Arden Grant, our New Zealander handyman, has been here of late, most recently fixing kerb stones against the front lawn, and - as in my photograph - repinning the Rambling Rector to the side wall: it collapsed a while ago, and has grown too top heavy just to tie back to the original wires. (That's the trouble with Rambling Rector: I must be less kind when pruning this Autumn.) To illustrate the breadth of Arden's talents, he's also - last week - made over Leo's old room, replacing the basin in a new position, fitting a shelf alongside it and blanking off one of the lights above, taken away the built-in cupboard, inserted a new skirting board, repapered the wall behind where the cupboard was and painted the room's walls and ceilings - oh, and fitted a new piece of carpet to match the existing. A man for all seasons. And it's been hot, working inside: this last part of May has seen us basking in something of a heatwave, but it is all about to change - just in time for the Jubilee weekend of course.
I can't remember what the weather was like at this time 50 years ago, but I do recall the première of Britten's War Requiem taking place on my birthday in the new Coventry Cathedral. I was working as a guide at Charlecote Park: the Curator, Dick Routh, had a ticket. And last night it was performed there again, by the same orchestra, the CBSO, under its brilliant conductor Andris Nelsons. I Listened Again, and was bowled over.
Considering his influence on my 69 years of life (today's my birthday!), it seems a pity I can't find a photograph of my housemaster in what I laughingly call my back catalogue. This one - dating I guess from 1957 - was not of course taken by me (I am in it).
Fr. Ben sits amidst an obviously happy bunch of 13/14-year-olds, the founder members of St Hugh's. One of them, Tony, now Fr. Jonathan, Cotton, once made a point that I needed to hear at the time: we are here in order to be happy. That happiness was the secret of Fr. Ben's success, I suggest - certainly if you count vocations to the priesthood as an indicator (and why not?). No less than four of us went on to be ordained, three at Ampleforth, and one, the distinguished church historian, Norman Tanner SJ. Alongside St Hugh's from year two of its existence was St Bede's, the housemaster of which was a certain Fr. Basil Hume. And the tally of vocations during his longish term as housemaster? Nil.
Fr. Benedict died earlier this month, and his funeral took place before my return from France. The Abbot, like Fr. Benedict, a medical doctor, preached a wonderful sermon.
I last saw Ben. on Easter Day 2011: I was visiting one of the others in this photograph in the monastic infirmary, Fr. David Morland, then patiently awaiting his death, which came later last year. Making my sad way out, I became sadder still: bumping into Fr. Benedict on his zimmer in the corridor, I stopped for a chat, but he no longer recognised me.
Malcolm was watering the new Transition Town Cheltenham garden in Sandford Park when I biked past this lunchtime. After only a short while, it's looking good, and people were pausing to look at Jacqui's boards whilst I talked to Malcolm. As it fills out, more people will take notice - and (let's hope) be inspired to think of growing some vegetables of their own. I gather the original request to the Council was for some space in Imperial Gardens, which would have given the project a rather higher profile; but this spot isn't at all a bad one, being just off the High Street. It's good there's water close at hand. Monday evenings are the time to go down there to help, if you have any spare time then.
This time, we met to discuss the book at Robert's new house. He kindly gave us lunch - the established tradition now being for him to provide asparagus at our May meetings. After the usual wide-ranging discussion, fired by plentiful supplies of Hooky, the others settled into something of a hatchet job on poor Nikolaus Pevsner. It ill behove me to try to defend him (though I did so) - not having read the book! Afterwards, Robert took us round his wife's studio: the photograph shows a piece of her fine work.
I did a double take when sighting this unattended Transitional form of transport in Cheltenham's High Street yesterday, its trailer sporting a pile of old newspapers, a rope, a model car, a bucket, a petrol can, a sheepskin...
Colin was in good form at his retirement party last night. I was the only one present who had got there before him, but several others are soon destined to follow. It's the passing of the older generation, and it's hard to see how the firm's new seniors will manage. Such worries lay beneath the surface during what was a very good dinner.
The phrase "blink and you miss it" might have been invented for the passing of the Olympic torch by the end of our road. After the waiting came the police outriders, then the buses, one of which seemed to have the torch inside it. A line of ordinary cars followed up behind, and people started to drift away in large numbers. We joined them; but no: the torch was apparently still to come. We were almost home by that time, and accordingly out of the picture. Ah well, it's all hype anyway, so far as I'm concerned.
