Camino de Madrid

Camino de Madrid
Camino de Madrid

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Day 37. April 30, 2015. Ascain to Irun. 20 kms.

Tramp, tramp, tramp along the highway

Some days there isn't much to write home about. This was one of those days, so I won't write home much about it.

Once again, I got a little lost, but a friendly postman put me right. All through the day I see the posties in their little yellow vans as they follow their circuitous routes along country roads. Sometimes when I get lost, I ask them for directions (who better?), and then later in the day our paths may cross again, and we are pleased to see each other.

In the morning I walked along the highway, in the afternoon along the minor roads, and then I crossed the river Bidassoa and I was in Spain.

As I walked along the river on the Spanish side, I came upon the Ile des Faysants, in midstream between the two countries. For six months it belongs to Hendaye; for six months to Irun. If only China and its neighbours could solve their disputes in this way.

You may be wondering what I'm doing in Spain. Well, I continued on to Irun, the Spanish border town on the Atlantic, because this is where the Camino del Norte begins, which I may walk one day. In fact because I have a few days to spare, I am going to begin walking it tomorrow.

We were six at supper: a young Floridienne, Victoria; a German, Andre; two French ladies from Toulouse, Renee and Josee; and a Canadian who has hiked everywhere and proceeded to tell me about it.

But I know that I'm back in Spain. We are chockers at the gite. A Babel of languages.One toilet for all of us. The ladies from Lyon in the bunks above are planning to get up at six o'clock. No sleeping in here. And so to bed.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Day 36. April 29, 2015. Espelette to Ascain. 20 kms

So all day long the noise of battle rolled

Yesterday, about 1200 years ago, I might have seen Charlemagne and Roland on their way to fight the Moors at the Battle of Roncevalles. Today, just over 200 years ago, I might have met the forces of Wellington coming towards me to confront the French. Had those campaigns gone the other way, we might not have been singing the Messiah every Christmas. We might not have been singing at all. But sometimes it doesn't work out so well. Think how different the world might have been if Al Gore had beaten George Bush.

Today, I followed the path across the hills. I climbed steadily into gentle rolling hills and caught my first glimpse of the coast. This was not wild country. Everywhere about me I could see the little white houses with their orange tiled roofs. Then I was cutting across country along a rough dirt road.

To one side of me was a dense maple forest, and on the other, the redoubt, the fortifications surrounded by a deep ditch, constructed during the Revolution to counter Royalist troops, and then used again by the French to stop Wellington's army as he marched up from Spain. The dirt road was worn down to bedrock, and I could imagine Wellington's troops dragging their cannon up this road. Apparently 400 French died on one day.

Then down to cross the Nivelle at Pont d'Amotz. I made a little detour to see the old bridge. You come across these ponts romains everywhere in France, named for the style of architecture rather than their date of construction. Some are Roman; others, medieval. Of this one, one arch remained, trees growing out of it.

Then I climbed again towards Mont Suhamendi. On the way up I passed a parcel of Brits on a walking tour, strung out in dribs and drabs along the track, some walking, some resting, some eating. By the time I had reached the last one I had quite a full picture of their itinerary for the day.

I read an article in the Guardian yesterday saying that the Norwegian prime minister keeps her mobile phone in her bra. I wonder where our prime minister keeps his.

I came down from Mount Suhalmendi into what seemed to be a large mountain park. Gorze and heather grew on the Rocky slopes, and wild horses roamed at will. And on the slope to my left as I walked down towards Ascain was an example of European funding at its most enlightened. Scattered along the hillside at intervals of about 200 yards were little pig runs, a dozen or so, each with a shelter and water trough on a concrete base. The purpose of the project was to allow the pigs to live in the fresh air and roam freely. Two Basque porkers were already in residence at one of the sties. I asked them what it was like to be the first to live in this progressive community. "Four legs goooood, two legs baaad!" they said. 

What enlightened government policy! Our government turns a blind eye while hog producers build bigger and bigger barns to cage more and more pigs that will never see the light of day. Here they were living en pleine air.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Day 35. April 28, 2015. Bidarray to Espelette. 21 kms

All we like sheep have gone astray

Sheep visited me this morning, poking their noses up against the glass door of the kitchen as I was eating my breakfast. They milled around outside, chomping on the lush grass on the overgrown lawn in front of the gite. Their shepherd had taken them on a little jaunt.

They are not the brightest of animals, sheep. A little later, their master had put them back in their field next to the gite, but two little lambs had squeezed out between the horizontal bars of the gate and were now running back and forth along the barbed wire fence, squealing for their mother on the other side. The shepherd swung the gate wide open, and tried to direct them back into the field, but of course they ran in the wrong direction. When he managed to send them back towards the gate, instead of running around it and into the field, they trapped themselves between the gate and the fence. Then, as he approached, they ran around the gate but right past the opening towards the road. I did my good deed for the day by cutting them off, and together, we got them back to their mothers.

As I walk along the valleys, I see them everywhere, white dots on the green patches on the mountains. Jean Louis and Maite had 40 acres of land in the valley but more up in the hills. And the farmers' fields are not always contiguous so the sheep are always being moved around.

