Friday, 21 March 2014

"Its a Camino thing"

So.
The shortest sentence in the English language.

Apart from that, 2 old school mates and I decided to walk part of the French Way (Camino Frances or Chemin de Jaques de Compostelle depending of what you prefer), an ancient Catholic pilgrimage route that runs through France, across the Pyrenees and Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.


Our plan was to walk from Le Puy en Velay to Figeac, a distance of about 250 kilometres across the Haute-Loire, Lozere, Aveyron and Lot departments of France.


Introductions if I may.



I have known these dudes 40 for years and we have always remained friends.

Peter Denyer-Simmons - 52, Australian born and almost bred (I know Pete because he lived in the UK in his teens when we became firm friends).

Pelerin Pete @ St Chely D'Aubrac
Andrew Walker - 52, English born and bred - I met Andrew at the same time as Pete during secondary school in Watlington, Oxon.
Pelerin Andrew @ Le Puy en Velay
Barry John Tindall (me) - 52, English born and bred. Became good buddies with the aforementioned protagonists during the heady days of our early teens. We have had a bond ever since.
Yours truly @ Sauges
It was early 2013 when I decided that this year, I wanted a different kind of holiday, involving exercise. Something that wasn't a beach in a hot country, based around doing very little in the sun.
In hindsight I think I wanted not just a holiday but a challenge as well.

France seemed a nice place to investigate. Near, with a fabulous climate, I have a smattering of the language (the other Fun Boy 2 near fluent) and I had heard that there were long designated walking routes which fitted nicely with the exercise theme.

Floated the idea by Pete (now living back in Oz) and Andrew (both former hippies who had spent time in France in their younger days smoking themselves into oblivion) and the response was positive.
At this juncture, I would like to say that none of us are particularly religious but, I admit now, following the trip to having a greater interest in spirituality and forces unseen.
We jiggled around with dates and came up with the end of August to leave the UK and return, all being well around 20th September.
Because of Pete being in Australia and flight logistics, the plan was for Andrew and I to walk the first 2 days (Le Puy en Velay to Monistrol D’Alliers) on our own and then Pete to meet us late afternoon on the 1st September.
Our journey started at the crack of dawn from Reading train station on Friday 30th August after Andrews 21 year old son Charlie had kindly dropped us off.
The journey to the station was interesting as Charlie likes to drive fast and his dad (or me for that matter) doesn’t. There was lots of teenage bravado “what’s wrong, I’ve never had an accident” from Charlie and an equal amount of “once you’ve had an accident you will slow down” from his dad.
Anyway, we arrived safely and found our way to the Paddington train through the impressive new Reading station that now resembles an airport, all ruck-sacked up and ready to roll.
It was about 6.45am and the platform was pretty empty as we were a bit early, our train was 7am. Just when I was thinking it would be nice to have an empty train on our journey into London, hordes of suited and booted commuter types descended onto the platform and the train was full.
I admit to certain smugness at this point when I realised for the next 3 weeks we were going to be walking in the countryside with no defined plan, a loose schedule and no important deadlines.

These guys were on the treadmill. I suppose we all are to a certain extent but at this moment I felt I wasn't.

Dressed in shorts and carrying rucksacks we didn’t fit in, which I quite liked.
At Paddington we jumped on the Hammersmith and City Line tube with the commuters and headed for Kings Cross / St Pancras and our rendezvous with Eurostar.
This was my first time on Eurostar and was looking forward to it.
The journey was quick, easy and uneventful. Our train stopping at Lille, Paris and finally Lyons where we were to disembark and take a branch line to Ley Puy en Velay.  

The only thing that happened of note was the phone chargers in the train didn’t work. It was then I realised that Andrew was almost fluent in French as he discussed this equipment failure with a French couple.
I have known Andrew since I was 14 but never have we spent time together in France before, so listening to him speaking French was impressive. I mumbled “Oui d’accord” a couple of times and think I got away with it.
At Lyons station we were wandering around trying to find our connection when in the distance I spotted a girl from my home town Henley?
I walked up to her and said “you’re from Henley aren’t you”?, she nearly fell over and was as amazed as I was at the coincidence. She was visiting her sister nearby.
We chatted a bit and went our separate ways.
On the Eurostar journey to Lyon, with the help of my Blackberry and GPS I had ascertained that at times we were travelling at 280kmh which is fast in anyone’s language.
South of Paris we saw a lot of vast fields full of corn. These stretched as far as the eye could see on both sides and gave you the impression that a) France is hell of a lot bigger than England and b) 280kmh doesn’t seem that fast.
So. It was a welcome change to board a train at Lyon that stopped every 10 minutes and made more familiar (diesel engined) train noises than the, almost silent, electrified lightning bolt that is Eurostar.
The train journey wended its way down towards Le Puy through St Etienne, most notable in my memory as being a football team that at some point in the 70’s had marginal European cup success and the name of an English alternative rock band.
After St Etienne the train plunged into the Loire valley and followed the river pretty much all the way to Le Puy en Velay where it branched off into the town.
The scenery through the Loire valley is stunning and the sun was shining so we were seeing it at its best. We were happy.
Our happiness was soon replaced by a mild sense of foreboding when we alighted at Le Puy.
Traditionally, the first thing for any pelerin (pilgrim) to do when arriving here is to visit the cathedral. This is inconveniently perched on top of the hill in the centre of town and the hill is very steep and long and the temperature was nudging 30 degrees.
Allied to this was the fact I was still quite new to carrying a rucksack (that I had carefully weighed in at 10kg) so by the time I reached the top I was sweating profusely, thighs were burning and my lungs were bursting.
Andrew found it easier. At this point he was obviously fitter than me. 
About to start journey from cathedral following abortive "La Creanciale" excursion
The cathedral is an impressive building both inside and out.  We spotted a lady lying prone on a slab of concrete in front of a cross. At first I thought she was unwell and considered intervening but she then, in a sprightly fashion changed her position and it became apparent she was in some kind of rapturous prayer / trance thing.
We then visited the cathedral shop, a place, like any other tourist shop where you can buy memorabilia / souvenirs of your visit. This wasn’t the reason for our attendance. We wanted “La Creanciale” – the Camino passport. A document you can have signed along the way to prove you have walked the route.
Same as above - rucksack strap looks a bit tight?
I am a bit anal about getting these kind of things signed.

