Sunday, May 6, 2012

Le Puy Route again, this time with my husband John 2012 26.5.-10.6.

Pics in Picasaweb (Click here)

Hi! This is John - joining Gitti for this year's pilgrimage. Pictured here on our last walk together in the Czech Republic. (I'm the one on the right.)
I began professional life as a Social Anthropologist with appointments to the University of Otago in Dunedin and the University of the South Pacific in Suva. I then became an academic administrator, developing New Zealand's first Community College in Hawkes Bay, establishing a Faulty of Arts at the Auckland Institute of Technology and re-structuring the Fiji Institute of Technology. Since I "retired" I have been involved in the academic quality assurance of New Zealand Institutes of Technology and have worked as a consultant in higher education in Timor Leste, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Oman. I am currently developing funding and quality assurance systems for the Fiji Higher Education Commission and assisting with the planning of a polytechnic in Saudi Arabia. My side line is building pizza ovens.

Here we are in Le Puy en Velay.  My 3rd time. I love this place. It is market day, the weather glorious, not a cloud in the sky and the temperature in the 20's. We have bought  provisions for our first few days, sheep cheese, a delicious local bleue and the traditional saucisson seche, which keeps well outside the fridge. Strawberries and cherries are in season and so are a multitude of  vegetables, asparagus, white and green tiny mushrooms, courgettes and crisp cauliflowers in abundance. Vast ranges of organic meats and live chickens,  quail and rabbits. How we would love to cook up a storm!
We are staying in a charming bed and breakfast place in the heart of Le Puy, full of traditional antique furniture, with a sunny rambling garden out the back. It is run by a retired university professor, who is also a wood sculptor. We feel like we have been on holiday for ages already.
A good night's sleep was all we needed after the smoothest ever 39 hour journey with seamless transitions between planes and trains, even time for a delicious lunch of squid in orange and tomato sauce in the very same restaurant in St Etienne Chateaucreux I frequented with my friend Jenny in 2009. Last night we had a plate of Le Puy lentils with home made sausage after meeting some fellow pilgrims at the local pilgrim office over a glass of rose.
( I am struggling with the French keyboard, hence the somewhat stifled start to my blog, also there is a queue of people waiting to use the computer;)
Today after lunch we explored Le Puy, climbed to view the Chapelle St Roche d'Aighuile and in the evening had a very memorable meal at a tiny restaurant; called A la 5ieme Saison. The owner; a friend of our host, does the whole thing as a solo operator; he cooks and serves the meal and manages to stay calm, polite and charmant, conversing with guests and still managing to serve everything in a timely manner. The restaurant seats 16 and is no larger than our living room, without the dining room bit. It is decorated by the artist owner, who is not only a wonderful host, but also makes exquisite jewelry. Against a backdrop of saffran yellow walls, there is an eclectic selection of artifacts, original paintings, exquisite chandeliers and drooping bands of ivy. The menu consisted of seafood rillettes, made with tuna, salmon and tarragon, marinated anchovies and a crisp fresh salad of tomatoes and homegrown lettuces, followed by roasted loin of pork, aubergine gratinee and gnocci in a delicious light tomato sauce, followed by chocolate tarte, creme anglaise and a selection of local cheeses. Merlot to compliment and an aperitif on the house, called a Ponot, a term used for the inhabitants of Le Puy, Vervaine Syrup with a dry white wine.
We made friends with two pilgrims from Luxemburg, Nathalie and Olivier at the neighbouring table, who are spending a week on the route.

