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A Pilgrim’s Progress

I have decided to walk the pilgrimage Via Francigena, from Canterbury in southeast England to Rome. This walk was pioneered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric the Serious, in 990 AD.

A few days ago I was talking with my friend Lorrie Hess about her Big Audacious Goal to walk the Pacific Crest Trail next year. She was the 300th woman over 50 to through-hike the Appalachian Trail in its history. She is a tough and resourceful woman and smart. I told Lorrie I was planning a 20 day walk io Rome with my trail friend Tyler, and somewhere in there I mumbled, “I’d walk the whole pilgrimage from Canterbury if I could, but I don’t know how I’d work that out.” Lorrie is a professional speaker and life coach; she told me that one of the reasons she is making videos about backpacking is to encourage other people to pursue their own big audacious goals.

I’ve been a backpacker since I was 19, when i hitch-hiked from Texas Tech in Lubbock to Wyoming and did a week of hiking in both Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. By the time I was 55 I had made at least 25 week long hikes, climbed big mountains, caught wild trout, and had high adventure in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. Then life intervened, and I quit. By the time I flew to southern France to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in May 2017, I had no idea what I was in for, but it was a major turning point in my life. Cheap airfares and improved income allowed me to keep going back to walk in Europe. I’ve since walked Camino trails in Portugal, France, Spain, and Italy, and part of the European Peace Walk in Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. But a 12 week, 1200 mile pilgrimage trail? That is a big audacious goal. Lorrie talks about the pushback she has had from others about her plans, and I realized the pushback I felt was all coming from me.

It could be a solo walk, but I have friends from the trail, so it may or may not be solo. I would say that it is much easier to make friends with people who speak English, but my Belgian trail friend Josette speaks about as much English as I do French, yet we have become fast friends. I will meet Tyler in Lucca, Italy, for the final 20 days into Rome, and Michelle will likely be along for at least some of the walk, and perhaps Kenton too. I’m hoping my Swiss friend Anne-Marie will meet me for some time walking when we go through Switzerland. I’ve been asking questions on the Via Francigena Facebook page and have already heard from some walkers I am likely to meet along the way. The trail isn’t heavily traveled. I’ve learned that I’ll need a new ultra-light sleeping bag as France in April and May will be cold and rainy. I will probably wear out at least one pair of shoes. St Bernard Pass into Italy might be closed because of snow (there is a bus alternative).

The pushback I got from myself was “who will take care of my Daisy while I am gone?” and “Do I have enough money?” Daisy is a Border collie (they can be high maintenance,!) so I may have to find her a succession of homes. On the other hand, she is quite friendly and agreeable and beautiful to look at. Somehow these have both worked out in the past, so I assume they will again. Mid April: fly Austin-London, train to Canterbury, walk to Dover, take the ferry to Calais. Continue walking 83 more days to Rome.

If not now, when? What’s the alternative?

Via Podensia, France, September 2019

 

Beat the Monday Morning Blues?

My work times are flexible, so when I’m in need of a boost, I can take a walk at Enchanted Rock.

I call this “Butt Rock”. It was so named by an 8 year old I was hiking with.

My favorite rocks are what I call “Kissing Rocks.” Life really is better outside.

The view of the Enchanted Rock Dome from Turkey Peak. This is a satisfying summit; compact, and you can see in all directions.

Walking after a rain is particularly calming: pools of clear water and the tinkling of tiny waterfalls.

Monday mornings are surprisingly busy on Turkey Peak. And I was back home in time for lunch!

Keep on Walking – France Awaits

When I reached the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in 2017, after walking five weeks on the Camino Francais, I asked my trail friend Kay if she would ever do that again.  She didn’t hesitate.  “No.  Would you?” I said “No.” A year later we stood in the same place after walking Camino Portugues from Lisbon. This year we met there once again after Kay re-walked the Camino Francais solo and I finished a month of walking with the Camino Ingles.

GR Trail Marking

Perhaps you’ve stood in the Praza do Obradoiro in Santiago, and now you are back home, and the Camino is calling again. There are many wonderful Camino trails; each is unique, and each requires the pilgrim to adapt to a different system.

