Part 1 To Mont-St-Michel – Pilgrims Trail, Chemin Aux Anglais
Winchester, one-time capital of England, was an important city in the Middle Ages. Its cathedral houses the shrine to St Swithun, former bishop of Winchester, who died in the 9th century, and which attracted huge numbers of pilgrims from all over the country and from the continent as well. An even more popular desti nation for pilgrims was Mont-St-Michel in France. Most British pilgrims would stop at Winchester and Mont-St-Michel on their way to Santiago de Compostela. There are waymarked trails to assist the modern pilgrim covering the whole route. Starting from Winchester, the Pilgrims Trail goes to Portsmouth where a ferry runs to Cherbourg. From here to Mont-St-Michel, the pilgrim has a choice: commence the Chemin aux Anglais from Cherbourg following the coastal route or from nearby Barfleur, the principal medieval port, following the inland route.
I arrived in Winchester on 24 April, 2013, having flown from Sydney via Singapore and Amsterdam to Southampton, then train. I had booked into the King Alfred Pub for two nights so that I could have a look around Winchester before starting to walk. My first port of call was the tourist information office where I purchased a slim guide to the Pilgrims Trail. After checking into the Pub and some lunch, head for the Cathedral where my pilgrim passport gets its first stamp and I am welcomed into the Cathedral free of charge. The following day I did the tourist thing; there’s plenty to see.
Friday 26 April was cold, the sky overcast. It had rained in the night. After an excellent breakfast, for which I was not charged, I head for the Cathedral and the start of my pilgrimage. Past the Cathedral, through Kingsgate with the small church of St Swithuns-upon-Kingsgate, reaching more open country along the Itchen navigation and the water meadows. Not far out of Winchester is St Cross Hospital, England’s oldest alms-house, founded around 1132 to provide food, clothing and accommodation for ‘thirteen poor men, feeble and so reduced in strength that they can scarcely, or not at all support themselves, without other aid’. The Hospital’s medieval buildings are currently home to 25 Brothers of the Order of the Hospital of St Cross and the Order of Noble Poverty.
The route to Bishop’s Waltham takes the pilgrim through the beautiful rolling landscape of Hampshire. The way marking is generally good and there is not much bitumen. Part of the route follows the course of a Roman road. Passing the ruined Bishop’s Waltham Palace, built in the 12th century, I reach the centre of the small town and check into the Crown Inn. Admiral Villeneuve, commander of the French fleet at Trafalgar, was billeted here after his capture. Whilst the décor is olde worlde, it is not genuine despite the inn being old. The landlord told me that it had recently been refurbished. Previously it was very run-down 60s style and had been the place to meet your bikie mates and buy (or sell) drugs.
It was another cold day for the stage to Portsmouth. Once again fine countryside except for the last few km. Dodgy signage after Casham sends me the wrong way, but I get there eventually, tired and footsore. I had hoped to take a ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, but the season only starts in May. I took a train to Poole and the ferry from there to Cherbourg the following morning. The plan had been to take a bus to Barfleur and start walking on Tuesday morning. Unbeknowns to me, or the lady in the tourist office, there is no bus during school holidays and, yes, it was school holidays.
After a series of minor misadventures I reached Barfleur on Tuesday morning and started walking as planned. A cold, grey, windy day as I head for Réville with its church to St Jacques and then to St-Vaast-la-Hogue, a very attractive and popular seaside resort and fishing port where the tourist office books me into a B&B in Montebourg. At lunch in a waterfront restaurant, my first chips in France are a great disappointment. I did not have a good chip the whole time I was in France this year. A friend advised me to forget chips and stick with galettes, particularly in Normandy and Brittany.
I do not suffer from a bitumen allergy. On longer pilgrimages, I do not always stick to the waymarked route and sometimes take the road, particularly in bad weather, as I don’t enjoy wading through mud. Guidebooks go to great lengths to avoid road walking and they are usually successful, but the route they follow can be very convoluted and you have to be vigilant to avoid missing a turning. On the Via Francigena, this happened to me so often during the first weeks that I used the guide less and less and the road more and more, shaving over 100km off the distance to Rome in the process.
From St-Vaast the official route runs close to the coast, which is probably quieter and more scenic. I followed the D14 which wasn’t busy and had good elevated views of the coast arriving in Montebourg with its 14th century church of St-Jacques de Montebourg. The church was badly damaged following the WWII D-Day landings and rebuilt in the 50s. The proprietor of the delightful B&B Les Clématites en Cotentin picked me up from outside the church and delivered me to a very nice room, more like a bed-sit than a mere room. Unfortunately dinner was not provided and the few restaurants in town were closed. I had to make do with panini from a pizza joint.
Mayday dawns cold but dry. I have a 35km walk to Carentan ahead and, it being Mayday, most facilities are closed. The day’s walk is very pleasant on farm tracks and minor roads with lots of medieval churches, mostly the same design: originally 12th century rebuilt in the 14th century and a tower added. Towards St-Mère-Église I stumbled on a gypsy camp of two horse-drawn caravans. Horses everywhere!
This part of Normandy contains lots of reminders of the WWII Battle for Normandy, with information boards and plaques, war museums and so on. I saw a couple of WWII era jeeps being driven around. St-Mère-Église is a famous D-Day (or J-Jour) town where an American paratrooper landed on the church tower and dangled for a couple of hours, was taken prisoner and liberated later that day. This episode was portrayed in the movie The Longest Day and today the church of ND-de-l’Assomption has a full-size model trooper, complete with parachute, dangling from its tower. From here continuing on minor roads and tracks to St-Marie-du-Mont where the church tower was used by American snipers. Around the church and in the nearby streets, an historic path is marked out with plaques on the walls of houses, which tell the story of the liberation of the town on 6 June 1944. In Vierville is the delightful Romanesque church of St Eloi containing a statue of St Jacques. More D-Day reminders in Angoville-au-Plain where the church was turned into a hospital by American medics who treated the wounded and saved 80 men and 1 boy. They agreed to treat German casualties as well, provided that all weapons were left outside. Just 6km further to Carentan and the Hotel Restaurant l’Escapade for an inexpensive and very good menu de jour.
The next two days I followed the D971, being the driest and most direct route to Coutances. It probably follows one of the historic routes. The ‘green’ route is very convoluted and largely succeeds in avoiding the road. The road passes through a flat and largely agricultural landscape lined with hedges and trees. There is any number of attractive villages along the way with grey stone buildings, some rendered and whitewashed. Many of the churches are not original, having been rebuilt after war damage. There is no designated pilgrim accommodation, but the hotels are pleasant and the food good. There are occasional nice touches: handwritten on my bill at the hotel de la Poste in Périers: Petit déjeuner OFFERT et Bonne Route. The principal attraction in Coutances is its 13th century Gothic cathedral ND-de-Coutances. The original cathedral was built in the 5th century and destroyed by Normans in the 9th. A new cathedral in the Romanesque style was constructed in the 11th century and largely destroyed by fire in 1218. What we see today is the 13th century Gothic rebuild which is mostly unaltered.
Saturday and I head back to the seaside at Granville, a busy fishing port with ferry links to the Channel Islands. The lower part of the town is built on reclaimed land. The upper part of the old town, founded in the 12th century is surrounded by ramparts originally constructed by the English in the 15th century. Well worth a stroll around, particularly in order to see the church of ND-du-Cap-Lihou, built between the 15th and 17th centuries. The tourist information office arranged accommodation for me in Granville, Genets and Mont-StMichel, as well as providing information about the walk across the bay.
Sunday a fine warm day. I follow the D911, which runs close to the sea, as far as St-Jean-le-Thomas, stopping to view churches in St-Pair-sur-Mer and Carolles. Climbing the hill from Carolles towards St-Jean-le-Thomas, I experience a moment of magic as the monastery of Mont-St-Michel comes suddenly into view on the horizon. A slightly darker blue than the sea and sky it seemed to hover over the grassy cliff edge. Leaving the D911 I descend towards the beach and a brasserie for lunch before continuing along the foreshore to Genêts, an attractive small town. The youth hostel is located in the former railway station buildings which have been nicely refurbished.