Le Puy en Velay to Montbonnet 16 km
Early start to attend the pilgrim's mass at the cathedral at 7 am. We met our friends from last night and the Canadians from Friday night. Altogether there were about 150 pilgrims setting off - when I left in 2009, there were about 18!
After a delicious breakfast I had a nasty surprise, my Italian walking poles would not expand and after a lot of twisting and maneuvering it became clear that they had corroded inside and become useless. Today being Sunday meant the shops were closed and since we were heading into the countryside, no chance of any outdoor stores for at least another 3 or 4 days. 
I did not fancy walking without a stick of some sort, as the terrain during the first few days is very steep in parts and I rely on the poles on the downhill in particular. We set off and I kept an eye out for a suitable branch or piece of wood that might do the trick. A km or so out of town we got talking with a local man, out on a Sunday morning stroll and I briefly mentioned my plight. We walked on and 10 minutes later a car stopped in front of us and here was the friendly local with 2 walking poles for me! They were 2nd hand, he apologised and after I insisted on paying him some money, we settled on 20 Euro. So here I am, equipped with a perfect set of nordic poles; Saved once again by the generosity of people along this way.
Today we enjoyed 17 km through verdant countryside bursting with springflowers and birdsong. Now we are installed in a brand new luxurious gite, sharing a mezzanine room with Corrinne and Veronique, who were fellow guests at Mme Dechaud's Bed and Breakfast last night. It is sunny and warmer than anticipated and so far we have avoided the rain. Fantastic dinner of fresh salad with tuna and tomatoes, Le Puy lentil salad and roast pork with buttery pasta, followed by a delicious selection of local cheeses and fresh fruit;
John is holding out well, so far so good!

Monbonnet to Monistrol d' Allier 15 km.
We set off just after 8 am, a coolish early summer morning, lush dewy meadows around us, the sound of the cuckoo and hypnotic scents of hawthorn, their bushes covered in dense white flowers. Banks of forget-me-nots and endless fields of Narcissus flowers, sweet and intoxicating. Broom and buttercups, their yellow colours almost surreal in intensity. A very enjoyable day with a fairly demanding bit of downhill into Monistrol d' Allier. 
I had booked into Gite La Tsabone, but unfortunately there had been a misunderstanding and they had our booking down for the previous week, so there was no place at the inn. A new gite had just opened and instead of a cramped bunkroom we had a room to ourselves in a fantastically restored building in the heart of the village. As usual things worked out...
We met up with some people from the night before and an Austrian woman Ernestine, who was on her way from Vienna to Santiago. She had had a rest day after getting into a lot of difficulty due to overexertion. She was in extreme pain all over her body and had had an experience of electrolyte imbalance, suffering from confusion and un-coordination, requiring re-hydration. She had made the mistake of trying to keep up with some young energetic men, who were walking up to 40 km per day and had not paid attention to her body. Still, not too late to learn her lesson.

Monistrol d'Allier to Saugues 13 km.
My birthday today! A cold foggy start to the day. Even my down jacket did not stop me from shivering. Our washing had not dried overnight. Brrr. Unseasonal for this time of year.
Most fortunately however we managed to avoid the afternoon rainfalls and have not as yet had to get our rain gear out of the pack.
A steep 2 hour climb out of town and eventually a gentle downhill into Saugues. More great countryside, paths surprisingly dry and not slippery considering the rainfall. We gained sufficient height to leave the fog slumbering below in the valley and gratefully soaked up the warm rays of the sun. 
As birthday treat John had announced my special day to the group at the gite in perfect French and for lunch we had Mousserons omelettes and Cassis Syrup. Mousserons are the delicate looking little mushrooms we had seen at the market a few days earlier, their subtle flavour and texture was a perfect combination with the light fluffy consistency of the omelette. We sat in the sun in an idyllic garden behind a historic stone cottage. What a treat. We stayed the night at Gite a la Ferme, where I had had a wonderful experience in 2009 with my friends Jenny and Brigitte. Again we were not disappointed by the energetic " Allez, Allez, Allez" owner Mme Martins. Homegrown veal stew for dinner and rennet for breakfast are her hallmark. We had a room with en suite to ourselves, very deluxe indeed. As a birthday treat we had aperitifs of Gentianes and Pernod after admiring the Saugues Chapel, restored in a spanish tradition, beautiful colours of turquiose and gold against a backdrop of rustically carved wooded benches and railings.

