Saturday, June 28, 2014

General Gîte Notes

Trying to catch up on some notes I've made in my journal, here’s just a few observations about some accommodations I’ve had along the way...

June 17th. I had to walk 4 kilometers on a busy the national highway, the N94, to St. Crépin. No fun, but obviously I survived to write this. As soon as I could I made my way to a smaller road, D38, and climbed into the mountains on my way to L’Argentière-la-Bessée. It’s cooled off quite a bit, which feels absolutely wonderful, but with the cooler air came the rain clouds. It was even a little chilly in the mountains, especially when there was a breeze. The first couple of hours of the morning were clear, but then it began to sprinkle, by early afternoon I was hearing thunder rolling through the mountains and by 3:30 there was a steady rain. There are very few places to eat in this area, at least on the road I’m walking, so I felt very fortunate to find a store in L’Argentière-la-Bessée to buy supplies for dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch.

Strange thing is, as I write this, I’m sitting in a gîte called Le Moulin Papillon, I’ve already taken a shower and I’m having a little snack of bread and cheese and a glass of wine, and I still haven’t even checked in. I met one of the other guests as I got here. He showed me to the bunk room and told me the owner wouldn’t
Fording a treacherous mountain river. I almost got my
boots wet. 
be back for a while but there was plenty of room so take a bed and hang out until she returns. This would never happen in Spain, where, before you take your bed or room, as the case may be, you present your passport and pay for the night. In France, sometimes I’m not even asked for my name. I’ve only showed a passport twice—once at a hostel in Perpignan that was a member of a large network of hostels around Europe, the other was at a hostel in Arles that was a part of a large hotel. In all other cases, ID is an afterthought and payment is taken just before one leaves. Usually, I have to find the hospitallier to take my money. An unscrupulous pilgrim could travel all over France without paying for a night of lodging. I love Spain but Spaniards can be pretty rigid about legal and procedural matters. This French attitude of trust is very refreshing. (Note: I'm posting this sometime later from Italy. Italy is like Spain - no passport, no bed.)

If you ever get to Embrun, I recommend the gîte I found there, “Les Echelettes.” It’s a part of the owner’s house, remodeled and converted into a communal sleeping arrangement, (you don’t get your own room), but if you’re traveling cheap, that’s the only way to go. When I arrived the owner was just starting a load of laundry and offered to put my clothes in also. Not having to do a load of hand washing is one of those little things that a pilgrim remembers fondly about a gîte. The owner remodeled an old (ancient?) house so it’s clean, modern, and very comfortable. You’ll have to climb a very tight circular stairway to get to the beds; no problem for someone who’s been walking hundreds of kilometers.

The day after Embrun my guide suggested walking to Châteauroux-les-Alps, but that’s a relatively short walk so I didn’t want to stop there. The next suggested stage had me stopping in St. Crépin which was a
Leaving Embrun
walkable distance, but as usual, there’s no place to stay for the night there, unless you’re prepared to spend about $100. But as I was walking, I stopped in the little village of St. Ettienne and met someone who was walking the other direction, going to Santiago. He had spent the previous night in a gîte at the citadel in Mont Dauphin, so I made that my goal for the day.

Naturally, in mountainous country, you’d put your citadels on top of the highest ground you can find, right? So there I was, at the end of a long day, climbing to the top of the highest point for miles around, just the place to keep watch to make sure those Italians weren’t coming to take over your country. But it was worth the climb. I wish I had had more time to wander around the village that has developed
Entering the citadel through a drawbridge.
Not pictured: Knights on top of the ramparts making crude
comments to me such as, "I fart in your general direction!"
within the walls of the citadel on top of Mont Dauphin. It’s full of small artisan shops, bakeries, and cafes. I didn’t get there until closing time, just before 6:00, so I could only see the storefronts and closed shops. But Le Glacier Bleu, my gîte for the night was open of course and even had room for me. (Since I didn't have a phone number to make a reservation, I knew I was taking a risk climbing all that way. Needless to say, I was relieved.) The price was only 18€ for a shared room, not including dinner and breakfast. Fortunately I had enough food to hold me over; I think the price with full board was 40€. I’d recommend this gîte as an affordable lodging IF you’re not allergic to cats. There’s only one there, but he’s VERY friendly and I was finding cat hair on my computer for 2 days afterward.

The view from the citadel

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lurs to Peipin

The day after a restful night in Lurs

I woke rested and ready to take on the world this morning. I had to, because Ganagobie was in front of me. I left Lurs, a beautiful, little medieval village, but sadly, without a café, and walked north toward the monastery of Ganagobie. I knew a climb was coming.
Stations of the Cross on a road leading into Lurs. I was
leaving by this road.
Leaving Lurs you take a long, leisurely stroll down-hill into a valley, knowing that every foot down you go on the down slope will be made up with a rise of 2 feet on the up slope when you get near the monastery. I think it’s about 900 feet over a distance of 5km down, then you climb higher than Lurs to get to Ganagobie over a 2km path up the mountain. Needless to say, the climb to Ganagobie is exhausting.
I’ll never learn: I was so looking forward to stopping for a cold one when I got to Ganagobie. Unfortunately, the monastery is dry. Well, not exactly—I stopped in the souvenir shop to see if by some miracle they had cold drinks (I’d take a Coke at this point) but of course, found none. I did find a useful map of the area I’d be walking the next couple of weeks, so I bought that. The priest running the store spoke almost no English, but I was able to communicate that I was not going south to Santiago as he assumed, but east to Rome. He then offered to stamp my pilgrim credentials and when I asked if there might be some water nearby, he took me through a gate to a workshop where I was at least able to get a drink of fresh water from a faucet. (The water I carry in my backpack, as I’ve mentioned, always tastes like plastic and is heated by the sun in the tube that runs from the pack to my right shoulder strap, so every time I take a drink, it nice and hot and tastes horrible.)
That was at the monastery. The ancient church was just down the path another couple hundred meters, and I was looking forward to seeing it. But, a service had just ended and the priest was ushering people out of the church. He could see me and a few other people approaching, but basically shut the door in our faces. Visiting hours were over. Come back later (and bring the broomstick with you, I almost heard him say). No matter—if you’ve seen one 11th century church, you’ve seen them all.

I noted that the village of Ganagobie was only 1.5km away. Certainly there would be a café there. I headed
Way to the left is Lurs, where I had walked from, down through
the valley of the shadow of death and back up!
down the trail to the village, only about 18 minutes away, only to find that there was not a single commercial establishment in the village. It was just a bunch of houses on the mountainside. This was getting old; in Spain, no self-respecting pueblo doesn’t have a bar. I can’t figure these French people out. What do they do when they want a beer?

No problem, the village of Peyruis was only 4km away. I could see it from the mountain down below and it was a large village. Four kilometers takes less than an hour to walk, especially downhill, so I began walking. About 3km down the trail (I was following one of the GR trails), after crossing a Roman viaduct, still supplying water to the area, I came to a sign telling me to take a left away from the village and climb back into the hills. What the heck? I thought. I hadn’t been following my guide because there had been well-marked trails the entire day. So, I headed drastically up and away from Peyruis, climbing yet again, feeling every painful step up the trail. I’d gotten about 500 meters into the trail, climbing up and away from the village, and decided it would be a good idea to consult the map I had bought at the monastery. That told me very little, so I looked at the guidebook to see what it had to say. Here’s what it said, “NOTE: The GR continues on the far side of the road making a steep climb into the hills before rejoining our route in Peyruis.” Steep climb? No shit. I walked back down but had gone far away from where I could have just continued along the road, so I looked down from my vantage point and saw where I might be able to descend into civilization and find the highway. I found myself, yet again, walking along a highway, dodging French drivers. (Whom, I might add, are absolutely fearless when it comes to passing another car on a curve.)