Once I cycled the C2C trail in Northern England (with Andrew, funnily enough) and diligently completed their equivalent passport, so when I lost my Creanciale on day two I was pissed off. 
On arriving back in England I discovered it wedged safely between my Ipad mini (you may question why I took this?) and its case all new, un-fingered and clean with  only 1 stamp in it.
We then make a pigs ear of trying to find the cathedral exit and had to retrace our steps until we found it disappearing down a set of stairs in the floor.
We entered the cathedral from the station side which when you look back doesn’t offer a particularly good view. The vista from the exit at the front, however offers a spectacular, panoramic view over the town as you descend down a very steep flight of concrete steps that becomes a cobbled road and meanders down into the centre of the town.
We found our way to the accommodation (pre-booked to get us into the groove with minimum fuss) which was called Le Gite d’Etape des capucins (which is basically a cap worn by monks, the Capuchin Monkey looks to be wearing one and is so named).
The owner was friendly enough and showed us to our rooms. The scene was now set for how we would be spending our nights over the next couple of weeks. We shared a small room with a middle aged (possibly a tad older than us) French couple and a mysterious male pelerin.
I never actually saw this person. He arrived late and left early but I did hear him snore.
The shower was most welcome as we had been travelling for 14 hours and it was bloody hot. Andrew engaged the French couple in conversation and I with my untrained French ear deduced (wrongly) that they were chatting about the invention of steam travel as I heard the name “Stephenson” being mentioned and we had just got off an ageing train.
It was only when I spoke to Andrew later that I found out the conversation was about Robert Louis Stephenson, a donkey and a famous book (that I had never heard of) about his walking around this region. I felt embarrassed about my lack of literary knowledge... but not much.
That evening we walked into town with the sun shining warmly on our backs. We found a small square with a number of bars/restaurants and were overjoyed in becoming acquainted with the local beer. The demi pressions slid down very nicely indeed.
First meal of Le Puy green lentils
I liked this town. It was Friday evening and the square was buzzing with people, enjoying a glass of wine and looking forward to the weekend.
We found a nice restaurant in a side street that catered for pelerin and tucked into an energy giving, carbohydrate filled meal of crusty white bread and the local speciality, Le Puy green lentils with a little sausage protein thrown in (good fuel for tomorrows expected exertions) and lashings of very reasonable, cheap red wine.
Slept well that night and awoke at 7am to find both mystery man and Andrew gone?
Mystery guest had hit the road early and Andrew had gone for a walk as he wasn’t tired anymore. The man is a machine.
We had a breakfast of coffee, croissants, jam and cereal.   Pretty uninspiring as France is renowned for its food.
In hindsight, I have to say our first night accommodation and hospitality was probably the worst of the trip but we left in a chipper mood, as we had no expectations at this point and were looking forward to some serious walking.
We then realised we hadn’t got Pete La Creanciale. We debated whether it was worth trudging down into town again and back up the thigh burner hill to the cathedral to get him one. We decided that, as we were essentially a team, it was the right thing to do.
We weren’t sure how the keeper of La Creanciale would react to us wanting one for someone who clearly wasn’t starting his walk from the cathedral.. As it turned out we didn’t have to cross that bridge because when we got there the shop was closed.

Back we went, down the hill and up the other side past Gite des Capucin and out onto the Camino Frances proper!
A pattern was beginning to form now, as I realised after a few hours walking I had lost my “Way of St James” guidebook. I think I left it on the restaurant table the night before in all the excitement.
Fortunately I had the e-book version on my Ipad. It proved to be very useful in the coming days.
On our Way now
The first taste of the Camino Frances was impressive. After leaving Le Puy by road we branched off onto a proper walking track. The scenery was pretty as the undulating chalk path disappeared into the distance.
Our first Camino encounter with a fellow pelerin was a lady who walked past us at a healthy pace.  She must have been in her 60’s but seemed pretty fit and was obviously in it for the long haul, as she carried a rucksack and used walking sticks. Something I tried later on.
We saw her, on and off over the next couple of days, she always seemed to be walking slightly faster than us and disappearing into the distance. Like a rainbow but not.
The temperature was about 25 degrees now, which is about as hot as you would want it on a long walk.
In this part of France there is an abundance of grasshoppers who, when they jump, open their wing cases to display brightly coloured wings of assorted oranges, blues and reds. I mention this because as you walk, it seems as if you are moving through an appreciative crowd of small folk cheering you on. I liked that.
My steroid filled left knee was holding up well, but my steroid free left calf muscle was tweaking painfully. A good start I thought, only 240 kilometres left to go.
I was in luck. The calf discomfort was only temporary and went away the following day. Although on day one, my legs, back and neck did ache as I wasn't yet used to walking this far and carrying a rucksack.
At about this time, the beginning of another pattern emerged.  Prior to the trip I had decided (on taking advice) that a wide brimmed floppy hat was a must have to protect against walking for hours in the sun. I left it late in sourcing one (the day before we departed) so ended up having to resort to a hat found in a local charity shop.
It became quite popular with French ladies of a certain age. On a number of occasions, I was greeted with “bonne chapeau!” by fellow walkers, when encountering my fancy head gear.
"Bonne chapeau"
Basically, it was an excessively floppy ladies straw hat with fetching black beading around the base. It would have looked entirely at home at a Queens garden party, the Centre Court at Wimbledon or the members enclosure at Henley Royal Regatta. I tried to disguise its design by removing the beading and safety pinning one side to resemble the hat worn by Napoleon Bonaparte but it still looked ridiculous.
No matter it did the job and that’s what was important to me.
We stopped and bought our lunch of tinned tuna and crusty bread from the shop in a small village called Saint-Christophe-sur-Dolaison. This we ate on the Camino outside of the village.
First Al Fresco meal of the trip
After a little while we came across Chapelle Saint-Roch a seriously old (13th century) chapel dedicated to Saint Roch the patron saint of pilgrims. It was perched precariously on the side of a mountain with sheer drops a metre or so from the walls. The view into the valley was amazing even though shrouded by fog. On a clear day it would be breathtaking I’m sure.
Misty mountain top @ Chapelle Saint-Roch
Inside the chapel were a stack of chairs to be used during services. There seemed an awful lot of chairs for a very small floor space?
We came across an eco-toilet that used a clever mechanical conveyor belt, straw and a hole in the ground to dispose of waste material in an odour free manner. Andrew seemed keen to try it out or maybe just keen to have a dump?

(is that too much information?)
Earlier, I had acquired a hazel walking stick (cut by my own fair hands, using Andrew’s peasant knife). I was grateful to have this, as the descent into St Privat D’Allier (tonight's resting place) was steep, rocky and tricky.

The stick served well, as a 3rd balance point, although I did managed to lose it (the stick not my balance) on day 4 (see the pattern) and didn’t replace it.
By the time we arrived at St Privat D'Alliers I was shattered and I think Andrew was also a little weary. My calf was stinging, my legs ached and we had nowhere to stay.
I have to say, this was our modus operandi of choice. It added to the fun, not knowing where to lay your hat of an evening.

At this time of year, we were confident of finding somewhere, as the Camino is less busy due to the French national holidays finishing at the end of August. Today was the 31st August.
St Privat D'Alliers - our first experience of the stunning scenery
As we entered the village we noticed a group of 4 French people leaving a Gite. Andrew questioned them (I listened intently) and they suggested there was room for us here.

We knocked on the door and were met by an interesting looking Frenchman sporting an earring, beer belly and a couple of poor tattoos on his arm. He was friendly enough and we got a nice room upstairs for the night.
Andrew doing it the French way
End of first days walking
We showered and then strolled into the centre of the village and found a nice café/bar where we took a seat outside, overlooking a breathtaking limestone gorge. 

We supped a couple of cold ones that, I have to say, were up there with the most enjoyable beers in my entire life.
Andrew insisted on the French way with Ricard and water. We sat in the late afternoon sun watching the world go by with thoughts of real life in England not troubling us.
Looking back at St Privat D'Alliers on day 2
I liked this feeling.
The scenery looking out from the centre of St Privat is pretty spectacular. We noticed a painted sign on a vertical cliff face 200m up that said “Private property”, obviously some wag of a mountaineer idea of humour. We chortled.
Our patron cooked a hearty meal of Le Puy lentils and sausages with loads of bread and red wine (same as previous night really but with his twist on the lentil recipe as they tasted different this time)

We ate with Philippe – an ex smoker and coffee addict and his friend Bruno - a couple of Parisienne guys who were also walking to Figeac.

The conversation was good and their company was pleasant. Andrew and Philippe were pretty fluent in each others language whilst Bruno and I chipped in on occasions with gems of wisdom.
After dinner we wandered back into the village in search of light entertainment and a cheeky beer only to find everywhere was closed. 9pm on a Saturday evening?
There was one bar in the process of ejecting some lairy German pelerins who seemed to be enjoying the local hospitality.
In the middle of the night I was awoke by a woman talking loudly and seemingly angrily into a mobile phone, just outside my door. In the morning a pair of stiletto heels had appeared by the front entrance to the gite?
Breakfast this time was delicious consisting of fresh crusty bread and honey with fabulous coffee which the French insist on drinking from a cereal bowl. Andrew had already embraced this technique from previous experiences (anything French and peasant related and he’s up for it) so I followed suit.
The following morning we started walking at a leisurely pace as today’s journey was only about 12kms to our next destination. Today we were to rendezvous with pelerin Pete our Aussie mate.
I remember the climb out of St Privat being quite long and difficult and I also remember the sprightly lady whizzing past us.


