifi. Its regular clientele were much younger than I, but the young man obligingly turned down the loud, unfamiliar music. I continued on.

At Villefollet, I sat down and ate my lunch on a bench in front of un terrain de boules, an area of ground where the French play pétanque, their game of bowls. Various posters informed me that several tournaments were coming up, but now, all was silent. I could see with my mind's eye the old men throwing the metal balls as I had seen them so many times in village squares. And I could hear their metallic clink. A couple of days ago, I had laughed at a sign which prohibited the playing of boules after ten o'clock at night. The residents must have had trouble getting to sleep, not because of young people with their rock music, but the old with their bowls. 

After lunch, I telephoned to reserve a place at the gite, and congratulated myself on carrying out a successful conversation on the phone, a difficult task for me. Then I pressed on.

An hour later, I couldn't find my phone! I must have left it on the bench at Villefollet. A piece of folly indeed at that town! What to do? I decided to ask the next person I saw to drive me back. Or perhaps I would find a taxi. I had noticed them from time to time on the highway. A little later, the GR crossed a busy road. I waited for five minutes. No taxi. I gave up and walked on. I now entered a forest, the loneliest part of the chemin since Paris. A beautiful walk, but I was too anxious to enjoy it. I must have walked for another hour before I arrived at Villedieu. Deserted. Then I saw a man leave a house and walk out to his truck, a tiny little Citroen. I ran up to him and started to explain my problem. "You want me to drive you?" he said.

He was a short, rather chubby, somewhat unshaven man, and, as I was to see, very gregarious. 

I was optimistic. It would still be there. The terrain de boules would be deserted until the next tournament. But when we arrived, half a dozen people were sitting on the bench. And no phone. My driver knew most of the players and there was much shaking of hands. He explained my predicament. Everyone jumped up and down and looked under the bench. Still no phone. I was most apologetic at having wasted his time. Then someone suggested phoning my number. He did, and someone answered. She had my phone, and would meet us at the Mairie. All the joueurs de boules were most excited. They had taken on my problem as their own.

And so had my kind driver. He was quite happy to wait at the Mairie for perhaps 15 minutes before the woman arrived. As we waited, various people drove by in cars and on tractors. More shaking of hands. He knew them all. 

And then she arrived. She hadn't found the phone under the bench. She had found it on the chemin, the GR.  It must have dropped out of my pocket somehow. Or rather, her dog had found it. She had been out walking her dog on the path I had taken. He must have thought it was a piece of red meat. I thanked him profusely. He was in the back of the car. She had been planning to take my phone to the Mairie next time it opened, which was only once or twice a week in these little villages, and wasn't going to answer the phone, because she didn't know how. But something made her open it up and she pressed various buttons. She was as happy as I was at the outcome. She had a daughter in Halifax, and loved Canada.

My Good Samaritan drove me back to Villedieu, and offered to drive me the extra five kilometres to Aulnay. I declined, and tried to pay him for everything he had done for me. He refused and drove off, and I walked on, reflecting on the kindness that he and the others had shown me. For all of us, this would be a petite histoire. For me, as I'm recounting it to you now. For the lady who brought back the phone, to her daughter in Halifax. For the joueurs, for whom it might have been the big event of the day, or week. And for my driver, who helped out a pilgrim, and would tell the story to all his mates.

Now here's the thing. I hadn't seen a rambler or a dog walker on the chemin for three days, but she happened to be walking along at that time with her dog. And he happened to draw her attention to my phone. And she happened to reply to the ring. And, of course, I had happened to find someone willing to drive me.

At Villedieu, just before I found the kind man who drove me, I had met another pilgrim, Frank, a Parisian. He had been most sympathetic to my plight. I ran into him again at the gite, and we had a beer together. He is a croyant and was most interested in my story. 

"It's the magic of the Camino," he said, "a miracle. And the name of the town where you found your driver? Villedieu!"

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Day 23. Chenay to Saint-Romans-les-Melle. 26 kms (543)

Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang

I ate well at the gite last night. It was one of those meals where I wasn't sure whether the second course was the main course or not. You can't ask. It's like saying, Is that all there is?

The hosts have lived in the village of Chenay for 52 years. Before that, he lived a few kilometres away in one direction; she, a few kilometres away in the other. They met in the middle. Sadly, the village has changed since they married. Once it was bustling with commerce. Now there is nothing. I asked if she'd like to visit Canada. "It's a long way away," she said.

The soup was followed by a dish that consisted of sausages mounted on a base of apple sauce. I took one, and then was offered another. The dilemma: was this the main course? If so, the meal was a bit Spartan, but then some people eat very simply. Did I say no, and risk going hungry, or say yes, and risk being full for the main course? I said yes, had a second sausage, and then waited for the next plate. It was a dish of canard magret, fillet of duck, and was followed by a plate of local cheeses, and then dessert. I ate like a king. I recommend this chambre d'hôtes.

I have left the bocage behind. Instead, I walked through wide open, gently undulating fields of grain.

At the cemetary at La Martiniere I noticed a plaque on the back of a large tombstone, facing outwards so that passers by could read it. Erected by his friends, it was a memorial to a former mayor who had died in a Nazi prison camp.

In the bus shelter, I ate the duck sandwich I had been given by my host. Why was I eating in a bus shelter? Because it rained all day. I arrived in Melle, drenched like a drowned rat.

I've been without Wifi for a few days, but in the town I found a bar and got hooked up, so to speak. Reading the Globe and Mail, I noticed that the stories hadn't changed that much: Mike Duffy, Rob Ford, and the pipelines. I was glad to see that opposition is growing to the latter.

