Dogs on a roof, France (2014-08)

Walking Home, week 19: I’m a pilgrim, godamnit!


See, what I did there in the title? This week my spirits hit an all time low when I hit the Way of Saint James and expect bliss.

Day 127 – to Clergoux

In the morning I pack up my stuff, eat outdoors and wait again until everyone is assembled around the breakfast table to ask to use the toilet more. To my surprise I am even allowed to use the bathroom. My shoes, on the other hand, have not dried.
In Ussel I find a train to Montaignac-Saint-Hippolyte which pretty much follows my route. I use the opportunity to get out of the rain and hope that it is dry when I step off the train.
It is. And so I do not stop in nearby Egletons for the night, but instead make use of the good weather and march on.
As it soon turns out, that is not a particularly great idea.
Leaving Egleton behind the route leads me into the forest. Instead of tarred roads I walk on sticks and stones.
But turning back seems even worse to me.
After an hour, I finally find a house.
It is a solitary building in the woods and I really do not want to stay here should the man mowing the lawn with a small tractor be the sole inhabitant. My experiences outside Lure, Chaource and Chalon have probably left more of an impression on me than I would ever admit. This is a shame because it makes me perceive people differently. The man does not look dangerous. He is just alone in a house in the forest.
Luckily he agrees to take me to the next campsite, when I address him.
There a tall Dutchman welcomes me outside the reception and shows me my pitch.
It’s raining and my shoes are still – or again, who knows at this point – wet.

Day 128 – to Miel

In the morning I meet a Dutch lady at the sanitary block. Ankie confidently grabs my shoes and promises to dry them in her caravan. When I look for a sunny spot (yup, it is not raining at this point) to dry my tent, Paul, her husband, invites me for breakfast.
An hour later the miracle is perfect: The shoes are dry and toasty.
This is a much better start into the day.
The route today is as simple as it gets: Follow the D10. Picturesque, the road winds through the forest. Only a few times I am overtaken by cars.
When in the late afternoon I turn onto the D940, a sign advertises the Lac Miel campsite. Without giving it much thought I turn there. The lady at the reception demands only five euros when she learns that I am traveling on foot. At lake I treat myself to an ice cream and listen to the short set, which two Blues guitarists are playing in the restaurant.

Day 129 – to Miers

I reach the Corrèze. It is hot and sunny. Summer is back.
In Végennes I ask for water and a young couple invites me to coffee and fruits in their garden. An hour later I part with a small bag of delicacies.
In Bétaille, at the factory outlet store, I buy a small slice of pain d’épice , spice bread.
When I cross the Dordogne, I see two signs advertising campsites: one private and with all kinds of facilities right here by the river. The other municipal and up the hill.
‘Since I’ll have to climb the hill anyway, I might as well do it this afternoon before calling it a day’, I think.
An hour later I finally reach Magnagues.
But there are no more signs advertising a campground here.
The place is very small. So I quickly realize that something went wrong.
In the village center sitting on the patio in front of a small house, I see a group of older people. I step closer and enquire about the camping.
Although they were only here for the holidays they had never noticed a campsite around here – except for the one down by the river.
I would hate to turn around now.
The group invites me onto the terrace for a beer and starts pulling out their maps.
As luck would have it, the daughter of one of the holidaymakers happens to be completing an internship down by the river. In the tourist office.
So they call her. Twenty minutes later, she pulls up her car in the driveway. On the patio she leafs through her brochures and searches the internet.
Finally, the groups arrives at the conclusion that ¨Le Pigeonnier¨ïn Miers is the best choice for me. A phone call confirms that there is in fact space for me there. With a large bag of biscuits, chocolate, sandwiches and a beer I bit the ladies in the group goodbye. Father and daughter take me to the campsite and won’t leave until my tent is indeed set up.
My pitch is a small hill in front of the sanitary block. It is actually not a real pitch. But I don’t care.
In the small restaurant area I get comfortable with my dinner. After all the fortunate encounters today it is a feast.
When I’m done, I hear next to me an English language couple struggle in placing an order in French. I offer my help.
Elizabeth, Paul and their son Sean hail from Ireland and are immediately impressed by my journey. Their own daughter had also experienced a lot of hospitality while backpacking in Thailand. They want to return the favor by inviting me to dinner.
Today of all days!
Although I’m tired and full, I move to their table and order – for the sake of politeness – a crêpe au chocolat .
We chat for a while and have a great laugh. Only once I have to swallow down tears because I am so touched by Elizabeth’s generosity and how she talks about their daughter’s journey.

