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Sunday, 24 July 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 4: St Palais to St Jean-Pied-de-Port

St Palais to St Jean Pied-de-Port 30km (111km cumulative)

A brutal heat had descended upon the Pays Basques and, on day four of Saints and Cynics, it showed no signs of letting up. Au contraire, as the much-anticipated crossing of the Pyrenees edged closer, kilometre by kilometre, so the thermometer crept up, centigrade by centrigrade. Those pilgrims who faced the daunting challenge of climbing the Col de Lepoeder to Roncevalles began to tread a little cautiously in our loosely-laced boots, calculating our start times and wondering whether we could walk in the before-dawn dark.

An early start but I was barely out of town before I'd already started chasing the shade. I'd left the Via Podiensis to take the detour to St Palais, I was now on the Via Lemovicencis which sets out from Vezelay but the distinction would soon be pedantic, both join the Via Turonensis from Tour just south of St Palais - two become one and lead up a short but steep hill. The sweat begins.

Chapel of Soyarza, at the top of the hill. Interesting offerings.

My poor left foot. Partly my own fault, new boots, not broken in (does one still have to 'break-in' new boots) but also a consequence of walking too far in the heat along asphalt surfaces. Prime conditions for blisters.

Ostabat. It felt, in a sense, like the heart of Europe - or at least, western Europe. The convergence of three of the four main routes across France which would have brought together pilgrims from across the continent.

Paths of the Day: In fact, just after Ostabat, the hike as a pleasant amble through rolling hills of pasture and maize came to an end and, given the heat, I elected to follow the main road and make a more direct beeline for St Jean; all my thoughts were on crossing the Pyrenees the following day and I was hearing predictions of the mercury hitting 40 degrees. It was not a choice I wanted to make and I almost paid for it; the road was hard and hot and I was running out of water. About 12km out of St Jean I returned to the Camino and at another refreshment stop found a hosepipe and enjoyed an impromptu cold shower. I managed to repeat this several times, even when I'd joined the main road, once 'showering' myself in a church cemetery, another time on a garage forecourt. The last ten kilometres was an absolute pain; to top it all, when I arrived in St Jean I discovered the accommodation I'd reserved was another 45 minutes out of time. I cut my losses, found a relatively cheap hotel in the centre of town where it took me a good half hour to fully cool and rehydrate myself.

Two of my fellow pilgrims had acquired their shells - I don't have one - and placed them among the candles before the Virgin Mary in a gesture which I found profoundly moving. I met them again the following day and spent many hours walking with them until they had to head for home in Logroño. This was also something I hadn't anticipated, I'd intended to spend the first few weeks of the Camino walking on my own.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 3: Navarrenx to St Palais

Navarrenx to St Palais 38km (81km cumulative)

'It's Sunday 17th July, it's day three of Saints and Cynics and I'm on my way to St Palais. It's about midday, it's very hot ... and I am moving like a train; one stop so far, very comfortable, apart from a niggle in the toe department. I've already overtaken three of my fellow pilgrims and I've been thinking how nice it is to move fast. My rucksack isn't too heavy, it's comfortable, a lot less cumbersome than when I was in the Catalunyan Pyrenees. 
I was thinking that some pilgrims would say that I'm moving too fast: that I'm not enjoying, that I'm not being 'authentic'. But I think this desire - this pleasure of moving relatively quickly through the landscape is a very embodied pleasure. And it is related in some way ... it's a very Catholic thing and it reminds me a bit of mortification of the flesh. Of course, it isn't like that at all in one sense but is ... you're putting your body through something and at the end of the day, when you arrive at your destination and enjoy a cold beer, lie down on the bed, it's a fantastic feeling. It's not quite pain, but it's a great deal of pleasure ...
Recorded thoughts, 17/7/2106 

