Jour 13

Our final day of walking – Massip to Conques. Only 22km with less rain, and lighter bags as we have dispensed with some items along the way – toothpaste and soap and (a little) sun protection cream.

‘Only’ 22km???!!!! We struggled to manage 15 on day one and two. Incredible that our precious trip and time together has come towards its end so soon, yet pleased to be reaching our destination, we determined to make the most of every minute, the call of the cuckoo and willow warbler, the incredible array of flowers, now including trees of wisteria and clumps of escholzia as well as red valerian and white campions in the hedge rows.

But it rained.

And around 20 pilgrims ate a picnic lunch in a cafe.

We climbed to the crest of the hill, and limped through typical Aveyron villages:

Until finally, after a long difficult rocky and muddy descent, we arrived at Conques:

Two Parisian ladies we had coincided with throughout our trip arrived simultaneously.

And what a fairytale end to a wonderful trip: Conques is a beautiful and enchanting medieval town:

With a wonderful abbey that is warm and welcoming, and that was our final nights stay, in our own room, with en suite.

Pilgrims’ cloaks and sticks.

Accommodation. Ours on third floor, sadly.

Dinner hosted by the monks.

And so to bed:

Distance :22km total 221 including distance to start of route in Le Puy.

Items lost: 14. The contents of H’s knickers drawer.

Tantrums: nil

Taxi: nil

Jour 12

Espalion to Massip

Well god had thrown snow, blizzard, burning hot sun, closed bakeries and more at us. Today he went for rain. An uncompromising 100% chance of rain. He did not disappoint.

Knowing we had 26.5 km to do, including lengths of red (challenging, normally steep uphill ) walk we opted to miss breakfast, hit a (hopefully open) baker early and get on our way. So at 7.10, our pockets stuffed with pains aux raisins (and a sneaky extra croissant aux amandes in my jacket) we set off, waterproofs on, head down.

Megg is tough but fair. All wide eyed pleas for clemency, or at least breakfast, unheard we continued up, and up, and up…..until finally…..

And boy, did that taste good!

Note Megg’s rain skirt made out of hot air balloon material? Very effective – keeps one dry without overheating. And it folds into its own pocket.

Note Susan’s lack of waterproof trousers – that’s one of the items, along with hat and gloves, she would take next time.

Note Keith’s yellow jacket? Well yes, who could fail to.

Believing we had got through the terrible weather early we then relaxed a little although S was hampered by a walking cane that disintegrated, and H by legs that refused to walk without great pain. Still we made steady if slow progress.

And we’re rewarded by an enchanting coffee stop, with still warm apple and almond cake:

Passed via Estaing, no need to stop as already replenished:

And adorable dogs:

The dog appeared much happier than this photo portrays, thankfully.

Then: the rain, the rain, the thunder and the lightening. An incredible storm, but thankfully we had stopped by one of the not infrequent ‘WC PELERIN’ – a long drop toilet which one of our group had availed themselves of. At one point eight of us were huddled in there, breaking through our mouths and watching the river created by the storm carrying flows of twigs and leaves down the hillside.

See separate posting : odiferous in France!

These images do not begin to convey the ferocity of the storm.

Still another 5.5km to go.

The auberges are largely converted ancient buildings in tiny remote villages, literally miles from anywhere, often with no mobile signal and frequently no WiFi.

The path passes through remote valleys and we could go for hours without seeing anyone other than another pilgrim. Sometimes not even that.

So – no choice, despite our sodden clothes, weighty packs and various significant aches and pains, than to go on.

To go on to THE BEST GITE WE HAVE VISITED!

Susan was quietly exhausted. Me less so (less quiet).

The family who run the Gite at Massip clearly love their role. It is warm, clean, welcoming, well organised – and the food is to die for!

The son, Stephan, explains each course. We started with herb fritters with a great bowl of salad.

Then a pork and chestnut casserole with pasta for the carnivores, and Swiss chard with bechamel for both the vegetarians.

And finally a family recipe apple tart with soft cheese and apricot conserve:

Then tisanes aux choix.

After dinner we all pay and our Credenciale is stamped.

Most gites will only let you stay one night and one has to be a pilgrim.

Typical cost for half board is around 35€. This frequently includes wine.

Distance : 26

Taxis: Nil

Items lost: 13

Tantrums: nil. Don’t mention the WC PELERIN. …..

Jour 11

L’Estrade to Lespalion

A beautiful day. Sunshine. A shortish walk (< 20k). Opportunity to try bakers:

Get a good lunch and share will fellow Australian walkers Annie and Peter.