Very early in the history of the Camino Bishop of Le Puy en Velay in France made a pilgrimage to Santiago in the year 951. Pilgrims from Germany and Switzerland often came by this way, and still do. Chemin de Saint-Jacques has two popular loop options off the main trail: GR 6/GR 46 (La Voie de Rocamadour) and GR 651 (La Voie de la Vallee du Cele). My personal experience is GR 65 from Le Puy en Velay to Moissac and also GR 651 Figeac to Moissac. The entire route is 740 km, or 460 miles, and is also called Via Podensia.

The section from Le Puy to Conques is most popular and goes through dairy country. I found the numbers of pilgrims dropped substantially after Conques, and it drops again after Moissac. The city of Cahors is the center of a wine producing area, but generally all of GR 65 is rural with small villages and few people. These routes are all busiest in the summer. Both of my trips were in September and October, and I found the weather perfect, generally 65 to 85 degrees, with no rain. Another advantage of this time is that many fruits and vegetables ripen in September, and the trail offers wild blackberries, figs, plums, apples, grapes.

Grapes ready for harvest

What makes this trip different from other Camino trails are the gited’etape serving pilgrims. Many are in rural areas where there are no restaurants, bars, or grocery stores, so they offer dinner and breakfast. We reserved beds the day prior, as these rural gites would fill up. Gites can be found in the Miam Dodo (eat-eat-sleep) and other guides, as well as on a list tacked to the wall in some gites. I found little other information available about the gites, most aren’t listed on any kind of Yelp or Trip Advisor type website, and each are unique experiences. They generally offer beds in a hostel-type setting with a bathroom down the hall, and seem to average about a dozen places. What makes them special is this: dinner is at seven.

Serge

Just a block across the river from the main part of the old and historical city of Cahors is Le Relais des Jacobins. If you arrive before 3:00 PM, as with most gites, the door is locked, but there is a garage with lockers to store your pack and cold water for refreshment. Leave your pack and explore the city. When you check in with Serge after 3:00 he will assign a bed and give you instructions – pointing out the toilet and shower and dining room. The gite is in an unimpressive old house, and much of the décor is hand-written notes with instructions or information thumb-tacked to the wall. Pilgrims follow the traditional routine – take a shower, wash clothes, and hang them on the clothesline, then rest, visit with pilgrims in the garden, drink a beer from the fridge (1 Euro), update your blog, and so on. Promptly at 7:00 PM pilgrims gather around the dining room table.  Serge, a tall, intense Frenchman, begins by pouring an aperitif in glasses around the table. Not all of the dozen pilgrims take a pour from the clear, unlabeled bottle (this seems to be often plum liquor made by a friend). Then glasses are raised for a toast, and all take their seats. Serge begins by asking each pilgrim to introduce himself/herself and say something about their pilgrim journey. When it comes to me I stumble through my introduction in rudimentary French, then Serge briefly introduces himself. He seems to have walked every major pilgrimage route in the west!

Dinner at Relais de Jacobins

He has made our dinner, baked pork chops with a sauce of onions and garlic cooked in white wine. There is also bread, a salad, and later, a cheese plate and dessert. The wine is Vin du Cahors and the conversation is all in French, except that occasionally Serge breaks into English for me. I asked Serge more questions about himself, and learn that he has owned this gite for 9 years, and that each October 15th he locks the door and walks to Santiago. The food isn’t extraordinary here, but the conviviality is.

IMG_3658

After dinner Serge passes around very small cups of another aperitif and closes the dinner, after which he collects the tarif (about 35 Euro) and put his stamp in each credencial, along with his signature. Then we head for our beds, warmed with food, entertained by stories, happy with new friendships, and ready for sleep. Breakfast is self-serve, and I am the first up and start the coffee. Serge comes to the dining room to give us each a goodbye hug, and soon we are out the door in our walking shoes, packs on our backs.

We head for old downtown Cahors and then a sharp left turn to cross the famous 14th Century Pont Valentre bridge. The bridge has six spans and three tall towers, and our photos on it are just before sunrise. Minutes later we are climbing the steep limestone cliff across the river. There are other pilgrims on the trail with us, and the trail takes us about 100 meters almost straight up. But we have been on the trail for a while, and we are breathing hard, but undaunted.

