Monday, July 25, 2011

"We Made It!"

Hello and good greetings to you from St. Jean Pied-de-Port!!  
This is the big mid-way mark of my trip.  Though, in reality, I crossed my mid-way mileage two days ago in Sauvelade, St. Jean has been the decided marker to say, that my trip is now beginning its slow descent into final.  800km remain, one pair of shoes and hundreds of pilgrims yet to meet.  Today, is a day off, where my feet get a deserved rest, I wash my clothes ala machine and plan my route through Spain.  Wait you might be thinking, don't you already have this detail sorted? Well yes. Yes I did but as everything in life, plans change, or have the capability to change.  Through talking to many of the pilgrims, I have been considering taking a different route, abandoning the Camino Frances, which is the traditional route, and instead take the Camino del Norte. Both are roughly the same distances, but the the north route follows the coast, offering a coastal landscape and more importantly cooler weather. I have been in great thought the last few days trying to decide which route to take, but today, after much research, I am feeling more excited to take the northern route. Nearing the end of the Camino del Norte, I will drop south picking up the Camino Primitivo, which is another older route to Santiago (as well as more difficult as it crosses through the Asturian mountains...but what's a little adventure and push before reaching the end?). So in all, I will add 13 extra km to my route, and I am excited to see some water.

My trailside companions 
     Currently, I am in the foothills on the French side of the Pyrenees. Unfortunately, I'm afraid I will not really get to experience (visually) their magnificence this time around as the weather from when I arrived until after I leave will be cloudy and full of rain. But I get little glimpses from time to time, and in the tourist office for pilgrims here, there is a map of the trail from St. Jean to Roncevalles (in Spain) which goes across the Pyrenees, and am happy to report that it looks beautiful.  Even if I might not be able to see the views from below and atop, I am so excited for this part of the trip! It has been the one area, that I have been looking forward to most of all and will soak in (perhaps also literally with all the rain) all that I can while I am here. (I have a feeling that another trip sometime down the road is in store to experience these mountains in their entirety). The region here is Pays Basque, completely different from other areas of France that I have travelled through.  No longer are the houses made of old stones. Instead, the rooves are the traditional red terracotta, and the walls of the buildings are typically white, with a farm red for the trim and shutters. Though the buildings all look fresh and new as if built 60 years ago, it is surprising to pass them and see the dates, 1500's-1700's.  My jaw nearly dropped.  These places are in better condition after 600 years and continue to stand enlgish curiosity is certainly tickling, as I wish to just knock on the doors of some of these places and ask for a tour of the much history, it is incredible!  The last few days along the trail, more castle-like structures have been appearing, some just small crumblings left to nature, history hidden beneath vines. There are certainly times and places where it feels as though I am walking through time. A few villages, now ghost-towns, still stand, only the wooden doors and overgrown yards give away that it is empty. But you can really feel the ghosts of the past in these places, how at one time it was a vibrant little village and desired place to live for the views and now forgotten.  Last night, while treating myself to a small regional dinner, I picked up a magazine.  In the back was a small realestate section, for a few houses throughout the Basque region that were for sale. Did you know, you can purchase a stone house built in the 13th century for 140 000 euros? I know Euros are more expensive then our dollar, but that is truly inexpensive regardless...and from the 13th century! Isn't that crazy? 

     Tomorrow, I will say goodbye to France.  For the past month, every single day I have eaten Brie/Camembert, and feel that I have had my fill, looking forward to taking a break from the two. My feet, I think are taking on the smell of the stronger cheeses, and though I have washed my socks several times they continue to leak a toxic smell that makes me a little nervous while in public! But part of that is because for the past week, it has been rain on the trail. Rain in the morning, drizzle in the afternoon, clouds clouds clouds galore. But, with all the clouds there is a silver lining. For 9 days, I have travelled with a companion named Magdelana from Germany.  We met in Cahors, and realized that we were making the same journey, with long days due to the amount of time we had to work with. Almost immediately, it was decided that we would travel together to St. Jean and then see if it would be time to split or continue onwards together. We had a plan and the challenge lay ahead of us.  That challenge: getting to St. Jean in 9 days, travelling a total of 356.5 km which works out to be 39km roughly each day. When we shared our plan with other pilgrims, they looked at us with horror, and said very firmly: not possible. But when two minds are set anything is possible, even if it is ridiculous! And I am happy to say, we made it, feet and head still very much intact, and the two of us: good friends.  It has been fun to travel with another person, as now experiences can be shared, and is nice to have a friend throughout the day.  It is also an adjustment, as you are no longer of thinking for one. 
Magdalena on the move!
   Great moments of learning have been made and I am grateful for the experience because it taught me pieces of myself, that I wouldn't have learnt had I just been travelling solo. Though Magdelana and I will be doing the same route to the end, our time together draws to a close, as she is now joined by two friends. I shall miss my companion, but as the camino always is full of surprises, I have a feeling that somewhere along the way we will meet again!
      For now, I will sign off, find my lodgings for tonight, and continue wandering about St. Jean, savouring my final hours in France.  Maybe I will be luckily and the clouds will break for a moment so that I may catch a small glimpse of the Pyrenees.  Hope all is well back on the home front....thank-you for all the stories and tid bits from home.  Such a treat and have loved reading each one. Until the next, happy trails ahead, and big hugs from Pays Basque!

