Never trust a shortcut!

I had a interesting experience on the Via Podiensis the other day – one that I don’t care to repeat. But, in the interests of fair and open journalism I have decided to share it with you all, my dear readers. During my initial planning for this walk months ago, and based on recommendations I had received months ago, I had decided at this point to leave the GR65 for a day and take a variant route to the town of St. Palais. I had my route all planned in advance, based on the maps shown in my guide book. But, at breakfast that morning the owner of the gite where I had spent the night pointed out that there was now a new “shortcut” that had been created by the local Amis de la Chemin de St. Jacques (Friends of the Camino) that would save me 2km. That part sounded pretty good, so I decided to take a chance and follow the new shortcut.

I was assured that the turnoff to the shortcut would be well marked and impossible to miss. There was to be a large yellow sign pointing out the way. Well, that part was correct. I found the sign right where it was expected to be, made the turn, and started down the road that was to save me 2km. (You can tell where this is going, can’t you?) Well, in a kilometer or two I saw yellow arrows painted on trees, similar to those used in Spain for Camino directions, pointing down a road through the woods to the left. So, down the road I went.

This road turned out to be the muddiest trail of my entire Camino due to many tractors that had recently been up and down the road, chewing up the dirt and turning it into a veritable quagmire. The consistency of this mud was similar to wet concrete. There was no way to keep from getting my boots totally mucked up. After a kilometer or so of this mess the road sort of evaporated in a newly harvested field with no obvious way forward. I guess I could have turned around and gone back, but I still thought I was on the new “shortcut” trail and couldn’t bring myself to face that muddy road again.

So, onward I trudged through the field hoping the trail would soon reappear and in no time at all found myself hopelessly lost with no clear way forward. I was only sure that I didn’t know where I was or which way to go. I saw a fence line in the distance that I thought (hoped) might have a road next to it and headed that way. Long story short, I ended up crossing three fields, fought through tangled underbrush and thick blackberry briar thickets, had to ford a creek (boots got totally wet there), and dealt with at least three nicely installed barbed wire fences. The fences and my backpack just didn’t get along and, at one point, I ended up on my back in the muddy wet field with my backpack caught in the barbed wire. I might add that there was blood involved in this fiasco – thankfully, not much.

At moments like this you really start to question why you are doing this and what you will do next. The only thing I was sure of was that I had to do something and couldn’t just give up and stop. That just wasn’t an option. I was lost in the woods and there was no one else around to help out. It was up to me to figure out a way to extract myself from the current situation. To put it simply, it was not a pleasant situation for me. Anyway, after battling the fences, fields, mud, woods, and briars I finally made it to the aforementioned fence line and, lo and behold, there was a farm road there. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I wasn’t going to die in the forest alone, except for the wild animals. But, which way to go.

I consulted my Miam Miam Dodo guidebook and picked the direction I thought would be best and might hopefully lead to a more prominent road and some sort of civilization. But, to my surprise, after walking a while, I saw one of the white and red GR65 trail markers! I was somehow back on the GR65! That was a hopeful sign, but I still didn’t know in which direction I was going. Was I on the road toward St. Palais or back toward my gite from last night?

Well, after 15 minutes or so, I saw a sign beside the road, which was another hopeful development. But, upon reaching it I discovered that it was the original yellow sign announcing the “shortcut!” I was right back where I started after my “lost in the forest” adventure and it was an hour and a half later!

So much for this “shortcut.” I’m thankful it wasn’t any worse than it was. But, it was an hour and a half of misery. It did add some color to my adventure and, given that I survived relatively unscathed and now knew where I was and, given that it was really the first time on the whole trek that I was truly lost, it wasn’t all that bad. At a minimum it gave me an interesting war story to tell. Later in the day I spoke with another pair of pilgrims who also got lost following this shortcut. So, I guess the moral of the story is, don’t trust a last minute shortcut recommendation unless you have sufficient time to check it out for yourself.

I don’t know what it is about St. Palais and getting lost, but it seems to be a fairly common occurrence. I have read several reports of other pilgrims getting lost while taking this variant. This is mostly because the route is unmarked and you have to rely on your map reading skills which, in the actual moment, may fail you no matter how good you think they are. In fact, Later in the day I made a second wrong turn and, while it wasn’t as momentous as the first one, it did cost me another 2-3km before I finally actually arrived in St. Palais. Before it was over my hoped for 16km day probably ended up taking something more like 25 km! Ouch!

However, one beautiful thing happened as I trudged into town. After my earlier mistakes I wasn’t especially confident and still felt a bit lost. So, I stopped in a store to ask for directions and a sweet lady – a customer – said she knew where my gite was located, loaded me into her car, and personally drove me the final few blocks! Who says the French aren’t wonderful, giving people. This lady was a true Camino angel! Bless her!