Saugues to just before Chanaleilles 11 km.
Not much of a walk you might say and it wasn't, but it is all part of a kind of systematic and scientific buildup to the eventual longer stages ahead. Sunny and warm at last.
We are spending the afternoon relaxing at a new gite, La Gite des 2 Pelerins, another gloriously restored old building; run by a couple who have themselves walked to Santiago and absolutely understand what a pilgrim needs. So there is a drying room for wet gear, comfortable seats, spacious shared rooms with comfortable beds, somewhere other than the kitchen sink for a change to wash your clothes and lots of outdoor tables and seating. A warm hospitality, extensive library and even films and movies about the pilgrimage. I asked for a glass of wine to have with our picnic lunch and out came a carafe of beautiful red wine, organic at the rate of 1 Euro! Unbelievable. Their computer is freely available, so finally I can catch up on mu email and blog. John has his iPad and iPhone and bought a French sim carte, but just to open up a couple of emails costs around 4 euro, so absolutely not worth doing unless you can connect into the someone's wi fi, which was the case here.
Just had a massive thunderstorm and hail, once again we were lucky to be safely installed, just the washing got a little wetter than when in started out.
Dinner was preceded by a singing lesson over an aperitif of rose mixed with a little grapefruit essence. Jean Louis played his guitar and he and Lucette taught us (2 German girls and a Swiss pilgrim) the Utreia song, which is sung all along the route. Lucette had prepared her signature dish of potato gratin made with roquefort, absolutely amazing. She did not have any as she put on 11 kg eating with her guests every night! Jean Louis asked for our pilgrim passports when the cheese was served, he individually hand drew their "stamp" to avoid eating the cheese as he was also complaining of "growing" in size. His drawings take 3 mins each and are dedicated to the essential equipment of the pilgrim, the backpack, the boots and the walking sticks. Jean Louis believes they have a soul of their own and need looking after and appreciation and a little rest once in a while. After dinner there was more singing and a series of spirit bottles were lined up according to strength and you had to sing the corresponding note do, re, mi etc to choose the one you wanted. I opted for "la", which was 30 percent proof, a Vervaine with a brandy base. A delicious little thimble full.
We had a great sleep, generous breakfast, were each given cake and bread for the road and sent off with a song from our wonderful hosts.

31. 5.
Chanaleilles to St Albans sur Limagnole 18 km
Great walking in lovely sunshine, not too strenuous. I had booked into gite Le Penote, which on arrival turned out to be a terribly depressing and dark little place and we decided to move on and find something more uplifting. Chambre d'Hotes Les Genets did the trick. Light and sunny, we had a double room with glorious views over surrounding countryside and run be a very welcoming older couple, who had walked to Santiago some years ago.
John took me out for my belated birthday dinner in the evening to Restaurant La Petite Maison, a very quaint Michelin affair, dinner to die for ( My grandmother used to say that food was the sexuality of old age and with food like this, she was probably right!) Champagne cocktail with Mirabelle liqueur, little bite size delicacies of various sorts, salmon mousse with croutons, carpaccio of crisp beetroot, trout fillet with hazelnut cream sauce on Julienne vegetables and for dessert Vervaine icecream, served with hazelnut whipped cream and a shot of Vervaine liqueur. My desert came complete with a happy birthday card and a lighted candle!
We seem to be walking in the footsteps of Donald Ellis, a New Zealand sheep farmer from Oamaru in his sixties. He walked the route in snow and ice in February 2011 and recently returned carrying vast numbers of New Zealand picture books to give to people along the route, who had hosted him and offered him kindness. This is the second time we have been shown one of his books and read his entries in guest books.

