Friday 18 December 2020

The Le Puy Route - Part 10

 The End in Sight - Arzacq-Arraziguet to SJPdP


Day 10: Arzacq Arraziguet to Arthez-de-Bearn – 20.00 miles


We are now clocking up some quite long days on a regular basis, with today's jaunt between Arzacq-Arraziguet and Arthez-de-Bearn being a case in point.

After the culinary heights of the previous evening and a scrumptious breakfast, rest for our weary bodies and salve for our sore feet, we were suitably fortified and fuelled for the day ahead. Passing through the two town squares, we picked up some lunchtime victuals and headed out into the countryside, following quiet lanes and tracks between the tall corn cob crop once again.

Despite progressing at right-angles to the grain of the land, the countryside we had traversed over the past few days was not dramatic, rather it was quietly rural and charming in a low-key way. With villages few and far between and towns significant distances apart, highlights such as they were – a beautiful mill at Louvigny, the stained glass of a small modern church - were infrequent.

But this was set to change. Today the ground became more noticeably hilly, and the Pyrenees now appeared as more than just a grey smudge on the skyline, with individual peaks becoming clearly visible.

We took several short rest stops for food and drink before taking a decent break at the alimentation in Pomps, where we bought drinks, fruit and emergency supplies from a quaint shop that was much larger than its modest frontage belied.

The afternoon seemed endless, but eventually Arthez-de-Bearn could be seen on the ridge ahead of us. A circuitous route finally brought us to the edge of the village, only to discover that it was one of the longest villages in France. And, of course, our lodgings were at the far end!


The effort was worth it though, as we were to spend the night at the wonderful 400-year-old house of La Carrere. We had thought the previous night’s accommodation would be hard to beat, but although very different in character our night at La Carrere was every bit as wonderful. Lovingly renovated and decorated in period style, Mike and Fritz were determined to bring the house back to its former glory. We had a delicious dinner in the baronial dining room, wonderful company and a magnificent bedroom far too sumptuous given our dishevelled state.

Days 11 - 14: Arthez-de-Bearn to St Jean Pied de Port

A combination of lost stats, failed posts and dodgy Wi-Fi meant I didn’t keep up with the daily reports for the final days as I should have done. However, the photos survived, and they will have to suffice as a lasting record of our approach to St Jean Pied de Port.


The 19-mile stage from Artez-de-Bearn to Navarrenx began with light rain. Not a downpour like we experienced a couple of days earlier, but a light-but-steady drizzle that was just enough to warrant waterproofs.

Over the previous 5 days, we had completed almost 100 miles of walking and, while we loved the challenge, at times it had seemed quite tough. The Pyrenees, so distant just a few days ago, were now much more distinct.

We really enjoyed the days from Navarrenx onwards. The scenery changed, the wide valleys and periodic ridges of previous days became rounded, wooded hills, more altitude was gained and lost daily, and the Pyrenees grew closer and more formidable. And, although we were nearing the end of this part of our journey, we weren’t downhearted – the end bringing a sense of achievement and excitement rather than the sadness of an adventure finishing.


The last day into St Jean Pied de Port was busy with pilgrims. Some we knew, but many we did not. The town was buzzing with hikers – some finishing the GR65, others midway through a GR10 traverse, yet more about to depart on the Camino Frances – and we remembered our own excitement when we stood in this same place back in May 2013 waiting to take the first footsteps of our Camino.

This crossroads of routes at the foot of the Pyrenees is a transient place, but for us it provided a fitting ending to our Via Podiensis.  


Overall, we’d had two great weeks, accumulated around 230 miles of walking, wandered through varied countryside, consumed excellent food and drink, and experienced memorable hospitality along the way. It means we have now walked a continuous line (albeit in sections) from Le Puy to Santiago, around 1000 miles across France and Spain, every inch on foot.


It will take time to fully digest the walk, as it always does, but one thing is for sure: our passion for Camino walking hasn't yet been dimmed. Our thoughts turned towards the next section we wanted to undertake, and plans were laid – plans subsequently scuppered by Covid 19 and the attendant travel restrictions.


For now, we will remember an enjoyable trip and a sense of personal achievement, but one day we will travel again and take up the challenge of walking the wobbly line across Europe once more.

Sunday 15 November 2020

The Le Puy Route - Part 9

The Camino Experience in Miniature - Les Tournesols du Gers to Arzacq-Arraziguet


Day 7: Les Tournesol du Gers to Nogaro – 17.50 miles

Back to longer days again with a 17.5-mile section between Les Tournesols du Gers and Nogaro.