I was walking along the D349 for most of the day, a minor road, but with a little traffic, when suddenly an enormous flock of sheep, 200 or more, barrelled down the road towards me, tumbling and stumbling, and turning just in time into a neighbouring field. I waited for the dog or the shepherd to appear. None. How did the sheep knowwhere to go? Another mystery. And as they rumbled through the gate, some of the lambs would frolic ahead, and lose their mothers, and somehow find them again, and then, when all had settled down, bunt them in the udder to get the milk flowing. And they all stood there, looking at me, well, sheepishly.

This was a shaggy sheep indeed! 

The dags on the bags of the shags of the sheep
Give cheese for the teas of grandees at the Keep.

I don't know why the word "sheepish" has taken on its more common meaning of "shamefaced". There's nothing shamefaced about sheep. Perhaps there's a Biblical allusion there somewhere. "Capricious" on the other hand clearly reflects the whimsical nature of the goat, and "bovine", the slow-moving, cud-chewing characteristics of the cow.

It was an easy day, walking more or less west on the south bank of the Nive, and passing eventually through the Pas de Roland, along with the river and the little branch line which links Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port with Bayonne. This line was was recently electrified, but was unhappily washed out in the recent floods.

At Itxassou, I left the river behind me, and cut across to the little town of Espelette. I had expected another lonely village like Bidarray, but no, this was a pleasant, lively little place, lined with white shops and houses and thronged with tourists. This was not a modern town, but not an old one either. I noticed that one of the houses was dated 1819. The only older feature was the chateau which housed the Office de Tourisme and the Mairie. 

Espelette is famous for its piment, a mild chili pepper used to flavour most of the meals in the region. And the curved streets were lined with shops selling the products which were made with the pepper.

For supper, I decided to treat myself to the Menu a 20€. Warm, goat cheese salad, followed by chopped veal in a piment sauce with roast potatoes, and then  fromage de brebis. It was a Basque meal. Delicious! And a nice quart de rouge with the level generously above the 250 cc line in the flask. Cost? 2€.30. 

Now I promise you that this is my last word on the subject, but at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port for a quarter litre of plonk, Chateau Pilgrims's Bane, the cost was 6€. Pilgrims, I among them, were being sucked in by the sign "Pilgrims Menu 12€" (only two courses by the way and no choice, but a nice salad for an extra six euros) and then cheated by the price of the wine.

Now Espelette was also a tourist town. Why wasn't the same thing happening here? Because the tourists were French and they wouldn't accept this nonsense. At Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port the gullible pilgrims sheepishly pay. There, I think I've finally got it out of my system.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Day 34. April 27, 2014. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Bidarray. 24 kms

Trudge, trudge, splatter, splatter.
It really doesn't matter,
If my old Tilley hat is soaked with rain,
And my knees and back are wracked with pain,
At last I am on the road again,
And have left behind the Pilgrims' Bane.

I was not sorry to leave Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It is the pilgrims' base camp where they gather and regroup before making the jump across the Pyrennees. Some have arrived from the French caminos; many are starting afresh. They arrive each day in their hundreds and look for rooms and gites and meals. And the commercants are ready for them, raising their prices and lowering the quality. At least, that has been my experience. 

On a similar theme, as I walk, I find myself veering more and more to the left of the political road as I see the aftermath of rampant capitalism. If bigger enterprises weren't so intent on driving little enterprises out of business in the interest of bigger profits, then little towns and little villages would survive and men and women would have jobs. Of course, bigger enterprises will always be driven by greed, so Big Government needs to control Big Business to protect little business and little people. That's my philosophy, anyway.

As I left my miserable little garret this morning, I saw the pilgrims marching down the cobbled stones on the rue de la Citadel, heavily cloaked in the heavy rain, heading off to cross the Pyrennees. I didn't envy them. It would not be pleasant up there. Me, I was off to the coast along the valleys.

Not that it was all that pleasant for me, either. I wasn't high up on exposed slopes, but I was in the rain, more or less all day. I had bought a map and a little guide giving details of accommodation, but they soon got wet and were impossible to use.

O spare a thought for this poor old sod,
Whose map has become a sodden wad,
And who looks in vain for a friendly God
To stop the rain with Aaron's rod,
But only the cows will give a nod.
They then continue to chew their fod.

I know that I will not become Poet Laureate, but I hope one day for inclusion in Palgrave's Golden Treasury of Gibberish, or the Oxford Book of Excruciating Verse.

I battled the traffic for the first few kilometres out of town, and then followed the minor roads, and soon found myself in a broad open valley with vines on every slope. This was the first wine-growing country I had seen. And of course the sheep were everywhere, or had been. I passed two troops, flocking through a village, and without a dog to manage them. Instead, they followed their shepherd, as if he were the Pied Piper. Many of the sheep were stumbling along on three legs, and I've noticed them doing the same thing in the fields. Their hooves must get plugged up with mud or crud.

I walked through village after village, stitched together with threads of white stone houses, but as I climbed higher, I left civilization behind, and the waters raged on every side. Rivers and brooks and tumbling cataracts were all in full spate. It was raining today, but there must have been heavier rains a few days ago, because the road was washed away in places. Even today, enough water was coursing down these channels to solve California's drought problem. Drift a little too far to the right on this section of the road and you'd come to a soggy end. I am surprised it was still open.

I passed through the col and then down into a large open valley. From the village of Bidarray, open fields stretch out on all sides to the surrounding hilltops, rather like, but on a smaller scale, little towns in the Rocky Mountains.

