Friday, 1 May 2009

Back from St Jean-Pied-de-Port

Having marked my 60th birthday year by walking the Milford Track on New Zealand's South Island, I thought it was appropriate to mark my 65th by tackling another decent walk. So I can report with satisfaction that I returned last night after completing on foot the final (almost) stage of the Voie du Puy, one of the ancient routes through France which leads to Compostela. Starting at Manciet in the Gers on 22nd April, I arrived in St Jean-Pied-de-Port on Wednesday, a bit weary and wet, but very happy after eight days on the GR65.

Perhaps the tiredness was evident: carrying my rucksack and staff, I was offered a seat in the tube from St Pancras to Paddington yesterday evening by a woman to whom I would normally have offered mine. (I said I was fighting fit, having just returned from a 200km walk: she replied, "So I should think you could do with a sit down." Nevertheless as a matter of pride I declined her kind offer.)

MD65, GR65 and A65: during my walk, I trespassed for a couple of kms along the as yet unopened A65 South of Aire-sur-l'Adour, the construction of which has usurped pilgrims from their direct route: a long detour is now indicated, which I wanted to avoid. But my comuppance arrived with misdirections from a trio of the roadmakers on their return from lunch, towards a path ending in a tangle of fallen trees worthy of a scene from The Road: the devastation caused by the February tempest in the French South-West was evident everywhere, though the GR65 was itself pretty clear of fallen timber - indeed the wayside is now furnished with plenty of wooden seating.

My French and German and a lot of smiling were just enough to get me by with the mainly French, but also German, Belgian, Dutch, Finnish, Italian etc. other wayfarers I came across: not until Wednesday afternoon did I hear a couple of others speaking English as I caught up with them on the final stretch - and they turned out to be Norwegian and Portuguese respectively.

In previous years, Caroline and I had walked stretches of this Chemin du Puy together. It is different altogether doing so on your own, however many others you come alongside. I am still trying to distill the experience, with the aid of the photographs I took and many good memories.

Whilst away, I read - and can recommend - Kevin A. Codd's To The Field of Stars: A Pilgrim's Journey to Santiago de Compostela, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans last year.

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