Fog in the Valley

Sun rising against a quiet chapel
Front of the line, Tour de France; Figeac, FR

The story of the comb

The Camino de Santiago has a soul.  This much I now is true.
It tests you when you need to be challenged, and it brings gifts when you are most in need.
I have experienced both, and have come to understand the quiet spirit of the trail. Whether walking solo or not, you are never alone, surrounded by the history and magic that this trail contains.

One such story, is of a comb.

While packing, deciding what to bring and what to leave behind, I decided with absoluteness, that I would not bring a brush or comb with me, for I always had my fingers and I would be fine. But hair grows, and my hair, being thick and monsterous as it is, is not easy to comb with the fingers, and I had forgotten that the longer it grows the more unmanageable it becomes. Such is the way, and for me well coiffed hair is not the most important thing, but once the hair is tangled and in knots its rather difficult to reverse the process. Anyway, I managed...sort of.

While walking on the trail about 3 weeks in, I thought to myself, maybe purchasing a comb wouldn't be a bad idea. They are light and would help prevent the knots. So ok. The thought was there, but always when in towns I forgot about the thought .  One day, after knowing it was time, I had decided my priority for the day would be to get a comb. While walking through a small village, I looked down and what do I see is a comb.  I looked at it curiously. Stopped and considered picking it up, but then said no and continued to walk.  15 minutes later I regretted that move.  Here was a perfectly good comb and I passed it up. A week laterm, or so the same hair issue presented itself. Ok, I said, I need a comb this is ridiculous. And again on the trail, a broken comb lay in the middle of the path.  This time I stopped and picked it up.  That evening after my shower I used it, but the teeth all fell out  (I don't know if it is because of my hair or due to the fact this comb had spent quite awhile in the great outdoors) Regardless, I ended up throwing it out after using as it had about 3 teeth remaining.  This was in Montcuq.  The following day, I began to travel with Magdelana, and had  told her that today I would get a new comb and proceeded to tell her my story of the broken comb.  She had laughed at my misfortune but we spoke of the magic this trail had.  In 20 minutes we would both be laughing, for right in the middle of the trail while leaving a small village, was a brand new comb! We stopped and stared at it for several minutes, then looked at each other with amazement. Without hesitation I picked up the comb, and have traveled with it since. My magic comb!


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Life on the Camino...the first weeks

The first stamp on my passport!!
     Alright, here we go!  Lots of traveler thoughts and experiences are about to spill forth on the page. where to even begin the writings; I think is the most difficult part, as the thoughts and images of the experiences all swirl about into one giant pool of memories. I should start off by saying that this is one of the most incredible trips I have ever done, and am glad to be here.
     Each morning is a brand new adventure. Though I can look endlessly at my maps, I do not know what the day will hold nor what I shall see along the way, but then I have always loved the mystery...if we knew everything we were to see, would it be as exciting? Each day holds its own challenges and also its gifts, the trail I have come to learn very much has a life of its own...unravelling its magic and moments of frustration to teach important lessons on and off the trail. A learning curve indeed, but one that I have come to understand and appreciate. Though the country is small, the diversity and landscape of France varies greatly from day to day, noticable in both the environment but also in the houses. In the small villages, it is easy to feel as though transported back in time, imagining carts rolling through the dirt roads. Chicken have free range in a lot of the villages, pecking at the ground roaming about and strutting their feathry stuff. Nervous at first when I encounter a rooster, for in the past I have been a target for roosters, being chased about with them trying ot peck at my legs. Luckily out here; I draw no interest or threat to the roosters and we happily continuue on with our lives, me down the trail; the rooster cock-a-doodling, or playing ninja chicken warrior with its fellow feathered friends;  I kid you not, at one point while walking onwards, I lookd over to see two chickens pecking and kicking each other while being encircled by the rest of the flock!! How has there not been a movie about this yet? Maybe with my time during the day, I will write a petit script and send it to Hollywood...