St Albans to Aumont Aubrac 16 km.
Another glorious day. Sunshine and wonderful countryside. The hillsides glowing in yellow broom. The sweet scent is so strong, it gives me a headache. The hay making has begun, and we realise how lucky we have been, seeing the meadows in full bloom, as the blade is about to strike, leaving behind short stubbles of green.
We arrived at Gite du Barry in good time. I stayed there last time with my friends Jenny and Brigitte and could not resist the charm and aligot for a second visit. Of course I am on a mission to show off all the best places to John too.
A lovely relaxed afternoon and in the evening a group of friends from Aix en Provence invited us to join their table. We first met over a picnic lunch on our first day and they offered us wine and home made pate and we shared our olives. Our paths kept crossing and we slept in the same gites on a couple of occasions.
John here: The meal included the famous aligot that Gitti had talked about on her last visit. What a unique way to combine potatoes and cheese, and what a dramatic performance as it is served! On this occasion Gitti was invited by Vincent to participate in the stretching process which was followed by the deft twist which brought the dish onto our plates (see pics).
One of the remarkable things for me on this journey is to experience the ease with which Gitti (actually here she's Brigitte pronounced à la francais) relates to our French companions. The group is often hanging on her words as she recounts stories of her various walks and provides them with information on the way ahead. Her planning of this journey has certainly contributed to my enjoyment.
Over dinner we found out why Saint Alban sur Limagnole, where we stayed last night has such a strange feel. Towering over the small town is a large institutional building, right near the castle. This building is in fact a psychiatric institution and has housed hundreds of patients considered to be severely mentally ill. The population has shrunk over the years with the move to community care; but some remain. There is a large meadow next to the cemetery and under this meadow countless former inmates a buried. No names, no gravestones, anonymous they were alive and anonymous they remain in their mass grave. The forgotten people. The only thing that marks the grave is a poem inscribed on a stone, I will copy it onto the blog later on. Bernadette the organiser of the group wrote it out for me, as we had missed significance of the meadow. It was not mentioned in the guidebooks. One of the women in the group was particularly moved by the experience, as her brother is mentally ill, but able to lead an almost normal life thanks to antipsychotic medication.

Aumont Aubrac to Nasbinals 26.2 km
Phew, a long day with lots of ups and downs, hot sun and more glorious open country across the plateau d' Aubrac. Stonewalls, Aubrac cattle, more and more wildflowers, we have never seen such variety.
We arrived in Nasbinals at 4 pm and after our usual routine went to bed at 8 pm, to tired to do anything else.
John and I are turning out to be the perfect walking companions so far. We have managed to walk without any ill effects so far, no blisters, pains, stiffness, the Waitakere walks with our cousins and friends must have paid off.
As far as routine goes, we have settled into a predictable, yet essential daily pattern. We usually set off around 8 am, after breakfast. After 2 hours of walking, sudden hunger pains demand a little break, time for a few almonds and a drink of water; occasionally one passes a place where one can stop for coffee. Soon after midday, depending on a suitable picnic spot, we have our lunch of bread, ham or sausage, tomato and a bit of cheese. About an hour or so before we reach our destination we stop again usually to have a piece of fruit to gather energy for the last bit of the hike. We keep a pretty even pace, which works really well.
On arrival, there is a pretty strict sequence of shower; laundry, shandy (for re-hydration purposes), in that order; as getting washing on the line as soon as possible is most important, when you wear the same gear every day. Shopping for provisions and planning the route for the next day, followed by socialising with other walkers or pilgrims and a little local sightseeing. Dinner is usually around 7 or 7.30 pm. We are positively starving by then. Normally everyone just goes to bed when dinner is over, which is usually around 9 or 9.30 pm.
Today is a rest day, perfectly planned; as it is pouring with rain and we are having a day for catching up with emails, blogging and going out for lunch. 
We had a nice lunch of roast lamb with a glass of mulled wine, as it was miserable and rainy. After lunch we went back to our room, where a woman pilgrim in her sixties had checked in. She lives in Strasbourg with her husband and she was having a meltdown kind of a day, in tears as she had been dealt with in a rude way at the local restaurant as she did not have a booking. We invited her to share dinner with us, we prepared plates of salad, fruit and cheese followed by swiss chocolate. Her spirits noticeable seemed to lift.
The pollen finally got to me and I have had a touch of hay fever and totally lost my voice, still seeing all the flowers in bloom was worth it.

Nasbinals to St Chely d'Aubrac 16.5 km
The rain has gone, but when we set off this morning in shirts and shorts, hardy kiwi style, there was an icy wind blowing across the plateau. The ambient temperature around 6 degrees C, dropped to about 2 to 4 due to the wind-chill. We practically flew up the hill, not noticing the climb as we were too preoccupied with runny eyes and noses and shivering limbs. We had long underpants in our packs and down jackets, but somehow could not be bothered stopping to put them on, We gained 200 metres in altitude and then lost 550 metres over a stony and steep descent. A lovely hot shower and lunch later, we feel fantastic, the discomfort of this morning forgotten. We met our first English speaking walkers today, a couple from Australia, originally Kiwis. They were the only people out in shorts today too.
Tonight we are staying in La Tour du Chapelains, a 15 th century tower, where we share a room with five others on the very top, with views over the ancient slate roofs of St Chely.
Rabbit stew for dinner, yum.