Eventually, though, I found my way to Peyruis, only to find that I was there during siesta. Oh, you didn’t know they take siesta in France too? Until a week or so ago, I didn’t either. The first shop I came to was a “sandwicheria.” Yep, a sandwich shop. One of those things that people eat in the afternoon for lunch. Unfortunately it closed at 1:30 and didn’t open until 5:00. I kept walking and found another café. Closed. I found a pizza restaurant. Closed. A bar. Closed. I finally came to the only café in town that was open and had that cold beer I’d been waiting for. It’s been in the 90’s here, cloudless skies, windless. I’m sure I’d expended about 4,500 calories since daybreak. I deserved a beer.

From the café I called the cheapest lodging in town, where I had made reservations the previous day for directions. Cheap is 31€, but let me tell you, Le Bartèu in Peyruis is a wonderful place to stay. (Rubina and Marcos: if you’re reading this I finally got a postcard to send to you. I was looking for something unique for your collection.) On a pilgrim budget, 31€ is expensive, but as lodgings in France go, it’s a steal. And what a wonderful place. My room is modern, clean, and very comfortable. At that price, I share the shower, but I have a bathroom (water closet) in my room. Oh, and did I mention that 31€ includes dinner and breakfast? I’m sitting here writing, trying to digest the dinner before I go to bed. It started out with a delicious salad of greens, tomatoes, olives, ham, and homemade dressing. The main course was a delicately seasoned pasta dish and a perfectly cooked roast beef. (I know it was perfectly cooked, because it was just like my mother makes it.) Then they brought out a cheese plate, which I had with the wonderful French bread on the table, and then, as if that weren’t enough, they served flan for desert. Of course, the meal included as much wine as I wanted. It was a basic table wine, but it went with the meal perfectly. (As I edit this well after the fact, I have noted that French table wine is, for the most part, superior to Spanish and Italian. Not to denigrate either country—I’m just saying…) I don’t know what breakfast will be like, but I’m actually looking forward to waking up. (Why I didn't get a picture of the house and grounds I'll never know. They were beautiful.)

One other note before I sign off for this post: When I arrived, the hospitaliers had guests—friends from down the road. One of them Maria-Jose, spoke a little Spanish so I was able to talk with her. When she found out I was on a pilgrimage to Rome, she called a friend of hers who had also walked to Rome from a village I was in 2 nights ago to see if she might know someone who would put up a pilgrim tomorrow night along my planned route. She did, and arranged free lodging for me in Peipin with a friend of hers. Sometimes it’s easy to get discouraged and wonder how I’ll make it financially. Then along comes this kind of thing and I’m chomping at the bit to see what the next day brings.

(Writing this after the following night’s activities.)

That was a really nice evening. After a little miscommunication, Silvie picked me up at the café, the only café in town, and took me to her nice house in the hills surrounding Peipin, where I’d walked from Peyruis. Maria Jose had told me that Silvie would pick me up between 4:00 and 5:00, but somehow Silvie got the message
The author "meditating," waiting for Sylvie
that I would call her when I got to Peipin. I arrived there at about 2:00 and made myself a nuisance at the café for a while, then went over to a park and tried to meditate for 2 hours until the appointed 4:00 hour. At 4:00 I went back to the café, ordered a lemonade, and sat, waiting for my hostess. A couple of kilometers away, my hostess was sitting—had been sitting— waiting for my call since 2:00. Maria-Jose told me that Silvie didn’t speak much English, so, even though I had her phone number, I didn’t call. About 5:45 I called Maria-Jose to see if anything had changed; maybe I should start looking for another place to sleep. Maria-Jose’s husband answered and told me she wasn’t available, but that she’d be back in 20 minutes or so and he’d give her the message that I was still waiting for Silvie. About this time, after waiting for over 4 hours, I was getting more than a little discouraged. There was no place else in town to sleep, so I figured I’d be spending my first night camping in the wild. The day had been, and was still hot. The flies were buzzing around my tastefully (for a fly- sweaty body, and I was not looking forward to occupying myself in some farmer’s field until dark.

But then Maria-Jose called to tell me that there had been a misunderstanding and that Silvie would be there in just a few minutes. Almost immediately Silvie did drive up, and it turns out she spoke very passable English. She took me to here artsy house in the hills and I had an extremely pleasant evening with her and Ted, her husband. We discussed my upcoming route and the necessity of shortening my time on the road for financial considerations. She made some calls to friends to see if she might be able to line up some home-stays for me in my upcoming stops. (She couldn’t, but I appreciate that she tried nevertheless.) She gave me the name of a friend who worked in the tourist office in Sisteron, where I was headed next, and said she’d call ahead; maybe her friend would know of some pilgrim-friendly families. This is the kind of thing that warms a pilgrim’s heart.

She showed me to my bedroom, which was decorated in a Hindu style, and the bathroom (not the water closet, the bathroom was just for bathing) which was large and modern and with a separate tub and shower area, and then the water closet, which was wallpapered in comic strips. The toilet seat was of a Hawaiian theme, complete with a picture of a shark on the back of the toilet seat, which was shaped as if it had a shark bite taken out of it. This woman has a unique and very interesting decorating style. I think the most interesting thing in the house was the kitchen sink, which wasn’t really a sink, but a slab of rock that had been used for centuries for hand washing clothes. Someone had masterfully put a drain in it, but it was basically just a well-worn slab of rock, sloping toward the drain.

And the dinner she prepared was simple but way more than the average pilgrim ever receives. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the sheep tripe she prepared was out-of-this-world delicious. (Yes, tripe, the lining of a sheep’s stomach.) She had wrapped each portion of tripe around “herbs-de-Provence,” whatever those are and cooked them in a delicious red sauce. I had several helpings of the sauce so I could soak it up in the French bread she served with the meal. (Maybe my son will add a comment and tell me what “herbs-de-Provence” are. Whatever they are, they sure make for a tasty meal.) In addition to the tripe, she served sheep’s feet—also very good once you got past all the bones. But they were in that sauce; just about anything would have been good in that. She also served an excellent potato and cheese dish, and we had wine with the meal, of course. We sat on their deck eating and watching the moon rise over the mountains. All was right with the world once again. After dinner, Ted brought out a liqueur called Génépi, that was made from some alpine flower: the perfect end to a perfect meal. I forced myself to stop after a second round.
Sipping Génépi, sitting on Ted and Sylvie's deck in Peipin after
a great meal. Does it get any better?


The sounds here can be very different from Seattle, Washington or Lisbon, Iowa. For one, the swallows are constant: they fly seemingly in random patterns, swooping and diving at 150 miles per hour, all the while making a high-pitched sound somewhere between a screech and a whistle. There may be hundreds of them in the air over the plaza at the same time, all vying for the same airspace. I’ve come to believe that if we could somehow understand what they’re saying it would be something like, “Watch out! Here I come! Behind you! Hey! Who taught you how to fly?! That was my bug! F-you, buddy!” If they had one, they’d be giving each other the finger. I’m sure that’s where the expression, “Giving someone the bird” came from. Even though they can be noisy, I, for one, am glad they are there. Imagine how bad the bugs would be if they weren’t.