It is tempting to cross the bay to Mont-St-Michel alone, but the sands can be treacherous and the tides very big and very fast flowing. It is safest to go with a guide and costs less than 7€. The starting point for the crossing is Bec-d’Andaine where there is a café and ticket booths. There were two large groups and my group of six waiting to make the crossing. It was a beautiful day for it, but not too warm and I wasn’t looking forward to walking on cold sand and through colder sea water but, in the event, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. The crossing takes about 2 hours. The surface is mostly firm and ridged by wave action, but there are soft spots and sections with soft surface but hard underneath, so slippery. I had to paddle only twice: once calf deep and once knee deep.
Arriving at the Mont, there is a free shuttle to the car park on the mainland. I checked into my overpriced hotel and then after lunch returned to the Mont where I spent the rest of the day exploring together with the hordes of other tourists. I discovered when in the tourist office that there was a pilgrim refuge within the walls where I could have stayed. I went to the refuge to get a tampon for my credencial and then took the Abbey tour …
Do put Mont-St-Michel on your bucket list.
Part 2: Mont-St-Michel To Royan: Voie Des Capitales
Tuesday May 7  is overcast but much warmer than yesterday. After an excellent breakfast I head down the road towards Pontorson. There is supposed to be an off-road GR, but I can’t see any waymarks. They may have been obliterated by construction works.
At Pontorson I visit the tourist office.
The officer tries to book me into an hotel in Tremblay, but it is complet. I am warned that Easter school holidays are still on in parts of France, including Paris, and I might have some difficulties between now and Sunday. Fortunately there is a pilgrim refuge, abri de pèlerins, in Antrain. I am given a map of the town showing the way to the GR which is mostly a former railway line which has been surfaced. A pleasant 11km to Antrain; I even take my jacket off for the first time.
I am to pick up the key for the refuge from the town hall, which is closed when I arrive, so I find the bar restaurant, L’Embuscade, run by a very friendly couple and with equally friendly locals who look like they have just come off the set of the movie Deliverance. The landlady recognises that I am a Jacquaire right away and waxes lyrical about the new abri de pèlerins. I wax lyrical about a lunch of smoked salmon with tartare, lime and a tomato/capsicum relish; chicken and vegetables; strawberries and cream and a 25cl pichet (carafe) of red wine for under 11€.
After lunch I pay my 10€ and collect the key to the refuge from the Mairie. The refuge is centrally located with six beds and is squeaky clean. You can get an idea of the popularity of this route from the refuge guest book: 2010 6 pilgrims; 2011 27; 2012 24. I am No 6 for 2013. The Mayor drops by to pin up a notice recommending a nearby bakery for breakfast.
Next morning after breakfast at the nearby bakery I stroll along the very pleasant GR39 to Tremblay where the church of St Martin is open. I go inside and the man who has been cleaning shakes me by the hand, gives me a leaflet history of the church, tells me that the retablo has a twin in England but he doesn’t know where, shows me how to switch the lights off and leaves. I continue through Romazy, partly on Roman roads, to my destination for the day of Sens-de-Bretagne. Here the streets are full of people waving flags, marching and brass bands: it is WWII Victory Day and everything is closed. L’Auberge de la Tourelle has a notice in the window: Restaurant Complet. I go inside and it is clearly laid out for a group lunch to follow the celebrations outdoors. But my luck is in! There is a room and the patronne will feed me in an alcove outside the kitchen, will put a plate in the fridge for my dinner and provide breakfast. She also makes a phone call to book me a room in Betton for the next day; quelle ange.
Thursday dawns bright, clear and cold. The route follows farm roads and tracks passing a picturesque étang (small lake) at Andouillé-Neuville which also has a beautiful, locked church. I manage to reach St-Medard-s-Ille before the shops close and so there is baguette, terrine and wine for lunch by the canal. Here I join the Canal d’Ille et Rance which I will follow all the way to Rennes. The canal was built in the early 19th century to transport freight from Rennes to the Channel port of St-Malo. Nowadays it transports holiday makers, accommodates fisherpeople and is a Green Route for walkers and cyclists. Reaching Betton I leave the canal to find my hotel which is about 1 km out of town. It is an hotel, restaurant and bar and is very run down. Nothing is quite clean, the glasses filmy. However the food is good and the bed comfortable. I sleep very well.
Next morning after a good breakfast, Bernard the barman directs me to a path leading to the canal which takes me to Rennes, capital of Brittany. Much of Rennes was destroyed by a disastrous fire in 1720, started accidentally by a drunken carpenter. Not much of the medieval city remains and I did not plan to spend time there. Here I get lost for the first time on this trip. How? Didn’t you have a map? It was because of the map and my assumptions about it that I got lost. In my guide the map occupies pages 32 and 33; there is no North indicator and the previous map had South at top. I assume that I am entering Rennes on 2 bottom left and leaving 3 top right. WRONG! I ask a guy for directions to the youth hostel and he sends me back the way I have come. I am deeply distrustful, cannot get my head around this, retrace my steps, find the hostel which I hadn’t previously seen because I wasn’t expecting it to be there, had a lightbulb moment and realised what had happened.
I leave Rennes following the river Vilaine which has been canalised with locks. Beautiful scenery, magnificent trees, picturesque étangs. Approaching the bridge at Apigne I see a building with the red and yellow Pelforth beer sign. A bar? A restaurant? Both? Open? Yes, the trifecta! Entrée is a buffet of salads, charcuterie, prawns, smoked salmon; main is chicken with potatoes, mushrooms, lardons in a chicken/mshroom sauce; dessert apple tart. I have a pichet of rosé, cup of coffee and pay €12.30 for the lot.
After a fine lunch I continue along the riverside to Le Pont-Réan, my destination for the day. Saturday, sunny but cool, feeling good and walking strongly along the riverside. By midday I am at the canal lock opposite Bourg-des-Comptes, a beautiful spot where a local confirms where I am.
“Vous allez loin?” “Oui.”
All of a sudden I find myself at the bridge leading to Pléchatel where I plan to spend the night at Auberge de la Plage. The proprietor has a room for me, but the restaurant is closed for renovations but I can have lunch with the family and a plate for dinner. Fortunately his sister speaks English very well. Chicken liver paté, green salad, onion jam; pork cheeks in red sauce with potato cakes gratin; apple tart – fabulous – with caramel; rosé.
The Auberge is by the river and has a large terrace overlooking the water. A fine place to drink wine and daydream, which is what I do. Another day on the river, sunny and cool, reaching Guipry by lunch time. Here there is a beautiful chapel, ND-du-Bon-Port, le Port, Messac et la-Vilaine. The old girl protects them from floods and other disasters. The waymarked route is different from the guidebook route, following the river more closely and adding km. A few small boats and lots of weekenders. Between Pont-de-Roche and Langon, my destination, the waymarking is inadequate and confusing but I get there. I enter Langon on the D56 and start looking for an hotel. Near the imposing church is a small bar. I ask a man sitting outside if there is an hotel. He doesn’t know but goes into the bar to find out. A woman comes bursting out:
“Il yaun gite de pèlerins. C’est fermé, mais j’ai les clefs et le tampon.”
I had chanced on the bar where the keys and stamp for the pilgrim refuge I didn’t know about were kept. Time for a beer; Belgian beer is often available on tap in this part of France. Across the road is the delightful Chapelle St-Agathe. It is locked. I have the refuge to myself.
Monday and I am still on the river Vilaine which takes me to Redon where the tourist office fixes me up with a bed in the gite de pèlerins located in the Convent des Calvairiennes. Here I meet two English ladies of uncertain age who are cycling to Spain. I walk back to town to have a look around the old part and visit St-Saveur abbey which is part Romanesque and part Gothic, having a tower which is separated from the church due to a serious fire in the 17th century. I run into the two English ladies and have a few drinks with them. They are sisters who share a flat with one of their ex-husbands. There is a fourth bedroom so the other ex-husband may join them to escape his disastrous second marriage to a much younger woman. The ladies are frank, foul-mouthed and hilarious.