I visited the Romanesque church of Saint Hilaire. Particularly striking is the series of apses around the choir, each with its triangular roof. Taken in the rain, the photo doesn't do it justice. Also impressive is the statue, above the door, of a man on horseback about to crush a figure cowering beneath. One theory has it that the statue represents the emperor Constantine about to crush paganism. A bit grim!

I had decided not to stay in Melle, as it was only 16 kms from Chenay, but to move on and to cut a bit off the long walk tomorrow. Just out of Melle I passed a ruined chapel. Perhaps it would end up as a farmer's shed. Sad!

Mme. Nau had recommended that I stay with the sisters at Saint-Romans-les-Melle. I hoped it would be a bit different from my last experience at a religious establishment. It was. There was no girl with a plunging neckline to greet me.

Instead, I was welcomed by a couple of nuns well into their ninth or tenth decades. Another sat in a wheelchair. The two had been expecting me, but didn't quite know what to do with me. They kept muttering, "Where is she?" and disappeared from time to time to look for someone. Then for something to do, one of them took me up a couple of flights of stairs to show me where I could have a shower. Not that I could have one before I had a room.

Finally, the mysterious person arrived. She gave me a smile, but I had the impression that she would rap my knuckles if I got my sums wrong. She was obviously in charge, and took me to my room, which was in a kind of gite attached to the main building. It was slightly warmer than outside. I decided to have my shower right away.

I climbed the two flights of stairs and entered the bathroom. It was in keeping with the rest of the building, straight out of the nineteenth century. The washbasin was tall and narrow with rusted fittings. The curtain on the window was once green, I think, but now was brown. The chasse d'eau didn't work, which explained why the toilet hadn't been flushed. It didn't augur well for the next pilgrim. The shower worked, but the pipes gurgled as if protesting at being disturbed. The water was reluctant to leave by the plug hole.

Back in the gite, I relaxed on the bed, and looked around.Two circular tables with ancient cloths took up most of the room. A couple of old armoires stood against one of the walls, and Mary looked down on me from the top of a cabinet. Opposite, was a unicorn on a huge tapestry. Twin doors on the third wall led to a kitchen and toilet. On the fourth wall, under the window, sat a large radiator. I was cold, so I decided to experiment with it. It was lukewarm. I turned the knob at the end and hot water began coursing through the pipes. I felt naughty, and was afraid I might get into trouble if I was found out.

After a while, I noticed a damp, musty smell, and my eyes began to sting. Evidently, the room had been left unheated in an effort to save on costs. Perhaps my turning up the radiator would dry everything out. I decided to leave a generous donation if the meal was up to scratch. 

It was. At two minutes before the scheduled hour, I was summoned. The sisters were sitting around the table waiting for me. Now they numbered six in all.

We had soup, followed by a salad, and then chicken and roasted endives, cheese and desert. They didn't eat much, but they were concerned that I did. A bottle of wine was at my place. They were interested in Canada and the Chemin. One of them had spent time in Montreal. Another had been to some of the places I had visited, including the magnificent cloister at Moissac. Eventually, I sensed that it was time to leave. They weren't in the habit of lingering over supper.

I wouldn't want to put anybody off. It was a bit primitive, but the sisters were most hospitable. I ate well, and I felt more welcome than I had at Foyer Notre Dame de la Trinite.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Day 22. Lusignan to Chenay. 22 kms (517)

 Valderi, Valdera...

I had breakfast at the hotel where I had eaten last night. The landlord was more pleasant than his wife. She, perhaps, had been a little resentful because I had stayed at the gite and not her hotel.

I am full of admiration for the mairies of these little communes which provide a gite for the pilgrims. They certainly don't make any money; in fact, they must barely cover their expenses, considering the cost of heating the old buildings.

Nor do I see how they can claim that they are doing a service to their community. One or two pilgrims a day might each spend up to 20€ perhaps at the shops and restaurants. Pilgrims are not big spenders.

There remains only one reason why the mairies do this. They must feel that they have a responsibility to look after the pilgrims who pass through their towns, not so very different from the religious responsibility of the church in earlier times. They are very careful to establish that you are a bona fide pilgrim: they stamp your creanciale and take a photocopy of your passport. To me, it is another example of the curious ambivalence of secular France towards the Church: it is not their faith, but it is their heritage.

I took a chance on the weather, overcast again, and wore my shorts, leaving off the rain pants. Later, I was to regret this.

Chauvinist that I am, I do not think that French has too many linguistic advantages over the language of Shakespeare. We have twice as many words, and most of them can twist themselves into various Protean shades of meaning. But once in a while, the French beat us at our own game. As I made my way out of town, I was told by my guide book to "obliquer a gauche". What a useful example of a verb formed from an adjective! 

Much more common, and used by everybody several times a day, is the verb "longer", to go along. It is so useful, and a verb we could do with in English. On longe la rivière. In English, we can long for something, or long to do something, but we can't long a river. We have to go along it.

My guidebook tells me, on a long section where there is nothing much to see, to "laisser vagabonder mes pensees". And that is exactly what I do as I walk: I let my thoughts vagabond. I was going to coin that word myself, but my dictionary tells me it already exists in English.

My thoughts were vagabonding as I walked through the bocage, a region, now rather rare in France, characterized by small fields enclosed by raised hedges. Unfortunately, large scale agriculture prefers very large fields without any barriers to their machines. But in this part of the country at least, man is in harmony with nature. The hedges prevent erosion, the ditches provide natural drainage, and both provide homes for birds and animals.

I remember reading somewhere in classical literature, that the golden age was a time when men lived in their own villages in harmony with nature. In successive ages, they began digging minerals from the earth and leaving their homes to invade other lands. As I walk by these small fields and see old stone houses heated by the cords of wood stacked up outside, I am reminded of that golden age.

