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Nose to the Grindstone

I returned from France just in time to get very busy. All I have left from Via Podiensis are the usual momentos: a credential with stamps, a well worn guidebook, and this beret.

And friends. Lots of friends. Some of those friends will be forming another family in Austria on May 22, when we start down the trail on the European Peace Walk. The EPW ends in Trieste, Italy, but I’m planning to walk at least to Venice. I hear you can kayak the canals.

Le Gite

I’ve stayed in about two dozen different gites now on this walk in France, and those experiences have defined the journey. In this photo, Patrick is dishing up soup to guests at his dining room table.

This gite is Ferm de la Basssyad, between Lauzerte and Moissac. Patrick and his wife are farmers, producing pork, grapes, milk from cows and sheep, and apples. The place is authentic country: a ramshackle collection of buildings and barns without any decoration and barely functional plumbing.

These French and German pilgrims and I shared the table with Patrick, Claudette, her mother, and their daughter. Everything served with very few exceptions was from their farm. Dinner is at 8 (every other was at 7) because the work on the farm isn’t done until then.

They served homemade pumpkin & vegetable soup, pork in gravy over noodles, and apple crumble. All home made, all fabulous.

Nothing fancy, Claudette hosts about 400 pilgrims a year and treats all as family. Another extraordinary experience! And the soup- amazing.

Problems, Solutions, and Things I’m Trying Not To Worry About

Bruce wrote me to say it was time for me to come home. So now I’m trying to focus on making a 7 am flight next Tuesday. Solution: I booked a bed near the airport via AirBnb and my host says not to worry about, they will get me there.

This morning I looked at the soles of my boots and discovered I’ve worn through the sole at the heels. Will they make another 60 kilometers? Solution: my Chaco sandals will be a suitable backup.

I have little food with me. Will I be able to get lunch? Open grocery stores and restaurants are rare out here. Solution: this place showed up at noon, and I had a fizzy water and the best sandwich I’ve had in France. The owner was a hoot.

Am I going to drag ass this afternoon? It’s a 24 kilometer day! Solution: I met Bernardo at the store and talked with him for all 9 kilometers remaining. He is a German internal medicine doctor and we had a great conversation. He has gone on another 10 kilometers.

Am I going to find a bed? The first gite I checked in this village was full. Solution: I asked the lady I got a Perrier water from, and she referred me to this sweet place. And they serve dinner!

When worries pop up, I think of this sign, and stop worrying.

My Only Regret is

I’m with Monique, the owner of this restaurant. I’ve been wondering about French country cooking, and my only regret is that one of you readers wasn’t here to help me eat this meal.

One of my trail friends, Solomon, told me I should find a Michelin-rated restaurant along the trail and have a fantastic, if expensive, lunch. Then, Robert, my Belgian host last night, suggested that I do just that. I don’t know how he got the idea, he didn’t recommend this to the other pilgrims.

The catch was that I would be at the restaurant, Down the trail in Bach, 1 1/2 hours before they opened. It is only open at noon a few days a week, and this was one of those days, so I took this as serendipity. I cooled my heels in the church yard from 10:30 to 11:45, when Monique came out to me and invited me inside.

I was the first customer, although it filled up soon. Monique explained that she cooks the same food her mother and grandmother did. I let her pick the menu, telling her I wanted good country cooking.

I was served the best glass of wine I’ve had in France and beef broth with tapioca (I think). Tasty! There was enough left for you to fill up on too!

Then quiche and beef tongue.

Potatoes, butter beans with carrots, and a vegetable and cheese casserole.

Beef with carrots in a light sauce.

More beef, with tangy things like peas.

At least, dessert: really really tasty pastry, chocolate cake, and a cream sauce. By this time I wasn’t sure I would be able to walk out the door, much less 12 kilometers to my gite.

Tonight I’m in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere by myself. I had some trail snacks for dinner and am under two quilts, ready for an early night. Lunch? €23. I wish you’d been there to share it. My favorite dish? The vegetable (legumes in French) casserole. I’ll make that at home. But it will be the only course! And maybe you can join me.

Mort Pour Le France

Every village has a monument to Les Enfants who died between 1914 and 1918, defending their country against an invasion from Germany.

These tiny villages must have suffered greatly with the loss of a generation of young men. Another pelerin, a Québécois whose primary language is French, told me that often all these young men were in the same unit and died on the same day. He read that the population of the area has not recovered after a hundred years. In one day 27,000 French soldiers were killed August 22nd 1914 at the Battle of Charleroi.

Here some men outside of Faycelles have crushed grapes the old fashioned way and are taking the remainder out of the press. My friend said this used to be a big wine production area, but that a disease from the United States killed all their vines. I assume this was Pierce’s Disease.

I have seen only one vineyard so far, but this grapevine by a nice home makes me want to plant some vines to cover my back deck.

This is a typical trail- it looks to be centuries old, both containing livestock in the fields and giving a path to drive the livestock to another pasture. This may not be the original Camino path used by the Bishop of Le Puy whose pilgrimage to Santiago in 951 AD started the tradition, but the villages enroute certainly are.

I’ve seen many of these old cisterns along the trail, and they include a trench to collect water flowing down the trail. This one has been restored, I think.

It is cold today. I have walked 343 kilometers so far.

The area has sheep, cattle, and goats, and small cheese factories for the area. The French are very picky about their cheese.


