Tony & Renna On The Camino de Santiago – 1. France

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Tony & Renna started their walk after the Spring Lunch on Sunday 29 March. They will be walking the French Route to Santiago for over four months. This blog page is dedicated to the two brave and adventurous souls who’s exploits we will be following in awe and admiration.

WEDNESDAY 29 APRIL

First of all apologies for taking so long to keep you all up to date with our adventures.
Today should have been our fourth day off, the days to explore the towns and to catch up on things like emails and admin.
The first “day off” we had was in Antwerp. I was full of a cold and drained so most of the day after a little sight seeing was spent dozing. Our second day off was in Dinant and found Renna in a similar condition. Our third day off in Reims was spent with Emma and Dave who had come out to join us so time to do other things was limited.
To add further complications due to our preference for hotel or B&B type accommodation and due to its total absence in some of the places we want to stay I’ve spent considerable time on the web researching other places for accommodation and then transport options to get us there and back to where we need to be. This is a challenge as French rural transport has shrunk just like that in the UK. It is now rare to find a bus, or a train, or even a bus replacement train service. However we have successfully used all three options and so far have walked all the way without having to skip any sections. Furthermore we are coming into the French “pont” weekends where they extend their Bank Holidays. This is making finding vacancies more difficult and we have had to book further ahead.
Consequently the demands upon my time have meant that I am currently 4 days behind with my journal and even further behind with keeping our friends up to date with our progress. But enough excuses. I will send a few photos (possibly as a separate email) illustrating our progress so far.
Health wise apart from the colds which tired us out for several days, we have been very healthy with only a couple of minor blisters and a couple of ant bites. We are walking well and our equipment is giving us no problems.
The weather up until recently has been very kind to us. Although we had to battle gales the first few days they fortunately were from behind us most of the time. We had one morning of rain other than that we had a period of unseasonably hot with the sun shinning all day and temperatures in the high 20s. Recently it has cooled to more comfortable walking temperatures of mid teens, but we have also had rain. On Sunday we had to walk for over an hour in a thunderstorm. That at the end of a very long 18 miles! When we got to our hotel we just stood in reception and dripped!
Monday we woke to light rain, the forecast predicted it would finish by 11am so we waited as we didn’t have too far to go and the bus at the end wasn’t due until nearly 6pm. The forecast was wrong! It stopped raining when we stopped walking.
Yesterday however we walked along the side of the Canal de Haute Seine in beautiful sunshine. The new leaves in the trees glowed and there was freshness all around us. It was a beautiful day walking.
Wildlife has also kept us interested. Most days we have seen buzzards, but we have also seen an Osprey (outside Dinant 12th April) a harrier a couple of days ago and a couple of other raptors I couldn’t identify. Also outside of Dinant we saw our first swallows of the year, they are now everywhere and we saw our first House Martin three days ago. We saw a fox hunting south of Reims, many hares but no rabbits, deer in Holland but only their spoor here in France. But 5 days ago we walked for over 3k (2miles) along a forest track that had been completely ploughed up by wild boar. I have never seen such extensive signs of activity no doubt due to them being fed by the locals.
Food has been interesting, we sampled Champagne in Reims and Leffe beer in Dinant. We have tried local specialities such as Andouillettes and international favourites with a local theme, last night we had a lovely thin pizza, the base was thiner than a Carrs Table Water Biscuit but it had sliced potatoes as part of the topping.
So today is our first true day off and after finishing this email we shall wander into town and explore this wonderful old city. We regretted never having the time (or energy) to explore places like Antwerp, Bergen Op Zoom, Mechelin and Leuven, made rich in the Middle Ages by the wool trade with England, or to investigate some of the WWI and WWII memorials and plaques further as we walked through the Brabant hills, the Ardennes, and the valley of the Marne. Locally there are celebrations planned to celebrate the 70th anniversary of VE Day.
Tomorrow we set off again. The forecast is not favourable, but our sprits are high and our feet seem to know the way.

