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Learning to Walk, Day 41, Friday, October 7, Aroue to Harambelz, about 20 km, I think

Today’s walk was glorious. Two big climbs—the first was on a typical narrow path through trees so wasn’t bad, the second—oh my—I was not expecting this today! A LONG uphill climb with no shade in the glaring sun—hot, hot, hot. But when you reached the top—oh my again. Pictures to follow.

Foot update—it is clearly pavement that aggravates the problem the worst. When I get to trails my feet do much better. Managed 14 km before stopping to take my boots and socks off and let them rest. In part, because there was simply nowhere to sit until then! We were warned that there would be absolutely nothing in terms of services on this stretch. So the gite last night had a small store where you could buy cheese, bread, fruit and a few other things you might want for the day. At 14 km there were some picnic benches in a small village so I joined all the others who were walking today and enjoyed my lunch there with my feet up. After lunch came the two climbs. Now I am at my gite, in a lovely old farmhouse, hoping to finish this before dinner starts at 6:30. There is a barely two month old kitten curled up beside me, and a five-month old curled up on my bed upstairs. Awww.

Here are photos from this glorious day. The Pyrenees are looming large now, but you may have to zoom in to see them through the clouds.

This morning.
These ducks ran up from below the barn to greet me. I had nothing for them.
This is the Stele Gibraltar, where three Chemins meet as they all approach St. Jean Pied de Port, the Chemin Le Puy or Via Podiensis which I’ve been walking, the Vezelay, and the one that starts in Paris.
The back side of the Stele Gibraltar has the more glorious view.

And here are photos of the long, long climb in the hot, hot sun.

But it was worth it when you got to the top.

It was definitely a Maria moment, though in the wrong mountains.
The little chapel at the top was barred, but you could look through.
The chapel at the top.

That climb was good practice for what is to come in a few days when I head over the Pyrenees. Since I took three days off, and much of the walk lately has been flat, I’m glad for the two climbs today. Can’t lose my climbing legs before the Pyrenees.

A couple of interiors from tonight’s gite.

Learning to Walk, Day 40, Thursday, October 6th, Navarenxx to Aroue, 20 km

The good news is that my big heel blister is no longer painful, which is a huge relief. The less good news is that the painful, burning sensation at the base of my toes still kicks in after about 5 km. I took two breaks today to take off my boots and socks and put my feet up and that helped. I think a big part of it is the pavement walking and hiking boots combination. My current thinking is that when I get to St. Jean Pied de Port, get a second pair of good walking shoes, not boots, and trade off. Boots when I need them for off-pavement climbs and descents, walking shoes for pavement and flatter stretches.

It was a beautiful walk today. I was grateful for a good stretch of woods and shade and dirt to walk on.

Two paths diverged. . .
Leaving Navarenxx
Three pilgrims. The one in the middle walks a tad faster than the other two.
Passed some beautiful houses just outside of Navarenxx.
The greenest, healthiest corn I’ve seen. This farmer clearly has access to water.
This bench appeared just when my feet were screaming, “stop and take a break!!”
I think this Highland cow is a little lost.
Most of the churches in this area are locked.
Underpass art and bar.
Cloudy mountains.
Last night’s gite.
I should have moved it rather than simply admire it. It was in the path from the door and someone stepped on it shortly after I took this. I don’t think I’ve ever mourned a caterpillar before, but it made me quite sad.

Learning to Walk, Day 39, Wednesday, October 5, Navarenxx

I’m still here folks! I decided to stay three days in Navarenxx to see a doc about my feet and let them rest. He gave me a very strong anti-inflammatory, said my feet looked amazing for having walked 500-600 km, and did not tell me to stop walking. He also said what I was putting on my heel blister was the best thing to use. Lesson: I will NOT try walking without the liner socks again! I am staying in a wonderful gite with my own room. The hosts are so welcoming and the meals delicious. Gite Le Cri de Girafe, if you are planing your trip.

I plan to start walking again tomorrow, hope to be in St. Jean Pied de Port on Sunday, and hope my feet and the weather allow me to start across the Pyrenees on Tuesday. Prayers, thoughts, healing energy for feet are all welcome!

Guard tower I guess?

Learning to Walk, Days 35 and 36, maybe, Oct 1-2, Aire sur L’Adour to Miramont-Sensacq- to Arzacq-Arraziguet

The days and places are blurring together. We are in a part of the walk with few villages and towns, and lots and lots of farmland. The big WOW yesterday was when I realized that all of a sudden I could see the Pyrenees!!