And there are doves everywhere. In the morning and night you can always hear them singing their one-note melody in 5/8 time. It’s like Morse code, only using “hoo” instead of dit and dot. The rhythm is “short-long-short-(short rest)” then repeat three to five times. If I had musical notation capabilities in this document I could write it better. Try, “hoo-hoooo-hoo-rest, hoo-hoooo-hoo-rest.” I think with a little ear training they could sing a simple rendition of Dave Brubeck’s Take 5

I was going to say I never hear them cooing, that they must save that for one-on-one situations, but then, as I write this, there’s a dove cooing outside my window, just to make a liar out of me.

As I walked through Spain and France, Italy yet to be determined, the sound of rushing water was my constant companion. Normally it was from irrigation ditches, but for many miles in France I followed the Durance River—a beautiful blue green river fed by crystal clear alpine streams. Then, when I veered east from that river I was always near tributaries carrying snow melt down the mountains, several times the sound of a great waterfall would be in the air for an hour or more. There were many times when I was in the lower elevations, where the heat was suffocating, that I thought it was almost worth the effort to find a way down to the river so I could soak my feet in it. I’m sure about 30 seconds in the ice cold water would have been enough. Maybe that’s what kept me from actually doing it.

Then there were the cow bells. Even  Christopher Walken would be satisfied with the amount of cow bell I heard in the Alps. They were low pitched, high pitched, dull, clear, and you could hear them from miles (kilometers) away. I’m sure the cool cow in the herd got one first, then everyone else had to have one too. But then after a while, they weren’t cool anymore but everyone forgot why they wanted one in the first place and they just became something that everyone had. Then it spread through the Alps until every cow, not virtually, but every cow had to have one. Sometimes I’d stop and look at them, listening to each different cow bell, trying to pick out individual sounds from the cacophony of sound. They’d look back at me, saying, “What? You got nothing better to do than stare at me?” I’d feel like I was being intrusive of a private moment so I’d move on up or down the mountain. (It was always up or down in the Alps.) Then once the cows had them, the goats had to follow along. Maybe the goats had them first. Cows are more of the following type. Parts of the Alps are very noisy. 

Forcalquiere to Lurs

Forcalquiere to Lurs

Why do horses do this? They have the whole pasture, and
they stand side by side in the heat, in the sun even. The
one on the left stood with his head beneath the other the
whole time I was getting my camera out and taking this.
There being no place to stay in Forcalquiere because of some kind of festival in town (even the 3 town campgrounds were filled), I walked about 3km out of town to a very nice gîte, Les Chevauchées du Soleil, whose “rooms” were actually tiny cabins. The place, as the name suggests if you read French, was set up for horses and had a kind of  French cowboy feel to it. (French cowboy? Use your imagination.) I was exhausted when I got to Forcalquier; 3 more kilometers in the heat of the afternoon did me in and I collapsed after a shower and slept very well.

To get back on the trail, without retracing my steps all the way back to Forcalquier, the hospitillier told me to turn back toward the town and after about a kilometer I’d see a sign for the GR trail system that would lead me to Ganagobie, the suggested end point for the day in my guide, and then to Peyruis, where there is actually an affordable (relatively speaking) place to spend the night.
As has become the norm, I lost the GR trail in the first town I came to. Just before I got to the village I came to a sign on the trail that said something like, “Don’t follow the trail this direction—my dogs will eat you for lunch.” I took the sign at it’s word and followed arrows pointing to another trail which took me to Pierrerue, a nice little village except for the fact that the only café in town, run by an American woman, I was told, was closed. It’s Tuesday, for heaven’s sake! Why would an American close the only café in town? I guess I’ll never know. I hadn’t had any breakfast, much less my café-au-lait for the day and I was in serious need of something to eat. But not to worry, I had my trusty can of sardines. No bread or crackers or anything to go with it, mind you. This is the true test of the rugged pilgrim. I ate those sardines in olive oil with nothing else but the plastic-tasting water out of my back pack’s water holder. In times like these, your mouth just has to take one for the team.

From outside the gite -  I was down there at river level
just 2-1/2 km ago
Now to find my way out of town. This is always the difficult part. After the rabid dog sign, I hadn’t seen any more GR signs. I wandered around the village for a little while and headed toward the road that passed outside of it, where I found signs pointing to villages in every direction, every village other than where I wanted to go. I walked back up the road to where I had seen a couple sitting on their little porch/veranda, I’m not sure what you’d call it, having coffee. I asked them if they knew where the GR trail left the village, but they had no idea. Actually I can’t be sure of that; remember I’m speaking in English and/or Spanish and they’re speaking in French. But I can say GR in French and I can say rouge and blanc (red and white, the color of stripes on poles and rocks that mark the GR trail system) so they get the idea of what I’m looking for. But they told me if I went back to the road and turned left, after a few hundred meters I’d see a GR sign and that I should follow that. That’s exactly what I did, and after going downhill a couple hundred meters I came to a sign that told me I was going back to Pierrerue. Here’s where that “Oh, darn!” comes in again. I turned around, went back to the road, and followed my compass in the direction of the next town, Lurs, again walking on the hot, dusty road rather than the pleasant trails France (and Spain) so benevolently provide.

I finally got to a sign telling me that Lurs was only 2.5km to the left. Now, I normally walk at about 5km/hour on relatively flat ground or the maximum 6-7% grade you find on roadways. I think from that sign to actually getting to Lurs, 2.5km later, includes about a 300 meter climb. Let me restate that so garner more sympathy: ...includes a 900-foot climb. I’m beginning to feel like an old man, but in 90-degree heat, in the sun, climbing about that much over 2.5km pushes my limits. No, it doesn’t push them, it stretches them. Ganagobie is another 7km farther along, and the place where I was planning to stop was another 5km beyond that, but there was no way on Earth I could have made another 12km, especially when Ganagobie is another steep climb. But first things first: I needed to find a place to sit, rest, and eat a little, because all I’d had the entire day was a can of sardines.

Lurs is another village with no café. There is a bread store, but it’s only open in the morning. (Why would anyone buy bread in the afternoon?) There is a high-priced hotel there, so I started walking toward it to see if they might have a restaurant. They don’t. But just before I got to the hotel I saw a sign for a gîte-d’tape. Funny, there’s no gîte listed in my guide book. Why am I not surprised? By now, I don’t have to say it, but I will: It was closed.

14th C. microwave: the heat from the fire was concentrated
in the 5 holes in the stone.
But here’s where the story gets good. There were phone numbers posted for information so I called the first one and found a savior on the other end. He actually was relatively fluent in English and told me he’d be there in half an hour. When he arrived he checked me in, showed me around, gave me the keys, and then asked how I was set for food, since there was no café in the village. I explained to him that I was down to my last can of sardines and he offered to take me to the next town in his car so I could buy food. It turns out he has made the pilgrimage to Santiago numerous times and understands this whole ordeal. I gladly accepted his offer and, after cleaning up a little, took a ride to a grocery store and “stocked up,” that being a relative term.