 THURSDAY 30 APRIL

WEDNESDAY 6 MAY

This is not an advert for fashion. In fact looking at this photo I wonder why anyone dares to talk to us! Our excuse is that we had already walked 21km (over 13 miles) and had just climbed up to the basilica which is situated at the top of a big hill about the size and shape of Whernside!

Fashion aside we have now completed the first stage of our pilgrimage and are over 5weeks into the walking with over 700km (430+ miles) already behind us. Trousers and belts are looser, legs are browner and spirits are high.

The basilica came into sight from over 6 miles away looking like a giant battleship on top of the hill. It is a marvellous massive Romanesque building that dominates the whole region not just the town. There are some wonderful carvings inside and with contrasting dark and light stones in the round internal arches it is reminiscent of the Mesquita in Córdoba.

It has not however been a great week for weather. After nearly 4 weeks of sunshine we had to have some more rain. And this week we made up for our good fortune with rain on most days. Fortunately it wasn’t usually heavy rain but a continuous drizzle, so it didn’t slow us down but once again fashion has a lot to answer for. All I can say is that the capes are very effective and we wouldn’t be without them.

The rain appears to have been heavier around us rather than on top of us with the rivers extremely high. Whenever we came to cross a river they were very high with the lands on either side flooded. This photo of Lucy sur Cure shows flooded back gardens from the bridge. The pathway went behind those gardens! Needless to say we did not go paddling but kept to the un flooded main road through the village.

We also found time to sample the local beverage ( surprise, surprise!) this time it was Chablis and we’ve had a few glasses during the week of this and also Bourgoyne Rouge. After 4 weeks of hardly having seen a British car, or hearing a British accent, it was a shock to walk wet and weary into Chablis to hear English accents all around us.

Today we have had a leisurely day here in Vezelay but tomorrow we set off again. The weeks are passing so fast and yet it continues to get better and more enjoyable. We are still on schedule but we don’t want it to end.

THURSDAY 7 MAY

IMG_0109We walked passed a vineyard on the way into this small town called Tannay that said it was growing two types of grapes, Chardonnay and Melon. We have never heard of Melon and after checking into our hotel I went for a walk and managed to buy a bottle from a local producer.
I don’t know whether you or anyone else in HMWS have tried it but we are finding it a very pleasant wine and an excellent aperitif, this example has a limited bouquet but does in fact taste of green melon, with a fresh acidity but not as much acidity as the Chablis we were tasting recently.

THURSDAY 14 MAY

Another week and another cathedral. This is the magnificent cathedral of St Etienne in Bourges which has some superb medieval stained glass.
We are now over 6 weeks into the pilgrimage and nearly half way through France. We saw a map of France in a place where we were staying and it shocked us to see how far we had already come.
Today is a day off from walking, a day for exploring the town and an administration day. Getting up to date on the journals, getting a hair cut, getting a replacement watch strap, getting replacement vest tops for Renna as the M&S ones she brought with her are showing signs of advanced wear, checking out accommodation availability and booking it for the the next week, buying shower gel, checking bank statements etc etc. all in all quite a busy day.
The week has not been without its challenges; one day we had to walk over 35km with full backpacks (that is over 22 miles in real money)! It would have been a challenge if it had been flat and even and cool, however it was up and down, uneven and hot! But we made it in the end into La Charite-Sur-Loire and to our hotel for the night and to a resolution never to have a day that long again!
Yesterday was the hottest so far with the temperature well into the 30s, today is even hotter so we are grateful that we do not have to walk today. We are also both suffering from the high pollen count with streaming eyes, sneezing and coughing. Fortunately tomorrow is forecast to be cooler and with a lower pollen count, unfortunately it is also forecast to rain as we walk to Charost.