We arrived at Monistrol D’Allier at around 2pm. Monistrol, like St Privat is nestled into the hills with the river Allier running through it. There is a large EDF (French electricity company) Hydro Electric Power plant perched on the riverbank and a very interesting Gustav Eiffel designed bridge spanning the river.
EDF @ Monistrol D'Alliers
This bridge (much like Gustav’s tower) gave me the willies when crossing it. Like the Eiffel Tower it is an open latticework of wrought iron that creaks a lot when crossing, allowing you a clear view, beneath your feet of where you would fall to your death should the creaking increase much more. I don’t like that.
Gustav Eiffels scary bridge
Tonights accommodation, a gite called La Tsabone had been pre-booked by Pete. We found it easily, up a side street on the side of the gorge. On arriving there was no-one around, but the door was open and a sign with "Fun Boy 3" (I made that it up it said “Simmons 3”) on it, reassured us we were in the right place.
We popped back into town and had a beer then returned to find our hosts waiting. They were a pleasant and friendly young couple (well, younger than us by many moons), she spoke for France and seemed very well organised.
Andrew (because he is a machine) doesn’t need rest and decided to go for a walk. I thought that’s what we had been doing? I had a nap. 

When I awoke I decided to explore a little and found my way down to the riverside via a fairly unused track. 
River Alliers that apparently floods in seconds
The river was quite fast flowing and obviously prone to changes in level and velocity at short notice. There was a warning sign that said (basically translated) “you are here at your own risk and at any minute a wall of water may sweep through the gorge engulfing you and all in its wake” I think this had something to do with a flow control upstream in relation to the Hydro Electric Power plant but I’m not sure.
When I got back Andrew had returned and we awaited Pete.
He eventually rocked up in his chauffeur driven vehicle from Le Puy station at around 6pm. It was great to see him and really good to get us all together and start our Camino proper.
For the 2nd time, I showered fully clothed in order to clean them as I was cleaning me. I preferred this to bending over a sink washing the clothes separately, and its probably a more efficient use of the worlds resources.

At around this time 4 French pelerin arrived and we chatted with them. 3 of them knew each other and were from a village near Tours. Like us, this was their first time.

They were a couple in their late 50’s whose names I forget and their friend Collette and the 4th person was Bruno (another one) a 30 year old Parisienne entrepreneur Vet who had a successful business promoting animal drug treatments. He had hooked up with them the day before and they clearly all got on.
It turned out the French lady, whose name I forget had a really good voice, so during dinner we got our first introduction to the pelerin mantra / song / hymn “Ultreia”. We all ended up singing along with lyric sheets she kindly provided.
Pete's first supper, with our French friends
Dinner (lentils again) was a lot of fun with many of laughs and the singing was spontaneous and pleasant. We were getting in the groove.
Pete impressed me (as Andrew did) with his confident command of French and his delivery of a one liner in a foreign language.
Our bedroom was in the attic with no standing room, a sloping floor and ceiling and a window no bigger than a porthole. Very comfortable though and I slept well.
Ready for the big climb out of Monistrol D'Alliers
During our conversation the previous evening and through reading my guide it became apparent that the climb out of Monistrol was a biggie (almost 500m altitude gain in a few of Kms).

This was firmly in our minds as we finished breakfast. We we packed our rucksacks and got ourselves ready to roll. I did feel a bit sorry for Pete who probably had jet lag and no recent walking experience as we had. But then I thought, he's Australian, he'll be fine.
We started walking quite early around 8.30 when the breeze was fresh. Still tee-shirt and shorts weather but the chest area was unprotected from the cold wind.

I devised a method of wedging by “bonne chapeau” inside the front rucksack strap thus protecting it from the chill. This was double useful as the sun wasn’t yet hot so the hat needed to be "stored" somewhere.
Pete was sporting a fetching brown fedora hat as protection from the sun. He used this in the same way, but held it manually, as it had more value than my girlie charity shop find.
The climb was indeed long, arduous, lung bursting and tough. We stopped every so often to look back over Monistrol and the Allier gorge – it was spectacular. I remember part of the track being very narrow on the side of the gorge.

There was with nothing to stop you falling back down into the river valley. I watched my steps carefully as I am not keen on heights.
Spectacular views back down to Monistrol
We eventually got to the top and the track became a minor road.

We followed this across undulating green countryside, interspersed with small copses. 

Today was hot and taking fluid on board was of paramount importance. Luckily most hamlets/ small villages have a water tap for pelerin use (one assumes it is from the French water “grid” but could be from the local stream and full of sheep poo).
And again
Anyway, when you are walking up and down steep hills carrying a rucksack in 28 degrees, water is water.
At lunchtime we arrived at Saugues, a pretty town where all the women seemed pretty as well. Not that we noticed.
A thing.
Saugues town centre - hot today
We bought our lunch of pate, baguettes and fresh fruit in a local Epicerie and continued walking out of town, over the river Seuge and gradually upwards on the lookout for some shade to eat our lunch,
We found a solitary tree with not great leaf coverage but stopped and ate.
Pete in crucifix position
We had no accommodation plan for today, just walk until late PM and see where we were. Today was tiring and we plodded on until we arrived at a village called Le Clauze, where according to my book a couple of gites could be found.

Bad news, they were both full and we were pretty tired. 

We looked further ahead on the map and called Gite d’Etape L’Auberge des Pelerin in a place called Villeret D’Apcher another 4kms. They had accommodation!
Looking back on Villeret D'Apcher
We didn’t need that extra 4 kms but had no choice. What a place this turned out to be. The patron Jean Louis (an ex well travelled pelerin) welcomed us warmly.  

We had a nice, clean and quite new room with excellent shower facilities. Dinner was a communal affair again, which I liked. 

At the table were the 3 of us, a father and son (with severe sunburn) from the Poitiers area, a single blonde lady who we had seen the day before, another father and son who were staying because the village was full elsewhere (not Pelerin), a couple who were going “all the way”, Jean-Louis, his wife, his son and his wife and an eccentric young Austrian chap who sat next to Pete,  

He was very religious with scary eyes and told us "once you have walked the “Way” it will never leave you”. In hindsight, he had a point…


Jean-Louis turned out to be a bit of a ranconteur and told us a story about being a pilgrim on the Camino and what it meant etc etc.

Even though it was in French I got the vibe. He then got his guitar out and sang the Camino mantra “Ultreia” with the assembled diners chipping in with the chorus.
The man half of the "all the way" couple, I noticed was hobbling quite badly.  This was not looking good with another 1400kms to go until Santiago di Compostella.
At this point, Pete was also developing some pretty nasty blisters. Both Andrew and I advised him to use a needle and burst them, then thread cotton through to act as a wick and drain the fluid. 

This is what my book said and I thought a good idea. Pete decided not to through reasons of exposure to infection.
A farm.
The Austrian fellow, in his zealot like keenness was taking a 40km detour further down the Camino to visit Lourdes.
We slept well that night and awoke again to a bright sunny day, with the familiar nip in the air. 
After a good breakfast of fresh fruit, cereal and a cheeky pastry we were on our way “bonne chapeau” in place across my chest.
The walk out of Villeret was quite testing as we climbed gradually for a couple of hours. It was not the killer that was Monistrol, more of a slow burn, leg sapping trek but the good news was that by the time we reached Saint Alban sur Limagnole, our intended destination we would have dropped 200m in altitude.
Pete doing his Al Jolson impression
It was hot again today and we managed to get a bit lost. 

We missed a left turn off of the track and didn't realise for about a kilometre when we stopped to admire a local braying donkey.

I think he was trying to tell us we had gone wrong.