The early morning stroll along the old railway track was lovely. Quiet, beneath the shade of overhanging trees, we initially enjoyed pleasant temperatures too, but it was already hotting up by the time we reached Eauze. In the cool of the cathedral we made the acquaintance of two familiar pilgrims – St Roch, with his dog and injured leg, and St Jacques with his shell-covered robes – and enjoyed a few moments of meditative calm and welcome respite from the travails of the journey.

It might seem counter-intuitive to consider a journey on foot, a steady trundle at all of 3 miles per hour, as requiring time to relax, reflect and re-energise. But that is the case with a long-distance spiritual journey such as a Camino, when sometimes it is necessary to slip outside of the total immersion the experience entails. This is especially true of the longer days we are now enjoying, which sometimes require as much mental energy as physical.

Near the Ferme de Peyret we stopped at a donativo stall and met up with a Canadian couple we walked with on and off until Manciet. Here, we had our bread and cheese lunch then went to Chez Monique for drinks. Monique, if it were indeed she, seemed determinedly unhurried while dispensing drinks. Although a Camino asks us to slow down, relax and go with the flow, it can be all too easy to let the impatience of our hurried lives resurface. It just goes to show how important it is to embrace this different pace of life.  

Moving on, the route passed through typical vineyard countryside. Shortly before the Eglise-hopital Sainte-Christie, we were wished "bon chemin" by a swashbuckling gent on horseback – a latter-day Musketeer, perhaps?


Nogaro seemed to take its time arriving. I'm sure it must have been further than indicated – it certainly seemed that way. However, we finally got checked in with time for a shower before dinner - a nice meal that we finished off with an Armagnac.


Day 8: Nogaro to Aire-sur-L’Adour – 18.00 miles


We woke to rain. The lengthy stretch between Nogaro and Aire-sur-L'Adour began with a 3-hour deluge that meant we needed to pack everything in dry bags, batten down the hatches and don full waterproofs.

Although it’s a shame when that happens, it does put a different, more reflective perspective on the walk, and as there’s nothing that can be one about it, it’s best just to accept the situation and make the most of it.


Part way through the morning, we stopped for morning coffee at a donativo in a large barn which provided respite from the rain. A small group of soggy pilgrims coagulated in the shelter, all keen to press on after finishing their drinks but somehow reluctant to head back into the tempest. As I write this sometime later, heavy rain is pounding on the windows at home, and I’m reminded of the aversion we all have to getting wet through. Whether this is a primal instinct kicking in or a reflection of just how conditioned we have become to our warm, dry modern houses, I don’t know. But taking those first steps back out into the rain after the comfort of shelter takes more resolve than might be expected.


Thankfully, conditions improved as the morning wore on, and by the time we had reached Lapujolle things were definitely looking a bit brighter. Dripping water all over the floor, we hunkered down in a small local café where homemade cakes and artisan beers fortified us for the afternoon ahead and our clothing began the long process of drying out.


To be honest, I can’t remember much about the afternoon at all. My original post somehow failed, my notes proved insufficient, and my memory has clearly faded in the year since we walked the route. I do recall that the weather improved and that the sun even made an appearance, and I think it was along this section where we came across another couple who were slightly distressed at having found a rifle abandoned at the side of the path.


I also remember it was a long afternoon, and that we were quite tired by the time we arrived in Aire-sur-L’Adour. We ate delicious burgers in a little bistro by the bridge over the Adour, timing our arrival just before a large group piled in rather well.


Day 9: Aire-sur-L’Adour to Arzacq-Arraziguet – 22.00 miles


Today was a big day. In a way, the previous days had served as a warm-up for this one, a 22-mile section between Aire-sur-L'Adour and Arzacq-Arraziguet.


We set off in half light, crossing the bridge over the Adour and heading through town, glad not to be part of the Monday morning commute resolutely queuing in the opposite direction. After skirting a large reservoir, we climbed out of the valley on to higher ground and fairly soon got our first glimpse of the Pyrenees on the horizon. These mountains would draw ever-closer as we approached the end of our trek in St Jean Pied de Port.


Much of the morning was given over to navigating paths and lanes running through corn fields. At this time of year, the crop was so tall we could barely catch a glimpse of the outstanding views.


Eventually, we climbed a ridge and reached the village of Miramont Sensacq and took lunch in the grounds of the church, a picturesque spot with terrific views over our route ahead.