So here I sit, having finished off a king’s portion of pasta with a Bolognese sauce, tomato slices with a good soft cheese, drizzled with olive oil (it’s better with fresh oregano, but I’m living the simple life and don’t have that), and a good, cheap bottle of Côtes du Rhône red wine (I told the hospitelliero I’d save him half the bottle, and I’m trying, I’m really trying.) (There must be a rule against 2 parentheticals right next to each other, but as I was eating, sitting in a 15th century monastery, converted into a gîte-d’tape (albergue), the only one here, the sound of my utensils on the plate, and that echoing off the 2-foot-thick stone walls, I was almost afraid to turn around for fear I’d see Dave sitting in the dining room behind me in the pod in his red space suit. In fact, I pushed the bench back on which I’m sitting and it also sounded exactly like when the “old” Dave pushed his chair back. If you haven’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s never too late.) I’ll have to leave the remainder of the cheese, the small bottle of olive oil here, as well as the pasta sauce, but the pasta was left here by someone else and there’s grapefruit juice in the refrigerator, also left by a previous pilgrim, which I’ll have tomorrow morning. You give some, you take some. 
The gîte at Lurs - a converted 14th C. seminary. Very well done, too.

St. Michel L'Observatoir and Pilgrim Surprises


I know, I'm way behind. I won't bore you with my daily journal; I'll just try to include some interesting stuff, or at least events that I think are interesting.

Walking to St. Michel l’Observatoir was uneventful. As usual, I started out on the path outlined in my guide, but lost the trail and ended up walking on the road. It wasn’t dangerous because it was a small, country road with very few cars. The road to St. Michel was also a little shorter than the GR trail, so I'm not complaining.

Painting on the wall of my bedroom, previously
Tom's daughter's bedroom. Painted by the woman who
does the art work on Tom's harpsichords
When I finally got to St. Michel, I found that one of the two “low priced” gîte d’tapes was no longer in the low price category, and the other had closed up shop a few years ago. The hospitallier (I think that's what you call a proprietor of a hospitality business) of the one that was closed still had the same phone number so I was able to reach him. He told me not to worry, if there was nothing available in town he’d make sure I had a place to stay the night. I thanked him for his kind gesture, but went ahead and made a reservation at the other, previously low-priced gîte. But before I could finish my beer at the bar at which I had planted myself, Tom, the past-hospitallier of the now-defunct gîte called me back to make sure I had found a suitable place for the night. (Is that an act of kindness or what?) I told him that I made a reservation at the other place in town, even though it was a little out of my price range because I didn’t want to take advantage of his kindness, but he seemed insistent and made me think that it would be foolish to pay all that money when he was offering a place to stay for free. When someone wants to do me a favor, I only argue once, so I accepted his offer and called the other to tell her I was canceling my reservation. She didn't seem upset. 

Sometimes I actually make a good decision. Tom Murach, past-hospitallier, is a harpsichord maker in the little village of St. Michel l’Observatoir. He and his wife some years ago offered lodging to pilgrims and registered their gîte with the town, as required. They haven't offered that service for about 3 years, but to this day their address and phone number are still in pilgrim guidebooks. Tom told me that because I was alone, it was no problem putting me up for the night as they had a spare bed. Tom is originally from Canada, so he speaks English and we spent most of the evening talking. When his wife and daughter got home, they made me a great vegetarian dinner which we ate on their deck overlooking the town. While I would have loved to talk about making harpsichords, we talked about everything but, mostly centering on establishing oneself in a new country, as he had done twenty years ago and I'm going to try in the near future. We had a good time, a very relaxing time for me, talking late into the night. This was one of those pilgrim experiences that sneaks up on you, just happens, and makes all the getting lost all worth it.
Leaving St. Michel L'Observatoir

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Random Observations


1. The French drink coffee and tea out of bowls. Maybe it’s just a northeast French thing. I first saw it at breakfast at Notre-Dame du Laus, but then I noticed it elsewhere as I traveled toward Italy. This morning, in Briançon at breakfast, there they were again, drinking coffee and tea out of bowls. I’m not talking about small cups that look like bowls that you drink tea from in a Chinese restaurant; I’m talking cereal bowls, big ones, the kind you have to use 2 hands to pick up. And it’s not because they ran out of coffee cups. I mentioned to the hospitallier that, to an American, drinking out of bowls seemed strange and he gave me a coffee cup from a stack of a dozen or so.

I should clarify, I’m not talking about espresso, but American-style coffee. Espresso is drunk from tiny cups—I think they’re called demi-tasse cups. They’re so small sometimes, they should be called hemi-demi-tasse, or even semi-himi-demi-tasse. I like to consider myself worldly, but I still ask for a grande whenever I order coffee in France.

2. I like mountains, always have. They’re beautiful, majestic, peaceful. But at this time in my pilgrim career, I’m ready to say, “Enough!” It’s nice to get a respite from the 90+ degree days I’ve experienced the last couple of weeks—I’m not exhausted from the heat and sun after only 2 or 3 hours of walking. But today I climbed over a thousand feet before noon, and I got a late start. Then I descended over a thousand feet to Cesana-Torinese, Italy where I sit writing this. It’s been that way since I got to The Alps. Beautiful scenery, but up and down and up and down… It gives me an appreciation for how the American pioneers must have felt when they reached the Midwest. They must have thought they died and went to heaven. (Just an aside—I’m not complaining; The Alps really are beautiful. Every couple of minutes I stop to let my heart rate descend below 160 and admire the scenery.)

3. French bathrooms. Don’t get me wrong: to my dying day I’ll say I admire and like French people. French people have bent over backwards to help me on many occasions. I like French music. I like French art. I like French architecture. I like French food. But French bathrooms? To be honest, one of my complaints is common to all European bathrooms I have experienced. To wit: I believe it was John Harrington (Thomas Crapper only promoted the idea much later) who invented the toilet, filled with water, that used a syphon action to pull the "unwanted material" out of the bowl, which would then be replaced by clean water. The design was intelligent: not only would the “unwanted material” drop into a pool of water to be flushed away, but the water acted as a method to reduce the odor of the process. That was then; this is now. Here in the civilized part of the world where we go to great lengths to preserve natural resources, the amount of water in the toilet bowl isn’t enough to keep a gold fish alive. As if that weren’t enough, the shape of the bowl places the water where it is extremely difficult to properly place the “unwanted material,” thus almost certainly requiring cleaning the porcelain after every use. (Maybe a system of mirrors would help in aiming. No, on
How are you going to hit that? Sit backwards?
second thought, let's not even consider that.) Sometimes the “pool” of water, puddle would be a more appropriate description, is placed at the front of the bowl, making it entirely impossible to drop the “unwanted material” in its target. Then you flush twice, trying to wash evidence of your toilet use away, then use the toilet brush, always provided, and then flush once more in an attempt to leave a somewhat clean toilet for the next person. Water-saver my foot.

But that’s where there is actually a toilet. I’ve heard of holes in the floor that one squats over to relieve oneself in Middle Eastern countries, but I had no idea they were used here. I was wrong. I stopped at a relatively decent café in one of those hoity-toity little artsy towns near Arles that I walked though and had an over-priced salad. (Every place in town was over-priced; I had no choice.) After paying the bill and before leaving, I went back to the restroom, a uni-sex affair. There, in the floor, was a square, plastic, shallow, funnel-shaped “toilet” in the floor with 2 platforms for left and right feet and an appropriately placed hole. They were nice enough to put a grab-bar on the wall so you could hold onto something to steady yourself, but that was it. I’ve seen others that didn’t even have that. I wonder what someone with bad knees or hips does with those. That wasn’t in an out-house in an inexpensive camp ground; that was in a nice restaurant. (Note: Editing this after completing the pilgrimage, I have to note that the hole-in-the-floor "toilet" is more common in Italy than France, at least in my experience.)

