Let’s take a long walk through the south of France with Croakey’s roving correspondent Dr Lesley Russell and her walking companion Liz Dax, in the latest instalment below from our #CroakeyGO series.
Meanwhile, for those readers who would like to join us for a Melbourne #CroakeyGO walk this Saturday morning:
Meet at Rushall train station in Fitzroy North (on the South Morang) line at 10.30am, to walk for 1-1.5 hours (depending on how many loops we take, how quickly we go and how many Periscope and tweet stops we make). The plan is to eventually end up at the opening of the What If? / Murnong: Yam Daisies exhibition at the Koorie Heritage Trust in Federation Square from 2-4pm (free admission).
Lesley Russell writes:
Readers of CroakeyGO will know that I have developed a serious addiction to walking – and eating – in France. I have enjoyed the feedback from readers and those who follow me on Twitter; there’s special delight when I hear that others have been encouraged to get out the maps, put on their boots, polish up their French and set out on their own travels.
My walking companion Liz Dax and I had no sooner completed our walk along the Robert Louis Stephenson Trail last September than we were planning our next trip. We settled on a continuation of the Camino Le Puy, starting at Moissac, where I had finished in October 2015.
We used our usual travel company, which always does such a great job with accommodation, transporting our luggage and specific directions to follow, and I undertook the task of getting us to the starting point and back to Paris from our finishing point at Aire sur l’Adour. The website trainline.eu (originally capitaine traine) is terrific for figuring out how to get around in regional France and purchasing tickets before you leave. It is also possible to find schedules for most bus routes online.
Our preparations were made easier by considerable previous experience. I now have all the necessary gear and know what is unnecessary, my boots are so thoroughly broken in that I will need a new pair soon, and I have a regular daily routine of 10 km walks, up to 20 km when I have time. Liz prepared by heading off on a Central Australian expedition, so her boots still carried red dust.
This part of the Camino is relatively easy walking with no day longer than 23 km (although sightseeing added to that) and few changes in altitude, but it was made much tougher by unseasonably hot temperatures (most days the temperatures hovered around 36°C). This meant attention to sunscreen and hats, fluid intake and feet.
We quickly discovered that along with drinking lots of water, we needed to keep up our blood sugar levels (mostly fresh and dried fruit, but I am addicted to a citrus soft drink called Agrum which I managed to persuade Liz was good for her). I’m a big believer in changing socks every 10 km (I wear wool mix walking socks with synthetic liner socks) and the value of Vaseline as protection against blisters – and again, it worked.
The Camino Le Puy, also known as the Chemin de St Jacques or the Grande Randonée 65, is part of a network of ancient pilgrim trails (the Way of St James) which cross southern Europe and end at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
These routes are amazingly well marked and the pilgrims and walkers who traipse them are respected by the local communities which often set out food and drinks for walkers. It is very safe and there are many different types of accommodation available along the way.
Part of the attraction of the section we walked, which passes through the Departments of Gers and Gascony, is that there are many small and charming villages and lots of history, dating back to Roman times. It is important to note that in this part of France most shops close for several hours in the middle of the day, and many, even supermarket chains and bakeries, are closed on Mondays.
Liz and I met up in Paris and travelled by train to Toulouse, then on to Moissac, which for centuries has been an important pilgrimage site with its well-preserved medieval abbey church and magnificent cloisters.
Day 1: Moissac to Auvillar (23 km)
As we headed out of town, following the red-and-white GR65 signs, we noticed a number of other walkers and pilgrims. This was a feature of this walk – we encountered many more people than on any of my previous walks – and we enjoyed getting to know some of them.
There seemed to be two main groups: young people, usually travelling alone and carrying everything on their backs, looking for adventure or maybe seeking some insights; and older walkers (in Australia we would call them grey nomads), retired or semi-retired, fit and enjoying life.
There were also the several Japanese Camino fanatics travelling 40 km every day and some dedicated pilgrims, not all of whom were dedicated to personal hygiene. Liz and I apparently made our own impression; when we engaged in conversation with a Dutch man who caught up with us one day, he said he had heard about the two Australians on the Camino!
The first part of our first day’s walk was along a towpath, shaded by large plane trees, beside a canal with a series of locks. But then we emerged to a path that followed a white quartz country road where the sun beat down relentlessly and there was little shade.
Panting, red-faced walkers shared every tiny patch of shade along the way as we trudged on towards our destination. We learned an important fact about every beautiful little village along the route – they are all perched on hilltops and the end of the day’s walk always involved a climb.
