Au revoir Le Puy

Leaving Logis Meymard

Our wonderful host, Madeleine Déchaux, passed along another great dinner recommendation, L’Écu d’Or, for our last night in Le Puy. We enjoyed more terrific food, and with a little wine warming our insides we strolled home thankful for the warm clothes we were wearing. The temperature had reached up into the mid 60’s, but with the sun now below the horizon the narrow stone streets all too quickly gave up what little residual warmth they had. The flat evening shadows were somber, cold, and uninviting, So we picked up our pace for home and hearth.

The crazy jet lag sleep pattern returned so we found ourselves checking clocks and watches frequently from 1:30 am onwards until we well and truly fell asleep about 5:00 am. The next thing I heard was Robin saying it was 6:40. I mentioned that it was going to be close getting to the pilgrim mass. Her eyes, now wide with understanding, signaled it was time to go. No time to plead my case, not that I had one. We did the firehouse slide down the pole departure, pulling zippers and belts tight as we bound out the door into a bracing 38F morning, dry mouthed, hair askew, looking somewhat …pilgrim like I guess. The sprint up the cobblestoned streets was taxing (only a 1,000 miles to go I thought). We escaped cardiac arrest and actually swung through the church door with a few minutes to spare. It was a beautiful mass. The priest was a funny guy and worked his charm on the departing pilgrims bringing smiles to faces that were only moments ago looking a bit stunned as to what they would have to do as soon as the priest headed for the sacristy. With our fresh pilgrim blessing intact we now headed, at a more measured pace, downhill to our lodging. It was then time for breakfast, lots of coffee, and a chance to discuss our itinerary with Madeleine. Our plan was to only walk about 10 miles today to a town called Montbonnet. When Madeleine heard that she said we should go stay with a friend of hers in Fay, an agricultural hamlet on the first variant (towards Bains) encountered after Leaving Le Puy. So, after much texting and calling we were set. Fay it was to be. Breakfast was soon done, packs were reassembled, and after offering our heartfelt thanks to Madeleine for being so kind we finally reached the door, stepped out into the street to officially become pilgrims on the road to Santiago.

First sign on the pilgrim road

Today, being Saturday and market day, the city was brimming with people. We didn’t draw a wink, in this city use to seeing departing pilgrims, as we tried to avoid our backpacks pitching unwary market goers into the snarl of impatient motorists. Having heard no sirens I believe we were mostly successful. As we turned right onto Rue Saint Jacques it was just about 11:00 am. The day’s earlier cold had given way to pleasant (60F), and rising temperatures. The skies were mostly clear. I was wearing a lightweight merino wool t shirt and a long sleeve lightweight quarter zip merino wool outer shirt. I had on hiking pants (not my rain pants), but no jacket or vest. Robin was wearing a tank top and a long sleeve runners shirt (lululemon), and hiking pants, but no jacket or vest. We enjoyed our colorful departure, but quickly transitioned to leaving city life behind as we headed out into the quiet of the countryside, and the awaiting Chemin.

Leaving Le Puy is an uphill event. One starts climbing pretty quickly, but nothing dramatic, just moderate hills followed by flat spots or gentler climbs, but the trend is definitely upwards. We purposefully chose a late start so as to have a reasonable easy first day. I think that the distance we walked today (around 16kms) was just fine. We arrived in Fay (with rain showers washing away our grime) close to 4:00 pm., and quickly located the home (Le Refuge) of Chantal Roue, one of the 30 people living in Fay. She was watching at the kitchen window, and came out to greet us. Our first day was now done. Feet were okay, legs a bit sore, but all in all a wonderful first day. Chantal lives alone in an old farmhouse, and occasionally takes in a passing pilgrim. Her visitors are few as the main route of the Chemin St. Jacques bypasses Fay (but only by 2 kms) on its way to Montbonnet. This is fine with her as she has a flock of sheep to attend to. She has treated us like royalty. Her rooms are clean and warm, and the showers offered plentiful hot water. She has done our laundry and set it out in front of the kitchen fire to dry, and prepared a simple but satisfying meal of barley soup, sausages and lentils, and a sort of thicker crepe for desert. A nice jug of Merlot was set on the table as well. What’s not to like? At present, Robin and I are catching up on some correspondence, and getting ready for bed. Off to Monistrol in the morning (13 kms). No hurry, just taking it easy. We still have a long way to go. But for now all is well, and we are thankful for a good start.