In one of the hedges enclosing a large estate was an old gate in front of a long lane leading up to a chateau.

Then I came upon a farmer pottering about in his field. He pointed to the sky, indicating that it was going to rain. I hoped he was wrong, but he wasn't. On a wet trail, without any shelter, I had to do my "rain dance". It is not possible to put on my rain pants over my boots, and therein lies the problem. I have to take my right foot out of my boot, and put it into my right pants leg, and then back into my boot, all the while balancing on my left foot. Then I repeat the process with the other foot. If I lose my balance, I have to either put my sock down into the wet or topple sideways into the mud.

I have seen the source of the "scarecrow" explosions. A device, rather like a cannon, is fuelled by propane. I'm still not sure whether it fires at regular intervals or at random.

At the village of Saint-Sauvant. I saw a fine old building put to good use. Nicknamed the chateau, it was built in the early 20th century by a self-taught local boy who made good. The commune was now using it to house their library.

I arrived at two o'clock at Chenay. There is nothing here, not even the gite that I had expected. And the hotel was closed. I was directed to a chambre d'hôtes on the Place de la Mairie. Here, I have eaten well, and I have comfortably settled in to a large room under the roof.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Day 21. Poitiers to Lusignan. 33 kms (495)

Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late.

As I left my hotel, it was raining on the tables where I had drunk my coffee yesterday morning. Winter had returned. I had breakfast inside.

As I walked out through the suburbs, I suddenly noticed a funny, furry little creature coming towards me with an odd gait. It sniffed at my feet. What was it? A dog? A cat? No, it hopped. it was a pet bunny. It hopped away onto the road, and then after a near miss, back onto the footpath and into a front yard. It was going to get run over. I rang a couple of bells, hoping to find someone who knew something about it, and just when I was despairing of finding its owner, a woman drove up, stopped her car in the middle of the road, leapt out, and said in a panic, "My rabbit, my rabbit!" She was in a hurry, and was almost too late. 

I had a coffee at Fontaine le Compte, and soon after that, ran into construction again. The detour took me down the main highway, and then back onto the trail. For the rest of the day, I walked on dirt roads through woods and fields.

Unfortunately, the track was wet after the rain. In places, it was a muddy puddle; in others, it was a bog. Sometimes, it was difficult to get traction on the slippery surface. Sometimes, I had to wade through the long grass. In higher places, the footing was firm. 

The weather was as varied as the condition of the track: storm clouds, then patches of sunshine, then sudden squalls, then rain, and even hail, pounding on my Tilley hat like gravel on a tin roof.

I passed a large field of peas. This time, they were in flower. Next time, in a week or two and further south, perhaps they would be ripe. 

All across the fields and in the woods, I noticed little platforms built out of two by twos to raise up the hunters so they would get a good shot at the deer or wild boar.

Everywhere I walk in France, I see references to the hunt. "Chasse Inerdit" or "Reserve de Chasse". These do not mean that hunting is forbidden, but that you can't hunt there unless you belong to the hunters' association that has the rights to the land. Another sign is quite common as well: "Reserve de Chasse et de Faune Sauvage". Naively, I used to think that this meant that the deer were protected, and indeed they are, until a certain time when it's considered necessary to cull them, and then, the same association will shoot them down. 

Actually, "chasse" is a misnomer. There isn't any "chasing" involved, just as there usually isn't any "hunting" in an English hunt. Indeed, the chasseurs don't move at all. Instead, they sit on their stands,  absolutely still, and blast away.

Unlike other villages on the rivers and streams, Lusignan is on a hill. When you finally arrive, you still have a killer of a climb up to the old centre. I was too late to explore much of the town. I walked by the 19th century halle, and I visited an impressive Romanesque church.

Tonight, I am alone in a very fine gite, three rooms with two beds each. 8€.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Day 20. Poitiers

When will we ever learn,
When will we ever learn?

Steven the Belgian, my good companion for the last four days, has gone on ahead. I wish him well.

I am sitting in a large square in front of the Hotel de Ville eating my croissants and drinking my morning coffee. Pigeons coo about my feet, looking for crumbs. People walk about in the rather feeble morning sunlight, entering and leaving the square by little crooked streets which wind off in every direction. A musician hurries by, one instrument in his hand, the other on his back. Cyclists crisscross. Someone wheels his baggage from a hotel. 

A young man walks around the centre of the square, darting in this direction and that, gesticulating wildly, shouting at nothing, not even the people who pass by trying not to notice him. In fact, he is careful not to shout at anybody, only the empty air, and the pigeons, and perhaps his black dog who follows him uncertainly. I fear for the dog when he makes him jump up onto a concrete bench. Is he going to harangue him? But no, he gives the dog a hug. Poor fellow, I am glad he has a loyal companion, perhaps the only living creature who loves him. He walks off, leaving the square, the dog trotting beside, wagging his tail, and looking up expectantly. What will the day hold for them?

Most of us sit alone at the tables, relaxing, enjoying the sun, contemplating the day ahead of us. But the peace is strained a little by a monologue from a woman a few tables across. Four women sit together, but only one speaks. The rest nod. And I try not to breathe in the fumes from a nearby smoker. Trucks deliver bottles and kegs with a clatter and a clang. Despite these minor inconveniences, I am content. Le bonheure est maintenant!

Like so many other cities in France, the central area has been closed off to all but service vehicles and the occasional bus, which get in and out by somehow making a barrier of bollards fall and rise as they pass over them. The square is huge, a sign of the south perhaps, where people spend more of their life outside, eating, drinking, and talking.