I had coffee in the tiny village of Faycelles yesterday. That is it in the background.

It has a pretty Church and I git a stamp in the tourist office. I thought it was the prettiest village I had seen but didn’t get photos.

Late that afternoon in the village of Gréalou I met my host, Esther, who was warm and friendly. She said they were going to a celebration at Faycelles that evening, did I want to go? But if we went there would only be soup for dinner. I immediately said yes, enthusiastically.

Dinner was “just” homemade vegetable soup, with pumpkin, carrots, potatoes, bell peppers, celery, fresh turmeric, and more. Served with goat milk.

Esther drove her helper Lucas, another pilgrim Sophie, and I to Faycelles. The celebration recognized 20 years of designation of this part of the Camino as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

People were preparing to light luminaries made of clay pots filled with wax and a big cloth wick. 1100 of them.

People poured into the tiny village. Wine and beer flowed.

At dark the flames were lit.

This old fortification turned into

This. Thousands of people flowed onto the trail, which I had walked earlier that afternoon, guided by the luminaries.

Fantastic scenes were created by animated figures made of steel and salvaged parts.

The lighted city is in the background.

Walking through the ring of fire was the dramatic finale.

This tightrope unicycle was the most intriguing. Now I’m back on the trail for the next adventure.

3 Hour Dinners

Dinner at my house may be 20 minutes. Here, they can take 3 hours.

The owner met us at the church in Saint Felix and guided us up to the house.

I’m staying in a house with three other guests and the host. We were called to dinner at 6:30 and are just now finishing

The owner has guests because it is fun. He doesn’t want people every night.

The conversation is all in French.

The cheese plate is second to last, but the discussion of the various cheeses on it, where they came from, takes a full half hour.

Appetizers of cheese wrapped in ham, wine, and tomatoes is followed by a cold sliced meat plate and sliced tomatoes, by mashed potatoes with codfish, by more wine, and finally fruit cocktail. I should have taken more pictures in 3 hours.

Monastic Life

This is a longer than usual post as this is a spectacular place. My good friend Ralph told me that Conques was magical, so when I arrived my expectations were high. The trail coming in to town was a steep and tough descent.

My walking companion Josette banged up her right foot and was barely able to walk in the morning.

The welcome by volunteers in the e Benedictine Abbye was warm and friendly with all the usual procedures except that our packs were put in fumigated plastic bags (bedbug prevention). Boots and walking sticks in the courtyard.

The sleeping room is ordinary with an excellent bathroom right next door (unisex, as seems to be the custom).

Dinner at 7:00 pm in the refectory was chicken, carrot salad, potatoes with cheese, and good wine. Cheese and cake for dessert. One of the hospitaliers told me the blue cheese was local and where the variety originated.

We had been at the Cathedral earlier for a choral concert by a group of talented women, and now returned there for a pilgrim blessing by the Benedictine brothers. Because I was an English speaker, I was invited to make a reading, as were a Frenchman, a German, and a Spanish woman. The reading wasn’t familiar but was Old Testament-ish, probably from the Psalms.

Following we were invited to an organ concert. I explored the second floor of the immense stone church. The organist played a hymn I remember my mother playing, a very emotional experience for me. The acoustics of a pipe organ in a stone cathedral are amazing. He wrapped up the concert with a spectacular rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun”. He told me afterward that it was made popular in France by a French singer and he hadn’t known of its American origin until some American visitors told him.

Then we went outside and listened to a long history of the town in French. I couldn’t put together the story from what I understood. This is the famous facade of “Last Judgement” in daylight. What followed next (10:30 pm) was incredible.

Using a light projection system (laser?) the colors originally painted there were restored in great detail and vibrancy. An altogether amazing evening!

I am laying in today, recovering from 11 days on the trail. Josette and I shared a last lunch of bread and cheese and grapes, then she caught the bus back to Le Puy. She became a good friend.

Here is a piece of the concert. Conques is indeed magical. I’m back on the trail at 7:30 am, am getting deep into rural French culture.


This albergue 16 km before Conques is by donation. We all 5 helped make supper of pumpkin soup, ratatouille, Truffade, all from scratch. 3 hour dinner, best time ever.

Breakfast at 7:00 and we hate to leave.

My walking companion Josette goes home tomorrow. We communicate via google translate. She makes reservations by phone for gites, difficult if one is not fluent in French.

Perfect villages all along the way.

Very hilly. Hard 20 km days.

Michelle and Alain’a albergue reenergized me. Moving on -Conques today!


Here pain is the staff of life: bread. One think I’ve learned is that you keep your slice of bread on the table, not your plate.

This is breakfast- coffee in a bowl with bread.

A second cup of coffee for the day on this little “place” is a good way to slow down and take a break.

We in Fredericksburg see our city listed in the top 10 destinations, but imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth if the national government gave that designation.

Even though it is pretty, old but in good repair, all these villages are spectacular.

The local Bier is an IPA. Good one, too!

I’m walking with Josette (Belgium) the last of our family, until Conques (Sunday). Then she goes home and I push forward. I don’t know if I’ll have other such friends on this trip, or even how I ended up with them. I miss Anne-Marie, we had a lot of fun. I’m learning lots of French, as Josette doesn’t know much English.

We visited an incredible market today.

Lively place with music playing and beautiful food everywhere. If a person wanted romance, this would be a place to visit. (I’m not looking for romance).