I am staying at the local gite which gave me a ticket to get a walker's or pilgrim's meal at the hotel nearby, where I enjoyed a fine sausages and lentils meal. (We are far enough away from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to get value for money). After my desert, I was telling the server that I was tempted to have a coffee, but that I wanted to sleep tonight, when the man at the neighbouring table turned to me and said, 

Vous parlez tres bien Francais, Monsieur, avec un petit accent qui est charmant.

I didn't tell him that this was the same reply that I gave every night to the server so I'd had lots of practice. Instead, I accepted his kind words, with thanks, and floated back to the gite, buoyed up by the compliment and the quart de rouge, which, since we were far enough away from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, was more like three-eighths of a litre. And so to bed.

Day 33. April 26, 2015. Saint-Juste-Ibarre to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.25.5 kms

Hail to thee blithe spirit
Bird thou never wert

This was my finest day, even if it ended on a sour note when I reached Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. I was not going to pike out today and take the highway: I was going to follow the path, and I did, no mean feat either, twenty-five kilometres and a thousand-foot climb without a break. There was nowhere to stop anyway, and it was drizzling on and off. I will even show you the elevation chart. 

At first it was a gentle climb up narrow, winding minor roads, and then suddenly, off the road and up the side of a hill at a slope which must have been close to 45 degrees, and at the top, a right turn into a steady ascent towards two stunted trees almost a kilometre away.

And then I heard it, the ethereal song of the skylark, and there they were, rising out of the gorze, three of them, one of them coming towards me, fluttering frantically, floating for an instant, then fluttering once more in its short uneven trajectory. All alone was I in this high place: the gorze, the sky, and I, and the skylarks. And I thought of the words of another camerade du chemin: Le bonheur est maintenant.

All the while the sighing of the wind 
And the singing of the larks

At last I reached the two trees, passed a sheep watering-trough, and walked up another long slope, onward and upward. And when I thought the path would take me right to the top, I reached a broad track which followed the contour around the hill. Happy was I! To my right was the hill; to my left a ring of mountains across the valleys.

The track led to a road, which led  up to a pass and down again and around, and then onto a track once  more, down and around across the side of a hill, forking back and forth and down to the little roads again.

What is it that is so magnificent about these high places? It's the wildness, and the loneliness, and the openess, and today, the wind and the rain. From the moment I left the road, I didn't see a soul.

I still faced a long trudge into Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Finally I reached the gate in the wall and walked down the familiar rue de la Citadelle, past the pilgrim offices, the gites, the boutiques, to my usual rooms. Full. I had to look further afield.

An ancient crone sat on the steps of her lodging house waiting for Hansel and Gretel. She enticed me in with an offer of a room for 30€. We climbed up two stories and she showed me a tiny little kitchen of a room with two bunks without sheets. "You have a nice view of the forest," she said. "You will hear the birds in the morning." I looked out and saw a few leaves above the roof across the street. "And do you offer breakfast?"  I asked. "No, she replied. You can get a lovely breakfast down the street." 

There is even a kitchen sink in my room, which gurgles when someone goes to the toilet next door. I am hoping that something won't flush up during the night. 

I didn't have to take it, you're thinking. No, you're right, but I'd missed out at my usual place, and I didn't want to spend the night in a gite full of young pilgrims, eager to cross the mountains the next day. 

I had been thinking of spending an extra day here, but no, I'm off tomorrow for Hendaye. I have a map and a list of available accommodation.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Day 32. April 25, 2015. Malleon to Saint-Juste-Ibarre. 22 kms

There is a prodigious stench in here

Having eaten a pilgrim's meal at the Restaurant Etchola in Malleon, just up the street and around the corner from the gite, I strolled around the town and came upon some boys hitting a tennis ball up against a large free-standing wall. Nothing unusual in that. But on the other side they were playing a game I had never seen before. At first I thought it was lacrosse. But no, instead of a net, each player held a long, narrow, curved, shell-like "racquet", shaped like a huge banana, which caught and hurled the ball with incredible speed and accuracy like a sling shot. One player was a hundred yards back and hurled the ball at the wall, and the other players caught it as it bounced off. I learned later that this was the Basque game of Chistera.

This morning I ate breakfast at the bar on the square. Not for the first time,  I found it difficult to leave, captivated by the joie de vivre around me. The people around me spoke rapidly in French or Basque, often in staccato bursts, and darted back and forth, greeting each other with customary kisses or handshakes.

I had to choose between a long walk with a 1200-foot climb or a steady plod up and then down along the road? Still a little sluggish, I took the latter. As I walked out of town, I saw that the vegetarians had been there before me. What a precedent, I thought, for other activists.

I covered about eight kilometres, and then began a five-kilometre walk up to the Col d'Osquich, the pass through the hills at an altitude of 495 metres.  Here I encountered a nasty little deception. On the way to the pass I had seen a sign announcing a bar-restaurant at the summit, and I promised myself a beer as a reward for completing the climb. When I arrived at what I thought was the summit, I saw a hotel overlooking the valley. And the bar was open. But across the road I saw a sign announcing Hotel-Restaurant Col d'Osquich one kilometre further on. I decided to wait until the top for my beer. But the road started going down. Just a temporary dip, I thought. But no, downhill for a kilometre, and there it was, the Hotel-Restaurant Col d'Osquich, a kilometre from the "col" or pass, yet having the nerve to make itself after that place. And it was closed! I had missed out on my beer. 