But then there’s one other thing. I stopped in a bar to rest and have a beer on one of those very hot days before reaching the upper Alps. As usual, before putting the back pack back on and hitting the road, I used the restroom. There was a sign that said “Toilettes” at the back of the bar. I got up, headed toward the sign, turned the corner, and there, to my right, behind a 3-foot-wide wall, was the urinal. Not behind a door, not even in an alcove, but just hanging there on the wall behind a very narrow wall separating my private business from the patrons on the other side. As if that weren’t enough, directly opposite was a mirror, so anyone seated in the right position in the restaurant could see the mirror and my backside as I relieved myself. I figured, if they don’t mind, I don’t either and used it. (There was a regular bathroom with a door, marked for handicapped use. I supposed it was also for those who had need for something other than a urinal.) 

That's all I can think of for now. But here are a few random photos from along the way...

Lavender fields outside St.Michel L'Observatoir

In the gite at Lurs, converted from an ancient seminary. An early
"microwave." The heat from the fire was concentrated in the
5 holes where pots would be placed.
Leaving Lurs -  stations of the cross for people entering the town.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Rule Change Announcement

6/15/'14 (I still can't add pictures. Sorry.)
It’s time for a mid-game rule change. The original rule was, as on the Camino de Santiago, you walk the entire way. No buses, no trains, and no hitch-hiking. You walk. That’s how the pilgrims of centuries past got to Santiago and Rome; that’s how I’ll do it.
I already broke that rule, taking a bus from La Jonquera, Spain, near the border of France, to Perpignan. I couldn't put up with getting lost constantly on the system of hiking trails and thought in France I'd really be fried since I couldn't even ask or receive directions. Then after trying to walk on state highways through the Mistral winds from Perpignan to Narbonne, and nearly getting blown into the traffic of the highway I was walking on, I decided to make my official walking journey from Arles, France since that’s where my guide book started.

Guidebook. Hmm. I use that term loosely. Not only is it out of date and confusing in places, but it leads me to where only wealthy pilgrims have any business going, or leads me through areas where it is impossible to buy food—no restaurant, bar, or grocery store anywhere to be found. The problem, is that it is a guide to the ancient Via Domitia through France and Italy to Rome. Unfortunately, the Via Domitia isn’t pilgrim-friendly. It leads through expensive little boutique villages (as I’ve mentioned previously) and it also leads through mountain villages that are, I suppose, bedroom communities for larger cities that are close enough by car, but certainly not by foot. Once you’ve walked through the Alps for 25km or so, getting to the destination village and finding the nearest food or place to sleep is often another 5 or 6km away, sometimes more, and off the track, so you'll have to make the return trip to get back to the planned route, just isn’t my idea of a good guide book.

Since I’ve found out that the little practical matters of food, and safe and affordable sleeping are of secondary concern along the Via Domitia (the Romans were tougher, I’ll admit it), I’ve had to adjust my modus operandi: I walk as much as possible. If I get to someplace where there’s no place to sleep, at least no place within my budget (that doesn’t include 3- and 4-star hotels, or even 2-star in France), I’ll find a way to get to someplace where I can. I’ve also had to look ahead in the guide to see where it’s leading me and if it’s through tiny villages with no food, I adjust my plans around those also. I try to pack a lunch when I can, and something for breakfast the next day in case there’s nothing else, but walking 2 days without access to food doesn’t work for me. My pack is full of all the other things I need and I’m not prepared to camp and cook.

I was spoiled by the Camino de Santiago, where every town along the way expects pilgrim traffic, where every town has a bar/café, and every town, at least within a few hundred kilometers of the end point, Santiago, has at least one inexpensive albergue. The Arles to Vercelli branch of the Via Francigena is not like that, so I’ll have to do the best I can with what I have. I think I’ll enjoy the pilgrimage more this way—not allowing myself to get unduly frustrated at having to skip a town, take a bus, or even a train, jumping ahead to where I can function within my means. I hope that things will change when I get to Vercelli, which is where I’ll join the traditional route from Canterbury to Rome. Only about a thousand pilgrims make that trip annually, compared with well over 10,000 on the Camino de Santiago, but my guide book, if it can be trusted, says that there are more albergues (low-priced hostels) catering to pilgrims. We’ll see. Until then, I’m going to do what I have to to enjoy the French Alps and this part of the Via Francigena.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Van Gogh


St. Remy-de-Provence to Eygalières

The night in St. Remy was one of the best yet, but that’s because I decided against camping and taking a chance of getting rained on, and spent the big bucks on a bed and breakfast which was the next least expensive option. I spent the night at Mas des 3 Cyprès.
A nice place to have a continental breakfast on a sunny
morning. Pilgrims shouldn't do this very often.

This is the kind of thing a pilgrim must not ever do: Spend the night in the lap of luxury. I know I shouldn’t think this way, but it was worth it. When I checked in, the proprietress showed me to my room—a beautiful, large space with a king-sized bed—and then, noting that I was somewhat exhausted (that’s an understatement), offered me a glass of orange juice, on ice even. (France isn’t big on ice. Ask for a Coke with ice and you get a Coke in a glass with one ice cube in it.) I had my own bathroom with a bathtub, which I used to soak my tired feet, and then went to the dining room to have a glass or two of very good but inexpensive wine, and write for the rest of the evening. I slept extremely well and woke to a bright, sunny morning and a delicious breakfast of good coffee, pastries, huge, sweet grapes, and a baguette with butter. No ill will intended, but there are some things you don’t come to France for—cars and intelligently designed toilets come immediately to mind—but what they do with flour, water, salt, and yeast is nothing short of miraculous. (The lack of rain did give me reason for some regrets over having spent the money on a bed and breakfast). My recommendation: If you ever get to St. Remy-de-Provence I highly recommend Mas des 3 Cyprès.

Van Gogh's painting...
As usual, I asked the host if he could help me with finding the starting point of the walking trail for today. And as usual, the location he directed me to was nowhere near where my guide said to start. But he assured me that if I must headed up the road I’d find the start of the trail to Eygalières easily. I really need to learn to assert myself. His directions didn’t lead me to the path for the day, but I can’t complain because they led to the hospital, no a museum, where Van Gogh spent his last days. Since the day’s walk was only going to be 13km, I took the opportunity to pay the 4.60€ to see it. I saw his bedroom, made famous in a painting, and around the grounds of the museum there were signs with reprints on them of some of his paintings in front of the landscape where he stood as he painted. One more recommendation: If you get to San Remy-de-Provence, stay at Mas des 3 Cyprès and spend the 4.60€ to tour Van Gogh’s hospital. It’s one of the best deals in France.