They’re not on this pic, possibly because they tried to introduce the BR word… the first we have come across in the whole trip.

We are now in the Aveyron area, an absolutely enchanting area of France Profonde, an area of which I had absolutely no knowledge although k came here on a Lambretta 125 from London in 1965, on his way to Perpignan. It is absolutely gorgeous! Verdant pasture with occasional goats and cattle, lovely dogs, smiley people, good food.

The hills are steep though! Very steep. Not helped by the fact that we may have inadvertently chosen a ‘steeper’ option up a quarry face to see a Virgin Mary state above Espalion.

The town is an ancient tannery town.

The Gite ‘La Halte’ adequate and friendly. Unfortunately we were ‘assaulted’ by a lady from Versailles who wanted to discuss Br£&@t. And wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Simple but good food.

Distance:

Items lost: 11

Taxi: nil

Tantrum; nil

Jour 10

Nasbinols to Estrade

Today we reached the highest point of the trip at 1300+m. It had snowed overnight and once again we set off early, well fed with a great breakfast from the Centre d’Equestre. This time we all put on all our clothes at the outset. Much more sensible.

2500km2 of elevated plateau the Aubrec is home to herds of local cattle who are moved up there after the snow has melted by the end of May. This process, called the ‘transhumance’ is a great spectacle with the cows decorated with flowers and bells, some beasts travelling 40 km to reach the Aubrac. No other animals, pet or otherwise, on or off the lead, is allowed on the plateau whilst the cattle are there.

We reached the highest point:

We met a man allegedly doing a reportage on those who walk that section. The 17km from Nasbinols to St Chély-d’Aubrac is a UNESCO recognised cultural site. It was stunningly empty, beautiful and cold.

Mr Reportage. Transpired he has a family in Hawks Bay, NZ, much to Megg’s delight. He also had a lovely dog.

Some typical Aubrec plateau views.

Today was Naomi’s birthday. We started by video recording a birthday song. I’ll spare you the details of that. A late lunch in St Chély-d’Aubrac was delicious. We celebrated on her behalf.

And then the weather improved, Megg’s jokes restarted (they’re terrible and hilariously funny) and we forgot the miseries of the previous two days. Once again beautiful lowland flowers bloomed, (greater spotted orchids, Stitchwort, violets, Wood anemone, campion, ladysmock and cowslip) and a cuckoo and chiff chaff sang (if either could be called a song) almost constantly. .

Distance: 25km cumulative 146

Items lost: 11

Tantrums: nil, of course.

taxi: nil.

Jour 9 (iv)

Quatre Vents to Nasbinols

The pictures say it all:

It was truly a hypothermia day. Made me review all my recent learning on the subject as Megg, our worthy leader and NZ tramper of some 45 years, risk assessed the walk and we searched our pockets to pool any nutrition. It amounted to a third of a mars bar, some chocolate and a bag of fruit and nuts.

Early on in the day we were joined by Nadia, a French woman in her early sixties who asked to join us, concerned about the risk of walking alone on such a day. The wind was bitter and the snow was a blizzard and drifting. Those without gloves wore socks on their hands. Our bags felt light as we wore everything we could.

But! Good news! A café!! Open all hours, seven days a week.

But not today. The door was closed. Nadia our new found fairy godmother persuaded the proprietress to wake her husband to see if he would allow her to offer us a hot drink……

Sleepy headed husband then emerged and offered hot chocolate or soup – SO LONG AS WE DIDN’T GO INSIDE.

A WAIT IN THE SNOW. Then an elderly man, caped, struggled with a bag across from a rambling stone house by the church and slithered across the path with a large shopping bag. The soup had arrived. It was Brueghel – esque.

But the soup was good.

No possibility of a toilet break here though so we had to use the traditional French hole in the ground in a small stone building down the road, observing the stalactites formed on the roof whilst waiting our turn.

This would have been the perfect time to try the SheWee, a device that allows a woman to pass urine in a standing position, and therefore not having to bear the butt. I didn’t. But here is a picture of one, which caused much merriment along our travels. Sometimes there are malfunctions.

And so to bed at the Centre d’Equestre at Nasbinols. We arrived safe and sound two hours early, apologising. We were not the first and were welcomed with open arms, warm rooms and hot showers.

My first experience of hanging out…. was great. Four of us in the room for almost five hours.

Communal dinner again. We come across the same people time and again as we all cover more or less the same distance.

Marie collecting fees and stamping the Credenciale.

Aligod for dinner again:

Distance: 16 Cumulative: 121

Items lost: 10

Tantrums: none. We knew it was a tough day and had to be very careful.