I am staying tonight at the Ferme Borya, advertised as being on the chemin, 500 metres before the town. But that was on the GR and I was on the highway. As I approached the town I came upon a man having a pee beside the road. I waited politely, and then asked him how to get to the farm. "Ah," he said, "it's over there," pointing across the valley. When I arrived, two further kilometres later, Jean Michel, the farmer was waiting for me. "I was expecting you," he said, pointing across the valley to the man who had been having a pee. "He phoned me." Such are small communities!

The accommodation was quite deluxe for a pilgrim, a wing of the farmhouse all to myself with a choice of bedrooms. And beds with sheets!

A strong barn odour drifted in the window. I investigated its cause: it was coming from five pigs, happy in their muck. Three of them were to be sold at the fair tomorrow. I sat on a bench beside their sty and took in the rural scene. Two dogs bustled around the yard, then came up to greet me, one of them deciding to sit on the bench beside me. Across the road, sheep were safely grazing, and all the while the music from the bells of the neighbour's cows floated across the fields. 

The dogs were labri, sheepdogs of the region. I asked if they were both working. No, just the older. Is the other still too young? No, just lazy. Will you still keep him? Oui, il est gentil! I was impressed. These were farmers with feeling.

I ate with the family, and I have to say that it was one of the most delightful meals I have enjoyed on the Camino. Jean Louis spoke in staccato bursts, and after a while, so did I, but we managed to understand each other. They learned a little about Canada, and I learned a lot about the Pays Basque. I learned something of the rules of Chistera. I learned that the game was played in parts of Quebec, the United States, and South America as well, and that all of these Basque communities played together in a world tournament. 

They also told me about one of their great heroes, Chiquito de Cambodia, a champion at their national game, who during the First World War would catch the German grenades in his chisteria and hurl them back across the trenches. How proud was this family to be Basque!

We began with an apperatif, ate veal and rice for the main course, and finished with two magnificent cheeses, one made by Jean Michel himself at his cabin in the mountains, and the other by the local cheese factory where the son worked. And all the while Jean Michel plied me with wine from the local cooperative, to which he had contributed his own grapes. A true vin de pays! Not for the first time, I drank not wisely, but too well! 

Jean Michel and Maite run the farm, which specializes in the brebis for their milk, and thence their cheese. They have a few cows, and the pigs, and the grapes, but the milk fom the ewes is their main source of income. The son, along with his father, was a delightful host. The older daughter works at an old folks home in Saint-Jean-Le-Vieux. The youngest, whom I had seen riding around the farm on the tractor with her father, wants to stay on the farm.This was a very happy family.

I don't find a barnyard stench particularly unpleasant, and I will willingly endure it to experience such genuine hospitality.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Day 31. April 24, 2015. L'Hopital-Saint-Blaise to Malleon. 18 kms

Homer nods

I left the gite this morning at eight-thirty, passed the church, and followed a broad, winding path leading off into the forest. Easy beginning, I thought. Then I clambered  up a slippery slope, with mud and rocks overlain by a layer of greasy leaves making my going very difficult. This led to a rutted, boggy track that would have been hard passage even for a four-wheel drive. And then a minor road, up and up, and then a farm track, still climbing, and then a track along a ditch between two fields, neck-high on either side.

Suddenly I saw the Virgin beckoning me across the field to the right. Or was it a departed pilgrim? Or a scarecrow? Or last night's bed linen? But in the middle of nowhere? It remained an unsolved mystery.

An invention almost as old as the wheel is the door or gate. Once man began to live in a hut or put a fence around his beasts, he needed to be able to get in and out. The solution was a rectanglular frame, hinges and a lock. The principle hasn't changed in thousands of years. But the gate will continue to work only if the upright supports on either side remain firm and don't move under the weight of the gate or the settling of the ground. If that happens, the latch will not catch or the door will jam. I noticed an ingenious solution to this problem in the design of the gates I passed through today. The top hinge was fixed to a long bolt and a nut on the bolt could be adjusted to alter the slant of the gate to bring it closer to or further away from the latch. Clever!

I continued to climb up a long, blue-metalled, unsealed road that wound up and up a hill for ever. Finally, I arrived at the summit and came upon a man and two dogs. The man was friendly, and so was one of his dogs, but the other was skittish and darted at my calf as we parted. Didn't bite, just pushed.

This habit of dogs has passed into the language in the expression "nipped at the heels", as has their more aggressive behaviour of "going for the throat". I have had dogs nip at my heels on several occasions, but never have they gone for my throat or any other part of my body. I wondered whether their nipping at my heels was merely a warning to get me on my way without intending to harm, or what remained of an atavistic instinct to sever a tendon to bring down the prey.

The owner was most apologetic at his dog's "nipping" at my heels, and explained that he had recently rescued him from a shelter, knowing nothing of his previous treatment, and was having to work with him to accustom him to other people.

And then down, down, down, all along, out along, down along lee. Five kilometres short of my destination, the GR tried to take me up another hill. But I declined, and followed the road into town, there to find my place at the municipal gite. I'm very comfortable, but all alone again.

Day 30. April 23, 2015. Oloron-Sainte-Marie to l'Hopital-Saint-Blaise.23 kms

All is grist to the mill

Today was an easy day. I left my pack at the gite for I was returning tonight.

Walking is very much part of the English culture and this is reflected in the number of words we have in the language for walking. In the last four days I have ambled and rambled, strode, staggered and stumbled, and trudged, but today I strolled. Rain was threatening, so I kept out of the woods where the path might be slippery, and strolled along the flat roads. I relied on my Apple navigator, Siri.

