France

Impressions of the Chemin d’Arles

When I set out to walk the historic Camino de Santiago, I knew that I wanted to experience the primary route, the Camino Frances, but also other smaller, less traveled paths.  Spreading out guidebooks and maps all over the coffee table, I decided on a general route I would take, a dabbler of Caminos that together formed a continuous footpath from Pau, France, to the western coast of Spain.

Oloron St. Marie and the Pyrenees

Oloron St. Marie and the Pyrenees

First along my route was the Chemin d’Arles, known in Spain as the Via Tolosana.  This route stretches from its namesake in southeastern France up through the Pyrenees, where it crosses into Spain (and becomes the Camino Aragones) at the Col du Somport (Somport Pass).

The western portion of the Chemin d’Arles, which was my introduction to the Camino, was beautiful, and I’ve been told that the section from Arles to Pau is even more lovely.

Highlights of the walk included community and town forests, tiny French mountain towns, and sweeping views of vineyards and rolling valleys.  Especially memorable was the climb to Somport Pass through an evergreen forest and then the meadows, wildflowers, and mountain air that greeted me at the top.  But, it wasn’t just the natural settings that I loved about the Chemin d’Arles:  I also have fond memories of a night I spent in a monastery and the sweet, chocolatey scent of Oloron St. Marie, a town straight out of a fairy tale, where homes looked down on a chilly river and flower boxes adorned the windows.

A field of seedlings

A field of seedlings

Perhaps like some other Americans, I’d grown up conflating “France” with “Paris.”  I’d heard that French people were stuck up and obsessive about fashion and unwelcoming to foreigners.  While I had a difficult time reconciling that vision with the France of D’Artagnan’s boyhood, I suppose that, somewhere along the line, I’d just accepted it.  When I got to France, I was reminded of the fact that New York and Washington, D.C., are hardly representative of our entire country.  Perhaps rural people anywhere in the world have their own ways of being.

My least favorite portion of my time on the Chemin d’Arles was a rather death-defying roadwalk along a curvy mountain highway.  Naturally, the day I walked that section was a rainy, misty one.  I found myself clinging to the cliff face when I was on the inside of curves.

A little snail

A little snail

A simple, unexpected pleasure of the Chemin d’Arles — and, indeed, of much of my Camino — was the number of snail sightings it afforded me.  I’d read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, a precious musing on chronic illness and life’s little pleasures, before my pilgrimage, and the snails I saw on the path, on fence posts, and on flower stems made me smile.

My time on the Chemin d’Arles was brief, especially considering that pilgrims who walk from Arles walk for a month.  However, I walked along the path long enough to enjoy my time, look forward to the rest of the Camino, and decide that walking the entire route should happen someday.

In a tangentially related note, I wanted to share that I’ve begun felting wool paintings from sights I loved along my Camino.  First up is this scene from the Camino Aragones.  I added the cairn to the foreground this morning, and I’m looking forward to felting the snow-capped Pyrenees tomorrow!

Lescar Rainbow

My First Night on the Camino

The first pilgrim I met on the Camino was an older man who’d walked years before.  I think.  He only spoke French, and I only spoke English; nevertheless, we talked for half an hour or so.

As a local caretaker of the “hostel,” he’d come to the refuge in Lescar soon after I arrived.  He added my name and stats to the register he kept — I learned that I unusually young, alone, and American — and encouraged me to make use of the beautiful country home Lescar offered pilgrims on their journeys.  Then, he gave me a huge, colorful scallop shell to carry to Santiago.

When he left, I went to sleep, still exhausted from London and the travel.  I was awoken by late-hiking pilgrims — young, American pilgrims!  We were all surprised to see each other and have easy conversation.

As we ate dinner and discussed our love for Bernie Sanders, the skies opened up.  So thankful for a roof over my head, I watched the storm from the windows.

By the time we were doing dishes, Arianna from California called the rest of us to look out to see a rainbow.  Sure enough, over the field next to the house stretched one of the most vibrant rainbows I’ve ever seen.  As someone who’d hiked more than 4,000 miles as “Rainbow Dash,” I couldn’t help feeling that the occasion was auspicious.

Rainbow in Lescar

Rainbow in Lescar

Finding the Camino

Just getting to the Camino was an adventure!

Mountain views from the bus

Mountain views from the bus

In Toulouse, I woke up at dawn, gathered my belongings, and headed out in search of the gare.  Following my downloaded map, I wound my way through sleepy city streets.  When I got to the station, I was grateful to discover that the bus to Pau was still running, seemingly unaffected by the bus strike.  After visiting the first of many French restrooms without toilet paper, I climbed into the bus, smiling and apologizing for my lack of French as I attempted to buy a ticket.  Eventually, I joined the passengers heading to Pau.

Hydrangeas in France

Hydrangeas in France

Especially given the last two data points, it appears that the success of a given hike is inversely correlated with the amount of preparation I’d done.  I spent months getting everything in order for the PCT:  I studied the maps, dehydrated all of my meals, arranged all of my mail drops, updated my gear, and trained extensively.  I left with lots of fanfare and returned just 1/3 of the trail later.  In contrast, I headed to Spain without more than a handful of people knowing and basically winged my wonderful Camino, as I had only a general idea of the route I wanted to take.