After an excellent night’s sleep I follow the Nantes – Brest canal all day. This is not the route described by my guidebook and for a time I am not sure I am going the right way, but a randonneur heading the opposite way tells me to stick to the canal, so I do. Lots of big trees, giant herons, small dilapidated shacks (for bird watching?) the odd small boat and a beautiful small chapel to St-Jacques. At Guenrouet the gite is next to the canal. I get the key from the Mairie, buy some food and wine and return to the gite as it starts to rain. The gite is small but comfortable with a heater.
It is still raining when I get up and head for the village for my favourite break fast of coffee and pain de raisin known as caracol in Spain. Once again a day following the canal except for a short stretch between Ecruse la Touche and Bougard where I have lunch: self-serve buffet of crudité (raw veg) and charcuterie (cold pork meats, salami etc); rabbit in mushroom sauce, salad and chips; cheese plate; pichet of vin rouge 14€. I roll into Blain where the Tourist Office phones the gite where I get the last bed; the rest have been booked by a group of walkers. The gite is close to the Chateau la Groulais and I get a room to myself. Monsieur Gite gives me a beer and a map and tells me of an alternative route for the next day to Nantes. This is a more direct route than that described in my guide and will save me a day.
The plan is to spend most of the day on a disused railway, making a detour between stations at Notre-Dame-des-Landes and Vigneux to avoid large areas of deep mud on the track. An early start, before it is quite light and I immediately go the wrong way, which is good because I come across a café which is open and so have breakfast.
The route alternates between beautiful and horrible. I miss the railway station and do the mud, acres of it, but fortunately not quite boot deep. The final 5km into Nantes is along the river. It is a long day, 38 km and I am tired and hungry. I have trouble finding the tourist office as it has moved, but after asking a man who sends me to the town hall which directs me to the new office near the chateau, I get there. As usual, the officer is very helpful and soon books me into an hotel, opposite which is an Irish pub: I can’t resist.
Nantes used to be the capital of Brittany, but regional boundaries were redrawn during WWII and it is now in Pays de la Loire. Being tired, I have no real enthusi asm for it, but head for the Gothic cathedral of St-Pierre et St-Paul where the tomb of Francois II and his second wife Marguerite de Foix is located. The statues of the couple are exquisite. I would not have been unduly surprised if Francois’s statue had asked me to get him a drink. Highlight of the day. I had been recommended the Brasserie La Cigale for dinner which is something of a landmark in Nantes but too pricey for me. Had a horrible burger and chips instead. I should have gone to the kebab joint next to my hotel!
Friday and another long but pleasant day to Clisson. The waymarking, balisage, is a bit dodgy at first, but I reach Chapelle St Jacques and from there it is good until Vertou. This stretch is mostly riverside park. Unfortunately after Vertou the waymarking goes haywire and I go around in circles until I hit the D59 where a road sign, panneau, directs me to Fiacre which I reach in time for lunch. And a very good lunch it was: buffet of charcuterie and crudités including prawns and whelks; fish in mushroom sauce with spinach and boiled potatoes, white cheese with strawberry; pichet of red 11€. After lunch continue along D76 to Monnieres and my destination Clisson.
Despite being largely destroyed during the revolution, the town centre still has a medieval layout complete with ruined castle and covered market. There is also the 12th century Chapelle St Jacques which was closed. My guidebook describes a complicated 19.4km route to Montaigue or I can skip along the D763 for 16km. No brainer. And I get to see a 12th century Templar chapel just outside Clisson.
I have still got a bad cold from England and my shoulder hurts due to the shoulder strap on my pack bunching. I haven’t experienced this before; it is the only problem I have with the pack, a Salomon which I bought in Burgos the previous year when my Berghaus literally fell apart at the seams. On a more positive note my feet and knees are in good shape.
Arriving in Montaigu quite early, the very helpful tourist office books me into an hotel. Galletes (savoury pancakes, sort of) and a pichet of red for lunch, followed by a stroll around town to view the ramparts and the very pleasant Parc du Chateau. There is a Rue de St-Jacques heading out of town. There may have once been a chapel or church nearby as there is a street Impasse de l’église and a Cimitière St-Jacques currently being excavated and thought to be pre-10th century.
The original plan for Sunday was to stop at St-Fulgent, 28.8km according to my guide. By sticking to the N137 it is only 18km and so I arrive just after noon. I had planned to stay at HR Les Colonnades, but a sign on the door tells me that reception doesn’t open until 6pm. I continue another 15km to St-VincentSterlanges. All hotels en route are locked up. I put on my overtrousers and have a beer. At St-Vincent I come across a weird sight, considering this is France: an English-themed pub with a red telephone booth and a London taxi outside – the Pub St-Vincent. Reception doesn’t open until 5pm. I phone and get an answering machine, then peering through the window I see a woman in the bar. She opens the door and I get a room, but the restaurant will be closed. I head for the bar to drink beer. It is full of knickknacks from the 60s and 70s, notices advertising curry nights, Boddingtons on tap. La Patronne speaks excellent English. I remark on the curry night and she asks me would I like a plate of curry? My oath I would!! Normally she doesn’t open the bar on Sundays but luckily she has other guests coming, otherwise I may not have secured a room.
Monday: cold and raining. A short walk to Chantonnay where almost everything is closed. Highlight of the day is a merguez sausage sandwich from a Turkish kebab joint. Next day I suit up for the wet weather and head along the D31 to La Caillère. The church in Chantonnay is open as are several others along the way; St-Philbert, Jaudonnière, St-Hilaire-duBois and the heritage listed church at La Caillère. Most seem to be originally Romanesque but heavily rebuilt right into the 19th century with little of the original remaining. The road is quiet, the landscape unexciting but pleasant enough. I arrive in St-Laurent-de-laSalle, find the Mairie and ask for the keys to the gite only to be told that it closed for good four years ago: désolé. But, no worries, the lady makes a phone call booking me into a B&B in StCyr-des-GaAts only 3km away. The B&B is excellent. There is a kitchen/lounge with beer, wine and soft drinks and fast foods, all marked with a price tag.
Blue skies greet me as I take the D23 to Sérigné and its Romanesque church, well the Eastern façade is (mostly). Next the delightfully named Pissotte followed by Orbrie where I somehow get lost. A lovely elderly lady tries to give me directions to St-Michel-le-Clucq with its impressive church which I eventually find, then muddle through to Xanton where I miss the church but not the bar. And there I meet another pèlerin, Jean Luc who is heading for St-Jean-d’Angely. We walk together to Nieul-sur-l’Autise, birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine, find the Mairie, collect the keys to the refuge de pèlerin and are taken there. There are only two cots which is no good for Jean Luc as he is meeting his cousin. He wanders off leaving the refuge to me. I wander around the village, find the famous Romanesque Abbaye-St-Vincent with its grand nave with skewed columns and a nearby bar, Le CloiAtre. I eat in for a change.
The cot was surprisingly comfortable! After returning the keys to the Mairie I follow the guidebook route until it joins the D25 at La Porte de l’Ile. I continue to Maillezais with its ruined abbey and fabulously restored Romanesque église St-Nicolas. Lunch at Bar/Rte Le Marais in Damvix: tuna torte; chicken and rice; lemon tarte; 50cl pichet 11€. The road is closed at the entrance to Arcais, but no problem for pedestrians. There are lots of canals, boats and bicycles. This area used to be a bay; draining started in the 13th century. St-Hilaire-la-Palud, a very comfortable B&B and an interesting dinner of eels in a Bourgignon-style sauce.
Sunny but cold, today’s destination is Surgères, but first I brave the D101 to Mauzé where I meet Jean Luc again. He is with another pilgrim, Didier from Britany. They go to St-Jean-d’Angely tomorrow. Eglise St-Pierre in Mauzé is interesting. The original was built in 1080. During the religious wars it was much knocked about and after a huge fire in 1568 all that remained was the lateral walls. The columns in the nave and choir collapsed. It was rebuilt in 1682 and restored in the 1960s. From the outside it looks a bit of a dog’s breakfast, but I like it. Taking the D911 was a mistake: I should have followed the guide book. It is a busy road and I trudge through the rain being blown about by the backdraft from trucks. I arrive Surgères in time for lunch (herring salad; steak, salad and chips; apple tart, coffee and pichet 18€. The Tourist office finds me accommodation for both today and tomorrow. The most interesting monuments are centrally located and surrounded by ramparts built in the 12th or 16th century, depending on what you read. These ramparts are what is left of the castle. The highlight for me is the church of Notre-dame-de Surgères with its expansive Romanesque façade.
