Monthly Archives: October 2010

Notes for Next Year

Route Notes for next year: Daily stages during the first week need to be less than 15 km. And plan one rest day every week. Transport service appears to be available all the way from Le Puy to SJPP. From Moissac onward the route flattens out, and it will be sunny, as I did not see much forest on the train. It is also reportedly less stoney. The path along the Canal du Midi has now been paved for bicycles, so it is not as good for walking. I have not yet hit a market day (need to check Tourism site or Web for each city as the next research project).

Packing Notes for next year: Need to reduce the pack weight. Get the new smaller Kindle, use a smaller size foot balm and foot powder, no body powder, a smaller 38 liter pack, a 2 liter water bladder, no salt/pepper, no mirror, no phrase book, consolidate the paperwork for post-walking activities, substitute a lightweight vest or jacket for the third shirt, substitute sturdier casual shoes if available at the same weight, and only one pen. The pack must include spare rations – with noon, Sunday, and Monday closures, evening meals can be chancy and hitting a lunchtime cafe is incredibly rare. A loaf of bread keeps several days, ditto cheese and raw veggies. Groceries are happy to sell single carrots and apples.

28 Sep 10: Moissac (Rest Day)

Tour: One rest day a week is essential – the feet recover, the body recovers, the spirits recover, the mind gets the opportunity to reflect. This morning I settled into a new room at the gite, a cozy apartment in back with complete kitchen, conversation area with ipholstered seating for 3, a dining table with seating for 3, a spiral staircase, bunk beds for four, and a full shower bath. Lovely, if compact. I took a morning walk up to the heights overlooking town, followed by a post-lunch walk out along the canal to where it overcrosses the river Tarn, then back to town along the banks of the Tarn.

Grace: I wish I could say what makes the French Chemin so peaceful, but perhaps it is better that I cannot analyze it exactly. scenery is only a part; the absence of traffic and road noise, the absence of blaring tv, radio, stereo, advertisements (especially political campaigns); the absence of work, family, and local organization stresses (obligations unmet, promises not kept, expectations not fulfilled) – all contribute. The rhythm of walking itself is addictive (here I am on a rest day, walking). The ability to set a goal, and depending only on your own self to get there, runs headlong into the fact of our mutual dependency on each other. This time has been a gift, an interval for healing the mind and spirt. And I learned, the body heals itself each night if given the opportunity.

27 Sep 10: Cahors to Moissac (by train)

Tour: I had purchased a train ticket from Moissac back to Paris before I left the States, and there were no rail stops on the walking route between Cahors and Moissac, so I decided to end this year’s walk at Cahors and continue by train to Moissac. So I have the morning to explore Cahors, which is a rather large place. There is an extensive old town section that is quite nice, worth a several hours’ stroll. The cathedral is especially noteworthy (both for its architecture and its interior decoration), really not to be missed. Eventhough it is a Monday, the sandwich shops on the main street are open, with a nice assortment on offer. The train station is on the west side of town, north of the western bridge where GR65 exits town. Although no restaurants were open Sunday evening, some are open for Monday lunch. The train station is large; the TGV connection is in Montauban which is 40 minutes away by rail. I ran into an Australian couple on the train. They had walked the Ceile valley route, then rented a houseboat on the Lot for a week as a break from their Chemin walk, with good recommendations.

Lodging: Lodging in Moissac was Gite Ultreia, run by an Irish couple, the Bates, very comfortable and hospitable – and well known among pilgrims. Very highly recommended. I visited the historic abbey church (a dependent of Cluny) and cloister, strolled downtown, had a good Belgian brown beer, attended Vespers at the abbey church with the nuns singing beautifully.

Cuisine: Breakfast at Cahors (and yes I was ready for it!) included homemade multi-grain bread and fromage blanc, a tasty and welcome change of pace. Lunch from sandwich shops downtown across form the Tourism office” a nice salad, a jambon-emmenthaler small sandwich and another, a poulet provencal, ensemble a emporter very tasty. Dinner was demi-pension at the gite. Starter: ripe melon with proscuttio, along with tomato and cucumber. Main: steamed Yukon Gold potatoes, haricots vert and buttered carrots (three bowls of vegetables – a first!), with fresh salmon poached in white wine and tarragon. Dessert: Peach Melba with vanilla ice cream. we all commented on how the French seem to grow many vegetables in the garden but do not serve them at the table (except salad). They must go into the soup. Our table includes one Austrian from Gratz, who has walked from there over the years. He says the trails are not stoney, and villages are frequent (every 2 km).

Packing Notes for next year: Need to reduce the pack weight. Get the new smaller Kindle, use a smaller size foot balm and foot powder, no body powder, a smaller 38 liter pack, a 2 liter water bladder, no salt/pepper, no mirror, no phrase book, consolidate the paperwork for post-walking activities, substitute a lightweight vest or jacket or the third shirt, substitute sturdier casual shoes if available at the same weight, only one pen.

Route Notes for next year: Daily stages during the first week need to be less than 15 km. And plan one rest day every week.

26 Sep 10: Vaylats to Cahors

Route: 24.6 km with 400 ft descent

Tour: Underway at the striking of the 8:00 bell and rolled up to the gite door at 4:15, with about an hour of mid-day halts. It was good walking the first two hours, over an old Roman road as far as La Peche. This is still karst country, with limestone underpinning the thin soil, and scrubby oak forest, occasional sheep, no views, no farms, no towns, no reason for being here except passing through. The hunters were after pheasant though (saw one on the wing, quite large). I know this distance is longer than I am comfortable with, but it is the last walking day, so it does no harm if my feet are still sore tomorrow. We passed several lodging options on the way in, but I expect those work only if there is a Francophone in the party (small places well away from towns). La Peche at midday was the only other viable stop. This entire stretch (Cajarc to Cahors) is utterly pointless on the GR65; I would encourage any pilgrims following to explore other options. There is the towpath route along the Lot, or the variants through the Ceile valley, or via Rocamador, or via Lalabenque. The last hour of walking is brutal; too long and a very steep descent into town. I am very glad for the cheerful companionship of my Quebecois friend, who keeps me going.