What an enlightened policy it is to give city streets back to the people!

I have spent the day in this wonderful town of Poitiers, strolling around, just soaking up the atmosphere. I have only had time to see a little of what there is to see.

I shouldn't say this, but to me, the cathedral seemed a big barn of a building, too wide for its own good, each of the side aisles being the width of the nave of a smaller cathedral. More impressive is the Romanesque church Notre Dame la Grande with its sober decorations in the nave.  It was even more memorable for me for the beer I enjoyed afterwards on a terrace behind the choir. This is the France that I love.

The real treasure of Poitiers is the Baptistere Saint-Jean. Its baptismal pool, dating from the 5th century, was a witness to the first Christians in Europe. The rest of the building was restored in the 12th and 13th centuries. The painting on the mural of the side chapel also dates from this period.

When I asked a young woman where the cathedral was, she said, "Which one?" To me, this was a manifestation not of a secular France, but a new indifference towards and ignorance of la patrimoine, the heritage. No one would have given me that answer a generation ago. 

Tonight, I am staying in perhaps the quaintest hotel I have ever stayed in, truly a lodging d'autrefois. I am on the third floor, of course, that's why it's so cheap (35€),and I reach it by climbing first to one floor, then the next, each time walking down a corridor to find the next flight of stairs. There is no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of rooms. Little clusters at the same level have their own staircase. Perhaps because I am a pilgrim, I am staying in the room known as Angelique, but I could have been put in Absinthe, Aneth, Aubepine, Basilic, or had I paid a little more, Bergamot, Cannelle, Camomile, Capucine, Citronelle, Eglantine, Fenouil, Giroflee, Guimauve, Marjolaine, Mascade, Melon, Pavot, Pistache, Primevere, Rose, Valeriane, or Vanille. The price increased as the alphabet progressed.

The first shall be last.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Day 19. Chatellerault to Poitiers. 34 kms (462)

So all day long the noise of battle rolled

Today, we walked in the footsteps of the Romans, the Moors, and the medieval pilgrims.

We set out into a thick mist. It was cold. We had eaten breakfast in the caravan, and hoped to find coffee along the way.

The mist was lifting a little as we crossed the Vienne. A cuckoo called. Was it mocking our hopes of finding coffee at Cenon-sur Vienne? Indeed it was! The bar was closed.

We headed south on an old Roman road which had once linked Paris and Bordeaux. It would take us almost in a straight line to Poitiers.

Following the crests of the hills, much of the route had avoided being paved over, and survived today as a farm track. The ancient roads which linked the villages on rivers and in the valleys were the logical routes for the bitumen which followed, but some of the higher military roads which stretched in straight lines between the Roman camps had escaped this fate. 

Part of the road was now on a bicycle circuit, and the cyclists were out in force on what was now a fine Sunday morning. The chariot ruts of the past had become bicycle treads which stretched from one side of the road to the other. But in places, the road had become a bog. 

Soon we passed Vieux Poitiers, where a tower was all that remained of a Gallo-Roman theatre. Archeologists were excavating the rest.

We stopped for a snack at the site of the Battle of Poitiers, where Charles Martel had driven back the Moors in 732 AD. What a battle that must have been! A turning point in history.

Continuing, we followed the route they had taken. And later the medieval pilgrims.

How can we be sure which path the pilgrims had followed when so many modern roads now link the the towns where they had stayed? In this case we can be certain that they had taken the route we were now following, since it led directly from Chatellerault to Poitiers, important pilgrim centres.

Providence smiled. The via Romana had become a bitumen road, and we came upon a golf course, which I remembered from previous years would have a clubhouse with a bar for the members. We took pains to scrape the mud from our boots, and sat down with a coffee in comfortable chairs overlooking a lake.

We continued across the gentle hills, enjoying the sun. This was probably the first really fine day I had experienced since Paris. The temperature reached a high of only 15 degrees, but it was warm in the sun.

Cooler, though, as we passed through some woods on the approach to Poitiers.

After another five kilometres, we reached the centre of town only to find the Office de Tourisme was closed. We had hoped to be directed to some cheap digs. Instead, we are staying tonight at an Ibis hotel close to the centre of town.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Day 18. Dange-Saint-Romain to Chatellerault. 29 kms (428)

What's in a name, she says, and then she sighs

As we left the village, the bell in the church tower struck eight. It was overcast, and ominous, so I put on all my rain gear. That ensured that we stayed dry.

The audible scarecrows were in operation. One made me jump, as if someone had fired a shotgun just a few feet away. It sounded again about five minutes later, but by then I was well out of range. I wondered if they were timed to fire at regular intervals, or at random, lest the birds get to know the timing and think that they had four and a half minutes to scavenge.

Half way to Chatellerault we made a little detour into the village of Ingrandes for a pause cafe. It was there that we realized that we had forgotten to leave the key of the gite in the letter box at the mairie. Fortunately  the person who had given us the key lived in Ingrandes, so we were able to leave it at their mairie to be picked up. After that little time consumer, it was full speed ahead to our destination, a campsite on the other side of town.

I wondered about the origins of the place names that we saw on the signs that we passed, directing strangers to the local farms. These names, which make no etymological sense, even to a Francophone, must date back to antiquity.

Some place names, of course, have obvious origins. They may be geographical like Le Puy, or corruptions of the original Roman name like Orleans or Lyon, or they may be named for something found in the area, like Ouistreham, or after a saint like so many of the towns that we have been passing through recently. Scholars can look at these names and explain their origin.