Sunny Saturday is a day of churches: Vandré, St-Crepin, Tonnay-Boutonne and Archingeay. Finally the charming village of St-Savinien situated on a hill on the banks of the Charente, unusual in this generally flat landscape. The church of St-Savinien dominates the skyline. Manage to get lost trying to find the church then my hotel, but all is well in the end. There is nobody at the hotel when I arrive, but a note with a phone number tells me what to do. After checking in I wander about and find the tourist office. The lady tries hard to find accommodation for me near Sablonceux. There is an abbey and there may be pilgrim accommodation… The hotel does soirée d’étape, so I get dinner (salad with géziers gizzards, either chicken or duck, not sure which and duck; pork in mustard sauce with potatoes and beans; apple crumble; pichet) and breakfast.
A shortish day to Saintes. In a bar on the way I am told that there is a special place for pilgrims to sleep; I should follow signs to the old city and then St-Eutrope. On the way in I see a signpost with reference to halte de pèlerin and so I do as I am told, follow the signs which firstly take me to the Arc de Germanicus, a Roman triumphal arch near the tourist office which is closed, it being Sunday. There are racing bicycles everywhere as this is the finishing place for a triathlon. I continue following signs across the bridge and eventually find myself at the fabulous St-Eutrope, a UNESCO World Heritage site with one of the largest Romanesque crypts in Europe. Another significant attraction, not far from St-Eutrope, is the Roman amphitheatre, originally holding 15,000 spectators and long used as a quarry for building materials. Also close to the church is a pilgrim refuge, managed by the Association Saintaise des Chemins de St-Jacques de la Charente-Maritime. There are 6 beds and the cost is 8€. And I get to talk to some other pilgrims, two French women walking the Paris/Tours route. Dinner is a very ordinary onion bhaji; lamb biryani at the restaurant Punjab.
An early start and fortunately the superette is open. I am making for Sablonceaux and its famous abbey, hoping to find accommodation there. On the way I take a small detour to Corme Royal to view (you guessed it!) the wonderful Romanesque église St-Nazaire. As usual the church displays a number of styles, largely Gothic but the façade is original. Close by is the very attractive hotel restaurant, Les Acacias, where I rest for a time, have a beer and talk to the patronne who is English. It is tempting to stay the night here as there is a very calm vibe. I decide to continue and stop briefly at Nancras to eat the food I bought earlier in Saintes. The abbey at Sablonceaux is quite impressive. The shop is closed when I arrive, indeed there doesn’t seem to be anybody about except for a small group of women who have an air of being on retreat. The church is open. I have a choice: wait for the shop to open and enquire about accommodation, or continue to Saujon where I have been told there is a B&B. In fact, when I visit the tourist office I find that there are five hotels. I check into Hotel La Thermalia in Place de l’église. The original church, incidentally, was destroyed by the English in around 1415. Dinner at the hotel: 6 oysters; duck maigret (thinly sliced) in pepper sauce with good chips; cheese plate, fruit salad; pichet of red 27€. This is the first time I have eaten oysters in France and they are very good… but Sydney rock oysters are better!
Only 13km to Royan where I will take the ferry across the river Gironde. I arrive early which gives me the chance to make a side trip to Talmont. Those of you who watch Global Village on SBS may have seen the series on the French coast from the air. One episode featured Talmont with its imposing church by the river. I had to visit it! At the tourist office I am booked into an hotel and given directions on how to get to Talmont. It is 16km from Royan and I can take bus 25 to Meschers which is 5km from Talmont.
Talmont was on the route to Santiago in the middle ages. This is where pilgrims were ferried across the Gironde. The small town still has its medieval layout. It was built in 1284 by Edward 1, Duke of Aquitaine and King of England. The town is dominated by the magnificent church of St-Radegonde who was queen of the Franks in the 6th century. Very few tourists when I arrive though I am told that in summer it is packed. It is a delightful village but much given to tourist tatt and artisan produce. The church does not disappoint! I take lots of photos but my camera is playing up: when I switch it on it vibrates and makes bee noises.
Back in Royan I buy a new camera and visit the cathedral, built between 1952 and 1956 to replace the original which was destroyed by allied bombing in WWII.
It is constructed from concrete and is big. It can be seen from quite a distance I could see it half way from Saujon I wasn’t sure whether it was a church or a grain silo. Dinner of mussels in roquefort sauce (yum) and a pichet 15€. Tomorrow I take the ferry across the river and into Darkest France.
Part 3 Royan To Bilbao: Voie Littorale/Camino Del Norte
Wednesday 29 May I wake to the sound of heavy rain on the window pane. This is not the Camino Francés with its frantic get-up-and-go regime starting at a time that most people in their ordinary lives would consider obscene (no me gusta) and my ferry departs at 9.30, so I turn over and pull the blanket over my head.
The next stretch of the Camino, from Le Verdon-sur-Mer as far as the Spanish border, is known as the Voie Littorale. It has also been called the Voie de Soulac and Voie des Anglais and in the Middle Ages was the fifth most popular route through France.
The ferry ride across the Gironde to Le Verdon-sur-Mer is short and inexpensive and soon after arrival I spot the first wooden post with its blue or yellow cap and coquille guiding me to Soulac-sur-Mer. The path through the forest is an old narrow gauge railway line which has been paved as a bicycle track. It doesn’t take long to reach Soulac, arriving in a large square dominated by the 12th century basilica of N.D de Fin-desTerres… and tourist buses. In the corner is the hotel I am looking for, so I check in, have a beer and make my way across the square to the Basilica. It was constructed (according to the plaque inside) by the Benedictines of St-Croix of Bordeaux. It was much visited by pilgrims in the Middle Ages including such notables as Elèonore de Guienne, queen of England in 1199 and by Louis XI on several occasions in the 15th century. It has suffered from inundation by sand and water in the 13th and 14th centuries, was fortified during the religious wars, sacked by the Huguenots in 1522 and completely covered by water and abandoned in 1744. Starting in 1859 the ruins were excavated and uncovered, the Basilica restored and in 1891 it was declared a National Monument. It is a gem.
Leaving the Basilica I go in search of lunch. Soulac is a seaside town and could be anywhere. If I close my eyes it could most certainly be in England as the town is chockers with Poms from a cruise ship. All the likely looking restos are full but I find a spot outside a tiny Vietnamese place. The plat du jour is a spring roll with lettuce, mint, rice and spicy pork.
Very good and inexpensive at 12€ including beer. I basically waste the rest of the day with a visit to the market, a couple of bars and the tourist office which doesn’t recommend that I take the D3 but confirms that it follows the historic route and runs through the main towns. The chemin takes the pilgrim through the Plage appendages. A most excellent dinner at La Villa Soulacaise, which I failed to get into for lunch, finishes the day. Pastis, rillettes de thon; canard confit; tiramisu; pichet de vin 34€ worth of theatre on a plate.
Thursday morning and I have to decide whether to take the waymarked route near the sea, or the historic route a little further inland along the D101. In the Middle Ages this area was largely sandy marsh and sparsely populated. The original route has been sealed and is now the D101 and D3, running to the east of the lakes in the region. A decision was taken to waymark the bicycle tracks to the west of the lakes and avoid the road. I choose the historic route. There is little traffic. The route is flat through paddocks and pine forest. There are chapels and churches at L’Hopital (where I fill up my water bottle in the cemetary) and Vendays Montalivet. They appear to be 19th century neo-Gothic rebuilds. I buy beer, bread and cheese and huddle in a bus shelter to eat and drink. I have walked 21km so far today and there are no more villages until Hourtin; another 20 km. I arrive around 5pm and check into my hotel. I have soirée d’étape which is the same as demi pension: half board. It is usually cheaper than paying for the room and meals separately, though there is no choice with the food. Goat cheese salad with lardons, lettuce tomato and mayo: very good; calamari rings in batter: very bad; cake with fruit, custard and cream: good.