Lodging: La Maison des Pelerins

Cuisine: The lodging in Cahors (Maison des Pelerins) is spacious and very clean, but this is Sunday night, and the nearest open eatery is a 30-minute walk one-way. My feet are too sore and I am too exhausted to think twice about this. So I make a meal off the last of the grocery provisions: tinned tuna, a carot, and some Babybels. It is very important to identify eating arrangements when making lodging reservations.

25 Sept 10: Limogne to Vaylats

Route: 15.8 km with 25 ft climb (nearly net flat overall)

Tour: Marie the Belgian routed us past the well preserved, ancient clothes-washing place , and a local man walking his golden Lab took pains to walk with me back to the waymarked trail. I started at 9:15 and arrive 3:00 with a 15 minute lunch, so was making good about 3 kph with the normal rest stops. Scrubby woods and small farm holdings; this is a thinly populated part of the country. Lodging is in a convent guesthouse, two-person room with the same Quebecois – it is really helpful to have a Francophone to carry the language load. I attended the evening Mass at 5:30, there being no office on Sunday, which Saturday evening counts as part of.

Lodging: Monastere des Filles de Jesus

Cuisine: I feared a vegetarian regime but the convent offered a regular demipension menu. The nuns were seated at separate tables from us guests in the same dining room. There was a vegetable soup, mostly carrots. The main was roast pork with potatoes, and the dessert was a stewed plum compote. Plenty of food to go around the family-style table. I wondered what happened to all the leftovers, until I saw six sleek cats loitering outside the kitchen door as I made my way back to my room.

Grace: I can maintain my focus. With quiet, and the absence of media, and the absence of work thoughts, I can concentrate for a change. At least, I can in the mornings, with the rhythm of walking established and the fatigue/hunger thoughts not yet intruding. I like being able to join in Sunday Mass, participating in the community of the faithful. There are ten nuns here, and I interact with two, whose hearts of love are discernable even through the language barrier. This feels very special.

24 Sept 10: Cajarc to Limogne en Quercy

Route: 18 km with 450 ft climb

Tour: I started out rigged for rain, due to the continuous showers, but it promises to fair off and turn cooler midday. Underway at 8:35, and I arrive at St Jean 11:15 after covering 10 km — this is almost 4 kph! My usual rate of progress is 3 kph – mornings really are my best time. The afternoon route is stonier, and harder on the feet. Small farms, old walls, limestone gravel. The woods are scrubby here, with creosoty stuff — the soil is porous here and doesn’t hold water well. After the second midday halt, the black cloud finally caught up with us and it rained until I reached the out skirts of Limogne.

Lodging: At Les Gloriettes, and Madame Marie our host is from Belgium. The house is a huge old affair with a large garden. There is no demi pension but kitchen priviledges are included and the grocery store is only 2 blocks away. My roommate is a Quebec woman I have been leapfrogging all day, so it made for a pleasant evening of chatting with the Quebecois (two men staying there too). Madame Marie is a colorful character. I tell her I have many friends I will send to visit her, and she responds, “Not so many. And only send good people, who are like you. If you send bad people, I will say I am Full already.” She gets group reservations starting many months in advance.

Cuisine: We ate at a good cafe around the corner for dinner. The starter was cream of mussels soup, in a large terrine that would have served two nicely. The main was cassoulet en Quercy (local version of a regional dish) with sausages, lamb, and chicken. Again, served in a large terrine that was way too much food for one person. Both dishes were very rich and filling, so I only managed to dent half the cassoulet. Dessert was sorbet (gelato perhaps) intensely flavored cassis and citron, a real memorable treat.

23 Sep 10: Grealou to Cajarc

Route: 10.8 km with 700 ft descent

Tour: The countryside is much flatter now, the air heavy with humidity from yesterday’s heat, and today’s forecast is rain. The road is gently undulating, some is stoney, much is crushed-gravel farm road. An old dolmen had started to collapse, and was shored up solid with sandbags and fenced off for safety. The views alternated between small pastures and woods of oak and boxwood – the wonderful fragrance of boxwood on a warm day! Pleasant, good for reflection and contemplation, and utterly forgettable. As is the town of Cajarc. Word is that one can reach Cahors in two long days of walking along the banks of the Lot from here, with a bus running periodically to serve as a sag-wagon. Around this town are prominent limestone bluffs, so shear they look very much like castle walls. It is a good thing this was planned as a short day, as the weatherman delivers thunderstorms and downpours all afternoon and evening, with much lightning. I pray for those who are caught out in this storm.

Lodging: HR La Peyrade

Cuisine: A robust German breakfast (yogurt, muesli, cheese, hard boiled eggs) at the gite. Lunch in Cajarc at L’Presidente, managed to get moules frites, one of my favorite dishes from Normandy! Alas, they turned out to be not as tasty as the menu du jour (note to self: it never is). The evening meal (demi-pension at hotel) was this week’s entry in the “worst meal in France” contest: salad, frites, and deep-fried duck confit. I did not think it was possible to do anything to make duck confit taste bad, but this cook managed the job. The accommodations were quite good (clean, spacious, recent construction), location was not bad (3 blocks from town center with a nice view), but the food is not recommendable.