Taxis: nil.

Jours 6 – 9 (ii)

La Clauze towards Nasbinols

Continuing with the story of the vegetarian food ….. K had reminded Michel about the two vegetarians, and Michel replied ‘no problem – if there isn’t anything we’ll put them out with the goats and cows’.

This is the vegetarian main course.

Yes. Those are sausages. We ate the but in the middle… Aligod. A local delicacy of potatoes onions and cheese. Truly delicious.

Michel used to run this Gite with his wife who is no longer there. He does a wonderful job himself:

Homemade apple flan:

And jam:

An incredibly cosy place – almost like a sauna with widespread wood panelling, a huge wood burning stove – and all our washing carefully folded and ready in the morning….

Thankyou Michel for a wonderful stay.

In the village was a Refuge: a small building with a fireplace, chair and table for pilgrims to take shelter in.

The structure in front of it, now incomplete, is for shoeing cows….presumably for the ‘transhumance’ or transfer of cattle from the valleys to the higher slopes of the Massif. It’s a complicated structure, with leather straps to lift the cow, and a variable length structure to adjust to cow size.

We have now left lentil country and are into ‘milk country’. The geology is totally different : flatter, greener. Unsurprisingly more cows

We stopped early on our trip from la Clauze to Rouget at a farm – the only place all day to obtain lunch. For a simple cheese and salad sandwich to take away, 6€ seemed quite high. Little did we know it was a woman eating sandwich…..

Ye

But as the day went on it became wild again, more forested ‘as if going back to an ancient country’ says the guide.

A lot of effort is placed on maintaining sustainability. This is an FSC Forest.

The last remaining French stronghold of bisons is close to the area which is also reputedly plentiful in raspberries, strawberries and bilberries in the summer.

A cosy lunch stop albeit ultimately very cold. K hiding, surprisingly well considering his gilet Jaune behind a tree.

And so, after many km, to La Ferme du Plot Du Clô, a Gite we had to access by entering a huge barn. HUUUUGGGEEE. And climb the steps to a slightly old fashioned arrangement of rooms at the end.

The whole arrangement was heated, or not really, by a single wood burning stove. There was one blanket each so it was necessary to get up to put on socks, shirt etc. Then the rustling began…. transpires Susan is not keen on mice either…..

But before that, Megg, our resident therapist, helped sort out Helen’s leg and Keith’s knee. K seemed to really enjoy it.

Marie our host:

Dinner:

Views from the room:

We really are tramping across until miles of really empty countryside, sparsely populated villages and the occasional small town.

I forgot to mention Saugues a couple of days ago – an oasis but not articulately special. However the way in was improved by some wonderful carvings:

Items lost: 1 cumulative

Distance: 22 cumulative 76

Items lost: 7

Taxi: nil

Tantrums: giggled our way through the day.

Jours 6 – 9 (i)

Monistrol d’Allier to Nasbinals

No WiFi or even signal for days….so a conglomeration of several, which due to the intensity of the walk may well be reduced to comments concerning the quality of the evening meals, and the presence,or otherwise, of blankets. Not to mention Mice.

Monistrole was interesting, sharing the house as we did with five French people who laughed and joked continuously throughout the meal. Andre told us the French were upstairs and we were down – but in fact we were in a sort of town house with two rooms of beds sleeping 7 people between me and the toilet upstairs, and Andre in his bed, WAVING would you believe, at 3 in the morning, downstairs. I chose downstairs….

This is Andre.

This is the dinner table (with the French):

And this is the bucolic view from our room:

The local hydroelectric power station. ….

The guide said the route after Ministrole was ‘constructed by a villain who’d been taken in by an ice – pick vendor’…it was steep as we climbed out of the volcanic valley, very steep, but with incredible rock structures :

Ancient chapel built into the rock:

And gorgeous colours, warm sun, fields of wild daffodils and wild violas, cuckoos, jays…..

A truly lovely day culminating in our arrival at :

A Gite at La Clauze.

Day 6:

20km (cumulative 54)

Items lost:: cumulative 6

Taxis: nil

Tantrums: agreed to differ, but surprised that when we had to tell which of the four of us wanted vegetarian, K knew that Sue, who he had known for less than a week, did, but could not work out who the other one was.

Jour 5. Mr Eiffel.

Montbonnet to Monistrole d’Allier

Goodbye to Marie who runs the excellent Gite de L’escole at Montbonnet. She is an excellent hostess, coming as she does at the start of the Chenin, and telling people clearly what is expected of them. She runs the place from early March to end October, every day, singlehanded.