One of my mother's best friends died while I was away. Luckily, her memorial service only took place today. I recall during one of our usual family holidays in Seaview, my mother taking the telephone call which told us that Pam's son William had contracted polio. Strangely, this life-changing event was not referred to at all during today's service: Pam devoted a large part of her life and all her energies towards William's wellbeing: it was her greatest "achievement", alongside seeing to the happiness of her husband, Bill, a sweet man - he too never rated a mention. These day-to-day things deserve better celebration.
My photograph shows Bill's grave, strewn with flowers sent by Pam's friends and family, a lovely sight. And the weather has at last changed, a beautiful day for a funeral.
We missed going to Campden for any music last year. The programme for this year's Festival is full of goodies, but most of them whilst I've been away walking. Last night, however, we went in order to catch a glimpse of Imogen Cooper, accompanying Kate Royal in Mozart's 'Ch'io mi scordi di te...', with the Festival Academy Orchestra under Thomas Hull. This was her third appearance at this year's Festival - she told us she'd enjoyed her stay in the town: it was good to hear she is lined up for next year's Cheltenham Festival, accompanying the Dutch mezzo, Christianne Stotijn. Campden generates an especially friendly atmosphere, and whilst the pews are pretty purgatorial, at least they aren't as claustrophobic as at Tetbury. Not bad woodwind playing from the Festival Orchestra either! But afterwards, not a chance of buying much-needed fish and chips, whether in Campden or Broadway! We found some chips eventually in Winchcombe - but they might have been bits of old shoe leather.
Passing by Saint-Saveur's church early this morning, we arrived at the station in good time. Once there, however, my sang froid was tested by the news that a cow had strayed onto the line my train was wanting to use en route for Figeac: the delay would be fatal, so far as my Paris connection in Brive was concerned. But all credit to SNCF: they put me on a bus, then two more trains to Clermont Ferand and Paris Bercy, and rang ahead, so that - in spite of all the London-bound Eurostar trains being fully booked (it's Ascension Day tomorrow) - I squeezed onto the 6.15 dep. from Paris Nord at the last possible moment, and Caroline collected me from Swindon at 9.30.
In the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Le Puy, we were each enjoined to write a prayer, leaving it in the box beneath St James' statue; and to take from another box someone else's prayer, left earlier. The one I took read, "That you may find the peace you are looking for and that the difficulties are the way." For me, this has been the perfect mantra. I was full of apprehension before setting out on this walk, but have found peace through the kindness of strangers and living in the here and now. Taking very little steps, but in my usual rhythm, helps greatly when climbing the steep bits. But I'm not afraid to stop, and just lean on my sticks. "Avoir le temps, pèlerin! Tu es si riche!" says a sign by the wayside just before L'Estrade. The Australian I met, Judy, spoke of loneliness; but my feeling was not so much for Joachim's "frei aber einsam" as for Brahms' "frei aber froh." Walking alone, there was time to reflect on the chapter of St John's Gospel I read each morning - and to experience each of the senses in turn being stimulated by my surroundings, save only taste. Who needs an iPod? It's good for one's humility to find oneself lost, I reflected, and likewise to find that some quite sensible people in this world speak absolutely no English. Most especially, it's been great to walk 250kms. at this most perfect time of the year, with main roads only for crossing, hardly half a dozen gates to open and not a single stile to clamber over. All this through a part of France suffused with the legacy of pilgrims past. Which reminds me, “Le touriste exige, le pèlerin remercie”.
Peter and I arrived in Figeac at 2.30, having walked our final 18.5kms. quickly and easily: it started to rain during our lunch stop (at Saint-Jean-Mirabel), so there was no incentive to linger.
We had set out at 7.45, pausing to admire the painted apse of la chapelle de Guirande. The 14th Century murals depict in naive fashion Christ in Majesty surrounded by the symbols of the evangelists. At La Grange de Bord, Mme. Bontemps provided us with café au lait, but that was the only chance for refreshment we encountered during our journey today, apart from on the spiritual level. At Saint-Felix, there's a fine tympanum (see my photograph) depicting Adam and Eve each apparently as guilty as the other so far as the forbidden fruit was concerned, with clef-like snake: this anyway is how they saw it in the 11th Century. Saint-Jean-Mirabel also has a sculpted tympanum: the crucified Christ between his mother and St John - 13th Century, but less well preserved.
We crossed the Célé by the old bridge, pausing for final photographs ("I made it!"): there was our billet, Le Faubourg, at the bridge foot, not too far from the station, where I have an early train to catch in the morning if I am to be able to sleep in my own bed tomorrow night.
