Date: Monday, September 1st 2013
Location: Espalion, France
Miles walked: 97
Miles left: 903
There are numerous villages, cities and hamlets on this trip that have stayed embedded in my memory since I last walked El Camino. Delve into my little Camino filing cabinet up there and all sorts of images, encounters, feelings and pleasures spill out like a dropped file of papers. Of those places, amongst the start in Le Puy en Velay, the historic town of Conques, the somehow ambient bustle of Pamplona, the relaxed Burgos and of course Santiago de Compostella nestles the charming Espalion. Some 97 miles in, it’s a place that’s commands a special little section in my memory filing cabinet, even perhaps marked with a yellow highlighter.
The Pilgims Bridge over The River Lot, Espalion
On my last visit I slept on the banks of the River Lot after a quick swim in her waters, waking several times during the night to listen to her slow waters glide past and the odd Starling prematurely chirp a morning call. It’s incredibly beautiful, historic buildings still appear to remain as they have done for hundred of years, cobbled streets split of randomly around me, cafes and brasseries cater admirably to a pilgrims needs. It’s relaxed, no one appears to be in a rush. The sort of place where you start checking out the property prices.
This morning I left the Gite (a small, communal guesthouse) and wandered round it’s narrow streets, still rubbing their eyes and sought out a cafe grateful for a little sun light to take off the morning chill. I strolled up to the pilgrims bridge over the reflective Lot and smiled, a smile that only a trip on this wonderful walk can gift. I feel at ease, happy, contented to be reliving an experience that provided a turning point in my life some 11 years ago.
Beautiful, centuries old buildings dot Espalion
I thought I would remember more but to tell the truth I don’t. Le Puy en Velay was as beautiful as ever, delightful old stone buildings with pastel painted shutters haphazardly nestled amongst slim, dim and random streets. Cobbles pressed against my soles and as I wandered around waiting for the cathedral doors to creak open to secure my pilgrims passport, the cafes started to wake up and set their tables outside to ply their trade for another day. The chill of the morning slowly faded away as the sun cleared the roof tops and a grateful Le Puy gradually warmed.
In terms of the countryside, hamlets and towns, the trail itself and scenery I knew what to expect but I’m eager to see how El Camino has changed in the last 11 or so years. This was my first long distance walk and it set about a chain of events that changed me. It taught me many things such as perseverance, patience, acceptance and perhaps a little cup of enlightenment. I emerged all those years ago in Santiago de Compostella a changed man, changed for the better and I will always keep that with me. Perhaps this return is in hope of some of the same, a life refresher if you like. I want to reach that Spanish city again with confirmation that I took the right path and since then have made, mostly, the right decisions in my life.
I reached Montbonnet at the end of the first day with hopes of staying at the same Gite (guest house) as I did last time. Unfortunately they were closed due to some family issues but La Grange Gite, a stones throw up the road was open and very impressive. More establishments offering drink, food or accommodation have sprung up catering for the ever growing number of pilgrims. La Grange commanded amazing views back over the area I had walked from Le Puy that day.
Numerous opportunities to stock up on water from chilled springs
I met a few of the 8 or so other pilgrims staying there, only a small number of which intended to walk all the way to Santiago, the rest doing little sections squeezed into a holiday time frame.
France is wonderfully rural. In between the main towns and villages, of which there are plenty, lies a collection of small hamlets. Most consist of just a few farm buildings constructed from the grey or reddish brown volcanic rock found in the area. The main house is often connected to a large barn or livestock building to which a grassy ramp leads up to. It’s also quiet, the odd dog barks at me, a chicken cries here and there and a tractor rumbles a way off. It’s delightfully peaceful.
There are short sections of road walking but in the main it’s wide tracks with a sandy, gritty texture that provides a satisfying crunch underfoot. Plenty of shade gives a respite from the sun. This first 100 or so miles is up a little and hovers around 2500 to 4300 feet. It’s possibly the hardest section but not difficult to pose a problem to most fit walkers. It is surprisingly cold from what I remember from my last walk. I have been staying in because my sleeping bag is summer rated. The 2 nights I have camped have been too cold. After the small village of Aubrac around mile 80 the elevation plunges down to around 1000 feet where I hope it is warmer.
Finding my route through the charming Saint Come d’Olt
The Aubrac Plateau
Early morning leaving St Chely d’Aubrac
Making friends with one of favourite rivers again – The Lot
On the steep ascent up from Monistrol – D’Allier I stopped in a grassy patch of land by the road for some lunch. While munching on a chunk of baguette something didn’t feel right, I kept swiping my legs and waist, not bothering to look as I was preoccupied with a raging hunger. When it continued and I did eventually look down I was met with the alarming sight of a colony of local ants all over me. Yelping, I jumped up, ripped off my t-shirt and shorts and started swiping, sweeping and brushing the little critters off. Bearing in mind my shoes and socks had already been removed to receive a little air I was, in fact, unintentionally stark naked and dancing in the middle of the French countryside. Just in time for the local family; father, wife, son and daughter to appear around the corner not knowing whether to laugh, turn away or cover their eyes. I covered my offending bits, smiled as best I could in the circumstances and shrugged my shoulders innocently as they walked past somewhat quicker than their initial approach. You’ll be delighted to know there are no photos of this particular scene.
