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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.

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