Thursday, April 26, 2018

GR653 Via Tolosana Day 11: Anglès - Boissezon

Anglès looked much better this morning in the sunshine than it did yesterday in the fog. It's a pilgrim-friendly town, with an inexpensive municipal hostel for those who stop overnight and public toilets and drinking water for those who pass through. The bakery opens at 6:30 and the epicèrie at 7:30 for picnic supplies. We headed out of town past a field of curious cows and into the woods in the crisp morning air.

We passed some logging operations that made me feel like I was back in Canada.

Then we turned a corner and suddenly a vast plain of lowlands appeared before us. We have come to the end of the mountains! From here, it's all more or less flat as far as the Pyrenees!

We descended along a dirt track, walked along the edge of fields of young wheat swarming with annoying black flies, and stopped under a leafy canopy for lunch.

Then came the final descent into the village of Boissezon, where we were overjoyed to find the pilgrim gîte waiting for us on the road into town, and the two pilgrims from Limoges who have been sharing the gîtes with us already installed, with instructions to show us to our rooms. This is five-star gîte! It costs a little more than the others (€18) but we each have our own room, with a view over the village. Downstairs is a large and well-equipped kitchen, with a dining room and lounge. A sofa! When was the last time I sat on a sofa??

Anglès - Boissezon 20 km 

GR653 Via Tolosana Day 10: La Salvetat-sur-Agout - Anglès

It might be argued that there is nothing particularly spiritual about a pilgrimage. To the contrary, it takes us back to the most basic, most animal human occupations: walk all day, eat, drink, sleep. Keep out of the rain, shelter from the sun. Go off the path to answer the call of nature. Find a safe place to rest in the dark hours. Nothing else to worry about.

Put one foot in front of the other. Repeat.

You become aware of your body, attuned to its needs and to its capabilities. If you treat it well, "brother donkey" will take you farther than you ever thought possible.

A chunk of cheese and a piece of bread by the trail tastes better than a four-course meal in a restaurant.

Water from a fountain tastes better than an expensive wine.

A single daffodil in a mountain meadow contains more beauty than an entire garden. 

A wheatfield in Spring is so green it stops you in your tracks.

Perhaps this is what is spiritual about a pilgrimage.

La Salvetat-sur-Agout - Anglès
22 km (in the fog)

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

GR653 Via Tolosana Day 9: Murat-sur-Vebre - La Salvetat-sur-Agout

 Murat-sur-Vebre - La Salvetat-sur-Agout
26 km

7:30 start from Murat in the mist. It had rained during the night and the whole world was wet. Grass laden with dewdrops, newly unfolded ferns, moss-covered stone walls.

We missed a trail marker and went a short way up a dirt road before realising and turning back. Then, just before reaching Lac du Laouzas, we came across a fallen tree trunk over the path. Followed by a whole tree, complete with foliage. We scrambled through that, emerging on the other side wet and dirty, with a crack in the shell on my backpack and minus a pair of sunglasses (later retrieved), but when we saw yet another fallen tree ahead we decided to cut across a clearing that had been logged (hence the fallen trees) and down to the road. It turned out we had to stay on the road as far as the next village, Villelongue, because a notice at the trailhead advised us that the trail along the lakeside was closed due to high water.

After lunching at a roadside picnic spot we came to Villelongue and picked up the GR653 again, through woods and farmers' fields to Salvetat.

The helpful staff at the Office du Tourisme gave us the key to the municipal pilgrim hostel. For only ten euros we have a private room for three in the keep of the village castle, with a kitchen and bathroom shared among seven guests. Possibly the best gîte yet, and definitely the cheapest! Prices in France tend to be higher: we have paid up to €16 for a bunk in a crowded dormitory. And the price doubles if you order a meal, available in some of the gîtes, but only in the form of something pre-cooked and left in the fridge for you to heat up. We have been chosing to buy our own groceries and use the kitchen facilities, except in Servies, where we ordered dinner to save ourselves the trouble of carting groceries up the mountain. Here in Salvetat, we find a small supermarket and purchase some ready-made soup to heat up and the makings of a salad, as well as a pan brioche for our breakfast and cheese and fruit for the next day's lunch. The patisserie across the street provides an individual serving-sized quiche, something I don't eat at home but find very handy for picnics on the trail in France. We enjoy our dinner in the company of the other four guests at the hostel, all French, like practically all the pilgrims we have been meeting on the Via Tolosana.

Monday, April 23, 2018

GR653 Via Tolosana Day 8: Gervais-sur-Mare - Murat-sur-Vèbre

Gervais-sur-Mare - Murat-sur-Vèbre
25 km - 1159 m elevation gain

The greatest danger facing the hiker in France is not wild boar, or bulls, or even derelict old stone bridges, but the risk of starvation. Especially on a Sunday!
French villages consist entirely of houses, and the occasional church (normally kept closed). Places of business are few and far between, at least compared to Italy; some towns seem to have none at all. Whether this means the local people are entirely self-sufficient, or that they drive to the supermarket in the nearest big city, I do not know, but it is most inconvenient when on a Long Walk, when your body is consuming about double its usual number of calories and demanding compensation! 
Saint-Gervais-etc.-etc. is one of the rare towns you come across on the GR653 that is actually big enough to have a grocer, a baker, a pizzeria AND a brasserie. Unless it happens to be Sunday, that is. In which case the only enterprise open for business is the brasserie. And when you ask for the vegetarian menu advertised on the blackboard, they say they cannot make it today. Why not? Because it's Sunday, and the greengrocer is closed. Couldn't they have bought enough vegetables on Saturday to last through Sunday? is the question that comes naturally to mind. But even if I were capable of framing the question in French (couldn't you... if you... surely requires the subjonctif, or the conditionelle - maybe even both!) it wouldn't do much good at this point in time. So I settle for what the waiter manages to rustle up, which involves a lot of carbohydrates and not much actual nourishment, and pay 12 euros for it - as much as a night at a gîte communal.
The following morning, it being Monday, the grocer is still closed but at least the bakery is open. Sweet croissants for breakfast, savoury croissants to take along for lunch, accompanied by bread - more carbohydrates!

Peering longingly into closed grocery shop 

Happy to find the patisserie in business!

And so, powered by simple carbohyrates and caffeine alone, we set off for another day of climbing, up to almost a thousand metres - the highest point on the Via Tolosana until it crosses the Pyrenees into Spain.

We followed the Mare river out of town and passed the old mill of Nougayrol.

We passed through the forest and past the village of Andabre to Castenet-le-Haut, where the trail began to climb steeply.

The trail flattened off at an elevation of around 800 metres, where we will remain for the next couple of days. After taking a lunch break and enjoying our savoury croissants in a grassy meadow, we decided to follow the example of a French couple walking just ahead of us and leave the GR653 to walk along the paved road to Murat-sur-Vèbre, saving us a few kilometres and a couple of hundred metres' elevation gain. The traffic was light and the road had a grassy shoulder that made for safe, if not particularly pleasant, walking. We arrived in Murat in plenty of time to pick up the key to the gîte communal from the town hall and - wonder of wonders! - buy groceries at the local supermarket. So tonight, while our accommodations are basic - bunk beds, communal kitechen and outdoor toilets and showers - we have dined like kings on salad, soup, rosé wine, baked beans and baguette! 

Benvenguda to a new départment: Tarn!