Market day
Leaving town
Trail marker for GR 65
Turn left

 

Day 2: Fay to Monistrol (13.5 kms)

Refreshed with a good night’s sleep we joined Chantal, our hostess, for breakfast. This was what seems to be typical with a bowl of coffee, fruit, yogurt, bread and jam. We soon gathered up our gear, made our goodbyes and felt the first crunch of gravel under our boots at close to 9:00 am. Today was to be a short day, but as it turned out it was slow going. A little navigation error put us on a main road instead of the Chemin, but we got ourselves back on the path at the next town, Le Chier. We were kind of dawdling along. Thinking we need to kill MMM some time to avoid an early arrival in Monistrol and perhaps finding our accommodation closed until later in the day (usually around 4:00pm). The weather was cooperating. Temperatures started out close to 40 F, maybe a bit lower, but it was dry. I had on the same clothes as yesterday (now washed), but had added my vest against the morning chill. By the time we reached Le Chier, a cold wind arose and my rain jacket went on along with a wool hat. Clouds were coming and going trying to decide whether to soak us or not, but mercifully the rain held off all day.

Le Chier

We were making our way to a small town called St. Privat d’Allier where we hoped to find something open to get a coffee. The scenery along this part of the Chemin is pretty spectacular with a deep gorge visible off to our left. We rolled into St. Privat about 11:15, and found a cafe open. Two coffees for me and one for Robin and we started to thaw out. I am so glad I packed a down jacket for this walk. It has been used daily, if not when walking then always at night. Accommodations here in France are similar to Spanish homes in that they are made of stone, and they hold the cold very well.

St. Privat coffee stop

Leaving St. Privat is where the path got sort of interesting. It is at most a couple of feet wide, but that gets restricted to “0” as rocks and tree roots clog the path. At these points you really are scrambling to find a place to put your foot. Sizeable loose rocks add to the risk of injury. So, back to my comment regarding slow going, regardless of how fit you are the very nature of the path restricts your movement so that if you are a gazelle at heart you are a snail on this path. Rock hopping, and root jumping along we continued on towards Monistrol. As the day progressed we began to wonder where Monistrol was. We doubled checked our navigation, and pressed on. We were going down and down searching for Monistrol. Finally, at the bottom of a river valley, at long last, there it was. All I could think of after giving away all that height was tomorrow’s departure (regaining all the height we gave away today…plus some) was going to be a work out. For now we are part of a growing crowd of happy pilgrims (all French) at the Gîte La Tsabone. Patrick, the owner, will be doing the cooking tonight and we are ready. It should prove to be a lively meal. Tomorrow, we plan to walk to Le Villeret d’Apcher about 23 kms (close to 15 miles). Keeping our fingers crossed as it is still early days for these two pilgrims.

Clouds chasing us
St. Privat d’Allier
Finally at the bottom. The Eiffel bridge at Monistrol

 

 

Day 3: Monistrol to Villaret d’Apcher (23.5kms)

Robin pondering our departure (uphill)

We had a fun stay at the Gîte La Tsabone in Monistrol. We opted for the Demi-Pension arrangement which is a bed, dinner and breakfast. We had dinner in the main house with the owners, Patrick, his wife and her father who was visiting. The dinner was a great success. Robin helped out with Google translate and we all had a few laughs. Patrick does the cooking and his food is not to be missed. A delicious vegetable soup, chicken with pasta carbonara, pear tart, local cheese, and red wine. Things are looking up. There was much talk last night, before dinner, regarding the climb out of Monistrol. It definitely looks intimidating from the valley floor (where we all had to start). If discussing the various tips being offered on how best to approach this climb would lessen the slope of it, then we would have been roller skating out of here this morning. Alas, that was not to be. In the end it is one foot ahead of the other and up you go. The initial part reminded me of some of the morning departures from coastal towns on the Camino Ingles. Those who have walked the Norte would probably have similar comments. IMHO it is not that bad of a climb. The steepest part (the beginning) takes about 45 minutes and after that the slope eases and most folks seem to reach the top in 2 hours or less. It is very doable. So, if you are thinking about the Le Puy route please do not let this become a distraction. It is just another one of hundreds of hills placed wherever they are by those who like to mess with pilgrims minds.