So, after all this, what did I think of St. Palais. Well, I was totally underwhelmed. It’s a nice enough town, I suppose, and has a lovely church, but not worth a special detour to visit, in my humble opinion. One other nice thing was that I was the only pilgrim in the gite 12 bed dormitory. No one snoring!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Getting close to St. Jean Pied de Port

The last couple of days have been very pleasant for walking. There have been a few more hills to navigate up and down, but the scenery has been beautiful with new pastoral vistas around every corner. There were a few short showers yesterday, but today was warm and sunny – perfect weather for walking. I have found that the days are blending together and I’m finding it difficult to keep the individual towns and gites clear in my mind. They are all tending to meld together into one amorphous whole. I’m trying to help them retain their individuality, but it’s difficult. So much has transpired over the past 36 days.

I made it to Aroue today and have only three more days until I reach St. Jean Pied de Port. Yesterday’s walk ended in the town of Navarrenx (which is one of the most beautiful towns in France – a sign upon entering the town will tell you so.) The town’s fortification walls are still standing and are pretty much intact. I was especially taken by the old Porte Espagna (Spanish Gate.).

The townsfolk take a lot of pride in their town. I saw one team of city employees vacuuming up the leaves that had fallen onto the street! I could use their help a home although I suspect it is a losing battle. I also enjoyed a wonderful dinner of salad and seafood soup at the Gite Le Cri de la Girafe in Navarrenx. It was a very nice gite – clean, recently remodeled, and with wonderful hosts: Fabian and Maria.

Tomorrow I will be taking the variant to St. Palais. The variant is unmarked, so I hope I don’t get lost! Bon Chemin!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Rainy day in Lectoure

At this point in my journey I am only a week away from my primary destination goal of this walk – the town of St. Jean Pied de Port – the point where the Camino Frances begins. I have been walking now for 34 days and have covered almost 650 km (400 miles) which means I only have about 135 km (85 miles) left! It is exciting to realize that this adventure will soon be over and that I will be wending my way home shortly.

After a lot of soul searching (there’s plenty of time for that while walking alone all day long) I have pretty much decided to stop walking once I get to St. Jean. A Sunday stroll of 790km (495 miles) is probably enough for an old guy like me. I don’t need to prove anything by walking another 790km all the way to Santiago. After all, I already walked that Camino three years ago.

However, I would still like to obtain a Compostella from the Cathedral in Santiago – the document certifying that I “officially” completed my pilgrimage. So, after arriving in St. Jean Pied de Port I am planning to travel by various means to the town of Sarria, Spain, which is just beyond the 100km minimum distance required for obtaining the Compostella. That portion of the Camino will present a real culture shock to me since large multitudes of pilgrims begin their walk there – all of them in hopes of also obtaining a Compostella. I am so used to walking alone almost all the time that the congested trail from Sarria will take some time for adjustment on my part.

Since my last posting I have traveled through some of the most beautiful towns and countryside in France. Many of the towns have been designated as “one of the most beautiful towns in France” and most of them are justified in claiming that designation. The churches and cathedrals are beautiful in a majestic, stately way. They don’t have the stunning gold altar pieces (called “retablos”) that you see in Spain, but they have a true beauty all their own. I try to at least peek inside every church (from cathedrals to tiny village chapels) that I pass along the way and am rarely disappointed. To be honest, this trek has been decidedly less spiritual than the pilgrimage through Spain a few years back, but the frequent visits to these houses of worship, which are almost always open, is uplifting and provides a spiritual element I otherwise find missing. The walk and the people are lovely, but it’s just not a particularly spiritual pilgrimage.

Last week I had my first taste of rain. It showered briefly on and off for a couple of days. But, then it decided to rain steadily for several hours as I approached the town of Lectoure – hence the title of this posting. Walking in the rain is a unique experience. It’s not especially bad, but it’s also not my favorite thing to do. But, you have to keep walking, so onward into the rain you go. During this rainy day my rain gear (poncho, primarily) kept me and my pack dry, but my boots were wet and quite muddy (on the outside only, thank goodness.) I arrived at my gite in Lectoure dripping wet and the gite owner was kind enough to let me in early so I could drop off my pack and hang up my poncho to dry. Such is life on the Camino. Since then, there have been a couple of short showers and lots of threatening skies, but no serious rain. I hope that trend holds for the next week or so.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Marcilhac sur Cele