But it's the names of the rural places that are interesting, the names of hamlets and farms and places in the middle of nowhere that must defy explanation by the etymologist. They usually sound French, because they have been spoken by generations of the more recent inhabitants, but they don't mean anything. They probably go back to the tribes that Julius Caesar battled against in the Gallic Wars, and even further, and even then, their origins may have been unknown to the local people at that time. Perhaps they go back as far as the dolmen with the pierced stone. These place names are all that survive of a language and culture.

We are staying at a campsite in a little trailer home or bunkhouse with a room each, for a grand total of 7€. It is three kilometres on the south side of town. The manager had his little joke as we staggered in. "It's not here," he said. "It's six kilometres further on."

But three kilometres south of the town means three less to travel tomorrow on the long section from Chatellerault to Poitiers.

Day 17. Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine to Dange-Saint-Romain. 31 kms. (399)

What a piece of work is a man!

We left the gite early and walked the couple of kilometres into town for croissants and coffee. Then we set out into a very cold wind, under blue skies for perhaps the very first time. 

We walked for a while on minor roads through fields of barley, wheat and canola. I am noticing more and more poppies. They pop up in the wheat fields, and they thrive along the verge. In fact, they grow anywhere they like, even on the top of stone walls.

Then we headed off along a farm track into the woods. How dark and gloomy and ominous they were! No wonder they have been the setting for so many tales of magic and mystery! 

Today, I witnessed Man in various manifestations.

First, in his prehistoric role.  At the edge of the wood, overlooking a field, a menhir stood alone, le dolmen de la pierre percee. What did he represent? A tomb? A deity? 

And the hole? An eye, or simply natural erosion?

When I come upon these standing stones, which are seen all over Europe, I am always struck by the contrast between their present and past existence. Today, they stand alone in silence, but for the wind in the trees. In the past, they would have been at the centre of some strange ceremony with chants and cries and shouts as perhaps some deity was being worshipped or some human, sacrificed.

What were they like, these ancestors of ours?

Nothing beside remains.

For much of the day, we walked close to the railway line where TGVs whizzed by every ten minutes or so. To get to the village of Maille, we passed under the line at the station where we saw a grim reminder of man's inhumanity to man. Fastened there, was a plaque commemorating the SNCF staff and their families who had lost their lives in the Massacre of Maille. In the Second World War, 124 of the 500 inhabitants of the village had been murdered by the Germans in reprisal for the actions of the Resistance.

At our next stop we came upon the little Romanesque church of la Celle-Saint-Avant, built by monks on the site of the hermitage of St. Avant, who gave his name to the village. This was a place of refuge for the poor who passed by.

A little further on we saw an unfortunate example of utilitarianism. A little Romanesque chapel, which once must have  been part of a grand estate, now belonged to a farm and was being used for storing farm equipment. And breeding rabbits!

It is common enough to see deconsecrated churches being put to practical use. All around us we see them functioning today as private houses, theatres, antique shops, and even bars and restaurants. In Dublin, an 18th century church where Handel played the organ is now a fashionable place to eat and drink. It is better to use the building for a secular purpose than have it replaced by a parking lot or fast food joint.

But this was a unique historic building, almost 1,000 years old! To be fair, it was in good shape, and perhaps the farmer and his forbears were well aware of their responsibility to take are of it. Every feudal estate would have had its chapel, and many of them would have been pillaged by the paysans for their stones.

Just outside the village of Celle-Saint-Avant, we stopped to eat our baguette and cheese at a picnic table overlooking a lake. I had thought that I was too late for daffodils, but there they were, big King Alfreds actually growing in the lake, perhaps held back in their growth by the cold water. Or were they yellow iris?

We finally reached Dange, having walked many more kilometres than we were supposed to. We had made a detour to avoid construction, but had to cross a chantier Interdit au public anyway. This time the mud was fairly dry.

Tonight we are in another municipal gite, but this one lacks the charm of last night's. It is big and cold, and we have every electric heater we can find going full blast to try and warm the place up.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Day 16. Sorigny to Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. 22 kms (368)

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy

It was an easy day on rural roads across flat country. We left before eight, and made such good time, with only one stop, that we arrived at our destination in time for lunch.

We soon reached the open countryside, where I noticed a couple of enormous oaks, standing alone in the middle of a field. And then I saw a hawk in the distance swooping down after some poor creature that had gone to ground. I stood watching it for a couple of minutes, marvelling at its persistence and hoping that its prey would have the sense to stay under cover. Then I noticed another hawk doing the same thing. Ah! I had been fooled again. They were kites, attached to poles, doing such a good job that they would put the traditional scarecrows out of business.

I have never seen so many different attempts to save the crops, from the traditional scarecrow to the sound of gun shots, from strips of plastic blowing in the wind to the imitation hawks attached to poles.

The larks were with us again today, braving the winds above and singing in full voice, disappearing in the clouds only to flutter down once more. What is it about their song that is so uplifting? It may be that we hear them in the wide open spaces were we least expect to hear the song of a bird, and then we see them so high up, tiny birds, battling against the winds. They encourage us lonely travellers down below.

No, I didn't hear a nightingale last night, but my friend Steven the Belge heard a bird singing during the night that may well have been the nightingale. But the larks, too, pour forth their soul.

Steven is a congenial fellow, a graphic designer, who is somewhat dissatisfied with his present career, and is contemplating a change. He will make up his mind before he reaches Santiago. Another reason for walking the Camino!

I saw several herds of cattle today which would have pleased my old mate, meus amicus Johannes, amator vaccarum. And just those few words make me think of my old Latin teacher, Jumbo, aptly nicknamed for his elephantine stature, who would force me to conjugate verbs and decline nouns by grasping me by the hair and digging his knuckle into my head. I have a dent in my skull to prove it.