5.6. St Chely d'Aubrac to Espalion 20 km.
Today I met my first Camino de Santiago Forum member on this route, Alfredo from Spain who was en route from Le Puy to Conques with his friend Antonio. Antonio has a rather interesting connection with New Zealand, more on this from John. 
John here: Antonio told us that in the 19th Century his grandfather had been the doctor on a Spanish officer training ship that sailed round the world. When they stopped in New Zealand he was so impressed by the residence of the Catholic Bishop (presumably Pompallier?) that he made a sketch of the house. Later when he returned to Spain he built a replica in San Sebastion and Antonio lives in this house today.
Good walk, quite hot at times and quite a steep descent once again which led down to the Lot Valley. We had booked into Le Halte St Jacques, a new gite and when we got there we were horrified. It looked nothing like the internet site and on my travels this must be one of the worst places I have come across. Austere, tiny and cramped, totally unwelcoming, there was nobody there at all. No communal spaces whatsoever, no decor of any kind, prison like and sunless and it felt kind of grubby. We fled immediately! Unfortunately the gite communal, which was very nice was full and the only other option was 600 metres out of town back in the direction we had come from. We did not mind, got some provisions and a bottle of wine and ended up in a quirky little gite with built in beds made from rough sawn timber, with little curtains for privacy and warmth. Mme Reynard ( Fox), was a very warm and welcoming host and her house was decorated with foxy things including several stuffed foxes. Mme herself with her red hair and pretty, yet pointy face and a lean body, had a kind of a fox like appearance. She made the thinnest crepes I have ever had for breakfast.
We met 2 lovely Czech women, Olga and Slatva, niece and aunt that night and they were delighted when we shared our enthusiasm for the Czech Republic with them.

Espalion to Fonteilles 20 km.
Today was a killer, boiling hot and when we got into Estaing for lunch all the picnic spots by the river in the shade had been taken by the " happy wanderers" as John calls them. They are the seemingly endless number of people on the trail, in front of you, behind you, who tend to walk in groups, have their luggage transported by a variety of transport providers, get picnics supplied by cars who meet them at picnic spots, book out all the gites communals months ahead, so if there are only one or two of you walking, perhaps with the intention of being spontaneous and stopping for the night when the spirit moves you, tough bikkies, there ain't no places left.
I met a young German man Franz yesterday and he was quite grumpy about the accommodation scene this side of Le Puy. He walks 30 to 40 km per day and set off from Bonn to walk all the way to Santiago and is finding the lack of available beds quite problematic.
Anyway we ate our lunch on a seat in the burning hot sun, the Rocamadour goat cheese had turned into a fondue like substance in my container and we scooped up the strong smelling goo with our baguette.
Then we continued up to Fonteilles. Last time I walked this stretch, my cousins Max and Fran had just joined my friend Jenny and I after walking the Haute Route in Switzerland and we chatted excitedly all the way, so I did not notice the hard 8 km climb which gained over 300 metres in elevation. Every time we reached a curve and thought we had got to the top there was more relentless uphill to come. Eventually we were rewarded with a lovely room under the eaves of an old farmhouse and a fabulous dinner of olives and muscat wine followed by nettle soup, pommes Anna, wild mushrooms and pork chops braised with peppers and lots of garlic. At least 15 varieties of local cheeses and fruit salad to follow. Liberal quantities of the local rose and red wine, herb tea made from a flower which only grows in the Aubrac region and finally a digestif!
The company was great and our Czech friends had followed our advice and booked into the same place rather than staying over in Estaing.

Fonteilles to Senergues 20 km.
Today was a doddle really, not so steep and we reached our destination at 2 pm. Lovely gentle landscapes through patches of wood and little quaint villages.
We just missed the rain and thunderstorm which hit in the afternoon. Lots of people arrived drenched to the bone.  So far we have not as yet had to get our ponchos out, but there is rain forecast for Sunday and we don't think we will escape it this time. 
The gite Domaine de Senos was still as nice as I remembered it from 2009. We had a room to ourselves with superb views and ensuite.