This shows the slope

Once on top the climb for the day isn’t over it just becomes more gentle. In fact we wound up climbing all day to Villaret (with the exception of the occasional descent…so you could regain that height again). The weather was also interesting. It was a bit of winter, summer, spring depending on the hour If not the minute) of the day. We started out with temps in the upper 40’s. We climbed in t shirts and outer long sleeve shirts. No vests or jackets. On top the temperatures dropped a bit and cold gusts of wind argued for more outerwear. On went a rain jacket for Robin, and a vest for me. We carried on alternatively feeling warm, hot, or cold as the varying, and confounding winds, cloud cover, and precipitation came and went. The final treat on the smorgasbord was a curious mix of sunshine, and sleet when we were 2 kms from Villaret. Go figure. We, admittedly, were fortunate that today was mostly dry, with only a few light scattered rain showers. We pushed on through some of the most picturesque scenery I have ever enjoyed. This is truly beautiful countryside. We arrived at Saugues at 12:00, exactly, and stopped for a pizza, coffee, and a glass of wine. It was a smoke filled cafe, with a least one regular inhaling small glasses of clear liquid. 30 minutes later we shoved off for our final destination, the Auberge de 2 Pellerins in Villaret. This is a great place to stay. The owners are most kind and helpful. We are getting our washing done, enjoying a private room and have had a very tasty beer. The crowd here is growing as the day’s lengthening shadows gather in the stray pilgrims passing through. Robin and I are doing well. Tomorrow we are off to St. Alban sur Limagnole some 20.5 kms down the track. Cheers for now.

Chapel,on the climb out of Monistrol
Our lodging in Villaret
I moved the orange cushions and am sitting there as I write this

 

Day 4: Villaret d’Apcher to St. Alban de Limagnole (20.5 kms)

Leaving Villaret this morning

Day began calm, temps in the mid 40’s with a few scattered cumulus. Our stay at the Auberge de 2 Pellerins was quite enjoyable. Our hosts are both truly committed to pilgrim hospitality. There was much singing, guitar playing, and general good cheer being shared. The owner was kind enough to print an English version of his after dinner talk about what it means to be a pilgrim. He offered all gathered at the table a very dramatic reading. He might have been an actor in a previous life. Back to today. Robin and I finally slid out the door at 8:30 and set out for St. Alban. There was a nice little hill awaiting us that burned up at least a part of our breakfast. We soldiered on enjoying the fine weather. We have been slowly climbing since Le Puy to get atop the Aubrac Plateau, and today we were done with it. Once past the gîte at Sauvage we started bumping along with a few ups and downs but mostly we are at plateau elevation (on average around 1100 meters). The vegetation has also changed with the appearance of more pines and a general sense of increasing openness. The weather remained dry and pleasant throughout the day. We walked in our usual t shirts and long sleeve outer shirts adding rain jackets when the cloud cover sent a colder wind in our direction. We stopped at the chapel of St.Roche (right on the Chemin path) whose intercession is prayed for to assuage pilgrim infirmities. We added our prayers as well. The balance of the day was spent negotiating a slow descent into St. Alban. We had time to spare so we pretty much just ambled along arriving at 3:30 this afternoon. We have checked into the Auberge St. Jacques, enjoyed a cold beer (this pilgrim business is thirsty work), a plate of cheese and charcuterie, and headed for the shower. Dinner at 7:00 and another day on the Chemin St. Jacques will be done. We have a short day tomorrow. We are walking to Aumont-Aubrac about 14 kms from here. A couple of side notes? We have met many French people, and have enjoyed their company. We are working around the language barrier and seem to be getting by with my high school French. We spotted a lady this morning taking a wrong turn out of Villaret, and went after her. She had already turned back when we caught up to her. She waved her thanks and we all carried on. As we were enjoying a coffee at the Gîte Sauvage this same lady, obviously Asian, walked in. It turns out she is Korean and is walking her very first Camino (by herself). She started in Le Puy and is bound for Santiago via the Camino Norte. She is walking very slowly and plans to use all of the 90 days she has, if necessary. She and Robin (also Korean by birth) had a nice chat, and then we were off once again. Always on the move…the pilgrim way.

Villaret in the rear view mirror
Pilgrim Robin

Day 5: St. Alban de Limagnole to Aumont-Aubrac (14.5 kms)