I am having a lot of foot trouble which is very frustrating having come this far. The boots I bought a week or so ago solved some problems, but I think they are causing different ones. And I decided to try walking without my liner toe socks for the last few km yesterday, thinking they might be the problem, and promptly got my first bad blister. I hate to be this close to the Pyrenees and not be able to finish this part of the walk!! I’m taking the transport van again tomorrow for another rest day, then will try walking again the day after. If I’m still having trouble, I’ll find the next town big enough for a podiatrist. It is definitely a lesson in learning one’s limits. But disappointing.

Clouds lifted!

Learning to Walk, Days 33-34, September 29-30, Eauze to Aire sur L’Adour (by vehicle)

Sometimes learning to walk is learning when to stop, or you won’t be able to keep walking! My feet and the rest of my body said, “Enough!” So I have had two rest days, and feel so much better. I think I already wrote about how wonderful the Gite Chez Nadine was, where I stayed the last two nights in Eauze. Nadine and Francis are wonderful hosts and they have created such a beautiful, spacious gite. Nadine is an amazing cook. We had five course meals both nights! They began with a touch of Armagnac with champagne, and finished with Armagnac, and in between were two or three appetizers (called entrees here, which is confusing for an American), then the main course, then dessert. Last night’s meal included a perfectly boiled egg on top of salad from her hens, then delicious mussels, then steak with pate on top, then the best chocolate mousse I’ve ever had. And there was something before the egg and salad that I can’t remember. Gite owners are such generous, hospitable folks. I think most of them probably don’t do much more than break even, and they really care about pilgrims/walkers.

Here are some photos from the church in Nogaro, Collegiale St. Nicholas, where we had a couple of hours before catching the bus. It dates back to the 11th century. It’s beautiful and has a very important old fresco that is one of the earliest to depict pilgrims, and tells the story of the martyrdom of St. Laurent. And you’ll have to google that story, because I haven’t! Looking at how immense this church is, it just amazes me that they had architects and builders that could do this a thousand years ago without any modern technology.

Aire sur L’Adour is a lovely town, obviously doing better than some of the other towns we’ve been through. Not sure what the pink umbrellas are about, but they catch your eye. And there are more of the stunning French clouds.

The Cathedral of St. Jean-Baptiste was founded in the 11th century, destroyed twice and rebuilt in the 19th century. My guidebook says it has a historic organ, but I don’t know any more about it than that.

I’m staying in a very unique gite tonight, the Chapel of the Ursulines. Chapel of a former Ursuline convent build in the late 19th century, abandoned in the early 20th century, fell into great disrepair, was bought privately and restored. It is a wonderful environment. And there is a massage therapist giving twenty minute massages for a donation. Heaven.

I realized a couple of weeks ago that I am not going to be able to walk the entire way to St. Jacques/Santiago as I had originally planned. And that’s okay. The guide books and Facebook groups where people tell you it takes 30-35 days for each route are based on walking at least 25 – 30 km a day, sometimes more, and I have discovered that I simply cannot do that. And I don’t want to. I want to take time to pause and look around, to go into all the churches I pass, to explore the villages and towns I stay in a bit. People who are walking longer days are either in MUCH better physical condition than I am, younger, or are walking such long days that all they can do is walk, shower, do laundry, eat and go to bed. I’m not interested in that! My feet start complaining before I reach 20 km, and I want to be able to enjoy the trip. So I will have to skip some parts. I hope today’s bus ride will be the last I need to take in France. I am really enjoying walking in France and want to finish walking the Chemin. I really want to be able to walk over the Pyrenees, but it all depends on the weather when I get there. The path over is closed at the moment because there were bad storms the last couple of days and some very bad falls on the slippery paths down. The path over is called the Napoleon route. It closes for the season at the end of October. So if the weather cooperates, I will be able to take it. If not, I’ll take the Valcarlos route, which is the one used in the winter and in bad weather. It goes through the valley, and while there is some climbing, it does not have the same climb as going up and over. While I very much want to take the Napoleon route, have that experience and see the spectacular views, I will of course listen to the authorities and take the Valcarlos if the weather is bad or iffy. After six weeks or so of walking, with all the climbs and descents involved in the Chemin, I should be in good shape for the climb so I hope the weather cooperates.

