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Walking Le Chemin De St. Jacques In France - Part 2

In a field of sunflowers
Danny in a field of sunflowers. Castle in the air. Top photograph by another pilgrim. Bottom photograph by Danny Bernstein.

Editor's note: In this, part two of her series on walking Le Chemin de St. Jacques in France, Danny Bernstein travels the second half of her month-long journey along one of France's national trails. If you missed the first story, you can find it here.  On this second leg, fall is firmly setting in, painting its colors along the countryside.

I've been walking on Le Chemin de St. Jacques in France for about two weeks. So far I've covered 204 miles, with another 236 miles to reach the Spanish border. 

Cahors to Condom

Fall has arrived on the trail. The countryside looks like a needlepoint tapestry. On this canvas, a mosaic of fields is laid out every which way. Sunflowers are drying on their stalks, ready to be harvested and turned into cooking oil. Sorghum and tobacco pepper the landscape. Other fields are freshly plowed, awaiting new crops. Fruit orchards and gardens fill in the still life. You can't see this scenery on television or a travel magazine. Each part looks ordinary, but the total effect is mesmerizing.

I haven't bought fruit in days because I've been eating a lot of juicy blackberries on the trail. As I go further south, I pluck ripe figs off the trees. First, I was cautious and made sure that the fig trees were volunteers before I yanked a few. Now if I can reach them on the public path, they're mine. I pick prune plums off the ground that must have dropped recently. The plums are still intact and free of insects. I fill a Ziplock bag and place it carefully in my pack.

Wild boxwoods line the trail. You can find boxwoods around home sites all over Great Smoky Mountains National Park back in the United States. They're not native to the southern Appalachians but come from western and southern Europe.

There's been a lot of consolidation of land and farms in this area of southwest France. The trail passes many abandoned buildings set between several huge farms called Mas. These farms are similar to a station in Australia or a ranch in Texas with cows, sheep, and goats.

Walking day after day has taken on a life of its own. I could have studied and read up on everything on the trail and still not be able to anticipate what I'd find. One morning in a reverie filled with sunflower fields, I look up to see a ruined castle. Where did that come from and what is it? No idea.

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A cross on the trail at the entrance of a village

To appreciate Le Chemin, you must do it all. Gite (hostel) owners and shopkeepers try to be helpful by suggesting short cuts.

"This variant is shorter, less climbing, more beautiful with less road walking."

But what's the point? Some people skip around by taking buses to see the "best bits." Who knows what the best bits are? A racehorse farm? A medieval village? Two donkeys playing and nuzzling each other? Meeting a pilgrim who's walking with his donkey all the way to Santiago?

Further, on, I hear dogs howling. About six dogs with antenna collars are sniffing the ground between rows of corn. Whoops! It's hunting season in France. The hunters wear orange vests, but I'm not.

"You do know that there are walkers on Le Chemin?" I say to the hunter.

"But Madame, you have nothing to worry about. Hunters aren't allowed to shoot in the direction of the trail," comes the reply.

Is that supposed to comfort me?

This is high-tech hunting. His hunting buddy is way up the field and the two are communicating by walkie-talkies. They've parked their vans further up, ready to move on at a moment's notice if they get new information from others. They're looking for fox and deer. Because the land is so open, hunters can see what they're shooting at so much better than in our wooded national forests. Maybe I shouldn't be concerned.

The Chemin goes through lots of tiny villages on narrow cobbled streets. At this point, I'm walking alone because everyone seems to have started the day at a different point. But we all meet up at a gite, trading stories at dinner. It's like a campsite where someone else does the cooking. I probably should take a rest day but I'm afraid to break my rhythm. Besides I like the people I meet at the gites. If I miss a day, I'll lose them.

France is the queen of small businesses. Each gite, restaurant, and store does things in its own way. It's their business and they're not concerned about insulting customers. If you don't like it, you can just move on. One gite owner called me an "American tourist" because I dared to not finish my glass of wine.

"You're wasting good wine," he said. If he thought I was going to drink more wine than I wanted, he was wrong. And, yes, my French is good enough to tell him so.

The trail goes through Condom--OK, laugh--the last big town on the trail with more than 7,000 residents; it's the center of the Armagnac industry. Armagnac, a type of brandy, is poured on everything here, especially fruit.

A modern sculpture of four musketeers stands in the town square. d'Artagnan, the hero of the Alexandre Dumas novel, The Three Musketeers, came from the Condom countryside.

312.5 miles done, 127.5 to St. Jean Pied-de-Port

Condom to St. Jean Pied de Port

Sunflower fields have disappeared and been replaced with vineyards of white and red grapes, all of it destined to become wine or Armagnac. The grapes, though small and filled with seeds, are delicious. So why, oh why, do people insist on stomping on them and letting the juice rot?

The trail keeps me moving southwest. The sun comes up so much later in the morning. A couple of weeks ago, I could hit the trail by seven o' clock. Now it barely gets light a half-hour later. I want to be able to see the trail blazes. My biggest fear on the trail is getting lost, and one afternoon, I do.

When I realize that I haven't seen a blaze for at least a half-hour, I start to get concerned. Another 30 minutes in the right direction (I wear a compass around my neck) and still no blazes. My destination for the evening is the village of Nogaro. Since I have no idea where I am, I don't know how to get there. I wait at a road crossing until I can stop a car.