On the bus from Oloron to l'Hopital-Saint-Blaise yesterday, I ran into Georges the Frenchman again. Henceforth, I shall call him Georges the Sniff for reasons that will soon be apparent. He was older than I thought and wiry. Whereas I had taken four days to get from Lourdes to Oloron, he had taken two. I think he was a good-hearted fellow, but he had two unfortunate habits.

The first was not uncommon. He rattled on and on, barely pausing for breath, sometimes asking a question only to get a response he could use as a spring board to talk more about himself. I didn't understand much of what he said - he spoke too fast in an difficult accent - but it didn't matter. He was quite able to carry on on a single-handed conversation.

His second habit was even less appealing. He was a sniffer, but his was not the innocent kind of runny-nose sniff which would cause the nuns to rap you on the knuckles and say, "Use your hankie." No, his was the Eppiglottal Sniff.

The running-nose sniff is the simple intake of air through the nose to prevent the snot from dropping onto your homework or your food. The Eppiglottal sniff is more complex. It seems to begin as an ordinary sniff but the liquid is stopped somehow by the eppiglottis and diverted down the throat into the mouth, thence to be expectorated. I suppose that it is the vibrating of the eppiglottis and its sudden stop that produces the sick-making sound that drives away your friends. I didn't take Physiology and Hygiene at school, so I'm merely speculating on how it works.

I was feeling pretty queasy anyway, and each sniff would make me sick to the stomach. They were unpredictable. Just when I thought he had cleared whatever was blocking his throat, he would begin again with varying tone and increasing volume, and end with a porcine snort. I would expect a goozie to issue forth, but he must have swallowed it and saved it for later. 

Halfway through the bus ride the rain stopped, and the wiper ran dry with a rasp on the windscreen. For a moment, I thought it was one of Georges's sniffs.

Have you ever noticed how similar are the words sniff, snort and snot? They are related, aren't they, and almost onomatopoeic?

We caught the bus back into town this morning and parted company. I felt better.

I bade farewell this morning to my trusty string-around-the-neck passport pouch. Almost 30 years ago, I was pickpocketed outside the Eglise Madeleine in Paris. I resolved to take more care of my important items and bought a little pouch with pockets for my passport and my credit cards. Over the years, the pouch became stained with sweat, and the knots at the end of the string where it passed through the eyelets were brown with rust. Every year I would pull on the string to test the knots, and they held firm. Finally, it was not the knots which failed, but the zip. So I had to replace the pouch, and walked a few extra kilometres around Oloron before finding a leisure store. The replacement is more practical than the original, but I doubt it will last as long. 

Happily, the store was on the west side of town, and the route proposed by my GPS corresponded to the GR. As I strolled along, I whiled away the miles by recalling on how many walks the old passport pouch had hung around my neck. Seven in Britain, six in France, one in Spain, and a few repetitions of favourite sections.

When I left the Office de Tourisme yesterday, I looked out for the German couple, hoping to have a farewell beer. They were slower than I (a first!), and had fallen behind. But I didn't see them. But this morning as I was following intricate directions to the leisure store (which had been recommended by the travel agency, which had been recommended by the bar where I had eaten breakfast), there they were in front of me. None of us should have been in that place at that time. We should all have been well on our way in our different directions. But there we were. We said good-bye and wished each other well. Those of you who have walked the Camino will know that this sort of thing happens all the time. Statisticians will remind us how many times we didn't meet someone in this way. 

Nothing is quite so peaceful as an old man and his dog. I was intending to stay with Siri and stick to the road, but when I reached the village of Mounour she told me that the Route de Bayonne was up ahead, and I thought it would be too busy. So I backtracked a little and followed the GR through a park. There they were ahead of me. The man was keeping to the path, and the little white dog was straining at the leash, pulling off to the right, and burying his head in the long grass. Now we have all seen this sight many times, but usually the master simply pulls on the leash and the dog gives up. Not this one! His nose buried in the ground, he refused to move. "Qui est le chef?" I asked. "He is," he replied. Recognizing my accent, he was delighted to tell me that his dog was English. "A West Ireland terrier," he said. "He goes after something in the ground and he won't give up.

He told me that the Route de Bayonne was not too busy after all, so I reversed my steps a second time, and followed the road again. At Geos, I broke my rule and drank a beer. I really do believe it settles a queasy stomach.

About a kilometre from l'Hopital-Saint-Blaise, I noticed a man working in his Garden at a house beside the road. When he saw me, he ran out and said, "Bienvenue au Pays-Basque." I thought I was already walking in Basque Country, but no, he said, it began right there. He told me that he spoke Basque better than French, and assured me that his language was alive and well. It was a nice welcome to the region.

The church at l'Hopital-Saint-Blaise  is a UNESCO heritage site. It is a beautiful eglise Romane with an octagonal tower. No wonder these churches are so much loved and often visited. There is something reassuring in their simple solidity. But this one was marred, in my opinion, by a later baroque altarpiece, which contrasted starkly with the austerity of the rest of the church. Here were those two extremes again: love and humility, and wealth and power. I am not the first person to wonder how the wealthy Church at times was able to reconcile itself to that beautiful Biblical verse:

Again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Interestingly, Pope Francis seems very aware of this text.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Day 29. April 22, 2015. Arudy to Oloron-Sainte-Marie. 27.5 kms

Small latin and less Greek

The accommodation at the Presbytery was by no means de luxe. My first choice of beds broke as I sat on it and the shower stall with its wild, swinging hose offered nowhere to hang my clothes. I showered inside, and dressed outside in the open air. But the water was hot.