Senergues to Conques 9 km.
Easy peasy, bit steep coming down into town, but not hard. After huge deluges of rain overnight the path was nice and soft underfoot without being flooded. Tonight we are staying in a little bed and breakfast place called Lou Perou. It is at the bottom of Conques and is run by a wonderful English couple Sally and Chris. Sally is an artist and I think Chris specialises in natural therapies, Reiki etc. Olga and Slatva are here too. Olga is in 7th heaven here, as her husband is an artist and they have a house a bit like this near Karlsbad in the Czech Republic. She hit it off with Sally straight away in spite of the language barrier. 
The little house is on the market as Sally's daughter in England is expecting a baby and Sally and Chris want to move closer to their families. If you have 150 000 Euros to spend this is a lovely place. Very quaint indeed in one of France's most beautiful villages. We will have dinner with the hosts tonight, the smells from the kitchen are delicious already and it is only 3 pm. There is an organ concert in the abbey tonight.
Tomorrow comes the big fat climb out of Conques and we are debating whether to take the easy option up the road or the real path which is a clamber up some rather large rocks which takes about 2 hours or so, followed by 18 km of road walking, more or less....

Conques to St Roch 20 km
The climb out of Conques was nowhere near as challenging as I remembered, but the rest of the route, avoiding Noilhac and Decazeville was a bore. Roadwalking all the way and not a single bar or shop. All we had was a little dry sausage, we had decided against walking back up into Conques before setting off to get supplies. We were starving by the time we got to St Roch, which is just a tiny hamlet. We had booked into the Gite Sentinelle, a private house, where you leave a donation in turn for a bed and dinner and breakfast. The host Brigitte was out at a conference and there was a note inviting people to " installez vous". The door was open, as seems to be the custom around here. Brigitte arrived around 6 pm and the 5 of us who stayed with her jointly prepared a meal of quinoa, julienne carrots, fried courgettes, fresh cheese with garlic and herbs served with croutons. Brigitte had made a delicious vegetable quiche and a chocolate and walnut tart. John and I were given the task of cracking more walnuts and collecting edible herbs and flowers for the salad. We did well on the herbs, but not so well on the flower choice...Literally all ingredients for the meal were sourced from close by, mainly neighbours or came from Brigitte's garden. Over dinner there was a very lively discussion focussed on theology, in particular cahtolocism and the role of prayer in society. Brigitte is a very committed christian, John and I stayed rather quiet, partly due to our lack of french and of course lack of religious commitment.

St Roch to Felzins 20 km.
We stopped for a coffee in Livinhac le Haut after the first 30 mins of downhill, just because it was there. We stumbled across a new gite, that had just opened, run by a lovely italian man called Andre and his partner, who is basque and works in Spain. They bought an old house in the centre of Livinhac after meeting each other on the Camino in Spain and a running on the donativo principle, people give what they can. The place has only been open for 4 weeks and they will see how things unfold. They call it " La Vita est Bella". You can check them out on Facebook.
It rained the rest of the day, bloody miserable and cold and we were freezing and drenched by the time we reached Felzins. The path was muddy and flooded in parts and our shoes were wet inside and out. John's Altus rain poncho/coat, supposedly the same as mine is a disaster. At first we thought it was wet on the inside from condensation, but it seems that it is not all that rainproof, it was dripping inside and clinging to his body and legs, very uncomfortable. Mine stayed pretty dry. The material feels a little different, very strange, both are marketed as the Altus and were bought from Spain.
After all the discomforts of the day we had a treat in store though, Gite Le Pentadou, a beautifully restored old farmhouse in an amphitheatre like setting, stunning gardens and spaces and a wonderful meal with the hosts Anou and Laurent of broad bean salad, smoked duck breast and toulouse sausage with ratatouille, followed by cheeses and rice pudding. The aperitif was a local white wine mixed with elderberry flower syrup. Rather delicious.
Slavka and Olga were staying there too, they gladly accepted my route and accommodation suggestions and will stay at the same places as us for the next few nights until they head back home from Cahors.
Olga is needed at home as her artist husband solely focusses on his art work and she does everything else. They live a self sufficiency type lifestyle and Olga is busy all day keeping the place running, including getting wood from the forest. The grass has grown to knee height since she has been away and it will continue to grow until she gets home.