Though Caroline and I had spent time in Figeac on the eve of our first Voie du Puy walk (six years ago), it was good to have time to look round again, to do some shopping and follow the tourist route round the lanes of the historic town centre. At 6.30, Peter and I met again for mass (said by a priest from Senegal) in the parish church's Notre-Dame-de-Pitié chapel, with its golden reliefs depicting Passiontide scenes; and we then crossed the river for a significant dinner at Le Pont d'Or to conclude our happy four days together.
At breakfast at La Mariotte - home-made jams, a feature there - I said to French-Canadian Liliane, "This is our last day." "Nous retournons," she replied, "dans la vrai vie?"
Our penultimate day's walking has also been my shortest - a mere 8kms. Having been walking often well to the South of the Lot for three days, we crossed the river soon after starting out this morning - at the strangely-named Livinhac-le-Haut. Even the old centre of what is quite a large town lacks much charm.
The path up to Montredon, which overlooks the Célé valley, was easy. Peter and I enjoyed our talks without interruption from many others - we had left late.
At the entrance to Montredon, we visited the little chapelle Notre-Dame du Carrefour. Though rebuilt only half a century ago, it contains an excellent 16th Century Pieta and an interesting 20th Century side altar retable, dedicated to St Peter: on the left is the apostle kneeling at Mary's feet to ask forgiveness, a cock in the top corner of the panel. On the right, Peter is seen crucified upside down; while the central image is Christ crucified, but in a posture more of triumph than agony. The main parish church likewise has a fine modern wooden sculpture, of Christ crowned with thorns. Behind the parish church was yet another welcoming room, with tea, coffee, biscuits etc., where we ate our picnic, glad of the shade on another very hot day.
Despite dallying, we arrived too early at La Mariotte, where we are staying tonight, on the edge of Montredon. Welcomed by the owners' dog, we sat on a garden bench in the sunshine, admiring the view till they arrived. Fréderic and Véronique Philip, who only accommodate walkers and cyclists, call their house a chambre d'hôte, rather than gîte: it certainly has a more up-market feel to it, being included in the list of places grouped together as "Les haltes vers Compostelle." Though the dormitory feels a little claustrophobic, with its low eaves, and the shower is hardly large enough to let you reach the soap when it falls on the floor, Fred and Vero are good hosts: we ate well, and Fred gave us an excellent background talk on all the things we should look out for tomorrow. After supper, I walked up to the village while the sun was setting, passing this pastoral scene.
After Lauds and breakfast, we set off from Conques, pausing to talk with one of the Abbaye's Norbertians, Père Jean-Régis, drinking coffee in a bar. My photograph, looking back at the village, was taken by the Chapelle Sainte-Foy, built near a spring: its waters have worked miraculous cures for those with eye problems. From Conques, we descended further, to the bridge over the River Dourdou, before a steep walk up through woods. There was further to go - it's a 300m. climb in all - but the effort was well worthwhile: on the crest you can see for miles almost 360 degrees around. We followed the variante to Noailhac, where the church has a fine, modern stained glass window, depicting "Le fils de l'homme à la croisée des energies divines."
24kms. today, and it's been hot. After a long time on the ridge, it was downhill, and then the final stretch was steeply uphill from the outskirts of Decazeville, the first industrial town we had encountered. I was tipped off about a way to avoid it, but failed to heed the directions: they would have involved some unsigned road-walking, but that route saves the fierce down and up. Peter in particular found the last lap gruelling: for me, carrying 11kgs. plus water is something I'm used to by now, but it's different on only your second day.
Six of us are staying here at Brigitte d'Halluin's quite newly-opened Gîte Sentinelle: it's an old house, not large - very much a simple, private home, filled with rather beautiful and unusual things. Brigitte had cold beers and open arms in welcome, and cooked us a delicious dinner (starting with nettle soup) - the first vegetarian meal I'd encountered. She has taken in hand the priest's garden, from which most of the produce comes, and keeps 15 hens. Père Pierre Calmette, 84, still wearing his cap, gave us a pilgrim blessing in the little church over the road. It's filled with statues, pictures and interesting information about the village's saint: we keep coming across him, with his wounded leg, staff and dog - almost more ubiquitous than St James himself indeed.
Over supper, Brigitte initiated a conversation about the "why" of the walk. This prompted a gentle, marvelously eloquent speech by lovely Louis de la Vallée (from Arras), listing four separate possible goals for the pilgrim. I wish I'd been able to record it. Afterwards, we passed across to the church once more, where Brigitte led us in night prayer.