22 Sep 10: Figeac to Grealou

Route: 20.3 km with 500 ft climb

Tour: The day started with a good climb out of town to the ridgetop, about 300 ft in 30 minutes. Then it was walking along paved country byways along the ridgetop. The route entirely to Faycelles is pavement or road shoulder, which is very hard on my feet. I was underway at 8:15 and reached Faycelles 11:00. This is an interesting Gothic church, quite large to be so isolated. But, we are on a hilltop, so perhaps this was the area fortress during the long wars. Figeac is a large place with extensive suburbs, which took an hour to transit (after climbing the ridge!). The light industrial area included a plant for fois gras and other regional specialties; their factory-direct store was hard to pass up! There are fewer walkers today, all French so far (lots of people I met earlier were only going as far as Figeac). The French are quite distressed that I am walking alone “and have no one to talk to you”. But I find peacefulness in walking alone, both quiet and my own pace, that I do not get when walking with companions, whether new friends or old. The countryside views here are bucolic but nothing special. The afternoon walk was more level, with a better quality footpath, ending uphill. With an 81 F afternoon, it was a 3-liter day.

Lodging: Atelier des Volets Bleus (Highly recommended)

Cuisine: Breakfast at the Hotel Pont D’Or was the most robust yet this trip, with yogurt, cold cuts, cold cheeses, hot scrambled eggs (frozen) in addition to the usual French menu. Also hard-boiled eggs that were overcooked and had broken shells. (The French just don’t understand how to do eggs for breakfast.) Lunch at La Forge in Faycelles was the plat du jour – roast pork with sauted peppers and mashed potatoes. Dinner at the gite was home-cooked Swiss rosti potatoes (hash browns) topped with fried eggs sunnyside up, along with a green salad and a karottensalat (pickled beets, grated carrots, diced tomatoes and cucumber). The pilgrims cooked for each other from supplies provided in the kitchen.

Grace: This tiny gite created a gem of community. The owner is Swiss, while the guests were a German, me, another Swiss, and an Austrian, all women. Conversation ganz auf Deustch with occasional exceptions for my sake. I could follow about half the discussion (topic and sentiment but not the details). I am finding it is so nice to be able to discuss the day’s adventures with other walkers who have shared similar. Lodging by myself at the hotels offers more privacy, and more conveniences, but much less companionship. There are many expats in this area; two Brit ladies stopped by to chat with Madame; one had lived here 18 years. Madame has lived here 27 years, with the gite open for 7 years. This is a depopulated area, so property is much cheaper (especially cheaper than the UK). Madame is an artist, so the gite is done in wonderful colors. The feel of the place is wonderful, family, accepting, home. A real gem, very highly recommended, especially for women and any German-speakers. There was much discussion at the table of the pilgrim experience along other parts of the Camino. In Germany, one can start as least as far north as Cologne; the trails are in excellent condition but uncrowded (our Cologne pilgrim started from home and walked 400 km before seeing her first pilgrim; she took the route through Cluny to Le Puy). In Spain there is a huge mix of nationalities, and hardly anyone (except the Spanish) speak Spanish. In Norway, one must carry complete sleeping gear and food, not much different from the Appalachian Trail. In the UK, walking paths are beautiful, especially in Cornwall, but lodgings are B&B rather than hostels, so it is expensive.

21 Sep 10: Livenhac le Haut to Figeac

Route: 25.3 km

Tour: The route plan for the day was even longer than yesterday, and with the feet still hurting from all the pavement, I punted. I even managed to make the transport reservations (with Factage) myself. I spent a peaceful day under a shade tree at the gite. Transport arrived shortly after 2:00 and by 3:00 I was at my hotel in Figeac. Transport for bags and people is available all the way from Le Puy to the Spanish border, by various companies.

Lodging: Grand Hotel du Pont D’Or

20 Sep 10: Conques to Livenhac le Haut

Route: 21 km with 1080 ft climb and a 1380 ft descent

Tour: The climb up out of Conques was, well, legendary. The very first step was chest-high and I thought I was a goner. But the Chapel of Saint Roch made a halfway stop, and after an hour total we were up out of the gorge, standing on the ridge, with nice views all around. I was walking with the Canadians, who had concocted a variant-variant-shortcut scheme as follows: Follow the signs to Noilhac (variant marked) until the T-intersection at road D580, where Noilhac markings go left and you can see the steeple of St Roch chapel (2nd one today) on the right. Turn right and proceed to the chapel, where variant waymarks resume. COntinue to follow D580 through Agnac, now following other variant as marked in MMD to (3rd for the day) Chapel of St Roch, where the main GR65 markings resume, and then it’s another hour downhill into Livenhac. This route saves 5 km, and took us from 7:45 to 4:30 with the usual stops. There is water in Agnac (marked in MMD) and in Beausoiles (not marked in MMD – behind the school). Apart from the climb out of Conques and the descent into Livenhac, the entire route is pavement or road shoulder walking, very hard on the feet. We were all exhausted. I recommend a shorter day! The Canadians lodged at La Magnanerie, slept in the tower, and enjoyed it.

Lodging: I was at the Gite Communal, in a 3-bed room with a German couple. They had been entangled in the rail strike on Sept 7 on their way into Le Puy, and were afraid of similar difficulties on their way out. Eventhough they regularly do marathons, they had never encountered a day such as this, they said. The trail routes in Germany are much better maintained by their report; they live near Frankfurt and had walked they whole way from there over the course of several years, walking a few weeks each year.

Cuisine: Fortunately the Canadians’ gite had reminded that everything in Livenhac closes on Monday, the day of our arrival. So we stocked up on picnic supplies on Sunday afternoon in Conques. We had to continually be careful of meal and supply planning in anticipation of the Sunday and Monday closings.