It's only day three and already I'm drifting away from the indicative into the subjunctive world which is overflowing with possibilities; a world where ought triumphs is, a world in which 'if only your uncle had been your aunt' is more than an idle wish. Some pilgrims meditate whilst they're walking, I drift in and out of rock 'n' roll fantasy; don't knock it, it keeps the 'Brexit' blues at bay.
Thus I spent much of the morning ruminating on Noggin the Nog's unrecorded and unreleased third album, which, had they survived 'second album syndrome', I'm inclined to think would have marked a return to the no-nonsense, heads-down, heavy rock boogie which (would have) made them so famous. Today's walk was very much like that, at least for the first half until the heat and the vagaries of the GR65 took their toll, the latter leading me a merry dance across the Basse Navarre countryside and adding a good seven kilometres to the day's total. Although the Via Podiensis is well-marked on the ground, as it approaches St Palais it offers options; while the 'official' route turns south-west, a variante heads westwards along a main road, the D11, to the town where it joins the camino coming from Vezelay. Here, without a only an A4 screenprint from the French IGN, I became disoriented and, as my water supply depleted, increasingly hot and bothered. Indeed, there came a point when, after climbing a steady but gentle slope, I thought I was about to keel over in a faint. Fortunately I managed to obtain both water and directions from some helpful locals but it was still touch and go as I finally limped into St Palais.
It was only day three, early doors, as they say, but already I was beginning to feel part of the landscape; the important - one might say 'vital' - process of becoming or immersing myself in the landscape had already started. As I noted during the morning session, moving like a train, this was probably because, for personal and contextual reasons, I'd thrown myself into the venture, a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. There was no restraint, no tentativity - very little subtlety; it was hot and sticky, the walking got progressively harder but I didn't care.


Navarrenx: A bastide town which, early on a Sunday morning, was surprisingly lively. Piped music plays on the main street, a curious mixture of classical and ambient.


Path of the Day. Part of the appeal of the GR65/Via Podiensis - in its latter stages, at least, is the nature and trajectory of the way itself. Through nooks and crannies, in and out of shade, never revealing itself and always holding back a secret behind each and every twist and turn.

Obligatory mountains-in-the-distance porn

Our Lady of Lost Soles: Like the Camino Frances, the Via Podiensis is adorned by shrines and symbols; sacred or profane or sometimes both.

Another welcome refreshment break on the Via Podiensis, and open on a Sunday morning, too! Everyone's a winner, the seller of local artesian products who make a few euros from selling coffee and Coca Cola and the thirsty pilgrim on a hot and clammy morning.

Early afternoon. This is where the going got tough and the 'tough' - i.e. your correspondent - struggled to get going. With the sun high above the path crossed farmland with less and less shade.

Whence I'd come and where I was going


The last 8km to St Palais along the D11, a long hard slog at end-of-the-day pace

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 2: Maslacq to Navarrenx

 Maslacq to Navarrenx 22km (43km cumulative)

It's a little known fact that, back in the early nineteen-eighties, North Hertfordshire's cult supergroup, Noggin the Nog, never quite got round to recording their first album. I'm afraid to say that, in a quite un-rock 'n' roll like fashion, the quintet drifted off to university (or, in the case of the lead singer, the fruit and veg shop on Eastcheap, Letchworth Garden City) before recording their first album.
I'm sure you'll agree that the world's a lesser place for it but it solved one problem: 'The Nog', as they liked to call themselves, with the pretentiousness of youth, never had to face the eternal problem of the 'difficult second album'. 
That good old rock 'n' roll cliche applies equally to the pilgrim and/or long-distance hiker. The first day is usually, but not always, a bit of a jolly; clean boots and panties and oodles of energy after a couple of days in the ferry and train. You're out of the traps like a greyhound, as if there's no tomorrow, forgetting that there are many, many more tomorrows; in the case of Saints and Cynics, another 44.
But the second day can be a bit of a bastard: stiffness, niggles, aches and pains and sometimes, just sometimes, an existentialist angst: what the f*** am I doing here.

But I'm pleased to report that day two of Saints and Cynics didn't turn out that way. Maybe it's because, a bit like Joey Tempest, I'm a bit of an old hand - bit of an old lag more like. But just because I've been there, seen it, done it, doesn't mean I don't wake up every day of the hike wide-eyed and restless. Listen, honey, I could walk forever and never, ever get bored.

Another cool night, dew on the grass and fresh feel to the morning: perfick as they say. The Camino left Maslacq via this rather Scooby Doo-esque maison then rolled out across endless fields of maize towards the river Gave whence it proceeded in a generally undulating fashioned towards the Pyrenees.

Path of the Day. Most of the day's walking was on asphalt, country roads with little vehicular traffic, so it was nice to get off the tarmac and follow this lovely little path through nooks and crannies to the Abaye de Sauvelade, below.

