Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Le Puy Route 2012 7.7-10.7

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Aroue to Ostabat 23 km

Dinner at the local basque restaurant after a visit to one of the 3 remaining churches with a
3 pointed clock tower. A great piperade with roast porc and one of the best ice creams we have had.
The walk today was lovely, quite hot in the sun though. We stopped for lunch at L'escargot restaurant on the way. It is a charming place on the trail which also accommodates pilgrims on a donativo basis. We shared a piperade and a piece of gateau basque along with a panache. The heat and lunch made us very sleepy and we nodded off in our chairs. After an hour or so it was time to move on, oh dear, our legs felt like lead and our feet were
sore, a big lunch in the middle of the day had not been a good idea. We bumped into Jean Christophe, hobbling along, new shoes, feet covered in plasters, insect (?bedbug) bites...not a high point walk for him.
We got into Ostabat around 2.30 pm and I was very grateful to have booked into the new Gite Aire Ona next to the church. A superbly restored Louis 15 building with thick walls, we had a double room with balcony window looking out at the church, exquisite bathrooms, fully equipped modern kitchen and wonderful garden with loungers! Very rare luxury! I had recommended the Gite to 5 other pilgrims and the owner was very grateful. The place only opened a month ago and does not feature in any of the guidebooks. It is a welcome alternative to the grotty Hospitalia albergue and Gaineko Extea, a very large Gite 1 km further on with the singing basque who seems a little too fond of the ladies.
We cooked a simple dinner with Francine and Karl, a couple we have been meeting for the last few days and stayed in the same Gite with. They are in their 60 's, he from Quebec, she from Troyes, they met on the trail, a little camino romance.

Ostabat to St Jean Pied de Port 23 km

Really approaching the end now, last day before we hit the Pyrenees. We stepped it out, overcast sky. There was nowhere really to sit and have a break today, so we walked the 5 or so hours non stop. Not a good idea and as "camp leader" as John calls me I felt I had let the team down, as John's right leg started to complain by the end of the walk, not a good thing as tomorrow we start the big climb across the mountains.
John here: We discovered today that the high concrete walls to be seen in every Basque village (see pic) were for pelotte their national sport. A bit like squash with wooden bats, no side walls and an endless court.
Fortunately the owner of the very lovely Gite Azkorria specialises in magnetism and successfully treated John' s ailment in spite of his scepticism. We had a double bedroom with ensuite and lovely views out into the Rue de Citadelle, which the pilgrims walk through on their way. Dinner at the Gite was also superb, the host is the son of the owner of the Hotel and Restaurant Ramuncho and sure knows how to cook. A variation on piperade, followed by calamari in a delicious sauce, pork roast slices in a dark mushroom sauce, rice and apricot cake after slices of aged brebis cheese.
We had a farewell drink with Francine and Karl, Jean Christophe turned up also and we bumped into a Dutch woman we had met on the trail a few days earlier.
Jean Christophe was going on to Santiago, for the others this was the end of the walk. I sensed a sadness in Francine and Karl, Marie, the Dutch woman finished her walk on a high, already planning her continuation next year to Santiago.

St Jean Pied de Port to Orrison 8 km

We left around 9 am to start the climb up to Orrison. Over the 8 km you gain 700 metres in elevation. It took us just under 3 hours and it really wasn't hard.
Unfortunately the weather was not great, misty, slightly drizzly and by the time we got to our destination we were surrounded by cloud cover. No views!
We passed a rather overweight German man in his 30's with a huge pack. He was huffing and puffing and drenched in sweat. " I am not really sporty" he said.
We reached Albergue Orrison before lunch. A bit like a ski hut on the mountain. It was cold and damp, no comfortable seats, no heaters, no fire. The bunk rooms had a bit of a toilety smell and the showers were lukewarm. I wore every layer I had and drank 2 hot chocolates in an attempt to get warm. It wasn't until dinner that I finally warmed up again. The afternoon dragged on, we could have walked further, but the next place to stay would have been 19 km away over the mountain top, too far in one day.
For a few minutes the clouds lifted and we could see far into the valley and surrounding mountains.
The German man we met earlier stopped for a drink, he had already changed his sweaty clothes and decided to walk on, brave or foolish?
We had dinner at 6.30. The gite was full and there were 20 of us at the table. Mainly people who were starting on the Camino Frances to Santiago.
An Italian woman biker was complaining as her bike had been dropped off the plane and she was not able to replace the broken part, so a makeshift repair job had to do for now. Getting to a bikeshop in Pamplona would be almost impossible as the "Running of the Bulls" is taking place this week.
We shared our bunk room with 2 nice German women and 2 sisters from Manchester, who had just graduated from university.