19 Sep 10: Conques (Rest Day)

Tour: I chatted at breakfast with other guests at the auberge, a Vietnamese couple living in Paris. She was born in 1952 while her parents were studying at university in France. The family returned to Saigon in 1960, and she attended the French Lysee. In 1970 she left Saigon to attend univeristy in Paris, and her parents left Saigon in 1975. She has been back since, and is saddened by the modernization and materialism she sees there now. It was common to hear life stories like this from complete strangers on the pilgrimage.

I headed up the hill to the abbey church, hoping for a Sunday morning service. Two monks (a tenor and an organist) were rehearsing. I visited the Treasure (museum of the gold and silver reliqueries, including the famed figure of Saint Foy), then it was time for Sunday Mass… when in a pilgrim town, do as the pilgrims do. Afterwards, I found my bilingual Canadian friends, in exactly the same sidewalk cafe chairs they were occupying 24 hours ago, and with their help arranged all the remaining lodging for the trip. It was a beautiful fall afternoon for a promenade about town, with a quiet bench for reading. I managed to make Vespers in time to join the parishoners in the chancel to sing with the monks, who did a lovely 4-part a capella harmony for the canticle. My liturgical French is on par with my liturgical German: I get about half the nouns and none of the verbs.

Cuisine: A light supper afterwards included truffude, a main dish casserole that is essentially scalloped potatoes reinforced with Cantal (cheddar-like) cheese, ham, and chicken gizzards.

18 Sep 10: Senergues to Conques

Route: 9.7 km with 150 ft climb and 700 ft descent

Tour: I am out the door at 0900. We all manage to get underway on foot, even the Belgian with the sore knee. There is a steep climb up out of Senergues to the ridge top, then along the road shoulder and undulating between pastures, with nice views on either side: a very pleasant walk. I make the morning stop at 1100 at Saint Marcel. The descent to the edge of Conques was steep and a bit stoney, but not as bad as Rochgude several days ago. However, the descent within the town was stunning (and unexpected): 1500 ft from top of town to bottom. And my lodging is at the bottom, of course. It is an old, dingey guest house but nicely situated by the river and the old bridge. I decided an afternoon of enforced rest (and laundry of course) was in order. This town feels a bit like Gatlinburg – touristy in the middle of peace and quiet. Guess it’s been like that for 1200 years.

Lodging: Auberge du Pont Romain

Cuisine: Madame offered honey at breakfast, along with the usual assortment of preserves. With all the fruit trees needing pollination, the honey is a serendipitous by-product. Just at the top of Conques is a tiny (2 m by 2 m) grocery, the only one in town and closing for the season this week. I stopped for lunch at a well-advertised terrace restaurant, Le Charlemagne, and had my first bad meal in France. The “andouilette” was a grilled sausage-like affair, assembled from tripe. Imagine boiled rubber bands in a sausage casing: absolutely inedible. The frites and cidre were ok though. I thought my lodging was demi-pension, but Madame thought otherwise when I came down to dinner. So I had to hike back up the hill to the center of town. The first eatery I found was a 3-star hotel-restaurant, Hostellerie de l’Abbye. I was seated solo on a garden overlook, and well-served by a grandmere in her late 70’s (the chef’s mother perhaps), and with her fractured English and my fractured French we had an enjoyable evening. The French are good at letting you know you are doing the wrong thing, even if they’re less clear to indicate what the right thing might be. I was not ordering an appropriate wine, so I let her recommend one (half-bottle selections are always more limited). First course was a huge bed of red oakleaf lettuce vinagrette with thinly sliced cured duck breast and sweet onions. It was a meal in itself and I could have stopped right there. The main course was a piping hot plate of tripou, which looked like chicken breast portions, but was tripe, along with au jus and boiled potatoes. Very tasty! (I followed my when-in-Japan strategy: eat first and ask questions later). Dessert was Tart Tatin, served piping hot, crisp and juicy, with whipped cream on the side. This set me back 50 euros all told but it was a memorable meal!

17 Sep 10: Golinhac to Senergue

Route: 11.2 km with 700 ft descent followed by 350 ft climb

Tour: Underway at 0830 and I am the last to leave (most are out by 0800). There is a gentle roadside descent downhill by many switchbacks. Several times I pass the group of French coffee-drinkers from yesterday, to many mutual smiles. At Espeyrac I make a midday halt. The church here has a beautifully carved bas-relief Stations of the Cross, in 3/4-round, of a style we have seen previously (must date to the mid-19th century). In the parking lot I see the first non-French license plates of the trip, one NL and one L.  The morning fog is finally breaking up, leaving traces of blue sky and filtered sun. I will be glad if the afternoon climb is not too hot. My feet feel much better today, don’t know whether I’ve finally recovered from the 30-km beating, or there have been very few stoney descents, or I’m getting more protein, or what. Maybe it’s just taking me ten days to walk into shape. Shorter days and going at my own pace, with frequent rest pauses, can’t hurt. Ah! To be sitting at the church when the Friday noon bells toll (for 5 minutes straight). The walk this afternoon was along a grassy track, gently but invariably upward to Senergue, which is a hill town. Arrived 1:30 after a half-hour lunch break. Conques would be a theoretical possibility this afternoon, but it is a steep descent and I have just got my feet healthy again, so will be satisfied with this for today. Joy! English speakers at my gite tonight! Two Belgians (from Flanders) and four Canadians (from Thunder Bay).

Lodging: Domaine de Senos. This is a terrific gite, worth spending a week here. It is modern, well designed, and Monsieur parlays anglais. Highly recommended.