Moody, decline mensa!
Mensa, mensam, mensae, mensae, mensa. Mensae, mensas, mensarum, mensis, mensis.

For the one or two of you who might be wondering, we declined nouns according to what I suspect was the English method, ignoring the vocative case since it differed from the nominative only in the second declension. In North America, all six cases are included, and declined in a different order.

We used a little text book called Macmillan's Shorter Latin Course, which generations of schoolboys had transformed into Macmillan's Shorter Eating Course. Similarly, many years later, I taught from a textbook called The Fart of Poetry.

We stopped for a rest at the little village of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois. There was no bar open, but we found a bakery which had decided to provide coffee for pilgrims, almost as a public service. There is a statue of Joan of Arc in the square in front of the church. She is supposed to have stopped in the village for a coffee on her way to war. Many towns in France make the same claim.

Tonight, after a lot of walking around the town looking for the Office de Tourisme, and then the lodging, we are staying at the municipal gite, an old stone hose half buried in a cliff, with a wood fire. Just as well, for it's going to be cold tonight.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Day 15. Tours to Sorigny. 26 kms (346)

                                         I am in mud
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

It was supposed to be fine weather today, and it was, when I looked out the window on waking up, but by mid-morning the sun had disappeared, and rain threatened. But it held off until I arrived in Sorigny.

I took the rue Colbert down to the avenue de Grammont, the former main road which now hosted the tram lines, and headed south. This route would have taken me direct to my destination. O that I had followed it!

I walked along the tracks, pretending I was a tram, when I heard a clang, clang, clang behind me. I thought of Judy Garland. Then I moved off the tracks. Although the system begins operating in September, the trams are making trial runs from time to time. And they really do go clang, clang, clang.

I noticed that in town, the trams get their power from a third rail, which by some new technology poses no threat to pedestrians, but outside the city centre, they use an overhead wire. The change occurs at the railway station, where they arrive, drop their pantograph, and continue, overhead-wirelessly into the centre. It's more pleasing to the eye without the poles and wires, explained an official. More expensive, though.

I continued along the main road for a while, crossed a couple of bridges, and then dropped down to walk east along the bank of the Cher. I passed a couple of weeping willows, and then a fisherman who seemed to be catching logs rather than fish. Then I left the river and walked into the pleasant little village of Saint-Avertin, where I stopped for a coffee.

I am following another guide which I bought yesterday, a rando-edition, a companion to the Chemin du Puy and the Chemin d'Arles which I have used before. I will let you know if it's better than the other one after I haven't got lost a few times.

No guide could have prepared me for the next obstacle I faced. I was walking merrily along, when I came upon a sign:

Route Barree. Chantier Interdit au Public.

I knew what it meant, but decided to pretend that I didn't, because to do otherwise would have meant a long detour. It was a motorway construction site. Graders were moving back and forth, and my path had disappeared under mountains of dirt. Workers were occupied with what they were doing and didn't seem to have noticed the intruder. I followed a temporary road made by the trucks, and when I spied some trees off to one side, I thought I would cut across to the woods before I was challenged.

I left the road and stepped into a Flanders field of mud. Sinking in to the top of my Zambs, I squelched across, picking up more mud with every step. But when I finally reached solid ground, I was accosted. What was I doing? Didn't I know that the site was closed to the public? Eventually, they decided I was stupid rather than non-compliant, and sent me on my way. Now I was back on my path.

I passed through the village of Montbazon, and looked up at the 11th century fortified tower, now crowned with a 30-foot statue, a result of the fervid devotion to the Virgin Mary in the 19th century.

Back on the highway, I put my head down and marched the remaining five kilometres into Sorigny.

I am staying at a reasonably priced (30€) chambre d'hôtes, and eating a reasonably priced menu du jour (11.50€) at the pub. Wine is included. Another pilgrim, Steven, a Belgian, is staying at the chambre d'hôtes as well, the first fellow walker I have met since Paris.

There is something about cheese, isn't there, at the end of the meal? It brings out the flavour of the wine, and is itself enhanced.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Day 14. Tours.

What passion cannot music raise and quell?

I have decided, after all, to spend a day in Tours. But I had to move all my gear, including my wet woolies, up a circular staircase to the 3eme etage, which, I remind North American readers, is the fourth floor. A better room for the same price, for only the hardy will climb three flights of stairs.

Like other enlightened cities in Europe, Tours is installing its tramway system. Main streets have been closed down and turned into pedestrian ways with the tramlines down the middle. I wonder whether there was much discussion at the popular level, or did the elected officials simply make the decision because it was the right thing to do?

In Victoria, our elected officials would have waited years before making up their minds, for fear of making an unpopular decision, and once made, the decision would have been challenged, and the protesters would have been out canvassing for a referendum.

"What are we protesting against today?"
"Dunno. Shut up. Just protest."                  
I wandered around the old town. Tours must have been a big city, even in medieval times, because the vieux quartier is centred around its own church, a massive basilica, now in ruins, and some distance from the cathedral.     

Dotted here and there are half-timbered houses, including one which furnished the armour for Jeanne d'Arc in 1492, and to celebrate the connection, and as a good advertising stunt, the armourer took as his sign,

A l'Armee Pucelle

To the maid of the army

The isolated wood and brick houses stand in the midst of more recent construction, but on one square I found the most magnificent stretch of half-timbered buildings I have ever seen.

I wandered back to the cathedral, for I had given it short shrift yesterday. This time the school choir was practising with the orchestra, and it was the Faure Requiem, not the Mozart. I should have known that was what a French school would perform. And it was a young choir too, twelve or thirteen years and up. Like me, other visitors to the cathedral had abandoned their tour, and were sitting on chairs in the nave, enchanted.