Our guide for the day
We surmised from our map that a jaunt across a couple of fields, over a few fences and through a wood in the distance, should take us back onto The Camino. We took a chance and fortunately were right. The soil around here was becoming sandier and the woods more coniferous.
I took a memorable photo of Andrew and Pete walking through a shadowy avenue of trees towards the sun. It looked biblical and I was entirely chuffed with this photo.
I love this photo.
We walked through many pretty meadows littered with rocky outcrops and large herds of brown cows with horns and calves. The only way to keep en route was through the middle of them.

Now, I'm a country boy, but was a little nervous about this, being that they had babies to protect. The deal is to look them in the eye and walk straight at them, they will move.
Cattle congregating on the Camino.
We also saw a number of similarly coloured horses with long flowing manes. They seemed pretty friendly, always coming to the fence as you walked past.
Pleased to see us.
Much to our amusement, the mobile Grasshopper fan club was still with us, in fact there were more on this section than ever.
We came to a main road and walked along it for a bit to an old chapel with another eco-loo next to it.
I tried this one. What a pleasant experience that was.
Our Austrian friend marched past us at a mission like pace and we never saw him again.
We arrived in Saint Alban sur Limagnole at about 2pm, hungry and thirsty. On this occasion it was decided to eat inside as the sun was baking and we had been exposed to it for about 4 hours.
T-Shirt and strap definitely too tight
Lunch was a big plat du jour. Starter, main and pudding. Can't remember what, but I think we were still in lentil country although I remember lamb chops I think?
A couple of demi pressions were taken care of, as we discussed, with a lone French pelerin on the table next to us where to stay that evening. 

He recommended somewhere, we tried to find it but ended up stumbling on somewhere different.

Tonights accommodation was a gite, situated on a junction, with a memorial in the middle of the road opposite. The patron and his wife were very friendly and accommodating, even if the place looked a bit tired and in need of a decoration. No matter, everything worked and the bed was comfy.
We dropped our gear off and went for a wander around town (as if we hadn’t done enough walking?!). We explored the local cemetery where the predominant name on the gravestones was Bastard?
Cemetery in Saint-Alban sur Limagnole
I remember feeling my face burning and wanting to get out of the rays. We found an old museum that was previously a hospital and a welcome retreat away from the sun! The old building had thick walls and was very cool as only old stone buildings are on hot days.


Old hospital at Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole, a welcome cool relief from a baking hot day

The menu was different this evening. We were entering  Aligot country and away from the Le Puy lentil catchment. Aligot is a local cheese and potato dish that Andrew was particularly keen to try.
We were also presented with a selection of local saucisson that Andrew took great delight in cutting for us.
Andrew and the Saucisson cutting
I remember the red wine being excellent and the Aligot and bit stodgy, however I remember feeling very relaxed. I liked this feeling.
The next day we were up @ 7am and came down for breakfast of cereal and lots of fresh coffee. We shared this with the local trucker population who looked at our rucksacks quizzically. I don’t think this gite was pelerin central.
I think that is Aumont Aubrac or Nasbinals?
Again, the scenery around us was beautiful. I love the Chiltern Hills from home and the countryside and scenery in the Haute Loire / Lozere region is similar in lots of ways, albeit on a grander scale.

Somewhere between Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole and Nasbinals
Hot again. We were making excellent time and walked into Aumont Aubrac to be greeted by Barry’s farm (La ferme du Barry) a gite on the right hand side as you enter the village. It was very tempting to stay here, for obvious reasons but we had only covered 14km and it was only 11am (we must have started early!)
Notice how I'm disguising the tight rucksack strap and check the suntan.
We rested awhile at a café and drank mineral water before getting a “take away” lunch. I had a tuna sandwich.
We ate this sat on a wall in town and then walked onward, under the M75 motorway (which struck me as being noisy and an unwelcome return to “civilisation”) through a heavily grafitti'ed concrete underpass. It made a cool photo opportunity though.
Under M75 motorway.
At about 3pm we decided it was time to find out where we were going to sleep. A couple of calls later we had booked ourselves into a gite in a village called Lasbros which was a tiring, uphill 8 km hike from Aumont Aubrac.
Somewhere between Aumont Aubrac and Lasbros.
This gite was outstanding (as they all are in their own way). Danielle our patron was an effervescent, bubbling, live wire who talked at a million miles an hour and all the time.
Here, we met Alain and Marie-Pierre a couple in their 50’s from Chamonix which I believe is ski central? Somewhat  different to Lasbros. 

They were really nice, and Alain especially enjoyed sharing his sense of humour with us. This was their first experience of the Camino and Alain struck up a bit of a double act with Pete.


At Lasbros with patrone Danielle (middle), Marie-Pierre and wag Alain
They had arrived here by default, having originally booked themselves into a gite 5 kms further on.

They didn't stay long there, as the bed was full of “punee” which we assumed to be either fleas or bed bugs.
Danielle had kindly collected them by car and they stayed on the floor above us.
Dinner was a communal affair and consisted of saussicon, salad, much bread, cheese and red wine. We ate outside looking over the valley. Beautiful.
There was an elderly French couple staying at the gite who ate on a separate table. They gave the impression of being quite wealthy and "Parisienne" in their manner.

The chappie commented “typical English” when he spied our freshly laundered underwear draped over the fence.

There was a washing line close by that we had failed to see. :). We weren't sure whether he was as serious or not, or whether to be miffed at his arrogance?
Up with the French lark again and with a plan of hitting Nasbinals (20kms away) by early afternoon.  We were now walking up onto the Aubrac plateau, where woodland thinned out to be replaced by vast panoramas of undulating boulder strewn moorland.
Aubrac plateau - starting to get in the groove now.
After a few kms of walking in hot sun, we hit what seemed like the highest point for miles around and just collapsed in a satisfied heap on the grass.
Aubrac plateau
We chilled here for a while, basking in the sun whilst slowly realising that this was getting more and more fun by the day.
At lunchtime we stumbled across a really nice restaurant in a village called Montgros. It seemed too posh for us as it  had a tablecloth but, hey, we had the Euros..


Coke for the boy
Andrew - mind elsewhere
Water for the boy
Lunch was fantastic. It consisted of a large salad, very tasty aligot and a couple of cold ones (and lots of bread).
A French couple on the table next to us who kept turning around and looking. Maybe we were a bit smelly? It’s possible.
Not far from here we came across an unusual sight of a donkey that appeared to be walking along a stone wall? 
Wall walking donkey
I remember the trek into Nasbinals seemed to take an age. At this point we were on a tarmac road, that had become heated by the hot sun. This exacerbated the ambient temperature around us.

At this point, I was hot, sweaty, thirsty, tired and hungry.
Early morning leaving Nasbinals
That night we found basic but comfortable accommodation in a large imposing building that could have once been a hospital, school, asylum or council office. We never did find out but it was made over as a communal gite for pelerins.
The bedroom was small and the communal showers antiquated but efficient. After showering and washing our clothes in situ, we ventured into town to find food and beer.

We came across a restaurant that appeared to cater for locals, not pelerin and thought we would try that. Coincidentally, we spotted Alain and Marie-Pierre (our Chamonix friends from Lasbros) they joined us and we had a very civilised meal of Aligot, cold meats and salad, washed down with the usual.
Alain was a good character, always quick with a quip or a story. Marie-Pierre looked on as someone who had heard these stories before, but still delighted in his ability to make them sound fresh.
We were a bit boisterous, and I could see other diners getting a little uncomfortable but no one said anything (maybe they were English and didn’t wish to complain?)
The next day we were due to hit the high point (altitude wise) of our trip at a village called Le Domerie at the peak of the Aubrac plateau.  It was over 1300m above sea level. 

We started 6 days ago at Le Puy at a height of 625m so had climbed nearly 700m not including a couple of hairy downhills into the mix.
We passed through many fields and pastures, inhabited by the same breed of cows as earlier in the trip. This time though the cows were accompanied by a number of hefty, mean looking bulls with scary horns. 