    The firsst section from Geneva to Le Puy was very quiet, but that was something I had anticipated fro, the start, and thought at times lonely without anyone to talk to, it was a good time for me to get aquainted with the trail and sink into my thougts a little about how I hped for the days to come, and have the time really to simply reflect, and reflection I have done!  Originally, I wanted to keep communication back home to a minimum, or to say really, no phonecalls until the end. But I came to realize quite early on; it is nice to hear a familiar voice, and as my conversations were limited to the amount of french I knew, most of my days virtually silent, with my journal entries growing increasingly longer by day. The one challenge of travelling along is that you cannot share or talk about the experiences, so each day the list of things that I had seen or done grew, and at last, I reached Le Puy, my first section complete, I called home to speak english and share in on all the wonderful experiences I have encountered thus far, while catching up on all the latest news on the gardens and neighbours! SO often, I try to do things alone, maintaining this image of independance and separateness, that I feel like I miss out on something much bigger than the experience, as well as something I am endlessly striving, which is sharing and connectedness. Yes, to disconnect is a positive from time to time but like in all things there needs to be a balance, and oftentimes enough I disconnect myself more than open and dig in. Something I think about greatly while out walking, and experience greatly as I am not french and feel that at times I am missing out on much of the conectedness that this trail is composed of. Such are my thoughts.  But as I draw further away from Le Puy and closer towards St. Jean the diversity of folks grows and slowly a melange of languages becomes mixed. 
Just before I arrived in Figeac, I met a new friend from New Zealand, named Stephanie. We instantly fell into conversation, and made plans to meet in Figeac that evening...sadly it did not happen. The following morning, while trying to decide out my day and plans; who should I bump into but Stephanie, a big smile as we met and made plans to spend the afternoon in Figeac and watch the tour de France. Here is the day that is different from the rest. Rather to spend another night in Figeac, and feeling the quiet strain of my schedule tapping on my shoulder, I agreed to join her on taking the bus to the next town, Carjac. I had much diliberation about this, but thought it through and an adventure is an adventure and this was just a bit different, so I hopped the bus. Whether the trail disapproved or it is just my endless waryness of busses in general; true to form, about 10 minutes into the ride, my stomach turned for the worst and spent the hour lying down on the seats hoping to keep my lunch in before arriving. So, sadly I missed the scenery and paid for the day feeling rather ill and queasy, yet had a good nights sleep and was ready for the follwing day of 33km.....all in the rain!  Yes a downpour, with everything soaking through and through, included also was my ipod and camera, but luckily no damage incurred to either! Phew. That evening I stayed in a monastery in Vaylats, accompanies by my new friends Stephanie from NZ, Clement from France and Lionel from Switzerland. The monastery was a beautiful old building; quite large but very peaceful, with an old partially unkempt garden in the back to wander about and sit to enjoy the solitude. We shared dinner together, there were about 8 of us pilgrims and two hospitality folk, the woman sat with us, talking about his and that, very quickly so was very hard to follow along; though her face full of expressions. She was very kind; and also quirky, and took us young pilgrims under her wing, giving us little gifts, while saying in a hushed voice 'do not tell the sisters, for they shouldn't know'.  I think she liked having some young folks around!