Once I get to Spain I will figure out what portions I need to skip over. There are some walks through industrial areas as you enter the big cities, and I will look for busses at those points. And many people skip the Meseta, which I understand is 180 km. Others say, “No! Why would you skip the Meseta!” It is walking for days across a flat plain through fields, and I have discovered that the long, flat stretches of walking are my least favorite. If I skip the Meseta I might have time to walk most of the rest of it. Other people rent a bike and cycle across the Meseta, returning it at the end of it. That’s a possibility. I don’t need to decide any of this yet!

Here is a photo from the end of dinner last night that I shared on FB, but don’t think I shared here. Armagnac. Last night’s dinner was so interesting, even though I was really suffering with my cold. There were five retired doctors around the table, two retired business executives (the seven of them were decades-long friends and traveling together), a retired nurse and her husband, a retired environmentalist, a psychologist and a pastor. We pretty much had the bases covered: could care for body, mind, soul, the earth and take care of business. And of course our wonderful hosts who built the gite themselves and are wonderful cooks. We could have created our own complete society!

Armagnac is really good when you have a cold.

Learning to Walk, Day 32, Wednesday, September 28, from Montreal-du-Gers to Eauze

Not too long of a walk today, and nice to share it with a friend from British Columbia. We walk at a similar pace, and while I don’t at all mind walking alone, it was nice to have company, especially since as we struggled through the rain and got soaked! Unlike the light rain of the other day, this got quite heavy. There was a gite at about the 9 km point that also has a cafe for pilgrims. In the middle of nowhere and VERY welcome. They had enough sheltered tables for all of us who took refuge. I had tea and an early lunch as we watched the storm. By the time we finished eating, the rain had stopped and we only had a few drops for the rest of the day.

I’m in Eauze, in a wonderful gite, Chez Nadine, with my own room and en-suite everything for two glorious nights. I’m not even setting an alarm in the morning. As Nadine said, “if you sleep til ten it’s because you need it.” I also have a mild cold and am trying to keep it from progressing. I guess it’s unavoidable with so much shared accommodation.

More tomorrow. I hope to have the energy to do some catching up. That’s my plan, but I made that plan pre-cold, so we’ll see.

Saying prayers for folks in Florida. I was touched by how concerned our gite owners were about the storm. I asked if they knew people in Florida, and they said, “no, but it is going to be a catastrophe so we are worried.” They even turned on CNN as we finished dinner. First TV news I’ve seen in over a month.

Learning to Walk, Day 31, Tuesday, September 27, Condom to Montreal du Gers

I would happily have stayed a few nights in Gite Au Plaisir d’Etape, last night’s gite. I haven’t stayed anywhere that I would review negatively, but some gites really stand out and this one, owned by Corinne and Philippe is one of them. So welcoming, a beautiful gite, warm and friendly hosts, and I had a single room. And a real towel and real bedding, a welcome change from my pack towel and sleep sack (which is actually great, but it’s not real bedding!)

I spent about an hour in Larresingle, about 6 km into today’s walk. It is the smallest fortified village in France and one of the few remaining in this part of France with its walls intact. Straight out of a medieval storybook. Walls all around, surrounded by a moat (dry), castle and church in the center, a bit of open space, and houses and shops built against the interior of the wall.

Passed this milestone just after Larresingle—only 1000 km to go!

Next stop was a very, very old church, L’Eglise Routges the oldest in the area, 11th century. Very small, and guarded by the black cat who lives in it. He was not unfriendly, but he did startle me. I don’t think the church has electricity—there were just big candles around—so it was dim inside and all of a sudden there was a very loud “meow!!” And there was the cat sitting on a chair. It must live there because there was a bowl for it on the wall of the entry porch.

Tonight I am in Montreal du Gers, and frankly there’s not a lot here! Another big cavernous 13th century church, but I did not find it as inspiring as others. Tomorrow I go to Eauze, where I will finally spend two nights in one place with a day of no walking in between.

Learning to Walk, Days 28-30, September 24-26

I am in Condom. I know. Don’t tell your junior high class or youth group that your friend is in Condom, France. Pronounce it with a French accent and that helps. It comes from an old Gallic word meaning “confluence market” because there was a market at the confluence of two rivers. That’s their story and they’re sticking with it.

