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.