Cuisine: After tiring of ham and cheese sandwiches, I have acquired a taste for tinned “salad Parisienne au thon” for lunch: tuna and mixed vegetables including diced potatoes in a mustard/lemon vinagrette. This is a really tasty way to get my protein. Demi-pension at the gite (there is a restaurant and a grocery in town). The gite has a bar, for aperitifs, wine or beer on the terrace before dinner. How very civilized! The starter was a patty of pork, chard and other vegetables, ground finely and bound with bread crumbs and a bechamel sauce, then pan-browned. This was served family style on a platter with salad greens and sliced hard-boiled eggs vinagrette. The main course was broiled sausage (one large single link per person, coarse ground and well seasoned), served with white rice and stewed tomatoes on the side. Dessert is Isle Flotant (Floating Island), chilled and light. The gite walls have many framed pictures of donkeys; Madame used to own 17 of them! I can tell she misses them.

Grace: I have missed English conversation these past four days. So I was thrilled to hear the Canadians on the terrace this afternoon. Just being able to discuss my experiences of the week is lovely.

16 Sep 10: Estaing to Golinhac

Route: 13.6 km with 1020 ft climb

Tour: The morning begins with a level road-shoulder march along a country byway for the first two hours, following the banks of the Lot through the morning mist. I was underway at 0830, made two 15-minute lunch stops, and arrived Golinhac around 2:30. The morning climb alternated trail and road shoulder up to the plateau. Late in the morning the mist cleared and things warmed up a bit, until low stratus clouds moved in, first giving shade and then threatening precipitation. A group of French walkers adopted me for mid-day coffee. The afternoon walk was through mostly chestnut and oak forest, mostly good track, mostly undulating with some final climb.

Lodging: Pole touristique Bellevue. The lodging tonight is the first real gite d’etape (hikers hostel) I’ve stayed in. Our room sleeps 6, and there are four dorm rooms in this building. The washhouse is downstairs, with laundry sinks and racks outside. Sure hope the rain holds off! There is a younger set here, both staff and guests, with more English being spoken.

Cuisine: The hotel breakfast was the usual menu, plus applesauce, which makes its first appearance on this trip. Dinner is demi-pension with my dorm-mates in assigned seating. The starter is gazpacho, followed by a salad of haricots vert vinagrette (similar to the dish served in Kandahar – I must learn how to make this!) The main was oven-roast chicken quarters with mashed potatoes – the crisp and juicy chicken is a real treat. Dessert is a baked apple in a thin pastry crust, with caramel sauce. An excellent dinner!

Grace: The yearning of every heart is for community and belonging – and today the French came through. I run into the French AA member at lunch, and my dorm-mate from Brittany assists with reservation calls, and the mid-day group invited me along for coffee. It’s nice to be looked out after by strangers – an unearned grace.

15 Sep 10: Saint Come d’Olt to Estaing

Route: 16.4 km with 500 ft climb and 650 ft descent

Tour: This morning I followed some other pilgrims in the fog, inadvertently doing a road-shoulder march along the highway to Espalion, doubtless saving a hill climb and 3 km over following the marked GR65 route. This should have put me ahead of the game, but I wandered around town for an hour (making toilet, bakery, and bank stops in the process) trying to pick up the waymarks again. Alas I missed the UNESCO site church as a consequence. Leaving Espalion, the trail follows the bank of the Lot, then through suburbs up to the pretty Romanesque church at St Pierre of Bessejoules. There was a very steep climb (someone had cut stairsteps into the hillside) followed by a more sensible descent. Then another country church, also closed, but the water fountain worked. The afternoon was filled by a long road march along farm roads and country byways into Estaing, where – miracle of miracles! – the hotel was visible immediately upon crossing the bridge into town. It was very hot today – my little thermometer says 100 F in the sun but that seems to overstate the situation. My feet hurt from the descent pounding, but I’ve started taping them with Kinesioflex and that is really helping. More protein at lunches seems to help too, and I drank 2.3 liters of water today.

Lodging: HR Aux Armes d’Estaing

Cuisine: Madame Rous included some brioche and yogurt with the usual breakfast menu. My bakery stop in Espalion turned up a great cookie – white chocolate with dried crannies – it really hit the spot. Today’s two lunch stops were tinned tuna with tomato and then tinned tuna with lemon; protein is good! Dinner was truly exceptional, demi-pension at the hotel. Starter was a fish terrine on an elaborately composed plate. The main course was a thick slice of roast lamb, juicy and pink, served with a broiled tomato, broiled endive, roast asparagus bouquet, and over-roast potatoes. We had a choice of desserts; I took creme brulee but the gateau and tiramisu were popular with other diners and looked light as air.

14 Sep 10: Saint Chely to Saint Comte d’Olt

Route: 16.5 km with 270 ft climb and 1620 ft descent

Tour: Finally GR 65 merges with GR 6, and following the old road I climb the hillside south of town, giving lovely views back down into the village. Cool and pleasant climbing gently on forest track through birch forest. I’m underway at 0830, make two half-hour stops midday, and arrive town at 3 pm. Halfway up the hillside we are passed by two mountain bikers – going uphill slowly but still faster than we walkers can manage. We pass through two hamlets, the second one has a coffee/tea stop under a shelter, making a very popular stop. We continue undulating along the edge of the plateau, with grand views all around. Of a sudden, the stone underfoot changes from slate to something white – quartz? marble? limestone? We’re now in the drainage of the Lot, which has the Roquefort caves, so perhaps it is limestone. Forest changes to a mix of oak and chestnut. My feet are very tired from all the pounding on the stones with each descent; the climbs are not painful except that I know they mean more descents. The afternoon heats up into the low 80’s and I am grateful for the occasional shady stretch. Today I only took 1 liter in the water bladder, but finished it off plus 600 ml from a bottle-fill at a fountain mid-afternoon (gulped the whole bottle in one go and felt much better immediately). I found the mid-afternoon snack stop, without the blog-advertised crepes. The church here in town has a famous twisted steeple. Very interesting medieval buildings around the church.