Day 130 – to Gramat and on to La Ferme Buscanssoles in Rodez

Things are a little less harmonic in the morning: the camping, which had previously seemed so lovely, turns out to be money sucker.
Not only does the owner claim not to have understood that I had been invited to the crêpe yesterday. In addition, I must pay the full price for electricity at a pitch because I had left my external battery at the bar overnight. It is barely half charged. Needless to say that they are also charging the full price for the pitch, which actually wasn’t one.
I leave ¨Le Pigeonnier¨ a little grudgy.
Though it is not as flat as I prefer my routes to be I fall in love in the Corrèze: The oak forests, the walnut groves, the sheep and the remains of walls, which once marked the boundaries of pastures and fields. All this is simple, but of lasting beauty.
I reach Gramat in the early afternoon and briefly consider spending the night at the Convent of Notre Dame’s pilgrim shelter. But then I notice the train station and that the railway line runs almost perfectly along my route to Rodez. At the meager cost of € 18,50 and in less than two hours I could put another 100 km behind me.
That is too tempting.
At the station two young men start a conversation. They tell me that ¨the world¨ had been their home for ten years. While one carrying a large backpack and wearing hiking boots, the equipment of the other seems anything but practical: black leather slippers, an old, small backpack, which is literally bursting at its seam, a cheap laptop bag. I want to learn more about them. But they smell as if they had not showered or changed their clothes in days. And then they tell that they would only use the train when the monthly check arrived. As a matter of fact the two look more like bums than anything else. I scold myself for these arrogant thoughts, but cannot shake them.
To my surprise, the train is full. Full of young people with daypacks, from which scallop shells are dangling. Most get off in Figeac. I have reached the section of the way of Saint James which is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage. Most here have their bags taxied from one accommodation to the next and carry only the items needed during the walk on the back.
In this moment I also feel superior to them.
Next to me sits a ten-year old with her mother. The girl babbles without pause. Also with me. She says things like: ¨I am very impressed that you are walking so far.¨ and ¨I’m from a small village called Paris.¨
Rodez it is less than 60 km from Millau. I leave the city to try my luck with free accommodation. Again and again I turn back to see the city’s cathedral slowly disappear on the horizon.
It’s almost six pm when I reach the next ferme .
Before I can say anything, a young man approaches me, points to the left and says: ¨The Way is over there.¨
I thank him and reply, slightly irritated: ¨It’s probably a bit late to still keep walking. I’m looking for a shelter or a place where I can set up my tent for the night.¨
The next campsite, which he and his companions are aware of is almost ten kilometers from here in Pont-de-Salar. I violently shake my head. They suggest that I also ask the farm owner to be sure, but at same time offer to drive me to the campsite.
The owner of the farm does know another option: Monsieur Maurel operates a camping à la ferme on its Buscanssoles, one and a half, two or maybe three kilometers from here.
Two more times I ask people along the way for directions until I finally find Monsieur Maurel. It is merely a A4 page listing the prices at the turnoff to his farm that draws attention to the fact, that one can camp on Buscanssoles.
Monsieur Maurel is a kind looking old man. He shows me the meadow on which a handful of caravans has a already set up camp, and the sanitary block, which has probably been installed many years ago for the farm hands and says: ¨That’s then € 9 for one night.¨