Auvillar – one of the innumerable Les Plus Beaux Villages de France – has a charming cobblestone plaza with a medieval circular market and a clock tower. We arrived as everyone was in the midst of the Festival of St Noé which celebrates the vines and blesses the forthcoming wine harvest. There was a lot of stamping of clogged feet, incomprehensible singing, and consumption of wine.
Day 2: Auvillar to Miradoux (20 km)
We were off to an early start the next morning to get as much walking as possible under our belts before the heat set in. This was to become our pattern: an early breakfast, then on the trail no later than 7:00 am, which meant we were finished walking by early afternoon. Our hosts were happy to oblige – breakfast time was decreed by when the local bakery opened and we were always warmly welcomed with a cool drink when we arrived ahead of schedule at our overnight accommodations.
Fortunately the hottest part of the day is late, around 4:00 pm, and several of the places where we stayed had swimming pools.
The walking today was through undulating countryside, with fields of corn, wheat and sunflowers, small, quaint villages and past the grandiose ruins of the 12th century Castle de Flamarens.
There was so much grain, some of it already being harvested, that we understood why this area had outbreaks of ergotism during the Middle Ages. We passed the remnants of a hospital to care for people suffering from St Anthony’s Fire in the village of St Antoine.
Miradoux is the oldest bastide in Gers. We were warmly welcomed into a beautifully restored chambres d’hôte, right opposite the mairie, and that night shared a family-style dinner with a number of other walkers.
Day 3: Miradoux to Lectoure (18.6km)
We had a wonderful breakfast of local produce in our hosts’ kitchen and then set off through a series of small farming hamlets and fields of sunflowers. Aside from a few errant plants, these were not yet in bloom; the sight of endless sunflowers following the sun must be quite spectacular.
Today’s walk was relatively short, but entailed the obligatory final uphill climb into the town of Lectoure, which sits high above the Gers River and whose fortified cathedral tower we could see long before we reached it.
Despite the afternoon heat we explore the town and admired the views of the surrounding countryside from the old walls. We could see where we were headed over the next few days.
Our accommodation was in a charming hotel (interestingly named, without explanation Hotel de Bastard – the word “bastard” does not appear in my French dictionary) and we had a magnificent meal that night on the patio, toasting ourselves with floc, the local aperitif made from wine and armagnac. This part of France doesn’t do our tipple of choice, Aperol spritzes, so we quickly adopted this local drink.
Day 4: Lectoure to La Romieu (21 km)
There was little shade on today’s walk, so we were glad for temperatures in the low 30s. We passed an interesting former commandery of the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, highlighting that this was also a route to the crusades.
La Romieu which takes its name from the “romieux” or pilgrims that used to pass through, is absolutely charming – a small medieval village that has been lovingly restored.
There were masses of flowers and cat sculptures everywhere. The cats commemorate a local legend about a young girl who, during a famine in the 14th century, illegally kept cats in her attic. When the crops finally flourished again, they were overrun with rats and mice. But Angeline’s cats were released and saved the day.
La Romieu also has a huge 14th century collegiate with a lovely cloister built by the Avignon popes. We were surprised that we were able to climb up the precipitously steep and narrow stone staircase to the belvedere at the top of the church tower, which was still under renovation. It was a little hairy – but well worth it for the spectacular view.
Day 5: La Romieu to Condom (17 km)
We were woken early by thunderstorms, but they had disappeared by the time we were ready to hit the trail. The air was now beautifully clear and perfumed with roses and jasmine as we walked out of La Romieu with the view of our day’s walk ahead.
We passed the remains of a former monastery destroyed in the 9th century by the Normans, but found the old lady tending the adjacent cemetery more interesting.
Before long we arrived at Condom, a medieval town, in time for a leisurely lunch in the plaza. The plaza is dominated by the Cathedral of St Pierre which is largely gothic in style and larger than life sized statues of d’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers.
Because everyone wants to know, the town’s name has Gaulish origins which relate to a market or field at the confluence of rivers (in this case the rivers Gèle and Baïsse). It’s known for the production of armagnac. We resisted the Museum of Armagnac in favour of a swim in the pool and a drink of the local product
Day 6: Condom to Seviac (18 km)
We left Condom early, walking out of the town and along the river bank as bakery smells filled the air. There were many churches and monasteries along the route, including the Eglise de Routges, the oldest church in the region. This church has a small side door and we were fascinated to learn that it was the entrance for the Cagot people, an outcast population who lived segregated lives in parts of France and Spain until the end of the 19th century. I had never heard of these people and their persecution and there appears to be little available information about them. One theory is that they were descended from the Goths.
We reached Montreal du Gers, a 13 century bastide town with flower boxes everywhere, as the local market was closing. We had just enough time to make the purchases for a picnic lunch which we ate on the steps of the town hall. As we walked on, Liz realised that her plastic water bladder inside her pack was leaking. Luckily we can report that a compeed blister plaster and strapping tape will deliver a lasting fix to a small hole and we can advise that the pointy ends of nail scissors should be protected so they don’t cause such damage.