Today, I've reached Conques, which I had always gathered was the high point of this journey. To that extent, I suppose I was a bit disappointed. It is of course an intensely touristy place. I prefer less obtrusive villages/small towns, of which there have been many - like Saint-Côme-d'Olt on Wednesday (I omitted to mention it).
Nevertheless, the descent into Conques on this Voie du Puy is undoubtedly special: after a long walk upon the crest, with views of open countryside - I included this photograph as it shows some arable farming, very little of which we have seen hitherto - you are suddenly led steeply down to the village, clinging to its steep, wooded hillside. There is not a hint even of its existence till you are there. And the fabled Abbaye Sainte-Foy does not disappoint, with its tympanum and soaring nave.
Vespers and Compline there this evening certainly were a high point, along with the blessing of pilgrims: each group was called up separately and we were presented with booklets containing one of the gospels in our own language.
I had been rather dreading the prospect of Conques' dormitories with their three-tier bunks, which I'd read about. When I woke this morning at 4 a.m. (la voie du pipi), I encountered a couple who were setting off already for the Abbaye, to avoid the heat of the day. Could they possibly, I asked in my best French, reserve me a bottom bunk when they get there? Yes, came the man's reply, if you in turn will kindly bring with you my sunhat, which I left in the Reception room - it's locked till the morning. So it is that I've walked all this sunny day wearing a nice white Panama. What's more, I do have a bottom bunk, though the old three-tier ones have been replaced now by well-spaced two-tier models.
It is a great pleasure to be staying here: a troop of kind hospitaliers greeted us with tea, and 100-odd of us sat for supper on benches at the long refectory tables. (Before eating, we had to learn the Chant des pèlerins de Compostelle, "Ultreia!" Some tummies were rumbling.)
I very much enjoyed having Peter's company on this lovely day. Poor man, he was launched into a 21km. walk (with more such days to follow) having had hardly any time for preparation, and a joke of a rucksack. Last night, I was sharing my gîte dormitory with, amongst others, a soft-spoken man of my age from Lille, Philippe. When I met up with him again on arrival in Conques, I asked him whether he'd heard of any who were going home from Conques and might be willing to sell their rucksack to Peter. He replied that his own walk had just ended, and he was expecting his wife to arrive very soon, to drive him away: when she came, he would be willing to empty out and lend Peter his rucksack, "sans souci". Thus, from tomorrow, Peter won't know himself, being furnished with a piece of state-of-the-art kit! That sort of thing is why this walk is so distinctive.
Peter and I had another happy experience this morning: after some two hours' walking, we reached the hamlet of Le Soulié, where first I spotted a water tap, and then a table with coffee, biscuits - and a bowl of cherries. As so often upon the Way, it was "give what you wish", not a system likely to catch on in Cheltenham's High Street, I regret to say. We were helping ourselves, when the person responsible drove up: Michel Roudil lived elsewhere, but had set up both the wayside hospitality and a chapel and gîte beyond as a year-round service to the pilgrimage. Not only did he welcome us, but rang ahead to another Christian friend, who also runs her gîte on a donativo basis: we are now booked in there for tomorrow night.
The route from Le Puy is marked, as throughout France, by a wide variety of wayside crosses, but those in the large parish of Golinhac (where I am staying tonight) stand out: each has its own descriptive panel nearby, complete with history, poetry and anecdote. We learn for instance that bodies en route to Golinhac for burial would be carried by a team of four bearers, and put down as each cross was reached, while the accompanying priest said a prayer. But if the procession happened to take place in Holy Week, no stops were allowed.
For me, there was no question of not stopping: it was another hot day, and though I had set off early (7.15), I was extremely glad it was not a long walk. For some kms. from Estaing, the path ran along the river, through woods. Then came the inevitable climb, but not so steep as yesterday. At the top, I came across another Martin, from Denmark, washing under a water tap, which he held open for me. He was camping out. After he'd walked on, I allowed another lone walker to catch up with me, Peter from Germany, holding the tap open for his shower in turn.
Passing through the hamlet of Le Mas, I saw a woman pushing her wheelbarrow towards me. "Bonjour Madame," I said. No response. "Bonjour," I repeated. "Au revoir," came the reply. It was the first time I had been made aware of the impact we many walkers might make upon members of a community who have their jobs to do: some make a living by providing us with valuable services, but others no doubt resent what they perceive as our urban chirpiness.
I shall miss my two French companions this evening. They bestowed many kindnesses on me, not least making allowances for my fractured French and even weaker comprehension. They turned to me during one conversation and asked what I thought of the British Government's attitude: I started off about the health service reforms, before being gently told that the subject was immigration. In spite of everything, when Dominique said goodbye, he saluted me as "mon pèlerin préféré": that made me feel good!