     Gracious there are so many stories and things to write and share, I feel like I am missing so many bits and pieces.  Today was a short and mixed travel day, and walked onwards to Cahors with more friends that I have met, one Didi from Germany who I have walked with twice now and is of the same pace as me. He has been on tthe trail much longer than I. June 1st, the day after he retired from work! And will walk to Fisterra, though I think soon our paths will depart, at least for some time, as he has shorter stops in the day s to come and my days prove to be much longer with a hopeful rest in St Jean Pied-a-la-port, where my next pair of shoes and another pair of socks await. Currently, I am with only one pair, having left the second pair at a gite. It wouldn't be for another 10km or so that I would remeber my socks were still haning on the line to dry, and with that distance, not really worth it to go back. There are shops if I really need another pair; For now the load has been slightly lightened. Speaking of loads, my pack is fairly light until I put my weighty sack of food inside, wich seems to be the trouble of all the weight, but there is little i can do to reverse this, unless i choose not to eat, which is an option I have tossed out the window. OUt here it is good to eat and drink to keep the energy up and th emind in good working order. Food has been a tricky subject, but I have it down to an art now, with a hearty breakfast of yogurt, bananas and oats in the morning followed by a cheesy something rather for llunch, carames and nutella and then a dinner of rice and lentils most nights unless there is a dinner for us in which it is a three course meal oftentimes including an omlette. Gluten free options are limited and non existent in teh small villages, and have come to realize the difficulties of making sure I eat enough during the day, thus a baguette is bought and deal with the mild side effects as they present themselves, but am constantly in thought of what I can do for the day to limit how much bread goes in....recently I have been privy to that of prunes, condensed milk and chocolate bars....lots of energy and a regular poop cycle never hurt no? BUt the cheese, oh the cheese is spectacular, and shall be quite difficult to return home, for it is fresh and local here. Currently I have a round of camembert which has begun to smell up my entire bag, overpowering even the smell of my feet. Rather unpleasant but ever so good to eat!
 Typically my days begin at 6am, and I am out the door around 6h30 on my way for the day. It's wonderful to begin in the morning for there is a tranquility to the towns, and is a time fo rthoughts and inspirqtion to just come and go at will. IN a few hours the rest of the world awakes and the day settles in, passing many pilgrims, cars and other locals out on their daily routines. The afternoon winds down and the routine of arriving for the day to my gite happens, where the shower is taken, the food is prepared and the schedule for the following day is planned and laid out ready to do. Then it is time to visit and to share in the days experiences with others. Some nights are more tranquile, and others in true french style with singing and many conversations about food. The french love their food and love to talk about their food in great detail, of wines, amazing cafes to visit, the best bakeries, or experiences and recomendations along the way. If I stopped at them all, I fear I shan't ever make it to Santiago, and will need a larger pair of pants! But I keep in mind what is said, and if the chance or occassion arises then I try the places and foods, when in Rome...or rather France.   Currently, I am in Fois Gras country, duck. So will be missing out on this delicacy but there is still the cheese to try.
Today is a national holiday, though I haven't really witnessed anything out of the ordinary. While in Figeac, there was the great wait for the Tour de France to come zooming through which was rather exciting to watch but zoom they came and went, in 30 seconds they were gone.  But the excitement of the towns folk to come out and watch was something to see and be a part of, cheering on the cyclers before returning back to daily life. Perhaps tonight there will be fireworks but there is not much talk or mention so we shall see what the happenings shall be as they arise.

Peaceful monastery in Vaylats, FR

Chapelle Madelaine build into the rocks

Lionel along the chemin

Overlooking Le Puy

Monday, July 11, 2011

20 days, 600km, incredible views and tan lines even farmers would envy

bonjour mes amis!!
greetings to you from the city of Figeac, I have almost reached the halfway mark in France!  Here I am, tan lines and all, 600 km behind me, 1272ish more to go. WOW! Though somedays it feels that I walk hundreds and hundreds more miles than what I have actually walked,  600 certainly feels like a great distance. In truth it's still hard to wrap my head around this.  I don't think I have ever walked 600km in my life! Phew, that is something in itself to be proud of.