As I write this I am sitting outside my gite for the night in the village of Marcilhac sur Cele. Having come by way of the river road rather than the rugged mountain route I have arrived before noon and the gite has not yet opened for the day. I am in the celebrated Cele River valley on the Cele “variant” of the GR65. The GR65 (grande randonee, or grand hiking route) is one of many long-distance hiking trails throughout France. GR65 is the route number assigned to the Via Podiensis or Way of Le Puy which runs in a generally southwestern direction from the city of Le Puy en Velay to the town of St. Jean Pied de Port (a distance of about 500 miles) where it connects with the Camino Frances in Spain. The CF then runs an additional 500 miles to Santiago, Spain, where the remains of the Apostle St. James are interred in a beautiful silver reliquary casket beneath the main altar. The cathedral in Santiago is the ultimate destination for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago.

The Cele River valley is flanked on each side by towering, sheer stone cliffs that rise hundreds of feet straight up from the valley floor. However, since I chose to walk the river road, today was a relatively easy day as the road followed the meandering Cele River and was essentially flat. I missed the opportunity to see the spectacular cliffside views of the valley that the variant is noted for, but my choice gave my body some time to recuperate a bit from the physically demanding trails I have been hiking for the past two weeks. While the scenery has been uniformly beautiful, the GR65 trail itself has been much more difficult for me than the Camino Frances was when I hiked it several years ago. So, I have decided to listen to my body and throttle back a bit when I am able. The walk is still extremely beautiful.

During this trip I have enjoyed the company of members of my somewhat fluid Camino family. I call it fluid since people are continuously joining and departing the group as schedules and walking paces demand. But there has been a core of about a dozen wonderful pilgrims who have been hiking roughly the same route and staying in the same towns along the way for the past week or two. The members are people from France, Germany, Canada, and the US. As I continue on I expect to make new friends even as the old ones part ways to return to their “real” lives or pick different destinations or routes.

I have also been happily welcomed by the French pilgrims who numerically dominate route. They are warm and exceptionally pleasant people who have gone out of their way to make me feel at home and part of the group since day one. This is in spite of my fairly limited French language skills (which are improving day by day.) Last night I was the only English speaker among the 14 people at dinner, but by the time the cheese course arrived at the end of the meal I felt comfortable and part of the conversation as we talked about our experiences to date on the route and our home towns and countries.

And, I have been enjoying wonderful meals every evening. We joke about the fact that, even after walking 6-8 hours a day, we are still putting on weight! I have opted for “demi-pension” (or half-board) as often as I can when making gite reservations. With this option, in addition to your bed you are served a home-cooked dinner, served family-style with the other pilgrims, and often featuring regional specialties and a European style breakfast. We enjoyed lentils du Puy for the first several nights and then aligot (a delicious mixture of mashed potatoes and cheese) for the next couple of nights. Everything has been delicious and it is around the dinner table that you get to know the other pilgrims and the Camino families form and grow.

My poor old body has suffered a bit during this walk, partly due to the fact than I am older than I was three years ago and partly because of the significantly more rugged trail. But after a couple of weeks, I am getting more in shape and walking is not so difficult as it was at first. I have also had some minor issues with one of my feet, but that seems to be coming under control, too. While this hike seems (and really is) a grand adventure, it is at the same time a physically demanding experience. It’s not a walk in the park and anyone contemplating this hike would be well-advised to research and plan ahead carefully and try to prepare for it a much as possible before taking that first step.

My plans from here are to continue for the next few days through the Cele Valley and then reconnect with the main GR65 route. So far I have walked about 300km (about 190 miles) and still have about 485km (300 miles) to reach St. Jean. At that point I will decide whether to continue on to Santiago or to recognize that hiking 500 is far enough and return home. At best, it’s 50-50 odds at this point. We’ll see how it all plays out over the next few weeks. Stay tuned for updates as they become available.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

The most beautiful town in France…

I am writing this from the medieval city of Conques, which is the most beautiful town in France. If you don’t believe it, there’s even a sign as you enter the town that will tell you so. In fact, this is the third “most beautiful town in France” I’ve been to this week. But, I can tell you… this one really is the most beautiful so far! It has delightful twisty, turny streets and timbered facades, like something out of Charles Dickens. There are very few straight lines and square corners in the village center, which only adds to its charm.

DSCN9272

In the heart of the village is the magnificent Abbey Church of St. Foy. The tympanum above the main doors is one of the gems of 12th century French art and contains 124 separate carved figures depicting the last judgment in vivid detail. Many of the figures are shown going to their glorious heavenly reward. Others are not faring nearly as well. It is simply stunning in its detail and artistry. Tucked in around the edges of the tympanum are curious little figures who look like they are trapped behind the stonework and are peeking out, perhaps looking for a way to escape. The church itself has soaring interior vaulted ceilings and lends itself to the spiritual reflection and worship for which it is intended. I attended vespers a short time after arriving and compline (with a pilgrim blessing) later in the evening. Very spiritually fulfilling.