Pole Touristique Bellevue, my berth here in Golinhac, is totally different from anywhere else I've stayed: it's a holiday village, the gîte surrounded by bijou chalets scattered over the hilltop: great views! I am awaiting the arrival of my friend of 54 years standing, Peter, who is to be my walking companion for the last four days.
The difference in temperature since yesterday morning has really sorted me out. Coming down from the high country to the Lot might seem a leisurely walk, but it's not just a gradual descent: the way goes steeply up and down, all the time, rocky and muddy by turn in places. And this now settled-looking fine weather sounds all well and good, but I've frequently been gasping for water. Luckily, there are plenty of kind people living by the way, well used to our need. Today, I dipped my head into two village water troughs on the short étape from Espalion, with amazing views down over the valley, once we'd struggled uphill.
Before setting off, I bad farewell to the brave Roland, then walked for the last time with Dominique (seen in the centre and on the right of my photograph, with the very amiable Jacques, left): I've been with Dominique and Roland since Le Puy, but Roland, wounded ankle and all, is pressing on further than us today, and in order to catch him up tomorrow, Dominique is speeding off early in the morning, to get all the way to Conques: I'm taking two days to walk the same distance. A highlight today was visiting the little church of Saint-Pierre-de-Bessuéjouls, with its secret Romanesque chapel of St Michael, halfway up the tower: I could hardly climb the spiral staircase even without my rucksack. Happily, Dominique and I had arrived there just before a large gaggle of day walkers invaded its peace.
Tonight, Dominique and I are once again up and down in a bunk in the dormitory of the Hospitalité St Jacques, a long-established lay Christian community in a fine old house in the centre of this ancient and beautiful town (Giscard's - originally): all the "family" are with us in this peaceful place - Wolfgang, an Austrian maths teacher on sabbatical and his French friend Cathy; Sophie, who works for Axa in Paris: she is just doing a few days, her parents-in-law looking after her young daughter; Hauke, the charming young German, as tall as me, always seeking zen moments; and Jacques de la Vallée, an ever-smiling farmer from Arras, nearly my age. Vincienne, the friendly Belgian writer, has a really bad leg, not by any means the only casualty, and is seeking more comfort, and possibly a day or two off.
I recounted earlier finding Mireille's stick; and Sophie in turn finding my credit card. Today, Sophie's kindness was itself repaid. She left her coat in a café before setting off this morning: when she arrived here, she telephoned the café owner, whereupon he jumped into his car and drove here with it.
'Nuff blogging: now it's high time for a look round Estaing, before the communal supper - to be followed by Compline and silent prayer in the community's chapel.
We've descended nearly 500m today, and Dominique, Roland and I are all staying in Mme. Marcilhac's gîte in the oldest part of this busy town (it has nearly 5000 inhabitants), beside the River Lot. Life here is lived on a far more sophisticated plane than in the quiet village of St Chély, where I spent last night. And the gardens are full of iris, wysteria, even roses, which makes it seem as if I have been wrenched from one season into the next. It was to have been 22 kms., but exhaustion overcame me, and I cut out the last uphill/downhill, thus saving myself a couple of kms. The climb up the steep spiral staircase to our room on the third floor was nevertheless almost the final straw. It was however a most beautiful walk, our path through beech woods at first strewn with orchids. From up above St Chély, the view extended for many miles South, towards Rodez and perhaps even beyond. Leaving late, I walked alone almost all day, before catching up with Doug, resting by a stream in the woods. It was another day in deepest countryside, 14kms. before our first proper watering hole. Chez Muriel at the hamlet of Grèzes, with its magnificent view, provided, therefore, an extremely welcome assiette. I caught up with other familiar walkers there too: there was much laughter.
This afternoon, I reached St Chély d'Aubrac: we're now in the Aveyron (having left the Lozère this morning). It's been raining all during today's walking time - it stopped just after I got in; but nothing like the snow which comes regularly in May to these high parts. We were at 1200 metres last night, and touched 1300 today, before descending here (at 800). Tomorrow, we will descend further, into the Lot Valley.
Although 80% of the walkers are French, I feel I'm part of an international family. We pass and repass each other as we go, meeting up in our gîte, or in the bar in the evenings. All very jolly and friendly. I'm not quite the oldest: there's a Frenchman, Jean Cosyns, veteran of walking in Nepal, who's 75; and one or two in their 20s. But it's mostly us recently (or relatively) retired, who are traipsing along this ancient and very wonderful Way, passing through a wonderland of wild flowers.