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie

The GR 651 variant in the Cele Valley is 10 days of extraordinary beauty; picturesque stone villages, mile after mile of oak and cedar and stone walls and dramatic views of the river below. Several of the villages are among the plus beaux villages de France. This title is well-deserved, and they are very busy on weekends. Gites d’etapes aren’t just for walkers, so when you are going to arrive in these villages on a weekend it is best to reserve a bed several days in advance.

Out in the country a few days later we come to Gite Ferme Trigodena. We arrive with several others at 2:00, before official opening at 3:00, and catch Remy napping. We visit at the doorway, as Remy wipes the sleep from his eyes, then soon are headed for the showers upstairs. Remy lives in the house across the driveway, and he converted the old stone sheep barn into a gite. He is a farrier, and looks quite muscular, and a bit rough, with a full beard and piercing eyes. I can see from a photo book in the common area that the construction was by Remy’s large, rough hands. Soon the gite is complete with a dozen pilgrims. After showering and washing clothes pilgrims gather at a table under a large oak tree. We soon deplete Remy’s supply of beer from the ice-box as lots of stories are told.

Remy

Once again, dinner is at 7:00 and replete with stories and laughter and good food.  We have served ourselves the dinner from the gite’s kitchen, and when we are through Remy joins us from his house across the yard. After a few minutes of conversation, Remy takes a seat at an old upright piano and begins to play. Those big, rough hands make music that brings tears to my eyes even now, when I see the stamp in my credential, and remember that evening.

Pasquale

At Ferme Equestre du Pech-Merle we had a wonderful long dinner with owner Pasquale, and the following day took a tour of the 29,000 year old Peche Merle cave drawings (reserve in advance, tours sell out).

The beautiful village of Espagnac-Sainte-Eulalie has a famous Gite Communal but it was closed to pilgrims, as the entire village was taken over by a wedding party, so we stayed a short distance out of town in Gite Celezen. We were waiting outdoors in chairs when the owners arrived at 4:00, and for five minutes listened to instructions and rules. I couldn’t understand all that was said, and it was a little off-putting, but over a truly gourmet dinner (almost entirely from their garden!) with just the three of us and the owners in their kitchen, we once again closed the gap and parted warm friends after another marvelous experience.

We came back to reality right after breakfast with a long, steep up another limestone hill. I have an empty spot in my credencial for the stamp we didn’t get, which we later called “the gite not to be remembered”, which was the only less than wonderful experience (Deux Vallees I think, in an abandoned train station). Not all gites are small, the memorable Abbaye in Conques has 90 beds and a big communal meal followed by an organ concert in the abbey.

Fresh from the garden!

I have only met a few Americans in my five weeks on GR 65 and GR 651, and most of the pilgrims seem to be French or German. Don’t let the lack of ability to speak the French language deter you, Google Translate and a smile will get you everything you need. Costs are somewhat higher than in Spain; I spent $50 per day average. There are few places on the trail to buy food, pick up something for lunch at your gite or at the bakery before you leave the village. Somehow on my first trip on GR 65 I met people I have now walked with again; Michelle (Canadian) and Tyler (American) and I walked the chaotic European Peace Walk and wonderful Via Postumia in Italy in May/June, and then I walked two weeks on Via Podensia in September with Josette (Belgium) and Ann-Marie (Swiss).  I will certainly complete the GR-65 from Moissac to Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port next fall with my friends, all of whom were a delight to be with. You can get to Le Puy by train from Paris (there is a station in the CDG Airport) or by train from Toulouse.

Parting at the train station. Au revoir!

Every day on the trail holds new surprises. I don’t know how I got so lucky.

France at 3 MPH: The End of the Story?

