Well, I did it. 730km, possibly more, all by foot across the southwest of France. I imagined I’d be quite emotional on passing through the St James’ Gate at the top of St-Jean. Instead, I was longing for a beer.
€3.50 – donativo coffee and pains-aux-raisins
€5.00 – large beer
€20.00 – donativo gite demi-pension
€7.40 – groceries
On my last full day of walking in France, it was the hottest yet. The mercury must have reached 30 degrees plus. Actually, this is more like ‘normal’ for this time of year. The last few weeks in France have been unseasonably cool and rainy – often not a terrible thing for the walker. Something about it being the last day gave me a lazy gait. Maybe I didn’t want to rush it, maybe I was just tired after long weeks of walking.
The walk from Ostabat to St-Jean is a lovely one. The GR65 follows the main road, but almost always to one side of it, down country lanes. The scenery gets more and more dramatic as you approach the head of the valley. The foothills of the Pyrenees loom large, and for the first time on my walk I was part of a mini ‘pilgrim train’ with walkers stretched out in a line. I’m told this is nothing compared to the numbers you get in Spain.
Right at the very end of the Via Podiensis, I find myself with huge ampoules (blisters) for the first time. 5 weeks of walking and nothing – then suddenly I’ve got bubbles on the end of my toes! I knew this was a strong possibility when I put new gel inserts into my boots a couple of days back. I was faced with a choice after injuring myself with shin splints – get some proper cushioning to ease the problem but cramp my foot in the boot, or continue with no cushioning at all. The choice was easy, but now my toes are rubbing hard in my too-tight boots.
This is one aspect of my walk I really messed up. I remember choosing my boots – they were always a bit tight for me but I loved the way they looked. I’ll be the most stylish walker out there, I thought. In fact I condemned myself to foot problems and injury. I guess you live and learn. At the pilgrim’s welcome centre they’ve told me to pierce the blisters with needle and thread, let the thread drain the liquid, then whack on some Compeed blister plasters. I’ll give it a go as I head over the Route Napoleon and into Spain tomorrow.
A few days ago I spoke about having a stick, and the number of quite aggressive dogs on the route. After writing it, I wasn’t sure if I was perhaps being overly pessimistic. Then I met a pilgrim who’d been bitten by a dog. Apparently the dog had come right up behind him while he was walking in the the street and bitten him on the upper thigh. Cue a visit to the doctor and worried checks about tetanus and rabies vaccinations! So, yes, I’ll say it again – if you’re walking this Way in France, take a stick with you. A dog will think twice if it sees a pointy thing coming fast towards its face.
Coming into St-Jean is a very special feeling. The GR65 takes you to the old medieval gate of St James at the top of town. On your right is the pilgrim’s welcome centre – here they’ll stamp your passport, help you with accommodation and provide generous information on the next stages through Spain. They have excellent printed sheets on the route over to Roncesvaux with distances, water points and advice on how to do it. From there you meander down through the old streets, taking in a very special atmosphere. If there’s such a thing as a ‘pilgrim town’, this is it.
A word on accommodation – there’s loads of it! I was told by a panicky gite owner that I’d better reserve, that two trainloads of pilgrims hit St-Jean every day. Well, I arrived at a leisurely 3pm and saw there were places everywhere. This is in mid-to late June, mind, perhaps things would be different in a month’s time. The Accueil Pelerins (welcome centre) will sort you out!
I was lucky enough yesterday to see a lot of familiar faces on my last day. It’s a great feeling to finish your walk with friends alongside. St-Jean is a small town, and it’s cool just to walk down the street, greeting pilgrim buddies as you go.
But as well as looking different from the previous (very French) towns you pass through, St-Jean in the Basque country has a completely new vibe. Whereas before it was 90% French with the odd international walker, here you’ll find the whole world getting ready to start out. Americans, Belgians, Australians, Koreans, Swiss, Germans, Italians, the lot. There are a lot more young faces all of a sudden, reflecting the popularity of the Camino Frances that leaves from here for Spain.
I’ve managed to swing a return flight from Pamplona – this gives me the exciting crossing of the Pyrenees tomorrow, plus a couple of stages in Spain. I’m giving myself this as a reward for hard work rendered. This concludes my journal on the Chemin du Puy. I hope you’ve managed to get something useful out of these messages, and if indeed you’re planning to do it, some encouragement to get preparations under way.
People say a pilgrimage changes your life in some way. For me, I’ll never forget the beautiful simplicity of walking each day, the absolute immersion in Mother Nature and the wonderfully caring spirit of the Way. I’ve come to love France, and I suspect long-distance walking may join my list of favourite exercise activities.
More content on the walk is to come soon – keep checking back for statistics on distances, and perhaps a little something extra…For now, though, bon chemin!