Punaises!!!! I wake in the middle of the night being snacked on by bedbugs. Turn on my keylight and see some hovering around the pillow. I quickly kill them and later some more and no more attacks thereafter. Before leaving in the morning I settle the bill and warn the receptionist about the bugs:
“Il y a des punaises dans la chambre.” “Punaises?”
“Oui, punaises de lit.” “Petites bêtes?”
“Oui, et le sang sur les draps est le mien. Au revoir madame.”Strangely her look of horror and disbelief makes me chuckle as I depart.
It had rained heavily during the night so I don my full rain kit, basically waterproof trousers, semi-waterproof jacket (the seams leak) and my trusty umbrella. (I gave up on the Goretex jacket after carrying it for about 8000km and wearing it twice.) I head along the D3 to Carcans and its splendid neo
-Gothic church of St-Martin built in 1870 on the site of an original built in 1099. It is open and inside I view the 17th century statue of St-Jacques. I had hoped to have a short day and stay at Lacanau, but on arrival find there is no accommodation. My choices: take the 2.15 bus to the beach or walk a further 13km to Le Porge where there is a B&B and a caravan for pilgrims. I have lunch and continue to Le Porge where fortunately the tourist office is still open. The cheerful officer confirms that there is free pilgrim accommodation close by and sends for the key. A policeman arrives with the key and leads me to the rear of the presbytery where there sits a small dilapidated caravan with flat tyres, no power and no water. Could do with a dusting and a wash too. Inside and out. Fortunately at this time of year it is more or less light until my bedtime. And there are public toilets very close by which the policeman assures me will remain unlocked all night. I go to the pharmacy, buy bug spray and attack the inside of the van and my gear. I then go to a grease joint recommended by the tourist officer and have a fairly decent burger, chips and glass of red wine. The patronne is eager to talk: economy, trade with China, kangaroo/horse meat, equestrian holidays, life in Oz… She gives me a free pilgrim bun for breakfast.
I sleep very well and wake up bite-free. My original plan was for a short day to Arès on the shores of Arcachon Bay, but the tourist office cannot find me a bed. The lady thinks there may be pilgrim accommodation in Andernos-les-Bains which is only 6km around the bay. I reach the tourist office just before it closes. There is an hotel which provides special rates for pilgrims; the officer calls but there is no answer. I go there on the off-chance and am in luck; there is a room and meals too. After lunch I take a stroll into town. Apart from the seafront, the highlights are Gallo-Roman remains from the 4th century and the nearby 11th century church of St-Eloi which has been restored. Curiously the interior features modern frescoes which work very well indeed. The church was once 200 metres from the sea, but is now more or less on the waterfront. One of my favourite churches of the chemin so far. Back at the hotel I discover that Jacky the patron has walked the Voie Littorale himself and also the Camino Olvidado. Dinner and a very early night.
Sunday morning and I settle the bill, and find that I have not been charged for wine nor breakfast! It is a beautiful sunny day. A short day along the cycle path to Biganos. After lunch at a Moroccan café, I check into my hotel, then take a leisurely stroll to the port of Biganos on the river Leyre which drains into Arcachon Bay. There has been a port here since Roman times and it is very popular with recreational fishermen and boating enthusiasts. Quiet despite the visitors, it is very pleasant to stroll along the river banks among the trees with boats and lined with brightly-coloured fisherman’s cabins.
Another beautiful sunny day as I head for Sanguinet. I decide to follow the guide which matches the waymarked route exactly. The balisage is good all day, at first wooden posts with blue plastic caps and scallop, then from the border with Landes there are stickers which are well placed. In the Middle Ages it seems that Landes was where the dog was buried, and according to some it isn’t much better now. I seem to recall reading that way back then the area was sandy marsh which people traversed on stilts. Now there are huge swathes of pine forest, planted to stabilise the dunes and prevent further erosion. The forests suffered badly as a consequence of severe storms in 2009. Most of the day I walk on sandy tracks through paddocks which were once pine plantation. Some of the pine forest still exists and I run into a large log collecting vehicle. The landscape is boring but pleasant. Maybe not boring at all: drainage channel glistens, pines sigh, raptors soar. The last 4km before the bitumen is hard work on soft sand and then there is the lake; very beautiful still and shining, slight ripple, hardly any breeze. The tourist office is closed when I reach Sanguinet but there is a resto across the street, though it is late by French standards:
“Oui, menu de jour?”
Quiche, lump of beef with good frites, pistachio icecream, coffee, pichet de rosé and 2 beers: around 18€. Back to the TO where the officer went to language school in Manly, NSW. The hotel is closed, so the choices are a cabin at the camp site and a B&B.
At breakfast on Tuesday morning I learn of the gite communale for pilgrims which nobody had told me about. Another sunny day, and I make the mistake of wearing a singlet. A straightforward 15km on the D46 to Parentis-en-Born where I carb up with 2 beers and visit the very attractive church: a different style with a pointy slate roof. Gothic interior? Another 3.5km to the junction of D652 and D46 where there is a truckies hotel/resto with a 10€ menu including coffee and wine. My destination is St-Paul-en-Borne where I am given the key to the gite de pèlerin at the Mairie. The gite is a small very clean ‘apartment’ with 2 beds and a spare mattress. There are no shops but there is a bar/resto across the road and a very attractive church (with a pointy roof). Yes, I am badly sunburned.
Thursday 5 June is a very short day along the cycle path to Mimizan where I have arranged to meet my friend Theo. I first met Theo on the Voie de Vézelay in 2010. He was on his first Camino and had walked from his home in Holland. We walked together for about 10 days and, every year since, he has joined me for 2 or 3 weeks. We are very compatible camineros. Despite our different physiques, we walk at the same pace. We like the same things (beer, wine, good food…) and neither of us talks too much. I book a room at the Hotel du Centre, check the 13th century Clocher (closed) and settle down at a table outside the hotel. Coffee, beer, lunch and then two attractive young women approach and ask me if I am walking. I recognise their English accents and thankfully switch to English. Emily and Megan are students at the London School of African and Oriental Studies. They are spending their Uni break cycling France and Spain and they ask me a hole in the stomach. After lunch the room is ready for me and there appears to be some confusion about who is sharing the room with me. The patronne seems to think I am sharing with the two yummy female students. Quelle chance!! But no, it is Theo. He arrives, we have drink, walk around town, eat dinner and sleep. Fortunately for me Theo doesn’t snore. Unfortunately for him I do.
My shoulders are sore from the sunburn. I deserve this. Another fine day and an easy walk to Lit-et-Mixe, stopping for lunch at St-Julien-en-Borne. The TO is open and a call is made to a camp site on the other
side of town which has on-site caravans for pilgrims. Three bookings have already been made, but there is still room for us. We pick up food and grog from the supermarket and head for the camp site. On arrival we drink menthe and chew the fat with Babette, the patronne before being shown to the vans. There are three small caravans set on a concrete slab with a tin roof over. The other three pilgrims are Frenchwomen in their 60s, one of whom appears to be injured.
Friday 7 June is warm, humid and misty. We set off along the D652 stopping at St-Girons to view the 13th century church, rendered inside and out and with a pointy slate roof to the tower. A few km down the road is the delightful church of Vielle, a single nave and apse, also rendered and pointy-roofed. This church was relocated from near the lake to its present location in 1635. No idea why. Just after Vielle we join the cycle track which takes us to Léon and a lunch of warm goat cheese salad, salmon with vegetables, tiramisu, wine and coffee. Continuing to Moliets-et-Maa we find the only hotel is closed, but the tourist office open. We may have to walk to the beach for an hotel, but no, the officer finds us a B&B at Messanges which is on our route, 5km further along the cycle track. Storm clouds are gathering and we manage to reach the B&B just as it starts to rain. The usual arrival routine and Theo discovers new blisters. I can’t stop my feet from smelling no matter how much soap I use. The rain eases and we head for a very popular restaurant where I have an excellent burger and Theo has steak tartare with all the ingredients served separately – a DIY job which I haven’t seen before. Theo says it is quite usual. A heavy thunderstorm lulls me to sleep.