Condom is the land of D’Artagnon and the three musketeers. And Armagnac which I haven’t had yet. And there is a glorious cathedral here. So much to write about, and I am so behind. But once again it’s late and I am exhausted. Not late for NYC folk, but late for pilgrims. I am spending two nights in one place later this week, and hope to spend much of that rest day writing. So I should catch up a bit. Here are a few photos in the meantime.

Learning to Walk, Days 26-27, September 22-23, Moissac to Auvillar, Auvillar to Miradoux

The wifi seems pretty good here, and I’ve got more than an hour before dinner so I’m going to try and catch up a bit. Today was a nice day of walking, about 18 km. The last two or three days had been very flat, which can get tedious. Today we got back into rolling hill farmland rather than Kansas prairie flat type farmland. No offense to Kansas, but I prefer some hills! The only drawback is that there is a LOT of pavement walking these days. It’s just so hard on the feet. And the paths that run alongside the fields aren’t much better. The ground is so parched from the drought that the dirt is hard-packed, with crevices, and not much easier on the feet than pavement.

One of the things that made today’s walk so much more pleasant is that there were more villages along the way, with interesting histories and churches, and even a place to get a coffee mid-day.

Tonight I am in the tiny village of Miradoux, and I can’t tell you much about it because I walked straight to the gite, showered, and got every stitch of clothing and my towel (except what I’m wearing this evening, of course), into a washing machine!! This is only the second time I have been able to use a washing machine at a gite and it is wonderful to actually get my clothes clean! There is just no way to adequately wash socks by hand. Maybe if I had an old-fashioned scrub board. I have accepted that my socks are going to return to the U.S. with parts of France and Spain permanently embedded into them.

St. -Antoine—According to my guide book the village is linked to the Order of St. Anthony, which was founded in 1095 to care for those who suffered from a medieval form of leprosy called St. Anthony’s Fire, (ergotism). In the 17th century a doctor discovered it was caused by eating grain contaminated with the ergot fungus. That discovery brought the end to the Order, since I guess they weren’t needed any more, but there was a severe outbreak of ergotism in a French village as late as the 1950s. Where are the St. Anthony guys when you need them?

The murals in the church were beautiful and date from the 14th century. One of them is centered around the story of St. Blaise, a 4th century bishop and doctor in Armenia known for being able to help people with objects stuck in their throats. What a specialty huh? He later became known for healing souls and several miracles were attribute to him. The second mural at the bottom is St George killing the dragon.

After a nice cafe crème with two new friends from Colorado, it was back into the countryside until the next village of Flamarens. The church in this village is actually a ruin. They managed to keep what is left from collapsing—it looks like maybe they did that by putting a roof on it, and from what I could tell from the signs it looks like they have plans to restore/rebuild it. It has a long way to go. As you will see, almost one entire side is gone. Right next to it is a chateau that apparently was neglected for four decades in the 20th century and in very bad shape after a fire, but it has been restored. It may even be run as a gite now—I’m not sure.

Now to go back to yesterday and Auvillar. Auvillar is one of those special, beautiful villages. What makes it unique is the circular market, Halle aux Grains, and clock tower Tour de L’Horloge which date from the 16th century. The church is also wonderful and dates from the 12th century, but has had much work done on it over the centuries, including a gorgeous Baroque altar. I’m not a huge fan of Baroque, but I thought this was beautiful. Auvillar is one of those “most beautiful villages in France.” And I would agree. I stayed in a beautiful gite that is relatively new, in a centuries old building that the owners gutted to create their home and the gite. However, it was only a B&B, not demi-pension (serving dinner). Normally this would not be a problem, because there are several restaurants. But apparently Thursday is “rest day” in Auvillar. I don’t know how you are supposed to know that ahead of time. The only restaurant open was the pizza place and since it was the only place open, you had to have a reservation. There was only one guy working—cooking and serving, and when I stopped to see if I could make a reservation he said the earliest he could serve me was 8:30. Way too late for a pilgrim’s dinner! So thanks to some new French friends, and the kindness of strangers, I actually had a feast, that I can’t tell you about. But trust me, MUCH better than pizza! One of the sayings among pilgrims is “the Camino provides,” and yesterday evening was a prime example! The other example of that was that I once again had a room to myself last night. I was in a twin room, and even though the gite was fairly full, she did not need to put anyone in the other bed. Since I hadn’t slept well the night before (worst mattress of the trip!), it was wonderful to have my own room again, and I slept very well.