"I'm not looking for a ride," I say without taking a breath. "How do I get to Nogaro on the road?"

I don't expect the driver to know about Le Chemin. He gives me instructions and I walk the road, climbing more than if I had stayed on the trail but at least I'm no longer lost.

Things have changed on Le Chemin as I move south. Every village still has a 12th century church. But the countryside is now filled with cornfields for silage and the vineyards are gone. I can see the Pyrenees in the distance. The jagged mountains, which form the boundary between France and Spain, are like a thin pencil line. The French accents are thicker and I hear a little Spanish in the cafes.

I'm in the department Pyrenee-Atlantique in the Bearn area (no connection with Bern, Switzerland), plodding toward the Pays Basque. Every house has colorful shutters to keep out the sun. Le Chemin seems to be more important to the locals.

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Colorful trail marker

It has always been well-blazed with white and red horizontal lines. But here the signs have shells, colorful markers, arrows, and now and then, even a work of art.

By now, I can converse in French with anyone about almost anything. Our fast-food diet interests the French much more than our foreign policy.

"Americans don't cook. Right? They just go to Macdo, (their word for MacDonald)."

Basque Country

Now the Pyrenees are no longer a thin pencil line but an obvious mountain range that's getting closer by the mile. I am now officially in Basque country.

The signs are all in French and Basque. The other historic languages, Occitan and Bearnaise, have deep Latin roots, but Basque isn't related to any other language, as far as researchers can tell. It's full of hard consonants like J, X, and Z. It could use a few more vowels. From an outsider's perspective, it looks as unpronounceable as Finnish, though it's not related to that language either.

The houses all look alike, with their peak roofs and dark red shutters. And for some reason, the churches are closed to visitors. Previously, every church, large and small, was open, but the ones I now pass are locked. It does speed up the hike.

I'm getting close to the end of my adventure. I stop at the Stele de Gibraltar, a spot with a cross where the three French pilgrim paths come together and now follow the same route to St. Jean Pied-de-Port.

In a hotel where I've having coffee, I bump into a Cousinade. Over 90 cousins and extended family gather once a year to eat, drink, and catch up with each other. It's past 5:30 p.m. and this meal has been going on since noon. By now, they've had their desserts and coffee and are ordering after-dinner drinks.

The children have been sitting quietly playing with their toys and action figures. No one would think of providing special entertainment for them. When they found out that I was an American on Le Chemin, they kissed and hugged me and the questions started.

I've been asked over and over where I'm from in the States. This is not an existentialist question. I'm from Asheville, North Carolina: Caroline de Nord.

Most are puzzled. Before you think that the French should know about North Carolina, ask how many Americans could name more than two cities on France.

Caroline de Nord, between Washington and Florida. A smile of recognition. It's good enough for most. Occasionally, someone says Ocracoke, in Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A couple of people have even visited Ocracoke.

"Yes, yes," I say enthusiastically, but on the western part of the state in the Smoky Mountains. I gave them too much information.

They hear west and mountains and reply "the Rocky Mountains." If the French have visited the United States on vacation, they probably flew to San Francisco or Denver, rented a car, and tried to visit every Western national park and drive more kilometers than their friends.

"No, no. In the eastern mountains of the U.S.," I tell them.

More confusion. I pull out my last trick. "Dolly Parton." Instant recognition as they try to pronounce "Appalachia." Thank you, Dolly

On the last day, the walk is magical. The Pyrenees are a constant presence and you can see the trail, which climbs over the mountains and down into Spain. I'm in St. Jean Pied de Port at the traditional end of Le Chemin de St. Jacques, which is also the beginning of the El Camino in Spain. Pilgrims pour in with their backpacks, bikes, and horses. If you saw the movie, The Way,  this is where the movie starts. For some unknown reason, the signs started saying El Camino de Compostelle a couple of days ago. Hey, wait a minute. We're still in France.

The historic section of St. Jean PDP is a fortress with stone walls all around. I choose to have my "end" picture taken at the gate of St. Jacques, the entrance into town. While we're taking pictures and having our pictures taken by other pilgrims, a group of tourists come by on a walking tour. They stop to gawk at us as if they're visiting a zoo. Since it's an English-speaking tour, I volunteer to say a few words about my experience. I may have convinced a couple to think about it. My message is always the same:

    Anyone can do this. Like most hikes, the most important attribute is perseverance.

For me, walking from Le Puy-en-Velay to St. Jean Pied-de-Port took me 440 miles, a distance I managed to cover in 32 hiking days

The End Of Le Chemin De St. Jacques

Some pilgrims continue to Santiago, another 450 miles. Others are just going over the Pyrenees to say that they've entered Spain. But I wanted a French experience. I'm done hiking and will take a train to my birth city.

Next week:  Want to walk Le Chemin de St. Jacques? I'll lay out the planning details on how to do it.

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Thank you for sharing your story. I love the pictures you paint.

Great story. For the French, the next stage after St Jean PDP carries historical significance. The climb up the Col de Roncevaux (Roncevaux Pass) is supposedly where Roland died in some epic battle in 778.

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