Saturday morning. Overcast all day. Lots of rain, heavy at times. We are on a cycle path most of the day. Towards Hossegar, near the dunes the wind picks up and the rain increases. There is no picturesque seafront strip as such, just houses behind the dune with occasional beach access. On a day like today it is bleak. Theo’s feet are not good. Cold, wet, hungry and getting cranky, we need to find a restaurant soon. We arrive at the beach at Hossgar where there are restaurants and Hotel Amigo where we eat a Basque plate of bacon, sausage, pork, veg and chips served by a delightfully round waitress who has “Squeeze me” stamped on her forehead. Only 4km further to Capbreton past the marina and across the bridges to the tourist office which finds us an hotel near St-Nicolas church which we visit after checking in to the hotel. The church is not terribly ancient having been built in 1539. One unusual feature is an observation tower attached to the bell tower. This was used as a navigation aid by ships at sea and entering the port and by sentinels looking out for possible attack from the sea and also look ing for whales. We have dinner at the hotel: ham with melon, entrecote with chips, homemade crème caramel, wine, Armagnac and coffee. All surprisingly good. Our host is very talkative, but I understand only about half of what he says.
A lot of rain during the night and we get out the wet weather gear. The rain isn’t as bad as yesterday. We follow the cycle path as far as La Pointe Camping and there is a lot of water lying around, so we head out to the D962 and D810 which is probably the historical route. But before that I espy a fellow countryman: a damp miserable-looking wallaby sitting in an enclosure with various other unhappy looking creatures. I say G’Day, but he doesn’t respond. Taking the road is far more direct than the waymarked route which heads out to the coast and is very convoluted. I am not sorry because I get to visit the 12th century church of St-Vincent. The priest greets us and makes sure we see the 14th century frescoes. We arrive in Ba yonne in time for lunch, then check into the hotel Monte Carlo near the railway station. Cross the river to the old city where the tourist office isn’t where we expected. The old city isn’t very big, but you could spend a lot of time wandering around. The cathedral is well worth a visit as is the 13th century cloister and the 17th century ramparts designed by the renowned military engineer Vauban. Thirteen of Vauban’s fortresses are inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage list.
Leaving Bayonne the landscape becomes hillier as we progress further into Basque country. First stop is the attractive village of Bidart with its 16th century church of Our Lady of the Assumption containing a 17th century oak statue of St James which is possibly Spanish. Here we drink Pelforth Brune and eat Basque sausage before continuing to our destination for the day, St-Jean-de-Luz. My wife and I visited St-Jean in 2008 and then stayed in a very nice hotel near the waterfront. Now Theo and I stay in a very cheap hotel near the railway station. This is a very pleasant town to wander around, a popular seaside holiday destination with a busy fishing fleet and in earlier times a privateering fleet which preyed on merchant shipping. In the middle of town is France’s biggest Basque church St-Jean Baptiste where Louis XIV and Maria Teresa, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain were married in 1660. Not overly impressive on the outside, the interior is splendid with two tiers of galleries lining the nave and a Baroque retable. Well worth a look. Finish the day with a fine dinner a 15€ menu plus wine, peppers stuffed with cod, black pudding, fromage blanc with fruit and a litre of wine. Coffee and Armagnac in a nearby bar.
After breakfast we follow the waymarked route out of town. The waymarking is good, as is the weather and the scenery. We come unstuck when approaching the village near Chateau d’Urturbie: ‘Le pont est cassé’. We backtrack to the D810, stop for coffee in Urrugne and continue along the waymarked route but go wrong outside Hendaye. This doesn’t cause much of a problem and we are soon across the Pont St-Jacques and in Irun, Spain where we stop at the first bar for cerveza. We have left the Voie Littorale and are now following the Camino del Norte. It is too early to check into the albergue so we have lunch first. We pick up a guide and accommodation list from the tourist office then check into the albergue where there are lots of other pilgrims!!
A remarkably quiet and well-behaved group of peregrinos. No banging, crashing or rustling before first light. Breakfast is laid out for us and, despite our 7am departure, we are the last to leave the albergue. Slowly then steeply up to Ermita de Santiago and Santuario de Guadalupe where we stop to catch breath, drink copious quantities of water, admire the view and take a few photos. Bright sunshine but cool wind. Continue along the well waymarked path to Pasajes San Juan where there is a very steep but concreted descent to the waterfront and a short ferry ride across the estuary to Pasajes San Pedro. Two emergency beers then continue on the carretera to one of my favourite towns in Spain, San Sebastian. Attractive buildings, a sheltered bay with a fine beach, a surf beach to the east of town, lots of restos and allegedly the best tapas in Spain. Only here they call it pintxos.
The old town is very small and mostly not terribly old as it was sacked and burned by the Poms in the Peninsular Wars. One of the oldest secular buildings now houses the Pension Amaiur Ostatua where I stayed with my wife in 2008, by myself at the start of my 2009 Camino and now with Theo. It is expensive by peregrino standards, but I like it. Not far from the pension is a small cheap resto which I found in 2008. The menu was 6€ in those days. Now it is 10€: embutidos; anchovies and chips, flan, wine and gaseoso. Theo has a sleep, I go to the TO to try and book a room in Zarautz, but no luck. Have some beers in the square, walk around the boat harbour then return to the pension where Theo is alive and well and having a smoke on the balcony. Finish the day with pintxos at a nearby bar.
Light drizzle becomes light rain as we trudge towards Zarautz. There should be good views, but low cloud and mist mean no views. There is nothing notable before the ermita románica de San Martin de Tours just before Orio. Its large porch provides welcome shelter from a heavy downpour. A bar in Orio provides even more welcome shelter as well as beer and German peregrinas to talk to. From here it is a pleasant walk around the estuary, across the bridge and over the hill to the seaside town of Zarautz. Zarautz is popular, with a fine beach, but frankly I wouldn’t go there for my summer hols. The last time I was here was in 2009 and I stayed at the youth hostel. This time we go to the TO which finds us a room in a hotel closer to the action. A resto on the main drag does an excellent menu for 15€: gazpacho, bacalao in salsa verde, tarta, wine. Orujo and coffee are extra. The weather is improving and the tide out, so a stroll on the beach and a paddle in the sea for which our feet are grateful.
Friday 14 June is a beautiful day. The first 4km on a wide footpath with an ornamental stainless steel handrail between the N634 and the Bay of Biscay. Ahead is el ratón de Getaria, a headland shaped vaguely like a mouse and hence its name. Dip into Getaria for a quick look. The town was inhabited in pre-Roman times and is of historical interest with a number of gothic buildings. The town seems to be built around the iglesia de San Salvador, a Gothic church built in the 14th and 15th centuries and unfortunately closed. It might be more interesting to stay here rather than Zarautz. Continue along the Camino to Zumaia without stopping despite the lure of the impressive and imposing church of San Pedro. Climbing out of Zumaia there are good views. Just before Elorriaga is a rest area with benches, drinking water and a toilet. And a group of athletic-looking cyclists wearing ‘Camino’ gear, no doubt to remind them where they are headed. At Elorriaga there is a small bar and a lazy pony. Naturally we stop to carb up. Descend to the road near the A8 where we have lunch at a truckies’ resto. Up the hill to Itziar then down to Deba where we quickly find the TO and book into the albergue. Now I have been here before and I don’t recognise the albergue at all. It is up the very steep hill from the town centre there are two lifts which you can use if you don’t want to walk all the way. Then I remember that the albergue I stayed in previously was much smaller and near the beach.
It is easy to get up early in an albergue with high ceilings and huge windows and lots of others all getting up at the same time. Breakfast in a bakery then follow the waymarked Camino halfway to Olatz then take the road. At Olatz a lot of pilgrims are gathering outside the taverna which only opens at 10. We continue along the road to Larruskain. One reason for taking the road just here is that the guidebook warns of a descenso peligroso just before Markina. I remember two or three such descents from my 2009 Camino. It was dry then and I remember thinking that in wet weather it could be very dangerous indeed. Hilly, quite steep, forested. At one point we reach a T junction with no signpost. The compass says go right steeply downhill into a valley. The compass is right. Arriving at Markina, the albergue is not open yet so we have lunch first. The albergue is in a Carmelite convent and the hospitalero, Gabriel is very friendly but doesn’t speak English. He warns us that on the next stage to Gernika there is mucho barro, lots of mud, and we should take the road.