Orrison to Roncesvalles 19 km

We left before 8 am after a surprisingly good night's sleep. I had the top bunk, always a challenge!
Another 650 metres or so of height to gain, but over a longer distance, so it was less steep, followed by 500 metres drop into Roncesvalles, which was the hardest part of the whole walk.
We walked the entire time in the clouds, visibility 20 metres or less. Herds of horses and flocks of black sheep barely visible through the mist.
We did not see anything of the superb views, even missed the Virgin of the Sheperds statue and the border stone between France and Spain. It was cold and rained some of the time. We got a feel of the drama of the landscape, rocks, stunted oak forests, beech forests and finally close to Roncesvalles a forest of huge ancient deciduous trees.
We enjoyed the mystic feel of the walk in spite of the unfortunate conditions.
There were quite a few people on the trail and we kept on overtaking each other.
I talked with a young German guy from Stuttgart for a while. His name was Markus and he had walked to Santiago last year. He was walking again this year " to work some stuff out."
He had met a woman by the name of Kate from New Zealand at the Abbey in Roncesvalles on 30 June last year, really liked her, thought he would come across her again, but never saw her again on the trail. He regretted that his shyness had held him back from approaching her. Over the last year he has made several unsuccessful attempts to find her. I gave him the website for the Camino de Santiago Forum, which would be the most likely lead, who knows...
We sailed across the mountain and arrived in Roncesvalles before 1 pm, no stops on the way. We had made the 820 ish km over 41 walking days without any major problems or difficulties. Everything had gone smoothly really.
We got our last pilgrim passport stamps from the abbey in Roncesvalles and treated ourselves to the pilgrim menu lunch before hopping on the bus back down to St Jean Pied de Port. It was still rainy and an icy wind was blowing. We bumped into the 2 English girls we had shared the bunk room with last night and I gave them my walking sticks, as they regretted setting off without.
The bus went through the valley of Valcarlos, spectacular cliffs and forest landscapes became visible as we got below the cloud.
Back in SJPP, we checked back into Azkorria, warmed up under a hot shower and settled on an early night after a picnic dinner in the back garden.
Tomorrow we take the 6.35 train to Paris where we stay for 4 nights, Saturday being "Bastille Day".
It is all over now, strange feeling. When I went into town after my shower to get some dinner provisions I saw people arriving off the train, full of enthusiasm and anticipation, pale skinned, shiny new boots and packs. I am sure they took me for a tourist, my pilgrim identity gone, I felt momentary pangs of regret that I was not continuing on to Santiago.
What do you reckon John?

John here: What a great experience - but I'm not sure I'd be on for Santiago. Thank you camp leader for all the organisation and taking responsibility for our day to day needs - it really was a smooth trip thanks to you.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Le Puy Route 2012 3.7-6.7