We gave them a wide berth but not too wide as we had to stay on the Camino and they tended to congregate on it.
Keeper of the herd
After  a couple of hours we arrived at Le Domerie and sought refreshment in a small horticultural centre with a shop and café attached. We sat at a table outside, 10 feet above a well stocked and maintained garden. Pete lost his hat over the edge trying to hook it on the table umbrella stand a la James Bond.
Arriving at village of Le Domerie - highest point on our  trip @ 1307m
The walk out of Le Domerie, gently downhill to St Chely D’Aubrac (that evenings choice of destination) was stunning. The path was rocky and tree lined (a godsend in the heat).

The suns sun rays shone through the leaves and branches giving awesome displays of light.
Walking the long and welcome downhill into St Chely d'Aubrac
Amazing natural light.
We arrived in St Chely D'Aubrac and sought somewhere to stay for the night. Our first port of call was the tourist office, adjacent to the small village square. 

I had already spied an attractive café/bar with outside seats in the sun. If it was my shout we would have gone there immediately. Common sense prevailed and a bed for the night was important
Arriving in....
The young chap in the office was very helpful and made calls for us to local gite owners. Eventually we found “Christines” more of which I will come to later.
Inside the tourist office of coincidence.
What happened next was a lottery winning type coincidence. As I mentioned at the beginning, 35 years ago, Pete and Andrew had spent some time camping in the Midi Pyrenees area.
They had made many friends, although hadn’t kept in touch.  

We were still 60 km at least from Decazeville, the town where they had stayed all those years ago, so I was surprised when Pete asked the tourist chap if he could borrow a telephone directory?

I asked him why and he told me he was going to look up the name of an old mate, one Francis Laborie (Bichon to his friends) and see if he still lived in the area.

He was scanning the book and getting nowhere when the French chap asked what he was doing. Pete told him and mentioned his name. The young chap said (with inordinate casualness) “Oh, I know him he’s my girlfriends uncle”......... !!????!!

This was a jaw dropping moment and he went on to say “yes he moved to Paris 30 years ago and hasn’t been back since”.
Pete, Andrew and myself (to a slightly lesser extent as I didn’t know him) were agog with amazement. Chappie then called his girlfriend and told her what had happened and got an email address for Bichon. 

This was an amazing coincidence and it made Pete and Andrews day!
Emails were exchanged and we met him in Paris (later in the story).
This piece of news lifted our spirits (not that they needed too much lifting) and we decided to celebrate at the café I had been eyeing.
Andrew then decided to go for another walk? (I know). Pete and I decided to have another beer. We struck up a conversation with another group of French pelerin, on the table next to us. A mother with her 2 sons and one girlfriend (I don't think they were sharing the girlfriend, but who knows, they were French).


A great vibe here.
The outside seating area was full of people. Both locals and pelerin together, relaxing in the pleasantly warm sun.

As you can see from the photo above, Art Garfunkel had popped in for a cheeky one. This place had a warm feeling, the vibe was good and we were having a good time.
We made our way to Christine's gite which was an austere, multi bedroomed, old building with high ceilings and rustic relics like shotguns hanging on the walls.


I had a huge bedroom with a 4 poster double bed and washbasin. The shower was less salubrious and not en-suite but served the purpose of getting me and my accompanying clothes clean.

The drill, everyday, was to hang the washed clothes outside, they normally dried in an hour or so such was the heat of the sun, even in late afternoon. 

However, that night there was an impressive thunderstorm and because I hadn’t washed my first set of clothes the day before, I had to walk  in damp shorts and shirt the next day.
That evening we found a nice restaurant and sat outside. We were served by a charming French waitress whose English was as good as my French. She was lovely and seemed to enjoy our well honed sense of humour (she probably didn’t).
Dinner in St Chely d'Aubrac with outstanding waitress on camera duty. Expensive bottle of wine that. 
The aligot here was top banana. The cheese within the dish is meant to hang from your fork like string, Andrew demonstrated this very well. We splashed out on an 18 Euro bottle of wine (extortionate for us on this trip!)
Aligot demo by Andrew
The following morning was colder, the sky grey and everything was wet due to the thunderstorm. As I was collecting my clothes from the washing line I took a photo of the gite. Pete said “why are you photographing naked old men”. I hadn’t seen the old guy in the shower with the window open. I felt dirty.
I can't see a naked old man in the window? I think it was Pete's fantasy.
Looking back on St Chely d'Aubrac
We left St Chely D’Aubrac past the local cemetery on the side of the hill. Today's views were as spectacular as the previous days.

Small pockets of mist hanging in the air, due to the humidity and dampness of the ground added to the spectacle.
Humidity following storm manifesting itself in mist
The change in weather conditions left us with the feeling that we were in a race against time before the next big thunderstorm. 

We walked faster today and took less breaks. I came across a squashed Fire Salamander on the road, it’s a pretty spectacular looking creature (even in death) bright yellow and jet black stripes. I mention this, as I thought they were quite rare, it turns out they are 2 a penny in this area.
Poor lad - and I thought he was a rare thing.
The next town we came across was Saint-Come d’Olt. It was full of old buildings with character and an open, central square with cafes and bars. 

To me the town had an arty feel with a touch of decadence. A good and interesting combination. There seemed to be a lot of chain smoking, scruffy people around, tucking into large glasses of red and generally waving their hands around in an expressive manner.
Saint- Come d'Olt - we passed through, would have liked to have stayed longer
There were also a couple of middle aged Aussies in our café. Pete struck up a conversation with them, based around the Australian general election and what a bastard Tony Abbott was/ is (who apparently won?).
Another pretty girl served us in the Patisserie (I think it’s a pre-requisite to get a job in a shop in France).

As we approached Espalion, (our next nights sleepover) the pace quickened. Black clouds were rolling in and the light was fading before time.

We could see Espalion in the distance at the base of an impressive conical shaped hill (like Silbury in Wiltshire but much bigger and natural) but the last 2kms seemed further.


A race against time, approaching Espalion with a thunderstorm about to break
We entered the town past the rugby (Union) club and an impressive swimming pool which was closed on a Saturday afternoon?
Some serious bridges spanning the Lot in this town. 2 of them.


2 bridges at Espalion
The old bridge


As we approached the town centre we came across a ramshackle bar with a bohemian feel. This looked good.  Literally, as we sat down, under the awning outside the heavens opened and thunder and lightning reigned.
The barman / patron was a miserable bloke, but amusing nonetheless. Without him being aware, we watched his every move as he was good entertainment.
He looked like a bad tempered Howard Marks with a hangover and didn’t make us feel at all welcome. A group of middle aged women turned up and sat next to us.

They ordered food which he duly served in an uncommunicative, sullen way. He returned 2 minutes later and proceeded to help himself to their food, directly from their plates as they were eating.
They didn’t react. I can only assume they knew him?
We found the local tourist office and spoke with a very nice, friendly lady who helped us find somewhere to stay. 

She made a couple of calls to local gites but they were full and a couple more to hotels, again full. There was a festival this weekend locally and accommodation was at a premium (we saw no sign of this festival by the way?).

Eventually, our lady found the Hotel de France in the centre of town. An unpleasant looking concrete building, completely different to the accommodation we were becoming used to.

I missed the ramshackle gites, their spartan bedding and facilities. At least they had some character.


Quite miserable weather today - Espalion not looking its best
I have to say, it was still pissing with rain and at this point, nothing looked good. The town square on a sunny day would look nice I’m sure, but today it was dreary and unattractive.
That evening we scouted town for somewhere to eat and first of all found a bar that was clearly drinking only.

It was inhabited by pelerins like ourselves, who by the look of things, had arrived in town, soaking wet and instead of sorting out accommodation had decided to get hammered. All good natured behaviour though.
From there, we moved on and ended up in a restaurant that was empty apart from us. The service was good from an over attentive waitress.