So we do! Leaving the albergue around 7.30 we follow the B2224 and B3224 all the way to Gernika. Bright and sunny all day. A brief stop at Bolibar where Simon Bolivar’s family originated. His branch emigrated to South America in the 16th century settling in Venezuela. Simon played a large role in liberating Spain’s American colonies. A very big cheese indeed: they even named a cigar after him. Another stop at Ajangiz for refreshments. We arrive in Gernika quite early and book into a hotel near the centre. In 2009 there was still an albergue on the outskirts of Gernika. It closed the day before I got there! Hotel Bolina offers bed breakfast and dinner for 20€ which looks pretty good, but the dinner is one course and no wine. Fortunately we have an excellent lunch at an old fashioned resto which I found in 2009.
Monday 17 June starts off well with excellent weather, but this deteriorates during the course of the day with rain in the afternoon. A stiff climb through the forest. We leave the Camino just before Morga taking the B2713 through Morga (coffee) to Goikoletxea (beer) arriving in Lezama around midday. The albergue doesn’t open until 3pm so we are forced to drink beer and eat lunch. The albergue quickly fills up but nobody is turned away. We decide to buy wine, bread, paté and iberico from the supermarket for dinner. We sit outside the albergue eating and drinking and then the Polish boys arrive, laden with wine.
I foolishly tell them about orujo…
Light rain. We decide to take the road to Bilbao, but have difficulty finding it, but eventually we do. A steep climb out of Lezama gets the gravy running and a very steep descent into Bilbao makes the knees a bit wobbly. I like Bilbao more each time I visit – this is my third and particularly the old town which really isn’t very big at all. The albergue is quite a distance from the city centre so we get a room at Pension Mendez, a short distance from the cathedral. I need new boots and a new pack, so I check the TO which sends me to Decathlon where 90€ buys me a pair of Spanish-made boots. I visit another shop and buy a Deuter pack for 185€. I am now ready to take on Darkest Spain on its own terms.
Part 4 (Final): Bilbao To Santiago De Compostela – Camino Olvidado/
Ruta Vadiniense/Camino Francés Ruta Vadiniense/Camino Francés
Thursday June 20  is wet. I continue alone down a steep narrow track of grass, gravel and mud to Puente del Diablo where the Camino del Norte and the Camino Olvidado diverge. The only information I had found about the Camino Olvidado was on a Spanish language website www.elcaminoolvidado.com. A group based in Bilbao (I think) had waymarked the route and produced a brief guide which could be downloaded. The rest of the day was mostly dry with occasional light rain. The route mostly follows the road, but at some point I miss the arrows and end up on the wrong side of the river. At La Quadra I cross the river and rejoin the route following a disused railway line to Guen-es. A pleasant walk despite the rain. At Guen-es I have to backtrack along the road to the hotel but make it in time for lunch, which unfortunately is not very good. Dinner isn’t good either, which is a shame because in other respects the hotel is good.
Friday brings more light rain and clouds obscuring the view of the hills. Once again I find myself on the wrong side of the river, but this does not prove to be a problem. The stretch between Zalla and Balmaseda is very beautiful: this is Bolumburu recreational area with the remains of a foundry, the chapel of St Ana and a Tower House. Closer to Balmaseda is La Herrera with the Tower of Terreros, then La Mella with Urrutia’s Palace and the Hermitage of San Antonio de la Mella all in ruins. Just past the Palace ruins is a small Roman bridge, part of the 1st century Via Flaviobriga-Pisoraca running between Herrera de Pisuerga and Flaviobriga – modern Castro Urdiales. The waymarking through Balmaseda is not good and somehow I managed to miss seeing the old bridge over the river, possibly Roman, probably medieval. I end up taking the main road to Villasana de Mena situated in the Valle de Mena. The TO in Balmaseda tell me there is a TO there which may have some information on the Camino. The waymarked route would have taken me to Nava de Ordunta to the North of the road and closer to the reservoir. This is the recommended end of stage for the day, a short one of less than 20km with a 35km stage the following day. I head off down the road coming to the Valle de Mena a wide valley. Well, there is a TO in Villasana but it is closed. The nearby hospedaje is full and I am directed to the Hotel/Rte Cadagua, three stars and very nice. It is a little out of town. In town there is the convent of Santa Ana and a medieval tower. Out of town there are two gorgeous Romanesque churches for tomorrow.
Breakfast at 8.30. I head for San Lorenzo on GR85 but there is too much mud and I return to town and the TO which has no information on the Camino Olvidado. Indeed the lady is doubtful that it exists, telling me that there is no proof! She does however have a map and some brochures relating to the two churches I want to visit, San Lorenzo de Vallejo and Santa Maria de Siones. It is a pleasant walk along the valley floor passing through a few small villages. The first church, San Lorenzo in the village of Vallejo, is built on a hill. I walk up some steps into a small square and there she is. Closed. There is a phone number of the keyholder on a notice board. I continue along the narrow road skirting the hill past a bar, also closed, arriving in Villasuso where there is a bar/resto which is open. I ar rive at Santa Maria de Siones just as Mass is finishing I talk to the priest who leaves the church open whilst I take a look. If you like Romanesque, you will love this one. A pleasant stroll back to town for a late lunch. I finish the day under the trees in the hotel garden with a bottle of Rioja.
Sunday and it is cool with light rain. The waymarked route runs to the North of Villasana de Mena between Nava de Ordunte and Bercedo bypassing the Valle de Mena altogether. This would be more scenic than the route I took. There would also be more mud in wet weather and you don’t get to see the churches I visited yesterday. Despite the weather there are good views, but nothing spectacular. From here the way-marked route goes through Villasante and Loma de Montija; my route is more direct. Both routes take one to Espinosa de los Monteros a pleasant town with a number of historical buildings including the 12th century church of San Nicolas, a Renaissance palace and several medieval towers. The porticoed Plaza Sancho Garcia is a good place to drink cerveza and watch the world go around.
Monday and I take the road once again. It is much shorter than the waymarked route which runs a little to the North. A cool sunny day with nice scenery. All churches closed. I arrive at Soncillo, a one-horse town and check into its 3-star hotel. I wonder why there is a 3-star hotel here – indeed, why is there any hotel at all? Lunch is unremarkable except for the cuajada which is some of the best I have had. I could do with some company.
A short day along the BU642 to Arija. I luxuriate in sloth, only getting out of bed at 8 o’clock. A cold and misty day. A number of Romanesque churches along the way, but few are obviously so to my eye. A notable exception is the church of San Vicente at San Vicente de Villamezan, perched on a mound at the edge of the village. Around 10 o’clock the sun burns off the mist and there are fine views of the Embalsa del Ebro and the Cantabrian mountains beyond, still dotted with patches of snow. The reservoir was built between 1910 and 1950. Beneath its waters lie 400 houses, 8 churches and 2 chapels in the Romanesque style. I arrive at the ayuntamiento in Arija. There have been no signs of restos or hotels. I enter the ayto to find reception is closed. Clump, clump, clump of feet on the stairs. A woman appears with a small child. I ask her for the location of ho tels etc. Behind her appears a man who speaks English. A Mexican brought up in California, he takes me in his car 2km back from where I have come to a pension next to the reservoir. The room is nice and there is a restaurant which will open later. I wander around looking for facilities—there are none except for a bar at the railway station and a restau rant where I have the menu. A pleasant afternoon by the water. Morcilla and a huge copa de Rioja before bed.
Duermo como un oso, I sleep like a bear. Today it’s the BU642 and CA730 to Reinosa. The route follows the South
bank of Embalsa del Ebro most of the way. There are good views of the reservoir and the mountains. I walk through a number of small villages passing the much photographed submerged Church of Villanueva de las Rozas, whose octagonal tower emerges from the waters. At Arroyo I stop for a beer. The recently restored church is closed as usual. My vote for church of the day goes to the Romanesque San Cipriano in Bolmir not far from Reinosa. The waymarked route bypasses Reinosa and would have you stay the night in Olea, which is too far for me and so I go a little out of the way to stay in Reinosa, not the most attractive town in Spain. This is unfortunate as I miss out on the beautiful Collegiate Church of San Pedro de Cervatos, a jewel of Romanesque art declared a national monument. In Reinosa I bump into two Dutch pilgrims who are on their way to Comillas on the Camino del Norte. They tell me that they have walked from Jaca via Logron-o. It would be nice to have some (English-speaking) company.