Robin and I set off this morning under cool temperatures ( 42 F), and cloudy skies. It had rained overnight, but now patches of blue sky could be seen in the distance along our route of travel. Robin has been nursing a knee pain that is does not seem to be improving. Today’s walk was short and we arrived in Aumont-Aubrac about 2:00. If Robin’s knee doesn’t feel better in the morning then we will ship her backpack ahead to Nasbinals, tomorrow’s destination. We just need to see how it goes and take it a day at a time until she feels confident her knee is okay. We have a long way to go, and this is not what Robin wanted or expected, but here we are and we will do whatever needs to be done to continue. On the plus side today’s walk took us once again through beautiful countryside. We met a French family at dinner last night, and ran into them again at our luch break today. We are trying to firm up reservations for places to stay in advance of the May 1st holiday that will bring many French people onto the Chemin for a long weekend’s walk. Gerard (my new friend from last night) was kind enough to help me get a booking in Nasbinals for tomorrow night. We will book onward from there. Booking ahead is certainly recommended on this route as there are many times when crowds appear and beds disappear (particularly the ones in the less expensive gîtes). There will always be exceptions. We have been walking on and off with a Japanese guy from Tokyo who blissfully moves onward “sans reservations” and somehow seems to survive. While at lunch today I heard some American voices, and they turned out to be a tour group moving along part of the Chemin with the assistance of an American guide and a transport service. These were mostly older folks and they seemed to be truly enjoying the experience. Why not? So here we are at day’s end doing the usual laundry, posting and planning that is part of our daily routine. We are to experience “aligot” with dinner tonight. It is a French dish made from potatoes and cheese (not recommended by the American Heart Association), but is part of the Chemin experience. More on that after it hits bottom. Time to collect the laundry so for now au revoir from Aumont- Aubrac.

 

Day 6: Aumont-Aubrac to Nasbinals (26.5 kms)

We had a fun dinner at our Chambre d’Hôte, Le Sentiers Fleuris. The owner is a bit of a showman and made a big production of preparing the aligot (a local dish of cheese and potatoes). Robin shot a short video to explain exactly what this looks like. I’ll try to upload it. In short it is very elastic. He further explained that the cheese used is very young and to work in this dish it must only be between 3 and 6 days old (if my memory serves me). In any event we all cheered on our host as he paddled and stretched the aligot to his satisfaction. We have been meeting and enjoying the company of many French people along the Chemin. Last night was no exception. A couple who sat next to us at dinner turned out to be great conversationalists. They used a used a mix of English and French, and we responded in kind. Somehow it all works out. Walking the Chemin without a working knowledge of French is not a deal breaker. Many people do it.

Fast forward to this morning. Robin and I awoke to Robin’s phone buzzing at 6:30. We stayed in an overflow apartment last night and had a short walk to breakfast. We brought along Robin’s backpack which we had transported to Nasbinals (8 euros). After a breakfast of bowls of coffee, bread and jam we gathered up my pack and set out for Nasbinals. Robin’s leg was going to get a test today, but we wanted to see how it would do without the weight of her backpack. She did just fine. Surprisingly the weather was once again in our favor. We set out under partly cloudy skies, calm conditions and temperatures in the low 40’s F. There were quite a few pilgrims departing with us, and there was a festive atmosphere in the air.

Departure

As we headed out of town everyone was bundled up against the cold (us included). A short hill later people were peeling off down to t shirts. We made our way through a tangle of backpacks, and ambled off into a gloriously sunny morning. Today was when we first encountered what I had expected the Aubrac Plateau to look like. A few images come to mind. The Meseta (with a lot ,more rocks), Scotland, or perhaps Montana just east of the mountains. In any event it was a remarkable world we found ourselves walking through. As we moved along the plateau a cold wind picked up and around lunchtime we found groups, of two or three sheltering behind low stone walls enjoying a sandwich. We continued our rock hopping and bog jumping until we reached a little town called Finieyrols (10.5 kms from Nasbinals). We had prayed for something to be open so we could at least get a coffee to warm up. We were not to be disappointed for as we chugged up the hill into town we came across a little shack, attended by a very energetic owner, that provided shelter from the wind, food and hot drinks. Robin and I enjoyed coffee and soup as we tucked ourselves further into the shack and away from the wind. The owner explained that he and his family had resurrected an old barn and were creating a very nice Chambre d’Hôte in its place. Oddly enough, we saw the baggage transport van we had hired to move Robin’s backpack to Nasbinals pull up in front of the shack. The driver had stopped for a sandwich. I asked him if he had picked up a bag in Aumont-Aubrac. He opened the back of the van and there was our backpack, nice and toasty soon to be back en route to our destination for the night. What a system, and it works!

After lunch we set out again simply enjoying being alive and being gifted with this beautiful day. As we walked along, looking at the countryside, and the nature of the trail we found ourselves being ever thankful for dry weather. There are certainly parts of this trail where heavy rains would make it quite challenging. There is no where for the water to go other than where you hope to walk. In many areas the fall of the trail is quite steep so not only does the water pursue you, but it seems it would do so at a high rate of speed. In short…not fun. But, miraculously to date, we have experienced, what for this area would have to be considered, perfect weather. Side note. At dinner tonight I heard a guy saying that at the end of May last year in Nasbinals they still had 50 cms of snow on the ground. That explains why pilgrims along this route routinely carry winter kit even in late spring. So to wrap up, Robin and I (with still a bit of spring in our step) hoved into Nasbinals around 3:30. We had somehow gathered our pilgrim trail family together, at the entrance to town, and so off we went (ensemble) to our hotel bar for a well earned cold beer. Some of our friends are returning to jobs tomorrow and will be missed, while others will be staying on, and will join us once again on the Chemin in the morning. The journey continues. À demain.