She seemed surprised to have any customers and was over compensating.  We asked why so quiet on a Saturday night and she said something about the kids being back at school? This didn’t hang together as a very plausible excuse but I have to say the food was very good.
Same problem this evening with washing and drying clothes, as it just rained and rained. Pete devised a way of inserting the room hairdryer into his socks and pants and letting the hot air do the work. 

It kind of worked but left a fairly unpleasant damp aroma in the room.

Damp, wet day - looking back to Espalion and big hill climb
The next day we were to walk to Estaing, ancestral home of Giscard D’Estaing.
Our walk started Lot side but after a few kms went sharply uphill through a wood, interspersed with rocky outcrops. This was a killer diller climb for sure and the underfoot conditions were muddy making it doubly difficult.
Andrew - equipment adjustment

Looking back to Espalion after big hill climb
As we left Esaplion, a buxom lady passed us, striding out impressively with her walking poles beating out her walking rhythm. 

We passed her on the climb, she was having a sit down.
Pete was still struggling with blisters but would he listen to our needle and cotton solution?
I remember reaching the top and thinking how hard that was. It was more tiring than Monistrol D’Allier where we climbed 600m in 3 kms).


Tired here
At the top, the vista opened out to show green fields and farmland. We walked on the road for a bit. It definitely felt to me like we had plateaued.
Soon, we were on a pretty, long, wooded, major descent into Estaing. To give you an idea on how much downhill, Estaing is lower above sea level than Espalion and we had just completed the mother of all uphill climbs.
Espalion
When I was about 11 years old, I sprained my left ankle badly and damaged some ligaments. Periodically since, my left ankle has a tendency to twist for no reason.

Knowing this, the pain it causes and the conditions (steep, uneven and rocky downhill) I was trying to choose my foot placements very carefully.
All was going well when down I went. The pain was excruciating (as it always is) accompanied by a tearing feeling (as it always is) and I was lying prone on the path.


Hurt in a Yurt - Twisted ankle (left one if you are not sure..)
Yes, it had happened again. Every time it happens, I think I have broken my ankle because of the feeling and every time (so far touch wood), after a couple of minutes of feeling sick with pain, I realise I can still move it.
I lay there for 5 minutes with Andrew and Pete looking down at me all concerned. Slowly and gingerly I got up and started walking again, ankle now swollen.
I’m surprised this happened as I was wearing proper walking boots with assumed ankle protection.
We were a few kms from Estaing with at least another km of downhill to navigate. Imagine the care I now took over each foot placement. The chaps moved ahead as I was painfully slow.
When the terrain eventually evened out and we hit a tarmac road I was less anxious, but still behind the pace as my ankle hurt, although my compatriots did ease off for me.
Big, juicy tomatoes
Soon after this there was a choice of Camino route:

1. Carry on as we were on a road into the Estaing.
2. Up and over a sizable hill and down into Estaing via a track. Normally, I would have gone for the scenic route, but now I needed a flat surface, using minimum effort and opted for the road. Pete joined me and Andrew took the hill.
Me with Chateau D'Estaing in the background
As we approached Estaing, we could see what a fabulous location it was in. 
Estaing village and bridge over Lot
We could see Andrew in the distance, he had crossed the bridge.  We caught up with him and took stock. As luck would have today was the day of their annual Medieval festival.


Estaing
This was a highlight of our trip and we still rock out to the medieval folkie sound of the bands we heard on the day.
Folky rockers, Larde or Lard or L'Airde? - brilliant
It was an impressive event to say the least. The streets were covered in straw with an abundance of farm animals dotted around the place. People were dressed in medieval costume and there was an abundance of stalls selling wares from days of yore. There was also a number of craftsmen demonstrating skills from that time.


Stonemason with surprised look on his face
Blacksmith at work

Checkers meister
The craftsmen included Blacksmiths, Potters, Stone masons, Calligraphy artists and a fellow simultaneously playing 6 games of what looked like Checkers / Draughts. The "piece de resistance", however was the music. There were two, similar sounding folk / rock ensembles playing old fashioned musical instruments. They both were outstanding.

Musical instruments from way back when.
We found a café and ordered crepes and beer. These went down well, then explored a little.
At one point, sweeping down the street came a medievally dressed couple on horseback. A statuesque lady with long, sweeping auburn hair and a bloke who was less memorable.

They were followed by an entourage of Knights.

Back to the music. The first band Pete reliably informed me were called L’ard or Lard or Larde (not sure of the spelling).

They consisted of a young, charismatic Brian Blessed type character on an over-sized violin type instrument, an Aramis musketeer lookalike playing a version of the bagpipes, a Michael Greco lookalike on lute and a Captain Jack Sparrow / Keith Richard mix on a big drum along with a couple of pretty brunette girls who could have been elves from Rivendell.

One in particular looked (and dressed) like Arwen the hottie elf out of Lord of the Rings. She played a drum thing  and the other a castanet thing.
Our friends L'ard rocking out again
They rocked and the crowd loved it.
The second band were a bit more rock and roll (not in sound) but in swagger. They made a sound similar sound to Lard / L’Ard Larde, L’Arde but using slightly different instruments. They had a more conventional drum kit, a piccolo a lute, a big drum and bagpipe thingy but most importantly, a singer with a silly Mohican wig.
The other band at the festivities - didnt get their name, although they were flogging CD's
Later, the two bands joined forces on the steps up to the impressive Chateau D’Estaing that is now a convent. This collaboration produced a cacophony of sound. I could imagine it being played hundreds of years ago (minus the electricity).


A juggler and an "elf" girl with twirly sticks (quite captivating) also joined the bands for this performance.
These twirly sticks look great in real life!
Following this, a play was enacted in the square. The plot was based loosely around a chap being ordained as a knight. He was to receive a reward for some feat of strength he had accomplished earlier in the day.
We then found a medieval tavern (I dream of medieval taverns :))…  Everyone was drunk and having a great time. One chap fell onto our table and sent Andrews beer flying. We punched his lights out and stole all of his money. No. It was cool, no animosity intended and we swallowed the loss of beer in good spirit.
The atmosphere was intoxicating as everyone was in high spirits. Clearly, the local people look forward to this event a lot.
Pete and I needed to find a loo. The nearest public conveniences were at the top of the hill, moving out of the village, away from the river.  

Here all the buildings and architecture are modern and normal including parking meters and parking lots?  Centuries away from what was happening down the street.

It seemed a bit strange to me. When we approached Estaing earlier it could easily have been a medieval village, judging by the bridge, architecture, riverside setting and the medieval festival we encountered.

It felt like we had been transported back to the present day. I preferred the Middle Ages.
Our gite for the night, we had found earlier after a couple of calls. It was back over the bridge and up the hill. 

It was actually someones home, that had been converted to accommodate weary pelerin. It was very pleasant and the patron very friendly.
After showering and laundering we returned to the festival and found a nice restaurant by the bridge to eat. There were a motley set of characters here, most of who were drunk and who looked like they spent most of their time drunk.
Restaurant by the bridge in Estaing
A chap behind Pete who actually was English and from Northampton started a conversation with me.

Out of the blue, he commented “are you a pilot?” to which I said No, to which he said “you just said you were.” to which I said “No I didn’t (because I hadn’t) to which he said “yes you did”…. I changed the subject because he was obviously a bit pissed and bonkers.
Chateau D'Estaing
Anyway, this bearded fellow continued talking to us and proceeded to tell us the illustrious history of his drinking buddies.

The drunk lady next him (probably in her late 60s) used to dance at the Folies Bergere in Paris and, you know what, I believed him whilst the diminutive fellow in the bar used to own it (the Folies Bergere, not the bar). I believed him again. These people looked like they had lived.
Our waiter was new, on his first night and eager to please. He was bouncing around like a spring lamb. His knowledge of the menu wasn’t 100% but his service and attentiveness was. His boss had an annoying way of putting him down in front of us that we didn’t like.
Having said that, this was an enjoyable meal, with nice wine, surrounded by interesting people, in a pleasant climate on the bank of a picturesque river.  Boom shankar.