Last night I ate with the German couple, Peter and Dorothy. They spoke some English and very little French, and conversation was difficult at times. I recognized that glazed look in Dorothy's eyes, as she nodded without understanding what I was saying. Perhaps I wasn't fooling anyone either. But we had one thing in common. Like Servais, they were choristers. We talked about the works we had sung, and sang an air from the Brahms Requiem. 

Peter confirmed something I had learned from a German student on the Chemin de Vezelay: that the teaching of Latin was thriving in Germany, and even a little Greek was taught as well. The Germans believed that this encouraged the development of critical thinking. Such enlightenment: much latin and a little Greek!

On the way out of town I encountered Puss-on-Roof, looking down disdainfully on a barking dog below. Since this is a slow news day, I include a photo for the amusement of cat lovers.

As we had come two or three kilometres off the path to get to the gite, we now had to make our way back along a very busy main road. At times, the dreaded nettles had advanced up to and even beyond the edge of the road so I had to tread very gingerly when the big trucks passed.

At times I had to settle
For the nettle or the metal
But fine was I in fettle
For this pescatorial kettle

No sooner had I composed this piece of joggerel or dibberish, than I noticed a sign directing me to the GR off to the left. I took it, even though I would have to walk four miles further. Before I left this morning, I had phoned the gite at Oloron, left a message, and was waiting for a response, but a young Frenchman, Georges, overtook me and told me that it was closed. Now, in the immortal words of that great musical group, the Bills,

I had nowhere to go and all day to get there.

It was a long haul today, not particularly difficult, but long, and ending with a long trudge along the river. Two things stand out in this mind-numbing, leg-weary, back-aching day. The wisteria. Never before have I seen it in such majestic display. And the sheep. At one village, they swept through like a dust cloud.

It took me back to the droving  days.

When I finally arrived at Oloron, the Office de Tourism gave me the option of a cheap hotel in town or a return bus ride to the gite at the next step on the chemin. I chose the latter. Since I would be spending a second night there, I could walk tomorrow, sans pack.

Day 28. April 21, 2015. Bruges to Arudy

An army marches on its stomach

You will encounter four kinds of breakfast at the gites, two acceptable, one tolerable, and one not fit for man or beast. The first is the kind that the French eat: fresh baguettes with butter and jam, and perhaps some yogurt and fruit. The second is the same, but with toast from yesterday's baguette. Very acceptable, especially when the toast keeps on coming as it did at at Jean-Louis's excellent gite in Lourdes. The third is based on yesterday's baguette, untoasted. This is institutional fare, which we were offered at the monastery. Good coffee will make it tolerable, and I noticed an inmate of the old folks' home housed in the monastery dipping his crust in his coffee for that reason. The fourth is simply unacceptable: chemically preserved sliced "bread" in a cellophane package, bought in bulk at an end-of-millennium sale in 1999 and dished out to pilgrims ever since. Disgusting! This was our offering at the studio in Bruges. Fortunately, the pub was open for breakfast.

For the true hospitalier, like Jean-Louis, it is a labour of love. He eats with his pilgrims and shares their stories, he offers an apperatif before the evening meal. He refills the flask of wine when it's empty. And he keeps the toast coming at breakfast. For others, it's a mean little business. (I'm reminded here of a certain food store in Victoria, but you'll have to search elsewhere on my website for that story).

It was truly a wondrous day. And a beauteous one. As I left town, a dove perched on a pole began his mournful cry, "Doo-doo, doot; doo-doo, doot." As I approached, he flew off, alighted on the next pole, and began again, Doo-doo, doot, doo-doo, doot." He was no nightingale, but I thought of my favourite poem. 

Adieu! adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill side; and now 'this buried deep
In the next valley glades...

The street became a lane and climbed steadily. And then, vista after vista opened up in front of me, lush, rolling green fields leading up to snow-capped mountains. The lane became a track, and then an uneven path across a ploughed field. To reach the field, I crossed a primitive bridge of the very earliest design, just a stone slab across a stream, and dating, I suspected, from the Middle Ages. The lavoir, wash house, was not so old. You may be able to make out the coquille Saint-Jacques on the tree.

Back on a road at the village of Mifraget, I sat on a stone bench in front of the church. I thought of my old friend David, "Sit ye doon," he would have said. I ventured inside, and down into a crypt. I was moved by a simple carving on a stone candle stand. Who was the subject? Who had carved him? What were the circumstances surrounding that moment in time?

I took off along a little lane to the right. I have noticed that since the monastery yesterday day the trail marking has greatly improved. I am told we have entered a new Departement which falls within the purview of  Les Amis de Saint-Jacques at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, who take their responsibility very seriously. Shiny bright red and white GR markings every few hundred yards and at every fork, along with yellow arrows and coquilles Saint-Jacques. Impossible to get lost, or so I thought.

As I approached the top of a rise, I heard a tintinabulation of bells, or rather a tinnytinabulation, a cracked metallic rattle of cow bells, but no, as I reached the top I saw a flock of sheep ahead of me, crossing the road under the guidance of their shepherd and their sheepdog. It was the dog doing all the work, with a bark or a look or perhaps a short run.