An easier day, slightly, although the descent from ‘lac d’oeuf’ (literally lake of the egg, where you’ll see neither lake or egg) to Saint-Privat-d’Allier’ was extreme as K lost sensation in his legs and toppled briefly, but rapidly recovered. The description in the guide, roughly translated, says: it is a rough descent although most people manage it without breaking a limb. Those that do (break a limb) are collected at the end of the season by the clearing up crews, except for those already consumed by wolves.’ Great!!!

Interestingly Susan chose this moment to describe a book she had read and enjoyed ‘Into The Void’.

Saint Privat is part of the area which grows lentils, the famous Le Puy lentils, which have their own ‘appellation’ mark of quality, reknowned for their ease of cooking and high fibre and protein content …..here are some stats:

And a great little cafe just started by a young man ‘pilgrims meet bikers’. Not sure it’s a winning combination but who knows? Coffee and crepes were good.

Now we’re making some progress. …..

Lunch by the Chapelle de Rochegude, a view point promontory where the rich merchants kept control of, and taxed, anyone crossing the valley was accompanied by a strident cockerel and a friendly donkey.

And the views? to die for – one can see why the view point was chosen.

And so to Monistrole d’Allier. Next to the Pont D’eiffel at the Gite of the same name, mr Eiffel having run out of money, but not steel bars and nuts apparently, built the Eiffel Bridge across the Allier and installed a toll house – where we stay tonight with Andre Solakian, a raconteur.

Distance: 16km Cum. 35

Items lost: 4

Tantrums: 1 small

Taxis nil.

Day 4. Ça commence!

So. The Pilgrims’ Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Le Puy en Velay, is at 7 each morning. Expecting a 10 minute or so ‘quickie’ we were surprised to be involved in a full scale catholic mass complete with – well with everything. Susan was honoured to be selected to carry the blood of Christ (or wine) to the altar.

After this full mass the pilgrims were invited to a separate prayer fest of their own, at which it transpired we were the only three English people there, the majority coming from France and 11 from Switzerland. A smiley priest encouraged us to take prayers written by others along in our pilgrimage and to take a copy of the book of St Luke. We also received a small scallop shell miniature each.

This shell, like a charm from a charm bracelet, is representative of the scallop shell, ‘coquille de st Jaques’ which is a theme throughout the route, brass shell symbols being embedded in the streets in towns to mark out the route, and many pilgrims carrying one on their rucksacks.

Then the walking….. but first a few pictures from round Le Puy:

Ancient shop fronts.

Steep streets and steps to the Cathedral, , narrow ruelles and the doctor’s surgery.

A typical pilgrim: hat, stick, boots, exhausted.

And so the walking started.

Initially a guide to how the GR or Grande Randonnée works. The system works over all the GR system in Europe. Ours is GR 65.

We are walking from Le Puy to Conques, around 200 in 10 days.

The official start:

All uphill it seems, with us getting accustomed to carrying our rucksacks and using our walking poles it was hard and we were glad to arrive at Montbonnet tonight, having followed the GR65 from Le Puy.

Everyone ‘doing’ a Camino has to have a Credenciale or a kind of passport which is stamped at the outset and again at every stop – by the gite owners or the Boulanger or the priest or some other noteworthy person in each village where you stay.

Most gites or auberges – rather like an old school youth hostel – will not put you up unless you arrive on foot (or horse or mule) and have a credenciale.

Tonight we stayed in the Gite L’escole in Montbonnet. Previously a school it was changed to a hostel for cross country skiers some years ago and is now run by a lively woman who chatted to us throughout dinner, making us all introduce ourselves in English and French.

Our group tonight was 14 and included Germans, lots of French,our New Zealand friend and travel companion Megg, two Finnish people and we three English.

Food? Home made veg soup. Lentils de puy and boudin (fat sausage) or omelette for the vegetarians, locally made cheese then apple tart. All around a big table. Was really fun. Oh there is wine available too!

There’s so much to say about today – the bowl of the Le Puy volcanic plain, the Kite slowly twisting and turning above, the wildflowers : banks of violets, celandines, cowslip, Stitchwort…..the slow flowing streams, the traditional architecture….

Note the posts for tying the mules? These are at a picnic spot.

And the people. This is Dédé. We met him over lunch. He was walking too – a little round trip to the bar. Lovely smile.

Distance: 19km

Items lost: 2, one rediscovered and cumulative total three.

Tantrums: nil

Taxi trips: one. Megg has been unwell for days so came ahead, but seems better now.