River Lot
The following morning, my ankle was still sore from the previous days sprain and the air was cold. Once again le "bonne chapeau" was deployed in the chest area to stave of the chill.
Mist morning, clouds in the sky (name that lyric?)
We are constantly in awe of the fabulous scenery and today was no different. Relentless steeply wooded hillsides, valleys and green pastures. It rains a lot here as we know and it is reflected in the verdant surroundings.
The hills above Estaing
Lot valley back towards Estaing
Pete was battling today. The blisters on his heel were almost the size of table tennis balls and must have caused him a lot of pain. Andrew and I couldn’t help thinking, a lancing and release of pressure with antiseptic ointment to follow, would ease the discomfort. Pete was having none of it.
I admire him for stoically continuing even though now he was beginning to mince not walk.


Today we walked 22km, which for two partial invalids was pretty good going. We were heading for a village called Espeyrac (26kms from Estaing) .

When we got to about 20km, we decided to try and find accommodation nearer. My ankle was aching and Pete's blisters were sorer than a sore thing.
As luck, fate or divine intervention would have it we stumbled across the Gite Acceuil au Soulie de Saint- Jaques.  It was not really in a village (La Soulie nearest), just on the side of the road. Considering our physical condition (well two of us) it was situated perfectly.

We knocked on the door and were greeted warmly by Remy the patron and his wife who immediately offered us a cold drink as we probably looked like we needed one.
Knowing we were looking for accommodation, Remy looked at us and thoughtfully stroked his wispy beard. “The house is full” he said “but you can stay in our Yurt at the top of the garden if you like?”.

A Yurt is a portable tepee thing used in Central Asian countries like Afghanistan and the other ‘Stans. We were most definitely up for that, especially as it had electricity and everything including a psychedelic pattern on the roof!
Yurt full of insects


Interesting roof...
The yurt was great, the abundance of insects inside it not so great. Didn’t sleep well tonight and my ankle still hurt. I was hurt in a Yurt.
Dinner was a proper, communal gathering of 12 people including us, the patrons, a German girl (Julia) walking on her own, a French family from the exotic sounding Reunion Island of father, mother and daughter (Aurelie), an elderly lady with her granddaughter (Clementina) and an elderly couple (man walking, injured wife driving, or the other way round).
Patron Remy and fellow pelerins at Le Soulie
My French was tested here as no one spoke English (or so I thought but will get to that later), however it was a great atmosphere and there were lots of laughs, albeit my normal contribution to scenarios like this was greatly reduced. I admit to feeling a little out of it at this point and retired early wishing my French was better.
Prior to that, our host Remy gave us a rendition of Ultreia (the Camino anthem) with us on the chorus.
Remy runs this place by method of contributions only. If you don’t wish to pay, you don’t have to.

It is there to provide food and shelter for pelerins on their journey. Of course you do donate and are happy to. I think we went for 20 Euros apiece which was about the going rate.
Pete and I found a Frisbee in the garden and before dinner had a quick go at that. Frisbee is always fun.
UFO spotted over Le Soulie
As mentioned earlier I didn’t sleep well. I think it was a combination of a thunderstorm, ineffective bedding , colder temperatures, the threat of an insect invasion and a still sore ankle.
The next morning was a bit grey and overcast and  to be fair, so was I. We thought we were back in England. 

Thankfully, the clouds soon cleared and we were all looking forward to reaching the town of Conques. We had read and heard that it was a bit special.
Conques


It was only 15kms which was good as I was still tired from lack of sleep during the night.
Psychedelic Simmons
Walking into Conques

You approach Conques from on high and the view walking down towards the town is stunning.
Arrival, Conques - little did we know the walk wasn't over

To celebrate what we thought was the completion of another day walking, (we were wrong) we commandeered a Japanese tourist to take our photo. I think even Andrew smiled in this one.
Conques is seriously nestled at the intersection of a number of valleys surrounded by steep wooded hillsides.
From this vantage point, you can clearly see it is an old town, full of impressive old buildings and an abbey that has gratis dormitory accommodation for people like us. 

We visited here and were told there were 3 beds available if we wanted them. Not wishing to decide there and then ,we decided to look further for gite like accommodation and found none. We returned to the abbey and were too late, it was now full.

He who hesitates is lost.
Not a problem, we had a cold one sitting in the lovely, cobbled, old streets of Conques and took stock.
Accommodation full at Conques - only 5 kms up a mountain side to next village
When I say "not a problem", we were pretty tired, it was a very hot day, and there was nowhere in this town for us to stay.

Also, we were almost at the valley bottom, so the only way now was up.
A few calls were made and we luckily found a gite available in Noailhac a village 5.5kms from Conques.
The hill climb out of Conques pushed me to my limit. On and on and up and up we trudged, looking back occasionally to take in the awesome views over the valley to Conques.


Looking back at Conques

The climb out of Conques was a killer
Out of the 3 biggies (Monistrol, Estaing and Conques) this hill climb hurt the most, even though we had been walking for 10 days and were definitely becoming fitter. 

I think a combination of very hot weather, a liquid lunch, a poor nights sleep, the fact that we had walked 15km already and mentally we were prepared for a night in Conques, made the ascent more difficult. 
At the summit, it leveled out to a scrubland plateau. We met someone on their way down and I wondered (not for the first time) why someone would want to walk the Way the wrong way?
We arrived at Noailhac and found the local / shop/ café /restaurant where we were to collect the keys.
The patron was friendly. Coincidentally, in the background was the lady who had helped us search for accommodation in Conques. She was the patrons mother.

The Camino has these inexplicable links along the way...
The extra walking and pain was worth it. We had an old farmhouse with 6 bedrooms all to ourselves. That evening was great fun.

Once we had showered and laundered we returned to the shop and bought the evenings meal which consisted of…. I cant remember as we got quite pissed.
I believe it was a cassoulet type dish, expertly cooked by Andrew whilst Pete and I sat chewing the fat over a beer in the village.
To me this was the best evening so far.  That satisfying feeling you get following physical exertion and a tasty meal with wine and good friends.


A couple of peasants.
Happy days.
The following morning we were up with the French lark again, and no hangover. Sustained exercise I have decided,  is a great way to stave off hangovers.
The view from Noailhac over the Conques valley was spectacular as the mist rolled across the tree tops.


"The Lord have spaketh"
Pete summed the ethereal view up with “Today the Lord have spaketh”. 

It was a  little tongue in cheek as is Pete's way, but I also thought "the Lord have spaketh" such was the stunning view.
Mist in the valley below Noailhac - surreal
Soon out of Noailhac and after another steep climb, we came across an old church (Chapelle Saint Roch). It was situated at the side of the road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Now, Saint Roch is a busy boy. He is patron saint of: bachelors, diseased cattle, the wrongly accused, surgeons, second hand dealers, tile makers, pilgrims (that’ll be us), apothecaries, invalids and Istanbul (and Istanbul?). 
Pete announced the dawn by ringing the church bell in a ceremonial manner. It was 8am and the day felt young. The atmosphere was still and silent.
Next to the church was one of those orienteering map thingies. This one confused us.  According to the map, Conques (where we had walked from the previous evening), seemed to be in a completely different direction than was logical?

Never did work that one out.
As we approached Decazeville from on high, it was clear that this town had industry. Over the last 10 days, towns and villages with industry didn't feature.


Looking down onto Decazeville
It is famous (or notorious) for open cast mining. Although the mines are now shut, it still looks industrial. 