The Shack
Approaching Nasbinals
A quick look at aligot
 

 

Day 7: Nasbinals to St. Chély d’Aubrac (17 kms)

Our typical breakfast

This morning we rolled up the shutters to look out onto a damp landscape, crowned with low hanging stratus that looked like there was still some moisture left in them. Robin and I started our usual morning routine of gathering gear, having breakfast, and swinging out the door for another day walking the Chemin St. Jacques. Our stay in Nasbinals was fun, but it was now time to get back to business. Today was our last day on the Aubrac Plateau. We set out from Nasbinals around 8:30, joined up with several other departing pilgrims, and started climbing. It is curious how we always seem to start the day climbing. Maybe that is good as it warms us up. Today’s temps were hovering in the upper 30’s as we walked out of town. They didn’t improve much until later in the day, when we finally descended from the plateau. At that point my little key chain thermometer was reading 45 F. Weather wise the story had two parts, wind and rain. A cold wind dogged us all the way along our climb to the summit of the Aubrac Plateau (1324 meters). The rain held off for awhile, but mists gathered and thickened during the morning, and by noon they had decided to just become rain. The entire afternoon’s descent was done under continuous light rain. While this was manageable for us it did create a drainage problem that came to light further down trail. More on that in a bit as I am getting ahead of myself. Back to the climb to the summit. As we wound our way back and forth we moved off trails to simply walking across fields. The mists stayed where they were and we just climbed up to them. As we enjoyed the distant views there was a bit of a somber bleakness that came through. I actually like that. All the while the moan of the wind reminded us that this area deserves respect as it would be easy enough to run afoul of a storm and runout of luck and ideas at the same time. It was indeed a beautiful, bracing morning, that Robin and I will long remember. We stopped at the only cafe open in Aubrac (thank you Lord), and tucked into two steaming bowls of vegetable soup, coffee and even a glass of red wine (when in France as the saying goes..). Suitably fortified we set out on the second half of our day, “le descent.”

The aforementioned rain now came into play. While it never really became a downpour it was still enough water to start filling the trails as we went down. The further down we went the worse it got as the watershed seemed to drain everything into the Chemin. And BTW, the trails today were actually more like rocky stream beds, than trails, just waiting to be filled up. They are also very narrow so if it really started to pour down, you would be just out of luck and would be forced to slosh through. A wise pilgrim, in those conditions, would be encouraged to walk the road. I would do it in a heartbeat. So down we went (very slowly) hopping from rock to rock, tuft of grass to tuft of grass simply trying to avoid getting soaked. All you can do is stare at your feet and hope they are going where you want them to. Downward we went looking Iike cowled monks under rain jacket hoods, with heads bowed to the task at hand. This was when we met the circus. As we rounded a bend we came upon an extraordinary sight, a little colorful hobbit army of mini campers, pilgrims (who knows what). In their lead was one of the adult chaperones who was in turn attached to a donkey. The donkey was carrying all their camping gear, and was seemingly having second thoughts about this gig as the trail steepened. There was much singing, from the children (who seemed to enjoy the mud), much coaxing of the donkey from the leader, and much slipping and sliding by all hands, including the donkey. Enough was soon enough for us and at the next available spot on the trail we stepped aside and waived good bye. Mercifully, we soon arrived at St. Chély d’Aubrac, our destination for today. We found a very nice small hotel, Les Coudercous, and settled in. The couple who run the hotel are wonderful hosts, and have been extremely kind and helpful (did I mention patient) as we sought their help with lodging further ahead. So the muck of the day is now down the shower drain, our clothes are in the wash, and I am in the bar catching up on our blog. All is well. Robin did well today, but we will continue to transport her backpack for a few more days before testing her leg again. Off to Espalion tomorrow, about 22 kms from here. Méteo France (weather service) shows clearing conditions for the next few days so spirits are now inching up after today’s slog (maybe it’s the beer).

In closing I want to thank all the faithful readers of our blog and offer my apologies when I am not able to respond to all your kind comments. Most days just getting the blog post out is my limit. But thanks for thinking of us, and even if we do not respond we are also thinking of you.

Cheers,

John

I am having trouble posting the photos so I will post the text and try to post the pictures separately.

Robin following the donkey