Day 131 – to Saint-Laurent-de-Lévézou

For a change, it’s raining in the morning. I am trying not to let the water drag me down and ask Monsieur Maurel for some goat milk for my breakfast. His foreman fills me a pint bottle of delicious fresh milk for free.
Finally, I grab my wet tent and move on.
I reach Pont-de-Salar and the D911. From here on, the path runs pretty much in a straight line along the main road. No villages. Hardly even a homestead in sight. Only up and down the mountains. And then up again.
At some point I understand that I will not find a place to stay here. I have to turn off the shortest route to Millau if I do not want to set up my tent on the roadside.
So I turn on the small D158. At one farm I talk with the farmer. He is impressed with my journey. But he cannot imagine that I would be allowed to set up my tent somewhere around here or even find a family to take me in.
In Saint-Laurent, I notice two signs: one which states that the place was named after Saint Laurent, who was born here little more than a hundred years ago, and a sign for the gîte of ¨Gina & Michel¨. I have had largely great experiences with gîtes so far. So I try my luck.
Gina & Michel open the door, are quite worried about the flies, which could possibly enter the house during our conversation, vigorously shake their head, when I ask if I could camp in their garden, and reply that they had no idea where in the village I could find shelter or how one might reach the mayor.
Frustrated, I want to move on, but come to think better of it, when I see on the map that the next village is two hours away.
Not far from the church I discover a restaurant. The man behind the counter immediately points to the lawn a few meters away from the restaurant. I ask for toilet, water and most importantly the mayor. I actually do not want to set up camp without permission.
And maybe, just maybe, the mayor ends up offering me a bed to sleep in.
The man promises to call the mayor.
Half an hour later the options are clear: I can set up my tent next to the church on a small lawn or under the canopy of the ballroom, which has a faucet nearby and is about a hundred meters from a public toilet.
I opt for the canopy.
The boring route today had another side effect: I have no more baguette. If I do not want to live on granola bars tonight, I have to eat in the restaurant.
The man behind the bar tells me I still had to wait half an hour before I could order food.
I sit in a corner seat and a drink a Orangina.
A short time later Gina & Michel enter the establishment. With half a dozen friends they celebrate having been rated as excellent by a group of tourists who had visited the village. One of those present reads out the thank-you e-mails.
I feel like a vampire, that no one has cared to invite to their house. Even the man behind the bar is gone and has been replaced by a woman who eyes me suspiciously.
The dinner selection is limited: A full menu for € 12 or a salad or an appetizer plate for each € 7. I order a salad, fill my stomach with bread, let a few pieces drop into my pocket and make good use of the restaurant toilet.

Day 132 – to Millau and on to Rodez

The canopy has the advantage that my tent is dry in the morning and thus quickly stowed. The public toilet is simply disgusting. So I opt out of washing myself.
The last few miles to Millau are at least downhill. But I shudder at the thought of later having to return on this road to Rodez.
After a few curves materializes in front of me the bridge of Millau. An engineering miracle. 3460 meters long, 343 meters high. I may not walk on it, because it is part of the Autobahn towards Montpellier.
And because shortly after I have made the first visual contact more rain starts pouring down. So instead of heading to the information center I go downtown.
On the way there I decide not to climb the steep road on foot, but instead look at the station for a bus or train.
By now, I do not only really want to escape the rain, but also my rapidly deteriorating mood. I’m tired. I’m ready for Biarritz.
At the station my mood at least brightens for a short time: A special makes traveling by train this weekend very affordable. I pay € 5 for my tikémouv to Rodez. And another € 7.50 for the ticket from Rodez to Rocamadour the next day.
In the valley below Rodez I find the campsite. In anticipation of another rainstorm tonight I choose a pitch on top of a small hill. By ten pm my tent is shaken by heavy rain and gusty winds like never before. At least there is no hail. A few meters down I hear a father yell at his little daughter: ¨Calm down! That’s just rain!¨