Of course, when an industry closes it creates a hole in the local economy. This is rarely filled adequately.. As we walked around Decazeville it had the air of a place with little money or means to make money. Lots of empty shops, littered streets and people who looked like they could do with a good job.
We found the famed L’Escale bar that Pete and Andrew used to frequent as teenagers many years ago.

The famed L'Escale
Amazingly, the current owner, also used to go there back in the late 70’s early 80’s!
The boys didn’t seemed blown away by the return?
We had a couple of beers and fell asleep on a bench outside the tourist office (classy) until it opened. The girl inside was very friendly and helped us find accommodation for the evening. Sadly it was 5 kms outside of Decazeville, up the other side of the valley.
The sun was hot and the final leg tiring.
We arrived at our resting place mid afternoon and were greeted in an ebullient fashion by our host Brigitte, an elderly lady with wild grey hair and clothing like mine (scruffy).

She was very welcoming and offered us cold fruit juice drinks (they were needed!). We sat outside in the sun and met other pelerins staying at Chez Brigitte.
We became acquainted with Christian, a bespectacled French chap who lived at the house and helped Brigitte, two young Lithuanian doctors whose names I forget, a tall young french lady called Elizabeth and her elderly (our age) boyfriend Marc, who looked like he needed a wash and was apparently an expert on horses.

At this point Aurelie and her parents rocked up (the French family from 2 nights ago) and a mysterious Belgian with a hat like Walt Disney's Robin Hood.
Brigitte then set us to work (apart from Andrew who went for a walk). Our task, to move a higgledy piggledy pile of logs, from outside the house, across the road into a more uniform pile. 
This built up another thirst.
Then we were in for a bit of a surprise. Brigitte announced that it was time for church.

I have to admit now, and I’m not proud, that I tried to escape this by disappearing upstairs to my room. I then heard Pete's voice (Andrew still walking) from downstairs, saying we should go.

I had a quiet word with myself and then agreed with Pete
We filed into the church, Pete, myself and the other pelerins along with the mysterious Belgian with the dodgy hat. He ended up camping in the garden with Elizabeth and Marc.
Pete and I positioned ourselves mid-pew and listened to Brigitte giving a lesson and reciting some prayers. Then she approached us and asked if we would recite the Lords Prayer aloud (at least in English not French) to everyone. This neither of us had done for a while.
"And I'm getting no thinner"
I kind of remember he words and was muddling through quite nicely, when Pete decided to invent his own line. He had forgotten the words.

From memory it was something like this "and he watches over us with good grace” or something like that.
He said this in a very serious voice. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye We could have been in the 3rd year at secondary school as I saw he was about to burst into hysterical laughter (I had seen this look in classrooms many years ago).

His voice was quivering now as he tried to suppress the desire to laugh. We got through it and Brigitte seemed pleased with our performance. It was hilarious how ridiculous we were and slightly embarrassing that we struggled with the words. 

I think it was the pressure, normally I can recite the Lords Prayer with no problem.
Andrew returned and seemed peeved that he had missed log moving, church and Pete’s impromptu amendment to the Lords Prayer.
Communal dinner at Chez Brigitte
I think there were 13 of us for dinner, sat around a large banqueting table.  That evening was a lot of fun, Aurelie, the Reunion island girl came and sat next to me and started conversing in fluent English, albeit with a South African accent. 

This came as a surprise, as at Remy's place, I tried to speak to her in French and she gave no indication of speaking English. Why should she have? We were in France and her native tongue is French?
This was a fun evening!
English people always assume the other person has to do the hard work and speak in a language that isn't their own.
There were lots of laughs and banter that evening, Pete was playing on the blister injuries and exaggerated his attempts to leave the table “pelerin on the move, pelerin on the move!"
At one point, everyone at our end of the table was in fits of laughter, it went over my head completely. Apparently, it was about the quality of the wine… not funny in itself, but you had to have been there.
Andrew was chatting with the French lady about blisters and the way forward (she is a nurse), I was chatting to her daughter, Aurelie about all kinds of stuff really.
The young French couple opposite seemed to like my jokes (always important), even though mostly delivered in English.
Brigitte and her cohort, Christian (great name for a catholic pilgrim) who was impressed with Andrew being a pompier (fireman), cooked an amazing meal of vegetable broth followed by a tasty pasta and olive dish.
After dinner we went to church again. This time the Lords Prayers was said in French, Lithuanian, German (Austrian hat fellow) and English.
Again, we struggled through, with Andrew (probably the least religious of us all) seeming to know the words best?
Bless Aurelie, our newly acquired French friend, who assisted (in English) when she realised we were struggling.

Our friend Aurelie who "smiles with her hands"
The following morning, we were up all bright eyed and bushy tailed following our fun filled banquet and candlelit praying. The Lithuanian doctors, learning of Petes predicament, produced some fandango blister plasters that Pete applied immediately.
He still minced.
The next days walking was to be our last for this year. It was about 26km so could also be a long one.
Livinhac - Le- Haut and the river Lot
After a few kms on a narrow back road, we came across a flock of sheep heading in our direction. 

They were completely blocking the road and being marshaled by a crew of seemingly “New age travellers” with dreadlocks and everything. These guys and gals were living the dream and eyed us suspiciously for some reason?
Roadblock
New Age shepherds
I remember thinking that today we were making good ground, as after almost 2 weeks walking we were getting fitter. No sooner had I thought that, Andrew announced he had pulled a muscle in his thigh. It only hurt going downhill which was some consolation, but this was not in the least a flat Camino.


Andrew wincing with thigh strain
Pete was still mincing, but seemed to have found a gait that didn’t cause him too much discomfort.
Bonne Chapeau looking a little "tired"
By lunchtime we had walked about 15kms and were pretty hungry. Luckily, this coincided with arriving at a small village with an overgrown footie pitch. More importantly, it had a restaurant serving traditional local French food.
I think subconsciously, this meal became, if you will, "The "Last Supper".  We knew we were finishing our walking today and were kind of pleased with what he had achieved.

We pushed the culinary boat out here with a 3 course meal, including the most beer and wine of any lunchtime thus far.
It did wonders for Andrew and Pete’s pain. The walking after lunch, in a heady, alcoholic haze was quite pleasant.
As we approached Figeac, our destination, we enlisted the help of a lone pelerin to take our photo in front of the town sign.

We made it!
In 14 days, we had successfully walked 250km of the Camino Frances, and had reached our loosely planned destination ahead of our loosely planned schedule.
A nice feeling.
Now to find a hotel. We ended up plumping for a more luxurious and expensive hotel as we had finished. I would have been happy in a basic gite, with some camaraderie.
Bumped into Miss Reunion Island and her parents again, she remarked that our GPS seemed to be working well. They were staying in a more "Caminoesque" gite, for a moment I was tempted to join them.
Figeac is an old town with the river Cele, a tributary of the Lot, running through it.
Figeac and Le Cele river
The buildings, streets and architecture here are "old fashioned" interesting and we spent some time wandering around and taking photos, before discovering an appealing square full of bars and restaurants.
Poor attempt at arty photograph
We were back in civilisation now, surrounded by townsfolk eating and drinking in trendy bars and restaurants.
We chose the restaurant “5” as our place to eat. An aforementioned “trendy” restaurant a bit like Café Rouge in England.


Square in Figeac where we had the Last Supper
Thinking back, we didn’t dwell too much on the fact that our Camino journey was coming to an end.

I suppose, as we were going to Paris for a few days, the trip wasn't over, especially for Pete and Andrew as they had meeting an old friend to look forward to.
From a personal perspective, I had a brilliant time and was already, subconsciously planning the next stage of the Camino from Figeac to ……..

So. I'm not sure how to finish this account of my first "pilgrimage"?

I found it many things:

Funny, tiring, exciting, painful, unpredictable, insightful, amusing, breathtaking, interesting, friendly, challenging but most of all, I think, addictive.

Thanks to Pete and Andrew for sharing the experience with me!

I will be back.