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Arzacq to Pomps 22 km

Another hot day, but we managed to reach our destination by 2 pm which was good going. Many lovely rest places to stop with lovely undulating countryside and spectacular views of the Pyrenees at last.
Dinner at the Gite communal was great last night, I had had pangs of regret about passing the opportunity to eat out at cafe Sports, where the "Roy du Garbure" serves up a reputable feast. As it turned out the dinner at the Gite in the garden under massive shady trees was superb. Once again Confit du Canard, crispy and succulent and good company. The other 6 people at the table were serious pilgrims in for the long haul. The group included a father "Eli" and his son "Baptiste". They had only once before met people from New Zealand on the trail and that was in 2009, August 22, 2 women at the 7 am mass in the cathedral in Le Puy en Velay. Well guess what? The 2 women were no others than Jenny and myself! Fancy that. I recognised the 2 and remembered that I had been touched by father and son taking off together to help deepen their conflict relationship at the time. Baptiste is now a medical student, he was still at school in 2009 and things are better between father and son. What an amazing encounter! They continue to walk the St James route together in stages.
Tonight we are staying in the gite communal in Pomps. Very basic, part of a sport complex, but the shower is good and it is cheap at 24 euro per person demipension.
There are other people here who are en route to Santiago. Finally we are meeting more of the kind of folk I have met in the past. The tourist walkers seem to have gone, this bit is not for them. Fine by us, it is very real, little towns with everyday lives taking place scattered amongst rural French countryside.

Pomps to Cambarrat 16 km

Nice little walk today and the Gite Cambarrat, set in huge glorious grounds in the middle of a forest is one of my favourites. Isabelle and Nicholas have created an artistic haven out of an ancient farmhouse. They put us up in their 2 bedroom converted and very elegant barn after a very warm welcome. They remembered me from my previous visit. Dinner was followed by a very competent banjo recital by our host - his repertoire included both classical and bluegrass. We explored their gypsy caravans and admired the vibrant Basque colours used by Isabelle in her decorations.

Cambarrat to Navarrenx 24 km

It rained during the night and we set off in a drizzle. Unfortunately the predictions for sun were wrong and by 10 am the rain had settled in right and proper. The terrain was pretty up and down, 4 biggish hills to climb and descend from.
Fortunately a series of international encounters gave us a bit of a lift on what would otherwise have been a miserable kind of a day.
We were walking along deep in thought, suddenly a voice behind us " you are not wearing black, John and Brigitte from New Zealand", a biking couple from Napier had caught up with us. They are on an extended holiday in Europe and have already cycled 2000 km from Holland and presently en route to Santiago. Of course they knew John from his Hawkes Bay Community College days and they had already heard about me at Ferme du Barry in the Aubrac, where the owner described me as a "real character" whatever that means...
A few moments later we bumped into an Australian woman walking towards us, who had just finished the Arles route and was walking back to Moissac along the Le Puy route. Over coffee at the Abbaye of Sauvelade we got talking to a Swiss guy who had set off from Zurich after we left Le Puy and at 60 km per day was overtaking us. He looked totally fit and well, no ill effects and was pretty clean and tidy considering he sleeps outside under a tarpaulin most nights. He and the NZ cyclists are advancing at the same speed!
We were glad to arrive in Navarrenx, wet and cold. After our showers we resorted to merinos and down jackets once again.
We attended the little ceremony for pilgrims at the church, which was a light affair under a dark blue vaulted ceiling decorated with lots of little golden stars depicting the milky way.
Wine at the presbytery to follow.
I was glad I had booked us into really good lodgings, at Relais Le Jacquet where the owner Regis attended to all our needs and cooked a superb meal of courgette soup, salmon with ratatouille, rice, salad, crunchy bread, sheep cheese and fruit tarts.
Breakfast with fresh croissants, warm baguette, homemade confitures, yoghurt and grapefruit juice set us up for another day of walking. Our washing had been done in the machine and dried.