If you could have heard the magnificent strains of the Agnus Dei floating up into the vaulting above, and seen the children with the colours of their young faces and clothing against the magnificent medieval stained glass windows in the choir behind them, you would agree with me that there is hope for civilization. I do not believe that these children will be the same again after singing this music.

From Paris to Tours I have not met another pilgrim. But this may change. Many will start from Tours rather than Paris, and indeed, I was not able to get my first choice of lodging for tomorrow night. 

Monday, 20 May 2013

Day 13. Amboise to Tours. 28 kms (320)

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small...

I set out into drizzling rain, glad of my zambs as I splashed through the puddles.

My pack was heavier than usual this morning, perhaps because of the increasing number of tablets of hotel soap I am accumulating in preparation for my staying in gites later on. I always seem to leave my soap in the shower stall, so I wanted plenty of spares.

As I left town, I noticed that it was market day. Merchants were buzzing around with umbrellas, setting up stalls, darting back and forth, unloading their wares, and even at half past eight, early-bird shoppers were out and about, looking for the worm. There must have been at least two hundred stalls, stretching out in a long line between the levee and the Loire, selling everything you could imagine: clothes, clocks, tables and chairs, gold and silver, books and paintings, linen, china, carpets, not to mention fresh fruit and vegetables.

It's a wonderful tradition which seems to have survived the advent of supermarkets. Every town has its market, on a different day of the week to allow the merchants to move from one place to the next.

I left the levee to walk along the main road, and then along a bicycle path with signs indicating the way to Tours.

Wood smoke drifted from a chimney top as I arrived at the village of Lussault-sur-Loire. It was warmer inside than out. I resisted the temptation to have a coffee at a bar. I had a long way to go.

You can't win when you're walking in this weather. If you wear just a tee shirt under the rain jacket, you get cold. If you wear something over the tee shirt, you get hot, and then you sweat, and then you get cold.

I noticed some elongated islands in the middle of the river, running parallel with the current, in various stages of becoming solid land mass. Some were mere sand banks, covered in birds, with many more, squawking overhead. On a few, vegetation had already taken root, and they supported a few young trees. Others were now well-treed like the mainland. Nature reclaims its own.

Now it was time for a coffee. I walked along the footpath into Montlouis-sur-Loire and almost stepped on a very large snail.

Hie thee hence, thou lone, lorn creetur, or thinks will go contrairy with thee.

I dodged a couple of dog turds. A friend in France would call this a crottetoir. The English equivalent would be a "shitpath". Mind you, it used to be a lot worse. Thirty years ago you would barely find a bare space on the pavement to put your feet.

The  French have improved in other ways as well. Back then, if you ventured onto a crosswalk, you took your life in your hands. Now, the motorists sometimes stop for you. This morning, as I approached a crossing on the main road, a man came slowly to a stop, gave me a broad smile, and waved me across, much to the surprise and the annoyance of the traffic behind. He had probably walked the Camino.

I stopped for a coffee. This was a friendly bar. Everyone said Bonjour as I entered, and Bonne Journee as I left.

I pressed on. Finally I could see the spires of the cathedral de Tours in the distance. When I arrived, everything was closed. It was Pentecost. I found a hotel, and did my washing, even though I've decided not to stop the two days it would normally take it to dry in this weather. I have a hair dryer which is going to work overtime. 

I visited the cathedral, and there, occurred one of those magical moments which happen from time to time on the Camino. An orchestra was playing a very familiar introduction, and I felt I just had to come in with "Qui tollis peccata mundi". I think it was the Mozart Requiem, but it may have been the Faure. No choir, but a very good youth orchestra was practising for something.

The cathedral is stunning, very large, Gothic, with an amazing array of stained glass on either side of the choir.

I went back to my hotel, and went to work with the hair dryer.

Back in Perth in winter in the old days, when I met my mum's friend Thelma out walking, she would say, "Hello there, I've just come outside to get warm." There was no central heating in Perth.

I went outside to get warm, and found a restaurant.

It's interesting how the servers  always assume that I will have my beef well done. Which I do, of course. Not that it ever is. Blood is always oozing from a well cooked steak in France. Except tonight.

I have learned that you get what you pay for when it comes to eating here. If you walk along the line of restaurants looking for what seems to be the best deal, you will end up with steak frites, with the steak as tough as old boots, and the chips better than the steak. That is the tourist menu. But if you pay a little more, say five dollars, you can eat superbly well. That's what the locals do. And tonight, so did I. It was a superb meal at the Restaurant de la Ferme on the rue Colbert. And if I had to order a demi-bouteille because my usual quart de rouge wasn't available, so be it.

So my advice to you is this: Never have breakfast at your hotel. Buy the bread and croissants at a bakery. Take them to a bar and eat them with your coffee. Put the five dollars you will save towards a superb evening meal.

The French can teach us a lot about eating and drinking. And living!

What can they teach us about living? Carpe diem. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Day 12. Chaumont to Amboise. 23 kms. (292)

 Who is the nasty, cross lady, Mama?
Hush, child, she's a witch.

I woke up this morning to blue skies, but by the time I left the hotel it had clouded over again. As I walked through the village of Chaumont I caught a glimpse of the castle I had missed the day before. 

After walking along the highway for several kilometres, I took a little road up onto the plateau, where I saw my first vineyards, extending on both sides almost as far as the eye could see. Perhaps these were the grapes that had produced the vin de pay I had enjoyed last night. I arrived at the little village of Rilly-sur-Loire and rejoined the main road.