Yesterday, I came upon a row of sheep all lined up along the edge of the road, but not making a move to cross over. No wire was holding them back but there they stood there at the edge of a field. Why were they standing in a line without venturing across? Then I saw the sheepdog. He was lying down, not moving, just watching them. He would not let him cross over.

I was lost in these thoughts about the skills of the sheep dog when I heard a shout behind me, "Hey, Charles. You've missed the way." It was Servais who fortunately had caught up with me. He gestured towards a track which took off to the west.

That's how it happens. You miss a crucial sign to an obscure path. I would have kept on going along the lane and eventually noticed the absence of markers, and wondered, was it because I had missed my way, or was it because the way was so obvious that it didn't need markers? Servais had saved me from a painful detour.

I climbed up and up, gaining, I estimated, about 600 feet. This was no farmer's track, but a real hiking trail - good old rocks and dirt and mud. Today it was magnificent, but in the rain it would have been slippery misery.

I reached a road, and to one side, where the ground fell off sharply to the left, some idiots, in the manner of idiots everywhere, had decided that this private land made a convenient dumping ground for their refuse. The land owner was evidently not amused, and had left a graphic sign indicating their fate if he caught them. A man of action and few words!


Eventually, I could see Sainte Colome off in the distance. A very friendly farmer told me it was only a couple of kilometres, but at the top of the hill, the GR jaunted off to the right and down into the valley, giving up much of the height I had gained and adding a kilometre or two to my journey. Another time I might have abandoned the trail and continued along the road, but today, I didn't regret the detour, despite the gruelling climb up to the village.

Servais arrived as I was eating my lunch, and after a conversation about Flemish and Quebec separatists, I bade him farewell. He was going on to catch a bus and I was leaving the trail to find a gite in a neighbouring village.

For this, I found the GPS in my iPhone most useful. Siri was not daunted by finding herself in a foreign land, and in the manner of many an American (and other Anglophones, I hasten to add) made no effort to pronounce the street names correctly, her strident voice shattering the tranquillity of rural France. But what did I want, she said: correct pronunciation or accurate directions? I settled for the latter, and arrived safely at the Presbytery in the large village of Aruda, leaving the tranquillity of the countryside behind me.


Day 27. April 20, 2015. Betarram to Bruges. 15 kms.

Repent all ye who enter here

After a preamble in the baroque chapel, a scramble up a hill, a ramble along a ridge, and an amble down a country lane, I arrived in what should have been the sleepy little town of Bruges.

I stayed last night at the Accueil de Notre Dame, in a monastery which was formerly the mother house for an order of missionaries, all but three of whom had gone, and which now serves several other religious functions, including offering hospitality to pilgrims. It was yet another one of those huge institutional buildings scattered all over Europe which once housed a large religious community, but is now almost empty. Its religious importance is evident everywhere in the town, in churches and chapels, and the stations of the cross which stand along the stony path as it zigzags up the hill.

Before leaving the town I paid a quick visit to the baroque chapel, its walls lined with religious paintings and Latin texts warning sinners of the hell that awaited them, a religion of fear that older Catholics will remember, and very different from the spirit of yesterday's mass. It was the kind of richly ornate chapel that is common in Spain, a reminder perhaps that we were getting closer to the border. A religion based on fear needed powerful symbols of its superiority.

Leaving the chapel, I climbed the steep path with its imposing stone chapels housing the stations of the cross, carved in marble.These were perhaps 50-100 metres apart, and stretched almost a kilometre up the hill.

At last I was walking on the ridge, with the river valley to my right, and the snow-capped Pyrenees to my left. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and all was well.  it was glorious!  Eventually the path wound its way down into another valley, and for several kilometres I walked beside the River Ouzom. Along the way I encountered a shapely young lass, a Bosom on the Ouzom, as it were.

At noon I arrived at Asson, hoping for a bite to eat, but alas, it was Monday closing. I pressed on, walking easily along the country lanes, and arrived in Bruges before two o'clock, still in time for lunch. There were four bars around the town square. I ordered a beer and a salad at the one that was open.

Bruges should have been a sleepy little town. The town square could have been quite attractive. At the top was the Mairie and towards the bottom, the monument aux morts. Newly planted trees, and beyond them houses and shops, lined the other three sides. Typical, you say, but here's the rub: diagonally across the square ran the main road, along which rumbled trucks and tractors and lorries at thirty-second intervals. Short periods of tranquility were interrupted by noise and fumes.

I met up with Servais again. We are staying tonight in a second-floor studio, quite Spartan, but comfortable enough. We had a meal together, more pleasant for the conversation than the food. He had been a high ranking nuclear engineer, working, among his other responsibilities, on a UN committee advocating nuclear power for the sake of the environment. He deplored Angela Merkel's cancelling of Germany's nuclear program, which was being replaced by coal-fired power stations. He convinced me that the continuing pollution from Japan's recent disaster was minimal, conspiracy theories to the contrary. Could the power station have been built, I asked, to have withstood the tsunami? Of course, he said, and had the private company followed government recommendations, not requirements, it would have been. It was a failure of Capitalism. This was a typically European point of view, which recognizes the importance of a strong central government. We talked about the dangers of nuclear power getting into the wrong hands, and I was left with the thought that we are facing the possibility of either a quick end or a slow one.