...and something close to what he was actually looking at.
I left there on a trail that said it went to Eygalières, and I’m sure it did. But as usual, somewhere along the way I lost the trail. For the first couple of kilometers there were very obvious signs, but then, either I lost consciousness or they stopped marking the trail because where I ended up I have no idea. I got to a highway and thought I knew where I was, turned south, thinking Eygalières lay in that direction in a kilometer or two. Lucky for me, about 500 meters down the road I saw a sign telling me that Eygalières was 5km in the opposite direction. With a good natured “Oh, darn!” I turned around and began walking the highway in the opposite direction and eventually found the town.

The route to Rome follows the ancient Via Domitia, established in the era before Christ. Let me tell you, those Romans had expensive tastes. Arles, St. Remy, and now Eygalières are the most hoity-toity places I’ve been to in a long time. Think Santa Fe, New Mexico if you’ve ever been there. These villages are for the upper crust—pilgrims don‘t belong, at least not pilgrims without a lot of money. The proprietor of Mas des 3 Cyprès told me that Bill Gates and Colin Powell hang out in Eygalières. Good for them—they can afford it. My guide says there is an inexpensive hostel here, but when I got there and asked around, I was told that that hostel closed some time ago. The guide also says there is a tourist office in town that can help with lodging, but that’s also closed. It seems my guide is woefully out of date. I wandered up and down the streets when I arrived, as I did in St. Remy, and all I saw were restaurants and cafes with menu items starting in the €18 range. That’s $26, just for starters, then it gets “expensive” from there. I’ll make sure I write to the authors and tell them.

So here I am, after a night of luxury, camping again. I’ll set up camp, which will take until about 6:30 if I’m
Me and my 1-man tent (I told you it was small) in a typical
really slow, and then sit on the grass waiting for dark so I can go to sleep. The campgrounds are cheap (if you can call 15€ cheap—an albergue on the Camino normally cost 7-8€ for the night and they had kitchen facilities so you could have a cheap dinner), and there are showers and bathrooms, but that’s all. When you’re traveling light—no chair, no reading material, nothing to cook with—camping is a pretty dry ordeal. But no one said a pilgrimage is supposed to be all fun.

Comment: I have to say, so far I’m not impressed with the Catholic Church when it comes to supporting a religious pilgrimage. I have had 2 good experiences with the Catholic Church in my 3 weeks on the trail, but normally the building is closed and no one is to be found to offer any help. I shouldn’t expect any help, but pilgrimage is a rich tradition in the Catholic faith; I had thought that it would be possible to find an inexpensive place to sleep, even sleeping on a floor, more than I have (twice). Maybe I made my judgment based on my experience on the Camino de Santiago, which has a long tradition of pilgrimage, at least on the French route. I’m finding that the Via Francigena from Arles is routed through some pretty high-priced towns where a room for less than 70-80€ is unusual—ten times the cost of the Camino. So far, I’m finding the Via Francigena is not a route that one of limited wealth should undertake. In fact, here’s a note to would be Via Francigena pilgrims: Sardines. If you’re not wealthy and don’t like sardines, either get wealthy or learn to like sardines. An apple, some bread, and a can of sardines will get you through the day when you don’t have 20€ to spend on lunch.

But wait! Fast forward to the next day’s notes and we find…
Last night was a pretty good night, all things considered. I wandered into Eygalières during mid-afternoon, expecting from my guide book to find an inexpensive gites d’etape, what they call an albergue in France. Eygalières is a small town so I didn’t think I’d have any trouble finding it. Even if I did, my guide book said the tourist office was in the town square, so they’d be able to direct me. The first thing I discovered was that that there is no tourist office in this village. Strike twenty-two or something like that for my guide book. Then I found out that the gites d’etape was closed. Strike twenty-three. The concierge at the hotel told me that there was a campground down the street so I headed there to spend another night in the tent. The good news, though, was that the camp ground was actually in town and only a few steps away from the bars so I wouldn’t have to sit on the ground waiting for dark this night. I set up camp, put my things in the tent, and walked back to a bar with my laptop intending to do some writing. As I was entering, a man noticed my Barcelona T-shirt and asked, in Spanish, if I were from Spain. I explained my situation and we had a small conversation, then I headed into the bar to write. Inside turned out to be uncomfortably warm and the flies were more than a little annoying, so after I’d written all I had the energy to write, I closed up the computer and took the remainder of my wine (the house wine—an excellent Bordeaux) to an outside table. The guy I’d met was still talking to his friends and after a while he invited me to join them. Peter, my new friend, introduced me to Arnaud. Peter was an artist (painter) and sometime singer in a band, of which Arnaud was the drummer. We talked about various subjects and I let slip that I played Flamenco guitar. With that, Peter was off to his studio to get his guitar. No amount of back-peddling I did was going to deter him from hearing me play. I explained that since I was walking for 3-1/2 months I had cut my fingernails and couldn’t make a decent sound, that it had been many weeks since I had touched a guitar, and that besides, I’m not very good and only play for myself. That was all random noise to Peter, who soon returned with an electro-acoustic classical guitar. I gave up on the excuses and just started to play a Sevillanas, then the opening of a Tarantas (what little I could remember), and then whatever I could dig out of my memory of a Flamenco-inspired piece I’ve played with for years. Peter took the guitar and played the chords he knew, making up a little blues number, then Arnaud played the two chords he knew and imitated an 80’s Seattle grunge band. When I checked in to the camp ground the proprietor gave me the code to the gate that closed at 10:00 PM so I could get in late if needed. I told her that there was no chance of that—my normal camping routine was to sit and wait for dark so I could go to sleep. Wouldn’t you know, I got back to the camp ground just before 10:00. The party continued without me; I knew I had to get going in the morning.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Making some decisions...

(In a hurry right now - I'll add pictures when I have more time.)
I’m starting to give some thought to jumping ahead to Montpellier so that I can get off the highways and onto a traditional pilgrim route, and also to save some money. The least expensive youth hostel I’ve found has been 22.50€, about $33. Last night’s camping site was 12€ and tonight’s is 22€ (the tent site was 15€, but would have been blown away). But there aren’t very many camping sites and just setting up a tent along the road is usually a pretty bad idea, especially when I have to leave my back pack outside. I’ve read that there are some less expensive lodgings along the Via Francigena, so I’m thinking of just taking a bus to the start of that route. Walking from Arles to Rome is nothing to sneeze at, I suppose, especially after walking from Barcelona to the border of France.

The truth is, since getting to France, the walk along the highways hasn’t been a lot of fun, any fun, for that matter. To e honest, it’s drudgery; walking along the highways and not being able to speak French has been, many times, frustrating when I need help with directions. I knew that going into the project, but I didn’t plan very well and the chickens are coming home to roost. Many places in the guide I created for myself, I wrote something like, “In Sigean, look for Camping Ensoya.” That would have worked fine in a small Spanish town, even a large city because I can speak Spanish well enough to ask directions. But in France, that’s a little short of the kind of guide book I should have created. And most places, until I get to the Via Francigena, where I’ll have a guide book with lists of possible places to stay, I have no idea where I’m going to spend the night. Again, in Spain, I could make it work by asking bartenders or people I’d meet where there might be an albergue or hostel. When you don’t speak the language, and you’re not looking for the standard 3 or 4-star hotel, it can get difficult.

So as a matter of economics and practicality, I might have to board a bus for Montpellier soon. I’ll sleep on it and see what happens.