The fact that they are mainly French is taxing. Smiles however constitute a free currency, and the ability to laugh at oneself comes in useful - I'm dining out heavily on my reputation as the taxi-driven Englishman. My little German, I find handy too, though English is mostly spoken, except of course with the French.
The photograph was taken by Josiane, the nice Bretonne with whom I arrived at Aubrac this morning, a ghostly place. A hospice was founded here 900 years ago, but only vestiges of the original buildings remain. They have left a prayerful aura, nevertheless. The sculpture to my left is inscribed, "Dans le silence et le solitude on n'entend plus que l'essentiel." I stopped for coffee in the village's Domerie hotel: some time later, Jean came running down the path after me, saying that Sophie had found my credit card on the floor of the hotel loo. Thus have I been repaid for picking up Mireille's stick on Sunday.
Despite the rain, there have been some wonderful views on this the day when our walk reached its highest point. And the communal gîte I'm staying in (Dominique alongside once again) is clean and well-equipped, apart from the shower being a bit seedy. It is upstairs from an excellently-resourced tourist information bureau, complete with computer for itinerant bloggers..
Writing this message, however, goes heavily against something I said today to Hauke, my then walking companion: "How good it is to be living in both the here and the now!" In other words not to be constantly Twittering, emailing and... blogging. Ah well.
This fifth day of walking has been the best yet. All day I've been rejoicing in the beauty of God's creation. And this despite failing to follow the signs towards this evening!
I reached today's destination, Nasbinals, this evening at five o'clock, about an hour later than necessary. My sense of direction deserted me after stopping to eat an ice cream - it was delicious - at La Maison de Rosalie at Montgros, just a few kms. away from the end; so I ended up walking two sides of a triangle - an extra three or four kms. in other words - say, 24 in all. Just because I was so enjoying the walk, the views, and the temporary company of Sophie - who subsequently (I discovered) became even more lost than me, and on her first day. Oh dear!
Roland, Dominique and I, on the top floor at Lasbros, were woken early by the four who had been sleeping below: they were out scraping the ice off the windscreens of their two cars before driving them to the end of their intended walk today: they then came back in one of them, which they left at Lasbros before starting out, carrying day packs only. Apparently, this is their procedure day after day: what a palaver!
By the time I left, at 8.30, it was still cool, but the sun was shining - perfect weather for walking. I found it easy going too: the cuckoo and lark were singing as always. After an hour there was coffee Chez Regine (at Les Quatre Chemins), and later elevenses at the rather more up-market Les Gentianes. These places apart, the path passes few signs of human habitation all day. Huge boulders lie in the fields amongst the daffodils either side of the track. Seeing a young German, Hauke (on his first day) leaning against one of them, eating his lunch, gave me the idea to do the same a bit further on. Hard boiled eggs and pain de campagne, followed by Regine's cake, can never have tasted so good. Later, my four Breton friends caught up with me as I inspected two long columns of caterpillars, marching alongside the road. They in turn pointed out fritillaries on the other side of the fence, violas and pansies too.
Conditions are not quite so comfortable (as last night) in our gîte La Grappière, owned by la belle Marjori: our dormitory sleeps 13, and there are only two loos amongst the total of 16 of us. In addition, there are somewhat ambiguous light switches for the two showers: as a consequence I plunged my poor Quebecoise neighbour into darkness. Dominique had very kindly reserved a bed for me next to the door. Roland is staying elsewhere in the town: he is struggling, and the pharmacist (next door to us) advises him not to walk more than 10kms. a day. We three ate at La Route d'Argent, slow service, but delicious steak. It came, however, accompanied by the local delicacy, aligot, made from cheese and potato: well, there is a first and last time for everything.
After saying goodbye to M. Pic - he has a friend in Preston - I was the last to leave, at 8.40 on what was rather a grey morning. In fact, there was only one brief shower all day: better than yesterday in that respect! It was decision day for the French, but in none of the three towns/villages I passed was there much sign of presidential election fever. Seven of us listened to the countdown to the result at supper (cooked - for us three - by Dominique): from what I could understand, none of the six French seemed overly enthusiastic about either candidate, or indeed the result. Dominique had voted blanc. I forgave him, as, upon a sandy patch of track near Chabanes-Planes, he'd written "Go Martin" with the point of his walking pole. Talking of which, on the steep bit, going down to Les Estrets, I saw someone's telescoped blue metal stick lying on the path. At home, I may not even have considered picking it up, but here things are different: anyway, it didn't add greatly to my load, to tuck it in my rucksack. I asked a fellow walker at Les Granges de Bigose whether she knew someone who might have lost theirs. No. But then, just as I was setting off again, she came running back along the track having located the distraught owner. "Vous avez fait une heureuse," I was told. And soon, I caught up with the stick owner, Mireille, her donkey, Quitcho and dog Filou.