And, that’s why the bus ride to Pau left me awestruck.  I’d known that the Col du Somport was a pass in the Pyrenees, and I’d known that the mountains were grand; however, I had not expected to see them on the bus ride, to find them rising steeply from the horizon and covered in snow.  I couldn’t wait to walk among them!

The bus dropped its Pau-bound passengers near a roundabout in the center of town.  After orienting myself with the map, I began the journey to Lescar, where I would find the Chemin d’Arles.

The streets of Lescar

The streets of Lescar

As I walked to Lescar along a busy boulevard, I felt as though I could have easily been in any suburban setting in the US:  There was traffic, there were billboards, and there was even a McDonald’s.  I took a detour for a lesson in how impossible it is to use a post office when you can’t speak the local language.

On the road into Lescar, I got my first taste of the Camino:  Outside of town, there was a gated home, with a sign outside welcoming pilgrims.  As I paused to try to decipher the information, a local bicyled past, shouting, “Buen Camino!”  I didn’t know then how significant a part of Camino culture those words were; I had arrived!

Arriving at the refuge

Arriving at the refuge

Falling in Love with the Pink City

I’m not a city person.  My general MO in a new city is to get out of it as quickly as possible — or, if that’s not possible, find a happy place in a patch of green somewhere inside the concrete jungle.  However, even in spite of its hosting Eurovision 2016 while I was there, the city of Toulouse, where my journey to Santiago began, promptly won my heart.

I flew there from Heathrow, where I enjoyed operatic arias in the restrooms and the relaxed pace of the terminals.*  The British Airlines’s flight was pleasantly bilingual, but French was everywhere (and often unaccompanied by English) once the plane touched down.

From the airport, I took a shuttle to the heart of the city, where I’d catch my bus to Pau the following morning, unless it had been canceled by the bus strike.  I arrived at the Jean d’Arc station (fangirl moment!) and then navigated my way to the hostel.**

Instantly, I fell in love with Toulouse.  Nicknamed “the Pink City,” it did, indeed, appear as though I viewed it through rose-colored glasses.  The buildings ranged in hue from salmon to ballerina pink, as did the sidewalks.  Plentiful street trees infused the city’s palatte with green.  It felt warm and inviting, especially after the rain and greys of London.

The city’s crown jewel is its Basilique Saint-Sernin, which is a destination for pilgrims on the Chemin d’Arles.  It was stunningly beautiful — but, in my mind, so was the rest of the city, from the winding pink streets to the huge municipal plaza to the banks of the river, where I’m convinced that the city’s residents go to enact Sunday in the Park on a daily basis.

I enjoyed a “takeaway” dinner from in a park, as I watched the sun set across the river.  Then, I retired to the hostel, to sleep amid the evening’s last birdsong before setting off on the Camino the next day.  I made a pledge to myself:  If I ever were to have a European love affair, I would take it to Toulouse.


*Conversational blue blaze:  From what I could tell this summer, it seems that everyone in Europe thinks we Americans are bizarre for removing our shoes for security.

**Another blue blaze:  Pre-downloaded Google Maps saved my life this summer.  Google Translate was helpful, too, but Google Maps is amazing.

A Dabbler of Caminos

In the US, when we talk about the Camino de Santiago, we are often referring to the Camino Francés, the most popular pilgrimage route.  However, Caminos extend throughout Europe, in a network of paths connecting notable relgious sites to one another.  The Camino Frances is tremendously popular, but many other Caminos offer more opportunities for solitude and tranquility.  Some Caminos are more developed than others and have better waymarks, guidebooks, and pilgrim services; others might regularly necessitate map reading and asking directions from locals.

While lying in bed last winter, distracting myself from Lyme by dreaming of the Camino, I planned a Camino dabbler for the summer (having no clue whether I would get the chance to even attempt to walk it).  I knew that walking a continuous footpath across Spain was important to me — chalk it up to my white-blazing sensibilities! — but I knew that I didn’t feel called to walk the most traditional route.  Instead, I wanted to explore as much of Spain as 43 days of walking would allow.  And thus, my “squiggly arrow Camino,” as an Irish pilgrim called it, was born.

My Camino would begin in Lescar, France, in part for the sake of convenience.  I had heard wonderful things about crossing the Pyrenees at the Col du Somport, so I knew that I wanted to follow the Chemin d’Arles/Via Tolosana from some point in France.  Given the higher bunkroom fees in France and my lack of understanding of the language, I thought that spending less than a week in the country would be ideal.  The city of Pau, of which Lescar is a suburb, was easy to get to by bus from any French airport.

From there, my plan was to cross the Pyrenees to join the Camino Aragonés, walk north to the Camino Frances, experience the history of the Camino’s thoroughfare for a bit before taking a right in León, enjoy the mountain scenery of the Camino de San Salvador, and then follow the Camino Primitivo to Santiago.  From there, I knew I wanted to keep walking to see Finisterre, the End of the Earth.

After a new treatment protocol helped me get Lyme solidly in remission on March 20, I decided to fly to Europe and try to walk to Santiago.  I spent two weeks visiting my sister in Wales, and then I flew to France on June 14 to begin my journey.