Sigean to Narbonne

Another windy day. I’m writing this some days hence, and I’ve come to learn that these winds are known as the Mistrals. If I remember correctly, The Mistrals gave Van Gogh some problems also, so I’m in good company. It was another day of walking up a major highway, with the traffic of an interstate highway on 2 lanes. Again the wind was extreme, blowing to the south normally, as I was walking north. I say, “normally,” because it seemed to change directions frequently. One minute it was coming directly at me, then suddenly a gust would hit me from the left, then circle around me and blow at me from the right. I envisioned myself in a boxing ring with a heavy-weight boxer. He was just playing with me, hitting from this direction, then that, trying to keep me off balance for the final blow. What I feared was that the final blow wouldn’t come from him, from the wind, but that one good right jab would knock me off balance just as a truck was coming at me, and that would be the knockout punch from which I’d never recover.

The wind didn’t seem to be bothering Stan quite so much. I met Stan going south on the highway on which I was headed north. Stan didn’t seem to be concerned with the cars. I first saw him some distance ahead of me, crossing a bridge with cars whizzing by him, inches away, as if he hadn’t a care in the world, pulling a shopping cart full of his possessions behind him, expecting the cars would see him and move over. We walked toward each other and as usually occurs when two obvious travelers meet, we said hi. Turns out, Stan spoke English very well and we had a little conversation right there on the side of the road, Stan not even bothering to move himself and his basket of belongings off the highway. Fearless, he was. He said he was from the Czech Republic and was currently headed for Spain. He said he’d been walking for 10 years, and I don’t think he would mind my saying, he looked it. At times like this a good journalist would take the opportunity to talk to Stan a lot more and get a good story. But all I could think was that a truck was going to come along and end Stan’s 10-year journey in the wink of an eye. I didn’t want to be there when it happened so I wished him a buen camino and moved on.

I had pretty much by this time made up my mind that I needed to alter my plan. After all my careful planning with Google maps, I abandoned them to try the system of hiking trails in Catalunya and ended up getting myself lost most days. Then I decided to head to Perpignon and start from there. Three days of walking through gale force winds on busy highways between there and Narbonne made me change my mind again. When planning the route I went down to the Google Car view to see what the road actually looked like. Seems that the photos from the Google Car don’t accurately capture the traffic flow. I thought about going to Montpellier and starting there, walking the Camino de Santiago in reverse to Arles, but my previous experience with trying to walk the Camino in reverse gave me second thoughts. Based on all that, and the average daily cost of the trip to date, I decided to cut out a week of expensive walking on highways in potentially deadly winds and jump right to Arles, where one branch of the traditional Via Francigena begins.

So I finally arrived in Narbonne around mid-afternoon. I headed toward the center of the city, figuring in an old city that’s where you’d find the transportation hubs. It must be my well-developed traveler sense; I was right. A guy came out of a medical clinic and asked me for a cigarette (if that isn’t irony, I don’t know what is.) Then he said, in perfect English, which is odd because it turns out he was also from the Czech Republic, “I’d guess you’re not a smoker, based on your backpack and good teeth.” I told him I was sorry and no, I didn’t have any cigarettes on me as I didn’t smoke. Then he asked me where I was going and I told him I was headed to the train station. He pointed me in the correct direction and even drew a map for me. It was only about 10 minutes away, which was the first good news I’d had in days.

The rest of the day was spent waiting for, or on a train until I arrived in Arles. While I waited for my train in Montpellier (late 2 hours, but such is travel), I called one of the albergues listed in my Via Francigena guidebook, only to find out that my guidebook was out of date and the person at the hostel told me they no longer accepted pilgrim traffic. I didn’t ask what that meant—maybe she just meant that they didn’t offer discounts, but in any event, she gave me the number of another place to try, which was an albergue in a centuries-old building. When I finally got there, I was shown to a room of 5 beds on the 2nd floor (which means 3rd floor to Americans; the 1st floor is above the ground floor.). I went up circular stairs barely wide enough at their widest for my feet. I suppose people a few hundred years ago had smaller feet. The building had been remodeled a little to allow for a shower and a kitchen. The shower was all I was interested in by the time I got there.

The next day I headed out, glad to at last have my guide book to lead me and not have to worry about getting lost any more. (Pause for laughter.) It seems that road names are subject to change. Either that, or I can’t follow directions. I was doing well until the guide said to turn left at Rue Nicolas Saboly. That name did appear a few blocks down the road, but the name clearly marked on both sides of the street was Jean D’Arc. I walked past that road going each direction trying to find Rue Nicolas Saboly, then finally took a chance on the direction, northeast, and turned on Jean D’Arc. A couple of blocks later I saw the clinic that was a way marker, then Rue Nicolas Saboly and knew I was on track. Then an instruction to “cross over the main road” is a little less than clear to one not from Arles. What constitutes a main road in Arles? Obviously I don’t know because I turned at the wrong one. It looked like a main road to me. It was like this all day long, and the truth is, it continued like this the entire way, at least until Lurs, where I’m writing this from.

What I’ve found is that my guide book is out of date. It’s a print on demand book, which I took to mean that it could be updated frequently and the latest information would be printed when you buy the book. Not so, I suppose. I’ve found many errors in lodging; the place either doesn’t exist anymore or it’s no longer an inexpensive pilgrim hang-out, or the phone number has changed—any number of inaccuracies to totally take the wind out of the sails of an exhausted pilgrim.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Wind Continues

(poor connectivity - can't upload pictures. Sorry.)

It was another day like yesterday. The wind continued and I walked along a highway the entire day. It was 15km from Salse-le-Chateau to the nearest place to stop and rest. That was a pizza place and I had to pay €11 for a pizza and beer. I guess “had to” isn’t really accurate—I could have continued on without a break, but after 3 hours of walking into those head winds I was already exhausted. I had no way of knowing, but just a little farther up the road was a place I could have gotten a sandwich much cheaper. But I saved half the pizza for dinner so lunch and dinner together cost €11, and I still had half of the half bottle of wine I bought yesterday. This is known as pilgrim budgeting (and justification for buying an overpriced lunch.)

When I got to the day’s end point, Sigean, I stopped at a McDonald’s (not my first choice, but everyplace else was closed) to ask directions to Camping Ensayo, where I planned to spend the night. Someone there who spoke a little English told me it was “just over there.” (How many times have I heard that?) They gave me directions and I walked out the door. As I as leaving the parking lot, some people in a car stopped and asked, in English (it irks me that they can tell a gringo a mile away), if I knew where the entrance to the highway was. They saw I was carrying a map and figured I might know. My map wasn’t that detailed, but I told them that the person in McDonald’s told me where it was and that I was going someplace in the direction. Feeling bold, I asked if they would giving me a lift to the campground since they were going that way. They obliged gladly and I got myself into their car without taking off my backpack, figuring it was a very short ride. Turns out that the entrance to the highway was well hidden if it was where I was told it was, but we saw a sign for Camping Ensayo and they said they’d just take me there. About 2 kilometers later, “just over there,” we arrived at the campground and I thanked them profusely. At this part of the day, 2km could just as well have been at the end of the Yellow Brick Road.