We have chosen to stay in hotels and B&Bs, Chambre d’Hotes as they are known in France. We are most often disappointed with the hotels and equally surprisingly impressed by the Chambre d’Hotes. You never can tell what you will get as they rarely match their descriptions.
Sometimes they are run by retired people looking for an interest and company as much as an income. Others are young couples the wife looking to supplement the household income and a business that fits in with childcare. Some are modern houses, most are conversions of old properties, barns and outbuildings. Some are furnished on a budget level whilst some are equipped with the latest bathroom technologies but the really interesting part is the people and the foods and local wines they introduce you to.
In France we have had as hosts a Dutchman married to a Belgian lady who was into the “good life” with sheep, chickens and a potager plot from which they largely fed their guests. He was also into Panther motorbikes, apparently they were made in Huddersfield so he expected us to know all about them. He has reduced his collection to a mere 6! There we stayed in a converted little barn like building with its own wood stove but unfortunately no bathroom.
At another place our host was a Norwegian SAS pilot who commuted to Norway for his 5 day shift leaving his Haitian born wife to run the CH. They had converted a large dilapidated farm and outbuildings complex into a lovely home and accommodation suites. We were invited to share a bottle of good Champagne as an aperitif before an equally excellent 4 course meal with Bourgoyne wines. We left in the rain the following morning never having had a chance to try out their swimming pool.

Most of the CHs are run by French people and they want to talk. This proves difficult with our very limited French and their usually worse English, however we do succeed to some degree and have had some very enjoyable evenings. It is usual for the evening meal to be shared with the hosts and this has led to us trying a number of local wines including a few Pinot Noir. Renna and I have previously not been particular fans of this grape but our experiences here are changing that.
At this next CH we declined the room with the circular bed and jacuzzi bath but did enjoy the bottles of white and red Mentou Salon wines (Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir) and the broad selection of local cheeses served with the evening meal as well as the home made selection of apperitifs we had savoured in the garden beforehand along with truly wonderful home roasted salted walnuts from a tree in their garden. Needless to say all the 8 different conserves we were served at breakfast were home made and most from produce from their garden.

We are now off out to try a local (this is the Berry region of France) type of Kir; Creme de Mure with red wine.
Best Wishes from your travelling oenophiles.

TUESDAY 26 MAY

We have made it safely to Limoges and to another cathedral, but this time this one is built for a different God. Thids is the main railway station in Limoges built in the Belle Epoch style it has carvings of semi-naked ladies instead of the  Virgin Mary to enliven your time spent waiting but does have stained glass windows to enlighten you. Inside it is a beautiful space although a little cluttered by modern constructions for ticket sales, cafes and shops. Outside it sits astride the platforms on giant columns looking like an alien spaceship from a Doctor Who episode.

In contrast the real Cathedral here is also beautiful but is best seen from across the river where it is seen rising above the old buildings of the old town. Inside there are some wonderful vitreous panels behind the alter.

We also explored the old town in particular the market hall and the butchers’ quarter. In the market hall it was possible to eat sea food sitting at barrels whilst the backs of the buildings of the butchers’ quarter haven’t changed much in centuries.

The walking this week has been good with us moving into an area of granite (hence Limoges’ fame for its pottery I suppose). The landscape is now more hilly (harder on the legs) and more wooded with sweet chestnut now rivalling oak as the main woodland tree. It is sometimes coppiced bringing back memories of southern England. Jays fly away at our approach and the call and silhouettes of buzzards circling over the valleys are very common. With all these trees it is not surprising that we often come across piles of logs. The big trunks are for timber but most of the piles we see are for fuel and some can be enormous.

It is also an area of etangs, these are man-made lakes usually made by damming a valley. One valley can have several one after another down the valley floor. These are mainly kept for private fishing and can look beautiful with the surrounding trees being reflected in the still waters. They often support colonies of frogs whose calls can be heard from a long way off but the most surprising residents we have seen are I think *Coypu. I remember these from my Norfolk childhood and cannot think what else they might be. Otter sized but with a narrow tail we have seen pairs of these animals out on the banks eating and swimming in these etangs with nest burrows in the banks. I wonder if they are the pests here that they used to be in Norfolk?

The change in rock type has meant a change in plants with large exuberant colourful displays of Rhododendrons and Azaleas in many people’s gardens. The universal display of white blossoms from Robinia Pseudo-Acacia (I think that is what they are but if anyone knows better I would appreciate being corrected) that lined all the roads, painted the landscape white and enlivened the views of any woodland, are now fading with snowstorms of white petals whenever the wind blows.

