Originally I had hoped to get as far as Ronceveaux this year. However, from very early in the trip this year I have been plagued by pain in my left foot; very likely plantar fasciitis in spite of my many preventive measures. When it flares up, it feels like someone is hammering an iron spike up into my ankle, with each step. Sometimes a little ibuprofen will take enough edge off the pain that I can continue. But not today, and not in this heat. The mountains will have to wait for another trip.
Route: Carracotchia to St Jean Pied de Port 10 km
The rising sun colors the hills a luminous, eye-poping green, making a picturesque backdrop for the white Basque houses and farm buildings, with their red roofs and shutters. We skirt the hillside in great arcs, sometimes topping a ridge. There are several small towns enroute, and St Jean le Vue would be a good alternative to SJPP for those going on to Spain via Orisson or Valcarlos without a rest day. SJPP seems like a large city, after the weeks in rural France, although it is smaller than Cahors. This town has subsisteed off pilgrims for centuries, and now is no exception. Drinks are more than double what we have been paying. The Tourism Office is extremely helpful, arranging lodging and the return trains to Paris. The Pilgrim Office is also exceptionally friendly and helpful, with route details etc. The stores have all needed supplies (Yes Altus raincoat, no Pacer Poles). One friend reported the cost of shipping 4 kgs to US ran 51 euros; the pilgrim office does have a donation box.
Lodging: CH Errecaldia with three rooms, nicely renovated with a private bath ensuite. Host is a friendly Brit with lots of good info on the local scene (he explained many mysteries of French culture, for example).
Cuisine: Excellent restaurant just inside the town wall gate from the TO (on Rue d’Eglise) Also excellent place behind the Central Hotel, across the bridge.
Route: Uhart-Mixe to Caracotchia 20 km
It is a beautiful morning climbing the ridge up out of the Uhart valley, with fantastic views. We did not stop at Chappelle de Soyartz, which would add an hour or more. But it is on the main route for those not taking the Uhart shortcut. Chappelle d’Harambeltz was locked but has a shady sheltering porch (makes a good refuge in bad weather I imagine). Made a morning refreshment and epicerie stop at Ostabat, where the church has interesting but relatively recent stonework and a modern stained glass window. Lunch made a nice break from a very hot day. This was in a Larceveau restaurant, as the CH tonight does not offer dinner and there is not a nearby restaurant there. The afternoon included a number of small ups and downs before reaching the gite.
Lodging: CH Chambres Paysannes. We arrive at the gite, and Madame steps out the front door to greet us in perfectly accented Southern California English, “So the Americans are here!” She’s from Pasadena, was widowed 25 years ago, and has been living in France over 40 years. She would like to see more Americans.
Cuisine: Lunch was a nice meal at Restaurant Espellet: a big salad plate with melon, greens, tomatoes, jambon, sausage, and hardboiled egg. The main course was a pimemton-spiced pork loin and rosti potatoes; glacee for dessert! Roast pigeon and a Basque cake that resembled a buttermilk tart were also enjoyed at the table. Dinner was a light picnic supper, shared along with three Lyonnaise women who have been walking with us for several days.
Route: Des Chenes to Uhart-Mixe 12 km via marked variant. From Uhart, SJPP is reachable in a day to a day-and-a-half, depending on your pace.
The best 1 euro I spent the entire trip was the bus fare this morning from the CH to Etcharry; this is the morning school bus at 0755. The 6 km covered is very heavily trafficked in the mornings, with scant safe footpath. The walkers we passed were all in the roadway. Onward from Etcharry, the variante route (marked clearly in Miam Miam Dodo) is a very nice rolling, partially wooded route. The chapel in Olhaiby (ask the adjacent farmer to unlock the door for you) has a magnificent altarpiece/tabernacle. At first I thought it to be silver-gilt (the texture is that detailed and the finish is that gilded), but it is more likely painted plaster on wood. The remainder of the route to Uhart is gently rolling, partially wooded with several large cattle farms visible. This morning the sky was clear, but now at midday there are high thin clouds and it is quite humid. Eventhough it is a degree cooler, with the humidity it is really stinking hot. So I am on the verge of heat exhaustion by the time we arrive at the gite.
Lodging: Gite l”Escargot. Madame and Monsieur are most solicitous, stoking me up with cold water-sirop drinks until my head clears, and then Mr carried my pack up to the room. This gite is exceptionally well set-up, including camping space and a washing machine (no one in this part of France owns a dryer – everything goes out on the line and is rapidly bone-dry). And they have wi-fi in the bar.
Cuisine: Dinner was a terrific meal: vegetable soup (perhaps Grabure), local ham (jambon Basque) and sausages maison in a piperade sauce, a cheese course served in the usual Basque style. It is Madame’s birthday, so Mr brings out a round of eau de vie du maison from plums – and the entire table of 20 sings (same tune, “Happy Birthday”) and drinks her a toast.