We too in Canada have a government that doesn't believe in spending money on necessary regulations, but would rather give it back to the people in tax cuts as a bribe to be re-elected. To give a few examples, we have cut back on census-taking to the detriment of social planning, we have cut back on food inspection resulting in more salmonella outbreaks, we have cut back on coastguard services and increasied the risk of oil pollution and maritime disasters, and, of course, we have cut back on environmental protection to make it easy for the oil companies to exploit our resources. 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Day 26. April 19, 2015. Lourdes to Betarram. 18.5 kms

Let us make a joyful noise. 

I am continuing my walk from where I left off last year, along the Voie du Piedmont to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and even beyond. Yesterday morning I arrived in Paris. After two long flights with little sleep the night before, I was absolutely spent.

I sat down in front of a bar and ordered a double espresso. To my left was the Tour Saint-Jacques; to my right, Notre Dame. People were sitting in the sun by the Seine eating their lunch. How beautiful is Paris! Along with a host of others I took yet another photo of Notre Dame along the Seine from the Pont Saint-Michel. Sometimes you just have to keep snapping the same image in the vain hope that you'll capture its beauty.

I decided to walk to the Gare Montparnasse. Russet buildings stretched along busy boulevardes, and narrow streets led off to gardens and museums. Beggars asked for a sou, and petitioners demanded my signature. Joggers circled the gardens. London is history, but Paris is endless variety and charm.

After a long journey by train I arrived late at Accueil Pelerin la Ruch in Lourdes, where M. Doux had kindly kept a meal for me. We were five around the table: Jean-Louis Doux, the hospitalier; Rachel from Florida, his son's girlfriend; a Devout Dutchman and his wife; Servais the Belgian, who at 77 is even older than I am; and me. As we ate, singing floated across the river from a procession of religious pilgrims carrying their cross. This was Lourdes. There was serious business within as well. We sang a few rounds of "Ultreia", the other pilgrims' chorus, and discussed the next morning's mass.

I decided to join them, although going to mass at Lourdes was not high on my bucket list. I really belong in the Dawkins-Hitchens camp (but without their vitriol).

I have attended many masses along the Camino, from simple ecumenical ceremonies in Romanesque chapels to stultifying services in ornate churches, where elderly Spanish priests preached to a few withered souls. The most formal mass I have attended was not Catholic at all, but high Anglican, bells and smells, at Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria, where the priests walked in and out of little doors, bowing to each other, and following some obscure ritual of their own. They didn't need a congregation at all. I didn't know quite what to expect at Lourdes.

The mass was held in a huge concrete vault, which reminded me of an upside-down football stadium, but twice the size, built in the days where even the large parish church was not big enough to accommodate the faithful. 

On entering, I avoided the holy water, but my companion, the Devout Dutchman, smeared it on me anyway. He wouldn't accept that I was non-pratiquant: "You're doing a pilgrimage," he said. Later on I got another dose as the priests sprinkled it over the congregation.

There must have been between one and two thousand people in the vault, barely a half of its full capacity. There were various groups of course: a flock of priests in white, a procession or two of pilgrims from different parts of the world, including Toronto, the sick  in their wheelchairs and stretchers, and nuns scattered throughout the congregation. The rest were ordinary folk, mostly devout, I imagine, with a few curious observers like me.

During the service my thoughts wandered. I didn't say a prayer for them, but I thought of my religious friends around the world who would have found the service very meaningful. Like them, I lament the decline of Christianity. I want something not to believe in. I thought of how vulnerable we would have been in this concrete cavern were it situated in another part of the world where people of faith are the victims of bigotry and hatred. The insense made me think of the huge censer at Santiago, the whirling dervish of censers. Today there was only a modest amount of scent. We weren't smelly pilgrims in need of fumigation.

When the collection plate came around I noticed that it was designed with a narrow slot for notes, not for coins. But I didn't have a fiver and I wasn't going to put in a twenty, so I pulled out a handful of shrapnel and squeezed the coins in one by one. As they clanged, the collection lady glared at me, gesturing impatiently, worrying about missing out on more generous contributions. My dear wife, who likes to get rid of her small change when there's a queue behind her, would have been proud of me.

The service was warm and welcoming. No fervid adoration, or prone submission. Much signing of the cross, kneeling, and joyful singing with tasteful hallelujahs. An ambience of love and joy. The Devout Dutchman and the Servais the Belge were quite beside themselves. The latter, who has a fine tenor voice, had insisted on going up to join the choir, even though they told him he was too late, that he should have been at an earlier practice if he wanted to sing with them, but he refused to take no for an answer and sang with them anyway, and the Devout Dutchman's wife nudged me as he appeared on the huge screen. One of us was on television. The congregation all knew the songs, but not me, except for a grand old Protestant hymn which the Catholics must have stolen.

Truth to tell, I found the mass very moving, and I appreciated the warmth of my Christian friends. I will not see the Dutch couple again, but I will run into Servais, who is following my route for the next few days.

After a quick lunch, which revealed that to the merchants of Lourdes their Christian customers were victims to be exploited like any other tourists, I set out about one o'clock, walking along the river Gave towards Betarram. 

I was back in rural France. Dogs barked, birds sang, nettles stung, or they would have done if I'd not kept my wits about me. Donkeys brayed. One aimiable ass followed me along a fence, poking his nose over the barbed wire from time to time to be rubbed. On s'entends bien, l'ane et moi. I was temped to linger. He really loved me, that gentle animal, but I had to reach my gite.