The fields can also be very colourful. As well as the pastureland being a mass of wild flowers and unusual grasses due to it never having been “improved” there is sometimes an apparent reluctance to spray wheat fields with herbicide resulting in the red of poppies, or the blue of cornflowers, bringing a mass of colourful joy to the monotony of the wheat.

We also walked through an area with an unusual burial practice “Lanterns des Morts”. At first and from a distance we thought that they were greenhouses on an allotment bordering the graveyard, but no they are 3 sided glass houses that protect the family graves.

By the time I write my next update we shall be over halfway both in terms of miles and days.  we are a day, or so, ahead of schedule, and feet, legs and bodies in general are holding up well so we get more confident each day. The weather continues to be kind to us with cool mornings and pleasantly warm afternoons with little rain. Although we have to think about the journey as a whole and have to plan distances walked and accommodation a few days ahead, we continue to enjoy each day. Every day is different, every step brings another view, every hilltop another valley to be discovered.

Oh and as these emails wouldn’t be complete with mention of a drink of some sort here is a photo of Renna sipping the “aperitif of the house” recently. It tasted OK, but we never bothered to get the recipe!

SATURDAY 13 JUNE

At last time to update you all on our progress. It has been an eventful couple of weeks, and not all was good news.
The most shocking event occurred on the day we walked from Saint Astier to  Mussidan. As we had not been able to find suitable accommodation in Saint Astier we had taken the train on from there to Mussidan and on Monday 1st June we returned by train to start walking in from where we had left off in Saint Astier. Just as the train was approaching Saint Astier (about 2 miles out) it struck and ran over a man. The train was stopped for 2 hours as we waited for police, fire etc to turn up and then we were escorted back along the tracks to buses to continue our journeys. A sad start to the day.

Bad news aside we successfully went passed the half way stage of our peregrinations both in terms of time and distance.

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After 76 days of walking we have completed approximately 950 miles (1500km) and have reached a town called Dax only 5 days walking from Spain. We have left “The Way” from Vezalay at Saint Sever a couple of days ago and have cut across country westwards on the first step of reaching the coast. After two days of walking on a “Voie Verde” (France is establishing a number of “green routes” that are for walkers, cyclists and horse riders only on old railway lines or canal banks) we arrived here in Dax and will now follow “The Way” ( the route from Paris/Tours) down to Peyrehorade then leave that and follow the river l’Adour to each the coast around Bayonne/Biarritz and to pick up the route of “The Way” that follows the coast into Spain.  As you might guess there is no single guide book, or accommodation list, for this so it means a lot of web searching and asking in tourist information offices, although it has to be said that whilst trying to be helpful they are in fact of little use. Firstly they do not have any information  that they consider “out of area”. This can be out of their arrondissement (county equivalent) or more likely anything that is more than 10km(6miles) distant. Thus they are of little use when trying  to plan an 80 mile walk across country. Furthermore their knowledge is not up to date, they might tell you that a path is open whilst signs on the path only a mile away tell a different story.

Temperatures in the upper teens, or even low twenties, centigrade are usually good for walking. When we walked into La Reole on Thursday 4th and collapsed into chairs at a bar with glasses of Perrier water in front of us the display on the Pharmacist opposite read 36C! (97F). For over a week we have had temperatures that never went below 18C at night and spent most of the day in excess of 30C (86F). It was far too hot for walking. We would attempt to set off early but by late morning we were slowing and by early afternoon we were having to stop every 15minutes for a drink and a rest which slowed our progress greatly and made each day much longer. As our destinations and accommodation for the next few days ahead had been booked we had to get there. We just had to keep going. This slowing of pace meant getting there late which meant getting an early start the next day became even harder. Also because there were limited, or no opportunities to get additional water, or soft drinks during the day, we set off each morning carrying between 4 and 5 litres (that is over 10lbs) of additional weight that had to be carried. Suffice to say that it was a tough week!
Fortunately it is now cooler, although even that has its negatives (beware of what you wish for!). The day we left Saint Sever was the first cooler day although it was very close. In the early afternoon we began to hear the ominous sound of thunder rolling around in the distance. The sky gradually became darker until at around 4pm there began the most terrible of thunderstorms. We were on an old railway line in the middle of no-where. There was no shelter we just had to keep on walking. The track soon became waterlogged and soon after became a flowing stream. Our waterproof boots were defeated and our sodden socks squelched on our feet with every step. Every small gap or hole in our capes was immediately found and a cold water flowed down our necks. We trudged on as the heavy rain hammered on our heads. There was no alternative. For two hours we endured until finally arriving at our Chambres d’Hotes. Our thanks go out to our host who did not bat an eyelid but showed us to our room and left us to dry out.