Lodging: Although I reached town in good time, the gite (Gite Rouse) directions were inaccurate and impossible to find; I finally had to call the gite and they sent out Monsieur with a car to search for me. It has become my most-hated part of the day: trying to find the gite. Accommodations are pretty good but the location is on the outskirts of town, which means a lengthy walk to get a meal.

Cuisine: Breakfast was the traditional French, except that he had the Belgian froot sirop, current preserves, and cherry preserves – the first time I’ve seen any of those. Lunch today was the tin of smoked herring, which was very good – I’ll have to look for more. The afternoon stop had a “pear tart”, really more a pear-topped yellow cake – tasty and filling but nothing special. No demi-pension here, so I had to go into town to find a restaurant. Killed time until dinner with an aperitif made locally from the Gentiane blooms which grow in wild profusion on the spring hillsides here – I’d been wanting to try some. Dinner itself was a pave veau (2 inch by 2 inch by 6 inch block of veal) browned nicely all around, served with rice and a sauce of local mushrooms. Dessert was a sweet risotto (like a rice pudding) served with a caramel sauce on the side for individual drizzling – a real treat.

13 Sep 10: Nasbinals to Saint Chely d’Aubrac

Route: 30 km (via GR 6 unintentionally) with a 500 ft climb followed by 1600 ft descent

Tour: I left town with the pilgrim horde about 9:15 (the boulangerie was closed on Monday, so I made do with a store-made jambon beurre on cracked wheat from the quick-mart). The weather is very windy as we head for the highest of the daily crests (about 20 knots eventually, 55 F to start), with puffy clouds zipping by. We climb steadily upward – 400 ft for two hours with a grassy track, sharing the pasture with many herds of Aubrac cattle. Miles of stiles! We have to pass through or over or around a stile every time we cross a fence. Maybe a dozen all told. The route makes a short descent into Aubrac, making good 9 km with climb and descent in two hours, a really good pace for me. Morning is really my best time physically, and it’s nice to finally be able to take advantage of that. After Aubrac, I took a wrong turn, following the GR6 instead of the GR65 (the waymarks are the same white-and-red, but my French was not adequate to decipher the warning signs). GR6 was the old CSJ during the Middle Ages and has the corresponding old walls in some places. The early part was a lovely forest walk, shady and out of the darned wind. The route climbed some, picking up an old Roman road and then running through a tangle of cross-country ski routes in the provincial forest. Only occasionally waymarked, so I used the topo map (think of the trouble I would have saved if I’d consulted it earlier!) and compass, kept heading in the general direction of the next town. Finally I came to the edge of the Aubrac plateau, and a stupendous view: over 30 miles around a 270 degrees panorama. Still there was no sign of town, but after quite a road march and asking directions when the opportunity arose, I managed to complete the 1500 ft descent and find the town. It turns out my afternoon was 21 km rather than the intended 8 km – I swear I will pay more attention to the maps in advance!

Lodging: CH Bar le Relais Saint-Jacques (I think – records incomplete)

Cuisine: A magnificent breakfast, the best yet: scratch pound cake, fresh fruit salad, yogurt, sliced ham, toasted baguettes with orange marmalade. At Saint Chely, both Monsieur and Madame are from Belgium. He served a Belgian mixed fruit jam (pear, apple, date) with the cheese plate chevre, very tasty. Dinner was plain home cooking but very tasty and personal service (we only had ten lodgers at the table). Best soup yet – carrot and noodle, with chicken stock I think. (How can anything with real chicken stock be bad??) A garden salad with mustard vinagrette. The main was a broiled tomato stuffed with a meat ball, very nicely seasoned, moist, very tasty. The cheese plate included chevre but no blue, for the first time. A very sweet peach jam for dessert. There was good conversation, mostly French and gestures, with very little English. Monsiuer says the walkers he sees are mostly French, then Germans and Swiss; he sees a fair number of Canadians including Quebecois.

Grace: Saint Chely is a hillside town which I had to cross and climb to check-in my lodgings. (GR6 and GR65 enter town from opposite sides) I must have looked exhausted. Lodgings are in a private home near the GR6 on the east side of town (downhill), while dining is up the hill on the west side of town. Monsieur put me and my pack in his car and drove me downhill to the lodgings. I had a room to myself, a bidet with a chair to soak my feet, and a laundry spinner that made my hand-wash almost bone dry. This town was full up tonight, but the two Swiss women who had lodged with us at Saint Albans were able to find accommodations eventually.

12 Sep 10: Aumont Aubrac to Nasbinals

Route: 12 km by taxi to Quartres Chemin and 16 km walk

Tour: Down to a group of three now, we cross the Aubrac plateau today – this is Big Sky Country. Looks a bit like eastern Montana with a few more trees. The planned itinerary was too long to be successfully walked in a day, given our track record so far, and we have a deposit on the night’s lodging. So we took a taxi the first 12 km, up a 1000 ft grade, leaving us 16 km to walk, and that is enough! The crest for the day is at about 1270 m altitude, with large volcanic (?) boulders named Wolf Rock. We see two groups of hunters, with shotguns and bird dogs. American dogs will come over to greet and make friends, but French dogs, like their masters, are cool and standoffish. We pass through Fineroyals, birthplace of a priest/missionary/author who survived Buchenwald and for 20 years served the Indians of Peru. However the town does not follow his example. At the entry to the town a sign is posted, telling pilgrims to raise our sticks, leave the townspeople alone, and to use the fountain/picnic area on the far side of town. We make a midday coffee stop at Rieutort, which has yurt accommodations, along with a new shower house, but is not listed in Miam Miam Dodo (MMD). They have Panache, which is a shandy (UK) or radler (Deustch) (lemonade and beer), very refreshing (both cans!). We make a rolling descent under blue skies to Nasbinals, arriving early afternoon.

