Thinking today’s stage would be shorter, I laid in ’til 7 and didn’t set off ’til 9. Within one hour of leaving the gite, though, I’d taken a wrong turn and was heading in completely the wrong direction…
€1.50 – overpriced can of Fanta
€15.50 – gite in Ostabat
€10.89 – groceries in Ostabat
Last night’s gite-companions were interesting ones. Having only encountered two other English people along the Way, I didn’t expect to see any more at this late stage. So it was with great surprise and pleasure that I ran into the father-and-son team of Chris and Ross, from the north of England. It was great to catch up on UK news, have a bit of banter and share tips on the pilgrimage.
Chris filled in a few gaps in my knowledge concerning guidebooks and distances. It seems the GR65 gets changed regularly every year for the purposes of… “commercial interests” let’s call them🙂. This means even a guidebook from last year may be out of date and inaccurate concerning distances. My 2014 Michelin guide has been wildly out over the last 2-3 days – each day I’ve done between 2-4km more than the distance quoted.
Chris and Ross were using the TopoGuides guidebook – a good idea as it has all the trails and very accurate Ordnance Survey-style maps. Even if the GR has changed slightly, you always know where you are with a mapbook like this.
Another trick they showed me concerned Google Maps. Once in a while everyone gets a little lost or wants to know how far it is to the next stop. The 3G signal in deepest darkest France is often reliable, but one thing you can do is use Google’s offline maps feature. You select an area (for example stretching from Aroue to Pamplona) and the whole thing will download to your phone. Even when offline, your GPS tracker will put you on the right place within a fully populated map image – awesome! I wish I’d known this sooner…
So, the wrong turn incident. I’d written before about taking a wrong turn, pointing out it often happens in the context of a ‘group’ of people rather than one walker on their own. It’s so easy to get persuaded to go a certain way, or to just follow somebody else. This is what happened to me this morning. I ran into Paul, a lovely guy I’d shared a gite with two nights earlier. I was already on a variante of the 65 and was unsure of my directions, so when he ‘ably’ led the way onwards, I followed. Within about half an hour we realised we were heading northeast rather than southwest. A complete reversal was needed – we lost maybe an hour of the day and added 4-5km to our total.
Ah well, these things happen. What can I say? Always take your time to read the map, think things through and don’t be rushed into going a certain way. You’ll probably take a wrong turn at some point – it’s all part of the adventure. On our own little detour myself and Paul actually had some great conversation about travel, family life and other stuff – we didn’t waste our day!
After the tremendously mixed weather, today summer returned with a vengeance. With temperatures in the high twenties, drinking enough becomes an issue. Again, during this stage there was a section of perhaps 6-8km without visible water points. You get thirsty real quick when you’re sweating away in these sorts of temperatures. If I did this trip again I’d make sure I checked the forecast every night and carried at least 2 litres of water with me in hotter conditions. My 1-litre bottle doesn’t really cut it in the heat.
So much for the little dramas. The penultimate French stage of the Way of St James is a thrilling and exhilarating one to walk. You move up and down a lot through little valleys, passing through ancient Basque towns with their thousand-year-old churches. You pass the place – now marked with a monument – where it’s thought the three ancient pilgrim routes converged before St Jean.
From there you take a high open pathway up to the Chapelle de Soyarza, a hilltop which commands outstanding views over the Pyrenees. Up there it feels like the realm of the Gods. To the north, picturesque countryside and fields roll forth into the blue horizon. To the south and east snow-flecked and colossal peaks reach skywards. Birds of prey ride the thermals, surveying all below.
So, tomorrow is the last official day of the Via Podiensis in France. Barring mishaps, I should be in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port within 5-6 hours. My friend who’s ahead of me tells me the stage is just as thrilling as was today’s. We’re properly into the foothills of the Pyrenees now – in just 40km it’s possible to be well into Spain!
I shan’t reserve anything for tomorrow – pilgrims and gite owners have told me St-Jean is full of places to stay. Plus high season hasn’t really got going yet it seems. I’ll take a day off for sure, and probably look for time to reflect on all that’s happened over the last 33 days.