Thursday is bright but cold. I get, for me, an early start. I exit Reinosa by the main road heading roughly South to Metamorosa where I join the CA284 for a steady climb to the Hoyos turnoff. I resist the temptation to make a detour and visit the Romanesque church of Santa Maria (or is it San Martin?) in Hoyos which will almost certainly be closed. I am at an elevation of over 1000 metres and it is cold. From here is a descent to the valley. At Olea is a Romanesque chapel San Miguel, a bar and a Romaneque/Gothic church, Santa Maria la Real. All closed. From here are expansive views over the valley where I am headed. Down to Reinosilla past a Posada from which emerge two vintage Jaguars to hoon past me and a small Roman bridge which the road now bypasses. I could have taken a detour to Santa Oalla with its mill and church with frescos, but duck into Reinosilla instead. I take the turnoff to La Quintana and soon come across two menhirs in the paddock next to the road, neolithic standing stones known as ‘La Llaneda’ and ‘Puentecilla’. As I inspect them, a local comes by with his dog which inspects me. A little further on I come to another junction, not shown on my map where signposts point east to towns not on my maps. Fortunately Aguilar de Campoo, my destination is also signposted, straight on, so I go that way leaving Cantabria and entering Palencia and down to Aguilar, arriving around 2.30pm. With hindsight, I should have headed East at the junction as it would have taken me through Bercedo (there seem to be a few Bercedos) and Cuena, both having Romanesque churches.
The TO lady helps me find a place to stay. I remark that this area is famous for the large numbers of Romanesque churches; there are special maps showing where they are and they are all closed. She tells me that they are open during high season in July/August. I like Aguilar there is plenty to see. This would be a good base for touring the Romanesque buildings in the area if you were to come in July/August and hire a car. The Viejo Camino from Pamplona merges with the Camino Olvidado here. After checking into my hotel, which is also a resto, I stroll to the Monasterio de Santa Maria la Real, one of the oldest in Spain, which is a museum and also a Posada. Well worth the visit. Next up the hill to the wonderful Ermita de Santa Cecilia, finishing the sightseeing with the Collegiate church of San Miguel. If you have time you might wish to visit the castle ruins towering over Santa Cecilia. For dinner I have the biggest veal chop I have ever seen, served with fried onion, tomato, pimiento and chips… yum!
An early start on a bright cool day. Through the 14th century Puerta del Paseo Real past the Monasterio to join the CL626. Good views of snow-capped mountains. I follow the CL626 to Salinas where I go off road for refreshments.
The waymarked route is roughly parallel to the CL626 and goes through here, crossing the river on a beautiful 16th century bridge by the church. I cross the bridge and start following the track by the river, but there are no arrows at the junctions so I return to the village and head back through the village to the CL626 to find the street blocked at the railway. No problem though, the locals tell me to cross the railway and climb up the embankment and across the barriers to the road. It isn’t difficult. Contin ue to Rueda where there is a very nice bar/resto, Mesón Tres. My destination for the day is Cervera which I reach fairly early. I spend the afternoon drinking beer with Pommie cyclists. Feeling a bit worn out, I am tempted to take the bus tomorrow, not fancying the 39km to Guardo.
I don’t want to get up this morning, but I do and am away by 7.30. A straightforward road walk along the CL626. The waymarked route again runs more or less parallel, joining the road from time to time. A cool sunny day becoming quite warm. At Castrejón de la Pen-a the door to the 15th century church of Santa Agueda is open!! I head for the door and a small woolly dog emerges barking and jumping. The guardian emerges. He has been cleaning and he wants to talk and show me his church. Lovely Gothic vaulting, gaudy 17th century retablo, statue of San Roque. A few km further on in Pisón de Castrejón is the 13th century transitional Romanesque/Gothic church of Nuestra Sen-ora de la Asunción. I stop for a beer in a mesón and the lady speaks English quite well. Two locals in suits enter and talk to me in Spanish. ¡No entiendo nada! The lady interprets, the men buy me beer. Arriving on the outskirts of Guardo, I ask directions for hotel and resto and am sent to Hotel Don Edmundo. Nobody there. I am starving, so head into town and ask for resto. Am sent to a very popular small resto off the main drag which turns out to be very good. Back to the main drag, I follow signs to the Hotel Real, 3 stars. This turns out to be good as well.
As promised, a breakfast bag is hanging on my door knob. My original plan was to spend the night in Puente Almuhey, but it is too early when I arrive. Hotel Rio Cea looks nice; I drop in for coffee. The very friendly, very squidgy barmaid is very interested in what I am doing. From here the waymarked route goes North West following the valley of the river Tuéjar. I head west along CL626. I stop at Llama de la Guzpen-a for a drink of water by a shady fountain then visit the church on the heights nearby. Very nicely restored with children’s play equipment outside. Excellent views. I continue to Valmartino where there is a well hidden hotel/resto which is very popular. I am very tempted to spend the night here, but keep going after a few beers. Cistierna isn’t as far as I had thought. One of the first things I see is a big blue Camino sign with an arrow pointing in the direction of Mansilla and a hotel/resto at the crossroads where I check in and have lunch. After lunch I stroll around and find the albergue, but it is locked. Cistierna is at the crossroads of the Camino Olvidado and La Ruta Vadiniense. If I stick to the Olvidado I will have another 7 days or so to Villafranca on the Francés, or 2 to la Robla on the Salvador. If I turn left along the Vadinienses, it will be 2 days to the Francés at Puente Villarente near Leon. Decisions!
For me, a very early start at 6.30. I have decided to head for Puente Villarente. There are two possibilities, both following the Rio Esla – left bank or right? I choose right and my destination for today is Gradafes. I start off following the waymarking, which is at first the same for the Olvidado and the Vadinienses as far as Puente de Mercadillo where you have to decide left bank or right. A short distance after crossing the river the Olvidado, now called the Camino de la Montan-a, branches west whilst I continue South west. It is a very easy pleasant route. I tend to stick to the minor tree-lined roads which have hardly any traffic. There is the odd village and church; the church closed, no bars. At Gradafes is the Cistercian nunnery of Santa Maria la Real, founded in the 12th centu ry and the church is OPEN! I take a look inside, a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles. I find checking out churches to be thirsty work so, on leaving Santa María, I ask the first person I meet “¿Hay bar?” ”Si, a la derecha.” God is merciful. The bar lady tells me that there is an hotel/resto about 1km away on the National. The bar is open all day and there is an alimentacion. After a couple of cleansing ales I make my way to the National, quickly bumping into the Ayto where for 5€ they fix me up for the Municipal Albergue which is almost new, squeaky clean and I have it to myself. I continue to the hotel/resto for lunch, buy the usual at the alimentacion for dinner, check emails at the library and return to the albergue.
Tuesday. I have slept like a bear, but get going earlyish. I follow the waymarking which takes me to the Monasterio San Miguel de Escalada which is closed. This monastery, built in the 10th century, is in the Mozarabic style brought from the South of Spain, complete with Moorish-style horseshoe arches. The waymarked route continues to places not recorded on my map. In the village of San Miguel there is a choice of routes: continue southwest to join the Camino Francés at Mansilla de las Mulas, or the route I chose which is northwest along the old road, not much more than a gravel tractor track, to the once-powerful, now ruined, monastery of San Pedro de Eslonza near the village of Santa Olaja de Eslonzo where a bitumen road takes me to Puente Villarente on the Camino Francés. I head for one of my favourite albergues, San Pelayo, but first stop at El Delfín Verde for a beer, where there are several peregrinos with the same idea. You are never short of company on the Camino Francés…
The following day was a short one to Leon. I have walked the section between Leon and Santiago several times and I rather like it despite the ever-increasing number of pilgrims. From Leon I usually spend either 10-12 days getting to Santiago, depending on whether I stop in Triacastela and Monte do Gozo or not. On this trip, I arrived in Santiago on 15 July, 79 days and 1,900 km from Winchester.