Lodging: Our lodging, Lo d’Ici, seems to be run by the local Martha Stewart (it’s very artistically decorated). Highly recommended.

Cuisine: Breakfast at du Barry is plentiful but nothing special. From the boulangerie we pick up jambon et fromage (ham and cheese) sandwiches, which we ate at Rieutort. Dinner at Sentiers du Aubrac (one of the two restaurants open on Sunday night) offered a pilgrim menu, but I took the larger meal with salad, grilled beef, green beans, cheese and a plum clafouti with creme anglais. And a bottle of vin rouge du pays. This was the last dinner with my remaining companions from home, and a celebration was in order.

Grace: We are grateful for taxis – we would never have made it otherwise. About 5pm we started seeing familar faces from last night struggle into town as we snacked by the church. Our lodging tonight is the most luxe so far: sheets, duvets, full bath en suite.

11 Sep 10: Saint Alban to Aumont-Aubrac

Route: 14.5 km with 300 ft climb

Tour: We started at 9:00 after a sandwich stop at the boulangerie, and a fruit stop at the epicerie. The weather is much warmer today, with clear blue skies and contrails. We make gentle climbs and descents across several hills covered with dry pine forest, passing a few small herds of mostly white beef cattle. At midday there is an old church at Estraits. The long dry climb afterwards prompts a picnic stop at the hillcrest, with views all around. Every passing French walker wishes us bon appetit. Not long after, we make a refreshment stop for coffee before continuing to town. We see over two dozen walkers today, mostly retirees – this is many more than we anticipated. September is a popular month for walking in France, as the children have returned to school and no longer need minding by the grandparents. Today many walkers are German-speaking; there are two Swiss women at the breakfast table, and one fellow passes us late in the afternoon making a 30 km/day heading for Santiago in 7 weeks, having left Lake Constance two and a half weeks ago. At our post-walk refreshment stop, we were joined by our roommate from the gite at Monistrol, who was glad to see us again.

Lodging: La Ferme du Barry

Cuisine: Madame our host prepared a breakfast dish, a Lozere Pudding, which was a bread pudding affair, and homemade yogurt and homemade (bread machine) whole grain bread, which was greatly appreciated as we are having difficulty finding protein and fiber. The standard French breakfast offerings are baguette (often sliced and toasted), jams of several sorts, butter, and coffee or tea with hot milk to taste. I’m afraid the French just don’t properly understand breakfast. The boulangerie had a chicken sandwich for a change. A lovely coffee stop at midday offered a bottled artisinal lemonade, not too sweet. Demipension dinner at our lodging, Ferme du Barry, was tasty regional home cooking: a plain vegetable soup, aligot from a huge pot (this is a souped-up mashed potato dish in which cheese is beaten into the potatoes with a wooden paddle) with grilled sausage. Dessert was a bread-pudding with homemade applesauce.

Grace: There is a big Romanesque church, St Ettien, in town, with marvelous modern (a la Mondrian) stained glass windows (of a style we have seen before) with intense colors, chunky squarish shapes, and strong leading that worked very well with the feel of the Romanesque building. Our table mates at dinner included a French AA member walking to Santiago with his wife, and two Dutch women in their early 30’s who were just starting their walk to Figeac (there is a rail connection here so many people use it as a starting point).

10 Sep 10: Chanaleilles to Saint Alban sur Limagnone

Route: 20 km with 500 ft climb then 1000 ft descent

Tour: This was a day of extremes! It was so cold (we wore long underwear and turned up the heat) last night – the temperature was around 40 F – and it is still chilly this morning. The route is much improved, better maintained, with a well-engineered gentle grade as we climbed 500 ft throughout the morning through conifer forest. We see evidence of some logging (using the thinning-out technique) and occasional clearings to splendid views. At the crest, we briefly stopped at the former 12th century Templar hospital. It is very windy (15 knots with higher gusts) all along the pass. On the far side, weather is clearing, sunny, and 20 F warmer (a very welcome change!). After passing two small shrines to St Roch (a fountain and a chapel), we descended all afternoon to Saint Alban. Several times we crossed paths with the group of French we first met at the Sauges gite – they are using Transbaggages to send their luggage on ahead each day, so they are walking with very light packs and can cover more ground comfortably. In the afternoon we are passed by a German tour group (9 walkers and 10 cyclists), who are making Saint Jean Pied de Port (SJPP – at the Spanish border) in 10 days travel. They had a bus with a bike trailer; it acts as a “sag wagon”. It’s nice to exercise my German a bit, chatting with this group as we pass.

Lodging: CH Les Genets

Cuisine: For our last evening together as a pilgrim band of five, we splurged on a wonderful meal at La Petite Maison. We started with two amuse-bouches: a mini terrine of smoked salmon pate with croutons, and a mini tureen of Potage St Germain. We had our choice of starters: fresh asparagus with cured ham and shaved parmesan, or duck foie gras terrine with prunes and gingerbread. There were two choices for main course: lamb and chevre ragout en pappiotte with ratatouile, or poached whole trout with cumin-crusted carrots. The cheese course was fresh cheese (like a coeur de creme) with a fresh berry coulis. Dessert was a choice of crepes flambe or chocolate bombe. We had a bottle of local merlot to wash it all down.