Once again, the afternoon saw us leave most walkers behind, with just a few hardy hikers still on the trail. Choosing longer days often did this – the route in these parts naturally lending itself to 10- or 20-mile sections.

 In the beautiful village of Pimbo, we broke for drinks and ice creams and a well-earned rest. The rollercoaster route the Camino follows across the grain of the land proved unexpectedly energy-sapping, and we needed to top up our reserves for the final push of the day.


Our destination for the evening was Arzacq-Arraziguet, a small market town with two squares strewn along another ridge. We received a warm welcome from the patron of the Maison d’Antan, and were billeted in a lovely en-suite room that was far too chic for a couple of smelly pilgrims. Later, we were served one of the best “pilgrim menu” dinners so far, including the most extensive cheeseboard we have ever seen.


All in all, we accepted the luxury as justified recompense for a very tiring day and would heartily recommend the Maison d’Antan if you wanted a more upmarket stop on your Camino.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

The Le Puy Route - Part 8

Time to Relax - Condom to Les Tournesols du Gers


Day 5 Condom to Montreal du Gers – 15.00 miles


For the first time this trip our daily distance was to be less than the day before. In fact, the next couple of days were a more modest in terms of distance, and while we like the challenge of longer days, we also appreciate the occasional freedom to explore more widely and enjoy a more leisurely pace.

We began what turned out to be a 15-mile day with a quick tour of Condom. Many of the towns we pass through are worthy of more in-depth investigation, but time doesn’t always permit anything greater than a cursory inspection. However, we needed a couple things – insect repellent to keep the little blighters at bay and a new belt to preserve my modesty – so toured the town centre while we waited for the shops to open. And where better than Condom to acquire preventative measures.


It turns out D’Artagnan was from these parts. Although best known for the heavily fictionalised adventures written by Alexandre Dumas, most famously with The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnan the character was based on a real 17th Century figure.


Another product of the region is Armagnac, the special variation on Cognac so beloved in these parts. Time allowed us to take a side trip to the very old walled village of Larressingle, where we treated ourselves to a leisurely lunch including ice cream drenched with a goodly slug of the aforementioned falling over water.

Wobbling slightly as we set off, we trundled down the hill to the Pont d’Artigue and made our way through quiet countryside towards Montreal du Gers. On the way, we passed a small chapel with a side door specifically for allowing in the “unclean”. We may have been a bit “unwashed” by that time of the afternoon, but we thought it best to enter via the front door to take advantage of the ensuing cool.


On arrival at Montreal du Gers, we skirted the town as our accommodation, a farm with B&B, was a short distance away. We were made to feel very welcome, and enjoyed a lovely evening of good food, company and conversation – the kind that these trips have a habit of delivering. The whole meal, including the wine, was made from their own produce, and we shared this with our host and a lovely French couple, enjoying a convivial evening we will long remember.


The French chap had written hundreds of Haikus and even had a book published, so to honour the occasion here is one of my own:


Camino meetings

So fleet, few words, brief friendships

Fond memories last


Day 6 – Montreal Du Gers to Les Tournesols du Gers 12.50 miles


For the second time in as many days we had a shorter section to traverse. After a lovely, relaxed breakfast, we said goodbye to our new-found friends and set off through the farm’s vineyards towards the 4th Century Galloroman villa at Seviac.


If you are even remotely interested in Roman history, this site is well worth a visit. The mosaics are amazing, with many in an excellent condition, and it is easy to while away an hour or two admiring the skill and artistry of the craftsmen.


From the villa, we headed back into Montreal du Gers for a proper look round. Having largely missed the town on arrival, we found a charming centre complete with local market. Needing no invitation, we stocked up on picnic food which we tucked into a few kilometres later beside a lake near the Chateau de Montaut.


The temperature flared considerably after lunch, as was the pattern of recent days. In Lamothe, we stopped for drinks at the Casa d’Elena. Whilst serving a number of customers simultaneously, I was sure I heard a not-very-French exclamation of “Right, beer” when it came to my order. Turns out the bar was run by an expat British couple, and we had a good chat about their new life in France whilst playing fetch with their seemingly tireless dog.


Our evening stop was a few kilometres further on at Les Tournesols du Gers. Use of the outdoor swimming pool required no second invitation, and after a refreshing dip we had a fun communal dinner with around a dozen other guests.

Tuesday 4 August 2020

The Le Puy Route - Part 7

Fulfilling a Promise - L'Aube Nouvelle to Condom

Thanks to furlough, I have more time on my hands than usual. Now that I’ve tackled the essential chores, helped the neighbours, baked bread and zoomed myself into a stupor, finally there’s a chance to catch up on those outstanding trip reports.  