I checked in, and for €15 got a space for my tent and access to the bathroom and shower facilities. I started walking to my allotted space and noticed that there were large tents set up in the campground, like cabins made out of canvas, even with front porches. I went back to the office to ask about those and found out that for 7€ more I would get a double bed with a real pillow. I was thinking that the wind would blow my tent away in the night as the campground was completely open and without wind barriers. Then, there’s the security problem: if I were to do this again, I’d travel with a 2-man tent. Mine is a one-man, with no room for anything except that one man. I made room for my computer and camera the previous night, but even that wasn’t easy. Now I’ve got a cabin tent for relatively little more than the cost of a piece of ground, and a full-size bed to boot. What could be better? Plus, I won’t have to use my sleeping bag. It’s also very compact; like sleeping in a cocoon. Every time I change positions during the night I wake up with the sleeping bag twisted around me. I’ll get used to it, but it will take some time. For tonight, I have a silk sleep sack that’s larger and more comfortable than the sleeping bag, but doesn’t provide any warmth. There are no sheets provided, but there is a blanket. I don’t know if it will cool off tonight, but if it does, I’ll be fine with the sleep sack and the blanket.

Tomorrow will be another day like today—28km to Narbonne along a highway. If the gale force winds die down it won’t be so bad, but I’m beginning to think that walking from Barcelona to Arles wasn’t such a good idea. In Spain I tried to use the system of (poorly marked) hiking trails and got lost frequently. Here, I’m staying on the highways, but the traffic has been horrible. There are places where there are no shoulders so I have to walk in the brush along the highway on sloping ground with hidden trash and other obstacles.(In fact, Spain and France both could use a system of volunteer maintenance groups to clean up trash along highways. The amount of trash, mostly composed of every type of drink container imaginable, is a disgrace.) At least in Spain, I could sometimes walk along one of the Camino de Santiago trails and people would realize what I was doing. I carry a pilgrim credential, a book of pages where you get stamps and dates along the way in each town you stop in for the night, but since coming to France, not being on a traditional Santiago pilgrim route, I haven’t been able to get my credential stamped in many places; the campgrounds and refuges don’t have them and have never heard of such a thing. Maybe that will change in Montpellier, but until then, I won’t be able to document my stops in my credential book. I hope the pope doesn’t mind.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Finally in France


It seems every day merits a “What a day!”

I made an executive decision to jump ahead a few days, taking a bus to Perpignan. I decided to go there because (1) I was tired of getting lost all the time in the system of hiking trails I’d been trying to follow, and (2) because the route I had planned took me through the Pyrenees which were still snow-covered, and I wasn't prepared for that kind of weather. Call me a wimp, but at least I'm not frozen as I sit here writing. My planned route took me through Perpignan, so I figured I’d just go to that page in the guide I had prepared for myself and start walking.

But (There‘s always a but, isn’t there?) this morning, in the albergue, I referred to my directions that I had studiously prepared over the past year, planning my route from Barcelona to Montpellier. I asked the person working at the albergue how to find route D900, which I had planned to walk to Salses-le-Chateau. She told me I couldn’t possibly walk on that highway and quickly went to her computer to find another route. I thought it strange because I had carefully planned the route, using the Google car camera view on Google maps to look at just about every step of my route. It appeared that D900 was walkable. Maybe not; I figured it was better to take the advice of a local. The directions she printed for me were in French, but with diagrams for right and left turns and street names, I thought I had it made.

I don’t know how I keep making the same error: thinking that it looks easy and I’ll have no problems. The devil is always in the details—to wit: the detail of streets being marked with their name, or the name that is on the computer-generated directions. For example, the computer knows Avenue General Leclerc, but the town thinks the name of the road is Avenue Maréchel Leclerc. One might guess that the two names are the same road, but one would be taking a great risk. I don’t know, maybe Maréchel Leclerc is General Leclerc’s father and has a street named after him too. Then there’s the problem that a lot of streets are simply not signed. That’s a more common problem. As it turned out, I wandered yet again throughout the city of Perpignan about an hour longer than it should have taken. I finally found my way out and seemed to be on the way. There were a few missteps here and there but for the most part, until I got half way to my day’s destination, things seemed to be going well. I got to Rivesaltes and saw a statue of the general whose streets I had been seeing all along the way, so I stopped to take a picture and noticed that the sword he (or his statue) was wearing was exactly like one that my mother and father had bought for Don M. when we lived in France in 1959 and ’60. I changed to my telephoto lens so I could get a good picture of it, taking off my ball cap because of the angle of the shot (the bill of the cap got in the way of the camera). I got that picture, took a few more, put the camera away, and walked along the route marked by my guide. About 5 blocks later I realized I had left my hat sitting in the plaza in front of the statue.

Anyway, back to the story. (Have I mentioned yet that today I was fighting gale force winds all day? I’m not exaggerating; there were many times during my walk today when the wind blew me off balance. I felt seriously in danger walking on the shoulder of busy highways because I feared the wind would blow me into traffic. I don’t remember ever walking in wind like this.) I returned for my hat and it was nowhere to be found. The wind was whipping through the plaza in different directions and there’s no telling where it might have blown. I remembered the last trek across Spain where I was in dire need of a hat to protect my balding head from the sun, so I didn’t give up easily. I finally found it in a pool of water under some hedges near the statue of the general. I picked it up, brushed off the debris, and noticed a woman outside a bar across the street, who was noticing me. It was about lunch time so I thought I’d get a sandwich and a beer, and accept the opportunity for a little human interaction. My usual introductory line is to ask, “Parlez vouz Español or Ingles?” It makes things easier if I can communicate. She said she spoke Spanish, but it turns out she spoke about as much Spanish as I speak French. But there was a friendly bartender there who was very willing to help, even if only in French. While I was heading off without my hat, I noticed that my directions seemed to be wrong, and with much hand motions and drawing of diagrams, the bartender made me understand that I had missed a turn. No thanks to the friendly woman who spoke no Spanish, but with much patience from the bartender, I found my way.

My brother has this sword. He should put
it on Ebay.
Oh, and I made it clear to her, I thought, that I wanted a sandwich, or something to eat and she assured me that I could get something to eat there. But that was not the case. In Spain every bar serves food, at least sandwiches, but I guess in France some bars are just bars. I left with better directions, even if still a little hungry. No matter, further down the road I took a little break and had a can of my emergency sardines and a fresh nectarine I stole from the orchard where I stopped. It was only one—I’m sure the owner would have offered it if he had been there.

It was soon thereafter that I found myself lost again, walking along what we would call in interstate highway, looking for an exit for D900–the road I had originally planned to take and that the computer-generated directions told me to take into Salses-le-Chateau. I wandered around for about an hour and a half, stopping at 2 stores to ask directions (luckily, finding people who either spoke Spanish or English) and finally found my way. There’s no albergue, nor hostel in town, not even a hotel. But about a kilometer north of town, on the way to tomorrow’s destination, there’s a campground for campers and tents. That 2 pound, 2 ounce tent I’ve been carrying has finally become useful. It’s still windy so it took some effort to set up my little one-man tent, but I got it done and then spent an hour hand washing my smelly clothes. They have a washing machine, but it costs €5 and I’m not going to spend that much to wash 3 pair of underwear, 2 pair of wool socks, 2 t-shirts, and a sweater. I finally got the hand washing done, then came to the bar to write. I had already bought a half bottle of wine earlier in the day for the night, but the proprietor doesn’t seem the kind of guy to let me drink my own wine in the bar. It will keep. I ordered a glass of vin rouge, red wine (mind you, I’m in France) and (you won’t believe this) the bartender poured a glass from a BOX in the REFRIGERATOR.

My refuge against The Mistrals.
And with that, there’s really no more to say.