Half an hour later I walked into Mosnes, one of those linear French villages that stretch out forever. Eager for my first coffee of the day, I was directed to to a bar which was supposed to open at ten o'clock. I arrived on the dot. It was closed. At five past, I tapped on the door. A woman appeared. "No need to knock on the door," she said, clearly annoyed. "J'arrive." She plonked my coffee on the table, and when I paid, brought me my change without a word. No merci or au revoir or bonne marche. Not a word. 

I have written before of the effect that "those little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness" can have on the recipient. The reverse is true as well. This was the first case of rudeness I had encountered in France. It rankled. I hurried off. I was in no mood to tarry.

Perhaps they were all as miserable as her in that place, without a chateau to bring fame to their little village, halfway between the tourist towns of Chaumont and Amboise.

Bugger the guide, I said. I'm heading straight down the main road. By now the traffic was increasing, and I had to move out of the way of the oncoming traffic on to the verge. Unfortunately, nettles had already claimed it as their own.

But I soon cheered up. Some cyclists rode by and greeted me as a fellow traveller. They, too, were on their way to Saint-Jacques. Then a couple of 2CVs honked their horns in encouragement. That happens a lot. I walked on.

Always the Loire to my right, and to my left, great limestone cliffs with caves hollowed out of the rock. This, I assume, was the origin of the word for the cave, the wine cellar in the basement of every French home. Originally, wine had been stored quite literally in a cave, and the word had stuck. Now some of these caves were open and elaborately furnished inside, with signs in front which said, "Visite. Degustation. Vente." I was sorely tempted, but I wanted to reach Amboise before the rain.

I took a little detour off the main road into the village of Chargé. Villages sprang up for a reason, on a river for the mill or on a hill for fortification, or perhaps at the crossroads for the trade. The little village of  Chargé clearly exists because of the wine. Numerous caves extended back into the cliff to store the wine from the grapes that grew on the plateau above. Perhaps the wine had then been shipped downstream to the coast. Perhaps the very name derives from its role as a loading place.

Or perhaps the wine had been shipped out by rail. The main railway line which serves the towns along the Loire runs along the north side of the river. But there must have been a line on the south side as well. Abandoned, the little station of Chargé stands alone.

I then continued down the highway into Amboise, a town that grew up at the foot of its great castle. I am installed at the Hotel le Francais in a room on the second floor "with a nice view of the Loire," he said. Indeed there is, in the distance, beyond the car park and the tourist buses. Then I ate a salad at one of a long line of restaurants overlooked by the massive wall of the castle. 

In the afternoon I visited the chateau. Although it later became a royal palace, the site had long been an important defensive position with its commanding view of the Loire. In the garden is an impressive Lebanon cedar, planted in 1840. Leonardo is buried in the little chapel set back and between the tree and the palace. It's a very impressive royal chateau, but if I had to choose between the two, I would visit Blois.

Everyone here is talking about the weather, how bad it is, how there hasn't been a spring this year, how it isn't "normal". Yesterday, a man stopped me on the bridge, and said, "Where is the sun, eh?

Actually, it hasn't been that bad for walking, and I've only had one bout of serious rain. But it dampens the spirit.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Day 11. Blois to Chaumont-sur-Loire. 25 kms (269)

A sad, grey day we had of it

I cannot recommend the Foyer Notre Dame de la Trinite. The breakfast consisted of a few slices of stale bread and a stale croissant. Surely someone could have walked a few yards to the bakery? And the Wifi didn't work and nobody cared. And there wasn't a socket in the room to charge my gadgets. So I cannot recommend the Foyer Notre Dame de la Trinite.


If there's one meal that the Brits do well, it's breakfast. I can taste it now, bangers, bacon and eggs, occasionally some black pud, or some haggis if you're in Scotland, tomatoes, even some fried bread, and lots of toast and marmalade. And tea or coffee. I'm not saying it's healthy, but it tastes bloody good, and it sets you up for the day. That's why it's called the full English breakfast.

For all the superiority of French cuisine, their breakfast pales by comparison. It's as if the French have decided to throw in the towel and devote their energies to the important meals later in the day. ("Let the biftecks win the first round. We will win the rest! ") The result is a meal that needs no preparation, just a quick trip to the bakery to buy a baguette. That's why the bakery opens at seven, even on Sundays, and why the stereotypical Frenchman has a baguette under his arm.

The French breakfast, therefore, depends on the quality of its bread. So it's really bad form to serve stale bread for breakfast. Sometimes it's unavoidable, if breakfast is served before the bakery opens, for example. But then the bread is toasted. Which is the only way to eat stale bread, isn't it?

I was really disappointed in the breakfast at the Foyer. And it's no excuse to say that this was a religious establishment. You can bet those loaves in the Bible were fresh!


As I walked by the church on the way out, I noticed a sign saying, "No begging". What would Jesus have said? Or Pope Francis?

On the path I met not a solitary soul.

I crossed the Loire, walked along the stone bed of the old tow path, and then cut across the broad plain which bordered the river, making my way between fields of barley and wheat. The sky darkened, and even the birds were subdued under the threat of rain. I passed through the hamlet of Aumone, and then stopped for a coffee in the village of Cande-sur-Beuvron. There it began, lightly at first as I raced along the final six kilometres, but then more heavily, and by the time I reached Chaumont it had become a downpour.

I was drenched, and left a puddle on the floor of the Office de Tourisme, where I popped in to find somewhere to stay. Tourists had taken all the bed and breakfasts, and I was lucky to get the second last room of the hotel.

The rain has continued non-stop since I arrived, so I've decided to give the chateau a miss.

I decided to wear leather this year. Last year I wore Keens Gypsums, and got blisters and wet feet. So I bought a new pair of Zamberlans, and today my feet were dry. And they were solid on the stony path. And so far, no blisters.