Grace: It was a long, hard day with many painful steps. We are grateful to recall a mantra from our friend Emily, “Trust in goodness, Calm and peaceful, Strong and healthy, Slow and steady.” These words prove to be very helpful during some of the really difficult stretches.

9 Sep 10: Sauges to Chanaleilles

Route: 15 km with 500 ft climb

Tour: We had a steady gentle climb (500 ft) over farm roads and good quality footpaths over sandy soil through conifer forest (looking not unlike the Carolina Sand Hills) in the morning. We are starting to see some sheep and horses in pastures now. The weatherman douses us with passing rain showers periodically throughout the day. We see fortifications from the Hundred Years War in the large towns (ex. tower keep in Sauges) and at high points in the countryside (our lunch spot). It was a long slog today and we are all tired. The countryside is still spectacular, a vivid mix of woods and pasture, as we near the first crest. We spent an hour this morning on logistics (post, grocer, sandwiches) for lunch, so walking did not start until 9:45.

Lodging: Chez Denise

Cuisine: Breakfast included a yogurt-like homemade dish – we were grateful for morning protein. Lunch was ham on buttered baguettes, with Cantal cheese (a French cheese that resembles cheddar). Dinner started with large slices of cured ham, followed by a fresh green salad vinagrette. The main was seethed potatoes and pan-fried pork chops, and the meal concluded with two local cheeses (we are really falling in love with the regional blue cheese) and assorted fresh fruit (the French peel everything).

Grace: The chapel in Chanaleilles dates from the 12th century, and has a lovely wooden carving of Mary with child, similar in style to the figure in Sauges. Our host lost her husband unexpectedly in April, and she is having a hard time carrying on the business single handed.

8 Sep 10: Monistrol D’Allier to Sauges

Route: 12 km with 1050 ft climb net

Tour: The climb out of Monistrol was steep – 430m (1350 ft) elevation gain in the first hour, until we came up out of the Allier gorge. After a lunch break al fresco on the roadside from our miscellaneous pack stores, we continued through mixed conifer/deciduous forest with occasional expansive views of the gorge below and vigorously rolling upland farms. There was a clear view to the east of a windfarm we had passed yesterday. We walk through small hamlets of two-story stone buildings, many with attached three-story stone barns. Everything is built of stone. We see three new construction houses today, all single story with double cinder block walls and red tile roofs. We have seen no recent construction commercial buildings since the train passed through Saint Etienne. There are lots of dairy cattle. We watched one (entire) family drive their herd to the barn for evening milking. Every farm and rural home seems to have a dog, usually a herding breed (mostly Australian shepherds and blue heelers so far), all on guard, none will approach us. We arrived early enough at our lodgings to explore the town of Sauges. The church has two very special wooden statues, one of Mary and Child (c. 12th century) and a Pieta (15th century), both polychrome. The nearby Chapel of the Penitents of Sauges had an enormous (30 ft by 30 ft) carved wooden altarpiece, polychrome and gilt, the equal of any German Baroque. It was made 1805 in Le Puy.

Lodging: La Gite Ferme (Highly recommended)

Cuisine: We passed through several hamlets today, and in Rognac followed signs to a house cafe. We each had a generous slice of wild blueberry tart that was exquisite – perfect, thin crisp crust not too sweet, generous layer of small berries chock full of flavor – again, not too sweet. Divine stuff for an afternoon snack. We’ve intentionally rested and eaten more frequently today, which has significantly helped the fatigue. Dinner at the gite (demi-pension) started with a lentil soup in vegetable broth, followed by a tossed salad with diced chicken livers (a regional dish). The main course was braised beef with buttered potatoes, followed by a cheese platter (some made on the premises, and always eat the blue last). The sweet was a vanilla creme (similar to a soft-set pudding from scratch). For the first time we did not have to wash our own dishes.

7 Sep 10: Montbonnet to Monistrol D’Allier

Route: 13 km with 500 ft descent

Tour: Still rainy this morning, and much cooler, for which we were grateful. The rain gear (hat, poncho, gaiters, pack cover) worked well – and would have worked better if I’d left it in place (breaks in the weather suckered us in). There was a small climb followed by much descent, over very stoney paths well-eroded by water runoff. We stopped for lunch at Saint Privat D’Allier (many itineraries reach this point their first night), then continued with another climb and a hellacious steep descent over a stoney, eroded, slick-with-rain trail. We stopped briefly at the 12th century chapel in Rochegude. Then we tackled the final 5 km down into the steep river gorge of the Allier.

Lodging: Gite La Tsabone, where we did the bed-bug drill again.

Cuisine: Lunch was superb and afforded a two hour rest break in the bargain. This is pate country, and the starter was a fresh duck pate with a small green salad and cornichons on the side. Main was a luxurious beef daub (stew) with spaghetti tossed in garlic butter. Dessert was the most chocolatey chocolate mousse I’ve ever had, followed by cheese and coffee. Dinner was tasty at the gite demi-pension. The starter was a lentil and carrot soup. Main was cabbage stuffed with pork and greens, baked potato on the side. Dessert was a mirabelle (yellow plum) tart.

Grace: The storm which had been dogging us most of the day intensified after we reached our lodging. There was much lightning and heavy rain as the squall line moved through. We Northwesterners are not accustomed to such violent and dramatic weather! Despite periodic heavy rain and a steep trail in terrible condition, we have no injuries and are very grateful. We must have seen twenty other pilgrims today, similar to yesterday. These are much larger crowds than we were anticipating. The planned itinerary for distance and elevation each day seems to be about right for our physical condition and equipment.