DSCN9233

DSCN9288

DSCN9266

I chose to take today off as a rest day and rode the bus in from Estaing around noontime yesterday rather than walking. Since arriving in Conques I have been able to reconnect with perhaps a dozen of my Camino acquaintances. I keep hearing people calling out “Robert” and I meet up again with another familiar pilgrim. (In France, that’s pronounced “rho-bear”, by the way – and don’t forget to roll that “r” a little, if you can.). I am feeling revitalized and now know that it was a good decision to sit rather than walk today. Tomorrow I plan to resume the walk. I have been told that it’s not as brutal from this point on. Whew and thank goodness!

In the week or so leading up to today I have been humbled by the Camino. The first day was especially difficult since the straps on my backpack were not adjusted correctly and I was not in any semblance of trail shape. I experienced some doubt as to whether I could actually do this pilgrimage. But things improved remarkably after the straps were adjusted and the excruciating aches and pains disappeared. My confidence returned!

So far, it has been an exceptionally beautiful walk. But, the steep, rugged ascents and descents have been very challenging and the heat (90 degrees or so) for the past couple of days are what led up to my decision to sit one out for today. In addition, rain had been forecast for today, but it didn’t amount to much. Over the next several days I have been told the temperature and the trail difficulty will both moderate a bit.

Since leaving Le Puy en Velay I have crossed the Aubrac plateau and the Lot River valley. In the Aubrac, which many consider the most beautiful portion of the route, I found myself within a vast pastureland and lovely wooded forests. In several stretches I shared the trail with bovine herds, walking right among the cows. There were warnings not to touch or otherwise startle the cows and definitely not to walk between a cow and her calf. So, I was careful but didn’t have any problems. The herds were gentle and docile. All they seemed to be interested in was eating the grass and chewing their cud – such well developed cheek and jaw muscles! My guidebook says that as many as 50,000 head of cattle live in the area – the most common breed being the beige long-horned Aubrac. (No surprise there.) I think I saw most of them. The sound of cowbells was a constant pastoral companion. Most of the cattle are bred for meat, but the region is also noted for its cheese, which we are served at the end of dinner just about every night. The Lot River valley and portions of the Aubrac have been designated as UNESCO world heritage sites, for good reason. They are incomparable.

IMG_0506

I have been staying in “gites,” which are the communal accommodations on the Via Podiensis, similar to albergues on the Spanish portion of the Camino. The main difference, is that I have also been requesting “demi-pension” when offered. (It just about always is.) With the DP option, you are served a family-style dinner, cooked in the family’s kitchen and often featuring regional specialties. You also are served a typical European breakfast in the morning, consisting of coffee, juice, toast, butter and jam. The overall quality of the food has been excellent – the French do love well-prepared food – and the convenience can’t be beat. It is during these communal meals that the Camino families really start to form. French is the language spoken, but I’ve discovered that even a little French goes a long way and the other pilgrims go out of their way to include you in the conversation and make you feel welcome and part of the group.

IMG_0710

I have stayed in several lovely towns along the way, especially Aubrac where the gite was located inside a 12th century defensive tower (the oldest gite in France) and Estaing – the “most beautiful town in France.” (If you don’t believe it, there is a sign coming into town that will tell you so.) It really was quite beautiful, but not quite as beautiful as Conques. (Sorry, Estaing!) I have now covered almost 200 km (125 miles) and only have about 525km (325 miles) to go to reach St. Jean Pied de Port – the traditional starting point of the Spanish Camino (called the “Camino Frances” since it begins in France.)

I will strive to post a bit more frequently as the days go by. It’ll be more likely if the trail and weather really do moderate.

Buen Camino.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Paris, je t’aime!

DSCN8558

As I write this I am speeding across the French countryside on one of the famous high-speed TGV trains from Paris to Lyons. From there I will switch to local trains for the final stretch into Le Puy. It’s ironic to me that the way I start this pilgrimage – a intentional slowing down experience – is on a high-speed train. But being a train enthusiast I am loving it. The French countryside is beautifully pastoral with miles of well-tended farmland interspersed with picture postcard quaint towns and woodlands. It’s a powerful form of solace for the anxious soul.