Looking back to where I'd begun. Arthez de Bearne is now about 30km away, in the distance. The land is becoming more uneven - or maybe less even; maize giving way to bracken and pasture.

 Maize and mountains, mountains and maize

Morning passed into afternoon, hour by hour the heat increased, the ups became upper and the downs deeper and deeper. In the post-prandial silence I lagged, move sloth-like whenever I climbed but on the last leg, into Navarrenx, I got my second wind and sailed into the bastide town. Photos of Navarrenx tomorrow, promise.


Friday, 15 July 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 1: Artix to Maslacq

The Via Podiensis, alternatively known as the Voie du Puy and, more secularly and less prosaically, the GR65, is one of the four principal pilgrimage routes in France, setting out from Le Puy-en-Velay, famous for its Cathedral and Virgin


Via Podiensis from Le Puy to St Jean Pied de Port

The route heads south-west for 721km to Ostabat where it is joined by the Via Turonensis (from Tours) and Via Lemovicensis (from Vezelay). Together, as the Camino Frances, all three paths cross the Pyrenees and continue across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.

 At the outset, it had been my intention to hike the entire length of the Via Podiensis; indeed, for a brief while I entertained the idea of setting out from Cluny until the call of Canigou put the kybosh on that project so setting out from Arthez de Bearn, 635 from Le Puy, was a bit of damp squib as compromises go. Still, it offered four days of hiking in the French Basque Country and would put me in better shape for tacking the Col Leopoeder through the Pyrenees and I'd I've four days of hiking in isolation before joining the crowds at St Jean Pied de Port. 
The Spanish Caminos I am, either directly or through research, familiar with. In the case of the Camino Frances you might say far too over-familiar. When it comes to the French caminos, however, I'm a complete and utter virgin; by the time I'd finished today's stage I dearly wished I'd stuck with my original plan and started from Le Puy. Still, there's always 2018.

08:39 from Orthez to Artix, just 15 minutes down the line

Artix Station. Glamorous starting point.

The first task was to hike 10 out of Artix to join the Via Podiensis just before the town of Arthez de Bearn. As I climbed gently along a minor road through fields of maize and sunflowers, the snow-capped Pyrenees began to loom to the south. It's the 'snow-capped' that does it, I'd barely walked an hour before having to fight off the desire to get off the Camino and into the mountains. This, I feel, will be a recurring theme.

Joyous meeting with the Camino. Ain't never seen no hikers or pilgrims desport themselves like that before. Maybe we should!

The minor road from Artix met the Via Podiensis at the Chapelle Caubin and here, barely a couple of hours into my Camino, was a example of what my PhD supervisor, Paul Cloke, might call the 'piligrmness' of pilgrim routes. An array of religious paraphernalia which gave what was an otherwise pleasant, pastoral landscape, a 'spiritual' turn, enchanting it, oozing affect. I was, of course, in the right frame of mind for this affect to take effect and the presence of the Virgin Mary played right into its hands. It's worth looking at the scene and trying to identify what aspects of the landscape - what spiritual/religious incursions - upped the ante in terms of religious/spiritual landscape experience. Would the landscape without these accoutrements be any less spiritual/religious? Would it still 'perform' in the way that it did this morning? This is what I came looking for and I encountered it straight away - but maybe because I wanted to!


12th Century Chapelle de Caubin

Back with the yellow and blue, the colours of Europe. In some respects this is a walk of mourning.


Sign in Arthez de Bearn. According to my calculations it's 876km to Santiago

The sacred and the profane co-exist on the Via Podiensis

I encountered a couple of examples of random acts of kindness on today's stage. This was a small shelter and rest area with table exclusively for pilgrims, a kilometre before there'd been a sign offering free drinks and conservation and both touched me deeply. It made the camino feel intimate and deeply presonal. I've come across similar phenomenon on other, less-frequented caminos apart but I don't expect to find anything like it on the now heavily commercialised Camino Frances.

The path, which had mostly followed asphalted roads with little-to-no traffic, now became a cart-track and descended gently to the valley whence I'd started, albeit several kilometres to the west. Back through maize fields in a gentle, pleasant heat over the river, the railways and motorway to the charming village of Maslocq and my hotel. I'd pretty much chewed up the 21km and spat 'em out, but first days are always like that, are they not. Tomorrow another gentle stage, 22km to Naverrenx. Perfect walking, like a drug.