El Camino has and will always spoil any walker. There’s numerous opportunities to grab a coffee in one of many cafes, not just in towns but at many private establishments that have sprung up en route. There are many small farms that have cottoned onto the fact that good business is there to grabbed. Prices are reasonable and more often than not, as well as a coffee and a sandwich I can obtain a small round of cheese made right on that farm, or some cured ham, or a few pieces of fruit from the back garden.
Some fantastic little restaurants have appeared as well, producing local delicacies from locally sourced ingredients. Case in point at Les Granges de Begosse, a wonderful restaurant in the tiny hamlet of Bigosse itself. While innocently stopping for a coffee a Tarte aux Myrtilles (flaky pastry base topped with blue berries and a set custard sandwiched in between) eyed me up seductively from the counter. Oh, go on then . . .
Myrtille Tart. Nom nom nom . .
At the more rural, smaller hamlets family run farms will serve you up a coffee and a local delicacy such as home made cake for less that 5 Euros (£5 /$7.50). Indeed just yesterday I stopped at such a farm, sitting in the sun with a few other pilgrims and paid just 80 pence for a coffee.
Having stayed at a wonderful Gite in Lasbros I shared an amazing evening meal with 5 French pilgrims. Picked vegetables from the garden produced a courgette bake sprinkled with local cheese, omelette, garden salad, cheese and wine. All for 10 Euros (£10 / $15).
In the morning, however, it was a different story. The continental breakfast consists of fresh baguette, butter and either savoury additions such as cured meats and cheese or sweet alternatives like honey and jams. My problem is the coffee, or at least the receptacle in which it is served. No mug or cup in France, it’s poured into a bowl. A pain to handle, it goes cold quick and then there’s the ‘dunk’. Grab said piece of baguette with butter, jam or whatever your choice of topping is and dip into your beverage. This is normal out here, cold coffee with lumps of Orange marmalade swimming around and a nice little buttery film floating on top.
Another buttered coffee Sir? No, you’re OK thanks mate.
Whilst I’m on the food topic I’ve been doing a little research for a mate who wanted to walk El Camino but fell foul of work commitments. Nick Levy, who I walked the last few weeks of the Pacific Crest Trail with, loves a good food deal. If you have read The Last Englishman, my PCT account, you will know Nick sourced his food from some, lets say unsavoury locations in the past during financially restricted travels. Bins, dumpsters, you name it. Nick, my old mate, here’s a couple of photos for you, all in the name of research:
Despite clouds threatening occasionally it has yet to rain. Grass Hoppers jump for cover as I approach and some I watch, smiling, as they pounce a few feet in front of me, realise I’m still behind them and pounce again until eventually realising a sideways jump is what is required to escape.
Espalion is warmer than the higher elevations at the start, and first week of the walk. It’s also wonderful to walk by the side of the River Lot once again. Occasionally the way departs but for the next week at least she makes regular appearances, cutting through the French countryside as she has done for thousands of years to produce sweet little gorges and carvings on the surrounding rock. Fields of maize loom over me, the cobs still yet to ripen fully. Even in the hamlets most houses reserve a small plot to grow vegetables and rows of lettuce, tomato vines and courgette plants all display the culmination of another season. Mint plants dot my route, oregano pops up here and there and sold fruit such as blackberries, raspberries and blueberries provide a welcome, sweet addition to my diet.
Pilgrims numbers appear to be less this time. Despite films such as ‘The Way’ and more written publications over the last few years if anything, it seems less crowded. I have met only French pilgrims so far. Some speak English so evening meals at the Gites are spent chatting whilst the nominated translator provides the necessary communications. Even so, with a little thought, hand gestures and comparisons even my French can carry over a point, albeit with few minutes work. Many times, especially with my American friends, I am asked about the language problems, so much so that some consider it an aspect which would deter them from coming out here. This is a shame, if anything the language barrier is an educational experience and certainly not one to be afraid of, it provides entertaining time with other nationalities and just adds to those memories. Someone, somewhere, will always speak English in Europe.
A Guide to Directions for the Virgin Pilgrim
El Camino is so well marked that it’s quite conceivable your guide book will stay in your pack. The familiar ‘balises’ (blazes) are numerous, find them on rocks, trees, fences, buildings and most mediums capable of accepting a little paint. Here’s the fool proof guide to not getting lost.
Keep straight on
Turn / Bear to the left
Turn / Bear to the right
Wrong turn! Re-trace your steps until you see the correct way
A Small Competition!
I’ve got a paperback copy of The Journey in Between, the account of my last walk on El Camino to give away. All you need to do is provide a caption to the photo below in the comments section. Comments about the length, girth and general size of my baguette will be judged favourably but won’t necessarily win.
I’ll announce the winners on here at some point when I have a worthy winner.