We walked into Moissac before noon. All of us were tired, even though it was only 16 km. Our lodging was in the Ancienne Carmel, now a gite which reminds me of a conference center. Except for the bunk beds! The place is run by volunteers. The food was good and honest but not the fancy meals of some smaller gites, but the company was excellent. Over the last week we have gotten to know Anne-Marie (Ireland) and Ingrid (Austria). They met on the trail; Anne-Marie finishes in two weeks at St Jean Pied-de-Port, while Ingrid continues to Compostela. Johan and Mette and I have shared many meals and a few glasses (bottles, perhaps) of vino. He is a ship captain and I have learned much from him. He and his ship are the subject of a documentary (Netflix) called The Last Breath which I’ll watch when back home. Patrice and Mary France (France, on the far right of the photo) live in Paris and have invited me to visit. I fully expect to take them up on this. The photo is in the pilgrim welcome office here (Accuel Pelerins) with the volunteers who are running it. Remy has a rural gite and is one of the people who makes this a true pilgrimage experience. I’ll write a separate story about him. Serge has a gite in Cahors, another person who is focused on helping us be le vrais pelerins. He locks the door shoulders his pack, and walks to Compostela each year on October 15. We learned quickly how much he is respected down the trail. I’ll write more about Serge when I have time. What will I do when there is no walk each morning, no ancient churches to visit, when everyone around me is speaking English instead of French?

France at 3 MPH: Serendipity

Amazing things happen all around us. We are in the right place at the right time as we wander around the countryside.

We were out of food options today; no stores or restaurants on our route. We came to a very small village and stopped for a rest at the church. We had already done 10 km and lots of up and I needed a break. We tried the door but the church was locked. But a man came from the house across the street and unlocked it. It was a simple but beautiful church. And we knew there was a gite in the village, our trail friends Jean Luc and Veronica had stayed there. So we found the gite and asked if she could make us a sandwich. With all the fancy food we have from time to time, this was fabulous. St Cirq de La Popie is usually crowded with tourists. But at sunrise I looked out the window and saw that a thick fog had formed over the river. This doesn’t always happen, but it did for us. Our early morning walk through the village was just us and a few locals. Most people remember narrow streets crowded with people. We will remember the quiet in fog, and Jackie the wood turner.

We stayed way out in the country outside of Arcambal with Pierre and Carmen. It couldn’t have been better. The hotel side of their house has 7 bedrooms and one toilet and one bathroom, but we were the only guests. The old old house was charming but Carmen more so. She told us stories and fed us a fantastic dinner-soup, salad, soufflé with artichokes, cheese plate, pudding. Oh la

We had planned an extra night in Cahors because Anne-Marie had heard of a concert she wanted to attend. When we went to the tourist office we found that the concert wasn’t until the following weekend. We picked Gite Ferme Trigodena from the app and made reservations. That night after dinner our host, Remy, a farmer and farrier, sat down at his old piano and played a marvelous concert.

The three of us are having a wonderful trip. We all met on this trail last year. That we are walking this two weeks together is purely serendipity.

France at 3 MPH: Slowing Down

The Camino has a way of taking a Pilgrim to marvelous places. The path is never the shortest distance to the next town. The Grotto at Peche Merle is one of those marvelous places. This painting, in a karst limestone cave deep underground was made 29,000 years ago. I have read about these drawings but never imagined I would see them. Now we are in Saint Cirq le Popie. Below us the Cele created fog at sunrise to create magic. This is one of le Plus Beaux Villages and has 400,000 visitors in the summer. One of the many shops and art galleries is this wood turning workshop. Jackie and his dog were a delight to get to know. He said only a dozen people stay the winter in the old downtown. We met Nathalie, a glass artist, in her shop. Slowing down to have a conversation.

We took a ride on a ship built in the tradition of the barges which plied this river for hundreds of years. Originally pulled by people, then horses, and the towpath was carved into the canyon wall. We went through a manually operated lock.

Tomorrow we leave the Cele River. Tonight we are in a gite in an old train station; it is strange to say the least. Who knows what adventures tomorrow holds?

France at 3 MPH: Food?

We are still in the Cele River Valley, have now completed 5 days of walking, 6 nights in gites d’etape with demi-pension meal plans. We stayed at Peche Merle Equestrian Center with Pasquale last night. Dinner was sausage (organic but not from the farm) and lots of vegetables from his garden. Pasquale was a fabulous host, dinner was 2 1/2 hours and finished with an aperitif (plum liquor) made by his neighbor. Lunch was at the Grotto, grilled cheese and ham sandwich (cheese on top, not inside). Dinner was at the restaurant which owns the gite: cocktail, wine, too much of every part of a duck on a lettuce bed. With us are Jean Luc and Veronique from Paris, and Bridget, a Québécois. And dessert and coffee too. We has to walk it off in the village.