Navarrenx to Aroue 18 km

Reluctantly the sun came out, warm temperature and a very pretty walk through hilly country with glimpses of the Pyrenees through the clouds, golden fields of sunflowers in full bloom, pastures and woodlands.
By 2 pm we had checked into our Gite, Bellevue, where I had stayed in 2009. A big rambling kind of a house in a huge garden with great views as the name suggests. The sun has gone again and thunderstorms are on the menu for tomorrow.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Le Puy Route 2012 27.6-2.7

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27.6 Larressingle to Lamothe

We got up at 5.30, no hangover as Alain had guaranteed, and knocked off the first 12 km in 2.5 hours, not bad going. (John's calf muscle is getting back to normal.)
Did not see anyone on the trail today, how nice. By lunchtime we reached our destination at Gite Le Repos du Pelerin, run by Fritz, a German man, where I had stayed in 2009. He still cooks the same dish every night, of which he has the leftovers for lunch! So much for a varied diet.
Later in the afternoon a group of 6 arrived. By then the temperature in the shade had gone up to 38 degrees, well into the 40's in the sun. It was impossible to get comfortable inside or out and we had sweat streaming off our bodies during dinner. The night was hot too, a short lived storm crossed over in the early hours of the morning, it came and went, no rain and did not affect the temperature at all. It was still hot in the morning.

Lamothe to Le Haget 22 km
Fritz had prepared his famous breakfast of Bircher muesli and home baked whole grain bread before 6 am, so we could get off before the heat struck.
We left around 6. 45 am and stopped in Eauze, a quaint busy little town, the capital of the Armagnac country, to have coffee. The weekly market was in full swing, huge and we could not resist the olives in salted lemons, sheep cheese and delicious apricots for our lunch boxes.
We stayed a little longer than intended, but still made it to Le Haget, a farm, with converted stables for accommodation. The place is really geared for equestrians. They have 40 horses in the paddocks. I had stayed there in 2009 after walking through a whole day of pouring rain and thunderstorm.
The dog, who is now 10 years old still likes to play fetch, tirelessly. Covered in tics, blind in one eye now, he still keeps on. If you ignore the bits of stick or rubber balls he puts in front of you, he taps you and if after 3 taps you still ignore him, he moves on to the next person.
Marcus, a Swiss man, who had stayed at Fritz's last night turned up, hot and bothered and ended up sharing our room.
The temp was down to 33 degrees in the shade by about 5 pm and dropped further over night after a little rain.
We had dinner under the barn roof. Not one of the better meals I must say, although the salad was good and there was an Armagnac aperitif and plenty of wine. The owners ate separately from us, Marcus had told them that he was vegetarian and did not eat meat, so he ended up with no meat, but no alternative either, for him it was just chips for dinner, we had leathery chops to go with them.
Anyway we had a good rest and a better sleep due to the lower temperature.
John here: I rather liked this place as it was obviously a functioning farm. Dinner was late because the priority was getting hay bails under shelter before the rain hit and the children had to be picked up. We had to fit in with the real work of the day.

29.6. Le Haget to Dubarry 22 km

Coolish and no sun, nice walking through woods and fields.
Coffee in Nogaro. Suddenly we feel close to Spain, the first bullfight arenas and farms where bulls are bred for the bullfights.
We stocked up for provisions and I had a hissy fit in the bank, where after visiting 2 banks in town and waiting in a queue for at least 20 minutes, they would not change a 200 euro note. You have to have an account, pay the money in and then they give it to you in different denominations. I couldn't believe it. So last century. I said so as I huffed out of the place and by now I am sure all of Nogaro knows we are running around the countryside with 200 euro notes.
The other day a woman in the tabac shop would not accept my 50 euro note as it did not have a stripe down the side, it had some other symbol. The notes came from our bank in New Zealand and must be genuine as other people have accepted them without question.
What a hassle.
I managed to calm down after an hour or so of visions of being robbed at knife point by the local yobbos and we arrived at Gite Dubarry around 3 pm after 7 hours on the trail.
Weirdly slow today with John's leg giving him trouble again.
Veronique and Phillipe welcomed us warmly, we are the only guests tonight.
They told us that a group of Australians had stayed recently, who had read my blog and hence decided to book in. Something like " Bouche á Oreille"...which translates into word of mouth.
We had a lovely dinner with our hosts, prawn head bisque, followed by lasagne and a fresh garden salad decorated with grated beet root, followed by a millefuille based strawberry tart on a vanilla pudding base. The berries were fresh from mother's garden. John here: We had our first taste of the local wine which was new for us - based on tannat grapes - a rich red and strong tannins. Our host's friend who made the wine has preserved 29 varieties of grapes, 9 of which are the only specimens in France.
John and I decided today that 4 weeks of walking is ideal, one gets a range of experiences and a decent workout, after that it all turns into a blur and an exercise in " getting there".
We have been walking for nearly 5 weeks now and have another 11 days to go.
John's leg is packing it in intermittently and yesterday afternoon I confess to feeling a bit over it myself, the bank thing today really got under my skin big time.