I continue to approach this pilgrimage with some trepidation, but it has been noticeably easing the closer I get to that first step. I am sometimes criticized for over-planning my trips, but have to say that so far everything is going according to plan. I arrived in Paris yesterday morning after a pleasant and uneventful flight from San Diego. (That’s the way I like my flights!) My bag was one of the first off the baggage carousel and I made it through immigration and customs in only about 15-20 minutes! I made a detour to the train station (located within the airport terminal – this airport has been very well planned for the multimodal traveler – and picked up my tickets to Le Puy. Making my reservation on-line streamlined the process. All I had to do was stop in the SNCF (French rail service) ticket office and pick up the actual tickets. Merci beaucoup.

Next stop was my hotel, located right at the airport and accessible by the free airport rail shuttle plus a walk of less than a block. I chose the Ibis Styles hotel in part because it was nearby and was fairly inexpensive, but also because I’ve had previous positive experience with them. The hotel is no frills, but it’s fairly new, spotlessly clean, and totally adequate for the night. I’m going into this detail to reassure anyone who might be contemplating a similar trip and wondering how difficult it might be. All I can say is it couldn’t be a whole lot easier.

Since it was only about 11am and I was already in my room (having checked in on-line my room was ready when I arrived), I took advantage of the rest of the day to do a little sightseeing in Paris – only a 40 minute train ride from the hotel on the “Paris by train” line (RER B) to the St. Michael/Notre Dame station.

DSCN8590What can I say? People who know me will tell you that Paris is my favorite city. It’s the one city that looks just the way you had it pictured in your mind. The people are beautifully stylish and friendly. I love it! Paris, je t’aime! My intent was to limit my visit to places related to the Camino. No Eiffel Tower, Louvres, or Champs Elysees this time. Notre Dame Cathedral is the traditional starting point of the Paris Camino, so that was my primary focus point. I found a very long line of tourists waiting to enter the church at the security checkpoint, but spoke to the security guard about getting my pilgrim passport stamped and he ushered me to the very front of the line and I was in. So, another “Camino grace” enabled me to quickly obtain my first stamp and avoid a long wait in line. Sweet!

DSCN8513

Aside from the onslaught of tourists – most of whom seem to have little or no reverence for the sacred spaces within – the interior of the cathedral is sublimely beautiful with soaring columns, exquisite stained glass, and religious iconography and artwork beyond compare. Attending mass later in the day was a highlight of my day with a traditional Latin liturgy, ethereal singing, and magnificent organ music that filled the sanctuary

At the recommendation of my wife, I registered to climb to the top of the cathedral towers – about 400 steps up several tight spiral staircases! They have instituted a fairly non-intuitive reservation process where you are assigned a tour time instead of waiting in line – in my case four hours away! They only allow groups of about 20 people at a time into the towers with a new group ascending every 10 minutes or so.

This provided me time to visit a couple of other Camino-related sights including the Tour St. Jacques (St. James Tower) and the Rue St. Jacques which was the route followed by pilgrims out of Paris over the centuries. I also found time for a bite to eat – faux filet and frites (not sure what “faux” filet is, but it was a cut of beef and tasted great.)

At my assigned time I returned to the checkin line for the cathedral towers, met a delightful young couple from Plymouth, England, while waiting in line and made the climb. While it was arduous, my legs felt fine (thank you for all that preparatory hiking in San Diego) and the views were magnificent. There is no better way to gain an appreciation for these towers than climbing up and experiencing them for yourself.

So, now after this whirlwind day, I have had a good night’s sleep and am off to Le Puy. I’m felling that I’m no longer in Kansas, as they say, but I’m feeling pretty good about life at the moment. I’m in a familiar mode of changing from my “normal” self into the persona of a pilgrim (pelerin in French or peregrino in Spanish). Within a day or two, I will be Peregrino Roberto once again and the adventure can truly begin.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

I am finally ready (aren’t I?)

Well, tickets are purchased, hotel reservations are waiting, plans are firmed up, and my bag is packed. So, why do I still feel like there’s more to do and why is my anxiety level playing nasty games with me? My bag weighed in a bit heavier than I hoped for – and, no, I’m not about to divulge the final weight. I’m too embarrassed! Let’s just say that it’s about what I carried last time. So, I’m not particularly concerned about it. But, I really did try to keep the weight down. Not sure why I feel that every item in the pack is absolutely necessary, but I do. I’ve decided not to stress over it. There’s plenty else to occupy my mind. The bag is packed and I’m going with it. The shuttle to the airport will be here at 5:40 tomorrow morning and I will be on my way. It’ll be hard to turn back once we have wheels up. This will be a grand adventure for me and I am really looking forward to getting it underway. Tonight I’m just gonna try and relax and let tomorrow take care of itself. I’ve assumed the lotus position and am about to start reciting my mantra…”Ommm…”

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments