We last left me with Dutchy Monique and her soft feet at Monistrol D'Allier. Since then, despite regular scribblings in a note book, I have not written the blog on a daily basis. There are many reasons for this. It is not to be ruled out that laziness is not an aspect. However, I would say that you should try walking 30 kms with a seventeen kilo rucksack and see whether you feel like hovering over a diary at the end of the day for an hour, let alone an iphone mini keypad, let alone a french keyboard that requires half an hour of correction after typing six paragraphs. If I am honest with myself, however, the real reason that I have not been as diligent as I was when in the west of France on that dull monotone lonesome route known as the Plantagenet, is the simple reason of people. I have been surrounded by people. And being the sociable type, most of the time, I couldn't let opportunities go by. It turns out that as with any travels, the highlights are not views of scnery, or dishes of food, but the individuals you meet along the way.
And there have been many. Oldies with their leathery wisdom, middlies with their stories of children-changed lives, the occasional young with their fantastic idealism and fresh vigour. Their have been large canteen-table dinners, spontaneous picnic lunches with bread and cheese, nuns' harmonised voices in echoing cathedrals, cuddles under the stars and in rainstorms, kisses by the river, discussions of routes, words about motivations. All these distractions from sitting alone and writing a diary. I have voted to live, I guess.
Latterly I have began to interview and photograph pilgrims to capture the detail of their motivation. Writing up the data from the interviews sound-recorded whilst walking side by side on the trail is taking up much of any spare evening slot. Only when I stop for a day to rest (so far once every two weeks only) do I have time to recap. The photos have gone by the wayside as without a laptop I have to spend so many hours in internet cafes to download, edit and apply the photos, the upload of which is about one minute per photo, that I have decided to do that at a later date as part of an edit perhaps.
If I did it again, I would bring a laptop. But I'm also glad not to spend too much time in front of a screen.
I can tell you briefly however that I walked on into alpine lands, then a part of the world called Domaine du Sauvage that looked like Scotland but with sunshine, where I floated naked in a stream, not alone - their were tiny leeches accompanying me. Drying myself with my towel I was a whirling dervish. Then another part , the Aubrac plateau, which looked like Dartmoor, in rain (terribly authentic) and in sunshine when I feel have never seen such broad horizons, over-arching skies, and huge basalt boulders, hot winds. Then further south and west into the Aveyron region where I saw a whole hillside covered in the mauve of heather flowers blending into the milky mist of low drizzly cloud. Later that day, the mist cleared to reveal a forest of spindley beech trees covered in silvery pleurococus and emerald green moss, backlit by the new sun. An epiphany after a difficult damp morning. That afternoon I sat on my sack in a sunlit intense green-grassed field and looked out over the drop-off of the mountains down into the foothills and river valley of the Lot, crickets in stereo all about me, on top of the world and meditating on space and beauty. A french couple from Lille said these large hilly verdant landscapes of Aveyron are a generic landscape of France: you can find them in various locations, the Vosges, and elsewhere. But they were something new to me.
Along the Val du Lot to the town of Estaing, where I stayed in my first Christian 'Hospital' (dormitory auberge), an entertaining evening. Climbing out of the Lot valley the following day along with the temperatures to 39 degrees and being saved by a generous local with free bottles of chilled water on the road. The look of the Amazon basin on the approach to Conques, the touristy nature of that Cathedral town and then the route through great chestnut forests, then a look of Welsh hills, then oaks and the crunch of acorns and sparkling mica chips under foot, the tranquil, pilgrim-free and consequently well written up detour to Rocamador with its cliff hanging monasteries and churches.
The day after a windy night when I had first hand experience of the word windfall and ate fantastic plums and peaches all day along the route, the premature changing colours of the oak forest caused surely by the summer's dryness rather than any autumn, the walking strangely fast to meet a new friend that became more than that over a few days of being together, the way that space seemed to be naturally made around us from the usual busyness of the pilgrim route, so that we could have the time to know each other.
The wonderful Irish couple who run a gites in Moissac, where many pilgrims start and end if they are walking in stages. Their wonderful French spoken with a purely Irish accent, which caused me to realise that mine was no different, but with an English one. His advice to not hurry my pilgrimage, especially not to hurry home at the end, but to hang around, absorb, understand what has happened. The nun's evening mass, the high energy handshake and blessing to pilgrims from the senior sister Marie-Benoit, the walk home to the gite, the touching of of hands.
My new friend going home, I continue on to meet an ageing traveller of 70 who looks only 50, an inspiration to me. On through a 'soft Irish day', along the Tarn valley riverside with its look of classical French landscape paintings, all limpid and hanging trees, soft hues. The Chambre d'Hote de Villenuve who let me camp and save my pennies for the lush evening dinner whose special guest was the local ageing priest, a man of great brain and expert in religion and philosophy, who said that God only gave us through Jesus the idea of the Power of Love as opposed to the Love of Power, and then left it up to humanity to decide what to make of it.
The beginning of interviews with pilgrims that seemed interesting to me, or who seemed interested in me. The epiphany that we judge others by initial appearance, but that through talking and making contact we can enrich our lives considerably, and increase our faith in mankind. Certain themes of the pilgrimage begin to take shape: time, mortality, the meaning of life, the need for contemplation at a certain stage of one's life, the issue of control and letting go, a shared human history of walking this route, the consequent fraternity, the benefits of health, openness, positivity, communication.
First sight of the Pyrenees, a monstrous outcrop clean across one's view. There is no getting around it. It's colours and shading, depending on time of day, distance, visibility. Looming up, it marks the half way mark of many pilgrims' journey, but the final third of my own. I feel for the first time the vaguest tinge of foreboding: going home won't be easy, is the wisdom; take your time.