No-one said it would be easy. It is the tough days that make you appreciate the good days all the more.

However our travails did not end there! Travelling through a region that is world famous for its foods and wines (more on that later) it was disconcerting to find that on the menu this week was us!
As walkers you expect to get insects bites occasionally. On leaving Captieux on Monday during less than a single hour of walking we were plagued by mosquitoes and other biting flying insects. They were so persistent that we couldn’t stop to search for and put on the bottom halves of our trousers consequently it was our legs that suffered most. We both had over thirty bites each. I trust you are all sympathetic as they have itched terribly for days.

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This update is sounding like a long weary moan, and that should not be allowed to continue so on to some happier events.  We have actually seen some more wildlife. We have been hearing Cuckoos almost every day and we’re still hearing them this week and we have also heard Woodpeckers drumming. We have also seen our first Cattle Egrets and our second Stork ( our first was on Holland about 9 weeks ago!). We have watched baby hedgehogs searching for their dinner of slugs on the lawn in front of our hotel dinning room, seen a European Squirrel (like our Red squirrel only darker) near a church, and even seen rabbits and a deer – due to the hunting it is rare to see either.

For those of you missing a Cathedral “fix” here is Perigueux. It is a lovely space. Originally built as a Basilica in the Romanesque style (basically 4 equal arms off a central space) it has been extended over the years. It was renovated during the 19th century and the original domes of each arm and central space are once again visibly dominant. The architect who oversaw the renovation used it as inspiration when he designed the Sacre Coeur in Montmatre which most people are more familiar with. Inside it has been tastefully enhanced with the alter now firmly established in the middle of the church and equally visible from each arm.

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We have passed through more wonderful wine regions and have tried to sample some. Some regions are well known such as Bordeaux. Others such as Montravel less well known, or less expensive such as Bergerac. Whilst in Bordeaux we tried an example of “Clairet” the Rose from the region that gave its name to the region’s wines as “Claret”.

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As well as their more usual reds.

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Now we are approaching the Basque Country and are starting to see Spanish and Basque wines on the menus and last night we celebrated with a Ribera Del Duero to remind us of what Spain will have to offer.

Food has been wonderful as well with Fois Gras (we have walked passed many farms on the way), duck, gizzard salad, spicy sausages, cheeses, some excellent beef and much more. The French approach to food is often admirable and when you get offered something not homemade, or “artisanal”, but bought from a supermarket you feel cheated!

The next update is likely to be from Spain. We have spent many wonderful weeks in France and have had some great experiences and made everlasting memories. Soon we shall be three countries down and only Spain left. The end of our journey races towards us but there is so much more to see and do before it is all over.

COMMENTS

  • *The animals may be beavers. There is a population on the Rhone near Lyon and these have been steadily introduced to nearby areas in recent years.  You will remember we saw them in Greece. – Dr. Stephen Cameron, Pick Hill, 26 May
  • “We have been following with awe and admiration Tony and Rena on their marathon. What an achievement and how brave they are to have had the inspiration to do it as well as the fortitude, stamina and courage to keep going. We wish them luck!” – David Morris, Harrogate, 26 May
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2 thoughts on “Tony & Renna On The Camino de Santiago – 1. France

  1. Your blog is fasinating . We are really so impressed.Look forward to hearing more.The bites looks horrendous!Take care best wishes Carol ad Peterxx

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