The bible here is our Miam-miam-dodo: in the introduction, it says if you are thinking of taking your dog on the pilgrimage: don't! Mireille was clearly impervious to this advice.
So here we are at Lasbros, 24.5kms. further down the way, having passed under the A75 - through a depressing, graffiti-bedecked tunnel a while back. Mme. Hernandez owns two gîtes in this peaceful village on the edge of the Aubrac. She's been in the business only three years, so everything seems fairly new. Gardens about the village remain unplanted, because of the cold weather at this altitude (1100m). There are fine views, and some venerable buildings of a simple mould. A small and rather charming Chapelle de Bastide stands in the middle of a minor road junction just to the East. It's such a pleasure to find all the churches open, and well-cared for, in contrast to most of those we passed on the Via de la Plata two years ago. Some decent modern stained glass in the Eglise Saint-Etienne in Aumont-Aubrac too.
28 kms. today, and I'm exhausted! Not a lot of up and down, but there was a gradual climb to our highest point so far, Le Sauvage - 1292m. Tonight, we are a little lower, at Le Rouget, staying in a gîte on a farm: nice M. Pic's 20 cows lie below, whilst we nine walkers warm ourselves by his cosy woodstove upstairs. The day started bright, rather too much so. But gradually the clouds changed colour, and some very solid rain came. Time to put on my gear, including new galoshes: how do they go? Luckily, I was enjoying my casse-croûte in M. Lahondes' barn at Chazeaux when the storm broke: others weren't so lucky. We passed very few signs of habitation today, just fields full of wild daffodils and large tracts of forestry, much devastated by recent storms - and perhaps disease (thought the Scotsman, Doug, whom I met up with, along with others in the gang during our elevenses stop chez Mme. Delcros at Le Falzet). Le Sauvage itself sits in the middle of nowhere, an ageless refuge, now a gîte, where I dried off for a while before starting on the last lap. Katie, Doug's daughter, treated me to thé au lait (milk, alongside mint tea). The rain stopped at last, but it was 6.15 before I got here, whereupon the heavens opened again. In our room, Dominique and Roland have very decently opted to sleep in the bunk beds, leaving me a double (!) bed. We seem to have almost as much room as the six next door: four Bretons are sharing two beds smaller than mine, and Jacques and Fabien, neither exactly sylphlike, are in bunks. Mme. Pic's veal stew was delicious, but I felt much too tired to do it justice.
I have to keep reminding myself that to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive: it's not a competitive event, but if it were... Well, after a day trying to recall the name of the Jamaican 100m. champion, I now remember it; so:
The winner of the race, it is easy to foretell: Bolt has all the pace, but Davis has the shell.
(Except that I have never replaced the one that broke in Spain!)
We had a little rain, but the sky was blue most of today, and our path bordered with a profusion of violets, orchids and cowslips, not to mention green lizards. It was a shorter walk than yesterday, 16.5 kms, but a stiffer one. This photograph was taken while I was standing by the tiny Chapelle St Jacques de Rochegude, up at 967m. Below lies the Allier river, and the little town of Monistrol (through which our train passed when we were inter-railing in 2008). I chatted to a couple of pilgrim priests whilst crossing the bridge, Opus Dei I strongly suspect. That's of course steeply down at 589m., and some strong coffee was needed before the equally steep, two-hour climb back up to Montaure, 1022m. On my way, I encountered a lone Australian occupational therapist, as one does, by the chapel in the rock of Ste Madeleine. Later, René Alles, a wheelchair-bound farmer/sculptor provided more coffee in his barn at Le Vernet, where I ate my sandwich. His life-size sculpture of a modern pilgrim, shining white, stands outside.
Now, we are at Saugues, a town of 2000 inhabitants, with an excellent Hotel/Restaurant La Terrasse. Roland, Dominique and I ate there, upon Margaret Hyde's earlier recommendation. Quite unfairly, we sniggered together when the maître d. refused to provide poor Australian Judy, sitting alone at a separate table, with steak that was well done.
You've never seen such a cheese trolley! It prompted Dominique to relay the comment of an exasperated de Gaulle: Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?