It seems strange writing these posts almost a whole year since the trip happened, and it’s been noticeably different compiling them from the photos and brief notes I took at the time plus a bunch of slightly faded memories, but then these are strange times.

Last time out, we’d ended our walk at L’Aube Nouvelle, filthy and soaked to the skin having slipped and slid our way through a deluge of near-biblical proportions. The proprietor kindly let us shelter from the rain, wring out our sodden clothes and recover some dignity, and all for the price of a café au lait each. We vowed there and then that we would come back and stay – a small gesture we could make to thank them for their previous generosity.


That was two years earlier. In September 2019 we were back, full of excitement, happy to see the sun shining and eager to start on the final fortnight of the Via Podiensis from here to St Jean Pied de Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the small town from where we’d started our Camino Frances way back in May 2013.


Day 1 Dufort Lacapelette to Moissac – 12.75 miles


I’ve mentioned before about how easy we’ve found it to slip into “trail mode” at the start of a new section, and this time was no different, picking up both physically and metaphorically from our last trip almost seamlessly.

For our first day back out on the route we planned nothing more adventurous than a short trundle, the 12-odd miles to Moissac. It was a fine, warm morning, and we walked most of the day in leisurely fashion with Mark from Oregon. It was his last day on the trail, which gave us plenty of opportunity to reminisce about the trail so far.

Towards the end of the walk we took a short variant the granted super views over Moissac and the surrounding area, and which delivered us right to the doors of the Abbey.


Day 2 Moissac to Bardigues – 17.75 miles


A bright morning greeted us for the 17.75-mile stretch between Moissac and Bardigues. Leaving town, we walked beside the canal for a while until the route split – the official route or continue beside the canal. Our guidebook rather dismissed the official route and recommended the canal-side path, but we’re glad we opted for the official route which took us into the hills on an undulating route through fields and woods via the quiet village of Boudou.


After lunch in Malause, a sleepy, non-descript town, we re-joined the canal then struck off across the flat valley bottom towards Auvillar. After taking advantage of a roadside drinks stop, we climbed to the town – one of the beautiful old “beaux villages” of the area.


Our overnight stop was a little further on near Bardigues – the beautiful Le Farat B&B. After settling in, we took a swim in the outdoor pool and felt very chic. Dinner was at Le Letit Palais back in Auvillar, the town beautifully lit at night.


Day 3 Bardigues to Lectoure – 19.50 miles


Day 3 was a lengthy stretch from Bardigues to Lectoure. With high temperatures of over 30C expected we aimed to set off early to make the most of the cool conditions, but inevitably on longer days it is difficult to avoid the full afternoon sun altogether.


Leaving Bardigues, there were quite a few pilgrims already on the trail. We have noticed that mornings are busier, confirmed by a group of Aussies we chatted with over soft drinks at Flamerens who were only going as far as Miradoux.


We only stopped briefly there, planning to have a longer stop at the next village. But the shop was closed, so we ate emergency rations and drank water.


Towards the end of the day, as Lectoure came into sight, we passed a roadside fruit stall and tucked into fresh peaches - just what we needed to fortify us for the final stretch. Lectoure is a lovely town. We had a brief look round and bought quiches for tea: sadly, not enough time for a proper exploration.


Day 4 Lectour to Condom 21.00 miles


Our fourth day en route was the longest so far, 21 miles from Lectoure to Condom. Setting out early, we bought lunch from the boulangerie then left Lectoure on a circuitous route through the town walls before heading out into the countryside.


Early morning knots of pilgrims gradually spread out throughout the day, and soon we were walking pretty much on our own. If that sounds a little anti-social, it isn't meant to - company, and the knowledge that other people are about is great, but solitude, or at least quiet, are key aspects of a pilgrimage too.


We stopped for water and a breather in Marsolan and pushed on to La Romieu. There is a shortcut that misses La Romieu and saves around 6k, but we wanted full value for our day. We had decided on a lunch stop in the old town, but on arriving at around 1.20pm we were told lunch was "complet". However, with a bit of negotiating we procured beers and coffees, which was actually all we wanted.


The afternoon was again hot, but we had plenty of water on board and topped up in Castelnau-sur-L'Auvignon. Also, like yesterday, the last 10k of the day skirted pretty much all the towns and villages, and we saw virtually no-one. However, we reached Condom without incident and checked into our digs. It was too late to explore the town, but there was enough time for a welcome shower and change of clothing before dinner.