Our destination was just a few kilometres further on to a gîte at Seviac, the site of Roman ruins which unfortunately were not open. However we spent a lovely afternoon lounging in the garden of our accommodations and shared a magnificent communal meal with our hosts and two French couples on their annual Camino walk whom we encountered regularly along the way. Our host had been the local postman and he told us that in country France it is part of their job to check each day on the wellbeing of the elderly and those who live alone. That’s an idea worth emulating.
Day 7: Seviac to Eauze (21 km)
The fields of grain were slowly giving way to vineyards, stretching across rolling hills as far as the eye could see, alongside endless rows of sunflowers. The irrigation systems were consistently on and we developed childish delight in getting close enough to be hit by their cooling spray. We also appreciated when the tracks entered the shady remnants of the forests that once covered much of this area. There were very few cattle and no sheep in this area, and after the cheese largesse of the RLS trail, we were sometimes disappointed with the offerings on this trip.
Eauze is the former Gallo-Roman capitol of the area; the church in the middle of town was built in the 15th century from Roman rubble. Many of the houses are built of wood and brick or plaster in a style reminiscent of English Tudor. Our early arrival meant we were soon searching for our daily gelato treat (nothing can beat a combination of cassis and citron) and we watched the tourists (mostly French) in the town square as we drank our daily ration of Agrum.
Our family-run hotel was in a beautiful old building, so it was a shock to discover our bedrooms had décor that would not have been out of place in Manhattan (think mirrors, fur, black and white with touches of purple). But the restaurant food was excellent and the chef agreed to have breakfast ready for us at 6:00 am the next day.
Day 8: Eauze to Arblade le Haut (23 km)
Knowing it was going to be a scorcher, we set off as the sun was still coming up and the moon lingered, relishing the cool air and the fact that we were now fully into walking mode.
Our delight in our circumstances was enhanced when we caught out first glimpse of the Pyrenees – at this stage just a blue outline in the far distance. My next Camino trip will get me there.
At the small town of Nogaro we stopped to admire the intertwined plane trees in the streets and very small bullring, apparently still used. This was just one of an increasingly number of Spanish influences to highlight how close we were to the border.
Then we pushed on to the hamlet of Arblade le Haut, where we stayed in a beautifully restored house in lush garden surroundings, including a pool. There was an ebullient host full of stories while his wife was busy in the kitchen with produce from the garden, and some twenty people (acquaintances from the trail and others touring by car) around the communal dinner table that night.
I had some fast translating to do for Liz as the host gave a professorial discourse on those who had travelled the paths we walked on, starting with the Romans (who brought the vines and the first roads), then the Visigoths who developed armagnac, the crusaders, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Avignon popes, Louis XIV and his retinue which likely included d’Artagnan, and of course all the pilgrims over the centuries.
The discussion also veered to the political as this day was the second Sunday of voting for new members of the French legislature under newly installed President Macron. We found voting days in France to be very low-key and perhaps the French did too as turnout was very low. There were no sausage sizzles!
Day 9: Arblade le Haut to Aire sur l’Adour
This was our final day of walking and it was probably the hottest. We started out early, but the temperatures were already rising. Aire sur L’Adour is a sizeable town and that meant trudging through the outskirts on bitumen, so we were very hot and sweaty when we finally arrived at our riverside hotel – but not as hot and sweaty as the leather-clad English bikies who arrived shortly after.
Despite the heat, we headed off in search of our afternoon glacés and a suitable location for the “we did it” selfies. The first was quickly found, for the second we resorted to the Cathedrale St Jean Baptiste. There was more celebration that evening as we ate dinner and exchanged stories with a couple of New Zealanders.
Back to Paris via Mont de Marsan
It was time to exchange our boots for sneakers, pack up the bags and head back to Paris.
We caught the bus to Mont de Marsan where we stayed overnight. It’s a very unprepossessing town but in our search for a cool place, we found a pseudo-Irish bar which not only served excellent and very authentic tapas, but the best gin and tonics. We were as happy as (slightly sozzled) clams!
Then a day-long train trip back to Paris via Bordeaux, and a final magnificent dinner together at our favourite locavore restaurant.
We said our goodbyes as Liz headed to a family reunion in London and my husband Bruce Wolpe (whose medical adventures recently featured at Croakey) flew into Paris for a few lovely days together in our favourite city.
Next up – it’s Bruce and Lesley go walking in Japan in September (stay tuned) but in the meantime, I’m plotting my next walking trip in France.