Where to even begin this section of letter out to you....hmmm last time I left off was in St. Andre.   As it turned out the days temperature that day soared well above 42 degrees and I was happy to have cut my day as short as I did, no one should be out walking in that sort of heat. Needless to say, the weather made a turn for the better the following day and overall had remained more cool as I have gone up in elevation as I am currently walking through mountains.  Not the large mountains that I am familiar with back in Canada and the US, these mountains are very old and worn down, making them feel more like foothills that I am crossing. What area am I in, you may wonder: Rhone country. First mountains and then the trail takes me back through wine country, meandering through vineyards! Its been quite the treat to have a fresh glass of wine right from where they originate. I've had the splendid opportunity to share a glass or two with the locals along the way, who insist with great passion that you MUST TRY THE WINE, CHEESE and MEAT!!!! I've got two covered, but sadly the meat will remain a mystery behind the magic of meat out here.  I had my first strong cheese experience in St. Miguel. To be fair, I was warned  ahead of time about the cheeses intensity, but of course one can only help but to cut off a modest slice and bite right into it, over-confidently with a look of "don't worry....I can handle it".  I was sitting with the owners of a bed and breakfast I had stumbled upon.  It was the husband who warned me, and was now watching with a bemused twinkle in my eye as I took my big bit of cheese. Smiling, I looked at him, but before I could make the look of "see, its not that strong"  the flavour of intense cheese and pepper exploded on my tongue and nestled quite contentedly in my nose as if there was a small bonfire happening up there. INTENSE does not begin to describe the feeling my tastebuds were experiencing in that moment. Part of me wanted to cry, all the while the husband continued to watch.  A great laugh came out as I tried searching for anything to make the flavour stop hurting.  The wife got up from the table returning with a bottle of wine and poured me a very generous glass.  Both insisted I drink it up as it would help to subdue the shock of the cheese. The husband, after he had his good laugh suggested that I ought to stick with the lighter cheeses. It was clear, I needed to build up to the stronger cheeses!   
The trail continues to be interesting; varying from paved to dirt roads, to rubble rocks with a small peppering of trails as I am more familiar to back home. Gone are the rugged and wild places of home, in replace is something more tame and structured, but it offers something that I have yet to put my finger on. Though walking on roads, it still feels as though I am walking along something special. The small shell and GR posts that mark the way on the camino are subtle. At times I wonder if the villagers notice these markings? Do they go unseen? Then what I begin to wonder, if back home there are also little markings in the towns and cities that are for trails that I haven't noticed before. How much, I wonder, do we notice in the small things? The last few days threw an extra spin to the mix.  The camino actually takes you through cow pastures.  Along the trail, I have come to several gates, with "please close behind you signs" before walking amongst the cows. It's a strange feeling. Sometimes peaceful, othertimes slighly nerve racking from getting the death stare from the if he was saying 'hey! don't touch my women you hear? I have horns and can you hear my grunt of disapproval? just you keep walking human' and so I do, happy to walk over cow patties and be on my merry way. 
Le Puy was the first city I reached since leaving Geneva. It is an interesting city to visit, and where I had my first day off to collect my senses while organizing myself for the next section. Coming into Le Puy en Velay, one is met with a strange looking site: there is an abbey atop an old volcano, that overlooks the city. As I found out, Le Puy in translation means tip of the volcano, while velay is french for Valley. And that is exactly what it looks like.  The abby was built in the 16th century sometime and you can climb up the volcano via endless stairs; to which an incredible view awaits.  I chose to stay grounded and look up instead of braving the stairs....after a long days walk, thousands of stairs was not really looking like an enticing option. Ho hum, perhaps another visit down the road... Le Puy is home and known for its traditional handmade lace making which is still in practice today. The lace makers use the tradtional bobbin method, 10's of bobbins all laid out, following an intricate pattern that only the maker can follow.  It is mind blowing to watch, their hands move so fast following a pattern. I tried to follow along but I couldn't. Mesmerizing. 
Leaving Le Puy felt very different from my departure in Geneva. On the morning I was to set out back on the chemin, I attended the traditional pilgrims mass at the Cathedral de Notre Dame de Le Puy, the home of the black virgin. Here pilgrims left en mass, there were about 60 of us spilling out the doors, laden with our packs ready to greet the trail ahead. In the start it felt like a marathon, eager pilgrims, all trying to figure out their pace. Many french walkers, but I am happy to report, that there was a family of 5 setting out from Quebec! Pretty cool to have some home grown canadians sharing the trail, though their time is shorter with only three weeks.  This section has proven to be good with many more pilgrims to meet and talk with, even if most are only on short holidays.  it is nice to now have more people to share the evenings with in conversation and good company. My french has improved,  my vocabulary continues to be limited to simple words and phrases but the folks have been kind and many will sit and talk with me, asking questions and sharing their stories. Last night I shared a gite with my first English pilgrims, and sat about drinking cups of tea, in fact, after stepping through the door, hot and winded from an incredibly long day, the woman looked at me and asked 'would you care for a cup of tea?' I looked at her nearly in tears from contentedness at this simple lovely question and responded, 'yes!' 
Had my first rainshower yesterday, which was a refreshing change to the heat, birds still merrily chirping about in the trees, happy too I think, for a little relief. But the rainshower was short and soon the afternoon turned to heat, with the slow going setting in with steep hills to climb. I have decided that the french like to attack hills the way one pulls off a bandaid. No nonesense of putting in a few switchbacks, just go straight up instead. So up up up up up I went, then straight down down down down I go, only to be met around the bend by another up hill! My heart I feel, if looked under a microscope will have little abs, for it is certainly getting a workout.  I have always struggled with hills of many shapes and sizes but each challenge brings rewards and a smile to know that, though intimidating; its possible to get up even if it takes a very long time! But for now, I think I have said goodbye to the mountains and will be met with more gentle rollng hills until I reach the pyrenees (in a week or so....). From here, as my guidebook indicates, I will be in much lower elevation. Bring on the heat! It's time time to start aclimatizing before spain!

There is still much to say and share, however, my time is limited with the computer, and I feel that I have written you a book already! Thinking of you all out here, lots of reminders of peple, places and things from home.
A bientot!