That’s it for now. It’s about dinner time, and I am tired. I have so much that I’ve skipped over. I’m going to need to find a place to stop for a couple of nights for a real rest day. Perhaps I can go back and catch up on what I’ve missed then. Thanks for traveling along with me!

Learning to Walk, Days 23, 24 and 25; September 19-21: Cahors to Lascabanes, to Lauzerte, to Moissac

The days are really running together, and again I am way behind. Those who are FB friends already know about my amazing “it’s a small world” experience. For those who aren’t: Bisette, who along with her husband Jacques own the gite I stayed at in Cahors, sat across from me at dinner, strategically, I believe, since she speaks English. She started by telling me she had been to university for a year in the US. I asked, “where?” She said, “Missouri”. I asked, “oh, where in Missouri?” She said, “a very small town called Nevada, Missouri.” As soon as she started to say, “Nevada” my jaw dropped and I exclaimed, “I went to Cottey!!” And her jaw dropped and she said something like, “What??? I can’t believe it!!” She was there four years after I was as a French exchange student. Most people have never heard of Cottey. It is a gem of a tiny women’s college—just a junior college when we were there—only 350 or so students. Meeting someone in a small town in France who has been to Cottey is like winning the lottery. And you gain an instant sister. It was the most wonderful bit of synchronicity. Neither of us could stop smiling and shaking our heads over dinner and so many memories came rushing back. We didn’t have the same classmates, but we had the same professors and it was such a wonderful gift.

I’m going to start with today and work back if I have enough energy. I knew I could not walk 30 km from Lauzerte to Moissac. In fact, I have realized I do not have it in me to walk 30 km on ANY day. My feet just can’t do it. But I had already booked and prepaid for tonight’s gite in Moissac. The gite owner from last night, in Lauzerte helped me. Gite owners are the most generous helpful people on the planet, I think. She advised me to walk 13 km to the town of Durfort Lacapelette and then take a taxi the rest of the way to Moissac. She said the walk into Moissac is not much fun anyway. And she was right. Walking into bigger towns on sidewalks past all the residential areas and businesses that lead into town is the worst part of the walk. She helped me arrange the taxi (it’s not like NYC where you can just flag one down!), and it worked like a charm. I got to Durfort early enough to have lunch in the cafe, then waited on the terrace as I was instructed and my taxi arrived just when it was supposed to. The driver was also one of the most helpful people on the planet and took me right to the gite here in Moissac. It’s on a busy, narrow road which you can’t stop and park on, so he parked a block away, got out and walked me to the gite so I didn’t have to find it on my own.

I am SO glad I did that. It gave me time to see Moissac. And Moissac is not to be missed. It is yet another beautiful medieval town—well, the historic center of it is—it is actually a fairly large town so the medieval center is surrounded by a modern town—like so many towns and cities in Europe. The heart of Moissac is Abbey St. Pierre. The Benedictine Abbey was founded in the 7th century, but really took off in the 10-11th century when it was linked to the Cluny order, and the Abbot here became second in command of that order. The current church and cloisters date to the 11th century. Yes, 11th. They are magnificent. The Romanesque south portal of the church and the cloisters are among the most impressive of their day. Every single capital in the cloisters is carved, and the vast majority of them depict Biblical stories, many with captions. The south portal door of the church is so awe-inspiring I actually burst into tears. Something about this artwork that was done more than 1000 years ago, and is still here, surviving the elements and wars and Protestant destruction of everything Catholic in so many places just hit me. When you walk inside the church, it looks like it is wall-papered, but it’s painted. I’ll share as many photos as I can.

Church interior. It’s big.
Close up of the painted walls. The whole interior is like this. Can you imagine how long it took to do this?
I imagine the console is on that balcony. I don’t think my fear of heights would allow me to play the organ here!
This is 15th century.
This pieta was in a small chapel. There was no sign explaining it, but it was one of the few things protected by a glass case. Wish I knew something about it. It’s beautiful.
Another place I could not go.

The cloisters and everything else I need to catch up on are going to have to wait. It’s late, and even though there is wifi, it isn’t very fast. Once again there are only three people staying at this gite tonight—another couple, from California, and me. So again, I have my own room! I need to take advantage of it and sleep. I’m going to have to take a day off just to catch up and write! If only I could be sure there would be good wifi, that would be a nice break.