Day 133 – to Rocamadour

My train departs in the early afternoon. So I do a quick tour around the city and use the remaining time to replenish my supplies in the hypermarket.
From a small train station, I walk another four kilometers past the beautiful fields, meadows and walnut groves of the Correze to Rocamadour. The place is an important destination for pilgrims. Therefore, I find several pilgrims’ hostels online which make me hopeful I’ll find a cheap bed for tonight and maybe even longer.
I never really a lot of advance research about what to expect in the places I cross on my way ¨home¨ to Biarritz. If I don’t already know I am bound to find out when I arrive. In the case of Rocamadour this is even more the perfect approach.
From the station I first reach L’Hospitalet, named after the small hospital, in which the pilgrims were allowed to recover from the diseases and wounds of the journey before the final meters to the sanctuary. I roam the ruins and enter the road that leads down to Rocamadour. Behind the first gate the view of the village opens up: It clings halfway between the cliff and the valley to the rocks. Left and right of the road there is just enough space for one row of small houses one each side. Above the village, the four-storey sanctuary and, on the cliff above, the castle and the monastery.
For a brief moment I am overwhelmed.
The moment ends when I see the crowds of tourists throughout the small village, and when I realize that almost all the houses are accommodating restaurants or souvenir shops.
Now only the prospect of a cheap bed in one of the pilgrims’ hostels manages to cheer me up.
To reach the hostel, which is supposedly run by two friendly nuns, and described online as a safe bet for a bed, I have to cross the village completely and then climb the serpentine on the other side for about one kilometer according to Google Maps.
‘A bed! A bed! A bed! Perhaps a day off! ‘ The thought keeps me going.
Soaked in my own sweat I finally reach the hostel.
A woman who does not look like a nun opens the door and crushes all my hope right away. I am close to tears when she adamantly repeats: ¨We are fully booked and I cannot help you.¨ Instead she sends me into the sanctuary. There at the kiosk I could find help in securing accommodation.
To reach the sanctuary I have to climb again. This time staircases. When only five steps remain, a man jumps to my help and grabs my trolley.
I ask at the gift shop for the kiosk and help with finding accommodation. The seller seems first overwhelmed, but then remembers a flyer for a hostel in the monastery.
Mobilizing my last reserves I climb the twelve stations of the cross leading up to the monastery. At the gate an announcement catches my eye: ¨Anyone is welcome here at any time.¨
Outside the hostel I see a lawn and think to myself: ‘If need be I can pitch my tent here.’
The reception is closed. I call the phone number posted at the entrance. The woman is even more cruel than the one at the first hostel: ¨We are fully booked and I cannot help you¨, she keeps repeating. Over and over. Even when I ask if I could not at least set up my tent on the front lawn. Even when I briefly erupt in tears out of exhaustion and disappointment.
Finally I pull myself up and go back towards L’Hospitalet, to find a campsite. At the exit I reread the note: ¨Anyone is welcome here at any time. Buy your medal and the pilgrim’s bag in the gift shop.¨
After a few hundred meters a young woman in shorts and espadrilles approaches me. If I was a pilgrim.
Absent I answer: ¨Yes.¨
She seems excited to meet me and asks where I was planning to stay tonight.
I reply briefly that a campsite was clearly the only option. ¨Somewhere back there.¨
She introduces herself as Alix and says she’ll grab her things and hoped to see me again at the campsite.
I try to smile: ¨Sure.¨
At the campsite the lady at the reception is also very nice. When paying, I realize that I have barely more than ten euros in my wallet. I ask for a cash machine. The lady does not have good news for me: Both ATMs in Rocamadour had been taken out by the storm the night before.
I respond to this day in the only sensible way: I buy a cheap can of beer in the supermarket.
Back at the campsite Alix has set up her tent next to mine. The young mother tells me that she has just for the second year in a row walked part of the Way of Saint James. After two weeks Rocamadour was meant to be the grand finale for this year. Alix is just as disappointed by the tourist masses and the fully booked hostels as I am. But she has something to look forward to: seeing her daughter again tomorrow.

Do you have anything to add? Thoughts? Opinions? Let me know!

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