Day 24 - Arzacq-Arraziguet to Arthez-deBearn (28.5 kms)
Day 25 - Arthez-de-Bearn to Navarrenx (29 kms)
To start at the end, this afternoon after a tough day I arrived at the gite chez l'Alchimiste. What a peaceful and special place. I received the warmest of welcomes from Jean-Gitean (the alchemist!) and Emmanuelle, a volunteer. I feel lucky that, by chance, I am one of just 8 pilgrims who can be accommodated here. Most days I choose the gite based on the name and / or a recommendation. It was difficult to resist chez l'Alchimiste, just as it was to resist Gite Boulangerie the night before. Though they are entirely different, I'm very happy to have found my way to both. More on l'Alchimiste tomorrow as I'm getting ahead of myself.
Apologies for not posting an update yesterday - the connection was weak at Gite Boulangerie and I wasn't able to upload the photos. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner there - with Dominque, Max, Sebastian and others (photos included in this post). Very welcome after another tough afternoon. Bertrand the gite owner also owns the local Boulangerie/Patisserie (which explains the name of the gite) so this morning, as instructed by him, we made our way to the village and sat in the kitchen at the back of his store eating the freshest and most delicious chocolate croissants! But back to the walking.
The accepted wisdom on Chemin du Puy is that the first 10 days are the toughest and the path eases off after that. Overall I'd say that is the case but every day seems to have at least one or two real kickers, and that's not counting dealing with the mud. In the last two days, the afternoons have been particularly tough, with two or three gruelling ascents. Yesterday, in heavy rain and strong, cold wind. This afternoon, thankfully just a light drizzle.
There seems to be a recurring theme on the Chemin du Puy which moves more or less in a south westerly direction - compared to Camino Frances which is almost a straight line running from east to west across Spain. So this afternoon on the Chemin was typical. After a steep climb, I was walking along the top of a ridge. I could see the path running straight ahead for about 100 metres. To my left was another deep valley and, clearly visible on the other side, a narrow road running steeply up to yet another ridge. You look at the steep path and say to yourself surely that won't be The Way. But of course you know that it is. And with that, on the straight path which lay ahead a sign appears indicating that The Way requires a sharp turn to the left. And so begins a steep descent to the bottom of the valley, so that you can make your way up the other side. It happens without fail. There's a joke my French friends like to tell about the Chemin. 'If I am heading south, why am I always climbing?'.
The other recurring theme of this Camino is that the French appear to very partial to 'le shortcut'. This first came to my attention some weeks ago with the Frenchman Pierre-Michel. I would often pass him early in the day only to pass him again later on. One particular day, I came out of a forest to find him coming up the road to my right. I asked him if he had been lost. Not at all. He proudly showed me on the map that he had worked out a shortcut by taking the road instead of the forest. Initially I thought this was just a Pierre-Michel thing. Not so.
Over the last three days, there have been two instances where my companions have excitedly announced that the gite owner or another local has told them how to make a shortcut. Today it was about 2 kms, on Saturday they say it was about 7. Word seems to spread like wildfire and the end result is that everyone from the gite bar me - and one other today - opts for the shortcut. That's how I managed to start Saturday with Dominique and Delphine and end up walking on my own from 11.30 on. And today, I walked with Dominique, and the German boys Max and Sebastian for about 15 minutes before they opted for the road to save two kilometres. Yesterday no shortcuts, so Dominque, Max, Sebastian and I walked together all day and it was most enjoyable. And, as a result, what was to have been French day, turned out to be English day.
Back to the shortcuts. I just don't get it. I'd be the first to opt for a shorter distance if I were injured, not feeling well, running out of time, or the conditions made the path dangerous. But in the normal course of events, it seems odd to me that so many people opt to walk other than on The Way. Except for a couple of variants to avoid busy roads, I don't recall this phenomenon in Spain. But, on the other hand, mon amies are confounded that I don't go with them. All I can say to them is that the Camino has always been kind to me (even when I miss a turn and take the wrong path and have to backtrack as I did again today - uggghh!) and so I will stay on The Way.
Before I sign off, big thank you for being in touch Helen (Mum), Audrey, Rosanne, Cathryn, Marian and Julie-Ann. Always lovely to hear from home.
Not far to go now - about 60 kms to St Jean Pied de Port. I have no reason to hurry so I will walk the final distance over the next three days - sounds very relaxing!