Route: Navarrenx to Des Chenês 15 km
Navarrenx is famous for its Italian style ramparts, built in the 16th century. This morning saw the military fountain from the same period, which allowed the town to withstand sieges during the various wars. Then out of town and through oak forest much of the day. In several places were these very tall, very strange structures — some over 50 or 70 feet. These are hunting blinds for shooting woodcock, and the new ones look like foreshortened shipping containers, up on scaffolding. How they make the lift without a crane, I have no idea. Guys spend hunting season weekends up there, drinking and shooting. Not a safe season for walking! Later we passed the pate factory of Charles Dupree, who offered us cold drinks at his picnic shelter. This was indeed welcome refreshment as the temp is 32c. Coming down from the ridge, more fantastic views of the Pyrenees.
Lodging: L’Auberge des Chenes. Made a small deviation from the GR to reach the lodging; there is no increased distance and few lodgings in the area. (Heard good reports about the two gites in Aroue later) Warmly greeted by host upon arrival and refreshed with cold drinks. This is an old style family run hotel. Room is small but nicely equipped, with toilet and shower across the hall.
Cuisine: Dinner was simply terrific: a soup of rich broth with very fine (thin) noodles, tomatoes garlic and carrots. Starter was a cold platter with diced pickles beetroot, thinly sliced Basque cured ham, spicy sausage and hard boiled eggs. Main was a sliced roast pork boneless loin (very moist and flavorful) with a rich piperade sauce (peppers and tomatoes). French ice cream for dessert — yay! (There were also two other dessert choices available.) M/M very personable, friendly, and helpful. Highly recommended.
Route: Cambarrat to Navarrenx 24 km
The longest day yet, the hottest, and 3 big hills to climb. Beautiful views of the Pyrenees front from the ridges, and a healthy dose of shade periodically. Still, I am glad I sent the small sack with 2 kg on ahead. Foot pain is manageable with a double dose of ibuprofen. There is a big old Cistercian abbey at Sauvelade. At Navarrenx, there was a very nice reception for pilgrims at the church, complete with aperitif. I met two Irish women from Cork who travelled all day to arrive here; they will walk 3 days and then return home. The Amis of St Jacques who put on the reception also sell me a French credential, as my US one is nearly full.
Lodging: CH Relais du Jacquet. The CH is a lovely old home right in the center of town that belonged to host’s mother, and he has been renovating it in stages.
Cuisine: Hallelujah, the dinner menu tonight has no duck! Starter was a cream of potato (and leek?) soup. Main was a pan-fried white fish (trout?) with a side of rice and shrimp. Salad greens vinagrette and cheese with fig preserve. Dessert was a sweet semolina pudding. All this prepared and served while he was also sorting out ongoing reservations for the remainder of the week; a cheerful, enthusiastic, generous and meticulous host. Well-located, highly recommended.
Route: Géus-d’Arzacq to Cambarrat 20.5 km
Flat, green lanes until a short climb to Castillon. The Swiss couple overtake me and we talk for a bit before they go on ahead. Due to the length of today’s stage and the predicted heat, I skipped some churches. Pomps was a lovely little town and would make a good alternative to Geus. I heard good reports on the gite there. Since it was not visible from the GR, I passed up the church in Pomps; I would have lost a half hour. In Castillon (where the church was locked) I ran into the first contingents in some very large regional walking event. I often see the French doing group recreational activity (walking, cycling) on the weekends, and this is a Sunday. Lunch stop was at the Romanesque Chapelle de Caubin, which still has a monastic air about it, eventhough the surrounding buildings are long gone. So the heat of the day was well underway as I climbed the ridge to Arthez de-Béarn, which is strung out along 2 km of the ridge. Fantastic views of the entire Pyrenees front. Finally descend ridge to valley bottom and the gite.
Lodging: Gite Cambarrat. Host very friendly and helpful. In view of the heat, hills, and distance tomorrow I arrange to send the small sack with rain gear etc (about 5 pounds) onward by transport tomorrow morning. Gite is a large rambling country house set into the woods about 500m off the GR. Has a quirky, artistic feel. Madame obviously has an expert eye in the textile arts; the curtains, duvets, and needlepoint were all intriguing and colorful. There were also some “gypsy” style wheeled caravans that are fitted out as sleeping rooms, but the stairs look tricky to navigate in the dark for that late night visit to the loo.
Cuisine: Dinner simarly idiosyncratic: starter was a pate terrine, main was a vegetable mélange of haricots vert and tiny peas, with a bit of ham. Cheese course in Basque style, accompanied by fig preserves. Afterwards our host, who trained as a classical guitarist, played the banjo: some bluegrass, some guitar transpositions, and some original compositions.