30.6 Dubarry to Aire-sur-l'Adour 14 km

We were given breakfast with a candle mounted in an apricot as it is our wedding anniversary today.
We got to Aire just after 11 after a short walk on the flat. It was Saturday and the market was in full swing and the little town heaving.. John got a haircut to make himself look respectable for the day. We checked into Hospitalet St Jacques, where Andre and Odile hosted us. I had stayed there in 2009 and the place is still strongly adhering to it's philosophy of being a pilgrim's hostel only. They accept reservations only within 48 hours of arrival, only take walking pilgrims, who carry their own packs, no groups with car support and no groups over 4 people. Andre and Odile express disappointment about the fact that the "way" has become somewhat touristy over the last few years. They are also very disapproving of the crossing of the Pyrenees via the Route Napoleon a route which takes you over the top to the mountain conveniently via Auberge Orisson, who's owner has 2 other gites which link up with each other. The traditional route was via Valcarlos, at a lower level, much less dangerous. People have perished on the Route Napoleon in bad weather (as did the young man in the film " The Way"). However we are still planning to take the "high route", weather permitting.
I cooked a simple meal at the Gite from market produce and we had a bit of a bad night's sleep, a German woman in our room rustled endlessly with plastic bags and the French guy snored on and off. Some locals decided to race their cars up the road and threw an empty whiskey bottle into the street. The German woman got up at 5.30 to get an early start, much pacing and rustling later she left the room and when we went down for breakfast she was still there an hour later, talking to the host!
Sometimes I am astonished at my level of intolerance.

1.7. Air sur L' Adour to Marsan 22 km

Easy peasy walking, we passed the yobbos on the way out, they had parked cars and vans behind a hedge and were wandering around in an out of it and drunken state, I was pleased to walk past without them taking much notice of us to be honest.
Quite cool today and a few specs of rain first thing. We picnicked at Miramont next to the church and then 3 km later checked into well deserved luxury. We had an entire 3 bedroom house next to a farm complete with kitchen, laundry, TV, couch and terraces to ourselves. The farm shop sold ready made bottled meals of duck with haricot beans, pâtés, bread, cheese, fruit and wine, so we had our anniversary dinner in style. The bill for the accommodation, dinner, wine and breakfast was 65 euros for 2. Unbelievably good value.
This region is altogether noticeably cheaper than anything up to Moissac. We used to have to pay 1.50 euros for a coffee and here it is 1 euro.

2.7. Marsan to Arzacq Arrazeguiet 14 km

Our low point from a couple of days ago has passed and we no longer have this overwhelming feeling of wanting to get the walking over with. We really enjoyed our walk today, lovely undulating wooded countryside and a delightful village, Pimbo, on the way. The very helpful woman at the tiny tourist office let us use her computer and I got all my emails and banking done.
By lunchtime we arrived in Arzacq and checked into a little pavilion at the Gite communal after a lunch of a fresh warm crusty baguette with locally produced liver pate and a cheese made from raw sheep milk, followed by sweet and juicy apricots. We had a little wine left over from last night to go with it.
I am now sitting in the garden typing my blog. John has offered to do the washing, so I might take him up on this. After the luxury of a washing machine and dryer yesterday, there is not much to be done, as the short walk did not really get a sweat up.

John Harré
46 Kiwi Road
Point Chevalier
Auckland 1022
Phone: +64 9 8497805
Mobile: +64 21 02672606