We three are staying in a bright, spacious gîte at the top of a house on the Southern edge of the town: we have it all to ourselves, what's more. Our hosts, Patrick and Catherine Edon, only opened up last month: their experience as former pilgrims has paid off, their hospitality being in complete contrast with last night's! Saugues' Collegial Church, where we went for our tampons, contains (amongst other treasures) a beautiful 12th Century Virgin and child in majesty.
Here I am, deep in the Auvergne, having had a beautiful first day, after setting out from Le Puy. 24 kms. walked. It's been a little controversial!
But not at the outset: first, there was the 7 a.m. Cathedral mass, followed by pilgrims' blessing. About 100 of us! Will we all find somewhere to sleep tonight? Happily, Roland had booked us in to "his" gîte, at Combriaux - us being me and one of our other room mates last night, Dominique, from Riberac. (It seems that many of the hundred are day pilgrims, not going on to sleep along the way.) After breakfast, I set off along the former pilgrim route, not the main drag that departs past our gîte. My way, advocated on the web, was easy to follow as far as Bains. It enabled me to visit a substantial shrine in Espaly Saint Marcel en route. From there, it's a short, steep climb up to level tracks to Bains, with wonderful backward views to Le Puy and its volcanic outcrops, dotted with monuments. (You can see Espaly's huge St Joseph statue in the lower left of my photograph.)
After a decent lunch at Bains' one and only eaterie, Le Del'ri, and a look at the delightful romanesque church of Sainte Foy, with its 15th Century polychrome stone Pieta, I set off full of confidence - too full, as it turned out. For I was following the wrong set of markings: a lovely walk, but in almost completely the wrong direction! By the time a passing cyclist had put me right, and I'd got back on track, I was soon exhausted. So, after hitting the main road in Montbonnet, I decided to hitchhike. No problem, except that I was dropped in the main square of St Privat, where the whole walking world was assembled to drink beer. Heads turned in horror as a "pilgrim" took his rucksack from the back of a car. And this on the first day!
In one sense I was glad therefore that my destination lay a little further on than St Privat. On the other hand, Combriaux (a quiet hamlet right on the GR) is steeply uphill, 885m., up from 625m. at Le Puy; and in addition Roland's and Dominique's faces on my arrival were not exactly filled with warm endorsement for the set-up at gîte d'étape l'Estaou: I was offered by our host, Serge, either a double bed to share with Roland, or a put-you-up bed in a room of my own, but almost completely full of junk, and with no window. To Roland, master of understatement, it was "original". However, Serge, whose house has been a gîte for 12 years, gradually managed to overcome the chaos surrounding him, providing warmth and quite a decent dinner; and now it's very much time for bed.
At St Etienne station, there was an influx of walkers joining my train: one put his rucksack down opposite me. "Roland," it was inscribed, so I introduced myself. "Enchanté," came the reply. It turned out we were both booked into le gîte des Capucins, and so, upon arrival at Le Puy, just before 2.30, we walked there together. Roland, from Grenoble, is nursing a bad ankle, not a great omen for his pilgrimage. We are sharing a room - two two-tier bunks and a bathroom between the four of us. All very modern and quite comfortable, a well-chosen first billet. (It is in fact the only one I've booked, so there's a test for me!)
After settling in, Roland and I strolled into the old town, and up towards the Cathedral. At the foot of the extremely steep Rue des Tables, we saw this lace maker, sitting outside his shop: he explained the process to us patiently, while he worked away - an extraordinary skill, perfected in Le Puy over more than six centuries.
I thought later that something lacey would make the perfect present to take home; but just now, at the outset of my fortnight's walking, I'm not feeling in present-buying mode. Not that I need have worried too much about the extra weight.
How did people begin to think of building on Le Puy's volcanic pinnacles? Crazy! But at the same time rather wonderful.
It was hot, and Caroline in particular was exhausted by all the walking, biking (Vélib's) and crowds, especially round Notre Dame, so this afternoon we sat with our backs to the Seine embankment on the Quai d' Orléans and watched the world go by, in varying states of undress. We had travelled anti-clockwise: first, passing through the market in Boulevard de Reuilly, dodging the bunches of lily of the valley thrust at us at every turn. Then up onto La Coulée Verte - dodging the joggers this time. That brought us nearly to the Bastille, where we braved the bike hire system for the first time, wobbling via the Place des Vosges to the Centre Pompidou. By then lunch seemed a good idea: from our table on the pavement of Rue des Lombards, we could almost see the Tour St Jacques. Most appropriate, in view of my impending departure for Le Puy-en-Velay tomorrow morning, to walk along his way.