20 May Arthez to Pomps to Arthez

I wake up during the night to the sound of rain and it is still raining when I get up. The forecast is for several more days of this. The high today will be 12, so I don’t have to worry about overheating. The plan today is for Laurent to take me back to Pomps, from where I will promptly walk back to Arthez.

This is one of those moments when I could wish to have a little less of that authenticity thing going on. The place where I will stay tonight is just two kilometres from here. I could just walk out the door, take the chemin for about half an hour and present myself at the next gite. No-one would know except me. The trouble is, I would know. And I am the only person whom I have to face every morning in the mirror.

Laurent still thinks I’m crazy. Before I get out of the vehicle he tells me that if I have any problem on the chemin, just call him and he will come pick me up. It is a very gracious offer which I hope not to have to accept.

So it’s back to Pomps and walk, wearing all of my rain gear, for about three hours in the cold and wet. I wanted the experience, I’m having the experience that all the other pilgrims go through. Except for those who get a ride.

The rain is steady though light most of the time. Occasionally very heavy. There won’t be any view of the Pyrenees today. I start with my fleece on but have to take it off after half an hour. The weather isn’t hot but I am just too hot with it on. Almost all of the way today is on road, for which I am quite grateful. The only part off road is downhill and slippery with surface mud. At least it’s not deep.

I stop in Arthez to have a coffee and there in the little cafe is Francois, eating a pastry and having coffee. We talk very briefly, I have my grande creme and walk on. The place I am going, the Lawrenson’s, is about 2 kilometres farther down the road. Eddy is a school classmate of Les Foster’s at whose home I stayed in Victoria when I was there April a year ago to speak to the Victoria chapter of the Canadian Company of Pilgrims.

I arrive, quite soaked, about 12:30 and am greeted with a warm welcome. Eddy and Irene are gracious hosts … and they speak English. This is the most English that I have heard or spoken in a month. I get off my really wet rain gear and change into dry clothes. Everything gets hung up to dry. I also stuff my boots with newspaper so they will dry by morning.

I am offered hot coffee which I accept with alacrity and hot milk. Irene asks me if I would like to have lunch with them – paella. I cannot think of anything I’d rather do, so she makes their regular Sunday – this is how I find out it’s Sunday – paella, but more than normal to account for the extra place at the table.

While we have lunch, the rain really starts to come down and it pours intermittently for about half an hour. Folks still out walking will find it difficult and I am extremely glad that I am watching it pour from inside a dry warm space.

We talk about the history of this area. There is lots of it. For example, in a nearby town called Orthez, in February 1914, Wellington fought and beat French Marshall Soult in the Napoleonic wars. It was the beginning of the end for Napoleon. This is also the area of the Cathars, who were the subject of the first crusade by Christians against other Christians and people who suffered dreadfully at the hands of the inquisition. More about that later.

Two other wet pilgrims arrive, a Quebecoise and a Swiss. I am hoping that it will be Joimie and Fanny. but it’s not. They are likely way ahead of me. It’s Sylvie from the Montreal area and another woman from Switzerland.

The first thing I ask Sylvie after the introductions, is if her last name is Parent. She is a dead ringer for Ginette Parent, a dear long time friend, Quebecoise, who now lives just north of Berlin, and Sylvie is about a generation younger. But it’s not.

I sit and talk with Eddy and Irene through the afternoon. We talk about the history of the area, man’s inhumanity to man, religion and spirituality, how they love to walk in France and Spain, our families, our children and how we are all fans of Bill Bryson and the Flashman books. They tell me how they got into the gite business. The French family next door, who were very kind when the Lawrensons moved in 10 years ago, run a small gite with four beds.

After they got to know each other better, they asked if the Lawrensons could occasionally take an overflow person or two, just provide an extra bed once in while. Eventually it got so Irene and Eddy set up a four bed, two room operation of their own. I have a room to myself with two beds and the other pilgrims share a room. It works out very well.

I have dinner with the two ladies and I get complimented on my French by Sylvie. This I don’t expect but I am very happy to hear it. She also suggest that I should make my book known to the Quebec equivalent of the Canadian Company of Pilgrims. They have over 10,000 members, which is a couple of orders of magnitude larger than the English group. She also says that many of them in the Montreal area speak and read English.

The weather clears up and it looks quite lovely although the weather forecast for the next two days remains wet and cool. We shall see what the morning brings. I am off to a place called the Abbaye de Sauvelade, where there is apparently a gite called Le P’tit Laa. I say apparently because Eddy tells me that there is nothing there but the ruined abbey. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow. It is only about 12-14 kilometres, ought to be an easy walk. I should know better than to tempt fate by thinking like this.

He also confirms something that I have been suspecting for some time. When they moved here 10 years ago, the GR65 passed by their door on a quiet paved road, the D275. Several years ago it got changed so that now the pilgrim path heads off into the hills, adding about four kilometres and a lot of off-road hill climbing. Two possibilities spring to mind. One is that the municipality asked for the change to get the pilgrim traffic off the road for safety reasons.

The other, and in my mind more likely, reason is that hikers want to walk in the woods, not on roads, so the route was changed to accommodate them and, by accident or intention, inconvenience the pilgrims. While we pilgrims are happy to see the woods and hills, we also want a direct route to our next bed. Roads are good, too.

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